I’ve been going to the same breakfast place for the last five years or so. It’s called Bella’s, named after the owner-operator who spends her mornings facing the steam table, but most folks call it Bellies because you can’t eat there without getting one. The eggs come lukewarm, and runny where they’re not burned, and the toast is soaked in so much butter gravity folds it. But no one I know comes for the food. It’s the mix of customers, college students and their teachers, plasma donors, cops and cons. There’s one group who come to breakfast around ten am three days a week when their tai chi class lets out. Oldsters in outdated athleisure, track suits and matching sweatpants and -shirts. Most of them are former academics, retired professors and emeriti. And I get to sit right beside them. Some days it makes me feel like I’m just like them. Other days, it makes me want to say, hell yeah, I’m here even though I never went to college and no one can make me leave.
They talk about everything, whether it concerns them directly or not. For a year, it was the luxury student apartments going up around downtown (I could have told them about those apartments, the square footage and the floor plans. The need for flood lights and how many mailbox keys to order and from whom. But they talked about the apartments like they were a million miles above it, so I kept to myself). There was a guy, a self-described “bleeding heart criminal justice advocate” who banged the table with joy talking about Black Lives Matter, even though I never heard anyone at the table disagree with him. He even brought evidence, sheets of paper, a graph he plotted himself. He would get so heated!
But since the summer conventions, everything comes back to the presidential election. The arguments are just as one-sided, but more exaggerated. If this one’s elected, it’s the end of the Western order and the years of prosperity that we’ve enjoyed since World War II. That’s what always got me: if things had been so great since World War II, we’d gladly do without elections. But I kept to myself. And this one time, someone at the table interrupted.
“Voting’s a rum’s errand,” he said. That archaic turn of phrase made me look over at the speaker, a skinny, nervous looking man in his seventies. He wore a sea-foam tracksuit. Wispy sideburns stood out from his cheeks like pine needles. When he had everyone’s attention, he continued. “The Rothschilds hold all the cards.”
“Not this again,” another man, round-faced and round-bellied, said, and one of the women raised her finger for her check. But the speaker wasn’t going to spare them by being polite.
“You can look it up. On the internet, and I’ve read books about them.” He pauses. “Big family of bankers. Mayor was the patriarch, really got them going. This is in Frankfort, Germany, maybe 1660. But they didn’t make real money until after the Napoleonic Wars. By then, the 19th Century, the family held the largest private fortune in the history of the world. Your Buffet, your Gates, what have you. Zuckerberg. They can’t compare.”
“I think you mean the ExIm bank,” someone at the table said, and the busboy, whose soaked white apron showed a punk band t-shirt underneath, said, “I think you mean the School of the Americas.”
“You don’t see it because they don’t want you to. You have enough money, you can pull the ladder up after you. Buy silence and influence both.”
“Well, what do they want?” the round faced man asked, goading. “To move the Sabbath to Saturday?”
“They’re beyond that,” the second man said. “They’ve got two goals, one under and one over our heads. They want to raise Atlantis. I hear there’s some artwork there they are interested in. And a colony on Mars. Because they know this world’s done for, and they need someplace to go.”
“Yeah, Mars,” the first man said. “Why can’t they just get a camper like normal folks. My first wife did that, been driving cross country for seven years. She loves it.” The people still sitting at the table were chuckling; they’d pulled out the teeth of this paper lion, and he knew it. He lifted up the squeeze bottle of syrup and instead of squirting it at his friend, poured some on his pancakes.
I felt bad for the guy. The election was making everyone a little crazy, but when even your good friends won’t listen, it’s got to be hard. I liked hearing him talk; sure, it was crazy, but at least it was interesting. It’s not like I was going to buy him a cup of coffee and ask him to tell me his theories, though. I told myself I’d look up the Rothschilds on Wikipedia, and then I didn’t even do that. I saw him probably three or four times after that at Bellies, and every time he started his spiel the same way, that voting was “a rum’s errand,” and then he was off. Sometimes it was energy efficient light bulbs and fluoride in the drinking water. Once it was internships as the new slave-economy. Once it was something about how the Supreme Court justices had been replaced by robots. It was all his friends could do to bring him back to plumb, and he was wearing even me down. And then, maybe a month before the election, he just disappeared. The tai chi crew came in, same as always, but his face with its pine-needle whiskers was nowhere to be found.
One morning I was paying my bill and I asked the guy working the register about him. “Is it just me, or has Rothschild not been around lately?”
This cashier, his skin was a dark umber and his face never moved, like he’d had a stroke and it froze his face in one expression, disinterested. He turned that face to me. “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” I looked away. Maybe he’d got out of hand and they’d kicked him out. Or maybe he really didn’t know the guy. I paid my check and left.
Maybe you heard about the kids who ran a goat as a third party candidate and held a nominating convention in their two bedroom apartment? That’s one of the properties I’m responsible for. Or the kid who decided to drop of school out and enter the NFL draft, so rented a luxury place and sublet his old place to his dealer? That one was mine, too. And there were others, too, that kept me jumping. If it weren’t for the news, I’d have been busy enough to forget the election was even happening. It was two weeks before things slowed down enough for me to make it back to Bellies, and even then, I was too late to hear the Oldheads perform. It was quiet, and I wanted that. I paid my check and was walking back to my truck when the busboy came running after me. I stared hard at this chest, trying to make out the message on the t-shirt behind the water-soaked apron he wore. It was a dirty joke, some pun about sex and I was this close to understanding it when he stopped, heaving ragged breaths, in front of me. “You left your license under your plate,” he said.
I took it from his hand and said thanks and went to slip it back into my wallet, but it wasn’t mine. My license was in its usual slot; the one I was holding didn’t have my face on it, even though it was familiar. It was Rothschild. Of course his real name wasn’t Rothschild, but no other name would really make sense here. Bear with me, please.
The bus boy was already gone back inside. I look nothing like Rothschild; obviously, someone gave me the license for a reason. All that time I’d been working on laundry vents, I’d been thinking about Rothschild. I had a little time, so I figured this was as much a sign as I was ever going to get. I put a couple more quarters in the meter by my truck and walked over to campus.
Any firm with a physical plant big as the University, you think they’d have a central office where you’d check in and they’d tell you where to go. It didn’t matter if there were twenty-five buildings, it’d still be clear who was where and how to find them. The University, though, half the buildings had no visible name, and those that did were named after people who had fuck all to do with what went on inside. That’s just one of the reasons I hated going to the University. I went to the biggest building on campus, with a big white dome like the state capitol, even though I knew it wasn’t the right place, because I needed to start somewhere.
Another reason walking across campus without a clear destination was a mistake: In front of this big building, the symbolic heart of campus, there was this area called something like Free Speech Square, a concrete staging ground for whatever kind of weird idea someone had that week. Usually it was a couple preachers in from the country arguing with the women’s libbers, or whatever you called them these days. But of course, with the election only a month away, it was filled with more loonies than usual. A kid wearing a jester’s hat yelled into a microphone about structured debt payments and even the hat didn’t make that look fun. Four or five people, boys or girls, dressed like the bad guys from Star Wars were playing a march, badly, on brass instruments. Another group of kids were dressed like businessmen, power ties and briefcases. Or maybe that wasn’t a disguise at all; maybe they were just business-minded students, but they were frozen in front of some girls dressed like witches who were swatting at their wingtips with brooms. I saw all that in the few seconds it took me to veer around them and sneak into the building.
Of course there wasn’t a receptionist in the central gallery. There was, really, nothing to see except the building itself, high frescoed ceilings and marble floors that glowed yellow. I walked down a couple hallways and then had to take the stairs up a level before I found an open door.
“Excuse me?” I asked, sticking my head into the office. What was I trying to say? “I’m looking for someone who teaches economics.” I could ask after a history prof at the next stop, I figured.
“Economics? That’s in McAllum,” the woman said, looking up from her computer terminal. She was cute, in her way. Big fake blue pearls and a tight black sweater. A little heavy, but still good looking. I liked her smile. “You know how to find McAllum?”
“I’m not sure I do,” I said, and she sighed mock dramatically and pulled a campus map from a pad of them she kept on her desk; I wasn’t the first person she’d lured into her office with her open door. She picked up her pen and motioned me closer. “Here’s McAllum,” she said, and circled a building on the map. “And here’s us. It’s just on the other side of the quad.”
“I appreciate it,” I said, and took the map with me back downstairs. The good news was that I could leave the building out the back, and skip a return trip to the free speech circus. McAllum was built like a townhouse, straight up and down with a big green door at the top of a half-set of steps. Inside, a directory behind glass told me I needed to climb the stairs to the third floor for economics.
Here, there was a proper receptionist. Maybe that’s what it meant, working in a field so close to business, that they understood customer service. She had a lemon-puckered face, but when I asked if there were any economists around, she didn’t even have to look at her computer.
“Dr. Hershey is in his office,” she said. “Room 322,” and she pointed down the hallway. I went where she pointed till I found an open office door beneath a frosted glass transom. “Dr Hershey,” I said, and stood in the doorway. I recognized Hershey from Bellies, a small white man in an oxford with puckish collar points and slacks with sharp creases. He was built like a snowman, a small round face and a bigger round belly beneath. “I was wondering if you could tell me about a friend of yours.”
“Of course,” he said, looking up and away from his computer. “Let me find you someplace to sit.” He lifted a pile of books and papers from a chair, and then, not finding any clear surfaces, set them down on another pile. “A friend of mine, you said?”
I described Rothschild to him, and his forehead wrinkled, the skin around his eyes puckered. “Poor guy,” he said. “If you knew him when he was younger, well, he was a champion. Really, a champion.”
“A champion?” I asked, and he told me that he’d known Rothschild for more than fifty years. “We went to school together, here,” he told me. “A very interesting man. His father, he was a banker. Small town, south of here, but the bank president in a town like that, he would have had more power, in terms of the influence he had on people’s lives, than the President of the United States would. You know the project, to flood the town and make a man-made lake? A lot of the financing that came from that, his father held all the paper on that through his bank. And him, he wanted nothing to do with it when I met him. He came here to study music. He was a singer, a beautiful voice.
“Of course, that was no sort of career, and well, this isn’t New York City. In the end, he went into his father’s line, became a loan officer up here. You know this town, eh? Lived here for a time, I imagine?”
“My whole life,” I said.
“Well, you remember then, how segregated it used to be. He structured loans to move black families to integrated neighborhoods. South of town, half of the developments down here, he authored those loans. He was a pioneer, a champion. Just trying to get people into homes, you wouldn’t believe the trouble he got into.” Hershey paused and his eyes went a little out of focus.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” I asked. “But, well, he’s not that guy anymore.”
Hershey came back into focus. “No, of course not.” He sat back, shrunk a little in his rolling chair. “Of course not. The financial collapse, do you know how many of those debts were real estate-based? Illiquid assets? So much of it. Sub-prime and all that; it’s nonsense, really, what they said in the popular press, about those people. Scurrilous, but of course, if you don’t understand then you won’t understand.” He stared off into space again.
“But he must have understood, right? He was in the business, after all,” I prompted.
“He couldn’t believe it. He got this idea into his head, that it had been planned. That it was intended, to take back the land, the homes, the equity these people accrued. Their wealth. He found a reason. Got so you couldn’t have a conversation with the man without him ranting about some damn global conspiracy. The Rothschilds.” He pursed his lips. “It was silly. His own father. He knew better.” Hershey shook his head.
“Have you seen him lately,” I asked. “I used to see him around, I could set my clock by it. But lately, nothing.”
“No, Hershey said. “You know, I hadn’t noticed. But now that you mention it.” He paused, and lifted a small notepad from the pile and made a mark on it. “He’d be touched you were concerned about him. Or sure you wanted to put a subcutaneous tag under his skin. One or the other.” Hershey chuckled. “I could get him a message, if you gave me your name.”
He looked up at me avidly. He’d said too much to a stranger, and now he was embarrassed, trying to make up for it. When I walked into the room and recognized Hershey, I’d planned to turn over Rothschild’s license. But if he hadn’t even noticed Rothschild was missing? “It’s OK,” I said. “No message. Just a friend who was worried about him.” I thanked Hershey again and left before Hershey tried to follow me out or got the secretary to do the same.
I had Rothschild’s license, and that was enough to get a lot of information, if you knew the right people. The property management company I worked for, it was nothing to ask my boss to find information about anyone. Current address, sure, but also credit history. Arrest records. Liens. There was a time when I was younger, I’d find out all about these women that I was interested in. That was when my boss’ father ran the operation. I worked for the father, I work for the daughter. She’s not so different. I called her on my cell and gave her the name on the license and told her that I’d met Rothschild at my gym, he was looking to move out of his current place and I wanted to know if he’d be a good tenant. But it could have been another story—he backed into me and drove away or he left his license at the breakfast place I liked. She’d call around, starting at the other big apartment places, until she found him.
It took only an hour or so for her to call. I had my head in an oven pulled out from the wall to inspect it for a new mother who was sure she smelled gas. The only thing I could smell was baby shit. The mother was standing in the kitchen watching me work, a cloth diaper tied around her mouth and nose like a bandit and holding another to the face of the baby on her hip. I let the call go to voicemail.
Ninety minutes later, I was leaving the apartment to drive to the hardware store for a part and I got a chance to listen to the message. “Funny story about this guy looking for a new place,” the boss’ daughter who was now the boss reported. “Lived at the Terrace for the last five years. Occasional complaints of the usual type—too curious about the neighbors, that kind of thing. Then a week ago, he got into something, a shouting match or like that. Police were called, so he holed himself up in the apartment. SWAT team took the door off its hinges with a battering ram.” She paused. “I’m not sure I’d rent to him,” she said. “I mean, if he’s a real good friend of yours, maybe we can talk about it.”
The Terrace was a place over on the west side of town. It wasn’t a nice place. Mostly hollow concrete shells with the insides covered by drywall. The office was in a building grand like a Nazi bunker, with this weird poured concrete portico. It attracted graffiti when I’d lived there, and there were no trees so the wind would rattle your windows all night. I don’t think I got a good night’s sleep in the three months I’d lived there; I’d been glad to get out. I drove over after I’d stopped the gas leak to see if I could find Rothschild.
Driving up to the office, I thought I saw Rothschild’s unit, police tape crossed in front of an empty doorframe. I parked in a likely spot and hoped the resident who it belonged to worked second shift. On the sidewalk to the office, I passed a guy in a bathrobe sitting in a lawn chair singing the national anthem to himself. When I got close to him, he stopped singing long enough to wet his whistle with a slug from a glass jar beside his lawn chair. I kept walking. How did a former bank officer, someone who wrote all those loans end up somewhere like this? But then, he couldn’t very well keep writing loans when he was ranting about a global banking conspiracy. The bell above the office door tinkled when I stepped through it.
“Hey, Charlie,” the woman behind the counter said. I knew her, of course. The property management world is a small one, and once you get free rent, it’s a hard to leave. She was Darla, or maybe Darlene. Unless she was Daria. “What have you got for us today?” she asked. Sometimes I traded parts with their maintenance crew, Dave and Willy.
“Actually, D, I’m asking after one of your residents,” and I told her about Rothschild, told her I was concerned about him but wiggled my eyebrows when I said it so she wouldn’t think I really cared. Let her think it was a poker debt or something like that.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I got that call from your boss lady earlier. Sad story, right?” She pushed back from her computer and took off her headset. “He was just the sweetest guy, he used to sit right there,” she said, and gestured to a low metal bench that held up a stack of sale papers. It didn’t look comfortable. “He’d talk your ear off if you let him. He’s the reason why I had to get these,” she said, and tapped her headset. “I loved him, we all did.”
“So what happened?” I asked her. What I wanted to hear was that he was great. The SWAT team, it was all a case of mistaken identity, some left over library books. But I knew that wasn’t the story I was going to hear.
“We’ve got some guys here, college guys, you know the type? Plaid shorts and golf shirts. And they started baiting him. It was hard to watch, but what are you going to do?”
“And?” I asked.
“He just got more and more riled up. He exploded. Started going after anybody who came within twenty feet of him.” She shook her head. “We run a business here,” she said. “We can’t have that. I sent Willy over to talk to him because Dave was on a call. You won’t believe this, but he took a swing at Willy.” I could believe it. I’d swung on Willy myself more than once. “After that, well, we couldn’t do nothing, so we called the police. And I guess that was our mistake, because then we couldn’t just walk away.”
“And SWAT rammed the door in?” I asked.
“You know police in this town,” Darlene said. “What’s the point of having all these toys if you don’t use them, right?”
“I think I saw the place on the way in,” I said. “Looks totaled.”
“On no,” she said. “That’s not his place. His place, we already rented it to another guy, real Miss Lonelyhearts type. What you saw was a guy running a pirate radio station out of his apartment. That was ATF. Take what I said about the local police, those guys are serious.”
“Shit,” I said. This world, you never run out of stories,. “Did they arrest the old man?”
“Nothing like that,” she said. “He couldn’t hurt no one if he wanted to. I think they cuffed him, but that was just to wake him up. They told me they were taking him to St Michael’s. Asked me if maybe Willy could not press charges, you know?” She paused. “What’s your interest? Has he been hassling your tenants.”
“Nothing like that,” I said. “We had a tenant, skipped in the middle of the night and left behind some property, we think it belongs to the old man.” It wasn’t so unlikely.
“Well, if you see him tell him he always treated me real nice and I like him, but he can’t live here no more.”
“I understand,” I said, and ducked my head for a minute. “I’ll tell him. Thanks for all your help.”
St Michael’s was the charity hospital for the mental cases. It’s on the near north side, across the street from the old elementary school where I went when this town was smaller and I was poor. Poorer. It’s mostly brown field over there now, neat little blocks of homes built for Viet vets and their families forty years ago. More. Whenever I find myself over there, I promise I’ll take a weekend or two and pull a lawnmower over the place and clean it up. But the truth is, it’d take years. I’d never get out. I parked my truck on the elementary school side of the street and stared at St Michael’s limestone front with its long rust stains, its arched white stone entrance, its pitted green metal doors.
At my back was the blacktop basketball court where we used to have recess. My best friend, Brian, when I was a kid, we played red rover, running as fast as we could at each other, trying to pull an arm free from a socket. We faced off in British Bulldogs, hoping to push hard enough to smash someone’s skull into the ground. No one cared if we hurt each other. The teachers smoked cigarettes and complained at the far end of the blacktop. We’d climb trees and from there you could see into the yard at St. Michael’s. We’d tell stories about what we saw there, and when the paper printed an expose, maybe ten years ago now, we weren’t so far off with what we imagined.
When we were maybe twelve, we were bused to the middle school by then, Brian hurt himself somehow. I never understood it, exactly. It had something to do with a lawnmower blade and a beach towel and the gas can that his dad kept in the locked shed on their property. But Brian hurt himself, on purpose is what they said, and then they sent him to St. Michael’s. It scared me. I’d lie in bed and try to piece together Brian’s injuries from what little I knew, try to imagine the accident that looked like it was on purpose. I’d draw diagrams, all these different moving parts, they were like death traps, and before I knew it I’d filled a notebook with them. I tore the notebook to pieces and hid it in the trashcan. Maybe the same urges were in me; we were so close; my life wasn’t better than his.
I stared at St. Michael’s and waited for it to tell me something new. There’s a meadow, sort of, behind the hospital, with a concrete path that loops back after a while, and sometimes the nurses take the patients for a stroll back there. I couldn’t see enough from my truck, but I bet there are still some trees I could have climbed and taken a look if I dared to. In my mind’s eye, I saw Rothschild in a wheelchair, wearing a threadbare bathrobe, pushing himself down the path and back. Rothschild is sick and he was getting care, probably the best he could afford. I knew he was sick when I heard him at Bellies. He was like Brian, washed away by a tide of dark thoughts that couldn’t carry me with it.
Maybe I should have been asking who wanted me to find Rothschild. When the busboy gave me Rothschild’s license, I was so glad to have it I didn’t ask why. Rothschild interested me, not the conspiracy he subscribed to. But someone wanted me to find him, and I should have asked who.
What happened next? Work got in the way. The day of the election, I had so many projects it was hours after the sun went down before I had time to vote. It was maybe ten days after that before I got back to Bellies, and it was quiet. The election was over. When someone started talking about politics, the still faced man came from behind the counter and slapped the customer’s bill on the table and said, “We had enough of that talk,” and it got quiet again. I wasn’t thinking about Rothschild, just eating my breakfast and trying to decide what order to tackle my calls for the day. When I finished, I brought the bill up to the register and the still faced man asked, “You find your friend?”
I remembered Brian. People always wanted me to talk about him, to tell me some funny thing he did that explained everything. I got so that I didn’t want anyone to know we’d ever been friends. I told people we were always more neighbors than friends. The still faced man pressed buttons on the cash register without breaking eye contact. He switched a toothpick with a green cellophane pennant from one side of his mouth to the other.
“I saw him the other day,” I said, and pulled some money out of my wallet. “We had breakfast at this new place, on the business loop. Incredible eggs there.” I left two dollar bills for a tip, and slid the rest into my wallet beside Rothschild’s license.