The Trouble with Money by Linda Breneman

Rupert Jones – though quite brilliant and certainly a legal adult at the age of 25 – has never bothered to grow up. He gets his hair cut twice a year, shaves once a week, and wears ratty jeans and t-shirts every day. Aside from a surfeit of electronics, he lives simply in a cluttered and mildewed rented room. In these ways he isn’t much different from masses of modern American Peter Pans. But in one way Rupert Jones is unusual: his net worth exceeds twenty million dollars, and hardly anyone – including his parents – knows it. This isn’t a problem, at least not for Rupert, until the day his parents tell him they’re facing foreclosure on the family home.

[private]They don’t blurt the news; they let it dribble out. First, Rupert’s mother Nancy leaves a message on his cell:

“Rupert, we need you.”

This rare and vague declaration spurs Rupert to leave his room, jump in his nondescript ’99 Toyota, and motor across the city in rainy rush-hour traffic. Nancy meets Rupert at the door with a cry of delight. She eats carefully and teaches yoga; she’s a young sixty-five. Her skin, though wrinkled, is bright, and her compact body is lithe. John, Rupert’s dad, looks like a shaggy Sigmund Freud. He glances up from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Because he had opposed calling Rupert in the first place and because he dislikes being reminded of looming disaster, he is not as pleased to see Rupert as Nancy is.

“Why is it so cold in here?” Rupert says.

In the early spring in Seattle, most people heat their houses, if only to reduce the dampness. But it’s chilled and clammy. Six dripping candles shed a meagre trickle of light.

“And why isn’t the phone ringing?”

The Joneses normally field scores of calls from friends, colleagues, students, and activists checking in.

“We are community people …” Nancy says automatically.

Rupert hates this phrase. He isn’t conscious of the reason, but a visit to a capable shrink would uncover an image of dozens of busybodies watching him perform private bodily functions.

“… But we had to put the phones on silent because of the collectors.” Nancy’s eyelid twitches.

John shifts in his chair and squints up at Rupert. “Shall we get right to it?” he says. “Like thousands of unfortunate souls these days, son, we are facing foreclosure. Did you know foreclosure rates are up eighty percent in this great nation of ours?”

Rupert slaps his palm against his forehead. “But you guys bought the place for, what? A hundred thousand in 1982? I’m surprised you even have a mortgage.”

“We did refinance once or twice,” Nancy says.

John straightens his papers. “There were the refugees we helped. And some fines from the tax protests.”

“And this and that,” Nancy says.

In fact, they don’t comprehend how the crisis happened. Although Nancy and John consider themselves soul mates (they are as devoted to one another as they’ve ever been), their partnership lacks complementariness. They are equally lax and preoccupied with their own pursuits.

“We were hoping you might be able to loan us some money,”

Nancy says quietly. John picks up The New York Times and pretends to read it.

“How much money?” Rupert says.

“Three thousand dollars would help a lot,” Nancy says. They need ten times that to be all right. But, while Nancy knows Rupert has been working on some high-tech projects, she doesn’t think he is working now. Three thousand seems like a lot to ask for.

No, Rupert thinks. No way. They’ve got to be exaggerating, and his whole way of life is at stake here. “I don’t know where I’d get three thousand dollars.” he lies.

John’s pink face blushes fuchsia. “Never mind, son,” he says.

“Your mother is not herself.”

“Maybe I could sell a computer or something …” Rupert says.

“No, son. We’re fine,” John says.

When the front door clicks shut, John stands and wraps his arms around Nancy. She shivers and cries a little.

“See? I was right. We shouldn’t have asked,” John says. “We face ‘innumerable detriments,’ as the Venerable Bede would say. Rupert’s obviously busted too.”

“I’ll bet you’re right,” Nancy says. “I wish we could help him. He seems so tentative these days.”

“At least we didn’t tell him everything. He’d only worry,” John says.

Parents worry about their young adult sons; that emotional river rarely flows upstream. Back in his room, without a thought to the fear or the lack of juice he’s just witnessed at his parents’ house, Rupert turns on an assortment of devices: a laptop, a desktop, a television, and a game console. Despite all this, he’s inundated with childhood memories of himself and his mother and his father in the house– his mother helping him with his homework at the kitchen table (she’d once been a math teacher), his father reading The Lord of the Rings to him at his bedside. He feels as if pieces of himself are breaking off and floating away. He’s so agitated, in fact, that he ends up outside, in the rain, on a panic walk west through the U-District. The scenery reminds him of a younger, more carefree Rupert and some congenial times in a dive near the freeway called the Blue Moon. As he enters through the neon-embellished door, he runs straight into Paul Liddell, M-Soft’s famous chief technologist. Liddell, a bearish and forthright man, had mentored Rupert as a student intern. He grabs Rupert by the arm and drags him down the sidewalk.

“Hey, Rupert,” he says. “Walk me to my car and tell me what’s going on with you.”

Rupert doesn’t think; he blabs. “My parents are losing their house, man,” he says. “They’re bad with money.”

“But, Rupert, I heard about you,” Liddell says. “After you left school you wrote that huge game. What was it?”

“Aggravated Assault.”

“You must have made twenty million on that thing.”

“Fifteen.” Rupert doesn’t explain how he subsequently worked on a couple of other successful games, ballooning the initial fifteen to almost twenty-three.

“Fifteen. That’s pretty good for a first effort.” Paul Liddell is not easily impressed; he is worth more than two billion dollars.

“I guess.”

“So what did you do? Spend it all on Porsches or Italian villas or trips to Vegas?”
“No, man. I haven’t spent any of it.”

“And what are you doing now?”

“You know – this and that.”

“Ah. Not working at all, then?”

Here Liddell squints at Rupert for a long moment. In the last several decades, M-Soft has spawned 10,000 millionaires, and Paul Liddell has mentored many of them. He’s seen a range – some good stewards, some spendthrifts, some excessive givers – and some few who, like Rupert, attempt to ignore it.

Liddell removes his wire-rimmed glasses, digs a special cloth from his pocket, wipes the lenses clean, replaces the glasses, and adjusts them. “So you’ve become one of those idle, closeted rich guys? That makes me mad.”

Rupert looks down at the glass shards and cigarette butts on the sidewalk. “I don’t like to talk about it.”

“And you’re going to let your parents lose their house?”

Rupert shrugs. “You don’t understand. You don’t know what they’re like.”

“You’re a coward.” Liddell wants to smile, but he keeps his face neutral. He was like Rupert once. The kid needs a nudge. Or maybe a shove.

“Come on, man,” Rupert says.

“No, I mean it. What a waste.” And with that, Liddell continues on his way, shaking his head for effect. At the corner, he turns around and yells, “Think about it, and then text me if you want to.”

Rupert shrivels. He can’t remember ever being called a coward in person. In the game forums, of course, he’s been called worse, but that doesn’t count. Anonymity transforms regular people into fiends.

The next day after John goes to work, Nancy decides Rupert has a right to know all the facts. She calls him. “I have to
talk to you.”

The urgency in his mother’s voice makes Rupert’s knees dissolve. Nancy is watching for Rupert and again meets him at the front door. She is nervous about telling her secret, but she’s decided it’s the right thing to do. “We soft-pedalled things a bit yesterday.”

“How much do you really need?” Rupert says. “A hundred thousand?”

“With the mortgages and the credit cards, three.”

Rupert moans.

“We’re being evicted. We wouldn’t have asked you for help, otherwise, honey.”

“Evicted, Mom? Already? How long has this been going on?”

Nancy shrugs. “I know your place is small, but maybe we could stay with you for a while. Plus, there is another thing. I had some bad health news.”

“What kind of bad health news? What do you mean, bad health news? What?”

“I had a little seizure.” She smoothes her hair back. “And the clinic says I need an MRI. To rule out a brain tumour, I guess. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“Seizures are not nothing, Mom.”

“But we don’t have health insurance any more for me. Not since your father turned 65 and the university cut him back to part-time.”

Rupert ticks off the facts on his fingers. “So you’re getting evicted any day, you might have a brain tumour, and you’re completely broke.”

“Yes, that’s about right.”

“And what’s the minimum to keep the law away?”

“To stop the foreclosure, pay down the credit cards a little, turn on the water so we can flush …? I’m not sure.” Rupert looks at the squat refrigerator and the battered stove and the scuffed linoleum. A broken window casing in the nook has been leaking for a decade; black mildew is spreading down the cracked and blistered wainscoting. Nancy is attempting to make tea. She pours water out of a plastic jug into a pan and tries to light a propane camp stove with some soggy paper matches. It isn’t going well. In the future, Rupert will remember this moment – his mother’s distress – with terrible regret. But right now, watching her fumble, Rupert thinks about how his parents are only going to get older and feebler. He feels squeezed and breathless. Completely doomed.

Rupert retreats to his room. He knows he needs counsel, but he is afraid to call Paul Liddell. Instead, he does the easy thing and goes online, to a forum that dispenses general advice, and types the question “I have millions of dollars. Some people I know need hundreds of thousands to save their house, but I am afraid to let them know I am rich. Should I give them the money?” At two in the morning, although he feels as hopeless as a sceptic consulting a
psychic, he scans the responses:

I don’t believe you should give away your money if you worked really hard only if you won the lotterie … Yes, you have the responsibility of giving but only to those who are true believers in Jesus Christ Our Lord and Saviour … Paris Hilton should give because she only inherits and dances in nightclubs but if you are not Paris Hilton then you should keep your money … Stupid rich person … You should give your money to me and I will make sure your money is returned to you a hundred fold, follow this link …Why do you think the rich are rich? Becoz they do not give their money to anyone. Duh … If instead you buy a 300 foot mega yacht and use it to sail past shanty towns and watch people starve while you feast on foie gras and veal you are a f***er and you should kill yourself and die … This is socialism if not communism and that is bad … Money is worthless if just sets there collecting dust but yet you might encourage dependancies … Paris Hilton gets paid millions of dollars just for showing her hoohoo and so I am more deserving for I do not show my hoohoo … Read “Atlas Shrugged” and then you will know how stupid you are … If you had a TV worth a thousand dollars and your friend had a TV worth a hundred dollars, would you give them your TV? Would you?! … Of course there are Genetic Predisposes and so the wealthy deserve, the poor deserve, it is simple dont be a simpelton … Do these people needthe money because they are sick and can’t work or are they lazy asses? … If you want to be amonst people of your own, pathetic intellect, I suggest you go back to where you came from … I dont care but please do not give to the likes of bankers … Who are these people to you and who are you?

Rupert groans and texts Paul Liddell: My parents are hosed. What should I do?

It’s nearly three in the morning, but Liddell calls him right back.

“Rupert, you need a plan and you need to execute it. It’s certainly easier than writing a first-person shooter.”

“Aggravated Assault is not a first-person shooter. It’s an action game. With elements of adventure and role-playing. But action, mostly. And I tried going to a financial planner once. It sucked.”

“Lame excuses all, Rupert,” Liddell says. “Think about who you want to be and stop being a punk.”

At eight Liddell picks Rupert up in his tiny electric car and they make their silent way to a skyscraper near the Convention Centre. The elevator shoots them to the fifty-third floor, and they spill out into an expansive lobby with glass-enclosed conference rooms, glass sculptures, and two busty young receptionists. There’s a 180-degree view of Mount Rainier, Elliot Bay, the Space Needle, and Bainbridge Island. This is Questos, the firm Liddell retains to control his vast wealth. Liddell explains that Questos accepts only clients who have a net worth over $50 million; the only reason they agreed to see Rupert is that Liddell insisted.

Ashley Ramamurti, Rupert’s consultant, is a junior exec. She’s exactly Rupert’s age. Her glossy dark hair is cut in a chin-length asymmetric style, framing her dramatic and beautiful face. She is dressed in beige suit with a Bangladeshi silk scarf tied around her long neck. While her brusque manner intimidates Rupert, he feels reassured about her competence.

“Is there a way to pay off my parents’ house anonymously?” he says.

“In theory,” she says. “But first you have to get your house in order.”

Ms. Ramamurti clicks a button on a remote. “Account name and password?” she says. Within seconds, she accesses his accounts and feeds the data into modelling software. Rupert fidgets and drums his feet on the floor. He wants to go home.
Ms. Ramamurti calls for coffee and cookies and then she conducts her tutorial: trusts, tax strategies, hedge funds, mutual funds, bond funds, offshore tactics, estate planning, tax planning, risk planning. Rupert’s dearest passions and heartfelt values are to be mapped onto a risk profile, from which stochastic modelling will generate optimum allocations, budgets, and burn rates.
And then Rupert slides into a small revelation. He isn’t the richest person Ms. Ramamurti has ever met, by far. He’s just another gamer. And the meeting begins to feel playable, even fair.

The next day, while Rupert is sitting in his room worrying, Liddell calls.

“I know someone who just bought a house at a foreclosure auction. You stand on the courthouse steps and bid. If you’ve got cash, you can buy the house.”

“But my parents will know,” he says.

“Not if you retain an agent. According to the law the agent can’t tell anyone who you are.”

“Wouldn’t my parents assume it was me, though? And they could look up the title and tax records.”

“Would they?”

Rupert thinks about it. A letter from Ms. Ramamurti saying an anonymous benefactor had bought their house and wanted them to live there rent-free in recognition of their lifetime of service to the less fortunate? It could work.

“Thanks, Paul.”

“You’re welcome. And, by the way, as a trustee of United Food Banks, I’m on the hook to bring in three new Grand Platinum Circle donors. You’re one of them.”

“I am a what? A who?”

“A Grand Platinum Circle member. Very prestigious. All it takes is a stock transfer form, which I have just now emailed to Ms. Ramamurti. Tell her to arrange a transfer worth twenty-five grand.”

“What if I don’t want to be a Grand Platinum Circle member?”

“At this level, Rupert, you get to make your own label. If you do it right away I’ll let you be anonymous. You’ve got till Friday.”

And so Rupert never has to tell his parents his secret. You may say, then, that he does not grow up. But he doesn’t have to grow up. He can prolong his adolescence because he doesn’t have to suffer much real hardship.

Don’t be too disappointed, though. At least Rupert keeps in regular touch with Paul Liddell. Eventually, he will have to step up and take care of his parents, whose health problems will worsen over time.

And in a few months, Rupert will start working again. He has an idea for a new game that’s better than anything he’s ever produced before. It has a harmonious field of vision, great re-playability, and clever tests of flexibility, dexterity, and speed: planning complex campaigns, carrying comrades across rugged terrain, and keeping the hordes appeased.

The trick now is for him to keep it in his head long enough to design it all out. He’s been in this state of mind before, but it’s never felt this fragile or fraught with promise.[/private]

Linda Breneman worked as a technical writer during the heyday of Seattle’s high-tech boom. Nowadays she writes stories and essays, plays video games, volunteers, takes care of an ageing cockapoo, and hangs out whenever she can with her college-age son and daughter.

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