It was 4 a.m. I had no doubt about that. The clock said as much. And who am I to argue with clocks? If ever we cannot trust them, the country is done for.
But what were those voices? At such an hour.
The first to speak was a soft, feminine voice, talking to someone on the landing outside my door. ‘It’s not the way it used to be.’
‘What do you mean?’ replied the man, in a voice that was neither young nor old, with slight impatience.
‘Of course, I don’t know why I bother,’ she went on. ‘I don’t think it matters to you anyway.’
‘What doesn’t matter to me?’ he replied with growing restlessness…
Making money on Christmas
‘Oh, come on…What are you talking about?’
‘I mean, all you think about is your stocks. You and that damned computer! Here we are, even at a Christmas party, and all you ever talk about is stocks! Broadcom. Qualcomm. Dot-com. Does every word you speak and every thought you think have to involve money?’
‘You’re being silly…’
‘No, I’m not. It’s you who is being silly. And you know why you spend all your time watching stocks? I’ll tell you — fear! You’re afraid of life.
‘You’re afraid of me. You condense all your hopes and aspirations…all your dreams and fears…into one simple master passion: making money.
‘All you care about is making money,’ she went on. ‘You’re afraid to care about anything else! Not about me or Christmas or about anything. Even now, why, you’re eager to get home so you can turn on your computer and see how much money you’ve made today.’
‘You’re exaggerating,’ he protested. ‘Besides, I’m no fool…I’m going to sell them all when I’ve made back what I lost. And I won’t worry about them again. It’s just that I’ve taken a beating recently…and it’s not easy. But that doesn’t mean I feel any differently about you. And besides, it’s not about money anyway…It’s about our future.’
The conversation trailed off as the holiday revelers moved off to their final destination of the evening — an apartment near mine.
I went back to sleep. Having failed to profit from the greatest period of wealth creation of all time, I could sleep in peace.
And yet…I did feel sorry for them.
While this was taking place, Ebenezer received his third and final visitor of the night.
‘I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,’ said the spirit.
And away they went again, the two of them. Ebenezer was scared. Perhaps he feared the future. At 82, he had an idea of where it might lead.
The spirit conducted them beyond a full, bright moon…to where the moon shone no more. It was as if a tide of night had washed the stars out of the sky. It was black. And cold.
And then, all of a sudden, a city arose all around them. Its narrow streets and very high buildings reminded Ebenezer of somewhere. Yes, it was Lower Manhattan. The financial district. It was Wall Street.
On the street, groups of men and women were speaking. But they had worried, haggard faces.
‘What troubles them so, Spirit?’ asked Ebenezer of his guide.
‘You must see for yourself,’ replied the phantom, as they drew near a group on the corner of Broad and Wall.
‘Global Crossing…?’ asked one. ‘Are you kidding? The bankers got less than two cents on the dollar. Shareholders got nothing. Not even a scrap of paper to put on their bathroom walls.’
‘At least the bankers got something,’ answered another. ‘They were lucky. What did Enron shareholders get?’
‘Yeah, but who cares?’
‘A guy I know cares. He owned JPMorgan and other bank stocks.’
‘You’d think they would have held up better.’
‘You would have thought a lot of things.’
‘Well, you would have thought you’d have gotten more than a turkey for a Christmas bonus. I remember last year, I got more than $2 million. This year — a turkey.’
‘Some guys didn’t even get that.’
‘Where are you living now? I heard you moved?’
‘Yeah, we moved in with my wife’s mother. We had to give up our apartment.’
‘What, that place overlooking the park on the West Side? What’d you do with last year’s bonus? Didn’t you pay for the place?’
‘No…I took out a mortgage and put my bonus into Qualcomm. It did so well, I remortgaged at 125% and leveraged up.’
‘Jeez…you must be hurting.’
‘Nah…It’s the bank that’s really hurting.’
‘I’ll tell you who’s really hurting…one of my customers in Baltimore. The guy just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He bought the dips. Ha. Ha. Each time the Big Techs went down, the guy bought more. The guy died and the banker went to his place — took everything. Even the sheets off the bed.’
Christmas in Baltimore
Ebenezer couldn’t believe his ears.
‘What has happened? Who was the customer in Baltimore?’ he asked the spirit.
The Phantom of Christmas Future made no response. Instead, he stood erect, pointed his finger…and in an instant, the two were standing once again at the little window on the east side of town.
‘Our time is short,’ said the spirit.
The two gazed in the window. The scene was not the boisterous, happy one they had seen earlier. Instead, Bob and his family sat still, quiet — as if a dark shadow had passed over them and the fire in their hearth had gone out forever.
There, in the corner, was a crutch, partially hidden by a Christmas tree. Even with its lights and baubles, the tree failed to make the place festive. Something was missing.
‘Why, where’s little Tim?’ Ebenezer asked, dreading the answer.
‘Tim is no more,’ said the phantom.
‘I have seen enough,’ said Ebenezer. ‘No more shadows. I understand the lesson you are trying to teach. I am not so dull that I cannot grasp your point. Some losses are real…and more important than money. I will send Bob and his family a sympathy card.’
‘Come…’ said the spirit. ‘Your lessons are not complete.’
A second later, Ebenezer recoiled in terror. They were in a bedroom stripped of its curtains, sheets, and even the pictures off its walls, leaving light patches of wallpaper where there once hung Ebenezer’s collection of great artists’ works of the mid-20th century. The Pollocks, the Mirós, the Warhols — he hated every one of them…but they were great investments. More than once, he had muttered to himself, ‘They ought to pay me to own these things…’
But what had become of them?
And the figure on the bed, the corpse, was covered only by a large plastic garbage bag, so carelessly laid on that even a gentle breeze would have left the body naked, exposed to the world as though a ghastly piece of art at the Walters Museum.
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command…
Strike, shadow, strike…so that we may see his good deeds flow from the wound.
No voice pronounced these words. But Ebenezer heard them anyway.
And then, a moment later, they were in some other place. It was a cemetery.
‘We don’t need to come here,’ said Ebenezer. ‘I know whose tombstone you will show me. But before we look, answer me this: Are these shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be?’
The spirit was immovable. His finger beckoned to the tombstone.
Ebenezer moved forward. He looked. And there it was. His own name, chiseled in stone.
He fell to his knees and reached for the spirit’s hand. But spirits are as elusive as profits in a bear market. Finding no hand to comfort him, he formed his own in prayer.
In agony, his voice trembled: ‘I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone.’
He blinked, and the spirit was gone. So was the graveyard. He was back in his bed.
The room was his own. The bed was his own. Best of all, the time before him was his own. And his to make amends in!
Oh, what a feeling of delight! To be alive! A new day! A new life! And to understand, for once, what really matters. How could he have been such a fool, for so many years, in so many ways?
A new era
Well, it was too late to think about that…and no time for it, either. This was a time for action. For something new. ‘A new era,’ he said to himself…
…and chuckled. He couldn’t remember the sound of his own chuckle. So he did it again. What an amusing sound. Chuckle. Chuckle. Ha! What fun.
New era? Yes, this was the real new era. A new era, indeed, with a new kind of wealth — the only kind that really mattered.
He was so excited, he fluttered out of bed as though a robin from its nest.
He rushed to turn on his computer.
‘SELL!’ His fingers rushed over the letters so fast, the computer could barely keep up. ‘I don’t know whether they’re going up or down,’ he laughed to himself, ‘but I don’t care anymore. I’m free of all this nonsense forever.’
Opening his window, he saw a young boy on the street corner.
‘Hey, boy,’ he shouted.
‘Who are you calling ‘boy’?’ came the resentful reply.
‘Oh, never mind,’ said Ebenezer. ‘Times have changed.’ And he made up his mind to change with them.
‘Oh my, the markets are closed today,’ said Ebenezer to himself. ‘It’s Christmas. Sell? To whom? No one will be buying or selling stocks today.
‘How wonderful. Everything is wonderful now.
‘Bubble, schmubble. I’m going to go see my old friend, Bob.
‘And get that kid of his properly checked out at Johns Hopkins. I think Itec may have a new drug that can help him.’
‘Hmmm…I should probably buy some stock in Itec. Great company. And it’s been knocked down 50% since last year. Buy the dips! This could be a big winner when the techs come back…I could make a fortune on this one…But who cares! Let the dips do the buying. Heh heh. This is a new era…’
I confess, dear reader, that I do not know if the story is true. I just know that it ought to be true, even if it is not.
And I know how it ends, too. With these immortal lines from dear Tiny Tim, saved by new technology from Itec:
‘Merry Christmas. And God bless us, every one!’