Mom wanted Chuck to be a lawyer, and when he googled how much those corporate lawyers make, he wanted to be one, too. He changed his major from journalism to business, worked his way through law school as a debt collections agent, and passed the bar exam in three states. He excelled in school and excelled in debt collection, getting the proverbial blood from turnips.
He worked from home, making calls during the daytime with the alias “Mr. Tiberius.” The name fit well with his commanding style, the way he ran debtors through the paces and practically had them selling their children to pay off their Sears card by the end of each call.
Since he was versed in law, he knew exactly how far he could go with his phone calls, knew when to switch gears, knew how to steer, and he knew more than a few dirty tricks that he hadn’t learned in books. He knew that every call he made and every debt he collected was only yet another confirmation, that yes, yes, yes, Chuck was on his way.
He was one of the company’s best, and they knew it. Not only did he receive those commission checks, but also incentive gifts, like the case of gin they got in a bankruptcy settlement from a deadbeat bar owner, a set of golf clubs which he would use some day when he was a big-shot corporate lawyer, and a box of expensive cigars. But what he liked best was the power to manhandle the weasels and the welshers he dealt with every day.
He once got his own sister’s account for a delinquent dental bill, and he had relished the thought of calling her and demanding payment, but the company had a rule about family calls.
Debt collection was only a temporary gig, though. Chuck already had his nets in the water. Soon he would be interviewing with Bosch and Laumb, or Pratt and Lambert, or Simon and Schuster, and they would claw one another to get him, but he wanted a spot in the world famous consulting group Secort, Haight, and Lies (pronounced “lease”). They took only the best and the brightest, and Chuck was certainly that. Top in his class, top in his exams, top top top. He was so good it made him sick when mediocre people like his family commented on his greatness. It was always Ah, here’s our dear Chuck. Well, here’s the boy who took the top score in his class. O, we do expect so much from you Chuck.
Chuck was like shut up already.
He was the family hero whereas his sister was saddled with a kid, an incomplete community-college education, and the misconception that her brother Chuck had a good heart. She believed he empathized with her struggle, a solo act, of raising seven year-old Peachy. She even went so far as to ask if he would watch Peachy during the summer while she helped people use the self-service checkout machines at Walmart.
He said he’d be delighted to watch his niece for two hundred bucks a week because she was family. “As long as she doesn’t bother me while I’m working.”
“Peachy is no problem at all,” Chuck’s sister insisted. “You won’t even know she’s there.” That’s what Uncle Chuck wanted to hear. Easy money. Besides, he had enough to do, what with making phone calls and simultaneously playing Call of Duty. He barely have time to bathe anymore.
Uncle Chuck woke up five minutes before Peachy was deposited on his doorstep and chose something suitably comfortable to to wear, which often meant not bothering to change out of his sleeping clothes. He ruled the apartment from the living room, which connected the kitchen and the bathroom. In this way, he could passively sit his niece. “She has to come out for air every once in a while” he reminded himself, and she did, for water or some cold pizza, and in this way he knew she hadn’t been stranger-snatched through the tiny bedroom window or gotten her head stuck in the waste paper basket and suffocated. Easy money.
He made sure to have himself seated firmly in front of his television with the game controller in his hand when his sis dumped Peachy off at his door.
Peachy may well have grown up with the mistaken notion that all men are selfish slobs who yelled at perfect strangers on the phone when in reality it was only her Uncle Chuck. She was frilly and played with dolls and did all of the lovable little things a contented seven year-old girl did in lieu of playing Call of Duty. When Peachy asked (every day) if she could have a turn to play, as seven-year-olds assume is their right, Chuck said “No, not today. Uncle Chuck has got to work today.” Which was true, only he had Peachy convinced that he somehow used the video game to help him collect the debts of the people he was calling. He said it helped him “get the bad guys.”
He would urge Peachy to go play with her dollies. Peachy was a resourceful little girl. She liked playing with her dolls, yes, but these could hardly keep her occupied every moment in a nine-hour day, so she learned to cook eggs in a variety of styles. This pleased Uncle Chuck who had for years sustained himself on pizzas delivered in cardboard boxes. The only time he went into the kitchen, in fact, was to throw away the box and spray tomato sauce from his face.
Peachy’s stint as chef was short-lived, however. After only three days, all of the eggs were gone and nothing identifiable was left in the refrigerator. She created an Almost Omelet with ingredients poured from unlabeled jars and scraped from the bottoms of musty Tupperware. It had everything except eggs, which made it just short of a culinary miracle. It held together, even, but in Uncle Chuck’s analysis, an omelet should have eggs in it. He banned her from the kitchen area until he went shopping again.
With the tenacity of a fictional child detective, Peachy cased the entire one-bedroom apartment by the end of the first week. She found the thick, expensive-looking books on Uncle Chuck’s shelves particularly engrossing. They were standard reference for aspiring attorneys, the kind with thick leather and lots of words. They didn’t have pictures, but Peachy felt they should have pictures. She liked connecting all of the periods and dots of small “i”s with crayon to see what kind of pictures each page made. She’d even connected some of the dots of semi-colons; and sure enough, the punctuation in those books offered plenty of ducks with umbrellas and horses, all just waiting to be colored in.
There were plenty of things that she found entirely uninteresting, like Uncle Chuck’s junk box. Everything he’d collected through the years — test scores, autographs, diplomas, ribbons, copies of resumes — all got tossed in this box, at the bottom of which was a collection of magazines of naked people, cleverly hidden by a debate team certificate of merit.
Other items fired her imagination for hours, like Chuck’s collection of hats. Peachy loved these. There were all kinds: cowboy and a fez and and Mickey Mouse ears and Mexican and construction worker and army officer and police officer, but her favorite was the witch’s hat. She used to wear this the most when she played with the dollies she spilled out on the floor each morning. To her, it was the hat that was magic, the hat made a person a witch just like the other hats made a person a police officer or cowboy or a Mexican.
She wore the other hats often enough, but her favorite was the witch’s. It gave her the power to change things from, say, a Ken doll into a handsome prince. But then Ken would always do something naughty, as boy dolls are apt to do. And look out if you were a dolly who did something naughty while Peachy wore the witch’s hat! Anything could happen! You suddenly might find yourself flying through the air to be imprisoned in the Mountain Cave (Chuck’s sock drawer) or tied to the Rock of No Niceness (Chuck’s tennis shoes). She never wanted to hurt her dollies, because, after all, if she had ruined her dollies what else would she have to do once she’d rummaged the contents of Uncle Chuck’s closet?
She was too young to appreciate the idea of a pecking order but was, all the same, at the mercy of the pecking order of Chuck’s place. Here’s how it went: Chuck called someone from his “D+D” list (deadbeat and delinquent) who yelled at him for calling. This usually made Chuck misfire a grenade and blow up his own teammate. Then Chuck yelled something back at the deadbeat and really pounded the buttons on the controller until the whole TV screen was a smoky mess of video game sulfur. Then he slammed down the headset yelling something about pay or else and Peachy came in the room to see if he’s mad about something she did. He told her to cook him an egg. Then she reminded him they already ate them all. He remembered that he hasn’t been to the grocery store since April, and cursed himself because he doesn’t have enough ammo to finish the mission. He snapped at her to go “play with your dollies.” This made Peachy very irritable so that when she popped on her witch’s hat, she could tell that one of her dollies, Posable Polly, has been trying to make a break for it in her absence.
“If I stay, you stay, Polly-Wolly.” She leaned over and waggled her finger at the doll who tried to play innocent and smile a supportive codependent smile. “This time you’re gonna get it but good, young lady. To the cave with you!” And off to the sock drawer went Posable Polly with nary a clue about the pecking order herself and only a single golden ringlet visible from the floor of the room to warn the other dollies about what happened if you crossed Peachy and her witch’s hat.
The sock drawer wasn’t the worst punishment, however. She only condemned her lady dollies there. Yes, it was dark and lumpy. But the boy dollies (there were two: Ken and Roger) got the Rock when they misbehaved — which was almost all the time. The Rock was dark, too, but didn’t smell nearly as nice as the sock drawer. She’d say “It’s the rock for you Ken-Fen” or the “It’s the Rock for you Roger-Dodger!” And lace up their tan plastic arms with shoestring and put them head first into a shoe. They kept beaming those fabulous Malibu smiles, but deep inside, they resented the injustice. After all, they were just sensitive West Coast guys whom Posable Polly had met at the Posable Polly Beach Party Set, and they weren’t used to restraint like their cousin, Terry Tie-Me-Up.
Often Ken and Roger were locked up for no better reason than that they had small feet. They couldn’t stand up by themselves while they waited in line at Posable Polly’s Super Shopper Grocery Counter, and so they would fall over, spilling Posable Polly’s grocery cart, which, in turn, upset Peachy. But it wasn’t Ken and Roger’s fault. Their feet weren’t meant for standing; they were meant for pressing down the accelerator on the foot-long red corvette convertible or for sloshing about in Posable Polly’s fun-size aqua-pool with little neon-green floaties on their tone, plastic arms, their plastic goggles only thinly veiling their stolen glances as they floated, at times bobbing gently against one another, the tips of their snorkels rubbing furtively. Peachy found them out often enough, never truly understanding what the two boy dolls were up to, but she punished them just the same.
Their suffering taught Peachy a valuable lesson: that a person can (and must) keep smiling in the face of injustice, in the face of being snapped at and sent off to some musty place like a sock drawer or a grumpy uncle’s bedroom. According to Peachy’s mother, Uncle Chuck was going to become a provider for them all. His career was the major concern, so Peachy mustn’t do anything to interfere. Poor Peachy had very few options and at times thought she would start screaming her head off if she had to go to Uncle Chuck’s one more time.
One morning Uncle Chuck stood on his scale and realized he had gained seventy pounds. That would explain why the toilet seat creaked when he sat down on it. He was afraid it might snap in two some day and send plastic slivers into his ass.
That’s when he went on his meat diet. Nothing but meat. No bread, no pizza crust, no sugars, no fruits, nothing but steak or hamburger and eggs. Raw protein. Somehow that was supposed to trigger his body into a phenomenal weight loss without the desire to binge on cake or cookies, but he caught himself more than once chewing a little too gingerly on the headset microphone.
Another consequence of Chuck’s diet (which really wasn’t working and just made him froth more at the mouth when he yelled at some deadbeat) was that poor Peachy wasn’t even getting pizza anymore. Instead of ratting on Uncle Chuck whom the family supposed was their very own Bill Gates, she surreptitiously composed spur-of-the-moment lunches and goodies, called more-or-less sandwiches because they always contained some ratio of bread slices, peanut butter, butter butter, jelly, ketchup, bologna, and potato chips. She ate with her dollies and never once let on to Uncle Chuck that she was hungry enough to trouble his conscience, and his conscience was about the only thing that hadn’t gotten bigger with the rest of him. He had remained, in a word, heartless.
Fortunately, heartlessness is an asset in debt collection. If he could just keep from chewing on the game controller, things were going to be swell.
But then he took to drink.
One day Peachy found one of the unopened bottles of gin in Chuck’s closet. She was exploring new “time-out” places for her lady dollies since the sock drawer on that day was particularly overcrowded with wrong-doers and her Princess Ariel doll was acting up. The remaining dollies remained as quiet as possible, but Peachy was wearing her witch’s hat and they were really in for it. She uncovered a heavy cardboard box beneath some sweatpants, Chuck’s favorite attire of late, and pulled out a bottle of gin from a slot in the box. It had a picture of a pretty drink with an umbrella and a bright red cherry. She read well-enough to notice that you could make it with the easy-to-follow recipe on the back.
After punishing the rest of her dollies, she was in the kitchen stirring and pouring and searching and mixing. She mixed a Pollyanna Fizz Cocktail. She liked the name because it reminded her of Posable Polly. She didn’t know what vermouth or grenadine was so she improvised and put in some gin and cherry Kool Aid and ice cubes instead and offered it to Chuck in one of his afternoon phoning lulls. He, in fact, thought it was Kool Aid, so cleverly had she mixed it, and thanked her. He gulped it down without thinking how it might spoil his all-meat diet. “I’ll have some more,” he said, and Peachy was more than happy to create another Pollyanna which to her looked very much like the one in the picture. This time she made extra for herself, and Chuck told her there was a pitcher in one of the cupboards, and that she could just make a whole pitcher full at one time. He was afraid that she would get the counters all sticky and told her to wipe up after herself. But she was careful not to waste any of the pretty red liquid.
Uncle Chuck noticed his reactions had slowed, and he wasn’t thinking straight. He thought the blurry vision and slurred speech were the result of not having sugary things so long. He called the office and said he needed the rest of the afternoon off. Then he caught sight of the gin bottle on the counter, and there was little Peachy adding some more gin to her Kool Aid, a big red stain around the outline of her lips like an evil, goofy clown.
“Geezus” he tried to get up to snatch the bottle away but fell uselessly on the floor in front of the TV screen. “This can’t be good” he muttered.
Peachy thought it was hysterical to see her fat uncle prone on the floor, and took another swig of the Pollyanna Fizz without a word. Then the phone rang. Chuck assumed that it was the office checking up to see if their star boy was okay.
“Harloo” he said drunkenly in the mic. It wasn’t the office, though: it was Secort, Haight, and Lies (pronounced “lease”). They wanted to interview him for an opening. They said they’d had their eye on him for some time. Was he interested in doing a spot interview right there over the phone?
Chuck could barely contain himself and rolled over excitedly to his side. “Shhhhher!”
Peachy quietly insinuated herself onto the couch in front of the game controls and hit reset while Chuck lay on the floor, chewing absentmindedly on the headset mic, giving what was the world’s worst job interview.
The interviewer asked Chuck about test scores and club memberships, trying to find out just what kind of blood ran in those veins of his. (The interviewer would have been shocked to realize that Chuck’s blood had recently replaced by a Pollyanna Fizz transfusion.)
Chuck suddenly couldn’t remember all the facts and figures of his accomplishments. “Jus a sec,” he said. “I gotta getta box. It’s all in my box.” The interviewer asked Chuck to repeat himself, unable to understand Chuck’s thick gin accent.
“Huld yer husses. I’ll be reet buck!”
Chuck went to the closet and dislodged his junk box, which held his resume and awards, from under a pile of sweat pants and musty towels and hauled it back into the living room. Peachy meanwhile made explosion sound effects as she played her uncle’s video game, punctuated by outbursts of “Kill em!” Chuck dumped over the box and found a copy of his resume and fact sheet about Secort, Haight and Lies (pronounced “lease”), found the headset under the coffee table and proceeded with the interview from his prone position once again.
The interviewer wanted to know what all the noise was in the background and Chuck explained it was where he worked “in corrections.” And when Peachy started yelling “dirty bugger!” at the Canadian asshole on her squad who kept shooting at her, the interviewer said “Working in a jail must be a nasty job. All those criminals!” But Chuck pshawed him, “Naw, she’s only seven.”
There was a silence from the other end.
“She’s my niece,” he added.
It became quite clear to both Uncle Chuck and the interviewer that Chuck was “out of sorts” and it was decided to try a face-to-face meeting where the interviewer suggested a sign language translator might be present.
“Oh, but I’m not deaf or anything. I’m just drunk.”
That little revelation got Chuck nowhere except a dial tone.
Uncle Chuck realized he may have blown his only shot for his dream job. Then he noticed the time. His sister would be picking up little Peachy in an hour. An hour and she would be picking up his underfed, drunken, maniacal niece whose eyes were red from gin and world conquest and her fingers gripping the controller tighter than the gin bottle. “This can’t be good,” he slurred.
The place smelled like a bar.
Uncle Chuck came up with a plan. He would lavish Peachy with attention, making her wild promises about zoos and circuses and all the video games she could play, if only she would keep quiet. Meanwhile maybe he could get some coffee and toothpaste down her throat before his sister showed up. He threw open the living room window to air out the place but in the process knocked Peachy’s drink all over himself. He cursed and put one hand against the window screen and the other on his shirt and pants trying to wipe the excess off. He felt no breeze coming in and decided to light a cigar to help bury the gin fumes. He was sloshed, so the lighting-the-match part didn’t go so well, and soon his clothes were on fire. He hit himself with a note pad trying to extinguish the flames. But the tattered remains still glowed, so he ripped them off as they scorched his skin, ran to the bathroom for the toothpaste, and was holding the tube of toothpaste into Peachy’s struggling clenched mouth.
There came the inevitable knock on the door, the inevitable Hi, Chuck it’s me. I thought I’d come a little early for Peachy, then the equally inevitable horror of Chuck’s semi-naked person shoving a tube of something into Peachy’s mouth, the place still smelling like a speakeasy with a thick rank layer of smoke and burned clothes in the air, a clutter of pornographic magazines strewn on the floor.
Uncle Chuck tried to explain it all with a slur, revealing he was drunk, and when Peachy added her side of the story, she revealed that she was even more drunk. Sis grabbed up Peachy and her things so quickly that she overlooked poor Posable Polly, still doing her punishment in the closet, upside down in a bowling trophy, for a crime she did not commit. She smiled all the same.