Bad Counsel: part six (short story)
“Not paid them. I file. I always get a refund.” Maybe he’d ask how much. This buffet/carry-out place had been only a block from the lot, the walk a short one. Buel swung a chair to a bistro table by the window.
“Andy!” Nicknaming her. “So, you want a pita wrap? Lamb?”
“Chicken.” She hadn’t seen a menu. “Diet Coke.”
They ate, and when she’d got to the explanation, that there had been too much (she had not heard Buel utter a four-letter word)…too much junk, to put up with, at her old job, he swallowed the bite he’d been chewing, chugged his iced tea, and began his harangue.
“Exactly, exactly. You see how it is…are you gonna walk in someplace and say, give me whatever job you got pays the most? Like they would. Yeah, put me in senior management, right now. You know, you can make a hundred thousand a year, and still you can get social security! You ever make more than thirty, Andy?”
“Thirty!” She’d been about to say, ha! twenty—but again Buel wasn’t really asking.
“So what happens when you retire? After the system keeps you down your whole life? I mean…if you were one of the privileged ones from the start, great for you. This is a government program that’s supposed to keep poor people from dying in a dumpster… The richer you are, the nicer handout you’re gonna get. So it’s like, rich people, always nagging the poor about saving their money, right? How are you and me gonna save our money?
“I guess…six figures…you could pay all your bills and still put something back. Make your old age a little cushier than the government is gonna make it for you because you were okay to begin with. Then you wanna bitch on folks who have no chance to earn any more in their lives than they’re stuck with, for not buying into the Cadillac healthcare and the platinum IRA! Trust me, if you’re the designated loser, the world’s gonna make you lose.”
She’d walked with him back to the booth, liking him a little more…thinking too he was kind of a weirdo… And he’d given her an application form to fill out. He sat on his own stool. The only place for Andrée was the wooden step under the door. She scribbled in the spaces, hunched over the clipboard, and Buel, when she handed it up to him, commented, “Porterville Road. You seen the little green house, right where Porterville comes out on thirty-two?”
The little green house, his, is a double-wide trucked to the lot and put up on a block foundation under a row of mature spruce, trees grown tall enough to have lost their lower branches. She’d stumbled from Buel’s gravel drive over layers of cones, some fresh and waxy, some old and rotting.
Sly, through the rolled-down window of her mother’s car, he’d asked Andrée, “You gonna give me a ride home?” But Buel had stayed in the driver’s seat, and she’d ended up the passenger. At a wide spot, where a culvert crossed the ditch, and the turnoff was disguised by a stand of yucca, he’d swung in without a heads-up.
“Come on inside.”
She liked Buel for not cutting his grass, which habit to her mother would be a red flag. As he unlocked and ushered, he was telling her: “See, ten bucks an hour is money to you…you might say not enough…but for these people, they can get by on five, easy. ’Cause they all live in the same apartment. Back where they came from, five bucks an hour would be like big-time, mega-rich.”
Buel, Andrée thought, was sort of a racist.
She could agree with him powerfully one minute; the next, his attitude made her wary. She backed against a sofa, sitting under a picture window, shaded by a blind with the pull-cord broken. A brown and puffy matching loveseat sat opposite, under metal-bracketed shelves stocked with DVD’s, electronic refuse, and a pair of work boots. He slid back a louvered door, exposing computer and router, vertical files packed with folders and manila envelopes. Of these, he jerked down one, and bowed it open under her nose. Andrée’s eyes popped to see it full of cash. He tapped the space bar and the screen flashed on.
“Here’s my spreadsheet. See, the company runs four lots in town. I’m gonna go ahead and call you Andy for everything but the stuff we have to submit for taxes.” She heard him mutter, to himself. “I guess Andrée could be a guy’s name…but I won’t worry about it.” Louder, he said: “I just don’t want two Andys working one place at the same time. See―” This time, he really wanted her to see. She hated spreadsheets, but got in close and peered down. Here were so many fields blocked out in yellow and pink. She saw him type in “Andy” on some of the blank lines. Then he was typing in her social security number—that on the application, she’d just given him.
“I don’t get it,” she said.
“You get two and half dollars. I get the other two thirty-three. I work the Andys a full shift, plus overtime. ’Course that’s a different Andy. Extra hours,” he grinned at her, “cover a lot. Most days you’re gonna get fifty, maybe seventy dollars. Not bad for doing nothing…you go ahead and get yourself a job, right? But…” In a studied way he turned to his keyboard, and did not look up at her. “You could get me another number. Or a couple. The business isn’t just parking cars. Anyway, most days I don’t need you to come in. Once or twice a week I need you…it’s like with a building. You understand that. You’re complying with the law, you have to have a couple renters you wouldn’t normally want living there, just in case. Now and again the inspector needs to see a real person. So the Andys get their five bucks an hour. If one goes more than eight hours, that’s just gravy for you and me.”
Then, he gave her five hundred dollars.
So Andrée has sold her social security number. She owns nothing, nothing that can be confiscated or repossessed—four pairs of jeans, a phone…so what? She thinks, how does it hurt? People get their ruined credit fixed all the time. The ads say so.
She has so far not taken his hint to rifle her mother’s tenant records. She knows he wants retirees, old people easily confused, as Buel thinks; able to earn a certain amount working, without screwing up their benefits. She is either helping to exploit undocumented workers…or helping them make a new life, escape being forced back to their miserable homeland.
“Seriously, it’s a great thing for them,” Buel says.
His Andys, his Jasons, his Tinas, don’t know what they’ve done. Buel fills out all the paper work. “If one of them can’t make it in, if she’s laying low from the cops, or looking after the kids, another one can take the shift. They all use the same ATM. You can’t do that.”
It’s true. Andrée has worked places where you can’t take a sick day when you’re really sick. All this sounds a nice, subversive argument…but too glib, coming from Buel. Andrée’s only certainty is that she cannot go to the police, unless she has the courage to tell him first: “Too bad, I’m gonna rat you out.” She’s signed on with Buel. She’s taken an advance from him, a sum of money she can’t yet pay back. Imagine.
And since she can’t shake this off, she won’t. She will herself be jailed, Andrée guesses. Buel, career criminal, probably knows ways to pass along the blame. Maybe fraud is a cooler thing to get arrested for than, say, beating someone up. Or stealing. Of course, she is stealing.
And she is willing to bet Karen doesn’t know. Her mother might be (but isn’t) neighborly with Buel. The first Sunday Karen came back from the grocery to find Andrée with him over, she did not even put on her customer face…an act Karen can do for any of her tenants, even those disputing notice given on her own recommendation.
I’m really sorry, she can say, eyes and voice. It’s all out of my hands.
She’d shaken Buel’s hand as though, offering it, he’d offended her—put the bite on her like a bloodsucker.
Karen may seek intelligence from Leo; but Leo won’t have heard of Buel. And why should there be anything to hear? But her mother knows Andrée can be found at home most mornings, sleeping in; afternoons, watching TV. Karen’s comments of late are sarcastic as shit. Andrée wonders whether Buel’s persuasions, his hints that she could really start living if she would get the numbers for him, will tip the balance, then…next time she and her mother fight.
She drives the Ford with her feet off the pedals, letting it roll by itself centimeter by centimeter, backing it round the tight corner, edging past the purple Audi. She’s being laughed at. The two men point and backhand each other in the gut. Make quips. But this is as safe as she feels, driving someone else’s car, work at which she remains inexperienced.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)