“Sorry, Vern. I guess a more experienced shopper could have gotten more for your seven cents”
-Stand by Me
Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, Fred strolled into The March bearing coffee for himself and Mary, along with a copies of both daily newspapers tucked under his arm. Fred nodded his “good morning” at Mary and handed her a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, no sugar, extra cream.
He liked to watch Mary when she did her prep work in the morning. She had, unintentionally and unbeknownst even to herself, made a practice of holding all her doubt and self-recrimination in a kind of mental reservoir. Then, while carrying out her mindless morning routine, she’d let the dam down and work through it all. This morning she was worrying over her performance during a constitutional law class yesterday. She sliced limes and wondered if her tone was off-putting. She rinsed juice containers and doubted the cogency and clarity of her conclusions. Her lips moved silently, restating arguments, disagreeing with her own harsh assessments. At a particularly thorny issue, she stopped with a bucket of ice halfway emptied into the ice bin. She froze for a second, then shook her head vigorously, and finished emptying the bucket. At the end, when the bar was in order and everything was ready for the day, her confidence was restored and she was certain again that she was forging an alacritous and appropriate path to the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Fred loved how comfortable Mary was carrying on this routine with him around. He didn’t feel ignored; he felt trusted. And he was.
After a bit, Mary came around the bar and took a look at the paper Fred was reading.
“Fred,” she said. “Are you actually looking for a fucking job?”
“I just need a little beer money,” he said. “Dad cut me off until school starts next fall.”
“If it’s just beer money you want,” said Mary. “Why not get a job here? I’m sure Dad could find a few door shifts for you.”
“No,” said Fred. “That would be weird, son of the owner and all that.”
“Oh, my ass, Fred,” said Mary. “Rosie works here!”
“Rosie is totally different,” said Fred.
“Don’t be stupid, Fred,” Mary started and then stopped as she spied a customer walking in. Instantly her bartender radar went off.
The man who walked in looked like a midlevel manager at an office supply company or something. He was in his mid-50s, paunchy, balding, with black-framed glasses. Still, he wasn’t bad looking for an older man. But Mary’s radar went off nonetheless. There was something dangerous beneath that aggressively normal façade. He took off his coat and hung it up on a hook, adjusted his sweater, hiked up his jeans and sat down next to Fred.
And well she should have been nervous. Because the man who walked in, Wayne Ribaltsky, was Fred’s bookie. And he was there to collect some money.
“Hi, Fred,” said Wayne. “I expect you know why I’m here.”
“Sure, Wayne,” said Fred. “Let’s just go somewhere else and talk about it.”
Mary moved to pick the phone up. Without looking away from Fred, Wayne said, “No calls right now.”
She froze with her hand on the phone.
“Wayne, let’s just go,” said Fred, desperately.
“I’ll be glad to leave, Fred,” he responded. “So long as I can leave with my money.”
“OK,” said Fred. “Look. I’ve got $400 that I can give you now and we can work out payments for the rest.”
“I’m not a fucking bank,” said Wayne, evenly. “You’re into me $5000.”
“But I only have $400,” said Fred, weakly.
“And I’ll take it,” said Wayne. “And I know you’ll get me the rest. But I think you need a little convincing that I am serious about this money. So, let’s go for a ride.”
“Listen, Wayne,” said Fred, scared now. “I’m good for it. You know I am. I’ll get it soon, just take the $400 and I’ll give you money every week until I’m paid up.”
“You’ve been playing that game too long, Fred,” said the bookie. “I’m tired of it. We’re going for a ride. But, don’t wet yourself, kid. You’ll live.”
“I can pay you,” said Mary, suddenly. “I’ve got the money in the bank. There’s a branch just down the street. I can get it and pay you now.”
“No, Mary,” said Fred. “You can’t....”
“I can,” said Mary, scared. “I’ll pay you. We can go to the bank right now.”
“No…” Fred started.
“Shut the fuck up, Fred,” said Mary.
“Yeah, Fred,” said Wayne. “Shut the fuck up.”
Mary grabbed her coat from the office and walked toward the door, resolutely not looking at either of the men.
Fred sat alone at the bar, more miserable than he’d ever thought possible. He knew that Mary was saving money, trying to pay as much as she could to avoid crippling student loan debt when she finished law school. Fred was rich! Or his family was, anyway. He’d never worried about making a rent payment or replacing a pair of gym shoes. He ate Ramen noodles because he liked them. His parents had wasted tens of thousands of dollars on schools he’d flunked out of. He knew what $5000 meant to Mary. He knew it would hurt losing that money.
And he didn’t even know the half of it.
Mary strode rapidly down the street, Wayne Ribaltzky right behind her. She wrestled with the gravity of what she was doing. She was breaking the law. She was breaking a law and if she got caught, she could kiss her future in the U.S. Attorney’s office goodbye. You need a clean record for that shit. And she’d had one. And now, thanks to fucking Fred, her whole career could be over.
At the bank, Wayne bestowed a blandly pleasant smile at the young teller as Mary handed her a withdrawal slip.
“How would you like this,” asked the teller.
“I don’t care,” said Mary. “Hundreds, I guess.”
The teller counted out 50 one hundred dollar bills and Mary thought about what she’d planned to do with that money. She’d have to hit her father up for rent, and she’d never done that before. And, worst of all, she’d have to take out more student loans for next year’s tuition. She’d even been thinking about buying a word processor to do papers on so she wouldn’t have to use the computer lab at school anymore. Of course, none of that amounted to much now that her whole future was jeopardized.
Outside the bank, Wayne took his money and thanked Mary.
“Are you going to come back to my bar,” asked Mary.
“Nope,” said Wayne. “Debts have been paid. There is some honor among bookies, after all.”
“Yeah,” said Mary, as he walked away. “Real fucking honorable.”
When she got back to the bar, Fred was sitting on a stool. He had the nerve to look up at her with tears in his eyes.
“Are you fucking KIDDING me,” said Mary. “Do you really expect me to feel sorry for you, you spoiled piece of shit? You spoiled, careless fuckwad!”
“I promise to get you the money,” said Fred. “I’ll do anything! I promise to pay you back!”
“I don’t care,” said Mary. “I mean, you’re goddamn right you’ll pay me back. But I just paid off your fucking bookie. I just got involved in an illegal fucking activity. If anyone finds out about this, my whole career goes… poof! Gone! God, Fred, you’re so… FUCKING careless.”
“No,” said Fred. “I didn’t mean… I mean, no one will…I’m sorry, Mary. I’m so sorry. But I promise no one will ever find out.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, Fred,” said Mary. “How can you keep a promise like that? Your promises are worthless. Just get the fuck out of here and don’t come back in while I’m here. Ever again! If you try it, I’ll have your sorry ass banned. And don’t think I won’t.”
With that she turned around and began furiously polishing a bottle.
And Fred left The March, miserable, bereft. And he hadn’t meant for any of it to happen. It had all just gotten away from him.