by John Ulmer
“The Druids consult the gods in the palpitating entrails of men”
There must be fat in them, he decided.
Al Walberg scrutinized his bowels. He had colitis, and he knew everything about them. He examined them daily, checking carefully for shape, size, and consistency. He knew them so well that he could predict the state of his health a week in advance by observing how they presented in the bowl. Today they floated. Definitely fat, he decided.
“Check your stools every morning,” Dr. Keebler told him. “Call me if you see anything unusual.”
Dr. Keebler was his first client. He’d had an account, at an annual fee of 1.6 percent, ever since Al announced during a routine rectal exam that he was quitting insurance to start a financial advising business.
“I’ve been with you twenty years, ” Al said over his shoulder. “Trust me.”
Keebler ripped a disposable glove from the roll on the wall. He liked Al. Everybody did. The nurses all smiled when he came in for his checkups. A change from their usual bitchiness, he thought. But he didn’t like financial advisors. They were salesmen, he thought. They peddled investments they didn’t understand. They took fees from portfolios even when their bets depleted them. They won regardless of what the markets did, and they always said you could trust them.
“ I put everything back into the practice,” he told Al. “Or cash. Most of it’s in CDs at two and a half percent.”
“The only thing two and a half percent guarantees is that you’ll be looking up my ass fifteen years from now,” Al said. “Trust me.”
Dr. Keebler snapped the glove. He’d bought a house when Al was in real estate. He’d bought term life when Al opened an insurance agency in the same Professional Building. Now it was retirement funds. He had a knack for business, Keebler thought. Well, maybe he could help. During his last visit his accountant had warned him that he wasn’t going retire on rectums any time soon.
“I’ll think about it, Al,” he said. “Bend over.”
Keebler inserted a finger. The following week, after giving it some thought and probing his accountant, he put in a hundred grand.
Al swelled with confidence. The brokerage signed him up and shipped him a three-week training course on DVDs mounted in a leather three-ring binder with the company logo embossed in gold on the front. The first disc showed him the standard formulas for asset distributions. The second had templates for judging risk tolerance. In the others Al found descriptions of mutual funds, with instructions for guiding clients to the ones that paid the biggest premiums to the brokerage.
“Don’t worry, Babs,” he said. “This’ll be a snap.”
His wife was looking through real estate listings while Al memorized answers to “Questions Your Clients Are Bound to Ask” and made lists of people he knew from real estate and insurance. The instructor on the disk told him to meet them at Starbucks every morning armed with pie charts from the binder and a credit card with lots of room for buying lattes.
Babs stared at him over her glasses.
“This better work,” she said. She’d circled an ad for a 900 SF Lakeside Charmer Needing TLC at the bottom of the back page. They’d been saving for years.
He threw himself into investments. He pulled every name he could find from his files and bought Grandes for them at Starbucks. He ordered salmon cakes for them at lunchtime in the tonier places on the boardwalk downtown. He sweated with them at the gym, even though he hadn’t been on a treadmill for a decade and had to buy a pair of double XL training shorts at the fitness shop. The checkout girl bit her lip. His legs burned, but after the showers he walked the hills above the Sound until dinner, ringing doorbells and handing out business cards. Gradually his legs firmed and his accounts grew. By February, with the Dow up a stunning 19%, he had three hundred thousand under management. In April, with his weight down to a comfortable 212, he touched half a million. In May the Fed announced a stimulus, and the money poured in. Everyone was buying stocks. The S&P skyrocketed. Al ordered another box of name cards. At Starbucks he ordered double shot espressos at four-fifty a pop. At home Babs considered larger listings. 900 SF might be a bit small, she thought.
“You’re a genius,” Dr. Keebler enthused over lattes one morning. They were sitting together outside, enjoying the spring weather. Sailboats glided across the bay. Keebler watched them with interest. His account had soared; he was considering putting in another fifty thousand. Al ordered a second Danish and loosened his belt. I should have done this years ago, he thought. Insurance had never been this good.
But in June the winds shifted. With heat came a banking crisis. Bad loans gathered over Wall Street like summer squalls. The markets plummeted, and the money that had breezed into Al’s accounts for months stilled. His intestines burned. Colitis was always worse in the heat, he thought. He wiped himself with a gym towel he no longer used and watched his accounts plunge with the headlines. They scrolled relentlessly from left to right, in red, across the bottom of his leased Bloomberg terminal, but there was nothing he could do. His losses mounted. He’d have to take significant defensive positions, he decided, but how? And which ones? The binder hadn’t covered those. He switched computer screens and checked on the Keebler account. Eighty-six thousand and falling.
“You don’t look well,” Babs observed at dinner. “Is something wrong with the meatloaf?”
It sat in the middle of the plate untouched. Ketchup pooled on the side.
“It’s my intestines,” he said.
“Call Dr. Keebler.”
Al sighed. He didn’t want to call Dr. Keebler. Dr. Keebler wasn’t interested in his intestines. Dr. Keebler was interested in his money. Dr. Keebler was interested in what used to be one hundred and fifty thousand dollars of his money. Al could see that morning’s number flashing at the top of the computer screen. The font size alone was alarming. Five digits pulsing red instead of six in stable green. Keebler had to have seen it.
“It’s just stress,” he told her. “I’ll have some Pino and turn in early.”
Babs glared at him
“You’ll call Dr. Keebler now,” she said.
The next morning Al sat in his underwear describing the symptoms to his client. He’d been having cramps, he said. Bloating. There was some diarrhea, more than he usually had, and he’d been having night sweats, mostly on Sundays before the markets opened Monday morning. It had been especially bad recently, during earnings announcements, and he wasn’t sleeping. He couldn’t work. It was probably the heat.
Keebler said nothing. When he finished writing he ripped a disposable glove from the roll on the wall and wheeled around on his chair.
“Drop your shorts,” he ordered.
Al closed his eyes and visualized five red digits. They were painful to think about. Keebler snapped the glove.
The pain persisted. On the rare days when his computer screen was green his intestines calmed and he worked comfortably. But on most days the Bloomberg feed dripped continuous red. The explanations changed every day. Stocks were up for one reason on Monday and down for the same reason on Tuesday. The analysts were full of shit, Al decided. No one knew what was going on. He twisted in his chair trying to stop the cramps, but they only worsened. His equities spasmned. His bonds seized. His cell phone rang constantly, even at night, but he had no answers. Insurance had never been this difficult, he told Babs. She was propped up on her side of the bed reading the “Waterfront” section in the Real Estate supplement. She looked at him over her glasses.
“This better work,” she said.
The next morning Al phoned the brokerage to schedule a strategy session he’d paid for when he bought the program, but when he finally got off hold the receptionist told him all the slots were full.
“You can maybe have one in December?” she wondered.
Desperate, he called a fund manager he’d heard speak at a training seminar who’d been mentioned once in the Finance section of the Wall Street Journal.
“What am I supposed to do?” he pleaded.
“What everyone in this crap shoot does,” the manager told him. “Use what you know. Trust your gut. Or find somebody on the inside.” Then he cut him off. He had other calls to take.
Cramps tore at his abdomen. He tried to relieve them in the bathroom, shifting his weight from left to right on the seat or bending so his forehead touched his knees. He held that position, counting tiles on the floor, until his hamstrings numbed. Eventually he could straighten his back. When the pain finally eased he spread his knees and peered between them into the bowl. A fresh stool floated calmly at the center.
He had no idea what to do.
“Use what you know,” the manager had told him.
Al sat up on the seat. He knew his stools. He knew his stools better than anything else in the world. He planned his week by them.
“Trust your gut.” The voice boomed in his ears. Al felt a thrill. The guy had to know what he was talking about. He’d spoken at the seminar. He’d been mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.
He found a plunger in the cleaning closet and poked his turd with the handle. It was surprisingly firm. That was encouraging, he decided. Firm had always been a good sign. He poked it again. It spun in a tight circle.
He returned to his desk and firmed up his position in tech stocks with an order for twenty thousand shares in a fund that an analyst had downgraded from “neutral” to “sell” the week before. The trade confirmation said 2:16:38 EDT. By the 4:30:00 bell his new position had gained one percent. Al leaned back in his chair and exhaled. On Monday, after getting a different result with the plunger, he softened his position in pharmaceuticals. Forty thousand shares converted to cash with a single keystroke. By Tuesday the sector had fallen six tenths. Al celebrated with a triple iced Macchiato and a day free of pain. After that there was no movement until Thursday, when he felt a cramp in his lower left side. He hurried to the bathroom.
The knot sank rapidly to the bottom of the bowl. No fat there, he decided. He promptly sold off his entire stake in raw materials. Before lunch copper and aluminum had dropped three percent on panic selling.
Industrials were soft the following week. CNBC downgraded them on Morning Bell, recommending portfolio adjustments, but Al paused. His wife had fixed a feta cheese omelet sautéed in olive oil and mushrooms that morning, and he waited, swiveling slowly in his chair. Twenty minutes later his answer spread evenly across the entire surface of the bowl. Al tucked in his shirt and bought an index covering the whole sector at 20% below its 50-day moving average. Within a week Morningstar had upgraded the fund from “neutral” to “ buy”.
The runs didn’t stop. His portfolio swelled daily, until the red numbers raging across the bottom of his screen had calmed to a steady flow of green. Prospects called to reschedule lattes at Starbucks. Clients texted bigger bets. On Tuesday, with two phones ringing, he answered his cell and heard the fund manager from the Wall Street Journal article shouting at him on the other end. He’d been hearing rumors, he said. Word on the street was that Al Walberg was up 18%. Everyone else was down at least six. He was down eight.
“How the fuck are you doing this?” he screamed. “ Are you working the inside or are you just pulling this shit out of your ass?”
Al hung up on him. He had other calls to take.
In September he was interviewed by the Oregonian. In October the News Tribune offered a feature for the Monday Business section, and NPR in Tacoma invited him to tape a Friday afternoon segment of Your Money. He took calls from as far away as Spokane. Cash swelled his portfolio. In November, when clients paid their third quarter fees, he made a balloon payment on his car. In December he bought a truck. In January, flush with fourth quarter revenue, Babs showed him a real estate flyer for a 4500 SF By Appointment Only Stunner on the Sound. It seemed about the right size, she thought.
“This might be one of the last of these I’ll ever have to do,” Dr. Keebler crowed.
He peeled off his gloves and handed Al a color photo from the colonoscopy he’d just completed. The nurses were beaming. Al held the photo up to his nose. His gut was completely clean.
“ It looks like a real recovery this time,” said Keebler. He bent close to Al.
“ Now what should I do on financials?” he whispered.
The anesthesia was wearing off. Al could make out the inside of his colon rising sharply from the lower left corner the photo to the upper right. Like a stock chart, he thought groggily. The walls were moist and pink, with no sign of scarring or polyps. The view from the inside was perfect. There was no discernable risk. He was a financial advisor now, and he knew exactly what to do.
He looked up at Dr. Keebler from the gurney.
“ Buy,” he said.
-John Wiley Ulmer