I've reached the point in my life where the thrill of my job is generally vastly more thrilling and interesting to me than the thrill of sex. I'm really into dependability these days.
Especially now, with the incessant buyout negotiations over. Our lives had taken on the heady, sexually charged atmosphere of a political campaign—late night meetings, secret phone calls, and passwords—all of which masked the fear and apprehension of the reality, of how our lives would be changed. We—and by "we," I mean me, Sir Benjamin, and a handful of old-timers, specialists, and experts, who have been with the firm for dozens of years—were busily pretending the so-called merger would have only a good side. We pretended that if we kept up our facade of charm and fair-play, there would be no down-side; they would let us keep doing everything the way we always had, with the notable exception being that they would have delivered us from the bondage of financial jeopardy. We would become the crowning jewel in Brace International's already dazzling charm bracelet of luxury goods manufacturers. They would keep the wolf away from our door.
Who were we kidding?
They were the wolf. We were Little Red Riding Hood and we'd pretended they weren't going to gobble us up; that Ballantine & Company Auctioneer, Ltd.'s proud, almost three-hundred-year history as a family-owned firm wouldn't be sucked under and obliterated by a high-rolling, high-style, American buccaneer, and his legendary over-drive life that seemed to use "W," People, and Vanity Fair magazines as his personal diaries. Oh, my, yes. We were about to have sex kittens, haute couture, fast cars and scandals out the old wazoo.
We had no choice. Sell-out ("merge" as all involved pathetically insisted upon calling it) or sink. Without bubbles. Just slide under and vanish. As anxious and sad as I was about the company's future, I have to admit that from a strictly business point of view, the push and pull of the take-over had been exhilarating. If you really want to know the truth: it was better than sex.
But now we had reality. Every day, Sir Benjamin Ballantine's ongoing humiliation grew into a heavier and heavier burden. Sometimes, it was so crushing, I felt I couldn't breathe. So, when the phone rang at three-forty-five in the morning, I knew it wasn't going to be anything fun. I knew who it would be and why he was calling.
"Kick." Sir Benjamin's jammy accent echoed through his speaker phone as cleanly as though he were talking to me from the other side of the room. He said my name as a statement, no question, no apology for calling in the middle of the night. He said it as though we'd already been in the middle of a conversation and he'd just had a new thought. I knew him like a book. Just as I knew Silvia, his angry, anorexic, aristocratic wife, her lips locked perpetually in a bloodless line of disappointment, slumbered fitfully upstairs, one eye on the clock gauging how much longer until the next sleeping pill.
Tonight, he sounded slightly different, a little more off, a little drunker. His tone was wan. It sounded parched, empty and tired. Thank God, I thought, he's getting as sick of this as I am.
"Yes, Benjamin," I answered. "What is it?"
"I just wanted to hear your voice"—he paused for effect—"one last time."
"For heaven's sake, don't start all this suicide business again. I can't take it."
Truthfully? I wished with all my heart that he would follow through on his threats: just get a gun and go out in the backyard and shoot himself. Put himself and the rest of us out of this drenching misery.
Occasionally, I thought about shooting him myself.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Wait a minute. Let me get a little squared away here."
"But..." he began.
"Hold on, hold on. Just give me a second."
"Goddamn it Kick, don't put down the phone. Please ..." he sobbed.
But it didn't move me. I laid the receiver on the table—I used to lay it down as gently and soundlessly as I could, but now, I just put it there, if the receiver hitting the tabletop made a clatter into his ears, well, it did. I pushed myself up against the headboard, and snapped on my bed lamp, turning my pink-and-champagne paisley room into a comforting and serene friend. I tugged my satin nightgown loose from around my legs. Then I got all my covers neatly arranged, combed my fingers through my streaky blonde hair, and lit a cigarette. I always have to have everything in place before I can do anything properly—listen, cook, take a note, really anything at all—but once I'm set, I'm set. There isn't anybody more rapt than I, when the situation demands it. This one did not.
As I reached for the phone, I spotted a stash of chocolate mint wafers under the curved edge of the ashtray and slipped one of the luscious little square green-and-brown sandwiches into my mouth where it began to melt almost immediately. A creamy little bite with the mind-clearing snap of mint—the ideal remedy for the situation at hand.
"Back," I said. All I could hear was the sound of him struggling for composure. My tongue forced the soft chocolate into the roof of my mouth until it formed an even coating. I ate another.
"I can't do it any more, Kick."
"Oh?" I didn't even try to keep the boredom out of my voice. I tucked the receiver under my chin and reached for the new issue of Country Life I'd brought home from the office, and flipped through it, looking for our ad. There it was—Mrs. Baker's glorious ruby cabochon and round diamond necklace—shining from the page like a bonfire, scheduled to be auctioned after the first of the year. What a magnificent piece it was, a true work of art with each pea-sized cabochon fashioned as a blossom resting in diamond petals. I hoped some very luck lady got it, not some heartless dealer who would break it down for the stones and melt the platinum and gold to use for something else.
"God, I hate all of this," Benjamin wailed. "I hate him. I hate his tight Italian suits and those god-awful cheesy diamond cufflinks and shiny ties. I hate that goddamned slicked-back hair and his whore of a wife. I hate his commonness, his lack of class. I hate the way he hates me. The contempt on his face when I'm speaking. I want to slap him, teach him some respect."
"Benjamin, please." I yawned. "Let's talk about the future. Why don't you retire? Become Chairman Emeritus?" I noticed a little snag on my embroidered silk coverlet, retrieved a small pair of sewing scissors out of the bed table drawer and clipped it. "There's no shame in that. You can get a little place in the country, and get away from everyone. Stop the fight. It's destroying you. It's not worth it."
"I'll die before I quit."
I didn't say a word. I took a last drag of my cigarette and puffed out a chain of smoke rings, a singularly unbecoming skill no lady should perform in public, and believe me, I don't; but at the moment, there wasn't much else to do.
"I even feel you pulling away from me. It's written all over your face. That's all right. I don't blame you. But you know I can't retire and leave the House of Ballantine in the hands of an outsider. Especially an Irishman." The concept of the Irishman threw him into a new fit of sobbing—as far as he was concerned, he might as well have sold to Satan himself.
I flipped two more pages—Good, our ad was much better than Sotheby's. Better piece of jewelry. Better layout and lighting. Better photography.
"There's been a Ballantine at the helm since 1740—the burden of 260 years of family tradition coming to end on my watch is more than I can bear. I don't know what else to do. I can't see any way to win." He sounded lost and far away.
The words had already formed themselves inside my mouth to say, "For heaven's sake, Benjamin, get a goddamned hold of yourself. Act like a man for a change." But the explosion reverberated into my ear as unexpectedly as a car crash. I never heard or saw it coming.
Then, there was nothing but echoing silence.
* * *
I held the silent receiver for I'm not sure how long, my mind a complete blank, until I heard Silvia's shrill voice trumpeting down the stairs, so piercing it was scarcely muffled by the closed library doors. "Benjamin? Benjamin? What are you doing now? You woke me up out of a dead sleep. Benjamin! Answer me!" I heard the deep rumble of the heavy pocket doors sliding open. "Benjamin, do you have any idea what time it is? Oh, my God."
My breathing was shallow, tentative. I hung up the phone. It was over.
I was free.
I suppose I was in shock, but I felt surprisingly calm. And happy. No, not happy. Relieved. I leaned against the headboard and lit another cigarette and had another chocolate and just looked around, knowing that for the first time in my life, I was in control of my life. The lightness was amazing. I was floating. It's just me.
When the merger had been completed and Owen Brace had taken over, it took less than seventy-two hours to see how completely unworkable the arrangement was between him and Benjamin. The two men could scarcely bear the sight of one another. While not terribly far apart in age, when it came to vision and energy, Owen was waxing at fifty-four and Benjamin waning at sixty-five. The men were polar opposites.
Owen Brace, a self-made man, Irish-American, one of the most successful international take-over artists in the history of business, was a high-speed adrenaline addict and a notorious slash-and-burn specialist. The energy and power he exuded were so tangible, he seemed to suck all the oxygen from the air around him. Regardless of Benjamin's jealous accusations that Brace was cheesy and common, both of which applied to a significant degree, he was also dashing and debonair. And dangerous. If he were a sportsman, I think he would have been a fencing master, but as far as I could tell, the only sport he loved was business. Oh, and sex. If he wasn't on the phone or in a meeting, he was in a bed.
Well-born Sir Benjamin Ballantine, on the other hand, an Englishman through-and-through, was polite, patrician, a gentleman, duty-bound by his mother's archaic Victorian upbringing. His low-key, amicable style that lured clients to Ballantine and Company, his self-deprecating sense of humor, and workmanlike talent on the auction floor had not withstood the test of time. They belonged to another world, dust was piled on their shoulders. He was unable to make the leap to accommodate what twenty-first century customers required. His stubborn refusal to grow or adapt pushed him deeper and deeper into depression and dragged the company and its demoralized staff down with him.
The only thing that kept Owen and Benjamin from coming to blows was me: their senior executive assistant, caught literally in the middle of the ancien and noveau regimes. Fortunately for all of us, I'm more stable than most people. I can carry a lot on my broad shoulders.
Because I'd been with the firm for what was now decades, and become a mother-figure to Benjamin (although I was significantly younger), it was justifiable to see why my loyalties had lain with him But finally, my battle standard flagged. He robbed me of my sleep every night. I was exhausted. My tiredness grew in direct proportion to his tiresomeness. He'd become excruciating and infuriating, making me regret my pledge to his father—my late, beloved, deus ex machina, Sir Cramner Ballantine—that I would keep an eye on his aging, ineffectual son, not let him stray off into troubled waters. Even more importantly, I'd sworn not let him run Ballantine & Company into the ground which, in spite of my efforts, he had. I was sick of the whole arrangement, unfulfilled by my obstinate loyalty.
I was still angry at Sir Cramner for dying, even if he had been ninety-two by the time he left. I missed him so deeply, I couldn't seem to get the light turned back on in my life. He'd been gone for almost three years, but not a single day passed that I didn't think about him, and how much I still loved him. I wanted him to come back to me, even if it was just long enough to kiss his sweet, laughing lips one more time.
But, as the days and months and years passed, and I didn't seem to be getting any closer to my own demise, I knew I needed to get back on course. I was tired of being alone. There was no one to talk to.
I wanted to go to my little farm in Provence and lie in the sun, smell the lavender, listen to the bees. Have lunch with my friends. To spend the second half of my life with people who enjoyed the same things I did. But the problem is, with my past, it's just not that simple.
© Marne Davis Kellogg