WARNING: The following tale does not include a major character who is physically awesome and God-fearing. Nor will dear readers find a reformed drinker and/or smoker who sometimes flashes back to Korea/Vietnam/ Desert Storm/Iraqi Freedom and so on where he acquired small arms expertise and some ease with killing people. Lots of people. Sorry.
Here’s a fact: there’s nothing like driving for hours through flat, low scrub fuck-allness to make you focus and give you the time and space to reconstruct events that have overtaken you.
Particularly when someone’s trying to kill you and you have no idea why.
I say this with complete confidence as I hurtle into desert nothingness along Highway 80, somewhere east of Reno and bound for the Canadian border.
Bound for what? I ask myself.
Having survived one murder attempt, smart money says I’ll have to face another.
You play the story backwards and forward, filling in the details, trying to connect the dots that might explain how, in the name of our living lord, sweet bleeding Jesus, you are where you are.
The problem, of course, is that life outside of most movies isn’t a string of action sequences. The story isn’t propelled; it lurches and meanders, extending back beyond the catalogue of recent events, shading in background and unearthing motivations that eventually collide like those eighty car pile-ups on fog-bound freeways.
But somewhere in the story of my last few weeks is a reason.
I wouldn’t mind knowing what it is.
Even if finding out likely won’t change a goddamned thing as time runs out on me.
And while I may not have developed a full-on rage against the dying of the light, I’m mightily pissed off by it.
PART ONE: BACK THEN
I honestly don’t know why Alistair MacNeil’s death struck me so hard. But one thing’s true: if it hadn’t, then none of the shit that followed would have happened.
It was too easy to say that it was only because I’d spent a huge chunk of my alleged career working for him, that he’d made me a goodly amount of money, an amount that these many years later has, more or less, continued to maintain me.
I genuinely liked the guy. But it’s not that I was particularly close to him, not that I knew of his death before the media did.
He was famous enough to get a news story, not just a family-financed obit.
Besides just the facts, ma’am—aged 76, born Moncton, New Brunswick, died Toronto; natural causes; two law degrees, owner of numerous technology companies—the online story in the Globe covered some of the highlights and most of the lowlights of his business CV.
I was there to witness a bunch of the highlights, almost fifteen years of them, at a time when I and everyone else around him had a real Bonfire of the Vanities-type of life. Amongst ourselves, we well-paid minions had a general guideline: the plane you arrived in had to be about the same size or smaller than the car that picked you up on the tarmac.
In the mid- to late-80s, there was a constant series of financial road shows that I had to oversee as the Vice President of Corporate Communications for MacNeil’s Montrose Technologies. My title impressed even me during my hubris years but, truth be told, I was more or less a roadie overseeing the A/V equipment and logistics while drenching reporters with pap in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, London. Raising tens of millions, then hundreds of millions over the decade as the deals got bigger and bigger.
Other than a bad case of road ass, I got rich—in my terms anyway. A million bucks or so on stocks, mostly anything that MacNeil had touched—but always after he touched it. I bought and sold on my own, real tidy profits. All legit. When MacNeil would tell me about the next quarterly results or an upcoming acquisition, he’d finish the terse commentary with “And of course, you can’t buy or sell until it’s announced.” And I never did. I swear.
He was scrupulous about that; insider trading by anyone made him crazy and he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his own people to regulators. Actually, he was scrupulous about a lot of other things that had nothing directly to do with business.
That’s one of the reasons I liked him although he was not an instantly likeable man. Personally and through the company, he was a huge donor to the United Way and a bunch of other charities but refused publicity of any kind. He hated to see women subjected to any kind of abuse or discrimination. His companies were forbidden to deal with South Africa until apartheid went away. Ditto for Cuba—although I know he was stiffed by Castro over a shipload of recycled paper from one of his many companies—so that may have had some influence on his anti-Communism stance.
MacNeil got real rich partly by thinking of something great and partly by putting money into people who were thinking of something great. Analysts and reporters called him a gambler but I knew he only bet on what, for the moment, were sure things. Variously described as industrialist, tycoon, magnate, he was just, by far, the brightest human being I’ve ever known, a veritable brain in a bell jar. He was always the smartest guy in the room, even if that room were to be Carnegie Hall hosting a MENSA conference.
But that’s not why I liked him. It’s because he didn’t care if I liked him or if anybody else—I bet his family included—liked him. How liberating is that?
As far as I could ever figure, he also didn’t much care about the wealth he had. This money-making thing was only his way to keep score with what really mattered to him: cutting a deal.
I once watched him negotiate with a parking lot attendant ten minutes before the cheaper evening rates kicked in. I can still see the exasperated look on the attendant’s face, him shaking his head as he accepted the bargained-for price while, no doubt, thinking, “I came all the way from Nigeria to get beat for five bucks by a guy in a huge Mercedes?”
People made and lost piles of money with him—Alistair, not the parking lot attendant—on the stock market. Whatever the outcome, it elicited neither sympathy nor pride from him. As he told me: “Jake, we already have their money. They’re big boys and they gambled on making more. Sometimes you lose. We haven’t lied to them.”
And I have also never lost sight of the fact that he gave careers to thousands of people, me included.
Not a lot of people either survived or wanted to survive working fifteen years for him. I did. Most likely because I am the personification of Newton’s very first law of physics: “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force.” I mean, it is the Law, for Christ’s sakes. Plus, I came to fill a somewhat useful role. In exchange for all the gifts given him, Alistair was missing the humanity gene. He just couldn’t understand why people let emotions and petty feuds and all the other things that make us not computers determine what they did when logic clearly dictated they ought to do the opposite.
So Alistair would use me as a sort of human bomb-sniffing dog. For all the gifts I hadn’t been given, I usually was able to spot a bullshit artist within about five minutes of conversation. He’d send me in to talk to prospective senior hires. Sometimes he’d take my on-the-spot advice; sometimes he wouldn’t. He’d get quite pissed off if I were merciless about a potential vice-president in the making when he had already made up his considerable mind to hire him. After the guy (please, back then, it was always a guy) didn’t pan out—as invariably happened—I was smart enough to resist saying “I told you so.”
I think he liked the fact that I was pretty quick on my feet when it came to reporters and pissed-off investors. And I know I amused him from time to time. For his fiftieth birthday, I had commissioned a limited edition T-shirt which read:
The Two Simple Rules of Life:
1) Don’t shower with small appliances.
2) Don’t fuck with Alistair MacNeil.
He smiled, but looked instantly embarrassed when I unveiled it at his party. Years later, when he was in the middle of a proxy fight, he marched into my office, ostensibly to discuss our tactics regarding the guy leading the board membership brawl against him.
“Medium. I think he’s a medium,” he said.
“His T-shirt size. Send him one.”
Then he marched out.
For reasons known only to God (who doesn’t exist) and psychiatrists (whom I won’t ever go to), I am compelled to push stuff, to cross the line. And Alistair let me which, looking back, was both pretty unusual and pretty swell of him.
Here’s a sterling example of how he indulged my penchant for juvenile behaviour. I’d always let my hair grow to the point that it even bothered me in its unruliness. For no other reason than to watch him slip a ten out of his worn wallet and tell me to get it cut.
The fact that I even got hired in the first place was also proof of Alistair’s contrary view of things. I had absolutely no affinity for, or understanding of, what most of his companies did. I am a techno-moron; I say that with neither pride nor disgust. It’s just a fact, a state of affairs that I see no reason to change.
I have never owned a cell phone, for example. And I never will. There are estimates that suggest 95% of humanity will have one within the next twenty years. I figure soon after that, if I live that long, I’ll have a legitimate shot at being the last person on earth without one. I reckon it’ll come down to me and a stubborn teenager living in a yurt in Outer Mongolia. And I like my chances.
Alistair’s succinct reasoning behind offering me a job: “You’re an idiot about these things. If our people can explain it to you, I’m betting you can explain it to other idiots.”
He worked me like crazy. And I let him. The 60- or 70-hour weeks became completely normal to me—although not to my wife. Work hard, make good money, drink. Repeat.
In other words, show me a rut and I’ll climb into it. Like I said, it’s positively Newtonian.
It was an unlikely rut to climb into. A post-graduate degree in English lit with a couple of years teaching high school in the Bahamas and a couple more with a brand name charity and I wind up doing PR and marketing for a conglomeration of nine relatively small companies doing everything from business software to computerized mapmaking to big custom computer systems. Incongruously, two of his companies made paper and packaging. All these companies became relatively large over the decade and a half I was with him. Three of them were publicly-traded; the other six were 100% MacNeil-owned. Montrose Technologies was his holding company, the one that stroked my progressively larger pay cheques.
But everything has a limit; everything ends, (except Seinfeld re-runs). There are only so many shaves in a razor or laughs in a relationship, so many clicks in a garage door-opener or high notes in a public career.
My expiration date with Montrose was reached when the giant telco putting millions into MacNeil’s holding company stipulated, among many, many other things, that I be whacked. Everyone could be all grand about the reasoning for me getting two behind the ear—differing visions of PR and public communications,
inflexibility over new corporate communications techniques and such—but I’m thinkin’ that me calling their PR slut a PR slut didn’t help my prospects.
Alistair was pretty shaken up when he had to fire me. He even told me how much doing the deed was upsetting him while he was doing it. I pointed out that perhaps it was a little tougher on me.
He wanted to have me escorted out of the building that day, lest all sorts of proprietary knowledge accompany me.
“Aww, for fuck’s sake, Al,” I said, “do you really think, after fifteen fucking years, I’m going to plunder the company secrets? Give me a month to get my stuff cleaned up, will ya?”
He did and so, for thirty days after the public announcement, I was dead man walking. During that time, I got some job offers and was stalked by a few headhunting firms. As flattering as this was to my zeppelin-sized ego,
I determined that, at the ripe old age of 42, I wasn’t ever going to work for anybody again.
I set up my own business, mostly thinking and writing for other people. Speeches, ghost-written articles, communication plans, media training and so on. This freelancing let me work where and when I wanted to as long as I had Internet service.
I claim no genius in anything I’ve ever done—personally or professionally. Here’s the sum total of my communications wisdom:
#1: Tell the truth.
#2: When you can’t, shut the fuck up.
#3: Answer the questions you know the reader has.
Oh, and #4: Drink with reporters as often as you can. And I understand that #4 has sadly gone the way of rotary phones.
I also scored a monthly column in a middling technology magazine called Tech View in which I got to rant about how companies ought to look and act under the public spotlight. It provided me some notoriety, some new clients and a whole lot of cynicism because every one of these new customers started out insisting they wanted my largely unconventional thinking which, I learned, was a code phrase for no, they didn’t.
This column—entitled Jake’s Take—lasted almost two years, but never really took off. I liked to think that its trajectory could be traced as starting out a “been there/done that” professional providing some useful tips on PR and such, then descending into a tech version of St. John howling in the desert. In reality, its arc was no doubt closer to Neil Young’s priceless introduction of Don’t Let It Bring You Down on CSNY’s 4 Way Street: “It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether.”
To their credit, the magazine fired me. Sorry, they “decided to go in a new direction” and my fifteen seconds were up. Gloria’s not feeling well but on the move, as the ol’ Romans would say.
My ramblings gave me enough to live pretty well, not crack open the family nest egg and they let me slide into a figurative and literal wilderness.
I own a hovel and almost four acres (don’t ask me the metric equivalent) on a point jutting into Mississauga Lake about two hours northeast of Toronto. It’s a three-season cottage bought for peanuts twenty years ago when the shoreline was devoid of houses and I was making a six-figure salary and eyeing eventual early retirement. Beth, my wife at the time, wanted a year-round place but I resisted. Why three-season? Because it’s cheaper and because you couldn’t live through a Canadian winter in it unless you were prepared to go all pioneer. I’m not one for roughing it in the bush—roughing it anywhere really—so, in retirement, it would force a months-long southern trip on us, probably to Mexico or the Dominican.
In the meantime, our daughter, Halley, would have a swell place to be a kid until she wasn’t a kid anymore, when she reached an age where, I anticipated, the idea of spending weekends and summers with her parents in the forested middle of fucking nowhere would make her skin crawl.
Beth and I split our time between our standard-issue pleasant home in the Toronto ‘burbs and the bush. Over the years, we renovated our rustic-as-hell log cottage, built and acquired and planted all sorts of stuff and created a place that was pretty much the ideal we had in my mind. If not perfect, my life—our life—was going to be the next best thing as we slipped into dotage wearing Tilley hats and being able to use the Latin names for all our plants. Real On Golden Pond stuff, except Beth called me, “you old shit.”
But then, fifteen years ago, my wife went and died. Fast and vicious ovarian cancer.
With our best-laid plans gone way the fuck awry, my life came to a standstill and then started reversing itself.
Since then I’ve been shedding, paring down. Most of my clients went first, replaced by tequila and a general and more-pronounced-than-usual nastiness. Things that broke or wore out weren’t replaced; food became little more than fuel.
When we weren’t submerged in our own unlit, sense-deprived, altered-state of grief, Halley and I propped each other pretty well, I guess. You can never know for sure. At the age of thirteen, her childhood had come to a screeching halt and wasn’t ever coming back, which was hardly fair to the bug’s-ear cute and previously smiley kid.
To the best of my knowledge neither of us ever asked “Why me, Lord?” Speaking only for myself, this was due to the fact that I don’t believe there is a Lord and because I have always suspected that the uncaring universe’s even-handed answer would be: “Why not you, asshole?”