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Scammer – Thomas Weedman

May 9, 2021 | Fiction | 0 comments

After the morning rush, Jimmy stands hungover in the cafe bar, flensing the caked steam wand with a steel thermometer stem. The flaked peels of dried milk remind him of tearing genital skin from burning chancroid sores he had as a boy. He doesn’t care about scratching metal or the scraping sound it makes when the customer approaches. Dressed in a windowpane suit – the dark brown sheen of a church pew – the foppish man smells of a ginger breath mint. He asks if Jimmy is the manager and has a formal complaint.
Jimmy, blue apron soaked to the twill white dress shirt and sleeves rolled to the elbow, says, “One moment.” He holds up his index finger coffee-stained and cauterized by the steam wand. He goes into the office.
In a moment, he returns, leans forward, and politely says, “She’s on the phone.”
The man coaxes a brilliant smile of aligned white teeth, the kind Jimmy – wearing a crooked, taxing dental prosthesis – has envied his whole life. The man’s pink gums scallop each scraped and polished tooth. Clean-shaven with no sideburns, his short silky brown hair is combed to the side, the part straight as his razored neckline. “Tell her I’ll wait,” he says. “Would you tell her that?” He pushes his tortoiseshell glasses up the bridge of his professional-looking nose.
Jimmy lugs to the office. Butch, big as an elephant with yellow tusks for teeth, looks at him. She’s turning a raging red. He holds his rotten breath.
“Vera,” Butch barks into the phone, “I know you’re not sick; you’re not even pregnant. You’re probably just hungover. At least Jimmy came into today, reeking of beer. You two can’t go drinking anymore. Besides, he’s a married man. And do you know how hard we had to work today without you?” She bangs the Formica desk with her elephant fist. “You can’t keep calling in sick!”
Jimmy flinches and waits. Butch doesn’t look up. He goes back out, feeling guilty.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he says to the customer.
“Are you a manager?” he asks, nicely.
“No, but maybe I can help.”
“Let me show you,” the man says.
As Jimmy follows to the mahogany hardware display, a spotted pigeon walks in. The air conditioning broken, the doors are propped open with nickel drop-down stoppers. After the morning crowds, the birds encroach for crumbs. The homeless and the crack-heads too, eyeballing the chained tip jars and grab-n-go items like turkey sandwiches on focaccia and peeled-hard boiled eggs in plastic wrap. Jimmy rushes the bird, which turns for the door, head bobbing. An oily slick shimmers on the back of its teal and gray neck. Jimmy kicks, missing. The bird hops, flaring its dark boomerang-shaped wings and flies out.
A moment later, it returns and lands in the other doorway. Jimmy double-takes. He waves, rushes, kicks. The bird flies off.
 “Hello?” the customer calls. “Could you leave the Rock Dove alone?”
Jimmy hurries back, smiling – what his wife Hanna calls them. Vera too.
“Are you ready?”
Jimmy looks at him. “Sorry.”
“The other day,” the man says and stops. He looks at Jimmy’s black dress shoes splotched with milk crust and coffee grinds.
Jimmy stands quietly like a penitent.
The customer nods, says, “I bought two of these and two of those.” Then he points at white ceramic coffee mugs with red smiley faces and beans for eyeballs and then at two white coffee-colored jars that fastened on top. He continues, “And when I got home, they were all chipped. I didn’t drop the bag, I think they were packaged poorly, so I don’t think I’m at fault.”
Jimmy considers the FNG.
FNG? Butch asked recently.
Fucking new guy. The one with the shaved head except for a blue tuft on his skull.
“I understand,” Jimmy tells the customer.
“You know,” the customer says, “I’m a surgeon. I can’t just be running back through the financial district to your store for a return. Maybe I would for a good bottle of wine, but not for mugs and jars. I’m too busy for that.”
Jimmy nods, noticing the man’s hands. Ever since Little League Coach Earl and the motel room, Jimmy notices hands and fingers – Earl’s were fat and stubby, nails laced with motor oil. An ugly fist he would unclench to rub Jimmy’s back and behind. This customer, though, has the noble hands of a surgeon: good-looking and smooth with slender, nimble fingers, manicured nails, cuticles. Jimmy imagines him with a shiny scalpel making an incision, pulling back skin, asking the nurse for the next instrument, or telling her, “Swab that, honey, would you?” Or, “Put the needle there. That a baby…”
“So just tell the manager,” he is saying, “to train her employees better, would you?”
“I will,” Jimmy says, seeing his dirty nails, a fail of his own. Then he says, “Is there anything else I can do for you, a cup of coffee?”
“I can’t. I have surgery at two-thirty.”
“Well, do you want more of these mugs then?”
“Oh, no. I already bought four more.”
“I see.” Then Jimmy says, “What would you like me to do then?”
“Just tell her? Would you do that? And tell her I’d like a refund for these jars.” He opens and closes one, fastening the clasp.
“Okay, I’ll take care of it. Cup of coffee on the house?” He realizes he’d just asked the question. He’s fatigued, stuck in the give-them-what-they-want mode. Get them in, get them out. Mutter as the awful ones go out.
“Oh, no,” the man says, “I’ve got surgery waiting.”
“Of course.”
Jimmy lugs into the office. Butch is off the phone.
“Can I have the card and keys, please?”
She hands them over without looking up. Jimmy goes back out, starts the refund.
The man says, “Good, very good. Thank you. You know, you should come work for me. I see you’re married.”
Jimmy nods, noticing scuffs on in his gold ring.
“You should really work for me, especially if you want to have a baby.” His eyebrows caterpillar.
Jimmy smiles. There will be no baby to fall victim to someone like Earl. Memories flood his hangover. He pushes register buttons.
There’s a crash. Jimmy jumps. He looks over. The FNG is staring down at a shattered plate.
Jimmy goes back to the return.
While the idiot FNG sweeps the mess, the customer says to him, “You think that’s hard work, you should work for me.”
“What do you do?” says the FNG.
“I deliver babies.”
“How many in a day?”
“Well,” he says, shrugging. “Depends on nine months ago.”
The FNG smiles. He, too, has more teeth than Jimmy.
“Here you are, Sir,” Jimmy says, refunding the jars. He places coins in the man’s palm and counts the faced bills backward to total.
“So elegant,” the man says.
Jimmy nods and prints a receipt for store records.
“Thank you,” the man says. “Very nice. And you know, I’ll have a cocoa now.”
“Small or large?” Jimmy asks.
“Small.”
“Whole milk?”
“Absolutely. What else is there?”
“Nonfat, low-fat, soy, half-and-half.”
“Whole is fine.”
“Whipped cream?”
“Oh, no.” He pats his trim stomach.
Jimmy pushes buttons on the register, sending the order to the monitor. The FNG puts the broom and dustpan aside and goes into the bar. He pours heavy cream into a bell-shaped pitcher like an epileptic, spilling over the sides. He begins steaming it, making a whirring, cringing sound, the valve half open. He surfaces the tip of the steam wand for air. One of the three air holes on the nozzle is blocked like an artery – the cleaning procedure Jimmy hadn’t gotten to yet. Then the FNG submerges the tip to the bottom of the pitcher. It whirs again. He attaches the thermometer, the steel stem clipped outside the pitcher. Jimmy shakes his head.
The customer steps to the bar, leans against it, then says to the FNG, “I like your short hair. I wish mine were like yours.”
Jimmy looks at the man’s hair. It is short. Maybe, he means the blue tuft without mentioning it.
A juxtaposed subtext. He looks away, tired, unable to think clearly.
The drink is made with a mountain of whipped cream. The customer says to Jimmy, “Thanks again.” He holds up the cup, showing the FNG’s dirty fingerprints.
“Come back soon,” Jimmy says, embarrassed.
“I will, and when I do, I’ll bring you a good bottle of wine.”

+ + +

Jimmy returns the keys to Butch, relaying the story. She leans back and says, “And he was dressed in a nice suit, and he’s a surgeon, and two jars were broken.”
“Yes,” Jimmy says, knowing what’s coming.
“Don’t give a refund,” she says. “He tried that scam at a couple of other stores, they wouldn’t bite.”
“No one told me.” He points to the bulletin board. “There’s no note.”
“Well, just don’t give him a refund.”
“Too late.”
“What?” Her cheeks go beet red.
“He seemed sincere and believable.” Then again, he thinks, so had Earl on the weekend birthday trip.
“Did he have his receipt?”
“No.”
“Or the broken jars?”
“No.”
“We can’t do a return without those things.”
“We’ve done them before.”
She looks at him, as though taking stock.
Then she says, “How much?”
“Twenty-nine dollars.”
“Oh, well,” she says resigned.
“Take it out of my paycheck.”

+  +  +

He slumps out to the retail floor disconsolate. He sees the pigeon, persistent and obdurate, back for more crumbs. Jimmy chases, kicking and muttering, “Fucking Rock Dove, I killed something like you once.”
He told Vera about it yesterday at the dive bar near the café – the second shift of the day, they joked. As she lifted her pint, he mentioned how clean and pristine her fingers and nails were for working in coffee. He knew to stop there, eyes above her décolletage. It would lead to trouble if he ogled or praised even her hair – long, black, and silky as a horse’s tail. But it’d be an insult. Who wants to be compared to a horse? Although, she was dressed in a second-hand madras jacket, skinny jeans and riding boots, also second-hand, like she rode dressage. And she knew how to mount a barstool. So, he fixated on her fingers. She complained it took work to keep them looking good. She complained more about the needy, privileged coffee customers – it didn’t matter what color or sex – being a stain and how she’d like to kill them. All.
“Isn’t your dad in prison for killing?” he asked.
“He’s the warden!” she said. She turned sidesaddle, made a pretty fist, and held it in his face. Then she slapped the bar counter and belly laughed, her head flipping back like doing a shot of whiskey. Her exposed neck is what got him thinking about it.
Later, she asked, “You ever want to kill?”
“Who, the customers?”
“Anybody.”
“No.” But there was an accident, he explained. He was a boy at his Uncle’s Roy’s ranch, hoeing in a field of dwarf apple trees nettled in weeds and thickets. Frustrated from work, he thought he would die from the burning sun. Vera listened like a lover. Jimmy left out thinking he would die from the burning chancroid sores Coach Earl gave him. Jimmy confessed nearly decapitated a quail in a nest under an apple tree. It was belly up, bloodied, and moribund.
Her eyebrows went up. “Moribund?”
“Likely.”
“Going to die?”
“Yes.”
“Why not just say it?” she said annoyed and moved her breasts closer.
He leaned back and finished the story, finished with the hoe at the blunted neckline.
“NFW.”
“What?” he said thinking of FNG.
“No fucking way. You killed an innocent bird? That’s sick.”
“It was an accident.”
“OMG. And you were in the seminary. You studied to be a priest. A man of God and you sacrificed a bird.”
“It wasn’t a sacrifice, it was mercy. And nobody is perfect. In the old testament, Moses even killed somebody.”
“I’m not buying it. From now on, every time a Rock Dove comes in the store, I’m going to think of that decapitated quail. By the way, does your wife Hanna know you’re a killer?”
“No. It would destroy her. She is far too gentle and fragile.” He thinks what else he can’t tell her
Earl, for starters.
“Buy me another beer and I won’t tell her.”
“What is wrong with you? And what do I have to do to convince you it was an accident?”
“Buy me two more beers and I won’t tell her I’m pregnant with your baby.”
“You are so fucked up.” Gobsmacked, he ordered more.
Later, she said, “A quail? really? Did you at least eat it?”
“Who am I, Ozzy Osbourne?”
“He only bit their heads off. Besides, those were doves.”
“Rock doves?”
“White ones.”
“Like the white customers whose heads you want to bit off?”
“I pretty much want to kill all of the customers.”

+ + +

His shift ends at noon. Removing the soggy apron, he wants to stop at the dive bar, see if Vera is already bellied up, and tell her to stop this morning sickness crap. People are getting ideas about something they technically haven’t done. Though, he muses what it might have been like for the pregnant Virgin Mary and Joseph the tekton – Jesus’ father, a carpenter who fabricated chairs and tables, maybe pews. And to stop calling in and fabricating lies. Then he’d buy her beers, tell her about the scammer. She’d believe that and want to kill him. Tired, he heads home instead.
He stops at the liquor store with the royal blue awning with accent scallops and discount prices for a twelve-pack, potato salad, and string cheese. He considers buying cigarettes but promised Hanna he’d quit smoking. Like he promised about gambling on horses. He knows drinking is next.
The owner sells individual Lucky Strikes for a quarter. To Jimmy, it sounds like a quarter horse named Lucky Strikes. He can’t get racing out of his head and wants a smoke. There’s an open pack on the shelf behind the register.
“You look awful,” the owner says. She’s has a thick, curled white whisker on her chin. She resembles Butch, but when she smiles, she’s missing teeth and reminds him of himself without his falsies, making her kin.
Jimmy stares at the cigarettes while paying for the other items. “They’ll still be here later when you come back for round two,” she says. She folds her arms and leans back, smiling. He resents her knowing but likes her gypsy-like voice.

+  +  +

At five-thirty, the front door opens then closes. Soft footsteps on the hardwood. Hanna enters from the hallway, like a tired runway model. Curls limp from her marcelled hair. She admins nine-to-five at a financial firm. Smelling of perspired perfume, she kicks off her black flats where she keeps a chit – her to-do list on a folded piece of ruled paper. Then she unbuttons her white long-sleeve business blouse and loosens her ankle-length gray skirt.
“Hello,” she says softly and drops to the couch, curling her legs under her, relieved as Jimmy without his dental prosthesis.
“Hello.”
“I saw a rock dove today,” she says, unfolding the list from her shoe. “Well, I saw a lot of Rock Doves. They’re everywhere. But this one looked so young and pristine and pretty.”
“Did you bring him home to your feeder?”
“I was tempted.”
“I saw one today, it came in the store.”
“Did it order coffee?”
“No.”
“Did you chase it?”
“What else?”
“That’s you, my toothless boy.”
Then she says, “How was your day?” She exhales. “Besides the dove.”
“Rock dove.”
“Yes.”
“You don’t want to know.” Shaking his head, something shifts in his chest.
“Bad?” she asks, looking at the empty cans around him. “Did you save me one?”
“Sorry. I’ll go to the store.”
“Never mind,” she says. “At least you boozed at home.” Then she says, “Did you drink all twelve?”
He smiles.
“That’s you.” Then she says, “Well, I had a good day. A great day, even.”
“Yeah?”
“I went to Mass down the street today during my lunch hour, like I have for the last two weeks.
You know old St. Patrick’s, we’ve gone there. I know you get off work too late, but I wish we could go together every day.”
Jimmy nods in agreement.
“The office is giving me an extra five minutes for walking time. Isn’t that nice?”
“Very.” He nearly says Vera. “Did Mass end the same way? Or did the Devil do it?”
“Pretty much,” she says, pausing to smile. “But I got a feeling during it.”
“A feeling?”
“I was thinking…”
“Thinking?”
Thinking we should have a baby.” She is holding the chit in her elegant fingers – nails chewed, a rare bad habit. The other is that those fingers hardly ever touch Jimmy. “I have a list. A war plan, of sorts. Wait, that’s our grocery list. I know it’s here somewhere. Anyway, I need to see my gynecologist.
And go off the pill – that’s not very Catholic, is it? Being on the pill.”
He knows the Catholic stance on birth control, but he can’t help think that sperm made the list of wartime rations.
Trying not to act drunk, he sees her thin lovely lips moving, and behind them, her teeth. He loves her teeth. She is lucky to have perfect, white teeth. He wants to put his teeth back in and bite hers like victuals. Those teeth want a baby. God help me, he thinks. “But we…” he starts.
“I know. Guess I changed my mind. Or something changed my mind.” She’s looking in her shoes for the other list.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he says and puts his hand on his chest – as though Earl squeezing his heart.
“Honey?” she says. “Honey?”

+   +   +

In the night, he wakes from too much beer and not enough potato salad and string cheese. He could use a cigarette. Then, the memory of the refund triggers a headache. He feels embarrassed, hearing the customer’s voice: “I’m a surgeon… Have your employees package things better…I would like a refund…
Plus, heartburn hits.
And now she wants a baby. He stares at her asleep, supple back and perfect behind. Couldn’t we just practice making a baby? He wonders if that was how Earl looked at him the motel room – longing for sex, just to touch. Or was there more? To violate? He splays his fingers above his face in the dark. Swab that honey, would you? He makes a Vera fist.

 +   +   +

Saturday and Sunday, while Hanna goes to Mass, Jimmy broods while watching football on TV and drinking beer. Whenever Hanna mentions baby, he puts his hand to his chest and escapes to the bathroom. Forget it, he thinks. It’s only twenty-nine dollars. What do I care? Get them in, get them out.
And no baby. NFW.

+   +   +

Predawn Monday, he walks downtown to work in the mist and flickering red traffic lights. He passes St. Patrick’s. Its spires reach into the soggy darkness, rock doves asleep in the bell tower. Behind locked oak doors, the tabernacle holds the Body of Christ: Is  this your idea of a joke? Jimmy wonders. A baby? Really?
On the cement steps, an addict with a tourniquet injects crank into the veined crook of his elbow. “Oh, baby,” he sighs, eyes lolling back, leaving the dirty needle in, like Earl’s dick in Jimmy.
Jimmy walks on, wondering when the crack-head will croak and what disease still courses in his own veins. Maybe all the blood tests were wrong.
He arrives at the store in the dark, dank and sweaty. He enters and locks the door. He passes the hardware case and the white ceramic jars, embarrassed again. Gullible as an FNG. He turns on the lights, checks the registers for error messages, brews coffee, chai, and iced tea. He sits down to do paperwork and count the deposit from Friday’s sales. A deposit twenty-nine dollars less than it should be. On the office desk, he finds a slender sturdy gift bag with rope handles and a note:
A suit left this for the boy that gave him a refund.
Jimmy removes the festive red tissue sticking out like mountain peaks on fire. Inside the properly packaged is a bottle of Pinot Noir, expensive-looking. The thick textured label has calligraphy with raised print. Imported from France, it says. Taped on the bottle is a business card and Post-it note:

This was more than the refund. Thought you should have it. Come see me if you want to have a baby. Thanks, again.

Thomas Weedman has a BA in English from Notre Dame and an MFA from Lindenwood. He’s been a seminarian, a forklift operator, barista, and a professional gambler. His short stories have appeared in the Acorn Review, TheWriteLaunch,  The Paragon Journal, The Penman Review, Marathon Literary Review, Limited Experience Journal, Constellations, Bridge Eight, and forthcoming at SoFloPoJo, DLG Publishing, Running Wild Press, and Drunk Monkeys.

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