Fiction 500 | Short Stories


I've met three billionaires in my life. Two were on the same day, in the same room. It was in Silicon Valley, in one of those drab, eggshell-colored conference rooms, in one of those drab, two-story office buildings where crew-cut men in shirtsleeves may have once programmed microcontrollers for things like toaster ovens or SCUD missiles. Many of those men are dead now, and the buildings are occupied by a new generation of people, multi-gendered and clad in denim and Lululemon, who program algorithms to prime our anxiety, minting yet more billionaires.

There must have been thirty people in the room that day. We sat around a long wooden table and spoke in whispers until the billionaires entered. Everyone stood up and the whispers fell into silence. The billionaires had only kept us waiting a few minutes, which seemed strange to me. You'd think a couple of modern billionaires, vain and media-savvy, would have conspired to keep a roomful of their inferiors in suspense, if only for fun.

The shorter billionaire paid us no mind. He sat down, and an underling placed a heaping plate of food under his nose. He tucked right in, as the English say, chewing with his mouth open, smacking his lips and grunting in near-ecstasy.

The taller billionaire's eyes met mine, and I felt my hair stand on end. He raised his eyebrows, smiled, and extended his hand. He said, "Welcome, we're happy you're here." I smiled, shook his hand, and said, "I'm happy to be here, too. Sir?" We both laughed, and he said, "Call me Barry." I said, "Call me Sam." He said, "I'll call you whatever the fuck I want." Once again, we laughed.

Everyone sat. We discussed video monetization, copyright infringement, and other matters that are too tedious to recount in detail. Afterward, as another underling hurried our group to an airport shuttle waiting outside, a young woman grabbed my arm and said, "He never touches people, he's a germaphobe!" My boss said, inscrutably, "Folks, there was more money in that room than in the whole history of the human race."

We piled into the shuttle and headed for SFO. As we sped up the 101, I thought, sure, those billionaires were impressive, but so were a lot of other people whom I had met by that point in my life, remarkable people. Pete Partridge, for example, was a blind organist, a virtuoso, but he played only one gig a year, the annual Fireman's Ball in the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Or our neighbor in that town, Delbert Hoover, a man with epilepsy who loved whales, but his condition forbade him from driving, so at age 70 he hitch-hiked across the country to SeaWorld San Diego. Or how about my sixth-grade classmate Kurt Lloyd, who beat juvenile leukemia? Or my mother, who put herself through nursing school driving an 18-wheeler? Or, hell, even me, come to think of it—a kid who grew up so poor that his no-name shoes were held together with duct tape, then put himself through a middling state university, then talked his way out of washing dishes and into a job writing software manuals, then into a job managing software products, then into a room filled with more money than in the whole history of the human race.

But you're wondering about that third billionaire, right? Well, forget about him; he is a human monster and not worth a lick of spit.