A Novel

Chapter 11: Fell Among Thieves

Still the same day. This long day. But back it up just a bit:

» Back to the Ranch House » Camden Brady playing the video poker machines, trying unsuccessfully to win the money he owed Todd Menocken.

Camden loses everything to the machine. Losing = gone, long gone.

Gone also: the surly sulk on his lips, and the chip on his shoulder. He looked a little wan compared to three weeks ago. He looked a little bit defeated.

He abandons the poker machine. He sees the chrome brass knucks. He walks to the payphone. He calls the Marina. The man on the phone—that goddamned bartender again—says Todd won't speak with him on the phone.

"Todd says for you to come see him here."

"At the Marina?"

"No, at Disney World you hump—what the fuck kind of question is that?" Phone slammed down on the other end.

Camden feels it, the sitchyou-aishe, the puhzish: in a tight spot; in a clutch. Up shit creek without a paddle.

Camden leaves the Ranch House, self-pitying, self-absorbed—so self-absorbed that he wouldn't have noticed if, for example, a Puerto Rican were watching him from the bar. But then, Camden would never see a Puerto Rican, even if he looked one directly in the eye. He'd see maybe-a-Mexican, and that was nothing special to see around there. They were all over the place. They worked in the mines.

Route 29 to the Rainbow Cove Marina, his fourth visit there—his third since he had first taken a loan from Todd. On the second visit, seven days after the first, Camden didn't have the money to repay his loan. Todd listened to Camden's excuses, and then produced Camden's promissory note, which stipulated that, in the event the lendee failed to fulfill the terms of the loan, the fee would be compounded, and the lendee required to cover the balance with a second loan, at an increased fee of $20 on every $100. All of which meant that, after the second visit, Camden owed Todd $6,900.

When the term expired on the second loan, Camden still couldn't repay, so the fee was again compounded, and Camden accepted a third loan, again at twenty on every hundred, for $8,280. Camden knew that doing so only postponed the problem, but as long as his debt remained under $10,000, he didn't view any new loans as actually increasing the problem, because his luck had to change: it was only a matter of time before he hit a winning streak, and it would probably happen very soon and very big. Right now, however, he had to figure out how he would deal with Todd.

The most obvious solution: get the money from grandpa. (Grandpa = Durney McKusker.) Grandpa could easily afford it. But his grandfather had refused to lend him money for gambling—if he went to his grandfather now, he would either have to invent a reason why he needed such a large amount of money, or else tell the truth. The latter he would never do, never ever, since it would be as good as admitting his grandfather had been right not to trust him. The former was impossible on practical grounds, as his grandfather wasn't the kind of person one could deceive for long, and in a town like Tiskilwa it could only be a matter of time before the truth came. Camden felt trapped between these two men, Todd Menocken and his grandfather. And of the two he preferred placing himself at the mercy of Todd.

Todd was okay; Todd wasn't that bad. Or if he was, he hadn't yet revealed it, hadn't yet revealed himself.

Camden had once seen a snake handler, at a church revival, sponsored by the American Baptist & United Methodist Yoked Church, but actually by the Baptist half. The Methodists disapproved. Camden was Catholic, and he just went for kicks, but boy was it ever something to see. And the take-away? Those who do good have good done to them in return. So even if Todd Menocken was a snake, Camden figured he had little to fear, since his own intentions were honest.

And besides, a man does not go groveling to his grandfather for help getting out of a scrape like this. A man squares things himself, and Camden resolved to square things with Todd, on his own, regardless the consequences. He would find a way to get the money. He just had to think harder. If only he could think hard enough, he would see a solution. A solution would make itself known to him. Christ, he probably already held the solution, somewhere in his mind; he just couldn't see it among all the clutter of his thoughts: babes and bitches and bosses and buyers who didn't buy, bartenders and bank tellers who didn't give. He had never been able to think straight, to solve even a simple problem sensibly. Like when he lived at home, at his parents' home, and he awoke in the night feeling hungry. Being hungry was a problem requiring a solution. He'd go to the kitchen and open the refrigerator door. In the dark kitchen, just opening the refrigerator door filled him with luminous hope, like a revelation: cool, white light poured out of the refrigerator, and his hope flowed along those cool, white beams into the place where the solution to his hunger lay. Nine times out of ten you never found anything you really wanted, but that didn't stop you from standing there looking, looking, looking. . .

That's how he felt now, looking into his own mind, seeking a solution to his present difficulty: you kept looking because you knew it was in there somewhere, hidden behind some noise, some nagging little trouble.

If he could just think hard enough; just concentrate hard enough.

That snake handler must have had unbelievable concentration. That snake handler must not have feared a single thing on earth. Oh, to be a snake handler!

On the truck radio—WLS—some talk show. A woman caller ranting about her goddamned cuckoo clock. How did she get past the call screeners? "I finally ripped it off the wall because when that cuckoo sang the time, I'm not that fast. I run to the room, ran to the room to see it. And then that cuckoo clock door would snap shut so quick it was like nothing ever happened. I could almost never catch that cuckoo singing." The talk show host cut to commercial.

When Camden arrived at the Marina, the bartender again led him behind the bar, to the staircase, which descended to the lower-level hallway outside Todd's office.

Camden recalled, with some unease, the young man in the yachting cap, who had been standing in the hallway smoking a cigarette, and whom he had not seen since his first visit to the Marina. Each subsequent visit, walking down that staircase, he sort of dreaded seeing the young man in the yachting cap, and each time felt relieved to find the hallway empty.

An empty hallway: he looked down one now, and realized he had never before comprehended the true meaning of empty hallways: peace and quiet and choice and opportunity and sadness—always, beneath it all, some strange kind of sadness. A hallway always led somewhere, and a hallway with five doors led at least five different places, meaning you always turned your back on four of them. God, thinking about it now, he actually almost wept: some of life's most poignant moments had happened in empty hallways, and had always been unexpected. For example, getting a bathroom pass during school, and seeing those hallways, which he usually saw only when crammed with friends and classmates and teachers coming from and going to classes—those hallways completely still, while classes were in session, and when the bell rang and all those doors opened again, disgorging students and teachers, the hallways would again be what was most familiar to him—but with the bathroom pass in his hand, he understood that these hallways spent most of their lives in stillness. And the worst stillness of all was after he had graduated, and he returned to school, and saw the old familiar hallways again, now freshly polished, smelling faintly of something clean, and the hallways no longer knew him. He no longer belonged there. And then, looking down this hallway, in the Marina, he understood that he belonged here, in this hallway, and other hallways like it, and he wasn't sure he liked belonging to these hallways.

Todd's office door was closed. Two knocks, then Todd's voice, unfriendly, from inside: "It's open."

When Camden grasped the doorknob, and turned it, he had a strange sensation—practically a vision—of all the desperate souls who had grasped that round knob before him, and of all those who would do so after.

Todd glanced up from his deskwork as though Camden was an unwelcome interruption. "Camden. You've come to pay your loan?"

"Well, no, I had a problem this week but—"

"Camden, a problem last week, a problem this week, a problem next week. Better watch out you don't turn into a broken record," and he looked hard at Camden, as if he meant "broken" in more ways than one. "You see Camden, we had an agreement, and when people break their agreements, I get unhappy. To be perfectly honest, I'm unhappy right now. With you."

Deferential, supplicating, practically groveling: "Sir, I know, but if you could just give me one more week? I promise I can get the money by then."

"Your promises become more worthless everytime we meet. Besides, if I did that kind of favor for you, then I'd have to do it for everyone, and then where would I be? This is business, Camden. This is about more than just you and me. I've got lots of other people and things I have to consider."

"No, of course, I understand that sir, but what else can I do? I just don't have the money."

"You'll have to find it, and I suggest very quickly. According to the note you signed, you will now have to take a new loan for eight thousand, two hundred and eighty dollars, at twenty dollars on every hundred. Which means that in seven days you owe me nine thousand, nine hundred and thirty six dollars."

Camden winced at the this new number, which nearly hit the $10,000 ceiling he had set for himself.

Todd: "This is a rough business I'm in. You wouldn't believe the kind of deadbeats and scum I deal with. I know it's a rough business, fine. I know what I'm getting into, but my customers better had too. High risk, unsecured loans, yes, that's a rough business, but a rough business has rough ways. Now I don't want to get rough with you but—"

Provoked by Todd's lecture and parental tone, Camden said, "Now wait just a minute sir." He was sick of playing the grateful supplicant, the disobedient child, the untrustworthy grandson. Unable to control his temper, he said, "You think I don't know what you're doing—juice loans, I think you people call 'em—that it's all illegal—"

"You try saying that one more time and you'll be carrying your front teeth out the door, and considering yourself lucky to get off so easy. Don't try me, Camden. Let me tell you a little bit about what is illegal: breaking a contract, that's illegal. And I'll tell you what else is illegal: the way you've been spending the money I lent you. Or didn't you know that gambling is illegal in the state of Illinois? I know what you've been doing with my money, and I know where you've been doing it too." Todd pulled from his desk drawer a manilla folder, which he slid across the desk toward Camden. "Go on, open it. Take a look. See for yourself."

Camden opened the folder: photographs of himself playing the poker machines at the Ranch House, and photographs of the bar paying out on his winnings.

"Look carefully at those pictures, Camden. They are a selection I've put together just for you. A small selection. I have enough information to put you in plenty of hot water with the law, and to put the owner of that road house into even more. Syndicated gambling? Gambling keeper? You ever heard of those things? They are illegal. You don't want to be on that man's wrong side—he's even less forgiving than me."

That man, Camden's grandfather. Camden could never let himself be responsible for sinking his grandfather. Chastened, Camden slid the folder back across the desk: "Sorry sir. I'm just feeling real frustrated, that's all. I didn't mean nothing by any of that."

Todd returned the folder to his desk drawer. "No hard feelings Camden. But you've got to see this from my perspective. I'm feeling frustrated too. If you want another loan, fine. You can dig yourself in deeper. But what if I had some work for you—you could pay off part of what you owe me that way, and I could float you another loan, you could pay off the other part that way, and still have some left over to use however you want."

The slow return of hope. "What kind of work?"

"Well, I'm a little desperate myself just now, that's how, and when a man's desperate, the price of a solution goes up. I got a river excursion going out tonight, but I'm short a deckhand. If you can work this excursion tonight, I'll take two grand off your balance as of yesterday, and lend you another eight thousand at the original terms, fifteen on the hundred, to cover your balance. You'd leave here with a little over one grand to play with."

"Yes, absolutely, I'd love to. Only problem is I don't know anything about boats."

"Don't worry about that part. Deckhands don't need to know that much. The captain will show you what to do, and a guy like you, I know you'd learn fast." Todd picked up his phone and dialed a number, "Harry, Todd here. Yes, Todd. Step over to my office for a second."

About a minute later, the young man Camden had seen his first night at the Marina, the young man in the yachting cap, entered Todd's office. This night he was wearing a similar outfit, except that instead of the navy blue polo shirt, he was wearing a light blue Oxford, a striped school tie, and a navy blue sport coat. As he entered Todd's office, he grinned, as if at some joke that only he knew, and only he would ever know. He seemed like the kind of person who could only ever enjoy his own private jokes.

"Camden, I want you to meet Harry Thomasson. Harry's the excursion boat captain; you'll be working for him on this cruise. Harry, this is Camden Brady, from over to Tiskilwa. He's gonna be your fifth deckhand tonight."

More affable than Camden expected, Harry said, "Sure thing boss. What time do I get him? We got plenty of work to do before embarkation."

"Well, if Camden's ready, you can have him now. I'm sure you'll have a lot to show him. And Camden's new to all this, so keep him deck only.”

Camden stood up and thanked Todd. Harry put his hand on Camden's shoulder and steered him toward the door.

They left Todd's office, and Camden followed Harry down the hallway to the last door on the right, which led to the dock-master's office. They passed through the dock-master's office toward another door directly opposite the one they had just entered. This door opened onto the docks. They walked up the longest arm, to the farthest finger pier, where a mid-sized motor yacht floated in a slip.

Harry climbed a ladder into the boat. Harry lowered the gangplank. Harry gestured Camden aboard.

Camden found Harry sitting on the floor of the aft deck, his back against the bulwark. With a genial, slightly mischievous smile, he pulled a joint from the pocket of his navy blue blazer: "You smoke?"

Not at all what Camden had been expecting. "Sure. Of course."

Camden slid down next to Harry, who handed him the joint and a red, plastic Bic lighter, saying "Welcome to the Obvion; I'll let you do the honors."

This simple act of generosity disposed Camden very favorably toward Harry. Camden couldn't remember the last time somebody offered him a joint. He was always the one offering weed to others. He was always giving it away, when he should have been selling it. As Camden exhaled his first drag, he smiled: his entire self began feeling good, at ease, at peace. Then he chuckled at the thought that he might not even be here, enjoying himself, if he hadn't been so profligate with his weed, if he hadn't gotten himself into a hell-of-a-hole of debt, and a hell of trouble to go with it. And now, in the middle of all this trouble, he found himself with this strange, generous, crazy guy. He chuckled again. He passed the joint and the lighter back to Harry.

Responding to Camden's laughter, Harry asked, "What?" Then, taking a drag off the joint, and holding the smoke in his chest, he asked again, in a stifled voice, "What's so funny?" He handed the joint back to Camden and exhaled.

For no reason he could explain, Camden felt a warm, intense comradeship with Harry, which emboldened him to answer truthfully. "You. You. You and me sitting here. I met you once before you know—"

"Yes, I remember, though we didn't meet. We saw each other in a hallway. That's not meeting in my book. I don't know what kind of meeting you do."

"And you said, 'There goes a black Irish'—"

"What! I did not—"

"You did! And I wondered why you were wearing that hat."

"What, this hat?"

"Yes, that idiotic hat," and Camden started laughing again, hugging his gut with both arms. He hadn't laughed so hard in a long time; he hadn't felt so happy. "What're you trying to do, dressing like that? Staring at guys in hallways?"

Harry grasped the lapels of his sport coat, and solemnly, self-mockingly, proclaimed, "I'm the captain, that's what I'm-a-doing."

Camden laughed even harder. "Captain of the the queers if you aren't careful. Dude, you freaked me out that night. That was the first night I ever met Todd; then I come out of his office with twenty-five hundred dollars cash, and I see you standing, hanging out, in a hallway—"

"That's right. What else is a captain supposed to do in such a shitty marina. There's no admiral's club here."

A comfortable pause in the conversation gave Camden the opportunity to look up into the sky, at the sky flooded-and-filled with stars, at the beautiful stars in the beautiful sky. He promised himself he would stop to appreciate the night sky more often.

After a few minutes of silence, he asked Harry, "How did you become a boat captain anyway?"

"Don't know. Grew up around boats."


"Alton. What do you do?"

"Construction." It seemed so uninteresting; Camden felt a little embarrassed. "So, what, are you gonna do this for the rest of your life?"

"I don't know. Do you know how long that's gonna be or something?"

"How long what?"

"The rest of my life," and they both began laughing again.

Camden said, "Well how old are you anyway?"

"I'm twenty-five. What are you?"

"Just turned nineteen."

Camden thought that Harry must know a lot; one probably learned a great deal in the years between 19 and 25. Camden had never before felt such copious goodwill toward another person. Goodwill—did a word ever so perfectly express its own meaning? The will produced actions, and the goodwill produced good actions. Harry took everything the right way, every statement in its intended meaning. His self-assurance projected his total comprehension of every situation. One could tease him, and he laughed along: he understood exactly what one was saying, what one was trying to say, what one wanted to say. Camden felt cautious around all his other friends: they were so quick to take offense, to get pissed off. But not Harry. With him there was confident laughter in everything: laughter in his clothing; in his tall, lanky posture; in his clean-cut hair and clean, Neutrogena-scrubbed face. Everything about him seemed so clean, as clean and pure as laughter: laughter at life, at seriousness. Confidence and laughter: a person like Harry could look an $8,300 loan in the eye, and laugh it all out of countenance. Around him, you had a sense of well-being, of safety, a feeling that nothing bad could happen when you were with Harry Thomasson.