Theo dropped his cup of ramen. Steaming, greasy broth rushed over his lap, turning much of his lower body into an agonised, lightly spiced floodplain. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and breathed ferociously through his nose until the scalding sensation abated. So much for breakfast. A deeply ingrained frugal instinct stirred, offended at the loss of a perfectly good meal (in the most relative of terms). Somewhere, his parents were turning in their wrongly impecunious graves. Even the notion of consuming instant noodles would have sent them into a frothing rage, prompted hours of blue-faced, fiery-eyed ranting about the great injustice that had been enacted upon their line of the family. Theo rarely payed close attention to these diatribes, and indeed they did little to demand it. The coherence of the narrative had flagged somewhat as its tellers progressed through their twilight years, but the basic elements were the same. The death of Theo’s great grandfather had prompted a rift in the family, and his grandfather had been on the losing end – dramatically so. As it transpired, total dependence on the family business was not a synergistic combination with intense, venomous animosity from the holders of said enterprise. His grandfather’s line was left to its own devices, deprived to the fullest possible extent of the social and material benefits that their surname would otherwise provide. Those devices were not particularly good. Living the American Dream in reverse, Theo’s parents had been born somewhat wealthy, to a father who was once much wealthier, and were bordering on poor by time of his earliest memories. From there, they had continued to bleed wealth and prestige, until this exsanguination had arrived at its natural conclusion – their son, sitting in a cheap motel, weeping over lost ramen.
“The best revenge is a good life.” – that’s what they always used to tell him. It was a message that was lost to both sides of the dialogue. He had never shared their bitterness, their need to spit back at those who they felt had wronged them. He was perfectly well motivated to live a good life purely by virtue of its clear superiority to a bad life. No revenge needed. His parents, on the other hand, had been so preoccupied with the idea of succeeding out of spite that they completely sabotaged any chances they may have had at doing so. The past was the past, if platitudes were on the menu, and it was best to leave it there.
That being the case, why was he thinking about all this now? Part of it was nostalgia, of course. For all that he disagreed with his parents’ stubborn misgivings, they were part of the backdrop for all of his formative years. He had an aversion to dwelling on the past, but he would have to admit that childhood influences and their bearers are bound together in a Gordian knot – no way to separate the two without recourse to a sword. The main reason for his sudden train of expository thought, however, was that he was about to attend a memorial ceremony for his great-grandfather: Lucas “Senior” Weaver. For whatever reason, the family had gone all out this year. Gone were the small, cigars-and-whiskey gatherings of the men that knew him, or who used to be the sperm of a man that knew him. This year’s event was to be a veritable matinee, a festival of worship – both to one’s ancestor and to the ideology of wealth. Women and children were allowed, even encouraged, to attend (although Theo rather doubted that either group would have a representative at the podium). The whole aim, he was led to understand, was to put on an indisputable show of reverence to a man who would doubtless have appreciated it. As such, the net had been cast wide, wide enough to snare even Theo, living heir to a pruned branch. A suitably chintzy, faux-renaissance invitation had found its way to him. Stapled to it was a surprisingly candid note acknowledging that almost nobody present would know who he was, that those who did would resent his attendance, and that there was no way that he would be able to muster up the resources, financial or personal, to fit in with the rest of the assembly. All true enough. But life, he felt, was best spent steering towards oddity rather than away from it. He didn’t have a whole lot going on, and if you might as well do something, you might as well do it.
First, however, he would have to change his clothes. He was going to be drastically underdressed for the occasion (partly by necessity, partly by design), but a pair of jeans soaked through with cheap, salty broth would probably be pushing it. He was going with something more like business-casual, in a field that he expected to consist largely of business-exorbitant. Farewell for now, moth-bitten motel room.
Twenty minutes later, he was in a cab bound for ground zero. The event was to take place at the aptly, appallingly named Weaver Legacy Hotel – a building so overt in its purpose, so keen to display its gaudy bluster that it bordered on parody (and yet, remained tidily profitable). Theo had never stepped foot inside, of course. He would probably have been kindly escorted from the premises on any other day, unless the staff mistook him for some nouveau-riche Silicon Valley asshole. Today, he had a piece of paper. As was so often the case, that made all the difference. The driver was pleasantly quiet, leaving Theo with time to ponder his opening move – the manner of his arrival. This event was an exercise in pageantry, and under such circumstances these things mattered more than he would ever understand. The first option was the default. He would have the cab tuck away into a nearby street and walk the rest of the way. He wasn’t there for attention. The second option was to indulge his vandal’s instinct, if just a little, and to take the cab all the way to the castle gate – strut out, puff his chest out and show that he just didn’t give a fuck. Unfortunately, loathe though he was to admit it, he did give something – at least a shit. Plan A prevailed.
His initial impressions of the place and the people were blandly negative. That much was to be expected. The men wore suits, the women dresses, all plainly the output of brands of which he had never heard. The boys wore suits, the girls dresses, eerie little homunculi whose overwrought mannerisms betrayed the fact that their moulding was not yet complete. People looked at him, of course, although they were at least kind enough to wait until they thought he was out of earshot before discussing him. The situation concerning his attendance was a known thing, a little pocket scandal to keep people entertained. He did not engage. He was in a foreign land, didn’t speak the language, and had little to no interest in integrating with its people. Moreover, being fully honest with himself, he was intimidated. He wouldn’t exactly say that he was swimming with sharks, or wandering into the lion’s den, but he found himself at the very least surrounded by cans of worms that he did not wish to prod for fear of opening them. The ushers, powerless to resist his piece of paper with words on it, directed him to the hall where the main event would take place.
The room was… nice. Or, it was making a reasonable attempt to be so. There was a crisp, marble sort of aesthetic, with pervasive, heavy accents of red and gold to everything (very regal). The chairs were aligned at a comfortable distance from one other, fanning out from a stage of sorts at the far end of the room. A chamber group was nested away to one side, its members wearing professional expressions that indicated that this gig was probably going to be more exciting for them fiscally than it would be musically. Taking pride of place was an almost comically large portrait of Lucas Sr., commissioned for the occasion. If his parents’ frequent indictments were to be believed, the man would have loved it.
Theo placed himself towards the back of the hall, and watched as people folded in towards the front. He had the luxury of being the last person that anybody present would want to sit near, which afforded him the perfect little crow’s nest from which to observe things. This isolation made him stand out all the more, and indeed he was at this point keenly aware that he was putting on a sideshow no matter what he did. Every little mannerism or shuffle had become another pratfall. Well, there was no way around that, given the circumstances. There are many, many people who would rather see a fish out of water than in it.
A watery chord from the string section heralded the start of the proceedings. Theo knew almost nothing about classical music (nor, he suspected, did anybody else present), but the musicians did their best to conceal this fact – every piece was something he recognised, performed such that there was no fear of bewilderment, no risk of unplanned artistic expression. If he were feeling cynical (he was), he would have suspected that the programme had been chosen specifically to allow the attendees to feel erudite without ever actually challenging them to be so. To this backdrop, a series of speakers took to the podium to deliver their speeches. These were gestalts of second-hand anecdotes and thinly-veiled self-aggrandisement, chimeras of purported virtue and historical fact, flowery border skirmishes between worship and envy. He drifted in and out throughout this process, catching snippets, sometimes entire passages before once again ducking back behind the sturdy parapet of inattention.
“Lucas was a man who could somehow put both business and family first in every decision that he made.” Went one eulogy. “He despised indolence, but not as much as he adored industry. He was the very model of a kind of businessman that was rare for his day, and still rarer now. His example is one that we should all take to heart, and I’m proud to say that I do my best every day to follow his lead.”
“The history books are going to have a lot to say about Lucas Weaver.” Went another. “Both of them, in fact. But I don’t exaggerate when I say that one day, Senior is going to be in the same conversations as Morgan, as Rockefeller, as Ford. Now, those men may have been wealthier, they may always be more famous, but at the heart of it is the same fire, the same drive to acquire and to expand that defined Senior. Some of us here today may have a higher net worth, may be better known in our particular spheres of activity that Senior was in his, but I can say for sure that not one man present has that vital spark the led Senior to build what he built. The man, to put it frankly, had spunk. Hell, look at how old he was when he had kids. And what fine young boys they were, although we all know how that went…”
“Senior was one of the last generation of American greats. One of the last men from a time that truly embodied the spirit of this nation, the spirit that I believe in so strongly. He did things in a way that just isn’t done today, and I think I speak for a lot of us when I say it’s a damn shame. We’re here in the Weaver Legacy Hotel, a great building and a great business, and yet even as we celebrate the life of our great forbear, the questions can hardly be escaped: where are the monument builders now? Where are the men who are willing not to just to build, not just to optimise, but to conquer? Where are the men who are willing to stand in the light of day and express themselves in the universal language of deeds and capital?”
It was… interesting, in its own way. A sort of anthology piece, the themes and elements staying the same throughout, but with each variation being coloured by its author’s particular hang-ups. And as he heard one story about a tough but magnanimous patriarch, another about a shrewd yet unpretentious man of industry, a third about a fiery pitbull who could not be suppressed, he came to wonder at the extent to which the actual subject matter was informing any of this. A no-frills biography of his great-grandfather, by any account an interesting figure if not an admirable one, would have a certain appeal to Theo. This was something different entirely.
These formalities were followed by a wine reception. This was a good thing for a number of reasons – the speeches were over (although the musicians continued their chores), there was free expensive wine, he could stretch his legs, and the possibility of either hiding or leaving entirely was now much more open to him. He wasn’t planning on taking it just yet, mind. Having recently observed these strange, ordinary creatures in monologue, it would be remiss of him not to listen in on some dialogue as well. He drifted about, doing his best to act as a fly on the wall. This was a challenge, since in this case the fly was six feet tall and everybody present wanted to whisper about it behind its back.
Despite these unpropitious circumstances, he achieved some measure of success. He found, much to his surprise, that these people were just that – people. These were conversations he had heard before, an arbitrarily large number of times. The topics and the archetypes were all familiar to him. There was work, leisure and family. There was the loudmouth, the lackey, the smartass. Old skeletons with new skin. The only difference, of course, was status. And it was not an insignificant one. When he had seen these patterns at school, at college, at work, they were defined always in three directions. It was an old oversimplification of his, but he had found it consistently applicable enough to hold on to. A bully, for example, wishes to oppress those below him, impress those on his same level, and spite those above him. This elite were constantly starved of that last element, and so the whole structure became somewhat precarious. Born better than almost everyone (by the rules of their chosen ideology), they had precious few figures to prop up those missing struts, precious few outlets for that upward-facing energy. Their parents, perhaps, or by fabricating legends out of people who were no longer alive to disprove them.
Content with that conclusion, Theo moved to leave. It would perhaps have been entertaining to go hunting for particularly appalling people and phrases, but he didn’t feel any real need to do so. It wasn’t hard to disengage from a social gathering where nobody wanted anything to with him. If anything, he was charitably gifting his absence – no more need for whispers. As he walked away from the assembly, looking (in his mind) like a flea jumping from a pedigree cat, he heard his name. For the first time that day, it was loud, clear, and directed at him.
“Theo? Wait up!”
He turned to see one of the few faces present that he would recognize – Leon Weaver. The heir to the empire, so to speak. The young man who would be next to take the helm, to the extent that there still a single helm left to take. The most privileged among a privileged few. Theo was immediately shocked by how closely this man resembled him, behind the unpronounceable Italian tailoring. For all the vocational and genetic gulf between them, they may as well have been brothers. He had no time to chastise himself for that pathetically sappy thought before he found himself engaging in a handshake.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” Said Leon. Somehow, he did not even appear to be lying. His face and voice betrayed intellect, decency, and a few hints of fatigue.
“Probably. Can I ask you a question?”
“What do you think of this?” He motioned in all directions. “The Weaver Legacy Hotel.”
“Please. And actually honestly, not business honestly.”
“I think it’s ridiculous.”
“Theodore Weaver, you and I have many, many things to discuss.”