"Ronnie" by Randall Sommer

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.

It’s deferred?

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.