When I received the invitation to Grace’s dinner party, I was warned by my husband, Martin, to watch what I said. I am known for verbal tactlessness when it comes to criminality which is one of my major pet peeves. Whenever I come head-to-head with white collar fraud I tend to go off-the-charts about it. White collar crime, to me, is not a victimless crime. It hurts everyone – those who got ripped off and the general population that pays higher prices, costlier fees and increased insurance rates to make up for the theft. There was no getting out of going. All of the attendees were Martin’s life insurance clients.
Lately, we’d seen a lot of our friends and neighbors involved in perpetrating scams – doctors, lawyers and businessmen that were carted off to jail for various illegal maneuvers. It seems inconceivable that I know so many people who have gotten in trouble with the law. I grew up in a poor neighborhood where we had respect for all professionals, even the real estate broker held a place of high esteem.
Some of the people that had turned crooked didn’t surprise me. Jake, my husband’s good friend, had me doing a double take. I still reeled from the news. He always seemed so kind and philanthropic, but had recently been indicted on Federal racketeering charges. It included theft, mail-fraud and RICO, the law that ensnared the Mafia. He admitted to Martin he was as good as convicted because they had all the evidence. He’d been in the cross-hairs of the FBI for a long time. After pleading guilty, he would be sentenced and then head off to what he hoped would be a minimum security prison. He was being given a send-off at Grace’s party. How wonderful.
I finally figured out why they all wanted life insurance once it was known that they all had big amounts of ill-gotten cash socked away in numbered accounts on off-shore islands. In the event that they died and the IRS wanted to attach property for unpaid taxes the beneficiaries could argue that they were left no money or property. They only had the policy benefits on which to live and maintain their old life-style. Of course, they always had access to those hidden accounts.
One notable reason for the party was a welcome home for Mark, Grace’s husband. Mark, a lawyer who had just completed a three-year sentence at Allenwood Minimum Security Prison, went away because of a high-profile auto accident insurance scam. He was also disbarred. In addition, Jake was getting the royal treatment for – I don’t know what. Did they think it was sad he got caught? I found it to be our justice system working the way it should. The embossed invite had been quite upbeat – like, let’s give our terrific friends our very best wishes. Not my wishes, thank you.
Martin and I dressed in regulation style, dressy-casual. The outfit I wore was studied nonchalance and expensive – it was reserved for parties given by Martin’s wealthy clients, many of whom now wore numbers in their mug shots. I’d learned to make my outward appearance fit in to the group’s expectations while my mind took off to another sphere. There were no shared values with those people. Not that my values were terrific. I like money, but was proud my husband got it the honest way by hard work.
Besides, I wasn’t the most popular person among my suburbanites – far from it. I didn’t like the cookie-cutter life demanded in the suburbs. Everyone was expected to behave in a certain, prescribed way and talk about their most recent luxury acquisitions. My most valuable recent purchase was for some great sable brushes for oil painting, but no one was interested.
My art work took me to off-beat realms and gatherings where one had the chance to expand their worlds and vision through interesting conversations. Martin knew I had difficulties finding common threads with the people we would meet up with tonight. Whenever I said something I thought was funny, Martin would be the only one laughing. But I played the part of the suburban wife as best I could. My husband’s career was dominated by these people.
We arrived for dinner at Grace and Mark’s mini-mansion on an acre of land in a posh suburban location. It wasn’t exactly a huge MacMansion but came close. It was nestled in a luxurious lush garden that surrounded the house and in the back a rolling hill was covered with thick-bladed, carpet-like grass. Inside, the expensive chrome and leather furniture was off-set by antique reproductions.
The home decorations could only be summed up as lavish, expensive, designer eclectic style that rearranged could be found in other MacMansions. In the large foyer with the curved grand staircase stood a dictionary stand, holding a Who’s Who in America opened to the page with the Mark’s biography, published just before he went off. Mark and Jake were golfing buddies. I noticed the two men, one out of prison and one just going in, huddled in a corner engrossed in an animated conversation. They had a lot in common beside golf.
About a dozen people showed up for cocktails, some women were dressed to the teeth and decked out with all their jewels.
I had two glasses of chardonnay and felt tipsy by the time we were called to the dinner table. They seated Jake next to me and Martin sat across from me. I noticed my husband’s lips quivering slightly. I knew he was nervous about me opening my big mouth so I gave him an assuring wink and a plastic smile. I could tell he was not convinced about my promise to behave. Neither was I.
After bringing out huge platters of food, a hired server stood at the ready, filling glasses of wine and water the instant one took a sip. Five or six simultaneous conversations kept up a loud hum of chatter. I concentrated on noise.
“How’s it going, Barb,” Jake asked.
“I’m okay. How are you? Are you handling the situation all right?”
“Not really. Jail is not exactly what I had in mind for myself.”
Tough boogers. It’s what you deserve. Here was a perfect opportunity to ask – why would a man born to wealth, who inherited a fabulous business and never wanted for one thing his entire life commit fraud. Jake underreported his income by millions of dollars and knowingly sold defective food products made in China that seriously sickened hundreds of people before the recall.
I decided to hold my tongue and not deliver one of my underappreciated lectures on morality. I loved Martin for tolerating some of my outlandish behavior, my unpredictable outbursts of railing against dishonesty and hypocrisy. I owed him my politically correct behavior tonight.
The energy level of buzzing increased. I focused on my plate with a vertical mound of poached sole, sprigs of rosemary, broccoli florets and hearts of palm au gratin. On the side was a noodle basket filled with buttered green beans.
This was a grand send off for a man about to eat crappy prison food. I kept quiet and continued chewing. When the apricot soufflé arrived, I promptly vaporized it. I felt quite good for having kept myself in check through the entire dinner.
Grace’s new Haitian maid shimmied by us with clear disdain and cleared the table. We retired to the library that had three walls lined with gorgeous, burnished oak bookshelves. There were hundreds of books, many of them classics. I noticed they were new, dusted and, obviously, never read. Grace had told me her decorator had selected them.
Coffee was served by Ms. Haiti with the same indifference. I smiled directly at her, and she gave me a quick, warm grin, her eyes glinted humorously. That was the brightest moment of the night, by far.
I couldn’t hide behind the delicious food and inane chatter any more. I felt exposed and wracked my brain for safe topics. I sat next to Grace and loudly loudly talked about her talent for gourmet cooking. Martin fish-eyed me as though I’d introduced the compliments to pave the way for a sermon. I ignored him and continued my flow of chatter. I desperately sought comfort zone topics.
“I catered the dinner,” Grace said, unsmiling. “I was too tired to cook. I had to go up to the prison to pick Mark up yesterday.”
What could I say? I turned to Jake, who had seated himself beside me again. What did he want from me? He knew my feelings. Jake clutched an unlit cigar in his stubby fingers.
“Since when did you start smoking cigars?” I asked.
“I don’t. It just calms my nerves when I hold it, kind of like a pacifier. The hostess doesn’t mind as long as I don’t light it.”
“Do you have your affairs in order?” I asked him, allowing sarcasm to tinge my voice.
“You seem so calm with all that’s changed in your life.”
Jake brought his face close to mine. His watery eyes were outlined with dark circles. “I’m not calm at all.”
“I understand you were going to plead innocent at first. Why would you have bothered with a trail?” I wondered if he’d get up and walk away.
He gave me his biggest, coldest smile. “I didn’t do anything that was out of the ordinary. Every business man would do what I did if they had the chance. And many do.”
When I didn’t respond, he dropped his diabolical grin. “My lawyer convinced me to plead guilty. Kids were involved in the tainted food, and he thought a jury would crucify me.” He waved his hand as though dismissing the importance of the conversation. “The whole episode was distorted and out of context. It just would have bankrupted me to fight. Hey, we all want to beat the system.”
“Like you’ve been doing for a long time, huh Jake?”
“Are you judging me?”
“You bet your ass. You hurt a lot of people. Some of those who were sickened are not quite out of the woods and others will be in treatment for years.”
I turned to see if anyone heard me. Everyone was engrossed in conversation and seemingly awaiting the cognac that was being poured by hired help. Everyone, that is, except Martin. He stared at me, looking glum. After all, he and Jake grew up together and Martin, a man with so much goodness and forgiveness in his heart, felt sorry for him. Martin’s sympathetic attitude about Jake bothered me, but I had to let it go.
“Anyone who claimed harm got paid handsomely from my insurance company. Some were fakes, I’m sure. They’ll get well and be rich so forget the sympathy.”
“That is callous. Does money help someone if they can hardly talk because their vocal cords are burned out? And what about suffering from constant fatigue?”
“You read the bullshit in the newspapers. Lots of them faked those symptoms to get more money.”
“That doesn’t explain why you did it, Jake? Let’s just take the millions in unpaid taxes. The little people have to work harder to make up for what you cheated the government out of.”
“That’s why they’re little people.” Jake laughed harshly.
“That’s disgusting.” This was a low blow even for Jake. I’d known Jake for twelve years, as long as I’d been married. He’d been somewhat distanced but always had been solicitous of me, seemed to cherish his friendship with Martin, gave a lot to charities and was supposedly God fearing. Now when I looked at him I saw a mobster without the requisite bulge under his double-breasted jacket. How different was Jake from the way the Mob did business? Jake and Mark were criminals without guns. Just because they weren’t steeped in organized crime didn’t forgive their crass outright criminal mentality. Do we ever know the darkness lurking within the most innocuous outward appearances? I looked over at Martin, chatting with Mark. Most people always thought of Mark as a nerdy kind of guy, church-going and a good family man.
“You feel above me?” Jake asked, a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Don’t tell me you’ve never done anything dishonest in your life, like lie and cheat the IRS.”
“You know Martin. Neither of us would cheat on income taxes. And you should know that I don’t lie. That’s why I’m always in trouble.”
Picturing myself in prison, the loss of freedom, hundreds of others all bunched together in the eating halls in prison yards – I nearly gagged. I recalled the time my car was towed because I’d ignored a few parking tickets. My stomach shut down and my bowels opened up. If I’m driving and I see a cop on my tail, I think I did something wrong and do a mental check for speed, headlights, inspection stickers, registration and clean underwear in case they do a strip search. When the cop passes right by me, I still feel like I did something wrong.
A shrill voice brought the chitchat to a screeching halt. “It wasn’t fair,” Grace screeched, addressing no one and everyone.
“And now Mark can’t get his license to practice law back. He’s going to work as a sales man, selling men’s clothing. Before those pigs unjustly arrested him, he made nine hundred thousand a year. We lost everything.”
Grace’s voice was nasal as she crunched her vowels. Her hair and face seemed designed with military precision. Her hands twittered in the air, and she flashed a diamond large enough to light up Rhode Island. Everyone had hushed.
“We had to sell our Florida house. Thank God, we still have the beach house because we put it in my mother’s name.”
The word God came out sounding like Gawd.
“The justice system sucks,” Mark added. “I was innocent, but they just wanted to make an example of someone who made a lot of money. FBI agents are jealous of guys like me and Jake. Every lawyer who does personal injury does the same thing. I didn’t do anything different.”
Except shred as many records as you could just as the FBI was closing in.
Jake listened with seemingly intense focus as though he saw the words spelled out in the air. He seemed to hang on for dear life.
Mark looked directly at Jake. “Prison’s not so bad. I lost weight, worked out in the gym and made connections. I already got some referral fees under the table for fixing
a labor problem for a CEO of a corporation who was my bunk mate at Club Fed. Then I helped the union guy, too.” Mark laughed, or more like snorted.
And what will you do for your next act without a law license?
I wondered what they wore at a Federal minimum security prison. I knew they pooped on a toilet that was exposed right in the cell where they slept. I’d probably be constipated for the entire three years. Obviously, there were no bubble baths or electrolysis.
There seems to be an epidemic of white collar crime, and there’s lots of indelible dirt around the collar. Jake and Mark were puny compared to Enron and Bernie Madoff, but there were big crimes nonetheless. People got hurt. It’s hard to believe that these people are my acquaintances and neighbors, the fat cats playing Fraud of the Month. Looking around the room I got the jitters. Grace had quieted and took deep swallows of the cognac. The room swelled with a bloated, fake gaiety. I looked out the window at the sparse winter darkness. Was I the only one terrified?