Peepgass leaned over toward Harry and said, "Well . . . you about ready?"
"Yep," said Harry. And then he smiled and winked and said, "Let's take the safeties off the ring binders."
Peepgass's heart jumped inside his rib cage. The Male Battle was about to begin! But even that much explanation would have been beyond him.
There were a dozen men at the PlannersBanc end of the table. But the show was all Harry Zale's. Harry, who was about forty-five, had a big jowly round head with a thin top dressing of black-and-gray hair combed straight back and a chin that swelled out like a melon. He was one of those mesomorphs who have short arms and thick chests and torsos. But for what he did, Harry Zale looked perfect. He was a workout artiste, and the workout artistes were the Marines, the commandos, the G.I. Joes of commercial banking. Or maybe the term should be D.I., for drill instructor, since Harry liked to refer to what was about to take place not as a workout session but as "boot camp."
Presently Harry lifted his big chin. He sighted Croker down his nose and let his gaze linger . . . and linger . . . and linger . . . without saying a word . . . the way a father might lead into a man-to-man talk with a boy who knows he's been bad. And then he said in a high-pitched, rasping voice, "Why are we here, Mr. Croker? Why are we having this meeting? What's the problem?"
Oh, Peepgass loved this part of Harry's workout sessions the rude, grating, condescending way they started off! This was why a workout artiste like Harry Zale was known as an artiste! This was artistry. This was boot camp in the PlannersBanc Tower.
Croker stared at the artiste. Then he turned and looked past Peaches toward his chief financial officer, a young but dour presence named Wismer Stroock, probably not much more than thirty, who wore glasses with rectangular titanium frames and had pale skin, a heavy five o'clock shadow, and the sunken cheeks and stringy neck peculiar to compulsive joggers. Croker smiled at Stroock in a smirking way, and this smile said, "Hey, what kind of cute little stunt is this supposed to be? Who is this character? What is this why are we here bullshit?"
Harry kept staring at Croker, never once blinking. But Peepgass had to give Croker credit; he didn't blink, either. How long would it take Harry to get the saddlebags this time? Everybody rated Harry's performance that way, according to how long it took him to get the saddlebags.
Finally Croker said, "You called this meetin', my friend. And since it's your meeting," the Captain continued, "I s'peck you're gettin' ready to tell us why."
He said it with such a relaxed smile, Peepgass began to wonder if Harry was going to get any saddlebags at all.
"No, I wanna know if you know," said Harry. "Think of this as an AA meeting, Mr. Croker. Now that the spree is over, we wanna see some real self-awareness here. You're right, we called this meeting, but I want you to tell me why. What's it all about? What's the problem here?"
Peepgass watched Croker's face. Oh, he loved this part, too, the moment when the shitheads finally realized that things have changed, that their status has taken a header (into the excrement).
"Well, we're here," said Croker at last, "we're here" (and if you don't know why you're here, then we can't help you out) "to see about restructuring this thing, and we've come here with a good solid business plan, and I think you're gonna love it."
Now began a round of verbal fencing in which the Artiste kept cutting off Croker's evasions, blusters, rambles, tangents, until finally Croker was in a corner where there was nothing to do but come forth with the damning information. Even so, he sidestepped at the last moment and made his grim young sidekick, Wismer Stroock, say the actual words. Stroock was very nearly Croker's opposite. Croker was all heartiness and manly charm and bluster and Down Home Drawl and cagy Old Dawg of the South; Stroock was all MBA Youth and Low Cholesterol and High Density Lipids and Semiconductor Circuits, and by his voice you couldn't tell where he was from, unless it was the Wharton School of Business and Economics. Yes, he said, Croker Global had borrowed a total of $515 million from PlannersBanc; and yes, Croker Global had now failed to come up with $36 million in scheduled interest payments and a scheduled $60 million repayment of principal.
Copyright ©1998 Tom Wolfe
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