I glanced at my watch again. D promised he would be on time, but I knew better than to trust him. Raphael’s, the coffee shop where we agreed to meet, was just across the street from where I work. I’m sure Mr. Inglethorpe was wondering where I had gotten off to. “Inglethorpe & Cavendish lawyers are never idle,” he’d always say to me when I was taking five in the break room or staring at the ceiling for a minute to clear my head. Mr. Inglethorpe had an odd air of British propriety for someone who grew up in Mississippi.
“Looking sharp, Mr. Sharpe!” Raphael said as he fluttered by my table. He rubbed his bald head, smiled, and pointed at my bald head. I raised my demitasse and winked in return. The novelty of us bonding over being two bald guys in the same room had worn off well over three years ago. But Raffe greeted me that way ever since I became a regular. Raphael’s was the best coffeeshop in town—better than Starbuck’s, Caribou, or any indie shop. The coffee was better, the location was ideal, and the atmosphere was perfect.
“Say, uh, Mr. Sharpe, did you ever find your pen?”
“No, Raffe, I guess it’s gone for good,” I said with my best que cera cera gesture.
“Oh, sorry to hear that.” Raffe tipped his invisible hat, spun around, and greeted the customers at the next table.
Where WAS my pen? That Acme Custom Fountain Pen had cost me $500. The blueprint style casing struck my eye from the moment I took it out of its case. I miss that pen.
I looked up from my espresso. D sauntered through the front door. It had been about a year since I had last seen Maximillian Davis Sharpe. D and I had tried to get together at my apartment for Thanksgiving but he was on his phone for most of dinner. We were the last family either of us had.
“How’s my little bro?” he asked.
I opened my mouth to express some kind of pleasantry, but before I could speak, D pulled out the other chair at my table, spun it around, and sat upon it like he were riding a horse.
“It’s good to see you,” he continued.
D was going through a Nile Rodgers phase. He wore his hair in cornrow braids that cascaded over and around his shoulders. He topped his head with a backwards worn Carolina blue Kangol, and he had on dark sunglasses. Last Thanksgiving, he was deep in a Miles Davis phase, then wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and sporting a mini fro. The two main differences between D and the music legends he strove to resemble were (1) he had zero musical talent, and (2) he cut major corners with his wardrobe. The suit he wore at Thanksgiving had a Brooks Brothers label in the inside of the jacket, but he paid someone to sew it in. Actually, his suit was one of those pay-for-fabric e-tail jobs and he had doctored it, thinking no one would notice.
“Nice suit,” he said, referring to my Brooks Brothers suit. Mine was real, though. He grinned in a been there, done that, got the t-shirt kind of way. He looked down at his slim-fit leather jacket and his faux-couture.
“What you need, D?” I said.
D raised his left eyebrow and paused.
“You don’t wanna chit chat for a bit first?”
I peeked at my watch again—10:45 am. Mr. Inglethorpe was probably pacing in front of my office, wondering when I would return.
“No,” I said. “Out with it.”
“Aight, so, last Christmas I borrowed 20 grand from Sarge. He’s calling it in early and I’m short.”
If a sphygmomanometer were strapped to my arm, it would show that my blood pressure had just gone up several ticks. I rubbed my hand over my bald head.
“I know,” he continued, “we had a deal. You agreed to pay my debts in exchange for me never asking you again for a single penny. But bro, I don’t know where else to go. It’s Sarge.”
“How much? All of it?”
“Nah. I got half.”
“So, 12K? That’s what you need?”
“More like 14.”
Even D’s best Nile Rodgers outfit couldn’t hide his embarrassment.
Sarge was the Jabba the Hutt of the tri-county area. He ran a booking network, a country music bar, and a drug ring, all completely below board. Sarge’s booking scheme had been his most profitable venture until recently. DraftKings, FanDuel, and all the other online betting apps had taken a large chunk of his marketshare. About 10 years ago, he inherited a country music bar from a client who owed him big time. Nowadays he runs everything in and out of 10 Gallon Styles, that miserable bar. It baffles me how he even gets paying customers in the place. He waters down the liquor and gets desperate young country bands to pay HIM to play the 10 Gallon stage. Then, there’s the drugs—pot, meth, pills, whatever you want—he’s got it. Sarge had to be feeling the squeeze of late. Less sports betting commissions, shitty bands singing about trucks and shotguns, and opioid crackdowns have made for a desperate Sarge.
“How long do you have?” I asked.
D looked past me, over my shoulder, and out into the street. A black Escalade with tinted windows pulled in front of the shop. I didn’t have to look at the license plate, but I knew it would say SARGE. It idled and purred loud enough to hear over the din of Raphael’s.
“C’mon, little bro. He’s gonna kill me.”
Almost 40 years ago, D and I had gone to see Return of the Jedi on opening day. The line circled the cinema three times. After the film, I remember him saying “Man, I’d never get into a situation like Han did, owing money to a fat lizard like Jabba the Hutt.” And now, the functional equivalent of Jabba sat outside in his Escalade sail barge, just waiting to freeze D in carbonite and feed him to the monster that lives under his castle.
“D, we’ve been here before. You ain’t supposed to be asking me for money. I gave you a clean slate in return for . . . your trust.”
“M.P. . . “ D was crying now.
“But, I see you are in trouble, so I’ll help you out.” I pulled out my checkbook and wrote a $14,000 check made out to CASH.
I tore it out of my check book, began to pass it across the table, and then paused.
“I’m gonna need an I.O.U., “ I said.
“Ok, ok, whatever.”
D searched his pockets for something to write on. I retrieved one of my Malcom P. Sharpe, Esq. business cards from my pocket and slid it across the table.
“You won’t regret this. I’ll pay you back in a few weeks. You can trust me, bro.”
D reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a nice pen. It was my Acme Custom Fountain Pen! He wrote his I.O.U., pushed it across the table, and I slid him the check.
“Thanks, bro,” he said.
He ran out the back door of Raphael’s at top speed. He left my pen on the table. Whether or not he left the pen on purpose, I’ll never know. I never saw him again.