“This is really the life, bro,” Louis Dumkowski said to his friend Cleatus Washington. “We been making more money than I ever seen in my whole life, and the work hours are the best.”
“Yeah,” Cleatus said. “I guess it ain’t bad at that. What we got next on the schedule?”
Louis pulled a note pad from the desk behind which he sat. It was actually Vincent Williams’s desk, but Vinnie the Enforcer had come to trust the two neophyte loan sharks, and was spending less and less time in his office, a cubbyhole in the back of his uncle’s pool parlor, and more and more time sipping Jack Daniels and coke at the corner bar.
Flipping through the pad, Louis stopped at a page that was filled with his scrawled printing; Louis wasn’t all that good at writing script, so he printed everything. “Some guy over on the south side,” He said. “Name’s Lawrence Pittman Anderson. Sounds like a white bread, so I figure we do your angry black man routine on him.”
Cleatus, who was more light brown than black, and seldom angry, was tiring of playing the tough ghetto stud; but it did get a lot of customers to pay what they owed. “Okay, but only if we have to.”
Louis didn’t think his whiny young white dude routine would work on a guy, but maybe, he thought, Cleatus is right; this one might just pay when asked. He only owed a hundred bucks; hardly enough to try to wiggle out of paying.
He flipped the notepad shut and put it back in the drawer.
“Okay, let’s go,” He said. “Think we oughta tell Vinnie?”
“Naw, he’s probably in the bottom of a bottle of Jack right now and wouldn’t be able to understand a thing you say. Hell,” Cleatus said. “He only care we collect the bread.”
Louis agreed and they went outside to wait for a bus to the south side. They could have taken a taxi; they made enough money each week to afford hiring a limo, but they found that if they came by bus, it didn’t worry the residents of the poor areas from which most of Vinnie’s customers came as much as someone driving up in an expensive cab.
They got off the bus down the street from the address of Mr. Anderson; a five-story brownstone with broken windows, and a front door that hung precariously in its frame. The call button panel next to the door was a tarnished metal square with five rows of gaping holes where the call buttons should have been. The door wasn’t locked anyway, so they pushed it open and went in.
Anderson’s apartment was on the first floor, next to the rickety stairwell. The building didn’t have an elevator.
Cleatus knocked on the door.
“Yes,” A reedy voice said from behind the door. “Who is it?”
The door didn’t have a peephole; unusual for apartments in a city where answering the door to a stranger could get you mugged.
“We come from Vinnie Washington,” Cleatus said, putting on his ‘ghetto’ voice. “We here to collect the interest for this week.”
The door creaked open.
Lawrence Pittman Anderson was smaller than Louis; a rail thin man with a sallow complexion, and receding brown hair. He was wearing a pair of dingy looking gray overalls, with “Anderson-Custodian” on the name tag over his left breast. His faded blue eyes were wary as he glanced from Cleatus to Louis.
“Come on in if you want to,” He said. “But, I’m afraid I don’t have the money this week.”
“How come?” Louis asked. “It’s only a C-note.”
“I don’t make much money as the janitor here,” He said. “And, I’m a little short of cash at the moment.”
“Aw, come on, man,” Cleatus said. “You jiving us. You mean you ain’t got even a hundred dollar? Wasn’t yesterday payday?”
“Well, yes it was, but I had some other expenses, and I’m now down to my last five dollars.”
Vinnie wouldn’t like getting just a fin when the dude owed a hundred, Louis thought, but it
would be better than nothing. “Well, I guess we just gonna have to take your last five, bro,” He said. “It wouldn’t be ‘nough to pay your doctor bill anyway.”
Anderson stepped back, a nervous look on his face. His left eye twitched. “Please,” He said. “Don’t hurt me. I will pay as soon as I can, I promise. I just have a lot of other responsibilities.”
“What kinda responsibility you got more important than payin’ yo debts?” Cleatus said.
“Look,” Anderson said. “Why don’t you two boys come on in and sit down, and I’ll tell you.”
They squeezed past him into a tiny, but neat apartment. The furniture was old, but wasn’t covered with tears and beer stains like a lot of the places they visited. Well, Louis thought, he is the janitor, so if he gotta keep the whole building clean, having a clean pad was a good advertisement for his work.
He and Cleatus sat side by side on the sofa, while Anderson sat on the chair across the coffee table from them.
“Okay, man,” Cleatus said, scowling. “Tell us yo story, and it better be good.”
Anderson wrung his hands. “Well, it’s like this,” He began. “I’ve been janitor here ever since I got out of rehab. I had some problems with drugs, and instead of putting me in jail, the judge took pity and let me go to rehab. The owner of the building, Mr. Johnson, had a kid brother in rehab with me. I did the the kid a couple of favors, so when I got out, he gave me this job.”
“What that got to do wit’ yo not bein’ able to pay what you owe?” Cleatus asked.
“Nothing really, it’s just I wanted you to understand my situation. Anyway, I’m the only white person here; no offense,” He said, looking nervously at Cleatus. “The tenants are all immigrants from places like Zimbabwe and Angola and other places in Africa. Mr. Johnson says it’s his way of helping the people from his home land. He was born right here in Detroit, but if it makes him feel good, who am I to criticize, you know? Anyway, there are a lot of families here, and they all got five, six kids; some of them are too young to go to school. The parents got to work to pay rent and such, and they leave the kids here alone, because they can’t afford day care.”
Louis didn’t see where this was going, although he noticed a knowing glint in Cleatus’s eyes. “You still ain’t explained how that keep you from paying us,” He said.
“Well,” Anderson said. “I don’t have all that much to do during the day. Pipes always bust at night, you know. So, I sort of look in on the kids in the building. When I started doing it, I noticed some of them were left without food, and one or two of them got kind of sick. So, I started buying snacks and aspirin and the like. It pretty much ate up my paycheck, and last month, two of the kids had to be taken to the emergency room. That’s when I borrowed money from Vinnie. Their folks pay me back when they can, but most of them are working jobs that pay less than mine, so they bring me stuff from their jobs instead of cash.”
“You mean you been spending yo money on folks what ain’t even kin to you?” Cleatus asked.
“I couldn’t just leave those kids alone and hungry every day. Besides, Mr. Johnson gave me a
break when no one else would hire me to sweep the streets. I figure it’s the least I can do. I get by. Lots of these folk work in restaurants and they bring me some neat food sometimes, so I don’t go hungry, and, since I’m usually broke, there’s no chance I’ll fall off the wagon and buy drugs or booze.”
“Man, that’s kinda stupid,” Louis said. “I s’pose they appreciate it and all, but it don’t make no sense to me.”
“Well, it do to me,” Cleatus said. “Ain’t many folk ’round no more who do this kinda stuff. Mistah Anderson, you a good man. I tell you what, I gonna write off what you owe. But, don’t you go borrowing from no loan shark no more, you hear.”
Anderson’s mouth opened, and his eyes widened. “You’d do that for me?”
“Shit,” Cleatus said. “Least I can do. Now, you take care of yo self.”
He grabbed a protesting Louis’s arm and left the building. Outside on the sidewalk, Louis looked aghast at his friend.
“Cleatus, man; you crazy? You gonna pay that dude’s debt outta yo take?”
“Yeah, that what I gonna do,” Cleatus said. “Wouldn’t mind if you paid half outta what you make.”
“Why I wanta do that?”
“It make you feel good,” Cleatus said. “And, ’cause it the right thing to do. That dude take care of people not kin to him, and he don’t ask nothin’ for it. It the least we can do. Now, what you say?”
Louis Dumkowski was never good at contemplating philosophical issues, and as for caring about anyone, that was pretty much restricted to himself; well, and his mom and pop sometimes, and his best friend, Cleatus; a best friend who seemed to have gone off his rocker. When he did trouble himself to think; on rare occasions, and usually with some nudging from Cleatus, who usually found that his friend was right.
“Shoot, bro,” He said. “You don’t leave me no choice. If I don’t do it, you gonna be givin’ me them funny looks for weeks, and I won’t be able to sleep. Okay, I guess I can go half. Not like it gonna break us. But, you gotta promise that you never gonna tell nobody ’bout this; not Vinnie, not my momma, not nobody. You promise?”