In the year 1348 as the Black Death went scything through Italy, ten young people took refuge in the countryside outside of Florence. To pass the time as they waited for Death to be on his way, they told each other stories.
On the first day of story-telling they elected Pampinea their queen. She demanded from each of them a story about anything at all, because it was her wish that the teller had freedom for a tongue. So one by one they ventured into topics of their choosing, until ten tales were told and the day was nearly spent.
Then, very much to my surprise, they all looked up from Boccaccio’s dusty pages and patiently waited for me.
the tale of the bean counter
Not so very long ago there was a bean counter in the land of New York who had a beautiful wife through whom he sired two incredible children. They all lived in a great big house which they filled with many wonderful things. Moderate success and moderate happiness came easily to them, and it seemed to their neighbors that they must be the most fortunate family on earth.
But one day the bean counter saw an advertisement in which a younger and more attractive man purchased two cars at the same time, and when he realized that he could not duplicate this feat he became deeply ashamed. For many months he suffered quietly, telling no one of the turmoil in his bean counting soul, thinking only of that attractive youthful face and those two shiny cars. How small and ridiculous he must appear next to such virility! His success was overshadowed, his happiness emasculated. With no way to become younger and more attractive, and without sufficient beans to purchase two cars at the same time, it seemed to him that the end was near.
In a final act of desperation he went to the internet for help. After several aborted searches, he discovered on a backwater blog an oracle who claimed to be able to train men in the ways of purchasing two cars at the same time.
“Come to the land of Omaha,” the oracle said, through instant message – “And I will show you more than cars in this handful of dust.”
The bean counter could not resist the beckoning of the oracle. He tucked his incredible children into bed, pleasured his beautiful wife, snuck out of his house and took a red-eye to Omaha. There he met the oracle at the agreed upon location – a diner not far from the airport – where the two men drank coffee and ate cake and conversed profoundly until dawn. Of all the fantastic words that were spoken by the oracle, the bean counter went home remembering only these:
“You have done well to sire two incredible children through a beautiful wife, and you have even filled a great big house with many wonderful things. It is a good life. But we who are not easily satisfied must go beyond goodness. I will show you the way to purchase two cars at the same time – but first you must prove yourself in a trial of selfishness. You must betray a friend. Return to me after the betrayal.”
The bean counter left the diner giddy with excitement. On the flight home to New York all he could think about was the coming betrayal. Whom would he betray, and how would he accomplish it? At first he considered betraying someone he didn’t actually care for but with whom he merely pretended friendship – but after a further consideration he decided that he should not risk angering the oracle. He would have to betray a true and loyal friend. By the time the plane landed he knew just who to screw:
A fellow bean counter, with whom he had gone to school and who had been the best man at his wedding, and who had himself acquired a beautiful wife and sired an incredible child. Such a betrayal would be easily accomplished: he would simply propose a business venture, and since his good friend had no reason to doubt him the venture would surely be agreed upon. And when the opportunity presented itself – as such opportunities always do – he would abandon ship and watch his friend drown alone where the two of them had been bravely sailing.
So the bean counter convinced his bean counting friend that they should open a restaurant together. Over the course of two years he squeezed his friend for thousands when he himself only put up hundreds. He cut corners and embezzled, he underpaid and overworked his employees, he actively sought the dissatisfaction of his customers – and when the restaurant closed its doors for the last time he walked away with seventy thousand ill-gotten beans, while his friend swallowed an honest loss of two hundred thousand. The betrayal was never made real by a direct accusation, but the two men no longer spoke to one another.
The bean counter, far from being saddened by the loss of a friend, was elated by the immensity of his accomplishment. He went straight to a car dealership and said to the dealer,
“My good man, my fellow dishonest piece of shit conniving wonderful sir, it is not one car but two that I wish to purchase. I don’t care which ones, so long as they are shiny and new.”
And he returned home to his beautiful wife and incredible children, presenting them with two cars which he had purchased at the same time. They were as elated as he was, and after he joyrided his children through the streets and tunnels of the city, he joyrided his wife in a parking lot. As individuals they were richer and as a family they were happier than ever before.
The bean counter forgot all about the oracle and his obligation to return to Omaha, until one day his boss – who had heard about the purchasing of two cars at once and was impressed by such things – invited him aboard his yacht. There were several other wealthy and affable men aboard the yacht, and in the course of an afternoon the bean counter emptied several bottles of bourbon with them and even impressed them with his philosophical and political acumen. But he was never supposed their equal, nor was it allowed that he might ever become such, his presence being considered more an act of generosity on his boss’s part than a self-actualizing act of his own. When the afternoon was over they dismissed him kindly and forever.
Abused and distraught he went rushing back to the internet and once more sought out the oracle, who was fortunately still blogging. The oracle remembered him and agreed to meet him again at the diner by the airport.
Their conversation was briefer this time and more to the point. The oracle listened patiently to the bean counter’s tale of the yacht, after which he nodded knowingly and supplied him with more fantastic words:
“You have done well to sire two incredible children through a beautiful wife, to fill up a great big house with many wonderful things, and now you have even purchased two cars at the same time. It is a good life. But we who are not easily satisfied must go beyond goodness. I will show you the way to unfurl your own sail – but first you must prove yourself in a trial of absurdity. You must cease this counting of other men’s beans and begin to breed your own. Return to me when your beans are multiplying of their own accord.”
The bean counter went away perplexed but exhilarated. He understood that he must transform himself from a bean counter into a bean breeder but he didn’t know how to accomplish it. His knowledge of beans began and ended with the counting of them. As for bean origins, bean purposes, or bean mating habits, well those things were outside of his purview. And he didn’t dare to ask anyone for advice on the matter because he coveted the oracle’s wisdom and hated the idea of sharing it.
The answer continued to elude him into the new year, causing him to conclude that it lay beyond his admittedly narrow imagination. So he took a few days off from work, rented a cabin to himself, ate some magic mushrooms, and was immediately rewarded with the sought-after epiphany: he must quit his job and become a day trader. Only thereby could he cease the counting of beans, commence the breeding of them, and by accumulating them in proportion to his uselessness to society he would satisfy the last part of the riddle and become absurd.
The psilocybin was still in his system when he quit his job and executed his first trade. It was a success. So were many that followed. He discovered to his great delight that he was more adept at breeding beans than he had ever been at counting them; and it gave him equal pleasure to know that the depths of his uselessness would be cancelled out by the heights of his success. From the comfort of his home, with his laptop computer cracked open on the couch, he clicked little boxes strategically until he made his first millions. Then he set those millions loose in the market, sat back and watched them propagate until they were sufficiently multitudinous to bear up his yacht.
His beautiful wife adored the yacht, along with his incredible children – by now in their teens – who constantly begged him to take them and their friends out on pleasure cruises. He was a beloved husband, an awesome father, and without lifting a finger he maintained a barrel of ten million beans while living comfortably on the interest they procreated, multiplying now of their own accord.
But then one day at a New York dinner party a steak salesman called him a real loser. He was genuinely burned by the steak salesman’s branding and went reeling back to Omaha, where the oracle consoled him and offered up these final fantastic words:
“You have done well to sire two incredible children through a beautiful wife, with whom you filled up a great big house with many wonderful things, and for whom you purchased two cars at the same time and a yacht for pleasure cruising. It is a good life. But we who are not easily satisfied must go beyond goodness. I will show you that road which leads to a billion beans – but first you must prove yourself in a trial of cruelty. You must snuff out this innocent puppy, which I found on the side of the road and brought here in this duffel bag. Do not return to me after you have done this, for I never wish to see you again.”
The bean breeder snatched the duffel bag out of the oracle’s hands and went running to the nearest motel. He paid in beans for one night and signed his name Two-cars-at-the-same-time. In his sticky rundown room he filled the bathtub with water and took the puppy out of the duffel bag.
It was a retriever mutt, brown with white patches, sad-faced with little beady eyes and big floppy ears. The bean breeder got him all the way to the edge of the tub without pausing to think, but a whimper made him balk at the precipice. He knew that he ought to do this quickly and without looking the puppy in the eyes; and certainly he should not comfort the puppy by scratching it behind the ears. Moreover it would be ridiculous for him to speak kindly to puppy. Above all else it would be the end of his ambitions if he were to indulge in belly rubs and Eskimo kisses. So he took a deep breath, did none of these things, and he grabbed the puppy by its scruff neck and plunged it into the water.
It took a very long time for the puppy to die. Afterwards it floated in the water.
Upon returning to New York he discovered in himself a harder, keener edge. Following the incident – for so he thought of it – he felt disencumbered of sentimentalism, and he was able to deal with people harshly and swiftly. He legally swindled thousands and then millions from good and bad actors alike. Nothing mattered to him but the accumulation of more wealth – old money, new money, blood money, blue money, funny money, not-so-funny money – and he slurped it all into his big greedy maw and coughed none of it back up. If anyone ever complained that he was cruel or unfair, he recalled to himself the incident and laughed.
He was well on his way to a billion beans when his old friend, the fellow bean counter, knocked on his door. The wretch had never recovered from his loss of two hundred thousand. He had failed in another venture in an attempt to recover the loss, been forced into bankruptcy in the midst of a divorce, lost his job at the bean counting plant, and now he was begging his more fortunate compatriot for some clemency. He asked only for the two hundred thousand that had been swindled from him, which the bean breeder would no longer even miss.
“Get a hold of yourself,” the bean breeder said, slamming the door.
And when he made his first billion, his incredible children were old enough, educated enough, and ambitious enough to take over the hedge fund. They adored their successful father and aspired to his pride, promising upon acquisition of his company that they would seek out ever more wealth and raise wonderful families themselves. He tearfully handed them the reigns, crying not through sadness but because in spite of all his tribulations he had managed to raise two incredible children and he knew they would be true to their word.
In retirement he and his beautiful wife, to whom he had always been faithful, travelled the globe and engaged in charitable activities. They were often filmed and written about, and were even cited in a major publication as a ‘paragon of liberalism and virtue.’ The bean breeder enjoyed his fame and good fortune in earnest, living happily until the end of his days.
His tombstone is in Omaha, in a private lot not far from a major highway. It reads: Here lies
XXX XXXXXXX, who purchased more than two cars with a handful of dust.