A very bad man, part one
December 1, 2013 by Thomas Wictor
We live in a golden age of flim-flammery. A lot of you reading this are depressed and aghast at what you see; my parents were too. They couldn’t believe how the world had changed since they were born. So to give you a sense of proportion, I’ll tell the story of the most merciless, predatory, murderous con man I ever met. I almost got my brother Tim killed by involving him with this son of a bitch. As badly as you feel, at least you don’t have that on your conscience.
I also tell this story so that you won’t feel like a fool. Your intentions were good. You believed what you were told. Sure, you and I could’ve done a little more due diligence, but always remember this: The flim-flam man is to blame. You and I have the responsibility to find out as much as we can before making our decisions, but even if we’re the biggest, fattest, most luscious sitting ducks out there, the flim-flam man is to blame. Nobody forces him to target us.
And the flim-flam man depends on us to keep silent about how he makes us feel like idiots. Well, screw you, flim-flam man. This idiot is silent no more.
A very bad man, aged to corruption
Twice a year, Tim and I would go to a bookstore an hour or so away. It specialized in a field Tim and I love. The bookstore owner was Larry, who was seventy-two when this story took place. Tim and I had known him since about 1992. Each time we visited him, he didn’t remember us. We’d walk in the door, and he’d flip some switch in his head and turn on the Vaudevillian shtick that must’ve been effective for most of his life. It was always the same routine, word for word.
“You boys gonna buy me out?” he’d shout slowly. “Make me an offer! Man, am I ready to hang it up! Whew! This business is killin’ me! Time for me take it easy for a while!”
Larry bore an eerie resemblance to the latter-day Mickey Rooney.
An ex-Navy man, he was a victim of diabetes, emphysema, and hypertension. Back or hip problems made him use a cane; his walk was a strange, lopsided goose step. Imagine an old man with logs for legs, tilting and righting himself, tilting and righting himself, at a snail’s pace. And he had fewer teeth every visit.
His store was invariably more chaotic than the time before. The overstuffed, homemade wooden shelves were attached to the walls and ceilings with guy wires that thrummed ominously at the lightest touch. Heaps of flyers, posters, and loose photos slopped off the counter tops onto the floor, where they accumulated dirty prints from uncaring feet. The unlighted aisles filled with towering stacks of rare, brutally overpriced books and magazines resembled a torturous World War One trench system, complete with traverses and fire-bays. Tim and I were always the only customers.
The whole time, Larry would talk and talk and talk, his blaring monotone cataloging seven decades’ worth of complaints, injustices, and bad breaks. Occasionally, he’d begin screaming at top volume, claiming the fire marshal had it in for him and was trying to close him down. He had ideas, though, a million of ’em. All he needed was a chance.
If we responded or tried to engage him in conversation, he’d say, “Yeah. Well, anyway…” and pick up where he’d left off. He was a monologist and preferred to practice his art without interruption, so we quickly learned to browse in silence, the metallic voice swelling and receding in the background, a dying siren.
For me the attraction the store held was that it was a constant in my terrifyingly fluid personal life. A book or magazine I left in a particular position on a certain shelf would be there unmolested six months later. Inside the store the utterly static quality of even the air itself was a reassurance that I’d found an oasis of immutability. The forces of the outside world had no power in there.
In 1995 the city bought up all the businesses on Larry’s block, in preparation for demolition and urban renewal. On our final visit to the store, Larry crowed that he’d wrung the highest possible compensation from the city before allowing his stock to be moved to new accommodations a mile or so away. We promised to visit him once he was settled in, then we signed his mailing list for the fifth time. He’d never once sent us anything.
His sometime assistant was a skinny, fiftyish man who wore a green beret, chandelier earrings, and T-shirts with slogans like, “When I Die, I’m Going To Heaven Because I’ve Already Done My Time In Hell: VIETNAM.” He bubbled with excitement over the move. All Larry needed was a chance, and his dream emporium would at last be realized. Tim and I made a final, thorough scavenging of the drastically reduced stock and departed.
It was heartbreaking to leave Larry that way, blinking listlessly in his ruptured swivel chair, his hair standing on end like Stan Laurel’s and dust motes circling his head in the shafts of sunlight that made it through the dirty glass of the storefront window. He’d taken to wearing a medieval-looking leather back brace the last couple of times we’d been by, and we didn’t think he was long for the world.
The next time Tim and I saw Larry was four months later. We were gobsmacked. His new store was a mammoth eight thousand square feet, he told us. It had high ceilings, a bright coat of new yellow paint, and was located just three minutes from a major freeway. He’d had a sign done up by a professional, with his surname worked into a pun describing his specialty. For the first three seconds, the orderly-looking rows of new shelves, the many glass-topped cases and the sheer size of the place took my breath away. He’d done it! He’d actually done it.
After that initial clean burst, however, the wonderment disappeared and I could see that all he’d done was transfer the interior of his old store into this new one. The books were in no way organized, the piles of papers were already beginning to grow, and, even worse, there were now hundreds of cardboard moving boxes piled everywhere. A closer inspection showed us that Larry’s movers had simply gathered up everything in the old store and boxed it any which way.
Larry told me he’d pocketed the money the city allotted to him for professional movers and had enlisted a platoon of homeless people instead, paying them with beer. We found boxes of literal garbage—candy wrappers, Big Mac containers, used napkins, empty milk cartons—all packed and moved at the city’s expense.
There was a new assistant, a tall guy with an enormous head and a voice that clanged deafeningly. Though he was completely able-bodied, he liked to scoot around in a manual wheelchair. He lived in a nest he’d fashioned in the back of the store, among piles of old clothes and blankets Larry intended to sell someday. Desperate for company, he’d dogged us in the aisles, interrogating us about ourselves in his ear-splitting honk. We’d been the only customers he’d had in over a week.
Since Larry’s new circumstances were in no way an improvement over the old, Tim and I left after a cursory inspection. A couple of months later, I went back by myself and discovered Larry sitting alone in the center of an indescribable mess, eating a cup of chocolate pudding with sluggish concentration. It looked as if frenzied chimps armed with hand grenades had ransacked his store. There wasn’t a single flat surface that wasn’t covered in heaps of paper and junk, and the towers of books and boxes had multiplied like The Monolith Monsters until entire sections of the huge building were impassable.
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