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LIVING PROOF - Short Story

October 31, 2011

Living Proof                                                   

 

            It was a crime, no doubt about it. It was not pre-mediated, but spontaneous. It was regretted almost instantly and resulted in years of anguish. And the worst part of it was, I had the guilt for the crime and no benefit. In a sense, I am guiltless and guilty, like all of us.

            When I was in college, I took a course in criminology. The professor gave us this case. You walk into a convenience store and the clerk is in the bathroom. The cash register is open. No surveillance cameras are in use. Do you take the money? It came as a surprise to me that more than half our class said they would. In my case, I took the money, and then tried to give it back, but things went wrong.

 

            One weekday morning a few weeks before the crime, Martin Grimes came into my office, said he was dead tired, and proceeded to stretch out on the floor in front of my desk, where he promptly fell asleep while on his stomach. 

            “Good God, how in the world can Martin sleep like that?” asked Sissy, my secretary, when she came into the office with two folders of bills to approve and nearly tripped over Martin’s six0foot frame. I was by then fully in charge of Martin’s booming business. In just three years, his company had grown because of my efforts from two to twenty-one employees and reached several million dollars a year in sales – a large small business.

            Sissy was a godsend, organized and bright, and I needed her because the business had become more than I could manage without an extra arm, and she was my right arm and more.

            On the thin red carpet in the office I had built, Martin’s head rested on his folded arms. The carpeting beneath him was much too thin to soften the hardness of the concrete slab underneath. No blanket protected entrepreneur Martin Gaines against the powerful air conditioning. He slept not in his usual pajamas bottoms and a t-shirt, as he would in his house when married and his apartment when divorced, but in his slacks, a pullover shirt, and with his socks and shoes on. Martin had not shaved in a number of days; he was a wealthy man who looked like a bum sleeping on the sidewalk when he began to snore and drool.

            “What’s he been doing to wear himself to such a frazzle, Craig?” asked Sissy.

            “You won’t believe it if I tell you,” I said, although she would have believed it.

           

            The next employee to step over Martin’s body to reach me was Tex. He usually saw me daily to confirm his work priorities. Tex labored independently and alone. He was the third highest paid employee in the business after Martin and I. Tex also  had collected Social Security for about a decade, while no other employee in the company would retire for another three. A stout man, Tex wore baggy pants and a checked shirt not really tucked in. His hair was gray and wild, and like Martin he hadn’t shaved for a few days, leaving his face covered in white stubble; this was normal for Tex, but not for Martin.

            The old timer made repairs to antique porcelain dolls, delicate dollhouses, and fancy but ancient doll clothing; no one else we could hire after a long job hunt was as skilled. Dolls were his trade and art, something he had been doing all his life. He was a doll man.

            At seventy something, Tex had lived long enough to see everything, but Martin’s antics still took him by surprise at times, and Tex laughed loudly over Martin’s sprawled form by his boots.

            “Shouldn’t you call an ambulance?” Tex joked.

            “Maybe I should call someone with a straight jacket and a net,” I said.

 

 

            Some months before the crime, my employer and friend Martin, always eccentric, had begun behaving even more strangely and in ways harder to anticipate. He had divorced, while ignoring his business, and had started spending money like a sailor on shore leave, while generally running sexually amok.

            From his earliest days, teachers and classmates believed that Martin would achieve greatness in life. He would grow up to be president or perhaps a famous physicist. He was bright and full of promise, and no one would have believed that Martin would actually go into business, much less one that revolved around dolls.

            He and I grew up neighbors in Aurora, played together as boys, went to the same schools through high school, but our lives diverged, he to college and me into military service to get the money to go to college.         

            After college in Boulder, Martin moved to Denver, married, and started the business. When Martin married, I was his best man.            Knowing my financial stress, Martin offered me a part-time job. I worked for him as hard as I could, for very little pay at first, unaware of what degree of success I would have. There were two employees then, Martin and I.

            Martin was too easily distracted and didn’t have the oomph to make the business successful. That’s where I came in. I had plenty of oomph. I had oomph to spare.

             

            During the year of the crime, Martin disappeared three times for weeks on end. The first time he vanished it was with the two blond women he met through an on-line magazine for swingers. The bisexual women wore him out so badly that he had arrived in my office with bloodshot eyes and slept on the floor where Tex and Sissy noticed him. The only reason Martin came back from the spree is that the women wanted him to sleep with their husbands too.

            The second time Martin went to cavort, I didn’t see the results of his debauchery because he was in Mexico with prostitutes in a San Teresa whorehouse. Then Martin flew away for two weeks to Russia to meet the blond woman who advertised on-line that she wanted to meet American men. He also went to acquire a line of Russian dolls for our mail-order company. Martin’s first two excursions had no real effect on my life; the third was to change it.

            Although I had a general idea of where Martin (i.e. in what country) might be, I had no specific destination, city, motel room, or phone number to teach him. I begged him to get a card so he could call in on his cell phone when he went overseas. He promised to get a card and never did. There were times I needed to hear from Martin and didn’t, and I made the calls on difficult discussions without his input. I was in charge of his multi-million dollar company.

            “I’ll stay in touch, Craig,” Martin would promise. “I’ll call every day,” he vowed, but he never did, and off he went.

 

            As a child, Martin had never been interested in dolls. He certainly had never played with them. He was absorbed in boats, astronomy, photography, and sports like tennis and golf, since his parents had money and belonged to clubs our family didn’t join. Martin’s interest in dolls had come through his ex-wife, a collector. Whenever Martin hooked onto anything, he went overboard because of his natural enthusiasm; and once he realized the money he thought he could make in dolls, he was off and running with the idea of a mail order company specializing in dolls and doll accessories. This wasn’t what he trained to do in college. He was trained as a teacher but never taught.

            By the time of the crime, dolls fully supported Martin and his lifestyle, myself and my debts, and our employees. Not just any dolls, but quality collectable dolls. Many were antiques made out of porcelain (china was one of Tex’s areas of expertise), but some predated china and could be made out of wood or stone. There were baby dolls, Teddy bears, Hopi dolls, Russian dolls, nutcrackers, Raggedy Ann’s, large eyed hippie dolls, fertility dolls, pornographic dolls (so-called anatomically correct dolls), African dolls, Oriental dolls, and ethnic dolls, lesbian dolls, among dozens of other types. 

            In the company’s lengthy catalog, there were doll shoes, doll clothing, and doll wigs; doll furniture, some made by craftsman from mahogany and teak; doll dinnerware; and toys to play with your doll. There were Biblical dolls, mangers with Baby Jesus and attending magi; and witches, trolls, gnomes, and tiny men by pots of gold; bunny rabbits for Easter; aliens, monsters, cherubs, angels, and saints; dolls spun from movies and television series; sports figures and action figures; NASCAR racers; you get the idea. Just before Martin sold the company, we were programming interactive on-line dolls you could download to your android phone or laptop.

 

            By the year of the crime, I managed a twenty-thousand-foot warehouse that held dolls and doll supplies from around the world. Some employees unloaded, stored, and shipped dolls. Other employees sat at desks and mailed out catalogs and took orders over the phone. Still others like Sissy were involved in the administration of our business, which like all businesses had accounting to do, taxes to pay, reports to file, paychecks to write, customer correspondence, files to maintain, etc. To all those tasks, my smart Sissy was more than capable, and she had a finer attention to detail than I had and supervised the clerical staff.  

            Sissy was small, compact, and dark, and I’d like to think both of us made a cute couple. We lived apart and never talked of love or marriage, but we spent most of our weekends together after accidentally stumbling into each other’s arms after working late one night and going to dinner. We never thought of living together or marriage because we both were still in love with other people we kept waiting on to return to us.

            When I look back on that time, the period before the crime, when Sissy and I were together weekends, it was one of the happiest and most peaceful periods of my life and the longest period without any troubles or worries. I thought things would continue like that forever and ever, but then Martin went to Russia. The employees called the woman he brought back the commie dame (when they weren’t calling her worse) from Moscow, but she was neither a communist or from Moscow.

            “What does he see in her?” Sissy asked.

            I said that the tiny blonde from Russia must have something on Martin, perhaps evidence he had murdered someone, because how otherwise to explain that he married her. They wed in a civil ceremony without inviting any employees. Martin didn’t even invite me and sure didn’t ask my opinion. The man who swore he would never marry again had re-married within a year of his first divorce and to someone similar in appearance and worse in temperament than the wife he had left, only with an Russian accent.            

            The new wife wanted Martin to sell the business, so he would have more time to travel around the country and the world and devote himself to her. In her view, he should cash in the business he had started, and I had expanded, and spend the money.

            Nikita didn’t like the employees, to whom she spoke like they were servants, and she didn’t like me for running Martin’s affairs. She also didn’t like it when she found out that Sissy was my girlfriend. Before that, Martin could have cared what Sissy and I did. We had no rules forbidding a supervisor from dating an employee. Doctors fell in love with their nurses, attorneys fell in love with the legal aids, bosses married their secretaries, and I (although I wouldn’t admit it) had fallen for Sissy.

            The company was functioning smoothly and making a substantial profit, yet Nikita had actually suggested to her new husband that he fire me over Sissy, but Martin said he couldn’t, because he could never find anyone so trustworthy who knew the business.

            I felt too secure with Martin to worry about being fired, but under the influence of the Russian woman Martin had listed the business for sale with a business broker and advertised it for sale on line and in The Wall Street Journal. All of which, in a way, helped explain the crime, because I was worried about losing my job when someone else bought the company.

                       

            While I was opening the day’s mail orders, I was tempted as soon as I felt the thickness of the envelope. Loose coins were clicking about within it. The printed handwriting on the envelope looked like that of a small child or someone old with shaky hands. Scotch tape had gone over the seams of the old-fashioned airmail envelope to keep it from bursting apart from the weight of the coins.

            The person placing the order, one Attila Moor from a rural route in Georgia, had wrongly paid Colorado sales tax. He had also incorrectly computed the postage, putting almost two dollars worth of assorted and old stamps on the envelope, when much less would have sufficed, unless he meant to certify the letter, which he should have.

Besides the coins, there was nearly three hundred dollars cash in twenties, tens, fives, and ones.

            I took the money and looked about for a moment finding no witnesses and put it in my pocket. I tore up the order and envelope. I could have kept the order and shipped it, but my initial and probably irrational fear was that an unpaid order shipped might have been discovered during the annual audit required by the bank for our line of credit. I threw the shreds of the order into the trashcan beside my desk.

            Instant sorrow and guilt consumed me; this was something I couldn’t do. I couldn’t steal from the customer, and I certainly couldn’t steal from Martin. I changed my mind.

            Quickly I took the cash out of my pocket and put it on top of my desk where the money orders, cashiers checks, and checks were accumulating from the day’s orders. I intended to deposit the money.

            I started to pick the pieces of the order out of my trashcan, but Martin came into my office shortly thereafter, and I quickly put the trashcan down. Martin was with a man who was a prospective buyer of the company, and Martin had showed him around the business and now wanted the buyer to meet me. Martin wore a suit to impress the buyer. Martin rarely wore a suit.

            After Martin introduced me to my possible future employer and told him I was willing to stay on after the business was sold, Martin took one look at the cash on my desk and scooped it up without any apparent forethought.

            “Thanks, Craig,” Martin said to me.

            “One benefit of owning this business,” Martin explained to the prospective buyer, meaning tax-free income.

            If the new owner-to-be had any problem with the ethics of tax crimes, he showed no concern.

            While speaking with Martin and the potential buyer, I watched my trashcan containing the pieces of Attila Moor’s order leaving my office. My trashcan was carried by the shipping clerk James; a bright and likeable man, a little older than me, who was taking out the building’s trash. There was usually a pause between James receiving in the morning and James shipping new orders in the afternoon when James was idle, and he was a hard worker and filled the void that day by taking out the garbage. A model employee, sometimes when things were slack he would come to me and ask me where he could help out and off he’d go to some other department where they were more backlogged than shipping, at which James was highly efficient. James also was a very religious man. He was a lay preacher at one of the African-American churches. I had never heard him preach, but he lived his life as an example of his faith. He knew about Sissy and I, but he never criticized what I am sure he saw as sin.

            I would have fished the order from Attila Moor out of my trashcan, pasted it back together and shipped it, even if it did cause trouble on a random comparison of the sales and shipping records. But instead of being able to put Attila’s order back together again, there went the order in my trashcan out the door, and I couldn’t very well scream in front of my employer or potential future employer for James to bring my trash back without causing some puzzlement.

            After Martin and the potential business buyer left, I rushed outside to the dumpster at the back of our building to look for the shreds of the order, but one quick look told me finding it would be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. On top of the dumpster were coffee grounds, Kleenexes, dirty shop towels, and the remains of lunch in the break room.

 

            In three weeks, the first angry letter arrived. It came written in the same child-like print from Attila Moor and accused us correctly of theft. The letter demanded merchandize or his money back and specified the amount sent, but not what it was Attila had ordered.

            If I knew what he had ordered, there was a good chance I might simply have sent it to him. I felt very badly about destroying the order and letting Martin carry off the cash. I briefly thought of just issuing credit for merchandize as a goodwill gesture, but I felt I couldn’t do this without including Martin, who after all had taken the money. I was disappointed in Martin and disgusted with myself.

            I did ask Martin what he thought we should do for Mr. Attila Moor. Instead of doing the right thing, as I might have done, Martin said, “Just write him back and say please send a copy of your canceled check or money order,” knowing full well this couldn’t be done since a check or money order had not been sent in the first place. I reluctantly wrote and mailed such a letter.

            Mr. Moor soon wrote that he had sent cash, and the company he had placed his trust in had stolen it. By then Martin had entered into an agreement to sell the business to John Finch, who had just sold his business in the East and wanted to move out West to Denver, where he could hike with his stepsons in the foothills and mountains and kayak down challenging streams. Finch was also a bow hunter. Someone should have told John Finch about the brutal winters, floods, and the following mud season, but he would learn.  

            “Write him that we don’t encourage the sending of cash by the mail and ask him to provide a certified return receipt,” Martin said, knowing full well that such a receipt could not be produced. Martin was about to cash out his company, and he’d leave the problem of Attila Moor to the new owner.

            I followed Martin’s instructions. I often thought afterwards that I should have quit or protested.

           

            “Let’s go to lunch and get to know each other,” the new owner said. He looked a lot like me, only he was older, and had money, and I didn’t wear glasses yet. John Finch had a master’s degree in business administration and had been successful in a manufacturing business. His business had made, I think, brass screws. I had a bachelor’s degree in accounting and sold dolls.

            Like many people who are successful in business, Finch believed if you were successful in one business, you could be successful in any old business. Just take the same principals that have worked for you in the brass screw business and apply them to the doll business and success would be yours.

            When we went outside the office, I discovered John’s car was a penis-shaped black Corvette with a great deal of horsepower. The new owner took a club from the storage compartment in his door and waved it about as if he were bashing a skull, maybe mine. He said, “I always like to have a weapon with me.”

            When he turned the ignition, the engine roared and the car’s frame shook. As we drove to lunch, I found John’s shifting to either be unnecessarily hard and jerky or inexperienced.

            “So do you have a girlfriend?” John asked over the engine’s roar.

            I owned that I liked women and saw someone on the weekends. John said he and his wife would have us over sometime to meet her. I did meet his wife a few times, a tall and unsmiling woman, who would soon enough divorce John, but I tried to keep my relationship with Sissy a secret from Finch.

            He asked how the business might be improved. I said it was running pretty smoothly, and I thought the best thing was to leave it go on as it was. This was not the answer John wanted, and he started expounding on principles of marketing, advertising, and product design.

            I suggested the restaurant, a small Italian place halfway to my house. I ordered a salad, while John ordered meatballs on Italian bread. A harbinger of things to come, I had to pay for my own lunch.

 

            In the following months, letters arrived on behalf of Attila Moor from a variety of private, local, state, and federal agencies. The first letter was from the local Better Business Bureau, while the last letter came from a U.S. postal inspector. In between were letters from the attorney generals of two states, consumer affairs offices, The Direct Mail Marketing Association, magazines where our company advertised, and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office. If there was any agency he could write, Attila Moor wrote to that agency, and I don’t blame him; I would have done the same thing.

            At several points, I pondered how to send Mr. Moor the items he had duly paid for. I probably should just have gotten money out of my own pocket and sent it to him, but couldn’t figure out how to do it without getting in trouble at work or implicating our company in what I was afraid was mail fraud or postal theft.

            Mr. Moor had indeed been robbed; not by me, but by Martin, although it had happened because my honesty momentarily wavered in fear of being unemployed.  

            Any thoughts of righting the wrong vanished when a thankful letter to the shipping clerk James got into John Finch’s hands. The customer revealed that James had sent free merchandize to a longtime customer on a generous whim and in thanks for his business. I would not have reprimanded James; he was just doing a good deed and meant well. John Finch called James into his office, demanded an explanation, and fired James, father of two and Sunday sermonizer.

            Finch thought the firing would set a good example. The example resulted in terrified employees, for James was well liked and hard working, and many of the other employees were not so hard working. Sissy was especially disgusted with the firing and wanted to know why I didn’t stick up for James. The truth was: anything I might have said wouldn’t have mattered to John Finch. He was not giving away anything free to anyone; much less someone named Attila.

            “Who in the world,” he asked, “names their kid Attila anyway?”

            John instructed me to continue the same hard line begun under Martin’s ownership. I was to write Mr. Moor and any and all authorities that the money had never been received. The letter I should have written would have said I was sorry, but I couldn’t do anything about it except quit, which I should have.

            Each letter arriving from Attila Moor made me physically ill and reminded me of what had happened and why.  

 

            Once I started to confide in Sissy about the theft, but I didn’t. I didn’t want her to think badly of me. I was proud of building the business from Martin’s inept start by immersing myself in the budding then exploding business and finding Sissy along the way.

            With Sissy everything we did was laid back and fun, maybe because we never had expectations. She was waiting for her Jeff to come back from the Air Force. I was waiting for Nancy to wise up and realize she had mistreated the best man in her life. I was also waiting for my high school sweetheart Rachel to get divorced, which she would never do.

Sissy and I never argued, like Nancy and I did, and Sissy and I laughed frequently and hard. She was considerate of my feelings, unlike Nancy. Sex between Sissy and I was something to be enjoyed and not a weapon for a change. We went out to movies and concerts at Red Rock Canyon from time to time, once in a while we went to a Broncos pre-season game or hung out at The Tattered Cover, but mostly we had dinner out, lazed about my house, and spent carefree hours in bed.

            We were both readers, but with different tastes. I plowed through science fiction books from my father’s youthful collection, a thankful rest from studying for college. In my three years with Sissy, I had consumed hundreds of sci-fi books. I didn’t learn a thing, of course, but I was rested and happy, well informed about future life on the rim of our galaxy and supermen and aliens, and I consumed from my father’s collections the complete works of the older writers like A. Bertram Chandler, A. Merritt, and A. E. von Vogt.

            Unlike me, Sissy read serious fiction, sometimes popular, often classic, and she was a slower and more meticulous reader; she probably finished a little Updike, a lot of Irving, and a great deal more Doctorow at my house. I told Sissy more than once that she should go back to college and get a degree that would take her somewhere in life with a higher title and larger pay than secretary, but she was content with me and waiting for Jeff, who so far had never returned or written her in an absence that went from three to four, to five years during the time we dated.

            Some Sunday afternoons she went with me to visit my parents in Aurora. My folks liked Sissy, saying she was the first decent woman I had dated since Rachel; she was. I had visited her parents in Boulder, and they liked me and had disliked Jeff. I think both sets of parents were rooting for a marriage.

            After Finch bought the business, I found myself asking Sissy to stay over more, even during the week. I considered a proposal. Before I could propose, Sissy stunned me. She had found a new job. She wouldn’t work for Finch, a man she find overbearing, and the man who had fired James, whom she admired and liked. Not only had she found a new job. Soon the love of her life had returned, her former boyfriend Jeff had finished his six-year enlistment in the Air Force and was home for good.

            Without any warning, I was told one Wednesday that I wouldn’t be seeing any more of good-humored Sissy. I had lost the woman on whom I was dependent at work and in my personal life. This capped a stunning number of years failing with women I had loved, although I never realized I cared so much for Sissy until she was out of reach. This was perhaps the start of my punishment for the crime.

 

            After Sissy quit and left me, Finch next fired Tex.

            There are craftsman and artists in town who could do what Tex did at a cheaper price, said John Finch.

            We’ll job the work out, said Finch, and without workman’s compensation and payroll tax expenses. Tex was an old man, working ever so slowly, while being paid too large an amount; younger hands would work faster. Money would be saved without having to own and maintain ancient machinery, which could be sold for cash. More profit would be made, said John, while the amount of space the business rented could be reduced cutting our rent.

            It wasn’t so. No woman sitting at home with a sewing machine and a pot of glue could do the restoration jobs that Tex had done so well, and his slowness was not because Tex was old, but because he was meticulous and exacting. Within a few weeks we were behind in our repairs and restorations. Those sales netted us thousands of dollars a month, soon lost.

            At our parting, I wished Tex well and told him that letting him go hadn’t been my idea. Tex said it didn’t matter; it was just extra money for him anyway. He did appreciate my hiring him, because he and his wife had some years back taken on a young nephew whose parents were killed in a car accident, and for the past three years his salary had helped with the burden.

            Less than a month later, Tex’s wife called me at work to say her husband had a heart attack and died. At the funeral, I saw Sissy again, only she was with Jeff and James, and she avoided making eye contact with me. It seems Jeff knew nothing about me. She probably said she went out a few times while he was gone, not that she spent almost the last three years as my lover.

 

            John Finch then flew to India in search of increased profit. He contracted with an Indian company for the production of a new line of proprietary dolls and dropped several popular lines from the company’s catalog that he considered to have too narrow a profit margin.       

            The bottom line would be improved, said Finch.

            In reality, we got a line of inferior dolls with a higher refund rate, and let go of two of our most popular lines. His shipments from Bombay did not arrive on time, the orders backed up, and refunds were demanded.

            An advertising company was hired to write a new catalog. I had written the semi-annual catalog and all the other sales literature. I had written the magazine ads too, but Finch thought only an advertising agency was truly qualified to write advertising, and sales would surely soar when principles of advertising were applied instead of what I had done by the seat of my pants.

            Sales fell flat.

            As Finch and his new secretary Becky took over more and more of the administration, I was left with less and less to do. I felt the writing on the wall. The payroll and bookkeeping were sent out to a payroll service and an accountant, instead of being done in house. John had his own system for paying bills, the principles of which were to pay suppliers less than they billed for one reason or another and to pay them as late as possible. A system of requisitioning replaced my inventorying our stock monthly and ordering as needed; instead employees were made responsible for asking for inventory before it ran out (they either ordered more often than was necessary to avoid running out or didn’t have the time to do it properly and hence ran out of stock).

            Having less and less work, I drifted to the shipping room. The new shipping clerk was not as efficient as James. It made me feel I had accomplished something to build a mountain of boxes while assisting him. 

            I was not to ship orders, said an outraged Finch. I was being paid too much money to spend my time shipping orders. I was to concentrate on management, only what I was to manage wasn’t clear. I wanted to say I was being paid too much to sit around and read the newspaper, but I didn’t.

            One day, Finch called me into his office and asked why I was being so generous with refunds. Part of the reasons for soaring refunds were the cheapening quality of our product line, the absence of Tex, and the late deliveries from India, but since the incident with Attila Moor, I had indeed become more lenient.

            Everyone who wanted a refund got a refund from me no matter if the reason was good or bad. The merchandize might be returned months or ever years after the purchase date, and I authorized refunds with a feeling I was righting a wrong. The return could be in shoddy condition, and I refunded the money or had credit issued joyfully. It might even be only partial merchandize returned; I didn’t care. I didn’t want another Attila Moor on my conscience.

            “Our refund rate has gone from one percent of sales to five percent,” said John Finch, waving an income statement under my nose. “Why is that?”

            It hadn’t occurred to me that one of the purposes of dolls was magic or voodoo. I would not have believed in curses or that Attila Moor could curse me or put a hex on the business. I didn’t think that in his rural Georgia home hung from a cord a voodoo doll of Craig Schaffer with a pin through the brain or heart. But I did believe in karma and treating people fairly. I had started a wrong rolling downhill, and the universe was repaying me.

            “Why don’t you take over the refunds?” I asked Finch, who had pretty much taken over everything else, except the placement of advertising, but he was getting there.       

            After collecting my next paycheck, I quit.

 

            I drank more and my weekends were lonely, like they had been before Sissy. Despite how bad Nancy had been for me, I tried looking her up again, but found out she was living with a guy who had just been paroled and she was pregnant.

            Martin had gone traveling about the world with the Russian woman, while I was stuck in Denver and no longer had anything to hold onto and had a lot of debts to pay - but I took with me when I quit the address for Mr. Attila Moor, rural route, Georgia, not quite sure what I would do with it.       

            When I filed for unemployment, I thought it was routine. You fill out the forms, keep looking for a job, complete the weekly paperwork, and they send you the money. Unemployment taxes had been collected for me during my military service and while I worked at the doll company. The business I had grown into a mighty tree from Martin’s tiny seed had paid in considerable unemployment taxes for all the people I gave jobs to who didn’t have jobs before we created the company. Likely thousands of dollars had been paid into the unemployment compensation fund because of my efforts.

            No matter. 

            A letter came in the mail denying me unemployment compensation. Finch disputed my claim in a lengthy written letter. I had quit without notice and broken my contract, wrote Finch, enclosing a copy of the employment contract. I could be working if I wanted to, he wrote, but chose not to.

            I was told I could appeal.

            I appealed on the basis that employment with John Finch had become intolerable, apparently not a consideration, and I was denied unemployment compensation a second time.

            Applying for jobs was difficult because I could not give as a job reference the sole job I had held outside the military. What had I been doing the last three years? Well, I was in the doll business. I invented a worldwide vacation, but that meant I had no job experience.

            I dutifully answered job ads and knocked on doors to no avail.

            My job search took place on Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week, unless someone called me for an interview, I showed up at a temporary labor pool. There were very few interviews, and I shoveled snow in winter and moved heavy boxes in summer. If there was a container from overseas or a full truck that needed unloading, off I went to break my back at about ten percent of my previous pay. I literally dug ditches. If the local fish importer needed a recent load gutted, beheaded, and cleaned for sale, I was his man. I carried concrete blocks and washed pots and pans. So many of the jobs involved cleaning things up and getting rid of garbage that I began to dream I was a garbage man; I should have been, because they were paid more than I was and had steady work and benefits. If a temp job didn’t involve something smelly, it involved something heavy. After a few months, I could tolerate smelly trash and lift considerably more than before, but I was going slowly broke.

 

            Winter had gone and spring had come, and I had exhausted most of my savings and depleted a meager brokerage account. My credit card limit was being approached purchase by purchase. I was one month behind on my mortgage. Sissy was off with Jeff, and soon there appeared in the Post an announcement of their engagement. Surely I had been cursed by something, and it came to me, although I didn’t believe it, that this might be the result of the crime.

            When I closed my IRA, I withdrew the last five hundred dollars and left it in the bank envelope, thinking to get it to Attila Moor. Mr. Moor might not be putting a curse on me, but I felt cursed. 

 

            The distance from Denver, Colorado, to Atlanta, Georgia, is listed in my Atlas at 1,403 miles; it felt a lot longer. The small town where Mr. Moor lived was considerable to the southeast of Atlanta, and probably the total trip one way probably exceeded 1,600 miles. I started the week before Easter, in part to avoid going home to my parents without Sissy or a full-time job.

            To the west of Denver, the mountains provide some of the most spectacular views in American scenery, but I was going east. In that direction, the land is largely flat and mostly plains for a considerable distance. The plains could be said to be mind numbing, although that is probably not so to someone who loves the plains; I don’t love the plains, and felt as flat as they are. Moving through miles and miles of cornfields, it was hard to stay awake.

            I crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis the first night. I slept in a cheap motel in “the land of Lincoln,” and I slept badly before turning down a southbound Interstate in the morning. Although there was relief from the boring flatlands in Kentucky south of Louisville and in portions of Tennessee, I was tired and worn.

            The second night I slept, or tried to sleep, in a Holiday Inn along the Interstate north of Atlanta. I might as well have driven through the night. My room was too close to the Interstate, and I had a difficult time nodding off, even with the aid of too much rye. It seemed as if a semi went by every few minutes, even at 3 a.m., and every one rattled the glass on the windows of my room in its wake. There were also the screeching sirens of police cars racing to crimes, ambulances rushing to the scenes of accidents, and maybe fire trucks shooting by on their way to a blaze.

 

            On the third morning, I started out within three hours of Attila Moor, while having increasing worries. A rural route probably meant a farm. A farm probably meant someone armed and with big dogs. Martin deserved being shot or tossed to the dogs more than I did.

            It occurred to me that I was lily white, something I often forgot, while Mr. Moor might indeed be black. In fact, the more I thought of his name, I thought it likely that Attila was an African American, and I might stick out on his property like a sore thumb or maybe a bill collector. Who else would name a child after a man who slew white Europeans than a descendant of slaves? Maybe Attila was from Haiti, knew voodoo, and put a spell on me after all.

            Or Attila could be a former wrestler, and Attila might have been his ring name; in which case Attila could bear hug the breath out of me or body slam me, breaking my vertebrate, rendering me a cripple. I thought maybe I should have found James the part-time minister and had him deliver the money to Mr. Moor.

            I located the town by going through it without noticing it. I turned around and went to the sole crossroad and its blinking yellow light, where I found the right turn. Unfortunately when I located the mailboxes for the rural route, they were in a cluster of sixteen mailboxes. The numbers were worn away, and I had no way to determine which of the sixteen boxes might be that of Attila Moore. I had no idea if Attila were a farmhand or an owner. Maybe he was a tenant farmer.

            They were broken down farms speaking of poverty. Farmhand or owner, the three hundred dollars Martin took was a substantial sum for someone who lived on one of those lands of crumbling barns and wooden shacks. Some of the farms I drove by were undergoing foreclosure. There were notices against trespassing at those not being foreclosed also.

            I had planned on putting the envelope with the five hundred dollars into a mailbox and driving off, but there was no way to put the enveloped inside locked boxes, even if I knew which one belonged to Mr. Moor. My entire venture now seemed a foolish idea.      Whether Attila was white or black, I never knew. The town seemed equally divided between the races and a throwback in time. When I gassed up, there was that ugly and filthy third unisex bathroom for “colored” and a separate water fountain. Whether these understood rules of a bygone era were still enforced or vestiges no one had bother to remove, I couldn’t tell.

            At the gas station, I thought of inquiring about Attila, but asking questions seemed very risky. I was driving my car with a Colorado license plate on it. If I actually tracked down Attila, I could be identified. People might wonder what I was doing poking around a thousand and more miles from home, trying to right a wrong for a business for which I no longer worked. It might seem very odd and draw attention, and perhaps things would get out of hand, and I could make things even worse than they already were.

 

            I started meandered west. Where was I going now? I decided I’d hit I-10, and drive back west via New Orleans. I had never seen “The Big Easy” in person.

            Obsessing about how my actions had led to a poor person being cheated and the complete failure of my plans to right the wrong, I barely slept the next night in Mississippi.

            I left out for New Orleans on Friday morning to cross the mighty bridge at Baton Rogue. After ascending and descending that concrete edifice, on an impulse I turned north on a road I had never heard of and decided to wander along the edges of the muddy brown Mississippi River, which I could rarely see because of the trees and buildings. I had nothing more in mind I suppose than getting off the heavily congested Interstate and onto some quiet country roads; it didn’t work that way.

            On the winding narrow road, came crowded small town after crowded small town, with narrow streets and speed limits drifting downwards to twenty-five miles per hour. I began to regret turning off I-10. Speedy I-20 seemed and was hours ahead.

            I never knew the name of the town where the highway was completely jammed with people, but the road through it was impassable because of the mob blocking it. I pulled my car over and parked. I thought I would just take a nap in my car until the road cleared, but there seemed to be something going on. Once I closed my eyes, I couldn’t rest, and I became curious, so I got out of the car to look around.

            Perhaps a parade was coming, maybe with a jazz band composed of black men looking one hundred years old. Maybe it was a funeral, leading to a concrete above ground grave, such as I had seen roadside in the little towns, but I could hear no music, just a buzzing silence, which could have been the static inside my sleep-deprived brain.

            I made my way into the silent crowd to get a better look.

            Coming down the street were men dressed as Roman centurions and carrying spears. Between two Roman guards was a long-haired man wearing what appeared to be shorts and carrying something heavy on his back.

            What the bearded and dark-haired man lugged was a wooden cross. As the man came nearer, I could see a great exertion on his face and in his arm and leg muscles; the cross must have been heavy. On the man’s perspiring head was a crown of thorns; this was not a prop, but an actual crown of thorns, and blood was dripping down the man’s forehead from where he had been nicked. The Passion of Christ was being reenacted.

            As the man carrying the cross passed by me, I took the envelope from my pocket, reached out, and put the envelope intended for Attila Moor in his hand, which was under the cross. The imitator of Jesus paused to look me in the eyes. His brown eyes seemed to understand that I was donating money. This was likely not the first year he had portrayed the Passion, and I was likely not the first guilty person to give him money.

            He nodded and continued toward the river where a platform had been erected. I saw his back, which appeared to have actually been whipped; if not, it was a fine makeup job.

            At the platform, the man was lashed to the cross, and the cross raised by the Mississippi while alluvial waters zipped passed.

            The man dropped my envelope to a woman, either his wife and/or a portrayer of Mary Magdalene, who caught it. The imitator of Christ hung from the cross under a blue sky with white fast-moving, small white clouds. The crowd began a hymn I didn’t know, sung in a Cajun accent I couldn’t quite decipher.

            I turned and went to my car. I drove back the way I had come. I got back on the Interstate in Baton Rogue and went home to Colorado. It took me three days.

 

            Don’t make too much of this story. Don’t look for a moral or any hidden meaning. Life didn’t get better for me the next day, the next week, or the next month. What I described is just what happened. I am not a religious man, nor did I feel a religious experience handing money over to the imitator of Christ. I didn’t feel any less guilty afterwards.

            There is, however, justice in the world. With a few years, Martin had invested badly and lost all of his money. He was broke and struggling to find a new business to start. He called me and ran ideas by me, mostly bad ones, or ones he lacked money for.

            With the recession, people were less interested in doll collecting and more interesting in keeping their homes. Aided by poor decisions by Finch, the business John had bought closed and filed bankruptcy.

            Maybe Attila’s voodoo doll, if there was one, was aimed not at me but at those guilty and the business itself.

            Nothing changed for me for some time. I had only temporary employment for almost two years, before I took my current job. I ran into Sissy one day, and asked how she was. She said she was divorced, Jeff wasn’t what she thought he would be, and I asked her if she might like to date again. She returned to my home on a semi-permanent basis, which still continues, and proceeded to read the latest Irving book and the Russian classics. She is currently working on Chekov. I asked Sissy to marry me twice. She said “no” twice, but she hasn’t gone away either. I continued reading from my father’s ancient collection of science fiction for which I have learned the following.

            In eons, Sol will become a red giant.

            In two billion years, the earth will be so hot that its great seas will become boiling steam, and the deadly vapors will become scalding clouds. Nothing will live any longer on our formerly wet brown-and-green ball, where life once teemed.

            A few ages later, the planet will be scorched by star fire and rendered a great molten sterile rock. The universe with hiccup and say, “Bon appetite.” 

            Another billion or so years later, the sun will extend to the orbit of Mars, and Terra will cease to exist complete, the lifeless ball of space rock consumed in unimaginable heat. Any trace of puny man will be eliminated, and probably no one will notice. Earth will be nothing, except maybe cinders, maybe not even that.

            Next our star pulses four times in great convulsions and then fades into a dwarf star insufficient to support life anywhere.

                                   

           

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