One of my first jobs after college was servicing a weekly premium route for an old-line insurance company. Most of the customers were cotton mill workers who got paid on Friday and doled it out according to how far they had got behind, or to whoever, at the moment, seemed the most important. The egg man, the milkman, and the ice man topped the list, with life insurance falling a distant third, kind of important, especially when a relative keeled over to remind them of the windfall a death could bring, but a jump-ball generally with the finance man, who knew everybody's schedule a lot better than the rest of us, and would usually be waiting on the porch, first in line, when his delinquent stepped off the jitney bus from Plant 6.
The finance man was so dreaded that I have seen men twice his size leap over hedges and climb cyclone fences to get away from him, and others would fall into coughing fits and weave complex fictions about Brown Lung or the Walking Pneumonia, neither of which ever drew a tear from the finance man, who was rumored to be a bigamist with wives in three states, but was allowed to get away with it because he was a card-carrying Mormon whose legal residence was Salt Lake City, Utah, according to the pleece sergeant who claimed to know someone who was a second cousin of someone who knew one of the wives personally.
But whatever his status with the law, we all found ourselves in the finance man's debt sooner or later, collector and collectee alike, for if a policy holder failed to pay his premium, either the policy would lapse, or the collector was obliged to pay the premium himself: no premium, no commission, which was a situation that fit the finance man like a glove and enabled him to spend two weeks every summer living like royalty at a place
called Dick's Cove, where people like movie stars used to go. He was able to do this by collecting legitimate payments from the mill workers and loaning them out on the sly to other collectors less fortunate, or less enterprising, than he, who would be assessed a sliding rate of interest based on how long it took to pay him back.
Like our own clients, most of us couldn't come up with the payments and would gradually fall farther and farther behind, which is exactly what happened to me, to the tune of ninety-six dollars and eighty-two cents compounded daily or bi-daily or some other weird formula that made money on top of money, to the point where, in the space
of only six weeks, I owed the finance man the usurious sum of seven hundred and seventy-seven dollars.
"You must be kidding," I said, "I don't collect that much on my entire route."
"We are not discussing your entire route," the finance man replied, "and I do not care if you have to open a bankrobbing fanchise, you will bring me my money by the close of business Friday, or I will take you to the cleaners, because you may not know this, Jamie boy, but when you signed your agreement with me, you also put your
John Henry on a lien against your car, your family Bible, and your best coon dog, all of which will belong to me unless you make good on your debt, you malingerer, you snotnose no-good know-nothing college boy you, I don't like you, I never liked you, and it's time you understood that, because your daddy was mill trash and you are mill trash and no matter about your fancy college degree, you will always be just another linthead to me."
"What about you?" I said. "Your daddy worked in the mill,
what's that make you?"
"Hah!" he said, "I am different, I have always been different. I can do figures, so there!"
Well, you can't argue with figures. I told him I would see what I could come up with. What I came up with was a plan. My best friend at the time was E. C. Morris, who had gone to work at Farley's Funeral Home after high school, and was now a certified embalmer, as well as the main parking person at funerals of over one hundred guests. I invited E. C. to a 3.2 beer at the Triangle Bar in K-town, and while we were gagging on the first one, I explained the situation.
"If I could just get him fired," I said, "Or maybe put under the jail."
And like the real friend he was, E. C. said "how much is it worth to you?"
I called for a fresh napkin, got out my souvenir ballpoint from the home office, and made some calculations.
"I can go sixteen dollars," I said, "if you let me make it in two installments."
"Done," E. C. said. And this is how he laid it out: "We'll ship him to Mexico," he said, "in one of the cheap coffins we use for indigents and queers."
"You'd embalm a human body for sixteen dollars?" I said.
"No, retard," he said, "he don't die, he just gets incapacitated with 3.2 beer and brownbag whisky, to where we can drag him off to the back room at Farley's and lay him to rest on the velveteeen. Then we just slap a shipping label on him, and off he goes. Time he wakes up, he's in Tijuana – no money, no passport, and just for good measure, we slip a dime bag of rabbit tobacco in his jeans. If he's lucky, he'll prolly get out in seventy five years or so."
"What if he dies on the plane?" I said.
E. C. drained his beer and belched politely, putting his hand over his mouth. "No extra charge," he said.
Three days later, I got the call.
Person to person collect, from Mr. E. C. Morris, Tijuana, Mexico, said the operator, who was understandably bit excited, this being the first time she'd ever done bidness with the great city of Tijuana.
"James?" said E.C., just take the damn call, please? I aint got all day here."
"What happened," I said when the operator got off the line.
"James," said E. C., "you aint gonna bleeve what that cocksucker done. I got him to the bar and introduced him to Shirley Ann, who was wearing a cashmere sweater and pouring double shots every time he ordered. Went like a charm, had him in there and outa there in forty minutes, tops, and I got Shirley to hep me drag him to the car. Shirley wanted to go with us and fuck in one of the coffins, so I said okay, and anyway I could use the hep, that guy is heavier than he looks, especially when you have to drag him around like a sack of Martha White's, you know? Time we pulled in at Farley's, he was already snoring like a beagle. But James? James, he hoodwinked us, James, it was all a scam from beginning to end. Just as we were getting ready to heave him over into the coffin, all of a sudden he was wide awake, and holding a thirty-eight special, steady as a rock. "Get in," he said. And he closed me up in the damn thing myself, and that aint all: while he was waiting on the truck to take me to the airport, I was compelled to listen to him and Shirley fucking in the adjacent coffin next to me. I tell you, James, it was one of the darkest moments of my life."
"How long you have to serve?" I said.
"Well, James, that's the reason I called, James," he said. "This man here can almost speak English, and if you will send me four Ben Franklins and a bus ticket, we have his solemn promise, I'll be home in no time."
"Dammit, E. C.," I said, "where the hell am I going to get four hundred dollars, not to mention a bus ticket, how much is a bus ticket?"
"I checked with Trailways," E. C. said. "They got a special going on,,ninety-nine ninety-nine, to any Trailways stop in the western world."
"Five hundred dollars?" I said. "Jesus, E. C., where would I get my hands on that kind of money? I can't even pay for this phone call."
"Yes, you can," E. C. said.
"All you got to do is cosign with me on the loan papers."
"Loan papers? I said. "Who in that godforsaken place is going to loan you money?"
"Not here, retread," E. C. said. "Up there, back home, talking 'bout your old buddy, the finance man."
"What're you, crazy?" I said. "How do you think you ended up in that coffin in the first place, you dumb asshole. That fucker wouldn't loan me a pack of Chesterfields."
"It's called a rollover," E.C. said. "He 'splained it all to me on the way to the airport, what we do, we take your present loan and refinance it to alleviate my current situation and leave enough left over to prolly get us a Sunday dinner at Martin’s Drive-In."
"Mule shit," I said. "I will not do this, E. C., I will not pay that shitface motherfucker for the rest of my life on a debt that started out being only ninety-six dollars and sixteen cents."
"Won't be your debt anymore," said E. C. "Soon as you put your John Henry on the dotted line, I will be relieving you of that obligation. Be my loan, then, see, and all you're doing is backing me up."
"He'll do that?" I said. "He'll transfer it all to you? But why?"
"Because I have a steady job and do not depend on commissions for my livelihood," said E. C. "And besides, it was me that introduced him to Shirley Ann. They planning to get married in June. We caught the man at a good time. He's in love."
So that's how it happened. I signed the papers, E.C. booked home on the next Trailways, and Shirley Ann went shopping for a wedding dress. You had to give the devil his due, the finance man knew all the angles. Except for just this once: He forgot to hide his pleece special from Shirley Ann, who used to date the pleece sergeant,and was an expert marksman at the firing range. After she was married and had bought the condominium of her dreams, Shirley Ann heard about the other wives from some more wives at the beauty parlor, which was the straw, she said,that you couldn't run through a camel's eye. She went straight home and got the gun and tracked the finance man to the front gate of the old Locke Mill on Church Street, where my daddy and everybody else's daddy had used to work, and where the finance man performed many of his devious transactions, and right then and there, without a word of farewell, little Shirley Ann nee