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A Rich Man's Joke.

by Steven Mayoff
  

The soft folds of distant hills were melting into Wyoming’s purple-blue dusk. Martin Weintraub gazed into the blackening window of the Greyhound motorcoach and was confronted by his own reflection: a chiaroscuro of distorted features. Darkness carved jutting angles into his fleshy cheeks and made his eyes seem sunken and hollow. Shadowy creases at the sides of the mouth reminded him of a ventriloquist’s dummy and he moved his chin up and down, conscious of a tiny clicking behind his jaw. For some reason he found the sensation pleasing. He straightened his tie. Although his suit was wrinkled and his ass numb from sitting for so long, a familiar exhilaration bubbled through his veins.

He estimated the bus would get to Las Vegas in about ten hours. The flight bag sat snugly between his feet, right where he knew it was safe, rather than in the overhead compartment. He hadn’t opened the bag since boarding the bus at Port Authority in New York almost a day and a half ago. And now, though he knew it was better to wait until he was alone, all he wanted was to peek inside.

He craned his head to look around. Some of the passengers were reading, the tops of their heads haloed by small overhead directional lights, like illuminated fissures along a narrow tunnel. But most seemed to be asleep in their cubicles of darkness. The old woman next to him had her narrow bird-chin pressed sharply into the top of her sunken chest. Her breathing a steady nasal whistle. Martin decided against turning on the light above him.

Angling his shoulder against the reclining seat in front of him, he reached down between his cramped knees and lifted the flight bag onto his lap. He liked the weight of it on his thighs, the reptilian feel of the cracked vinyl exterior against his palms. He had used this bag in the early days when he was a still a junior salesman for Fine Brothers.

All those years on the road—driving or flying, spending his mornings in airports and nights in hotels—were a grind. But he had loved it. Later on, working in the main showroom on St. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal, he had sold suits to famous athletes, television personalities and politicians and swiftly made his way up in the company. In the late seventies, when the headquarters moved to New York, Martin went right along, relocating himself, Roz and the girls from their upper duplex in Chomedey, to a condominium in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He had been young, energetic, ambitious.

Now he ran the tip of his index finger along the flight bag’s cold metal zipper, feeling the hard and perfect mesh of the tiny teeth. Even in the dimness he could still admire the gleam of its merciless grin. He held the zipper’s pull tab lightly between his thumb and forefinger and gently tugged—slowly—so as not to make a sound except for the tiny clicks of stuttering anticipation as the teeth parted, inhaling the bag’s sour-breath sigh as it opened to reveal the money.

His hand slipped into the bag and caressed the brick-like bundles, rubbing the taut ridges of elastic bands that held the bills together. There was about ten thousand dollars in total. He felt something accelerating inside him, ricocheting madly between his ribs—pinging each xylophone note—and crackling right up into his brain. There was a distinct catch in his breathing, the skip in a record played at the wrong speed, as his thumb riffled the bound bills. Strumming a muted melody on the papery edges. Excited that he was on his way to Las Vegas. Determined to turn his life around and start all over again. Nothing could stop him now.

Greyhound bus line ad: Only by highway.Martin had no idea how long the old woman beside him had been awake. Her head was up and he could make out the corners of her eyes staring nervously at him.

“I hope I didn’t wake you,” he said and gave her a friendly smile.

“No,” she mouthed with barely a whisper and shook her head insistently.

Martin realized that his hand was still in the flight bag, like a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. For a moment he thought he saw the woman trying to sneak a peek inside. What the hell, he thought. Give the old broad a thrill.

“Just making sure it’s all there,” he said, tilting the bag so she could have a clearer view of all that money.

“Oh dear.” The woman’s eyes widened for a moment, excited and terrified. Then she turned away to study the headrest of the seat in front of her.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “It all belongs to me.”

“Shouldn’t you put it in a bank or somewhere safe?”

“There’s no safer place than right here.” He patted the bag like a faithful old dog. “Besides, this is peanuts. Once I hit the tables it’s going to double in size.”

She looked at him sceptically. “Well, I wish you good luck.”

“Do you want to touch it?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“For good luck,” he said. “Not that I need it. But you never know, a little extra mojo never hurt anyone.”

The woman peered into the bag’s gaping maw. “I’m not sure about that, but I do know what they say about a fool and his money.”

“So, humour me.” He opened the bag wider and edged it closer to her. “It won’t bite.”

“I’d rather not.”

“You never know,” he said with a sly wink. “It just might turn out lucky for you too.”

“Well… I don’t know.”

“C’mon.” Martin looked at her with the same earnestness that had inspired confidence in all his clients throughout the years. “What have you got to lose?”

The woman tentatively reached over, tempted despite herself. Before her hand could touch the money Martin zipped the bag closed with a sharp metallic squeal, making her jump back with a start.

“How dare you.”

“Here’s another little proverb,” said Martin. “’Money is honey, my little sonny, a rich man’s joke is always funny.’”

She stared at him incredulously, her mouth almost as wide as the bag’s had been. Unsure of what to say or do next, she got up and went to the bathroom at the back of the bus. Serves her right, thought Martin. Nobody calls me a fool.

He returned the flight bag to the floor between his feet. Despite the extra legroom afforded by the woman’s departure, he squirmed against his seat’s unyielding contours.

Greyhound bus line national timetable.In the window his reflection was a dissipating mist floating across invisible miles that stretched into oblivion. Something like rigor mortis was forming in the back of his thighs. He furtively reached into his suit jacket’s inside pocket and slipped out a small pewter flask, a gift from Fine Brothers for closing the Macy’s deal. He unscrewed the cap and took a quick pull. The warmth of the whiskey spread inside him, bringing his reflection’s piercing eyes and crooked grin into sharper focus. He suddenly felt reunited with this disembodied half of himself, imprinted onto the cold glass like some kind of spiritual x-ray. One more pull and he pocketed the flask. He was dying for a smoke.

Out of the darkness the voice of the driver announced that they would be pulling in at a rest stop in twenty minutes.

Greyhound bus postcard.The Greyhound pulled into the large and mostly empty parking lot of a brightly lit McDonald’s. Although he felt uneasy about leaving the flight bag unguarded, Martin figured it was better to keep it stashed under his seat than draw attention by carrying it around. Badly in need of a cigarette, he stood impatiently amidst the other passengers as they scrambled for belongings in the overhead compartments before slowly shuffling out. The woman who’d been sitting beside him (angled pointedly with her back to him after she had returned from the bathroom) was now, little by little, sidling her slight frame past everyone to get closer to the door. Martin focused his stare but was unsuccessful in burning a hole into the back of her head. When he finally did reach the front, his stiff legs unsteadily descended the bus steps.

The night’s sultriness felt almost oppressive after sitting for so long in the climate-controlled motorcoach. Martin dug a pack of Winstons from a second inside pocket (beneath the one that held the flask) and quickly lit up. Sucking that first sweet drag deeply into his lungs, the nicotine rush mushroomed pleasantly behind his eyes—he could feel them going glassy—before replenishing something inside him.

Concerned about the flight bag, he decided to stay near the bus, keeping on the lookout to see who would be heading back from the diner first. Just for good measure he wanted to be back in his seat before the old woman was in hers. There was no way he would be beholden to her for making room for him so he could sit down. He wanted it to look as if he hadn’t left the bus the whole time, that he was able to hold his ground.

He drew the flask out and took an extra long swig. The fiery gold spread through him, seeping into nooks and crannies, ironing out the creases from so many hours of sitting. It felt good to stretch his legs and look out at the vast night sky, inlaid by a beautifully mysterious pattern of stars. Was it possible that their movements really governed his life? Could they be aligning in his favour at this very moment?

Martin sometimes read his horoscope in the Post as a lark, but didn’t put too much stock in it. He was an Aquarius and had heard somewhere that Aquarians were often iconoclasts with a tendency to stand apart from the mainstream. They supposedly also had an unusual sense of fashion.

In neither aspect had he exactly been a shining example of Aquarian virtue. For one thing, he had always taken pains to blend into conventional society with a chameleon’s innate sense of self-preservation. He exhibited no inclinations to rock the boat or shake up the status quo.

As for an unusual fashion sense, again he felt he didn’t qualify, having sold men’s suits for all of his adult life. Basic conservative business outfits—like the charcoal pinstriped jacket and pants he was wearing—had been his stock in trade for the past thirty years.

This particular suit, made from a “high-twist” worsted wool and perfect for summer, nevertheless didn’t travel well over long distances and had become rumpled and grubby from sitting thirty-six hours on the bus. These were the same clothes Martin had been wearing when he went to work at Teller’s on Wednesday. The same clothes in which he had been last seen by his manager, Mr. Adilman, when he left that evening with the day’s bank deposit. As usual he had walked north along Fifth Avenue towards Chase Manhattan. But instead of making the deposit, Martin continued walking to the bus station.

He took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder. With a couple of tugs he loosened his tie so it hung around him like a freshly cut noose. Undoing his collar and the next button as well, he exposed a bit of white cotton undershirt that barely covered the uppermost tuft of greying chest hair. He scraped a knuckle against the sandpapery beginning of stubble on his chin. It usually bothered him to look unkempt, made him feel dirty, but out here in the middle of nowhere he was happy to let his inner Aquarian emerge.

The diner’s neon sign cast a pinkish, otherworldly glow that reached the rim of the parking lot, illuminating a row of payphones near the entrance. He noticed a vacant phone at the end of the row, away from where a couple of people were holding hushed conversations.

Martin studied the vacant payphone, the way the receiver was hooked neatly at the front of the rectangular casing, like some kind of cubist sculpture—a gloomy figure with head held unhappily in one hand, the square grouping of numbered buttons like distracted inward-looking eyes. To Martin the face expressed worry. Doubt. Shame. A face that reminded him of Roz, how she might be looking at this very moment.

Martin took one last drag of his cigarette and flicked it into the darkness. He ambled over to the payphone, jingling the change in his pocket, wondering what he would say. If only he could convince her that this time things would be different. Sure he took the money, he’d never done anything like that before. And that’s why things would be different. Because he took a chance, seized the moment. How could things not go his way this time? He was going to make a bundle in Vegas. He’d pay all the money back to Teller’s with interest. Why couldn’t she believe in him for once?

It was around ten o’clock in New Jersey. Roz would be drinking her glass of warm milk before bed. It was a habit she had acquired when she started working again (after Martin had been axed from Fine Brothers). Dani would be just getting home from her evening job at Borders. Anything to be around books. She was the aspiring writer in the family. Sophie would most likely be watching MTV or talking to her friends on her cell.

Had the police had been notified yet? Could the line be tapped?

Feeling lucky, he fished a quarter out of his pocket. Heads he would call now, tails he would wait until he was in Las Vegas. He flipped the coin into the air and caught it in his palm, slapping it against the back of his other hand.

The payphone rang.

Martin stared helplessly at the telephone hand, which pressed against the telephone face in a vain attempt to ease an agony that had now found a voice. It rang again, begging Martin to do something. He wanted to walk away, but something told him it was too late to ignore it. If he waited a minute maybe it would stop. It rang two more times before he reluctantly removed the telephone hand from the telephone face and placed it beside his own.

“Hello?”

Immediately he heard a woman’s voice speaking in a foreign language. She sounded upset, but he couldn’t understand anything she was saying. “You’re calling a payphone. Do you speak English? Wrong number. Do you understand?”

The woman continued her desperate blather. Soon he recognised that she was speaking Yiddish. Although he was not fluent, he certainly knew the odd word here and there.

“Who do you want?” he said, trying to think of the yiddish translation. He could only remember the first word. “Ver?

The woman on the phone started to weep. “Nain! Nain! Farlozen mir nisht! Farlozen mir nisht!

Something twisted in Martin’s chest. The words were familiar to him. He could remember his grandmother, bubbe Betty, sobbing those words at his mother’s funeral. Dvorah, Dvorah! Farlozen mir nisht, Dvorah!

Don’t abandon me, Dvorah.

Part of him felt genuinely sorry for this woman on the phone. But the hysteria in her voice, such fury and despair, also stirred up confused emotions. Mostly he couldn’t help feeling irritated. His first thought was to simply hang up on her, but he found he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“Why did you call here? Farshtaist?

The woman continued without acknowledging that she could or could not understand Martin. She kept crying and pleading as if she hadn’t heard him at all. Maybe there was some kind of crossed wire and he could hear her but she couldn’t hear him. Still she kept on.

“Can you hear me?” he shouted. “Are you listening?” Static crackled in his ear. The line was starting to break up.

Farlozen mir nisht, mein yinguele!” The voice was brittle, filtered through tinfoil.

Martin pressed the receiver to his ear with both hands, suddenly desperate to hold that voice close to him. He racked his brains for something to say.

“Where are you?” The rumbling static grew into a thundering white noise. “Don’t go!”

Then the line went dead. For a moment there was silence, followed by the flat hum of a dial tone. Martin replaced the receiver on the hook. The telephone hand sadly touching the telephone face. Grieving a loss.

He lit another cigarette, wondering if the call was long distance, from another country. It had that far away quality about it. It felt as if he’d been listening in on a one-sided conversation, that he was a third party who’d accidentally been pulled in.

Some of the passengers started boarding the bus. He cursed, remembering the flight bag of money under his seat. How could he let himself get so distracted? He checked the window of the diner and saw the driver stubbing out his cigarette and swallowing the last of his coffee.

Greyhound bus line ad: Greyhound points to a great big vacation at the very lowest cost!Martin strode quickly toward the bus, smoking his cigarette right down to the filter. The voice echoed in his ears and he kept looking back at the payphone. Head in hand. Abandoned again. He stopped. The driver stepped outside of the diner and took his sweet time walking across the parking lot, nodding to Martin as he passed.

Aboard the bus, Martin found the old woman already in her seat. He stood there in the aisle, waiting for her to either stand or shift her legs so he could pass. He was sure he caught a momentary flicker of smugness crossing her face before she lifted her frail legs ever so slightly with undisguised annoyance. He edged his way past and folded himself into his seat. The bag was still safe underneath.

It was only now, and only God knew why, that he wondered if his coin had come up heads or tails. In any case there was no point in calling Roz until after he after rested up in his hotel room. As the bus pulled away he craned his neck for one last glimpse of the payphone and its mournful salute.

  

Steven Mayoff lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada. His work has appeared in numerous Canadian print journals includnig Grain, The Dalhousie Review, Pottersfield Portfolio, and Filling Station. He has also written radio dramas for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
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