The Money Masquerade

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Chapter 9

The Mountain Winery

Saratoga, California


“What makes you tick?” I asked Sean.

He seemed to ponder this, leaning back on his elbows looking around our remote setting. We were enjoying spectacular views of the valley with rows of grapevines in the background. The soothing ambiance rivaled the performance of One Night of Queen by Gary Mullen and The Works. The band is a tribute to Queen, with Gary Mullen imitating Freddie Mercury. A blend of redwood, oaks, and a hint of marijuana perfumed the air.

“I work hard not to end up like my dad,” Sean answered.

“I’d love to hear why… or how, please.”

He lifted his wineglass, swirling the red liquid while saying, “I grew up in one of America’s poorest white towns in Eastern Kentucky, Beattyville. My dad struggled to make ends meet while risking his life daily as a coal miner.”

“So, you don’t want to be a coal miner—or end up poor. I think it’s safe to assume that won’t happen.”

He cracked his knuckles, one by one, considering. “I have memories of my father coming home from the mine to provide for his family. As a boy, rather than me and my friends worrying about who catches the bigger fish, we worried if this time it would be our own dads who died in an explosion or cave-in. But despite our careers being of two separate worlds, I am a lot like my dad.”

I covered Sean’s hand with mine, sensing he still wanted to talk. It impressed me how he brought all this stuff for a romantic pre-concert picnic in the designated area, then scoped out another spot to continue our secluded little paradise away from the crowd. The music was too loud at our seats, and Sean had grabbed my hand. “Come on, follow me!”

We had hiked together, up and down the rugged trails of the stunning winery grounds until we came to a small area in the lush hills between cascading trees. “Here!” he had said, pulling things from his bag. He spread out a small blanket for two. Then he surprised me with a bottle of wine, glasses, a corkscrew, plates, cheese, grapes, and a baguette.

“How the heck did you get all that into a small daypack?” I asked. “Or through the security check?”

“I was a Boy Scout.”

Cuddled on the blanket in this semi-hidden oasis with the stars shining and a gentle breeze, I realized Sean hadn’t spoken further and I wondered if I should comment. What to say to someone who has it all but had nothing growing up? It was ironic. Here I am the girl that lived in the affluent Sausalito Hills all grown-up and broke.

We sat listening to the music, swaying with the thick harmony. My hand moved to my collar, finding the necklace that once belonged to his mother. I wrapped my fingers around it, consumed with emotions I’ve never felt.

For the first time in my life, I wanted to know someone. This man is pouring his heart out to me. Say something! I turned to Sean, and said, “Tell me more about your mom’s necklace.”

“It’s repurposed from a family heirloom purchased in the 1940s passed down from generations. It meant a lot to her.” He glanced at the necklace. “It looks nice with your white blouse,” he said. An exciting, tingling sensation ran down my spine, remembering how it felt when Sean lifted my hair and clasped the delicate chain around my neck.

“Thank you, for the necklace and the compliment.” Feeling touched that he’d given me such a sentimental gift, I could barely keep myself from bursting into tears. I needed to dig deeper into his heart, “So… how are you like your dad?”

Without preamble, he elaborated, “I work hard, too hard—like him. He worked himself to death.” Sean took a sip of wine, then dangled a few grapes over his mouth, eating them one-by-one. I waited. “And when you think about it… I continue his ritual of toiling in the mines—only, I slave in the Silicon Valley ‘salt mines’ as we call it.”

“But there’s a big difference. You make a load of money, he toiled for peanuts.” I hoped what I said was a good thing, rather than sound like the gold-digger people accused me of being before falling for this man, not his money.

Sean picked up a leaf from the ground, running the brown vegetation through his fingers. “But it’s metaphorically similar… always striving for my next big strike, like my dad. I’m at my desk by seven every morning, putting in twelve-hour days, logging in all weekend. Seriously, a generation of Coleman’s went from mining coal to writing code. And, for all I know, I’ll be mining coal for Silicon Valley’s critical rare earths for electronics. Being a working-class millionaire isn’t always fun.”

“And… earlier you mentioned the rare metals issue nearly got you killed in China,” I recalled.

Sean simply nodded, and I took the hint he didn’t wish to talk about what happened in the Red Dragon. Perhaps it would ruin the moment.

I thought of what Caryssa had said, not that she was ever a millionaire. But she always mentioned how she’d put in many fourteen-hour days to kick-out projects when working in Silicon Valley. As a salaried employee, she was exempt from being paid overtime. If the healthy six-figure she earned in the late ’90s was broken down by actual hours worked, she’d be making chickenfeed.

Watching him fidget with tiny rocks and what looked like more leaves, the realization hit me; He’s insecure about his background, frightened he’ll lose all he’s worked so hard for. He’s still a little Kentucky boy inside.

“Well, I think you’re fun. I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in years,” I said, looking at him over the brim of my wineglass. The only male I’d been able to talk to is my bird. And somebody literally silenced him to death.

A smile formed on his lips, and he jumped up saying, “Let’s dance!” We wiggled around to the funky quick beats of Another One Bites the Dust, falling back onto the blanket in waves of laughter.

I glanced around the rustic outdoorsy charm of the winery. Taking in the crisp eucalyptus-scented air while hearing the band perform in the periphery, a reminder that Sean had set it up like this on purpose rather than be in the center of the action. He asked me questions and listened with a hyper-focus I adored.

From our cozy picnic blanket, we could glimpse the purple, green, and white lighting over the Paul Masson stage through the trees. From this vantage point, the music wasn’t so loud that we couldn’t hear each other speak. It was the perfect blend with the twitter of birds, the rustle of a squirrel, the wind brushing the leaves.

There was something imperfect beneath the surface. I sensed it but relished the sensation. Back in Sausalito I had unintentionally insulted Sean’s work. He seemed to understand it’s not him I slighted but a certain industry that wrapped itself around the technological revolution with such hidden malice it blind-sighted people. This happened long before Sean ever entered the tech-scene.

That same sector Eisenhower forewarned about in his 1961 farewell address. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. His words shook my childhood values to the core, breaking through the barrier built by my own father’s livelihood.

Three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations. We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

We remained quiet for a moment, mesmerized by the music and ambiance. When light flickered from the stage, I noticed there were a few other people spread around on blankets or chairs along the paths of the hills. I crossed my legs over him, an unsaid statement that I wanted to traverse an imaginary line from being a date to a couple.

The fresh scent of the woods enters my nostrils, and I’m awash with a sense of contentment. “So… how does someone go from the struggling mountain towns of eastern Kentucky to the glossy Silicon Valley area—what was your path?” I want to know everything about this blue-eyed mystery man.

“I came to California to escape from my rural hometown abandoned by coal.” He had unbuttoned the neck of his shirt, his jacket lying perfectly folded on a corner of the blanket. “When I got the acceptance letter to Stanford, I never told my parents. I assumed we couldn’t afford it and tossed it onto my bedroom desk.”

“But you went to Stanford, so you must have revisited the idea?” I said.

“My mom, a strong-willed redhead like you, was always snooping around my room—for what I don’t know. Maybe checking for drugs. A big epidemic was going on. The area was referred to as ‘hillbilly heroin haven.’ She’d come at me waving the letter, “Son, why didn’t you tell us! This is great news!”

Sean reached into his daypack and produced two bottles of water. “I almost forgot about these,” he said while twisting mine open.

“Thanks… you’re amazing. How did a guy as sweet, good-looking, intelligent, and driven as you never get married?” I blurted before thinking, biting my tongue afterward.

He chuckled. “I guess I married my career.”

“So… your parents told you it was good news and off you went.”

“Pretty much, I’d looked at my dad and asked, ‘Are you sure pop?’ And he answered, ‘Does a bear shit in the woods? Pack your bags, kid. Make us proud!’”

Through the trees, I could see rows of people standing, swaying, and singing. They started stomping their feet then clapping in unison, the pulsing stomp, stomp, clap, stomp, stomp, clap to We Will Rock You.

“This is part of the encore, but let’s not rush out of here. The traffic will be even worse than when we arrived,” Sean played with a tendril of my hair while saying this.

“Well, you’ve been quite the efficient crowd control man all night, I think I should trust you. This has been a perfect evening, Sean. Thank you.”

He picked up a leaf again, then another, inspecting them in his hand. It seemed to be a nervous tic of his, collecting pieces of Earth and investigating nature. A scowl creased his forehead, “Yes, this is a wonderful night and I’m so happy we found this little private spot. But it’s not my idea of being alone with you …”

“And what do you have in mind, mister?” I asked, looking him directly in the eyes, my heart pounding in rhythm with the stomps and claps.

“Well, now that you ask…” An awkward silence fell between us.

He dropped the leaves as he cleansed his hands brushing them against his pants. “I was thinking about you and me, alone at my house. Some lovemaking… After, a nice soak in my hot tub, preferably naked. And then… more lovemaking.” He looked at me. An earnest glint in his eyes.

Lovemaking? I grinned at the romantic term, almost foreign to me. I’ve had sex. But… “Hmmm,” I said out loud, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth, before stretching across my face.

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