Madoff’s Turn at the Wheel

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized I was into the middle of the month and hadn’t posted for June. My memory had been swept away in a whirl of celebrations—graduations, birthdays, Mother’s Day.

Well, then, better late than never, as “they” are so fond of saying. But what would I write about?

Then I remembered watching—rapt and horrified—the television special titled “The Wizard of Lies,” based on the bestselling book of the same name by Diana Henriquez.

The TV production aired in late May with a convincing Robert De Niro playing Bernie Madoff (in realistic makeup and a hunched posture, De Niro even looked like him).

Then the idea came to me: I could add a third genre, flash fiction, to the book and TV treatments of the infamous scam artist and offer it in June to my readers. What follows, then, is my short, short story take on an old, old story of greed and corruption.

 

Madoff’s Turn at the Wheel1

In medieval philosophy the Wheel of Fortune belongs to the goddess Fortuna,

who spins it at random, changing the positions of figures on the wheel

so that those who start at the bottom and rise to the top

inevitably drop low again.

 

The guard shambles to the isolation cell in Buster Keaton deadpan. At the soundproof door he peers through the 12” x 12” one-way window. He hawks up a gob and spits into the pork ‘n’ beans oozing under the fatty hot dogs on the tin tray. He grins, bends, and shoves the tray past the metal doggie flap before hoisting his belt and shuffling back to his corridor desk, content.

Inside the 76-square-foot isolation cell on Rikers Island, Bernie Madoff, deaf to the pounding tides outside, hears at once the rasping metal. His tremulous hand reaches for the savory slop, and the aroma of the spicy pork ‘n’ beans mingles with the odor of recently flushed feces. Tray in hand, he surveys his white-bricked room, interior design by the Metropolitan Correctional Center. His eyes prowl over the white-sheeted cot bolted to the white floor, a white enamel commode against the opposite wall, and white plastic shelves holding toothbrush, comb, electric razor, faux-glass hand mirror and a copy of the Pentateuch, each article equidistant from the other. Here, in perfect linearity, in the absence of color, Bernie waits for judgment.

He is 72 years old in the here and now but Bernie’s memory breaks through the barriers of space and time, launching past these vacant surroundings, exploring the winding path leading to the present.

He ranges through the earliest days in the cramped ghetto apartment. He sees himself at odd jobs in gas stations and retail stores. He remembers the lackluster years at Far Rockaway High School and Hofstra College; the modest cape-style house bought for his bride; the financial statement for his 1959 broker’s registration: Assets: $100 cash on hand.

Sitting on the floor of his stark cell, the former broker from Queens conjures up a 4000-square-foot Manhattan penthouse and a 56-foot yacht named “Bull,” compliments of a monumental Ponzi scheme. His investment fund goes global with fifty billion dollars in equities drawn from titans and moguls across three continents. Bernie’s World whirls away from the minor stars in the securities solar system before the market plummets and his galaxy explodes.

One day an underling enters an elevator to find Bernie on his hands and knees in a $2000 suit aligning the rug with the corners of the elevator car.

A week before the apocalypse, a client gives him a congratulatory thumping on the back and asks how the hell he could make money in one of the toughest markets in history. “I’m an honest and true investor,” said Bernie. This even a Holocaust survivor believed.

“I know the devil and still I thought he was the savior,” Elie Wiesel tells a reporter. “Go, my friends tell me, go to Mr. Madoff. You can fund more projects for the orphans. What he does to them, my God! And to me. My books, my lectures, my university income for forty years, all gone. For my own money I maybe someday can forgive him. For my babies, never!”

The police arrest Bernie as he drives up to his penthouse in his black S550 Mercedes.

Now the Nasdaq Wise Man turned Fraudster Extraordinaire awaits sentencing, the game played out, the wheel spinning to a stop. Maximum or minimum, his sentence will be lifelong, marked by relentless restriction and restraint, and clamor for retribution. He turns to his book before the lights dim.

Outside the guard waits for his relief. When it comes, he hands over the keys and leaves the gray stones behind to ponder the fate of his prisoner. He surveys the surrounding river, the full moon pausing for a breath in its cycle around the earth. It seeks him out now, the river, surging toward him as he stands in place, this river that fled from him this morning and finds him again this evening, this river that will retreat and return again for endless tomorrows.

 

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1This piece draws on reportage from Fortune Magazine.

 

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