The Holiday Shakedown


“Let’s cut to the chase,” JJ said. “How much do you want?”

“You’re pretty bold since winning that lottery,” Betty said.

JJ’s sister, separated from her husband, had come to town and forced a meeting. He couldn’t hold her off forever. JJ thought a public place would be best, to reduce the chance of bodily harm. So they sat in a crowded café on a Saturday morning. He was hoping she wouldn’t make a scene.

“That was two and half years ago. And you can’t get your mind off my money.”

“Well, look at you, all happy up there in that ridiculous farmhouse. No farming. No actual work. Money will do that for you.”

JJ looked out the café window. Something about the winter before the snow, everything looking cold and brutal with the leaves gone and the grass dead. Maybe that’s why Christmas decorations took hold; so people wouldn’t kill themselves before Christ’s birthday.

“I’m happy for the first time in years,” he said.   “The money helps, but it’s not about the money.”

“So your girlfriend is back, is that it? Lulu or whatever?”


“So she’s back in the picture since the lottery?”

“She could care less about the money.”

“Couldn’t care less, you mean. Couldn’t care less.”

JJ felt the heat rising, the coals of resentment fanned towards rage by this money-grubbing harpy who happened to be his sister. “They’ll dangle the bait,” Professor Tom, his sponsor, had said. “Family will do that.” And here she was, separated from her husband, dangling a big fat worm in front of his stupid trout mouth. “Oh, fuck it,” he thought.

“Dad can’t stand you,” JJ said. “He’s never liked you. After mom died, he told me.”

“Funny,” she said. “He told me the same thing about you.”


“Bullshit,” he said.

“Don’t you ever think why we all hate each other?”

“Betty, we all hate you and you hate us.”

“You can’t stand Brian.”

“We bond over mocking you.”

“He calls me just to wonder why you’re such a loser. That ‘dumbass loser’, I think was the exact term.”

Professor Tom had said it would go like this. “They won’t want you to get away. Even if it’s what’s best for you. It will unbalance the mobile.”

“The mobile?” he had asked.

Families are like mobiles. Every member has their part to keep the balance, even if it’s all dysfunctional. If you leave the mobile, it will get out of balance.

JJ looked at his sister. “I’m leaving the mobile,” he said. “You guys will have to rebalance without me.”

“Don’t give me that shit about the mobile,” she said. “I know all about the mobile. You won’t get away now that everything’s going good for you.”

How the hell did she know about the mobile?

“Anyone who’s been in therapy since 1990 knows about the fucking mobile,” she said. “And you’re not leaving. At least without buying your way out.”

So this was it. She was shaking him down, offering to let him off the mobile for a price. Ok, then. Back to the beginning.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” he said. “How much do you want?”

“I’ll be in touch.” She rose and stalked away, leaving him with the check.

“I’m sure you will,” he muttered. “Happy holidays.”

Lila and JJ in the Fall, Part 3: Together at Last?


They lay in bed listening to the rain, talking little. Lila was on her side, her face snuggled against JJ’s neck. He was on his back, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. He remembered the cracks on the ceiling above his childhood bed, how they formed a river canyon and tributaries, a whole regional map up there. As a child, he lay in his bed and imagined a world of heroic deeds, unjust tragedies, and vengeance playing out on that ceiling. An entire fictional watershed was drained by the topographic cracks up there. There were no cracks yet on this adult farmhouse ceiling. Just some undulations here and there, a rolling prairie rather than a canyon land.

His phone, still in the pocket of his jeans on the floor, double buzzed for an incoming text.

“Don’t,” Lila said into his neck.

“I think something’s wrong.”

“What else is new.”

“I mean, like someone’s sick. Or died.”

“Someone’s going to die if you get out of this bed.”

“I have to,” he said and rolled away from her. He reached down and out, stretching for the jeans. He snagged a belt loop with a finger, reeled them in, and retrieved the phone from the pocket. “See, I didn’t have to get out of bed.”

Lila groaned and rolled away.

JJ read the text: From Betty (Satan), “Where are you!!! Barry had affair and I left.”

He stared at the screen and a strange sibling mix of emotions washed over him. Sadness for his sister, for anyone, betrayed and alone. Disappointment in Barry, tempered by a “What took you so long?” wonderment. Smug satisfaction that his upwardly mobile sister had been derailed in a non-life-threatening way. And, dread over what she wanted from him. Mostly there was the dread. She was in the area, a place she never visited, and that meant she expected to stay in the area. Probably in this very house where he finally lay snug in bed with the elusive love of his life.

“Well,” Lila said to the wall.

“Not good,” he said. “I have to call her.”

“Wait awhile.”

“Barry had an affair.”

“What took him so long?”

“Yeah, I know. But…”

“Oh, fuck it,” she said and flung back the blanket. She got up and thumped naked out of the bedroom. “Fuckin’ drama,” she muttered in the hall and went into the bathroom.

JJ called Betty.

She launched right into it. “Where are you? I was at your house. The car was there but no one answered. I tried to go in but the door was locked.”

Thank God he had locked it. She would have found them cowering in the downstairs bathroom.

“I went for a walk,” he said.

“Well, I’m coming back.”

Lila walked back into the room and JJ followed her with his eyes. She didn’t look at him but went over to the chair to sort through her discarded clothes. She started to dress.

“Listen Betty, it’s not a good time. I have a guest and we’re very busy today.”

Quiet. Then, “Are you saying that your own sister, abandoned by her husband, can’t come over?”

“Go home, Betty. Work it out with Barry.”


Lila had turned to watch him and he met her eye.

“It’s going to be ok,” he said and hung up. He turned the phone off and Lila came back to bed, where it was warm.