Louis Dumkowski and his friend, Cleatus Washington, were at a point of decision in their lives. One could even say that they were suffering a crisis of conscience. Well, one could say that Cleatus was suffering a crisis; Louis’s conscience was small to begin with, and the amazingly large amount of money they had been making since being hired as assistants to loan shark Vincent “Vinnie the Enforcer” Williams tended to smother it.
Cleatus, on the other hand, did not suffer under such a limitation. He saw the misery and poverty around them, and looking at the growing string of zeros behind the digits in his savings account book made him feel guilty.
“Louis,” he said one day. “You remember that old lady we collected from? The one what told us we oughta be ashamed to be in this kinda business?”
Louis looked up from the stack of twenty dollar bills he’d been counting and regarded his friend with a quizzical stare. “Yeah, bro,” he said. “I kinda recall. Elderly black lady? She done a number on yo mind, as I recollect. I had to do my crying white boy act on her.”
“That the one,” Cleatus continued. “You know, though, I think she be right.”
Now, Louis was looking at him with a dumbfounded expression, his mouth opened in a little “O,” and his eyes wide in disbelief.
“What you talkin’ ‘bout, Cleatus? How is this somethin’ to be shamed ‘bout? Ain’t we making more money than we ever seen in our lives? We work ‘bout four, five hours a day. What we got to be shamed about?”
“Come on, Louis,” he said. “Look around you, man. We go out every day and collect money from people hardly got two nickels to rub together. They ain’t got no proper jobs, and can’t get no loans from the bank, and we chargin’ ‘em a arm and a leg interest. It just ain’t right, man; it just ain’t right.”
Louis cocked his head to one side. With his new-found wealth, he’d been able to get regular haircuts, so his hair no longer flopped into his eyes when he did that. He stopped counting money and put his fingers under his chin. Cleatus’s words brought to mind the custodian who borrowed money to feed the hungry children of immigrants in his building while their parents were out working minimum wage jobs just to keep a roof over their heads; in fact, sometimes working two jobs. Louis had been poor, and now he was no longer poor, and he liked not being poor better; but he remembered what it was like to have to go to the likes of Vinnie, and then spend the rest of the month trying to dodge him because you couldn’t pay him back.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess you got a point. It don’t hardly seem right that hard workin’ folks get squeezed ‘cause they ain’t makin’ a decent salary, do it?”
“For sho,” Cleatus said. “And, I been thinkin’ ‘bout it, too. I got an idea, but it gonna take both of us to make it work.”
“What’s your idea?”
“Well,” he said. “It like this; people ‘round here need money, but when they borrow from loan sharks, the vig so high, they end up bein’ more broke.”
“Yeah,” Louis said. “Ten percent a week do add up.”
“I was readin’ this book over at the library the other day,” Cleatus said. “It be talkin’ ‘bout how po women in Korea long time ago used to pool they money. Then, they loan to one member of the group, and she use it to start a business, and then she pay it back with a little interest. That way, ever month the ‘mount they got in the kitty get bigger.”
“You go to the library?” Louis looked at his friend with shock and amazement all over his face. “I didn’t know you been doin’ that. That where you been off to when I can’t find you?”
“Yeah, but that don’t matter. You could use a little readin’ yoself,” Cleatus said. “What important, though, is if we put our money together, we could start somethin’ like that down here. You know, loan money to people to make a business; charge low interest, and let ‘em pay back when they able. It might take a while, but we could still be makin’ money in the long run, and we be doin’ somethin’ good for the community.”
Mulling it over, Louis had to admit that it sounded like a good idea, especially the part about still making money. Then, he had a thought. “What about Vinnie? Don’t you think he might be a little upset; us settin’ up competition and all? I mean, we could drive him outta business, and I don’t think he’d like that. I ‘member what he did when I didn’t pay a loan back on time. That buckshot in the chest hurt like hell.”
“I already thought ‘bout that,” Cleatus said. “I be thinkin’ we invite Vinnie to come in on the deal. With his extra money, we be able to service mo customers, and maybe we be making a profit quicker.”
“You think Vinnie go for an idea like that?”
“An idea like what?” Vinnie’s voice from the doorway, slightly slurred from several hours hanging over a glass of Jack Daniels and Coke at the corner bar; in fact, several of them; startled them. “What idea you talkin’ ‘bout me goin’ for?”
Louis’s mouth snapped shut, but Cleatus stepped forward. “I been thinkin’ ‘bout stopping the loan sharking.”
Vinnie looked at him, his eyes narrowing. “And, if you stop workin’ for me, how you gonna get by? Where else you gonna make what you making now?”
Cleatus outlined the plan he’d described to Louis. “And, you see,” he said when he’d finished. “We still be makin’ money, but we be doin’ good for the folks down here at the same time. What you think?”
Vinnie leaned against the door frame. He tried to look cool and menacing, but he actually had to lean to stay upright. That last glass of booze had almost done him in. But, his mind was still working. Cleatus eyed him expectantly, awaiting a response, while Louis tried to melt into the chair upon which he was sitting, expecting Vinnie to explode into a violent rage at the temerity of two mere employees to suggest that he give up such a lucrative pursuit as he’d built. Vinnie had a reputation of becoming physical whenever he became angry, and Louis figured that Cleatus’s proposal was sure to make him madder than a pole dancer with crotch itch.
Then, Vinnie pushed himself upright and put his hand out. “Cleatus,” he said. “I always knew, right from the start, that you was the smartest of the three of us. I tell you boys the truth, these past few weeks, sittin’ over there at that bar, I bein’ doin’ a lotta thinking; not much else to do in a bar but drink and think, you know. Anyhow, I been thinkin’ long the same lines. I’d like to be respected in this town. People scared of me, but I don’t want that. I want ‘em to like and respect me. Your idea would make that happen. Count me in.”
Louis bolted upright as if he’d been goosed in the behind. “Y-you like the idea?”
“Sure,” Vinnie said. “You think I like bein’ a loan shark? Oh sure, the money’s good, but having people look down on you ain’t good. I just never thought of a way out of it before. Thanks to good old Cleatus here, though, I got a way. Thanks, bro,” he said to Cleatus. “You are officially no longer my employee. We are now partners – equal partners.”
They all shook hands, smiling and beaming; even Louis fell into the spirit of the occasion. Shoot, he was thinking, as Vinnie slapped him on the back, I gotta stop worrying ‘bout things before they happen. Never know what gonna happen ‘till you give it a shot.
Cleatus tried not to beam too broadly. He didn’t want his new partners to think he was vain or boastful, or anything. But, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t smile narrowly. Oh well, he thought, why the hell not? These two white boys couldn’t up with the idea; took me to do it; I got a right to feel proud. “Hey,” he said. “Why don’t we go down to the bar and celebrate? Drinks are on me.”