I didn’t really know Ronnie. From time to time I’d see him at a large gathering -- a birthday of our mutual friend Jake, say -- and we’d exchange a few words in greeting. That was about the extent of it.
Then we drove to Bridgeport together.
Jake had bought a house up there a few years back, right on Highway 395 at the edge of town before the turnoff for Twin Lakes. He invited four or five of us to come for a long weekend of hiking and fishing in June. I had a lull at the office so I went up a day early. When Jake asked, I said sure, I’ll give Ronnie a ride.
I swung by his house around one in the afternoon. He was a big man, over six feet tall, with a large barrelled torso that appeared under his t-shirt to be thoroughly insulated by a thick layer of fat extending from neck to waist and back to front. His legs, though, were spindly, almost dainty. Uttering a variety of grunts and snuffles, he squeezed into the passenger seat and looked over at me with a bemused smile. Small blue eyes shone from deep, puffy sockets in a broad fleshy face framed by grizzled hair receding from his temples.
It was a Thursday and for long sections of the drive he was working. He’d get a phone call that would lead to two or three more calls or a text message that would trigger a cascade of further messages. He’d apologize for the interruptions, his fat fingers stabbing clumsily at the screen on his phone as he typed.
It’s no problem, I’d say, shrugging my shoulders.
I’d like to ignore it, he’d say, but it’ll just build up and get worse.
It’s no problem, I repeated. And it wasn’t.
We passed through the Antelope Valley, Palmdale and then Lancaster, the remote northeastern edge of Los Angeles, and then out into the barren high desert. The dashboard thermometer indicated that the exterior temperature was one hundred and five degrees. As I drove I listened to snippets of his phone conversations. He was in some kind of finance work.
Yeah, I’ve got a couple of deals going, he explained between calls. A real estate thing and a gold thing. It’s the gold thing that’s giving me a headache. He shook his head and grimaced, sucking air in through his teeth as he did so.
What do you mean a gold thing, I asked.
A processing plant. Up in Idaho. In Boise. Or just outside, actually. The guys I’m working with, a couple of Canadians, they’ve come up with this method for taking rock that’s got some traces of gold in it, and maybe some platinum, other metals, you know, and they put it in this special furnace and heat it up until the rock melts. It’s like this hot bath of rock. Like lava. And what happens is the different elements and compounds and shit separate out, you get these layers with the heavy stuff like the gold on the bottom and the silica up higher. And they throw in some chemicals to help the process along, and drain off all the worthless stuff, and what you have left is the gold. You pour it into a mold and it cools and you’ve got a brick. And this shit is like one hundred percent pure gold. The government will come certify it, they put this little stamp on the brick. What’s interesting is that until they put the stamp on it, you don’t have to recognize it as an asset. So there’s no tax.
Exactly. So you can refine the ore, you make these gold bricks, and then you can hold them and until you get the government to come out and stamp them, you don’t declare anything. So it’s good for, you know, smoothing out income. The thing is, there’s a lot of capital investment upfront for this process. The equipment, it takes a really special furnace that can heat up the rock and the metals to the temperature where it all melts. We’re talking a couple thousand degrees. And it’s a big furnace. This furnace is no joke. You need a massive amount of rock to get a small bit of gold. It costs real money.
Like how much.
Like thirty million dollars. And I’ve been raising the financing for this thing for, like, two years. I actually thought we were going to close last week. I thought we were going to be done. I thought I was going to be able to come up here this weekend and just relax. But there’s this one piece of the financing, a few million dollars, it’s held up. It’s sitting in a bank in Dubai. And it’s going to take a few more days for the funds to clear, which because of the timing is going to trigger some other delays, the result of which is going to push off the closing for maybe another three months. And because of that I’ve got this guy, this other investor, he’s just lost his shit. Because we’ve got this little delay, he wants to all of a sudden pull his money out. Which he can’t do. He’s all signed up, there’s a contract. He can’t just crater the thing at this point.
Is that who I overheard on the phone earlier?
Yeah. Well not him. His lawyer. That guy’s a nut job. He’s screaming about fraud, he’s saying he’s gonna go to the FBI if his client doesn’t get his money back. It’s a fucking joke. My guys are like, fuck you, go to the FBI, there’s no fraud here. You signed a contract. This lawyer reviewed the contract. He knew what he signed up for. I dunno what his concern is. You know, some guys are just like that. Believe me, the money’s gonna clear that bank. It’s in the bank. It’s sitting there in Dubai. I told him, you want to go to Dubai? We can do that. We can go to Dubai and sit there in a hotel until the funds clear and this thing closes. There’s no need to do that, it’s not like sitting in Dubai is going to make it happen any more quickly, but if it makes you feel better, we can make the trip. It’s a waste of time, I told him, it’s a hundred and twenty fucking degrees there, but I’ll go.
But he doesn’t want to go.
He doesn’t want to go. I don’t want to go, either. But I’ll go. If he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He wants out. The thing is, with closings there’s always a delay. Ninety percent of the time there’s a delay. It’s totally normal. What you don’t do is panic. You wait. You just wait. The problem is, this guy, he probably shouldn’t be in this kind of investment. See, he’s worth, I don’t know, I’m guessing five, six million. And he’s in this thing for a million. Like twenty percent of his net worth. So he probably shouldn’t be doing this. You have to have a certain tolerance for risk in this kind of thing. You know what I’m saying? This is a solid investment, but there’s risk. Obviously. It’s not treasury bonds. If the price of gold goes below a certain level then it’s not economical to run this process. The thing is, I see guys like this all the time. They have a certain amount of money. It’s usually in this range. You know, three, four, five million.
That’s a lot of money.
It is a lot of money. It’s more money than I’ve ever had. Particularly since Frankie took everything.
Frankie was his ex-wife, I recalled. There had been an ugly divorce a few years back. She had up and moved to Palo Alto or some other place up on the peninsula south of San Francisco, took the kids with her. I didn’t know much about it.
It’s a lot of money, he continued, but it’s not that much money. You know what I mean? It’s not the kind of money where you’re going to feel comfortable with the thought of possibly losing a million of it. The other investors in the deal, they’re in more like the twenty, thirty million range. They go out one million, two million, it’s not an issue. They go out five million, not an issue. They could lose twenty percent of their net worth and still have twenty, twenty-five million. They’re fine with some more risk if they have the chance of a better return. But see these three, four, five million guys, they want to be the twenty million guy, the thirty million guy. They want to take the risk to get to that level but they don’t want to take the risk. They’re schizophrenic. This guy, he probably wants a bigger house, or a jet, or something. People just want stuff. In the divorce, we had to sell the house, you know, and I was going through and cleaning up to get it ready to put on the market and I opened up this one closet, this walk-in closet that we had that I had forgotten all about, and inside there was all this stuff. Frankie had bought all this stuff and it was just stacked up in there and I had no idea it was there.
Stuff like what?
Crazy shit. Like there were boxes and boxes of shoes. Like maybe thirty boxes stacked up. Unopened. Brand-new shoes in their boxes that she must have bought years before. And dozens of sundresses. Brand-new. I’d never seen her wear any of them. And handbags. You know, like those five hundred dollar Coach bags. Kate Spade bags. Literally dozens of them. All crammed into this closet. I mean there must have been twenty, thirty thousand dollars of crap in there. Maybe more. Maybe fifty. And I had no idea. It was crazy. I don’t know. Something happened to her.
We stopped for lunch in Lone Pine at a diner with autographed photos of old movie stars on the walls. Ronnie had a pastrami ruben with french fries and I had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with french fries. A thin layer of cooking oil glistened on the surface of the food.
They used to shoot a ton of Westerns up here, Ronnie said, nodding his head over at the photos on the wall.
Up in the Alabama Hills.
Right. You ever been to the film museum?
Ronnie nodded again. It’s pretty cool, actually, he said, looking around the dining room of the restaurant as his head kept bobbing up and down. This town is okay.
We paid the check and walked out to the parking lot.
Neither of us spoke for a while as we drove up through the Owens Valley. It had been a huge snow year and the Sierras gleamed white in the west.
How does one go about finding investors for a gold processing plant, I asked eventually.
You just get to know people, he said. There’s a lot of money out there. A lot of people with extra money looking for ways to make money with that money. Not just in the U.S. There’s money in this project from Canada, from Singapore. Brazil. I’ve been doing this a long time. You meet a few people on one deal, some other people on the next deal. It just kind of snowballs. I started out as a chemical engineer actually. That was my degree. I got hired by this big outfit back in Delaware. Then I had to get trained. When you get out of school you don’t really know anything. I mean I had the basic knowledge to be an engineer, but you couldn’t just put me to work in a refinery or someplace. This Delaware outfit, they had this trainee program. It was like a graduate school. There were, I don’t know, maybe fifty or sixty of us, all guys, right, I don’t think there was a single chick, not then and probably still not today, from all over, all the good engineering programs, even the west coast, you know, Cal, a bunch of the other UC schools, Cal Poly, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, MIT, and so forth, housed in this kind of corporate apartment housing outside Wilmington, three of us to a unit, and we went to school all day. They were teaching us polymers, polymer chemistry. How to actually manufacture polymers on a large scale in a plant. Real practical stuff like they would never teach you in school. And that went on for about three months and then I would get sent out on sort of on-the-job training at different plants they had all over the east coast and even up into Quebec. I’d go spend a week or two somewhere learning some specific process at one particular plant, then they’d send me to another one. All of us who were trainees were being rotated through all these different plants. And after a year they sent me back to L.A. to work in their Southern California office. Except after all that they didn’t make me an engineer. They gave me a client relations-type job. I’m not sure I ever knew why, they didn’t tell me, they just said, this is what you’re going to do. I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t as good an engineer, or maybe I was better at talking to people than some of those other guys, who were pretty weird to tell you the truth. Some serious social hangups with some of those guys. I never got an answer on that. But the training, it helped. Because I could talk the technical talk with the clients, I could talk about the actual process we were going to use to manufacture whatever batch of chemicals the client needed to purchase for its business. So I was pretty good with the customers. And then I got hired away by another outfit to do pretty much the same thing. And you know, some of these customers were small business guys and some of them were making real money. And I had this Rolodex that just kept growing. And then I had this cousin, he had a startup dot com business. Up in Silicon Valley. This was back in ‘98, ‘99. It was like a search algorithm kind of thing. Like Google but before Google. And he needed investors. And I thought I might be able to find him some money. Because everybody wanted to get in on tech back then, and I had met a bunch of people who had some, you know, spare money they could afford to throw at something like this. So I made a deal with my cousin. I had to raise five hundred grand for him and he would give me, I think it was a twenty percent stake. And I decided to quit my job and give it a go. Well, I raised the money, that was easy. Because, you remember, everything was going crazy back then. There was crazy money in the Valley, crazy money everywhere. And the business was going well, it was a good product, it was getting traction, we started putting together plans for an IPO, all that shit. I was thinking maybe I was going to get rich. And then the crash happened, and we went under. Along with everyone else.
Right. We thought that was the bad one. We didn’t know what the fuck was coming eight years later. I should have gone back to the chemical business. But I had got a taste of this kind of private equity thing, venture thing. I thought I had a knack for it. I liked the independence. So I kept at it, I just shifted to doing commercial real estate. There’s some guys I went undergrad with who are in the business. So I started using those contacts. That’s how I met Jake, actually. And the money people, they want commercial real estate in their portfolios, most of them. They want the diversity. Course then I got hit again in ‘08. Commercial didn’t have problems like residential, it didn’t have all those securitized underwater mortgages, but the money all dried up anyway. For about two years nobody wanted to invest in real estate. I don’t think I did a single deal from that fall until sometime in 2010.
You kind of had some bad luck there.
We fell silent again. There was no traffic on the highway. Soon we were in Independence, a tiny, dilapidated town hanging on to existence through a few government jobs and a slow drip of dollars from hikers and fishermen passing through on their way up into the High Sierra.
I spent a night in jail in this town once, Ronnie said.
I looked over at him.
He nodded. Total bullshit. I was on my way up to Bridgeport, Twin Lakes actually, and I get pulled over.
I was not speeding. I been coming up here for decades, I know the drill about slowing down in these little towns. No, I was going the speed limit. The cop pulled me over on some bullshit pretext, I don’t even remember what. I think he said my brake light was out. Which it wasn’t. Something like that. And then he takes my license and he goes back to his car, and he’s just sitting there for a long time, and then a second cop pulls up, and they talk for a while, and I don’t know what’s going on so I start to get out of my car and he hollers at me to get back in and stay there, which I do, and then the two of them come up and he says, we gotta impound this vehicle, my car, and we got a warrant out for you, sir, so you need to come with us. He said I had these unpaid tickets or something. Or, no, this was it, he said it was something with the car. The car was not registered. That’s what it was. Plus some unpaid tickets. It was total bullshit. The car was registered. It’s a racket these guys are running. I happen to know another couple of guys they pulled the exact same shit on. It’s a racket between the cops, and the tow truck guy, and the judge. It’s how they extract money out of guys coming up from L.A. and O.C.
And they put you in jail for this?
They put me in jail. I had to spend the night. I had to call Frankie, I told her she’s gotta come bail me out. They wouldn’t let me bail myself out. I didn’t have enough money on me or something. They wouldn’t take a credit card. More bullshit. She was furious. It was night already, she’s at home with the kids, this was back when they were eight, ten years old. She wouldn’t come up right away. She says I have to wait till the next day. In the morning, around eleven, noon, cop comes and opens up the cell. You can go, he says. You’ve been bailed out. Your wife bailed you out. Where is she, I say. She left, the guy tells me. What do you mean, she left, I say. That’s what I mean, he says. She left. I go out to the desk, they give me back my wallet and keys, they tell me I can go get the car from the tow lot outside of town. How am I supposed to get there, I say. The cop shrugs. Not my problem, he says. You can walk. It’s only about a mile up the road. I go outside. It’s gotta be like a hundred and five degrees. Like today. Sun just beating down. I hardly slept all night, I felt like shit, and I start walking up the road. Sweating like a pig. I’m walking maybe five minutes, I’ve got my head down, you know, because it’s so bright out and I don’t have any sunglasses, I left them in the car and all of a sudden I hear this honking so I look up, and there’s Frankie slowly driving down the street going the other direction, back towards L.A., and she’s got both the kids in the car with her, and she rolls down the window and just gives me the finger. She gives me the finger, and rolls the window back up, and drives off.
Ronnie shook his head and grunted. Something happened to her, he said. When I met her, she was pretty cool. She was alright. Then we had the kids, and . . . I don’t know. Somewhere along the way there, she just went nuts.
Again we lapsed into silence. The sun dipped behind the towering peaks in the west and flung long shadows down slopes still coated with snow like frosting on a cake. The valley floor was green and lush with tall grasslands irrigated by the Owens River, and every few miles we passed clusters of black cattle grazing. North of the town of Bishop, we climbed the Sherwin Grade up out of the valley and plunged into the Inyo National Forest.
I pointed to a huge mountain rising up ahead, its upper slopes treeless and glistening with snow. Mammoth, I said.
Ronnie shook his head. I’ve never seen that much snow on that mountain in mid-June, he said.
I heard they’re going to stay open until the end of July.
That’s what I heard. Huge snow year.
Huge. And it didn’t start out big.
In fact, they were a bit concerned back in November. I was up here with Jake over the Thanksgiving weekend. We came up and closed up the house for the winter. And we skied a day at Mammoth. It was not good. They were making snow. The whole top of the mountain was closed. There were just a few runs open, down near the lodges. And they were a bit nervous, you could tell. They had no idea all this was going to come.
We continued driving through the forest and then descended the ridge leading to the town of Lee Vining on the west edge of Mono Lake. Before the town, we came to the junction with S.R. 120, the Tioga Pass road that went over the mountains to Yosemite. A sign stated that the road was closed.
I drove over the pass after we skied that day in November, Ronnie said. I went over to Palo Alto to see my kids. I hadn’t seen them in months. The thing was, I get there and they wouldn’t see me. I’d called three or four times. I let them know I was coming. I left messages. Nobody ever called me back and said, don’t come. Nobody texted me and said, don’t come. I thought it would be nice. I miss my kids. It would be nice to see them. But I get there and I ring the doorbell and they won’t answer. I know they’re in the house. The lights are on, Frankie’s car is in the driveway. I call a couple more times. Nobody picks up. I’m standing there on the front steps wondering what the hell is going on, and this cop pulls up. Young guy, he gets out of the car and comes up, says real nice, I’m sorry sir, but you have to leave. I tell him, no, you don’t understand, this is where my kids live. He says, I’m awfully sorry, but you still have to leave. I say, what do you mean I have to leave? I just want to say hello to my kids, I didn’t get to see them on Thanksgiving, I just wanted to say hello. He says again, real nice, I understand, sir, but you need to step away from the house. Step away? Why do I have to step away? He says, what’s your name, sir. I tell him. He says, in that case, you have to step away. But why? I say. Because your wife’s taken out a restraining order. She’s what? She’s taken out a restraining order. You need to stay two hundred yards away from this house. I don’t know anything about this, I say. Well, he says, I can’t speak to that. You should have been notified. I wasn’t, I say. Well, he says, you can take that up with the judge. But right now you need to leave. I have Christmas presents in my car for my kids, I say. Can’t I just give them the Christmas presents? No, he says, I’m sorry, you can’t do that. This restraining order applies to your kids as well. You’re kidding, I say. Sir, he says, you got to take it up with the judge. I can’t do anything about it. What am I supposed to do with the presents? I don’t know, sir. You’ll have to mail the presents, I suppose. You know I’ve driven three hundred miles to get here, I say. I’m sorry, sir, he says. I don’t want trouble. I don’t want to have to ask you again. You need to step away. You need to leave, he says. So what could I do? I left. I drove four hundred miles out of my way to say hello to my kids and give them Christmas presents because I knew I was not going to see them at Christmas either and she’s taken out a restraining order without telling me, I don’t know the first thing about it, and then she doesn’t even have the courtesy to pick up the phone and tell me not to come.
Ronnie was silent for a minute and then shrugged his shoulders. I still have no idea why she did that, he said. Other than she’s crazy. And vindictive. I’ve never touched her. I’ve never laid a finger on her. She got a lawyer and went in and made up some story. She wants more money. The thing is, I don’t have it. I don’t have more money. She’s got a good job anyway. She’s making plenty of money. She makes a lot more than I do. I don’t have any obligation under the law to give her another penny. And that makes her angry. The fact is that she’s been angry at me ever since my work dried up in ‘08. She never got tired of telling me that I should never have left the chemical business.
The road briefly skirted the west shore of Mono Lake before climbing the steep barren ridge northwest to the Conway Summit, an elevation above eight thousand feet, and then descending two thousand feet or so via a slightly gentler slope into the placid valley at the center of which stood the town of Bridgeport. Around eight p.m. we pulled into the driveway of Jake’s rundown house.
The house had been shut since Thanksgiving weekend. Ronnie retrieved a spare key from a hidden spot out in the backyard and opened up the side door that led into the kitchen. We walked inside and were overwhelmed by a sickly sweet odor, like the stench of hundreds of lilies rotting in vases filled with stagnant water.
It smells awful, I said.
Antifreeze? What for?
We poured it in all the toilets and sinks and the shower drains before we closed up the house, Ronnie said. Keeps the water from freezing in the pipes. The first winter after Jake bought this place he didn’t do it and they had a flood from a burst pipe upstairs. He had to replace the whole upstairs floor and the ceiling downstairs.
We opened up the doors and windows to air out the house and try to dissipate some of the odor. Then we turned on the water and checked for leaks.
We better head over to the bar, Ronnie said. They shut down the kitchen at nine. We can drink all night but I don’t want to go hungry.
The bar was just a short walk down the street. It was still Highway 395 but for the mile or so that the road ran through the town, it was called Main Street. It was just getting dark. There was almost no vehicle traffic on the road and the sidewalks were empty. As we reached the bar my phone rang.
I’ll meet you inside in a minute, I said to Ronnie. He gave me a thumb’s up and stepped through the door.
Hello, I said, holding the phone up to my ear.
Hey, it’s Jake.
Just checking in. Where are you guys at?
We’re here. We just opened up the house.
Everything okay? You get the water on?
Yeah, no problem. No leaks.
Good, good. Ronnie there?
He’s in the bar. I’m just outside. We’re going to get some dinner. You want me to put him on the phone?
No, no worries. I’ll talk to him later. You guys getting along okay?
Yeah, just fine. He’s got some crazy stories. Has he told you about his gold refining project?
Jake laughed. That thing. I’ve been hearing about that for years.
He said they’ve just about closed the financing.
Another laugh. No comment, Jake said.
Kinda rough about him and his ex, I said.
Yes, Jake said. Yes, it is.
There was a short silence.
I better go in and order, I said. They close the kitchen soon I understand.
Go ahead, Jake said. Listen, one last thing.
Ronnie, sometimes he likes to drink, you know.
I could see how he might.
Yeah. And he can get, I don’t know exactly how to put this. A little hand-sy.
Yeah. A little physical.
What, like he gets into brawls?
No, not that. Well, yes, that too. Sometimes. But that’s not what I mean. More like touchy-feely. Like he might want to give you a shoulder massage. That kind of thing.
It’s no big deal. I don’t mean to make a big deal out of it.
I just wanted to give you a heads-up.
I appreciate it.
If it makes you uncomfortable you can just push him away. He’s not gonna mind.
He’s a good guy. It’s just sometimes he drinks too much. He’s like a bear. He just kind of paws at everyone.
Okay. Well. Thanks for the heads-up.
No problem. Enjoy the house. We’ll see you guys tomorrow.
Alright, I said.
I put the phone back in my pocket and went into the bar and sat down on a stool.
Get your order in, pal, Ronnie said. They’re shutting down the grill in five minutes. He grinned and handed me a menu.