The Hazards of Good Fortune, Part III




THIS IS PART III of LARB’s serialization of Seth Greenland’s forthcoming novel, The Hazards of Good Fortune. Greenland’s novel follows Jay Gladstone from his basketball-loving youth to his life as a real estate developer, civic leader, philanthropist, and NBA team owner, and then to it all spiraling out of control.

A film and TV writer, playwright, and author of four previous novels, Greenland was the original host of The LARB Radio Hour and serves on LARB’s board of directors. The Hazards of Good Fortune will be published in book form by Europa Editions on August 21, 2018.

To start with installment one, click here.

To pre-order on Indiebound, click here; on Amazon, click here; at Barnes & Noble, click here.

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Chapter Six

 

In Alpine, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan and north on Route 9, was an eleven thousand square foot stone mansion of recent vintage with twenty-two rooms, a five-car garage, a swimming pool, and a guesthouse. The trees were striplings and the property, purchased by its current owner for slightly north of twenty million dollars, was less than five years old. A tall hedge surrounded the four-acre spread. Security cameras swept the perimeter. Wrought iron gates obscured a circular driveway where a late-model SUV, a Maybach, and a custom-built McLaren preened. This showplace was the home of basketball superstar D’Angelo Maxwell, who could be found in the sunny kitchen talking to his agent, an Armani-suited, athletic-looking young black man with a diamond in his left ear. Dressed in a T-shirt and sweats, Dag leaned against the marble counter, frustration creasing his handsome face.

“You’re thirty-two years old, Dag,” Jamal Jones said. “Late middle age in basketball years.”

“I know how old I am, Jamal. It’s not a secret,” Dag said. His chef, an older black man with Chinese characters tattooed on both forearms, stood at the kitchen island and chopped fruit for a smoothie. Dag reminded him to soak the almonds before grinding them.

“But you deserve respect,” Jamal said, looking up at his client.

At six foot eight and two hundred and thirty-five pounds, D’Angelo Maxwell dwarfed his agent. His upper torso carved from granite. Arms and neck festooned with tattoos, headband crowning short hair. The highest paid player on his team, he was on the final lap of a four-year deal paying him twenty-two million dollars annually. The numbers he produced—23 points, 6 rebounds, and 3.2 assists a game—were solid, enough to maintain his position in the league elite, but not stellar. He was a perennial All-Star who had never reached the finals or been named first team All-NBA, the highest achievement of every universally acknowledged wealth-generating, sneaker-automobile-energy-drink-endorsing superstar.

The rap on Dag was that, while his skills were unassailable, he was one of those players who did not make his teammates better, had never, after over a decade in the league, advanced to the conference finals, much less won a championship, so was he really worth a huge investment this late in his career? A team could bank on promise, but observers who closely followed the league believed that Dag was, simply put, not “a winner.” Not a loser, to be sure. His previous team always won a lot of regular season games, but without playoff success that was an increasingly hollow accomplishment. There was a litany of great players who had retired without having managed to win an NBA title, and a growing consensus had emerged among league executives that Dag was destined to join their melancholy ranks.

Dag heard the talk. Although he had spent only one year at the University of Kentucky before jumping to the pros, he understood the business well enough to know another franchise was unlikely to sign him at his current rate. But it was his firm belief that his aging body, for all of its infirmities—the creaky knees that required icing during time-outs, the sore feet plunged into an ice bath after each game, the lower back that required electric stimulation and the daily ministrations of a masseur—was capable of earning one more epic payday.

“It’s why I came out to the crib to talk to you in person,” Jamal said.

Jamal was not an exceptionally gifted basketball player but he had played at the University of Maryland where he had earned a business degree, worked two years for a famous sneaker company, and then parlayed his relationships with the more talented guys he had played with—he met Dag on the tournament circuit when they were teenagers—into his position at the forefront of the sports agent ranks.

“You got good news?”

“I think it’s good news.”

“That Chevy deal we talked about?”

Product endorsements were worth additional millions but, more importantly, conveyed status. They were essential building blocks of a player’s “brand.” World-class athletes hustled cars and soft drinks. An invitation to be the face of an insurance company that pitched its product to every family in America was ideal. Dag’s most recent endorsement had been for Odor-Eaters, a shoe insert. This gig did not please him despite the munificent amount he was paid for three hours of work. He longed to be among the elite pitchmen; they were endorsing pickup trucks and energy drinks, not Odor-Eaters.

“I’m still trying to make Chevy happen,” Jamal said. “Big ticket stuff takes time.”

Dag sucked in his cheeks. “You gonna tell me?” In the pause that followed this question, they heard the hum of a television from another room. Dag looked toward the offending sound and yelled, “TURN DOWN THE TV!” before bringing his attention back to the agent.

“I talked to Church yesterday,” Jamal said.

As the coach and general manager of the team, Church Scott was the man responsible for not only guiding the players on the court every night but determining which ones were worth what amount of money.

“What did he say?”

There began a discordant roar of what sounded uncannily like a pneumatic drill run through an amplifier. Dag looked over at his chef standing at the blender. The chef smiled apologetically. The racket made it too loud to talk. After what seemed an eternity the chef turned the machine off and poured the contents into a pint glass which he handed to Dag who immediately placed it on the counter.

“Yo, man,” he said to the chef, “Would you mind giving us a little privacy?” The chef nodded and departed.

“I want you to hear me out before you respond,” Jamal said.

“What the fuck did he say?”

“He wants to win a title, Dag.”

“We all want to win a title.”

“The man needs flexibility under the salary cap.”

“I want the max deal allowable under the union agreement, Jamal. Five years, a hundred and twenty-five million.”

As loud as the kitchen had been, that’s how quiet it was now. The only sound was coming from one of the several large screen televisions in the house which members of Dag’s entourage were still watching. No one had lowered the volume.

Dag shouted, “I SAID TURN DOWN THE DAMN TV!”

He stared at the smaller man, waiting. The offending noise abated slightly.

“Then let me cut to the chase,” Jamal said, delaying the inevitable.

“Damn, man, spit it out.”

The agent stroked his smooth chin as if considering the most delicate way to impart his information. He bit his lip, rubbed his nose. These delaying tactics were too much for Dag. “Come on, Jamal!”

“Ain’t gonna be no max deal,” the agent blurted.

“Church said that?”

“Basically.”

“How much did he offer?”

“Four years guaranteed, and at your age that’s amazing.”

“For how much?”

“Ten million a year,” like it was the greatest news imaginable.

“He can’t be serious.”

“You’re coming off a torn ACL; you turn thirty-three this summer—come on, Dag, forty million guaranteed?” The part of his job that entailed begging spoiled athletes to accept a paltry forty million dollars for their services was not something Jamal enjoyed.

“That’s bullshit.”

“You’re still a superstar.”

“Does Gladstone know about this? Did he sign off?”

“Church is the general manager, man. You know that. He’s got final word.”

With supreme effort, Dag reined himself in. Pro ball was a business, and he was a businessman. Couldn’t keep popping off if he intended to flourish as an entrepreneur when he retired. Some former players died indigent; others got invited to play golf with the President of the United States because they had parlayed their basketball talents into commercial success and were now tycoons. He knew which one he would be.

“I had dinner with Gladstone before I signed with the team and the man looked me in the eye and said he wanted me here for life.” The respect in Dag’s voice when he invoked the owner’s name was unmistakable. Dag admired his business acumen and intended to emulate it when he retired, in what he hoped was the distant future. It was inconceivable to him that Jay Gladstone would not do what Dag believed to be the right thing. “For life, Jamal. The man said he wants me here for life!”

“He probably does,” Jamal agreed. “At four and ten.”

“Gladstone can’t know what’s up with Church.”

“I don’t negotiate with Gladstone. I negotiate with Church, and he’s authorized to speak for Gladstone.”

Dag thought about this. He took a sip of his smoothie.

“If they ain’t gonna give me a max, I want a trade.”

Jamal did not immediately respond, but from the look on his face, Dag knew whatever came next would be less than optimal.

“I made a few calls around the league,” Jamal said. “Everybody got much respect for your game, Dag. Much respect. But ain’t no one signing Dag Maxwell to a max deal.”

Jamal’s declaration hung in the air. Dag cracked his knuckles. He took another sip of the drink, placed the glass back on the counter.

“Who put you in that Maybach?”

“Dag, I appreciate that you let me represent you.”

“Then talk to Church again.”

The view through the kitchen window from where Jamal stood was of the meticulously landscaped backyard. The pool was still covered, but in a few weeks the tarpaulin would be rolled back, and sunlight would sparkle off the ultramarine water. Jamal thought about all he had set up on Dag’s behalf, the charitable endeavors like the D’Angelo Maxwell Foundation and the D’Angelo Maxwell Summer Basketball Jam, the business ventures they were involved in—the clothing line (DagWear) and their nascent video game company (DagTronics)—everything big and small he had attended to for his illustrious client, and wondered why, for some people, there could never be enough.

“It won’t help,” the agent said.

There was something about the finality with which his representative uttered these words that made Dag hesitate. The player lapsed into a silence that lasted for thirty seconds during which the sound of the TV continued to bleed into the kitchen. Without another word to Jamal, he stomped off in the direction of the noise.

On the sofa in front of a large screen television, Dag’s younger brother Trey held a bong between his knees. He glanced up as his older sibling appeared.

“Yo, Dag,” he said, by way of greeting. “Jamal still here?”

“We’re workin’,” Dag said, extra mustard on the verb.

Trey was in his late twenties, six foot five and sturdily built, with an elaborate neck tattoo of a cross, a souvenir from his brief embrace of Jesus. When Dag signed as a free agent, he negotiated an invitation for his younger brother, who had played a year of Division I college ball at Tennessee State, to try out for the team. Trey was on the roster through the pre-season but was cut loose before the first game of the regular season. Now he served as his brother’s lieutenant. Anything Dag needed, breakfast cooked, dry cleaning dropped off, gassing up Dag’s custom-built McLaren, Trey handled it promptly unless he was high in which case it took a little longer. Lately, he was stoned every day, and Dag had meant to talk to him about it. Two young black men flanked Trey. Babatunde (formerly Stephen) Worrell, a diminutive bodybuilder in shorts, and a tight T-shirt who rechristened himself after becoming obsessed with the Civil War in high school and determining Stephen was a slave name, and Lourawls Poe, an ex-shot putter from the University of Texas clad in a DagWear hoodie. They were lifelong friends of Dag’s. The coffee table in front of them was strewn with video game cartridges, several empty pizza boxes, and a forest of soda cans. In the middle of the mess lay a copy of The Classic Slave Narratives by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. A male Rhodesian ridgeback snored near a Nerf hoop that had been set up for the visits of Dag’s six-year-old son.

The crew was watching Hoop Ladies, a reality show about the antics of a group of current and former NBA wives. One of the hoop ladies caught Dag’s attention. This was Brittany Maxwell, his almost ex-spouse (the couple had separated just before the current NBA season began and had filed for divorce in January). She was in a clothing store listening to an agitated white woman ranting about a perceived slight from some “bitch” of their acquaintance, presumably another cast member. Brittany was nodding her head and repeating, “Totally, right.” Both women sheathed in outfits that accented butts and breasts. Bling bedecked their fingers and wrists. Dag scowled at the sixty-inch screen, his candy-wrapped ex, the gold-plated post-divorce lifestyle the legal system provided, and thought of the ocean of alimony that was going to be required to keep the whole catastrophe afloat.

What made it particularly unbearable was that he was still attracted to Brittany, still a little in love. She was fine-looking, smart, and a good mother. Right now, he wished he had not been a serial adulterer, or at least had not been a serial adulterer that got caught. When Brittany discovered the cell phone snapshots of his impressive harem—a seemingly endless display of female pulchritude—and threw him out of their Bel Air home (like many NBA stars, Dag maintained a house in Los Angeles), there was no defense.

“I told you to turn off the damn TV,” Dag said. “Why are you watching this shit?”

“It’s hilarious, man,” Lourawls said. “It’s more like a satire of the lifestyle than a reflection of it. But I guess it’s kind of a reflection, too.”

Unamused, Dag asked, “What’s in that bong?”

“Some dank,” Lourawls grinned.

“Brittany’s got it going on,” Babatunde said.

“Shut the fuck up,” Dag said.

He grabbed the remote control from the coffee table and changed the channel to a cable news show. A female newscaster of indeterminate ethnicity was reporting about the police shooting that had occurred in White Plains.

“Ain’t no way that cop does time,” Trey said.

“The guy was naked,” Lourawls said.

The annoyance on Dag’s face downshifted to endurance.

“Police do whatever they want to a black man,” Dag said. The crew stared at their benefactor. “I catch any of y’all watching that show my wife’s on, Ima throw your ass outta the house. Y’all need to get up on the news.”

To punctuate his point, he flung the remote control against the TV screen. It bounced off and rolled on to the shag rug. This caused the slumbering dog to stir. The animal lifted his massive head. Dag glowered at his crew. Any notion Trey, Babatunde, and Lourawls had that Dag might have discharged his anger by flinging the remote control was now abandoned.

“When was the last time Biggie got a walk?” Dag asked. “Damn dog can’t walk himself, right, Trey?”

“Naw, man,” Trey said. “Biggie ain’t learned that trick.” Lourawls stifled a laugh. Dag glared in his direction. Trey turned to Babatunde. “Walk the dog, man.”

“I walked him last time,” the beleaguered subordinate said. “It’s Lou’s turn.”

The fiery coals in Dag’s eye sockets scorched Babatunde, whose brawny physique seemed to melt beneath the withering blast. There was a chain of command from Dag to Trey, then south toward the other two, neither of whom had any clout, and Babatunde had violated it.

“You above walking Biggie?” Dag said to Babatunde. “You too important now? You too essential to the way things run up in here to get your ass off the couch and do your damn job?”

“Why you so salty?” Babatunde said.

“What the fuck you just say?” Dag inquired.

“I ain’t say nothing.”

“Do your job with some dignity,” Dag said.

After another pause that was too long for Dag’s liking, Babatunde rose from the couch and skulked out of the room. Before working for Dag, Babatunde had been a personal trainer. Now his only client was Biggie.

“Where are you going?” Dag demanded.

“Dog needs his leash,” Babatunde replied. “He’s dangerous.”

Dignity was vital to Dag. He admired it in others and tried to manifest it himself. An important component of a dignified bearing, in his view, was how you did your job. Whether it was as an NBA star or as someone who walked the dog of an NBA star, you discharged professional tasks in a dignified way. Today’s brief exposure to Hoop Ladies had compounded the irritation he already felt because he believed it was undignified of Brittany, as the soon-to-be-ex-wife of D’Angelo Maxwell, to display herself in such a degrading context. Why did people watch those shows if not to see brassy, uncouth women bite, scratch, and tear each other’s weaves out? Dag might have screamed Bang bang, Motherfucker, inarguably a vulgarity, at top volume whenever he scaled new heights on a basketball court, but that was always in the heat of a game, under the bright lights. Anyway, he was a basketball star and that, as far as he was concerned, made it not only excusable but inspiring. Now Babatunde, who Dag’s business manager was paying god-knows-what to hang around, smoke weed, and read paperbacks about black history, was balking at handling his obligations. It was a challenge, Dag reflected, to maintain his dignity in an environment where the workforce was too high to walk the dog.

Who had saddled him with these fools, and why was he obligated to look after them? He was tired of loyalty, the unwritten code that someone like him who, by dint of hard work, divinely bestowed talent, and, yes, perhaps a little bit of luck, was somehow responsible for providing in perpetuity for this collection of sybaritic parasites. When it came to someone like his revered mother, he was thrilled to spoil her. She had worked three jobs, kept him off the streets, been his biggest booster, and never asked for anything. If the Baptists anointed saints, Kimberly Maxwell would have been one. She lived to witness her son’s success before diabetes caused her premature death two years ago. But these jokers, and everyone else he ever knew who always seemed to have a hand out when he approached, took mooching to dizzying heights. And Dag was an easy touch. Checks to this group, that organization, piles of money into the riskiest, craziest business ventures of friends and extended family and where had it gotten him? He had earned well over a hundred million dollars in his career and had already burned through a hefty portion of it. He wished he could talk the situation over with one of his guys, bat it around, examine it from various angles, but that was impossible. Jamal was sympathetic, but couldn’t empathize with what Dag was going through as an aging professional athlete. The entire state of affairs infuriated him, and to expend the energy it took to hide how he felt was exhausting.

Babatunde reappeared with a dog leash in his hand. Dag regarded the man as if he’d like to extract his molars with kitchen tongs.

“Why you throwin’ shade?” Babatunde asked. “I got it.”

Dag stalked out of the room.

In the kitchen, Jamal drank a glass of water. He knew that his conversation with Dag was not over, that he would have to listen to more complaining before he could leave.

“Can you believe what I gotta put up with?” Dag said as he re-entered the kitchen. He took a deep breath and collected himself. He looked at the prominent tattoo on his right bicep: the 5th. The ink was a reference to Houston’s Fifth Ward, the combat zone of a neighborhood where Dag grew up. Through his talents, he had burst from its rickety streets, but he never pretended he was anything other than a kid from the Fifth. For him, the tattoo was a touchstone, a visit home. He rubbed it with his palm.

“I’m paying my brother and them guys to watch TV. I bought houses for two of my sisters. I lost track of how many millions I gave Brittany so she can live like a damn queen and raise our kids with all the shit I never had. I pay my bills. I take care of my family. I’m a responsible motherfucker, Jamal.”

“You’re a good man.”

“And I’m a good father.”

“True that.”

“My father, man, whatever he did, I did the opposite.”

“Your kids love you.”

“Responsibility costs.”

“Indeed, Dag. Indeed. Wise words.”

“Which is why you gonna get me a max deal.”

A strong belief in God allowed Jamal to cope with his greatest challenges, and in Dag’s absence, the agent had prayed that the player would absorb the words of wisdom he had attempted to impart. Jamal groaned.

“I told you, I can’t snap my fingers and make that happen.”

Dag turned the dominant force of his personality toward the backyard, where a flock of starlings had alighted on the lawn. The player watched as they hopped along the grass searching for food.

Jamal knew ornithology was not Dag’s thing, and as the gap in their conversation lengthened he worried what his friend might be thinking. Being yelled at was easier than being ignored. Dag kept staring at the birds. What was Jamal supposed to say? He tried this:

“I wish I could.”

Dag bowed his head for a moment. There was no point in yelling at Jamal.

“Explain to me how we’re supposed to elevate my brand because I don’t see how we do that if I’m not playing on a max deal.”

“That’s our challenge.”

“And you’re sure you can’t get that contract?”

“I tried, man. I told you.”

“Then you’re fired,” Dag said.

“I’m fired?” Jamal laughed.

“Why you laughing? Ain’t nothing funny.”

Jamal angled his head, tried to plumb Dag’s thinking.

“For real?”

“Most definitely.”

This particular exchange had occurred several times before, ending with Dag giving his agent a fist bump and saying, “I’m just playing.” But if it was a joke, he was taking it further than he had in the past. When Dag broke eye contact and looked away, Jamal realized he meant it.

“That ain’t right.”

“You disappointed me.”

“We boys!”

Occasionally Dag’s shots misfired, and the team lost, but reality off the court nearly always bent to his expectations. The news Jamal delivered? It did not compute with Dag’s all-conquering outlook. Someone had to pay.

“We ain’t boys,” Dag said. “You bush league, man. Rinky-dink.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Get your ass outta my house.”

“C’mon, D’Angelo—”

“I’m done with you, man.”

Once more, Jamal thought about making a case to Dag, but he would not debase himself. He was aware of the value Dag placed on comportment. He was not going to point out everything they had accomplished, all of the money they had made together. When the agent turned toward his biggest client, now former client, he humbly lowered his eyes.

“Thank you for letting me represent you,” Jamal said.

“I gotta get mine,” Dag explained.

Jamal left and Dag was alone in the kitchen. He thought about joining the entourage in the TV room. Maybe smoking a little weed and playing NBA 2K would get his mind off the situation. But he quickly dismissed the thought when he realized hanging out with Trey, Babatunde, and Lourawls would only remind him of his obligations. His obligations! Damn, he spent a lot of money. And his earning window, if Jamal’s report was anywhere near correct, appeared to be closing. Best-case scenario he could play another five or six years. Then what? He saw the kinds of penny-ante products ex-players were asked to endorse. Stain removers and cockroach traps. The big payday? Forget that. You grabbed the main chance by the neck, and if you still had game, you wrung every dollar out of it. He knew he was worth a max deal and he suspected the owner agreed with him.

Owner. Dag didn’t like that word. In the sphere of Ameri­can race relations, its connotations were unavoidable. During union negotiations with the league, there was always one player that would refer to the NBA as a “plantation,” but Dag refused to countenance that interpretation. No one got millions of dollars to endorse sneakers on any plantation he knew. Still, it chafed him that the ownership class appeared to be a photographic negative of the league itself. He was aware that it was beyond his ability to alleviate centuries of systematized inequality single-handedly. But getting a max deal from Jay Gladstone was something else. That he could do.

 

Chapter Seven

 

In the winter of 1911, a young Russian immigrant named Yacov Glatstein arrived in London with a few coins in his tattered pocket. With the stroke of an official’s pen, he became Jacob Gladstone. Soon he discovered that to be a Jew in England was not something to which a sensible person would aspire and a year later sailed for America, bearing only the clothes he wore and his shiny new name. In New York, the industrious greenhorn found work with a cousin who was a plumber on the Lower East Side. He married a young factory worker named Ida Abramovitch, fathered two sons and a daughter, and less than a decade later had his own successful plumbing business with other workmen in his employ and jobs in all five boroughs. When the exultant racket of the 1920s flung the entire city skyward and all new construction required sinks, tubs, toilets, showers, pipes, and drains, Jacob was ready. In the years after World War II, Gladstone Plumbing was one of the most successful outfits in the city, designing and fitting the innards of addresses where the brash century’s Anglo-Saxon elite turned the taps with unsoiled fingers.

Jacob’s sons, Bernard (who acquired the nickname Bingo as a student at James Monroe High School) and Jerome (always called Jerry), enlisted in the armed forces, served, respectively, in Europe and the Pacific, and, upon their discharges, followed their father into the business where they contributed to its continued growth. Bingo married Helen and begat Jay and Beatrice. Jerry’s contribution to the legacy consisted of his wife, the former Estelle Schatz, and their children, Franklin and Deborah (now married to a radiologist and living in Chicago).

Bingo and Jerry worked like camels, pooled their money, and bought their first apartment building in the Bronx in the late fifties. In the sixties, they started developing real estate—the brothers had a preternatural ability to intuit what marginal neighborhoods would cycle back from the near-doom of white flight to the advent of gentrification—and a decade later were among the wealthiest real estate families in New York City.

More than merely capitalists, the Gladstones were civic-minded boosters lavishly donating to public projects around the city, a fountain at Lincoln Center, a copse of birch trees in Central Park, grace notes that belied their aggressive business practices. In the dire, arson-scarred 1970s, the Gladstones were among the real estate dynasties that, by agreeing to pay six hundred million dollars in property taxes a year ahead of time, helped save the metropolis from—FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD screamed the infamous Daily News headline—bankruptcy. In Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, Gladstone Properties built middle-class housing under the Mitchell-Lama plan. They were not known for their aesthetic aspirations: “Whatever its blocky design and red-brick facades might lack in poetry,” a prominent architecture critic wrote, “the Gladstone brothers more than compensate for in welcome efficiency.” Years later, the Wall Street Journal quoted Bingo: “We gave the people what they wanted at a price they could afford. We took them out of public housing, out of ghettos. And I put our name on it. Our first big project, my brother wanted to call it Windsor Court. I said, ‘What are we, English?’”

Jay idolized his late father, but where Bingo blustered, his son was smooth. Bingo ordered, Jay cajoled. The Bronx and World War II formed Bingo, who never lost his New York accent. Jay was a creature of Westchester County and the Ivy League, and when he spoke, it was impossible to discern his birthplace. He could raise his voice but preferred to whisper. And where Bingo was intuitive, a believer in gut instincts, Jay preferred to talk things over. Of all the highly competent, well-remunerated people who worked for the Gladstone Group, the one whose guidance Jay consistently sought was his sister Beatrice, known to everyone as Bebe.

If you were to ask Jay what Bebe’s finest qualities were, he would say her keenness of insight and her loyalty. What Jay could not say, because it would reflect a degree of psychological insight he did not possess, was that Bebe, while capable, assertive, and accomplished, was also skillful enough to let her older brother shine.

“This isn’t going to fly,” she said. Her voice was like the lower register of an oboe, clear and penetrating.

Jay was seated on a sofa in his sister’s large office on the 44th floor of the steel and glass tower on Park Avenue just north of Grand Central Station built by their father and uncle in the 1980s. She was opposite him in a pearl gray chair. The siblings usually checked in with each other in person several times throughout the day. Bebe had redone the space in the mid-century modern style popularized by a current television drama. Several framed and matted photographs of Palm Springs, California, taken by Julius Shulman, were arranged on one wall. The wall opposite featured a geometric painting by Piet Mondrian, one of two recently purchased by Bebe in an auction at Sotheby’s (the other hung in her East 73rd Street duplex). On the teardrop shaped coffee table, a small Henry Moore sculpture commanded attention. Three years younger than Jay, Bebe’s attractive face was tanned from a recent European ski vacation. Through diet and thrice-weekly workouts with a trainer, she retained a youthful physique. Her hair was dyed honey blonde and fell loosely to the shoulders of her cream-colored pullover. She wore matching wool drill trousers, ankle high black boots of the softest leather. Her jewelry—earrings, a bracelet—was straightforward and stylish. There was a folder on her lap and she had just finished scanning the contents.

“What do I tell Franklin?” Jay asked although he knew the answer.

“He needs to present more thorough documentation.”

“You don’t think he could be stealing?”

“I hope not,” Bebe said. A graduate of Smith, she served on the boards of several cultural institutions (generously funded by the Gladstone Family Foundation, of which she was the president), where she was known for her ability to understand spreadsheets and budgets.

“Do you want me to talk to him with you?”

“He’ll think we’re ganging up and then he’ll tell Ari and Ezra to join the meeting.”

“We don’t want the twins,” Bebe said.

They no longer bothered to roll their eyes when either invoked the names of Franklin’s twin sons. Because the young men were Gladstones, Jay and Bebe tolerated their presence in the family business, but Ari and Ezra did not yet warrant respect. It was unspoken between Jay and Bebe that neither believed this was a remote possibility. The mention of his young cousins sent Jay’s mind reeling back to the previous evening and the malevolent twins he encountered on the deserted concourse of the arena. He wondered if their appearance portended some incipient nastiness—their materialization seemingly out of nowhere had been strange—but quickly dismissed the idea. He considered relating what had happened to Bebe but repressed any further thought on the subject. Instead, he told her about the invitation he had received from the president of Tate College.

His sister was impressed. “And what are you going to tell the graduates?”

“I’m going to talk about the joys of working with relatives.”

Bebe’s laugh filled the room.

 

The last Gladstone project built in New York City was a residential rental building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan nearly ten years earlier, while Bingo and Jerry were still nominally running the business. It was a reliable moneymaker for the family, but like much of what Jay’s father and uncle had done, architecturally undistinguished. Jay wanted to leave his mark on the portfolio and his imprint on the metropolis, so he was in the process of arranging to purchase the city land on which a Brooklyn branch library currently stood. On that parcel, he intended to build the tallest structure in Brooklyn, one that would redraw the skyline, now a feast of rectilinear tedium. To that end, he had retained the world-renowned architect Renzo Piano, and his design for the Sapphire was, in Jay’s view, nothing short of a tone poem composed of steel and glass. The gently curving structure—to Jay it suggested the hip of a female athlete, forceful, tensile, a hint of motion—didn’t contain a single straight line and rose to just over a thousand feet, nearly doubling the height of Brooklyn’s next tallest building. The Sapphire would be to the Brooklyn skyline what the Empire State Building has been to Manhattan’s; the signature, the flourish. When illuminated, it would blaze like a monumental gemstone. Let the other developers erect their boring modernist boxes. Jay would bring the soul. As for the library that he planned to demolish, he intended to replace it with a more modest, mostly subterranean, state-of-the-art version.

Sipping a double espresso, Jay stood in his large office admiring Renzo Piano’s scale model. Rendered in paper, wood, and titanium, the Brancusi-like sweep had been difficult to fabricate. Three feet tall, it rested on a table surrounded by a mock-up of the projected landscaping. On the wall behind the model hung the architectural drawings. Jay had thought the plans would only be there temporarily, but it had been over a year since he had pinned them up. In the many fights with local groups who viewed the project with everything from suspicion to outright contempt, gazing at them on his office wall every day was a constant reminder to remain steadfast. Jay’s vision would be forty-two stories when complete. The plan he intended to submit to the city was for a building of only forty stories, the zoning limit for the area. He did not want to apply for a waiver and was willing to gamble that the city did not want to spend years in expensive litigation over an edifice that would be the envy of the world.

Jay finished the espresso and placed the cup on the coffee table next to a transparent case that held a scuffed baseball. He opened the case, removed the ball, and felt the rough red stitching with his fingers. It was a souvenir from his Little League team in 1967, when he was twelve. They were called the Gas House Gang, after the mighty St. Louis Cardinal teams of the 1940s, and Bingo was the coach. The players had all signed the ball, their decades-old signatures now faded. For years Bingo had kept the memento on his desk. It was a talisman, an object of connection, and although Jay was not superstitious, he would occasionally touch it for luck.

While some builders slap their names in huge gold letters on everything, trumpeting their importance directly into the world’s collective ear, Jay preferred to operate in a less brazen mode and this was reflected in his office décor. Thick solid mahogany moldings, raised paneled walls, and fluted pilasters with a hand-rubbed “French polish” finish. The Carpathian walnut burled desk. The leather and antique brass nail head Chesterfield couch and matching overstuffed guest chairs. The sculptural bronze and smoked glass coffee table that lay on the antique hand-dyed Indian print rug.

The traditional design of the office contrasted with Renzo Piano’s thrilling display, and Jay applauded the difference. The tedious boxes that currently comprised the Brooklyn skyline would, in their aggressive tepidness, serve as a neutral background against which Jay’s dynamic slash of steel and glass would instantly draw the eye. The bold strokes of this building might not have been in keeping with his more low-key modus operandi, but he had his reasons for undertaking something so striking. The Sapphire would be the first New York City project he was going to build out of Bingo’s long shadow, and, if it went well, it might also be his last.

Like many individuals of his great station, Jay saw a larger role for himself in the world than that afforded him by the real estate business and professional sports. Civic life had long drawn his interest, and he had donated bountiful sums of money to the Democratic Party. Particularly unstinting when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he developed a friendly relationship with the magnetic senator, even playing golf with him on Martha’s Vineyard two years earlier in a foursome that included the U.S. Trade Representative, and former NBA great Charles Barkley. Through appropriate channels Jay conveyed that, in the event of Obama’s re-election, he would like to be appointed the ambassador to Germany. Until his dying day, his father refused to contribute a dime to the German economy. When his friends purchased Mercedes, Bingo stuck resolutely to Cadillacs. He could never forgive. Jay’s ambassadorship would be Bingo’s revenge. To this end, he had been meeting with a German language tutor. Recently, he had stood in front of his bathroom mirror and intoned: Als Botschafter, begrube ich Sie auf die US-Botschaft un jetzt bitte kussen sie meinen Judischen kiester. Which translated to: As the ambassador, I welcome you to the American embassy, and now you may kiss my Jewish ass.

That morning Jay went over cash flow reports. He met with the chief investment officer about a deal they were considering to build a mixed use high rise in Boston. The property manager briefed him on the situation with the union leader he was to meet with later in the day. When that meeting ended, Jay thought he might walk down the hall and talk to his cousin Franklin. He preferred to deal with things obliquely, and because he was not sure how obliquely he could accuse someone of embezzlement, he continued to put it off.

At lunchtime, Jay met with his trainer, a young Israeli woman, at the executive gym two floors below his office. It was a well-designed space equipped with state-of-the-art strength training equipment, cardio machines, and ceiling-mounted television monitors always tuned to news or financial channels. He stretched and lifted, grunting and sweating through his routine. Several other Gladstone Group executives were exercising, engrossed by whatever played in their headphones. Gym etiquette required that they not address the boss unless he spoke to them first. On this day, Jay was not interested in conversation. He finished the workout, toweled off, and thanked his trainer.

In the sauna, his thoughts jumped from Franklin to Nicole and her declaration about having a baby, to the Sapphire and the pride he would feel upon its completion, to his basketball team and what he would do if they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Losing was not in his nature. He ate a tuna sandwich at his desk as he drafted a letter to the NBA commissioner regarding the possibility of shortening the season. There had been too many injuries recently, and Jay believed fewer games would result in less wear and tear on his guys. It was important to him that he be perceived by the players in the league as one of their advocates.

When he left the office at the end of the day, he still had not spoken with Franklin.

 

Jay and Boris sipped club sodas with lemon and bitters in the bar of the 21 Club. It was late afternoon, and they were talking about the Sapphire. Three Chinese businessmen sat at a corner table conversing in Mandarin. Jay was a popular figure in the building industry, as well regarded by the unions as anyone in his position could be. For this reason, he was asked from time to time by his colleagues to engage in back-channel communications during contentious negotiations.

A white man in his forties arrived at the table. The dark suit he wore could barely contain his impressive musculature. A thick head of hair was moussed and he wore an ID bracelet. Boris stood to shake his hand. Jay remained seated. The man shook Jay’s hand first, and Jay introduced Boris.

Gus Breeze registered the name Reznikov. “Any relation?”

“His son,” Boris said.

Breeze shrugged. Marat Reznikov had been the subject of an article in New York several years earlier. It had been years since Jay had spent time with him but he enjoyed seeing the reaction his name produced. To invoke it casually was not to overtly threaten, merely to inform. But the leader of the Service Employees International Union did not seem worried.

A waiter appeared, and Breeze ordered a beer.

The union contract was up, and it appeared that a labor action was imminent. If there were a strike, Jay knew it would inconvenience thousands of his tenants. Breeze told Jay that if all the union demands were not met, a strike would be unavoidable.

The beer arrived and when the waiter tried to pour it into a glass Breeze waved him away and performed the task himself. He took a sip, then put the glass down on the table. Instead of speaking, he exhaled slowly through his lips like a tire losing air.

“You’re a man with a lot of weight on your shoulders,” Jay remarked.

“I can handle it,” Breeze said. “I wish I had better news for you.” He spoke in the sandpapery tones of someone who has seen too many gangster movies where the tougher the tough guy is the more quietly he speaks. “But it is what it is.” It is what it is. A phrase Jay found annoying, what a dullard remarked when he couldn’t think of anything else. “And listen, Jay, I don’t have to tell you what a huge inconvenience this is going to be for your tenants. I did a little research and found out how many rental units your family controls. That’s a lot of pissed off customers.” Breeze took another sip of his beer. Over the rim of his glass, he looked at Boris in a way that let him know he was not afraid of Marat Reznikov. Boris said nothing, only returned Breeze’s gaze.

“It would be extremely inconvenient for them,” Jay said.

“We all want to avoid that,” Breeze gangster-whispered.

Jay smiled in a way to suggest he was taking the labor leader into his confidence. It was painless, disarming. Had he not been born into a successful business this smile would have helped him build one.

“Here’s the thing,” Jay said, placidly. The union leader tilted his head back and jutted his smooth chin. Jay looked directly into his dark, slightly bloodshot eyes. “I hired a private investigator and a forensic accountant. I didn’t tell any of my associates, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

Breeze tried to hide his astonishment at this news, but a quiver of the left eyelid was his tell. “You got to the books?” Jay nodded. “How’d you get to the books?” He asked as if he were inquiring about directions to 34th Street, no big deal.

“Come on, Gus,” Jay said. “Who do you think you’re dealing with? The house you purchased in Southampton last year with money siphoned from the pension fund, the one on Swallow Lane with the four bedrooms a block from the beach that the union owns but only you and your family seem to use? It could be a problem with your membership, not to mention the attorney general of New York. The same goes for the condo in the Virgin Islands. You needed both? Maybe your union might have overlooked one vacation home, but two?”

This information was all imparted in the friendliest, most confiding way.

“It’s not what it looks like.”

“Listen, Gus, it pains me to say this, but I’m—I think disappointed would be the word. Yes, I’m disappointed. How long have we known each other?” Breeze did not answer, nor did Jay expect him to. “Over a decade. We’ve been honest with each other, forthright. But after we offer your union a fair deal, one that I believe to be generous, you put me in a position where I have to hire a private investigator.”

At this point in the conversation, Gus Breeze resembled a flounder pulled from Sheepshead Bay lying in a dinghy, mouth open, lips moving barely perceptibly.

Jay continued, “This reputable man who I have no reason to distrust comes to me with certain information and then you and I have to talk about these problems you’ve created for yourself that in other circumstances would not be any of my business. You think I enjoy squeezing you? I don’t enjoy it at all. I don’t want to dig around in your personal affairs like this, believe me. Everyone knows I like to operate on the up and up. What you’ve done might have passed in 1962, but it doesn’t fly for a union leader in 2012. So, I’d like to get these negotiations wrapped up.”

Breeze mumbled something about how unions operate, but the confidence to press the point had abandoned him.

“Think about what you want to do, Gus.”

Jay paid the bill, and he and Boris walked out. It had been a strange day. Nicole had implicitly threatened their marriage, Franklin appeared to be siphoning funds from the company, and this union ballbreaker thought he could press an advantage. Perhaps if Jay were more swaggering, more puffed up and bullying, he would never be challenged. But that was not remotely his style. When would people learn that no one was going to beat Jay Gladstone?

¤

This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events,
real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.

Copyright © 2018 by Seth Greenland
First Publication 2018 by Europa Editions

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

¤

Seth Greenland is the author of five novels. His latest, The Hazards of Good Fortune(Europa Editions), will be published in 2018. His play Jungle Rot won the Kennedy Center/American Express Fund For New American Plays Award and the American Theater Critics Association Award. He was a writer-producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO series Big Love.


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