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