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The Phone Call

The phone rings. He picks it up absent-mindedly.

"Hello?"

"Please stay on the line for a very important phone call from the InfiniTek banking division, concerning your consumer credit line."

Pleasant music saturates his left eardrum. He waits patiently. His right eardrum remains saturated by unpleasant music.

"Uh, is this Mr. Hollywood Smith of Davenport, Iowa?"

"No."

"Oh, uh... is Mr. Smith available?"

"Oh wait... I mean, yes."

"Ah, Mr. Smith, Iím calling from the InfiniTek banking division. It's about your consumer credit line, which is showing a past due balance of four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-seven cents."

"Forty-six cents."

"Pardon?"

"It's forty-six cents. I keep telling you smug shitfuckers when you call that the reason I haven't paid is that I only owe four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-six cents."

An ambiguous silence follows.

"Uh, Mr. Smith, my screen is showing--"

"I don't care if your screen is showing the fucking Ten Commandments in surround sound starring Jane Fondaís zombie dog, Iím telling you, I do not owe that extra penny."

Another ambiguous silence follows. He almost imagines it to be a continuation of the previous ambiguous silence. Ambiguous Silence II: Still Very Silent.

"Uh, Mr. Smith, I do see here that you've filed a formal complaint against the vendor to dispute the charges--"

"Who wouldn't in my position?"

"--and our review committee has determined that a discrepancy of a single penny does not obviate your responsibility to continue making minimum payments until the matter is settled."

"Oh really."

"That's InfiniTek policy."

"Oh really."

"Yes, Mr. Smith."

"Oh really."

One more ambiguous silence.

"Yes, Mr. Smith, I can send you a hard copy of the policy if you like."

"Oh really."

Okay, one more. Somewhere out there, in the land of miserable, wretched telephone debt collectors, sweat is forming.

"Sir--"

"What's your name, Johnny?"

"Pardon?"

"Pardon, is it? Well, let's get something straight, Pardon--"

"No sir, it's not Pardon, it's Mike."

"So you heard me the first time?"

"What?"

"No, you're not pulling that on me twice, Johnny."

"It's not--"

"So you listen close this time, Johnny. Maybe where you come from, in the land of miserable, wretched telephone debt collectors, a penny discrepancy here and a penny discrepancy there are no big deal."

"Wretched?"

"But where I come from, here in this great land of our nation, some of us still have principles. We still believe in the promise of a world where no one's hard earned penny slips through the cracks. Do you understand me, Mark?"

"Mike."

"Pardon?"

"No, Mike."

"Right, do you understand me, Mike?"

"Well, sir, I certainly understand how you might be a little miffed, but the fact remains--"

"MIFFED? DO I SOUND MIFFED?"

Perhaps this silence is not so ambiguous. Perhaps it is dense with an uneasy anticipation.

"You sound--"

"PISSED OFF IS WHAT I AM, MIKE!"

"Yes, I was, I was going to say, I was, I was..."

"Look, Mike, here's the scoop. I walk into this bar. I can't remember the name..."

"Charlieís Destitute Aunt."

"What the fuck does Charlie have to do with it?"

"That's the name of the place. It's called Charlieís Destitute Aunt."

"Ah, right, right, yeah, now I remember, because they keep the aunt in the dumpster out back for 'color.' Know what Iím saying?"

"Huh?"

"Well they can't let her roam around inside with the clientele, but they can't just push her down an elevator shaft because, you know, people would talk."

"Uh, Mr. Smith, can we get back to the issue of minimum payments--"

"I'M GETTING THERE, GODDAMMIT, IF YOU'D JUST SHUT YOUR INFERNAL SQUAWKING UP FOR THIRTY GODDAMN SECONDS OR SO!"

Brief pause.

"So I go into this bar--"

"This thirty seconds is being timed, sir."

"FINE, BUT YOU JUST INTERRUPTED, SO YOU HAVE TO START OVER!"

Pause.

"Thirty... twenty-nine..."

"And in this bar, you see, is a blackjack table. Now it just so happens that good old Hollywood Smith knows his way around a blackjack table. All the way around. They're usually round anyway, although I guess sometimes they're more like an L, but not this one, so I was feeling pretty confident. Dealer looks at me, and I throw down a single chip, a single chip that just happens to be worth four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-six cents."

"Six... five..."

"Mike, I just want you to know, if you manage to get to zero and decide to interrupt me again, I can't be responsible for my actions."

"Excuse me?"

"No, no, I won't excuse you, Mike, because at that point, you'd just be bringing the hurt down on yourself, and I can't be responsible for that. So anyway. Did I get to the part about how some tables are shaped like an L?"

"Yeah..."

"Great, so anyway, this dealer looks at me, and as Iím throwing down my chip, I realize, hey! I recognize this guy! This isn't just some guy Iím looking at, this is my old nemesis..."

He pauses, for dramatic effect.

"...Johnny Mildly-Irritating." Pause. "Well, don't you see?" Pause. "Mike, are you still there?"

"Yeah, Iím still here."

"So don't you see? It's my nemesis, dealing the cards. How do you expect me to possibly get a fair shake at a table where my nemesis is the dealer?"

"How did you... how does one get a nemesis?"

"Oh that part's simple, just sleep with his kid sister a few times." Pause. "Well, and team up with his kid sister to steal everything he owns, and then the two of you shoot him full of black market 2-TC-special-G and dump him out of the car naked and frothing at the mouth during lunchtime on a Wednesday in the financial district."

"But... why--"

"Mike, generally Iím okay with questions, they show a bright inquisitive spark that normally I find very appealing in a brainless monkey worker like you, but today, I think you're just going to have to learn a few things about being passive and not wetting your pants, all right?"

"All right..."

"So here's the thing, Mike. That chip's got a credit value of four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-six cents. I know this for a fact. It's a matter of principle with me. It's Hollywood Smith's rules of the road number eighty-four: never spend your last fucking penny, because CHRIST ON EARTH WITH GIANT RED HOT POKERS SHOVED RIGHT THROUGH HIS BLEEDING STIGMATA knows that when you lose that last penny, Mike... when you lose that last penny, Mike, it's all over. So I held onto that last penny."

"But... but the charge clearly states..."

"Is this you interrupting me, Mike?"

"Oh... oh, no, no no no, it's not--"

"Good, because I realize now I forgot to fully visualize for you the entire chain of events that follows from the NEXT FUCKING TIME YOU INTERRUPT ME, MIKE, a series of events that starts with you opening your goddamn pie hole one more very ill-chosen time and ends with a very unfortunate series of seemingly supernatural events that leave most of your family shell shocked husks wandering the streets in search of the sacred holy cauliflower that will take them to vegetable paradise, are you picking up what Iím laying down here?"

Long pause.

"Oh. Uh, you can answer that one, Mike, I won't count that as an interruption."

"Did I... mention... this was being... recorded for... quality control?"

"QUALITY CONTROL MY HAIRY, DISEASE-RIDDEN, CONSTANTLY ATTENDED BY HIGH PRICED MEDICAL TECHNICIANS ASS, MIKE! If you had QUALITY CONTROL, I would not be getting RAPED RIGHT IN MY SOUL for that EXTRA FUCKING PENNY, MIKE! Capishe? Comprende? Is the total blazing nastiness of my predicament FINALLY starting to sink into that extraordinarily cement-like block you seem to be using while your HEAD is in the SHOP?"

There's whispering during this pause. He eats another hunk of ptarmigan jerky, and waits.

"Hello, is this Mr. Hollywood Smith?"

A new voice. Smoother, more sanguine.

"Who wants to know?"

"My name is Carlisle Wheeling. Iím the manager of this shift. What seems to be the problem?"

"You mean, going back to the part where God fucking kicked us out of Eden, or more recently, when Ralph Fiennes lost an Academy Award to TOMMY LEE FUCKING JONES, eh? I mean, where are we starting here?"

"Let's talk about your current problem, with Charlieís Destitute Aunt."

"I don't actually have a problem with her. She's a sweet old biddy who knows what gums are for."

"Pardon?"

"No, that guy left. Who are you again?"

"Carlisle Wheeling. Iím--"

"--already starting to get on my nerves. Listen, Carlisle -- if that IS your true name -- do you often let penny discrepancies just slip through your system as though that penny doesn't matter to anyone anywhere down the line?"

"Well, Mr. Smith, you must realize that we here at InfiniTek are responsible for managing literally trillions of dollars of transactions each day--"

"Itís nice that you say literally like that, I might have thought these were figurative transactions. OH WAIT! They are, aren't they, happening all on the big master computer somewhere deep in the bowels of hell where you chaps spend your time plotting the demise of the likes of me? Isnít that true?"

"No, Mr. Smith, these electronic transactions are as real as if I were taking the money right out of your pocket."

"That's really the issue, Mister Carlisle Fancy Pants Wheeling. You bastards think that now you've got the system all set up, now everything's in place and you've got the weapons and you've got the laws and you've got the cannon fodder that you can just... casually steal a penny here, a penny there, from people who actually still own those pennies. 'IT'S JUST A PENNY!', right? Isn't that it? Look, Iíve done the research, I know. Your own industry admits: in cases of discrepancies as much as four of five FUCKING dollars, the average robot jackass just sits there and takes it right up the energetic ASSHOLE, doesn't he. Who wants to waste precious, valuable 'TIME' -- which I should point out is USELESS for getting into a game of blackjack -- in order to fight some 'penny ante' discrepancy as they call it. Well let me tell you something, Mr. Carlisle Wheeling, when you drive a man down to his LAST... FUCKING... PENNY... do you not down deep in whatever is currently masquerading for a soul inside that lifeless husk you call a body fully expect one of your so-called 'customers' to eventually catch on... and to RISE UP?"

Small pause. He can tell that Carlisle Fancy Pants Wheeling is consulting a very rigorous possibility tree.

"Mr. Smith, the fact remains, you did actually lose your bet at that table, did you not?"

And now, it's his turn to retreat into silence. Mostly just to change the music, from something unpleasant, to something very unpleasant.

"You can't call that a fair bet."

"And why not?"

"The deck was stacked."

"You can't prove that."

"I can."

"How so?"

"Simple. I owed Johnny a lot of money. He wanted it paid back. We both agreed the best plan was to let me win on that stupid casino's dime, then split the proceeds. But somehow... somehow, someone fucked with Johnnyís deck, and I wound up losing. Johnny seemed just as stunned as me - he wasn't getting any if the house took all, and you know, I still might never would have known it wasn't Johnny just kicking me when I was down... if not for the viciously serene look I got from the counter girl as I signed my chit in a devastating haze. But even then, I knew what I had lost: no more, no less. Four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-six cents."

"That's not accurate, Mr. Smith. Charlieís Destitute Aunt sent this expense through for four hundred thousand, three hundred eighty-nine dollars and forty-seven cents. They have your signature on the chit."

"Do they now."

"They..." Shuffling of files. "They have a chit here, it, uh..."

"I didn't sign it. That was my saving grace, Mr. Carlisle Broomstick Up Your Arse Wheeling. I didn't sign it, because the non hammered, non despondent, non suicidal part of me recognized even then what they were trying to do."

"Which was?"

"Steal even that very last penny they knew I was hiding. Just to prove a point."

"And what... what point would that be?"

"The point is that when you get a chance, there is NO SENSE not stealing the bare minimum from some barely cognizant loser on his way to a desperate sleep in a halfway house now that he can't afford a sleazy hotel. After all, that single penny wouldn't do him much good... but once you accumulate enough pennies from losers, why... you've got yourself a business model."

Very interesting silence at this point. Mr. Carlisle Wheeling is no dummy.

"So they just... deliberately keyed in an extra penny to the charge and then submitted it, knowing it falls so far below our minimum for taking action on behalf of the cardholder that they'd essentially get that penny awarded them by default?"

"You know, when you put it that way, Mr. Wheeling, it almost sounds cynical."

One final pause, almost for old time's sake.

"Mr. Smith, Iím sorry to have taken up so much of your valuable time. Clearly we need to place a hold on this charge until further notice. We will take every available step to ensure that if this charge is fraudulent, it will be dismissed completely, at no charge to you of course."

"You're very kind."

"It's not kindness, Mr. Smith.... it's justice." Dramatic pause. "Iíll be in touch soon with the results of our legal efforts."

"I do so appreciate the enthusiasm of a credit industry professional."

"Thank you, sir. Good day."

He hung up the phone, exhausted. It wasn't every day that Johnny Mildly-Irritating spent the afternoon impersonating his nemesis, Hollywood Smith. But he needed that money, and when the casino replaced his stacked deck with its own stacked deck, that was just too much, TOO MUCH I SAY! Now Johnny gets his money back, only it's money that will live on Hollywoodís card until Hollywood snaps out of that unfortunate coma and manages to cancel his accounts. By then, Johnny will be in Parts Unknown, getting very high on the local pharms.

Johnnyís sister, Veruca Bilious, comes up from the basement. She's pouting, and it pisses him off.

"He's going to live," she says.

"Well, he's not going to like it," he replies. But then, that was true for just about everyone he'd ever encountered. "See you round, babyface."

"Oh, shove it up your ass with a pneumatic pipe drill. I actually liked Hollywood, you know. He was sweet and kind."

"And poor."

"Yeah, well, it seems clear money isn't buying you human emotions any time soon, so just get on with your bad self why don't you."

"I will, then."

"Don't forget to say goodbye to the ladies at the food bank who have such a crush," she says sneeringly.

He saunters out.

Moments later, a well-rested Hollywood Smith emerges from the basement.

"You gave him the old card?" he asks.

Veruca nods.

"The one from when I was doing that undercover story for The Observer, and I had that whole identity set up as Adolf Hitler the 9th?"

She nods again.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah then," he says smiling. "There's enough money for the tram on that, sure. But they are going to be WATCHING that card for all the tens, literally, tens of dollars left on it."

They bust out laughing.

"Come on," she says, "time to go get thoroughly hammered."

"Right, I hear you can get 2-TC-special-G in the streets these days.Ē

March 15, 2003



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