The Bill Collector
A Short Story by Leah Cohen.
Brian approached the house in his newly repossessed shining white Corvette. There was a large figure in the shadow on the porch, rocking back and forth. The slender ray of light through the front door fixed her face to the shadow on the wall behind her. It grew larger and smaller as she rocked. ‘Abraham Washington Jones live here?’ Brian’s fears disappeared. He wasn’t even aware he had them till he realised they were gone. Seeing the woman’s figure steadily move to the rhythmic creaking made him more comfortable. Even if he couldn’t see her face.
‘He’s upstairs. He’s expectin’ you…’
She directed him to a staircase with its own entranceway to the right of the main door, which she guarded.
‘Thank you, m’am’ He climbed the steps. Paint was peeling as he groped along the hallway in the half darkness.
Upstairs, the door opened slowly. The shrunken black man stood there. His grey hair, frizzled. Somehow, Brian had envisaged him large.
‘Here’s your receipt, Mr Jones. Can I have the money.’
‘I don’t need no receipt. Come in.’ He stepped aside.
Brian entered a green room. A torn flowered sofa and oversized, mangled chair greeted him. Over a large corner dresser, a broken mirror was covered with notes and yellowed photographs. Everything was dank, dingy and old. He sat down, as directed, on the lumpy sofa.
‘You stay here. I’ll be right back. I’m goin’ to get you what you come for. You get the $3,000.00 and my debt is cleared. That right, boy?’
‘You got it, Mr Jones!’
He wasn’t alone for long. The man reappeared. Brian sat forward anticipating the money.
‘So, you the Bill Collector!’ Brian nodded. ‘It’s what I get paid to do!’
‘Tell me, Mr Collector…You collect more from blacks or whites?’
‘I don’t keep tabs. I collect from whoever don’t pay their bills.’
‘You know…you must be pretty good at your job to get an old man like me who ain’t never had nothin’, to give you every single cent he got in the world!’
Brian smiled. The man ambled slowly into the ripped chair and stared. Slowly, he put his hand in his shirt pocket and came out with the fat roll of bills.
‘Here’s what you want, boy. ‘ He waved the money. Brian started to get up.
‘No, You stay where you at. I wanna tell you somethin’ first.’
Brian wanted to leave. He was choking on the dampness. He didn’t move.
‘I’m 63 years old. Don’t look it, do I!’
‘I know. I look more like 93 maybe 103!’ he laughed. ‘Been workin’ since I’m 14. Coal mines…steel works…anywhere they give me somethin’ to do. No schoolin’. Only the bible. Never could save a penny. Seemed like everybody needed it more than me. I give my mother money. Know what she did? Paid bills and put the rest away. Didn’t spend a penny on herself. All the money was hid in a suitcase in the cellar. This here’s her place. We was livin’ here together since my father died. Just the two of us. Keepin’ each other alive when the heat didn’ work or the plumbin’ froze. We read the bible to each other an’ it kept us livin’ and believin’ an’ all the time, this money was in the suitcase under the house. Then, after she die, I seen this note stuck in the bible tellin’ me where to find it…and now…it’s all goin’ to you!’
‘Not me – the Credit Union’.
‘One more thing, boy. You know, I got cancer
‘No I didn’t’ Brian was getting nervous.
‘Cancer of the stomach and it’s spreadin’ fast. The doctor in the clinic been honest with me. He give me maybe two…maybe three months to live.’
Brian was feeling a rash of heat. The smell of sickness was closing in on him.
‘But I’m gonna pay ‘cos I can see you really want this here money. – comin’ all the way out here for it and damned if you gonna leave this sick ol’ nigger without yo’ pay!’
‘I really didn’t know you were so sick, Mr Jones. I…’
‘See these scars?’ Mr Jones lifted his shirt. His chest was caved in. His ribs showed through. He was fleshless. There were scars up, down and all over. The colors ran from reds to blues to purples.
‘So far, I had seven operations. Wanna know how much Radiation? chemotherapy? Know what it is, what it feels like?’ Brian felt he was going to throw up.
‘But ‑ a debt is a debt. If I owes it and I promised, then I gotta pay it!’ ‘Remember I tol’ you my conversation with God? Well, he said do what I think is right and that’s what I aims to do!’
Brian stood up. The man looked up. His eyes swelled with an anger Brian couldn’t understand.
As he watched him, Mr Jones put his hands in his pants pocket. Pulled out a small, black revolver. Pointed it at Brian’s face.
‘God tol’ me if you wants the money bad enough to give your life and come with me, then the money’s yours. What do you say, white boy? You offered me a settlement. Now, I’m offerin’ you one!’
‘Put down that gun’, Brian backed towards the door.
‘How much you want your money, Mr Bill Collector? Abraham was willing to give up his child to God to prove his devotion. How much you want your money? Does it mean that much to you? Does it?’
‘No! No, it don’t!’ Brian reached for the doorknob, blindly. ‘Keep your damn money! I didn’t know you was sick! I didn’t know you was dyin’! Why didn’t you tell them you was dyin’ You wouldn’t a had ta pay nothin. The debt woulda been closed!!’
Mr Jones moved closer. He cornered Brian against the back of the door.
‘Mr Kelly, we all been dyin’ from the day we was born. How many people you go aroun’ tellin’ that to! Ain’t some things private?’
‘Look, you keep the money. I promise I won’t bother you again! No one will…’
‘Uh uh…A deal’s a deal! The money’s yours. Here, you take it’.
Brian was paralyzed. The gun held him fixed to one spot. Mr Jones took out the roll of bills and tried to force it into his palm but it was limp, lifeless. He leaned up close till Brian felt swamped in the old man’s sickly breath. He crushed the money into his palm and then forced it into a tight fist so none of it would fall.
‘You gotta take the money, don’t you see?’ he pleaded. ‘You gotta!…just like you said on the phone. Or else, how’m I gonna clear my name when I die?’
Mr Jones was smiling. He didn’t need to corner Brian any more. Brian was glued to the back of the door in his own perspiration.
Downstairs, some young blacks had gathered around and were busily checking out the shiny, white corvette. Kicking, stripping hubcaps, lights, silver trim. Letting air out of the tires, smashing front and back fenders with pieces of rubber hose and pipe. Windows were shattered with bricks from broken streets. Then, with the car wide open, they ripped and slashed
at the interior. First doors, seats, then the wheel and dashboard. Piece by piece, they dismembered it. Accidently, someone leaned on the horn and it went off like gunshots.
The old lady on the porch rocked back and forth. Her eyes grew heavy and, slowly, her head fell to her shoulders. Many times, she’d fallen asleep just like this. The rocking stopped. Dead silence except for the car horn which droned on. It didn’t disturb her in the least.