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Sucker?

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Morning. JJ and Tess, a woman he hardly knows, camped at an abandoned mountain ranch. His land. Her land. Whose land?

They leaned on an old fence, eating Pop Tarts. A vehicle approached down the long dirt road to where they were camped, a cloud of dust rising behind.

“Oh shit, that must be Cody,” Tess said.

“Who’s Cody?”

“Just my angry twin brother.”

Oh great. Angry brother. Cody. Twin. Twin telepathy. What kind of gun toting maniac was coming down the road?

“How does he know we’re here?”

“He doesn’t. Or he does. He just comes here.”

“He comes here? For what?”

“To get away,” Tess said. “He doesn’t like people much.”

An old Chevy pick-up came to a skidding stop and just sat there with the engine running. Cody drove angry. JJ couldn’t see him clearly for the glare off the windshield. But he knew Cody was looking at him. The engine shut off and made little ticks as it cooled. Some birds chirped and tweeted from the brush but no one moved. It was midmorning and warm in the sun, not a cloud in the sky. Finally, the door opened.

Cody was Tess with a buzz-cut, only his eyes were harder, solid blue ice where Tess’s were liquid blue. “Who’s this guy,” Cody asked.

“This here’s Jason,” Tess said.

“Is this your boyfriend?”

“No, not really,” JJ said. “We only met a couple days ago. I mean, we’re just friends. New friends.” JJ walked toward Cody with his hand extended. “Nice to meet you.”

Cody looked at the hand like JJ held out a putrefying fish. He looked at JJ’s face. “What are you two doing here?”

Tess walked forward and got between JJ and Cody. “Cody, this here’s a miracle! Jason bought the ranch at the auction. He bought the ranch for us!”

JJ and Cody both looked at Tess. Cody stared with disbelief of the, “here’s some more of Tess’s bullshit” variety. JJ was just trying to keep up.

“I felt something,” Cody said. “Yesterday. I knew something was happening out here.”

The twin telepathy. Fuck.

“Um, yeah,” JJ said. “I bought the ranch.”

“I’m sure it was out of the goodness of your heart,” Cody said, looking at JJ over Tess’s shoulder. “What’re you up to?”

If JJ were honest, he’d say: “I left Massachusetts because my best friend was getting together with my erstwhile girlfriend, who was my other best friend. I tried to write a memoir but instead started drinking, which is really bad for me. I flew to Colorado on the advice of a guy named Shaboo and kept drinking. I’ve been here before, trying to find myself, so I thought I’d try again. Instead I found your twin sister in a blackout. She convinced me to visit the bank where we put in a bid two minutes before the auction ended. Phone calls were made and the remainder of my lottery winnings were transferred from my bank. I signed some papers and here we are.”

Instead, JJ said, “I dunno.”

“Well here’s the deal, man,” Cody said. “This ranch has been in our family since the 1800’s and no fuckin’ boytoy of my sister is going to own it. Where are the papers?”

“Still at the bank,” Tess said.

Cody looked around and seemed to notice the Camaro for the first time. “What the hell kind of car is that?”

“That’s a Hyper Blue Metallic Chevy Camaro,” JJ said with a renter’s pride. He would keep his dignity through all this no matter what, he vowed.

Cody snorted. “Jesus, she saw you coming a mile away. The plates should read, SUCKER.”

Tess said, “It wasn’t like that, Cody. He offered to help.”

Cody chuckled and walked to the Camaro, appraising. Tess whispered to JJ, “It wasn’t like that. We’ll figure something out.”

“I’m sure we will,” JJ said. “Things always work out for me.”

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Panic Room

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JJ found the car parked around the corner from the bar. It had a ticket under the wiper (meter expired, never fed) but looked intact. Night was falling and there were people going here and there, young people with hope and a bounce in their steps. There was an expectant Friday night feel. He sat on a bench near the car and strove for a post-binge clarity of his position and state of affairs. There were pros and cons.

Pro: He hadn’t lost the car and it appeared to be undamaged. The keys were in his pocket.

Con: He didn’t know what happened during the past three days.

Pro: Except for a sodden dread and a railroad spike of pain in his head, he appeared to be mostly intact. Dirty, but physically intact.

Con: All his cash was gone.

Pro: He still had his wallet and debit card.

First things first. Find an ATM. There’s a bank right over there with the little ATM booth attached near the side entrance. A swipe, a buzz, and the too bright flourescent light. Check balance? (A dreadful stirring and shadowy memories, much too recent.)

Balance: $1,254.88.

Before he left Massachusetts it was $51,000 and change, the last of his lottery winnings.

He stared at the current number. The digits floated a little on the screen, disconnecting then all lining up. He blinked but the number of digits didn’t increase. It took him a minute to do the math as his heart started to pound. The shadow beasts were starting to emerge from the mist.

He was missing $50,000.

Other memories now, little glimpses of a movie in which he was the slow-moving and dimwitted star. A bank. Bank employee in a suit (never a good sign). Phone calls and … signatures? And… And…

A person with him. A woman? Yes? A young woman. The Mountain Dude? That was later, he was pretty sure.

He stood frozen at the ATM until it double-beeped and threatened to end the transaction. He cancelled the transaction and stumbled back against the wall of the ATM booth. Sliding down to a crouch with his back against the wall, JJ tried to piece it all together and pierce the fog of the last three days. The ride from Denver, a liquor store along the way, a hotel off the highway, drinking and watching a baseball game on TV. Restlessness and boredom. Then the fog thickened. JJ, head down in concentration and shame, trying to keep the panic at bay, crouched there for a minute or an eternity.

There was a knock on the glass of the ATM panic room. JJ startled with a surge of fear and jerked his head up. The demons were trying to get in!

He saw a woman smiling at him through the glass. Was it…? Lila? But, no, just for a second there. The shape of her. The hair. But it was not Lila. JJ opened the door.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she said. “I got my stuff. The camping gear.”

“What?”

“Are you alright? We’re driving up to see the land.”

“…”

“The land we bought?”

“…”

“Jason?”

“You drive,” he said and handed her the keys. “And help me up, please.”

 

 

 

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The Holiday Shakedown

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“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?”

“Lila.”

“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.”

Touché.

“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.”

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Lila and JJ in the Fall, Part 2: A Close Call

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Except for an increasing rain, the omens seemed to stay at bay. They ran, holding hands and laughing, from the car to the porch and entered the house.

“This is awkward,” JJ said.

“Just kiss me,” Lila said. So they kissed right there in the kitchen. So far, so good. They parted, hands held between their bodies.

“Come upstairs with me,” he said.

“Let me go to the bathroom first.” She pulled away and turned with a sassy skip, looking back at him over her shoulder as she walked down the hall.

When the bathroom door closed, JJ turned to lock the outside door and something caught his eye in the sloping field. There was a group of wild turkeys in the grass. A gaggle? A flock? They were strutting and pecking their way across the field, taking their time. This farm with no crops and no animals. It’s a farm of the world, JJ thought. It’s just here and the turkeys are here and this is the way it’s supposed to be. “And I’m here with Lila,” he thought. “Finally. And it’s all ok.”

To the right he heard, then saw, a car coming up the road. It slowed and turned into his driveway. A black BMW, like an adder entering a henhouse. Alarmed squawking in JJ’s brain.

“No. No. No.” He didn’t recognize the car but he knew who it was. “No,” he said again as he watched Betty, his sister, emerge from the driver’s seat. She deployed an umbrella and peered around at the barn, field, and house. An intruder in nature. The land itself seemed to grow still, aware of this foreigner, knowing that people from Away never brought glad tidings. Betty started walking toward the porch.

The sound had all sucked up into JJ’s head and he was frozen by her approach. A sense of being the prey shuddered his body back into movement. She hadn’t yet seen him yet. His hand was still on the lock bolt and he turned it, the click breaking the spell. He moved quickly away, down the hall, crouching, and pushed his way through the bathroom door.

Lila was rising from the toilet, pulling up her jeans. “JJ, what the…”

“Shhhh. She’s here!”

“Who?”

“Betty.” JJ jostled past to the little window and pulled the curtains together tight. The bathroom was only a WC, just a toilet and a sink. He shifted back to the bathroom door and latched the hook into the eyelet.

“JJ, really.”

“She’s here to ruin my life.”

Then came the knocking, four hard raps. He could picture her there, all consternation and intent. He quieted his breathing and waited.

“JJ,” Lila whispered.

“Shhh.”

Then, his sister’s voice, muffled but too close. “Jason!” For a moment he thought she was already in the house but, no. His mind was messing with him. They stayed quiet, waiting it out. JJ’s phone vibrated in his pocket. Caller id: “Betty (Satan)”. He refused the call. Four more hard raps on the door, a turning and shaking of the doorknob, (“Thank God I locked it”).  Silence for a moment, then steps retreating, car door chunking shut, the engine, tires on gravel, and an acceleration down the hill.

He realized he was clutching Lila’s hand. He was clutching her whole arm.

“Kiss me again,” Lila whispered. “She’s gone.”

“But she’ll be back,” he said. He looked at Lila’s wry smile, the twinkle in her eye, and realized she was amused, enjoying this. Then he kissed her, cowering in the little downstairs bathroom of the farmhouse he bought with his lottery winnings. He felt they were in a sanctuary, spared and chosen, the overlooked survivors of some freak disaster. A close call and very exciting

He pulled her closer and let his hands roam down to her waist and hips.  Her noticed her jeans were still unbuttoned from when he barged into the bathroom. He never wanted her more.

But a voice, insistent, in his head. “She’ll be back,” it said.

“Oh shut up,” he said out loud.

“What?”

“Come on,” he said and led her into the hallway and up the stairs.

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JJ in the 21st Century: Lila, Determined

Lila knocked on the door but no one came.  She banged, listened, and could barely hear a mechanical hum or whine coming from inside so she just opened the door and went into the farmhouse kitchen.  A panic or dread, a sudden fear, rose up from her gut and she remembered a recent dream about something like this.  In the dream, she passed through a door and someone was dead on the floor of a kitchen.

She found him in the upstairs bathroom drying money with a hair dryer.  There were 100s spread out on the bath mat and JJ was drying them, sweeping the hair dryer back and forth.  There was a soggy heap of 100s still in the tub.  JJ was crouching in a pair of gym shorts and his pale back was to the door so Lila could just watch and take it all in.

“What are you doing?”

JJ turned off the hairdryer and looked at her.  “Drying money,” he said.  “I started to take a shower but forgot about the money bath.”

“Money bath?”

“Yeah, that’s why I went to the bank.  I didn’t have enough to fill the tub.”

“Are you drinking?”

“I was,” he said.  “I’m not now.”

“When?”

“Earlier, but not now.  Listen, I’m ready to stop.  I have to stop.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“You’re going to drive me to AA.”

“Where’s your car?”

“There was an incident.  Listen, thanks for coming but you gotta bring me tonight, before I change my mind.”

There was something almost childlike in his earnest delivery.  Like, “The tooth fairy won’t come if you don’t put it under the pillow.”  He seemed detached from what he was saying, but serious, like he didn’t want to talk about the gaunt and crazy shell of a man in the same room.  He just needed to go.  And she was his ride.

“I can do this,” she thought and hope rose in her.  “Keep your expectations low,” she thought, recalling her Al-anon friend, Maria.  “Like Death Valley low.”

“OK,” she said.  “How long ‘til the meeting?”

“Two hours,” he said.  “Help me dry this money.”

She took a deep breath.  “Leave the money, JJ.  Get dressed and we’re going.  We’ll get something to eat and then we’re going to the meeting.  I’m going downstairs now.  Clean up and then we’re going.”

JJ stared and took his own deep breath as she clomped down the stairs, on a mission.  “This won’t be easy,” he said and scooped up the soggy 100s in the tub, put them in the sink, and started the shower again.

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I Will Not Be Caged

The bank guy said, “Sir, we may not have all those bills, and even if we do, you’ll have to fill out a form for the federal…”

“That doesn’t concern me, Mr. Bummel.”

“It’s Hummels, sir.  And I would advise…”

“I’m not looking for advice Mr. Bummel.  I’m looking for my cash.”  JJ corrected his posture, pushing himself up from slouch for emphasis.  He felt this leather bank chair was pulling him under, sucking him in.  “My cash,” he said.

“Sir, I’ll need to talk to the manager.  But, I need to ask.  It’s uncomfortable but, are you intoxicated, sir?”  Hummels looked at him, steady and professional, which JJ kind of respected through the fog of his binge.

“Mr. Hummels, sir, that’s neither here or there.  I just need my cash.”  Hummels considered, looking at the specimen across his desk.  A clock was ticking in the office, a small glassed-in space right off the main lobby.  JJ thought of a reptile cage in a zoo, though no one was looking in.  The reptiles usually just sit there anyway, dignified and bored, until feeding time.  “Komodo dragon,” he thought and snickered a little.

“How much did you say, sir?”

“Well that’s where I need your help a little.  How much cash will fill a bath tub?”  A pause.  “It can be a mixture of demona…demomma…denominations.”

“You’re putting this cash in a bath tub?”

He drew himself up again, fighting the slouch, dignified.  “I intend to bathe in my money, yes.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but may I ask why?”

“You may ask,” JJ said and paused.  “I want to feel it all around me.  Beyond that, we’ll see.”

“Are you going to put water in the tub?”

“You must think I’m an idiot!  I don’t want to ruin my money!”

“Sir, keep your voice down, please.  I’ll see what we can do.”

JJ watched Hummels walk to the bank guard near the entrance.  They shared a word and a glanced back at the glass office, then Hummels headed to the larger office in the corner.  Something told him it was time to leave.  The air was going out of the balloon, the idea bulb above his head dimming.  This bank, this sucking leather chair, was killing momentum.  He stood and listed toward the lobby, but the exit seemed far away.  Komodo dragon, trapped in the reptile house, its enclosure door suddenly left open by a careless zookeeper.  You read about escaped zoo animals sometimes, on the internet.  It was now or never.

The bank guard watched him walk out, took a step, but then let him pass through the lobby.  “Tell Bummels to forget it,” JJ said as he passed the guard.  “I will not be caged.”

“Yes, sir,” the guard said.  JJ went out into the cold and headed across the parking lot.  He was on foot, which was a good thing, considering.  Glancing back, he saw the guard watching him from inside the door.  The stifling bank behind, JJ headed toward home without his cash, transformed from caged reptile to some poor antlered beast, still captive in the zoo, but with room to roam within its habitat.  Liquor store first, then back home.

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