The Tipping Point, a Toby Moment

"I have nothing. I owe much. I leave the rest to the poor."—Francois Rabelais

“You are living on my money,” said Haze.

“No he’s not,” said Marcie, “he’s living on my money.”

Haze looked at her. He couldn’t afford to offend her because she is the mother of his nine-year-old granddaughter, the only human being in the world he loves, if you can call the child a human being. It is A.I. the child. Undead. But Haze loves it. And the child loves its gwampa.

American billionaire cheapskate—they’re all cheapskates—Hazelton Turnbull “Hard Turd” Harding IV had summoned us from the beach at Ostia to an art store in downtown Rome to show us how he was diverting Marcie’s allowance into the purchase of a fragment of marble from Michelangelo’s workshop—at least that’s what the salesman said it was.

It was mounted, rough edges and all, in a brass stand, and looked like an erect and distinctly dangerous dildo. Which it sort of was. Very pricey.

“Can you plug it in?” I said. “You could put a lampshade on it.”

“Next time you’re at a hospital,” said Haze, “get them to measure your brain. Find out how much it weighs. They can probably take it out and put it on a scale. You won’t miss it. Your conversation will be just as interesting.”

“I have other qualities,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you don’t.”

I stood up. “Well, look, I’d better go.”

“Toby!” sad Marcie. “Don’t leave me here!”

I sat down. It breaks my heart what I do for this woman.

Across the table the child looked at me. Andrea. Between us, the marble icicle.

“Haze,” said Marcie, “it’s not fair to use my money to buy this.”

“It has value,” he said. “It’s a Michelangelo. He,” he said, indicating myself, “has no value.”

“I don’t have time for money,” I said.

He scowled at me. “Where’s the rat poison?”
“At your age, Hazelton, your primary concern should be your bowel movements.”

He went off to talk to the dealer, Marcie went off to talk to Haze, and the child and I were left looking at each other.

The child does not approve of me. It doesn’t respect my intelligence. Who does? And mentally Marcie isn’t even in the game. But it loves its mommy, and it sees that its mommy loves me. Tricky.

What I wanted was to get back to the beach, get drunk and go swimming, eat tagliatelle and prosciutto with sand between our toes.

“I think Haze is being cheated,” I said.

“No he’s not. It’s a Michelangelo.”

“How does he know?”

“He just does.”

“Well, I guess your mommy and I won’t be together anymore.”

“She’ll get by.”

“She’ll cry.”

“Get real, Toby.”

“I’ll miss you. You’ll go back to school in Switzerland, and you won’t have anybody to come down here and visit anymore.”

“What will you do?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You could come and see us in Boston.”

“Too cold.” And I owe too much money. 

During this exchange I discovered that crossing my legs brought my upper thigh into contact with the table, and that by flexing it I could slightly and imperceptibly raise my side such that the dingus stirred, wobbled, teetered, righted itself and, with skillful modulations of the tilt, slid, sauntered, ambled, baby-stepped toward the edge.

“Toby,” the child said. “Don’t.”

“What? I’m not doing anything.”

“Yes you are.”

And indeed the article was now peering over the precipice, daring itself to look a little further.

“Oh, I’ll probably wind up dumpster-diving. And your mommy will be all alone.”

“Except for me.”

“You’ll be in Geneva.”

“And Grandfather.”

“Huh. I could weep. All for a piece of marble.”

The child looked at the exhibit. It was clearly in a suicidal mood, hovering trembling, entranced as it were by the vertiginous possibility. “If you do that I’m telling.”

“OK, I won’t do it.”

But I let the table town with a touch too much of a jar, and the marble smashed on the floor. I composed my hands so as to distance them from the crime as Haze rushed over, followed by Marcie and the merchant.

“Oops,” I said.

“What did you do?” Haze screamed at me.

“Excuse me. Was I invited here to be shouted at?”

“Haze!” said Marcie.

“Do you have to contort like that?” I said.

“You destroyed it!”

I shook my head. “Andrea did it.”

“Did not!”

“Did so!”

“Did not!”

“Did so.”

“Did not!”

“Did so! You made me!”

Haze sank onto a chair. “Was it insured?” he said.

The pitch man, a gray-beard in half-moon jeweler’s glasses for archeological scrutiny, shook his head sadly.

I said, “It doesn’t have to be insured, Hazelton. He’s got a closet full of them. When I was a tour guide I brought my clients to places like this. I know the con.”

Gray-beard retreated as if wounded.

“Better sweep this up,” I called after him. “If it perforates my shoes you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

“It was dated!” Haze insisted.

“You can’t date something made of marble, Grandfather. Marble’s just always the same.”

“You shouldn’t be so stupid,” I said.

He bared his teeth at me.

“So there’ll be no need to embezzle the widow’s funds,” I smiled.

Snakes struck at me in his eyes.

“Come to the beach with us, Gwampa!”

“Let’s see if you float,” I said.

He sagged miserably and contemplated the futility of his existence. “Oh, all right,” he said.

“Yay!” said Marcie.

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