The following is excerpted from Joshua Ferris' novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes. Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, and a collection of stories, The Dinner Party. He was a finalist for the National Book Award, and the winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Ferris lives in New York.
Steady Boy woke, showered and spritzed, skipped breakfast for the time being, and headed in to work.
Oh, what a glorious morning! Maybe. The weather in the basement was unknown. The computer required waking. Made its little nibbling noises when stirred from its slumber, said its staticky hellos. The old office chair. The cold basement damp. Steady Boy had a desk calendar from 1991, a letter opener in the fashion of a gem-encrusted rapier, a ratty-ass Rolodex, and at his feet a rug. The rug, however, made moving around in the roller chair a living hell. So a sheet—listen to this. This is a true story. A sheet of stamped plastic specifically designed to facilitate the easy rolling of roller chairs in challenging terrain was purchased from Office Depot some years back by Steady Boy—
Steady Boy? No one had called him that in thirty, forty years. Back then, Charlie Barnes had found it hard to keep a job, either because the pay was bad, or the boss was a dick, or the work itself was a pain in the ass, and someone, an uncle, probably, dubbed him Steady Boy and the name stuck, the way “Tiny” will stick to a big fat man. Steady Boy’s knocking off early again, Steady Boy’s calling in sick . . . that sort of thing. The paying gig that another man considered manna from heaven was for Steady Boy an encroachment on private land. He valued his freedom. He enjoyed his sleep. He liked to read the funny pages at his leisure.
So much for all that. Steady Boy was Mr. Charles A. Barnes now, sixty-eight years old that morning, a small businessman and father of four, and likely to live forever.
Ah, but it was all pretense and fakery. He was a big fat fraud!
Shouldn’t think like that, but it was true. Goddamn it was, certainly where his teeth were concerned. Other areas, too. His achievements, his . . . framed certificates. Big deal! He hadn’t even finished college. Hang that up on your wall, Steady Boy. Failure number one, as far as he was concerned: no college degree. Failure number two: all the times he lied about having a college degree. Failure number three: ah, screw this. (Failure number three was his reluctance to look back for too long.) He was too proud and too pressed for time to be reviewing all his damn failures. We’d be here all year. Steady Boy didn’t have a year. Steady Boy had cancer, that’s what he had.
But hey, not just any cancer. The big kahuna of cancers: pancreatic. Heard about that one? Cancer of the pancreas is the piano that falls from the sky. You have time to glance up, maybe. Then, splat! Like a bug on the cosmic grille.
His achievements—ha! He’d spent half his life prepping the next big thing. It never panned out. Steady Boy did not, in fact, have a hard time holding down a job. He just never wanted to be a sucker, a schlub, or a midlevel this or that. Like anyone, he had hoped to make a killing, become a household name, live forever. Well, he would not, now. That was just a done deal.
We really need to stop calling him Steady Boy.
Good God, he thought first thing as he took a seat at his desk, the failures! All the marketing materials he still had somewhere, still shrink-wrapped. Bales of the stuff. Beautiful four-color trifold brochures in service to nothing now, nothing. His sunk costs alone could bury him alive. In pursuit of the American dream, Steady Boy had spent a small fortune on promotional ballpoints. He’d branded water bottles, key chains, stress balls. Bold Charlie Barnes would have branded his own ass with a red-hot poker to give his ideas a better shot in the marketplace. But what happened, every time? Nothing happened. Without so much as a whimper, they just withered and died.
What do you want from me, huh? What did you expect?
Those were some of the questions Steady Boy was asking that morning, after waking his computer and sitting awhile with the rapier-style letter opener, contemplatively cleaning his nails.
But of whom was he asking them? His children? Ex-wives? Old colleagues, maybe. Like that bastard Larry Stoval.
He knew Larry from his time at Bear Stearns—that scrappy brokerage firm with the dog-eat-dog mind-set, now kaput. He and Larry Stoval were good buddies back then. This was years ago. Charlie worked the retail desk while Larry cleared dubious trades at the direct orders of Jimmy Cayne, Bear’s CEO, doing God knows what damage to the moral universe . . . but what was it that kept Larry up at night? It wasn’t boiler rooms and FTC fines. It was Charlie’s affair with a nurse at First Baptist.
It was fall, 1992. The nurse’s name was Barbara. Larry didn’t like her. Didn’t like the idea of her. Larry, the Oak Brook deacon, didn’t give a damn about Wall Street thievery, but coveting thy neighbor’s wife—now that Larry could not abide. Human hypocrisy of this magnitude was one reason Charlie always felt far from God. Little did Larry know that that guilt-ridden affair, which ended when Charlie left Evangeline and married the nurse, sent him, for the first and only time in his life, to a therapist’s couch just to pull himself together. Honestly, he’d assumed the extramarital shame would go on eating him alive, like the guy who stole fire from the gods and had his liver picked clean by birds. But did Larry offer him any comfort? Take-home pay that put Larry Stoval in the halls of Valhalla, but he still couldn’t afford a little compassion for his fellow fallen man. “Larry,” Charlie had said, making himself vulnerable to his good old friend, “I’m in real trouble here,” and what’d the guy do? Treated him like a fucking pariah. He set down the letter opener, picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Wells Fargo. Larry Stoval’s office.”
“So,” Charlie said, “Larry works for Wells now, does he?”
Charlie was in the roller chair, on top of the slip mat that lay on top of the rug, the cordless at his ear. It had been over fifteen years since he had last spoken to Larry Stoval.
“He sure does,” the woman said.
“He was at Washington Mutual before Wells,” Charlie said, “and UBS before WaMu.” When the woman said nothing, he added, “As you can tell, I like to keep an eye on his career.”
“I can see that,” the woman said. “But unfortunately, Larry hasn’t quite made it into the office this morning. Can I leave a message for you?”
“Sure,” he said. “This is Charlie Barnes calling. I’m an old colleague from Bear Stearns. Can you tell Larry that I have pancreatic cancer, please?”
The receptionist went silent.
“That’s Charlie Barnes,” he said. “Old colleague. Pancreatic cancer. Thank you.”
He hung up.
The events currently being narrated unfolded in the fall of 2008, at the start (hard as it was to believe at the time) of an era of hope and change. There was a sudden massive liquidity freeze, the banks were crumbling, the feds were scrambling, the Great Recession was on its way. It was a golden era, believe it or not, yet things were bad. People were losing their homes, their livelihoods, their nest eggs. Government bailouts followed the corporate bleeding. The asylum, meanwhile—by which Charlie meant banking institutions, state governments, the White House—had been overtaken some time back by the inmates themselves, a slate of elected officials and their functionaries that was, to a man, entirely fucking corrupt.
The reckoning at Bear Stearns had come six months earlier, in March. If you don’t remember Bear, all the better. But make no mistake, this is a true story: Bear Stearns was once an estimable American institution and Jimmy Cayne its hotshot CEO. Then the fifth-largest investment bank on Wall Street went belly-up after a single bad quarter. Hard to believe. But was it, really? They were a bunch of swinging dicks getting filthy rich off risky bets and boiler rooms. Wasn’t it just a matter of time?
Jimmy Cayne—oh boy! For Charlie Barnes, that man was the face of every greedy deal now coming back to haunt the country. He knew him firsthand—had met him once, anyway. Little guy, not much to look at, but charismatic in a bulldog way. He had swanned through the Chicago office chomping down on one of his famous cigars on a day in ’92—and it was beholding this plump, rotten, smug Jimmy Cayne in the flesh that, in part, prompted Charlie to quit Bear Stearns and go out on his own the following year, specializing in retirees.
Now, fifteen years later, the million-dollar ideas had compounded all around him, and stacks of paper climbed his desk. He reached for the monkey’s-paw back scratcher he kept inside a coffee cup (claw and container branded for separate concerns, but blaring the same toll-free number) and worked it between his shoulder blades, then along the pink purlieus of his salt-and-pepper beard. At a moment he was dying of cancer, could he get in touch with Cayne, as he had just done Stoval? Odds were not good. But then Charlie darted the monkey’s paw back into the coffee cup with a clatter and turned his attention to the desktop computer. After a moment’s search, there was a listing for Jimmy Cayne, complete with phone number and a Manhattan address, all for a twenty-dollar fee. It was like having sudden access to J. Pierpont Morgan. Steady Boy didn’t have twenty dollars just hanging around, but he did have an ax to grind and not much else going on besides.
“Good morning,” he said when the caller picked up. “I’m looking for Jimmy Cayne.”
“Jimmy Cayne? James Cayne? Former CEO of now-defunct Bear Stearns? Is he available?”
“I’m afraid you have the wrong number,” the man said. “Hold on,” he said. “I just paid twenty bucks for this
number. Are you sure?”
“There’s no one here by that name.”
“I’m looking for Jimmy Cayne,” he said. “I’m looking to give him a piece of my mind.”
“There’s no one here by the name of Cayne.”
“How dare he sell subprime mortgages to any stiff with a pulse? How dare he leverage the hell out of Bear and leave the taxpayer holding the bag? You tell him Charlie Barnes thinks he’s a rat fucking bastard—”
The man hung up.
Probably hadn’t cared for all the profanity. Who could blame him? Guy’s going about the ordinary course of a morning, picks up the phone and gets cursed at. But you know who that caller—he wasn’t the caller; technically, Charlie was the caller; still, Charlie thought of him as the caller—who that caller really wouldn’t have cared for, in that case? Jimmy fucking Cayne, that’s who! Every word out of that man’s mouth was a curse. He called the man back.
“Sorry to bother you again.” “What do you want?”
“Please allow me to apologize. You answer the phone and the other guy goes off. That’s not fair. But you see,” he said, and paused. “You see, I have pancreatic cancer.” He paused again, swiveling a little, idly smoothing back with a fingertip the desk calendar’s frayed edge. “I don’t know how much you know about that particular type of cancer.”
He fell silent to allow the man time to reply.
“Let me give you some idea, then,” he said. “You die. They diagnose you, and a few months later, or a few weeks later, that’s it. You die.”
Still nothing from the man.
“Guess it’s fair to say I’m angry. I’m still pretty young, relatively speaking.”
“How old are you?” the man asked. “I’m sixty-eight.”
There was a long pause.
“That’s not exactly young,” the man said.
“No, I suppose not. But consider this,” he added. “There is no silver lining with pancreatic cancer. It combines the agony of ordinary cancer with the fear and suddenness of a heart attack.”
The man made no reply.
“Fact of the matter is, I’ve spent my entire life pursuing the American dream, only to find out here at the eleventh hour that it was nothing but a scam. The books were cooked. And now I’m dying. I’ve wasted my life.”
Unbelievably, the man still had nothing to offer him. “Are you sure there’s no Jimmy Cayne there?” “Positive.”
“I’ll let you go, then,” he said. “I’m sure you have better things to do. And I don’t have much time myself. Sorry again for the cursing.”
“Good luck to you,” the man said. “Thank you,” he said, then hung up.
Turns out they weren’t such different men, really, Charlie Barnes and Jimmy Cayne. Cayne was from Evanston, outside Chicago. Charlie was born near Chicago himself. Cayne played bridge. Charlie played bridge. Both men were rather vain of their bridge games. Neither Cayne nor Charlie had graduated from college. Cayne got his start in sales—photocopiers, then scrap iron. Charlie, too, had a career in sales, beginning (like Cy Lewis, another Bear CEO) on the sales floor of a shoe store. In Charlie’s case, the store was Jonart’s off East Main in the town of Danville, Illinois, where he was born in 1940. Jerry will tell you the store was Mosser’s on Vermilion. It was not Mosser’s, Mosser’s came two years after Jonart’s. At Jonart’s, and later at Mosser’s, Steady Boy distinguished himself. He was a hell of a shoe man. Had a feel for people and a nice soft touch. Happily fell to all fours just to squeeze an instep. His way with laces could wow the casual onlooker, and he even knew how to make the ladies with hammertoe happy.
Eventually, Jimmy Cayne and Charlie Barnes entered the world of high finance, both as retail brokers—Cayne in ’69, Charlie in ’85. By the time Bush was “elected,” Cayne, W.’s biggest booster, was earning fifteen million dollars a year as the CEO of Bear Stearns. Charlie’s haul as the top dog of his own concern that year was roughly thirty-four thousand dollars and change. Five years later, it was flat, while Cayne’s had more than doubled. The big difference seemed to be that Cayne wasn’t specializing exclusively in retirees.
For here is where Charlie Barnes and Jimmy Cayne diverged radically. Charlie wasn’t willing to sell out his country just to make a buck. When he could take no more of Bear’s dirty tricks, he quit. He saw how old-timers were getting fucked, quite frankly, by the conflicts of interest at all these churn-and-earn brokerage shops like Bear, where a perfectly good portfolio would be raided every six months for the sake of its commissions. Charlie’s idea was to eschew commissions altogether in exchange for an annual fee, which would cover everything from the initial consultation and financial plan to all subsequent trades and transactions, year after year, thereby guaranteeing an honest broker. Fiduciary duty, it was called. The year Charles turned fifty-three, he was entirely dedicated and doing noble work on behalf of the little guy, putting the era of Steady Boy permanently to bed. He called his company the Third Age Association, or TTAA. Fifteen years later, it remained his going concern. It paid him peanuts and brought him nothing but grief.
For he currently had under management a mere eleven mil. Sounds like a lot, maybe, but in the world of high finance, goddamn chump change. He had cobbled that money together from the cup holders and change purses of his aging clientele, and managing it barely rose to a pastime most days. He woke, moved a little money around, fielded a few phone calls, and then broke for lunch.
Missed his true calling, maybe—who knows? Squandered too much time early on scrambling for purchase (as, behind his desk, he ruminatively resumes cleaning his nails with the letter opener), then hit fifty and panicked. Life was a delicate balance. If only he could have taken a breather in, say, ’67, really buckled down and completed his college degree, then he might have done something with his life. He played the dilettante instead. Just ask Jerry, his oldest son. Always giving him copies of religious books, Jerry—the Zen master—hoping to enlighten him. Jerry had his degree. Three of them, in fact. You might say Jerry was addicted to the acquiring of advanced degrees, as the light of pure reason led him out of the profane world where his father dwelled. Earning a keep—now that proved a bit harder for Steady Boy’s son. Jerry was a chip off the old block where regular employment was concerned. He loved his truer truths, but the ones he found waiting for him in the corporate world, the eternal corruptions of the modern workplace—annoying coworkers, the profit motive— disgusted and besmirched him. He always quit in a huff. Then he ran out of cash and had to take new work, only to quit again, angrier than before. Now, at forty-nine, Jerry had been forced to accept a subpar coding job for a multinational head-quartered in Brussels, Belgium. He hadn’t been eager to go all the way to Belgium for a paycheck, but he had alienated every HR person in corporate America by then and was in dire need of money.
“Good morning,” Charlie said. “I’m looking for Jerry Barnes.” “May I ask who’s calling?”
Charlie had been expecting a formal and lilting European to answer the phone when he called the number Jerry gave him, but he got this guy instead—another American hire, he presumed.
“This is Charles Barnes calling. I’m Jerry’s father.”
“Oh, right,” the guy said. “Right. No, Jerry is, uh . . . Jerry just stepped away. From his desk. For like a minute. For lunch. Can I take a message?”
“A little late for lunch, isn’t it? What time is it there?”
As Charlie raised a starched wing under basement rafters to consult his wristwatch, a vintage Rolex, the only authentic piece in his stable of fakes, the man on the other end made no reply.
“Never mind. Have Jerry call me, will you? Tell him I have news. Tell Jerry that his father has pancreatic cancer.”
“Oh,” he said to the man. “Sounds like you know a thing or two.”
The man went quiet.
“Personally, I knew very little until just recently. Turns out it’s the most aggressive of all the cancers. Hard to detect. Spreads quickly. Five percent survival rate. I should have all the details later today.”
The man again said nothing in reply.
“It’s arguably the worst way anyone can die, with the exception of being hacked to death, I suppose. Tell Jerry he might want to fly home. Up to him.”
“I’ll give him the message,” the man said.
“Thank you,” he said. “I have to go now. I don’t have much time.”
He hung up.
If Jerry had doubted that Charlie would ever “get real,” if the Zen master suspected that Steady Boy would never touch some fundament of the True, which he himself was always passing back and forth between his Buddha’s hands, here was the Angel of Death in his pancreatic disguise to prove him wrong. Charlie would not elude the long nightmare that was motherfucking reality this time around.
Excerpted from A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris. Copyright © 2021. Available from Little, Brown & Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.