The Capitalist: A Fantasy

This story is paired with Chapter IV of Bulfinch’s Mythology. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

We all agreed that John Christian Midas’s fatal flaw was his disinterest in the cautionary aspects of his namesake’s tale. When he was a chubby-cheeked child, he raced around the house screaming, “I’m going to be rich!” as he colored on walls and furniture with a metallic gold crayon. His mother should have seen the seeds of his undoing, for she often couldn’t remove the gold marks, so he ruined the chairs, tables, and wallpapers that he touched even then.

Fifteen years later, he lounged in a leather armchair in a wood-paneled common room at our elite university. He always wore a coat and tie, and sat surrounded by rapt undergraduates who listened to his tales. “Holding court,” we called it. One of his great tricks was to recount the outrageous narratives of Stephen King novels as though they’d happened to him. “Once,” he would begin, “I checked myself into a shock therapy outfit to quit smoking,” and he’d sink down into the cushions, a wry smile stretching across his face, waiting to see how long it would take before someone caught on or stopped him. He honed his lies each year, discovering the details his listeners found too fantastic, and obscuring the more recognizable plot twists in complicated language. By our junior year, he could fool most freshmen, whom we would hear on the quad: “Did you hear about that time Midas’s cat crawled its way back out of its grave and made its way back to the house? He must not have checked to see that it was dead! Can you imagine?”

Midas enlisted a few close friends as his eyes and ears; we reported back when we heard his stories retold around campus. He kept a running tally of such successes in gold ink on a whiteboard outside his dorm room. “You can make anyone believe anything,” he’d say, posing in his dorm room chair like a CEO in a Forbes photoshoot. “It’s a form of conversion. That’s the key to success: belief.” Obligingly, we believed him.

He honed improbable moneymaking schemes, most of which worked. He’d buy thirty Subway sandwiches at noon and sell them at triple price at two in the morning when the heavy drinkers wanted something to settle their stomachs and the dutiful studiers wanted something to fuel their wakefulness. When his parents couldn’t afford to buy him a computer, he learned to play a collectible card game in which he had no interest. He stalked up and down the corridor, winning rare cards until he had a collection worth enough to cover the cost of the computer. These material conversions, too, he tallied on the whiteboard.

Nothing settled him, though. His thirst for conquest remained insatiable. Once he saw that a scheme would work, he’d grow bored and leap to the next. He invested the budget from a nonprofit charity campus group and then pocketed twenty percent of the earnings as a fee; when the charity put him in charge, he turned around and depleted its budget by having his friends attend ‘planning sessions’ at five-star restaurants. Called in front of the school’s disciplinary committee, he defended himself with such charm–and a few flavorful passages from The Dark Tower–that they smacked him on the wrist and let him go, merely barring him from participating in student activities. The school chose not to put a black mark on his record if he returned the charity’s money, which he did by setting up a gambling ring in the dorms and charging for the service of scheduling games.

Eventually, he got banned from student activities, the student union, several dorms, and certain academic buildings, but the school administration had grudging respect for his unerring ability to make money, and so they didn’t expel him. Cynically, we believed the school expected him to turn into the alumnus from our generation who would beam majestically on the cover of Fortune and then give millions to the university. Cynically, we believed that he’d only give to the university if he could certainly come out on top.

His public humiliations meant nothing to him; instead, he saw them as evidence of his triumphs. If one saw his childhood goal narrowly, he was right: despite some social difficulties, almost everything he touched turned to gold of some sort. Even the women he dated managed to make money for him. He’d lean on them to support his lavish lifestyle of expensive restaurants, fine silk ties, top shelf cocktails, and tickets to the best shows, until they got fed up with his lack of investment in their emotional lives and dumped him. He left these women wrecked, crying in our dorm hallway at three in the morning. As with all things, he grew more audacious as the years passed; one semester, while his girlfriend studied abroad, he lived rent-free in her apartment, driving her car and using her credit card for his ‘little necessities,’ all the while sleeping with her best friend and refusing to answer her letters and phone calls because he was working so hard. When the girlfriend returned, he didn’t even bother to move the other girl’s things from the apartment, and somehow managed to finagle continued cohabitation for several months afterwards. Once he finally decamped, both girls spent months coming to class red-eyed and teary. Their friends avoided them, for they had become ghosts of their former selves, wrecked, unsalvageable. One girl dropped out before finishing, while the other, who had been a star student, barely managed to pass her senior year. In contrast, he remained shining, bright, and vibrant.

As his triumphs piled up, we all expected him to go through life without any serious impediment. We’d shrug at each other helplessly, equally disgusted and delighted by Midas’s audacity. We kept a running commentary on his ever-changing rainbow of silk ties, the visible markers of his continued success. We discussed his windfall of gifted opera season tickets and ski trips for which he didn’t pay. But we never, ever challenged him personally. No one had ever faced his temper, but we were all sure it would be terrible, especially after seeing what he did to those he ostensibly liked.

And then Midas met the Raven, my best friend.

The Raven (whose banal real name reflected her practical midwest upbringing but belied her deep strangeness) lived in a dorm near the music practice rooms, where she bent over an immaculately polished baby grand piano for five or six hours each day. The practice rooms stayed cold for most of the school year, so she had a rainbow’s array of fingerless gloves, all of which remained filthy–the Raven wasn’t much for cleanliness. These and the long underwear she wore covered up the stark black tattoo sleeves of scenes from Scandinavian mythology that contrasted shockingly with her painfully white skin. She’d had an expensive dye job turn her hair black, although I knew that there was gold underneath.

Everyone chuckled and called the Raven “an odd bird.” Smarter than most of the kids at a university known for its smart kids, the Raven mastered new subjects quickly and grew bored with them even more quickly. She changed majors on a monthly basis, causing her advisors to quit in frustration and pass her along to someone new. No pattern emerged in her interests: literature, engineering, biochemistry, Greek, film. She’d start with the major’s hardest classes, begging into courses for which she had none of the prerequisites, and, once she had earned her A in spite of late nights and piano playing, she’d move on to the next subject. Perhaps this perpetual boredom recommended her to Midas.

“Who’s that?” he barked at me one afternoon in the dining hall. The Raven had hoisted her large, expensive road bike upside down above her head to get it through the turnstile explicitly installed to keep bikes out of the dining hall. She shot a confused look at the attendant who tried to explain to her that bikes should remain on the bike rack outside. “–far too expensive,” was all I could hear of her reply, and, unsurprisingly, the attendant gave up and the gigantic bike accompanied her across the room to our table, where it perched in the way of everyone trying to get to the salad bar.

“Midas,” I said abruptly, “Raven. Raven, Midas.”

He turned on the charm for her, getting out of his seat and extending his hand as he smoothed his strawberry pink tie against his immaculate sky blue shirt, but she only gave him a curt nod and began to dig in her messenger bag from which she unearthed a DVD of a minor Bergman film, some swim goggles, and a shoe, but no dining hall card. “Fuck,” she snorted. “Use yours?”

I turned to my bag, but Midas had already suavely extended his from his pocket. “Please,” he said, “let me do the honors.”

She stared at him with theatrically undiluted contempt. Then, with a shrug, she took the card and popped it into her mouth as she returned her little pile of junk to her bag. He cringed visibly. Midas didn’t care for untidiness or bodily fluids; those weren’t part of his picture of wealth.

He spent that lunch parading his wittiest observations for her, who addressed her one-syllable responses to the pile of spaghetti on her plate. When she finished, she flipped her plate across the table to him and said, “Get this for me, thanks?” and stood, untangling her messenger bag from her bike and leaving. As she turned around, she gave me the slightest eye roll and I tried hard to conceal my smile.

Over the next few weeks, Midas’s pursuit of the Raven was every bit as fevered as her sudden interest in extending her hours at the piano. When he discovered that she had a substantial family fortune, he found himself in the throes of ecstasy. He spent late nights in my room, grilling me about her tastes and keeping me from my work until I moved into someone else’s room in self-defense.

He invited her to operas, movies, ski trips, bars, fancy restaurants, dives, poetry readings, ice skating, and the skydiving. She remained too busy with her piano to attend. He devised a fancy cocktail party expressly to impress her, and she showed up for fifteen minutes, took a single sip of something classy and unpronounceable garnished with artfully arranged lemongrass, and then persuaded me to slip away with her to see an experimental dance recital in the basement of a warehouse performed entirely by working whores.

He blew through the money he had stored up, and his single-minded pursuit of the Raven left him too little time to concoct new schemes. He looked thin and ill; when I asked why he wasn’t at least eating in the dining hall, he replied that she’d taken his card on that first day. Stifling laughter, I offered to retrieve it for him, but he refused, not wanting her to know that he couldn’t afford to do without it. I rolled my eyes and excused myself; the Raven had taken a new major in visual arts and had a pottery exhibit that afternoon, having been praised as one of the best students in the program, which she planned to quit the following week.

The lavish displays continued. Flowers appeared at the practice room on the piano. He sent accessories for her bike, new gloves, and a gift certificate to her favorite tattoo parlor. Most of these gifts she gave away to friends who couldn’t afford such extravagances; some she threw away. He wrote his parents for more cash to support his habit of spoiling her, while she signed up for an evening course in Gaelic on the other side of the city from the campus.

The farce went on for another month, and then Midas tried something else: he came to the practice room and listened. He really listened, sitting silently on the little cushioned bench in the corner of the room, his head bent, his eyes closed. At night, he read about the pieces she played: Beethoven, Chopin, Monk. He asked informed questions about her musical interpretations.

The Raven was moved by his attentiveness to the one thing that truly gave her delight. She deigned to discuss her music with him, walking to and from the practice room in the evenings. She told me that Midas had finally discovered something more important than money. All I could think of, though, was his refrain: the key to success was making anyone believe anything. This struck me as his command performance, his final assessment. If he could achieve this conquest, he could achieve anything.

The Raven spent less time with us. She breakfasted with Midas to discuss her rehearsal notes from the day before, and he often took her to dinner after her late practices. Knowing that we’d never approve, the Raven refused to discuss Midas with us, but we discussed them endlessly. To my relief, however, her name failed to show up on his whiteboard.

I knew he’d finally hit his mark when she showed up on the first day of the new term with her natural pale gold hair shining in the spring sunshine. She kept her eyes to the ground and sat in the back corner, away from us, and when I finally made eye contact with her, she stared at me defiantly, then made a show of taking notes, which we both knew she didn’t need. Midas swooped in to collect her after class, so I didn’t have a chance to speak to her that day.

Her name appeared on the whiteboard.

She escaped from each class like a wisp of smoke, blowing out the door as the professor gave the homework. I went by her practice room, but she’d been replaced by some younger girl with blank arms, thin as brittle sticks.

Having collected his capital, Midas went about spending it. He showed up at countless campus parties with his gold-headed prize on his arm. She’d covered her tattoos with thin silk shirts and graciously took cocktails from her hosts with carefully manicured fingers. Midas’s friends toasted his ingenuity, agreeing that he had done the impossible. With access to the Raven’s money, Midas could now attend his usual round of operas, plays, and fancy restaurants without his schemes, which gave him time to lounge ostentatiously around campus in even more expensive silk ties.

As Midas expanded, the Raven shrank. Her pale hair and subdued makeup washed out her features. She became invisible. Her shoulders caved in, and she spoke little unless it was to him. Our conversations came out stilted and strange; she’d developed a fixation on pale silk gloves, and talked endlessly about the stores with marble countertops in which she’d purchased them. To our shame, we eradicate her, for she embarrassed us and we avoided her whenever possible.

It all broke at the end of our junior year. The music students had an annual recital, and we all piled into the chilly little theater to hear our friends play. Midas and the Raven took front row seats. They had chosen to dress ostentatiously, as if attending an opera downtown, he in an exquisite black suit and she in a pale tulle gown with a long, sparkling necklace. They looked ridiculous, but they demanded more attention than the musicians.

Our school was not known for its music program, and the pianists and cellists and violinists were largely mediocre. Some had passion for and understanding of their pieces but played without technical skill; others played with technical perfection but without real love for the music. Nobody played with both except the Raven, and she refused to play publicly at all.

During a particularly lackluster piano performance, Midas leaned over to the Raven and, in a stage whisper meant to be heard throughout the quiet theater, said, “Now, see? Aren’t you glad you gave this up? That girl’s a real artist, and even she will never make any money at it.”

Whether his remark was meant to be cruel or whether it simply showed his utter inability to appreciate music, we could never tell. It had an effect on the Raven, though, but not the one he expected. Instead of curling in on herself as she so often did now, she shrugged her shoulders back, like an angry bird of prey about to take flight. She stood, neither quickly nor slowly, and leisurely walked from the hall, leaving behind her evening bag and a fur wrap she’d worn. Midas was torn; he didn’t want to look weak as he scrambled after her, but he did want to control the damage he had done. He picked up his program and her things deliberately and then left the building.

We applauded enthusiastically after the performance, but we were really clapping for the Raven’s flight.

When she reemerged to the land of the living, she had returned to her work boots and black hair and was stomping up the main street near campus attaching fliers to telephone poles. Well, not just telephone poles: to the insides of campus bathrooms, to every cork board for official notices, to the backs of park benches; anywhere tape or staples could get some purchase and students would see. These papers denounced Midas, reducing his flaws to short, easily remembered slogans and catchy little cartoons she’d drawn herself. Most damaging, the fliers weren’t so much personal attacks as they were attacks on his core beliefs: his greed for money, his desire for acquisition.

Debate raged in our circle. Was her behavior unacceptable, as bad as his? Or was she simply using his own tools against him?

Remembering their own history with Midas, campus officials were slow to take down the fliers. Adults and students alike chuckled at them; there were few on campus who hadn’t been wronged by him at one point or another. The Raven made time to replace posters that disappeared. Her illustrations got more eye-catching, ranging from photorealistic drawings to imitations of nineteenth-century sketches to woodcuts. She wrote poetry and prose about Midas’s lies and, even worse, about his truths. People listened. Hushes fell over the dining hall when Midas arrived, and no one made room for him at table. Younger women ceased to line up to walk him to class.

The week before school ended, Midas came to the Raven to beg for a cease-fire. I was in the practice room with her at the time, half-listening to her rusty playing of Mozart while studying for my French final. She pursed her lips, refusing to dismiss me from the room, and told him that he could meet her the day before next year started to discuss terms. “Otherwise, you can expect more of the same.”

When the day came, the Raven insisted that Midas pay her ten thousand dollars in damages. It was a cruel sum: not an impossibly big sum, for he’d scammed more than that over the course of a semester before. Yet it wasn’t so little that he could easily borrow it from his wealthy friends, even if they were sympathetic to him, which most weren’t. Worse, though, was the Raven’s final condition: “You have to earn it. You can’t take it in one of your schemes. I want to see your pay stubs.”

Midas knew when he was beaten, and he swallowed his pride. That semester, he ceased to lounge in campus courtyards. Instead, he went to one of many afternoon jobs. Some were menial, some not, but all of them required him to do things that weren’t self-aggrandizing for his money.

The Raven got her Scandinavian tattoos re-inked and changed her major, for the final time, to philosophy.

Midas brought his earnings to the Raven each week, and she checked his paystubs like a helicopter parent. As for the money itself, she distributed it among her friends, repairing my car, picking up Josh’s textbooks, and helping Sofia with her art supplies. We went out to dinner on the money sometimes, too, but never anywhere lavish or showy.

At the end of the semester, Midas had paid his debt. Not surprisingly, he quit all of his jobs the minute he paid her in full, and she stuck to her end of the bargain and never mentioned him again either publicly or privately, except for once, when she said, “I hope he learned something.” As for Midas, he skulked around the edges of the campus community until graduation, having taken up the mantle of the suit again but now choosing more muted silk ties. He ceased to hold court and finished our senior year forgotten, exiled, silenced. The Raven, too, seemed muted by their encounter. She stuck to her major for the entirety of her last year and applied to graduate school with the minimum of fuss. Yet the old Raven reemerged when she turned down full scholarships to Princeton and Harvard in favor of moving out west and working on a fishing boat.

*   *   *

I didn’t hear of Midas again for ten years, when a promoted tweet advertising his startup popped up in my feed. I recognized him before I clicked the link, for the company’s logo was a familiar little golden raven, a copy of a miniature tattoo near the Raven’s left wrist, and the company’s slogan read, “Dominate the wilderness.” It made my blood boil, but I didn’t know if I should approach the Raven about it.

She had moved back east and into the city and owned a flat in a fashionable part of town filled with trust-fund artists, where she’d taken up sculpture. Her building had a rooftop garden, which others had filled with predictable paper lanterns that cast fuzzy light over scraggly bushes and potted plants. She complained of rats and held down a boring day job which supported the sculpting to which she had returned. I lived in the suburbs, but visited once a month to share a bottle of wine with her under the moon. One night, late, after the sounds of the city had mostly subsided and we could hear the dim sounds of nature over the hum of electricity, I asked her about the company.

She shrugged defiantly. “Don’t get mad,” she said, taking a sip. I grew immediately, irrationally angry, even before I heard what she had to say. “I gave him the startup money. Well, his startup money.” She looked out over the rooftops, posing as the picture of casual thought.

“What do you mean?” I tried to sound neutral, but I could feel my throat tighten.

She sighed. “I kept the money he earned. All that stuff I bought you guys was out of my own pocket; his money I kept and invested. It wound up becoming a tidy little nest egg.”

I frowned, swirling the wine around in the heavy glass tumbler. She owned expensive imported glassware, but she refused to use wine glasses. The wine left temporary, angry red waves around the edges of the glass. “Why would you give it back to him? Why didn’t you keep it for yourself, start a gallery, buy a studio, something?”

She bent her head and looked down at the cast iron table, spreading her hands out flat. I could see the creep of her pale blonde hair at the roots next to her white scalp. Her hands were firm, thoughtful, capable. She bit her nails ragged, but they looked vicious rather than weak. “It was his money. He earned it.”

“And he used it to start a company and make fun of you!”

She nodded. “Of course he did. What else would he do? He thinks I’m a sucker for giving it back.”

“You are a sucker for giving it back!” My shout echoed across the nearby rooftops. “All you did was make him more powerful! You proved him right!” I stood, realized that the wine had gone to my head, and almost knocked the sturdy glass over.

“Look, he gets it from me, he gets it from someone else. Remember how we used to analyze him endlessly in terms of his mythic namesake? It doesn’t really matter if Midas has asses’ ears–he’s still a king. They laughed at him, but it doesn’t matter. He still got to decide whether peasants lived or die, what crops got grown, who married whom. Our Midas will always come out on top, always manage to be rich.” She didn’t move; her head still lowered, she gave this speech to the top of the table.

“You can’t honestly believe that. He hasn’t done well in years! Not until you came along.” My voice sounded bitter, even to my ears, the sound of a jealous lover. “And as always, you gave him everything he wanted.”

She raised her head then and looked at me evenly. “You should learn to trust me,” she said softly. I could tell I’d angered her. I mumbled an insincere apology to halt the argument in its tracks, and we broke up the evening awkwardly. After that, I didn’t see or speak to her again for a couple of years. We passed vague good wishes to one another on Christmas cards, but did not get together.

Then, one bright spring day, I checked my phone as I waited in line to buy movie tickets. Tech news outlets reported the millions that a bigger company had paid for Midas’s startup. I almost gave into my bad mood, but then I saw the end of the article, a few paragraphs about how angry Midas was about the sale. The article revealed that an ‘original investor,’ who had quietly become the majority shareholder over time, had voted to sell the company and cut Midas out of its new incarnation. This mystery shareholder had made most of the profit, and Midas, for all of his innovation, had come out with a paltry sum, barely enough to invest in a new business. The article gave nurturing advice to other businessmen to avoid being put in a similar situation.

Two weeks later, a thick gilt-edged postcard showed up in the mail. Embossed with the heavy Scandinavian knotwork that adorned the Raven’s arms, it bore an invitation to a new gallery in the city. A percentage of all of its sales went towards educating promising artists who could not afford it. On the front of the postcard sat a bright-eyed little raven, its head cocked to one side, locking eyes defiantly with the viewer. It held a shining coin in its mouth.

She’d named her gallery RENDER UNTO CAESAR.

That night, I drove to her apartment and stole up the stairs. In the blank hours of the morning when no one stirred, I attached a little whiteboard to her front door. Across it, in plain, honest, black ink, I wrote one word: Art.

Llanwyre Laish enjoys retelling fairy tales and myths that fall through the cracks. Her most recent story, a tale about a magical fish, has appeared in Solarwyrm’s Latchkey Tales collection. She teaches academic writing for a living and lives on the east coast with her husband, cat, and pet rats.