Monday, April 23, 2012

Man's Best Friend

            If Mr. Beaumont had heard it once he had heard it a thousand times. He heard it from his wife, he heard it from his son, he heard it from his investor, he had even heard it time and again from his dog, Duke, and quite frankly, he was tired of hearing it: he would never take a break, even if it killed him.
            A greyed man with tight-set lips and a perpetually furrowed brow, Mr. Beaumont was married to his work and had been for quite some time. At least once a day Mr. Beaumont locked himself in his study and buried himself under a mound of unimportant paperwork simply for the quiet and solitude it ensured. In truth, Mr. Beaumont despised his work and was always tempted to agree whenever his wife, his son, his investors, or his dog told him what he had heard over and over again: to take a break. But despite the appeal of the suggestion, Mr. Beaumont found the notion of “taking a break” quite preposterous.
            A rich man himself, Mr. Beaumont had spent his entire adult life helping other rich men get richer by advising them on where, how, and when to invest their money. Mr. Beaumont was well-researched and had above-par intuition, and his clients paid handsomely for his fruitful service. Of course, his clients handsomely profited from Mr. Beaumont’s well-researched intuition, and naturally Mr. Beaumont received ten percent of the profits each of his clients made. Mr. Beaumont had lost exact count after his personal worth reached $472,999, but he roughly estimated his worth at at least twice that now. Needless to say, Mr. Beaumont had plenty of money to go around: his wife knew it; his son knew it; his investors knew it; his dog knew it.
            His wife had grown complacently accustomed to the life her husband’s practice afforded her. She quite liked the soft warmth of a mink stole wrapped around her shoulders in the bleak New York winter. She liked the shiny red Duesenberg that shuttled her around the city. She liked the six-story Manhattan mansion and the beach house in the Caribbean, which she frequented, always without her husband. She liked the leisurely life that had become her rite, and she liked the ostentatious diamonds that hung like chandeliers from her earlobes.
            Mr. Beaumont’s son had never wanted for anything in his life. Educated at the most prestigious preparatory schools and in possession of a college degree from Harvard, Victor Beaumont was an up-and-coming broker for the newly founded United Airlines. Now twenty-five, Victor stayed abreast of new competition, and was rewarded with a generous salary to cover his living expenses and his luxuries, including the expensive tastes of his debutante fiancĂ©e.
            Mr. Beaumont’s investors had acclimated themselves to his hands-off approach. Not particularly gregarious, Mr. Beaumont preferred to speak with facts in succinct sentences and avoid any superfluous chatter. Those wealthy enough to afford Mr. Beaumont’s expertise learned to expect little more than a curt hello and a report of worthwhile investment opportunities within thirty-six hours.
            Mr. Beaumont’s dog spent most of the day following Mr. Beaumont, but keeping a respectful distance. Duke was a seven-year-old pure bread Great Dane who had an unusual fondness for Mr. Beaumont where no one else did. Although his master was rarely affectionate, Duke’s loyalty was often rewarded with delicious treats and tremendous praise, the likes of which were unprecedented for Mr. Beaumont who, at Victor’s college graduation, offered his son a handshake and a half-smile and, at his own wedding, kissed his wife on the cheek. A large part of Mr. Beaumont loved Duke more than he had ever loved any human. Perhaps it was the dog’s silent nature or the respectable distance the dog kept, but any praise or love Mr. Beaumont had in his aging shell he gave to Duke.
            This particular day, Sunday, the twentieth of October, 1929, Mr. Beaumont was up to his neck in paperwork and locked in his study with Duke, who lay dozing on an Oriental rug on the other side of the spacious room.
            “Good dog,” Mr. Beaumont mumbled, absent-mindedly tossing a handful of chicken in the dog’s direction as Mr. Beaumont focused his eyes on an expense report. Duke rushed to retrieve his reward, his paws clacking noisily on the hardwood floor.
            It’s difficult to assess just how long Mr. Beaumont was furrowing his brow reading over the tedious expense report, but all the street lamps had been lit when a soft knock came on his study door.
            “Who is it?” asked Mr. Beaumont, who knew very well that no one besides his wife would dare disturb him in his study.
            “It’s me, dear,” answered his wife.
            “Well, what it is?” he asked, not getting up from his office chair.
            “Dinner’s on,” his wife responded through the heavy oak door.
            “It’ll take it up here.”
            “Victor’s here with Lilly.” Mrs. Beaumont paused hoping to hear her husband’s office chair scraping against the maple flooring. When she didn’t, she added, “We all wish you’d come down.”
            Mr. Beaumont sat still for a moment, contemplating his options, but finally stood with an exaggerated grunt and stepped away from his chair. “Come, Duke,” he beckoned.
            Mr. Beaumont’s faithful staff was keen to the peculiarities of the Beaumont’s dining requirements. The forks, instead of positioned to the left of the plate, were positioned to the right. The knives lay opposite the fork on the left side, and the spoon lay parallel to the serving plate, above it. The cloth napkins were to be folded and placed just so, and each water glass was always to be two-thirds full.
            When Mr. Beaumont finally and begrudgingly left his office for dinner, he found Mrs. Beaumont, Victor, and Lilly already seated at the table. Silently he took his place at the head of the table. The family ate in uncomfortable silence until Mr. Beaumont said, “What is so important that you insisted I step away from my work?” His knife tore elegantly into the brownish, pinkish filet and dragged noisily across his plate. “I have a great deal of work, you know.”
            “Father,” Victor said, clearing his throat. “As you know, Lilly and I are to be married this December, and it is…”
            “Do you need more money for the wedding?” Mr. Beaumont interrupted, for he jumped at the chance to express his fatherly devotion the best way he knew how: with his checkbook.
            Victor tightened his jaw. “No,” he answered rather shortly. “Rather, it is our wish that you accompany us – Lilly, mother, and I – to the beach house when we go tomorrow.”
            “Out of the question,” Mr. Beaumont answered immediately. “October is my biggest month.”
            “All months are you biggest,” Victor said, trying to keep an even tone while internally debating how best to say what he was about to say next. “Father,” Victor began, “you are no longer a young man.” Half-chewed filet hung in Mr. Beaumont’s mouth as he leered across the table at his son.
            “What Victor is trying to say, dear,” Mrs. Beaumont interjected, “is that it would be tremendous if, before you are…” Her gaze fixated on the strings of fat mashed between her husband’s teeth, and she was suddenly speechless.
            “Before you are no longer physically able to do so,” Victor said, “we would like to spend time with you.”
            “Leisure time,” said Mrs. Beaumont.
            “Away from the city,” said Victor.
            Mr. Beaumont slowly chewed the bite that had so gracelessly lay dormant in his moth, think all the while about the possible, disastrous repercussions of his absence. “How long is this vacation?” He said the last word with such disdain that Lilly, who was quite a sensitive young woman anyway, began to tap her toes uncontrollably.
            Victor and Mrs. Beaumont exchanged glances. “Three weeks,” Victor finally announced.
            Mr. Beaumont grabbed at his chest as if someone had knocked the wind out of him. “Three weeks? Preposterous. Undoable. Unimaginable. Unthinkable.” He continued to mutter similar words to himself while Victor and Mrs. Beaumont sat in stunned silence, and poor Lilly’s whole leg started shaking. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap went her heel on the ground. Her chair shook slightly back and forth.
            “Two weeks,” Mrs. Beaumont offered desperately. “Would you come for two weeks dear?”
            “Madness. Insanity. Foolishness.”
            “Irrational. Lunacy. Ludicrous. Absurd.”
            Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap, Lilly’s fingers joined the movement.
            “One week!” Victor pleaded. Then, regaining some dignity, he added, “and that’s my final offer.”
            Mr. Beaumont sat quiet. Lilly’s fingers quieted. “One week,” he contemplated. Lilly’s leg quieted.
            Mrs. Beaumont noticed the muscles in her husband’s jaw tense and relax, tense and relax. His breathing was labored, and every exhalation moved the hairs in his greying mustache.
            “One week,” Victor said again.”
            “One week,” Mr. Beaumont conceded. “But I’m not terribly pleased about it.”
            The next morning Mr. Beaumont saw his family off to the airport. Mrs. Beaumont eagerly hustled out the door with her bulging suitcases, Lilly at her heels, both urging Victor to hurry up.
            “The car will come for you in two weeks,” Victor told his father, determined not to leave any details out. “That will be November 4. I’ve told the driver to come at 8:30 sharp. The plane leaves at 11:00 precisely. I’ve left your ticket on your desk in eh study in a clearly marked envelope.”
            Mr. Beaumont nodded as his son talked on, but Mr. Beaumont’s mind was elsewhere. Stocks and money, investors and meetings; vacation was two weeks away. Vacation! Mr. Beaumont shuddered at the thought.
            “I’ve packed you a suitcase,” Victor continued.
            “Yes, yes, good, good,” Mr. Beaumont said absent-mindedly. “Don’t leave the ladies waiting.”
            Victor sighed. “You will remember everything I’ve said, won’t you?”
            Mr. Beaumont placed a reassuring hand on his son’s shoulder. “Son,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t worry.”
            Victor caught his father’s eye and in it saw a flash of the facts and figures that consume his father’s brain. Victor squared his jaw. “I’ll see you in two weeks,” he said. He plopped his suitcase into the boot of the car and slammed it shut. He paused at the car door and called to his father, “Two weeks!”
            “Two weeks!” Mr. Beaumont called back, waving his family off. “Just you and me, Duke,” Mr. Beaumont said, still waving as the car drove away.
            The exhaust fumes tapered off as the black Cadillac turned the corner, and Mr. Beaumont breathed a sigh of relief. “Just you and me, Duke,” he repeated. Mr. Beaumont stood on the stoop for a while, relishing his freedom in silence. “Let’s go, Duke.” Mr. Beaumont turned sharply on his heel and swung the heavy black door closed behind him.
            Since his wife had reluctantly dismissed all the staff per his request, Mr. Beaumont found himself one very small man in one very large house. He worked in silence, he took his meals alone, and he went to bed and rose in utter solitude. “Just the way I like it,” Mr. Beaumont told Duke, offering him a fatty slab of ham.
            A man of routine, Mr. Beaumont amassed himself in the solitary freedom of his schedule. 6:15 he rose. 6:20, tea and the morning paper. 7:00 he dressed. 7:15 he briskly walked the dog. 7:45 another cup of tea and a light breakfast. Promptly at 8:30 he began his work. He hustled non-stop through paperwork, furrowing his brow and tugging at his ever-receding hairline until 12:30 when he broke for his lunch and to walk Duke again. Promptly at 1:30 he returned to work. He had cancelled his meetings with clients until after vacation so he could perhaps be only waist-deep in paperwork upon his return. So, from 1:30 – 4:00 he toiled through data and numbers, charts and statistics. At 4:00 he stopped for tea and a light snack, then worked again from 4:30 – 6:00, at which point he walked Duke until 6:30, then sat down to his dinner and the evening paper an hour later. He read and studied the paper until 9:45 when he retired to his dark, but elegant bedchamber, where he dreamed in facts and figures.
            Such was Mr. Beaumont’s routine for three days. Three wonderful days of habitual work and silence. When Mr. Beaumont woke up on the morning of October 24 at 6:15 precisely, he felt well rested and prepared to start his day. As his tea water boiled, he ambled outside to retrieve that morning’s paper. The sun had barely risen. Mr. Beaumont picked up the paper and, hearing the teakettle’s shrill whistle, hurried back inside and tossed his paper on the dining room table. The steam kissed his face as the tea steeped. The tantalizing scent of jasmine flirted with his nose, and Mr. Beaumont watched eagerly as the tea water turned from a tepid tan to a smooth chocolate. He sat down, ready to read, ready to sip his tremendous tea. He took sip, savoring in the smooth richness of its aromatic, sensory existence. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle felt crisp and carried the aroma of being both freshly printed and recently retrieved from October grass. The paper crinkled as Mr. Beaumont flipped it and landed with a resounding thud on the table. His teacup rested on his lips, the ceramic almost burning that susceptible flesh, as Mr. Beaumont sat paralyzed, his brain trying to comprehend the information that his eyes were reading: “WALL ST. IN PANIC AS STOCKS CRASH.” The bold font leapt off the page, commanding its captive audience to sit up straight, to pay attention.
            Slowly, very slowly, so as not to upset it more, Mr. Beaumont lowered his teacup to the table. Gently, as if caressing a small baby, the greying man ran his right thumb along the headline, the black ink saturating his skin. “Huh,” he uttered.
            Once again Mr. Beaumont brought the teacup to his lips, but found he had only the strength to lift it halfway before the white ceramic cascaded to the wooden floor, shattering into pieces that washed this way and that way in a flood of hot jasmine tea. Mr. Beaumont’s wrinkly hand gripped at his heart, but to no avail. The pain was too much – the loss was too big, the money was too important, the stocks were too critical – for the old man, and he fell sideways off his chair. If the broken ceramic at all cut his skin, he didn’t notice. His heart had stopped well before any shards could penetrate his skin.
            Duke, who always kept a respectable distance from his master, didn’t approach the decaying Mr. Beaumont for two days, by which time Duke, who hadn’t been fed in all that time, was quite ravenous.