FICTION: King of New York
Part 1 of King of America: A Complete Tragedy in Three Parts
George King stuck his cigar, unlit, tip not even snipped yet, into his mouth. It was a habit of his, mainly to keep from losing them while he patted down his pockets for keys or rifled through a drawer for papers.
He came up empty for the keys, so he turned back down the narrow hallway to his office.
A man of frugal habits, George still worked out of the same dingy space in which he had set up shop before the war. The difference was he owned the building now, all three stories. Giant letters on top of the building proclaimed it to be the “KING OF NEW YORK CO.”
Sometimes he would look at it and dream of knocking down the end part. He worried the “CO.” made it too subtle.
King of New York. Wasn’t that something? The war years had been good to George, very good indeed. He’d been in the low-income housing racket before Pearl Harbor, before the build-up, and when Uncle Sam needed a bunch of barracks built P.D.Q. and on the cheap, well, who was in a better position to do it for him than George King?
Other fellas had tried to get rich by cornering the market on dried carrots or selling the army chocolate — chocolate! — but old Betsy King had raised no fools. You try to package up meals for a few million soldiers and there were bound to be a few bad ones, weren’t there?
And someone would eat them, and kick up a fuss, and someone would be hung out to dry. If you played the game well enough, you could sock away enough money to come out of it in the end, but George knew damn well no one had ever been indicted for selling the army embalmed housing.
Besides, all the suckers who’d thrown everything into feeding an army had been stuck with their stockpiles of canned and dehydrated goods when the war ended, and no way to shift them. George’s construction crews could build anything, anything quick and cheap, and the government contacts he’d made had helped him get a lot of sweet federal contracts.
King of New York!
He opened the office door, and felt the fire rising up behind him. If there was one thing he could not abide, it was people touching his things, especially his desk. If he was the King of New York, the leather-bound chair behind it was his throne, and Kenny, for Christ’s sake, Kenny was standing up on it, shouting orders into the telephone handset and jumping up and down.
“Why, you lousy bunch of bums!” George’s youngest son shouted. “I ought to break all your legs, you don’t do the job! I’ll send my guys around and break all your legs and make you cry!”
Hilda or Gilda, whatever her name was, his son’s caretaker, the latest one, anyway, was in tears.
“I tried to tell him, Mr. King!” she said. “He won’t listen to me. I tried to tell him not to touch!”
“You’re fired,” George said. Something in him shifted, transferring the emotional load of his rising rage to her.
“Can it with that ‘Mr. King’ talk. Listen, girlie, I pay you to keep him in line, you’d damn well better do it.”
“I told him!” she sobbed. “I tried to tell him! He won’t listen!”
“Of course he won’t listen to you! Who are you? You’re nobody!” George raved. “He’s a King! King of New York! Nobody tells me what to do! What are doing standing around? Didn’t you hear me? Get out of here! You’re fired!”
“You’re fired!” Kenny echoed, throwing the black Backelite handset. It bounced off the desktop, then thudded into the side, suspended by its cord.
“Christ,” George said when the girl had left. He looked at his son, a look of fierce elation on his face. “What are you doing up there? Get your feet off my seat. That’s real leather. Sit your ass down.”
Kenny did. He leaned forward, putting his hands on the desk.
“Get used to it, kid,” George said. “That’s gonna be you someday. It’s all for you. You know that? Everything I do, busting heads, busting unions, greasing palms, kissing ass. I’m laying the groundwork. I’m doing it so you don’t have to. We’re gonna be respectable, Kenny, my boy. We’re gonna be the biggest game in town. We’re gonna be through with the hustling and busting our humps. People will deal with us because they have to. We’re gonna be kings, Kenny! Kings! What do you say to that.”
“YOU’RE FIRED!” Kenny shouted, slamming his palms on the desk. “You’re fired! And you’re fired! You bunch of bums! You’re all fired.”
George King laughed.
“That’s the spirit,” he said.
“For Christ’s sake,” George said, cigar stuck in his mouth and hat in his hand. “Look, do you understand what happened back there, Kenny?”
“Buncha bums,” Kenny said. “You should fire them.”
“Christ… you can’t fire a senate committee,” George said. “If only. They don’t work for us. Not yet.”
“Who do they work for?”
“That limp-dicked nobody Eisenhower,” George said. “President Eisenhower, if it pleases you. Christ!”
“Christ!” Kenny repeated.
“It’s like this, boy,” George said. “A lot of people went off to the war. A lot of them came back. The ones who do, they’re ready to start families. What have I always said a man needs to have a family?”
“Some stinking dame to sink her claws into him!” Kenny said.
“A house, Kenny. A place to live. The government can’t have a bunch of homeless veterans cluttering up the place, so they set up funds to pay for housing.”
“We build houses!”
“We do,” George said. “But the real money’s in rentals. Remember, Kenny: if you sell a man a place, you can charge him for a day. If you rent a man a place…”
“You can charge him for the rest of his life!” Kenny said. “Kings of New York!”
“Right. Kings of New York,” George said. “So we build on the government’s dime, the vets and all the nice middle-income families rent, eventually we pay the government back, and everyone wins. With me?”
“Why do we need the government’s dime?” Kenny asked. “We got dimes. We got loads of dimes.”
“Yeah, we’re loaded, and don’t ever tell anyone we need the loans,” George said. “It just makes better business sense, that’s all. Never put your own money on the table, Kenny. Not when some other sucker will be happy to lay it down for you.”
“The government didn’t sound happy.”
“They should be! They got what they wanted, and we paid them back in good time,” George said. “But some bug crawled up Ike’s ass and told him to stick his nose where it doesn’t belong. ‘General’ Eisenhower, my shriveled left testicle. What’d he do for the war? I built the barracks that housed our soldiers! I put roofs over their heads! And now he’s president?”
“Christ!” Kenny said.
“Christ is right!” George said. “Now, you and me, Kenny, we’re businessmen, right? We’re men of business.”
“Kings of New York!”
“And businesses are in the business of making money,” George said. “There’s no law that says a man can’t seek out advantageous opportunities. There’s no law that says a man can’t have friends anywhere he finds them, even if he finds them in the FHA office.”
“Like Clyde! He’s our friend!”
“Was our friend, the bum,” George said. “And there’s no law that says your daddy can’t give a few gifts to his old friend Clyde, purely out of the goodness of his heart. And if there’s some law that says Clyde’s not supposed to give your old man permission to break ground on an apartment project before the ink’s exactly dry on the permits, well, that’s not any of our business, is it?”
“No, sir!” Kenny said.
“No, sir, indeed!” George said. “And if we collect a few months’ rent before we officially open for business and start giving Uncle Sam back his due, who does that hurt? We’re already ahead of schedule. It’s not like anyone got stiffed.”
“The government lays out the funds. We collect the funds. We use the funds. We pay back the funds,” George said. “For all the good it did us. We might as well have kept the money. But it’s really as simple as that. They have to make everything so complicated. Like this architect’s fee, for example.”
“Yeah, you can’t have a building without an architect, so they lay out a pot of money and they say it’s for paying the architect,” George said. “Well, my guy will do it for cheaper, for me. But the money’s still there, isn’t it? The government already made the decision to pay it out. So why shouldn’t I call myself an architect and keep the rest of it? I’m the one who decided what shape the buildings should be. That’s something. I’m the one who said we should have the nice gabled roofs, make the place look respectable. That’s something.”
“That’s something!” Kenny agreed.
“Isn’t it just?” George said. “I said it was worth five percent. Those yahoos back there, they disagreed. But the money’s spent, and it was all legal, anyhow, at least on our end. Doesn’t matter, though. That game’s over. Fucking Clyde.”
“Did he rat on us?”
“The rat ratted on himself,” George said. “You know how stupid this man is? On a bureaucrat’s salary, he’s living like a king! He’s buying his wife furs, he’s buying sports cars, he’s buying paintings, he’s flashing his cash around town and making a splash.”
“That’s not how we live,” Kenny said.
“No, but he’s got to be Mr. Rich. He’s got to be a Rockefeller. So of course the feds look into him, and it turns out the asshole went and took all the money and he stuck it in his bank, under his own name!”
“Asshole!” Kenny said.
“Asshole is right,” George said. “So the feds start looking into everyone who’s had dealings with him, and that includes us. So now we’ve got to find a new racket to get into. But that’s fine. We still got the government’s money. We still have our nice apartment buildings and all our lovely tenants. We’ll milk them for as much as we can while we move onto the next thing. You understand all this, Kenny?”
“I think so,” Kenny said.
“Got any questions?”
“Yeah, those men back there, the yahoos, why did they call Grandpa ‘Gay-org Kay-nig’?” Kenny asked.
“More sticking their noses where they don’t need to be,” George said. “We’re Swedish, Kenny. Anybody asks you that, your Grandpa was a Swede.”
“But you were named after him,” Kenny said. “You’re George, Jr. If his name was…”
“We are Kings, Kenny! Kings!” George said. “The Kings of New York! Swedish stock! Healthy Swedish Kings!”
“No more questions! You think I got where I am today by asking questions? No, sir, I did not! I learned by keeping my trap shut and watching. I learned by listening. I learned by doing. That’s what you’re going to do, Kenny! No more questions! Just keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll be bigger than me! You’re going to be huge, Kenny! Huge!”
“Huge,” Kenny repeated.
“Huge is right.”
“Thank you for coming on such short notice, Mr. King,” the principal said.
“Not at all, not at all,” George said, brushing invisible lint off his lapels. He liked the way the school people said ‘Mister’ like they meant it. Mr. King! King of New York! “If there’s anything I can do, as the chairman of the board of trustees of our prestigious institution…”
“Well, Mr. King, I actually asked you here as a parent,” the principal said.
“Oh? Your kids giving you trouble? You want a little fatherly advice? Wanted to pick my brain a bit, learn how I turned out little Kenny as well as I did?”
“It’s not my children… Mr. King, I asked you here to talk about Kenny.”
“Well, what about Kenny? And choose your words carefully. Remember, I got you this job.”
“Yes, well, you did, and I’m grateful,” the principal said. “But Kenny has had some behavioral difficulties.”
“I’m sure he’ll overcome them. He’s got grit. Determination.”
“I mean to say, he’s… behaving.”
“Christ! You hauled me out here to tell me that my kid’s behaving?”
“That is, in a certain way,” the principal said. “He’s behaving in a certain way.”
“A certain way? What certain way? Are you calling my boy a sissy?”
“Misbehaving!” the principal said, throwing up his hands. “He is misbehaving. Behaving badly. It’s becoming a problem. A problem we can’t ignore.”
“Bullshit!” George said. “Kenny’s a healthy boy, he’s a little rambunctious, maybe, but I didn’t raise a brat.”
“I didn’t say he was…”
“I know what you’re getting at,” George said. “What’s he done, then? Allegedly.”
“Well, you know, Mr. King, that we encourage a certain amount of creative play, in accordance with the latest theories…”
“Save the spiel and cut to the chase.”
“It seems your son, Kenneth, was playing at the block station with two other children,” the principal said. “And it seems he had the idea to build a tower.”
“Why not? High-rises. Very modern.”
“Yes. Well. He wanted to build a bigger tower than either of the other two students.”
“Nothing wrong with a little healthy competition.”
“Yes, but they had divided the blocks equally, so in order to do this, he, in some manner, prevailed upon the others to lend him some of their blocks.”
“I’m not hearing where he did anything wrong. These other children, they gave up their blocks of their own free will, I imagine.”
“As far as we can say for certain, it’s possible that they did,” the principal said. “When your son was finished, he had all of the blocks and they were just watching.”
“Must have been impressive,” George said, chuckling. “Say, did I ever tell you I’m an architect? I guess it runs in the family.”
“It was impressive,” the principal said. “His teacher came over to see because it was the tallest block tower anyone in the second grade had ever made, even when students worked together and used all the blocks.”
“Ha! My son’s a born builder. He can build a taller building all by himself than the rest of the class put together. King of New York!”
“Yes, well, it transpires that the reason he was able to accomplish this was he had brought a bottle of quick-setting wood glue with him, and he was gluing the pieces in place as he went.”
“I asked him why, and he told me no one would ever make a better building than him. Mr. King, I’m not sure if he meant that he was sure no one would ever do so, or that he was himself ensuring that no one would.”
“Who cares? You suddenly got a rule against gluing blocks together? Show it to me, if it exists!”
“Mr. King, he destroyed school property.”
“Destroyed nothing!” George said. “The blocks are still there, aren’t they?”
“But no one can play with them.”
“Who needs to? You said he built the biggest tower anyone could make with them. You think someone could top that if they tried?”
“Mr. King, the point of creative play…”
“The point is on top of that pin you call a head!” George said. “You only have this job because I recommended you, remember that!”
“Mr. King, I do have this job, and I must do it,” the principal said.
“Fine, you leech! We’ll get you some more damned blocks,” George. “Better blocks. Bigger blocks. Enough blocks that a boy can build a fucking tower in peace without having to bum off anyone else and cause all these bad feelings!”
“And what are we supposed to do with the ones that are stuck together?”
“Well, you’ve got a great big trophy case, haven’t you? I should know. I paid a bundle for it. Stick it in there. Biggest block tower ever made, isn’t it? Christ, what do we pay you for? I have to come up with everything! I…”
There was a knock on the door. George twisted around in his chair and yelled, “Don’t bother us, we’re in a meeting!”
“Excuse me, Mr. Kewes,” an aide said. George might have lost it at being ignored by a peon, but he stopped at the sight of his son’s hand in said flunky’s. Kenny’s face was livid. “There’s been an… incident.”
“Lord preserve us,” the principal said, face in hand. “What’s happened now?”
“Young Master King… struck the music teacher.”
“Music teacher!” Kenny said.
“He slapped him?” the principal said.
“Socked him right in the kisser!” Kenny said.
“He broke a tooth,” the aide said apologetically.
“Mr. King,” the principal said.
“Hold on, hold on, we’re only hearing one side of it,” George said. “My son doesn’t raise his fists for no reason. For all I know, you hired some creepy fairy who was being untoward towards him. What kind of man teaches music for a living?”
“Mr. Forrest is the most respected children’s music educator in the state of New York,” the principle said. “A family man. Hired on your recommendation.”
“Yeah, well, I make a lot of recommendations,” George said. “People ask me for favors, I do favors. Don’t read too much into it. Why’d you do it, Kenny? The bum had it coming, didn’t he?”
“You bet he did,” Kenny said. “Calls himself a music teacher? He doesn’t know the first thing about music!” He mimed punching. “Try to tell me what’s what. You know that clown tried to tell me that Beethoven is famous? If he’s so famous, why haven’t I ever heard of him?”
“Mr. Forrest is threatening to resign,” the aide said.
“Good!” George said. “Tell him if he apologizes for how he spoke to my son, we’ll even give him a good recommendation. Maybe. Tell him maybe.”
“Out of the question,” the principal said. “Kevin, please run along and tell Mr. Forrest I will be meeting with him shortly.”
“Fine, we’ll pay for the old coot’s dental,” George said. “Anything to keep you happy. Is there anything else?”
“Mr. King, I would like for you to take your son and go.”
“You hear that, Kenny? A half-day off!”
“Mr. King, this isn’t a day off,” the principal said. “Your son isn’t to come back. Now, we don’t need to embarrass anyone with an expulsion…”
“Christ, you’re embarrassing yourself, right now!” George said. “I should let you do it, teach you a lesson, maybe, but then you’d have to hire me as one of your teachers, and I’d do a better job! I am the chairman of the board of trustees. I give very generously to this school’s foundation.”
“And your generosity and hard work have been very much appreciated!” the principal said.
“Generosity nothing!” George said. “I’ve been paying my dues, is what I’ve been doing! Every time some tin-plated dictator tries to call me on the carpet in this office, I’ve stepped up to the plate and I’ve played ball. I joined the board. I put in new carpets. I built a new playground. I paid, and I paid, and I paid, and now you’ve squeezed all the blood this stone has to give. There’s nothing else I can do for you.”
“You’re right,” the principal said. “You’re right.”
“Of course I’m right.”
“There is nothing more you can do,” the principal said. “However much you’ve helped the school, we still must run a school, and we can’t do that when an unruly child is allowed to run around like a Hun…”
“Like a what?”
“Excuse me, I should…”
“We. Are. SWEDISH!” George said. “Who’ve you been talking to? That old crank Bernstein on the board? He wants my seat, I’ll tell you that for nothing! Well, he can have it, and I hope he chokes on it! This whole school would be underwater if it didn’t have me to bail it out! Well, I say, let the whole thing sink! And you just see who the first one they throw over to lighten the load is!”
Kenny ran up to the principal’s desk and slapped both hands down, his face red and veins throbbing just like his father’s as he yelled, “You’re fired!”
“Come on, Kenny, let’s get the hell out of here.”
The boy Kenny bounced around from school to school for years, until he was old enough for the one that would keep him: a prestigious military boarding school in upstate New York.
It wasn’t so much that this school instilled discipline into the child as it taught him by example the value of being feared. That coupled with his fascination with the uniforms, the pomp and the parades and the drills, was enough to keep him enrolled in the same institution from eighth grade through graduation.
His desire to be the one to bark orders and lead drills was enough motivation for him to attain the rank of captain within the school. It took him some time after he left its walls to fully accept that this rank did not translate in any way to life beyond the campus.
As far as he was concerned, his rank was just as real and meaningful as any the army might give out. He’d marched. He’d worn a uniform. He’d spent five years at the academy. People only stayed at West Point for four. He had a year more military training than any of them!
His insistence on wearing his old dress uniform around the house and his habit of practicing his salute in mirrors didn’t last long, though, not once his father took him to see his personal tailor and had him fitted for his next uniform.
College was the next step. Having been weaned on his father’s attitude of “learn by doing”, young Kenny King was not overly impressed by college. No one there saluted him. It cost a lot of money to get in, but not everyone there had money. Some had been let in for being smart.
Having money, Kenny learned from this, was like being smart, except better because you could do more things with the money. Truly on his own for the first time, Kenny was learning what money could do. He was finding out firsthand for the first time what the kinds of thing a King-sized budget could buy. He was, at least in comparison to his fellows, living like a king.
In all of his studies, he never did learn the value of a college education. His old man wanted him to have one, because he hadn’t been able to afford one, but if it was about proving you had the money, why did they let poor people in? And why did they make you spend year after year of going to classes?
He never did figure that one out. But he’d been doing the school racket for five years straight in a military academy, and college was a walk in the park compared to that.
“The main thing is, it keeps you out of the war,” his father said, whenever he complained.
“I’d be good at the war,” Kenny said. “Five years at military academy. I’d be the best at war.”
“You would be, but I need you here,” his father said. “Let those other schmucks’ sons blow the hell out of each other. We’re the Kings of New York!”
Kenny worked alongside his father in his office while he completed his education. College was boring, but it offered him a chance to play football, tennis, and golf. The war in Vietnam was still raging when he graduated, and his father took him to a doctor he’d never seen before, who looked him up and down.
“They’ll never buy asthma,” he said.
“I can’t have an asthmatic son,” George King said.
“What the hell are they?”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “He’s got bone spurs on his left foot. Can you remember that, kid? Left foot.”
“Any reason it can’t be both?” George said. “Keep it simple.”
“Christ. Yeah, keep it simple,” the doctor said. “Bone spurs in both feet, make it very painful to walk or stand for too long, no way you could march through the jungle…”
“I’m good at marching, though!” Kenny said. “I have medals! I have a certificate! I’ll bet no one they’re drafting has a certificate for marching!”
“Look, Kenny,” his father said. “You don’t get it. They’re sending boys over there to die, right? But not you. Never you. Okay? You’re staying here with me.”
“But I could go if I wanted,” Kenny said. “I could win the whole damned war if I wanted to.”
“Sure, sure!” George said urgently. “You can do whatever you want.”
“I’m a King!” Kenny said.
“You’re a King, and you’re going to stay alive, and to do that, you need something to keep you here,” George said. “Bone spurs.”
“I’m not telling anyone I’m too weak to fight,” Kenny said. “I’ll fight anyone! I’ll fight the Viet Cong! I’ll fight Red China! I’ll fight the whole U.S. Army!”
“Look, you don’t have to tell anyone you’re weak,” George said. “Just… don’t argue about the bone spurs, okay? You don’t have to tell anyone you’re tough.”
“Maybe I should go fight in the war,” Kenny said. “If we tell them I know how to be a captain, they’ll probably make me one. Then I won’t be in danger. I’ll be giving the orders.”
“Kenny, they have snipers everywhere over there,” George said. “Officers are targets. A captain’s stripes are nothing but a bull’s eye on your back.”
“Then I’ll always have a private dress like a general and stand like me,” Kenny said. “That way they’ll shoot the wrong person and waste their bullets and not even kill an officer for it. That’s why I should be over there, Pop! They need someone to come up with good ideas like this, so we can win!”
“No one’s saying you wouldn’t be good at war!” George said. “You know what you’d be better at? Real estate! Haven’t you got your old man’s blood in your veins? Haven’t you learned everything from watching me, working by my side? Don’t you have your fancy education?”
“I guess,” Kenny said. “But I still think I could win the war.”
“Tell you what, I’ve got a job for you,” George said. “Something only you can do, and I just know you’ll do it so well you’ll forget about this war nonsense. This is what you were born to do. You’re a King of New York.”
“King of New York,” Kenny echoed.
“Damn right!” George said. “But to do this job, you have to stick to the story. You have to let people think you have these bone spurs. Remember Clyde?”
“Fucking Clyde,” Kenny said. “What an asshole!”
“Right, what an asshole!” George said. “Kenny, everybody plays these games, but the key is, you never give it away. Right? No one cares if you skim a bit off the top, and some from the sides, and a bit more from the bottom. Everyone does it! No one cares if someone like you gets a medical deferment, because the draft isn’t for people like me and you, and everyone knows. People care if you insult them. People care if you make them feel stupid. It burns them up inside.”
“Yeah! It hurts most people more than anything else you can do,” George said. And that’s why you can’t be too obvious about it, okay? You play the game, you don’t make waves, and you can get away with anything you’ll ever want or need. Do you understand me?”
“Insulting people, making them feel stupid, hurts,” Kenny said. “More than anything.”
“Right. So we don’t do that,” George said. “With me?”
“Kings of New York,” George said.
“You understand,” the doctor said, “if he blows this, I could lose my license, and a lot of other people could lose their deferments.”
“He’s not gonna blow it,” George said. “Look, he’s a contractor’s kid, not a senator or a movie star. His name’s never going to be in the paper except in front of the words ‘breaks ground’. People like us, we don’t make the gossip pages. No one’s gonna care.”
“Just the same, I’d feel better if I had a little more to put towards retirement,” the doctor said.
“Yeah, okay, okay,” George said. “Christ, I need a drink.”
“You and me both.”
“It’s like this,” Charlie said. Charlie was one of Kenny’s father’s oldest friends and business associates. George had seconded him to Kenny for his first major business undertaking. “Back in ’62, these apartment blocks in Cleveland were in foreclosure. Your old man bought it up at a sheriff’s auction at a fire sale price: 5.7 million for the whole lot. No one else bid. Since then, the income’s been steady, but not great, so we’re looking to unload them, get some fluid capital to invest where the money is. Now, the real estate market being what it is, it shouldn’t be hard to make a tidy profit turning it over. We just got to fix the place up a bit first. Obviously the key is to do it on the cheap, so we don’t eat up the profit doing that. That clear?”
“So we need to sell for more than 5.7 million dollars,” Kenny said.
“That’s what it cost in 1962 dollars,” Charlie said. “With inflation, we’re looking to clear upwards of 7 million dollars just to break even.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It just means what was 5 or 6 million dollars last decade is more like 7 million today,” Charlie said.
“So we’ve already made more than a million in profit.”
“No, no,” Charlie said. “The value of the dollar’s gone done, kid. Our money’s worth less than it was, and our buildings are worth the same, less depreciation. We have to sell it for more dollars to get the same value back out of it.”
“And that will give us our profit, plus the million we’ve already made,” Kenny reasoned.
“Look, forget the logistics of it all,” Charlie said. “Just think of it like this: we want to sell the property for eight million or more. The more the better, but whatever. Your daddy wants you to have your name on a million dollar success. This is how we do that.”
“So we sell for eight million, that’s a million dollar success,” Kenny said.
“Give or take, yeah.”
“Plus the eight million, and the million we’ve already made, and we’re looking at ten million dollars.”
“What? No, Kenny,” Charlie said. “We haven’t made any money yet. The eight million, that’s seven to break even and one million profit, give or take. The million is the profit. It’s the only profit here. But it’s enough. I mean, it’s a nice start to your career.”
“You’re giving and taking an awful lot,” Kenny said. “Who are you giving it to?”
“It just means it’s a rough estimate,” Charlie said. “We’re fudging the numbers a bit. I just mean when we tell people how you made out, we can round the expenses and investment down and the profits up. It makes a better story. The exact numbers on either side of the decimal point are only going to matter to the accountants. The only thing you need to care about is that when this is done, you can tell people that Kenny King just made his first million in real estate.”
“And my next nine million.”
With guidance from Charlie, Kenny took over the troubled housing project. Despite Charlie’s insistence that it wasn’t necessary, he involved himself in every aspect of the complex’s management, flying out to give personal feedback on everything from the groundskeeping to the bookkeeping and more over the course of four years.
Whenever his expertise was called into question or one of his decisions quibbled over, he would quickly point out that the complex, purchased for only 5 million dollars, was now worth more than 7 million dollars under his management.
The more Charlie insisted that he couldn’t count the still-rising price tag of the complex under inflation as profit, the less inclined Kenny was to listen to him. If an increase from 5 million and change to 7 million didn’t leave any profit, someone somewhere was walking away with more than a million dollars, and Charlie, with his giving and taking, was suspect number one.
When George declined to back his friend up in the ongoing battle for control with his son, Charlie walked away, leaving Kenny free to finish the job his way. After finishing renovations at a cost of just under half a million dollars, which rounded down to 0, and then sold the whole thing for 6.75 million dollars, which rounded up to 7. It wasn’t the 8 million that Charlie had wanted, but he found a buyer way faster doing it this way, and without Charlie there to give and take the extra million away, it still left him with plenty to brag about.
As Charlie had said, the important thing was that he could say he’d made his first million in real estate, and he could sure say that, all right.
“I told you we didn’t need Charlie,” Kenny said while reporting his success back to his father in the New York office of the King of New York Company. “What a fraud! What a stuffed shirt! He wanted me to hold out for more when I had the buyers right where I wanted them! You never saw anyone agree to buy so fast, Pops!”
“Yeah, yeah,” George King said, reaching for the bottle of bourbon he’d taken to keeping on his desk. He needed a drink. He’d had one already, but insofar as he’d had one, it was gone, leaving him once again in need of a drink. He’d finally given up on cigars, if only because they got in the way of drinking. “Christ. Charlie.”
“Bet he’s sorry he crossed me now,” Kenny said. “So what’s next? Got another complex for me to fix up? Or I could help with one of your building projects. I bet I’d be a good foreman. Do your foremen even go to business school?”
“I think… I think maybe it’s time you struck out on your own,” George said, slowly and with great finality.
“You don’t want my help anymore?” Kenny’s face fell. “I’ve only stayed out of the war because you said you needed me!”
“I don’t… look, you don’t need to go fight the war, but if you stay with me, I’d be holding you back,” George said. “You don’t need your old man hanging over you like a cloud, do you? You should be spreading your wings and flying, not standing around in my shadow. I’ve got a lot of important business in Queens and Brooklyn that I can’t have you… I don’t want to be competing with a man of your talents. So, uh, why don’t you go to Manhattan, find your fortune there?”
“Sure, Manhattan. I’ll stake you, Kenny, okay? Whatever you need. Offices, people, money. I’ll get you up and running and you can do things your way, and I’ll do things my way, and that’ll be it.”
“But I’m a King of New York. I should be at the King of New York Company.”
“That’s… that’s small-time, Kenny, boy,” George said. “You’re big time now. It’s time to think bigger. It’s time to think huge.”
“Huge,” Kenny echoed.
King of New York is part 1 of a novelette called King of America: A Complete Tragedy in Three Parts. Follow the author on Medium for part 2, King of the World.