"People," said Julie.
"And you have to know who those people are."
From the start, Sean and Julie hit it off with Howard. One thing they liked was that he was fun. "Oh, yeah, I'd love to hang out with Howard," said Julie. During the seven months of the search, Julie and Sean probably weren't with their spouses and kids more than a dozen days a month. And it wasn't glamorous on the road. There was that paltry per diem. And don't even think of expensing alcohol. And then the hotels! "Wal-Mart took pride in it," said Julie. "Like somehow it's a badge of honor to say, 'You know what? I only stay in the worst hotels."'
Still, the road was liberating. People like Howard were an antidote to their pinch-cheeked Bentonville masters. So few of the normal rules seemed to apply to Howard. He'd talk crazy ideas, nonstop, and then he'd do them. Howard had part of a liquor company, Effen Vodka, as in, "Give me a dirty Effen martini." (He sent Julie six bottles for her birthday.) He owned part of a watch company, ToyWatch. (Sean liked the watch so much he bought one.) And there was a nightclub project in Vegas.
Plus, Howard's titillating lifestyle was on display. He parked the $180,000 Aston Martin DB9 at the curb. He wore his rare Patek Philippe, slipping it off if you wanted a closer look. He wasn't shy about revealing prices. Somehow it wasn't obnoxious. Howard seemed to go through life pinching himself. "He's like a big kid. It's very infectious," said Sean, who had looked forward to a relationship with Howard. Howard could be fatherly, offering advice. "We talked about life. He really became a friend," said Sean. When Sean confided that his marriage was going through a troubled period, Howard related his own wrenching tale of packing his bags, leaving his kids. "I wish I hadn't divorced," Howard said.
One night, Howard took Julie and Sean to a hamburger dinner at the Luxbar in Chicago. His Aston Martin waited outside. On the way out, Julie sat in it to get the feel. Go ahead, push the starter button. The engine wouldn't turn over. (Howard had to have his James Bond car towed.)
So they walked to the Peninsula Hotel for drinks. Howard passed around cigars. Even Julie smoked one. As always, everything was on Howard's tab. That's what agency guys do. They entertain clients, and in style. You want to see a Chicago Bulls game, Howard's going to get you floor seats. And really, what could Julie and Sean afford on their tight budget?
Perhaps it was at the Peninsula that night that Howard flipped open his cellphone. He had a photo to show off. It was his "friend," the French model from the Ford agency, who just happened to be naked.
~ ~ ~
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