Ringing True Excerpt 5: Matthias

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61-Matthias and Sidney

©2010 by Robert Morrow

After their initial attempts at launching Ringing True fail miserably, Shelby and Justin talk over the problem while dining at Julia’s in Wallingford. Shelby makes a proposal.

Shelby leaned forward, pushing her plate to the side. “Okay. If we are going to make this thing fly, we are going to have to connect with somebody who knows how to get the word out.”

“Agreed. See—I like it so far.”

“And getting the word out in the 21st Century is a complicated thing. There’s a lot of competition for attention out there—advertisers, journalists, film directors, rock bands, politicians—all using multiple channels to spread their messages—TV, the Net, social networking—and so we need somebody who understands all that to make sure our voice is heard. It’s too much for people like you and me to ever get a handle on it.”

“Okay. I’m with you.”

Shelby leaned forward even further and said in a near-whisper, “We need to marketthis thing, Justin.”

Justin nodded, unsure where she was going.

“We need someone who understands mar-ke-ting.”

Justin finally got it and collapsed into his seat. “Oh, no,” he groaned.

“We need Matthias,” Shelby finished.

Justin stared off in the distance for a few minutes. He wanted to respond but also wanted to choose his words very carefully. Finally he hit on the right combination.

“But he’s such an asshole,” he moaned.

*****

No one who knew Matthias Bender would have argued with Justin’s opinion, not even Matthias himself. Confidently arrogant, a true egomaniac, the very definition of imperiousness, Matthias was responsible to himself and self only and he rather liked it that way. While capable of cooperation and an occasional act of kindness, those generous impulses were nearly always tactics to achieve a desired result, a result often hidden from those involved. Friends and acquaintances might scream at him, break into tears because of him, or threaten him with emotionally satisfying but unlikely-to-happen dire consequences in retaliation for his often appalling actions—but it all bounced off Matthias as if he were surrounded by a force field. He couldn’t care less what people thought of him, as long as he got what he wanted.

Like Justin, Matthias was an only child. Unlike Justin, who thought at times that it would have been nice to have a sibling for companionship, Matthias reveled in his favored status and eventually wound up dominating and terrorizing his parents. This was all the more impressive because his parents were no pansies themselves—his father was a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, his mother a corporate attorney. They gave him everything he wanted (which was never enough) and made no attempt to rein in some of his socially undesirable tendencies, because they believed in their hearts that some day the investment in indulgence would pay off big time.

On the subject of college, his parents assumed he would be attending Princeton, Harvard or Yale; he defied them both and decided to study at the University of Washington. He chose Seattle because his intelligence gathering had informed him that Seattle was home to the most successful and despised companies in the world—companies that had cornered their markets and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought about them. He wanted to experience that environment first hand and opted to become a Husky majoring in Business, with an emphasis in Marketing.

The surprises did not end there. Although his parents offered to buy him a condo, Matthias told them he wanted to live in the dorms with the rest of the kids. Since they knew he did not care much for people and considered most people his age irritatingly inferior, they were stunned that he would refuse such a potentially lucrative investment. “I have my reasons,” he told them, and said no more. His parents tried once again to give him a condo upon graduation, and once again he declined, requesting that they fund a brokerage account instead. Justin’s explanation of the refusal was that, in his heart, Matthias was a terribly lonely person; Shelby opined that since Matthias didn’t have a heart, it was probably one small step in a very intricate scheme; and Theo concluded that Matthias wanted to continue the current arrangement because he loved bossing him around.

Shelby knew Matthias through Justin, having run into him at dorm parties or when she collected Justin for an outing. She found his never-ending performance monologue worthy of some study, but did not think about him at all when out of contact. She was therefore surprised and amused when Matthias asked her out during her junior year and actually laughed when she heard the question. “You don’t want to go out with me,” she smiled. “What do you really want?” Temporarily taken aback, he turned on his heels and walked away. She shouted after him, “You thought I was sleeping with Justin, didn’t you?” He did not turn around, but gave her the finger behind his back.

The incident never came up in Shelby’s conversations with Justin, largely because those conversations had become relatively rare during Justin’s period of self-survival. For his part, Justin tried to tune out Matthias, allowing him to perform his monologues without interruption and avoiding discussions about anything close to his own heart. However, tuning him out entirely was an impossibility, as Matthias’ energy filled the room and every available nook and cranny in it, demanding attention. Try as he might, Justin was unable to stop himself from forming judgments about Matthias, which were much more complex than the asshole label he had used with Shelby.

While Matthias was a thorough asshole, he could also be a charming asshole. While on one hand Justin felt disgust at his outrageous self-centeredness, another part of him had to laugh at the sheer audacity of the man. Matthias never ceased his efforts in self-promotion and did so in a way that showed quick wit and a remarkable sense of timing. Justin also noticed that certain kinds of women found him irresistibly attractive. Matthias was very striking, tall, perfectly postured and with a long flowing mane of light brown hair brushed straight back, like a hero out of the Crusades. However, Justin felt his appeal to the opposite sex had more to do with the extreme self-confidence he communicated in every word and in every move—a self-confidence that his young competitors lacked. These women sensed that he was going somewhere—he was perpetual motion, pushing his way past all obstacles with overwhelming force—and they wanted to go there with him. Justin chalked it up to the self-interest ethic pervading the culture and considered his conquests another sad commentary on human loneliness. Matthias would have found such an observation quaint, amusing and further indication of Justin’s inferiority.

Matthias constantly reminded Justin of his inferiority in both direct and subtle ways. Whenever Matthias was around, Justin often felt combative and edgy, for reasons he did not fully understand. Lacking that understanding and not particularly skilled at this form of combat, Justin’s responses to Matthias’ attacks consisted largely of emotional outbursts and poorly-executed rejoinders. Matthias was a master matador, his red cape a profoundly elusive target. The repeated frustration of falling in battle left Justin feeling more inadequate, more edgy and more likely to lose and lose again. Not being devious himself, he could not understand deviousness in another, leaving him at a severe disadvantage every time they locked horns.

Matthias put Justin in his place on the very day they met each other as dorm mates.

“And who do we have here?” Matthias smiled when Justin walked through the door under the weight of a backpack and suitcase, not bothering to get up from his bed.

“Justin. Justin Raines.”

“Never heard of you,” responded Matthias. “What do your parents do?”

Justin complied with the request.

Matthias sighed and shook his head. “So, your parents are stock option wannabes. Where are you from?”

“Chicago. Outside of Chicago.”

“The Second City. And outside of it, no less. How quaint,” Matthias said with an expression combining humor and disdain.

“And who the hell are you?” asked Justin, feeling a bit tired and testy.

Rather than respond, Matthias just stood up, smiled at Justin and walked out of the room.

A day later, when Justin met Theo, he asked him about this strange person he would have to live with for the next nine months.

“Oh, man, you don’t want to know,” was all Theo would say.

It was not a bad answer, for there were several Matthiases. In addition to Charming Matthias, there was Sadistic Matthias who cruelly zeroed in on a person’s weak spot until they screamed uncle. There was Onstage Matthias who spoke more like a bon vivant in an Oscar Wilde play. Finally, there was Entrepreneurial Matthias, who spoke in blunt, no-nonsense language while wheeling and dealing at cyberspeed.

Entrepreneurial Matthias made all the career choices and after college he decided that he wanted to observe the methods of world domination firsthand at Mega Software. As his father had little pull with that particular monolith, Matthias faced a formidable challenge securing a position due to the ingrained Washingtonian prejudice against know-it-alls from California. Relishing the fight, he networked and bullied his way past his small-minded opposition and landed in one of the company’s many marketing departments. When Justin offered halfhearted and insincere congratulations, Onstage Matthias responded, “Just a way station, my boy, just a way station—all part of The Grand Scheme.” Justin never bothered to probe Matthias as to what this Grand Scheme was all about, but suspected that The Grand Scheme was all smoke and mirrors and that Matthias was just winging it—but then again, you could never be sure with Matthias.

During the drives to and from Mega Software, Justin sat as a captive audience as Matthias shouted at brokers on his cell phone, made lunch dates with people he called “players” and threw a few crumbs of wisdom in Justin’s general direction. The theme connecting all the performances was “The Next Big Thing.” Matthias wasn’t sure what The Next Big Thing was, but Justin divined that it was somehow connected with The Grand Scheme and that Matthias wanted to be at the center of it.

“It won’t be coming from Mega Software, my friend. They’re dead, dinosaurs, out of it, ripe for the taking.”

“Idiot scientists have screwed up the whole biotech industry, the tedious, detail-oriented bastards. They say it’s The Next Big Thing—I say they’re wrong. You watch.”

“I have to admit I didn’t see the iPod coming—but it’s not The Next Big Thing. Not big enough.”

Justin neither agreed nor disagreed with Matthias’ pronouncements; he really didn’t care one way or another. While still vulnerable to becoming entrapped in losing battles, over time Justin learned to tune him out—most of the time. He put up with his greed, with his domineering ways, with his tendency to turn every conversation into a negotiation and tried let it go. Where Matthias was concerned, it was best to stay out of the way of his Grand Scheme, and let him have his Next Big Thing.

Now Shelby wanted Justin to turn his religion over to this asshole.

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