The Money Lender (#1)
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The Money Lender
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
It is one of human nature’s peculiar quirks that those who make their living by stealing and swindling should apply the most exacting standards of honesty to those who handle their money.
The modern Strip area of the City of Las Vegas was founded by Jewish and Italian mobsters who developed the pleasure palaces that enriched them so enormously. Just as ancient wisdom tells us that while success has many fathers, failure is an orphan – and, in consideration of the founders of the Strip, should consider themselves lucky to be that – it would be only natural to find that those fathers who had succeeded so well would be asked to provide jobs for an assortment of relatives who might otherwise have encountered difficulty in finding employment. Many were hired to do what casinos do most, that is to say, handle money. Such familial largesse, however, often proved to be unwise: blood was not only thicker than water, it was also more difficult to remove.
That the learning curve should be too high for one’s relatives constituted a problem that anyone who has vouched for a family member’s honesty, reliability, and intelligence can appreciate. The founders naturally agreed that only honest persons should be allowed to count whatever money the owners delivered to counting rooms; and slowly the suspicion grew that religious persons were those who were most likely to meet their imperious demands of honesty.
Although there were numerous Catholics who were in all probability trustworthy, the fear that a sinning Catholic who had “borrowed” currency might confess the method and extent of his offenses to a priest, who might be tempted to pass along such valuable information, remained an unwarranted extension of the problem. Ordination merely conferred authority, it did not guarantee integrity. Mormons who already were well represented in the population of the old downtown Las Vegas constituted, then, a vital resource. Mormons were religious and didn’t have to confide sins to third parties, mortal ones, at any rate. And since they couldn’t comfortably be absolved of the burdens of sin and were perfectly able to count, they made ideal counters and cashiers. Whole crime families who had never heard of Mormons clamored to employ them simply because they were the most trustable people around. And when most Mafia properties were purchased by Howard Hughes, the positions in those counting rooms remained safely in Mormon hands.
And so it was with the Friend-N-Need Check Cashing Company (FNN-CCC) of North Las Vegas. Persons with obscure identities owned the business, but they hired only those individuals whose claims of dedication to religious principles were thoroughly vetted. Possibly because their knowledge of ethical deportment was so limited, the owners did not allow for the possibility of change. And this, as even Mormons will tell you, can be a big mistake.
Part 2: Joshua
Young, bright, former altar boy Joshua Mays stood beneath a sign that read, “We’re a friend when you’re in need” and, looking around to see if anyone was watching, opened a cabinet drawer in which a stack of money-order blanks was kept. He removed five from the bottom of the stack and sliped them into a magazine he had carried for such concealment purpose. Then he glanced around again to see if anyone had noticed what he had done, and this time he saw his coworker Timothy J. Murphy looking at him. Tim wanted only to know if Joshua would return from lunch fifteen minutes early since he had an errand to run. But guilt plays tricks on rationality, and Joshua, seeing Tim looking at him, made an exaggerated attempt to appear normal and then formed an expression that challenged Tim’s right to look at him. Tim who had seen Joshua a thousand times a day – there were, after all, only three cashiers in the office – was not quite sure how he should respond to that “Wadda you lookin’ at?” stare and quickly stated his request, “It’s my parents’ 30th anniversary and I’m giving them a cruise. I’m supposed to see the travel agent and pick up a few brochures so they can choose where they want to go. Can you come back from lunch fifteen minutes early?”
Joshua could not hide his suspicion. “That’s a pretty big anniversary gift,” he grinned slyly. “How come you never mentioned it before?” When Tim stood silent in confusion, Joshua added, “Yo, Tim… nobody uses travel agents anymore. You’ve got a computer. There’s plenty of pictures to look at.”
“Jesus, Josh, who the hell cares about my parents’ anniversary? They don’t trust computer advertisements. People don’t keep them current. So I’m pickin’ up a bunch of brochures. The agent has to be someplace at one o’clock. I said I’d try to pick them up before he left. Ain’t no more to it than that.”
Joshua suspected that he had been told a very clever lie – some quick-witted Freudian counter-slip for “agent.” The tension of debt and theft had combined to make him suspicious of almost everything. “Aware” he called his state of mind. “Alert. On Guard.” It was closer to paranoia, and he had reason to be afraid. He had already stolen twenty-thousand dollars of blank money-orders and cashed them wearing a wig that resembled Tim’s Irish strawberry blonde hair and mustache and big thick-rimmed glasses that were identical to Tim’s. And most of all, he had a sheer plastic replica of Tim’s right thumbprint that his friend and mentor, Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky – a defrocked Roman Catholic priest – had made for him in Germany. Rick had also provided fake proof of identity for him – a driver’s license, credit card, and gym membership card issued to a fictional Keith Marion. Joshua would claim that he was a full-time care-giver for a retired cleric who had lost both his legs, and, therefore, he lived and worked at the same fictional condominium address, the telephone number of which was a burner phone used exclusively by Ex-Father Rick to verify and recommend Keith Marion. Timothy J. Murphy had scripted the M in his last name in a peculiar manner, and Joshua could precisely reproduce that M when he endorsed the check as “Marion.” He also reproduced Tim’s loops, slants, jots, and tittles.
The real crisis of discovery and the formal shifting of blame onto Tim Murphy were only four weeks away when the auditors arrived to do their routine examination of FNN CCC’s books. There was no doubt that they would discover the missing money-order blanks. Joshua hadn’t thought he’d steal more than the twenty-thousand he desperately needed to pay off his gambling and credit card debts; but the sense of being free of debt, instead of curing him of his impulsive habits, gave him the freedom to indulge them.
Joshua had a dream that arched over his otherwise drab existence like a rainbow; and, just as the rainbows that are so rarely seen in the desert always make the sordid and the sham seem uninteresting, his proved to be equally transforming. As a kid he had been a much admired “street” skateboarder. He had gone through half a dozen skateboards in his pre-teen years, and then his parents moved into a Home Owner’s Association development in which skateboards were forbidden.
Joshua broke the rules, and the HOA warned and then fined his family and insisted that they dispose of the board immediately. Each day that the Mays kept Joshua’s board on the premises, they would incur an additional fine. Mr. Mays thought that such tactics were reminiscent of the Gestapo, an opinion not shared by HOA Board Chairman August Von Hoff, who, on behalf of his relatives who had not, of course, shared the Third Reich’s views of governance, cautioned him against making prejudicial ethnic hate speech, an offense that was also listed in the HOA agreements Mays had signed. Obediently, Joshua’s skate board was given to a thrift shop, an act by which the HOA manufactured a vandal. Often, at night, Joshua would sneak out to feed the family of store-bought white rats he had installed in the HOA’s famous rock garden. Mr. Mays learning of his son’s investment in rats, and in terror of the HOA’s response should they discover it, immediately put his house up for sale. It was a seller’s market and the HOA was delighted to see them quickly go. The white rats proved to be prolific breeders, particularly with the black Norway rats who visited them from the sewers. The Mays did not remain long enough to witness the interesting mendelian results. Some white, some black, but mostly pale grey rats soon overran the community.
Joshua began to watch surfing movies and a palpable sense of being carried on a wave, holding his balance while salt water sprayed on his face, and using terms like “gnarly” and “hanging ten” became a new addiction to him. He was a good swimmer and easily got a job at a water-park where he spent every available minute practicing balancing tricks on a fiberglass boogie board. It was as much as he could do until he finally got his own car and surfboard. When, at seventeen, he received both, he would drive down to Malibu every weekend where he informally joined a group of intermediate surfers.
“All my life,” he’d say with more than a glint of determination in his eyes, “I have been preparing for “Pe’ahi” Maui. Jaws.” Sure, living so far from the waves prevented him from ever being among the best. But he could be a respectable amateur: a man whose soul was in the surf, a man who didn’t grub out a living, stealing or pretending to have gone native by eating fallen coconuts and beach-fried fish to survive. He didn’t want to dress in rags and have skin pocked with sand flea infestations. He had seen too many guys who had come out of the tropics with scabies or skin parasites and he knew how people avoided them. Such bums couldn’t afford treatment and were the lepers of the surfing world. No, he’d need a respectable job to be given respect as an amateur. He therefore went to community college and got an “associate’s degree” which didn’t seem to mean much in academic circles, but he did take basic physics and ecology studies. He got a job with the check cashing company and began to save his money for his move to Maui; and then, while he was buying fish-tacos for lunch in Malibu, a gang of thugs stole his new board, clothes, car keys, car, and wallet which was in the locked glove compartment. Half naked and humiliated, he reported the theft, and when offered a ride back to Vegas, took it. He later learned that his car had been totaled and so had the parked car that it hit, but since he had both liability and collision insurance on the car, he escaped financial disaster. He often heard the sad tales the clients who borrowed from the Friend-N-Need Check Cashing Company would tell. He blamed their problems on the disease of stupidity, a malady to which he considered himself immune.
One day at lunch he met a bookie who ate at the fast-food joint he frequented, and the bookie gave him tips that were sure things. Joshua would bet ten dollars and discover that he made thirty-four. Then he’d bet fifty and discover that he made a hundred fifty. Of course, he never saw the horses race and the places were names he only vaguely knew… Hialeah, Aquaduct, Churchill Downs. After he made about five hundred dollars, he began to lose. He didn’t lose all the time, but just enough to reinforce his conclusion that he “knew how to pick ’em.” His bookie would allow him just so much credit, but he vouched for a friend who lent him money. The “vig” did not seem all that much higher than the interest the clients of FNN CCC were paying. Within a year Joshua found himself in twenty-thousand dollars worth of debt. He began to suspect that he was going to be asked to be the inside man in a robbery of the office; and in this distress, he consulted a man he knew from his old, pre-HOA neighborhood, Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky.
Ex-Father Dubrovsky was a knowledgeable man and, as such, strove to avoid saying anything that could be directly quoted, especially when he was advising someone to do something illegal. Whenever possible, he spoke in hypotheticals, and with only casual sexual events required in exchange for his hypotheticals, and perhaps a nominal sum, he was the logical choice for advice to solve Joshua’s problems.
Dubrovsky lived in a walled-in ranch-style corner house that he maintained without any hired help. It was not true, as some supposed, that he simply did not want strangers to have access to his private files or his kinky sex toys. He had no private files or toys, and although he was a virile forty-year old male, he had no notable sexual perversions. It was true that he did entertain friends who brought pornographic DVDs with them when they came to visit; but he always insisted that they take them when they left. That there were no hired servants who had access to his property was simply due to Ex-Father Rick Dubrovsky’s enjoyment in cleaning his house, doing his laundry, mowing his lawn. He had developed exercise programs that employed muscles used in performing routine household chores. His physique was much admired, and it pleased his neighbors to see him jog each morning with his small, mixed breed dog that he rescued from the city animal shelter jogging beside him. Bruno, the dog, constituted the only family he tolerated.
When Joshua Mays came to him not merely to renew an old friendship but to ask him to help find a way out of his predicament, Ex-Father Rick received him warmly because Bruno for some unknown reason did not bark at him. Facts were gathered and conclusions reached. Though it was dangerous to steal from the FNN CCC, it was, in his opinion, more dangerous not to pay the loan shark. “If I knew someone who was in this sort of trouble, I’d expect that he’d do all he could to obtain the money while carefully setting up someone who had equal access to the funds to take the blame. That would mean getting a good wig, colored contact lenses perhaps, a similar watch and jewelry… that sort of thing. I’ve heard that for a reasonable sum of money it is possible to send a photograph of a thumb print to Germany and get a thin plastic film that reproduces it, a film that adheres to a thumb and will leave the spurious, but virtually undetectable, print.”
“Heavy!” Joshua exclaimed. “I’ve got just the loser in my office I can copy and blame: Tim Murphy, the perfect patsy. But how much, hypothetically speaking,” he asked, “would someone who assisted in this enterprise expect to receive in return?”
“Ten percent, I’d imagine, plus any incidental expenses, such as a burner phone, the thumb print, and the false I.D. papers.”
Joshua acquired all the necessary items of disguise and started stealing blank money-orders and cashing them at competitors’ offices on the other side of town. When the $20,000 debt was finally paid, Rick assumed that their hypothetical arrangement was finished, and Joshua saw no reason to disabuse him of this notion. Since Joshua doubted that the places that had previously cashed his checks and verified their validity, would do so again, he could, by not telling Rick, save that 10% for a new life in Maui. He therefore stole another ten-thousand dollars worth of blanks.
He knew that it was dangerous not only to steal from his employers but also to cheat the resourceful Rick; and these fears, along with being observed that morning by Tim Murphy, allowed Joshua to become emotionally primed for being discovered and arrested. Nevertheless, he took the five blank money-orders and ran each through the perforating check protector machine for $2000.00 each.
When Tim returned from lunch he said that his parents had changed their minds about going on a cruise. They had seen on TV the problems incurred when a norovirus had stricken one of the major cruise ships. Joshua gave him that “likely story” look; and Tim felt obliged to explain that his father had a serious heart condition and earned extra money mowing lawns and trimming trees and shrubs; and his mother earned money from appliqueing numbers on athletic uniforms. Since both of them needed new equipment, he’d spend the money on a new chain saw and sewing machine. Joshua grinned malignantly, as if he could see through the lie. Despite this, the roar of Maui’s surf overrode his suspicions.
When Joshua went for his coffee break at 3:30 p.m., Tim signaled the third cashier, a girl named Charlene Cattone with whom he was secretly in love, and said, “Is it me or does Josh seem strange today?”
“It’s not you,” was the only answer Charlene could hazard. The cashiers were forbidden to form alliances and although she was romantically inclined towards Tim, she had her own reasons for keeping her feelings secret. Charlene Cottone was “well-connected” in the old Italian community, and he was an Irish outsider. No matter how guilty she was of breaking the alliance rule, he’d be the one who’d lose his job.
At 5 p.m. Joshua left work and went to the men’s room of a gas station, put on the wig, mustache and glasses, and imitated Tim’s shy demeanor as he studied the cracked mirror over the sink. Then he carefully removed the thin plastic fingerprint disk from its case and laid its thin adhesive film against his thumb. He was approximately the same size as Tim, he wore the exact copy of a denim shirt Tim wore, and he had the hair – mustache and all – that matched Tim’s. “Sometimes I worry,” he whispered to the mirror, “that one of Tim’s friends will run into me. Good Golly, Miss Molly,” he grinned, “what’ll I do then?” He left the men’s room and hurried to make the rounds of a few check cashing offices that knew him and knew that his “paper” was good.
He made it a point never to drive to these places – security cameras could record the vehicle – and when he returned to the FNN CCC parking lot in which he kept his car to pick it up for the evening, he noticed a “suit” – a reference to the business garments worn by non-uniformed law enforcement agents – entering FNN-CCC’s office. He knew to a certainty that this was the agent Tim had contacted. In fact, the man was a golfing buddy of Joshua’s boss, Dave Lonigan. Lonigan had misplaced his application to enter the weekend’s tournament and his friend was just dropping off a new form to him. But such things did not occur to Joshua who had begun alternately to perspire and to feel cold. He drove directly to Rick’s house.
Rick let his reading glasses slide down his nose half an inch or so and bent his head down so that he could see over the top of the glasses. “I can tell you’ve done something naughty. I don’t want the details… not yet. What I’d like to know is why did you not discuss this with someone before you did it?”
Joshua lied. “A guy who occasionally does business with us told me about an opportunity to invest in a condo in Maui. But I had to be able to give him the money this weekend. I just didn’t have time to discuss it.”
“Has it not occurred to you that anyone who has to resort to banking at a check cashing auto-title loan office at rates that abut the state’s usury limit is hardly in a position to offer anyone a good business opportunity, legal or otherwise?” It was a rhetorical question. “As long as you’re here and I have not as yet dined, make us some spaghetti.” Rick pushed his glasses up the ridge of his nose and resumed reading.
After dinner, it was time to discuss the problem. “Joshua,” Rick began solemnly, “you are a sorcerer’s apprentice. You know how to start the magic, but you don’t know how to stop it. Please don’t tell me you stole more blank money-orders.”
“I’m giving you your ten percent for covering me,” he said, withdrawing ten one-hundred dollar bills from an envelope, “and this I promise will be the end.” He related the day’s suspicious events. “By the end of the month you can get rid of that burner phone. You’ll never have to verify my employment or my good character again.”
Rick put the cash into his wallet. “Words cannot express my relief,” he said using his cynical tone of voice. “I have fresh limes. Mix us a couple of vodka tonics.”
As Joshua left the room, Rick called, “Joshua, you have no protection at all. With those goddamned digital cameras they can count your blackheads. So if you do come under suspicion, you’re burned. If I were in such a predicament, I’d absolutely solidify someone else’s guilt. Make it so obvious that there’s no need to look elsewhere. When is your office due to be audited again?”
“In another month.”
“If they suspect trouble, they’ll come earlier just to trap someone. Anyone who’s under suspicion won’t have much time.”
“I’ve got enough dough to get to Hawaii,” Joshua said with a child’s enthusiasm as he returned with the drinks.
“You think that maybe Hawaii is a foreign country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty? What is wrong with you? Where is your brain?” He grew angry. “You know, you’ve dragged me into this, so don’t take it so goddamned lightly. Put Mahler’s 9th on. I need to think.”
Joshua reluctantly went to the CD player and rolled his eyes. He imitated Rick, “Mahler’s 9th. I need to think.”
Rick looked up. “And by the way, what did you do with the wig and glasses?”
“I had them in a paper bag that I threw in a dumpster.”
“I thought I told you that a wise person burns evidence… he doesn’t leave it like a trail behind him.”
Joshua pushed the play button. “I smashed the glasses and tore the wig into shreds. Nobody will take them out to use them.”
While Rick listened and Joshua squirmed, the symphony played. When it ended, Rick said quietly, “I heard of a plan. This is what a smart man would do. He’d go home, pack work and dress clothes and put them in a cooler or some shopping bags. He wouldn’t use a suitcase. And he wouldn’t forget shoes, socks, and tie. I’m stimulated. It would ‘t hurt if you’d spend the night… maybe a few nights. If you’re going home now, I’ll make a few calls. Don’t dawdle.”
Part 3: Aaron
Nineteen year old Aaron Weitzman woke up Friday morning with a hangover, a grudge against Fate, and a strange uncertainty about where he was. On Thursday evening his friends had given him a bachelor’s party as if being coerced into marriage was something that should be celebrated. He had tried to smile at their smutty remarks and to laugh at their improbable stories, but they were playing to an empty room. He appreciated nothing, and they could tell. At midnight. they deposited him on the doorstep of his bride-to-be, Rebecca Blumenthal. She, waiting up for him, sat alone in the living room of her “cousins’ house,” and was greatly relieved to have him safely home and also to gather from his friends’ comments, that he had not complained about having to marry her. She did call his best friend aside to ask if Aaron had mentioned Caroline. He looked at her and feigned ignorance. “No,” he said. “Never mentioned her.” In fact most of what Aaron had said when he was good and drunk was about Caroline. No one had ever seen Aaron drunk before; and to see him as a maudlin drunk, blubbering words of love between gasps of regret, cast a pall, one might say, over the festive occasion. After they brought him to her house, they went out to do some serious celebrating.
Now, in the morning, Aaron Weitzman looked at the unfamiliar blankets and smelled the coffee that Rebecca was making in the coffee maker her parents kept at the house. She called to him as if she had used the words a thousand times before. “Your coffee’s ready, Hon. How do you want your eggs?”
Aaron put his feet on the floor. He had no slippers. He looked under the bed thinking that along with all the other improbabilities, he might find slippers there. There were none. He suddenly yearned for orange juice… fresh cold orange juice. “OJ,” he answered. “All I want is orange juice.”
“I think we have a can of it in the cabinet,” Rebecca called from the stairway. “I’m sure it’s still good. Is that all right?”
He groaned. “No! I’ll take the coffee… no, make that tea.” The coffee was likely to be stale, too. He began to descend the carpeted stairs.
Rebecca’s family actually lived in the back room of the dress shop her mother owned and operated, but nobody was allowed to know that. Mr. Blumenthal was a jewelry salesman who worked in his father’s store that was located only a few blocks from the dress shop. Mere convenience, however, could not offset the requirement of appearing to live in a more prosperous environment.
The Blumenthals bought a house in the suburbs and when it was their night to entertain their relatives, who were mostly cousins who met monthly, or when there was a special occasion that required the presence of other family members, they packed up the silverware and ornaments that had value… everything from candlesticks to pictures on the wall… and carted the stuff up to the “cousins’ house.” A local landscaping service kept the lawn and hedges trimmed. The nearly empty clothes’ closets all had locked doors and it was never convenient to find the key in those rare events that a cousin asked to examine a particular article of clothing. The house did have a TV satellite installation which included internet service and Rebecca, while writing various school papers often worked in the seclusion of the “cousin’s house.” The house had no listed landline; and all the phone calls came to individual cellphones. Aaron had originally wondered why Rebecca’s parents were so often away from home, but Rebecca always had a credible excuse. She would sometimes say that they were lounging at the beach in Florida, when they were actually a few miles away, eating and sleeping in the cramped rear of the dress shop.
Aaron did not like Rebecca. He did not like her family. But she liked him and when he met her he was on the rebound and needed somebody… anybody… to make him feel as though not everyone in the world was against him. A girl named Caroline Wechsler had sat in front of him in nearly all of his junior high and high school classes. She was beautiful and popular and when she asked him to come to her house to help her learn science or math, he felt like a god sitting beside her while she looked up at him with her dark eyes. She had auburn hair and he marked the seasons by her changes in hair style. He loved them all. His top dresser drawer was filled with photos of her… alone or with him. He had never known another girl. She was his first sexual experience, and he was hers. Her parents were not separated but they did live apart. Her mother was a public library administrator and her father was a professor at Penn State who came home on weekends. Both of her parents were rightly regarded as intellectuals, but Caroline, unfortunately, was merely beautiful. In her last year of high school, owing to her father’s faculty position, she was accepted at Penn State. She pressed the acceptance letter to her chest. “Oh, Aaron,” she said, “I guess it’s Nittany Lion time! I wish you were going with me. I’ll miss you so much. But we can still talk every day.” Caroline Started at Penn but Aaron could not afford to attend any school that he couldn’t walk to. He enrolled at Temple University and hurried home from school each day so that he could lie on his bed and call his beloved and help her to understand quadratic functions and to compose a clever opening line in an essay. They talked less of love and more of need and even then, as pop quizzes and spontaneously written accounts left no doubt about Caroline’s academic inadequacies, they talked about misery and all the far flung dreams of worldly conquest came down only to the tenuous fact that they still had each other.
Having a vague inclination to become an astrophysicist, Aaron wanted to enter the college of Science and Mathematics. He had done well in high school mathematics and first year college math should not have even challenged him; but something happened to his mind in late in October. He couldn’t concentrate or remember things that he previously knew. It wasn’t Caroline. Yes, he felt emotionally lost without her, but this was different. It was something physical. One day, while reviewing the laws of exponents – the m’s and the n’s – he saw them blur into something that resembled cuneiform writing. He had to go home and go to bed. He felt feverish and his throat hurt. His mother worked, and his father lived elsewhere, so he struggled through his illness alone, using his TV as a clock. His throat finally returned to normal but he felt a kind of frozen fatigue. Weeks passed. He missed his mid-terms. He did not realize that he had caught the Epstein-Barr virus, commonly called “infectious mononucleosis.”
When he did feel stronger – but was not well enough to concentrate on current classwork while also trying to catch up on all that he had missed – he returned to school; and despite his efforts to comprehend and to recall the facts taught in his various classes, he failed his make-up tests so badly that his advisor suggested that he take some time off to regain his health and then to go to summer school and repeat the classes he had failed. Of course it was too late to get any of his tuition back, but on the plus side, the grade of a re-taken class would replace the original failing grade. It made sense, and Aaron regained his hope of being a scientist. He could even enroll in on-line accredited courses – when he had enough money to pay the tuition, of course.
Financially, his parents could not help him. His father kept a woman with whom he had two children that Aaron had never seen. His mother, with whom he shared a duplex apartment, had a job working as a saleswoman in a shoe store. If she felt bitter towards her husband, she concealed her feelings, preferring to speak about him as though he had recently died. She’d say, “Sol, God rest his soul, always loved argyle socks. He liked to play golf and bought his first pair when he played Saint Andrew’s in Scotland. From then on, nothing but argyle was good enough for him… dear man that he was.” Aaron would see him walk through their apartment door as though he were a ghost… a ghost that did, indeed, wear argyle socks. Their conversations were pleasant. Sometimes the three of them had Mac and Cheese dinners together. The familial situation was weird and he could never quite understand it, but it gave him no cause for psychological distress. Aaron discussed his dad with his school mates just as casually as they discussed theirs. His father worked for the government, and Aaron entertained the fantasy that he was a CIA agent, but he never told anyone that. Sol Weitzman was a clerk in the Agriculture Department.
He had not considered the cost of telephoning Caroline so frequently or for such long periods of time per call. At first their conversations were the truncated stuff of tidbits of gossip and pooh-bear love, but then she mailed him an identical mathematics book she used at Penn, and their talks became more substantive. She would call and say, “I can’t do numbers 29, 31, 35, and 40 on Page 39” and then he would work the problems out and call her back taking her through the problems step by step. Even while he was not fully recovered and seemed apathetic to everything else around him, there were loose leaf pages of calculations in the trash can beside his bed. This encouraged his mother. The phone bills had increased, but his mother was not distressed by this. The bill that arrived in December, however, shocked her, and as she looked at each call made to Caroline her hands trembled and she sat at the foot of his bed and began to cry. “I just lent your father all the money I had in my savings. Twelve hundred dollars. Aaron… Aaron… what is wrong with you that you created a phone bill of $349.52? For one month, Aaron.. Your father’s children needed Hanuka presents and winter clothing. I need a new coat, too, Aaron.” Then she went into the kitchen and sat with her forehead against the Formica table-top, a tissue in one hand and the crumpled phone bill in the other. Each of her stifled sobs stabbed him with shame. Occasionally, she’d compose herself long enough to lament, “All that money for tuition went for nothing… and now this.”
Aaron tried to say something that would comfort her, but he didn’t know the words. “I’ve finally shaken off this flu off, Mom. I can get a job now.”
His mother went into her bedroom and rummaged through her jewelry box. Then she went into a cabinet and took out two two sterling silver candlesticks. “Do you feel strong enough to take these to the pawn shop? Or must I humiliate myself even more?”
Aaron showered, dressed, and drove to his Uncle Benny’s appliance store. He explained the $349.52 phone bill and the loan his mother had given to his brother Sol. “I’m not looking for a handout, Uncle Benny. Mom gave me some jewelry and some silver to pawn. But I need a job…. not just to pay this phone bill but to pay my tuition. I’ll take some on-line courses if I can afford them.”
“You’ve lost weight, Aaron. How long have you been sick?”
“I was really bad for about six weeks, but I’m finally feeling stronger.”
Uncle Benny motioned to him to follow him to his office in the rear of the store.
He unlocked a petty cash box, took out $350 and jokingly said, “Keep the change.”
“Will you give me a job?”
“I can’t pay much.”
“Whatever you think I’m worth is fine.”
Aaron Weitzman returned his mother’s jewelry and sterling pieces to her and immediately began to feel like a normal human being – one that had a good excuse for not making those late afternoon and early evening long distance calls to a bewildered girl who was obviously below average when it came to academic work. For several weeks he did not dare call Caroline and then she called to tell him that she was home and that she had withdrawn from Penn. She had injured a knee, she said, trying out for track; and the doctor told her to do leg exercises to improve her muscle strength. Her knee was presently wrapped in Ace bandages. She asked if he could borrow a car and drive to her house from the appliance store. He did not want to impose any further on his uncle. He said he could get off the bus a few blocks ahead of his stop and walk to her house… but that would not be until the store closed for the evening. “I must see you now,” she whined; and so her brother drove her to the run-down appliance store with its gaudy Christmas red and green “Sale” signs. “I needed to ask you, in person,” she said, “if you would like to come with me to Europe. The doctor said that the beginners’ and intermediate ski runs were the perfect way to rehabilitate my weakened legs. We’ll have such fun together.”
She looked so beautiful with her face surrounded by a fake-fur parka hood, that all he wanted to do was kiss her. He said that he regretted that it was the store’s busy season and there was no way that he could get time off to go on vacation. And so with a dutiful kiss of regret, she said goodbye and assured him that she would send him at least a post card every single day.
And it quickly disturbed him. He knew that she knew that he could not afford a car let alone a trip to Europe, and that he weighed twenty pounds less than he weighed when she saw him last and she had made no comment about his gaunt appearance. She knew all this, and it hurt him deeply that she had so casually asked him to come along on what for him was a fantasy voyage.
He wanted to voice his concern, and called her; but she was not at home and did not return his call. She had left for Europe exactly thirty-six hours after she had spoken to him in her brother’s car. He did not realize that during that tiny, opened window of time, the breeze of an excuse for her academic failure had blown in. Benny Weitzman mentioned to a friend who mentioned to a friend that Aaron had run up a fantastic phone bill calling Caroline while she was at Penn State; and this information, naturally, became a treasure that Professor and Mrs. Wechsler put into the family vault. How could a girl get her college assignments done when this nineteen year old selfish immature out-of-control fool kept calling her? But for the time being, keeping her distance from Aaron and “getting her leg muscles rebuilt” were reason enough to account for her not returning to the university.
The letters did not come…. or the post cards. He tried to excuse her failure to keep her promise by fearing that she was having an operation on her knee or else she was trying so desperately to alleviate her disappointment at having to withdraw from Penn State that she was over-indulging in Ski resort celebrations. And then he learned that Caroline had married her ski instructor, a marriage his friends assured him that had lasted less time than it took Bodi Miller to do a downhill run. There was a laughable aspect to the dissolution of the marriage. The blue-eyed Adonis whose last name was actually Goebbels – which meant nothing to Caroline – never knew that the Wechsler family was willing to pay to have him quietly killed. The “Skiing Fox,” or so he was called, had gone out of his way to demonstrate his liberal views by taking a nice Jewish girl as his bride. It never occurred to him that the two thugs who beat him and Caroline on their honeymoon were demonstrating their objection to his being the groom. A lawyer’s business card was left at the scene. Before the thugs left, one said, “Call this guy and get an annulment. And do it quick.” Aaron refused to believe that the Wechslers would have their daughter slapped around by thugs because she had married somebody named Hans Goebbels. “He probably was lousy in bed,” he said. “Ski instructors often get groin injuries.” But still, Caroline did not return to the U.S.
To Aaron, one set of problems had simply been replaced by another set. He was alone and an old paternal specter became vivified and rose from its coffin in the back of his mind. The “abandonment ghost” had never bothered him before. It sort of passed him in the hallway, wearing argyle socks, as it went to his mother’s room to torment her. He could hear her crying in the peculiar way of beggars, and he knew that she was reaching out to put her arms around a perfidious vacuum. Aaron, helpless in the next room, grew old, decades before such knowledge is usually grasped, despising the act of abandonment. It was a firing squad instructed to aim for the feet and never get a coup de grace... just a lifetime ahead of abject crawling.
Still, coming home from work, he’d get off the bus three blocks before his stop so that he could pass Caroline’s house. He’d look up at her bedroom window, hoping to see a change in the venetian blinds or some indication that the room was now occupied. Finally, he got a postcard from Gstaad. “Aaron, quit stalking me. My mother says if you don’t stop, she’ll call the police. The skiing is fine here. Hope you’re well. Miss you. C.”
Stunned to think that looking for a loved-one could be categorized as stalking, a criminal offense, Aaron sank further into his quandary, and his Uncle Benny insisted, “Get out and meet people!”
Uncle Benny tended to regard employment as a social activity. He was a good but worn-down man who took all kinds of mysterious medications. He owned an appliance store that was in an area of town which had gone from prosperous to welfare. In tandem with this decline, the brands he carried went from top of the line to cheap imports that broke down long before anybody could finish paying for them. He could never get the parts to repair them and it cost far more to re-possess them than they were worth. The customers complained and Benny knew that he had been guilty of selling them junk, of puffing up the quality of the strange brands to induce them to buy. Benny’s nerves began to show the strain of daily torment, of offering spurious arguments, of suggesting that the customer perhaps put too large a load into the washing machine, or put a fan into the open freezer compartment of a refrigerator to use it as an air-conditioning unit on hot nights – burning the unit out, or any number of bizarre excuses for mechanical failure, and finally of reminding people who were poorly educated to read the installment payment contract and the bill of sale that were written in indecipherable legalese. Aaron knew nothing of this when he asked his Uncle Benny for a job.
At a New Year’s Eve party he met Rebecca Blumenthal.
Someone asked him in a derogatory tone why he had not gone to see a doctor when he was so sick, and Aaron was startled to hear Rebecca retort, “You ask a sick man why he doesn’t go to the doctor? It’s because he’s sick in bed – which is where he belongs. You prefer that he go out and spread his disease? A better question is why don’t doctors make house calls any more!”
Aaron grinned. “My mother works or else she’d have taken me – if I had asked her to.” He admired Rebeccca for the way she parried the question. They talked about a Woody Allen movie. “I’ve got the DVD,” she said. “Want to come up to my house and watch it… say… Saturday night?” He said yes, not knowing that she would immediately run out and purchase the DVD.
Aaron was handsome, slim, and tall, and Rebecca was short and slightly overweight and not particularly pretty. She fell in love with him when she saw him enter the room that New Year’s Eve. “There is the man I’m going to marry,” she said to a friend. And Rebecca was the only child of comfortably middle-class parents who naturally spoiled her. When she declared that she would get something she wanted, she usually succeeded. Aaron did not meet their requirement of wealth, but he had valid excuses for not having money: he was saving for his summer school tuition; he didn’t earn much working for his uncle at the appliance store; and, courtesy of his Uncle Benny who responded to the “stalking” insinuation by putting a down payment on a Honda for him, he had to pay monthly car and car insurance payments.
Rebecca found ways to be a cost-free date. A friend would always “lend” her a DVD that they could watch at her home whenever her parents were away – which was inexplicably frequent. They could sleep together there and even order Pizza that was charged to the family’s credit card. When she wanted to show him off to her friends, she’d ask him to get dressed for a specific Saturday night so that they could make an appearance at a crowded restaurant. They’d get a drink at the bar and say “hello” to a few dozen people; and then she’d whisper, “Thank God! Oh, Aaron, you helped me out of such a tight spot! I don’t want dinner. Let’s get out of here before anybody else sees me!” Aaron’s eyes would search the room, looking for Caroline, as Rebecca pretended that people had missed seeing her and suspected that she must be pregnant. Now they had seen her. It was safe to go. At first, to accommodate her, he smiled and let her “show him off” to her friends. But he began to suspect that people regarded their relationship as a solid compound. To him, it was just the opposite. More and more the occasional mixture that he had wanted was becoming immisible. He tried to extricate himself gracefully from the arrangement.
The lies to customers exceeded puffery, and he knew it, and each lie bore its way into his conscience. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s way of life was also having a negative effect on his conscience. He disliked her constant lying, her meretricious attitudes, and her routine way of resorting to trickery. He was particularly disturbed to find in a trash can the cellophane wrapping and security tape of a newly purchased DVD that Rebecca insisted a friend had lent her.
Rebecca wanted to see him every night. He tried to tell her the truth: that he needed to study to get ready for summer school. He urged her to see other men. She’d refuse saying that he’d have all the free time he needed if they were married. He wouldn’t even have to work for his uncle anymore. But Aaron did not want to marry her. He disapproved of her lies, of her spoiled nature, and he strongly suspected that from the beginning she had laid some kind of trap for him, that all the cheap-date manipulations were part of a plan.
He did not hear from Caroline, and he did not dare walk past her house. Perhaps, he thought in a childish way, she’ll want me if she thinks somebody else is competing with her. All of their friends knew that he was seeing Rebecca. They would surely let Caroline know; and Caroline would not give him up so easily – especially now that she was free from her ski instructor. Rebecca had begun to insist that they get married.
“We’re too young,” he’d say, reminding her that he was not yet twenty; and although he had yet to complete a year of college, she already had her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She had majored in History, specifically medieval European history, and she had decided that she’d take a few years off to travel through the countries she had studied, visit all the landmarks and famous places, and then return to get her master’s degree. And then she saw Aaron, and Prague and Athens were simply fascinating names. “What I want to study,” she’d whisper in his ear, “are the secret places of your body.”
Aaron did not want his body to be studied secretly or openly, except perhaps by the beautiful Caroline. He imagined that the root of Caroline’s marital problem was her affinity for brainy men. Wasn’t that the basis for their long relationship? A ski bum was obviously not good enough for her, and he became fanatical in his determination to be an astrophysicist. He dreamed of discovering a comet and naming it after her. The Comet Caroline.
Although he had regained his physical strength, psychologically he was riven between wanting to earn more money to pay his tuition, to extricate himself from an increasingly problematic relationship with Rebecca, and to study for summer school. He particularly wanted to score high marks on his repeated classes. He needed to find a higher paying job, but he detested the thought of telling his uncle that he was leaving his job. Abandonment was such an odious thing to do. Rebecca’s father wanted him to learn the jewelry business but how, he would ask, could he abandon a sick uncle who had been so good to him. He found himself saying ponderous things such as, “Everyman has his own definition of the best and the worst of human actions. To me, abandonment is worse than murder, just as loyalty is the greatest of all virtues.” No one ever cared to argue with such sentiments.
He wanted to end or at least to limit his relationship with Rebecca, but she would pout or cry at the mere mention of “cutting back” their time together. He also knew that regardless of why she claimed to love him, she had been there for him when he needed her. She was loyal and he could not simply abandon her. He did, however, never fail to ask her whenever they entered the “cousins’ house” if she had taken her birth control pills. She always emphatically said, “Yes, dear!” But her desire easily trumped his refusal. She stopped taking her pills.
One morning in May her father called him at the appliance store. “My daughter is pregnant,” he said. “What are you going to do about it?” Aaron immediately drove to the dress shop. He looked at Rebecca and could tell that she was thrilled to be able to vomit. Yes… he looked at her and saw that she delighted in gagging and retching and kneeling on the floor in front of the toilet. She’d swirl mouthwash around her mouth and spit it out and look at him in a way that was supposed to suggest pity, but the look of triumph was unmistakable.
Between retchings she managed to explain, “Sometimes you get a batch of pills that weren’t stored properly and just went bad… or maybe weren’t properly mixed in the first place. Oh, I don’t know how it happened. I just know that I don’t want to murder my child! So please don’t suggest that I get an abortion!” Then she would cry real tears and look up at him with piteous expression of a starving caged dog.
Mr. Blumenthal reminded Aaron that he was in the jewelry business. “I know things aren’t going well in Benny’s store, so as an engagement present Rebecca’s grandfather and her mother and I are giving you this wedding set. The rings are already sized.” He opened the box and took out the diamond solitaire.
As he reached for his daughter’s hand, she said, “Daddy, I think Aaron is supposed to do that,” Everybody except Aaron laughed.
Aaron pushed the ring on her finger and because a couple of iPhones were at the ready to take photos of the big event, he got down on one knee and said, “Rebecca will you marry me?” And so it was memorialized. As he stood up a phone rang. The caterer was calling back.
In the following few weeks, his uncle noticed a change in his demeanor. “What’s by you?” he asked. “Are your feet getting cold? One minute you look like you’re thinking and the next minute you look fish-eyed.”
“Yes,” Aaron said. “I was supposed to apply for summer school, but I just couldn’t do it. I feel like I’m reading Ulysses. I read a sentence and then get lost trying to figure out what I just read. It took me eight months to read the book and I still don’t understand it. They keep asking me about wedding stuff… the flowers… the country club… the photographer… and I don’t know what I have to do with any of it.”
“You had everything to do with it. You just didn’t know that you were. I know how the Blumenthals operate. They’re a slick bunch. The girl stopped taking those pills, eh? And she didn’t tell you. Trust me, it runs in the family.” He paused and became serious. “Tell me, if you had an opportunity to get a good job out west, would you take it… with Rebecca, of course?”
“In a heartbeat,” Aaron answered.
Uncle Benny did not understand the reference to James Joyce’s novel, but he knew the Book of Life’s text. “You’ll get over it,” he said. Then he went into his back-room office and made a phone call to a friend. When he hung up, he came onto the “floor” and told Aaron that there was a chance that a well-to-do friend of his owned a used car lot in Las Vegas. “His son runs it. But my friend is in the market for a Ford dealership and wants his boy to manage the new place. He said he could use an honest man to sell used cars and then take over the lot and maybe even move up to the dealership; and I told him he need look no farther than Aaron Weitzman. You’ll make three times more than you make here. They have a university there, too, with night classes, yet.”
Aaron Weitzman was speechless. He stuttered for a moment and then said, “Uncle Benny, I feel like I had been drowning and some guy saved my life and I need to say thanks… but how do you thank someone for something as big as that?”
The Blumenthals were not pleased to hear of the job opportunity. They did not want their daughter to move away from Philadelphia.
Part 4: Joshua
Joshua Mays returned to Rick’s house at 8:30 p.m. “I brought my clothes,” he said. “Where should I hang them?”
“Forget them. Let’s take your car. We have to return some books to the library. They close at nine. The books are two days overdue so you’ll have to get a receipt for paying the late charges. Then take out a few more books so that they’re on your library card.”
“What subject am I interested in?”
Rick did not answer until they began to drive to the library. “Oh… try… The Eschatological Importunities of Pope Steven VI. He had the previous pope exhumed and his cadaver tried for several crimes.”
“Suppose someone asks me and I don’t even know what eschatological means.”
“Well, then, you could try Pope Honorius I. He reigned from 625 to 638. Call your paper, Doctrinaire Excesses of Honorius I. I rather like that one. He couldn’t make up his mind about things Popes are supposed to understand. Was Jesus a divine human being or a creature that was fully divine and fully human? It’s a big thing in dogmatic circles.”
“I can tell that you’re mocking Popes. I’m not that great a Catholic, but I’m not entirely comfortable with ridiculing Catholicism. Can’t you choose something else?”
“Look,” said Ex-Father Rick, “I could have picked the ones who fucked their way to stardom… nepotism… corruption out the wazoo… thieves, really. But I’m a good Catholic and just because I was defrocked doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of my seminary training. I want to give you a topic that the librarian will remember. I am published… perhaps not under my own name but I do receive an income from my work. If someone suddenly showed up with money, he could claim that he earned it by assisting me, Philosophy Professor Reynard, with my research.”
“Ok. But can you please lay out this plan you’ve got for me?”
Rick sighed. “Years ago in New York State there was a judge who gave convicted drug offenders – if their offenses were more or less minor – the option of going to jail or being confined in a Buddhist monastery. Naturally they all took the Buddhist monastery. They weren’t exactly opening a new market. Those places are worse than Catholic seminaries.” He stopped talking to recall a few adventures.
“And?” Josh said expectantly, waiting for him to continue.
“Have you ever mentioned your desire to go to Hawaii to anybody at work?”
“Sure, but just in casual conversation. They can’t help seeing my surfing magazines.”
“Good. I have a friend who is the assistant to the Monseigneur of a Roman Catholic dumping ground for troublesome priests who are suffering from drug or alcohol addiction or dementia… nasty senility… unmanageable types. Their Order is another not quite officially recognized institution that cluster around the Church. It used to be Equitibus Crux Albi – or something like that – the Knights of the White Cross – but then it got changed. It became Milites de Glauca or something. Soldiers instead of Knights. Bluish grey instead of white. The retreat they run is called Saint Steven’s Retreat. Have you ever heard of it?”
“The name’s not unfamiliar, but I can’t say I know anything about them.”
“You can forget everything I just said since it doesn’t concern you. I mention it en passant simply because I’m revealing my connection to the place. I went to seminary school with a guy named Joe Pulaski who is the assistant to the Monseigneur who runs the Retreat. The Monseigneur is a close friend of the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sandyville, about 25 miles from here. So, for the sum of $5000 a person who needs a bit of refuge can be admitted as a postulant or as a ‘try-out guest’ in the Zen Buddhist monastery, which is a broken down collection of wooden buildings that once served as a mining office and then as a small cattleman’s residence. The money is presented to the Vice-Abbot, a jerk named Chuan Yi, who is not kept in the loop. He’s both venal and stupid, and that, my friend, is a dangerous combination. So be careful of him. My friend Father Joe Pulaski has already set it up with the Monseigneur who set it up with his friend, the Abbot. You are to be between a postulant and a try-out guest. The place is rumored to be the abode of numerous ghosts. You should be at home there… gullible as you are.”
“What?” Jashua neither liked nor understood the plan. Ignoring the insult, he asked, “And that’s all a person has to pay?”
“Of course… for now. Who knows what they’ll want in the future. So right now you’re establishing the source of your funds. Take the library books back and get a few more and don’t forget the receipts.”
“This is beginning to sound crazy.”
“Let’s stick with the plan. Think of someone in your predicament. He has been blabbing to his coworkers that he intends to go to Hawaii sometime soon. His blabbing makes him an automatic suspect. You do not want to be the first person the cops suspect. They are like bulldogs when it comes to having announced their Number One suspect. You said, ‘Hawaii’ but you could have meant any one of a number of foreign countries with which we have no extradition treaties. Getting back to our hypothetical thief, surfing is his big, blabbed ambition. To offset this notion, he would have to tell his friends that he has been lying… prevaricating for a very good reason… his expressed desire was merely a cover for his real desire – which is that he has been hoping to be accepted by a Roman Catholic Seminary, and he’s just gotten the first call that was definitely encouraging about being accepted… from Saint Steven’s Retreat, a local but little-known institution run by the ersatz Knights of the Blue Cross. He didn’t want to go farther away because of family considerations. So he’s letting them know as quickly as possible of his imminent departure from work. He is so thrilled to become a cleric. He’s loved Christ and served him all his life and now he’s going to make his devotion official. He can hardly wait. Naturally, the people at work will not object. People never dare object to religious goals. Just don’t use the word ‘ersatz’ when referring to the Knights… or Soldiers… whatever they are.” Rick observed Joshua’s blank look of ignorance. “Ersatz means phony. In their case, they’re not exactly phony, but they’re only nominally recognized by the Church because they’re a dumping ground for old troublesome priests.”
“Then what?” Joshua did not understand the plan. “Stop saying ‘he’ and say ‘you’ if that’s what you mean. And why does it have to be religion?”
Ex-Father Rick sighed. “It has to be something significant. Could you say you lied about surfing because you really wanted to take piano lessons?” He sighed again. “After you take the books back, you’ll use your own phone and call my friend Father Joe Pulaski at Saint Steven’s and bullshit with him about being admitted. He knows the game and he’ll ask your name, rank and serial number. He’s going to say that it looks good… that all your previous conversations – nothing was ever recorded, of course – had led him to believe you’d be an excellent Knight. Do you understand so far?”
“No. But continue.”
“I will draft a letter tonight. Tomorrow you will be so happy about your sure-thing acceptance to the Knights that you will blab about it. You will also take a blank letter pad to work and make sure that you leave it on Tim’s desk or counter… someplace where he will pick it up and get his prints on the front page… more than just his thumb. Leave it upside down on his desk so that you’ll get more prints when he picks it up. Get me a good photocopy of his full signature, too. I will type a letter from Tim Murphy to Joe Pulaski, the assistant to the Monseigneur. In that letter Tim Murphy is going to warn him about accepting you into a Catholic institution because of your questionable morals, especially about money. Joe will then do his civic and religious duty and notify your employer about a letter he just received from Tim Murphy.”
Joshua was open-mouthed and speechless. “And how does that help me?” he finally managed to say.
“Because it makes Murphy look like a rat. Because it makes Murphy look like he’s taking measures to protect himself, that is to say, making a preemptive strike against you to make you look guilty. It’s not the kind of thing a decent man would do.”
“And then what?”
“Then a few days later you will be depressed and weepy by all the misfortune that has befallen you. You were certain that the Catholic Order would accept you and now… they’ve suddenly rejected you and you don’t know why and, what’s more, you might be barred from joining any Catholic order. By then your boss will have a copy of the letter sent to Joe. When he says something consoling, you say that the priest who rejected you said that maybe if you spent a year in a Zen institution as a guest and could demonstrate how well you took to the austere and celibate life of a monk, and if you still wanted to come back and re-apply, they’d reconsider you. As your boss – and ultimately the one who will be held accountable – Dave Lonigan will not want you to leave town, so saying that you’ll live nearby in a Zen Center will suit him fine. The Knights would impose conditions, naturally. You could have no moral demerits at the Zen place, you’d have to be a hard worker, and you must learn the governing rules of the Knights of the Blue Cross. Bullshit stuff, but explain it if you get the chance. Obviously, you’d have to find a way to receive the Sacrament of Communion every week. It’s more bullshit, of course, but you need to say something so that you can get away from the Zen joint from Saturday afternoon through to Sunday noon. Confession and Communion and helping a Catholic theologian with his research. So you are going to try to join a Zen Buddhist Center with the aim of proving yourself and your dedication to the principles of Saint Steven’s Catholic Retreat. Again, only the Zen abbot will know you are marking time there, being good so that you can go to Saint Steven’s. The others will think you’re a postulant or a guest who’s trying out the monastic life to see if he likes it well enough to apply more seriously.”
“But why does it have to be a Buddhist center? As long as you’re bribing him, why not get me into the Catholic Order?”
“It’s not that you’re straight, my boy. It’s that the Monseigneur will talk to you, and frankly, you don’t know shit about The Faith. They don’t just take anybody who walks in off the street. What recommendations do you have? Who will attest to your piety? Are you trying to make me laugh? Joe Pulaski will be held accountable if he lets you get past the front door. You’ll blow my contact.”
“But why do I have to leave my job at all?”
Ex-Father Rick was losing patience. “Because no matter what you do, the auditors are coming and the $30,000 theft will be discovered. Because it is better for you to act sooner than later. Because if they suspect Tim immediately they are not likely to take a good look at those surveillance photos in which your disguise, no matter how clever you think it is, will reveal differences in skin or facial shapes or teeth. So the sooner you can make him look guilty and you look innocent, the more likely it will be that you’ll avoid that photographic scrutiny. Because somebody may have seen you going into a men’s room as Joshua and coming out as Tim. Because many of the same customers at your check-cashing blood-pit will also be customers at the other check-cashing places. Because Tim is likable and has friends who will support him when he denies any involvement in the theft. The gossip will continue and people are willing to sell misinformation. Do you harbor the idea that only you are capable of lying? Tim may have unassailable alibis. You stupidly bought the wig locally and those eyeglasses too. You think you’re invulnerable. But Tim has yet to start to defend himself against this frame-up. You can’t give him the chance to defend himself. His guilt must be fait accompli. You have look religious and respectable and to get out of sight, and you also have to cast immediate suspicion on Tim.”
“But I don’t know anything about Zen Buddhism, either.”
“Nobody does. That gives you a substantial advantage. Fortunately the twits at the Zen Center of Sandyville are stupid enough to not notice your ignorance. Lucky for you Joe’s boss, Monseigneur Garcia and the Abbot of the ZCS – Zen Center of Sandyville – are pals. Five-Thousand will get you in, but your life won’t be easy… as I said, they’re a little weird. Ghost stories and hallucinations… Manju pacing the halls. Guan Yin trying to whip their asses with a willow branch. I promised Joe two thousand for himself and the Zen abbot will still get five for your room and board. I’ll teach you how to look pious… and I”ll get a glossary of Zen terms that you can study. This ought to teach you that crime doesn’t pay.”
“Let me get this straight. When the auditors discover that $30,000 was never received for the money-orders that were cashed, Tim Murphy – because of those letters – is going to look like the most logical suspect. He’ll be escorted around to the various places that cashed the checks and the cashiers there will identify him. Even his thumbprint is on record. He’ll be fired. They must be insured against such losses, and the insurance company will pay up. So, I get it now… by sending the letter you make him an immediate suspect. By making me look religious, you help to eliminate me as a suspect. And your friend Joe is gonna talk personally to my boss Dave Lonigan to cement my story?”
“Of course. He’ll have the letter which we will write tonight. But we can’t mail it until you make your announcement at work that your interest in Hawaii was just a ruse… to cover your embarrassment about applying to become a Knight. You wanted to be sure they wanted you.” Joshua pulled into the library parking lot. “When you get back with the books and the receipt for the overdue charges,” Rick said firmly, “you’ll call Joe and talk to him so that there’s a record of the reason you’re acting so happy about your probable acceptance.”
“And why would Joe be so willing to assist me… or you, for that matter?”
“Joe, for money. $2000 of your hard-earned cash. Me, because I have enough dirt on him to see him hanged in at least five states. He pretends to enjoy being my pal. Secretly he despises me… at least I hope he does. If he didn’t he’d be a fool, and I detest having to deal with fools.”
Joshua Mays entered the library moments before closing time. He quickly paid the late fees, and asked the reference librarian if they had any books on the early popes. She plucked two from the shelf, took his library card, scanned out the books, and wished him good luck. As the door closed behind him it was exactly 9 p.m.
Rick looked at the books. “Jesus,” he said disapprovingly, “this is all propaganda for lay people.”
“It was late. I was lucky to get any help at all.” He wanted to change the subject. “How have you managed to stay such good friends with the Monseigneur’s assistant? Is he a fully ordained Catholic priest? I mean… associating with a defrocked priest has to be like associating with a known felon.”
“Delicately put!” Rick laughed. “I’m not exactly a known felon. But I was known to be knowledgeable on the subjects of philosophy and theology. The Monseigneur knows that, and I know that he realizes that Brother Joseph consults me for the stupid chess game he plays with his old pal, the Abbot of the Zen Center of Sandyville. They call each other – now get this – Monseigneur Jaime Garcia is called “Jimmy” by Abbot Jy Shao who is called “Spike” by the Monseigneur. They grew up together in Chicago… since they were toddlers, evidently.”
“And they play a chess game? And you help? You don’t even have a board.”
“It’s theological chess! The two of them take turns picking a topic; and then they have a debate, in writing of course, about the topic. Neither the Monseigneur nor the Abbot knows shit about the topic – well, in all fairness, I should say the Monseigneur is incredibly busy because of his incompetent staff, and the Abbot’s got some kind of lung problem, a serious dust allergy. He’s always sick. So the writing of the actual commentary is left to their underlings… the Vice-Abbot of the Zen Center who, as I’ve said, is a real prick, that’s Chuan Yi, who consults his underlings, and my friend Father Joe, who assists the Monseigneur, who consults me. They have a kind of review board – phonies who teach philosophy at an advanced level at the university,” he laughed malignantly, “and then these idiots vote and pronounce the winner at a dinner given at the Zen Center because the food is better there.”
“What does the winner get?” Josh asked.
“Absolutely nothing of any intrinsic value. Bragging rights, I suppose, is the best answer. Although there is a worthless little bust of Beethoven that the winner keeps. They treat it as though it were the America’s Cup.
“At the dinner there are the two contestants, their two main assistants and usually their sub-assistants, and at least two of the little group of judges. I go to the dinners as a sub-assistant, but never under my own name. I enjoy the game. It exercises the old grey matter. And as I’ve said, I, writing as the Monseigneur, always win.