Look at yourselves. You know, you pass yourself off as cynical people but you still have some faith in the system, don't you? I don't.
Mark Baum's wife, Cynthia, says Mark actually became gracious after the collapse and never said "I told you so" to anyone.
THE BIG SHORT, 2015
Cynthia describes Mark as “gracious” now because she was, and still is, the most gracious person. That was the thought crossing Vinny’s mind as he sat there, at the Baums’ dining table, on Mark’s right hand side. See, Cynthia is too fucking gracious for her own good and that is her superpower; Mark Baum’s never stood a snowball’s chance in hell when he’s looking at a genuinely nice, good person.
At the other end of the table, Cynthia just finished telling her story about her and Mark’s trip to Vermont, and Danny was wheezing so hard it looked like he might choke on the spinach casserole. Vinny turned to look at Mark—who met his eyes without a beat, and nodded at Vinny’s plate.
“How’s the chicken?”
Vinny nodded back, took another bite. “It’s good. Really good.”
So this was it, in the ten-ish years Vinny had known Mark, this was the first time Mark invited his whole team to his home for dinner. Vinny did an actual spit-take of his iced coffee when Mark walked up to their pod and told him, Danny and Porter with a straight face in a calm voice—7pm, next Friday, I’ll text you the address—and the next thing Vinny knew, his shirt and keyboard became wet with spittle and coffee droplets.
That was the first thing in the morning, and he’d felt off-balance for the rest of the day, the week. Danny was being stupidly excited like the dumb golden retriever that he was, and Porter was chirping him as per usual, but the familiar and comforting sounds of their banters were grating in Vinny’s ear. Danny piped down after catching onto his reluctance to partake in speculating what kind of art and décor Mark would have in his house, but Porter, of course, had to fucking ask:
“Do you not wanna go, Vinny?”
Vinny didn’t even look at him, head tilted to watch Mark through the glass wall. He was on a conference call a room away, hunched over the table and yelling into the speaker as he was wont to do. If he didn’t have his back to the pods, Vinny would have read his lips, word for word.
He rolls the gum around the tip of his tongue before clenching his jaw and sinking his molars into it. Then he turns to look at Porter, and holds his gaze until the kid looks away, sheepishly scratching the back of his neck.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the fucking world.”
Vinny met Mark back at the office. They didn’t end up meeting Porter and Danny at the Cuban joint—Vinny saw on Mark’s face as soon as he walked out of the elevator and that was it, he knew they weren’t going anywhere that night. The Street was as glum and bleak as could be, and even then, they’d still be the biggest fucking party poopers in town. That was just the kind of face Mark had on him.
“I don’t want to go home,” Mark announced as soon as he walked through the door.
“Okay. We still need to eat, though,” Vinny said, he put both feet on the floor and stood up, the back of his chair snapping back to the right angle. They were alone in the office. It was just getting dark out; the streetlights came on a minute ago.
Mark made a beeline for the tiny kitchenette, pulling open the drawers and cabinet doors. But he wasn’t rough about it, and it was strangely calm, the way he examined each space and crevice for anything edible.
“Uh…Danny has a few packs of shrimp ramen under his desk. But I don’t think you’ll find anything other than coffee and Red Bulls over there.”
“Shrimp,” Mark turned around, his face scrunched up in disgust. “Fucking animals.”
Vinny pulled his phone out from the holster. “I’ll just order from the place. The usual for you?”
“Yeah,” Mark closed the fridge, walked back and sat across from Vinny. He ran a hand over his face—he’d been doing that so much that his skin got even more reddened, and when they were on the phone earlier, Vinny heard the muffled sound of his voice and he could picture Mark with his face buried in his hands.
Vinny nodded and dialed the restaurant. “Thanks, Vin.” He hadn’t called Vinny that in years.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” The waiter picked up the phone on the second ring, but Vinny didn’t hear him till the second time.
Vinny was the last to arrive at Mark’s apartment, and he realized the whole place smelled like delicious home cooked food before he closed the door behind himself. Vinny hadn’t had a meal cooked for him for free since visiting his mother two months ago.
“Hey hey, you made it,” Porter called out to him, raising his voice above the baseball game playing on the TV. He and Danny were kicking back on the couch, shoes off and feet up, Danny only waved since he was mid-bite on a mini stuffed pepper. Anyone who didn’t know them would have thought that these two had always lived here, the furthest thing from first-time guests.
“Cynthia, hi,” Vinny smiled when he saw Cynthia walking towards him from the kitchen, unsure whether to go for a handshake or a hug, but Cynthia opened her arms without hesitation. Vinny put his arms around her, his hands hovering somewhat awkwardly since he was still holding the gift bag with wine. And then Mark emerged from the kitchen, too, and took the bag off his hand without a word before going back in.
“Is…Mark cooking?” Vinny asked, and he might have looked somewhat catatonic because Cynthia laughed before she answered, “he’s just helping with the soup and the salad. Do you want anything to drink?”
“Just water please, thank you,” and then Vinny headed over to the couch. As he sank into the seat, he realized it was softer than it looked.
“I’m going to try to find moral redemption at the roulette table,” was the last thing Mark said that night in Vegas.
It was a horrible dinner with delicate, intricately assembled sushi made of premium-grade ingredients that turned flavorless as soon as they reached Vinny’s tongue, and Vennett kept ordering mixed drinks with weird names for their table. Vinny had left it entirely to the kids to fill the otherwise awkward silence; his eyes were glued to the table where Mark was talking to the CDO slimeball.
“Vinny, doesn’t your neck hurt from straining so much? Want me to book you a masseuse appointment later?” Vennett said with a barely contained snicker, the contempt was fucking oozing from him, that slippery fuck.
“Shut the fuck up,” Vinny said without breaking his gaze. Mark wasn’t touching his food either, he never once put down his pen to pick up the chopsticks. There were too many obstacles for lip-reading, but Vinny could make out the looks on Mark’s face. Incredulity, disgust, shock, and eventually, the satisfaction of his curiosity compelling him to walk away from that table. And he walked directly behind their booth without even intending to come close to it, barked his commands at the usual Mark volume which fit right in at the hotel.
Vinny kept watching Mark as he walks away, until he disappeared behind a set of gambling machines. Then he turned and found Vennett watching him with a huge Cheshire grin, leaning forward with both elbows on the table.
“Moral redemption—” Vennett parroted with air quotes, his eyes narrowed, all coy. “I hear that’s how Mark Baum made a name for himself on Wall Street, his little, what do the folks at Morgan Stanley call it, the crusades? Tell me, is it true that he rants about capitalism in group therapy?”
Vinny stabbed his fork into a piece of fish, the impact on the plate loud enough to make Danny flinch. “Fuck off.”
Vennett only laughed.
Mark before was always too much, a space heater stuck on the maximum setting due to a broken dial, and that was a huge part of why it felt great to work with him even when the work itself wasn’t that great. They argued and butted heads and disagreed, sometimes vehemently in front of everyone, but Mark always listened attentively even if it was only to formulate a counterargument. Being listened to—that wasn’t a familiar feeling for Vinny before they started working together. What most other people found to be a hot potato, Vinny accepted as warmth. Next to Mark he’d always felt level-headed even if he was only going by his gut, and being held to Mark’s piercing gaze always made him feel—safe, strangely, like he knew he could say whatever came to his mind without second guessing himself, ever.
If Vinny thought about his father’s death at all—which he didn’t, not unless he was back with his mother in the home where he grew up—he might also draw the conclusion that he and Mark bonded over this, the unresolved feeling of loss that you woke up each day and felt anew like Prometheus’s punishment. Vinny was there, the day Mark heard the news about his brother, it was a Thursday afternoon and Mark had dashed out of the office during lunch, and everyone would later find out that he went to the scene. He needed to see the body; nobody could have convinced him otherwise. If Mark Baum was going to be inconsolable, he was going to sit at the bottom of the deepest pit he could find, and he would refuse to be pulled up and out until he could climb out on his own.
So that was how Vinny figured he had to tell Mark about his dad, because the only way to make Mark a little less alone was to go into the pit and sit there with him. Vinny told him as they sat alone in a windowless room somewhere that might as well have been a broom closet, and Mark grew very, very still when Vinny got to describing how he found his dad’s body.
“It won’t get better no matter how many days have passed, will it?” Mark asked in a small voice. Prior to that conversation, Vinny didn’t know Mark’s voice could be small like that.
“No, it won’t. But we can.”
“We can what?”
It was the first and only time Vinny put his hand on Mark’s forearm and touched his skin directly.
Mark started taking his vacation days, after. He called HR and had a heated argument with the HR lady about vacation carryover policy, and then the next day he was gone. Porter and Danny were so alarmed, they looked on in stunned silence as Mark’s computer screen went dark at 5pm sharp, with that specific kind of numbed stupidity found in lost lambs without a shepherd. Vinny stuck his arm out and snapped his fingers to bring them back to reality.
“Guys, he’s not going to die, he will come back in a week. It’s just a week. It’s not like we have that much else going on right now.”
“He’s going to stay at a lodge in Vermont,” Porter put both hands on his temples like his big brain needed that extra support, “dude, I actually don’t know if Cynthia is gonna bring him back.”
“But Mark loves to hate his work. How does this add up?” Danny had this glazed-over look in his eyes, like he was high or in shock. “Wait, or was it hates to love?”
“Makes no difference,” Vinny spat the flavorless goo into the trashcan, popped two more into his mouth. The hard shell cracked under his teeth and fresh flavor took over once more. “He’ll be back.”
“I told Cynthia we’re gonna go to Vermont before the end of the month,” Mark said, a piece of injera in hand, the Ethiopian takeout laid out between him and Vinny in the conference room. “I’ll carry my laptop, and we’ll book a place that has Internet, you know, in case anything happens. Are you good to keep an eye on everything when I’m away?”
Vinny was the only other person who took less vacation than Mark—at least that tradition remained honored. “Yeah, sure. Was that the quid pro quo for skipping group therapy this week?”
Mark smiled, “no,” and that was the first time he smiled since walking through that door tonight. And he never asked, and Vinny never brought it up either, the sells that Vinny did as he sprinted up the stairs after the end of their phone call. The world crumbled further as the transactions went through. The 0.00 Lehman stock price painted in blood red on the walls of the deserted trading floor, the panning footage playing over and over again on the news.
“Okay,” Vinny nodded, and took another methodically assembled bite. The pickled beets were staining his fingers pink. “Watch Cynthia spend one week with you. She’ll want you back in here in no time.”
Mark didn’t react. He stared intently at the window behind Vinny, the spot where Vennett stood, right before the pitch meeting that would start and seal their fates.
“Maybe this is it for the world—the system. But I can get better.”
“It’s fucking weird to hear that come out in Mark Baum’s voice.”
“Yeah, you know. Stole it from an old friend.”
Vinny knew Mark still had to himself to believe it, it was hard, and it would always be hard for him—to believe, for Mark, the unfathomable level of effort required.
But he trusted Mark to try. He always did.
Dinner was done, and they had pineapple cake for dessert. Danny somehow found more room in his stomach for two slices, and if he wasn’t Cynthia’s favorite before, he definitely made it during dessert.
“Thanks for having us,” Vinny usually wasn’t one for platitudes, but he was not an animal and he had manners. That, and Mark had been on the quiet side around him all night, they talked about work a little bit, last quarter’s reports and the updated business development plan. Baseball filled the gaps of silence the rest of the time.
“You’re welcome,” Mark wiped his mouth and set aside his napkin. “I’m glad you all seemed to like the food.”
“Can we talk or what, Mark?” Vinny drained the wine in his glass and poured another one. The conversation around the table seemed to fall a little quieter after he said that.
Cynthia smiled—graciously, as ever. “Porter and Danny, do you want to come and see our new herb garden? We keep it on the balcony, the basil and rosemary had been doing really well…” and, just like that, she led the two of them away. And then they were alone, elbow to elbow at the corner of the table, and silence fell over it all.
“Let’s talk,” at last, Mark said. “You know I’ve been trying to be—different.”
“Yeah, I think that’s working,” Vinny paused to take another bite of the cake. It was good cake, would be a shame to waste it. “You’ve been different.” Vinny put the emphasis there, but it came out more accusatory than he’d intended.
Mark turned to glance at him for a second. He remained expressionless.
“I told you—and I still believe it, you know—we are not the bad guys.”
“The facts are that we did what we did.”
“You are good at what you do, Mark, but I think…maybe that’s why it has to be like this with you. You can’t accept that you are good at it.”
“You know, my therapist said that that was how I got my internal drive, before—” Mark waved his hand with an impatient scowl, and that was enough to represent the event that dictated a before and an after. “I was always at war with myself. My conflict with myself was how I got motivated to be happy when I was unhappy, when I was getting up and getting pissed about the system where I’d placed myself.”
“What? Then you go speak to a shrink a couple times a month and the fucking engine fell out?” Vinny sounded accusatory, and this time he meant it that way. One trip to Vermont wasn’t the be-all-end-all paradigm shift, but it was the beginning of a change that Vinny saw—as soon as he’d seen Mark in the kitchen when he came in—that was going to be irreversible, he knew it in his gut.
“I’m getting tired of losing this war, Vinny. I’ve already lost the other one that matters.”
Resting his hands before his forehead, Mark said that to him with his eyes shielded. If Vinny could have bore holes through Mark’s hands with his eyes, he would have.
“I’m not—I’m not asking you to be who you were, Mark. I know that shit changes people, it has changed everyone and it’s not about who lost or made how much money. I guess I thought the different you would be…different.” The words kept coming out of Vinny’s mouth and each one sounded more stupid than the next. The wine probably didn’t help with that.
“Nobody is going to jail, Vinny. Nothing is gonna change, not really.”
Like the wine bottle that had gone dry, Vinny couldn’t find anything else to say.
The thing about cynics is that they are easier to trust than anybody else—it takes one to know one, and Vinny had always known.
“Sell it all,” Mark said, and that was it. That was supposed to be the ending that made sense, the one Vinny expected all along. But Mark had said it like such a miserable defeat that Vinny couldn’t bring himself to hang up. The minutes kept running.
“You okay, Mark?” He knew he probably wouldn’t get an answer, but he had to ask.
“I’ll see you back at the office soon,” Mark said, still in that tired voice which went beyond exhaustion. The sounds of the words were mixed with some static, like there was wind blowing by. And then Vinny realized he was on speaker. He frowned.
“Where are you, Mark? Are you outdoors?”
“I’m on a rooftop, uh, patio.”
Vinny was pacing before; he stopped. “Are you—” he swallowed, hard. He could only let the silence speak for what he was referring to. Mark went quiet, too.
“It’s—not, I’m not, Vinny, I didn’t come up to the roof because of that. I’m also surrounded by cast iron spiky fences, so,” Mark’s voice lightened a little there. Vinny took a deep exhale.
“Okay. I’m gonna go,” he was stupid to drag this on for another minute. Every fucking millisecond could be life or death at this very moment, and yet he still couldn’t help himself when it came to Mark.
“You know, I wanted it to be scenic,” out of the blue Mark said to him on the curb, as they waited for the next cab, after Porter and Danny had gone. It was the very end of the night, after Cynthia invited them all to drop by at any time and walked them downstairs.
“I went to the rooftop patio on that day because I wanted it to be poetic. I knew it was coming, and the moment I tell you to sell I admit defeat, but I wanted to do it on my own terms, and that included picking somewhere scenic. I thought—I thought I wanted to remember something beautiful. And I would want to, and I would need it, after watching all the news.”
“Did it help?”
Mark shrugged. “It didn’t hurt. Same with Vermont, this dinner, therapy, drinking green juice in the morning with my bacon—I don’t think it hurts to do them. And that’s where I’m at, with everything.”
Vinny turned to look at him. “I’m waiting for you to say quitting won’t hurt you either.”
Mark turned to meet his gaze. “That’s pending further investigations. Cynthia thinks she’s known the answer all along but, I won’t let her win so easily. That’s not what she signed up for when she married me, anyway.”
“I’ll be fine, Vinny.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I believe it as much as I believe anything.”
“Worth horseshit coming from you, but okay.”
The cab pulled up, the headlights flashed across Mark’s face. Vinny saw he was smiling.