BACK PAYMENTS • by J.R. Gaskin

The shadow of the man standing over me disturbs my sleep. A small weight dropping on my chest wakes me. I look at a plastic shopping bag and then at Frank, scratching his hedge of a brown beard at me with his back to the TV.

“Some of it’s there,” he starts. “I ain’t got the rest yet.”

I peer in. Full of crumpled cash. I reach inside to get a feel for how much. A little over a thousand.

“Where’d you get it this time, Frank?” I start to count.

“Simon’s house.”

“Simon has a house?” I count to £500 in fifties.

“Sorta. He pretended he had nowt until I punched his dad.”

“You wanna be careful about punching old men.” £800.

“He said he didn’t have nothing when I was punching him though.” He sits down next to me and gets out a pouch of dusty tobacco. “So I smacked his dad. He remembered then.” Frank lets out the childish giggle he has when he thinks about violence.

“Wasn’t his mum there?” £1100.

“Yeah but she just stood screaming in the hall.” He takes out a baggie from under his baseball cap. “How much he gimme?”

“£1355. There’s one fiver in it,” I wag it at him like I am antagonizing a vagrant. “What did he do, empty out a fucking shoebox?”

He cracks a lighter under the joint. “It was a fag tin, actually. That going to be enough?”

“What are you on about, ‘enough’? You haven’t paid me anything in nine fucking months.” I twist the bag’s handles about my finger. “Last time I asked, you offered to go double or nothing on a fistfight with me.” He passes me the tab. “It’s a start. How many more dads are there for you to beat up?”

“I mean enough for tonight, cock, or do I got to go out and sell?”

“I think it best you don’t go selling drugs out your pants after you’ve broken into someone’s house.” I tie bundles with rubber bands from my pocket.

“I didn’t break in. He opened the door.”

***

This is what happens when you let the man you buy from move into the annex in the garage after the police crash his grow-house. This is what happens when you let him pay “next month,” because he has muscles on his stomach like dinner buns. He says he only needs a room for a little while. One month turns to a year, one year to many. You get a plastic sack full of blood money from a guy with a Delta-force mohawk. He gets it from beating an elderly immigrant in front of his son and wife. And you use it to pay the heating bill before they cut off the gas again.

I met Frank five years before that in the same living room. I moved in that morning, and that evening he visited to sell my new roommate his weekly eighth. It was our relationship for a couple of years. Frank enters via the overgrown patio next to the rotten barbeque, and drops a bag or two. We throw cash and he goes back out to spend it on vanilla chews, Dutch beer and scratchcards. We begin to like him. He starts coming to ours to smoke and watch our TV, play our Xbox, and argue over wayward deals in Monopoly. The attic to his flat becomes an orchard of UV lamps and exotic horticulture. He hires a toothless bag lady to watch them for him when he’s out selling puff and slapping people. He makes fat stacks he spends on trainers and gold jewelry he loses on the bus. He starts associating with a beard surrounding an idiot named Simon who helps him sell bin-liners full of herb to schoolchildren. Simon likes dogs. He has four dogs. All of them are removed by the RSPCA on separate occasions.

One day a police helicopter with an infrared camera sees the incandescent roof of Frank’s home and orders a look. His sitter gets arrested but she doesn’t know his real name. He comes with a sleeping bag and a rucksack of clothes. “Just for tonight,” we all agree.

***

Three firm slams of a fist on the front door echo throughout the house. I throw on a dressing gown and twitch my curtains in the orange morning light. A police van sits next to the silver birch on my driveway. I safely store all my items of questionable legality and see what they want.

“Are you Francesco Camoranesi?” an officer starts. Not again. I shake my head.

“No, Jermaine Cramp,” I answer. “What’s this about? Frank only visits us here,” I lie.

“His father said he was here,” the policeman says, producing a notebook and jotting down my words. “There’s an ongoing investigation so I’m not at liberty to say more, but we need to know when you last saw him and find his current whereabouts.” Like clockwork.

“I last saw him three nights ago.” When he gave us a grand in notes. “He stayed for the evening and when I woke up he was gone.” To sell drugs.

“Does he work?”

“Nah.” Frank was fired from his last job at the hospital after he stole an old computer out of a dumpster.

“Any other places he goes?”

“Other than his dad’s, I dunno.”

The officer leaves and I sigh with my back against the door. Every back payment of Frank’s ends this way. We lie to the police, and prepare another bonfire to destroy any evidence. It’s proved a pretty successful strategy at preventing his eviction so far.


J.R. Gaskin is a failed anthropologist who ran away to live in another country. He now writes fiction, mostly short. He’s been published in Microfiction Monday Magazine, Misery Tourism, with forthcoming elsewhere.


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