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The Swindler and the dwindler

“The Swindler” is the name of a new short story I’ve managed to write since coming home to the U.S. from Edinburgh. “The dwindler” is me, the guy whose prolific production of fiction has dwindled a good bit since returning to the realities of the real world — bills, the need to do “real” work to pay said bills, a lack of access to low-interest student loans to pay for everything, and (gasp!) the need to pay…actually PAY…for healthcare. Oh blessed innocent days of Scottish grad school, how I miss thee.

Alas, despite getting back into the swing of hard workin’ American life, I actually have stayed fairly productive writing fiction. I just haven’t been able to share much here because fiction magazine editors don’t much appreciate when you post your work to your own blog before they have a chance to publish it. So most of my new short stories are in the dreaded “submission queue” waiting for their fates to be decided by the overwhelmed editors of the world’s bootstrapped lit fiction mags. Still, a little sample of one short story I’m rather fond of won’t hurt…

From “The Swindler:”

hold em

They walked into his old Cape Cod on Sycamore Court with their heads hung low, sullen, not a word spared between the lot of them. Perfect victims.

“They’re all yours, Mr. Ronson. Thank you so much for taking an interest in Syracuse’s homeless community. These gentlemen are really looking forward to learning how to play Bridge. I’ll be back this evening. Just call me if you have any problems.”

“I doubt that will be necessary, Latisha. We’re going to have a great time.” He closed the door in her face. Jon Ronson didn’t want the fat pig driver from Syracuse Open Doors for the Destitute hanging around any longer than necessary. He only had three hours to rob the bums blind.

If there was one thing Ronson knew when he saw it, it was a bunch of dupes. SODD was one cherry-flavored gang of suckers. They never even asked why he wanted to help these four specifically. They were just happy someone would give them a warm place to stay once a week and pump them full of coffee during Syracuse’s brutal winter days. But SODD wasn’t the mark. The dirty, putrid, babbling whack jobs loitering under the yellow light in his hallway were the marks. They didn’t have much, but they had enough to make it worth taking. And all the better, even the people purporting to look after them didn’t really care what happened to them.

Jon had scouted out these four on downtown street corners for weeks, studying their habits, their disabilities. They were all mentally ill. And they were all rolling in coins. It was disgusting how much people dropped in their battered paper cups each week; the savvy beggars always filling their pockets before the cup ever got more than a quarter full. They collected $100, $200 dollars a week, easy. They kept all of it on them. Where else would they put it? They were so predictable, stuffing it deep inside their ripped down jackets, the feathery guts orbiting around them like asteroids wherever they went.

They never took off those coats. Not even now, sitting around the table in Ronson’s uncomfortably warm kitchen. The room had an amber glow with the warm light from the incandescent bulbs reflecting off the cigarette tar-stained walls and coloring every last one of them like hepatitis victims with jaundiced eyes and skin.

What an impressive array of human misery. There was the bald white one, Mort, with a patchy beard of ginger and white, suffering major depression. He was too defeated by life to feed himself properly or shave or shower or probably wipe his own ass, given how much he stank like dry shit. There was Danny, the young white one with bloodshot eyes. He looked strung out, like a junky, always fidgeting, but it was a severe anxiety disorder. Danny looked over his shoulders constantly, like he expected someone to be there ready to take him away or worse. Then there was the fat man who went by Berg, some sort of Heinz 57 mixed from generations of poor and crazy irrespective of race. He was the perfect find, with an obsessive compulsive disorder that made him fixate on a desire to see everything. Ronson had seen it manifest a dozen times, but none worse than the time the man was digging through a box of oranges stacked outside a produce store. The owner tried to run him off, accusing him of trying to steal, but Berg fought back. It ended with Berg in the back of a police car having a full mental breakdown. Poor asshole wasn’t trying to steal anything, he just had to see the last oranges at the bottom of the box. Lastly, there was Tick, the dyed-in-the-wool alcoholic, always at the bottom of a bottle of the hard stuff. Fill him up with booze, and he’d be too stupid drunk to know he was getting taken.

That’s all Ronson knew about them. That’s all he needed to know.

Editor’s note: What is that scoundrel Ronson up to, eh?