Time’s Bending Sickle

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12. The Clock That Tells the Time

It was the middle of November, 1980. Although it had been only four weeks since the stock promotion tour began, the geography I’d covered, the time-travelling I’d done, and the bug I’d caught made it seem longer. The travel and the bug also seemed to distract me from the election and mute my disappointment at Reagan’s victory. We expected final approval from the SEC any day, and going public would follow immediately. Howell called a meeting.
Virtually everybody in the company attended, even the most abstracted programmers and lowest mailroom hands. Many had shares of company stock, and knew that going public would mean that its value would increase dramatically. So, in the lobby, the biggest single space in the building, there was a motley mob, some in heels and pearls, some in jeans and sneakers, some in Italian suits and razor cuts, some in Grateful Dead t-shirts and greasy ponytails.
Howell began with an upbeat review of what everybody already knew about going public, stressing the money available for new products, growth, and ultimately more money for everybody. But then he dropped a bomb.
“You can exchange your company stock for public stock on the basis of a two-for-one reverse split.”
The group responded with two expressions, puzzled or angry. Several hands shot up, and there were murmurs and exclamations. Howell smiled reassuringly and spread his hands out as if to smooth out the ripples of noise and waving arms.
“Now I know some of you have been multiplying your shares by the usual price of new offerings, and have been measuring your garage for your new boat. We can’t do it that way, and I’ll tell you why. Believe me, you’ll be happy in the long run. Before I take your questions, let me say something that may answer some of them. Yes, two of your company shares will be equal to one share of the public stock. But this will not change the value of the shares. Please be patient while I explain.”
“This better be good,” came from an anonymous corner of the room.
Howell looked in the direction of the voice. “It will be, and anyone not satisfied can check out what I’m saying with an expert of your choice. Now any broker will tell you that buyers don’t like single-digit stocks. Look at any recent public offering, and you’ll find stocks going for from about $12 to $18 a share. Those numbers aren’t just pulled out of the air.” Howell went on to explain, in more detail than I have the patience to reproduce, how the price-to-earnings ratio affects the valuation of the company, which then affects the price of an offering. Since there were about forty million shares of company stock outstanding, not doing a reverse split would dilute the price of the stock and put it in the single-digit range. By reducing the number of shares to around twenty million, the public issue could be priced around $12 to $14. There was still some muttering, but eventually most of those present were satisfied or gave up in confusion.
Howell tried to shore up morale by arguing that now was a good time to go public, because the Dow was up, and because the market expected good things from the new administration. He said that he expected the offering to bring in around $80,000,000. That would enable us to upgrade our equipment, hire some people, and take on some money-making projects. He predicted that everybody would get a raise or bonus by the end of the next year.
When I got home that night, Jean asked me, “How did the people take the reverse split?”
“Mixed. Say, how did you know? I just heard today myself.”
“You’ve been out of it, remember? Howell told me so I could help explain it to Mother. There was no use telling you when you were really sick, and when you got better, I guess I forgot.”
“That really blows my insider image.” I wasn’t especially concerned, or even irritated, but Jean was defensive.
“So I’m supposed to tell you everything? My every move and conversation?”
“No, but I like to know what’s going on with the company. It would be good for us both if I could do a good job right now.”
“I’m not your boss. And you’re not mine, while we’re at it.”
“Did I ever claim to be?” I wanted to move on. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t remember to tell you everything either. Anyway, Howell was pretty persuasive. It’s just that some people had already counted those stock chicks before they hatched.”
Jean was on a different track now. She thrust her chin forward, drawing her lips into a thin line. “What else have you conveniently forgotten to tell me?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you. What do you think I’m holding out on?”
“What about your English mistress?”
“I don’t have any kind of mistress.” What was going on? “I’m a faithful married man. I love my wife.” I smiled and tried to take her hand, but she moved away, folding her arms.
“There’s something you’re not telling me. You talked about people when you had a fever.”
Toby and Jane and Joan? “What did I say? I told you about the trashy book I read on the plane. Don’t movies get in your mind when you’re feverish?”
“You talked about getting money to someone named Joan, and I remembered what Howell said.”
“The only Joan I know is Joan Bidderfield from the third grade. I certainly haven’t given money to any Joan.”
“And who is Prince Maurice?”
“There you go. He was a Dutch army commander in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Maybe I was babbling real history. There was a Pope Joan.” Of course I was lying, and I am so bad at it that I must have seemed suspicious to anyone with Jean’s sensitive antennae. I was innocent of philandering, but guilty of hallucinating, and I knew I couldn’t tell Jean about my visions. “I guess Prince Maurice does sound like the name of a pimp.” That got a bit of a smile, which I tried to make the most of. Jean relaxed a little, and we moved on to less sensitive topics. Later she even gave me a spontaneous peck on the cheek.
Back at work the next day, Howell was going noisily insane. People were running around trying to gather material to satisfy still more questions from the SEC. “Next Tuesday!” Howell shouted at no one in particular. He was standing in the hall, his jacket off and tie undone, by his standards looking like a tramp. “Next Tuesday at 9:30 AM Eastern Time! Do you hear me, people? D-Day is next Tuesday! We hit the beaches at oh-nine-thirty!”
I nodded as I headed to my office to work on the sales figures and put some editorial polish on the prospectus.
“Tony!” Howell bellowed, waving me to follow him into his office. I stood in the door and watched him roam around. He was still in his old office, but he had upgraded his furniture; the desk was large, dark, and heavy, and the chair was a leather job with a high back. In the corner was a globe and stand that had been in Cullen’s office. He gave it a spin in passing.
“Tony, how about carrying the baby to Washington?”
“Fine, but why me?”
“Well, I figure you can find the SEC without too many disasters. Also there’s a hot prospect in Baltimore I’d like you to check out. After”–he jabbed with his finger–“after everything’s square at the SEC and the offer is officially public. Here.” He handed me some sheets of paper from our east coast rep. “Apparently someone there knows you.”
The letter said that Johns Hopkins might be interested in one of our records packages, if it could be shown to save them money. The rep added that one of the faculty advisors on the committee mentioned knowing me, but he didn’t give any name. He thought it might be a plus if I took advantage of whatever connection there might be. Who did I know at Hopkins? Someone from college?
“Fine. What do I have to do at the SEC?”
“Deliver the papers, the exhibits, any last-minute material. I’ll go over it with you.”
“When do I go? Monday morning?”
“I hope. But it may be Tuesday morning, wee hours. It depends on when we get everything ready. I wish you could teleport.”
How about travel in time, I thought. “I’ll make two reservations, the second to get to Washington around seven on Tuesday.”
“OK. Be ready for anything.”
I went back to my office, entered the trip in my calendar, and asked Janelle, the secretary I shared with the local sales reps, to make my reservations. At my desk were piles of sales figures and marked-up pages of the prospectus. I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with them or with a red-eye flight to Washington and who knows what hassles at the SEC. I moved the papers around, looking for a way to delay plunging in. Janelle, still hearing the country music station she played softly at her desk, bounced in doing a toned-down step from the “Cotton-eyed Joe,” her platinum ponytail bobbing.
“First reservation on Continental has you out of DFW at nine fourteen, in at Dulles at eleven fifty-five. The second leaves at two ten AM”–here she pouted in mock sympathy–“gets in at five forty. OK?”
“OK.” Groan. Janelle gave a little kick as she went out, whispering “Bull shit.” What could I do to fight combat fatigue? I pulled out my directory of chamber music players. Baltimore. A familiar name. “Dr. Marina Casberian, viola A. Department of Mathematics, Johns Hopkins.” A phone number. Marina, the quiet little bell-ringer, whose face I mainly remember as covered by bangs and glasses. Could she be my mysterious acquaintance? I punched in the number.
“Could I speak to Dr. Casberian, please?”
“Just a moment.” A pause, a ring.
“Hello.” The voice was fuller than I remembered.
“Dr. Casberian, this is Tony Maclean. I think we played some music in London a while back.”
“Tony! How are you?” Her voice was bright and welcoming. “I thought I might hear from you after I told the Cullen rep I knew you.”
“That was you, then. I’m flattered you remembered me.”
“Of course I remembered. Are you still playing cello?”
“Not as much as I’d like. I’m afraid I’m working too hard. That’s actually what I called about. I’m coming to D.C. next week, and would like to meet with you and your committee about our records package.”
“Fine. When will you be available?”
I set up a meeting for Wednesday afternoon, with an emergency backup time for Thursday in case I got entangled with the SEC. I then got some idea of what the university needed, so that I could bring appropriate materials.
We had just about settled our business, when Marina said, “How about quartets Wednesday night? I can get you a cello.”
I hesitated a moment. I would enjoy some music, and it might help the sale. “That would be great. I’ll try to scrape the rust off my fingers.”
“I look forward to seeing you again.”
“Me too.”

Jean took the news of my trip with barely a ripple of interest, except when she heard that I might have to take a red-eye. “Well, don’t count on me to take you to the airport.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll borrow the pickup and leave it in long-term parking.” The pickup was her father’s. Her mother kept it, but would lend it to us on such occasions. We had only one car.
“I may get some music in. I have to see a prospective client at Hopkins, a math prof I played with once before.”
“Good. How soon after we make the offering will our stock be reported in the trading pages?”
“I don’t know exactly. Immediately, I should think.”
“What’s our symbol?”
“Coo-cups. Coo-coo cups. Coo-coo for coo-cups.” She giggled. “On the New York exchange?”
“Don’t screw up, Tony. I want to see Coo-cups in the business section on Wednesday at nineteen and a quarter.”
“I just carry the paper.”

I took the red-eye, and almost didn’t make that because Howell and the banker’s men were still putting the documents together in the car as they drove me to the airport. I didn’t have time to take the pickup and shuttle from the parking lot. I was to call as soon as I landed in case there were further developments. One of the bankers told a story in the car about a guy in a similar situation who was waiting at the airport for documents to take to the SEC. They hadn’t arrived, and the plane was boarding and scheduled to leave on time.
“Josh, the poor bastard, was about to plotz until he spotted a kid with a USC sweatshirt on. Paid him fifty bucks to fake an epileptic fit in the door of the gate to keep folks from getting on. Turns out the kid was a drama major, did a great job, twitching and thrashing right in the door. They called the paramedics. About then, here comes Al Freund with the papers. Al’s about forty, five ten, two thirty, had been running for about two hundred yards. Handed over the papers, couldn’t breathe. The paramedics came for the kid, who of course got better immediately, bopped off with his fifty bucks. But Al had a heart attack. Lucky the paramedics were right there, and saved his ass. Josh made the plane, too.”
I was panting only a little when I got to the gate. We took off, my adrenaline subsided, and I eventually dozed a bit. I was wide awake and more or less alert when the plane landed at Dulles, on time. After calling Dallas, and being assured that there were no last-minute changes, I took a cab to the SEC, arriving about hour before the file desk opened. I found a coffee shop nearby, and got waffles and a much-needed jolt of caffeine. I got back to the desk and waited a few more minutes; the desk opened, and I filed the documents. Then I took the courtesy copies down to the courtesy desk, which was not yet open. The examiner, I was told, would go through one of these copies, looking for the most recent corrections, since he would be familiar with the application; and, with luck, he would confer with his colleagues, approve everything, and our offering would be effective when the stock market opened at 9:30.
So I went down to the courtesy desk and waited. Eventually a woman appeared and took the documents. I waited some more. After a while, I checked my watch; 9:05. Another five minutes passed. A middle-aged man came out of an office and looked around the reception area, frowning. “Cullen Computing?” he said.
He consulted a file, put his finger on a line, then held it out with one of the courtesy copies. “This pricing document is not in my copy.”
“I’m sorry. Let me check the other copies.” It wasn’t in any of them, and was probably not in the filed copy. “I’m sure it was just an oversight. I’ll phone the office and get them immediately.”
“I’ll be here tomorrow,” he said with a tired sigh.
Howell was frantic and furious. “What the fuck were you doing on the plane, picking your nose? Why didn’t you go through them?”
“Hold on. You and the bankers were putting that stuff together in the car. I thought you had it all.”
“In a situation like this you check everything over and over until you have to turn it in. You were our safety net, and you dropped the baby.”
“What’s the big deal? You express the missing stuff and we go effective tomorrow.”
“Everything was set for today. The bankers are ready, the press will know there’s been a delay, and some investors may think something’s wrong. This may cost us hundreds of thousands.”
“What can I do?”
Howell snorted. “At this point, about all you can do is go to your hotel and catch the papers when they come, and hustle them back to the SEC. Then you can sell Hopkins on the records package. I’ve got to get on the phone and try to explain to the bankers and the press why we fucked up.”
He hung up. Shoot the messenger, I thought, that’s a good tradition for tyrants. But he had a point. I hadn’t cared enough to check the package; if I had found out soon enough, we still might have gone effective today, if not at the opening of the market. I didn’t feel too good.
It was too early to get in my hotel room, so I brooded in the lobby for a couple of hours. I remembered my meeting at Hopkins, and realized I’d better cancel the Wednesday option and confirm the Thursday time. I called Marina. She was in class, but the department secretary took the message.
Eventually I got into my room, and had just fallen on the bed when I got a call from Marina. “Thursday’s fine,” she said. “Are we still on for quartets tomorrow night?”
“Sure. The SEC closes at six, and I can’t imagine having anything else to do after that. What’s the address?”
She gave me a Parkville address. “I’d offer to pick you up, but–”
“No problem. I’ve already got a rental car reserved.”
“See you around eight, then.”
I left word at the desk to call me the moment a package arrived. Then I zoned out on the bed. I guess I hadn’t quite recovered from my bug.
Around 3:30, the phone woke me up. The package was here. I asked the desk to have a cab waiting for me, splashed water on my face, put on my tie, and dashed out. This time I checked the package carefully. It seemed to have the right pricing documents. The cab pulled up at the SEC just before four. I dropped off one set of documents at the file desk, explaining the problem. The clerk showed no surprise. In the basement, the same examiner I had met that morning took one of the courtesy copies, checked it against his file, nodded, looked at each page for a few moments, and made a note in his file. “Looks OK. Have a seat. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I sat and twitched for a while. After what seemed a long time, he came back with a paper. “You’re effective. Good luck.” The paper was a copy of the official notice, with several important-looking reference numbers. The original would be mailed to Dallas, but the numbers would allow the machinery to move. I called Howell, who sighed heavily in relief after I had read the notice to him. He copied the numbers and the names of the examiners and read them back to me.
“Anything else I need to do?”
“Sell that Hopkins job. You meet tomorrow?”
“Thursday. I kept tomorrow clear for the filing. I guess I’ll be back Friday.”
“Call me after your meeting.”
Howell didn’t sound as irritated with me as he had earlier, but he was still not very jolly. I was tired and hungry. It occurred to me that I had not had lunch. I found an inviting seafood place and had some tasty crab cakes. Back at the hotel, I read awhile, then slept as if I had not had a two-hour nap that afternoon.
The next morning I prepared for the Hopkins meeting on Thursday. By lunchtime I had gone over all the material I had, and could not think of any more questions to anticipate. I had sold the records package several times before, and knew it about as well as I was going to. Maybe I would have some lunch and go browse in the Smithsonian museums.
I was a perfect customer for “the nation’s attic.” I loved the old, curious, miscellaneous, and historical. I went to Air and Space, American History, Natural History. I looked at the airplanes, the Hope diamond, the insect zoo, the Indian artifacts, colonial memorabilia, Dorothy’s ruby slippers. I was still absorbed in the collection of old musical instruments when I noticed that it was nearly six, and I hadn’t eaten or rented a car. By the time I had taken care of that and hit the road for Baltimore, I was feeling pretty tired.
I found the address without much trouble, arriving just after eight. It was a curious building, with a high wedge-shaped outline. Marina met me at the door. I was surprised to see a pleasant-faced young woman with bright brown eyes behind unobtrusively fashionable rimless glasses, and a short but neat and flattering haircut. Immediately she seemed more confident and outgoing than the shy, quiet student I had met in London. She shook my hand warmly and introduced me to the rest of the quartet, both women. They were a bit older than Marina and I, and both had a vaguely academic style about them: cotton sweaters, corduroy pants, sensible shoes. Alice, a handsome black woman, taught at Towson State, Doreen at Goucher. We chatted pleasantly for a few moments, the women teasing one another on the basis of a friendly relationship of some standing. I was distracted by the large room, and apologized for myself. The slanted part of the wedge, the roof, was almost all glass. We stood in a corner set aside for ordinary living, with a sofa, table, lamps, and chairs; the rest of the room was clearly an artist’s studio. A long table against one wall was covered with cans, bottles, and junk; several large canvases leaned against another wall, and an easel with a work in progress dominated the center of the room. It was a striking splash of color from which a few recognizable forms–a horse, a woman–emerged as I looked at it.
“Who’s the artist?”
“Oh, Clio,” said Marina. “This is her place.”
“Will she join us?”
“Ordinarily she would, but she’s away. She doesn’t play herself, but she claims to enjoy listening to us while she paints. As you see, she lets us play here whether she’s here or not. We love playing in this wonderful room. It’s like singing in the bathtub.”
Alice broke in. “You’ll be especially glad we play here. Clio inherited a great cello from her father, a Goffriller.”
“Wow!” Casals preferred his Goffriller to his Strad. “You mean I get to play it?”
“Yes,” said Doreen, with relish. “Our regular cellist is on leave in Germany. When she writes, it’s clear that she misses the cello more than she does us.”
Marina reached in a closet and brought out a cello. I opened the case and stared. It was like opening a chest full of gold–old gold. It didn’t glitter, but it glowed, as if it were lit from within by a low but intense and steady fire. I took it out gently and tightened the bow. I found a chair, adjusted the end pin, and stroked the D string. The room filled with sound. I tuned it and began playing a Bach suite. The sound was amazing–rich and buttery in the middle register, ringing and clear in the upper, and solid and vibrant in the low. It had no muffled spots, no unpleasantly nasal spots, and I couldn’t find the “wolf,” that patch of bad sound that almost every cello has. After a while I looked up and saw the three women seated with their instruments, watching me and smiling.
“Sorry. I got carried away.”
Marina spoke. “Don’t worry. We’re used to the effect it has on cellists.”
“It practically plays itself,” I marvelled. “It won’t let you play a wrong note or a tasteless phrase.”
They laughed. “We’ve had some that tried,” said Alice. “But it is a wonderful instrument. Shall we start with Haydn?”
We played Haydn’s “Emperor,” the Beethoven opus 95, and Brahms’s third. Marina did well in her solos in the Haydn and Brahms, her sound seeming to build on the increased confidence she now displayed in her manner and speech. Alice and Doreen were fine musicians, technically adequate, and especially sensitive to the ensemble. We had very few glitches caused by disagreements in tempo, and everybody paid attention to dynamics. It was a very satisfying evening.
At the end of the Brahms, Alice said, “Anyone for one more movement?” Doreen complained that she had an early class. Suddenly I realized that I was bone tired.
It must have showed, because Marina said, “I’m afraid we’ve worn Tony out.”
“I’ve got to drive back to D.C. tonight,” I said, unable to disguise my weariness. “This has been great, but I just got over a bug. I’d better go.”
“Listen,” said Marina eagerly. “Just stay here tonight. Clio won’t mind–in fact, she’ll be glad to have had someone in the house.”
I hesitated. “I might get a call at the hotel. I’ll have to go back for my material for the meeting anyway.”
“Do it in the morning when you’re rested. Call the hotel and give them this number.”
I was too tired to argue. “OK. If you’re sure Clio won’t mind.”
All three chorused assurances. Doreen and Alice parted with concern and advice, and recommended a nearby cafe for breakfast. Marina lingered long enough to say that she would like to stay and visit, but that she was expected home. We would catch up on our London friends after the meeting. She shook my hand, squeezing mine in both of hers.
I didn’t disturb Clio’s bed, but found a blanket, stripped to my jockey shorts and t-shirt, and settled down on the couch. I had missed turning off one light; it lit up the painting on the easel. I’ll get up in a minute and turn it off, I said to myself. But I lay looking at the painting, seeing the woman, the horse, a bird, and now another face emerge from the swirl of colors. The face was in the lower corner, looking toward the other forms. It was a woman’s face, a strong face with high cheekbones, full lips, and slightly slanted eyes. I would get up and turn off the light. In a minute. But the bird began to soar, the horse to prance. The face of the woman smiled.


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