The Punter

The old man was missing half his teeth and had wild, roving eyes. His name was Daniel but he looked more like Samson at the height of his shaggy glory. “Listen up, dear boy,” he would say, furiously sweeping an already spotless floor. “It’s all about geometry, see? Sacred geometry, abstract geometry, Satanic geometry, all kinds of geometry. Those ancient ‘gyptians and the uh-uh-uh the Mayans, they understood it, right, with the pyramids and such? But nowadays, in the West, all these corporations and the government are keeping the special geometry, the real geometry, secret from the rest of us! Mark my words boy. That there’s how they get their power.” Daniel winked knowingly and swept his nonexistent pile into the dustpan.

A little further down the aisle, Wesley nodded and gave a weak smile, then went back to shelving tiny bags of chips. He was on the bottom shelf, forcing him to crawl around on hands and knees while Daniel loomed over him, practically exuberant with mad, crackling energy. The old man’s spittle flew like bullets from a gatling gun whenever he talked, which was often.

“You see those uh-uh-uh fast food joints everywhere? Mickey D’s and such? They use all this crazy geometry to keep you out. They want you to eat your burger and fries really fast and then leave so they can serve more customers, right? So they use this Illuminati schematic on the floor plan – I’ve got the proof somewhere in my place, I can bring it in and show you sometime – and just create this energy, this Chi force, and it just forces you out.”

Wesley nodded agreeably, shelved the last tiny bag of chips, broke down that box, then opened up another box full of tiny bags of chips in a slightly different flavor.

“Now you go down to Las Vegas and see those fancy casinos, or hell, you could just go down to the Horseshoes here, same basic concept, and they’re using the same Illuminati shit, except there they want to keep you in. ‘Cause they need you to keep gambling, see? So what they do is they create this whole fancy mess of mazes. They talk about it in Ocean’s uh-uh-uh Eleven. Not the one with Sinatra, the other one. Did you like it?”

Wesley blinked. The old man was suddenly watching him intently.

“Um, yeah.” Wesley said quickly, eyes down. Break down a box, open another box. These were the same chips as the last box but these had limited time artwork promoting some kid’s movie. Tiny cartoons grinned goofily up at him from the crinkled bag in his hand.

Daniel nodded, spotted a speck of grime on the television visible only to him, then stalked to the supply closet to grab some cleaning chemicals and a smudgy cloth. “You look tired,” Daniel said, reappearing over the kneeling Wesley and his pile of broken boxes. “You need to get more sleep.”

“I’m fine.” Wesley straightened up and began to gather up the boxes. “I told you, I don’t mind the night shift.”

“No, seriously.” The old man’s bony hand shot out and grabbed onto Wesley’s wrist. “I can tell you’re tired. You need to get more sleep.”

Wesley said nothing, just glanced down at the old man’s hand on his wrist. The message was clear, even to Daniel’s addled brain. He quickly removed his hand, watching Wesley warily. “I’m fine,” he repeated.

Daniel shambled over to the television and began to wipe down at the speck only he could see. “Only trying to help.” He glanced at Wesley out of the corner of his eye. “Everybody needs their sleep. You, me, M. Butterfly, hell, even the shop.”

“The shop what?” Wesley knew from experience that the worst thing he could do with Daniel was engage him. But Wesley was still irritable from when the old man had grabbed his wrist. The old man knew he didn’t like to be touched. Damnit, he asked for so little… So Wesley charged ahead against his better judgement. “The shop doesn’t need sleep. It can’t sleep. It’s a building, not a person.”

The old man just shrugged. “It’s not right, keeping a shop like this open twenty-four seven.. Lights blaring, TV making noise, all of us stomping around. You need to give it time with the lights off. You need to let it rest. I’ve talked to M. Butterfly about it a thousand times, I swears I have.”

“How can it rest, Daniel, it’s a fucking building—”

“It just does, okay?” Something in the old man’s voice caught Wesley off guard. “Everything does. Or everything should. Sleep is where we end the day, and then later start a new one. Without it we’re just…we’re just…well without it we’re just stuck in the same day.”

“But a building doesn’t need it.”

The old man laughed hoarsely and scrubbed at the nonexistent speck on the television. “This place doesn’t feel stuck to you?”

#

There were two gas stations at the intersection of Falls Road and Northern Parkway, each with a small convenience store that sold coffee, cigarettes, and beef jerky. One had a small mechanic’s garage, the other sold two flavors of Icees.

Wesley worked for the gas station that sold Icees.

His manager was a Chinese immigrant named Ms. Zhou. She had a stout figure and a tight face crisscrossed with a lifetime’s worth of frown wrinkles. The old man had taken to calling her M. Butterfly whenever he thought she wasn’t listening. Wesley wasn’t sure what it meant, but the last time Ms. Zhou caught the old man hissing it under his breath she flew into such a rage she upturned the coffeepot and very nearly fired him. As a manager she was fussy, overbearing, and blew up at the slightest error.

At first Wesley saw Ms. Zhou’s tyrannical rule over the gas station as some desperate wielding of very limited power. In her entire life, this was all she had achieved; manager of a rinky-dink gas station at the edge of a dying city. What else was she to do but use and abuse the position she had gained, however insignificant it might be?

But Wesley had revised his opinion around his third week at the shop, when he caught Ms. Zhou singing softly to herself in Chinese as she checked the pretzels’ expiration dates. Wesley had never heard her sing. He had never even heard her speak Chinese, just clipped, harsh English. It was almost beautiful. A moment later she tossed a bag of pretzels at him and screeched about the importance of rotating and what a terrible job he had been doing so far.

It took a few more weeks for Wesley to figure it out, but Ms. Zhou actually loved the shop. She cared and cleaned and organized every twelve-hour shift with the same fiery intensity of a mother hovering over her newborn child. And that truly unsettled him, in a way he couldn’t quite understand.

Besides Wesley and the old man there were two other employees who worked part-time. Larry was a heavyset black man who didn’t walk so much as swagger. Every shift he would barge in, slam the door behind him, throw his arms wide and exclaim, “Another great day to be alive!” Then he would thank the Lord for something menial and make a trivial comment about the weather.

Everyone hated Larry, although no one was really able to say why. Wesley suspected it had something to do with the man’s cheerfulness. Not that there was anything wrong with cheerfulness, of course, but Larry was never not cheerful. Every single shift he arrived with a bright smile and a brighter outlook. Even the fieriest of Ms. Zhou’s rants or the most nonsensical of Daniel’s ramblings couldn’t crack Larry’s sunny demeanor. Whatever misfortune befell the shop, however trivial or dire, Larry would be sure to have a gratingly positive spin on it.

At times it seemed as if the entire gas station was waiting with baited breath for the inevitable moment when Larry would finally admit that something, anything, wasn’t fine and dandy. It had gotten to the point all the other employees had placed bets on who could catch him frowning. Wesley had bet twenty dollars.

Finally, there was Meghan, who had long brown hair and was very cute. Her shift rarely coincided with Wesley’s, but he preferred it that way. He found it easier to maintain a fantasy about a pretty girl the less he actually got to know them.

#

A rude buzzing announced a customer entering the shop. Wesley dutifully scooted into the box of bulletproof glass that contained the till, the safe, and a number of the shop’s more expensive purchases.

At first Wesley had resented the glass box, the whole notion seeming an unnecessary practice in paranoia. Yes, this was Baltimore City, but it was Northwest Baltimore City, the ritziest part of town except for the tourist-stricken Inner Harbor. They were right next to Roland Park for Christ’s sake, with a Catholic Seminary just above the hill. Were the seminarians going to rush him for cigarettes and lotto tickets?

And yet all it had taken was a few shifts alone in the dead of night, with a few too many police sirens blaring in his ears for the glass box to turn from a burden into a comfort. And not too long after that it morphed from a comfort into a craving. It kept everyone at arm’s reach. Not just the criminals but everyone.

The customer grabbed a Coke and two Slim Jims. He was scruffy and a little dirty, wearing blue jeans and a faded T-shirt. A late-night trucker then. He stepped up to pay, and Wesley had to show him how to rotate the jerky and soda just right so that the scanner could read the barcode from behind the glass. That earned him a scowl, but Wesley was used to those. The total came to four dollars and six cents. The trucker slipped a five in the little slot, and Welsey slipped back his change. The man left with a Slim Jim in his mouth.

No actual contact, but Wesley reached for the hand sanitizer anyway. The man just looked dirty.

It was a little past two in the morning. The old man had finished his shift hours ago, and had left with a wink and a promise to bring in his Illuminati schematics of McDonald’s to show Wesley. By this time of night traffic slowed to the barest of trickles, leaving Wesley sitting listless in the glass box, with the television blaring on repeat over and over again.

Oh, the television! Wesley hated it with a passion, but he didn’t dare turn it off. Ms. Zhou would have his hide, and he had no doubt she would find out one way or another.

The shop was less than two miles away from Preakness Stakes, so naturally the normal gas station lotto assortment of Powerball, Scratch-Off and Dailies simply wouldn’t be enough for Ms. Zhou’s gamblers. There needed to be a way to bet on horses. So she installed a television with round-the-clock horse races that ran every few minutes.

They weren’t real horse races of course. They were virtual. Computer simulations. What’s more, it was a simulation of British horse racing, with British horses and British jockeys and a British voiceover that called everyone ‘punter’ in a genteel, Oxford accent. There could hardly be anything less like Preakness Stakes. Wesley had never seen anybody use it, but Ms. Zhou nevertheless insisted upon keeping it.

So when the shop got quiet, it never really got quiet. Instead the maddeningly refined voice of the simulated Oxford announcer called out the lineup and races every few minutes, imprinting itself over and over into Wesley’s brain.

Number Seven is Skiball, race favorite with three over two odds. A seven-year-old thoroughbred with two wins. A fine choice for a fine race. Number Two is Dandy, with twelve-to-one odds. A four-year-old black thoroughbred on his first race. An unusual choice for a Punter, but you know what they say, no risk, no reward.

And they’re off! Skiball’s in the lead…

The door buzzed again. The man who sauntered in was tall and well-built. He was wearing an Oxford shirt and khakis but seemed vaguely uncomfortable in them, as if he’d be more at home in snakeskin boots and a leather vest.

He grabbed two bottled waters and came to the counter. “Twenty on pump two and a pack of Marlboros, thanks son.”

“No.”

The man in the Oxford shirt stopped and actually looked at the hunched figure behind the glass. A creeping smile spread over his face. “Wesley.”

“Chuck.” Wesley shocked himself, not with the venom in his voice but with the stability in his tone. His whole body was beginning to shake in a barely contained spiral of fear and rage. It’s okay, It’s okay, look! I’m behind the glass, he can’t get me behind the glass, the glass protects me because that’s what the glass is for…

Chuck slowly raised an index finger and waggled it back and forth. “Now, now, Mr. Vernon, if you please. I believe I made it quite clear when we first met. Only my friends call me Chuck. And you burnt that bridge quite down to the cinders, didn’t you?”

“I—”

“And then, and then, my dear boy, you came back to that burnt bridge and pissed on the ashes!”

Vernon and Wesley glared at each other for a moment. Vernon realized he had lost his composure and quickly smoothed over his face in the same way one might comb over an embarrassing cowlick. Wesley gripped the countertops until his knuckles turned white. He wanted to punch Vernon. He wanted to run. He wanted to curl up in a fetal ball and hide until the bad man went away. But there was the glass, right? There was still the glass.

Finally, Wesley said, very slowly and deliberately, “It was my duty as an American citizen to notify the FTC of an illegal pyramid scheme.”

“Duty as an American citizen.” Vernon snorted. “Duty as an American citizen!” He snorted again. “What about your duty to Red Star Enterprises? To all the members of your Red Star family? You remember them, don’t you? Darrius and Ken and Samantha and Jade and Xavier and the whole crew? Do you have any idea what those lies you told the government could have done to them? You could have cost them everything!”

Wesley had shrunk before the tirade, and forced himself to stand up straight. Vernon didn’t seem to notice. He plucked a Slim Jim from a nearby stand and rolled it between his fingers, a nasty smirk spreading from his lips to his eyes and then to his whole body.

“In the end you didn’t though. Hurt them, I mean.” Vernon’s eyes glinted, focused entirely on the beef jerky. He rolled the long strip of dried meat over and over again in his hand, carefully prodding and manipulating it between long spider-like fingers. “The FTC came, and they saw, and they declared Red Star Enterprises one hundred percent legal.”

This was a lie. Wesley had seen the FTC’s final report. “No, no, the FTC found over eighteen suspicious practices in your company. They just couldn’t gather enough evidence to prosecute.”

“I believe that’s what I just said,” Vernon cut in sharply, jamming the Slim Jim back in the stand. He prodded the bottled waters forward. “These two. And a pack of Marlboros. And twenty on pump two.”

“No.”

Vernon folded his arms and analyzed Welsey for a moment. Behind him the television chimed in to set up another horse race: Number Two is Dandy, with twelve-to-one odds. A four-year-old black thoroughbred on his first race. An unusual choice for a Punter, but you know what they say, no risk, no reward.

Finally, Vernon sighed. “What was I always telling you at Red Star Enterprises? Every day, every hour almost, over and over and over again?”

Wesley blinked. He wanted to say something snide, something smart and sarcastic, but the real answers blurted out of him in the same unthinking manner as his times tables. “You told us that Red Star Enterprises had created a new way to work as our own man and our own boss. You told us we had a marketing partnership with AT&T, and that’s how we managed to sell the phones for so cheap. You told us that very soon we were all going to be rich, and we were all going to own our own company just like Red Star.”

“Uh-uh-uh.” Another waggling of the index finger. “You’re forgetting something, son. You’re forgetting the most important bit.” Wesley looked at him blankly. Vernon spread his hands wide. “You have to want it! You have to work for it! Daily grind, daily grind, over and over and over, and only then, once you’ve funneled everything you’ve got into your dreams, will the wealth and status finally materialize.” He made a little gesture with his hands that might have symbolized the wealth and status materializing.

“I gave every cent I had into your false dreams, Chuck.’ Wesley’s spittle was flecking the glass. His fear was giving way to fury. There was two years’ worth of repressed rage roiling around inside him, rapidly spinning out of control. “Two bad loans and I lost my apartment – I had to move back in with my parents because of you!”

“Did you ask your folks for an investment?”

“Did I what?”

Mr. Vernon leaned forward. He usually spoke to Wesley as if to a child, but now he spoke as if Wesley was a really stupid, hard of hearing, tantrum-throwing toddler brat. “Did you ask you folks for a business investment? Or better yet, give them the pitch! Ask if they would want to be part of Red Star Enterprises. That’s the kind of business initiative I talked about! That’s the kind of business initiative that Red Star is made of!” He leaned back and chewed on a thought for a moment. “You know, Wesley, I don’t know what kind of lies you’ve told yourself to rationalize abandoning and betraying the business opportunity of a lifetime, but you want to know the truth? You were right there. Teetering on the knife edge; so incredibly close to wild success. If you had just kept with it a little longer, maybe gotten that investment from your parents, you could have had everything.”

“Keep my parents out of this.”

Another calculated stare, then a delighted chuckle. “It was them, wasn’t it? You didn’t leave Red Star on your own. You’ve never had that kind of initiative, have you? None of this was your idea, it was all them! My God, Wesley, can you do anything without someone to tell you how and someone else to hold your hand?”

“They were right about you—”

“Oh sure, sure, yes! Blame me! Make me the villain, the scourge, the evil puppet master behind your own failings! It wouldn’t be the first or fiftieth or five hundredth time!” Vernon’s stare was boring into Wesley, through him, and then past him into something much bigger. “But we both know the truth, son. I was taking you somewhere, somewhere real, maybe for the only time in your entire sorry life. Red Star Enterprises was giving you a road towards becoming a millionaire, and you were on that road, and you were making real progress, Wesley. And then you left. You gave up everything! Why? Because you’re lazy. Because you can’t think a single original thought. Because you’re a goddamn coward.”

“I’m not a coward.”

Vernon dismissed that with a brusque wave of his hand. He glanced around at the tiny shop, and his rage slowly softened into contemplation. “So this is where the likes of you end up, huh? You know, it makes sense. There’s an odd sort of elegance to it all, now that I think about it. You, in a gas station convenience store. The one place in the whole city that no one ever goes to as a destination. A restaurant, a barber shop, a bank, those are all destinations. But a gas station? The only reason anybody ever comes here is because they need help going somewhere else. Gas for the tank. Snacks for the ride. And that’s all fine, for the people passing through. But you!” He whirled about and shoved a spindly finger towards Wesley. “You’re stuck here. Day after day, behind that glass, watching other people go and get somewhere. But you’ll never get anywhere, you’re just going to stay stuck behind that glass, halfway to nowhere, forever. Aren’t you? Aren’t you?

Wesley opened his mouth but nothing came out.

Mr. Vernon stalked to the counter and thrust the bottled waters forward. “Two bottled waters. A pack of Marlboros. And twenty on pump two. Right goddamn now, boy.”

Wesley swallowed and rang him up. Mr. Vernon grabbed his things and swept off without another word.

#

It’s a beautiful day for a race…And they’re off!…An unusual choice for a punter…Skiball, with three-to-two odds…It’s a beautiful day for a race…No risk, no reward…Dandy, twelve-to-one odds, And they’re off…No risk, no reward…And it’s Skiball around the bend…It’s a beautiful day for a race…A four-year-old black thoroughbred on her first race…No risk, no reward…And they’re off!…No risk, no reward.

No risk, no reward…No risk, no reward…No risk, no reward…

The door buzzed, and Wesley blinked. He didn’t know how much time had passed, but suddenly a petite blonde woman in her late teens was standing in front of him, waving a candy bar. She still had her braces on. Four or five ring metal bracelets that hung from each arm were matched with a silver chain necklace. Wesley wondered dimly what would happen if she ever wandered too close to a magnet.

“Hey!” she said brightly, her sunny disposition pure whiplash in the early-hour gloom. “You looked like you were somewhere else for a moment.”

“Uh. Yeah. I was.”

They stared at each other for an awkward moment until the young woman said, “So…Can I get the Twix?”

“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”

She handed him a crumpled bill and Wesley rang her up, She instantly unwrapped it and nibbled on it absent-mindedly. “Hey, so now that you’ve sold me something, do you mind if I try to sell you something? It’ll only take a minute.”

Wesley pointed reflexively to the ‘No Loitering, No Solicitors’ sign by the door.

She waved that off with a small laugh. “Oh, no! It’s nothing like that. See, this is an opportunity! My name’s Alicia, and I’m with Red Star Enterprises. I can sell you the world’s best cell phone at a simply unbelievable price. And even better, I can give you the opportunity to be your boss, running your own business!” She winked. “And that’s absolutely free.”

Wesley slowly focused. “Red Star?” he said softly. “You work for Chuck Vernon?”

“You know him!” Alicia was delighted. “Now strictly speaking I don’t work for him, he guides me and mentors me as I become my own boss under the business model set by Red Star Enterprises. Strictly speaking, of course. Hey, if you want I can bring him in, he’s right outside. That man knows everything about cell phones, and even more about business—”

“He’s outside?”

“Oh sure.” She jerked a thumb out the window toward pump two. Vernon’s silhouette leaned lazily against his car, illuminated by the fiery haze of lit cigarette. He gave Wesley a small wave.

Wesley turned back toward Alicia. “Do you usually drive around with Vernon at this time of night?”

She reddened ever so slightly. “Oh no, nothing like that. See I bartend at the Hon Bar. You know, up on the Avenue? Nice place, cute. We got this big flamingo outside – of course I’m not staying there though. I’m full throttle on Red Star, absolutely committed. But I couldn’t just leave, so I gave them my two weeks and I’m helping out until then.”

“But Vernon—”

“Oh right! Him! Well, tonight he was waiting for me when I got off my shift. You know that’s where we first met? He told me all about Red Star over a cheeseburger and Miller Lite. Anyway, he offered me a ride home and told me about a tough sale, a real stubborn guy. And he said if I could close, I’d win so many brownie points. It’d be like a fast track straight up to the top, y’know? So he brought me here, and told me the sale,” she spread her hands magnanimously, “was you!” Her shoulders slumped ever so slightly. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”

Alicia was already modeling one of Red Star’s cheap Chinese cell phones, but her words were fading into a shrill drone somewhere in the distance. Wesley’s heart hammered and hands shook, partly in rage at Vernon’s sadistic prank, yes, but mostly at the weight of this golden opportunity. His mind whirled round and around in circles, narrowing into a single, glorious conclusion.

She hadn’t left work yet. She was new to Red Star. It wasn’t too late for her to get out. He could save her.

He would tell her everything: the manipulations, the lies, Vernon’s brainwashing, the predatory business model, the illegal business practices, tens of thousands of dollars and years of his life wasted, drained away by this man and his pyramid scheme…

Wesley leaned forward to share all of this, and bumped his head sharply across the bulletproof glass.

It hurt more than expected. He staggered backwards a step or two and raised a hand tenderly to the bruise forming on his forehead. Alicia, still oblivious, had moved on from extolling the virtues of crappy phones to talking up a life working for Red Star Enterprises.

Wesley stared at the bulletproof glass cube surrounding him. For the first time, he truly saw it.

And it’s a beautiful day at the racetracks, blared the television. Perhaps try your luck on Dandy, with twelve-to-one odds. A four-year-old black thoroughbred on her first race. An unusual choice for a punter, but you know what they say, no risk, no reward.

And Wesley finally understood. And now that he did the understanding came as nothing short of a religious revelation, a rebirth into the true way of life. The words he had heard recycled over and over again, bleated at him by a posh announcer from a rickety old TV set…No risk, no reward. No risk, no reward…All this time it had been a message meant only for him. He had just gotten it wrong. It wasn’t some tacky urging to spend money in the hopes of rigged payoffs…No risk, no reward…It was a command, a way of life, the only possible way of life for him. No risk, no reward. No risk, no reward.

No risk. No reward. He had gotten it backwards, but he understood now.

Wesley quietly interrupted Alicia’s pitch and asked if he could buy one cell phone.

#

The door buzzed. “Hello? Hello, Wesley? I brought the uh-uh-uh the Illuminati blueprints to show ya! Y’know, from McDonald’s!” The old man creeped into the store. “Where are ya? Wesley? Oh!” Daniel gave a small start. The boy was splayed out on the cold tiled floor in a semi-fetal position between the potato chip aisle and the nuts.

This confused the old man for a minute. He scratched his balding skull. “Oh! Sleep! Ha, my boy, I told ya, didn’t I? I told ya you needed more sleep. I would’ve picked a more comfy spot though…But don’t worry, Daniel’s gonna take care of ya, boy. Ain’t no one going to interrupt you!”

He slipped to the door, turned off the ‘Open’ sign, and in a moment of sheer inspiration, dimmed the lights. All the while the old man muttered to himself, “We can close the store for a few hours. M. Butterfly never has to know. Besides, the store needs sleep too! Without sleep every day just sorta runs together.”

Matthew Konerth is a playwright and Graduate student in Religion. In 2016, his play Deus et Machina (God and the Machine), won the Audience Choice Award at the Baltimore Fringe Festival.

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