The few who knew him well referred to him as Fred Milktoast. A quiet, precise little man, Fred Milligan knew his business and no one in the Office of City Budget & Finance could attest to a single numerical error on his part over the past forty years. Numbers were his business.
Married to simple, orderly routines, he’d begin each day with customs dictated from his mind’s eye: toothbrush, floss, a comb, and then a razor followed by a steaming rag over the face. He’d pause to check his countenance, nod and turn to dress.
A homburg hat completed his sartorial attire of a black, vested suit adorned with one or two shiny spots, but not a speck of lint anywhere and no wrinkles or creases where none should appear. An umbrella remained his faithful companion., rain or shine.
Fred Milligan maintained exact change for bus fare and knew the number of steps where he disembarked from public transportation to his well ordered desk.
What thoughts crossed his mind during the business day no one could say. His words were short, measured, and predictable. “Good morning, Mr. Reed, Ms. Underwood, Ms. Waverly.” “Off to lunch, Ms. Underwood.” “Good evening, all.” During the day he’d exchange folders of financial data with nods and terse comments indicating completeness or further work required, but nothing beyond the essence of what absolutely needed to be said.
His one outing during the day took him to a nearby green park where he’d search for an empty bench, preferably one with a discarded newspaper he’d peruse while consuming his daily repast of an apple, a fig bar, and a thermos of coffee. He treasured the investment news and often conjured visions of himself as a Wall Street titan.
Yet the closest Fred had ever come to financial success included bi-weekly trips to a local savings bank where he’d deposit his earnings check minus enough cash to pay the rent for his modest room, for menus he prepared for himself, and for various other items he needed for his daily existence.
The remainder of his pay check sat at the savings bank in laddered certificates of deposit, all Federally insured. And over forty years he’d built what he considered a reasonable cushion to augment his modest city pension. Perhaps there’d be enough for an adventurous tour in retirement, he thought. Perhaps.
One day while reading a discarded Wall Street Journal, his sense of propriety and his vision of the future changed forever. The news item that captivated his attention concerned a financial crisis, one that had forced the Federal Reserve to rescue a number of Wall Street financial institutions from collapse. His brow beaded with perspiration as he searched in vain for indications of some kind of impact on savings banks such as the one where his retirement funds resided. He found none. Was this an oversight? He thought not. But then, he reasoned, the Federal Government might create a deliberate omission to prevent a run on financial institutions by people blinded by fear.
Scouring the newspaper for further news of what he’d concluded might spell the end of his comfortable life, he came across a financial term he’d never before seen: bitcoin. Some financial genius had created a repository for funds where an individual could park liquid assets at a value that would remain stable and be hidden from prying eyes. All an investor had to do was access a computer, find the site, and purchase these ephemeral instruments in internet space.
The article alluded to the fact that this new asset was not for the unsophisticated investor. Fred Milligan interpreted this warning as nothing more than a way to keep small investors away from a place where wealthy moguls could park their excess funds. Was this an appropriate move for him, he wondered? But wonder was all he’d allow himself to do at the moment.
Above the margins of the newspaper through his pince-nez he could see the image of a man whose clothes marked him as one of the impoverished denizens of the city.
Our bookkeeper looked up and waited.
“Sir, could you spare a dollar so that I might have a bit to eat?” said the man with droopy eyes.
“At the moment I cannot offer you a dollar, but you may have my apple,” Fred said with cold sincerity.
The man, stirring like a reed in a gentle breeze, his lower teeth massaging his upper lip, looked down at the bookkeeper. “Perhaps you could spare some change?”
Fred Milligan eyed the man head to foot: a half moon hole in his hat, tattered trousers, ill-fitting shoes, and a frame as thin as air. This was no faker, Fred concluded.
“I’ve no extra funds, but you may have my fig bar as well as the apple,” he said and offered a meek smile while musing on this act of personal sacrifice.
The willowy shadow took the lunch sack, eyed its contents, and gazed back at the bookkeeper. “Blessings,” he said and wandered off. If the homeless man’s voice had been laced with sarcasm, Fred Milligan missed it. His mind was on the new national crisis.
The torrential rainstorm that greeted the city the following morning thumped the windows of the Office of Budget & Finance throughout the lunch hour. Fred sat at his desk munching an apple as Bob Reed, an office character with horn-rimmed glasses, approached his desk.
“Say, Fred, did you hear about the Federal Reserve? Had to shore up some banks yesterday. Nasty business, eh?” Bob Reed kept one of those fancy new phone earpieces attached to his ear most of the day. He’d often share news items he’d just learned with others around the office.
“Yes, I heard,” Fred said and returned his eyes to the city ledger on his desk. A chill danced down his arms. He struggled to block out further thoughts on the financial crisis. Fred watched Bob retreat into the employee break room where he was sure Bob would corner others into conversation on this news item.
Our bookkeeper looked up at his computer screen just as a pregnant idea crept into his consciousness. On the keyboard his fingers typed in the word “bitcoin”. Up sprang a field of possibilities. Wading through several sites, he came across the various methods of investing in bitcoins and the current price: forty-nine dollars per coin.
Since Fred Milligan purchased his CDs in thousand dollar denominations, a few dollars usually remained in reserve in his savings account. And since one of his office tasks included moving funds from one city bank account to another, he knew just how to access his savings bank account and move excess funds to an investment account elsewhere. After inputting the required new account data including a PIN number, Fred rolled his decision over again in his mind. Then he pressed the keys to purchase ten bitcoins. For a moment he sat mesmerized by what he saw on the screen. He took a deep breath and exhaled. It wasn’t a lot by Wall Street standards, but it was his investment, his alone. He shut down the site and attempted to return to the city ledger in front of him, his hands shaking.
On the way home on the bus he thought to himself, I’m an investor, a Wall Street investor. His chest filled. He felt light. Confident. Across from him on an empty seat, he spied an abandoned evening newspaper. He reached for it and looked at the headlines: Federal Mortgage Agencies Safe Says Congressman. Our bookkeeper’s eyes widened. He read the story that summarized an address that the Chairman of The House Finance Committee had made to reporters on the health of these Federal agencies.
Why would a congressman call a press conference to espouse the obvious? Unless it wasn’t. Fred folded the newspaper, placed it in his lap, and looked out the window at the crowds of people pouring out of buildings at the end of the business day. Were they all fools? No one needed to reassure the American public of the safety of Federally backed mortgages, the kind issued by his savings bank unless an unspoken problem lay hidden beneath the surface of the numbers the agencies had presented in their reports. Fred Milligan knew numbers. Numbers were the linchpin of his life. And his instincts told him something the American public had yet to discover was amiss.
After a restless night, he scrambled out of bed, forgot to shave, and raced to the bus stop. Once in the office, he switched on his computer and went to the bitcoin site. The morning price was one hundred ten dollars. The Wall Street wizards were liquidating their stock positions and moving into bitcoins. He was sure of it. With his heart pounding in his throat, he typed into the buy column: one hundred coins. He pressed the key to buy and switched over to his savings bank account and liquidated the necessary CDs to meet the cash call for his new investment. His breathing belaboured, he peered around the room to see if anyone had noticed his flushed face. No one seemed aware of him so he buried his face in a folder he’d been reviewing.
“Are you all right, Mr. Milligan? said Ms. Waverly, a female colleague nearby who had quick eyes, tiny feet, and held what he considered a menial position in the department.
“Why, yes, I’m fine, Ms. Waverly. And you?”
“Oh, well enough, Mr. Milligan, well enough.” She smiled and her eyes returned to the work on her desk. She’s always been nice to me, he thought. I wonder what that was all about.
Each day he’d check the morning, midday, and closing price of bitcoin. Computing the total value of his investment in his head was no feat for Fred Milligan. Numbers were his game.
As the weeks passed he noticed the value of his investment fluctuated much like the ocean tides. How odd, he thought. Each day the price would rise then retreat, but never to the previous lows. The tide was rising, he reasoned.
Every day our bookkeeper passed a deli on the way to the park, but today he hesitated. He turned and walked into the deli to buy a candy bar to add to his lunch. He noticed a stack of newspapers and decided to purchase a Wall Street paper as well. Why chance not finding a paper in the park, he thought. Besides, he could afford it now.
Today’s news included an interview with an investment analyst who followed the major banks. She told the reporter that she expected one of the largest banks in the country to eliminate its dividend in the upcoming quarter. Fred reread the article. A bank would never consider this move unless it was experiencing an unexpected cash crunch. Fred dropped the remainder of his lunch in a trash bin and hurried back to the office. He felt that if he were going to make another investment move, he needed to do it before the public realized the impact of the prediction.
Bob Reed was standing by the water cooler as our bookkeeper entered the office. “Looks like one of the big banks has a problem, Fred. You aware of the news?”
“Yes,” Fred said and continued on to his desk. He recalled now that Bob had reached that age when the hair extending from his ears had assumed a more aggressive stance than what remained atop his head.
Fred glanced around the office to assure himself no one was close enough to his desk to view his activities. He clicked in the bitcoin site.
If I liquidate the remainder of my CDs, I’ll have enough to buy forty more coins. He mentally reviewed the situation: the Federal mortgage agencies are in trouble and one of the major banks in the country is in a cash squeeze and about to eliminate a dividend. Other banks will follow, he decided.
His nervous fingers carefully typed in the required data and, presto, Fred Milligan was the proud owner of one hundred fifty bitcoins. He recalled that if he’d followed his well patterned life, he’d have risked losing his entire retirement funds in unstable certificates of deposit He looked at the screen and shook his head as he realized how lucky he’d been to see what was coming.
Never sensing what Fred had done, his colleagues continued their daily routines, none of them the wiser that a genuine Wall Street maven resided in their midst.
“Mr. Milligan,” Ms. Waverly whispered over his shoulder, “your new moustache looks distinguished. And I love the new tie,”
“Why, thank you, Ms. Waverly,” he said. Both faces reddened at once. His mind then settled more on how he perceived his new look than who’d noticed it.
At the deli the next day, Fred grabbed a candy bar, snatched up a newspaper and took in the ambient aromas in the place. “I’ll take this candy bar, this newspaper, and say, what kind of sandwiches do you have?”
The counterman pointed behind himself with his thumb. “On the menu on the wall, sir.”
“Um, give me a pastrami on rye with mustard to go,” Fred said. Why not, he thought. He’d better things to do than skimp on lunch items and chase down used newspapers.
He watched the counterman place his order in a sack and move toward the register. Of course our bookkeeper knew the total cost of his purchases before the register sang out.
One autumn day when he’d reached a park bench, he opened the newspaper. The headlines announced that the Federal mortgage agencies had been declared bankrupt. Fred felt a chill dance down his back. The article stated that a congressman had assured reporters that the Congress would take measures to assure there were necessary funds available to keep the agencies afloat. Fred left his lunch sack on the bench and retuned to the office. As he expected, the value of bitcoins had soared on the news.
Two weeks later on the bus, our bookkeeper looked down at the morning news on his new iPhone. The mega bank that had been rumored to pass on a dividend had just announced that no dividend would be issued by the bank this quarter. Fred looked at the market indexes, all in a free fall. A Wall Street panic had set in. The price of bitcoin, he noticed, continued to rise.
That evening Fred decided to walk home from work. He was in no hurry today. His head was bubbling with his new success. He paused in front of a department store window and eyed the men’s suits. Dearly priced, he thought. But what the heck, he was worth it. He’s stop in soon.
A moment later he turned to continue his walk and found himself face-to-face with a homeless man.
“Any spare change, sir”
“Sure”, our bookkeeper said and reached into a vest pocket, and dropped three dimes in the man’s hand. Fred continued his walk never looking back at the expression on the face of the man he’d just encountered. His mind was on men’s suits. Why not two, he thought. I only own one suit now. Maybe something new would enhance my look of success.
Each morning once he’d assured himself no one was peering over his shoulder, he’d access the bitcoin site to check the new price. And the day it happened, he’d already sensed the milestone coming. The price was six thousand six hundred seventy dollars per coin. He was a millionaire. He eyes widened, his countenance assured as he viewed the price and nodded. A few in the office noticed him drumming his fingers on his desk.
“Mr. Milligan?” Ms. Waverly said. Her unexpected presence behind him startled him.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Milligan. I didn’t mean to catch you unawares. Here are the figures you requested on the new city bridge project.”
“Very good, Ms. Waverly. Thank you.”
She placed the folder on his desk and walked back to her desk, his eyes following her. Funny, he thought. I never realized how poised she is. Then it hit him; she knows. She saw my computer screen. He felt a tic develop below one eye, something he’d never before experienced. She couldn’t know, he thought. Yet if she looked at my computer screen, she certainly realized what was displayed there. Again, his fingers moved in a drumbeat on his desk.
The next day, he approached her desk, his face a warm shade, his chest thumping.
She looked up and smiled. “Yes, Mr. Milligan?”
“These figures on the new project, um, leave me with issues I feel we need to discuss.”
“Of course, Mr. Milligan. When would you like to do this?”
“I…I was thinking we might have dinner together, that is, if it’s not an inconvenience to you.”
“Why, I think that’d be lovely, Mr. Milligan. When?”
“Um, how about this evening, say about seven?”
“That sounds delightful,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll meet you at the restaurant,” he said and turned and walked back to his desk, his legs trembling. He wondered if someone in the office had turned up the thermostat.
That was more difficult than I’d imagined, he thought. But it shouldn’t have been. I’m a businessman man and a successful investor. She should be pleased I’ve asked her out.
At the end of the day he noticed her approaching his desk. She’s changed her mind, he decided. I’ll be the object of gossip around the office. I’m ruined. He could feel the tic return.
“Well, Ms. Waverly, if you can’t, you can’t. No harm in asking though.”
“I can’t? I can’t what?”
“If you can’t join me for dinner this evening, I understand perfectly. It’s perfectly all right.”
“But I can, Mr. Milligan. I just need to know the name of the restaurant where we’ll meet.”
“Oh, oh, yes, of course. How about Shockley’s on Third Avenue. That is, if that’s acceptable to you, Ms. Waverly.”
“Why, yes. I’ve not been there, but I hear the food is very good.”
“Well, yes, the food’s splendid. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. See you there at seven, Ms. Waverly.” Fred had not been there either, but he thought better of admitting it now.
If the evening had been a success, he could not confirm it. He’d no idea what to say to a single woman outside of the office other than to discuss numbers. His only interest beyond the city budget now was his new investment, and he’d dare not share his success with anyone yet.
When the bill came, his eyes blinked. He knew the place was expensive, but this was beyond belief. An outrage. He politely excused himself from the table and met the waiter at the kitchen door. The waiter gave him a bewildering look. Fred’s knees started to buckle. His resolve vanished.
“Sir,” our bookkeeper said, “I just wanted you to know how good the service was this evening. Um, thank you very much.”
The waiter gave him a cursory look, nodded, and turned toward the swinging doors of the kitchen. Fred had known the totals of the bill by the time menus had been collected. Yet the thought of it had slipped into the recesses of his mind.
“Was everything all right?” she said.
“Yes, yes, of course. Delightful. I just wanted to personally compliment the waiter on the service.”
Fred placed the necessary cash plus a modest tip on the table and escorted his date out of the restaurant.
When they reached the bus stop, she turned toward him. Fred could not recall the last time he’d been this close to a woman. Her lips were painted Van Gogh style, her eyebrows penciled in permanent surprise. And if any ambient air had found her fragrance cloying, it had long since fled the scene.
“Thank you for a lovely evening,” she said at the bus stop. “I enjoyed it immensely.”
“Me, too,” he said with a sheepish grin. What else could he say? He wasn’t sure. And the idea of suggesting they see each other again had never occurred to him. Besides, his mind was filled with anguish over the atrocious prices in that restaurant. Robbery.
The next day his eyes stayed glued to the blinking green numbers on the computer screen. Stocks continued to plunge. Bitcoin rose steadily. He paused from his focus, sat back in his chair and gazed around the office. Christmas ornaments had appeared on desks and window stills. He noticed that Bob’s desk was strewn with tiny lights that blinked in alternating sequences while a plastic Santa stood on the edge of his desktop nodding in rhythm with the lights. Somehow, he’d missed this change in office decor. Christmas was just a day off, he thought, nothing more. And the markets would be closed. He sighed and attempted to return to his review of numbers.
Then a horrible thought slipped into his consciousness. What if he tried to sell and there were no buyers? He could see the price of bitcoin slipping down to zero, his retirement savings wiped out. He look up at the screen. The bitcoin price was steady. He felt the tic below his eye return. He looked down and realized he was drumming his fingers again.
On the way home he peered out of the bus window at the coloured lights in the store windows and wondered if he should consider a modest holiday gift for Ms. Waverly. He’d hardly spoken to her since their night out other than the usual daily greetings. But what if she refused the gift? He’d be the joke of the office. He could imagine the buzz in the break room: ‘Ole Milligan, making a play for a woman.’ No, no, he wouldn’t chance it.
The day after Christmas he eyed the opening price of bitcoin. The price was down a hundred dollars. He froze. Maybe the time had come for him to sell, he thought. But maybe he’d wait for a rally. On the close bitcoin was off a thousand dollars from the opening price. He could feel beads of sweat across this lip and forehead. He tried to clear his throat and ended up in a coughing jag. He hurried to the water cooler, and took a drink.. He returned to his desk without looking up. He sensed others might be watching him.
The next day the price dropped again. And the next. Fred Milligan sat paralyzed. He couldn’t bring himself to sell. On the last business day of the year he stared at the closing price of bitcoin, down thirty-five hundred dollars for the week. Fred wiped his forehead with a handkerchief from his coat pocket and looked around. The office was empty.
“Good morning, Ms. Underwood, Mr. Reed. Good morning, Ms. Waverly.” He was all smiles. This was a new year. He’d had a premonition: the market was about to rally. A half hour later he could feel the pulse of the green numbers on the screen changing. Bitcoin was down five hundred dollars. Yet he reassured himself, he was still ahead. The market would soon rally. He’d wait.
For the next six days, bitcoin traded in a tight range. Like a river log beneath a lumberjack in a contest, he rolled in his sleep. At the office he looked tired.
“No, no, this isn’t the right file,” and “These figures are off by a mile. Redo this and hurry.” His voice echoed across the office. Others soon learned to work around him.
And to the homeless in the park: “Get out of my face. Get a job, you bum.”
One day when the deli register sang out the total cost for his purchases, he exploded. “ You’re mistaken. This isn’t right.”
The stunned counterman looked at the register list and back at Fred. “Sir, this is correct,” he said.
“Nonsense. This is ten cents more than yesterday. You’re trying to cheat me.”
The young counterman stood motionless, his paper hat resting on ears that resembled a famed cartoon elephant that could fly. His face darkened and his eyes moved like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. He looked down at the items on the list. “Sir, I’m sorry. The price of your sandwich has risen a dime.”
“Thievery,” our bookkeeper said, “I’ll never shop here again.” And with that, he stomped out.
The next day on the way to work Fred looked at the updated news on his new iPhone. Wall Street and Main Street were to receive an infusion of funds from the Feds. Fred looked up from the phone and closed his eyes. The market would now be poised for a big rally. His confidence returned.
When the market opened, the exchanges were flooded with buy orders. Fred took a deep breath, raised both hands and stretched. It’d been a long wait. He noticed that Ms. Waverly was eyeing him with a smile. He managed a grin and looked back at the screen.
For the next few days, a buying frenzy set in for the markets. Each day Fred recalculated his net worth in his head. And every day he found a reason to postpone his sale one more day.
Fred stomped the snow off his shoes just as he was entering the office. The March winds were bitter. Fred hung up his overcoat, sat down and clicked on his computer. And there he saw the new of price of bitcoin: eleven thousand dollars per bitcoin. His moist hands trembled as he typed in a sell order of one hundred fifty bitcoins. He paused, looked at the screen, and pressed the sell button. Fred Milligan’s price? Eleven thousand, one hundred, fifteen dollars per coin. His eyes blinked. He sighed. He could retire in style. And travel. Anywhere. He wanted to stand up and shout. Fred looked around the room at his fellow workers, all off them busy with mundane tasks. No, he reasoned, that’d be wasted effort.
The next clear day he was back in the park with his apple, fig bar, and thermos of coffee. He’d not returned to the deli since his confrontation with the clerk there. Fred opened a discarded newspaper just as a homeless man approached the bench. The man recognized our bookkeeper from recent encounters and continued to walk by without stopping. The city should do something about these people, Fred thought.
At the office the idea of asking Ms. Waverly out again crossed his mind. He could use the occasion to share his plans with her of his upcoming announcement of retirement. They could try another fine restaurant on the east side. But then he recalled reading an article recently on how inflation had recently affected food prices everywhere. The restaurant costs would now be even more unreasonable. No, he thought, maybe later.
His current liquid funds, well over one million six hundred thousand dollars, were parked in a money market fund of U.S. Treasuries. Fred Milligan was watching the launch of a new, hybrid bitcoin IPO on the screen, an investment he was confident would perform as well as his original
bitcoin play, perhaps even better. He’d multiply his money ten fold, maybe more. He’d bide his time until the first pullback on this new coin. Then he’d leap in with all he had parked on the sidelines. Fred felt self-assured. He’d proven himself. A sophisticated investor. He lifted fingers to the keyboard as he focused on the initial trades. Any moment now, he’d act. Something caught his eye and he glanced down to see a sparkle from a cuff link on his new French cuff shirt. A new world of opportunity was about to open for him, he reasoned. He was absolutely sure of it.
Fred Miller is a California writer. Over fifty of his stories and poems have appeared in publications around the world over the past ten years. Many may be seen on his blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com
Image by MichaelWuensch on Pixabay
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