Location! Location! Location!
by Christopher Cocca
“Yes, ma'am,” Bartholomew said. “You might say this is a city on the rebound.”
Magda demurred. “Show me something else.” From the sixth floor of the textile mill, Ephraim stretched out to receding mountains. The sun made sharp lines and strong angles.
“Now you see, that?” he said. “Just look at those shadows. Look at that light!”
“Mr. Bartholomew, something else. Please.”
“Certainly, Mrs. Cunning. Something lower? Lower to the ground? Something higher?”
“Something else. I need a small place to keep.” She'd asked to be shown open space with exposed, industrial vestiges. “Something softer.”
Bartholomew rubbed his temples. “It's a bit harsh. I admit.”
“It's too open, too damp, too drafty. It'll be a fortune to heat.”
“Yes, but heat rises. You'll siphon from tenants downstairs.”
“I'm getting divorced, not joining the Peace Corp. I can afford to keep myself warm.”
“Live on the first floor, then. Maybe they'll switch.”
“Don't be rude to me, Bart. It's the principle. So much waste. And I can't live at street-level. I want something high, something like this. But not this.”
“We've exhausted the options. If you'd rather wait until spring to commit...”
Outside, the city was dark. The sun was one red lip on the mountain. Bartholomew came from the bathroom. Magda flattened her skirt.
“Something lousy, then, Mrs. Cunning?”
“Yes, next time, something awful. Maybe something street-level. Something like this, but lower. Not this, understand. Something like it.”
Bartholomew got in his car. The mill above him was massive, and how it loomed. He left his phone in the passenger seat during meetings. It made him think of his wife, of the children he couldn't have. If they'd known it sooner, God, he said, he would have spared her. He picked up the phone, kissed its face, left wet smears of color on his wife's picture. Red, green, and blue dots, impossibly small, connected together and made something whole. Her highlights, her face, everything perfect. Convincing. A million small dots. A million small dots almost moving.
He'd been wealthy before the collapse, the top earner in his region, top five on the East Coast. He'd done it with Real Estate Investment Trusts, mutual funds that paid three-hundred percent in the mid-Aughts. “Buy what you know,” he'd said to his father, a machinist from Ephraim. “Buy what you use.” He'd bought a big house, they'd had a big wedding, weeks in Napa and Paris. Anniversaries in Vietnam and Tahiti.
Now he worked late; they were trying to save. “Occupy Wall Street?” he had said to the mirror that morning. “I can't even occupy my wife's uterus.” An adoption costs ten-thousand dollars or more. He'd promised they'd have it. Insisted they would.
Mrs. Cunning's grey Lexus retreated behind him. They staggered and staged all the comings and goings. How long had it been? The bills in his billfold were firm and new, how he loved creasing them, breaking the hundreds for greasy burgers, saving the rest for a child from Vietnam or Ukraine. He kissed the phone, counted dots, red, blue, and green. In three minutes he'd start the drive home, dispatch the money, exchange it for bills without Magda's touch. He couldn't put her money, straight, into the bank. The baby money had to be laundered, cleaned. He knew that banks didn't keep his money on hand, that Magda's largess funded everything, anyway, that no money touched, it was all ones and zeros. Knowing that he knew this made him feel better about the compulsions, the arrangements, the lying, the failures.
Bartholomew put his phone in the console and started his car. First to White Castle, then to the bank. Then home to Lauren. Magda was locked in a vault, being changed. She'd fund railways, meth hits, abortions. Above him the orange din of street lights made halos.
“Bart, there's no reason for not making bank.” Dupree's face was red, he'd given this speech before. Bartholomew sat in a small chair, spilling over. Dupree paced, pretended to weigh options concerning employment.
“It's a buyer's market, Dupree. They can afford to be picky.”
“No one's that picky. It's a buyers market, alright. But Bart, no-one's buying? No-one is buying from you.”
“No one is buying from you, Bart. What would you do in my position? In this...this situation you've made?
“I didn't sink the sub-primes. I didn't write bad credit. I sold over-priced lofts to rich dicks from Ephraim, West Milton, New Jersey. I made everyone's bank.”
“Bart. Since you've been with us it's been a trickle. A flash of that vigor. You can't close a deal. They keep stringing and stringing. Magda Cunning, you've shown her everything on this side of the river.”
“She keeps changing her mind. Tomorrow she'll want all the waterfront property in the County. I just can't cut her loose.”
“You need to focus. You need to close. I can't keep you on salary if you're not bringing in capital. Bart, you know how this works.”
Bartholomew sat up in his chair. “Give me incentive.”
“Let's cut the bullshit, Dupree. I'm not talking nickels and dimes. Give me a raise and I'll sell her two flats and a condo. Give me a bonus, right now, today. If I don't make it back ten-fold by year's end, you can shitcan me. That's profit I'm talking. Spot me ten-thousand and it all goes away.”
“Christ, Bart, are you drinking? Gambling debt? Can't pay the mortgage? How far are you in?”
“It's nothing like that. I'm talking incentive is all. I'm used to high-stakes, high pressure. This salary bullshit, take it or leave it. I can start somewhere else at the same rate tomorrow.”
“Not tomorrow. Maybe last year.”
“People are buying? Someone will take me.”
“Make a deal with Magda Cunning and you get your bonus.” Dupree wrote a check. He pushed it into Bartholomew's sternum. Dupree's hand was hot, always sweating.
“A down payment, Bart. Don't fuck it up.”
Lauren ironed Bart's pants. They were gray with crisp pleats like sharp mountains. In college, they'd been so reckless. “Lucky, I guess,” Bart would say. “It feels better without. What about diaphragms?”
The measures they half-took, the pill she'd forget, spermicides sometimes. All pointless, now. Pointless then. He was athletic, strong. Who would have believed it?
When they started trying, she knew from somewhere it had to be her. Weeks and months with the old college luck, how she would have preferred crossing the dais on graduation 9-months pregnant, engorged, water-breaking, teeming with life. But inside was nothing. Her husband, the Consummate Lover, was sterile.
There was gene therapy now, turning stem cells to gametes, Bart's own flesh and blood with a tail. It costs thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars. “You could adopt ten orphaned children for that much,” their pastor had said. “Children with AIDS, special needs. Think of the life you could give them.”
It was important to Lauren to exhaust all physical options. “Blood of our blood,” she said, “flesh of our flesh. Your eyes, Bart. My family's high cheek bones.”
“My empty nutsack.”
She hung up the pants. Her lover was nothing like Bart. He was dark-haired and fair; Bart was sandy and ruddy and tawny, words suggesting adventure, hard-won dominion over elements, predators, life. Charles, the lover, was a photographer-poet; she'd met him fundraising for reproductive research. Bart was consummate, sterile. Charles was hung like a horse. He was an excess of politics, he curated sewer grates and single fence-barbs. His work was submerged, always rainy and gray. Lauren said his pictures made her smell worms. The trees on their street smelled like his sperm.
“Mrs. Cunning,” Bart said.
“Call me Magda.”
“Magda,” Bart said. “Magda, it's time.”
“I don't like your tone.”
“I don't give a shit.”
“Mr. Bartholomew. I'm an important...I'm an important account. A shrewd benefactor.”
“You're a whore.”
“Alright, Bart,” Magda said. “What is it now? Why must you be so nasty?”
“Do you intend to buy from me, ever?”
“Bart, you're embarrassing yourself.”
“I want to know.”
“If you sell to me everything stops. There's no rouse, Bart. There's no fun in that. We could go to hotels, I suppose, but really, that's cheap. That's cheap and tawdry.”
“If you don't buy, I'm getting fired. Dupree isn't stupid.”
“Please. The man's an ignorant pimp. Cut him in.”
“I'm serious. If you're not going to buy, if you're not in the market, I have to quit your account.”
“Tell me, Bart. How's your wife? She's so young, Bart. So pretty. What do you think she does with herself when you're working late? When you're working me over? Do you think she's lonely? Does she stay home knitting hats for children you don't have? Cross-stitching ducklings and bunnies and hoping, just hoping, that something will take?”
Bart was red, the lip of the sun on a mountain.
“Dupree isn't stupid? Neither am I. You're in your late 30s, gorgeous as fuck, so happily married, no kids. Is it her uterus? What they can do now, with money. With enough money, Bart. Which you could have had. Which you probably had, once. But now you've insulted me, Bart. I'm afraid our arrangement is over.” She gathered her things. “But not because you say so, you conniving, hypocritical shit. Because I say it. I say it, Bart. I say it's over. I say it. Me.”
“There's the issue of the retainer, Mrs. Cunning. You owe my company the fee for my exclusive real estate services. For my, as it were, undivided attention.”
“You're a horrible man.”
“I'll be my own.”
The strokes of her pen sounded like gunfire. Bartholomew felt so good, so warm, inside. The room bowed before him, the ceiling raced to the floor, all the high places groveled. The low places floated below.
His last thought was of Lauren. Her smile. Her face. Red and blue dots and green. A million small dots. A million small dots almost moving.
“Shit, Bart,” Dupree said. “Holy fuck.”
“Mr. Dupree?”Dupree looked up at the detective, into his muzzle.
“I didn't know. I didn't know the lofts, the whole Ephraim Mill project, I didn't know. I didn't know he was fucking Magda Cunning. That she was paying for it. If I'd known, I would have stopped it. There's pimps and shit still in the neighborhood. I mean, it's not completely gentrified. That was the point, you know? Good money pushes out bad?
God. God. God.
What if they come for me?”
“Christ, no. I'm telling the truth. He was a freelancer. I'm no fucking pimp. God knows I didn't see any money from Bart for the better part of last year. And I mean nothing. All that time with Magda. Jesus Christ, Bart.”
“Fuck me,” Lauren said after the funeral. Charles was cleaning his camera. “No condoms. No bullshit. Just fuck me.”
He was an excess of politics, poetry. Everything about him was too big to fail.