“Justice” by Libby Sternberg
Five of us gathered around the holidays at a midtown restaurant. We’d met each other ten years ago at a conference and hit it off, getting together for drinks and meals during the three-day event, discovering we shared an outlook on life, something ill-defined, maybe just a general happy-warrior skepticism.
We were a mixed group of friends, some married, others not, two in arts-related fields, one a lawyer, myself a financial manager, a fifth an executive suite member of a large conglomerate. Not spring chickens—at least one of us was near retirement age, others creeping there.
Tina, the director of a small arts consortium, always played major domo for these holiday festivities. She’d put the first one together after discovering we were all living in the same city or near it—not New York, but cosmopolitan enough. We’d considered asking spouses, and actually did an evening get-together one year to accommodate their schedules. It had been a stilted party, and we’d happily gone back to the midday long lunch.
Twinkle lights sparkled in nearby decorations. Real pine wreaths with bright red bows filled the eye, their brisk woodsy scent wafting our way when hurried waiters stirred the air. Music that harkened back to happy childhoods played.
We were on dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks when Mark, the executive, told a story of estrangement, how his daughter was becoming more distant now that she was married, and how he thought it was karma because Mark himself had been less than affectionate with his own parents as they’d aged, and felt he’d not been with them enough at the end of their lives.
We all tsked over his harsh self-judgment, and offered consolation and suggestions for a deeper relationship with his daughter. We told him he deserved it.
We’d met at an affirmation conference, after all, one of those fads corporations got swept up in, team-building quality improvement practices and the like. The techniques had long lost their trendiness, or been absorbed into human resources tactics. Even if we’d mocked the proceedings at the time, we’d developed our own booster club of sorts with communication over the years, and these holiday gatherings.
Mark’s stories led to more, tales of people we knew who had reaped undeserved rewards and others who’d deserved success yet were denied it.
Tina, swirling a brandy and staring at the tablecloth, confessed to feelings of great jealousy about a writing acquaintance whose work Tina had edited—she was an aspiring novelist herself and had done some freelance editing on the side.
“She’s not a good storyteller,” Tina said slowly, her mouth twisted in that rueful smile of painful recognition. “And barely has command of language. I really helped her shape her first book. It sold—received critical acclaim, made the charts….”
We pressed her for the author’s name, but she wouldn’t divulge it, either out of integrity or fear, I don’t know.
Gary, the publishing house marketing director, patted her hand. “Five books. That’s the max she’ll get. I’ve seen how it works. Her editor will do what you did with the option clause book, and maybe the next one, and then the author will get full of herself, turn something in that’s so subpar the house might not want to publish it. But they’re invested in her, so they will…and she’ll fade from view.”
“Justice,” I remarked, giving a nod.
Mark, whose spirits were now buoyed by our words about his daughter, tapped the table. “So rare to see that happen, though, isn’t it? Real justice.”
That’s when Jonah, the oldest among us, a dashing man with white wavy hair who worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in town, spoke up, so softly and slowly that many of us at first didn’t realize, over the din of holiday cheer, that he was talking.
No, he wasn’t just talking. He was spinning a tale, and being in good spirits, I believe some—maybe all—of us thought he was telling one of those long, complicated jokes at first, the ones with deliciously sharp punch lines that required a good intellect to understand, so that when you laughed heartily at its ending you were also patting yourself on the back for being smart enough to get it. We happily anticipated that moment of self-congratulation.
But, no, he wasn’t telling a joke.
“I knew a man,” he was saying, “some of you would recognize his name. He was very successful, started in retail, in the executive suite, right after graduation. Father was on Wall Street. Fifth generation Harvard, then Wharton. All the right connections.”
We nodded our heads. We knew such men, and all of us started trying to guess who this fellow was as he continued, but Jonah, like Tina, kept his protagonist’s identity a secret.
“Affable guy,” Jonah said, snagging the waiter for another glass of wine. “Well liked.” He laughed. “The curse of being well liked—no one wants to bring you down!”
He finished the wine before him and set the empty aside, waiting for its replacement.
“You need to give him a name,” Tina said, lightness back in her voice, regret gone. “A pseudonym.”
Jonah grinned. “What do you suggest?”
“Bertrand,” Mark said.
“Poindexter,” I chimed in. I had a dislike of moneyed families with names like Poindexter in their genealogical charts.
“Roger,” Gary said with authority. “Nice, solid name for someone well-liked.” And so it was Roger.
“Roger became vice president of, well, something like…” And here he mentioned a national chain of upscale stores we all recognized. Was this where Roger had really worked? “Did very well. Or rather, the stores did well.”
“I love them! Shop there all the time,” Tina interrupted. “High quality, good prices, wonderful service.”
“Exactly,” Jonah concurred. “All true before our Roger took over. But he made the mistake of thinking these attributes were due to his hard work, that the stores’ successes were due to his marketing expertise.”
“Happens all the time,” Gary interjected. “Some new MBA comes onboard with shiny spreadsheets that illustrate what we’ve all been doing all along, and he thinks he’s the root cause of all that is good. My god, the number of times I’ve seen a new marketing manager do that—I usually avoid those meetings now. Have a ‘conflict’ on my schedule.”
“Yes, precisely,” Jonah repeated. “That was our Roger’s problem, too. Thinking he was inventing the wheel, and filled with pride when it rolled merrily along. Headhunters came after him, and he moved to, something like…” And here he named a specialty brand that was wildly successful in its niche with a creative CEO. We were impressed.
“As you can imagine, he did well there, too.”
“How could he not?” Tina asked. “That product sells itself.”
When Jonah’s wine arrived and he took a sip, Gary filled in the obvious. “Let me guess. Our Roger thought again that success was due to his great work.”
Jonah laughed. “Oh, yes, to his showing up when he did. If you recall, that company went through a great sales and stock spike. It coincided with young Roger’s arrival on the scene.”
“Are you now going to tell us that Roger was really a nincompoop?” I asked, eager to hear the denouement, the moment of justice, when failings are unveiled.
Jonah shook his head. “No, no. He wasn’t stupid. Just…misled. By unmerited opportunities. By good looks. By…oh, people being nice to him. He wasn’t an ogre. Nothing mean-spirited about him.”
“So, what next? He gets caught with his hand in the till? Goes to jail?” Tina asked, as if secretly taking notes for a mystery she would write.
“Nothing so dramatic,” Jonah said. “Well, not then, at least. He did quite well at his job and moved to another, and this, too, was a case of being in the right place at the right time. An etailer on the cusp of making it big.” He held both hands up and shrugged, and we mentally filled in the story. More success, more rewards.
“All right, Jonah, you have to give us the payoff,” Gary groused. “Nice guy finishing first. Where’s the conflict?”
“Oh, be patient,” Jonah said good-naturedly. “Our poor hero finally met his match. He was lured to a department store that wasn’t doing well that needed a turnaround guy—”
“Oh, no,” I said, knowing where this was going. “Poor Roger. He thought those other successes…”
“Were all due to his smarts,” Jonah said. “But they weren’t. And he’d never had his mettle tested. Never had to be accountable for his mistakes. Because, god knows, he made them. Everyone does. But in his previous jobs, successes were carried in by the bushel, and mistakes were swept up in the dustbin. He didn’t know…” He trailed off, a faraway look coming to his eye.
Tina leaned in now, a detective on the case. “I think I know what department store chain we’re talking about here,” she said, and gave the name of one that had failed spectacularly many years ago, a hallowed name in retail that had gone under.
The story came back to us all, and we started tossing in the details, fast and furiously, telling the tale ourselves.
“…he wouldn’t wear the suits the store made. Kept a rack in his office to use for press conferences,” Mark said after snapping his fingers in remembrance.
“He fired a third of the staff,” Gary offered, “and redid the layout. My god, I remember going in one during that, and it was a mess. And staff…they bristled with resentment.”
Tina smiled. “I used to shop there regularly.” She laughed. “Thanks to him, I discovered other stores!”
I had my own memory, as well. “He was skewered in some business paper. A columnist speculated he was a mole for the competition.”
Jonah nodded to each remembrance. “He was using his experience at his other employers to build what he thought would be success. But, as you know, those other corporations had different…gestalts.”
We all nodded now, thinking to the brands, the specialty marketing of each of the man’s past employers. How easy it was for us to see the disaster looming. We shared our memories of that, too, of reading articles about the impending collapse of the company, of the stock nose-diving, of rancorous board meetings, scandalous revelations about sales numbers. It had played out over the course of just three years. And at the end of it…
“What happened to him?” I asked. No one had heard of the man’s fate, I was sure. I read the business papers regularly and didn’t remember a word about his after-collapse future. “Golden parachute, if I recall.”
Tina snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s hardly justice.” Yes, that was the original topic. Justice. Just rewards. Or punishments.
“He did well financially. No CEO doesn’t,” Jonah said, stating the obvious. “Might have ended the job in ignominy, being ousted by the board, excoriated in the press, but he had a multi-million-dollar severance deal, and he cashed out his stock before the company went belly up.”
“So,” said Mark indignantly, “where is the justice in this story? I thought we were sharing those kinds of things, not…just another one of these fat cat does well after ruining lives tales.”
“Rich guy becomes richer,” added Gary, “despite his failures.”
“Failures writ large,” Jonah said lowly. “So large that he disappeared. Word was he ran off, changed his identify. Wife divorced him—not much of a marriage really, as phony as his life had been, which he discovered when he began his descent. No children, thank goodness, to share the pain. Even with no pre-nup, he still made out well. Flew to one paradise after another, considered buying his own island. He had the money. Didn’t need for a thing. Couldn’t quite figure it out—how it had all gone south. And he was just waiting for a time to rebound. For a long time, he thought it was just wrong place, wrong time.”
“He’d experienced the opposite, so why not?” Gary asked, obviously liking the symmetry of the situation.
“But it…wore on him. That sense he’d messed up. He couldn’t avoid it. He started retracing his steps, so to speak, trying to figure out where he’d gone off course. Oh, he still thought he’d find that it wasn’t his fault, but…” Again, Jonah held out his hands, palms up. “And then, something pushed him outside of all he knew. He fell in love.”
Tina snorted again. So much for her romantic stories. “Oh, man, when are you going to get to the good part—where he loses his riches?”
Jonah laughed. “No, no, don’t rush me. He fell in love,” he repeated. “With a woman ten years younger and a world of experience away. A woman who…had shopped in that store.”
Now Tina groaned, joined shortly afterward by Gary. “So what? She found another store, no doubt.”
“Yes, yes, she did. But her sister had worked there. And she’d lost her job, of course, when the whole thing went under. And she was a single mom, one kid. And she ended up with a bad sort. He…well, he treated her badly.”
There was more to that. We could all see it in the way Jonah scowled, as if he didn’t want to mar the holiday mood, even a discussion of bad deeds, with something grimmer.
“Go on,” Tina nearly whispered. “Tell us about his big love.” She said it cynically, as if we were to soon learn this new love was just a fortune hunter. Yes, I believe we all thought that.
“He met her on a layover. One of his jaunts to some tropical getaway. She was a waitress in Miami. The usual thing, flirtation, banter, trying to score. But she was a different sort of girl. Oh, not that she played too hard to get. She was just…refreshing. Refreshingly honest. Not a bit of guile in her.” He looked at his drink. “She knew he had money. He didn’t hide that. He liked to treat her. But she didn’t like to feel bought. She even had a long talk with him about it, about how she had to work hard to resist that part of his ‘charm’ because, if she was honest with herself, she knew it was a draw, to know that he could provide for her. Everyone likes to feel cared for, she told him.”
“So, what happened? With the bad sort she ended up with?” Mark asked.
“What?” Jonah looked confused, then clarity dawned. “Oh, no, not her. Her sister ended up with the bad sort.”
“She was the single mom?” Gary asked.
“Yes. She’s the one who’d lost her job. And when…Roger…found out, well, you can imagine. He was mortified. Should he confess who he was—”
“He used an alias?” Tina asked, sounding disgusted.
“No, not…then. She just didn’t follow corporate…shenanigans. She had no idea he was the CEO of the company that had led to her sister’s…problems.”
Disappointment fell on me as I thought I got it—an obvious ending. “So when did she figure it out? After she’d taken him for all he was worth?”
Jonah heaved a sigh and bit his lip. “Taken him for all he was worth. You mean money, of course.” He looked up, eyes watery, brow creased. “Justice would seem to require he lose everything, wouldn’t it?” No one spoke, but he knew we agreed. “He didn’t lose a penny. Not a single penny. She gave back everything he’d given her—every piece of jewelry, every diamond, sapphire, ruby and gold and silver. Every trinket, every piece of clothing. It cost her, too. She had it all packed up and shipped to him.”
“How did she find out?” Tina asked, again on a whisper, her fingers curled around her brandy.
“Her sister. She might not have followed business news, but her sister knew the name of the bastard who’d ruined her life. And she let Roger’s lover know. It was the last thing she told her.”
“The last thing?” Now Gary’s voice was the one low and hesitant.
“Before her criminal boyfriend killed her—the sister. Shot her in a drugged-up rampage.”
“No!” Both Mark and Tina voiced it at the same time, the word that was also on the tip of my tongue.
“He felt…he felt…as if he’d been the one pulling the trigger. That the sister had only taken up with the guy because she was hard up, after losing her job…”
A jumble of voices, Tina saying it wasn’t his fault, Gary concurring, Mark sympathizing, and I, I was agreeing with them all.
“Is that how it happened – the breakup?” I asked.
“Yes,” Jonah said. “No. I mean…yes, that was the final closing of the door. The night before that…that event… when she’d found out who he was, she’d refused his … proposal. He’d come to her that night wanting forever. She’d come wanting never.”
There was something in his tone, something timeless, something resigned, accepting.
“No hope at all? Never heard from her again?” I pursued.
He shook his head. “He tried to reach out to her. Couldn’t find her. She changed her number. Her job. He hired a PI…”
“Oh, man…” Tina.
“She wanted him never to find her.”
“But he did.” Tina again, Tina the storyteller herself, who could pick up on the tone of a statement. I thought she was off, but Jonah’s face and then his words indicated it was true.
“The PI tracked her down. She was still in Florida. She met and married someone else within five years…”
“A poor but noble schoolteacher,” Mark said.
“No, a minister,” said Gary.
“Or a penniless writer,” Tina offered.
Jonah laughed, but there was no real joy in it. “A widowed father of three, owner of Pizelli’s,” he said, and we instantly inhaled, laughed with him. A very successful national pizza chain. “Good man, too, if you’ve read about him. Self-made. But no backwoods hick. Cultured, even plays piano. Came close to finaling in the amateur Van Cliburn…”
“Get out!” Tina said, unbelieving.
“Nope. All true. She did better than she would have with Roger. Married a real man of accomplishment. Was cared for, provided for, got an instant family—she’d wanted family, you see—and he even took in her nephew, since his mom was gone now. Last I heard, they were quite happy together.”
“But not Roger,” I said, now getting it. He’d not lost his fortune. He’d lost something dearer. His true love. “Did he marry?”
“No. He told himself he would. Had plenty of opportunities. And he didn’t go around making scenes pining for her, so it wasn’t a matter of no one measuring up…”
“But no one really did, did they?” Tina supplied the sad reality in her voice, one that recognized true romance.
“No, no one did.”
“Did he lose himself in drink?” Gary asked, looking for the obvious story answer.
“Nope. Became a success in another field. Respected. Even had an honorary degree bestowed on him. Still jets off to tropical paradises. Still has friends and family who love him. He’s a wiser man now, though, not so full of himself.”
“But he wasn’t really full of himself before,” Mark interjected. “I mean, from the way you tell it, he just didn’t know, he was just blind to his …inadequacies.”
“Yes, he was blind. And he had his eyes opened. Painfully. To how his failures rippled out to affect others. He was a careless man, he discovered. A thoughtless man. Not a cruel one. Just a thoughtless one.”
The restaurant was empty and hushed. Waiters were clearing tables and resetting them for the evening crowd. Light, yellow and dim, poured through the wide street level windows. Shoppers scurried by, hurrying to find Christmas bargains, last-minute gifts.
I studied Jonah. In the ten years we’d gotten together, he alone of our group was the most difficult to get to know. His background was…fuzzy. Although he was a lawyer, I was aware it was a second career, and he’d been sent to the conference where we’d originally met because he was one of the newer members of his firm, even though he was older than most of the lawyers on the masthead. He’d divulged that over drinks our first night.
He was affable, always willing to help if you needed it—he’d given Tina an introduction to the chair of her board, helping her land her job, and he’d done favors, big and small, for the rest of us we only found out about in passing.
But whenever I thought of him, I never imagined him as…happy. I thought of him as going through the motions, somehow, living a life that was required of him rather than one he had chosen. A life with friends. But no deep love.
I mentally conjured up the few pictures of the “Roger” in his story from the articles that had appeared at the time of the store chain’s failure. Yes, yes…the patrician profile, the thin lips, blue eyes…
He was Roger, there was no doubt about it. Did the others know? I looked at each one. Of course they did. But his secret, such as it was, was safe with us, a holiday gift of confession and atonement.
Libby Sternberg’s new novel, Fall from Grace, a tale of sin and redemption, will be available from Bancroft Press September 2017.