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Foundations of Business
It’s 9:30AM under a gray sky. The world already feels hot and sticky.
Me and Dealer are sitting in Dealer’s rusted-out hatchback in the parking lot of a shitty strip mall in the middle of nowhere. There are five storefronts. From left to right: a laundromat, another laundromat, a place with blacked-out windows and a big sign that just says VIDEOS, a typewriter repair shop, and a third laundromat. They're all grimy and busted looking. The typewriter shop looks closed. I can’t imagine it gets many customers. It’s 9:30AM under a gray sky. The world already feels hot and sticky.
“What is this place?” I ask.
“This is where I do all my business,” says Dealer. “I never get bothered here.” He flashes me a grin, showing off his jangly white teeth. “See that place?” He pointed at the typewriter shop. “I’ve been coming here for years, different times, different days of the week – never seen it open. Not once. But someone keeps paying the rent.” He laughed.
“I don’t like it.”
“Most people don’t. That’s what you want for business like this, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, fine, I guess. Show me it.”
I roll my eyes and pull the envelope out of my jacket. There's $3,750 worth of gift cards inside, mostly Target and Walmart. A few gas stations, too. It took months to accumulate without drawing attention to myself. Major pain in the ass.
“This shit better be worth it,” I tell him. He’s busy looking through the cards, checking stickers and expiration dates. Finally, he’s satisfied. “Of course it’s worth it,” he says.
“Okay. Show it.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He reaches under the seat and pulls out an old shoe box. “Here,” he says, handing it to me. I open it. Inside, under a layer of packing peanuts and swaddled in bubble wrap, is a slip of paper with a phone number on it and a smaller box, oblong, also cardboard, embellished with a faded stamp of a cartoon dynamite stick about to blow.
“This your clever idea?” I ask.
“Nah man, it came that way. Used to have fireworks in it, I think. Got like a million of ‘em from a pal of mine down in Mexico a while back. Pretty funny, huh?”
“Yeah, sure. Is it armed?”
“Fuck no, I’m not crazy. Here,” he takes the box from me and carefully opens the top. Just beneath the flap is a crude plastic panel with a switch set into it. I can glimpse a mess of wires beneath it. “Idiot-proof, see? It can’t get the signal until this is flipped. Once you’re ready just flip it and call the number in the box. I’d recommend using a burner to do it. And to not be standing too close when you do.” His laugh sounded like a car being choked.
His face suddenly gets serious. “Listen, man, I gotta ask: what are you gonna use this for? A lot of guys in this business, the less they know the better, far as they’re concerned. I get where they’re coming from, but I’m not one of them. I have to know. I don’t care what it is, I’m not gonna judge, but I gotta know, man. I just gotta. I mean, there’s not a lot of kick in this thing, you know that? Not compared to what a lot of customers come to me for. I figure you must have something pretty specific in mind and I gotta admit I’m curious.”
I froze. I'd known he might pull something like this, but I didn’t think he really would. I started cycling through the lies I’d been considering for this situation, but they all seemed lame and fucking stupid now. He’d never buy any of them, but I definitely wasn’t going to tell him the truth. Everything would go to shit if I told him the truth. Some things you always get judged for. He was looking at me, waiting. He still had the box in his hand. Then, before I had to answer, I saw the door to the VIDEOS store open behind him.
“What…” Dealer followed my gaze. A man had come out and was walking rapidly across the parking lot towards our car. He was fat, middle-aged, breathing heavily, his face and head covered in a thin film of sweat. He moved like he was coming down the final stretch of a marathon, half-dead on his feet. Finally, he got to our car and, leaning against it while he caught his breath, knocked heavily on Dealer’s window. His knuckles left a smear on the glass. Neither of us knew what to do. Dealer had completely forgotten about his question. Not seeing a better option, he rolled down the window. The man leaned into it. He smelled like cheap vodka and leathery meat.
“You know,” he said, “I was a young man when I started in this business. My dad worked in a pork house. Smelled like blood and pig fat all the time. It’s not really a something you can wash off, you know? Not after it gets soaked in. Anyway, he wasn’t really the sort of guy who had friends, if you get what I mean, but there was another guy who worked his shift, guy named Mike, who liked the booze almost as much as he did. So it got to be that every night after work they’d buy a nice big bottle of gin, or swipe it if they were bust, and come back to the house and spend the night draining it. And they always had a videotape to watch. Or, actually, Mike did. That was what he brought to the equation. He always had something for them to watch, some black plastic brick with something nasty inside. This started when I was 8 or 9 years old. I would be in my room in back, asleep, and then they’d come crashing in through the front door, Mike and my dad, my dad usually ranting about something, clattering around trying to find a couple clean glasses. They wouldn’t quiet down until they got the tape going. I’d be wide awake by then. My dad’s hearing wasn’t so good, so he always kept the TV cranked. I could hear everything, although I usually didn't know what the hell it was. Mike’s tapes were all beat to shit, taped and retaped over who knows how many times. A lot of noise gets mixed in like that, a lot of uncertainty. Not like the product I traffic in now. But that just made me more curious about them. They scared me, but I was drawn to them, too, and it’s not like I could sleep through it anyway. Not that sort of noise. When I got a little older and braver, I started sneaking out and trying to catch a glimpse of the screen, after I figured they’d gotten too fucked up to notice me creeping around behind the furniture. If I’d gotten caught I’m sure they would’ve beat the shit out of me, both of them, but they never did. I was still too young to really understand what I was seeing, back then, but that didn't really matter. It got inside me, and I was never the same after that. That first time... I never would’ve believed there were really people that would let those sort of things happen to their bodies, but there it was. Of course, I realize now most of them probably didn’t have much choice, but I was a kid, you know? There was a lot I didn’t know about the world. Anyway, I grew up fast. When I was 14 I could pass for 20. One night my dad passes out before Mike, I mean out cold, like a rock, and I decide it’s time to make my move. I ambush the guy, have him out of the chair and up against the wall before he knows what’s happening. I tell him I need to know where he gets the tapes. I tell him if he doesn’t tell me I’m gonna turn him into sludge. Now, Mike’s a pretty strong guy. You have to be to last at a pork house. I’m sure he could’ve turned me inside out if he was sober. But he’s not, he’s gone, his eyes can't focus, he’s only upright because I’m holding him there, so he doesn’t have much choice. He gives me a name and an address. Then I liquefy him anyway. My dad hasn’t stirred through all of this, of course. That’s one thing he was good at, getting drunk. Probably the only thing. I pour the rest of the booze down his throat then tape his mouth shut for good measure. I assume he choked on his vomit, although I wasn’t around to see it. I left then and there, never looked back. Found the address, found the man, told him what I did. He offered me a job on the spot, and I’ve been working for him ever since. Ever since. You get what I mean, boys?”
He stops, finally, and draws a large, gasping breath. Dealer, for once, doesn't seem to know what to say. He doesn't notice me grab the box out of his hand, or get out of his car with it. The other man doesn't seem to care. As I walk away, the sun pokes through the clouds and throws a beam down on me.