Artavious Jackson hung up his phone with an assuring smile and leaned back in the chair in his cubicle. On his desk sat a small glass trophy with a tiny placard at the bottom of it. The trophy was triangular, somewhat of a pyramid, with its jagged tip pointing toward the dropped ceiling. Next to that sat a banana and a tuna salad sandwich.
There were no pictures on his desk, only a computer and a phone and a Christian devotional calendar with daily tear-off pages. By the computer sat a stack of papers full of names and phone numbers. Mr. Jackson took his tuna sandwich out of its bag and sunk his teeth into the corner of the wheat bread. His supervisor, Dick Robberson carried out his lunch time ritual of breezing through the rows of cubicles, offering advice, criticism, and tongue lashings to his workers. He ducked his head into Mr. Jackson’s cubicle, the last one on a row of seven, and with a big grin, crossed his arms.
“That’s a pretty looking trophy you got there Jackson. They didn’t look that snazzy when I won my first one.”
“Is that right?”
“Just a piece of paper. They didn’t even give us a frame. Half the guys I knew that got one just wiped their asses with them. They used to crumble them up and leave them all over the office floor. Not me. I take pride in my work.” Robberson said.
“Like no one else I know.”
“Before I let you get back to work Jackson, just know this: I didn’t have to pull any strings for you to win that. It was all you. The quickest ever to 50 paid-off schmuck balances. I don’t know how you did it. Hell, I don’t usually say this very often, but way to go.”
“Thank you sir. Nothing less than hard work and perseverance.”
“Wring their necks Jackson. If they don’t want to pay up, strangle them even harder. These scumballs are the reason this country’s economy is in debt quicksand. You know the old adage about nuclear disaster and cockroaches don’t you?”
“I used to say it all the time.” Mr. Jackson said.
“Replace cockroaches with people’s names on your bump-call list. Keep up the hard work.” Robberson said as he backed out of the cubicle and stared down the rest of his employees. “As for the rest of you slack jobs, take a page from Mr. Jackson’s book. Make those debt dodgers open their wallets.” He slapped his fist like a hammer in his open palm. “They’ve got the money. Don’t listen to excuses. If they don’t have it, their grandma has it. Find grandma and harass that bag till she pays up.”
Max Calamitri was standing in his living room with his forehead pressed against his front door, staring out the diagonal glass. His phone began to vibrate on the desk that was tucked into the corner of the dining room. Rain drops were falling from the gutter. Max watched them pool into an empty plant pot that was shaped like a rabbit.
“Max, your phone’s ringing again.” His wife said. She was sitting at the table with her head hovering over a bowl of cereal, milk dripping from an oversized spoon. “Aren’t you going to see who it is?”
Max dialed his voicemail and punched in his code. He turned down the earpiece volume, looking quickly at his wife to make sure she wasn’t looking at him. The ping of her spoon scraping against the bottom of the cereal bowl was the only noise to be heard.
“Good afternoon Max Calamari. This is Mr. Jackson with CBR. That’s Central Business Resolutions. It’s absolutely imperative that you return my call. Sir, this call is regarding a very, and may I emphasize the word very, serious business matter. This is the tenth time I’ve called you and still no reply. I can work with you sir. I can help you. It’s imperative that you call me back.”
“Who is she?” His wife asked. She let the spoon plop into her milk, leaving a splotch on the table. “When are you going to break it to me?”
“That’s just your insecurity talking again. Always with the girls.” Max said. “Is that all you think about? If we ever had sex like we used to, I wouldn’t even fathom it.” He erased the number on his phone. “Hell I wouldn’t do it anyway. I was born with too much of a conscience.”
“You know this time of year is sensitive for me. I don’t need the stress.” She began to sob. “It’s not that I never want to. I just can’t. It scares me to death to think about living through it again.”
“Maybe if you’d actually give me some, you wouldn’t be so paranoid.”
“Did you not just hear me?”
“Just try.” He said. “It’s been year. I have needs too. Don’t you think it scares me also? I gotta put it out of my head somehow.”
“Fine.” She lashed. “Later then.”
“No. It wouldn’t be any good. You wouldn’t be into it.”
“Whatever. Go to her then. Just get it over with.”
“I don’t have time for this. You’re sick.” Max put on his jacket and went out the door.
Mr. Jackson sat in the center seat of a dark bar, nursing on a gin and tonic, momentarily sucking on the slice of lime from his glass. He bit into the pulpy fruit and felt tiny bits of sour juice exploding onto his tongue. Aside from Ed the bartender, and Mr. Jackson, the bar was completely empty. The happy hour crowd hadn’t found their way into the building yet.
“I swear. Everybody’s gotta have something don’t they?” Ed said after turning his focus away from the 27 inch television that sat at the top of the bar shelf.
“What do you mean?”
“These damn commercials. Either your dick doesn’t work or you’re depressed and you don’t want to get out of bed, or you got some lung disease from working on a battleship in the ‘60s. I can’t believe the stuff they come up with in this country. Measles… something with a th. It’s everywhere all of a sudden.”
“Money in the bank is all it is to some.” Ed added. “Law firms make a killing.”
“I hear you. You got the people who suffer from it all. Or at least they think they do. Limp-dick, can’t look at themselves in the mirror, cough up a lung every ten minutes. It’s no wonder they don’t make a super pill to take care of it all.”
“That would be too easy. Too cost effective.”
“I guess so.” Mr. Jackson said. His trophy was sitting next to his glass. Stale air blew across the bar from an oscillating desk fan. “Then all the hypochondriacs and megalomaniacs, who have to have all the dice and the ground to roll them on, wouldn’t owe so much money. I’d be out of a job.”
“The system feeds itself.”
“That it does.” Mr. Jackson rested his arm on the wooden bar top. He felt the cool tickle of a lengthy pool of water from his glass. “I think I’m starting to get bitter.”
“It’s because you’ve been listening to me so long.” Ed laughed.
“Not entirely. It happens a lot with cops and people in law enforcement and in the court systems. The daily grind erodes their souls. They begin to hate the people they actually go into their fields to help. You get so sick of the co-dependents who need someone else’s hand just to do simple things for them. Like these people so deep in debt. They don’t realize how much it’s ruining their futures. Their kid’s futures. In some cases, their grandkid’s futures.”
“I can dig you. I feel the same way about alcoholics. Why can’t they just turn it off?”
“Sometimes I think I hate them for it. My boss, he truly hates these people. Absolutely hates them. He’d piss on their graves if he could. He’s dealt with them for so long that he’s become a big flaming ball of hate. He’s the most embittered person I’ve ever met. I don’t want to go down that road. When I answered the ad in the paper years ago, I really thought I was going to help people like it said. Not harass people and their families, and find ways to sidestep the Fair Debt Collection Act.”
“Find a new job.”
“It’s not that easy. I’m 52 years old and I’ve been with the company for the last ten years. The older you get, the more the years you put in matter. For the last year I’ve been coming up with my own coping methods.”
“Like?” Ed was listening, hunched over a small bar sink, shoving a dish rag into each dirty glass and twisting his hand in a circular motion.
“Do you believe in God?” Mr. Jackson killed his drink down to the ice cubes and his half chewed lime rind. A signed photograph of the band Poison stared back at the men from the dusty top shelf bottles.
“I do not.” Ed looked to the ceiling as if he were locked in thought. “Need another drink?”
“Please. Extra lime.”
“Well I don’t know. I take that back. I don’t really know what I believe in. I believe in something I guess. Everybody’s gotta have something to believe in.”
“He talks to us in subtle ways. He gives us direction and if we listen with our hearts…”
“You can stop right there. The whole organized religion thing is just a cop-out for sinners. It’s a tool of the media. That’s one thing I truly believe.”
“Something happened to me a year ago and I still haven’t told anyone.” Mr. Jackson said.
“What are you getting at?”
“I need to cut myself off. The booze is talking. I’ve had one too many.”
“No no. This next one’s on me.” Ed mixed up another gin and tonic and leaned in with a smile. “I’m all ears.”
“Fist let me tell you how I get these people to call me back.” Mr. Jackson said. “Because they hardly ever answer their phones.”
“What’s your secret?”
“I purposely mess up their names.” He started to chuckle, talking with the rim of his glass in his mouth. “It gets them so mad. They call me back and cuss me out half the time.”
“I don’t see how you can take it. Last drunk that cussed me out, found himself face first on the pavement out front.”
“I don’t think I can do it much longer my friend.”
“Do you always go by Mr. Jackson?”
“Why not Art?”
“Because art is something you hang on a wall. It’s something people stare at when they eat cheese and drink wine.”
“Mr. Jackson does sound more authoritative.”
“People start to hate me.” He said. “And then they call me back.”
Max sat in the crowded computer lab of the city public library, filing out job applications online. The room was hot from all the running computers and had the stench of body odor and urban turmoil. Max looked to his right and saw a young woman at one of the computers. An infant girl slept soundly in a car seat by the chair. Her head was wrapped in a band adorned with a pink bow and her wispy black hair was pressed tightly to her oval shaped skull. She couldn’t have been a day or two past three months. Max stared at her for a minute, lost in his thoughts, momentarily ignoring the four tabs that were open on his screen. The baby moved a bit, her tiny lips sucking on her pacifier in her sleep. A lump of puked up formula rested on the collar of her onesie. The mother paid no attention. Max peeked over at her screen and saw her surfing websites that sold diet pills and others that offered fake hair. Max cracked a smile when the infant clutched her tiny fingers together. Like silence being broken by shattering glass, he was yanked from his waking slumber by the ringing of his phone. The lab attendant gave him a dirty look as he turned off his ringer and dashed for the restroom. He ducked into the stall and listened to Mr. Jackson’s infamous spiel. It was his eleventh message about the importance of the so-called business matter and how he could offer assistance. Max cocked his hand back as if he were going to throw the fragile phone at the stall door and let it explode all over the colorful array of Sharpie hieroglyphics. He stopped himself and sat down on the dirty, loose toilet seat. He could hear another man in the restroom, pulling wads of paper towels from the dispenser and wiping his hands with them. Max held his face in his palms and wrestled back tears; teeth clenched and jaws trembling. He looked between his legs into the bowl that was full of clouds of toilet paper and brown lumps. Max fought hard as the other man stared at himself in the mirror and adjusted his tie. When the door slammed shut and Max was alone with the silence and the surrounding smell of urinal cakes, he let the faucets run from his eyes, down his cheeks and onto his collar. He stood up and punched the side of the stall and kicked the toilet paper dispenser so many times that it broke open, sending rolls of paper bouncing under the metal door and into the corner.
Mr. Jackson was at his desk, staring blankly at his call list. His coffee had gone cold and the creamer had separated into a hurricane’s eye that floated at the top of the brew. He looked into the mug and pushed it to the side. He grabbed his cell phone from his pocket and flipped through his personal numbers. After a few rings, a woman’s voice said, “Accounts receivable. This is Janice.”
“What a sound for sore ears.”
“You guessed it.”
“How are you doing?” She asked.
“I’ve hit a snag. I need some info from you it at all possible.”
“I’ll see if I can help. What’s up?”
“Look up a name for me. Max Calamitri. Middle name George. Date of birth, 8-13-83.”
“Give me a second.” There was a silence on the line for a minute. Mr. Jackson bit into a peach. Janice could hear his chewing and slurping. “He’s in our database. Delinquent account. It’s over ten grand. I can’t give you info on something like that.”
“You mean you’re not supposed to.”
“You know I’m doing the Lord’s work here. I need your help with this one Janice.”
“I know Art.” She sighed. “Well apparently his wife went into our labor and delivery ward at five months. They didn’t have insurance. The baby was born too early and… you know.”
“Well thank you as always. You know you’re doing a good deed by helping me help others.”
“I do.” She said. “God bless you Mr. Jackson.”
Max and De Andre relaxed on the balcony of De Andre’s south city apartment, sucking on beers and smoking cigars under the glow of the street lamps. It was a dead night. Light peered through the shuffling leaves of a nearby oak tree. Every minute or so, a random car would tear down the block with its belts wining and then dematerialize into the shadows of the neighborhood that ran along the interstate. Max dangled his feet off the old concrete balcony, leaning forward momentarily to ash his cigar.
“What do you know about this guy?” De Andre asked.
“I hate his guts. That’s the sure thing.” Max said. He backed up a bit and looked directly at his friend. “I want to strangle him with his phone cord and watch his eyes bust out of his head.”
“My cousin used to do that bill collecting stuff. They don’t know as much as you think. They’re like telemarketers. Where does this dude work?”
“Some place called CBR. I forget what it stands for. Cock Blowing Retards, I don’t know. He probably sits in a cubicle and jerks it like all the other telephone tough guys. Fucking swine. They need to learn a lesson.” Max sipped at his beer, staring into the tapered bottleneck, watching the tiny bubbles through the brown tinted glass. “You know what the good part is? He works right here in town. I got his last name but it’s too common.”
“What is it?”
“Jackson. In his messages, he always goes by Mr. Jackson. Who the hell does he think he is? I’m not a little kid. I don’t have to address him as Mr. Shit.” Max said. “This guy really boils me De Andre. He always mispronounces my last name and I bet he does it on purpose too. What a sick bastard. Always uses the word imperative. Everything’s imperative. I’ll show him imperative. It’ll be imperative that he has a blood transfusion when I get at him.”
“And how are you gonna do that?”
“You’re gonna help me.”
“I’m not hunting down some bill collector. Regardless of how big a dickhead he is.”
“Someone needs to stand up to these people. They don’t understand what guys on the other end of the telephone go through. I told you what he’s after me for. How messed up is that? I have to look at reminders everywhere I go. Gina thinks I’m screwing around on her. I don’t even have the guts to tell her what all the calls are about. I told her I paid off the bill a few months ago.” Max said. “This Jackson guy hounding me twenty-four-seven is just a kick in the balls when I’m already down. He’s an extra shake of salt in my cuts.”
“What do you need from me? I got guns I can get rid of. I got a .25 I never use. The number’s filed off of it. Just use gloves. Drive it out to Sauget and ditch it behind Moto-Mart like back in the day.”
“Maybe. But that’s not the main thing. What size pants do you wear?”
“I don’t know. 38 I think.”
“I’ll have to use a belt.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“You aren’t much bigger than me.”
“What are you getting at dog?”
“Let me see your closet.”
“I want your Halloween costume from last year.”
Max parked in a nearly full downtown parking garage and hiked several city blocks to the high-rise building that housed the CBR office. He entered through the revolving door and carried a small cardboard box up to the help desk of the lobby. Max spoke to the receptionist and she picked up the phone and asked him to wait a minute.
“There’s a guy here from a courier service. He has a package for a Mr. Jackson. The label on the box is torn a bit. He doesn’t know which Mr. Jackson it is. My directory shows three.” She said into the phone. “Okay. I’ll tell him. Thanks Sean.” The receptionist hung up. “Try Artavious Jackson on the third floor. My boss said he’d be the best one to try first. He always goes by Mr. Jackson anyway.”
Max exited the elevator at 3 and could hear nothing but his boots tapping along the speckled granite floor as he walked. In the 5 o’clock realm of quiet, he could hear the elevator doors close. Clicking echoes volleyed off the walls that were lined with various abstract painting. He entered the CBR office and noticed that the place was virtually empty. The small lobby was dim, lit only by a lone florescent lamp that cast a bluish-yellow glow from the drop ceiling. Max’s phone began to ring as he hit the hallway of cubicles that counted down from A-14 to A-7. Mr. Jackson sat at his desk with his phone pressed to his ear. He heard a peculiar sound getting closer with each ring that chirped into his ear. Into one entered the familiar automated tone and in the other climbed a foreign ring. Max’s voicemail picked up. Mr. Jackson was lost in the thought of his delivery. He was confused for a second when he heard a live voice emitting from behind him.
“This is Max. Please leave a detailed message after the tone and I’ll get back to you soon. Beeeeeeeeep.”
Mr. Jackson swung around in his chair and saw an arm extended toward his face. In the hand of the unsteady arm was a small handgun. There was a finger on the trigger.
“Max.” Mr. Jackson said with his hands up. “You don’t understand. I’m trying to help you. All we need to do is talk. I know about your situation.”
“You know nothing of my situation. You’re a scumbag just like all the rest of them. You soulless, blood sucking bastard. Before I bow out for good, I’m going to send you where you belong. Someone needs to stand up for all the people that get harassed day in and day out by you shit-suckers.”
“You need to calm yourself. Let me explain something.”
“What? How it’s so imperative that I call you back? How you can help me? How important this business matter is? I can fill in the blanks. You’ve explained enough.” Max tossed the small cardboard box at Mr. Jackson. He nervously jerked sideways and the package bounced off his thigh. “Here’s your first payment.”
Max fired a shot that grazed Mr. Jackson’s arm. The shot wasn’t that loud. It was like a firecracker. Mr. Jackson doubled over but tackled Max on his way to the floor. His phone cord that had been wrapped around his arm ripped everything off the desk as he fell. Max dropped the gun, a .25 caliber pistol and wrapped the phone wire around Mr. Jackson’s throat and squeezed. He crossed his arms behind Mr. Jackson’s head to get ultimate leverage. Max jammed his knee into the small of Mr. Jackson’s back and pulled back until Jackson turned blue in the face and his forehead displayed snaking veins. Spit ran down his cheeks. The cord was small and firm, perfect for use as a garrote. Mr. Jackson couldn’t fit his fingers underneath the black cord that was causing his neck fat to divide and slump over the plastic line. Max leaned in close and started yelling in Mr. Jackson’s ear. The debt collector grabbed his trophy from the floor and swung it in a stabbing motion over his shoulder three or four times. After the fourth swing, just as he was about to black out, he felt a sweet release. He didn’t even feel it connect. Mr. Jackson just knew he was momentarily free. Oxygen vacuumed into his starved lungs and the pressure dropped from his spine. He collapsed against the desk and tumbled to the floor.
At the hospital, a frantic Dick Robberson pleaded with a police officer for information about the catastrophe that had taken place at his office.
“Someone tried to kill him.” The officer said to Robberson. “It looks like Artavious stabbed the guy in the throat in some kind of self-defense. At least that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
“Who was the madman?”
“Some guy named Max Calamitri. He had a gun and a box with a suicide note in it. Whatever happened must have went horribly wrong for him. He bled to death on the office floor.”
“What else was in the box?”
“A tiny urn. That’s it.”
“I need to talk to a doctor. I need to know if Artavious is okay,” Robberson said. “He’s all I have. I need him back at work ASAP. He’s my cash cow.”
“He’s got a crushed larynx. They have him sedated. They had to cut his throat open to fix it. Plus he got shot in the arm.”
“No way. This can’t be happening. He’s the best bump caller we have. He’s award winning for God’s sake.”
“He needs to find a new line of work before he ends up a bitter old piece of shit like you.” A man voiced from several chairs over. “That is if he lives.”
“I beg your pardon sir?”
“I’d never pardon you. Not after all the filth I’ve heard of you.” Ed said. “Hell, I wouldn’t even serve you a drink if you came into my bar dying of thirst.”
Robberson stormed down the hospital hall leaving only two people sitting in the waiting area.
“What kind of shame would it be if the world lost such a beautiful person?” Janice said.
“This world doesn’t deserve him.” Ed said. “He just told me about the scratchers ticket last week.”
“$500,000. He won it a year ago. Never told a soul. I mixed his gin and tonics for God knows how long and he never breathed a word about it. Not until last week.” Ed told her. “Did you ever give him information about his delinquent accounts he was working on?”
“Several times. I know it was wrong but… I know he meant well. It’s all my fault.” She started crying.
“He meant more than well. He was bailing people out of debt with the money he won. Not what I would’ve been doing.”