crook takes pawn, part 64

(NOTE: this chapter is longer than usual. There's lots of backstory about Greg and Diane. Please bear with me)  

 The day went by more quickly than originally planned. None of them felt like lugging around a bunch of cumbersome computers.  They agreed to meet again tomorrow to further plot out their presentation. Donny said Gus would be more than willing to help cut wood for counters and shelves they needed. Greg no longer had to go it alone. There was a team of guys at his disposal. Nothing was impossible. Ben was feeling especially altruistic. He stopped at the ATM before dropping Greg off, and withdrew a fat stack of cash. As the bills fluttered down on top of each other in synchronous accumulation, Ben stared off into space, across the heat-baked asphalt of the bank drivethrough.
    "Today is the first day of the rest of our lives, gents," Ben said to them collectively. Snatching the dispersed dollars from the ATM tray, Ben fanned them out and shook them back and forth. THe bills flapped like loose tongues waggling. Ben counted out some of the bills from his hand, and offered it to Greg.
"What?" Greg asks.
"A finder's fee," Ben explains, "15%, that's what you'll make on commission."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Greg says passively.
"No, I will worry about it," Ben says persistently, "If you didn't introduce us, I wouldn't have made that sale."
    Greg considers this. The money hangs from Ben's grip. $80.
"Well, if he don't want it, I'll take it," Donny chimes in, "Greg's got his old lady to take care of him, so--"
"Fuck off, Donny," Greg says with a grin, "It's my dough."
    Greg takes the money gratefully and thanks Ben. It was all the signal Greg needed that Ben had faith in what they were doing. Money talks, and bullshit walks. Ben dropped Greg off at the Pawn and Payday, then zoomed out of the lot speedily. Donny was grabbing the overhead handles in the cab, to prevent a jostling while riding shotgun. Donny tipped a wave out the window and they were gone.
    Greg showered and threw on a pair of new cargo shorts, and an old metal band t-shirt. Having invested a new budget in high-powered antiperspirant was paying off. Greg no longer pitted out in front of Rebecca, which had been a longtime anxiety for him. Sweaty fat men did not exactly have their pick of women, and it was obvious why.
    Greg drove the Lebaron over to Rebecca's. A catchy tune was on the radio, and Greg felt like a million bucks. Rebecca was at the kitchen table, a huge map spread out before her. Julie was in her one-piece bunny jambes, swinging from her bassinet. Rebecca wore a long baggy sweatshirt several sizes too big for her. Greg could hardly discern her breasts from the lumps and folds. IT was just as well. There was no use for her to dress provocatively if it would lead to nothing. Teasing that leads to nothing also leads to bitterness.
Still, her sweatshirt kept spilling down her shoulder, showing her bra strap. She just couldn't help looking sexy. Dumpiness was just not in her style, even when she tried.
    Rebecca was tracing a dark red line across several states, and humming to herself. She was ecstatic about their planned trip out to California. Preparations were already underway. Having called a few hotels along the route, their nights stay was already reserved. Her credit card gleamed on the tabletop, and Greg wondered what was the limit on it. The possibility that there was more money in that piece of plastic than all of Greg's net worth was very real.
    Rebecca was distracted by her traveling-planner, and so Greg offered to mow her lawn. It was getting pretty shaggy out there. Rebecca lead him to the garage, where a John Deere pushmower was waiting patiently for its next operator. The mower's color? Green and yellow, what else? Greg placed his hand upon the deer insignia stamped across the airflow plate for balance. With a tug of the pull-start, the engine sparked up the first try. Rebecca went back inside while Greg tended to the mowing. The sweet smell of cut grass permeated his nostrils. Everything in her yard was bathed in a dusky orange light. Although his legs were covered with blades of grass and dyed a dirty green, Greg was pleased. It felt good to be doing chores for his beloved. It was one more way to prove to himself that she was his. Dogs liked to piss their territory boundaries, while Greg simply mowed her property.
    She owned a sizable chunk of land, he came to find out. It wasn't just the front. She had a sloping backyard that led down to a babbling brook. She had a bag on the mower that caught all the wet after-grass, and Greg had to empty it three times before he was done. Greg maneuvered in between the legs of Julie's large wooden swingset. The exercise felt good. He could almost feel milk shakes dripping from his pores. The push uphill was especially taxing to Greg's undeveloped legs, but he still managed. At the end, Rebecca met him on her back porch with a cup of lemonade. Greg drained it quickly, wiping the distilled sweat from his nose and forehead. His task not yet finished, Greg requested the use of her Weed-Eater. Greg tended to the patches of bushy grass by the legs of the swingset, as well as around the base of the fountains. The excess grass looked like the jolly green giants hairy armpits. Overexertion made Greg loopy and winded, not to mention the gas fumes. Strange thoughts accompanied his detail work.
    Sufficiently please at his progress, Greg returned the long trimmer to its place in the garage. His pricey cargo gear was dripping with sweat. He had to pick the seat of his shorts out of his ass as he marched inside with Rebecca. She directed him to the shower, where he rinsed thoroughly. It was rare that Greg showered twice in a 24 hour period. He was a morning shower kind of guy. Water was costly, just like all damn food and commodities. But he could've very well cuddle with Rebecca if he was sopping wet with perspiration.
    She gave him a plastic shopping bag to carry his dirty clothes, as well as a bathrobe to slip into as his clothes were washed. She handed both of these to him as he dried himself. He couldn't help but notice her eyes drop to his twig and berries when pulling the bathrobe on. Period or not, she was still horny. Greg resisted the urge to beat off again. Having done it once in her presense made the thrill die off somewhat. It just wasn't as fun by himself.
    She made a dinner of fried chicken, along with mac n cheese. Evidently she had started cooking when he started the yardwork, and the food was almost ready. They were the typical atomic family in the warn hearth of the home, with the exception of divorce, and pre-marital sex.
    Greg scarfed down 3 plates of chicken. It was shake and bake, which was his favorite. He had lived off the stuff while with his ex Diane, and it was the only thing consistently good about that marriage. The fact that it was cheap and easy to make might've been precisely why it was made with such regularity in Diane's household. Rebecca was making an effort to play the homemaker, and was doing okay. Besides the eggshell in his breakfast priorly, Greg had to say she could cook well.
    But Greg wasn't going to try to push the role of maid and chef onto Rebecca. That wasn't his right. Things could be divied up. Greg made a pretty damn good chili. He could do the dishes, too. He could tackle the lawn every other week or so. It wouldn't be so bad to trudge throughout the grass if it wasn't grown up so high. She seemed content to handle the laundry situation. That was Greg's biggest gripe: stacks and stacks of dirty underwear and smelly clothes. Not to mention the lifting, carrying, and folding. Greg hadn't folded any of his clothes in quite awhile. That's what hangers were for.
    This wasn't Greg's first foray into the power struggle that many couples face. Some resist obligations, and try to pass off responsibility to their mate. In Greg's case, his reasonable side won over. He was thinking of ways to alleviate much of Rebecca's worry and stress, instead of locking her into duties and labor that he felt were beneath him. That's what Diane had tried to do with him. Whether it was out of resentment for their early parenthood, or some other source of hostility, Greg never knew. He wanted to go to counseling with her, but she refused, saying they couldn't afford it. Greg had been working as the manager of a gas station at the time of their separation. He had kept his post as manager for 4 years. Greg was familiar with the cash registers, gas transactions, and other details of maintaining a store.
    So, when his dad George kicked the bucket, and the Pawn and Payday was within his grasp, Greg took it. The marriage with Diane had dissolved into a bitter cloud of a toxic relationship. In some ways, Greg still loved Diane. They had been married for 5 and a half years, and had some good times. But it was all overshadowed by financial worries, and bad decisions made with debt (Credit cards on her part, Old student loans from his)
    Money bought time. That's what it amounted to. Greg had taken the manager position because he needed that huge salary. But, when his workweek started stretching to 50 hours, he wasn't getting that hourly overtime. Their budget plateaued, but Diane felt she wasn't being compensated on her end. Greg was always getting called into work, for employees who phoned in sick not even 30 minutes before their scheduled shift. So Greg would have to drive over to the store to fill in for that shift. With no extra compensation. He and Diane would be right in the middle of a movie, when he'd get called in.
    They had a great honeymoon. Greg had planned a fastidious itinerary. It amounted to a week-long journey of amusement parks and restaurants. At his best, Greg had been a romantic. It hadn't always been bad. And Greg had always tried to include Diane in all their joy. At first, Raymond's birth was the happiest day in Greg's life. But the hospital bills ate up all their savings right off the bat. Poverty is not conducive to romance. Their paperback novel story was torn to shreds from plummeting wages, and stressful nights. Their fighting had always been a last resort, at a time when issues needed to be addressed, and dealt with. But when the avalanche of debt fell upon them, the fights continued repetitively, and never got better. Because Greg never got paid more. And Diane kept losing jobs.
    Diane's biggest problem was that she was lazy. She would work a job just long enough to qualify for unemployment, then she would get fired. She would simply call in repetitively before they eventually fired her. As simple-minded as it sounded, it worked like a charm. And when the economy first took a shit on everyone, Diane had worked the system to qualify for several extensions of her benefits. But the jobs dried up, and the unemployment trickled away. Their tax returns were usually large, but when Diane collected, they missed out on a lot of incentives and write-offs. Their usually hefty tax from the check became a bill they had to pay. They owed, and owed, and owed. When Diane actually put a real effort into finding jobs, she couldn't land one because her past references were shoddy. It was a catch 22.
    Greg grew distant as even his meager budget for personal effects evaporated. Money was like water, you paid no attention when it was there, but when you needed it, you couldn't live without it. Oxygen was free, but everything else required payment up front.
    The store fired Greg eventually. They tried to say it was because of sexual harassment. Greg had made a comment to one of the area managers, who oversaw several stores. Debbie. She was middle-aged, climbing toward elderly, but Greg had always thought of her as a friend. Theirs had been a joking relationship. They told crude jokes and were generally casual towards each other. But then the store chain started failing, and Debbie was surely given orders to cut ties of the most senior employees first.
The joke that ended his employment: What have women and condoms got in common? Survey says: If they're not on your dick they're in your wallet.
    Debbie had guffawed with laughter. She even told a much raunchier one than that, but Greg couldn't recall it later in the over-the phone interview with the CEO of the doomed chain.
For a brief moment, Greg had been face-to-phone with the leader of the whole shebang. Greg was promptly taken into the back room, in front of customers, and fired by this arrogant bitch cookie over a speaker and copper wire. Greg had shouted into the phone at the millionaire asshole (or thousandaire, at that point) At that point, Greg knew he was shit canned, and wanted to get some inkling of satisfaction from the circumstance. He told the CEO exactly what he thought of the long hours, the inadequate pay, and the perfectionist mentality they gave towards their performance reviews. It was corporate back-stabbing at it's finest. Greg was a scapegoat, a loose end to be severed, without any form of severance pay at all.
    Greg had sat in the Honda civic outside his and Diane's home. He had no way to provide for his family. He could fight for unemployment, but he knew the score. Diane might have been able to weasel within the system, but Greg had denied plenty of unemployment cases on behalf of his employer, and this did not look good. Sexual harassment put it in a whole 'noter category. Forget column A or B, this was filed under F, for FUCKED. He would take his chances, and not claim unemployment, in the hopes he could salvage the state benefits he had accumulated, then maybe he could get a shittier job and collect from them.
    It was a gambit. it paid off, too. Greg worked a crappy telemarketing job for about 3 months, then called in suchlike as Diane had done. It worked like a charm, and Greg found himself sleeping in and the recipient of a social program check. The unemployment was nowhere near enough to live off of, not without a child to feed. Greg had begun working with Diane's father, who owned a ranch, and hired labored hands. It was strictly under-the-table payments, and nothing was on the books. Greg didn't have to claim any income that way, but Diane's father Larry took full advantage. Larry worked poor bastards to the bone. After awhile, Greg lost his exceptional status as Diane's dependable husband, and Larry began to put the screws to Greg, just like everyone else that worked that accursed ranch.
    Long days in the California sun. there were water breaks, but the water always tasted foul. Larry never cleaned the water jugs, and Greg learned after a bout of dysentery, not to drink from them. He brought his own bottled water along with him during fence-mending, or trench digging. Whatever Larry wanted him to do, Greg did.
    But it wore on him. Diane did not work, and Greg was toiling away, cooking in the daytime heat, while she was indoors, with the AC. Her argument? It all harkened back to her bad job experiences. She was a failure then, and would continue to be, caught in the quagmire of poor work references. Greg wondered if Diane had a job currently. Her new man was a city employee, and had just made supervisor. Greg doubted Diane would make any extra effort to work. She would argue the points of the benefits of having a stay-at-home mom to raise a child. But Diane couldn't bullshit a bullshitter.
    Greg eventually quit working for Larry, after a noticeable falling out in front of the other workers. Greg had been driving the "company van" which they used to haul people around to get to the job site. Larry had driven a huge pickup, similar to the one Ben drove. But their were differences between Ben's operation and Larry's. Larry always insisted he be in front of the van, leading the way. Their motley caravan was broken up one day when the engine on the van stalled. The power steering failed and Greg found himself fighting to ease the van over to the side of the road. It wouldn't turn over, and there was no power to any lights or anything. Larry surmised it was the serpentine belt that might've snapped. Instead of calling a tow truck like a sensible human being, Larry backed up his V10 pickup, and hooked a chain under the front axel. the other end wrapped 'round his ball hitch, and they were off.
    Murphy's Law: Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. Chaos over order. Greg didn't know Murphy, but evidently the dude was on to something. The van's front axel snapped in two as they were driving back. They were at a 4 way stop, almost to town, when Larry hammered on the gas, to get by the traffic at all corners. Greg guessed Larry's reasoning was that a person waiting to alternate their turn at the sign might run into the van, as it was being dragged lifelessly by the truck. So Larry romped on the gas.
    There was too much slack. Greg had to ride the break hard just to get the behemoth full size van to stop. At Larry's sudden burst of speed, the chain jerked the axel with enough force to snap it and the sway bar underneath. The stupid sonova bitch Larry didn't notice for about 30 seconds. He kept driving, while the chain was caught on the driver-side section of the van's undercarriage, and started yanking the van diagonally into traffic. the ball joints buckled on each of the wheels, and the van's tires were wrenched sideways inside the wheel well.
    Larry was fit to be tied, getting out of his oversized pickup, and tossing his gaudy cowboy hat onto the ground angrily. Larry's deeply furrowed face scowled with anger at Greg and the ruined vehicle. The older Larry's blue polyester shirt was soon soaked with dark pools of sweat. Larry was a full 6 inches smaller than Greg, but that little shrimp could still talk like nobody's business. Larry had quite the mouth under normal circumstances, and in this case it wouldn't stop flapping. Greg grew more and more angry as Larry insulted him and the men with him.
"Are you stupid, or retarded?" Larry says, spitting as he spoke, "I'd really like to know, because this is the sorriest situation I've ever had the displeasure to be involved in, goddamit!!"
"It wasn't my fault," Greg said irritably, "We're lucky you didn't kill us all, you old bastard!!"
    Larry was 10 years Greg's senior. But at that precise instant, Larry was acting like a child. Greg lost it. He had enough of shady people. As bad as the thugs were in Iowa, it was next to nothing when compared to California. Greg had been robbed once. The Gulp 'N Go had been robbed 10 times in 6 years. Greg had never been on duty when it happened, but the Russian Roulette of robbery was bound to land on him someday. California was dangerous. And even more repulsive was the fact that the state was the cradle of human filth and corruption. All the haywire issues with the energy companies out there, increasing energy prices, and overall disorder were prevalent everywhere.
Greg had punched out Larry that day. He clobbered the disagreeable bastard with a solid overhand right. Larry's head had tilted back from the blow, then he collapsed, knocked loopy. With that knuckle sandwich, Greg had effectively ended his marriage. But Greg was beyond caring. The urban claustrophobia had been getting to Greg for years, and he just snapped. A day later, Diane was throwing him out of the house. The day after that, Greg was filing court papers to revoke all rights of having his son. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, George passed, and Greg struck out blindly to begin a different life. He bought the Lebaron for a cool $300, and it managed to make it all the way across the country. That journey seemed to tax the car too greatly, however, and the vehicle had been nothing but problems ever since.
    Greg thought of all of these things, as Rebecca put Julie down, as his clothes finished washing, as he lay in bed next to Rebecca. This woman beside him loved him. For whatever reason, Rebecca wanted to be with him. It was paramount to Greg to give the appearance he had restarted his life. He wanted to show Diane that it was her, not he, that was the problem. Once he got away from Diane, he was fortunate enough to rebuild. Diane was never easily one to be impressed, but the daring daytime shootout was definitely outside the realm of normalcy. Even Diane must give a passing acknowledgement to what he did. Greg slid over closer to Rebecca and draped his arm around her. She stirred briefly, sensed  his touch, and covered his arm with her own. He drifted off shortly after, feeling majestic and satisfied.

Uploaded 05/01/2012
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