Dancing in the railways.
Sleeping in the box cars.
Surviving on the edge.
Making due where due is all to make.
Chapter the First
“Come along, Meeta,” he said, and dragged her along the way. The pit. The underbelly of America. From con to shining con.
He came to the railway. To the trains and the next stop.
“Alright, Meeta. Get in, my girl,” he said, as he tossed her up into the railway car. And climbed in after her.
Meeta stayed in the corner, inert.
“Don’t be mad, Hon. We have our jobs to do. Might as well laugh about it.”
Jobs. Meeta didn’t laugh. Meeta never laughed.
“I’ll teach you some more self-defense. You always like that.” She watched the door slide shut. “Or another reading lesson. Huckleberry Finn. You’ll like that one. It’s just like you.
“Hon. Aren’t you the lucky one! You lie there, stand there, be there. And nothing happens all around you. While I make all the crumpets and dumplings happen. From Florida to Providence and across the plains. You liked San Francisco!”
She liked San Francisco. And crumpets and dumplings, whatever those were.
He took Meeta to the next station, the next town, the next con. They got off.
He found the closest Saloon. He went in dressed in his ragged worst. Meeta was dressed in leather britches, flannel shirt and a felt hat, stuffed full of her hair, pulled down over her head.
“One room,” he said. “And a 10 cent bath, both for me and my boy. Nothing extra! We’re no dirtier than the next flea bag.”
The motel clerk looked at them like they were crazy. Who do these two think they are? Deputy Dog? They have cash. That’s all she cared about. She could care less about the ‘boy’ he had with him. “Room 207. Stairway’s out the door to your right. Ice down the hall,” she said, handing them the key. “Checkout at 11:00. No smoking.” A rerun of Gunsmoke was on the set. How appropriate, she thought.
He got his bath. Meeta went first to make use of the ‘clean’ water. Never mind that it was hot and cold running. In his unsynchronized mind it was a Dodge City bath. Clean ones first. Dirty ones last.
He washed her, the soap was extra. Bastards. And carefully untangled her hair.
“Meeta, my girl,” he said. “You are the jewel in my crown.” Meeta did not feel very jewelish.
When she was washed, he set her to combing out her hair while he took his own bath. Then he washed both their cloths in the bath water and squeezed out as much as he could.
In some part of her mind, Meeta knew he was crazy. They were clearly in a private room with its own bath and running water, not a saloon where the 10 cent baths were clean and the 1 cent baths had already bathed nine people. Those were in Canada.
They found their way to the bedroom naked, dripping, and clean. Meeta hardly knew the difference.
Inside he set their clothing by the oil stove to dry. Well, the air conditioner/heater. He fished out their going to meetin’/takin’ and cheatin’ cloths. Or: Black suit; double breasted, narrow collar, white string tie, and a crisp straw hat. He looked like Doc Holliday.
Meeta wore a dress. A little too low in the front, for her age, as if by accident, not intended to show off what she may or may not have there. A sash around her middle with no pretensions of suggesting the riches below. Plus a pocket that could hold coins taken from the mark, whose eyes were guaranteed to be elsewhere. A cut well above the knees, well, who knows what that means? And a hat, a petite hat of saffron and lace that perched aside her head, gathering up and overflowing the generous flame of her hair, now washed and drying into crimson curls.
“Perfect,” he said. “Let’s make some magic.”
He brought Meeta down, bought biscuits, butter, and beer. And a rasher of bacon and more beer. They ate their fill. And paid their dollar.
Next stop, the tables. Meeta knew the routine. Act naïve, act cute, act vulnerable. Do a good job and you will get more biscuits, butter, beer, and bacon tomorrow.
They were in a backwater in Nevada, where the rules were relaxed and the local police had other things to turn an eye to, especially when there was a coin involved. They always chose a distant table. Maybe ordered a drink. Or just sat there, looking like rubes from the country.
“Friend,” eventually said someone. “Where are you from?”
“Oh, a long way away,” he said. “I’m going to a long way from here. I have no connection to this town or any way of getting justice if I am wronged.”
That’s what he meant, not what he said. But it was what he wanted them to hear. They always heard it loud and clear. That’s what they wanted to hear, too. His ‘Friends’ looked hungry.
Meeta looked naïve in her petticoats. Like a hon on a bun.
The suckers never saw it coming.
Her handler, she never knew his name, he was always just, ‘Sir,’ took care to lose money at first. Jabbering things like, “Well, there. Dang! Don’t that beat all?” and “Golly! I’m bad at this. I guess I put that ace up my wrong sleeve!” and he he-hawed like a donkey.
“OK, just one more hand. I’ll get it all back, now.” Meeta pulled close to one player, then another. She looked up into their eyes and smiled, inviting. He didn’t notice her slipping a hundred dollar bill off the table. He only thought of what else he might win that night. This sassy cutie was the broulee on the buffet. He hadn’t yet realized that he was the brisket.
As Sir’s winnings got smaller and smaller, the marks didn’t notice that, though their piles were getting higher and higher, the denominations of the bills were getting lower and lower. Sir got distressed. Then distraught. Then panicky. Then miserable.
“Well, misters,” said Sir, defeated, running his hands through his hair in despair. “You’ve beaten me. I won’t be getting my butter and egg money back, I can see that.” He sounded worried. Beaten. Desperate.
The two marks looked slyly at each other and then at Meeta. She winked. “You know,” one said. “There may be a way of getting some of your butter and eggs back, if we can come to an agreement. And maybe get a little butter and eggs of our own. Or some sweet cream.”
“What’s that?” he said. “Oh, well. That’s a nice thought. But you done cleaned me out! I couldn’t get that back for love or money!” Not getting their point, which made it only more enticing. Marks always love to think they have the upper hand. You can’t cheat an honest man, nor seduce a cynic. Meeta smiled idiotically.
“Not money. Maybe love. Or close enough,” he said, turning a letching eye at Meeta. “You could win all your losses back. And then some.” The letch became carnivorous. “If we can take a bit in return.”
“Oh, well. Huh?” Then understanding. “Shhh!” he said, looking embarrassed. Shocked, even. He rubbed his chin and his back. He glanced around, as if meeting out some moral conundrum. Then he looked coy. Conniving. Then lecherous in his own right. Everything is for sale. Every mark knows that. They should. They’re the midnight special.
“Maybe something can be arranged…,” he said in a wheedling tone, unconsciously twiddling his fingers. He looked back and forth like a parody of a shifty criminal. The very instance of someone screaming, ‘Inconspicuous.’ He looked at Meeta as if calculating the pros and cons of a great transaction. Or weighing deli meat. She grinned at the men while she smuggled another hundred off the table. Then smiled like a virgin putting snow to shame.
He looked at the stacks of mostly small denomination bills in their hands. He licked his lips, just like a rube thinking he can take someone for all they got. Thinking that he’s the great con artist. He looked transparent. Ridiculously vulnerable. Never look like what you are. Look like what you want them to think you are. Meeta continued to look naïve and stupid, as if she had no idea what was going on.
She knew everything, of course, palming another bill. The men looked hungrier, if possible. They couldn’t believe their luck. Rape the girl, beat up the stooge, and take all of his money. With his permission! Sir leaned forward.
“Come on down to the Motel 7,” he whispered. “At ten o’clock. Room 307. And bring your cash and a short memory,” he finally said, hurriedly, like he was the wheel of the deal. Meeta slipped another bill off the table. It’s amazing what you can get away with by throwing sex into a man’s eyes. Everything.
“And. How about something for now? We’ve got to eat, you know. You don’t want the girl hungry.” The marks guffawed like hyenas and gave him a fifty. “This one’s on us. Give the tart a dinner to remember. Then she’s dessert,” and they laughed at their cleverness.
They parted then and went on their way. Not to Motel 7, but to an entirely different motel. After counting their winnings, they had transformed a hundred dollars in ones, fives, tens, and twenties into more than a thousand dollars. Considerably more. Sir would never sell Meeta, of course. Marks are for taking. Not partners. He had always driven that into her head.
“You take up with someone, Meeta. You stay loyal to them,” he had said. “Sometimes you’re the lure. Sometimes you’re the liar. But never the lunch! And never try to con a con. Otherwise, that’s how you get a knife in between your shoulder blades.” Ever the pragmatist.
It’s unclear what he thought of Meeta, if anything. She seemed to be a useful prop to him. One not to be abused, of course, like any valuable tool. Just not one to get too fond of, either. Still, Meeta could trust him. For now. He knew just how far to go, which made him a very long lived con artist, all around.
Until a knife found his shoulder blades.
One of the marks was a con man in his own rights. Sir could usually tell when he was up against a genuine con and not just a selfish mark begging to be had. Then he’d bail instantly, giving Meeta the ‘Scram!’ signal. He knew not to cheat another cheater, but this time he came against one who had no such scruples. He had made a mistake.
That left Meeta.
She managed to escape in the shuffle with several hundred dollars, clean cloths, and clear memory.
And then there was Meeta.
Dancing in the railways.
Sleeping in the box cars.
Foraging in the dumpsters.
Surviving on the edges.
Making due when due is all there is.
Meeta stood in the rail yard. The trains moved, in and out. Passengers and cargo disengaged. And reengaged. The vomit of soul and sale.
It was a big place. A round place. A place that extended to the limits of space.
Meeta thought, “I need another train.” Not, “I need to get out of here,” or, “I need to escape.” She thought, “I need another train.” The train was her water. The train was her womb. The train was her weapon.
Meeta, the Train Girl.
She was in Chicago. Or Denver. Or Salt Lake City. Meeta wasn’t good with maps. But she knew the smell of the train yard. How chill the air. The smell of diesel. The slant of sunlight. She could read the sky like a sailor. The sense of salt that told of some coast nearby. She could triangulate all these visceral senses and know exactly where she was, though a map placed before her would baffle her. Still, she was never lost.
Once, in New London, CT, Meeta ventured out down Bank Street. Past the titty bars. Into a medium priced restaurant. She was always careful not to get caught stealing food. She knew to not look like a thief. That’s how you get caught: No good con artist ever looks dishonest.
Instead, she would march up to a salad bar and load up with as much meat as they had available, some salad and croutons. “Having a good time, Hon?” a server might say. She’d look up and smile. “Mmm, Hmmm.” She’d bring her plate carefully to the bathroom and eat it in the stall so she wouldn’t be noticed eating in a booth that was supposed to be empty. She’d leave the plates in the stall and sneak out the back doors.
Once, in an alley behind a restaurant, she ran into a few street roughs. “Lookey what we have here?” they said, unwisely. “A little lost angel? We’ll bring you back to heaven, babes. Just let us be your ride.” They thought they’d have some fun with the little lost cunt. They woke up in L&M Hospital two days later. They never saw it coming.
Look innocent, be adamant.
Meeta had grown up.
Meeta skipped through the Farmers’ Market in downtown Portland, OR. She knew where she was because of the salt content of the air. And the weather vs. the declination of the sun. Maybe even the strength of gravity or the pull of magnetic north or some quantum mechanics effect. I would expect her to be part homing pigeon, part Indian tracker, part Einstein.
Here and there an apple disappeared from a stall. Or a hunk of cheese. Or a pastry. Drinking was easy. There were water fountains everywhere. Though a beer would have been nice. Later.
She contemplated a building downtown. It was a bookstore. An entire block of bookstore. She went inside to look for a bathroom, but to look at the books, also. She found fiction. Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn. She curled up in a corner and read.
Her reading was passable. Sir had taught her well. She practiced whenever she could. She was sure reading would help make a great con. Not just card counting or eavesdropping on a mark’s hand. But a real, complicated con, one that required you being smarter than the mark. Not just him being stupider than you. Anyone can do that.
The giant bookstore closed with Meeta in a stall in the girls’ room. After it emptied, she spent the night in the stacks. She liked the smell. It smelled of intellectual cons. She sensed that that was what life was all about, anyway. The weak being used by the strong. Until the weak figure out that they are all weak. Luckily, the weak preferred to just think they are strong. Then you got them.
In San Francisco she went down to the pier. Not to steal fish, which she wasn’t about to eat raw. But to expand her map and pick a pocket or so. Transportation was free. Sleeping was free. Food was free. But there were times your con needed money. Like at the laundromat.
While washing her cloths, and wearing her meetin’ and cheatin’ dress, she noticed a boy outside the laundromat. He had all the signs. Dirty. Unkempt. Lean. He was hanging around a restaurant, by the door, and then by the alley alongside. The world’s twistiest street lay beyond. She knew him. Homeless. Desperate. Looking for a handout, a theft, or an unguarded dumpster. But not a con. No. He was too honest for a con. To get by in this life you need to know how to lie. Oh, and not get caught.
Meeta shrugged. Amateur. His demeanor breathed vulnerable. Might as well hold up a sign. I don’t know what I’m doing! Free scavenge!
The proprietor of the restaurant came out and shooed him away. That didn’t take long. She was almost sorry for him. Almost.
He darted across the street, alive only because of San Francisco’s notoriously chaotic traffic, and ducked into the laundromat. He dashed around a row of washing machines and straight into Meeta.
She regarded him, curiously. Then critically. Then criminally. He was fouler, dirtier, and bedraggleder than he looked before. Meeta wondered how he escaped the dog catcher, let alone the police.
“Hello?” he said. “I’m Butch. Big Butch,” in direct contradiction to the evidence.
Meeta continued to look at him, clinically.
Big Butch grew uncomfortable. “I’m a big man around here,” he said, with a shaking voice. “And you’d better show some respect.”
Meeta had already sized him up, of course. In a San Franciscan second. Her puzzled gaze at him and indifferent silence were just part of the con. Hold him in her stare. Show no great regard for him. Let his own discomfort dismantle him for you from the inside, one piece at a time. Hypnotize then hijack.
“I know people around here, you know,” he said, pulling himself up in the expectation of intimidating her, like a frog attracting a bored female. She just looked. Not shrinking in fear. Not lured by sex. Not laughing in derision. Not reacting at all. He was doing all her work for her.
“Listen,” he said, starting to panic. “I’m not doing anything, OK? Let me leave now and we’ll forget anything happened.”
She owned him.
“Take off your clothing,” she said.
“I won’t have you trailing along with me smelling like a garbage dump. Now, unless you have a change of clothing somewhere, you’re going to have to do without until these rags are clean.
“There’s a set tub over there. We can use that to give you a bath while the laundry performs miracles on your cloths.”
“I haven’t got all day,” she said, with practiced annoyance. “We should be on a train to Los Angeles by midnight.”
So, like Sir, Meeta washed Big Butch and his clothing. Only a few times did they have to shove him in a bathroom while other anonymous washers came in to empty their loads, feed quarters into the machines, and go back to the bar next door. This was more for ‘Big Butch’s’ benefit. Nobody cared what a couple of street slugs were doing. But it kept him on his toes.
Big Butch felt humiliated and slightly aroused. Meeta didn’t know either of those feelings. Well, only how they could be used against the mark.
“Big Butch,” she said when he was washed and redressed. She had meticulously undressed and redressed in front of him, as if that meant nothing, and was back in her street clothes with the con cloths carefully folded and back in her backpack.
“What kind of a name is that? I can’t imagine your mother and father looking at you as you popped out and thinking, ‘Ah. There’s a Big Butch if I ever saw one!’”
“Eustace,” he said, quietly.
“Come again?” she said.
“My name is Eustace,” he said louder, almost angry. “Don’t laugh,” he added, either apologetically or defensively.
“I rarely laugh,” she said. “No… Wait… I never laugh. And since we’re going to be partners, you can call me Meeta.”
Eustace did laugh. “Meeta? What kind of name is Meeta?” he said.
He never said it again.
“OK, Eustace. I’ll call you Eustace and you’ll call me Meeta. Except when we’re doing a con. Then you’ll be Big Butch or Butch and I’ll be Hon. You’ll be the smart one. I’ll be the stupid, naïve one. Only I’m not. And you’re not. Just remember that. Don’t ever think you can be creative during a con. Stick to the act. Stick to the con. Stick to me. And one more thing.”
“Yes?” he barely said.
“We never betray each other. The con might involve acting like we betray each other, and you’d better make it convincing or I’ll have your-, but it doesn’t happen in real life.
“Now. Let’s get something to eat.”
It was complete. Eustace belonged to Meeta just as Meeta had belonged to Sir.
“Meeta,” said Eustace.
“What are you?”
“I mean, what nationality. Your hair is bright red. Eyes blue. Are you Scottish?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Never knew. Don’t care.”
“Oh, cause you look Scottish. Can you dance a Highland jig?”
“Suppose. If I wanted to. And if I knew what a Highland jig was.”
They ate in silence. Eustace couldn’t believe how Meeta had been able to conjure up this food. It was amazing. They found an all you can eat buffet restaurant, one where you come in through the entrance and pay at the door before being let into the dining room. Fort Knox of greasy food.
Meeta walked slowly past the entrance toward the exit, watching the patrons inside. Finally, she picked up her pace and came by the exit door right when some patrons were coming out. She bumped into them and said, “Oh, sorry!” For a second there was an awkward confusion at the door with everyone laughing, saying “Sorry!” “Excuse me!” “My fault!” “Oops!”
Once they were past, Meeta calmly walked back and opened the door. She had wedged her shoe in it to keep it open,
“Scottish,” she said, as if the last few minutes were hardly worth remembering. “Sure, why not? All I know is red hair can be useful.”
“What about me?” said Eustace. “What do you think I am?”
Meeta looked at him. Kinky black hair. Brown eyes. Black skin. “Sorry, I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve seen people that look like you all over the place. I don’t know which one suits you. Are you Scottish?”
Eustace was… puzzled. She didn’t know what he was? Was it possible? Freckly Scottish girl and Ace of Spades nigger? Just how stupid is this chick?
Still. In some places she knew what she was doing. In others, she was as dumb as a rock. Maybe he could use a smart, dumb rock. He tucked that away. For the future. Maybe he can take her for something. Eustace still thought he was something. He should have realized. Dumb or smart, a rock can still strike you down.
It took Eustace a long time to get used to traveling by rail. It was especially unnerving how Meeta would throw herself into a box car, dragging him in behind, roll into a corner and fall immediately asleep. But then wake up just before they arrived at their destination and bailed before anybody found them. Her internal clock was one with the schedule. God, she was a train. At least, she had her own route. Her own schedule.
“Meeta,” Eustace said.
“Yes?” she said back.
“Where are you going?”
“No. I mean, as a person”
“You must be going somewhere in your life. Toward some goal? Something you want?”
“Something I want,” she repeated. She had never considered this. This boy, Eustace, brought her many new perspectives. Many new ‘news.’ Things she had never thought about. News she could use. In the con.
“I am going to Boston,” she said at last. “We will see what we see. Take what we take. And go where we go. And then leave for the next…” The next what? The thought intrigued her.
“That’s what I mean. Where are we going? What are we doing? Why are we doing it?”
Meeta gathered back her fragile wits. No matter how strong she was and had always been, she carried her shell of vulnerability. Like everybody else.
“We’re going forward,” she said. “The next train. Which is life. We are alive. What are we doing? We are living. Why are we doing this? Because the alternative is death.” That seemed to answer it all for her.
Eustace had no answer. His conversations with her were like that. Very in the moment with no regard for past or future.
“Where did you come from?” he’d ask.
“San Francisco,” she would say. Or Chicago or New York or Atlanta.
“No. I mean before that.”
“I don’t mean recently. I mean, where did you come from? Where are you from originally?”
“I give up.”
Meeta seemed singularly disinterested in his history, as well. But she liked libraries. Libraries were great cons. You walked right in and you loaded up with free knowledge and walked right out again, right under their noses! Everything was a con to Meeta. Everyone a mark. Or a partner. Or another grifter. Or the Man. She would visit libraries but just to check out books on card tricks and famous grifters. She was especially interested in what finally did them in. Learning from their mistakes, I suppose. And Mark Twain. She liked Mark Twain, for some reason.
“He was too confident,” she’d say after reading up on a famous con artist. “She got sloppy.” “He was drunk.”
And once she got very solemn. “He was betrayed by his partner,” she said like pronouncing a blasphemy.
Later they busted a casino. She was asked for ID. Meeta looked young. Young enough to pass for 16. She didn’t actually know how old she was. Or what that meant. Strangely, she had some ID. A Connecticut driver’s license. There was a Scottish girl in Bridgeport missing her ID.
“We’ll get you some,” she told Eustace.
“How will you find someone who looks like me?”
“Doesn’t matter. If they can’t tell me from another readhead, they won’t know you from another Black.”
“Ya. You’re right there. We all look alike.” Then he thought, “Say. You called me a Black?”
“Not a nigger.”
“Nigger’s a bad word.”
“Black is saying what you are. Nigger is saying who you are. Never pretend to know what someone is on the inside…”
He was about to say that that was very sensitive of her.
“…it only gets in the way of the con,” she finished.
Chapter Some More
A fisherman might want to go spend a day playing on his computer or a techie might long to spend the day fishing. It’s not just a case of, ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’ Both just want to get away from obligation. For one day, do something they don’t have to do.
Meeta sat on a guard rail alongside a parking lot. She was looking at a church. There was a wedding going on inside. Meeta wore her good cloths. These were no longer the garish Nineteenth Century clothes Sir had given her. Meeta’s reading abilities had enabled her to triangulate between Vogue, People, and Newsweek to determine what people her age wear to a con like this.
Modest dress. Ribbons in her hair. A plastic purse that could accommodate many nicked items. Eustace stood back a little. He didn’t like what Meeta had filched for him to wear. Straight slacks. White shirt. A jacket that looked like no one would ever wear it, yet also looked over worn. String tie. With a cellophane carnation in the lapel.
It breathed tacky.
He looked hideous.
He looked perfect.
He stuck out like so much of a sore thumb that nobody would ever admit to acknowledging him.
“I hate this,” he had said.
“OK,” said Meeta.
“No, really. I hate this!”
“No, really. OK!”
“You don’t care about me, about how I look or feel.”
“Yes and no.”
“I care about how you look. I don’t care about how you feel.
“You and I are playing a part. Dressing and acting and interacting as someone else. All that matters is how we look on the outside. Not how we feel on the inside.”
“So. Do you care how I feel?”
“Look. The wedding is over. Look now. Feel later.”
They watched the wedding party come out. Watched the happy couple and the lines of worshipers sending prayers of rice their way. And then to the banquet hall for the reception.
Meeta willed herself to look older. Not like a child con using her red headed child body to trap and extract a con. This time she had to look mundane. And adult. Eustace could look immature. Though it was unclear who was the older.
They followed the reception line into the hall, chilling with people around them.
“How do I know the groom?” said Meeta. “Oh, he’s my uncle. I’ve been away. Studied on the west coast, lived on the east coast. Now I’m a citizen of the world! Though I always think of this as my home.”
“Oh, sorry! I’m Sally. This is my friend, Ben. I couldn’t possibly miss Uncle Jerry’s wedding. Though I think they screwed up my invitation. I got one, of course, but I’m not sure if they got my reply. It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad to be here! What’s you name again?”
So Meeta got a catalog of names and allies. Chatting giddily to ensure that they wouldn’t have time to ask her too many questions. When she couldn’t find her name on any table several people jumped up to invite her to sit at theirs. “Here!” “We can add a chair or two!” “I’m sure the kitchen has enough food!”
“You’re so sweet. My kind of people.”
When she got to the end of the line she gave the groom a hug. He looked dazed.
“Uncle Jerry! I know you haven’t seen me since, I don’t know. When the moon was blue! I’m so happy for you,” she giggled and gushed.
“Ah, yes,” said Uncle Jerry, confused. “You’re welcome. Um…”
“Sally. Silly Sally! That’s what you used to call me. It was a long time ago, I know. But family should stick together. You probably don’t remember when I moved away, that was-God. Centuries! But I kept some memories. I hope you don’t mind me at your wedding?” she looked at the bride and groom, suddenly uncertain.
“No, no. Of course not,” They both said. “We just, um…”
“Great! Well, catch you later. You two have too much on your minds,” and she hugged them both.
An uncle from Minnesota busted in. Soon they were forgotten.
So when Meeta and Eustace looked lost, one of their new friends, the uncle who had busted in before, said, “Say. Come over here. Sit with us. We want to hear more about your life, Sally. We’ll straighten out the menu. Now what did you get, the fish or roast beef?” He looked at her. It was not an uncle-ly look.
So through dinner they ate, then talked, then flirted, then they danced. And reminisced. Even with the bride and groom. Eustace stopped caring how he looked. The uncle kept asking Meeta for dances and saying things like, “You know. I’m sure you got your looks from my side of the family,” and “You can go far around here, sweet cheeks,” and patted her on the behind. Meeta giggled, put a hand over her mouth, and blushed. How she managed it, I’ll never know. She had the most control over her viscera of any grifter I’ve ever known. Like they say, ‘Sincerity. If you can fake that you’ve got it made.’ Uncle cornered Meeta by the punch bowl. He leaned over her like the wolf breathing on Little Red Riding hood. Meeta put on her best, juicy morsel, look.
“Say, Sally,” he cooed. “If you are thinking of settling down around here, I just might have a job for you. I’m a big man in the investment business. Play your cards right and you could go all the way.” He grinned lecherously and winked on ‘all the way.’
“I certainly intend to,” she thought. But said, “Oh, that would be lovely. Are you sure you want a little girl like me?” She added just enough innocence to make the irony seductive and overpowering. Uncle felt…well, he felt things.
“Sure, little girl! Here, take my business card. I insist you come to my office this Monday.” And he gave her a creepy hug.
Later they left, after kissing Uncle Jerry and his new bride. They said goodbye to new friends they had supposedly known forever. And headed to the parking lot. Woo! We’ve got to do this again!
They disappeared into the gloom.
“What did that do?” said Eustace.
“Do?” said Meeta.
“We got a meal. Food and wine and cake. And a whole evening sitting with oblivious people.”
“Research,” she said.
“We learned something. We gained something. And we met some marks. Jerry’s uncle, for instance, is an investment banker. He gave me his card. Professional marks always have cards. It tells you how gullible they are. Even better, he wants to get into my pants. I gave him just enough of a taste of panty that he thinks he can get all the way.
“So. All I have to do is learn something about how an office works, show up at his door, and let him take me in as an apprentice or something else-he thinks he can get more. Long lost cousin Sally. Cute, little redhead Sally. Adorable Sally. Silly Sally. The more he thinks that the more we take. He thinks I’m a niece already.
“We stick around long enough to get into his business and then…”
“Oh, and then start siphoning off money a little bit at a time?”
“Hell, no. Never. That would be unethical. And stupid. We become his most loyal employees. In fact, if it would be possible to discover another one of his employees embezzling money, so much the better. The best mark holds you in absolute confidence. Don’t ever go for the quick buck when the slow buck pays so much more.”
“Hi! I’m Nancy. You’re uncle said you’re going to be working with us.”
“Please. He’s not my uncle. Not here. I just want to be a low level grunt. Nothing more. Give me some filing to do.”
“Sorry. I just want you to feel welcome.”
“Well, thank you, Nancy. That’s all I want.”
“OK. Come with me. Here’s the coffee pot. Fill it if you take the last cup. Over there is the copy room. Down here is Diagon Alley! That’s what we call it where all the suits work. And here is a good place for you.”
Nancy ushered Meeta through a dismal office suite, past a dingy table with an unwashed coffee pot, down a corridor, past a doorway to the obviously favored territory of the ruling class, and to a ditch of desks and desperation.
“Great!” she said. “I feel at home already!” She wanted to vomit. It tasted like tin foil and teeth.
“OK,” said Nancy. “Ciao. I’ll get you some paper clips and white out. Get comfortable with your cubicle.” Nancy obviously saw Meeta as a nepotism nightmare. And she knew ‘Uncle.’ She knew what was coming. Fucking little Strawberry Tart! Meeta couldn’t be more pleased. In this place everybody distrusts and hates everybody else. This pocket picks itself!
“Hello,” she said to the pod dweller next to her. “I’m Sally. New kid in town. Who are you?”
“Nick,” he said. “Welcome aboard. Where are you from?”
“Oh. Nowhere. And everywhere. I got a PHD in panhandling. You?”
“Yah, ditto. Four years of accounting. Now I’m a no-account accountant.”
Laughs all around.
“So. I’m new here. And kind of on my own until Nancy remembers I’m here. What do I need to know? No, really. The real stuff. What do I need to know to get along?”
“Well. Nobody loves decaf. Don’t ever take the last donut from the box and always find a reason to be at the suits big luncheon after they leave.” In a whisper, “There’s always good pickins!”
“Ah. You’re a grifter after my own heart,” she said. They both laughed.
“You know it.”
“And beyond the scavenging, I’ve got to get acclimated here. A computer account. A set of portfolios. An assignment. I mean. I know accounting, but I don’t know here.”
“You’re too smart for this place. You’ll be assigned to some bigger wig to learn the ropes. Just stick to flipping numbers and stealing food. You’ll last a long time here that way.”
Meeta smiled broadly.
She didn’t want to last a long time anywhere. And this ‘here’ seemed hideous.
Eustace had his assignment. Meeta was very particular about that. He was not allowed to perform any cons if she was not present. But he had to practice. He would come up to someone somewhere in a fancy suit and go through the motions of picking his pockets. But not do it. Or walk up to a street vendor and pretend to steal a loaf of bread. But not do it. It was all to build confidence and to teach him to not look guilty before the fact. Or after the fact. To deny the fact, in fact.
Once, a police officer caught on to him. He pursued Eustace and cornered him.
“What do you have in your pocket?” he demanded.
Eustace produced a yoyo. And a look of innocence with just as much guilt as an innocent man would have upon being accosted by the police. Too much guilt is too much. No guilt is an admission of crime. Just enough is what your normal innocent person will display.
Flummoxed, the officer left him alone.
Eustace was getting the hang of this. Think you’re guilty when you are not. Think you’re innocent when you are…what? No. I’ve got to work on that. Act the opposite of what I am. God. Where’s Meeta?
Meeta watched a lot. And learned a lot. She knew things. Scary things.
I want to get out of here. That’s the breast of it. I’m here. And I want to be elsewhere. Help me. Shake it off, Meeta.
Meeta was stuck. She had a job. In an office. In a grueling place of soul crushing horror. And then there was Uncle. He didn’t come onto her immediately, just hovered over her. It was nauseating. She hoped she could get out of there before he progressed from affectionate(!) uncle to groper to… No. Don’t think about it. When she’s out of here she can take a bath in turpentine.
She reminded herself that she got there because she thought it might be a good con. A good way to learn. She was all about learning. From her experience with Sir to her sojourn in libraries. Mark Twain. Vogue and Newsweek. The War of the Worlds. Computer magazines. Now accounting. All taught her something about the world she lived in. The world she needed to survive in.
But this was beyond her. OK. She knew how to put folders in order. She had some experience with computers in libraries. She liked that they could tell her things she did not know. Computers were libraries that talked.
And she was clever enough to grab on to the job she had taken, never mind that she had a nepotistic ‘Uncle’ to claim credit for it. It was still hers.
She played that card lightly. Meeta wanted more.
And nobody commented on her incredible lack of knowledge of accounting. They just whispered behind her back. She was, ‘The Old Man’s Tart.’ Her back has ears.
“Hey, Sally,” said Nick. “Up for Taco Tuesday?”
“There’s a Taco-Merican joint around the corner. It pretends to be Mexican and we pretend to speak Spanich. A bunch of us go there after work on Tuesdays. Hola!”
“Sure. Sounds great!”
Tacos were good. They were food. They worked. So did the company. Now how to make it hers?
Chapter yet Another
To find something that is new. That’s impossible. There is nothing I can think of that is new. A police box full of wonder? A wardrobe containing a whole new world? A looking glass that looks back? Who knows where that goes? All new. All unique and wonderful. All creations of the imagination. All cons of the mind. Willingly taken, unlike the rest.
And where do I find a new thing? I am at a loss. I want my Meeta to go to new worlds. But I made her a homeless girl. A girl with nothing. A train girl. A nowhere girl. A tabula rasa. First woman. Where do I bring her? What do I do with her? What great story can I place her in? Meeta. You are so great. How do you want me to write you? Where do you want to go?
I am at your service. I am your con.
She missed the clunk of boxcars slamming together. A hundred years ago she would have missed the bite of coal sparks.
Tomorrow, Meeta. Tomorrow will be one more day. I look forward to it…
Meeta even got invited to her ‘Uncle’s’ parties. She’s family, after all. Eustace too.
“So. Is Eustace your…?” When she looked blank. “Ah, are you two together?”
“Eustace? No. He’s just a good friend. When I came back home from New York he was the only one who remembered me. We were, I don’t know, lunch pals in the third grade? Or something. Any rate, he still remembered me and I still remembered him. That seemed like enough.”
Enough. Uncle seemed pleased. Maybe flashy, redheaded Sally could be used somewhere else, as well. Put her on display at conferences. Show off the red meat. As long as I get the best slice. Everyone can be used.
Meeta counted on it.
Meeta found movies. She watched them at the library. She got some ear buds to listen and not distract the other cons stealing information. There were so many. From the earliest. The silent movies. To the talkies. To the classics of the great movie era. She liked the Marx Brothers. To the later, more somber films. Dr. Strangelove disturbed her. She didn’t approve of a con based on the mark thinking that the world would end. If that con blows up, so do you.
And then she watched The Sting. She loved it. Not just for how naive and unlikely it was. Nobody gets conned like that. But for how possible it is that people think that’s how it works. Know your enemy. Like a chef knows his cuts of meat. Use your mark’s beliefs against him. She didn’t know who Sun Tzu was, but they were twins.
Like Dr. Strangelove. Every con has parts. The con artist. The mark. And the narrative. That’s what you want the mark to believe and what you want the mark to think you believe. Done right and the mark begs you to take him for all he’s worth.
But what if the narrative comes with a fuse? Meeta decided, correctly, that later movies were troubling. There was something about this world she inhabited. Something not right. A sickness. She could see it in the movies as they progressed from decade to decade.
Shake it off, Meeta. Con the mark you’re with.
We live until we don’t. It doesn’t matter what other con artists are doing or how stupid they are. We live until we don’t.
Right regained. Criticism contained. Ah, it’s somebody else’s fault. Normalcy renewed.
Nancy swiped stuff from the supply room, of course. Like everyone else. Hardly a punishable offense. Meeta would be out of place if she didn’t. She did. She could use a pad of paper or a quiver of pencils once in a while. That was expected. That’s how they kept you quiet. You’re guilty, too, so shut up. Don’t trust someone who is squeaky clean. You need them to get a little dirt on them.
So it was a while before Meeta found the real con. Her computer account gave her read only access to every account in the firm. You could only have update access to your own accounts. Unless you were an overseer, like Nancy.
Most office grunts kept to their own accounts. Nose to the grindstone. The raised head gets plucked. The suits just looked at the high level reports. Mischief dwelt between.
So Meeta noticed that accountants like Nancy were creating clandestine accounts and charging fees to them. One, two, three dollars now and then; a hundred here. A thousand there. To be siphoned off to vendors with odd names. NB Enterprises for consulting services, overseen by Nancy Blain. Barrington Industries, engaged for their auditing services by Barry in accounts payable. And most curious, Public Outreach by Missy in HR.
All these accounts had one thing in common. They were paid to a shill. Meeta felt that these cons were sick. Better to breath real air while you’re doing it. But. When in Rome.
“Uncle,” said Sally. “Do you mind if I talk to you?”
“Of course not, Sally!” he said, sweeping her into his office with his hand. “I hope you are happy here. How are they treating you? Are you getting along OK?”
“I can’t complain. Just…”
“I hear you are doing well,” refusing the answer to his own question. “That you fit in OK. We here in the Midwest can’t be at all like what you’re used to on the coast, after all.” He was doing all the talking. Good behavior for a mark.
“But I hope we have some things to offer.”
“Uncle. Thank you. I’m happy to be here… But… It’s just…”
“I don’t know how to say this. But. I think some people are being… dishonest…”
“Yes, well. I’ve been looking at the books. It’s just that I want to learn, you know? And I’ve seen some things that I… don’t understand…”
“Well. I’m sure Nancy can explain our accounting practices. She’s the chief accountant.”
Meeta grimaced. “That’s the problem,” she said. “I think Nancy is embezzling funds from your company.” She looked appalled to say it.
So. Doubt placed in mind. Meeta’s Uncle paid close attention to his underling and found out that, yes, Nancy had opened up some shadow accounts in her name and was funneling money into them. They weren’t even in the Cayman Islands like Uncle’s secret accounts were. What an amateur.
Nancy was soon gone. And Meeta, Sally, had her job. Show time.
Meeta’s job was easy. A quarter of a million dollars was routinely moved around under her inspection. And she insisted on over site. Insisted on auditing to check every jot and tittle of her books. Lincoln on a penny couldn’t sneeze without her saying, ‘God bless you.’ She owed it to her uncle. So when an account holding fifty thousand dollars in extraneous expenses showed up she insisted that the auditors scrutinize it. Every dime and every plug nickel became squeaky clean. Uncle was pleased at her loyalty. And her naivety. This could work out splendidly. He could use her, he thought, to his folly.
Too bad they weren’t looking at the other accounts she oversaw.
She withdrew the money in Chicago. And Detroit. And St. Lewis. A couple thousand at a time until she was up to a hundred grand. More. And then some. With deposit points randomly selected so no one could trace her. Uncle was ruined.
God, that place smelled horrible.
I’ll take train fumes over office stench any day.
Chapter Get on With It
There is a Den of Thieves and a Ruckus of Rubes,
A Murder of Crows and a Rack of… ribs,
A Download of Data, or a Dropbox of Documents,
A Peck of Pickled Peppers and a Fuck of Harlots,
Or Hussies, or Bitches? Yes. Women reduced to Harbors,
A Fickle of Old Maids? What? How about a Dandruff of Barbers?
A Drone of Dialecticians, an Attack of Logicians,
A Numb of Sectarians, a Self-Righteous of Tacticians,
A Pride of Lions?-Nay! An Arrogance of Men,
A Belittle of Bullies, and then, and then, and then.
When the counting and grouping and tabulating are done, what remains?
You and me and baby makes three: A Hypocrisy of Humans.
Chapter the Last
Meeta had no idea what that girl was. She stood in front of a mirror in a fitness center in Baltimore. Who was she? Poking out her tongue at her when she looked back, curiously. Scratching her head when she brushed away her hair. Mocking her when she just wanted to know better.
Who is that girl?
Why is she mocking me?
Regarding me curiously?
Who am I? How do I tender her?
With a feint glance, a puzzle, and a wish.
Who is that girl,
Who looks at me in amazement?
Who touches my fingers as I press them upon the glass.
One side looks, the other, regards,
And both stand in impasse.
That was Meeta’s first, and last, encounter with a mirror.
It has nothing to tell me. Why should I be its con?
And for the first time in her life, naked, before the glass, Meeta laughed.
Till we meet again.