It was muggy outside, one of those summer days that you’d forgetten happen because haven’t needed to step outside of an air-conditioned car to get into an air-conditioned building for more than thirty seconds in over twenty years. I’d only been walking around outside for fifteen minutes, but I looked like I’d been traipsing through a jungle for days. My hair was plastered to my forehead, upon which rivulets of sweat ran to course down my neck and feed the dark seas staining the armpits of my once-crisp, white button-down, which had just recently broken through the last dry patches to flow into the pond in the middle of the shirt. I hated these calls. I needed desperately to find this deadbeat soon.
I passed the bus station and gauged a line-up of vagabonds milling about outside, doing whatever vagabonds do. None of them fit the bill, and I walked on. My toes slithered within their swampy socks as each of my black leather shoes clapped against the white-hot downtown sidewalk. Each click and clack bounced off the tall buildings around me and mixed with the droning of the cicadas. This was the symphony of hot, summer insanity. The last time I had to suffer like this, I must have been in college. I’d forgotten all about it.
“Fuck me,” I grumbled as I bent down to retie a stray lace. How long would these shoes last? It seems like I go through a new pair every six months. I can remember a pair I bought six years ago that lasted three. Each pair since seemed to last half as long as the last. What happened to shoes? I own a pair of casual-athletic shoes I got on sale for $20 two years ago. Those are still holding up. Why aren’t my $80 designer-leather shoes doing the same? It’s all a racket, I bet. All the shoemakers, Kenneth Cole, Stacy Adams, Calvin Cline, and all the other shoe-moguls got together one evening and said, ‘hey, we gotta stop making our shoes last so long. We can make twice the money if people have to buy shoes twice as often’. I bet that’s exactly how it went down.
Irritability was making me desperate, and I started flagging people down. “Hey have you seen this man?” I shoved the photo into peoples’ faces. “He probably looks older now. His beard’s probably longer.” Most didn’t even bother to look. Can’t blame them, I must look like a sweaty lunatic by now. Or worse, a sweaty, lunatic evangelist. “He was last seen a few blocks from here. He lives on the streets.”
This was getting me nowhere. I pulled my phone from my pocket and queried directions to the nearest Starbucks. Maybe if I cooled off with a cold drink, I could get some fresh perspective. The screen was slick with perspiration. My thumb tapped furiously at it, but half the taps either missed or didn’t register at all. I had to wipe it on my pants with every few keystrokes.
The phone took me through an alley shaded from the afternoon sun, which was nice, but it would have been better if there were some wind. Halfway through it, I started really regretting it. Empty boxes were stacked outside of windowless doors on each side, and here and there blue dumpsters were overflowing with the reek of stale beer, accented by the punch of old piss. I was on the wrong side of these bars. Seeing as I was already half in, I held my breath and pushed though.
I passed a pile of trash that, by some good fortune, happened to catch my eye. Sticking out from underneath some mud-dappled black plastic that once belonged to a bag were ten toes, each camouflaged by a disgusting coat of grime and callouses and terminating in long, black talons. I stooped to get a look under the dingy mop of hair half-hidden under a ragged towel. By god, it was him!
“Mr. Lawrence Pines,” I called to him, enunciating as clearly as I could. The pile of garbage didn’t make a sound.
“Excuse me, Mr. Pines!” A shudder of recognition trembled through the rags and bags. He lifted his head to show me a pair of cloudy blue eyes sunken deep behind a mess of lines and beard. “Mr. Pines, I’m here on behalf of Mahoney and Company, I’ve been looking for you all day.” I put some emphasis on the last two words so he might grasp some inkling of the inconvenience he’d put me through. It wasn’t likely someone like him would care, though. If someone like him cared, I wouldn’t be here in the first place addressing the repercussions of his negligence. I fumbled the claps of my briefcase open and pulled out his file.
“Mr. Pines, I’m here because on December the seventeenth of 2008 you were contractually obligated to return a textbook, one titled “Composition and Design in Digital Media” to the University of Texas bookstore, which you failed to do so.”
I pulled out the records and invoice, both neatly imprinted under the Mahoney letterhead, and held them out in front of his face for his inspection. He drew his toes in under the bags and shrank from the papers as if they were poison.
“I don’t…” His muttering grumbled away into some incoherent things.
I took a pen from my slacks and clicked it.
“Sir, I need you to sign these documents acknowledging you received them and have arranged payment to me.” I dropped the papers at his feet and let the pen fall on top of them.
He made a feeble kick at the papers with one of his monstrous, clawed feet. He made sounds like the attempt of words, then strung together a sentence: “I’ll return it. This week. I promise.”
I frowned. He clearly wasn’t getting it. “Mr. Pines, even if you had the book on your person, which is highly doubtful by the looks of things, it’s far too late for that.”
“Please,” he groaned, “I’ll talk to the University, please. I’ll go there today, I promise.”
“Now listen here, Mr. Pines!” I had lost what little patience I had. I was going to close this case today and have nothing more to do with this cesspit of an alley. “The University can’t help you, if they even would. You owe money to the bookstore, not the University, to the tune of $320. Now, how do you plan to pay?”
“Three hundred and… but the book, it only cost seventy dollars…”
Jesus, he can remember how much the book cost, but couldn’t remember to pay it? These fucking dirtbags, all the same. I can remember to pay my debts, and I can’t even recall the ballpark amount of a single one.
“Mr. Pines, $70 may have been the principle amount of the book, but it accrued a non-return penalty when you failed to return it, obviously. The account was then taken on by a debt insurance firm, where it accrued fees for their services; the firm then contracted my employers, Mahoney and Company to handle the collection, where it accrued the fees for our services. The amount may have been smaller if you had ever answered the phone number we were given for you, but now a $50 service fee has been incurred because I had to track you down to this – “ I paused to avoid saying something unprofessional – “place.”
Lawrence Pines buried his head into his rags and made some soft, throbbing sounds. I turned my head to gulp some cleaner air so I could continue. He wasn’t getting away this time.
“You see, it all adds up. You had an obligation, Mr. Pines, and now that obligation extends to three parties. It’s all sound business, you see? You’ve avoided your debt for seven years now, and it has accrued interest. Maybe if you had rented an economics book, you wouldn’t be in this situation, hmm?”
The soft throbbing became a sobbing. Oh God, he was crying. It’s just like everyone says, these bottom-feeders are always crying about their problems instead of solving them. I was resolved to help him solve this problem right here and now.
“Oh, come on, Mr. Pines, we all have debt. You just got to pay them.”
“Please, just leave me alone,” he blubbered.
“I have debts too, you know? I have a debt for the car I drive, a debt for the T.V. I own; when you think about it, I even have a debt for the health of the rest of my life. And you know what I do about it?”
I paused in case he could think of the answer himself.
“I pay my debt, Mr. Pines. By working an honest job. Don’t you want to pay your debt? Don’t you want to be like me? All you have to do is settle up. That’s the only way you’re going to get anywhere, trust me.”
“Please,” he mewled, “I don’t have anything. Does it look like I have anything? Please for the love of God, just let me be!”
“Nothing? Nobody has nothing. You mean to tell me you don’t have a bank card somewhere in that pile of trash?” I fumbled around for card-reader attachment.
Nothing. Nobody has nothing. That’s not how things work. There wouldn’t be debts if someone could have nothing. It’s just not a sound system. In pondering these things, a stroke of brilliance hit me.
“Don’t you worry, Mr. Pines, we’re going to straighten this out today.” I opened a search query on my phone, then entered the information from Mr. Pines’ documents upon the ground. “Surely there must be a loan available to someone in your predicament.” I sent a request for his credit information through the first such service to come across my mind. I admit I wasn’t quite sure of the legality of all of this, but I had to solve this today. “Oh my.” His credit was terrible. Abysmal. I searched for another service. There had to be some sort of…
The screen of my phone was seized by a call from an out of state number. I was perplexed, knowing neither the source of the area code nor anyone out of the state who could have business with me. Naturally, I answered.
“Hello, I am calling on behalf of Frankie Lou student loan services. I have been notified that this device has been recently used to access the credit history of one Lawrence Pines. Am I speaking to him?”
“No, but he’s right here in front of me. Would you care to speak with him?”
“Please stay right there with him, sir! It is of great importance that you keep him there. We are sending someone over to your device’s location right away. May we contact you again at this number?”
I hung up the phone. “Shit.” The signifier echoed through the stench of the alley, returning with the properties of the signified.
“Mr. Pines,” I started, slipping my phone into my pocket. I turned back to where he was squatting, but he wasn’t there.
“And just where do you think you’re going, Lawrence,” asked a voice from the end of the alley. Lawrence Pines had managed to hobble halfway to the next street, but was frozen in his tracks. Before him was a police officer, young and clean shaven. His thumbs were through his belt loops, and a baton swung playfully at his side. I rushed to pin Mr. Pines between the officer and myself.
“Thank God, officer. I was just conducting some business with this man, and if you could please explain to him…”
“I just so happen to have business with him as well. Don’t we, Lawrence?” He grinned at Mr. Pines and caressed the baton.
“Please, sir, let me explain. This man owes debt to Mahoney and Company and it is of the utmost importance that it is collected immediately.”
The young patrolman wagged a finger at me. “Not before I collect his debt to me. You owe the city quite a bit now, don’t you Lawrence? Thirty counts of public camping. Four counts of public urination. Panhandling. Intoxication. Consumption of untaxed foodstuffs. The list goes on. And how do you plan to pay, Lawrence? If you don’t make some sort of payment today, I’m going to have to write you another ticket for failure to pay your tickets.”
These goddamned vultures. I wasn’t going to lose Mr. Pines to them. I know why we’ve been under so much pressure to collect this month. I knew what was at stake.
“Listen officer, with all due respect, my employers have every right to due compensation from this man, and I will not hesitate to go through the proper channels …”
“Now you listen to me,” he shouted back at me, beet faced. “The city is owed an obligation from this man, who…” The officer’s hand gestured at an empty space.
We both looked. Lawrence Pines was almost out of the alley. He looked back at us and gave a little yelp. “Please… please…” He doubled his hobbling pace, pleasing with each step.
The officer and I broke into chase. I couldn’t let Mr. Pines get away. The debts had to be paid. Mahoney and Company had been running its business on the credit of the debts it promised to collect, and lately, collections were becoming scarce. If Mahoney didn’t become solvent soon, I would be out of a job. I would be unable to pay my debts. Mr. Pines had to pay. I would wring it out of him if I had to.
Lawrence Pines stopped at the end of the alley, at the corner of the street. His cloudy blue eyes cleared as he uttered one last “please”. I raced towards him as I never had raced before, arms outstretched, lungs searing, mouth foaming. He turned into the street.
He shouted, “let me be free!”
Then he jumped.
A white delivery truck caught Mr. Pines in midair and cradled his broken body out of view. Tires screeched. A woman screamed. A door slammed. A man yelled, ‘holy shit, he’s fucking dead, man’.
The officer and I slowed our sprint to a halt. We both grasped our knees, gasping for breath. He picked up his head and looked at me, chest heaving. In his eyes, I could see him making the same calculations as I. We were scheming at ways to make each other accountable for the debt.