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By geary yonker
As I sit sweltering in my car on Ashland Avenue, exhaust fumes flowing in through the windows and the distinct stench of the river seeping in behind it, I ask myself just what the hell I am doing here in this god forsaken city. I had spent the previous weekend kayaking down a fast-moving river with giant ferns and fragrant cedars lining the banks. Now I am stuck in the slow-moving flow of cars and trucks being funneled into one lane because the city is planting trees on the median of the street in a futile attempt at greening this cigarette butt of a land.
Trying to make the most of this idle time, I decide to call the man whom I am on route to meet. A man who says his name is Bill even though the name he signs on checks begins with an X then dribbles off into a series of k's, i's and u's. He is a client of mine, and like most of my clients he owes me money. I create ads for his restaurant, his dirty, mismanaged establishment. I use adjectives like “elegant,” “sophisticated,” and “delicious.” In other words, I lie. I do it for the money.
That's when it dawns on me, that's why I'm here: the money. I've lived in different places. I've had different jobs. One thing I've learned along the way is that there is no other place like the city for marketing your skills. I'm only here for the money. The money I plan to use to escape this place.
While rifling through my bag to find my phone, I come across a photo of myself that was recently given to me by a friend. I am walking in the highlands of Montana. Mountains loom off in the distance as I stand mid-stride on top of a ridge carpeted with sage and unidentified purple wildflowers. At this point, my imagination is supposed to magically transport me to this special place, but my thoughts are drowned out by the approaching sound of two women screaming at each other.
I slowly roll up upon the scene of two women engaged in a heated argument. Looks like somebody got too close and bumped the car in front of them. Their altercation has further complicated this traffic bottleneck, bringing one of the converging lanes to a complete halt. The horns begin croaking like bullfrogs at dusk. The sound travels back in the line of cars like an infection, as if everyone now has permission to be an asshole. Now that I have permission, I start honking, just because I want out of this place.
The sound of the horns muffles the women's argument. By its cause or effect, they then appear to give up on words. As I pass the two women, who appear to be on their way to work, they are on the pavement wrestling. Two women in business suits driven into a froth by faulty urban planning, the bellow of car horns, and the inability of one to see where the other nicked her bumper. After the obligatory voyeuristic pause, I pass and go on with my day. Everyone passes.
Why am I here again? Oh yeah... the money. Need to call Bill to make sure he doesn't stand me up again. I finally notice that my phone's been on the passenger seat the whole time. I place the call. Broken English answers the call, but it is not the broken English of Bill. The voice confirms that Bill is present then asks if I would care to speak with him. I cordially decline to speak with him and hang up. I don't want him to know I'm coming. Why should I give him the chance to flee or to be “in a meeting”? I luck out and find parking on the enormously fucked-up intersection where Bill's place is located. I am ready to get my money.
No amount of creative writing can save this place. Bill has been fighting the inevitable for some time now. He is a desperate man. He is also untrustworthy, so I don't waste my pity on him. Could have been an honest man once, driven into taking desperate measures for survival's sake. I don't know. All I know is the lying underhanded Bill of today and the fact that he owes me money.
Two customers sit in the window looking like they took a wrong turn somewhere and just realized it. Bill spots me as soon as I walk in the door. He motions for me to follow him to the bar away from the ears of his customers.
“You looking for a check?” I will spare you Bill's dialect. I answer with an ever-resounding, “Yep.” Then the game begins. He says that he doesn't owe me anything. I say he does.
“For what?” he asks with a straight face.
“For last week,” I answer.
“But I paid you last week!”
“Bill, that was for the week before.”
“No way, I want to see the..."
“Account report. I brought it with me” I knew he was going to ask.
The account report is no ace-in-the-hole, of course; the sheets of itemized columns are just additional ammo I have prepared for our exchange. I know Bill isn't the type to look at a bunch of numbers on a page and say, “Why yes. I now see my error. Please accept this check and forgive me for questioning you.” The report is just fuel for the fire. Bill has argued with many creditors today. I am just another person whom he owes money and one of the least important ones at that.
In a few minutes, the account report looks like a road map. Differing numerical scenarios play themselves out in black and blue. Two men hunched over a bar on a humid summer night arguing in somewhat hushed voices so that the lost customers won't hear. Beads of sweat rolling down our brows. Our forearms sticking to the bar. One bead of sweat hits the account report. Not sure if it's his or mine. It forms a translucent wet circle around a blurred blue number 6.
I ask Bill if he has a calculator I can use. What he pulls out from behind the bar is technically a calculator. The screen is connected with scotch tape, so one has to hold it in a certain way to read it. Bill conveniently seems to be that only one. When I tell him that it doesn't work, he rips it out of my hands yelling, “Bullshit!”
At this point I stop listening to him. We are no longer hushed, and reason has just about run out. I shout, “None of this changes the fact that I have performed a service for you, Bill, and you have yet to pay me for that service, Bill!”
“Um, excuse me,” says a female voice behind me. “We've been sitting over there for like, 20 minutes, and nobody has even taken our drink orders. I'd like a pinot grigio and he'd like a Heineken.” It is one of the lost customers. All three of us look befuddled at one another.
“His fault,” Bill replies, pointing towards me. A sly grin develops on his face and turns into a small chuckle, and he slips behind the bar. I also feel the edges of my lips turn upward. I watch Bill carefully pour the woman's glass of wine, open the man's beer, place them on a tray and strut out to their table. It doesn't take long for Bill to warm over the lost couple. “These are on the house,” he charms.
Later they may leave disappointed with their choice of paths for the evening, but at this point they are happy and Bill is showing me a quality I have never seen in him before: generosity. Is it genuine? Who knows, but it suits him well. There is a sparkle in his eye when he deals with the customers and it follows him back to me.
“I go upstairs and write you the check,” he says. It is as if the money doesn't matter anymore. He is doing what he loves.
As he walks up the stairs, my eyes catch the couple in the window. They talk very closely as if they would be closer were this not a public place. A breeze blows in the open window, rustling the woman's hair and cooling down the room. Bill returns down the stairs with the check in hand.
“I see you next week?” he asks.
“Yes, Bill, you will see me next week.”
I walk out the door into the bustling intersection, a large mass of humanity converging at one point then moving off into different paths. I want to follow every one of them, curious to see where they will lead. I had forgotten what lured me back to the city. It was not the money. It was the people, not only my family and friends, but the millions I will never meet. They stand like a sublime mountain before me, a great river to be navigated.
On the drive home, the trees planted in the median look less futile.
Copyright©2001 by geary yonker.
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