Summer 2012

Table of Contents - Vol. VIII, No. 2


Poetry    Fiction    Translations    Reviews   

Todd Outcalt


The Bill Collector

What made Hanson so angry, and therefore assured that his work would remain in high demand with creditors, was the way he went after every deadbeat and unpaid bill as if the slackers had stolen the money from him. He took it personally. And it didn’t matter if the perpetrator was a man or a woman, or whether the bill was a late car payment or a delinquent mortgage or a forgotten five-dollar tab down at the local bar—Hanson swooped upon his prey like a talon-barred hawk and extracted the money. That was, after all, what bill collectors had to do—and it was how Hanson got paid. He kept fifty percent of every dollar he collected for banks, lending agencies, car dealerships and businesses. It was dirty work—and sometimes dangerous—but, then, somebody had to do it. And if he didn’t do it, then where would the justice be? What would happen to the balance in society? Everyone would own a BMW, or live in a two million dollar house, or skip out on the child support payments or the alimony and never have to answer to him.
That’s why Hanson was a bill collector. He loved the justice he provided. He was the scale, the balance that kept society honest—or his little corner of it, anyway.
Over the years he’d bulked up to two hundred twenty pounds so he could contend with deadbeat bouncers and drunk brawlers. He’d purchased a gun permit so he could repossess Jaguars from drug dealers and crackheads. He purchased brass knuckles in case some disgruntled trailer park pothead wanted to skip out on paying the rent on his double-wide. Hanson collected quickly. People paid up when they saw him coming. And few attempted to plead poverty when Hanson raised his voice. They just melted and wrote him a check or handed over the keys. No questions asked.
But that was before Hanson met Sarah Gordon.
The first time Hanson laid eyes on Sarah she was sitting cross-legged by the swimming pool in back of her three million dollar mansion. He was walking across the pristine lawn, loaded for bear, ready to collect the thirty-seven thousand dollars that Sarah Gordon owed to a designer showroom on the north side of town. Actually, Hanson had no idea how any woman could run up a thirty-seven thousand dollar tab for clothing—but the moment he saw her, he began to appreciate what clothing could do for a woman. Especially one as beautiful as Sarah Gordon. She was young, fit, tan, buxom and blonde: the very combination of attributes that made Hanson froth at the mouth.
Still, he had a job to do. And this woman had a bill to pay.
“Hi,” he said as he strode up the walkway by the pool, sunglasses in hand. “I’m Steve Hanson—and I’ve come to collect a bill for Natalie’s Closet. I believe you know what I’m talking about. You owe thirty-seven thousand dollars and haven’t paid a cent on your bill in two years.”
Sarah Gordon blushed—or was it just the sun glistening on her beautiful tanned cheeks?—and when she stretched out her hand to shake Hanson’s she allowed her terry cloth robe to open ever so slightly to reveal two of her most alluring charms. Hanson could scarcely keep his eyes off of the tiny string bikini (and their contents). “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I thought I’d paid that bill some time ago. I was sure—”
“—the bill is unpaid,” Hanson interjected, holding up the litany of items she’d purchased—a ticker-tape visual that usually unsettled a delinquent. “You’ve run up quite a tab. I’m here to collect it.”
“I see,” she said, shooting him a bleached smile. Yet, she made no move indicating that she was going to rectify the situation. “I guess you’re what they call a bill collector.”
Hanson returned his wryest grin.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Sarah Gordon said, offering him a pool chair. “We can talk about this. I’m sure we can reach an agreement.”
Against his better judgment, Hanson obliged.
Sarah Gordon’s terry cloth robe flopped open when she sat down in the pool chair next to his, revealing her tiny yellow bikini strings and leaving very little to rest on Hanson’s able imagination. “Now, you say your name is Steve Hanson? You’ve come to collect a bill from Natalie’s Closet?”
“That’s correct, ma’am,” he said.
“Call me Sarah,” she said alluringly.
Hanson didn’t bite.
“I don’t see what the problem is,” she added quickly as she slipped a pair of sunglasses over her button nose.
Hanson followed suit and tried to keep pace with his procedure. “The clothing store sent me to collect your bill,” he said. “You’ve been charging up a storm over there the past two years and haven’t paid a cent. The owner said she allowed you to set up an account under the agreement that you’d pay the tab in a timely manner.”
“I’m good for it,” she said, offering a wave of her hand. “Just take a look around. Does it look like I’m hurting for money?”
“No ma’am,” Hanson said, although his experience told him just the opposite. Through the years he’d seen every kind of poor imaginable, including the legitimate kind of poverty. But there was also the working poor, the rich poor—the people who lived a lie. And there were millions of them: people who lived well beyond their means, closing out one credit card even as they maxed-out two others; people who mortgaged themselves to the hilt on bad credit, who lived in gigantic shells of houses, with little or no furnishings inside; people who drove expensive cars to keep up appearances, but in reality, were living from paycheck to paycheck while working at Wendy’s. This Sarah Gordon looked like the latter kind of poor—only with more spit and polish than most.
Still, Hanson was intrigued. “If you’ve got the money, then why don’t you pay the bill?” he asked.
“I will,” she said. “What makes you think I won’t?”
“It’s been two years,” he pointed out.
“I’m a successful business woman,” she said. “I have a company to run. I’m too busy to be bothered by small details. But if you have a bill for me, I’ll drop by tomorrow and pay it.”
“I’m afraid there’s a bit more to it than that,” Hanson said. “The owner of the store said she’s contacted you on numerous occasions—by phone, fax, even registered letter—and has received no payment. That’s why I’m here.”
Sarah Gordon didn’t flinch. She shifted in the pool chair and crossed her tan, silken legs. Hanson stared at her through the black rims of his sunglasses, uncertain where he should allow his eyes to fasten. He could look up, or down, and he’d be aroused at every curve. He settled for her belly button.
“I think there must be some mistake,” Sarah said. “I’ve received no communication to this effect.”
She talked like a lawyer and Hanson wondered if he wasn’t up against some legal eagle who was going to make his life miserable with paperwork and verbal volley. He had to get to the bottom of the bill, and fast.
“I gather it just slipped your mind then,” he said. “No biggie. Just write me a check and I’ll be on my way.”
She sighed. “I’d like to do that,” she said, “but unfortunately my accountant isn’t here today.”
“You have an accountant who pays your personal bills?”
“I have many assistants,” she said confidently.
Hanson almost believed her. But he’d learned how to counter those kinds of lines years ago. “Look,” he said, “I’ve got a job to do. And I’d hate to have to go back to the store owner and tell her that you refused to pay. So why don’t you do us both a favor and just write a check? Otherwise . . . I’m afraid she might put out a warrant for your arrest.”
“She wouldn’t dare!” Sarah Gordon said. “Not after all the business I’ve given her. Not after all the clothes I’ve bought there!”
Hanson didn’t budge.
Sarah Gordon uncrossed her legs and leaned forward in the pool chair. She seemed to be sizing up Hanson, or hatching a new scheme with her breasts.
After some moments, she sighed and asked, “I don’t suppose you’d be interested in working up some kind of an agreement?”
“An agreement?”
“Something mutually beneficial,” she said.
Hanson swallowed hard. What did she have in mind?
She rose from the pool chair and strode away from him toward the house—and Hanson gathered that he was supposed to follow. Watching her walk away from him, especially after she allowed the terry cloth robe to slip from her shoulders onto the lawn, provided ample persuasion. He followed her perfumed glow into the mansion, entering through the back doors, wondering if the mutual agreement was going to be worth his fifty percent cut of the thirty-seven thousand.

* * *

The owner of Natalie’s Closet squinted at Hanson through reading glasses when he informed her of the deal the following morning, her dark expression perplexed by his inability to bring home the cash. “Now, tell me that again,” she said stoically. “I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
Hanson cleared his throat and tried to appear calm. “Sarah Gordon wants to work for you,” he said. “She’d like to offer her services in exchange for the clothing. Or, she’s offering to provide work for pay, if you prefer to look at it that way.”
“And what, exactly, are these services that Sarah Gordon is proposing to offer?”
“She’s a model,” Hanson said slowly.
“She’s an exotic dancer,” the owner said. “And maybe a whore on the side.”
“Is she?”
The owner couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Listen,” she said. “Let me tell you something about Sarah Gordon. She was married to Karl Gordon for fifteen years before she started sleeping around. Karl was a friend of mine. A great lawyer. She got the house in the settlement. How, I don’t know. And my hunch is that the only modeling that Sarah Gordon has ever done in her life features wrapping her legs around a stainless steel pole.”
Hanson allowed that picture to caress his mind and settle his nerves. He proffered the offer again, but the owner—a hard businesswoman all the way—declined.
“I hired you to settle this account,” she said sternly. “And at fifty percent commission, I expect to have something to show for two years of lost revenue. You know what she owes. Why don’t you do your job?”
Hanson hung his head and ambled out of the store.
God—she was right! He’d fallen for the oldest hustle in the business. He’d fallen off the wagon, allowed himself to be swayed by his little head instead of his big one. There was nothing to do now but reinvest himself in the effort. He had to get the edge back: his anger. Without it, he was just another weak-kneed putzer who was willing to trade money for sexual favors. Only it wasn’t his money! Not yet, anyway.
Driving across town, Hanson pulled into Sarah Gordon’s driveway and parked near the rose bushes. He took a deep breath and angled out of the car, then walked up to the front door and rang the bell.
She was there before he could ring twice. And she wasn’t wearing anything at all.

* * *

Days passed—maybe a week, maybe more. Time didn’t matter. Hanson lost track of his life. Certainly, he didn’t have the nerve to show his face in Natalie’s Closet until he had a check in hand. He knew he was blowing the biggest payday of his life, but the sex was so intoxicating, and this Sarah Gordon, whoever she was . . . wow! Hanson had never experienced so much between the sheets before—and certainly never so much in the shower, in the kitchen, and in the pool. She was insatiable.
As the days went by, he put away his brass knuckles and left his gun in the drawer beside Sarah Gordon’s bed. He showed up at her house every day under the delusion that she might actually write a check, although he had failed to mention the issue of money after the second day. Some afternoons he talked himself into believing that he was securing her good graces—doing his job by earning the trust of an unsuspecting delinquent. Sometimes he reasoned that she might come around to seeing things his way. Most of the time he just wanted more of her and what she had to offer.
Hanson slept over a couple of nights. He even fixed breakfast one morning, hoping that she might come to her senses and write the big check. But she didn’t. She just made phone calls. Read books. Watched movies. And when he wanted it, she drained him and then flopped down in the sun beside the pool to tan some more.
“Do you ever worry about skin cancer?” he asked her one afternoon as she lay on the diving board, her face angled toward the sun.
“I have a Mediterranean complexion,” she told him, “naturally dark.”
But he’d seen her breasts—like two mounded quarts of vanilla ice cream plopped on a bronze cone—and knew she didn’t have a naturally dusky complexion. “I guess you know what you’re doing,” he said.
She was silent.
Hanson removed his shirt and scooted his pool chair beneath the shade of an umbrella table. His stirred the ice in his bourbon. “So,” he asked before he could talk himself out of an inquiry, “what kind of business do you run?”
“What?” Sarah hummed from the diving board.
“You told me you ran a successful business. What kind of business?”
Sarah Gordon offered a faint grunt of disapproval before rolling onto her belly to fry the backside. She opened one eye and stared at him. “Why so many questions?”
Hanson tried to stay strong in the moment. He wanted to redeem his job. “No reason,” he said. “I was just wondering if you’d had a chance to think about that bill.”
Her one-eyed gaze cut through him. “I thought we worked that out,” she said accusingly.
“The store owner won’t bite,” he said. “Maybe she’s funny that way, but I guess she prefers actual cash to modeling photographs.”
“I could double her business if she’d hire me,” Sarah said.
“Nonetheless . . . .”
“You didn’t try to persuade her?”
“Money talks.”
“Is that what you see in me?”
“Not at all.”
“Then kiss me!”
Hanson obliged. Several times. Then he hated himself in the morning.

* * *

The following day Hanson returned to Natalie’s Closet to plead with the owner. It wasn’t the wisest move Hanson had ever made, but it was the only thing he could bring himself to do. After all, he had to save face.
When he offered his litany of excuses for not collecting, the store owner looked at him as if he’d sold his soul to the devil.
“I’m still working on it,” Hanson added, trying to sound confident.
“I’ll bet you are,” the owner responded.
Hanson exited the store quickly, strode past the sidewalk shoppers, and slid into Sarah Gordon’s flame red Ferrari. She was waiting behind the wheel, shot him a smile, then moved out into traffic.
“What did she say?” Sarah asked when they stopped at a light at the next corner.
“Said she would give you a little more time to come up with the money,” Hanson told her. “But she’s getting impatient.”
“Let her wait.”
“She won’t wait forever,” Hanson told her truthfully. “Something will give soon with a bill that large.”
“But I’ve got you looking out for my interests. Right?”
Hanson didn’t answer. One thing for sure, he was confused. He’d never been rent asunder. Before Sarah Gordon he had been motivated by money. Now everything was sex. And he wasn’t getting any younger.
They drove on through heavy city traffic into the suburbs, the cars becoming more expensive, the houses larger with each passing block. “I feel like lobster tonight,” Sarah Gordon said as they pulled into the gated neighborhood. “You?”
“Sounds good,” Hanson responded.
“You want dessert?”
He clicked his tongue. “Always.”
She brought the Ferrari around the curve and up into the driveway leading toward the mansion. The shrubs had been trimmed, the yard mowed, the flowers weeded. As they came around the edge of the house into the elm shade, they noted the stranger standing next to the rose bed.
“Did you give the gardener a key?” she asked sharply.
She eased the car into the garage, turned off the ignition, and slid out. Hanson came around and joined her as they waltzed toward the back entrance to the pool deck. He was still there: the big guy with the cheesy grin and the sinister goatee leaning against the lamppost.
“May I help you?” Sarah asked bluntly.
“Are you Sarah Gordon?” the guy quipped.
“This your husband?”
“No!” She paused. She waited for Hanson to step in. But he didn’t. Finally she asked, “Who are you?”
“Name’s Graebeck, ma’am—Mark Graebeck. I’ve come to collect that little red Ferrari there. You’re late seven payments and the bank sent me to collect the collateral.”
“The Ferrari?”
“That’s right, ma’am.”
“There must be some mistake.”
“No mistake, ma’am. I’m the one who’s been calling for the past week trying to get you to pay up. We’ve talked several times on the phone. You usually hang up on me. Remember?”
Sarah Gordon played it cool. Hanson was experiencing déjà vu.
“May I have the keys?” Graebeck was holding out his hand—but his gesture was not a plea, it was a demand. He ground his teeth and held his ground. Sarah tried to flash a smile and a little skin, but with Hanson present, her wiles had forsaken her.
“I’ll write you a check,” Sarah said condescendingly. “The payment just slipped my mind. I’ve got so many matters to attend to as you can see—with my business and all.”
Graebeck wasn’t persuaded. “Sorry, ma’am,” he said. “Not now. Too late. I’ll need those keys instead of that bad check you’re going to write.”
She feigned displeasure and offered Hanson an opening. He leaped into the fray.
“Listen,” Hanson interjected, drawing closer to the Graebeck. “You can see she’s good for the money.”
Graebeck knew better. “All I see is a big house and a pile of debt,” he said. “Now . . . I’ll have those keys.”
Hanson tried to intervene with his body, but Graebeck was a head taller and forty pounds heavier. He stared at Graebeck for a moment, trying for tough, and then pivoted toward Sarah Gordon with an air of resignation.
“Maybe you should just give him the keys,” Hanson reasoned—offering his level best to talk some sense into Sarah Gordon before the situation got out of hand.
“Screw you,” she said—palming the keys and dropping them into her little blue-beaded purse.
Graebeck stepped off the distance quickly—spry for his size—and had his hands on the purse before she could retreat into the house. Late as usual—Hanson struggled to pry the big goon’s hands from Sarah Gordon’s wrists, but his grip was tighter than a vice. Graebeck had already clamped down on the car keys and wasn’t about to let them go without a fight. Hanson offered up a valiant effort, got elbowed hard in the ribs, then backed down as soon as he realized he wasn’t going to overcome Graebeck by sheer force of strength.
Hanson edged away, let the goon keep his prize.
Showing off the keys as they dangled from his cigar-shaped fingers, Graebeck waltzed toward the garage as Sarah Gordon swatted him on the neck. The big goon didn’t flinch at the assault. “You can take this up with the bank, ma’am,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.”
Hanson jumped onto the sidewalk as Graebeck slid into the car, ground the ignition to a roar, and then tossed the Ferrari into reverse. Moments later, the fancy red car had disappeared over the horizon of the long, narrow drive.
“Some help you are,” Sarah Gordon said curtly as she kicked a pocket of pebbles toward Hanson. “Why didn’t you do something?”
“I know when I’m beat,” was all Hanson could say.
She was in the house, slamming the door behind her, before Hanson could make amends. He stood in the shade of the elm for some time, staring out at the idling waters of the crystalline pool, sulking. He studied how the repossession had gone down, wondered what he could have done to settle the score. Momentarily the side door to the garage opened and Sarah Gordon tossed out a pile of Hanson’s clothes—a couple of polo shirts, bluejeans, a mound of socks. His revolver and brass knuckles came scooting across the concrete drive as Sarah Gordon cursed his name and slammed the door shut with a reverberating thud.
Padding down the driveway with head hung low, Hanson scooped up his life and made his way across the lawn toward the front gate. He pocketed the gun and the knuckles so as not to draw undo attention in the neighborhood, then strolled out onto the sidewalk as if he were walking the dog. There was a slight summer breeze and Hanson had to smile at his good fortune when he noted the red Ferrari stalled at the stop sign two blocks down.
Either Graebeck had flooded the lines when he peeled out of the garage, or something had gone awry in the electronics. He could hear the ticking as Graebeck fiddled with the ignition.
Tossing his clothes under a profusion of bright yellow day lilies, Hanson jogged to the corner and sidled up to the passenger window. After tapping on the tinted glass, he popped open the door before Graebeck could notice his arrival and slid into the soft, leather seat.
Graebeck stopped his fiddling and stiffened behind the wheel.
Hanson spoke quickly, slightly out of breath. “You punched me in the ribs back there.”
“Sorry about that, man,” Graebeck answered. “Hope I didn’t hurt you.”
“It was a sucker punch.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“It was over the top.”
Graebeck held up his hands, not looking for a fight. “Hey, I’m new at this, okay? So sue me!”
“It’s not what we talked about,” Hanson said. “We could have lost the car.”
“We’ve got it now, don’t we?” Graebeck patted the wheel. “What made you think she’d give it up without a fight?”
“She’s not unreasonable!”
Graebeck studied his mentor. “What, you in love with her? You lost your edge?”
Hanson sighed. He hadn’t felt this hopeless in a long time. “You don’t understand,” he told Graebeck. “A woman like Sarah Gordon . . . .”
“Get out,” Graebeck snorted. “I’ll sell the bastard and get a check to you by the end of the week. What’s she owe? Thirty-five grand?”
“I’ll get it,” Graebeck said. “This one’s loaded.”
Hanson understood the double-entendre. Easing out of the car, he closed the passenger door behind him and listened as the ignition fired and Graebeck brought the engine to a full roar. Foreign jobs—so temperamental.
Standing at attention until Graebeck roared out of sight, Hanson eventually did an about face. He marched on toward the mansion, somewhat beleaguered, somewhat energized. He had, after all, erased Sarah Gordon’s debt with a simple acquisition. And maybe—just maybe—he’d saved enough face in her eyes to get her back.
She still needed him. He knew that much.
A woman that deep in debt . . . it wouldn’t be long before someone would call for his services. And maybe—just maybe—she would be the one to make the first move.


© Todd Outcalt


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