ABOUT THIS STORY:
In A Good Investment, David Skies writes a cinematic, mafioso take on the meaning of debt. Is all debt bad? Sometimes we forget that we use debt to help make possible our deepest longings. Or, in this case, our most bizarre fantasies. (Joseph O'Sullivan)
WHAM! WHAM! WHAM!
The pounding of fists on wood. Hammering.
Hammering fit to break the door down, tear it clean off its hinges.
That was bad.
“Open up!” Voices raised, angry, shouting through the door. Shouting loud enough to draw attention, to draw the neighbors, to cause a scene. A scene that might reach the ears of potential customers, drive them to take their business elsewhere.
“We know you’re in there, Glinskis!”
That was worse.
“I said — ”
“— open the door —”
... worst of all ...
“— you dumb Polack!”
... they had mistaken his nationality.
“Lithuanian,” he muttered to himself, peeking through the blinds. “Lithuanian. From Lithuania. Is that so hard to remember? Polish? Do I look Polish? Do I sound Polish? Do I give the slightest impression of being Polish? Have I ever introduced myself as ‘Hey, your friendly neighborhood Pole! No, not that kind of pole, the one from Poland! Haha!’ Have I ever done that? No.”
No matter how many times he explained it, though —
— it never sunk in.
And given the persistence of those hammering away, it was only a matter of time before they decided to knock down the door for real and true. And what was a curiosity shop without a door? Well, a curiosity shop, still — but a very cold, dank and drafty one. The kind that soon found itself possessed of a distinct lack of repeat customers.
So, steadying himself, he slid back the security chain, turned the deadbolts (one, two, three, four), undid latches on top and bottom and, arranging his expression into something genial, opened the door.
“Gentlemen!” as if pleasantly surprised, “How fortunate, I was just — ”
They didn’t so much shove past him as shove straight through him, forcing their way into the shop and kicking the door shut behind them. No gentlemen, these, these thugs, these goons. Just the two of them, but two might as well be 20 when they’re twice your size and half your age. He knew them by name: Carmine and Anthony Luzzati, cousins, both of them built like bulls, but without the deductive reasoning capabilities. They worked for Vincent Merisi — a very bad man to be indebted to, as Glinskis was fast discovering.
It was Carmine who was in charge now, Carmine who kept right on pushing, shoving him backward the length of the store. “You got wax in your ears, you dumb Pole?” he said, sending an open palm hard into Glinskis’ chest. “Can’t hear when people knock on your door?” Another shove, and Glinskis was backed up against the glass display case that doubled as a counter, cornered, with nowhere to go. “No wonder you don’t have any customers,” sneered Carmine, with one final shove for good measure.
From the front of the shop he heard the other bullish cousin, Anthony, locking the door again. Not promising.
Glinskis crinkled his mustache into a smile, hoping the laugh lines would hide the worry lines. “Ah, you know how it is. Old man like me, we don’t hear so good no more. Why, I can hardly hear you now.” That was true; his heartbeat was pounding in his ears. “And when I’m in the back, well, I’d be lucky to — ”
Carmine slammed his meaty hands down on the display counter, one to either side of Glinskis, pinning him in place. “Do I look like I’m here for your excuses, Glinskis?” he growled. “Do I, Polski?”
“Lithuanian,” mumbled Glinskis, despite himself. “Is it so hard? We’ve got raguolis, by all that’s holy. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
With a forced cheerfulness that was becoming increasingly strained, Glinskis summoned forth another smile. “So, what is it I can do for you boys, then? Something for your girlfriends? A present for your mothers, maybe?”
Carmine’s laugh was almost as ugly as the rest of him. “What can he do for us? You
hearing this, Anthony?”
“Yeah, I hear it.” Cousin No. 2 was prowling the shop now, ducking past hanging marionettes, prodding an old windup toy, peering through the case at a carefully articulated human hand. “Freaking hilarious. Should take that act on the road.” He frowned at a display of old coins, perplexed, no doubt, that there had ever existed economies not based on the dollar.
Carmine’s hands curled into fists on the countertop, knuckles cracking like a string of firecrackers going off. “We’re here for the money, Glinskis.”
“Money?” he said weakly. “Why, your cousin there seems already to have found some. Heh.”
“Cute. That the register there? Empty, ain’t it? Check the back, Anthony, maybe he has a stash tucked away somewhere.”
Oh, dear, thought Glinskis, as Anthony began to move that way. Not the back, not yet. It wasn’t ready yet. “You boys want some tea? You like tea? OK, OK, I make some tea.”
He tried to duck beneath Carmine’s entrapping arms, only to find himself roughly caught by the shirt collar.
“Do you know how a loan works? Do you? Or is that too complicated an idea to fit in that little Polish head of yours?”
The shopkeeper couldn’t summon up any pleasant pretense now, could barely keep his voice level, now his feet were barely touching the floor. “I believe I possess a basic understanding of the system, yes,” he said, adding under his breath, “Lithuanian.”
The other Luzzati was through the open doorway leading to the back room, now. Maybe he wouldn’t see it. Maybe he wouldn’t notice. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . .
Carmine shook him like a terrier with a rat. “A reminder, then. A loan is when someone of good standing, like Mister Merisi, out of the goodness and kindness of his heart, allows someone like you the momentary usage of his money. A usage that will be paid back, on time, in full, with interest. A loan, Glinskis, is — ”
“ — It’s an investment,” Glinskis interjected.
“A loan, it’s an investment. He invests the money in me, I invest the money in something else, we both end up with more money, everybody’s happy. Two investments for one money, good deal, yes?”
Carmine shook his head. “Polack, you better hope your investment paid off big. Otherwise —” “Carmine?” Anthony’s voice, uncertain, coming from the back room. Kakoti.
“Yeah? What is it?”
“I think you better come see this.”
With a look that dared him to be disagreeable, Carmine dragged Glinskis around the counter, through the doorway — and pulled up short at what he found there.
It was a table, or at least the base of it was, a sturdy thing of solid wood.
About five feet square and waist high, it took up most of the center of
the room, not unobtrusively. Around the edge were attached sheets of
clear Plexiglas, rising to form an enclosure about 12 inches high,
encompassing the perimeter of the table. Nothing entirely too
remarkable, but then it didn’t need to be —
What was on the table took care of that.
Complete, replete, exact in every excruciating detail, there resided on the table in all its miniaturized glory, a tiny circus. From a striped tent made of silk, to a midway full of games booths; from minuscule animals in matching cages to a fully functional revolving Ferris wheel — everything was rendered with such a masterful eye for accuracy that you half-wondered whether an actual circus hadn’t been shrunk down to size. Ticket booths, vendors’ carts and sideshow acts of every sort. Why, there was even a tiny train positioned along one side of the diorama, made to appear as if everything visible had come spilling out from its patiently waiting boxcars in a dizzying flurry of chaotic motion.
It would have been hard to miss, even hidden as it had been beneath the sheet now clutched in Anthony Luzzati’s fist.
“What is this?”
Taking advantage of a suddenly slackened grip, Glinskis pulled free of Carmine’s grasp. “An investment,” he said, straightening his collar. Threading his way through the precarious stacks of oddments that necessarily accumulate in any curio shop’s back room, Glinskis went to the corner, there rummaging about until he found what he was looking for: a Fresnel lens about the size of a large television screen. Returning with it to the room’s center, he attached the lens to the table’s edge via a pair of artfully rendered metal arms.
“It has long been my dream to own a circus,” he said, as the diorama snapped into larger life within the lens’ aperture. Almost involuntarily, the Luzzatis stepped forward to take in the greater detail revealed, to study the results of countless hours’ toil. “Ever since I was a young boy, growing up in Lithuania, I held within my mind an image of what my circus would be. Of the awe, the wonder, the joy it would bring to people. For no ordinary circus would this be, of the kind with which I was acquainted in my youth, with their drunken clowns and bitter acrobats, toothless lions and sore-riddled elephants, their air of decrepitude and stink of despair. My circus would be something else, something different,” he adjusted the lens, repositioning it to an angle more suited to capture everything. “My circus would be a flea circus.”
Glinskis reached into the Plexiglas enclosure, and with the very tip of his smallest fingernail, rapped gently on the roof of a little train car. “Pabusti, blusos, pabusti. Darbo laikas, blusos.”
And from the train there poured, in such numbers as surely could not have been contained therein, a rush, a flood, a veritable torrent of fleas. Jumping, bouncing, walking, crawling, limping gamely along where it was required, they swarmed forth at 10 times life size, thanks to the wonder of magnification. And, with a drive, a coordination, an intelligence that an ordinary flea ought not possess, they spread themselves all across the diorama . . . and began to operate the circus.
Fleas populated the midway, acting as hawkers and customers both. They rode the Ferris wheel, leaping in at the apex and riding to the ground. They filled up the sideshow attractions — skeletal fleas and strongman fleas, malformed fleas and fleas that were no doubt intended to be bearded ladies, though that last impression needed a bit of work. They climbed in with the animals, played the part of stagehands, jostled them into a semblance of life. One was launched up a scale to strike a tiny bell. Another served as popcorn vendor, tinier fleas the kernels going off. Those glimpsed inside the tent performed acrobatics walked hairs-width tightropes, pulled chariots and launched themselves from canons, all while other fleas filled the stands as spectators. In the center, one played ringmaster, executing a perfect bow towards the lens.
It was wondrous, remarkable, impossible. It was —
“This is what you spent Merisi’s money on?” grunted Carmine.
— entirely lost on the Luzzatis.
“There aren’t any other flea circuses out there, not anymore. Just this one. It’ll be a big draw, bring in the customers like, well, like fleas on a dog. You see, yes? A good investment.”
“Made any money yet?”
“Well, no. But — ”
Anthony cracked his neck. Carmine smirked. “Bad day to be you, then.” And the hulking cousins began to advance on Glinskis.
And in a ravenous, horrendous, blackened cloud that no ordinary fleas could hope to emulate, the circus performers rose as one and proceeded to devour the Luzattis alive.
“You see?” whispered the shopkeeper, as they collapsed to the floor. “A good investment.”
About David Skies
A prevaricator of the fourth degree, David Skies divides his time between reading, writing, yard-saling, cross-stitching and regarding with a kind of giddy nausea all of the books he owns but has yet to read. He has lately taken to writing short stories with the intent to submit them for publication, if only he could determine his target audience. (Suggestions are appreciated.) His influences include Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Albert Einstein's hair, all human history to date, and his favorite band, Baroness (whom he has just name-dropped in a shameless attempt to get them to send him free things).
About the Contest
The 56 entries we received this year represent a record for our fiction contest. Either the theme — debt — weighed heavily on people’s minds or the unemployment rate just left a lot of aspiring writers with nothing to do but write. Either way, the submissions this year were strong, in addition to being numerous. These stories — about the things that break people, the things that heal them, and some very obedient fleas, among other things — are our favorites.
— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor