“What Wealth Is” by Lawrence De Geest, NYC

Money August 2, 2011 20:42

topic: MONEY medium: TEXT

EVERYWHERE the economist should say that wealth is the present value of one’s worth, the sum of what he has and what he owes, and always in confident speech should make clear that value is always a figure computed and not drawn. He must use always and never as much as he can.


The economist saw from his window in the bureau of economic development in Ecuador, the arid green volcano that rose over Quito’s long western border and he thought about how he should think. The others had already left the for the meeting in the Swiss hotel. There were no good women in the bureau. There were only men, and those who were once women made themselves tough but not strong. The economist should be clear and not romantic. It was not told; he learned listening, first for what was said and then what was meant to be said, and when both were the same he knew it was a lesson. He was not as he was when he first came. Then he was naive, like one who tells another he fell in love with her for the way she blew the smoke from her cigarette like she was humming their song, because he heard it in the song. And he moved there.


He left the bureau, past the door man with the grey suit and bulletproof vest underneath to buy cigarettes from the vendor outside who sold cigarettes, fruit and movies. The air was grey; in a while the rains would come, and the yellow sun hung flickering directly overhead like a chandelier in a ballroom after a dance. Traffic waited for the red metropolitan buses to cross. A performer juggled oranges under the stoplight, then peddled them.


The vendor’s face was dirty. The economist paid in quarters; it was half what it cost back home; the vendor’s daughter took two loose cigarettes from an open pack and arranged them on the cart to form a cross. The vendor cursed and put them back. The economist packed the tobacco by hitting the bottom of the pack against his palm, then put it in his pocket. He walked on the wide avenue 12 de Octubre and tried to think. Wealth when you think you have none is like food when you are hungry in another country, and you tell yourself that you would eat anything as a way to address your urgency. Wealth is everything you eat. Sure. It is everything you eat if you think of life as something to eat.


It isn’t money. Money moves but does not make. Is wealth made? At the meeting the president would tell the arranged his new plan to redistribute what was made so everyone could eat. The arranged would agree; they were arranged. It sounded fine. There was the vendor. Right there is the university. The students outside spread avocado onto their hot dogs. A few paces farther, the carpenter sands a chair in his one-room shop where he lived. There was also the girl’s father who was richer than the president. If it was true, he would be a grandfather when the rains came. Once, he told him that the reason to live was to create, but he did not know this and they would all pay. He remembered his wallet was in his desk. Suddenly he felt like he had run out of time and it made his breath shorten.


It seemed that there was always the rich and the poor, and the fundamental truth of a city was that they hated each other. It was the same back home and it elected presidents. And there was the president here who was charming and wore an indigenous shirt with his suit and the branch officer of the Inter-American Development Bank who wore perfectly round amber cuff-links that looked as though mosquitoes were once preserved inside them. In the bureau he had helped with the equations they would present; they were powerful but not elegant; and wealth, there were numbers that were not his. It was not art or music or the first time, and it could not be felt but it could be talked about. Wealth could be anything. It is what makes you rich. All right. And what makes the world poor are people who do not want to be rich. You make wealth, but the time to make it is scarce and you had to beat someone and learn to like it if you chose to live in the world. This was the world, and the price you paid for making it was your broken heart. Don’t think stupidly. He opened his pocket. Wealth was anything, and right then it was not clear to think about it in any way besides numbers.


Outside the hotel he struck a match. Like in La Mariscal where the bureau was, the leaves on the trees were white as though painted. He thought of the Cuban poet Jose Marti and the poem about the white rose for those who broke his heart. There was much movement at the doors. The soccer team from the coast was signing autographs and the president, when he arrived in entourage, shook their hands, playfully heating the night’s rivalry game. A poor woman silently looked at the tallest player, who wore headphones. She almost did not hear the man screaming and circling ecstatically on the street near the vendor who sold lottery tickets.


She marched over.

“What are you saying, you?” she said in her whistling Andean accent to her husband.

“There is nothing to say” the vendor said. He would not look at her.

“Was that it?”

“He won.”

“How much?” she was sweating.

“It does not matter. There is nothing to say.”

“Tell me.”

“It is just luck.”

“Say it.”

He looked at her, then not.

“Ten thousand.”

She screamed. It drowned the sound of the cigarette being drawn.

She ran after the winner. Tears washed sideways on her cheek like rain on the windshield of the truck driving fast in the night, that they rode huddled on, on the uncovered platform to the hospital to deliver their baby and could not pay because it cost one month’s salary. Back home it was the same as forty packets of cigarettes. But the man did not speak; he was still dizzy from seeing a celebrity. The economist extinguished into the standing tray by the door. Some wealth. It took thirty seconds to smoke a cigarette and ruin a life.


The economist walked inside. His only conversation with the president had been the time he suggested the president have his brain scanned by a neuro-economist to show that he was a man of the people and thought like them; he refused for the sake of mystery.


Every meeting began with a prayer. The economist did not normally pray but this time he would, so everything would not be taken away. Wealth is one good chance to get rich.

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