Crazy Quilt

(*My signature is on a confidentiality agreement somewhere. Names and particular circumstances changed to protect me.)


    Some days more than others feel like what should be work’s final hours. The betting here is closure occurs end of January 2012. Any urgency entering our building has long vacated. It’s not so much a death watch as impending stasis.

    Countdown began six years ago. It accelerated in January 2010. Nonetheless there have been occasions since when the fall could’ve been braked, the slide leveled, and altitude regained. All of those saving instances have been missed. Intentionally. Leaving inexorability.

    Years ago this job was a cushy landing from journalism. The corporate overseers who directed the newspaper I wrote for decided maintaining their property’s 23% margin of return far more important than informing the community. Therefore, longevity made certain bylines expendable.

    Bad off as my present employer is, that newspaper can’t even be considered a shell of itself anymore. A ghost maybe. One its remaining subscribers require extrasensory powers to read.

    Gloom took slow years before overtaking both my current paycheck and that newspaper. Fat years.

    Throughout the 1980s until 2008 America enjoyed a stretch of irrational exuberance which exceeded the Jazz Age. The monetary policies which took hold and profitably guided our nation until, say, 1981,were sacrificed to flashy yet ultimately bankrupt ideologies. These theories eroded sound basics for quick, empty, illusory profits. Paper gains, by the way, which benefited an ever-narrower fortunate slice.

    Twice during the previous decade, the United States forfeited opportunities to stave off our lingering financial disaster. Twice Americans missed chances to be governed by sober, rational teams who would’ve placed the country first, not favored segments. Both times too many otherwise responsible voters pulled levers for irresponsible leadership.

    We were sold voodoo economics! We believed in voodoo economics! We demanded voodoo economics! Damned if we didn’t get them. Deservedly, generations will be making restitution for quite a while.

    Until the reckoning, though, money seemingly floated around.

    In my diminishing present job, we once threw numbers against walls and had clients astounded at the quoted amounts’ “reasonableness.” Strive mightily as we did, we never succeeded posting a too far-fetched figure.

    The past era suited pathological spending. On one hand, money-to-burn clients stroked their egos through overpriced purchases. On the other more important hand, by showing off overvalued goods they could show up their peers.

    Or as locals see it, perfect New York behavior.

    Relentless motivation as envy is in our region, seeking greater shine has been a long-time pursuit. From the first Dutch colonists to us. Not only did we all dine on such extravagance, we got fat.

    That’s what softened my ejection from journalism, all that graspable cash. As a reporter, I toed the objective line. At least none of my biases entered print. However, immersed in a commercial free-fire zone the rules were relatively few and those hardly fast.

    It helped our field occupied a niche. One we exploited rapaciously. *Forget me being more specific than that. Despite the fun received by our clients, or the joy derived from their profligacy, who today wants reminding of his or her outlandish past? Besides, when the good times roll again, what big spenders want seeing themselves as having been suckers?

    *Mugwumps, our firm, filled the weird niche. Amply and aptly.

    Before the diminution of talented management, our company had entry into and trade within the pricier New York Metropolitan region zip codes. At one time we also clutched military and gaming clearances. Trust me, dealing with those two entities require background checks ordinary people would and should find invasive.

    Mugwumps has always been a family business. *Blowhard, our boss, came from the corporate hive. There, he’d proudly toiled as a tool. The gray-flannelled kind. In the hoariest American tradition he became his own master. Better than ready capital, Blowhard possessed an intricate, iron-clad knowledge of his industry. Though not indispensable, he specialized. One of the rare go-to guys. Forgoing showy and hip, he served as valuable.

    His reputation extended into today’s increasingly dwindling results. When the legend becomes fact …

    Creative as his problem solving abilities were, none of that filtered into Blowhard the man. To show diligence, the 80-year-old eats lunches at his desk. A walk away from the streaming paperwork and incessant phone calls might flush his mind, thereby lightening his self-imposed burdens. Circulation also will make him more accessible. Blowhard maintains an open-door policy but too many petitioners need courage to take advantage of it. Which defeats the purpose, no?

    At some time I imagine Blowhard hoped leaving affairs to his children. He and his wife *Ruta whelped five Mugwumps. Two boys, three girls, issued in uncanny 15-month intervals. Ruta has an interesting history, the sort which should’ve pushed their children. She’d been a displaced person after World War II and has severe life lessons to offer. Not one of their children accepted her gift.

    My contempt for the Mugwumps developed slowly. Actually it increased once the outside world shoved them on the periphery, and their personal spheres shrunk from age-related maladies, dropouts and overdoses. From these occurrences the siblings intruded more often into the office. Disruptive presences. Never for genuine inquiry, but more like spiteful interference.

    I don’t know exactly what the five Mugwumps were like as children, but it’s no great leap to suspect as adolescents and teens they were disappointments. Blowhard, jr., or for this narrative, *Skip, his brother *Speedball, their sisters *Borracha, *Loca and *Fea, grew up amid 1960s and 70s Gold Coast Connecticut affluence. The easy abundance of material goods skewed their senses of propriety and entitlement. Had these deviations been straightened early, they may’ve matured into worthwhile adults. Instead, each Mugwump succumbed to some destructive human weakness.

    Weakness we can freely scorn. Frailty must be trod around gently.

    One more strange thing that greatly unsettled me as time passed. Skip, Speedball, Borracha, Loca, and Fea are or were within my age range. Plus or minus two or three years. During our acquaintance they’ve always been addressed by their childhood diminutives. Doesn’t that affect their collective behavior?

    Establishing his business with hopes of handing it over to either boy or both as he likely harbored, Blowhard’s sons double-crossed him by showing the enterprise blatant disinterest. Less than venture off on their own, the boys simply demonstrated contempt for Blowhard’s toil and values.

    A tall, bluff fellow, Blowhard had been a scholar and a jock. His sons lagged in class and foreswore athletics. The second deficiency must’ve especially pained Blowhard. Both Skip and Speedball shared their father’s form and agility. It was easy to have seen them competing on basketball or tennis courts, skiing or swimming competitively.

    Blowhard had served honorably during the Korean War. One honestly doubted whether Skip or Speedball would’ve defended the country if the red commie hordes had invaded. The old man was stolid and steady. His sons shared their sisters’ trait of careening when they didn’t carom.

    Ruta’s girls never became ladylike because she lacked that touch. At their age events stunted her growth. Much of her girlhood was spent in *Ruritania hiding from and fending off Wehrmacht units, the SS, and differently-aligned partisan groups. Running battles and scavenging filled Ruta’s formative years. Cotillions and tea sandwiches came way too late to leave lasting imprints.

    Borracha, Loca, and Fea must’ve lost their inhibitions early. If they ever had any. By the time we met notions of shame were alien. Immune to embarrassment, they imparted it thoughtlessly. Street prostitutes might recognize their method of luring and loving men. If the girls are seen as products, then Ruta’s guiding them into womanhood owed more to barter and survival than affection and satisfaction.

    None were beauties. At best pretty in plain ways. The girls aped their mother’s slitty-eyed, sharp-eared features. Fea traced Ruta’s template the strongest, Loca a mix tending more towards Blowhard, while Borracha unmistakably her father’s daughter.

    Ruta also never instilled any fashion sense in the girls. Of course she had none to give. They were tomboys, usually dressed to roughhouse or enter some wild adventure. Though their bodies were perfect for couture, long, slender figures, wide shoulders, slips for waists, breasts high and compact, low self-esteem nurtured by parental indifference blunted any grace.

    Following in their brothers’ shambling footsteps, Borracha, Loca and Fea dismissed sophistication. Even the most casual observer must have realized that in one generation the Mugwump brood had dropped from grandees into peons. How had their parents maintained such blindness?

    What amounts the younger Mugwumps squandered are impossible to gauge.

    The Mugwumps are my employers. Although the siblings didn’t become steady presences until later, Blowhard listed them company beneficiaries. Even Ruta. On those early occasions when they did thicken the office atmosphere, it was akin to dogs marking spots on the same tree. Not only were they bestowed salaries, but benefits as well. I guess they received raises, too. Much of mine probably.

    Despite Blowhard’s kids looking upon their bequeath indifferently, his salaried and hourly employees all should’ve known we had absolutely no chance of getting a piece of the company. No matter how rancid, blood is thicker than productive personnel.

    I’ve stayed around this long because the money’s easy. The Mugwumps are also an American tragedy developing before my eyes. Their fate isn’t tragic in the antique sense, but in the Faulknerian. No misguided nobility, though idiots abound.

    Should one see Blowhard as a mentor, then a number of students have sat at the master’s knee and have blotted up knowledge. The final lesson each learned was he never intended vesting them in his company. He exploited, led them on. Upon this realization only then did they graduate.

Usually they went on to form their own successful enterprises.

    I don’t know how many hopefuls washed through those offices before I appeared. Turnover was measured but nevertheless abrupt. I guess it was like being fooled by a lover. Plenty of hope teased the eventual dejection. Surfeit disillusion finally forced them out Mugwumps. They should’ve recognized Blowhard’s selfishness much sooner. But I guess that’s hindsight.

    He once offered me a spot on his right. I declined. I saw what he’d done with better people. No need for me to join his disaffected roster.

    Complete focus disappeared when *Esme left. Or stormed out. Of them all who walked in Mugwumps and stuffed Blowhard’s pockets, Esme was the sole one who demanded her due. Her immediate predecessors, *the Rumanian, *Mountaineer, and *Kansas each endured fruitlessly, futilely rationalized, and tendered regretful resignations. Esme, shouldering facts and figures, blasting full-throated accounts, rattled both Blowhard and his desk before slamming the door behind her.

    While *Perdu, Esme’s successor, proved just as capable and far more personable, she was left to deal with Loca and Fea. Both of whom by now had grafted onto the company as gangrenous appendages. Unfortunately for Mugwumps bottom line Perdu lacked Esme’s mettle. Esme brought more than abrasiveness to Mugwumps. She’d been formidable. She could boss Blowhard, bully Loca and belittle Fea. Her departure freed their worst business-adverse impulses.

    Esme’s slam-bang farewell meant no more skating. However, heedless years passed before it became corrosive.

    Despite their masculinity, the Rumanian, Kansas and Mountaineer remained quite deferential under Blowhard. Even when circumstances supported them, be it business or recompense, they treated him as a lord. Esme was her own godhead.

    Dumpy, dishwater blonde and damned unpleasant, a chain-smoker, and brusque during the best of times, Esme was smarter than her three male predecessors. Far more ambitious than all combined, too.

    She needed to be. Aware of the double-standard that makes women and minorities work twice as hard to achieve half as much, Esme doubled down her toting and baling.

    She earned big.

    Her first glance probably revealed the obvious: there for the taking a money-making venture with no capable successors. Even if Skip, Loca, and Fea, as well as Borracha and Speedball had they lived long enough, sought to assume control, none would. Greed alone could not erase years wasted. In that time one or all should’ve kneeled beside Blowhard and soaked up everything their father said and did. Instead the two daughters who came aboard wing it. Horribly.

    Plus, unlike the Rumanian and Kansas, and to a lesser extent, Mountaineer, she’d shared childhoods with them. Esme and the Mugwump children diverged at 18. She entered adulthood. Into their 30s, 40s, and 50s they still hadn’t found that entry.

    Esme’s been elsewhere for five years. A year or two before she left, she did something which can be regarded two ways. Either from self-interest or genuine concern. She saved Fea from sharing Borracha’s and Speedball’s fates.

    Drugs or alcohol or both preyed on each Mugwump child. Borracha died towards the end of the 90s; her brother just weeks into 2011. At the end of her life, Borracha literally lived down the street from her parents; her brother out in the distant Front Range. Both succumbed to toxic mixtures that leeched their lives across decades. Both were also neglected by their family.

    The case could be made for Speedball that as a man he was expected to fend for himself. No doubt that’s how his father saw it. Blowhard embodied an outdated view of the sexes. Men: strong; women: frail.

    When Speedball’s prognosis worsened precipitously, rather than hasten to his side, offer him help, or crash in and intervene, Blowhard chose Door No. 4. He bought his son a new truck.

    Too bad Esme wasn’t around. Speedball really could’ve used her.

    Of course the remaining Mugwumps could’ve interjected themselves. Attempting saving Speedball really never occurred to them. I either missed or ignored Blowhard’s show tears for his son. I remembered the few spared for Borracha and the deliberate momentary breakdown before he regained manly composure. That sufficed for us both.

    Unlike her remote brother’s, we followed Borracha’s earlier deterioration daily. Couldn’t escape it even if we wanted. The closer to death, the more she haunted our office. She became an unavoidable stink. I suspect liver failure because her skin tinged yellow. Though limbs stayed stick thin, the shutdown organ bloated her midriff. It got so bad she sweated vodka.

    Yet those closest to Borracha let this proceed unabated.

    She spent her last week alive comatose. Part of me wants to say a truly remorseful family finally relented and nursed her final days at home. Instead of dying in a sterile hospital room, surrounded by strangers, Borracha drew raspy breaths in a gurney, hooked up to devices in the living room of the Mugwump split-level ranch.

    Noisy as she was during the day, she must’ve unnerved them at night. Good.

    There, unseeing, she faced a picture window opening upon their in-ground pool and undulating backyard swales. (No doubt Blowhard cared more for that lawn than any of his children.)

    Perhaps Borracha sensed herself again among the sites where she’d cavorted, splashed, smoked bundles of dope, swallowed pills by the handfuls, and swilled gallons of parental or purloined booze until passing out and awaking either in her own vomit or near it.

    Having seen the whole bunch in action also allows me to say the reason behind bringing her home, contending with the dying woman’s incessant death rattles, was to spare hospital expenses. After all, these people didn’t subscribe to miracles. Borracha was a goner. The money saved could be better spent in Cancun or the Caribbean.

    Again, Esme left ahead of Speedball’s last call. However, Borracha’s ignoble end affected her. One way or another she wasn’t going to let Fea expire from convenient oversight. Or as we call it, negligence.

    Not content to mention, or merely comment, Esme shamed the Mugwumps into wresting Fea back from the brink. Those days, Fea resided farther up the Gold Coast. She and her then-husband shared a beach bungalow. Only a berm needed crossing until reaching sand and Long Island Sound.

    “Shared” is the proper word for that couple. Legally they were man and wife. In reality only a swank address kept them together. They never should’ve wed. All they ever had in common were drugs. Or a love of drugs. But not love.

    By their second decade of “togetherness” both were unrecognizable. Cocaine had carved them out. Fea was a particular fiend for the stuff. She’d snorted enough to rot away her nasal cartilage. Being a cocaine hostage gave Fea a pug nose. Her craving so great she eventually resorted to wetting fingers, wiping them upon whatever surface the rails had been lined, then rubbing the residue across her gums. In time this habit weakened her gums and her teeth fell out.

    Without Esme Fea surely would’ve followed Borracha and preceded Speedball.

    The distressed daughter was scabs and bones. Esme forced her family into rescue. They couldn’t have been more grudging about it had she been Jewish. Yes. One of the basest Mugwump “qualities” is their casual anti-Semitism. Fortunately, they possess an innate sense of who shares it and who doesn’t.

    Once Fea was somewhat restored and fitted with dentures, Esme took a bolder step. Fea possess an extremely limited job experience. She calls herself a former “horticulturalist.” Meaning “she watered plants and pulled weeds.” Esme was determined to rehabilitate the wayward Mugwump daughter. To make her “useful.”

    She ought have tried walking on water first. It would’ve been easier.

    Already clogging payroll, Esme gave Fea actual tasks needing completing around the office. Noble as that appears, Fea’s learning curve is flat. Decades of drug abuse have destroyed her coping skills. She started as a crude, stumbling, chattering doorstop. She remains so today.

    Despite the goodness behind Esme’s effort, I suspected its purity. Altruism is just another foreign language to that bunch. Reward of some kind stirred her. Otherwise Fea’s ashes would’ve joined Speedball’s muddying the Sound.

    I think Esme looked down the road, intuited how the company would soon be in flux. Knowing Blowhard’s obsession for routine, she may’ve taken it on herself not only to save his daughter but spare him other burdens. Like impending relocation.

    Mugwumps leased its building and that lease expired within two years. The landlord had zero interest in renewing. The vicinity offered nothing comparable in space and price. Blowhard was not going to rouse himself from behind his desk and bound throughout the Gold Coast haggling with commercial Realtors.

    Esme crowded an already full plate with one more giant scoop of owe.

    That can be the only reason. Hoarding chits.

    Skip, who ought have been Blowhard’s natural successor, bowed out early. He remained so far outside family orbit, he earned his own “missing” poster. Loca, on her second tour, an earlier one chopped through coke-induced embezzlement, had gained daddy’s reprieve. I guess he thought a second chance would make her grateful. I guess he didn’t know his little girl.

    Esme did. If she sized up conditions like I did, she must’ve seen one clear road. Blowhard had no recourse. He had no bench. No Plan B. No nothing. Stubborn as he was surely even he’d see only Esme provided continuity. Profitable continuity.

    Hard bargainer as she was, Esme wouldn’t have softened her pitch at all. Nor did she when that hammer dropped two years and one move later.

    Forget tiny bites. Esme wanted the whole banquet. And extra desserts.

    She didn’t demand a percentage, but a majority. Her name wouldn’t simply join Mugwumps, it would precede. Loca and Fea were gone. She also saw Blowhard taking a less active role as a consultant. Seeing where the firm is today, hers shall be regarded as generous terms.

    Blowhard had trouble seeing outside the box in which was cornered. Were Esme a man, he might’ve recognized her opening gambits as negotiating ploys and dealt. From there both parties could’ve reached equitable accommodations. Instead he took Esme at her word.

    Knowing him as I do, what really galled him was being dictated to by a woman. A frail! A skirt! A twist! N’yah! Blowhard was old school. Before him a new woman. She didn’t compute.

    Lacking reference, he resorted to instinct. Likely full-throated short declarations punctuated with paint-peeling adjectives.

    Exit Esme forever.

    Blowhard blowing his top satisfied him. Manly satisfaction. He derived greater satisfaction upon button-holing the slow, the unwary, and repeating their blow-by-blows. He left out, however, how and who would fill Esme’s considerable void. She’d been an earner. A big one. Before her, Mugwumps had been lucky. There’d always been an eager someone in reserve. Now Blowhard’s replacements consisted of Loca and Fea. Certainly their father must’ve realized between them they may’ve had half a brain.

    Naturally their portion would be the dysfunctional globe.

    Mugwumps got lucky for the last time when months later Perdu joined. She embodies one of those unexpected blessings its recipients ought dedicate eternal devotion.

    Younger, much easier on the eyes than Esme, Perdu is just as capable and driven as the departed lady pirate. Best of all, where Esme used rasps, Perdu operates in a far less antagonistic manner.

    She can earn. For a while she did earn. And no one likened the process to assault.

    Which may be why Loca and Fea began degrading their inheritance. Starting with pecking at Perdu.

    The newest addition is everything neither woman can be. It is a good question whether either ever could’ve become her own Perdu. It will be a subject for Bad Biographies. Loca’s and Fea’s resentment has overwhelmed all instincts to maintain Mugwumps’ viability.

    Until she was gone, I believe none of us at Mugwumps knew how much Esme kept Loca and Fea in check. Dark impulses occupy Blowhard’s surviving daughters. Who knows these origins? We only know the extent. We see and hear the tumult daily. The plummeting returns are impossible to ignore. Suddenly, though not unexpectedly enfeebled, our boss, their father is powerless to curtail sure destructiveness.

    Loca and Fea are ready to sacrifice the firm. They are well on the way. There is no reason. Just mindless obedience to rage.