Easy Money

Rain ran down the window like water in a car wash. I was sitting at my desk in the gloom, working my way through a deck of Luckies when my brother walked in.

He gave me the phony grin.

“I’ve got a job for you,” he said.

“In a pig’s eye.”

My brother is family. He’s blood of my blood. He’s a good-looking guy with a cesspool for a brain. I promised our mother I’d look after him. I promised her I’d straighten him out. I lied.

“Beat it,” I said.

I sucked on my cigarette, drawing the burning tip down to my fingers with a hiss. The smoke torched my throat on its way into my lungs.

“You need a payday,” my brother said. “I’ve got one for you.”

“Whatever you’ve got, I’d rather not catch. Scram.”

“There’s a rich guy over in Greencrest thinks his wife is cheating. He’ll pay good for proof. Trail her around, take some pictures. Collect your money.”

He dropped a scrap of paper on my desk.

“The guy’s mansion,” he said. “Stake it out. You can’t miss the wife. She’s the real thing.”

“I’ll let you know,” I said. “Now get lost.”

He knew I’d do it, because of my promise to Ma. And because I was dead broke.

I sat and waited for the hate to die down. Then I got tired of waiting. I pulled on my trench coat, slapped on my hat, and left the office.

I staked out the mansion and followed the dame into the city. She met a guy in the lobby of the Stratford and they rode together up to the twenty-fifth floor. She had a body that was built to keep a guy busy long after she was ready to take a shower. She had the face of an angel, probably fallen.

Five hundred to the house dick got me their door unlocked. I stepped in and took snaps of the action. They weren’t missionaries, that’s for sure.

I called my brother and told him I was ready to present my bill. He told me to wait an hour, which I spent drinking.

An evil-looking yellow moon hung behind ragged clouds in the east. The temperature had dropped and my cigarette was the only warm thing in the car. At the cuckold’s gate, I spoke into the squawk box.

“I’m here about the missus,” I said.

The gate swung open.

I drove up to the mansion through thick pines. The front door stood ajar.

I stepped inside. A light was on in a room to the right. I went in, doffing my hat. An old bird with white hair stood behind a large mahogany desk at the far end of the room.

“You’re here about my wife?” he said. His voice quavered.

“That’s right,” I said.

“You expect money?”

“You said it.”

He produced a gun and pointed it in my general direction. Looked like a .25.

“What’s that for?” I said.

“To kill you with,” the geezer said, coming around the desk. “You think I’ll just pay you to go away?”

“Hold on, partner,” I said. He was going to kill me if he could hold the gun still.

Reluctantly, I pulled my .38 and shot him through his wrinkled old heart. No fee for me. I put my gun away.

The blond slid into the room. She glanced at me and then crossed to the corpse and picked up the .25. She stepped over the body and centered the gun on my face.

She read my expression.

“I needed my husband dead,” she said. “Thanks.”

I wouldn’t be shooting this babe in that big chest of hers.

My brother joined us, grinning.

“Nice, huh?” he said. “She inherits and you get the blame for the shootout with Pops here. He thought you were the lover coming over for a payoff. You shoot each other.”

“The guy in the hotel room?”

“Some yegg we hired.” His grin became a smirk.

“You think she’ll let you live?” I said.

The smirk held.

“She loves me,” he said.

I smiled, imaging the look on his face when he arrived in Hell right behind me.

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Help with My Resolution

Time for my New Year’s resolution.

I’m twenty-five and I’ve been making resolutions since I was eight. So that’s… what… sixteen years? No, seventeen. Seventeen years and I’ve kept every one of them. Except for the one about not lying anymore.

This year I’m going for the big one. The one about stealing. No more stealing.

What makes this a big deal? Well, I got kicked out of kindergarten at the age of five for stealing. I would not stop taking other kids’ stuff. Toys, hats, coats, lunches. It didn’t matter. At the end of the day my cubby would be stuffed with purloined possessions.

It was all about the excitement.

When I tried this in first grade, I got pounded a time or two. That’s when I learned to be sneaky. It was OK to steal. It just wasn’t OK to leave the loot where somebody else could find it.

Despite my tricky new stratagems, I also got kicked out of first grade. I was home schooled after that, until the sixth grade. I went back to school for the sixth grade and got kicked out of it. There were additional poundings first. After that it was home schooling until high school.

During the home schooling, I was institutionalized twice. My parents had me committed because I kept stealing from them, too. They got tired of moving stuff out of my closet and back into their bedroom or the kitchen or the bathroom. Or the tool shed. Or the recycle bins.

High school was a bumpy road, but I scored some righteous sh.. stuff there. I also put in major hours at juvy.

Then it was time for college.

How did I get into college, you ask? UVM’s Second Chance program. This was probably my hundredth chance, or my thousandth, but who’s counting? In the dorm I stole mostly drugs and money, and made sure to use both as quickly as possible, so as not to get caught with the evidence. I matriculated in my freshman year directly into state prison.

Mine is a repetitious history.

In prison I experimented with controlling my desires to steal, because if caught, I would be stabbed to death. I took a few foolish chances because I didn’t think I could live without the excitement, but I graduated back to the free world while still alive. I did learn as I was leaving the Big House that if I ever came back, I would get dead before I could pilfer my first cigarette out of another inmate’s pack.

I was no longer eligible for the UVM program, so I got a job flipping burgers. I lived at home, once I convinced my parents that, since I would inherit everything from them anyway, I would no longer be stealing anything in the house. They were elderly, so time was stealing their lives, in a way. There was no excitement for me in stealing anything from them as well.

Another reason they welcomed me back was that they liked the burger meat, buns, and frozen french fries I brought home after work.

Then I met a girl, a mental-health intern assigned to my parole officer’s department. Her name was Shaunika. As part of her degree work, she acted as a sort of junior shrink in counseling sessions. For me, these consisted of conversations such as the following.

“Why do you steal?” Shaunika would say.

“Basic rule of counseling: never ask why,” I would say. “You’ll never get the truth. Your patient or client doesn’t know why himself.”

“Of course he doesn’t. The question serves other purposes.”

“To get me talking? To get me thinking? To assess the depth of my illusions? To evaluate my proximity to reality?”

“Hold your water, Sailor,” Shaunika would say. “Let me do the asking. You just answer. Please keep the bull twangas to a minimum.”

“I steal because it’s exciting. A tension builds, I resist it, it builds some more, I give in and steal, I feel a rush, and the tension dissipates for a while.”

“Have you tried medication?”

“Off and on. I haven’t found anything that helps yet. Sometimes I just pretended to be taking whatever was prescribed at the time, if I wasn’t in the mood to stop stealing.”

We dated. Against her better judgment, I’m sure. She knew better than anybody that my mind was resisting change.

She didn’t invite me home to meet her folks, although at parties I did get acquainted with some of her friends. She knew I was damaged goods, but we just fit together well in a lot of ways. It was an easy relationship. No drama, except when she’d find something missing. I always gave it back.

The excitement I felt around her was a lot stronger than the excitement I felt stealing burgers and fries for my mom and dad.

She got me connected with a psychiatrist who helped me join a test group of kleptomaniacs being treated with Naltrexone. It reduced the compulsive force of my obsessive behavior. Alcoholics and drug addicts use it.

With the help of the shrink I got back into school. Community college. Shaunika and I moved in together. From time to time I catch her searching the place for anything that doesn’t belong to either of us, but my love and desire for her, together with my shrink and my support group of klepto friends, and the pills, have kept me clean so far.

Resolving to stop stealing, by itself, would be useless. The resolution is more my salute to the coming year and my support and all that I believe the new year can hold for me.

Anger

I’m an angry dude. Anger is my friend. I use anger.

I’m a redhead and when I get angry, my skin turns crimson and my neck veins swell up and a vein in my forehead pulses and throbs. It makes the anger scarier.

I drive a school bus and coach high-school football, basketball, and track. I’ve got a naturally loud voice and when I start bellowing, kids listen up. The first- and second-graders practically go into shock.

I used to be a drill instructor in the Corps, but when I got too old to keep up with the maggots on their cross-country runs with eighty-pound packs, I mustered out.

When you want somebody to do what you want, you’ve got to get their attention. Fear is a good way to do that.

Some folks don’t have easy access to their anger. They’re anger-constipated. They’re bound up. They rarely get what they want. Wimps.

Sometimes, though, the wimps get on the verge of exploding. When you run into one like that, maybe you get a little scared and give them what they want. That can confuse them. What a way to live.

I was married at one point but it didn’t work out. She could dish it out but she couldn’t take it. Actually, she didn’t dish it out that much either.

I had this trick, driving the school bus. When the kids got too noisy, I would put my left foot on the gas pedal and hold on to the steering wheel with my left hand and stand up in the aisle while we were busting down the highway at full speed. I’d twist my upper body around to face the rear and start shouting for everybody to shut up.

I’d try not to get too salty when I did this, but when I start ranting, the language just comes out. It’s force of habit. The kids probably hear worse from their parents and the other kids out in the school yard. Kids today.

Last Friday, it was the final day of school before two weeks of vacation. I had a full bus and we were just starting out on the county road after classes let out. I was in a little bit of a hurry because I had to get back to coach practice. The kids were wild, like animals who knew the cage door was about to open. They threw paper wads at each other and shouted and left their seats, which was forbidden. Fast as we were going, I did the left-foot, left-hand trick and stood up to instill the fear of God in them.

This was just before we came to the Carter bridge, which crosses the gorge out in the woods west of town. I glanced up the road and before I had a chance to begin my tirade, I saw a piece of metal brace lying in the road. Probably dropped off a semi. We rolled over it and it slashed open our left-front tire.

The bus lugged left off the road and by the time I had dropped back into my seat and reached the brakes, we were headed for the cliff that dropped into the gorge. The ground was muddy, which slowed us a little. I stood on the brake pedal. The brakes locked and we slid. We took down three pines the size of Christmas trees and finally stopped with the front of bus hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.

What we didn’t want to do was teeter. One good teeter forward and the town could arrange a mass funeral. I didn’t want to move at first. Just wanted to use my voice to keep everybody still until I could work out the best escape plan for us. Nobody was going out the door. It opened on to thin air. The kids were screaming.

I began shouting orders. The screaming didn’t let up.

“Don’t try to scare them,” Sarah said, next to my ear. Sarah is an eighth-grader.

She was right. The kids were already more scared than I could make them.

“You need to calm them down,” Sarah said. “You need to be nice for a change.”

I turned in my seat, ever so gently. I looked back into the bus. Forty pairs of big round eyes stared back at me. The bus rang with cries and shrieks. I took a breath.

“Listen to me,” I said in a normal voice.

Nobody could hear me. I held up a hand.

“Listen to me,” I said again.

Quiet fell.

“First of all, hold still,” I said. “As long as the bus doesn’t rock, we’ll be OK.”

Everyone took that in.

“Very good,” Sarah said.

I looked at her. She was tense but I could see the wheels turning in her head. She was solid.

“We all need to be in the back,” I said to her. “One at a time.”

She stood up slowly. She held up her hands, palms down, to keep everyone seated. Then she pointed at a girl in the seat behind hers.

“Go back very slow,” she said to the girl.

The girl got up and walked up the slanted aisle. Tears were flowing throughout the bus.

Sarah repeated this, calm as could be, with kid after kid, until everyone but her and me were crammed together in the rear.

“Go ahead,” I said to her and she moved back.

I got up and tip-toed to join them.

“Should we open the emergency door in the back?” she said.

“I’m afraid of the… the shock of it,” I said. “Pulling that lever and then trying to push the door up and open. We could all bail out the back with the door open, true, but not if the vibration makes the bus move.”

We thought about it.

“There are two windows open,” I said. “We can fit the smaller kids through them. With the little ones off, we’ll try the door.”

We lifted a first-grader and slid him feet first through one of the open windows, and let him drop to the mud. He landed, got to his feet, and scrambled up along the ruts the bus had left, to safety.

It took a while to get everyone out who could fit through the window. The bus made sounds. Several times I thought I felt it sliding but my imagination was working overtime.

With all the little kids out, I thanked the big kids who had hung in there, helping and keeping their fear under control. High fives. Each child out the window had lightened the rear and increased the chance that the bus would tip forward and slide.

“I’m going to open the back door now,” I said. “All of you crowd close. When you can, jump out. I’ll hold the door up enough for you to fit through. When you’re on the ground, move away fast. You all did great.”

“What about you?” Sarah said.

“I’ll be right behind you,” I said.

I unlatched the door. Now I was sure the bus had become unstable. I pushed the door up and the big kids slipped out one by one.

By the time I was alone, with a world of relief washing over me, the bus was moving. As it did, its rear lifted higher. I got my foot on a back seat and pushed the door all the way open with both hands. I pushed off with my foot and was out the door. The bus pulled away from me more than the other way around.

It plunged into the gorge, leaving me behind face down in the mud, hands clawing, with my feet hanging over the cliff. Just like in the movies.

What got us into that mess? Me, fixing to rant.

What got us out? A girl with a calm soul.

I’ll never be like her, but she’s my new role model.

It was all my fault, of course, but no one was injured, physically at least. The town swept my guilt under the rug for insurance purposes.

My teams don’t know why their Coach changed, but they’re doing a lot better with the new, calmer edition.