Sentience is as often as not a state of mind . . . a point of view . . . perhaps even a belief. Does a tree feel? Do flowers think? Do stones talk? Just because “they” tell us …does anyone truly know what is true? Is their truth the only truth? We were once vital. Active. Today we lay inert …draped as it were over the railing of life … touching each other in recollection of times long gone. We have it all stored because we are the residual memories of the past.
He was a gnarly old man. Grim. Tight lipped. Thin. Hunched over an old desk. “Mr. Grinn? Mr. Jacob Grinn?”
“Yes yes. Come in come in.”
Smiling at them? Snarling at them? Drooling from fanged yellowed teeth filled with the stench of avarice. Friend? Fiend? Predator? They had called earlier. Desperate. They had looked for loans. Easy One Step Loans the ad had said. Ask for Mr. Grinn. He motioned to the chair.
“Sit sit my pretties. Justin and Cherali Wocher, I presume. Yes? Ah. Good. I have papers all ready. Interest only loan. Could not get you a thirty year payoff. Will work on it as soon as you sign.
Lies filling the air with the acrid efflux of malignant toxins.
“Yes yes. Sign my friends. Interest only is only for a short while. Loans with grin,” said Grinn.
“But,” they protested. “But but. But but but. Interest only? We need a decreasing mortgage. Interest only and we’ll pay forever.”
“No no. No no no.” Grinn was smiling the bare yellow fanged grin of the predator in control of his victim.
“Only for a while,” snarled the feral human shark. “Have to deal with the banks you see. You don’t have the highest credit. People who come to me come to me because they need help. I try to please. Yes yes. Always try to please. Working on a deal with the banks as we speak, don’t you know. Don’t want to hold you up. I have a friend who has a friend who works in the main office. A connection. Having dinner with him this weekend. We’re like this,” … fingers atwist as a symbol of amity.
“I’ll cajole. I’ll wheedle. I’ll soft-soap and induce. He owes me a few. Saved his rump once. Pulled him out of a ditch in the war. Doesn’t matter which one. Wars are wars. I’ll collect for you. Not to worry. You seem like a nice young couple. Grin with Grinn. That’s my motto. You’re safe with Jacob Grinn.”
And they stared at each other … bleary-eyed … pretending to make a weighty decision while all the while they–and Grinn–knew they were like deer in a box canyon with no room for escape as Grinn grasped his pen with knotted knuckles and handed it to them.
“Sign sign my little innocents. Sign with a smile for Grinn.”
The clouds were angry. Frowns furrowed their billowed brows. Bad weather looked on as omens foretelling of things to come. Cherali grabbed Justin’s arm.
“Don’t worry Justie,” she said. “They’re only clouds.”
And she hugged him closer. “They can’t beat us, Justie. They can only knock us around a bit.”
And he put his arm around her shoulder … sheltering her with a protectiveness he did not feel.
But now–even though they had their second mortgage money–they did not know how long they could fare.
“We could look for another house,” said Justin. “Something less expensive. A fixer-upper. I’m handy. I can do anything.”
And she held his arm. He was her hero.
“I would live in a hovel with you,” she said. “I would live with you forever wherever you lived,” she said. “And I would be happy as long as you were there,” she said.
He had married an angel. How many men could say that? But for now he would escape the problems of his world by taking refuge in the sanctuary of his mind.
A few months earlier he had come home dejected. Couldn’t pay his bills.
“Don’t know how I’m going to survive. This NAFTA thing is killing me. Everything is going overseas at one fifth of the price. Lost a big contract.” His shoulders slumped. “Going to take a shower. Maybe the hot water will fix me up.”
He had taken a while lolling in the shelter of steamed heat. And then, when he came out … she had called from one of the kids’ rooms.
“Justin. Come here. Quick.” And there on the bed … five thousand dollars in one hundred dollar bills … all strewn across the blanket. How? He didn’t understand. He knew she saved. But all this?
“Will it help,” she said?
And he hugged her like he never hugged her before. And she took his hand and said, “Come on Justie. I made us a Lasagna.”
And so they went. The two of them. The blind leading the blind. Next stop …a trip to visit the wizard. Long Island, New York. A poorer neighborhood. Bleak. Dank. Dreary to the eyes of the desperate. She hugged him. He cuddled her shoulder. They looked at the old dilapidated farm house. Huge. Unused barn in the rear.
“You can convert it to a garage and a workshop all in one,” said the agent.
He knew they weren’t buying. They knew he knew. False bravado all around. But they feigned interest till they couldn’t anymore. And then they went home. And waited for doom. Till a letter came on the following Monday.
They had signed away their lives. But they had been scrupulous about paying that bill. They ate spaghetti six days a week. On Sunday’s Cherali threw in chopped meat.
Until that Monday when she said, “Do you believe in miracles Justie? Deus ex machina. God has intervened Justie.”
And she showed him the letter. Postmarked last Friday. She read it to him. Only one sentence. ‘If you’re interested in changing Mr. Grinn’ interest only loan to one with a decreasing mortgage please contact Mr. Miller.’
It was once again a joyous house . . . filled with life and hope. We–their memories—had witnessed it all. The two of us. His and hers. They called Miller. And they went over. Miller financed all of Grinn’ doings, he said. But Grinn never paid his bills. Turned out Miller had a heart. Papers were signed. Loans were transferred. And the Wochers went home lighthearted. And now they planned and plotted their revenge on Grinn.
“Let’s burn him at the stake. Steal his car. Pour acid in his ears.”
And they paid their bills on time …till disaster struck.
Miller called. “Where’s my check?” His voice was hard. Edgy.
“We mailed it. We swear.”
He softened. “I’ll call tomorrow.”
But he hadn’t gotten the check by the next day when he called.
He threatened. “If I don’t get the check by the end of the week I’m starting legal proceedings.”
“But I swear. We swear. We mailed it.”
Miller had hung up.
Was it Grinn’ doings. “Let’s find out where he lives. We’ll break in. I bet he’s got the check. I bet he stole it.”
And so they looked him up. He didn’t live far away.
“We’ll go tomorrow.”
They conspired what they were going to do to Grinn. They plotted and planned. Time to get even. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Wochers. Insanity– fueled by desperation–gripped their souls. And all the while they knew they were doing wrong. They couldn’t help themselves. She told him. He said he knew. They couldn’t stop. They had to get back at the man who stole their lives. Still she couldn’t doubt him. He had said he had mailed it. She had asked him.
“Did you? Did you mail it? Are you sure?”
He wouldn’t lie. He was her husband.
They couldn’t hide in the streets. No no. Everything out in the open. Down the sidewalk … hand in hand.
“Oh. How do you do Mr. Grinn. Imagine that. You live here too. Visiting friends we are. A few blocks away. Well bye bye.”
As they pretended to leave they turned to watch where was he going? The butcher. The baker. Then back home. They followed at a safe distance. He entered, arms filled with packages, but left the door open. Did they dare? No. They waited. And then he came out again … preceded by a woman in a wheel chair.
“See Hannah. It’s nice and sunny out. Come. We’ll go for a walk.” And he bent over to kiss her. Grinn the rat turned out to be human. But he had left the door open a crack.
“Easier to get back in, Hannah.”
A wife who was ill. A wife he cared for. Rat by day? Angel by night? Were they softening towards him? No. Never. They watched them go down the block. They watched them turn the corner. Should they? Yes? No? They walked to the door. Pushed it open a crack. Peeked in. Opened it further. Stepped into a pretty house. Well kept. Neat. That lamp on that table. Quick. Let’s move it to that table.
Which they did and left and waited behind a tree for Hannah Grinn and her husband to get back. And they then heard the shriek.
“”Jacob. Look. Somebody moved the lamp. Somebody broke in. Call the police. Idiot. I told you not to leave the door open.”
And Justin and Cherali ran to their car and drove off … laughing at first … then sobering up.
“We did wrong didn’t we Justie?”
What if somebody saw them? What if the police came and arrested them? They would have to make it up to Grinn. In the meantime … Miller hadn’t gotten their check.
“Do we have enough to send him another one, Justie?”
She was pregnant. She had tied his shoelaces together that morning. They raced down the road.
“Hey. What yer rush, pal”
” Hospital. Water broke.”
“Sorry. No worries pal. Go. And good luck.”
Screeching in to the emergency admittance. Miller over there. Hospital over there. Cherali upstairs. Doctor. Where was the doctor? You’re out to get me aren’t you God? Steal? Maybe. If nothing else worked. And then there it was. An open cash register in the hospital store.
He had gone down to get Cherali a balloon he couldn’t afford. But the girl behind the counter had suddenly run out and had forgotten to close it. Bathroom emergency. Devil knocking at the door. The store was empty. Just him and the cash register.
But there were three. Him and the cash register and his conscience. Was his conscience an agent of nobility … or an agent of fear? Regardless … he couldn’t do it. He just grabbed a few balloons and waited for the girl to come back. She grasped the situation in a second. Checked the cash register. Saw all was well.
“How much for the balloons,” he said?
She looked at him. A little disheveled. A little sweaty. “Your wife,” she said?
He shrugged. “Yeah. Any second now I guess.”
She eased the register drawer closed. “On the house,” she said. “And thanks.”
He grinned at her and left. Okay. One small gift, God. Maybe a sign of things to come.
Her upper lip was wet with sweat. She smiled.
“Did you see our son? I love the balloons. Can we afford balloons?”
“Got ‘em for free,” said. And he told her he sent a second check to Miller. “We will have the money to cover it in a few days. I had to do what I had to do.”
Her breasts had plopped out of her nightie. She was unaware. He grinned at her. Nodded with his eyes.
“You’re shameless,” he said as she tucked herself back in.
“No matter,” she said. “It’s only you.”
“Only?” He stood back in mock astonishment. “Only?” And they began to giggle as the nurse brought in the baby boy.
“Not feeling so good,” Cherali said. “Stomach’s a little funny.”
“Not to worry,” said the nurse. “It happens to mothers the first time they get ready to feed their babies.
“Don’t worry about Miller,” said Justin. “Going to call him and straighten it all out. Tell him to hold that check for a week. You know I have the power to persuade.”
But Justin didn’t have to call Miller. The next morning, while Cherali was nursing and Justin was shaving at home, the phone rang and it was Miller.
“Justin, my boy.” His voice was friendly. Jubilant. “You’re not going to believe what happened? Your check came in today. Envelope ripped and torn and crumpled but check intact. Apologies from the post office. Sorry so sorry. Envelope got caught in sorting machine. Post office didn’t catch it for over a week. Someone is going to get hell over this. Intolerable negligence and all that. Listen Justin. Can you come in next week? Maybe we can talk. Want to make you an offer. Honesty is not always easy to find.”
Then they met. And Justin confessed what he did to Grinn. Miller roared with laughter. They traded stories.
“I spilled ink all over my teacher’s papers because she yelled at me in class.”
“I cut up a lady’s mink muff to make myself a beard.”
Then back to Grinn. “That slimy rat. Deserved everything he had coming to him. I’d cut him off but he’s income for me. Listen Justin. I need someone like you. An honest man. Someone I can trust. Come work for me. I’ll guarantee you a three-year contract. Twenty percent increase over what you tell me your salary is. I need to have my back covered. Think it over. Let me know in a couple of days.”
They talked of the day they would die.
“When that happens we will meet again and we will meld and we will become one.”
“You think we’ll meet again,” he said?
“How can we not,” she said?
“How will I find you when the time comes.”
“I’ll be under the elm on the fifth cloud north of eternity.”
“Not to worry,” he said. “I’ll find you.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
“I’ll be there.”
And he held her hand.
“Isn’t our baby beautiful?”
The kid looked like a wet drowned rat.
“Beautiful,” he lied.
And she smiled. Sometimes lies were good.
Grinn heard of Justin’s job. He called.
“Times gone by are times gone by. The past is the past. All in a day’s works and all that. Come my boy. To dinner. You and the little lady and me and Hannah my wife. What’s her name again. Cherali? Yes yes. Of course. Justin and Jacob and Cherali and Hannah. The four of us. You can be D’Artagnan. We are the three musketeers.”
And Justin confessed. “Door was open. We were visiting. Came to see if anyone was home. I bumped into your lamp. Knocked it over. Replaced it but wasn’t sure I put it back in right place. Sorry so sorry.”
“Bah,” said Grinn. “It’s nothing. We saw. We knew actually. Saw you coming out. We were a little worried. Delighted you told us. Relief and all that. Come. I know a nice kosher restaurant. Latkes and apple fritters and Maneschewitz wine. We’ll talk. Listen. No favors here. Friend to friend. Always did take a liking to you. I was getting ready to give you a decreasing mortgage when Miller took it over. I’m not blaming him. No no. He’s okay, that Miller. A little tough. A little I screw you before you screw me type of guy. But we let bygones be bygones … Miller and me. So listen … leaning over conspiratorially … maybe one day … especially in light of your little transgression … maybe not I want to add … only Hashem knows what’s to be … but maybe one day … perhaps … circumstance may take me down an uncertain path … who knows … but if it does … excuse me …waiter … more wine for my friend my good friend Justin … so when that happens … if that happens … in remembrance of our newly found friendship here … in respect for the fact that I actually knew you switched that lamp but never said anything … hey … I can laugh at a practical joke as well as the next person … a practical joke born of frustration is understandable. When a practical joke is invoked to wake the pigheaded up to the injustices they’ve caused … then those practical jokers – when discovered — have to be forgiven and overlooked for their actions were born of frustration and not of malevolence. I like to call them Frustajokers. They rarely have a mean bone in their bodies. A frustajoke by a frustajoker so to speak. But in case the day comes when I need you to say a good word to Miller for me …he knows me as Lebowitz … I use Grinn for business … don’t want to be typecast you know …Lebowitz-the-Shylock they’ll say. Facades form the best illusions you see. They’re sometimes necessary for our own well-being. Well … you know how much affection I have for you and your young wife … and a newborn baby I hear … a male child no less … yes yes …wonderful … waiter … more wine over here … and double those apple fritters …and sprinkle plenty of sugar over them … sweets for the sweet and all that … and here you go … a twenty percent tip for you young man … winking at Justin as they left and began to part ways … you go left and I go right … and salutations to you young man … we can never be too kind to the help those who need it can we?”
Miller put him in the request department.
“Simple system. They ask for money … you tell them no. They come a second time … still no. Third time you soften up. I know I know. A little predatory. Hey. Bring us your desperate … your wanting … your empty pocketed desperados. We don’t want your dredges … but we don’t want your independents either. We need the needy. It’s how we make money. Three simple rules. Don’t be harsh. Don’t be cruel. Reject more than you accept. That’s the safe ground. A little rocky … but no sink holes to sucker you in.”
And there he worked in a solo office … alone and separated from the other cackling office workers.
“No sir. Sorry sir. You don’t qualify. No ma’am. Not today. We’re governed by strict federal codes you see. Codes? What codes? Sorry lady. Not allowed to give that out. All top secret. Government doesn’t want us to let anyone know the whys and wherefores of things. Your third time here, you say. Well you certainly are persistent are you not? Of course we’ll reconsider. That’s what we’re here for, sir.”
Day in and day out. Same thing. “No sir. No ma’am. No no no. Well … okay. Just for you. Seeing as how you seem like a human being. Yes yes. Of course we’re all human beings. Figure of speech you see.”
And in the end … Miller never killed them. He just wanted their appreciation. He wanted to make sure they knew they owed him financially and morally. He wanted to ensure that conscience prodded on-time payments.
“Listen Justin. Be tough on the outside. But if someone really can’t pay … be soft. Extend the terms. We want to make a living but we don’t want to kill our customers.”
The dichotomy in Miller was fascinating.
Mornings. Slow meandering routines. “Coffee. Doughnut. How d’ya like it honey? Light and sweet. Hah. Just like me. Yeah yeah. Funny.”
Straighten the papers. Trade jokes. “Hey. You hear the one about…”
And then … kablouiee! Phones ringing off the hook. Is it true you give loans? Hello? I have a situation. Wonder if you can help. Good morning. I need money. I need a loan. I need help. I need I need I need. Appointments up the kazoo. Lines stretching out the door … down the steps … around the block … under the hill … over the dale. Yes yes. I’m sure we can help Mrs. Smith. Of course, Mr. Krenshaw. Step right up to the money tree ladies and gentlemen. Sorry sir. Sorry ma’am. Not today. Not your fault. No no. Our fault. Mismanaged funds and all that. Have to put a hold on things for now. I assure you it has nothing to do with you. Why don’t you try us again next month. After you’ve cleared up that little problem. Maybe when you fix your problem we will have fixed ours. Co-incidence you say? No no. Let me ask you. Which would be stranger? A world with co-incidences? Or a world without co-incidences? Of course a world without co-incidences would be beyond believable. Not to worry. Try us next month. You go our way … we’ll go our way … and then we’ll meet in the middle. Shake? Of course. Meeting you was my pleasure. Till next time then.
And then it happened … the unbelievable. Mildred … secretary supreme … came prancing in. She sat on his desk. Wriggled her derriere till she and it found a comfortable position.
“Once upon a time,” she said, “in a land far far away there once lived a man who had a secretary who performed miracles and told strange tales … just for him. Her name was Mildred. She had blond hair … just like me. She had blue eyes … just like me. And she told her boss stories … just like me. Ready for your tale Justie-pooh? Want a hint?”
“Once upon a time in a building just down the street,” she continued, “and around the corner in a musty old office there dwelled a nasty old userer who used other people’s money to line his pockets. He never used his own money. He was a broker. Worked with borrowed funds. He was an evil evil lender. He did not care about the pain he caused when he forced people into a corner. He did not care about the breath he stole as he sucked the very air from their lungs as they gasped for survival. Every night–it was rumored in the neighborhood–as he stuffed his coffers … he watched the streets through sooted windows and drooled with glee at potential poverty stricken victims striding the sidewalks. People like him lack the ability to feel the pain of others. And then–as happens at times–disaster strode by arm in arm with death and decided to wreak vengeance upon his soul. And together they took his wife from this earth.. And since she was the main source of his money–she had money of her own you see and her will left everything to the children–he suddenly found himself kaput. Our userer was broken. He could not work. He could not borrow. He could not lend. And as his ever declining credit slowly began to dissipate … our friend began to lose his friends … all of whom–as is most common–were his friends because of his money and their association with him was nothing more than reflected glory. He lost his business associates. He lost his funds. He lost his family. And as death and disaster ran off to play in the meadows of hell … poetic justice stepped in to take her piece of the pie. Our friend is outside right now. He is waiting to be allowed entrance. He wants to speak with you, he says. You and only you. For you are the one he trusts. We are old friends, he says. You will surely listen and help, he says. And he now is silent … waiting for me to get him and bring him to you … and in his utter silence his eyes are screaming his silent pleas. May I send him in, Justie? His name is Grinn, he says. Jacob Grinn.”
Grinn–nee Lebowitz who was ashamed of who he was because he was afraid of humanity–came in … head bowed … hat in hand.
“Hello Mr. Justin. So nice to see you again. It has been a while has it not. Been meaning to call you, Mr. Justin. Nice office you have here.” Looking around. “Good paintings. Is that a Modigliagi print? He’s one of us you know. Nice Jewish boy. Loved his naked women. It’s part of our blood. Grew up in poverty. But I’m ranting. Who cares about Jewish Italian painters? We’re financiers …you and I. Birds of a feather so to speak … though some of us eat chicken and others of us eat squab. So why am I here you may well ask, Mr. Justin. Or Mr. Wocher. Whichever you prefer. I find myself in an embarrassing situation. Hannah died. Sudden event. Hashem giveth and Hashem taketh away. We speak of reasons but we don’t know the whys. Those who don’t know speak of it all the time. Those who know are silent. And so we mortals speak all the time … trying to guess the whys of life. But I don’t want to bother you with all these inanities. I’ll get straight to the point. I am in need of a loan Mr. Justin. Justin when we’re friends. Mr. Justin when we’re doing business. Protocol and all that. Not too much. A small amount for a man of your stature. Ten … maybe twenty thousand dollars. Grinn held up his hand. No no. No pressure Mr. Justin. Suppose I come back next week? Tuesday perhaps? You can give me your answer then. I have to run. Business affairs to take care of. People like us can not stay still. Opportunities must be netted before they flitter off.”
Getting up now. Backing out. Hat in hat. “Till next week then Mr. Justin. Mr. Wocher. I see you’re a busy man. Say hello to the wife for me. She’s a lucky lady to have you as a husband. You’re a fine man. Yes yes. A fine man. A very fine man.”
And Justin Wocher looked out the window and down onto the sidewalk as he watched the bent over old man walk slowly–cane in hand–down the sidewalk and disappear around the corner. He did not expect the call from Cherali’s doctor.
Justin was sitting at his desk fingering an envelope when Mildred came prancing in. A week had passed. She wriggled herself once again onto his desk.
“Want to hear a story Justin? Want Milly to tell you a tale?”
Justin leaned back. He grinned. He loved when she got that way with him. Some people took a coffee break. Some people took a fun break.
“Once upon a time there was an evil old man who needed money,” she said.
Grinn! He knew immediately. He was back. Mildred smiled. “Outside,” she said. “Hat in hand. Wants to speak with you. Only you. You got a little thing going on with that old man, Justin?”
Justin scrunched up a piece of paper and threw it at her. She ducked.
“Want me to send him in?”
She picked the paper up off the floor and dropped it delicately into the garbage and wriggled off. Justin placed the envelope carefully on the desk in front of him.
“How do you do Mr. Justin? He looked haggard.” Worn. Justin wondered how he would look if Cherali had died. The doctor had said she was diabetic and asthmatic.
“So,” said Grinn. “You know maybe why I’m here?”
“You know money is tight,” said Justin.
“So is my belt,” said Grinn. “That doesn’t mean I don’t wear pants.”
“Interesting analogy,” said Justin.
Grinn shrugged. “Right now it’s the best I’ve got. Times are a little lean and my mind is not as sharp as it used to be. Just hope I can keep thinking till the end of my trip when I meet up again with Hannah.”
“How about a cup of tea,” said Justin.
Grinn sighed. “It’s not tea I need right now.”
“No,” said Justin. “I guess it isn’t.” He picked the envelope up off his desk. “Here,” he said. “For you. Your loan was approved. Check for ten thousand is inside. Sign the contract on your way out and give it to Mildred.”
Grinn stood up. He could not speak. He looked at the header on the envelope. “For the Frustajokers”, it said.
And now we linger as the years pass by. The children are grown up and gone. Cheralie had passed some time ago. She had told Justin on that last day that she was going to die and she did. Justin roams the rooms with only us–their memories–to keep him company. We are like two old pairs of his and hers pants. touching each other and draped over the railing of life … waiting for the final evanescence.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
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