Montecito – Chapter 8 & 9: Dinner Plans

By Michael Cox   |   August 23, 2022

Take a sneak peek of Montecito by Michael Cox in this ongoing serialization of his yet-to-be-published book. This fictional story is inspired by “tales of true crime THAT HAPPENED HERE.” After meeting with Cyrus, a momentous opportunity lingers after morning coffee. Chapter 6 & 7 is here. – MJ Staff

Montecito Chapter 8

After hosting her book club the previous night and going to a friend’s birthday dinner at The Lark the night prior, Cricket had her heart set on picking up burgers from Tinker’s and watching a family movie. But when I teased that I had surreptitiously met Cyrus for coffee that morning and that there was a chance that he might need my services after all, she acquiesced, seemingly shocked that I had it in me to do anything that could be described as surreptitious. 

Just like the first time, Entre Nous wine flowed freely, and artisanal pizza slices were consumed as quickly as they came from the oven. The kids swam for a while then retired to the television room which was more private theater than room. Two other couples were in attendance that evening — both invited by Genevieve who fortuitously met them at events where the rich and successful congregate. 

I did not know either couple personally, but I knew them by name and reputation. John Colton’s family had founded Miramar Bank and Trust, now a one-billion-dollar bank, and he sat on every other nonprofit board in Santa Barbara County. And Susan Workner ran the residential real estate firm in Montecito; one that only dealt with properties with price tags over five million dollars and served champagne at all open houses.

The conversation was effortless and elegant; Cyrus and Genevieve were master hosts. Cricket too kept everyone laughing as each conversation topic zoomed from one tangent to the next while the enormous firepit lit everyone’s faces. We did not speak of Landon whom neither John and his wife, nor Susan and her husband, knew. Even for Cricket and me, Landon’s coming and going felt like something we might have imagined. Only Cyrus and Genevieve had truly known Landon, and they seemed to be processing their grief well.

I slipped into a state of easy motion that almost felt comfortable; it was a surreal notion to a man who rarely felt comfortable outside his house. Then the inevitable happened.

“So, Hollis,” Susan Workner said, “what do you do?” 

Her intentions were almost certainly honest. I was the quiet one; she was trying to bring me into the conversation. But I could feel the blood drain from my face as all eyes turned to me. “Well, I …,” I began, then stuttered silent.

“He works with me,” Cyrus said. “Hollis is the Chief Executive Officer of ExOh Holdings.”

Cricket grabbed my knee, but my eyes were glued to Cyrus. I had not said yes to anything. More to the point, I had not properly briefed Cricket on the details of Cyrus’s offer, specifically the fact that it was a job with a highfalutin title, opaque responsibilities and – critically – no paycheck. It was the most intriguing thing in my otherwise empty hopper, but I still had not decided yes. 

“That’s terrific,” Susan said. “Dumb question, but what is this ExOh Holdings?”

Cyrus began to spin his tale, describing with glee the massive retail opportunity in China and how the Amazons and Alibabas of the world were structurally segregated from it. I listened for a minute before Cricket’s repeated squeezing of my knee finally registered. I turned to look at her and saw her admiration. It was a look I had not seen in some time. When our eyes met, she squeezed my knee even harder, leaning in and whispering, “this happened over coffee?”

I arched my eyebrows. “Kind of,” I whispered back.

“When were you planning to tell me?”

I shook my head. “Surprise?”

Her smile said it all: pride, a little bit of shock, and a lot of relief. “Wow!” she whispered.

Wow indeed. My emotional pendulum swung from uncertainty to frustration to gratitude. The look on Cricket’s face made it clear I could not back out now. I still did not know how I would explain the no-cash-compensation scheme to Cricket, nor how I would survive the no-cash-compensation scheme. The smile faded from my face as these weightier thoughts took hold. Cricket must have sensed my anxiety because she removed the hand from my knee and threw it over my shoulder, pulling me in for a sideways hug.

“And what will you do, specifically?” John Colton asked me as Cyrus finished his soliloquy. 

Again, the eyes turned to me, but this time I had Cricket’s arm around me. Nothing could hurt me now. “Well, John, we just came to an agreement on working together this – uh – morning,” I said, nodding at Cyrus to bring him in on my acceptance of his ramrodding; he raised his glass and winked in acknowledgment. “I am going to be Cyrus’s right-hand man in getting ExOh’s stock trading again,” I continued. “I am going to get the company’s global operations coordinated and efficient. And I am going to pick up Cyrus’s dry cleaning and get his car washed. Whatever it takes.”

The last line drew a chorus of hoots and another silent toast from Cyrus. I did not know what I was doing – following an impulse really – but the moment was alive with possibility. I still had no idea how to finance this possibility, or if I could actually perform the jobs I would be tasked with. But Cyrus’s belief in me felt like a missing ingredient in my heretofore career. Somehow, some way, this was meant to be.

“Well, on that glorious note, let’s have dessert,” Genevieve announced.

The group moved from the firepit back to the dining table which had been reset for dessert in our absence. With a nod of Genevieve’s head, the pie was presented unsliced; Genevieve liked to do the slicing herself, Cyrus told us, divvying out bigger slices to her favorite guests. 

We passed our plates over one at a time and received our shares. The pie had a buttery graham cracker crust with the faintest hint of mint. Sandwiched between the lime and the crust was a thick layer of dark chocolate. On top, homemade whipped cream squeezed from a pastry bag with a petal piping tip. It was worthy of a photo; a truth not lost on Genevieve. She positioned her plate in front of a few candles with a glass of Entre Nous in the background and snapped several pictures for Instagram. Then we dug in.

Magnificent was not an adequate descriptor. I have never tasted anything like it. The lime and chocolate paired perfectly with the Pinot Noir. Each bite and sip combination sent my taste buds swooning. I finished my slice and looked longingly at Cricket’s. When she was done – she was blessed with the ability to know when she was full and the wisdom to listen to that voice – I implored her to share the remnants with me. I then finished hers too.

“This is unreal, Genevieve,” I said.

“I am so glad you like it,” she said, clapping her hands together.

“Almost professional,” John Colton added with a grin. “If your man ever gets in a pinch, you could probably pay the rent with this pie.”

Genevieve’s eyes narrowed to size of gunnery slits in a World War II pillbox. “I was a professional, Mr. Colton. And I can more than pay the rent with my talents.”

Even I – a decorated veteran of the foot-in-mouth faux pas – recognized that John Colton had struck a nerve. This was the moment when I usually groveled an apology, but Colton took a less contrite path. “Oh, I’m sure you could,” he said, his grin broadening into a can’t-you-take-a-joke smile. “But thankfully, you don’t need to.”

Genevieve returned his toothy smile with a forced one of her own. 

“You know,” I said after several beats of silence that seemed to make everyone else uncomfortable, “I love to bake. This is probably beyond my pay grade, but I would like to give it a try. Can you share the recipe with me, Genevieve?”

Genevieve put down her wine glass, her forced smile morphing into pursed lips. “I’m sorry, Hollis,” she said, shaking her head no.

I waited for her to elaborate, but she added nothing. “Don’t worry,” I offered, “You won’t catch me selling pies. I cook for an audience of four; that’s it.”

The corners of her pursed lips edged up slightly. “It’s nothing like that, Hollis,” she said. “Cyrus assures me that you are a man that can be trusted …”

My eyes shifted to Cyrus. He raised his wine glass and nodded in acknowledgment.

“But this recipe is a family secret,” Genevieve continued. “One I’ll never share.”

Chapter 9

Cyrus arranged a global video teleconference so that I could meet the rest of his ExOh team. To accommodate all time zones in an equally painful manner, the call was held at 10 pm Montecito time.

I was nervous all day. To satiate those fears, I read anything I could find about global finance, Chinese trade barriers, Asian import tariffs, trade wars, and how those who have managed to set up profitable Chinese retail operations accomplished it. Research had always been my blankie and at no time had I felt more in need of new knowledge than now. 

While making dinner that night, Cricket pressed me for the terms of my new employment. I knew we would come to this topic eventually, but I had been avoiding it; this was where her flood of enthusiasm would meet its wall of resistance. 

“If you’re not being paid, you’re not being valued,” she correctly argued.

“It was a non-negotiable issue, Cricket. No one on the executive team is getting paid in cash,” I said. “It’s take it or leave it.”

“Hmmm,” she said, then went back to preparing the meal, turning the options over in her head, comparing the crushing weight of the rock to the unyielding exterior of the hard place.

I was desperate for her validation. So much so, that I briefly considered voicing a supporting argument based on the economic theory of comparative advantage – desperate times indeed. Comparative advantage is a theory that argues for free trade based on the surprising conclusion that every country should specialize in its relative advantages, even if those relative advantages are actual deficiencies. Marriages are like this, I planned to argue. Yes, Cricket was a better breadwinner than me. She was also a better CEO of the Crawford household and a better nonprofit volunteer. Unfortunately, she could not wear every hat in the house unless she planned on adding a neck brace. 

So, what to do with inept Hollis? CEO of the Crawford household? Child Protective Services would be on premises within a week. Nonprofit volunteer? I wouldn’t survive a day. Breadwinner? By process of elimination, it remained the only option where my success was conceivable.

I cracked a slight smile at the logic of this argument. The smile lasted for a millisecond before I grasped the pitiful emasculation of it all. I did not have the courage to voice the truth; Cricket would have to be man enough for us both.

I sat, watching her cook, waiting for the white smoke signifying that her papal conclave had reached a conclusion.

“You really believe in this?” she finally asked.

I swallowed. “I do. I really do.” And I did, I really did. I believed Cyrus’s spiel about ExOh becoming the next Amazon, and every time the practical reality of not getting paid crept to the front of my consciousness, I thought about one million dollars’ worth in stock on the way to becoming ten million in cash. I was not going to get an offer like this anywhere else.

She nodded. “How will we get by? I can’t exactly ask for a raise,” she said. “Two times zero is still zero.”

“I have a plan,” I said. The plan was the unthinkable sin of cashing in my retirement money early. I had run the numbers in anticipation of Cricket potentially giving me the go ahead. If I set up an automatic withdrawal program on my Individual Retirement Account, the after-tax, after-penalty value of my account divided into twelve equal installments would match a decent take home salary for a start-up business executive. By the time my retirement funds ran out, my ExOh stock would be fully vested and worth millions, and this little speedbump would become a fun piece of family lore.

Cricket nodded along. “I hate that plan.”

“Me too,” I said. “But it is the best one I’ve got.”

More cooking; more silence. 

“You really believe in this?”

“I really do,” I said, and again, I really did.

“I told my parents about ExOh today,” she said.

I closed my eyes tight. Cricket’s parents were fantastic and had supported me through all my stumbles. But the thought of the three of them speaking about me, made me incredibly uncomfortable. “What did they think?”

“They were excited,” she said. “Dad thinks he might want to invest.”

Cricket’s dad loved to unwind from a long day of teaching Physics at UC Santa Barbara by watching CNBC’s aftermarket shout-fests. They were cotton candy to his intellect. “That’s really kind of him,” I said, “but not yet.”

“They want you to see that they believe in you,” she said. 

I cringed at what I was about to say next. “Well, I think Cyrus has set some kind of minimum investment size and I think it is pretty big.”

“Oh,” she said. Cricket’s parents had done just fine, but they weren’t sitting on piles of cash. “Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?”

“Right,” I agreed, grateful that I wasn’t adding the responsibility for Cricket’s parents’ retirement savings to the draining of my own. “So, we have a plan?” I asked. “An approved plan?”

“Since when do you need my approval?”

“Since always.”

She smiled. “Yes, we have a plan.”  

Click here for Chapter 10

 

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