There are ten of us locked down here in Bobby Markson’s basement since he brought me, my wife, and our three children here this morning. My oldest will be going to Kindergarten this Fall. This upsets my wife, but I’ll be glad to get at least one of them out of the house at least occasionally. On second, thought, that’s not really an appropriate thing to be thinking at the moment, given the circumstances, so scratch that. Randy Jacobs and his wife, Carla, and Adam and Jennifer Haye and their twelve-year-old daughter Samantha are also here. I have no idea what time it is. It may be noon by now. We are all here for the same reason: none of us would (in my case, could) give Markson a hundred dollars. Now he is saying we cannot leave unless we come up with two hundred dollars, to cover his expenses for keeping us here. He hasn’t fed us in this dank cave of a basement of his, so I don’t know what kind of expenses he could have.
The basement is lit by one light dangling from the ceiling. There aren’t any windows. Al concrete, some boxes, some canisters of some sort scattered everywhere. There is a strange odor that actually goes beyond mere basement dankness. Everyone is sitting in shadows, seem to have become shadows themselves. Which is fine by me. Don’t care to look at any of them. The Hayeks might have thought about having their daughter put on some clothes before they were brought here, but I suppose technically a miniskirt and a tube top are clothes. At twelve, she ought not to be wearing clothes that easy to get out of.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged,” the Good Boo says. Well, I’ve been judged all my life, prior to any of my own judging, so I figure I have the right to do a little catching up.
I do judge that this is a strange situation we are in, and I certainly don’t know what to make of it.
* * * * *
I dropped out of college and work at Home Depot, where I met my wife. She quit after we had our first child. If I don’t get out of here by tomorrow morning, I’m afraid I’ll get fired. I can barely afford the rent on the house we live in — I can’t afford to get fired. My boss threatened to fire me three days ago, so I know my not showing up without calling in will be the last straw. He would attribute it to my “bad attitude” that I only have because he’s an idiot. I mean, why shouldn’t we sell damaged goods at a discounted price if someone who knows it’s damaged wants to buy it? We’ll have to throw it out anyway, and this way we can make a little money, not to mention help out someone who may not be able to afford full price for something.
I got fired from McDonald’s when I would take the food we were going to throw out and give it to the homeless shelter. Which was fine. I hated that job. And the people at the shelter were never what I would consider gracious enough. And those homeless guys — most of whom were either drunk sons of bitches or nut cases — they never once thanked me. Feeling good about yourself for doing what you ought to be doing gets old after a while. Everyone needs encouragement. Me, I get fired.
* * * * *
There are no windows down here.
Another family has joined us. Lisa Bronson and her two children. A third on the way. Three fathers, no husbands, Lisa is determined to supplant me as poorest person in town. I’m sure she’s slept with most of the men in town. No one knows who the fathers of her babies are, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she didn’t, either. I figure I can cast these stones, having never committed this particular sin. My wife had all our kids after we got married, and I don’t have any by anyone else.
“What time is it?” I ask her as she reaches the basement floor.
How is it Lisa is the only one here with a watch?
Now there was a family per corner.
“Are there thirteen people here?” Randy Jacobs asked. “Oh God, there are thirteen people. Oh God!”
Randy stood, started pacing, wringing his hands, running his hands through his hair, wringing his hands, pacing, and repeating, “Thirteen. Oh God. Thirteen.”
“Randy, calm down,” Carla said. She looked around at everyone. “I’m sorry. He has trikadecaphobia.” When everyone gave her blank stares, she said, “Fear of the number thirteen.”
I said, “I know what trikadecaphobia is.”
Adam rolled his eyes and said, “Great. Just what we need. A kook.”
Randy calmed down when Armey Scarborough came in, jerking his arm out of Bobby’s hand. He stomped down the stairs as Bobby shut and bolted the door behind him. Halfway down the stairs, Armey turned and faced the closed door.
“This is…Aw, hell, what’s the point?” Armey said. “I’m here now, and he damn well knows what he’s doing.”
I didn’t say anything as Armey finished coming down the stairs. I have nothing to say to these people, who all appear to be here for the same reason I am.
“I may have the money, but that son-of-a-bitch won’t see a dime of it. Bastard,” Armey said. “Not a dime.”
OK, so he won’t. I can’t. Bastard.
* * * * *
It’s cold in this basement. Does he have the air conditioner on? I have an air conditioner, but I only run it when it’s dangerously hot, so this is cold to me. I look around at everyone else. Everyone else is shivering, so maybe it’s not just me.
“You think he might turn off the A.C.?” I asked, nodding toward the ceiling.
“He won’t answer our knocks, so I doubt it,” Adam said.
“Maybe we need to ask him directly,” Jennifer said. “Maybe he doesn’t understand what we want.”
“How can he not understand what we want? It’s not about the A.C.,” Armey said. “He just doesn’t give a damn.”
“How can you say that?” Jennifer said. “We may not understand his motives or what he is doing, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have everyone’s best interests at heart.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Armey said.
“Don’t talk to me wife that way,” Adam said as he stood to face Armey. “She’s right. I’ve known Bobby for years now, and even though I haven’t always understood what he was doing or why on any number of things, you may rest assured that he is always thinking about this community. now, some of the things he does may seem strange at times, but…”
Armey waved his hand in front of Adam’s face.
“Eh, you people are crazy. He’s imprisoned us, and you’re praising him,” Armey said. “Praise his name all you want. I’m not going to talk about the controlling asshole.”
Armey turned and walked away.
Lisa was smoking in her corner. The tobacco incense mixed with the strange smell of the basement to make a not altogether unpleasant smell. I looked around. Boxes.
“We should build a fire,” I said. “It’s cold down here.”
For some reason, no one objected. I knew it was a bad idea — I just didn’t care. Armey collected a few boxes and tore them up and placed them in a pile in the center of the cement floor. Randy borrowed Lisa’s lighter and lit the corner of a piece of box.
“Hell, maybe if nothing else, Bobby will smell the smoke and let us out — or at least tell us what we’re doing here,” Armey said.
As the box corner smoldered, the basement door opened, and a bright light shined down onto me from above. Bobby called for me to come up.
The shotgun laying over Bobby’s arm discouraged anyone else from rushing up the stairs.
* * * * *
I sat at Bobby’s kitchen table — a beautiful solid oak piece with matching oak chairs — and looked around his brightly-lit dining room. A couple of deer heads and an antique rifle decorated the longest wall. Bobby sat opposite me.
“Nice place you got here,” I said.
“Thanks,” Bobby said. “I got some good news for you.”
“You realized it’s ridiculous to expect dirt-poor people to come up with a hundred bucks for whatever it was you said you wanted it for?”
“I was trying to be equal in my demands to help someone out,” Bobby said. “And you ought to be grateful.”
“Grateful? You locked me and my family in my basement. How am I supposed to be grateful for that?” I asked.
Bobby stood, walked around his chair, and paced back and forth in front of me, along the length of his dining room table.
“I collected a hundred dollars from every family in town. Minus those in my basement, I was able to collect eleven thousand dollars. Now, I collected that money to help out the poorest person in town. That’s you.”
“You’re giving me eleven thousand dollars?” I asked.
“Not quite. I have some overhead and whatnot I have to cover. Plus, we need to subtract the two hundred dollars you owe me to release you and your family. That makes two thousand dollars for you.”
Torn between being grateful for two thousand dollars and openly wondering about the other nine thousand — about which I suddenly felt resentment toward Bobby for keeping, I asked, “And what about everyone else in the basement?”
“They need two hundred per family to get out,” Bobby said. “Rules are rules.”
I looked at Bobby’s eyes. He didn’t look crazy. Not completely. I read somewhere that those who the gods — I would say God — plan to punish, they first make mad. At the same time, I’ve also read that madness is evidence of a divine spark — thus, a gift from God. Is Bobby being punished or blessed? Or neither? I don’t know. He doesn’t look crazy.
Bobby reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash and counted out two thousand dollars. He lay the cash on the table and pushed it across to me.
“Take it. It’s yours,” Bobby said. Then, he got a strange look of concentration on his face. He sniffed and said, “What is that strange smell? Is that smoke?”
“They were lighting a fire in the basement when I came up. It’s cold down there. Might want to turn up the A.C.,” I said.
Bobby’s eyes widened in panic.
“We got to get the hell out of here!” he yelled.
He darted out of the room, and I leaped up and followed in the wake. I paused in the doorway as I thought about my family. I had to get them. I turned and tripped over my own feet, tumbling down the steps. The moment I hit the ground on my back, knocking the breath out of me, the house exploded.
* * * * *
I woke in the hospital.
My first thought: Damn, I can’t afford to be in hospital.
My second thought: Why did I use the British way of saying that?”
A nurse walked in before there was a third thought.
“Oh, good, you’re awake,” she said.
“What happened?” I asked, despite knowing full well what happened.
“Well, you were knocked unconscious. The good news is, you don’t have a concussion.”
“What about my family?” I asked.
“Is Bobby Markson family?”
“Hardly,” I said.
“You’ve only been here ten minutes. Don’t know anything about your family. I’m sure we’re trying to contact them now,” she said.
“You using a medium?” I asked. She looked at me strange. I was sure she would learn soon enough how inappropriate my statement was — because it was so appropriate. I have a habit of making bad jokes in bad situations.
Was it a bad situation? Well, for them…Or, maybe not. They don’t know anything — they’re dead. And I was free. Bobby, in trying to help me in that strange way, had answered my prayers — my silent prayers I never let anyone know about. God, that’s not even a bad joke. Yet, I felt — nothing. No loss, no remorse. I felt elated, light, too-light. I started laughing.
“Are you all right?” the nurse asked.
There was no way for me to answer that question.
* * * * *
I found it very strange that over half the town — who had mostly shown contempt for me and my family — defended Bobby Markson’s actions on what turned out to be on my behalf.
It was also a little strange that Bobby Markson was found not guilty for extortion and thirteen accounts of third-degree manslaughter — though he was given five years’ probation for fourteen counts of unlawful imprisonment.
I found it even stranger that I defended him. There was some question about my possible involvement, but Bobby had the decency to dissociate me from his scheme — though I did have to give the money back. I had apparently grabbed it off the table when he told us to run out. I didn’t even remember grabbing it. I’m sure it was my testimony that had gotten Bobby only five years’ probation. It was the least I could do for all he had done for me.
I wish I know how to really thank him.
— 30 —