Authors: William Stamp
The Merchants of Zion
by William Stamp
1. The Arrival of James
Man is cursed to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. That may have been true five thousand years ago—or even a few hundred—but this is the post-Biblical, post-digital age; we all suck on Mammon's tit now. Everybody works for somebody, and I was too lazy or stupid or naive to be the exception.
Through dumb luck, and to my credit, I got by without contributing to society in any meaningful way. I had a rent-free abode in one of the world's most expensive cities and a tutoring gig to cover the modest expense of my venal sins. Comfortable as I was, no one would've mistaken me for a guy who was killing it. And so it was with some surprise then that I found James Newsom at my stoop one lazy afternoon in May, looking to cash in on a favor offered four years ago almost to the day.
At our college graduation I said I'd take him in as a stray pet if he ever found himself down on his luck and needing a place to stay. It was a joke, mostly—he'd landed a hot job in private equity and was set to retire before he was thirty. But I'd seen James flame out at enough bars, screaming death threats following rejection—had seen him suckered in by one too many get-rich-quick schemes—to know that finding him at my door, destitute and without recourse, was within the realm of the possible. So I'd scribbled one additional line on the list of natural disasters for which you're supposed to be minimally prepared. A flashlight, a case of bottled water, and an empty couch. When your friend's a scumbag you have to watch out for him. Once he's turned to you it's because no one else would.
The feeling wasn't reciprocated. If I needed help, he'd said, too bad. He'd be busy banging bitches in his fifty-second story penthouse, not concerning himself with the plight of the ant people crushed underfoot by the giants standing astride the world.
We'd all had high hopes then. If an elite, half-million dollar degree couldn't jump start your dreams, you were hopeless and deserved nothing less than your inevitable exile to a suburban office in a drab Midwestern state. Instead we had the dubious privilege of possessing front row seats as the new and improved twenty-first century economy, designed and regulated in a way that was supposed to render a repeat of the catastrophes of the past fifty years impossible, was strangled in its crib.
I weathered the country's crash-landing in Brooklyn, house-sitting for my cousin who'd made his fortune in the Panic, then absconded to sunny Jamaica when Uncle Sam came ringing. The narrow, two-story row house had more than enough space for me, my friend Dimitri, and an attic filled with locked filing cabinets and no keys. I don't know what it was he had done, exactly, but I was grateful for a place to live. No one ever came to seize the house, and beyond that I figured it was no business of mine.
The doorbell was broken, and from my second-story window I watched James ring it repeatedly. Nothing, again and again.
He looked the same, but older. His bleached-blond hair had receded further up his scalp and his slate gray, pinstripe suit stretched tight over an emerging paunch. He dragged a lonely wheeled suitcase behind him, the entirety of his possessions contained within its bulging contour. I took a perverse joy seeing him down there like an overthrown tinpot dictator, dignified but defeated. Maybe no one else cared what had become of him, but he mattered, dammit.
I was tempted to ignore him and spare myself the hassle, to pretend no one was home in hopes he'd give up and leave. But a promise was a promise. Besides, I knew if I didn't answer he would just sit down and wait for me to come home.
When I could no longer take it, I cracked open the window and called down, “James, what's up?”
“Yo. Cliffster. You gonna open this door or what?”
“Give me a second.” I went downstairs and let him in. The illusion of unsoiled dignity melted on closer inspection. He was a certified mess. Streams of sweat had left dirty streaks across his face and faint lines of stress had furrowed into wrinkles, giving him a bitter, hardened look. His suit, tailored for a slimmer person, was rumpled, and the top two buttons of his shirt had popped off. A burgundy stain ran down its front.
As he stepped inside, his suitcase caught on the door frame and jerked him back.
“Need help with that?” I asked.
“Nah man, I got it.” He tugged at it, again without success.
“You need to pick it up more. Here let me—”
He brushed me away. Straddling the doorway, he lifted the suitcase and hurled it into the house. It slid a few feet and stopped, exhausted. Now he smiled. “Who needs help?”
“What do you want?”
He gave me an old-boys'-club grin. “It's a long story, but basically, my girlfriend kicked me out after I quit my job. And so like, do you think I could crash for a bit? It's been a rough couple days and I don't know—”
It would have shattered my idea of James to hear him admit failure, and so I cut him off. “Yeah. I think we can arrange something. There're only two bedrooms, but we—”
“Me and Dimitri.”
“You virgins still sticking it out? Don't worry, I got you covered. I'm gonna bring back more pussy than I'll know what to do with. Single's just another word for freedom, you know.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, certain he was lying. I couldn't imagine James having a girlfriend long enough for them to move in together. At least not a girlfriend with enough self-esteem to kick him out.
“They'll be impressed when you bring them back,” I said. “The height of luxury.” Our living room was sparsely furnished, barren but for a lumpy puce couch Dimitri and I had lugged half a mile in the rain and an expensive glass coffee-table that had been here when I first moved in. No TV, no chairs—the room's primary purpose was as a hallway between the front door and the rest of the house.
“Does it turn into a bed, at least?”
“Nope,” I said. He grunted.
“So what've—” I began.
“Say, you have a computer I could use? I'm waiting on some mail.”
“Can't you use your phone?”
“It's broken.” He pulled it out of his pocket. The screen was smashed to bits. “At least Honest Abe can't track me anymore, right?”
“Not until you check your mail, anyway.”
He called out as I was heading up the stairs. “And how about a pillow? I've passed out in gutters that were more comfortable.”
I dissolved into silent laughter. It was so absurd, how he maintained his posturing no matter the situation. James Newsom was supposed to be pursuing hedonistic, gilded age fantasies, not turning to charity. I took a pillow from my bed, a spare for wandering lady friends, long unused. From the closet, my old tablet. The case was cracked down the back, the screen held in place by electrical tape.
James was unpacked by the time I returned. He'd stored his shirts under the coffee table: button-downs, polos, and two t-shirts. His pants—no jeans, only khakis and slacks—were stacked on the windowsill. He was sitting on his new bed and flipping through a printed copy of the
Journal of Experimental Quantum Cryptography Volume Twenty-eight, Issue One
. It belonged to Dimitri.
“What's this? Pre-historic dinosaur shit?” he asked when I handed him the tablet. “Is this the same one you had in college?”
I told him it was and he snorted, saying he'd bought a new tablet last month. It had cost him five grand.
“Where is it now?”
“Bitch stole it. Say, what's the log-in password?”
I blushed. It had been years since I'd used the thing, and the password reflected an earlier, less mature me.
“I don't remember...”
“Oh, right,” he said, and typed in the embarrassing phrase. The log-in sound chimed. “Mr. Sophisticated aghast at being a teenager once upon a time?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Yeah right. Internet password?”
A moment later he cursed again, at the screen this time, then slammed the tablet on the table.
“Careful,” I said. “It's an antique.”
“I can't believe...” He muttered to himself, palms on his temples.
I stepped outside for a cigarette, leaving him alone with his woes. When I came back in he asked if there was anything to eat. All we had were a bag of dried pinto beans, a can of tomatoes, and a half-gallon of spoiled milk.
“There's a good place down the street,” I said. He opened his mouth to offer an excuse that masked his pennilessness, but I interrupted. “I'll cover it. A sort of coming home gift. But I need to leave for work in like an hour, so we'd better move.”
The restaurant had a wooden sign that read, simply, “Diner.” The décor was equally low key. One narrow room dominated by a bar and an entourage of small tables stuffed wherever they fit. A trio of kids with ratty facial hair—college kids venturing from their walled gardens to the Brooklyn jungle—were seated by the window, and a tall black guy in a suit sat alone at the bar drinking coffee.
James picked a table in the corner. The waitress, a stylish, attractive woman in her thirties, asked if we were ready to order—just coffee to start with, thanks. What dreams had she had when she was younger? She wasn't a native, of that I was certain. I imagined her at an isolated liberal arts school, wedged between a vast forest on one side and a rural town, impoverished and envious, on the other. The inevitable move to New York to pursue a career that failed to materialize. Or maybe she'd even found one, but had been dumped to the curb during the Panic. What was the ambition of one person amidst the most awesome cycle of creative destruction in human history? I hoped she'd accepted this lifestyle, had found joy in the simplicity of pouring coffee and counting tips.
“What do you think of the server?” James asked. “I'd fuck her. I bet she used to be pretty hot.” He picked up the menu. “Say, what do you think the margins are on this place? Can't be much, not with what they're charging.”
She came back with the coffee and we ordered. Toast and eggs for myself, a bowl of breakfast chili—the most expensive dish on the menu—for James. And a side of homefries.
The coffee cheered him up, and while we waited for the food he talked nonstop, pausing only for the occasional breath or gulp from his mug. Since the Panic he'd been moving from one company to the next, leaving soon after each was acquired in turn by Liberty Bell, the patriotic investment bank spreading across the economy like mold on day-old artisanal bread.
“I was fired on two different acquisitions. Cut by the same consultant, can you believe it? They have it out for me Cliff, I swear.”
When the waitress brought our food she mixed up our plates. James started to say something rude but I shushed him, and switched them around after she left.
“What kind of service is that? This place is empty.”
“It's no big deal.”
“You're right. Getting it right takes two brain cells, tops. Which is why she works here instead of at a real job, making real money.”
James shoveled down the meal and had cleared his plate before I finished my toast. The food was an obstacle that kept him from talking, and once he finished he jabbered at a breakneck pace: about how his boss fucked him over, how his girlfriend fucked him over—everyone he knew had fucked him over, now that he took a minute to think about it. Throughout it all his only mistake had been trusting people too much. All of them were no better than maggots eating through the world's rotten carcass.
“Maggots, really? I'm eating.”
“Good thing I didn't talk about anal tearing. Because that's what my ass has felt like for the past four years. Pounded sixteen hours a day, seven days a week.”
“Right. Good thing.”
“So like I was saying. You ever get the feeling you're the only person who's actually alive? Like everyone else is just a robot, or maybe they don't have souls?”
“You mean do I ever see the world through the eyes of a sociopath?”
“The world's not populated by fucking angels, Cliff. Look, I used to care, but these days I can't bring myself to give a shit. From now on I'm enacting a strict, James-first policy.” Behind the bar, the waitress listened to our conversation while she pretended to play on her phone. I hoped she didn't think we were both crazy—just him.
He told me how he used his first six-figure bonus to put a two-percent down payment on a condo, about the trophy wife wannabes he'd brought back, how he dumped them on the curb the next morning, laughing at their stupid asses for thinking they could manipulate him, Whenever I pressed for more concrete details he changed the subject, and after several attempts I resigned myself to passively listening. I stared at his empty plate while he talked, idly wondering what was true, false, and exaggerated. He probably had worked for these places, had in all likelihood picked up these girls—the kind who worked in marketing or HR, and who flocked to after-hours rooftop bars. Girls who could play basketball in stiletto heels. Everything beyond that was hyperbole or falsehood, I decided. Still, he spun a good story, and I couldn't help but feel jealous at the supposed glamour of his former life.