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What is New by James Tadd Adcox

In the living room of their new house in Indianapolis, Indiana, Viola and her fiancé Robert are watching Wall Street. “This is the good part,” Robert says.
     “Robert, everybody knows this part,” Viola says. “I knew this part before I even knew what movie it was from.”
     Michael Douglas commences monologuing in front of the shareholders’ meeting. “Greed,” he says, “for lack of a better word–”
     “He’s not actually supposed to be the good guy, you know,” Viola says.
     “That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.” She can tell by the way Robert says this that he’s trying to get a rise out of her, but he’s not totally one-hundred percent joking either.
     She’s not sure what to do about Robert’s periodic conservative tendencies. She loves him, of course, but for other reasons; and she suspects, moreover, that he doesn’t completely buy into his own espoused political beliefs. Her fiancé seems capable of a sort of double-think, in which he can subscribe to certain, to Viola’s mind, incredibly selfish political positions while not being actually selfish to anyone he knows in real life.
     The next morning, after Robert has left for work, Viola walks through their new house, feeling the carpet beneath her bare feet. This is the first house that Viola has ever owned, or rather, she supposes, half-owned. Everything is so perfectly clean. The walls are white, smooth, free of scuff-marks. She and Robert have talked about adding accent walls to some of the rooms, and one of her projects over the next several days is to hang pictures, but for now the walls are white, white, white. It doesn’t seem possible that two people could exist in a place so unmarked.
     She wanted to buy an older house, something with wood floors and a claw-foot tub, but Robert talked her out of it. A new home was a good investment. Then the housing market burst, and weeks after they’d signed the paperwork home values in their development started plummeting. Robert maintains that going with a new house was better: less repairs, more energy-efficient. Ultimately, Viola thinks, he was probably attracted to the idea of newness itself. And she has to admit, there’s something compelling about it, this clean sheet of a house that they have folded themselves into. Neighbors walk small dogs in the gray winter air outside the kitchen window and somewhere, with an all but soundless puff of breath, the central heating comes to life.
     Viola doesn’t have work until the afternoon. She spends her morning drinking tea and trying to figure out the most comfortable places to sit. On television pundits discuss the unfolding Madoff scandal. “We simply don’t have all the facts yet,” a blond, callow-faced pundit says.
     The facts they do have would seem to indicate that Madoff defrauded his clients of something like sixty-five billion dollars.
     Ivan Boesky, the inspiration for Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street who was himself later convicted for insider trading, said in a 1986 speech to UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business: “Greed is alright, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself.”
     Viola sits propped against the windowsill in the kitchen and thinks, this is so much space for two people. There are entire families living in apartments the size of this room.
     Legally, the house is half hers, but she doesn’t pay half the mortgage. She couldn’t. This house, this large beautiful house, with its white walls and its simple, expensive furniture and its highly designed lamps, is not something she could afford. It’s a doctor’s or a stock broker’s or a lawyer’s house, which is what Robert is, a lawyer. They each pay amounts proportionate to their income, which is supposed to somehow make things fair between them. Of course Viola feels deeply uncomfortable with this arrangement when she thinks about it too hard, which is why she tries not to.
     Shame, she tells herself, isn’t rational, it’s a product of cultural values which we may not even consciously accept. But still, when she writes the check for her (small) part of the mortgage, she feels ashamed.
     Viola accompanies Robert to his firm’s Christmas party, which takes place in a conference room on one of the firm’s upper floors filled with objects carved from very old, very dark wood. Streamers of red and green paper hang from the ceiling. Viola can tell which of the interns has a crush on Robert, though he hasn’t mentioned anything about it. It’s entirely possible that he hasn’t noticed, she thinks.
     One of the senior partners, red-faced and boozy from old-fashioneds, grabs Robert in a violent but more-or-less friendly way by the shoulder and demands that he introduce Viola.
     “This,” the red-faced partner pronounces, extending the index finger of the hand holding his glass, “is the sort of woman you marry, Robert.” Viola examines the finger pointing at her. It looks like a carefully manicured sausage.
     “I’m planning on it,” Robert says.
     “There are two sorts of women in this world, Robert,” the partner declares.
     “They did a really great job with the decorations, I think,” Robert says. “I would hardly recognize the place.”
     The red-faced senior partner looks around, as though noticing, for the first time, that the office had been decorated.
     Viola smiles politely. “I’d like to know what the two types of women are,” she says. Robert shoots her a look.
     “Two types of women!” the senior partner declares, once again jabbing at the air with his finger. “One for marrying, the other for–”
     Across the room one of the interns crashes thunderously into a punch bowl.
     Robert and Viola have sex that night in their old bed, the one they’d slept in while still renters, in the middle of their new bedroom on the second story of their new house. They breathe in all the newness around them–the money, Viola thinks, they are breathing in newness which is another way of saying they are breathing in money.
     “What type of woman am I?” Viola asks, digging into Robert’s back with her nails.
     “You’re both types,” Robert says, his breath hard in her ear.
     “Aren’t you greedy,” Viola says. “Wanting both.”
     That night Viola is visited by the apparition of Michael Douglas, with his hair slicked back and wearing the same suspenders as his character in the movie. “I didn’t realize that Michael Douglas was dead,” says Viola.
     “He’s not,” says the apparition. “I am the spirit of the free market.”
     “Oh,” says Viola, disappointed.
     Viola and the spirit of the free market watch Robert, sleeping. “Does he always sleep so well?” asks the spirit.
     “Pretty much,” Viola says. “And he falls asleep fast, no tossing and turning, nothing. It’s a little infuriating sometimes, to be honest.”
     “You’re jealous.”
     “The sleep of the just,” the spirit of the free market says, in a dramatic voice.
     “Hey now,” Viola says.
     The spirit draws himself up to full height. “I have come to tell you that tonight you will be visited by three ghosts,” he announces, “each with a message regarding your personal finances. They won’t actually take you through time anymore, we ran the numbers and it turned out that wasn’t cost-effective, but each of these ghosts will come to you bearing a very detailed spreadsheet.”
     “Could you just tell me what this is about?” Viola asks.
     The spirit seems to deflate a little. “Okay, fine,” he says. “This house, the life you’ve found yourself in, the fact is, you’re not comfortable in it. You feel like you haven’t earned it. Ultimately, you blame him,” nodding towards Robert.
     Viola forces herself to take a moment before she responds. Her impulse is to be angry, to want to kick him out, but she’s not sure how one would go about that, kicking a spirit out of one’s house.
     “It is true that I don’t think I deserve this,” she says, finally. “I don’t think anyone does. To my mind we’ve been, both of us, very lucky. There are plenty of people who work harder than we ever have, who don’t have it nearly as good. But I don’t blame him for that. That doesn’t make any sense.”
     “You blame him that he’s so comfortable with it,” the spirit says. “That he hardly ever thinks, for example, about the difference between what the two of you make. While you, of course, are constantly aware of it.”
     “We both do our share,” Viola says, her voice quieter than she meant it to be.
     “Okay, sure,” says the spirit. “But we both know some shares are more equal than others.”
     In the fourth circle of hell, somewhere below Robert and Viola’s bedroom, the greedy batter each other endlessly with huge stones, and cry out, each to the other: Why do you hoard? Why do you squander? It is pointless to try to speak with them. They have lost all individuality, have become, in their abominable greed, unrecognizable.
     They are not, Viola thinks now, those who had been rich on earth. Money means nothing to the rich–it becomes at most a scorecard, part of a game, a fiction, in the way that it can’t ever be a fiction for those who don’t have it. It is the poor who jostle each other for money, who in their drive become faceless. Even the comfort of virtue is allotted to the wealthy.
     In the still air of Robert and Viola’s bedroom, Viola watches her sleeping fiancé’s chest rise and fall with his breath, and burns with anger at him for it.
James Tadd Adcox‘s work has appeared in TriQuarterly, Barrelhouse Magazine, Redivider, and Whiskey Island, among other places. His first book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, was published in 2012 by Tiny Hardcore Press. He lives in Chicago.