Judge Roy Bean
"John and Mary, this is Eileen Rutz, one of our Senior Account Managers." Eileen is walking by on cue. She smiles suddenly.
"Hello," Mary says. Eileen sits opposite John and Mary, forcing him to slide closer to Mary, elbow to elbow, physically on her side now. The whole thing is scripted. Eileen interlocks her glossy red fingernails and addresses him with a fine-cut smile.
"What can I do for you, Brad?"
"I was just going over John and Mary's account info and I noticed something strange. It says there was a flag on their account from December of last year. Something about our Hawaii promo. But Mary says they never received anything in the mail about the promo."
"Yeah, this is the first I ever heard about it."
"And she's very careful with the mail." John chiming in now. "Especially the timeshare stuff."
"Does this put a hold on all their account activity?"
He hands Eileen their account packet. She lowers her black-rimmed glasses and squints at the paper. Dark lines form polygons on her face.
"Why don't you give me a moment and I'll let you know." She pushes back from the table.
This is his sequence, everyday. Fifteen minutes of warm-up, twenty minutes of travel discovery, a brief account review, and then Eileen. If a male is the driver he uses Barry, if they're black he uses Erica. It would be boring if it weren't so effective. Eileen's job is to return in five minutes with a form for Mary to sign off. There's no way Mary will sign off without first asking what she is signing. It is spoon-fed.
At this point he has one job and it is to hold Mary's hand. She prattles about grandchildren and money while he waits for Eileen. He has pitched hand-wringing parents of precocious teenagers. He pitched this because Mary's grandchildren are precocious teenagers. He has the good fortune of looking less like an adult than like a former child, allowing him to assume the age that suits the tour by adjusting his clothing, hair, and verbiage.
He tells Mary that his kids will have enough money for college.
"There's always financial aid," he says, reassuring, the pat on the hand. It happens so fast, a single gesture that dominoes away the lifestyle, the vacation commitment, the anyway dollars, everything he has built up with her. Before he can speak again the deal is dead. Eileen never gets back to the table.
"Thing is, I did it twice," he tells Flanagan after it's over.
Flanagan is reclining with feet crossed on an open drawer behind the desk in the power line office.
"Talked through the close. I took her right out of the picture."
"What'd you say?"
"I told her my sister has forty thou in loans. But she has her education and a good job."
"Your sister's a loser."
"So they smokescreened you on money. Let it go."
"Fucking liars anyway. You know that. They were just in here for their free shit, like everyone else. Did you see Eileen?"
"When she threw the damn Gold Elite folder? Hold on." Flanagan flips open his chirping phone. "Yeah. Yeah, I got it. Yeah, wait a sec." He looks up. "Hysterical, man. The look on her face."
"No. Not hysterical."
"She's crying in Jerry's office, 'He never even looked at me. I walked past his table five times.' Oh my God, dude. Hilarious."
He leans back, baggy with self-importance. He eyes his reflection in the window, sallow face, bright tie, hand clutching his half-moon belly. He drops the phone to his waist.
"I know what you're thinking. This wouldn't have happened if your girl was here."
"No, that's not--"
"Look, just get a prostitute, buddy. Take a couple days. Whatever. You're such a bitch about everything lately."
"Kiss my ass."
She was a starer. She had a preternatural gift for it. She stared for five days at the Sales Center before speaking. She looked like a lost child in an airport the first time he saw her, sitting by herself watching passersby. She tugged on the hem of her skirt and clenched her bare knees together like it was her first time in nice clothes. Her sales kit bag rested against her ankles, and she stared at the neighboring tables of other agents. She did this for three days. On the fourth day he introduced himself after the morning meeting, and on the fifth day he invited her to his table.
"Just don't say anything. And don't stare," he said.
"It's okay if you haven't done sales before."
"Look. All we do is make friends with these people, find out what they need, and show them how easy it is to get it. It's simple."
"And stop tugging on your skirt. And stop saying okay."
Her staring at his tables added weight to his pitch. It gave his First-Day Incentive offer the suddenness of the first drop of blood. She had wide, feral eyes. They were eyes like wet stones, the skin around them peppered with light freckles. There was an intensity about her eyes, a bottled-up strength in them, as if wrought from some unnatural force and contained within. After a week of her sitting with him on every tour, he saw twin rods of fluorescent light in them, and then he never didn't see them.
Her name was Michael, a preposterous name for a girl. "Like the boy," she told his tours. It was the only thing she said until "Congratulations." Michael would never make it as a sales rep because she didn't understand pitching heat. She knew how to lie and could lie on command to anyone. She didn't understand the need to lie, let alone a series of interconnected lies like those in the promo take-away, wherein a current owner's account info was pinned with a fake red flag, signifying some fake expired promo the owner had to sign off on because it was no longer fake available, and they had never fake responded when it was. He spent five days counseling her on why it was only a pitch, and why he was merely guiding his tours toward the vacations of their dreams. During that time he wrote $58,000 in contracts and began to consider her silent presence at his tables good luck. Then he spent two days convincing her she would never make it as a sales rep. Then he had sex with her.
They annexed the power line office as their own. Nobody cared. They skipped meetings and came in late. She laminated a button for him that jumped Executive of the Year 2007 in red block letters. He wore it everyday and nobody once questioned it. They made no secret of their relationship, holding hands in the Sales Center, kissing goodbye at the front door. She neither took tours on her own nor completed any systematic training, and it was unclear to others in the building if she was a coworker. By the time he told her to stop calling, he had put together the best two-month stretch of his career.
He can't avoid the urge to look for her again two days later. It is a drive that takes just over an hour, or fifteen minutes longer than too long. The highway south is all trees and billboards, graduating across the stage of his life one at a time. When he reaches North Carolina there is water everywhere, ocean or sound or rivers fed by creeks, always water next to the road or just up ahead. Tightroping power lines point him to her sad street, warping under the radiating heat. Once there the warm embrace of the country evaporates, the kudzu waterfalls, narrow bridges, and tin silos yielding to open neglect.
He stares at her house while standing aside his Escalade. The brassy rustling of leaves covers everything. Cattails stand at attention in the overgrowth, erect and quivering. A windsock signals for help from a rod over an aluminum shed behind the house. It is never this windy back home. When the wind falters, there is a profound sort of quiet. He has left a note pinched between the rusted storm door and the jamb and it flaps at him, then stops.
There is no answer when he knocks. He hops off the porch and turns around. From the side of her house he can see an open window by the flutter of the gauzy curtains behind it, a flag recoiling and snapping at the ceiling. He walks toward it and peers inside. As his eyes adjust he sees a girl's dresser and hutch, white with pale blue trim, the bedroom set of a grade schooler. The unmade bed is piled with stuffed animals, and a pink flannel fabric hangs over a desk chair. The innocence of the room strikes him just as the wind subsides and the curtains fall.
He sits down on the edge of the porch, uncertain of where to go. The phone buzzes and Eileen is on the other end. Still no to the pender, he asks. Solid morning, she says back. Where the hell are you? Flanagan wants to . . . He hangs up. He sits there thinking of Flanagan, his self-importance. A hail of leaves tumbles across her lawn in the strongest of gusts. He can see the wobbling mast of a boat in the canal behind the house across the street, an upside-down pendulum.
Back at the Sales Center for the afternoon wave and he goes out on tour immediately. Success rates determine tour volume and tour volume usually determines success rates. It is all a numbers game. There are no personalities, no favorites, no seniority. He remains among the top of the sales agent list, or part of the power line, only because Volume Per Guest numbers roll over after one month. When this month's VPG rolls over into next he'll be near the bottom, sitting for hours on slow days, watching other agents write contracts.
Something has to change. He has never had a problem feeling urgency at the point of sale. The moments following his First-Day Incentive offer tie him in knots. His salve for this is a hundred dollar bill he keeps in his pocket. Only Michael knows this. He rubs the hundred spot beneath the table, a reminder that he doesn't need the money. The adrenaline upon writing a contract shoots him through the roof. The thrill of the deal never dissipated for him, the way it has for older reps. He realizes when he gets back to the Sales Center from North Carolina that he has forgotten his hundred dollar bill. On his first tour that afternoon he quickly realizes he has nothing. By the middle of the second tour he can't remember anything about the first. He is talking to a retired couple from the suburbs of Maryland, a former staff sergeant and his wife. He is painting the picture of a recent fake trip to Aruba when he realizes he hasn't talked to them about anyway dollars, the money they are annually spending on vacations. Each tour is comprised of interconnected steps and he has forgotten the most basic. He is not really sure he has gotten a solid vacation commitment either. He has nothing and he knows it. Eileen is nowhere in sight.
He smiles. He talks in tie-downs. "If you could take the vacation of your dreams and not pay anything extra, you would do that, wouldn't you?" He nods as he asks. He does this for every question.
"Sure," the staff sergeant says.
"And if you were guaranteed one of these dream vacations every year, and money was no issue, you would take it, wouldn't you?"
"Well, of course. Wouldn't anyone?"
It is all he has, smiles and tie-downs. When the staff sergeant balks at his FDI offer, everyone smiles. "You did say were ready for dream vacations every year, didn't you?"
The staff sergeant and his wife are in the Gifting Department five minutes later.
"You know what your problem is? You give up too easy." It is Flanagan again, in the power line office. The skeletal office is hidden down a wing of the complex. It is reserved for closers and this is why Flanagan is surprised to see him. Flanagan has walked in with a young couple while he sits behind the desk. "Mark and Susan Hartney. They're from Connecticut."
"Nice to meet you," he says.
"This is Brad McCann, one of our top Customer Service reps."
"Hi," they wave simultaneously.
"Let me ask you this," he turns to Brad. "If you saw a girl at a bar that you just had to talk to, and she told you to leave her alone, what would you do?"
"I mean, I would offer to buy her drink."
"Exactly. And if she told you she needed to be alone and would call the cops?"
"I would tell her what she's missing. Just keep talking."
"That's the Judge."
"I think that's stalking," Mark Hartney says to his wife. He smiles at her, while she stares into the ground.
"Well, what would you do, Mark?"
"I don't know, leave her alone?"
"Right, well, you have the missus here, so, whatever. No, we're dealing with the Judge here. He gets whatever he wants."
"Who's the Judge?"
"Judge Roy Bean. That's my man here. He's the hanging judge of the Old West. All who enter his courtroom are guilty until proven innocent."
"I don't get it."
"Everyone's a buyer to this guy till they prove otherwise. Buyers or liars, right, bub?"
Michael bought him his lithograph of Judge Roy Bean. She framed it and nailed it to the wall in the power line office for him. In it, Judge Roy Bean stands scowling in a dark robe, white-bearded and menacing, holding his gavel. She called him the Judge occasionally. It was all she knew of him. She was transfixed by his creativity, curious of what he would say next to a tour. Her eyes lit up with excitement at his improvisation, at the marvel of his tours over his fast-talking pitch. There were tours where he played solely to her, fabricating more grandiose lies to build value, digging in his heels when his tours said no.
The lying came natural to him. He was lying before he knew he was lying. No heat, no eat, they told him. When he realized he was telling the lies of others he began crafting lies of his own. He told people he had been a vacation owner for three years. He told current owners he had owned for five years before upgrading two years ago. He took his fake wife and three fake children to Disney two years ago and to Hawaii last year. He fleshed out stories. He could be an expert on Cancun, Vegas, Paris, Italy, whatever. There was the laminated pin on his blazer lapel and the fake website and his portfolio of fake approval owner quotes. He lied until the truth was unreasonable.
His creativity was what made him a star. He lied about the money based on what a tour gave him. The idea was to start with a ridiculously inflated price and lower it creatively to the actual price so that the tour perceived some massive savings. A family with a specific travel destination in mind like the Hemskys would get free airfare, a condo at a five-star resort, spending cash, anything he could think of, like this was a damn game show. The value of the giveaway would total the reduction in price. When tours balked at the price, he left the table saying he would see if his boss could offer anything more and go grab a soda before reducing it further.
He drives down again on his day off. He tells himself this is his last trip. He sees that the note is missing as he pulls to a stop on the curbless street. The house looks abandoned as it did before. A man stands in the yard next door and stares at him while he looks at the house, perplexed. He is behind the two missing chassis. Something in his appearance is frozen, distant, and untouchable, a zoo exhibit of a man. He wears overalls and a wire mustache.
"Hey there." Brad waves. "Looking for someone." He walks to the hedges separating the yards. He takes off his shades and slides them in his slacks pocket. "A girl. She lives here, I reckon. Name's Michael. Real young girl. You know her?"
"Girl by the name of Michael, huh?"
"Hey Marlon. You seen a girl name Michael round here?" Marlon is a stooped elderly man standing behind the van with the desert panorama. He wears a V-neck T-shirt paper-thin and coffee-stained. He was invisible till now.
"I don't believe I know any girl Michaels. She live round here, son?"
"This is the address she gave me."
"Might could be. Never see that family no more. Whole bunch of little girls there. Might have moved out."
Marlon is looking past him, to the running Escalade. Brad sees that he is holding a tackle box and thermos.
"You know where they might have gone to?"
"You a bill collector or something?" the overalled man asks. He has two fishing poles in his hand now.
"No. Just a concerned friend is all."
"I see." The overalled man turns and sidles alongside the garage toward the backyard in the direction of a floating swivel chair. It hovers atop the overgrowth. The man throws a cooler and towel at the chair and it roils about, suddenly affixed to a chrome bar cantilevered out from the side of a johnboat. Brad realizes there is a canal beyond the bulwark at the end of their backyard. He fingers the stubble of his chin.
"She's not answering her phone I guess?" Marlon asks.
"No. She turned it off."
Marlon stares at his thermos. He looks out to the overalled man in the johnboat.
"Do you know a place where a young girl would hang out? A mall or something like that around here."
"A mall. I don't know. This town ain't but so big. Can't be too many places a girl would run off to."
"Not sure I get your meaning."
"You coming, bud?" the overalled man calls.
"Yup." Marlon turns and shuffles toward the backyard. "Well, I wish you luck."
"Wait. Look, I'm sorry, sir." Brad follows him along the hedges. "The truth is that I'm her school counselor. Michael has missed school for nine consecutive days and we are concerned about her well-being. If we don't hear from Michael or her parents soon our next step is to contact the police."
"That's right, sir. I just didn't want to alarm you before, but it's real important--"
"Listen, son. I ain't sure I'm comfortable with your intentions. Might be the girl you looking for don't want to be found. Not my place to say so. A young girl who can't be found usually don't want to be found, though. That's been my experience anyway."
Brad watches as Marlon lumbers onto the boat and slides into the swivel chair. The other man untethers the hitch rope from a cleat and hops aboard.
"Sir?" he calls after him. He whistles with his finger and thumb in his mouth. "Marlon?" The two men confer silently, and Marlon looks at his feet and then swivels to the right. He waves as the boat nudges forward.
Brad stands alone on the side of the house. Next to him is the window square to the little girl's room. The wind toys with the curtain as it did before, allowing stolen fragments of her life. He doesn't know where to go or how to act. He can't leave her house, but there is no reason to stay. He is frozen staring at the silhouette of her dresser. His fingers are caressing the hundred dollar bill in his pocket when he sees movement behind the curtain.
"Hey," he shouts.
He walks around to the front of the house and hops onto the porch. He pounds his fists into the door.
"Hey. Open up."
He takes a step back and the door opens. It is a girl, clearly her little sister.
"I'm looking for Michael. Is she here?"
"Well, do you know where she is?"
The girl doesn't say anything. Something over his shoulder grabs her attention. She looks back at him.
"Excuse me, it's really important--"
"I heard you. I ain't seen her. She been staying up in Norfolk, with some guy she met."
There is no noise behind her. He peers over her to a closed door and the beginning of a kitchen. It's too dark to see anything else. He looks back at her. She stares at him with the same feral, transfixed eyes as Michael. She is completely frontlit, an explosion of light leaving no shadows or lines save her straw-colored hair and the fabric of her camisole. Her skin is milky translucent, and he can see the pale blue of veins at her temples. She holds the door with one scrawny arm over her head.
"Well, do you have her number there?"
"Look, you got to know something. She been by the house? Your Mom talked to her at all."
"Nope. Ain't seen her."
"Well, will you please tell her Bradley came by? I've been looking for her for awhile."
He turns to walk back to the Escalade. She calls out to him before he steps down from the porch.
"That your car?"
"What is it?"
"I know where she might be."
"I have to show you."
She climbs into the passenger seat and they drive. Her directions are their only words. She takes him to a gas station and Michael is not there. She suggests a friend's house and he gets out to knock on the door. There is no answer. When she suggests another road, he infers some concern of her own. He looks at her. A lone braid rests aside her tumbling hair. She has the full mouth and neckline of a grown woman, with dark pools above her collarbone. But she is still a girl in her round, almond eyes, the puffy hammocks beneath them, and her frail shoulders and elbows. Her thighs are pale ribbons on the tan leather seat. She massages her thumbs nervously with her two fingers.
"This is a nice car," she says as they drive.
"Does it get good gas mileage?"
"No. Nice cars are overrated."
"I want a nice car. Someday."
They are quiet. The country highway they drive on begins to wind between copses of trees blanketed by kudzu. The power lines and man-made ponds have disappeared, and he knows they are in the middle of nowhere. He looks at her as she stares out the window. She smells of juniper and warm milk.
"You don't know where she is, do you?"
She doesn't say anything. Her face is pressed between her hands against the side window. They have driven eighteen miles since the friend's house. He can't remember the last car he saw and has no idea where they are. He is thinking of turning around when she blurts, "There. There she is." He stops and backs up. They are on a bridge. She points to the water below and he leans across. "That's her favorite place to go."
He looks, leaning with his forearm on her headrest. The water is fifty feet below. There is a distant johnboat on the water and a white hat waving. The sister gets out of the Escalade and waves back. He crosses the bridge and pulls half onto the grassy overgrowth. He turns off the engine and gets out. The trees dance in towering layers above muscular trunks. He walks to the cement parapet overlooking the water and leans over it. The sister smiles to him and looks down. Michael waves up to him and yells "hey," with a spasm of hopefulness. He waves back.
"There's only one way down," the sister says.
"What about the woods?"
"There's no path. You could try it but the trees is too thick."
"Well, I ain't jumping."
"It's no big deal. Watch." She takes off her shirt and slips off her sandals, scooping them up with her hand. Her spine is a chain up her slender back, bisected by her cotton bra. She hops onto the parapet and looks back at him. She smiles again, eyes squinting. She sidesteps to the waving arm of Michael below, avoiding the cement stanchions of the massive tress invisible to her beneath the bridge. Her hair is a curtain around her eyes as she looks down. She jumps. It happens in a split second, arms flailing and a splash. He leans over astonished. She emerges and dovetails her bangs, swimming over to the johnboat. She knifes out of the water and climbs in the boat to sit down.
"Come on," she yells up to him. Her voice is wispy in the breeze. "It's easy."
"My clothes," he yells to them. "I can't."
"It's okay. Leave your clothes up there," Michael says. "No one's gonna touch them."
He looks up the road and back. He removes his watch, tie and shirt, then his shoes, socks and pants, leaving only his boxers. He climbs onto the parapet and looks down to the water, where the surface is dark and roiling and so far away, a world untouched by his. There is so much space between him and the surface that it is easier to look away, to the treeline across the water, picturesque and spiny, poised to invade the sky, and to the shimmering water vanishing around a bend in the river, wandering somewhere into the distant sound. He turns to look back at the road when he hears Michael again.
"You just gotta go for it. Don't question it. Just do it."
"Yeah," the sister says. "Before someone comes." They look at each other and say something inaudible.
He inches to the edge and looks down again. The distance between him and the water is incomprehensible. The only reality is anticipation. Both girls are frozen, staring up at him. There is no logical reason to jump and every reason to step backward. The wind picks up at that moment, the shimmer of leaves, a subtle push, and he does it. It is an instant of terror and he smacks the water. A moment passes insensate and then the burning on his heel. The blood attacks his neck and he is still beneath the surface, then flailing. He splashes and gasps and then a long wet exhale as the johnboat trolls over to him. He grabs onto the hull and wheezes.
"You did it."
He spits the water from his mouth and stares into the boat. He looks up to the underbelly of the bridge. It owns the water. It is an aircraft carrier, hovering in baleful reminder. It appears from here that the earth was manipulated around its presence.
"Wasn't that awesome?" Michael asks. "I can't believe you did it." She stares at him with the same feral eyes. Her cheeks are pinkish and freckly and her welcoming smile blankets him. He sees the protrusion of her collarbone and decides to stay in the cold river water, looking at her and talking.
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