Note: This is a piece of fiction based loosely on a true story.
Dexter Morgan-Jaffe ignored the emails insistently streaming into his inbox so that he could ponder the concept of time.
“Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding.” The alerts on his computer created a rhythm of urgency, but the notifications reflected the anxiety of other people, which he could afford to ignore. One of the qualities his superiors valued in him was his ability to stay calm, evaluate, and prioritize while the timeframes of others shortened and then shortened some more.
A worldwide pandemic of the novel coronavirus cratered the financial sector, but Dexter had always believed that while crisis destroys, producing death and misery, crisis also creates opportunity. It was his job to figure out where those opportunities lay. In his world, there were always going to be winners and losers. His superiors expected him to help steer their enterprise towards winning at least 51 percent of the time. That was his job. He was paid money because of his singular ability to divorce his feelings about the past and present from focusing on the future.
He was not a monster; he was a student of history. While each new pandemic or crash or panic clothed itself in new fashion, he believed they all followed certain rules of financial style. His favorite financial crises were the Savings and Loan Crisis of the late 20th century, the Panic of 1893, and the Tulip Mania of the 17th century. Dexter’s curiosity about human behavior was sated by reading about the architects behind these financial disasters. Jim Wright, J.P. Morgan, and Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand of Austria, among many others. Their brilliant and toxic confidence. Their magical ability to generate enthusiasm. Their sheer and utter belief in their ability to bend the arc of reality towards them. Their brutal, yet elegant, exit strategies.
While Dexter did not hold himself out to be a cynic, he was highly skeptical about the benefits of human interaction. “In my perfect world, each side of a trade would leave the table annoyed for not having seized that last nickel,” he told people back when he used to work in an office building. “However, in the world in which we live, the competition for that last nickel is cutthroat and, over time, destructive. And the nickel is not a metaphor.”
He had not visited an office building for more than four months. Anticipating the shelter-in-place orders that would require people to stay home, his employer’s tech staff and contractors had installed an elaborate remote office for him in his home. Four monitors, computer and laptop, cameras, and recording devices transformed his home office and refuge into a TV studio. The first days of working in this strange environment had been exhilarating as he reflected on and discussed authoritatively how organizations had adapted to the Spanish Flu of 1918 with CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, and several online commentators such as Soledad O’Brien and Parker Molloy he considered reputable. Room Rater had bestowed 8/10 on his home studio. He then replaced an urn in his office with a pineapple, subsequently earning 10/10.
However, a sense of tedium set in as the pandemic seemed to annihilate time and each day began to resemble the next.
His colleagues began to retire or quit. Some fell ill. Some died, with no prospect of funerals. The survivors, sometimes even ambitious ones, stopped working and made no excuses for it. Deadlines evaporated. Strategies disappeared. “We don’t know what’s going to happen,” his superior said in a Zoom conference. “We believe it is in our best interest to just hold on to our long positions as long as we can and focus on short positions until the election, and we get some direction from the federal government. Right now, you’re getting paid to maintain readiness for when we change our position. I’m just going to leave it at that.” Dexter thought his superior was brave to ask if there were any questions, but none were proffered.
As soon as the Zoom conference was over, his colleagues began to assault him through less official channels with their questions. They thought Dexter had the answers that their superiors would not explain. Within his organization, Dexter was almost famous for having answers to any question. “This crisis has been bungled,” he told people. “It will be our job for the foreseeable future to simply not be bunglers. Work on not being a bungler.”
He had just finished reading a financial newsletter written by a Bloomberg columnist named Matt Levine, whose daily mantra was “everything is securities fraud.” For Dexter, the path towards not being a bungler during a crisis was to read, listen, and then read more and listen, really listen, and wait. The opportunity to survive and thrive during and, especially, after the pandemic would make itself abundantly clear to people who read and were patient. And then, when the window to that opportunity opened, be poised to leap through it because that window vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
In this moment of pause, Dexter’s eyes strayed from the computer monitors towards a wall on which hung 30 photos of family, friends, and events special to him. One photo of three people caught his attention. The photo was about 20 years old. Francis Hopewell, his 10-year old son Orson, and one of Orson’s friends waiting for a train at a station somewhere in England. Francis had died about six years after the photo was taken. The anniversary of his death was a few weeks away. Was it 12 years ago? Orson, now a grown man living in his mother’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, had sent him an email two days ago about his father. His last contact with Orson had been when the boy was about five years old. And now Dexter was pondering time.
There had been a time when Francis was known to his friends as Frankie, while strangers called him Frank. For years, decades even, he was called Frankie or Frank. However, when he turned 30, he announced that he wanted people to call him Francis. “I am sick of people saying to me ‘like Frankie Avalon or Frank Sinatra’? I don’t want to be Frankie anymore. Just Francis.”
There had also a time, after Francis had contentedly remarried and moved back to the States in Connecticut, when Dexter’s own marriage was concluding in a confusing fashion, coinciding with the run up to the Great Recession of 2008. During his first separation from Guinevere, Dexter had concluded that his wife did not want to reconcile. Ever. Guinevere had said. “I don’t think you’ll be coming back.” Into that vacuum had fallen another woman, Elise, who was just as confused about the ending of Dexter’s marriage. However, she had welcomed Dexter into her bed. Then not. Then again. Then not. He had felt like a ping pong ball of emotion and longing. Each day at work, Dexter had found himself not only reading more about mortgage backed securities, repo loans, and corporate overleverage, but staring at three buttons on the telephone on his desk. One was the speed dial for Francis, one for Guinevere, one for Elise. Waiting. Only the button for Francis flashed, often three or four times a day. Time. Francis represented the past, the present, and the future.
As he stared at this photo of Francis, his son Orson, and another boy, Dexter thought about that night with Francis and Virginia. It had been a day not entirely unlike this one, where he pondered events unrelated to the present or future.
The phone had rung. After three rings, Dexter had answered it.
“Hey, Penishead!” Francis screamed into the phone.
“Yes? I’m glad you called me back,” Dexter had responded calmly. He had created a construct for personal calls while in his office. He and his colleagues were expected to be serious when they were on the clock. They were allowed to smile or, when they were feeling wild, chuckle, at cartoons in The New Yorker. At the time, he believed there was a secret quota for personal expression in the office.
“How is your pecker holding out?” Francis was still shouting. He worked in a large room, he once told Dexter, filled with about 600 computer monitors. In the background Dexter could hear the legion of mostly male voices shouting at each other or at people on phones. “Penishead” may have been one of the milder vulgarities Dexter heard.
Dexter had known Francis Hopewell since college. He believed that Francis was a serious person, in that he cared deeply about his friends, music, and literature. Maybe also politics and art. Francis was gifted – or as he would say, cursed — with an aptitude for numbers and trends, for which he was handsomely paid. As a professional, he created and benefited from friction. But what he cared about more than anything else was sex.
“We are born with the biological imperative to engage in sex in order to reproduce. As much as possible, with as many people as possible,” Francis had frequently observed. “All other activities are designed simply for our amusement while we rest from sex. And reproduction. But mostly sex.”
“How can I help you, sir?”
“Hop in the Lesbianmobile and come up this weekend, will you? I have a new guitar that I want to show you and you need to get away from Bum Fuck, Egypt, and tread amongst your true race of people for a while.”
“I am not familiar with that term, nor have I heard my colleagues use it,’” Dexter replied. He was not appreciative of Francis calling his very practical Subaru Outback the Lesbianmobile but had concluded that it was not worth the fight.
“East Coast, over-educated, under-employed, wine-drinking, Lesbianmobile-driving liberals.”
“You should create an acronym and find a way to commoditize it.”
Francis ignored Dexter’s diversionary tactics, instead focusing on Francis’ suggestion and the logistics of him making the trip. Dexter surrendered to the knowledge that he needed the trip.
Francis lived on Long Island Sound, a vast expanse of saltwater looking out towards Ye Old Worlde. His house rested about 100 paces from a small, secluded beach. That evening Dexter got into his very practical Subaru Outback and drove five hours directly from his home in Bum Fuck, Eygpt, at one point skirting Gotham, whose glow on the horizon beckoned to him like a siren’s song.
Dexter pulled into Francis’s driveway around midnight. The air was still heated from the mid-summer’s day.
Francis greeted Dexter on his porch. “Elisabeth has gone to bed,” he said, referring to his second wife. “Let’s go for a swim.”
“No suit,” Dexter said. Guinevere had always stressed bringing a swimming suit whenever or wherever traveling. In that moment, Dexter realized that her lesson had not taken.
“No problem,” Francis responded. “We’ll go old-school.”
“And the neighbors and police?”
“Fuck ‘em,” he said with a confident laugh and the same conspiratorial smile that had not changed since the day Dexter met him when they were 18 years old.
In those intervening years, Francis had lived in New York, London, and Paris. He had married, started a family with the birth of Orson, and watched that family self-destruct as if a napalm bomb had been dropped on the dinner table. And then he settled next to Long Island Sound with a rock-firm foundation underneath Elisabeth, whom he allowed himself to love. He was in a place that he could neither say that he loved or hated, but it was his place, he owned it, and he was comfortable inviting his friends to visit his place.
Long Island Sound loomed ahead of Dexter like a dark cave. On the deserted beach, he and Francis stripped naked and waded into the cool water, which was lit dimly by a waning gibbous moon, the stars dancing, and the porch lights of homes ringing the inlet. Dexter had the thought that Godzilla might rise out of this dark cave and that no one living in Francis’s neighborhood would be surprised. He liked the idea of taking on Godzilla while naked.
Left to his devices, Dexter would have swum around in the darkness without uttering a syllable until fatigue overcame him. Instead, Francis took on the role of Grand Inquisitor.
“How are Thing 1 and Thing 2?” he asked. Safe choice, referring to Dexter’s daughters.
“They are teenage girls,” Dexter answered. “They storm and sulk and flail through their daily lives like exposed nerve endings. Adults approach like it’s open season on caveat emptor.”
Francis had been wrestling mightily as a father to Orson, a boy who looked like his carbon copy. Orson and Thing 2 had met back in kindergarten days and had a thing going for about four hours. Dexter and Guinevere were able to raise Thing 1 and Thing 2 with observable trajectories; the divorce had come after most of their daughters’ concrete had set. Orson had veered wildly off the flight path, seemingly cut loose from social norms and expectations by the radioactive fallout generated by his parents at too early an age.
By the time Dexter tiptoed into Long Island Sound, Orson and Francis had showed signs of regaining their bearings with each other. Dexter knew that the fate of Francis’ son’s welfare was never far from his thoughts.
“Well, the Mets suck,” Francis declared, pivoting.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Dexter said. “Your precious Red Sox will choke.”
They were circling around each other, sizing up each other’s weaknesses and strengths, waiting for the opportunity to pounce, not in attack, but to help bolster the other’s spirits. It felt awkward to both of them, but they had to proceed with care and learn which path could help them develop a comfortable rhythm.
“How close do you think we are we to unleashing Skynet upon ourselves?” Francis asked, taking things in the very much the same direction.
“Several of my colleagues in computer science have issued an unofficial position on this very question, which will be published next month in Wired or Esquire, confirming that we are within a generation or two from the rise of our computer overlords,” Dexter replied. “They host a symposium on the subject twice a year. About 200 people pay good money to attend. The geeks are quite sanguine on this subject. They view Skynet as inevitable and simply part of the course of human evolution. Fuck, half of them want a USB port installed in their brains.”
Francis and Dexter continued to talk about everything other than the thing that hacked at their very cores, which was their past failures and the future of their children. It was exhilarating, waiting to take on Godzilla while naked and spitting in the face of the Demon of Loss.
And then Dexter heard a woman’s voice trilling from the shore. It was Virginia Darling, Francis’s next-door neighbor. He made out her form on the beach, backlit by the neighbors’ lights.
“Francis!” she yelled in an indeterminate direction. She could see only the darkness of the inlet.
“Yes, Virginia,” Francis responded with a calm, reasoned tone one might use with a petulant child. “We’re here.”
“I saw a strange car in your driveway and assumed you were all awake and I woke up your long-suffering wife. Please apologize to Elisabeth for me in the morning. She told me that you and your friend were probably out here swimming, and I am not ready to go to sleep. Are you perchance skinning dipping?”
“Yes,” Francis answered.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Virginia asked rhetorically. “I’m coming in. You want some beers?” she asked more practically as she herself disrobed.
Dexter had met Virginia previously. She was either a nurse or a physical therapist or engaged in one of the helping professions, and happily married to a wealthy man of a deliberately unknown occupation. According to Francis, Virginia and her husband engaged in very loud sex in their upstairs bedroom with the window open, the kind that gets the neighbors talking. They had a precocious teenage daughter, whose name Dexter had forgotten, but whose destiny seemed pre-ordained: exotic dancer.
From about 100 feet into the Sound, Dexter made out the willowy form of Virginia. She waded into the Long Island Sound with two bottles of Budweiser in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other. The closer she got, the more Dexter thought that she looked like she could be the older sister of the actress Cate Blanchett. Without clothes, Dexter saw that she was a lovely woman, nearly as tall as him, who was aging gracefully.
“Don’t you dare look!” she commanded, as she handed the bottles to Dexter and Francis. “Eyes up top.”
“Nothing I haven’t seen from my back porch on a Saturday morning,” Francis responded.
Virginia responded with a strange noise that Dexter would describe as mix of a Bronx cheer and a horse’s sputter.
The three of them waded through the inlet, up to their shoulders in the water, and drank their drinks under the watch of the moon and the constellations. Enough light to make out expressions on each other’s faces, but not enough light to see the creases and wrinkles around their eyes. Francis led the venture, turning here and turning there like a tour guide when he felt they were getting into water that was too deep. Virginia hummed to herself as they parted the waters slowly through the night. Dexter could have sworn she was humming the tune to “Little Bitty Pretty One,” which he remembered hearing while watching the movie “Mathilda” over and over again in another time with Thing 1 and Thing 2.
“How’s he going to feel about this?” Francis asked Virginia. He was asking about Virginia’s husband learning that she had gone skinning dipping with two other men.
“Is this too risqué for you?” she asked in response. “I didn’t know you were a prude.”
Francis pursed his lips. Dexter could not remember him ever being at a loss for words.
“Relax, Francis,” Virginia said confidently. “He trusts me with my body. And he trusts you to behave yourself.”
“This is ‘behaving yourself?’” Francis laughed. He actually snorted while speaking these words.
“Francis, how surprisingly Victorian of you,” Virginia said. “Tonight, we are simply acknowledging that we are not just our bodies. You’re not going to touch me, nor will your friend over there. Why can’t we just embrace this excellent experience? Two handsome men, a beautiful woman, and the awesomeness of the cosmos laid out before us. You may not get this chance again in your lifetime.”
They were far enough from Gotham that the lights of the city appeared only as a distant glow. They were caressed by darkness. The murky night felt more like a friend than a threat. Dexter believed that they were impervious to the threats that people often perceived the night and the water held. On this night, the darkness protected the three of them, gave them succor, provided them with assurance that their actions and words would be offered and received in the same spirit.
With the intervention of Virginia, the conversation turned. No more cocktail party chatter. As they finished their drinks, they became more confessional. “A pact,” she announced. “No blather about movies or music or the latest book you read or those stupid sports.”
“What then?” Francis asked.
“Proposal: the pain and humiliation of a failed marriage,” she answered. “After all, it’s like the negation of your being. And yet we are still here, still professing something. And Dexter’s scar tissue is still fresh.”
“What–?” Dexter began.
“Relax, Dexter, you are not a stranger to me,” Virginia purred. “Francis talks to me about you. It means you’re important to him.”
Dexter pondered what Virginia had said for a moment and then said, “I will be sitting alone in a room and, without any reason, begin to weep.”
“There was a sense of despair that threatened to engulf me,” Francis said, nodding his head in recognition.
“Up until the point it didn’t,” Virginia said, finishing Francis’s sentence.
“Up until the point it didn’t,” Francis repeated.
“Time,” Dexter whispered.
“There is the wondrous, glorious confusion when you start believing that you might not be the damaged person who had been tossed to the curb like garbage,” Virginia stated. “You are not sure what is happening to you as you start to shed your lack of confidence, but you surrender to it. When I started dating again after my first marriage, I must have gone through a boyfriend every other month. I loved every minute of being wanted again, of men being attracted to me and letting me know that I was good enough.”
Dexter listened to Francis and Virginia talk about the virtues of second marriages until, at last, at about 2 a.m. Virginia’s precocious teenage daughter-cum-future-exotic-dancer drove up to the beach and loudly ordered her mother to get out of the water and come home. The daughter betrayed all of the exasperation of a child whose mother who would actually go skinny dipping with alcohol and a stranger.
Francis looked at Dexter, who returned his gaze as Virginia gracefully exited the water and walked into the beach towel her daughter held out for her. No words were exchanged. None needed to be. He had just had an Excellent Experience with a Beautiful Woman. Dexter slept well that night in Francis and Elisabeth’s guest room. In the morning, he muttered his apologies to Elisabeth Hopewell, ate the grits she spooned out for him, and took his leave before Francis rose.
Two years later, Dexter, Thing 1, and Thing 2 drove to make a last visit with Francis before he died from a quick moving cancer. Dexter could never have imagined seeing a man so at peace with his pending demise. Francis had run the table of absolution: confessed his sins to a priest and taken communion for the first time in nearly 40 years, entered into a détente with his first wife, and arranged for a funeral mass in a Roman Catholic church into which he had never stepped. While Dexter sat by Francis in his deathbed, they shared the usual memories grown men have of themselves as boys in college, laughed about how Dexter had been present when Francis had met both of his wives, how Francis had helped Dexter to accept the transition from being married to divorced, and that evening with Virginia in Long Island Sound. When they were done reminiscing, Francis asked to speak privately with Thing 1 and Thing 2, who were nearing 17 and 15 years of age, respectively.
As his email notifications kept up the rhythm of “Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding. Ding” and the pandemic thrust its relentless power, fury, and uncertainty upon the planet, Dexter considered time to be like water: always flowing, effecting changes in an almost imperceptible way. We flow through our lives, never noticing the impending grooves or discoloration or displacement until it is too late. The change had already happened. How do we find ourselves unmarried after being married for so long? How are our children suddenly teenagers, discussing existential matters with dying men? How does a man bursting with life disappear from that life while on the verge of coming into his own? How do we live our lives after surviving loss?
Dexter set about to formulate a response to Orson Hopewell’s email. Now a grown adult the same age as Thing 2, Orson asked Dexter if he had any of what he called “Francis Hopewell memorabilia.” He was trying to commune with his dead father. Dexter was not sure where Orson lived or even if he had a job. Orson had sent me a complicated message and appeal. Dexter, at an age where he was presumed to know all the answers, did not actually have all the answers regarding human interaction. He felt no pressure to rush a response. Time would reveal the answers.
Dexter’s employer was relying on him to devise concrete, rather than philosophical, responses to the question of how their enterprise would survive worldwide catastrophe by week’s end. Time, he knew, was on his side.
Dexter pondered the experience of gazing upon the awesomeness of the cosmos with a beautiful woman and his dead best friend. He then began typing out five possible post-pandemic scenarios, each with five neatly bulleted action items into a 10-page memo to his supervisor under the subject line: “Time for Recovery; Recognizing New Forms of Excellence and Beauty.”