Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 9: Confidence Game

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets

Rita and I are spending the morning reviewing her account strategy. We’re working at her house, a raised ranch in Red Bank, New Jersey. An assortment of pens, calculators, directories, and files clutter her kitchen table.

“You’ve targeted Zicronics for a plant floor upgrade in the next ninety days?”

“That’s right. And I’ve got other prospects pending—Banzer, Remeissen, Sayers, and Carlisle. They’re likely to close early next quarter.”

“Who’s your contact at Zicronics? Tyson, their CFO?”

“Actually, I’m reviewing the site plan and proposed modifications with Bradley, the plant manager. We’ve worked almost everything out. When we’re in agreement on all the particulars, we’ll both walk the proposal over to Tyson.”

“According to this schematic, Rita, you’re planning to streamline production by offering instant online access to inventory in the main warehouse through the latest bar‑coding technology.

“Yes, Zicronics will then be able to ascertain immediately what’s in the central warehouse and what’s running low. The company’s ‘time‑to‑market’ window will be halved, and its overhead reduced by thirty percent. The profitability achieved through this ‘just‑in‑time’ strategy more than justifies the expense of implementing the new infrastructure nationwide. It will enable Zircronics to cut costs by an additional forty percent. Based on these projections, the company should be able to close two of their regional facilities while tightening controls, speeding delivery, and lowering inventory throughout the remaining warehouse and distribution centers.”

“Our engineers have visited the site and documented this?”

“Yes. Here are their reports.”

“What’s your timetable?”

“Bradley and I are scheduled to review the proposal with Tyson on the twenty‑first. I’ll close the deal within forty‑five to sixty days of that meeting.”

“You’re confident you’ll have the order by then?”

“Very.”

And so the morning goes. Despite Rita’s soft manner, she’s all business. Her projections look good. She’s right on target to meet her numbers. With someone as sophisticated and organized as Rita, I can relax a little and just listen to what she’s saying. I’m so relaxed, in fact, that I don’t hear the front door open. I don’t feel his heavy, grinding steps.

“Jake, you’re home! Is everything O.K.?”

“Where the fuck are Bridget and Jojo?”

“They’re with the sitter.”

“I told you not to leave them with her.”

“But Jake, Carrie’s so good . . .”

“She’s a good‑for‑nothing bitch; that’s all. The kids should be home with you.”

I notice Rita’s right hand quivering. The tremor belies her appearance of steadied calm. Rita walks over toward Jake. She gestures toward me.

“Jake, you remember, Sue, my manager.” But Jake never acknowledges my presence. It’s as if they’re alone, poised for battle.

“I told you; Bridget and Jojo should be with you.” His is a percolating anger scorching through.

“Jake, I’m reviewing accounts with Sue. Let’s discuss this later.”

“Now, we’re going to talk about it N O W!”

“What’s the matter? Why are you home? What happened today?” Rita’s steely calm transmogrifies into palpable fear, then anger.

“Jake, not again. Don’t tell me it has happened again.”

“Motherfuckers.” A sweep of his hand knocks papers off the kitchen table.

“Rita, I’ll call you.” I stand up, grasp my coat, and head for the door. Yes, I caught her look. The one that begged, “Leave, please leave. Let me handle this.”

“Yeah, manager, you do that.”

No one talks to me that way. Who the hell does Butt Crevice think he is? I don’t have to take his shit. Then I think of Rita. With effort, I firehose my rage. I force my shoulders to drop, relaxing my tense muscles. I exit quietly through the front hallway. For Rita’s sake, I don’t turn around and make a scene.

Rita’s voice floats toward me. “Thanks for coming, Sue. I’ll speak with you later.”

“Those assholes, they fucking canned me.”

I depart to the sound of porcelain hitting the ceramic tile floor. The carnage of crushed china pierces the quiescence of the suburban street.

“I’ll get them for this,” Jake screams. His malevolence tears through the screen door with the force of a steel‑tipped bullet.

“Oh baby,” Rita says.

Her soft intonations are followed by the roar of the Minotaur dissolving anger into grief. That’s all I hear. That’s all I know for sure. Maybe I’m hallucinating, but I imagine this anger, this grief, flowing toward sexual passion. Isn’t it funny what the mind does in order to assuage one’s guilt?

.     .     .     .

Several days go by. There I sit in my office, burrowing through my paperwork.

Brrriinng!

“Hello?”

“Hi, Sue.”

“Laurie?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s up?”

“Did you hear about Rita?”

“No, what?” I’m not about to divulge anything to Laurie.

“Jake’s been canned.”

“That’s terrible. How’s Rita coping?”

“They’ve been fighting. That fucker beat the crap out of her and rammed her head against a wall. He gave her a goddamn concussion!”

“Is she O.K.?” I never should have left Rita alone with Butt Crevice. Jesus, what was I thinking? I should have called the cops.

“I rushed Rita to the emergency room last night. She’ll be fine, but she’s filing charges against the bastard. She’s asking for a temporary restraining order.”

“What about Bridget and Jojo?”

“They’re O.K. I’m with them now at the house.”

“Thank God. Is there anything I can do?”

“Put a contract out on that prick.”

Some of Rita’s story tumbles out. Laurie’s version, anyway. How Rita and Jake met at the Mayford Wells Substance Abuse Clinic in Freehold, where they were admitted for alcoholism. Laurie’s interpretation of their medical conditions was less than clinically reliable.

“They say Rita’s a classic enabler. That she unwittingly reinforces Jake’s problems, so he won’t recover. That’s their interpretation. I call it marriage insurance. How could he leave her in his condition? Anyway, their diagnosis of Rita is that she drinks, like her father; shops, like her mother; eats, like a hippo, and gambles like Jimmy the Greek. They say she’s engaged in a ‘destructive behavioral cycle.’ Like who doesn’t drink, shop, eat, and gamble? At least, they admit that she’s warm and caring and is protective of children.

“Then there’s Dickhead. They say he’s angry, violent, and shiftless. Duh! They talk about repetitive patterns of destructive behavior transmitted from father to son with each generation. Those doctors at Mayford Wells say this ‘legacy of abuse’ explains his adolescent record of truancy, theft, and violence. They even say it’s responsible for his drinking and the difficulty he has holding a job. What a pile of crap! Like it makes a difference what our family history is. I could have told them after one look at Dickhead that he’s an abusive, good‑for‑nothing bum.”

“Laurie, these are terrible allegations.”

“Who says they’re allegations? They’re facts taken right off Rita’s and Dickhead’s medical charts.”

“How could you possibly know all this?”

“My relationship with Rita goes way back.”

“But why would she discuss these things with you?”

“She didn’t. I peaked at their records while they were at the clinic. I had to find out what was going on and what kind of man she was getting mixed up with.”

“And did you tell her what you saw on Jake’s medical chart?”

“Sure I did. I even showed her his chart. Not that it mattered.”

“Laurie, if what you say is true, it’s terrible. But unless Rita asks me to help her, there’s nothing I can do. And, Laurie, she hasn’t told me a thing.”

“Trust me. Dickhead’s B I G  T R O U B L E . Ever notice how close he is with Bridget? Watching them together gives me the creeps.”

“What are you trying to say? That Jake sexually abuses his daughter? What possible evidence would you have to make such a claim?”

“Do I have to spell everything out? Ever notice how touchy‑feely he is with her? He never lets her out of his sight. I’m telling you it’s not normal.”

“Laurie, that’s supposition, not proof. I can’t act on that. But I’m willing to talk to Rita and see what she says.”

“Well, you better do something. And quick.”

We hang up. No good‑byes, just the click of Laurie’s phone before I place mine in its cradle.

.     .     .     .

The next day I ring Rita, hoping our conversation shines a little lux on things. But she reveals nothing, so I try a more direct approach.

“How’s everything?” I ask. That ought to get her talking. Nada. Her silence about her personal life forces me to dive in headfirst.

“I hear Jake’s left, and Laurie’s staying with you. Is there a problem? Can I help with anything?”

“Jake? Well sure, he’s out of town on business. It’s nice to have Laurie staying with us while he’s away.”

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” That’s all I offer because Rita’s shutting me out. She makes me wonder if I’ve imagined things. Still, still, still I worry.

Despite my concerns about Rita, her sales figures have given me no indication of trouble. Traveling with her, however, always seems to hint at a darker story. During our calls together, Rita always appears nervous and withdrawn at first. Later, she loosens up. And with her thermamelt comes the ring of the cash register.

Like today. We celebrated the early close of the Banzer account by feasting at Carmine’s Burrito Warrior. It’s just a roadside stand located on Route 1 near Edison. The place has a huge neon sign illuminating a Roman gladiator. Sure, “Carmine the Glad” has a shield and sword, but this is no ordinary Roman gladiator. He’s clothed in Mexican garb. Then, there are the two lions noshing away at him. But instead of blood, burritos the size of mufflers spew out with the words “Eat Me!” flashing behind them. Just my kind of place.

We’re feasting in Rita’s car. She’s devouring Carmine’s Ultimo Burrito Supremo. This bean fusillade is at least a foot long and crammed full of fixings. Me? I’m nursing a diet coke.

“Great day, Rita.”

“MMMMmmm . . . crunchhhh . . . aummm.”

“That was quite a close at Banzer. That should tide you over until you sign Zicronics.”

“MMMMmmm . . . crunchhh . . . aummm.”

“Rita, I don’t want to pry. But is everything fine at home?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Jake’s due back this week.”

“He’s coming home?”

“Yup. Laurie’s staying with me while Jake’s away. Did I tell you he’s got a new job? Unfortunately, it involves a lot of travel, but he’s promised to spend more time with Bridget and Jojo when he’s not on the road.”

“Things are r e a l l y  O.K.?”

“Of course. The best ever, actually. Ever since Jake’s new job.”

What more could I possibly say? So I drop the subject. By day’s end, we’re carousing discount stores. Rita buys three pairs of shoes for herself and some sneakers for her kids. Me? I purchase nothing. She drops me off back at my car, which I’ve parked near her house. There’s Jake back home early from his trip. Bridget is gummied to his side. I’d hardly describe Ol’ Butt Crevice as convivial; still, he grunts and nods, an acknowledgement that passes for a greeting. Even Rita’s shopping bags fail to provoke him. So I hope, hope for the best.

.     .     .     .

But even though I want to think that maybe, just maybe, things are fine with Rita, Laurie always manages to needle my complacency. We’re at a diner sipping coffee one day between appointments when our conversation drifts from business to Rita.

“I’m telling you, Sue, things aren’t alright. Take last night. Rita locked Jake out. Then she chained both doors and wedged chairs against them. Dickhead was drinking—again. And when the guy drinks, he’s a fucking menace! I spent hours on the phone with Rita. I would’ve driven over, but Dickhead was lurking in the bushes.”

“Don’t tell me Jake’s more hospitable these days.”

“Cut the crap, Sue. What we have here is a situation.”

“Laurie, I hear you. But what am I to do? Every time I try and discuss matters with Rita, she says things are fine. Things don’t look fine. But unless Rita opens up to me, there’s not a thing I can do.”

“But I’m telling you Rita’s worried about Bridget. Dickhead spends way too much time with her. She’s with him whenever he’s home. The guy bathes her. He even puts her to bed!”

“Fathers do that, Laurie. That doesn’t indicate abuse.”

“Believe me, there’s nothing normal here.”

With effort, I manage to redirect our conversation back to Laurie’s accounts. We walk back to her car. We head in the direction of our next call, Jayrrx Manufacturing. But I find it hard to concentrate. Why is Laurie always talking about Rita? Rita, Rita, Rita, that’s all she blabs about. You’d think she’d want to discuss her future orders or existing accounts, even her personal life. But all she ever wants to talk about is Rita. What’s she up to? Is she even doing her job? Dammit! Now, I’ll have to check her orders and contact customers listed on her activity reports to see if she has anything going on at all. I don’t trust that bitch.

But despite my suspicions about Laurie and everything that she claims, that evening I give Rita a call.

“Things are great,” she says. “Jake loves his new job. Sure, he travels a lot. But when he’s home he spends quality time with the children. Actually, the only problem I have these days is that I’m looking for a new sitter.”

“Why? I thought you liked Carrie.”

“Oh, things didn’t work out. There were conflicts. It’s a long, complicated story.”

“What are you doing now for child care?”

“Well, for the time being Jake watches the kids when he can. But, of course, I need a new sitter. Jake’s got his new job and all. It keeps him awfully busy these days.”

Something’s going on. As usual, Rita’s not telling me. She’s upset; I can hear that. So I try to pitch in. I stop in to look after Bridget and Jojo when Rita can’t get a sitter. A couple of times, I even take them home with me. Since I’m a good ninety‑minute drive from Rita’s, it’s an inconvenience, to say the least. Add to that, I’m no natural‑born nanny. These arrangements start impacting my performance and eroding what little free time I have. Tom resents the intrusion.

“Why can’t Rita find a goddamn sitter? For Christ’s sake, Sue, this is not your problem! Tell her to find someone else.”

Then there’s Butt Crevice, only a phone call away. Take today, for instance. It’s Saturday. I drove down early this morning to pick up Rita’s kids. I’m playing with them on the floor of my living room when I get an irate phone call from him.

“Where is she? Where the fuck is she?”

“Excuse me? Who is this?”

“Who the hell do you think it is, moron. It’s Jake.”

“Oh, Jake. It is you. She’s meeting a client.”

“Client my ass. She’s gambling.”

“What?”

“You heard me. She and that cunt, Laurie. Those bitches would turn tricks to stay at the tables.”

“That’s enough, Jake.”

“You ain’t heard nearly enough! That woman’s blown two month’s salary at the tables.”

“What?”

Crash. I hear the sound of glass shattering. Jake must have knocked something over. He must be drinking. Again. Still. Always.

“She fooled you, too, didn’t she? You’re the fucking stooge here. She takes our money, blows it, and keeps on spending. Now that’s some bitch.”

“Well, anyway, Jake, it’s been nice talking with you.”

“I ain’t done with you yet. I’m coming to get my kids.”

“Jake, that’s not necessary. Rita will be here any minute. I’ll call you as soon as she gets in. Promise.”

“What a load of crap,” he says, slamming down the phone.

Much to my surprise, Butt Crevice called it right. Minutes fade to hours. After a while, I’m so concerned I contact the Sayers Corporation, where Rita had told me she was meeting with the finance administrator. But when I ring, the company’s voice mail informs me the plant’s closed for the day. Several more hours pass. Tempers in my home are wearing thin. Tom’s snapping at Bridget and Jojo. They’re starting to cry. Our living room now resembles a demolition site. And with each passing minute, I find my sympathies edging toward Butt Crevice.

Finally, at 6:15, in strolls Rita. She’s more than five hours late. Laurie’s by her side—never a good omen. Given the late hour and the lies, I’m prepared to lay odds at twenty‑to‑one in Butt Crevice’s favor. And I smell it, that hybrid stench comprised of liquor, sweat, and cigarettes that proves they’ve just come traipsing back from the casinos. Even their shopping bags, faded and worn, seem little more than a ruse.

“Jake called,” I say.

“What did he want?”

“He said you were at the casinos.”

“Oh, Jake,” Rita replies with a laugh, “what an imagination he has. I had a great meeting with Fayette at Sayers. Laurie met me afterward for some shopping.”

“Rita, you’re five hours late. I was worried about you. I called Sayers. Guess what, the plant’s closed today.”

“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I met Fayette at a diner. Anyway, since when are you my nursemaid?”

“Since I became your de facto babysitter.”

“Well, forgive me for inconveniencing you. My children needed clothes for school. I’m trying to juggle several balls here. But what would you know about that?”

“More than I’d like to these days, Rita.”

And with that, Rita and Laurie scoop up Bridget and Jojo. They vanish without even so much as a word of thanks. They don’t even take the toys. And now, I have to call Butt Crevice.

“I fucking told you,” he said.

And so he did.

Then there’s Tom, who I have to appease.

“That’s it,” he says. “From now on Rita gets a sitter. No more of this mommy crap.”

I’m methodically picking up debris and placing toys in a plastic container. I’ve got a headache. It’s been a long day. What I need is a long soak in a tub and some peace and quiet, not an argument. Agree, agree, that’s my motto.

“Tom, you’re right. Really. I never should have offered.”

“Damn straight.”

I glance at the children’s discarded sketches. They’ve initialed “M” for mommy, “D” for daddy. But something’s wrong. The pictures just don’t seem right. Mommy’s so far away while Daddy towers over Bridget and Jojo. He’s so close it looks as if he’ll crush them. Page after page, I try to find some semblance of a loving family. But the drawings are so lurid, the colors grotesque. Could this be a cry for help? Is this family imploding? Are these ruptured lives yet another casualty of today’s postmodern wreckage?

“Sue, are you listening to me?”

“Yes, Tom. Of course.”

But it’s the pictures that have seized my attention. Page after page. Every drawing more ominous. See the house? So vivid, so contorted that it appears as if it’s about to teeter over the edge of a precipice. Page after page of explosive color and distorted imagery. Even the Chevy Suburban sitting in the driveway terrifies. Its sliding doors open, its dolls tumble out like refugees fleeing for their lives.

“Tom, take a look at these pictures. Do they seem normal?”

“Normal. What do I know about normal? Are you normal? Am I normal? Who’s normal these days? What you have are some drawings by kids.”

“But Tom, look at the colors, the family, the house, even the car. Everything looks broken.”

Reluctantly, he glances at the drawings.

“What do you expect, the Cleavers? So O.K., the colors are grotesque. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy here. What of it? You probably going to tell me this is evidence here of child abuse.”

“Well, yes, Tom. This looks serious.”

“So what are you going to do? Call in child welfare? To what end? You’re going to tear that family to bits and for what? You’ve got no evidence!”

“But Laurie . . . ”

“Laurie’s a certified psycho. You don’t know what’s going on in that household. Leave well enough alone. Their lives are not your problem. And even if you’re suspicions later prove to be correct, you still won’t be able to fix their problems. That’s the point, Sue. The whole world’s broken, and you can’t fix it! Got it?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Forget them. I’m the one who needs attention.”

“Oh, you do?”

“And I have something that you can fix.”

With that, Tom pulls me close. Kisses, sweet kisses. Touches that melt. Then desire, then lust. It’s not long before our clothes come off, scattered on the floor here and there. Not long before our bodies lie intertwined on the bed, exploring the pleasures of conjugal bliss. Slowly at first, then in a fervor of passion. We fall asleep pressed close, only to wake later ravenous for food.

.     .     .     .

So I do nothing where Jake and Rita are concerned. Things continue pretty much as usual. Rita finally closes Zicronics. That sale gives her a nice commission check. I’m relieved. That should improve her financial situation. Anyway, I’m in my office crunching numbers when the phone rings. I pick up.

“Is this Sue Maitland?”

“Yes, who is this?” It’s a male voice I don’t recognize.

“Does Rita Worthington work for you?”

“Who are you? What’s this about?”

“Check out that Zicronics order of hers. It’s bogus. While you’re at it, look at her other accounts.”

“W h o  a r e  y o u ?  W h a t  d o  y o u  w a n t ?”

But by then, he’s gone.

Now I’m worried. Is that stranger out to destroy Rita? Does he intend to undermine my business? Could Butt Crevice have called, masquerading as a stranger? Perhaps, he wants Rita out of Amtech. Certainly, Butt Crevice has no love for Laurie or me. Still, he needs Rita’s paycheck. And given how good business is for Rita these days, would Butt Crevice even risk having her change jobs? No, there are too many ifs. The caller can’t be Butt Crevice.

But the alternatives are frightening. I begin speculating that the call came from Techam, Amtech’s industrial rival. Could this be a game of industrial sabotage? Possibly. If Techam succeeds in getting Rita fired from Amtech not only would I lose a good rep but also my rival would then be free to hire her. It’s what industry experts call the ‘Double Fuck.’ Though even more terrifying is the prospect that the caller just might have his finger on the pulse of truth: Rita is engaged in fraud. I can’t bear to think of that possibility. In the end, I decide not to muddy the waters.

But in life—and in sales—if corruption lies at the heart of a matter, it never fades away. Instead, it simmers, it festers, it assumes a multiplier effect that fills the big screen, taking a toll on all the players, so it seems to me. Anyway, weeks go by. I have all but forgotten that cryptic phone call. That is, until Tal calls me.

“Sue, we’ve got a problem with Rita.”

“Rita?”

“Jack Driskill received some correspondence from Rita’s last employer, Drake Fischer Incorporated. There seems to have been some irregularities in her business practices at Drake.”

“Shit! Someone from Drake sent letters to Driskill, our president?”

“That’s right. Driskill passed them along to Fred Pick. Pick gave them to legal, legal sent them along to personnel, and now they’re in my hands. Apparently, while she was at Drake, she wrote some bogus contracts.”

“What?”

“They provided us with documentation, Sue.”

“But I did a thorough background check when I hired her.”

“I’m sure you did. However, my experience suggests that fraud usually takes time to surface.”

“Well, what do you want me to do, Tal?”

“Start with the Zicronics order and work your way back. I want you to call every customer whose signature appears on her contracts. Find out if all those orders are legit. And Sue . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Call Rita and arrange a meeting with her next Thursday. I’ll fly in to join you if need be.”

“I’ll check everything out and get back to you. In the meantime, I’ll schedule that meeting.”

Rita’s accounts come out squeaky clean, all that is, except Zicronics. There’s no escaping the falsified signature on that six‑figure contract. What could she possibly have been thinking? Do I even know Rita?

Thursday arrives. Rita and I meet in some antiseptic hotel room. I tell her our conversation is being recorded. I point to the tape machine sitting conspicuously on top of the desk with its red, record‑light illuminated. Without emotion, she admits to forgery. Unable to look me in the eye, she tells me she’s resigning. Of course, she’s resigning. Otherwise, I would fire her.

“Rita, how could you?”

“You can’t possibly know what I’m going through.”

“But Rita, you threw it all away. You had that order in your pocket.”

“It was thirty days to closing. I needed the money to pay my mortgage and protect my family. The bank threatened to foreclose on the house.”

“But why didn’t you call me? Amtech might have been willing to advance you a loan based on your past performance. If it was the gambling, why didn’t you go for help? How does this solve anything? I’m sure you’re aware of the legal proceedings Drake Fischer has taken against you. Rita, you’re in over your head. Get some help before you lose everything.”

I try to help her even though she has screwed me. And what do I get in return?

“How could you possibly understand? You haven’t a clue. Jake lost his job again. Bridget wakes up screaming nearly every night. Jojo has vision problems. Yeah, so I gamble. How else would you suggest I try to make ends meet? None of us is perfect. Not even you, Sue. We’re all just trying to survive. Some of us have a harder time of it than others. The truth is, Sue, you couldn’t survive one day in my shoes. Not a single day.”

Tears roll down her face. Angrily, she brushes them away.

“And don’t be so quick to assume that your time won’t come. You think you’re safe, protected. Well, it doesn’t take much. Remember, all I was doing was trying to protect my family. What else could I do?”

Rita storms out. I never hear from her again. I never discover the identity of the caller, not that he matters. Months later, Laurie tells me that Rita and Jake are still together. Still fighting, still drinking, still gambling, the ever present intimation of incest still smoldering. What am I to make of all this? What is fact, what is hearsay, what is illusion? Who can tell? In the end, I pray for Bridget and Jojo. I hope that the family finds some means of survival. But I fear, fear for the worst.