THE USUAL NOTE FROM LB: From the summer of 2002 to the spring of 2010, Gwen the Beautiful and I were the proud and often exhausted owners of a beautiful Ozarks property we called Cloud Creek Ranch.
In many ways, the ranch was paradise. But it was a paradise with a price that started going up before we even knew it existed. Here’s another Monday musing about our adventure and the lessons we learned.
Oh, and if y’all detect any irony, please believe me when I say it comes straight from the universe and not your kindly Uncle Larry B.
by Larry Brody
I was sitting on the front porch swing, enjoying the autumn air, when my cell phone rang. I still haven’t mastered its complexities, so instead of pushing whatever the right button is to see who was calling I did something that always seems to puzzle my kids.
And found myself talking to the Old Billionaire.
As usual, he got right to the point.
“Nettie and I won’t be making it over to the ranch for dinner this weekend,” the Old Billionaire said. “It’s a business thing.”
“Sorry to hear that you’re going to miss Gwen the Beautiful’s delicious chicken curry,” I said.
“So am I,” he said. “But I probably don’t deserve it anyway.” And then the Old Billionaire did something unusual for him. He hesitated, as though fighting against the impulse to tell me more.
“O.B.?” I said. “You still there?”
His reply took me by surprise. “The last month’s been a disaster. A 10 on the Richter Scale, and I’m thinking it’s going to get worse.”
His words rushed out, like the kind of cloudburst we’ve been needing around here in Paradise for way too long.
“A couple of weeks ago I learned that Esther, my personal assistant for 20 years, has been robbing me blind for a dozen of them. This woman, who knows my moods and habits and general state of mind better than I do, has embezzled more than $2 million from the company.”
“I met Esther,” I said. “She seemed really devoted to you.”
“Oh, she was devoted to something, all right. When I asked her why she did it she got all quiet and looked around the room and down at the floor like a kid. And then she looked right into my eyes and said, ‘All I took was what I thought I deserved. The money you should’ve been paying me all this time.’
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it have made more sense to just ask for a raise?’
“She said, ‘Would you have given me a $200,000 a year raise?’
“She knew what I was going to say, so she went right on as though I’d said it. ‘I didn’t think so,’ she said. ‘And then I’d have to quit. But I didn’t want to quit because I like working for you so much. So …’”
I got the drift. “That had to hurt.”
“Not as much as my wife’s reaction,” said the Old Billionaire. “I told Nettie right away, and she fixed me with that screaming stare she can get and said, real sad, ‘O.B., did you sleep with that woman?’
“And then she did the same thing Esther did. Went on like I’d answered when I hadn’t.
“‘Never mind,’ Nettie said. ‘I know you wouldn’t bother with such folderol. Even if maybe—just maybe—that was all she really wanted.’
“I must’ve looked really lost then, because Nettie’s eyes softened. She shook her head. ‘How did a man as smart as you get to be as old as you without knowing that you just plain can’t give a person so little and yet trust them so much?’ Especially if you’re not married.’
“But that was just the beginning,” the Old Billionaire went on. “Soon as word got out about what’d happened, my Second-In-Command, the bright boy I’ve tutored in this business since he and I first laid eyes on each other, the Harvard grad genius I’ve been grooming forever, came riding in with guns a-blazin’. At me.
“‘Your behavior is totally irresponsible,’ he said. ‘And your lack of proper oversight is contemptible. The fact that she could get away with this for so long proves you’re not fit to run this company. You’ve lost it, old man. Time to step down and give the reins to me. And if you don’t do it voluntarily, I’ll take every legal measure I can.’”
The Old Billionaire stopped himself. After a beat: “So you see, my friend, I’ve got my hands full. Instead of filling my belly at your place I’ll be in the office working on damage control.”
After we hung up, I went back inside and told Gwen about the call. “Wait a minute,” she said thoughtfully. “His company’s not public, right? Isn’t it a family business?”
“That it is,” I said.
“Then the Second-In-Command whose guns are a-blazing— ”
“Is his son.”
And a chill wind swept over us even though we weren’t outdoors.