A Novel

Chapter 2: Machine

Six months earlier » Tuesday, August 4, 1987 » Fifteen miles to the north » The cocktail lounge of the Ranch House, a highway motel outside Bureau Junction » A young man, Camden Brady, played video poker: Jacks-or-Better.

[See Document Insert 2-001.]

Camden's grandfather owned the motel. From its parking lot, you could see across the Illinois River to Hennepin; its dining room overlooked a backwater lake ↠ on those credentials, it claimed to be a lodge; it was a run down, jimmied up motor court tricked out like a lodge: call it rustic; call it a lodge; call it a rustic lodge. With gambling.

Camden had come with $200, which he hoped to parlay into at least five thousand, that being the amount he owed a Lacon drug dealer and gambler named Jared Rone. Four of that five thousand he lost playing poker on the cuff with Jared and Jared's buddies; the other one thousand was for marijuana, which Camden was supposed to have sold. He should have made at least two thousand off the weed, but he enjoyed smoking too much, and hated smoking alone: he had sold barely half, and used the rest for himself and his friends. On the not non-existent ledger: friends = non-paying customers.

Jared Rone: drug dealer, gambler. Also ran a few prostitutes. Supposedly. No big deal. Well, just big enough a deal.

Camden guessed that, technically, he himself was a drug dealer too, but he didn't see it that way. He never thought of himself as a "drug dealer" or even a "dealer"; he was just "dealing". Not the same thing at all, when you stopped to think about it. A drug dealer was a low-life, like Jared Rone. "Dealing", on the other hand, was almost a social service. After all, everybody liked knowing somebody "who's dealing", but nobody really wanted to be the dealer. For starters, nobody wanted to know the kind of people you had to know in order to deal—people like Jared. So, in a way, Camden had taken on the responsibility, the burden even, for the greater good. Maybe it made him a little more popular, though that seemed unlikely, seeing as he had already been the most popular kid in his class.

Whatever dealing did for him socially, there was no denying the fact that it was a job, and at times an unpleasant one too. But everyone appreciated him for doing it. Whenever, for example, somebody was partying, and they wanted a little weed, they could always call up trusty old Camden. Not literally call him on the telephone, of course, but in a town as small as Tiskilwa, he was easy enough to find, and, if he wasn't bumming drinks at the Ranch House, he was usually wherever the party was anyway. Or rather, the party was usually wherever he was. He was the party, the life of the party.

So you could reason it six ways from Sunday, but the bottom line remained the same: Camden was dealing, mostly for the benefit of himself and his friends, which translated into giving most of his stash away—giving it away, giving it away, giving it all away: out of youthful idealism, optimism, and exuberance: if his generosity cost him one week, it was bound to reward him the next. When his pals chipped in for the weed, that was sure swell, but he felt awkward straight-up asking for money—that made him feel too much like a drug dealer. And he never, on principle, charged a girl for it if she wanted some. Charging a girl for weed—Christ, that just isn't cool.

Jared Rone, however, was. . .not sympathetic to the vagaries and optimism of youth.

Camden had met Jared the year before, while shooting pool at a bar in Hennepin. That same night, Jared invited Camden back to his trailer in Lacon. Jared blew Camden away with his '87 Camaro, tremendous amounts of weed, and a hot piece of ass who lounged around Jared's trailer waiting to be fucked and who turned out to be prostitute/jail bait/hammer-head-clap-skank.

Jared also owned an unreal, top-of-the-line Hitachi stereo system complete with cassette deck, turntable, compact digital audio disc player, receiver, amplifier, and bad-ass speakers. Camden was awestruck; Jared was like, "Did you come here to party or not?"

Soon, Camden was pushing marijuana for Jared—one of those pyramid schemes, like Amway—mostly to his own friends, and friends of friends: high schoolers and recent high school graduates. Jared next asked Camden to begin handling some of Jared's own customers on the river's west side, and Camden didn't know how to refuse. Plus he needed the money. Plus he sort of enjoyed the attention, the lifestyle.

Jared instructed Camden to start small. Jared said, "Let it grow slow. Don't draw attention to yourself. Just let it be, let it be organic, man."

Camden had never even heard the word "organic" before, and when he looked it up in the dictionary at his parents' house, he still didn't really understand. It sounded pretty cool, though: you had to admit that.

Whatever it meant, Camden apparently was not doing it, because Jared had become increasingly hostile in recent months: "Where's my money? You're barely worth my time, you know that? Do something about it." More and more, Jared was abrupt; Jared was irritable; Jared was insulting. "You know what? My friends here keep telling me they think you're a little bit of a pussy. They think you couldn't collect money from a lemonade stand. Whatchya think about that? Think you could manage a lemonade stand? Show me the money, Camden."

Humiliating, unpleasant, awkward.

But Camden never actually feared Jared, until the day Jared braced him:

→At work:

→Camden's real work.

Jared turned up after lunch. His eyes were psychotically fixed, as if he couldn't move them from side to side. He had to pivot his whole head if wanted to shift his field of vision. He shoved Camden, shouting "You stupid piece of shit, you think I let you deal 'cause I like you or something? You think I play cards with you 'cause I enjoy your company? You think I'm some kinda faggot? I want my money you lousy son-of-a-bitch."

Worried the fight would become a scandal, Camden desperately attempted to placate Jared with promises, "Don't worry dude. Just cool out. I'm gonna get your money. Just take it easy. I'll have it for you next payday. Everything's cool. Just chill, dude." Empty promises. Christ, a meth mouth tooth socket.

Jared sapped Camden in the face: cracked a good one right upside the head.

He then began babbling incoherently: "You been walking up and down the midway, chief. The fun-house barker been calling, but you ain't been listening. But now you're inside. Do you see it? Open your eyes and see the fun inside the funhouse. A three-legged, blood-thirsty, junkyard dog? Your ripped out tongue dripping blood on a white-frosted cupcake? That was my grandma's cupcake you asshole. Grandma! You stabbed grandma's skull like a piece of beef with a bamboo skewer, and you filled her tiddly-winks-cup with finger nails. You asshole. Those were my fingernails. That was my pollution rolling off the bluffs. Do you see? Do you see that the way out's hard to find, with or without the money?"

Craaaaaaaazy shit. Like straight-outta-Zeller-Zone-crazy.

So Camden took his last $200 to the Ranch House, where he knew he could play Jacks-or-Better at full pay, and that with as little as four-of-a-kind he'd make a clean five thousand and get Jared Rone out of his life for good. He was finished dealing. At least until he could find a less psychotic supplier.

But it never worked out quite that easily, and, he guessed, he never really knew whether he even wanted it to. Life was weird that way. Anything you wanted, you sort of had to earn. You even wanted to earn it; you wouldn't want it if you didn't have to earn it. Playing the machines was like that, and it felt good: you got into a rhythm, like solid sex: rocking, rocking, rocking into one. You became one with the machine, as long as that beautiful rhythm kept itself going: winning a little, losing a little, winning again and losing again, coming closer and closer to the big payoff, rocking, rocking. . .until suddenly he had lost it all. All his credits. All of them gone. Over. Spent.

He was outside the machine again, just his miserable fuck-up self. He had come so close; all he needed was another go, but he felt defeated. And then. . .


→Spin it around;

→Mix it up:

Flash it back:

Friday afternoons, felt good, school's just let out, he and the guys spinning around town in his Buick—sixteenth birthday present (being the grandson of Durney McKusker definitely had its advantages)—those were the best moments of the week; those were the best moments of life: Friday after school, the whole weekend lying before you like a gorgeous naked blond on a king-sized mattress, Camden and his pals spinning around town, trying to decide what-the-hell they should do that evening, the whole world a universe of pure possibility. . .

Now: return to the present, to the Ranch House: remember who this miserable fuck-up self is: Camden Brady, most popular kid in Tiskilwa, last year's homecoming king and prom king too, star quarterback in '86 when the Chiefs almost beat Elmville at Sectionals; Camden Brady, grandson of Durney Mckusker, who owned this whole goddamn bar, along with half the other motels, supper clubs, and road houses in the county. Camden could feel his self-confidence surging back, like the sudden access of invincibility he experienced the few times he tried cocaine.

Fuck yeah.

He lit a cigarette and headed straight for the bar.

Bartender greets him cheerfully, "Hey Camden. How's it going over there? Did you break the house?"

"Hey Jim. Not yet. I'm a bit low on cash right now. Can you carry me? I get paid next week if I don't win it back tonight, which I'm pretty sure I will."

Jim shakes his head, "Sorry Camden, but your granddad would kill me. We can give you food and drinks, but no money for the machines."

Annoyed at being treated like a child, Camden, petulant, rejoins: "What the hell? He does it for other guys. What's the big fucking deal? Just a little for tonight—I know I'll win it back, I've got a win coming: you'll get the money back tonight and grandpa won't even know. What's the big deal?"

"Sorry Camden. I don't make the rules."

"No shit you don't, and never will either, long as you keep that pussy attitude. Grow some balls, for Christ's sake. Don't be such a gutless wonder."

"You got no call to get sore with me, Camden."

Fuck you. I got call to get sore with whoever the fuck I goddamn pleased. Camden BRADY—ever heard the name? That's what I thought: a year ago you asshole losers were licking my boots.

Camden sulked off to the bathroom to take a piss, and to decide whether or not he should just go home. His girlfriend, Trisha, would be awake, watching television: he could probably still get laid and forget about Jared Rone until tomorrow, figure out what to do then: maybe just take the consequences, whatever those might be. Jared beats me to a pulp, then fine:

You can't beat the money out of me, 'cause I don't got it, but I hope it makes Jim happy; I hope grandpa's happy; I hope they're all happy, every last useless one of them. I'm always coming through for everybody else, and then I ask, just once, for someone to come through for me, and they all just disappear, don't they. So that's how it is.

Inside the bathroom, urinating.

A second person enters the bathroom, and stands at the urinal next to Camden. No privacy panel between the urinals. You must conspicuously look up, or the other person thinks you're a faggot staring at his dick. Of course, everybody secretly looks: how does my dick measure up to his? Camden had a solid record on that score. And twice he had been told, by prostitutes, that his cock was big, but prostitutes will say anything.

Camden stared at the condom machine above the urinals. Choice of three: Rough Rider, French Tickler, and Ultra Thin. ¢75 apiece.

Camden thought about how the machine operated: three merchandise magazines inside the white, porcelain-enameled metal box; three rotating coin selectors beneath the merchandise magazines; three chrome dials beneath the coin selectors; and three delivery outlets beneath the dials.

You insert the quarters, stacked sideways, into the coin selector, and crank the dial counter-clockwise. The coin selector's drive shaft transmits the turning torque to the actuation shaft of the dispensing mechanism; the coins drop through the trigger switch; a camshaft coupled to the actuation shaft releases the condom from its magazine, and while the quarters fall into the coin bank, the condom falls into the delivery outlet, where it can be collected by the customer.

Whoever devised these machines had a good idea, because in turning the dial, and hearing the whole machinery set into motion by your coins hitting the trigger-switch, you felt as if you were gambling, but you weren't gambling because you won every time, and if you were using the machine, odds were very good that you'd win again, even bigger.

Man at the other urinal began to speak. Not done—creepy. "I know someone who might be able to help you out. If you're still looking for money."

Dude must've overheard Camden asking the bartender for money, must've seen Camden's little temper tantrum. Camden tried to act cool, realizing that his tantrum had been unmanly. But he had been provoked into acting that way by Jim's infantilizing refusal to extend a little credit. To be told in front of other people that his grandfather wouldn't allow it, when Camden knew full well that his grandfather did it for others? It would humiliate anybody. He hated being treated like a child, but ended up acting like one anyway. Mistake.

Trying not to sound overly-eager, he said, "Yeah, I might be interested."

At the sink, the man wrote a telephone number on the back of a receipt, and handed it to Camden: "Ask for Todd. If he ain't there, don't leave no message, just call back again later."

Camden took the receipt, "Thanks."

The man grinned and giggled, "Rainbow cove is the name, but I bet you can't get him to say it out loud."



Confused, Camden said, "Okay. I don't think I'll try."

Then, just as Camden was about to to leave, the man stopped him, "Say, ain't you one of Jared Rone's boys?"

Camden denied it, and left the bathroom, walking straight to an old GTE three slot payphone in the lounge. He dropped two quarters into a coin acceptor that looked like a pair of brass knuckles, and dialed the telephone number on the receipt.

A man answered, gruff: "Marina."

"Can I speak with Todd?"

"Hold on."

After a long wait—he had to drop another quarter into the phone—a second voice said, "Todd."

Camden didn't know what to say. It reminded him of the first time he visited a prostitute, in a trailer just off the Interstate near La Salle. The placed called itself "The Spa", and a giant billboard advertised its principal service, "Rubdowns", although really it should have said "Suckdowns" because the whores there swallowed, at least they swallowed Camden's. That was the day after his seventeenth birthday, and despite being the hot-shot of his class, with his Buick and his girlfriend, he was still a virgin. He had no idea what he was supposed to do. He remembered sitting there, nervously, in a tiny waiting room, with two other men, both older, all three pretending not to notice each other. He had considered leaving, but the hostess called his number before he could decide one way or the other. Once he followed her through the beaded-curtain door, however, everything seemed so easy, probably because there was no turning back. When you reach that point, the unthinkable suddenly becomes not only thinkable, but easy and even almost inevitable. He fucked that prostitute like mad and then came in her mouth.

The guy on the phone repeated himself, a little impatiently, "This is Todd."

Camden said, "Hi. A friend gave me your name. Said you do payday loans?"

"Yeah? What's your friend's name?"

Embarrassed, Camden admitted, "I'm not sure."

"That's some friend you got there."

Too nervous to laugh, he just said, "Yeah."

"Sure I can do a loan. Fifteen dollar charge for every hundred lent, the whole to be repaid in seven days. Our standard terms for first-time loans."

Surprised by what sounded like such generous terms—he could easily make the fee at poker alone—Camden eagerly accepted.

"How many hundreds you want?"

"Uhhh, I need five thousand dollars."

"Okay, fifty hundreds. What's your name?"

"Camden Brady."

"You at home?"

"No, I'm at a bar."

"Fee's twenty on the hundred if we have to bring the money to you."

"No, I can go there. Where are you?"

"At the Marina, on the river, just past Negro Creek, between Marquette and De Pue. Where you coming from?"

"Bureau Junction."

"Come up Twenty Nine, take the first right after you cross Negro Creek. We're easy enough to find. Ask for me at the bar," and he hung up.

Though the Marina was not far from Tiskilwa, Camden had never actually been there before. He knew almost nothing about it, or that part of the county. Bureau Junction was the farthest east he ever traveled on Route 29. Whenever he needed to drive farther east than Bureau Junction, he always took the Interstate north of Elmville.

Driving up 29 now, in his sky blue GMC Sierra pickup truck (high school graduation gift from his grandfather), he saw nothing but river, timber, and a lone road house. No sign on the road house—just a forbidding, red glow in the windows.

Further on, he recognized the symptoms of coal mining on the land: slag heaps, railroad spurs, chain-linked fences.

The only other automobile, the entire distance between Bureau Junction and Negro Creek, was a black Buick Grand National with dealer plates. Strange: dealer plates on the road that late at night.

When he arrived at Negro Creek, he was surprised by how short the drive had been, how this region could be so near his home, and yet so alien to him.

Just beyond Negro Creek, he saw a picket-fenced house, a ramshackle church, and a sign for the Rainbow Cove Marina. Sign pointed down a gravel road.

The road winded toward the river, terminating in a parking lot, and the Marina.

The Marina was two stories: the second could be the first, and the first the basement, depending on which side of the marina you stood (parking lot or river). Neon beer signs hung in the top floor windows; the bottom floor was about fifteen feet above the river, with a ramp descending to the docks.

Inside the bar, Camden saw that its windows looked onto the river. Might be a nice place to bring Trisha some night. Romantic. Something new for them to do. She was always complaining about nothing to do in Tiskilwa.

He approached the bartender, "Hi. I'm looking for Todd."

"Oh yeah? Who're you?"

"Camden Brady. I think he's expecting me."

"Hold on." The bartender went through a pair of saloon doors, reappearing about two minutes later. "Back this way," and he gestured Camden behind the bar and through the saloon doors.

Behind the saloon doors, Camden saw a kitchen straight to the back, and to the left a narrow, staircase down.

Bartender pointed to the staircase, and said "That way."

Almost all bartenders were total assholes, with an unwarranted sense of power. Maybe not entirely unwarranted—when the bar was busy, they did get to decide who to serve first, usually chicks and big tippers.

Camden began walking down the stairs. When he looked back, expecting to be shadowed by the bartender, he was surprised to discover himself alone. At the bottom of the stairs was a hallway, with three, evenly-spaced doors on the right, and two on the left. The first door on the right was ajar, so he looked inside, and saw a man sitting behind a desk counting money. Tentatively, he said to the man, "Hi. I'm looking for Todd."

The man behind the desk, friendly, a welcome change: "You must be Camden. Come in and have a seat. Close the door behind you."

Camden sat in a chair facing the desk. "Are you Todd?"

The man smiled—almost chuckled—and said, "That's right." He shuffled through some papers, until he found a small sheet. Reading from it, he said, "So you need five thousand dollars. Like we said on the phone, our fee is fifteen dollars on the hundred."

"That sounds good to me."

"First I need to see a driver's license."

Camden removed from his back pocket a navy blue, nylon wallet: "Tiskilwa Chiefs" in fading, yellow letters across the front. Velcro made a ripping, tearing sound as he opened the wallet. He slid his driver's license out from behind a small piece of cheap, already-brittle-and-yellowing, transparent plastic inside the wallet, and handed it to Todd.

Todd set the license on the desk, beside a sheet of paper, onto which he began copying information from the license, asking a series of questions as he did so: "Camden Brady. . .that your real name? I know you told me so, and I know it says so here on your license, but I want to give you one last chance to back out of any lie you might have told me, and since you've only told me one thing so far, it's the easiest lie to back out of. Because let me caution you son, you do not want to lie to us about anything going forward. I don't think I can emphasize that enough."

"Yes sir. That's my real driver's license; Camden Brady's my real name."

"Four oh six Bound Street, apartment three, Tiskilwa—this your current address?"

"Yes sir."

Todd spun around in his swivel desk chair to face a large book shelf. On the third shelf: a stack of phone books and city directories, which he scanned with his index finger, before pulling the phone book for Elmville/Tiskilwa. He flipped through its white pages, found an entry, Camden's: "eight-seven-five, eight-eight-seven five: that your current phone number?"


"You live alone?"

"Yes—well, no. Sometimes my girlfriend lives with me."

"You got a pay stub you can show me?"

Camden handed him his most recent, which he had taken from the glove compartment of his pickup truck.

Todd looked skeptically at the pay stub: "This is weekly?"

"Uhhh, no, sir, we get paid every two weeks."

"It won't be nearly enough to make the repayment in seven days."

Try to reassure him: "Oh, I got other ways to get the money. Those ways just don't give me a pay stub, if you know what I mean." He thought that sounded pretty smooth.

"No, not really. But if you say so. It's your neck."

Something about the way Todd said the word "neck"—almost made Camden want to back out.

Todd returned the phone book to its place on the bookshelf. He began rearranging the papers in front of him. "Okay Camden, here's how this works. I give you the first twenty-five hundred tonight. Then tomorrow, I call you at your phone number. I keep calling until somebody picks up, and that somebody had better be you. After we speak on the phone, I'll send somebody to your home with the second twenty-five hundred. So the sooner you answer that phone, the sooner you'll get your second twenty-five hundred."

Camden: intimidated, a little confused.

Todd said, "That's right: half tonight, and half as soon as we verify that you live where you say you live, and your phone number's what you say it is. In seven days you come back here with five thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars, and it'll be a pleasure doing business with you."

Hearing that amount, $5,750, was like having the wind knocked out of him, like in football practice, when a defensive lineman sacks you with unanticipated force. $5,750 sounded a lot worse than it had when Todd quoted the fee on the telephone: $15 for every $100.

Todd continued, "You don't like it, there's no pressure: you can turn around and walk right back through that door and up those stairs. No hard feelings, no rough stuff. But if you want the loan, those are the terms."

Camden paused briefly to consider, and then realizing there was nothing to consider—he had no other way of getting the money, and he had to pay Jared Rone—he said, "Sure, I understand. Let's do it."

Todd smiled and pushed a piece of paper across the desk: "Just sign here Camden—that's your note, repayable in seven days."

As soon as Camden had signed the note, Todd stood up, removed a pile of strapped-bills from an iron safe behind his desk, and handed Camden one purple-strap of twenties, and one red-strap of fives, saying, "Two thousand, five hundred dollars. Count it now if you want."

Camden said, "That's alright sir, I trust you."

"That's good Camden, because we're trusting you," after which he sat back down at his desk, said "We'll be calling you tomorrow," and continued working as though Camden had already left.

Feeling that he had been dismissed, Camden left Todd's office, leaving the door ajar, as it was when he arrived.

In the hallway, Camden noticed a young man, leaning against the wall at the opposite end, smoking a cigarette. Slightly older than Camden, he wore tan trousers, a navy blue polo shirt, and a white yachting cap with shiny black bill and a braided gold cord across the front. The young man stared at Camden, a stare in some ways menacing, but maybe just the stare of somebody with nothing else to look at in an otherwise-empty-hallway.

Camden returned the look, and when their eyes met, he recognized an aggressive, lewd quality in the other man's eyes, in the expression. He couldn't help but feel that he was being sized up.

The young man said, "Black Irish," in a tone that was both question and statement.

Camden said, "What's that?" His instinct: confront this punk—"What are you, some kind of faggot?"—but he already felt ill-at-ease in the place, ill-at-ease and a little unsafe.

Nonchalant, the young man exhaled smoke: "I said, are you joining the crew?" Obviously lie.

Camden felt filthy, as though by merely looking the young man in the eyes, the two had engaged in some indecent act. Don't, he thought, do anything stupid: stay on friendly terms with everyone here. Still, he could barely suppress a note of dislike when he asked, "What crew?"

"Well, I guess this is a marina, not an airport."

Camden grinned at what he assumed was a joke. Then he asked, "Where do you and your crew go?"

Before the young man could answer, Todd stepped out of his office, and said to Camden, "I think you'd best be on your way son. Thanks again and we'll be in touch, let's hope tomorrow." As Camden turned towards the staircase, and as he ascended it, he heard Todd say to the young man, "Don't hang out in the hallway."

The young man responded, with a mock military salute, "Yes sir, Mr. Menocken, sir."

Todd: "And don't get smart either. Is everything ready for the excursion?"

"Everything but the crew. It hasn't shown yet."

"They will. I'm expecting at least four deckhands. . ." by which point Camden had returned to the upper level, and could hear nothing more that might have been said.