(an excerpt from INSIDE THE KALEIDOSCOPE)
He was scared, but his benefactor had said, scared is good. If you look too self-confident, that’s when you fuck up, so a little nervous, that’s good.
He caught himself in the mirror before heading out. He had his good dancing clothes on, his shoes were so shiny he could’ve used them as reflectors. His hair was perfect.
What could happen? He could get arrested, but every bar was going to be crowded, all those people, the noise, the music making the glasses jitter on the shelves. Every woman dressed to kill, the smells of perfume, pot, sweat. No bartender would give him a second glance.
He wasn’t supposed to start until late, when the crowds were out. Everyone would be ready to unwind, bust out, get the weekend started just right.
He’d needed money to open his pet store, something he’d always wanted to do. He’d worked in such stores his whole life, finally deciding to open his own. He knew more than the idiot owners of the last one he worked in. They didn’t have a fucking clue. He stole stuff from them, and they never suspected, which showed how they didn’t even know their own fucking inventory. He took a tank here, a case of food there, and when he got home he stashed the loot in his garage, telling his parents he was slowly building inventory as he could afford it, so when he finally got a place his shelves would be stocked on day one.
His parents bought the whole thing. But he needed serious cash to get a place, sign a lease, set the utilities up. He thought it would take years, but one day his father came home with someone he didn’t know, and his old man said, here’s a guy I want you to meet. He can help you.
He knew the types. They were the real bosses who made everything work, from sanitation to taxis. He knew if he took a loan from his father’s friend, it could take him forever to repay it. Or maybe he’d never pay it back. That’s how it went.
The guy took him aside and said, your dad is a good man. He’s done lots of work for us over the years, so when his son needs a boost, here I am. He pulled out a wad of cash, peeled off a handful of hundreds, held up the money and made serious eye contact with him. You see this? We can consider this a loan, but I consider it an investment, in you. You get your store started, I’ll come in and buy my kid a fishtank. Then we’ll talk.
It took time to find the right location. He had a lot of inventory courtesy of his last employers, and he spent days getting the place set. The fish came in and he stocked his tanks. He had a great opening day. Folks from all over the neighborhood stopped by. Some bought. He had balloons and hot dogs, the sidewalk was crowded with folks he’d known all his life.
But after a few weeks the crowds thinned and he needed more cash, quick, to keep his business afloat. His benefactor returned one afternoon, as he was closing up.
How’s it going? the guy said. Good, he said. You making money? Not as much as I hoped, he said.
Okay, how about I help you make some more?
Sure, he said. What I gotta do?
The guy reached into his mohair coat that must have cost two grand, and pulled out a thick envelope. He opened it, took out its contents, laid it on the counter. All twenties, brand new, crisp.
Here’s how it goes, the guy said. You take a bunch of these, you pay me three bucks apiece. You go into the city, go into a bar, buy a Bud, always Bud. You say, lemme have a Bud. Give the guy a twenty, get the change, drink your beer. Always drink the beer. Put a buck in the tip jar. You leave. Go to the next bar a few blocks away, do the same thing. You pay me the three bucks, you buy a beer for three bucks, you put a buck in the jar. That’s thirteen in your pocket. All night long. When you get uptown, you hail a cab, take the ferry home, hit the sack, you got a pocketful of real green.
That’s it? he said.
The guy gave him a look.
Listen, he said. Bartenders are trained to see guys like you. They think you’re handing them a fake, you’re busted, that’s serious. You gotta do it just right. One mistake, I ain’t gonna be there to help you, and neither is your old man.
He picked up one of the bills. It looked real. He snapped it a couple of times, suddenly ripping it clear in half.
Shit, he said. Sorry. I’ll pay you for this one too.
Not a problem, the guy said. This is good. You got tape? And bring me that ashtray over there.
The guy crinkled up the two halves, opened them up, rubbed them in the ashtray, shook them out, laid them on the table, taped the two halves, and held it up. It looked like an old bill that had been in circulation for years.
Don’t do this too much. In fact, don’t do it again. But if it should happen, that’s how you fix it.
He bought all the fakes the guy had. He kept thinking, as the ferry docked, calm, stay calm, stay cool. I can do this.
It was a nice night in the city. He walked a few blocks, passing one bar, then another, until he realized he was stalling. He had to just do it.
Finally he stood before a packed bar. There was a bouncer at the door, and walking in the guy gave him a glance, he nodded, then he was in. The music was deafening. The joint was hopping. He made his way to the bar. Stood there, looking around. He had a real twenty in his shirt pocket just in case he got cold feet.
The bartender held up his hand, like, one sec. He nodded, sure, no problem.
He liked the perfume of the lady sitting next to him. She looked him over, went back to her drink.
What can I get you? the bartender said.
Bud, he said.
The guy put the beer in front of him. He reached for his wallet, pulled out the twenty with the ashes and the tape, slid it over. The guy gave it half a glance, spun around to the register, got his change, slid it back to him. He dropped a buck in the tip jar, held up his beer, like, cheers. The guy nodded, went to serve someone else.
His hands shook, he thought, as he brought the beer to his lips. The woman next to him gave him a smile as she raised her drink. He smiled back. The beer went down like water.
Later, he said to her. She smiled. He would’ve loved to stay, but he had a feeling he’d be smiling at pretty women all night.
He put the empty glass on the bar, headed back to the street.
It was easier than he thought. He still felt nervous, but that was a good thing, right? He started walking, ready for the next busy bar.
Cake, he thought, as he headed into his second bar a few blocks away. This place was even more crowded than the other one.
This is fucking cake, he thought, walking in.