Apprentice Debt Collector

 

 

Debt collection is a tricky business. And what people don’t realize (or aren’t willing to credit) is that it’s a legitimate trade. You don’t just walk into a person’s house and say, ‘give me the money’. When you go to collect, a million things can go wrong. 

 

 

Your first asset is that most people are even terrified of the police coming to their house. A straight person’s imagination will do a lot of the work. They think ‘career criminal’, they’re petrified of being infected by a brush with the law. Or those on the other side of it. Fear, in its various manifestations, is the number-one incentive.

 

Souli knocked. I stood to the left so I could see the fire escape over his shoulder. He should have been watching the elevator over mine. When the door opened, it opened all the way. If you owed money, you should at least have the sense to chain the door.

 

“Bad news,” said Souli, barging into the hallway of the apartment.

 

“Oh,” said the gormless-looking fellow, standing in his socks and shirt – no pants.

 

“Yeah. Oh.”

 

Souli stood and stared at the man. Older guys can generate longer shadows; something about the depth of the creases in the face and the hollows of the eyes. Souli was letting his shadow move over the man, like an eclipse.

 

“Jono,” said the man, extending a hand. Souli smiled, a frank pressing of the lips that was closer to a grimace. The empty hand was slowly retracted.

 

“You know that money you owed Martin?” asked Souli. Jono remained conspicuously silent. “Well, you don’t owe him anymore. I did you a favour; I paid him. Because I paid him, now you owe me.” Each sentence was followed with a silence, designed to fill with expectation.

 

A sleeping bag in the middle of the room; a bong on the rattan-cane-and-glass coffee table. Scattered chocolate wrappers. The only person dumber than this guy was the person who loaned him the money in the first place.

 

“I don’t have it.” Jono lifted empty hands toward us, as if they were some kind of proof.

 

“What have you got?” I asked.

 

“Here they are,” Jono said, opening the door to the only bedroom. “Three hundred concrete pineapples.” They stood in rows, like petrified dinosaur eggs.

 

“Why concrete pineapples?” I asked.

 

“Thought they’d be popular in Queensland,” Jono said, shrugging his shoulders. “They just didn’t sell. Simple as that.”

 

“Nah, mate,” said Souli. “Not simple as that at all. Give me your hand.”

 

Jono was not forthcoming. All different emotions moved over his face, like wind on water. Finally, the hand came out. Souli smiled. He lifted the hand and held it between them, palm facing up, like a fortune-teller.

 

“You have ten chances to tell me when the money is coming. And I don’t mind if it takes all ten.”

 

“I don’t have it!” Jono pleaded. He bored into my eyes with his own, trying to touch off some kind of essential sympathy. Unfortunately, whether or not I believed him wasn’t going to make any difference.

 

“Hold him.”

 

Jono’s muscles slackened under my hands. He was so frightened that I was holding him up more than holding him still. No struggle. No anger. No fight-or-flight.

 

When Souli broke Jono’s little finger, it emitted a crisp snap, like a pencil. We looked at the gnarled digit, twisted and bent away from the others. He started to cry. Normally, I would find this revolting. Almost as gross as if he shit his pants. But guilt and pity was setting in, like some kind of corrosion.

 

“Souli, wait a minute.” I let go of Jono, who held his hand gingerly at the wrist. I took him into the bedroom and closed the door. Souli watched us go, same little smile playing on his lips.

 

“ If you don’t give us the money, we have to hurt you,” I said, surrounded by three-foot high concrete pineapples. “Believe it or not, we’re in this together. Do you have any money in savings?”

 

“No,” he said, sniffing back the snot that oozed from his collapsing composure.

 

“Do you have anything you can sell? A car?”

 

“No.”

 

He was lying. By taking pity on him, I could end up in more shit than anybody. And it pissed me off that this guy, who had, after all, made his own way into this predicament, would try to exploit the better angels of my nature.

 

“Listen, I’m trying to do you a favor. If you fuck me around, he’ll break all your fingers today and next week, I’ll be coming back with bolt cutters to cut them off.”

 

“I have a savings account,” said Jono, blinking as sweat seeped into the corners of his eyes. “It’s from my grandfather’s will. He left me a deposit for a house.”

 

“When can you have it by?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“I’m trying to do you a favor. And I swear to God, if you fuck me over…”

 

“I’m almost a complete failure!”

 

“Well, Jono,” I said, slapping him on the shoulder, “You’re just gonna have to sell a few more pineapples!”

 

 

 

We went out to have breakfast and give Jono time to draw the money out of his savings.

 

“He’ll cough up,” I said, to Souli. The late-morning sun was hot on the table surface. I lay my empty hand against it.

 

“I’m letting you make the mistake, as part of learning,” said Souli. “He’s not in this position because of bad luck. All these people are the same – they’re lazy, and they don’t care. You might turn out to be too nice for this kind of work.”

 

“Twenty six dollars thirty,” the waitress said. I reached for my wallet, to beat Souli to it.

 

 

 

“Where is it?” I demanded as Jono opened the door. He’d made some half-arsed attempt to bandage the finger, which was swollen and purplish.

 

“I didn’t have any money to get a taxi.”

 

“You’re fucking joking! You borrowed the fifty grand, didn’t you?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“And then you spent the money, didn’t you?”

 

“But it’s the money my grandfather gave me! He’d be so ashamed!”

 

“Then why did you let us back in?”

 

“You seemed like a good guy.” Again the hand gesture. The empty, slightly twisted hand.

 

“Which part of this don’t you understand?” I said, feeling foolish. Souli closed the door behind him. “This is my fuck-up,” I said, “I’ll fix it.”

 

I went into the kitchen. Rubbish vomited out of the bin and trailed across the lino. Cupboard doors stood half-open. Match stubs all over the cooktop. No knives, no cutlery; just a greasy BBQ tool. Blade at the front, bottle opener cut into the blade. Serrations along the edge.

 

“Bring him in here,” I said.

 

“Hold him down. On his stomach. Get his pants down.” I lit the stove and held the tool over the largest element. For a good couple of minutes, I suppose – you know how time takes on that peculiar liquidity under stress. I watched Jono as he watched the stiff blue flame running along the blade.

 

Souli had him pinned face-down on the floor, sitting on him like a cowboy on a trussed-up calf. I stood between the splayed legs. Jono struggled to look around.

 

“We’ve been more than reasonable,” I began. “The problem is, you don’t give a shit how any of this affects us. You have bought this on yourself.” Jono kicked out; I leaned forward and pushed the tool hard against his skinny white butt cheek.

 

He bawled like a cow. It was pain, but also the sounds of being trapped under shame, humiliation and failure. I lifted the tool away and, before it cooled, pressed it down again. Both cheeks bore angry red-and-charred-black rectangles, complete with outlines of the bottle opener. The finger snapping – that was just brutal. At least this was kind of funny.

 

“Now,” I said, wiping the sweat from my forehead, “We are going to drive you to the bank and you are going to draw that deposit.”

 

 

 

Jono sat off-kilter on the hot vinyl seat all the way to the bank and back. I made him put on his seat belt. Afterwards, we bought him a bag of ice at the drive-through before dropping him out front of his building.

 

“I swear, you make us come back again and I will cut all of your fingers off – on principle,” I said. He nodded, frowning like a humiliated child.

 

I drove around the corner and pulled over.

 

“Souli, I feel a bit sick. You’re going to have to drive.”

 

In the passenger seat, I sat on my hands so he wouldn’t see them shaking. I felt bad, sure – but the truth was, Jono had bought this on himself and now, he was learning the hard way.

 

Just like everybody else.

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “Apprentice Debt Collector”

  1. LOVE IT.

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