by Joe Giordano
Long raven hair, a sleeveless black leotard with woolen calf warmers, and pink, Hello Kitty slippers opened the door. She said, “Mark Starkey? Here to rent the room?”
I said, “Yes.”
I stepped inside. “Is this your house?”
“It’s my parents’ home. They moved to Dallas, but agreed to let me stay until I’ve finished school.”
We walked into the kitchen and sat on padded seats at a wooden table.
I said, “I don’t remember seeing you on campus. What do you study?”
“Computers. I have a programming contract with Google. Search protocols.”
“That’s impressive. You must be very brainy.”
Gabriella shifted on her chair. “What’s your major?”
“Business. I don’t work.”
“May I ask how you’ll pay the rent?”
“I play the stock market with student loan money. I’ve done pretty well with straddles, shorts and hedges. That sort of thing.”
Gabriella caught a yawn with her wrist. “Let me show you the room.”
The bedroom was on the ground floor. It was painted blue and flooded with light from large windows. There was a desk, a twin bed, and had a full bath.
I said, “This is perfect.”
“You’ll need to give me a month’s rent for security. The cleaning lady must have access to your room. No parties, and no overnight female guests…” She eyed me. “Or male.”
“Another guy in a twin bed? I’m not gay.”
Gabriella shrugged. “Just covering the bases.”
After I settled in, I looked into the bathroom mirror. I had a baby face; did I look gay? I straightened my shoulders. I shaved every other day; some facial hair would add maturity. A badass mustache that curled down the sides of my chin. My upper lip had a slight stubble. Okay, it’ll take some time to fill in.
During the first few weeks, I saw Gabriella in the kitchen when we prepared our individual meals. No one came to see her. The door to her room was normally closed, and I could hear the tap of computer keys as I passed.
On Tuesdays, we both had an early class. We were at breakfast. She spooned Greek yogurt and honey. I had a bowl of Special K.
I felt her stare, and looked up. “What?”
Her eyes shifted down. “Nothing.”
There was the slight tug of a smile. “Is that dirt on your lip?”
I raised my napkin, then stopped. I sat back. “That’s my developing badass mustache.”
“What does ‘ah’ mean?”
“Badass sounds compensatory.”
“I’m not compensating for anything.” I clunked down my bowl. “You’re not awash with friends, are you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“No one comes to the house.”
“It just so happens that I’m invited to my friend, Cyndi’s wedding a week from Sunday.”
“One girlfriend. No boyfriends?”
Gabriella crossed her legs. “How is that your business?”
I tilted my head. “When you go to a friend’s wedding, are you envious?”
“Cyndi has two children with the live-in guy she’s marrying. He’s unemployed and doesn’t help at home. She’s finishing engineering school while taking care of the kids.”
“My mother says that young people are confused.”
“So, you don’t have a date for the wedding?”
“Are you volunteering?”
I raised my palms. “I watch football with the guys at a sports bar on Sundays.”
“There’s that ‘ah’ again.”
“Football and beer: the ultimate exercise in male bonding. Do guys ever grow up?”
“Not if we can help it.”
She nodded. “Are you one of those men who prefer women to make less money than they do?”
“You think I’m intimidated by intelligence?”
Gabriella’s eyebrows rose. She put her bowl in the sink. “I need to run.”
Jason was a buddy I’d met in a Rome survey course. His father was a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. One afternoon, Jason showed up breathless. We plopped on the couch.
He said, “My Dad’s coming to visit. He can’t know I switched majors from Business to Classics; he’d cut off my allowance.”
We looked up. Gabriella stood behind the couch with a dishtowel over her shoulder. She hesitated. “I shouldn’t eavesdrop.”
Jason said, “No, please, I’m desperate.”
“Try honesty. Eventually your father will learn the truth. Tell him he reminds you of Julius Caesar, and he inspired you to pursue Roman History. He’ll like that.”
Jason’s eyes widened.
I said, “That’s your suggestion? This man is drowning, and you throw him a boulder?”
Gabriella shrugged. “Or you can stick with the business school story.”
Jason nodded. “If I admit I lied, the money will stop.”
She said to me, “You’re committed to help with this charade?”
“For a friend.”
Gabriella shifted on her feet. “Okay, Jason can move into the smaller bedroom while his father is on campus. You can coach him on business basics. Put your schoolbooks in his room, so his father sees them. It’s a long shot, but maybe you can pull it off.”
“I’m Bob Shaw, Jason’s father.” Mr. Shaw was tall, had blond hair like his son, and wore a charcoal designer suit with a bold yellow tie.
Gabriella answered the door and ushered Mr. Shaw into the living room where Jason and I sat. We shook hands. Gabriella excused herself.
When her room door closed, Mr. Shaw said, “What a fox.”
Jason said, “Dad, no one says ‘fox’ anymore.”
“A fox by any other name… Anyway, son, I’m anxious to hear how school is going?”
Jason looked sheepish. “Good, Dad, good.”
“I have a question. What do you think of Modigliani and Miller?”
Jason’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “The Cowboys should play Modigliani and bench Miller?”
Mr. Shaw roared. “Oh, that’s funny. Seriously, I’m thinking to raise my company’s financial leverage, but I wonder if it’ll increase the share price. So, what do your professors teach these days about capital structure?”
Jason’s mouth opened, but nothing came out.
I said, “Jason, you remember Professor Clark’s lecture. Nowadays, most people refer to M & M’s theory as the capital structure irrelevance principle. With equity much more expensive than debt, financial experts advocate increased leverage coupled with buybacks to increase stock price.”
Mr. Shaw sat back in his chair. “Jason, do you buy what Mark said?”
Mr. Shaw rubbed his chin. “Yeah. Okay. Maybe you slept through that lecture.” His eyes evaluated Jason. “Why don’t I take everyone to dinner after I check into my hotel? Ask Gabriella to come along.”
When Mr. Shaw left, Jason grabbed his head. “Shit, he knows I’m lying.”
I said, “I didn’t expect him to put you on the spot. We’re in trouble.”
Jason slumped in his seat. “I’ll need to leave school. Get a job.” He grimaced.
Gabriella reentered the room. “You have one more card to play. Invite your father to lecture students at the business school tomorrow. He can talk about how he became a CEO and what the job is like. The arranged lecture will prove that Jason has pull at the school. Plus your father’s ego will be flattered.”
I said, “I could arrange to use the lecture hall late in the day, but it’s short notice. Talks are set in advance and advertised. Students won’t come.”
She said, “Students will come.”
I looked at Jason, “Worth a try?”
His voice wasn’t confident. “Sure.”
I hadn’t seen Gabriella with make-up. Her scent was musk. I stared; she gave me a look. Mr. Shaw took us to a steak house. The guys had New York Strips; Gabriella chose grilled salmon.
Fortunately, Mr. Shaw didn’t ask any business questions. He said to Gabriella, “Jason tells me you’re a crack programmer.”
She put down her fork. “I enjoy it.”
“That’s pretty introverted work. You have terrific presence. That would be a great asset in sales.”
“When you graduate, give me a call. I’m certain we’d have a place for you in the company.”
Gabriella put her napkin to her mouth. “Thanks.”
Mr. Shaw said, “You too, Mark. We need all the smart young talent we can find.”
We’d reached coffee, and Jason hadn’t breeched the subject of Mr. Shaw’s talk. I poked him.
“Dad, Mark and I think it would be great if you could address the students at the business school tomorrow.”
“Mr. Shaw brightened. “Sure, that would be fun.”
The lecture hall had concentric seats like a Greek theater. About twenty-five students were in attendance. Jason, Gabriella and I were in the front row. Mr. Shaw spoke for fifteen minutes. Students politely applauded, and he opened the floor to questions.
When none came, Mr. Shaw said, “All right, why don’t you help me with a real business problem. I’m thinking to boost the company’s stock price by changing our capital structure, taking on more leverage. Anyone have a comment?”
When he received no response, he pointed to a bearded student in the third row. “It’s Modigliani and Miller. What can you tell me about them?”
The student stiffened like he’d been woken. “Modigliani painted mask-like portraits in France and died young. Arthur Miller wrote ‘All My Sons’ and was once married to Marilyn Monroe.” He basked in the warmth of correct answers.
Mr. Shaw said, “You’re not a business student?”
“Liberal Arts, man.”
Mr. Shaw looked around the room. “Any of you business students?”
Silent heads shook denial.
Mr. Shaw’s eyes skewered Jason. Gabriella stood and thanked everyone. The room emptied.
Mr. Shaw’s voice was a growl. “Jason, you’re not in the business school.”
Jason’s voice cracked. “I switched to Classics.”
Mr. Shaw turned away from Jason. He blew out a breath and shook his head.
Jason shot a glance at Gabriella. “Dad, by studying great leaders like Julius Caesar and Pericles, I thought I could be more like you.”
Mr. Shaw straightened, and he blinked. He flattened his tie with the palm of his hand. “You should’ve told me the truth.”
Mr. Shaw took a deep breath. “It’s best you pursue what you love. With a solid Classics background and a few years of work experience, you can apply for an MBA. That will give you all the business training you need.”
Jason said, “Great idea, Dad.”
Jason stayed in his father’s hotel suite. Gabriella and I went home.
I said, “How did you get people to attend?”
I went to the cafeteria and offered ten bucks to the first twenty-five students who’d show up.”
“You did that for Jason?”
She averted her eyes. “You were committed to help your friend.”
“I’ll make sure he knows what you did.”
The next day was Saturday. I was eating cereal when Gabriella walked into the kitchen. I disappeared into my room for a few minutes and returned clean-shaven. She ate her yogurt without comment. When she finished, she bent, and her lips brushed my ear. “You look handsome.”
That raised my pulse rate.
She walked to her room. At the doorway, she turned. I started to rise. She gave me a sly smile and closed the door behind her.
Bio:Joe Giordano was born in Brooklyn. He and his wife, Jane, have lived in Greece, Brazil, Belgium and Netherlands. They now live in Texas with their little shih tzu, Sophia. Joe's stories have appeared in more than sixty-five magazines including Bartleby Snopes, The Monarch Review, and The Summerset Review. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, will be published October 8th by Harvard Square Editions. Read the first chapter and sign up for his blog at http://joe-giordano.com/