Story from Bill Tope

The Wages of Sen-Sen


“I’ll take care of it,” said Tom, reeking of cigarette smoke and Sen-Sen, a licorice-flavored candy he used to block the smell. He scooped the black cash deposit bag -- the till --from the table. Although she had Tom’s word, Lisa wasn’t convinced that the redhead had ever been a noble creature. Certainly, she thought, Tom wasn’t above stealing from the marginalized, the poor, the disaffected. She had worked the streets with him over the past three months, collecting for Children In Need  -- CIN -- and more than once the two of them, both becoming increasingly prone to indulge in drugs and alcohol, had absconded with the funds they’d collected from high-minded and generous contributors to the cause.

In one instance, after a hard night soliciting for CIN, they had wound up at a tavern on the west side and drunk their way through the $200 they’d managed to collect in four hours -- on top of the hourly wages they’d subsequently collected for their efforts. The organization was lax, however, and Lisa suspected that management half-expected their employees to exploit the weaknesses in the structural integrity of the charity in order to supplement their meager wages. Another time, Tom and she had spent $75 for some smack -- injected on the streets by a man who called himself a “doctor,” and who used the same needle on both of them. Lisa was experimenting, but the experience had frightened her half to death.

Now, miraculously, she had happened upon the cash sack that another of their fellow employees had somehow lost track of. Unsure how to restore the property to its proper owner, Lisa had asked Tom, “What’ll we do now?” Tom, naturally, had all the answers. And out the door he went, money bag in hand. Would she ever see Tom -- or the money -- again? she wondered. Tom was sort of a loose cannon, she knew. He was moody, arrogant and unpredictable; Lisa never knew quite what to expect from Tom.

Lisa didn’t know the employee who’d lost her till -- Anna -- but Tom said that he did. Anna, Tom said, worked in the Edgewood neighborhood, about three miles distant; her partner had gotten a different job and so Anna was temporarily working alone. Tom was Lisa’s ride back to the suburbs where she lived, so she just stood on the corner, waiting, for what seemed like hours.

“Hey, you ready to go?” asked Tom, materializing like a spirit out of the shadows, a lighted cigarette burning in the darkness.

“You get her?” asked Lisa.

Unconsciously, Tom smirked. “Yeah, I got her,” and his smirk blossomed into a wide grin.

Lisa tried to ignore the cynical sexual allusion. “Was she happy to get her money back?” she asked.

Then Tom laughed, a deep, reproachable chuckle. “I was happy enough for both of us,” he said.

“You gave her the money, didn’t you, Tom?” said Lisa, worried that she had been played for a fool.

“She had more than $300 in her till,” remarked Tom, as if in admonishment. “We bartered,” he explained. Lisa only stared at him. “I gave her two hundred and fifty bucks and she gave me a blowjob and I came away $50 the better; sweet, ‘eh?”

“You extorted her?” asked Lisa incredulously. “But, she’s one of us, she’s not an enemy. She works the streets...”

“And tomorrow,” said Tom, deadly serious now, “she'll work the streets again. Do you know what would have happened if she didn’t recover the till?” he asked. “She would have lost her job,” he said harshly. “So,” he concluded, “for a modest fee, I saved her job.” He chuckled at his own cunning. “Hey,” said Tom suddenly, “you wanna do some more smack?”

Lisa had only done heroin the one time, with Tom, and it had made her violently ill. “No,” she answered, then asked, in spite of her growing mistrust of Tom, “what else you got?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “Either smack or squat. C’mon, do a spoon.” Lisa shook her head no. She had been foolish with Tom once before, but she was afraid of becoming addicted. “I’m good,” she said.

“Then come on, I’ll take you home.” On the ride home, Lisa began to get the itch of drug deprivation, of the melancholy and feelings of dismay that came from being always alone. She was almost always lit up nowadays, from whateverTom provided, but mostly, from pot. And Tom, unaccountably, eschewed weed. Yet, he smoked cigarettes like a chimney. Then he chewed that detestable Sen-Sen to try to cover the smell. Lisa shook her head, uncertain what to make of her mentor.

In spite of their proclivity for peculation, Tom and Lisa were the most profitable pair on the CIN circuit. They regularly outcollected all other duos. This was due in part to Tom’s patented hang-dog expressions and raspy, pitiable utterings, and his street smarts, but it was due as well to the fact that Lisa was a very pretty woman, and very good with the contributors. Sometimes, Tom behaved more like a pimp than a charitable fundraiser. He made $6 per hour; Lisa $5.25, plus all that they scammed off the collections.

. . . . .

Tom knocked upon the blistered wood of the apartment door and waited. In a few seconds came a cry from inside: “Whozzat?”

Tom exchanged a glance with Lisa, then replied, “Children in Need Charity. We’re asking for donations.” They waited.

Next, several locks were loudly disengaged and the door swept open, revealing a twenty-something African American woman with two small children hanging onto her legs, as she endeavored to balance a third child in her arms. “Come in,” she invited them. "Watch your step," she cautioned. The uncarpeted floor was littered with toys.

Into the chilly, smokey, onion-scented room filed the two fundraisers, batting away the aromatic smoke of a wood fire and coughing into handkerchiefs. “Please have a seat,” she instructed them. They plopped onto a bedraggled sofa. “You with Children in Need?” she asked. “I seen them on TV,” she added, waving vaguely in the direction of an ancient B&W television set against the wall. “They hep’ little children in Africa, ain’t that right?” Tom agreed that they did. Lisa only nodded. “How much you want?” she asked, all business now.

Tom’s eyes took on an avaricious glimmer, but Lisa spoke up: “Whatever you think you can afford, ma’am.” The young mother nodded and, reaching to a coffee table, took a ten dollar bill from a care-worn purse and proferred it.

Lisa, looking around the apartment, felt instant remorse. “Ma’am,” she said, “if you can’t really afford it, that’s alright. We don’t want to take food off your table or...”

“What's the matter, my money ain’t good enough for you?” asked the woman, getting her back up a little. “It green like any other, it spend the same,” she pointed out. “Poor folk wanta help, do their part, just the same as all youse. So take the money, Miss,” she insisted.

Lisa nodded. “Thanks very much for your contribution. ma’am,” said Lisa, climbing to her feet. In an instant, Tom and his cohort were back in the hallway.

“Good deal,” said Tom enthusiastically, taking the bill from Lisa. “I can use a couple packs of cigarettes.” He folded the sawbuck and put it not into the till, but into his own shirt pocket. At Lisa’s reproachful look, he hastened to explain, “Well, we made our quota at the last apartment. The rest,” he said with a grin, “is just gravy.” And he lit another cigarette and slipped a Sen-Sen between his lips.

Later, as the duo traversed the streets of the city, searching for a housing project which Tim indicated was “always good pickings,” Lisa, behind the wheel this time, stopped the car at a corner, where a  large man stood like a sentinel, watching them carefully as they approached. Lisa rolled down the window.

“Excuse me, sir, but do you know where Chambers Rock is?” referencing the low-rent projects on the city’s east side. Slowly, the mountain of a man approached the vehicle.

“You po-lice?” he asked warily. Lisa blinked in bewilderment. “You po-lice?” he repeated with barely concealed hostility.

Lisa shook her head. “No, I’m not police.” He appeared mollified by this. “I’m just looking for the Chambers Rock Projects; do you know where it is, sir?” She spied in the man’s large hands a plethora of tiny plastic bags of some white substance -- crack? she wondered.

Apparently satisfied by her explanation, the man muttered out directions. With a smile and a thanks, Lisa sped away.

“Huh!” muttered Tom, sitting in the passenger seat during this exchange. “That spook had a lot of dope. Maybe we should go back and take it?”

Lisa rolled her eyes. “He’d have your white ass on a meat hook in about a minute, Tom.” Tom, a large man, looked skeptical. “He was packing, partner,” she told him.

, , , , ,

Finally reaching Chambers Rock, Lisa and Tom climbed out of their vehicle and sought out their destination. Choosing the first apartment at random, Tom again pounded on a weathered door and was granted entrance, this time by an ancient, white-haired woman, who pointedly told the duo to take a seat on her sofa. There was, Lisa discerned, a chirring, humming sound emanating from the walls. What was it? she wondered. Taking a chair facing the sofa, the old woman scowled and then pounded upon the wall with her fist. The chirring ceased. “Damn roaches,” she seethed, then smiled at her guests.

As Tom went through his spiel, Lisa glanced around the room, and noted the fireplace, in which a robust flame blazed. Across the carpeted floor were various components of cheap furniture which had been hacked to pieces with a hatchet, which lay upon the floor. The woman, seeing Lisa’s appraisal, explained, “Power company turned off the gas in November.” Silently, Lisa nodded her understanding.

Finally getting five dollars and change from Mrs. Seibold--aged 90, she told them proudly--the two  exited the depressing edifice.

When Tom told her how he’d manipulated the feckless Anna into a compromsing position, Lisa had wondered why he had never propositioned her. Was she unattractive? she asked herself. No, she had been told by many that she was cute and had in fact received her fair share of sexual overtures in her 21 years. What was it, then? She put the question to Tom.

His eyes bugged out, but then he regained his aplomb. “We work together,” he explained tersely.

“So?” she asked.

“Like my daddy always said,” continued Tom. “Don’t mix peter with payroll.” It was at that point that Lisa realized how integral she was to Tom’s continued success. Tom was, after all, just some faceless stiff with a tin cup. He wasn’t particularly attractive or articulate or personable. That’s why he was paired with Lisa, she now realized, because she was everything that Tom was not. Slowly, the gears of reason began to grind in her brain and she began to feel -- a little -- better about herself.

At quitting time -- nine p.m., Lisa and Tom pulled into the parking lot back of what had become their favorite tavern, The Lotsa Luck. Stepping inside, they relished the warmth, after the chilly December air. While Lisa ordered a pitcher of beer, Tom drifted to the rear of the bar and began a mindless game of Pac-Man. Standing at the bar, waiting for her beer, Lisa was approached by a gaunt blonde woman with tattoos spread over her bare arms. She stood staring at Lisa. The other woman acknowledged her with a smile.

“I can get you a better deal,” whispered the newcomer conspiratorially.

Lisa blinked in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”

“I seen you with that fat man,” continued the woman, gesturing with her head toward the back of the bar. “He your pimp.”

“He’s my partner,” Lisa corrected the blonde. “You’ve got him confused with someone else,” she told her. “Tom and I solicit contributions for a charity.” The pitcher of beer arrived.

“That right, Tom!” declared the woman in hushed tones. “He a pimp onna streets. He my pimp a year ago, till I got a new deal. I can make you $75 a trick, none of this shitty twenty-five for you, seventy-five for him.”

Lisa grasped the pitcher by the handle. “I don’t what what you’re talking about. Tom isn’t my pimp. He’s my partner.”

The other woman looked archly at Lisa and nodded knowingly. “You’ll see, baby,” she murmured, then turned away.

. . . . .

At the end of the week, Tom picked Lisa up at her apartment and as they rode into the city he remarked, “We have to go into the office before we go on the streets tonight.” He lit another cigarette. Winstons, Lisa decided --sickenly sweet.

“What for?” she asked. “Are we in trouble?” This would be her first visit to Trenor Street since she was hired, three months ago. She felt uneasy.

“Quarterly work evaluation,” explained Tom. “They tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong, ask you if you’re happy on the job, all that shit.” He didn't seem nonplussed, so Lisa relaxed.

“So we’re not in trouble, then?”

“Hell, we rake in more dough than any two other teams put together,” Tom crowed. “They might give us a raise,” he said optimistically.

A few minutes later, their car turned into the stark, unadorned parking lot on Trenor Street, which faced a stark, unadorned two-story, red-brick office building. Pushing through the metal and glass doors, Lisa was struck by the cluttered, claustrophobic interior. She followed Tom as they approached the front desk.

“Hi, Eleanor,” said Tom with a gloating smile. Eleanor, a 30-something, dark-haired woman standing behind a counter, regarded Tom cooly.

“Go on back, Mrs. Albright is waiting for you.” Shrugging at the rebuff, Tom led the way past a rabbit warren of small offices, down a narrow corridor. Arriving at the regional CIN director’s office, Tom knocked on the open door.

Mrs. Albright, 50, military haircut and no-nonsense, said in a clipped voice, “Follow me to the conference room.” She preceded them down the corridor to a larger room, with a dozen captain’s chairs arrayed around a huge table. Stepping into the room, they found the space already occupied. Round the table were two men, in suits, and a woman, young and pretty.

“Lemme do the talking,” Tom whispered clandestinely.

They all sat round the table. “This,” began Mrs. Albright, snapping on and speaking into a tape recorder, “is an investigative session in the case of allegations by Anna Triphonas against Thomas Rice." She recited the time and date. Lisa glanced at Tom; his red brow was deeply furrowed. Clearly, he had not expected this. "Although Miss Triphonas is represented by counsel and CIN is represented by our attorney, they are here only as observers,” said Albright, nodding at the two men in turn. “Mr. Rice,” she went on, since this is an investigatory and not a disciplinary hearing, you are not entitled to counsel at this time. Tom began to sweat. Lisa held her breath.

"Miss Triphonas, would you make your statement?" Anna’s eyes gleamed and she smiled tightly. She went on to recount various incidents in which Tom Rice solicited sexual favors from her and other employees of CIN, none of whom had agreed to come forward. She recalled extortion, drug use and even violence. Tom, she said, had promoted the addiction of women, some as young as 18, and had managed a “stable” of prostitutes, some of them even younger than that. At length the young woman concluded her tale of depravity. The room was utterly silent.

“Mr. Rice,” said Albright, “do you have anything to say by way of reply to these allegations?” She stared at him blankly.

Glibly, Tom took the floor, citing his long years as a CIN employee, his unblemished record, his highly-profitable work performance and his selfless mentoring of other workers. He had, he admitted, briefly dated Anna, but that things didn’t work out and she hadn’t handled the rejection well. Lisa absorbed all these lies with no expression, until which time as Tom said, “Just ask Lisa.” Her face fell.

"Miss Curtis -- Lisa" said Mrs. Albright kindly, " -- do you have anything to add?" Lisa glanced at Tom, saw the smirk on his face. Then she looked at Anna, whom Lisa knew was really putting her neck on the line in what would likely be dismissed as a he-said, she-said dispute.

Lisa took a great breath and let it out. “Well,” she began, “Tom never touched me.” She glanced at Tom again; his smirk had become a grin. “But he did steal money from the till to buy drugs and he and I did some heroin he bought from the money we collected for CIN.” Lisa heard Tom draw a strangled breath; sitting next to him, she could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes and his hair, plus the Sen-Sen that he always gobbled up to try to cover the stench. She almost gagged. “And,” she added, “he bragged about blackmailing Anna and receiving sexual favors from her.” She glanced once more at Tom; his face was a solid block of hate. “But,” said Lisa, “I drank the beer and took the drugs that Tom bought with the donation money; I’m as guilty as he is.”

In the end, Mrs. Albright agreed with Lisa. The confab morphed immediately into a disciplinary hearing and both Lisa and Tom were summarily fired. As they rose from the table, Lisa looked at Tom a final time. At six feet two inches tall, and 260 pounds, the mercurial man could easily be believed to be capable of violence, she thought. He stalked from the room without a word, leaving Lisa to wonder how she would get home without a ride. She shoved her hand into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a few coins.

She looked up with a start, saw Anna standing before her. “Need a ride?” she asked with a gentle smile.

Lisa nodded. “Thanks. I don’t have enough for bus fare; this wasn’t what I had been expecting,” she said lightly. Then she grew serious again. “You were so brave to come forward. I wish...I wish I were that strong."

"In the end," said Anna, "you were."

Mrs. Albright approached the two women.

“Virginia,” said Anna, addressing the director, “do you think you could give Lisa another chance? She’s weathered the wars. And I still need a new partner.” She smiled at her boss.

Virginia stared sternly at Lisa for a moment, then her face relaxed and she smiled too. “Would you like to partner with Anna, Miss Curtis?”

Lisa felt her face balloon into a smile.  "Yes. I would. Thank you, I really would." Yay! thought Lisa. No more Sen-Sen.

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