It started with the rain. Tammy Wynette refused to perform on the uncovered stage, the foot traffic slowed to a trickle, and my boss Jerry couldn’t stop grumbling about the replacement band.
“The Cheese Boys?” he muttered, as the sounds from Turtle Tap’s house band echoed through an empty grandstand. “This is the best those college idiots can do?”
All week Jerry had been irritated by Riverfest!’s new management, who reminded him of the college graduates who used to boss him around at the factory before his escape to the freedom of owning his own business. A popcorn wagon, an industrial laundry, and now and then the odd miscellaneous hustle. We operated in what you might call the gray economy: not exactly illicit, but not exactly well documented, either. Did we pay all our taxes? That wasn’t a question Jerry asked. He knew he paid enough.
For years we had taken in cash from the fairgoers, our white money bucket filling throughout the day with hard-earned dollars from hard-working people looking to have a good time at the fair.
This year Thurl Albrecht, the chief college idiot, had installed a new system to “address issues of uncaptured revenue.” In order to make sure that the carnies and concessionaires weren’t skimping on the percentage they paid to Riverfest! Inc., fairgoers were now required to buy tickets at an official Riverfest! booth, which they then exchanged for rides and games and food.
Jerry had taken this personally.
I don’t think it bothered him that he was viewed as a cheater, because he knew he sort of was—he even took a kind of grifter’s pride in it.
But the new system—these red tickets—had messed with his relationship to cash, and that was unacceptable.
Something would need to change.
Jerry was like no one I’ve ever met, before or since. A religious man, he sat in church every Sunday with eyes closed and his hands gripping the back of the pew in front of him, believing. But at the same time, he could not escape the greed or resentment or adrenaline addiction or whatever it was that had turned him into a con man. A cheerful, charismatic, mostly decent, and mostly respectable con man, but a con man nevertheless. A con man who loved cash.
“It was like the seas parted,” his wife Inga had told me, as she recalled the momentous day that she and Jerry had gone to a carnival and Jerry had realized that being inside a popcorn wagon filling up a money bucket would be better than standing in a factory watching powder pour out of a chute and fill up a barrel. “He just stood and stared at that cotton candy machine for hours.”
“A dollar a bag,” Jerry added with the faraway look of an old man recalling a youthful romance. “Three cents of cost, including the bag and the stick. Ninety-seven cents profit on every bag…and all of it cash…”
The seas had parted; the grifter version of Moses had seen his promised land. An exodus followed. And the commandments for me and all the other employees were handed down:
Thou shalt take all payments by cash and make all payments by check.
Thou shalt take fifties and hundreds and put them into the bottom of the cash box, for those shall be used for trips to Mexico.
Thou shalt not turn down cash. Ever.
Honor thy cash and keep it holy.
“Issues of lost revenue,” he muttered now, as I gave up on the idea of selling another Sno-Cone and packed up the syrups.
“You have to admit, we didn’t exactly report everything last year,” I said.
“We had a lot of expenses!” Jerry cried. He kicked the money bucket, which was barely half-full. A strand of tickets slid to the bottom like a bouquet of wilting flowers.
That was how Tuesday night ended. Wednesday morning was completely different.
The morning seemed electric. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the Ferris wheel rotated and lifted people into the sky. Toddlers tasted cotton candy and squealed with the excitement and joy of new worlds being revealed to them for the first time.
And in our little popcorn wagon, a grown man pushed a paper hat on his head, fired up the popper, and hummed his favorite country songs, which were all about guys on the run.
Synapses were firing. A drumming of cotton candy sticks against the edge of the machine. The spirit of vengeance against the college idiots who ran the planet flowed through the wagon.
God was in His heaven. And the con man had found his con.
In so many ways Jerry and I were completely mismatched.
Jerry was the undying rebel, the free spirit, the outlaw at heart who happened to live in a small house in the country with a swimming pool for the kids and a popcorn wagon parked on the side lawn. He was a domesticated Dean Moriarty, a Huck Finn who had lit out for the territory, reached it, matured (a little), put on some shoes, and now made a living in a (mostly) honest way.
When I started working for him I was a straight-laced high school student. Now I was in college, well on my way to becoming one of the idiots he railed against.
I fought him on everything, called his bluffs, exposed the holes in his logic, strongly advised against the things he most wanted to do. I warned him repeatedly that certain problems would land him in trouble, and pointed out that the trouble would rarely be worth the excitement of the game.
And in the end, I watched him do them all anyway.
It had started to occur to me that summer that I might represent some kind of redemption for Jerry. In accepting his scams, or at least by accepting the scam-tainted money as my salary and bonus, I sanctioned them. The fact that I was law-abiding and principled and yet continued to work for him must have meant, in some sense, that the sins were not too great. If they were unjustifiable, I wouldn’t have stuck around.
Or was it something else? Maybe Jerry was the magician who had sought out the most cynical assistant to practice on, because he figured that if he could fool him, he could fool anyone.
Maybe I wasn’t the conscience; maybe I was the dupe.
Or maybe I was both.
His Riverfest! con was simple. The take that morning had been higher than he expected, and immediately his great brain figured out why.
“It’s the rain,” he told me. “Those stupid tickets were wet.”
I wasn’t following.
“They weigh the tickets, Jacke. They don’t count them. They weigh them.”
Now I understood the gleam in his eye. It was the conspiratorial look he gave me whenever his accountant showed up to straighten out some minor discrepancy, and we both realized that there were some fairly major ones that the accountant knew nothing about.
“How much moisture do those tickets hold?”
“That dry cardboard? It’s as thirsty as a camel. I think yesterday’s was double.”
“Double? But the rest of the week is supposed to be sunny. Hot but not even humid.”
“Come on, Jacke. You think water only comes from the sky? Don’t we have a hose right out back?”
I was appalled. “The hose?”
“You’re right, too obvious. We’ll just leave ’em in the ice machine overnight. When the ice melts, there will be plenty of moisture to go around.”
I looked at the pile of ice above the soda spigots. “It just doesn’t feel honest,” I said.
“What’s not honest? It’s their scale. Their tickets.”
“Your water,” I pointed out.
“Water that’s in the air!”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. “Our deception, Jacke.”
Then he jumped up from his pail and threw a cup of oil into the popper.
In spite of myself I couldn’t help but admire Jerry. He was the little guy going up against heavies, beating the odds with wits and guile and a preternatural ability to analyze situations and people.
Jerry owned a dozen or so rental properties, small, neat houses that dotted the neighborhoods surrounding the factory from which he had escaped. Every time we drove to one to fix something or pick up the rent, he would encourage me to become a landlord.
“You could do it,” he said. “You just need to know how to bang on some pipes now and then. And how to find good tenants. That’s the key.”
He told me the secret: he looked for people who would be reliable enough to pay their rent and who would never want to move out.
“They all say they’re just there temporarily,” he said. “I’ve had people telling me that for twenty years, that they’re just renting until they buy their own home. I nod and smile and encourage them. But I know the truth. I can see it in their eyes.”
“See what? Desperation?”
“Weakness. They don’t want to own their own house. That’s just who they are, deep down. Renters.”
“Really? You don’t think it’s society that’s beaten them down?”
He shrugged. “I’m just telling you what I see.”
“Socioeconomic forces that make them live paycheck to paycheck? Make it seem like they’re not worthy of participating in an ownership class?”
“Nope,” he said, shrugging again. “I just see the weakness.”
There was a heat wave that day and foot traffic was low. I spent the extra downtime trying to come up with a persuasive argument for why Jerry shouldn’t cheat.
Soaking the tickets felt like it was wrong, like it was stealing somehow, but I wasn’t sure if that was true or, even if it was, how I felt about it. Who was he stealing from? The Riverfest! corporation? But he was right: these were their tickets, it was their scale. The contract Jerry had signed was silent on the issue of tickets and humidity. Riverfest! Inc. must have made a business decision that the precise weight of the tickets did not matter to them. Maybe they had calculated how much it would cost them to hire a few extra people to count the tickets and decided that the savings more than offset any ticket weight issues.
They had increased the percentage of their take this year, and they’d made it harder to fudge the expenses. Maybe they were making so much money they didn’t care if some tickets came in heavier than others.
Or maybe their calculations already assumed a heavy ticket. Who set the scale, anyway? Who had decided how much a ticket weighed? Who did the multiplication? Riverfest! Inc. did, that’s who. Maybe they were actually ripping off everyone except Jerry.
That occurred to me last, but Jerry would have jumped to that conclusion in a heartbeat. It would be just like those college idiots to rip us all off, they’re always going after the little guy, the workers, the poor schmucks who didn’t go to college don’t have a chance in this world…
In the end my best arguments were a) stealing was wrong and b) he could be caught. Neither argument resonated with Jerry.
And so, after we hosed down the concrete in front of our wagon and scoured the sinks with bleach to be ready for that day’s inspection, I walked with Jerry down the midway to the air-conditioned trailer that served as Riverfest! headquarters.
Thurl Albrecht was doing his morning interview on the local radio station that was broadcasting from their makeshift booth on the other side of the Scrambler. Patti and Sharon, two ladies in their fifties, were there to take the tickets and do whatever else needed to be done. Sharon was knitting a cap for a baby. Patti was baking something that smelled like cookies.
They reminded me a lot of the women at my parents’ church who turned up every week to make doughnuts, a fundraising endeavor that had basically kept the struggling church from going under. When there were enough hands, the ladies who had extra time cleaned the church, just because.
“Hi Jerry!” said Patti.
“Hello there!” Jerry cried, dropping his bag on their scale.
Sharon looked up from her knitting. “You had a great night!”
Jerry beamed at her. “Amazing!”
“It’s those nachos—they’re the best nachos at Riverfest!, Jerry!”
Sharon piled our bags on top of several others that had already been turned in. The scale’s numbers fluttered back to zero. Patti handed us a check and apologized that the cookies were not yet finished.
“Next time, I’ll try to make sure they’re ready before you get here!” she said, with an innocence that made my stomach fall.
“You know that was wrong,” I said on our way back to the wagon. “And now I know why. The problem isn’t that this is stealing. The problem is that you lied to Patti and Sharon.”
Jerry stopped walking. “Lied?” He looked like a puppy that had been ordered out of a room for some reason he could not fathom. “What did I say that was untrue? They said I did well, and I just said ‘amazing.’ It was totally amazing that I did well, even on such a lousy day! The ice machine thing worked better than I thought!”
“And then Sharon attributed it to the nachos, and you agreed.”
“I was agreeing with her that my nachos are the best at Riverfest! You know I believe that. It would have been a lie if I’d said otherwise!”
“You know what I mean, Jerry. You had that whole conversation without ever revealing to them how the tickets were so heavy.”
“They didn’t ask me!”
“Of course not,” I said. “They’re not suspicious, because they’re honest. But that gives us a special obligation to be more honest when we’re dealing with them.”
I had no idea if this last sentence true, but it felt right.
Jerry mulled this over for a minute as we headed back up the midway, the river on our left, a four-lane highway on our right. “Tell me something, Jacke,” he said as we passed the Ferris wheel. Do you tell your parents what you do?”
I paused. “If they ask I do,” I said quietly, aware that I was not without hypocrisy on this point.
“I know, I know. You don’t directly lie. But you omit things they’d want to know. I did that with my parents, and my kids did the same thing with me. And you know what? That’s okay. That’s how you survive when other people have power over you.”
I was invested in the argument now, and I had to think this through as we passed the rifle games and the kiddie rides. Was that always true? Was it morally acceptable to deceive anyone in a position of authority?
“What about God?” I asked as we reached our wagon.
“God knows everything! He’s the one guy who can’t be tricked!”
“Well, okay, but isn’t He upset when you deceive someone? Isn’t He angered by the cheating in your heart? The sin in your soul?”
“Nah,” Jerry said. “He doesn’t expect much from me. He knows I dropped out of college.”
It was the sort of joke that would have ended our conversation except we had reached the popcorn wagon. Inga had arrived to help set things up. I knew from Jerry’s greeting that my words had gotten to him.
“Jacke thinks I’m a liar!” he cried.
Inga looked crestfallen. “Really?” she said softly, and it almost looked like she might start to cry. “Why does he think that?”
It was not the response he expected. It made me realize how much Inga trusted me, and how much she distrusted Jerry, although she loved him deeply.
It reminded me of her stipulation that he pay off their house entirely: part of her thought he’d somehow gamble away their life savings through one scheme or another, and she wanted to know at the very least the bank would not be coming to take away her house.
It’s how we all were. We trusted Jerry, we admired him, and we were afraid that at some point, he might go a little too far. Might go a little too far deceiving Inga, and Patti and Sharon, and all the other good people in this world. At some point deceivers deceive themselves, too.
“Nevermind,” Jerry said, firing up the cotton candy machine.
It was a busy day. The heat wave died down and the fair bustled with a lot of pent-up energy. By the end we had thousands of tickets in our bucket. Jerry didn’t say a word, but I knew he was thinking about the extra money he would be giving up if he didn’t soak the tickets.
After we closed up I bagged up the tickets. Without saying a word, he took them from me, dumped the bags in the ice machine, and locked up the wagon.
What could I do? They were not my tickets. It was his decision.
But that night I had trouble sleeping. This was not a few extra dollars. This would be hundreds or even thousands. And if it wasn’t stealing, exactly, it sure felt like it. It might not have been money they were entitled to, exactly, but it didn’t feel like it belonged to us either.
My mind ran through the books I’d read in my Political Economy course earlier that year, back at college. The money came out of thin air – thin air plus deception. How could this be justified? What would Smith or Marx say about earning your income through melting ice? About money that accrued to you out of thin air?
But no: there was an act here. It was not a humid day: we actively made the tickets heavier. And our action increased the amount of money we received, without any reference to the amount of goods we sold. This was theft. It had to be. And if it was theft, I was an accomplice.
The next morning I lifted the bags from the puddle at the bottom of the ice machine. One of the bags was so heavy the strap broke.
Patti and Sharon were prominent in my mind. I thought I could smell chocolate chip cookies all the way up here. That was ridiculous and had to be a hallucination of some kind.
“I’m not sure I can be a party to this,” I said to Jerry.
Jerry looked at me for a long moment. “Party to what?”
“To this deception. I think Patti and Sharon should know how you did this.”
Jerry smiled and handed me the bags. “So tell them.”
“You understand what I’m saying, right? If they say it’s the nachos or something, I’m going to tell them the truth, the actual truth. I will not leave that trailer without telling them that you soaked the tickets.”
“I hear you,” said Jerry. “Let’s go.”
My heart skipped a beat. “They’ll probably let them dry out and weigh them tonight. But it could be worse. You understand that, right? They might get upset. Worst-case scenario, they call Thurl, who fines you or takes away your license. He might even call security. The police, even.”
Jerry did not look all that concerned. “Don’t worry, Jacke,” he said. “We’ll do whatever you guys think is best.”
I had a ten-minute walk down the midway to decide what I was actually going to say. Jerry was quiet, walking next to me, swinging one of the bags, while I, lost in thought, held the heavier one firmly at my side.
My heart was pounding. All I could think about was that I did not want to do what I was about to do.
I felt like I was watching one of those movies where the sheriff has a showdown against the outlaw you’ve spent an hour rooting for. Your head is with the sheriff, the good guy, the emblem of law and order and justice. But your heart is with the outlaw. You know that when he finally takes the bullet, part of you is going to die with him.
I must have been looking down; the trailer appeared so suddenly I gasped. Jerry had already opened the door and was halfway inside.
I still did not know what to say. I thought my heart might explode in my chest. My feet were tingling with nerves.
I swallowed hard and left the bright morning sunshine for the dingy light of the trailer.
Inside I noticed things I hadn’t ever noticed before. Sharon had brought in a framed photo of herself and her grandchildren. Patti had fastened a picture of her son, who was in the navy to the refrigerator with a pair of American flag magnets.
The sight of these details emboldened me. They viewed this as their home! These were not faceless corporate shills—they were good people, like my teachers, my aunts, the doughnut ladies at my parents’ church, my own mom for God’s sake.
The money was irrelevant. They should not be lied to. They should not be deceived.
At the same time I could barely look at Jerry. What if they overreacted? Called the police without delay? What if they hauled Jerry away in handcuffs?
But the decision was clear. We were not a lawless society. There was a code that needed to be upheld, and every so often people like me were called upon to make sure that it was. I’d given Jerry the chance to confess for himself, and he’d all but begged me to do it for him. It was my duty to turn him in.
“Whoa, look at that one!” said Sharon, pointing at my bag.
“Your dad made you carry the heavy one, eh?” Patti added.
My dad? How many people had assumed I was Jerry’s son? How many dozens or hundreds of people had seen us in our matching shirts, running the popcorn wagon together, and just figured from our proximity and our enjoyment of one another’s company that I must be his son?
How many people thought that Jerry, the man I was about to betray, was my father?
I blinked several times and heaved the bag onto the scale.
“Oooooooh,” Patti cooed. “You’re gonna break our scale!”
“Must be those killer nachos!” said Sharon.
It was the moment to come clean, to confess everything, to expose Jerry for what he truly was. I opened my mouth.
“Yep!” I heard myself say. “It must be!”
My mouth stayed wide open, shocked by its own moral failing. The words I had just spoken resounded in my ears. The “it must be” was particularly ignominious: I had practically sung the sentence, with the rising word “be” lasting at least a three-count.
I turned to Jerry, the outlaw I had just let slip back into the hills. He was trying not to laugh.
“I’m sorry,” I croaked, to absolutely no one, for no discernible reason.
“You don’t look so good, Jacke,” Jerry said merrily.
“It’s hot out there,” said either Patti or Sharon.
“Good for business, hard on workers,” said the other. “I’ll get you guys your check in two shakes.”
There was nothing to do but nod and wait.
“Hang on, ladies, I should tell you guys something,” said Jerry. “I totally cheated your system!”
Neither said anything. Patti’s mouth formed a tight o. Sharon tilted her head. “Wha…?” she mouthed.
“Seriously! I left them in my ice machine overnight. They’re soaked! Really heavy!”
I felt the blood returning to my face. He could not have been more chipper.
“Jerry!” Patti and Sharon both said.
“I did! I did it two nights ago. And last night too! And I’ll do it again tonight if you don’t stop me!”
Patti and Sharon exchanged a look.
“We have to…you’re saying they’re…too heavy?” said Patti. “But we have to use the scale. There’s no way for us to count all these tickets.”
“Absolutely no way,” said Sharon. “It would…it would take us hours. At a minimum.”
Patti nodded quickly.
“We did have an idea that there might be sand in the bags,” Sharon went on. “We didn’t think anyone would do it on purpose. But we were thinking about Rick Hathaway, who’s got that beach volleyball thing going down by the bridge. Do you know Rick?”
Jerry smiled. His eyes were twinkling; he rocked back and forth on his feet. You’d think he was watching his first-born grandson on a tilt-a-whirl. “Sure,” he said. “I know Rick. Good guy. Too bad he went to college.”
“Everyone knows Rick,” said Patti, trying to get Sharon back on track. “We check for sand in the bags. But I don’t know how you’d check for water in the tickets. We’d have to…well, I don’t even know how you’d do that.”
“These look just fine to me,” Sharon said, holding up a strand. “I don’t see anything different about ’em. They’re a little cold, but that seems normal. I mean, this being morning and all. They’ve been sitting around all night.”
“In ice!” Jerry said.
“Maybe they’re a little darker,” Patti said, frowning and peering into the bag. “A little. Maybe. But color doesn’t really matter, does it? They’re all fifty cents no matter how dark they are.”
“I don’t think they’re much different,” said Sharon. She smiled brightly. “I think we’re good, Jerry. Here’s your check.”
“Okay, you guys are the bosses,” said Jerry. But make sure you tell Thurl.”
“We will,” they chimed, smiling again.
They handed us our check and we headed for the door.
“Thank you for bringing this to our attention,” Patti said sincerely.
“It was my pleasure,” Jerry said. “Oh, sorry—our pleasure.”
I smiled feebly as the door closed behind us.
“Was that honest enough for you?” Jerry chuckled as we walked through the midway back to the popcorn wagon.
“Too honest. How did you know what would happen?”
Jerry paused. We were about to step over a set of power cables that ran across the sidewalk under a set of metal plates. The plates had come loose; Jerry slid them back into place with his foot.
“I’ve been telling you this for how many years now? You think too much, Jacke. You don’t watch. You don’t listen. And you don’t understand. You see categories and big ideas and all these twenty-dollar words. And right in front of you are just two people. Patti and Sharon.”
He could not have said this in a nicer way. I knew what he meant—it was some version of book smart and street dumb—and yet I could not take offense. It was delivered with a level of affection that always surprised me, given how much he hated people who went to college and how obvious it was that I was the archetype of someone who went to college and still knew nothing about how the world worked.
But this was different. I say “the world” but this was not about machines or anything like that. Not political systems or large socioeconomic forces or anything I learned about in college, all those things that helped me succeed quote unquote, and that Jerry had no time for because he was too busy pounding on pipes with his wrench so he could take a vacation in Mexico for six weeks instead of four this winter.
And I could take tests and get into schools and earn degrees and get set on a path to a decent job that didn’t require me to slide under a popcorn wagon on my back to fix something that had gone wrong. I could pass tests and get accepted to programs and maybe now and then earn a prize or two. That was “the world” too, but it was not the same as this.
No, this one was about people in a room together, reading each other, predicting behavior, knowing what others will be capable of doing and what they will not. Wits against wits, and will against will. People one on one. People eye to eye.
And of course he’d measured me as well. He’d known all along that I wouldn’t go through with it. He had known that about me hours before I’d known it myself. He studied my face, gazed into my eyes, and saw something about me. Something that would drive me, something beyond my power to control or resist. I’d like to think it was loyalty or flexibility. Jerry probably just saw it as weakness, and I was not at all sure he was wrong.
Jerry turned and headed back to the wagon, but I stood still for a moment.
To our left was the river, rolling and free. To our right was the broken-down four-lane highway full of people, shadowy people, fighting traffic on their way to work.
And as the morning breeze rolled in off the river and struck my skinny arms, I couldn’t help but shiver, my mind spinning with everything I had learned, all the books I’d read, and the emptiness of all the things I didn’t know and never would.
Oh people! Another story with Jerry, back by popular demand! You can read more about my work for Jerry at the industrial laundry and a story with a different boss. Those were good years. What else? Hmmm. Maybe one about tickets in a completely different setting. And maybe this pair of college stories, which were from right around the same time. Okay, this one too.
Check out all the Objects at the Objects main page. Take a look at my books (available at Amazon) by visiting the books page, or just shoot me an email to receive a free review copy. Listen to the podcast if you are interested in hearing these stories read aloud, along with some other assorted nonsense. And have a wonderful weekend!