Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Thugs

 
 
Husband and wife have just turned off the TV set for the evening when they hear cars screeching to a halt outside their locked gate, doors slamming, and the clink clink clank of chains smashing against metal. They’ve come, oh my God they’ve come, and the lights are on and we are here, says the wife to the husband as he rushes from the exposed living room to the office, which fortunately has its windows shut, and she follows and they feel the cool tiled floor through their slippers. Just then the leader starts shouting in a gruff voice. Open the gate, we’ve come for the money, open up open up. But I didn’t do it this time, I only lost one tenth of what they are claiming, says the husband. Shut up, says the wife, now’s not the time for debate. The gruff voice continues: Open up I say or we will break down the gate. Then other voices join in. Wait, wait, maybe they are not in, the car is not in the driveway. What do you mean they are not in, don’t you see all those lights, you idiot.

Both husband and wife, crouching, their aged bodies hovering over the floor, are listening and thinking how fortunate that the husband once again miraculously escaped from an accident and that the car is being fixed at the mechanic’s. Clink clink clank and the wife sucks in her breath as the husband gets on all fours and crawls out of the office and towards the darkened back of the house, almost like a retreat to childhood. Alone, she thinks, I am alone, and then the phone cuts through the silence, loud and clear, but she cannot answer it. It rings and rings and rings. Outside the leader is holding a cell phone and muttering, I cannot believe this, they are not picking up, they must not be home, let’s come back tomorrow. The engines rev up.

But the next day, the leader cannot bear the thought of further loss of face. Should he have broken in? Could they simply have been hiding? The truth is that he hates having to be violent, but that is something he can never reveal to his men. Here—get them on the line, he says roughly, handing the cell phone to one of them. And the incessant ringing resumes, the ancient yellow phone in the office vibrating wildly while husband and wife argue and scream above the din. Don’t pull the cord out, the husband pleads nervously, and again, Darling I didn’t do it. Don’t “darling me,” the wife glares back, the phone and everything else conspiring to make her blood rage, but despite the spinning of her head and her inward cursing at the foolishness of this man she is bound to and despite her strong desire to enter that seductively satisfying mode in which the self is permitted to wallow in layers of comforting self-pity, she realizes that she must keep her wits about her and summon up functions customarily denied those caught in perilous situations such as these, functions such as clear thinking, the wisdom of gut and heart, and faith in a higher power—she must summon these up and decide for herself, and she does, so that when she finally picks up the phone, it is with a ferocity that temporarily disarms the caller on the other end.

You don’t understand madam, he spent X, and she responds, you are lying and you know it, you will have to prove it to me, do you hear? You must pay up, the gruff voice gets louder and you must pay up today or we will be forced to… Yes yes I know you have your methods, and she did know, for they were living in turbulent political times conducive to even more extreme methods than usual. Madam, there is no need for all this. Your husband is one of our regulars, we can work with you, work out a payment plan, we mean you no harm. You are not listening to me, she interjects, and we will not be intimidated, do you hear? I can’t stand this woman, thinks the leader, never having expected such a fight. We are coming to get the money today, he yells, and the wife, despite her fear, despite the terror in the husband’s face, continues. We will pay you Y and no more—you are PIGS—at which a portent silence ensues, for the caller, despite his shady activities, likes to consider himself well bred. We will be coming over this evening, he insists, and you will be ready. Fine, fine, the wife shrieks, come on over, come on over and kill us. We are Catholics. We are not afraid to die. CLICK.

The receiver is returned to its cradle and the husband looks at the wife, mouth open, thinking back to the timid nineteen-year-old girl he married so many years ago. What’s going to happen? he asks, knowing that they simply have not got X in the bank. Leave me alone. Her voice is shaking. Several towns away, the caller feels angry and confused, knowing in his heart of hearts that he himself is afraid to die. How dare she!

An hour later, the phone rings again. We’ll lower the amount and pick it up at the house at 4 p.m. Don’t be ridiculous, says the wife, we don’t keep that kind of money in the house, we will need to go to our bank in the city and withdraw it, so it will have to be tomorrow, she continues, and there is whispering on the line. All right tomorrow then, we will be there at 8 a.m. No, it must be in a neutral place, she adds, and there is more whispering. Fine, meet us at 8:30 at the police station in Town B, and although she is trying to think clearly, it is not until she arrives at the location the next morning with her husband and their younger trusted friend that she realizes her naivety and the probable complicity of the local authorities who can be heard talking through the torn mosquito screen of a window of the long police bungalow veranda, where the transaction is to be conducted.

It is a beautiful breezy morning, the sun playing hide and seek with the palm trees. The leader, who is the casino owner’s son, and the casino manager are on the veranda, wearing cheap smiles and expensive open-neck bright colored sport shirts. Good morning, they say jovially, and shake the husband’s hand, and the wife cringes as she watches the husband smile back. God be with you, interjects the friend. Who is this creep, they wonder, and eye him with distaste, while the wife, with her petite frame and white hair, remains at a distance and grudgingly nods at them. Oh God, thinks the leader, she looks like Mom. He had expected someone larger and stronger, based on her phone voice. Did you bring the money? he asks her. We’ve brought what we owe you. Good, he responds, business-like now. We will take this for now, but you will owe us the rest later. And at this the wife’s eyes flash, anger bubbling up inside her, anger at these despicable men and a greater anger at herself for having been duped, for having allowed herself to be brought to this place full of enemies. You are liars. We had an agreement, she says, her voice cracking. And she points to the leader. You are a thug! I am not the thug, he bellows—YOU are! At this, a strange wave of satisfaction runs through her. The leader now thrusts a piece of paper at her—look at this—your husband signed it himself, he owes us X.

A wail breaks out from the husband—I didn’t! The manager suddenly grabs the old man by the elbow and steers him out of sight. Don’t touch him, the wife screams, but something collapses inside her and the friend senses this and reaches out and lays his hand on her arm. The document is shown to her and through her tears, she sees the signature and feels totally defeated. You see madam, he’s been lying to you, it’s common behavior, very common. I’m sorry, madam, and part of him actually is, but then slowly, ever so slowly, the old woman puffs up, like a tiny cartoon character who’s been squashed flat only to come back larger than life. This is not my husband’s signature, she says quietly. What! says the leader, and one has to wonder what his role is in all this, does he know, was he also duped, does the truth really matter, aren’t good people destroyed all the time anyway? As the husband calls her name from some distant corner of the bungalow, the wife hears herself repeating, this time in a booming voice: This is NOT my husband’s signature, I will give you what we owe you and not a cent more, and then the friend, who has been silent, reaches inside his shirt and extracts a three-inch silver crucifix, which he rests silently on top of the pure white cotton of his shirt. The metal crucified Christ gleams in the sunlight and the leader suddenly feels cold despite the morning heat. I can’t believe this. What is going on? Are the old woman and her monkish friend casting some kind of spell on me? The leader shudders and shouts to someone. A skinny policeman emerges from the bungalow, nods to the leader, and leans against the wall, arms akimbo, watching the wife and friend while the leader rushes down the veranda steps into the lush tropical garden below, takes out a cell phone, calls his young wife and begins speaking in hushed and rushed tones. Shortly afterwards, the old husband, looking ashen, but otherwise unharmed, is brought back onto the veranda and they all wait together—the wife, the husband, the friend, the manager, the policeman.

Fifteen minutes later, the leader ascends the steps with a strange calmness and walks right up to the wife. Madam, I will take the lower amount and nothing else. The manager glares at him incredulously, while the wife nods to the friend, who pulls out of his pants pocket a folded envelope containing the allotted sum. The leader continues, I am doing this for my new bride . . . she is Catholic and though I myself am not, I respect her and do not want to bring sorrow down upon us. The wife nods, exhausted. Praise be to God. A coconut drops with a thud at the far end of the veranda, a monkey screeches overhead.
 
 
 
 
Iromie Weeramantry is a Sri-Lankan born fiction writer who splits her time between upstate New York and New York City, where she was a longtime member of the Writer’s Studio. Her stories have appeared in The Saint Ann’s Review (Spring 2014), The Alembic (2012), and in two previous issues of GHLL (2012 & 2013). Iromie has degrees from the Johns Hopkins University and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. She works as a digital strategist.