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William Cobb

Mergers and Acquisitions

As she tied her running shoes, Lael spaced out for a second, and suddenly found herself staring at a rain puddle the shape of Africa. She was sitting on the steps of her row house, and it--the Africa puddle--was there in the yard, by the end of the steps. Reflected in it were the twisted arms of a tree, green-black leaves, and an opaque sky. How weird and portentous, she thought. And for a moment, she wondered what it signified, but not for long, because she had ten million different things on her mind. Like Brian. Like law school. Like how someone was trying to take over her dad's company. She knew it's not good to worry too much because it probably causes all kinds of diseases, but when your world is in jeopardy, what else can you do? The Saturday morning sky was close and hazy--a real greenhouse effect kind of day. Brian said it would be perfect for a run. But you couldn't trust him, of course. What did he know about running? What did he know about anything?

Lael was all freckles and wavy blonde hair. Right now, she kept it out of her face by a black hair band. Brian sat on the top steps of the porch, thinking how marvelous she looked in her Lycra tights and sleeveless t-shirt. But he didn't say anything. He believed it's not good to compliment beautiful women too much, or they'll walk all over you. He learned this inside the projectionist's booth at the cine octoplex where he worked. You don't see Bill Hurt or Bobby De Niro gushing over their women. They just smile. Or sometimes a gesture says it all. Like that scene in Broadcast News, when Bill Hurt sees Holly Hunter walking into the black-tie dinner and she's wearing this strapless evening gown that's like death, sequins and everything. And when their eyes meet, he leans back as if he's been hit by something, her beauty, bowled over, and he grabs his heart as if it's hers now, or as if he's trying to hold it back, because she's so gorgeous she's wrenching it out. Brian closed his eyes and concentrated, trying to hold that image in his mind for a moment.

Lael finished tying her shoelaces and stood up, dusting off her bottom. "It was a wonderful company before it went public," she said. "I mean, aluminum bicycles! That's a brilliant idea."

"Maybe a miracle will happen," said Brian. "Maybe Kubelka will get hit by a bus."

"Sure," said Lael. "And maybe you'll stay sober for more than a day."

Brian looked at her, dropping his mouth open. "And where did that come from?"

"Sorry, honey," said Lael. "Just kidding."

Brian walked towards the street, shaking his head, and saw their cat rolling on his back on the cracked sidewalk by the mailbox. He squatted down to scratch the cat's chin, and said, "Hello Hokey Mokey."

Lael came up and sat on the concrete beside the cat, rubbing his face and passing her thumbs over his closed eyes and stroking his ears. She had adopted Mokey when he'd been a stray with gunk in his eyes and an urgent meow. "He just wants to be loved," she cooed. As Brian petted the cat, he thought about seventeen-year-old Carol Johnson. The popcorn girl. He thought about how he had kissed her neck and cupped her breast after the final show last night. Goose pimples had stood out on her arms, and they had ground their hips together in a miasma of popcorn-butter smell, pressed hard against the glass counter of Milk Duds and Junior Mints. When they heard the doofus usher coming she whispered, "If Derek sees us, he's going to die."

Lael said something about Mokey not coming home the night before. "I bet there's a girl-kitty in heat somewhere," she added.

Brian smiled and scratched Mokey's head. Just above his eyes. "You rascal."

"Rascal nothing," said Lael. "I think we should get him fixed."

-----

Myron Levin, Lael's father, rowed his shell down the middle of the Schuylkill River and tried to think positively. But this wasn't easy. For one thing, he was afraid of the water. Although he could see other rowers off to his left and right, as he passed through the bluish shadow beneath the arc of a stone bridge, he suddenly feared that he would capsize and be attacked by snapping turtles. He'd seen one eat a baby duck once, at a pond in the Adirondacks, and always feared dark lakes and rivers after that. Any water where you couldn't see the bottom.

As he rowed, he concentrated on keeping his body tight and symmetrical, and watched the river receding behind him. The vee of his wake spread out and rippled on the river's surface under the stone bridge. Above him, pigeons that nested on the black underside of the bridge flapped and fluttered. Myron couldn't see in front of him, but could only stare at the swells of murky green water that held up his boat.

Maybe it's greenmail he wants, thought Myron. Maybe if I offer him $28 per share he'll sell the twelve per cent and I can go on with my life. That would mean a $6.7 million profit for Kubelka, for nothing more than ruining my life. I should blow his brains out, is what I should do. Put the barrel in his mouth and watch his blood splatter all over his Mercedes' upholstery. Or hire someone to do it. We'd have to make it look like an accident. Like drop a Xerox machine on his head. Or an elephant.

Although Myron Levin was the president of Arapaho Bicycles, he could remember when his father ran the company, when he was young and he'd go into a hardware store and see a row of candy apple red or turquoise blue Arapahos back behind the Briggs & Stratton lawn mowers and the rows of shovels, picks, and ax handles. They'd been sturdy bikes with welded frames, whitewall tires, and the name ARAPAHO spelled vertically along the down tube. Their logo had been in front, below the handlebars, a capital A with a tomahawk above it, on a metal plate brazed to the bike.

Now the bikes were made of aluminum, because it was lighter and hip, and they came in colors like emerald, lobster, and periwinkle. When sales skyrocketed for three years in a row, everyone told Myron what a genius he was, but the company had been highly leveraged to fund the new factory and technology, so it went public in 1986 to pay off the debt, and traded as high as 21 until the Crash of October 1987, when it fell to 5 1/4. In came Arthur Kubelka. Rumor on the street was Arapaho might go into play, that Kubelka was planning to offer shareholders a fantastic price to buy up controlling interest, then dump Myron.

That afternoon Myron was supposed to meet Kubelka for the first time. At eight o'clock he'd been so nervous he couldn't eat breakfast, and although he hadn't rowed his shell in over a year, he decided he needed to work off some energy and toughen himself up. Myron was as nervous as when his wife Stella didn't return from her trip to New Hampshire, eight years ago. She was driving back alone, and was supposed to arrive by early afternoon, but didn't. As soon as it got dark Myron called the police. They asked him to hold. He and Lael ended up sitting all night by the telephone. She kept trying to find a reason for her mother being late. "Maybe she just lost track of time." But she didn't look like she believed it.

A police officer finally called, on a dull, cloudy dawn, to say there had been a head-on collision north of Allentown, and did he own a late model Buick, tag number ADA 577? He did. And they had Stella's body, covered with a sheet.

-----

After Lael took off running, Brian drank two Bloody Marys for breakfast while he read film reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He knew you can't trust what anyone says these days, but he liked to keep his feelers out. He wondered how people got started as film reviewers. You probably have to know someone. Maybe live in New York. Of course, that wasn't impossible. He could move to Manhattan with Lael, when she left to start law school at N.Y.U. But that would be kind of low, wouldn't it? Just moving to New York with Lael because it was convenient?

This thing with Carol was anything but convenient, though. Brian felt kind of sorry for her, actually, because her mother was hardly ever at home. She was a teenage latchkey girl, latchkey popcorn girl, and her mother--who owned a couple of run-down laundromats--seemed eager for her to move out. Carol was tall and skinny, and when Brian first met her he asked, "Do you play basketball or something?" "No. Why?" she'd answered.

"Never mind." She had sex with Brian in the projectionist's booth after they'd only known each other a week. Later she told him that she didn't have any friends at her high school, and he had felt creepy about their affair, if that's what you could call it. She seemed to think it was "cool" that he was twelve years older than her. After reading the paper and having one more Bloody Mary, Brian drove to her apartment.

-----

When she opened her door Brian said, "Hey Carol," and took both of her hands in his, leaned forward to kiss her lips, but she turned her face at the last moment and he only grazed the wick of her mouth and her cheek, while Carol's lips smacked the air beside his face. Now she wouldn't stop talking about a movie that had just opened at the octoplex.

"It was all murky and dark and set in the future. One of those sets that looks like a chemical plant. You know, with pipes and girders everywhere and steam hissing out at the characters for no apparent reason? Just mood, I guess. Very Robocoppy. Very Batmanny."

Brian was thinking if I was smart I'd open a separate bank account now and start dropping my deposits in it, write a check for half of what's rightfully mine from the joint checking, and make a clean break. That's what Jack Nicholson would do. That's what Kevin Costner would do. Carol was still going on and on about this movie (will she never stop?) when Brian interrupted her and said, "You know, last night I was having the nastiest thoughts about you."

Carol smiled for a moment and poked his stomach. "But the lighting was horrible, all pastels and gun metal blues. A direct rip-off of Bladerunner. I mean, does everyone think the future is that dark? I just don't buy that apocalypse now stuff. I mean, look at Poland. Look at Czechoslovakia."

"Look at you," said Brian.

Carol rolled her eyes. "Oh, please."

"I mean it. You're gorgeous today."

"Would you stop?"

"And I was thinking about what it'd be like if we got a place together."

"What about Lael? I can just see you telling her you're leaving her for a popcorn girl."

Brian shrugged. "Lael who?"

-----

After her run, Lael picked up her little brother Todd and took him to buy an $800 bird. Todd had dyslexia, and, although Lael tried to be understanding about it, she secretly believed he used it as an excuse to be lazy. He dropped out of Penn in his first semester and now just hung out with his friends, playing Nintendo baseball and smoking pot. He still lived at home, in the pool house, where he could party all night without waking up Myron. All his friends mooched off their parents, and Todd didn't even own a car; that's why Lael had to taxi him around. Lael wondered why anyone would spend $800 on a bird. What if it dies?

"It's not an investment," said Todd. "It's a Moluccan Cockatoo. And besides, it's on sale."

They drove home from the pet shop carefully, trying not to scare the bird, with a blanket over the cage. "What should I name him?" asked Todd. Lael had no idea. Back at the pool house, she watched the cockatoo as Todd tried to figure out where the best place would be to put the cage in his room. It had a huge black beak, which it used as a third claw to grab the bars of its cage and climb upside down, in a kind of slow motion somersault, over and over.

"I don't think they're supposed to do this constantly," said Lael. "That's forty-seven somersaults since I started counting."

"He's just getting adjusted to his new cage, man. Give him a break."

"All right, man, but I think you bought yourself a neurotic bird. And where'd you get the money for Mr. Cockatoo, anyway? You're still jobless, aren't you?"

"I hope so," said Todd. "I get some cash from Dad now and then, and you know, I don't really need money, except for tapes and stuff."

"Well I wouldn't count on him indefinitely. You know that someone's trying to take over the company, don't you?"

Todd hooked a plastic cup of seed onto the black iron bars of the cockatoo's cage. "They can't do that. Don't we own the company?"

Lael looked at him and shook her head. "I can't believe you," she said. "You are so totally out of it."

-----

Myron combed his gray hair and straightened his tie, standing in front of his bathroom mirror in his black socks with garters and boxer shorts. He remembered how he would strut around in front of Stella like this. Hike his boxers up and tell her this was his favorite look. He'd tell her just how lucky she was. And she would roll her eyes and laugh. But Myron would know who the lucky one was.

He decided to wear his expensive charcoal gray suit, but it had been tailored back when he weighed 205, and now, at 227, the waist button popped off as he was trying to fasten it. Rather than change to another suit, he safety-pinned them together. I'll be sitting down, he thought. No one will ever notice.

He shuffled out to his Lincoln and wondered if he should check those directions to the restaurant they were meeting at, but decided against it since he was late already. He simply drove in that general direction. After he'd circled the block where he was sure it was supposed to be, he finally pulled into a service station. The clerk was an East Indian man in a bullet proof booth. It had a stainless steel slot to pass money through, and a small circular mouth of metal to speak into. Myron was ten minutes late and the clerk had never heard of the place. "Try the yellow pages," he said. He gave Myron directions to the nearest pay phone down the street, because the gas station's phone had been ripped out by vandals.

At the next intersection, Myron waited for the light. A street person walked up and started wiping his windshield with a dirty rag. Myron rolled down his window and said, "That's not necessary. Please. I don't need that." But the man quickly rubbed the glass as if he didn't hear. The cars behind began to honk as Myron looked for change, couldn't find any, and sped away. He saw the squeegee man shouting in his rearview mirror. His heart didn't calm down until he had run a yellow light and was completely lost.

The street was so narrow it seemed almost an alley. On either side of him were tenements spiny with fire escapes. He drove through block after block, randomly. Old women pushed shopping carts down the streets, and he had to weave to avoid the pot holes. When he finally reached a wide avenue, he turned right and had to stop at the next intersection for a light. As he stared at the shop signs beside him, he realized that the restaurant was just ahead.

Inside the dining room, Kubelka was talking with a waitress and laughing when Myron walked up. They shook hands awkwardly as the waitress asked if Myron wanted anything to drink. Lunch was served. Kubelka was a stocky man with a broken nose, and looked more like a prizefighter than a businessman. They discussed the company, and Myron offered to buy Kubelka's block at $5 per share over market price. Kubelka raised his eyebrows and was silent for a moment.

"The problem with you, Levin," he began, dipping his boiled shrimp, speared on a tiny trident, into the cocktail sauce, "is that no one believes in you anymore." He popped the shrimp into his mouth and chewed, staring straight at Myron. "For all intents and purposes, you might not even exist. Can you imagine that?"

"Sometimes I pretend I don't exist," said Myron. He forced a weak and nervous smile. His eyes were focused on Kubelka's sleeves, which showed an inch and a half of bone-white cuff and gold cuff links. For a moment Myron wondered if Kubelka was part of the Mob.

"What would happen to Arapaho Bicycles if you weren't there tomorrow? Imagine that. Picture that."

"Are you threatening me?"

Kubelka laughed. "Of course not, Levin. I'm just trying to make you visualize the future. You won't be here forever, you know. Before you know it," Kubelka snapped his fingers, "you'll be gone."

"Well, I know I won't be here forever," said Myron. I bet those cuff links cost $300. "I'd get tired of watching you eat shrimp cocktail after about fifty years."

Kubelka stared at Myron and cleared his throat. "I didn't mean you wouldn't be here forever. I meant you wouldn't be alive forever."

Myron nodded. $300 at least. Maybe more than that. "I know what you meant. I try not to think about it."

"Well, for the sake of argument, just imagine what would happen to Arapaho bicycles if you weren't there tomorrow."

"I think Judith, my secretary, would be upset. She hates taking messages."

"Okay. Judith's life would be in shambles--"

"I didn't say that."

"Okay, a mess. Phones ringing off the hook. What else?"

"My daughter Lael might wonder what happened to me."

Kubelka sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. "You're missing the point, Levin." He told Myron Arapaho bicycles wouldn't miss a beat. They'd hire a new president. And if they were smart, start making some real money. He outlined how the quarterly earnings should improve, while Myron became more and more depressed, thinking about the inevitability of his death and the meaninglessness of everything we do and the universe in general. Why not give up the company? Did anything really matter?

After a moment Kubelka quit speaking. He could tell Myron wasn't really listening. And, in fact, he looked as if he were about to cry. Kubelka rubbed his broken nose and sighed. He signaled the waitress for the check. Myron's face was so downcast he seemed to be staring at his half-eaten plate of Linguini Alfredo and Italian sausage. Kubelka found himself also staring at it. "You wouldn't catch me eating all that fat in a million years," he said. Myron didn't respond. Kubelka cleared his throat. "Levin, I'm going to make you an offer."

-----

Through the windows of a bar Brian saw that dark had fallen outside. Purple neon lights were shining across the street, and he guessed it was later than he thought. He knew not calling Lael was stupid and cruel, but as he sat across from Carol Johnson in a post-happy hour haze and listened to her go on and on about those changes in Eastern Europe--"Like you were saying Russia's going to have a stock market I mean isn't it incredible?"--he stared at her huge green eyes and nose that was just a little too big but gave her face an exotic, ethnic look, pale hair in a ponytail, lapdog bangs to her eyebrows, cardigan sweater and blue jeans, and he told himself if you're afraid to take any risks in life you might as well be dead. He was on his twelfth drink of the day by then. Full of risk. Carol was wearing a white blouse with a row of black buttons down the front. He wanted to unbutton them. There. Right there. In the middle of the bar. And bury his face in her breasts.

"Wouldn't it be cool to go to Moscow? Or, I don't know. Budapest or somewhere."

Brian nodded and took out his wallet, unfolding it open to show Carol he was out of money. "The worst fate," he said.

"I know where we can get some more."

They drove to one of her mother's laundromats to take the quarters out of some of the machines. As soon as they got there, Brian climbed inside one of the dryers. Carol told him to quit fooling around. But he closed the door and blinked at her from behind the porthole like a passenger on the Titanic.

"Whatever you do, don't touch that dial," he said, pointing to the coin slot.

"You know I think you've got a drinking problem," said Carol. "I mean, Wednesday you were drunk and Friday you were drunk and in fact you were drunk on Tuesday too."

Brian opened the door a crack and whispered, "Nag."

"I should take you home and leave you there. Maybe move and leave no forwarding address."

The blue-white glow of fluorescent lamps filled the laundromat and for a moment, as Brian climbed out of the machine, he felt as if he were in a slow motion rinse cycle, washing machines spinning around him, the air full of detergent. He tried to compose himself, leaning against the fat box of a washing machine, noticing the burned end and speckled brown filter tip of a cigarette butt someone had ground with their heel on the floor. "It's those kind of people who make this world the mess I am," he said, pointing at the cigarette butt. Then he wrinkled his eyebrows and weaved, unsteady there, trying to figure out just exactly where that sentence went wrong. He banged against the glass doors of the exit and couldn't get out, until Carol came up and said, "Wait a second, spasmo."

In the front seat of her VW Rabbit, Carol had to lean over Brian to pull the shoulder strap between the door and seat to buckle him in. She felt the warm smear of a sloppy kiss on her neck and shrank away, pinching her chin to her shoulder. "Would you behave?"

The drive was a roar of freeways with Brian's window rolled down ("I need the air") and a dizzy heartbeat of street. Bands of flashing streetlights gave way to one red eye as they reached Brian's neighborhood. Carol pulled up at the curb in front of Brian and Lael's house. Her headlights reflected off the taillights of Myron's Lincoln and shone directly into Lael's eyes, who was standing in the driveway behind her father's car. She shaded her eyes and frowned until Carol turned off the headlights. Carol got out and left the engine running. She went around to open the passenger side door. Brian was leaning back in his seat, head against the rest. "I don't think I can walk," he said.

She folded her arms and walked up to Lael, who was standing in the driveway, calling, "Hokey! Hokey Mokey!" and making kissing sounds into the darkness. "Mokey didn't come home for dinner," she told Carol. "I'm afraid something's happened to him."

Carol looked into the darkness of black trees in dark yards, white sidewalks faintly visible as breaks in the lawns. "He's probably just tomcatting around. Do you have company?" she asked, pointing to the car.

"Just my dad."

Carol nodded. "You know, this is totally embarrassing, but Brian's in my car and he's really drunk."

"That's nothing new."

"But I don't think he can walk."

Lael shrugged, and for a moment looked into Carol's eyes to see if there was a real person there. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"I don't know." Carol put her hands in her blue jean pockets. "He's in my car."

Lael walked away, calling Hokey's name again. Carol walked back to her car. The night was so dark she touched the fender to feel her way along. "Brian, you're home." He looked like he was asleep. She had to shake his shoulder. "If you're going to sleep you should get in your bed, Brian. You can't sleep in my front seat."

He opened his eyes for a moment and looked at Carol uncertainly. "I'm not asleep," he said, then closed his eyes again. "I'm thinking."

"Goddamit. Get out of the car, Brian. I've got things to do." She opened the car door and finally managed to get him to walk out and stand beside the maple tree near the mailbox. He leaned over to get some air, and he wasn't aware of how much time had passed before he was alone. He didn't know how he'd gotten there or where exactly he was for a moment. He stared at the yellow light over the side door and the two cars in the driveway before he realized he was home.

He decided to head for the side entrance where the light was and felt the yard slam him in the face. He smelled dirt and grass, tasted something gritty in his mouth. It reminded him of the snails he would put in his mouth when he was five years old and played in the flower garden. He remembered his mother forcing his mouth open and shouting, "Spit it out! Spit it out!" Somewhere a woman's voice called, "Hokey! Hokey Mokey!"

Lael walked into the light of the driveway and looked at him. He managed to raise himself up on all fours and say, "I think I'm going to be sick."

She nodded. "Good. Think of it as a learning experience."

In the kitchen, her father sat at the small dinette table with Todd, stirring a white china cup of black coffee. Todd was uncharacteristically glum and gloomy. He turned around an empty Pepsi can in his hands. "Any sign of the Moke?"

"No, but Brian's in the front yard."

"What's he doing there?"

"Crawling, I think."

Myron shook his head and clucked his tongue. "And this you call a significant other?"

"Don't worry, Dad," said Lael. "He's getting less significant day by day." She leaned against the back of his chair and put her arms around him from behind.

"That's good news," he said. "I think it's time this family took a long hard look at itself. Maybe Kubelka's buyout proposal isn't so bad."

Lael toasted bagels for all of them and for a moment they were full of life. She argued the Myron should stick with the company and not sell out, even if Kubelka bought up controlling interest and deposed him as C.E.O.

"But if this guy does buy us out, how much are my shares going to be worth?" asked Todd.

"Just forget it, Todd. We're not selling."

"What's this? Queen Lael has spoken? I don't know. Maybe we should take the money and like, screw it. Who needs the hassle?"

Myron stirred his coffee slowly, the spoon ringing against the inside of the cup. His back was sore and his hands blistered from the rowing he'd done earlier. He felt heavy and weak, and he could hear his own breathing. Maybe I should travel. Take a train through Morocco. Camels and sand dunes. Wicker baskets of dates. A sad middle-aged man with gray hair and ridiculous luggage. In a fleabag somewhere in Marrakesh, the maid finds me dead, wrists agape, a puddle of blood on the Islamic tiles of the bathroom floor.

He voice suddenly rose as he spread a layer of cream cheese onto one of the toasted bagels. "And you kids have to learn how to handle your own finances. I won't be around forever you know."

Lael frowned and shook her head. "Don't be silly. Of course you won't be around forever. But neither will we." She looked at her gray-haired father, at the deep grooves in his face and his fleshy lips, at the bluish shadow of beard down his jaw and around his mouth, and she wondered how long it would take to get Brian out of her life. There's plenty more where he came from. But is this what it comes down to? You care for something all your life just so some ratfink can come and take it away? The best thing to do is not to feel or care. The best way to walk is chin held high, arms swinging. Look busy. Act like you know where you're going. If anyone asks for directions, keep moving.

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