Against the House

 

 

 

      Community service. Patrick breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, your honor.”

      The judge continued to explain the seriousness of the situation, but Patrick’s mind was racing. 400 hours was a lot, but no jail time. Even more important, no fine. Just pay back the money—no issue there, since it had been taken back on the spot.

     Still, there was no job to go back to, and no reference to show for the last three years. His manager had made it clear that she understood that it was just a momentary weakness and almost understandable given the circumstances, but her hands were tied. The supervisor who had left the cash envelope on the counter had also been let go.     

     He reflected that the job wasn’t a huge loss—money had always been tight, and there was no chance of moving up. Every raise he had ever earned had been wiped out by the latest minimum wage hike. By the end, even the teenagers, recently hired as seasonal workers over Christmas, were making the same amount as Patrick. 

     The courtroom was quiet. Patrick snapped back to attention. The judge looked at him, expecting a response. Patrick hung his head and nodded, making a sound halfway between “Sorry” and “Yes,” hoping it was appropriate for the situation. He had apparently satisfied her, as the judge stood up to leave. Patrick bowed and turned toward the exit.

                                                                                                  * * *

      Back at the apartment, Sharon launched into the same questions as usual, but with even more, court-sanctioned, vitriol. “How do you expect to support us if the only work you do is for free? I might as well go back to my parents if you can’t afford the baby.”

     “I’ll find a way,” Patrick promised. “Something will come up before the baby’s born.” He had no plan, but he couldn’t let her leave and take his child. He knew that, if she went back home, he would be out of the baby’s life forever. Sharon’s parents refused to give them a cent while she was living with Patrick, but he knew they had already offered cover all of her expenses if she moved home. They would pull every string they could find to keep their grandchild away from Patrick.

     Days passed, and Patrick sank into a deeper depression. No job. No hope. Inevitably, soon enough, no family. Sharon walked in the door with the same disdainful she had worn for months, but with more energy in her step.     

     “Hey, if someone offered some help, do you think you could go a few hours without stealing a wad of cash?”

     “I didn’t steal it. I mean, I thought about it. I took it. But, if I’d been given a chance, I probably would have turned it in.”

     “Because you’re so loyal to the store you complained about every day?”

     “Of course I complained. The job sucked. You know that. But they were good to me.”

     “If they were good to you, you wouldn’t have to steal.”

     “The money was never good, but they cared about me. It was like a family.”

     “If that’s how you treat family, I hope my father never leaves his wallet lying around. Anyhow, I was just talking to him. He wants to help, if you promise not to do anything stupid.”

     “He’s hated me since the first time we met. And now he’s going to help us?”

     “No, he’s going to help you. He can get you some volunteer hours through his position at the gaming commission. But you can’t let anyone know you’re related. He says that stupid stunt of yours would have ruined him if the press knew you were dating his daughter.”

     Patrick was amazed. Despite the condescending tone, this was the first time her father had ever shown interest in helping Patrick.   

     “Sure, what does he have in mind?”

                                                                                                   * * *

      Friday night found Patrick at the Viking Bingo Hall. He walked into the office.

      “Hi, I’m supposed to be volunteering here tonight.”

      The manager’s eyes narrowed. “The community service guy? Yeah, get out there and find something to do. Empty some ashtrays or clear some glasses. No cards and no cash.”

     The next month was the same. Fruitless search for work all week, then back to the bingo hall every Friday. Cleaning tables, mopping floors, scrubbing bathrooms. The hall clearly had no regular maintenance, he reflected as he wiped a thick layer of dust from the top of the soda fountain. Everything about the concession stand indicated a health hazard. Meanwhile, his savings were almost gone.

     On the fifth night, the manager called him in to the office. “You’ve been doing alright. One of the usual staff is sick, and I need you selling cards. We count the cards at the beginning and the cash at the end. If you’re even a dollar off, you’ll be back in court by morning.”

     Patrick grabbed a pouch and tied it around his waist. A supervisor counted out a stack of cards, and Patrick walked to the tables. A worker in his early twenties stopped him. “We’re selling to these tables. You take the other side.”

     Patrick knew the reason immediately. He had seen workers arguing about tables before. The smoking side tipped less, and those tables went to the newest staff. They bought more cards, though, and Patrick was soon back to pick up a second stack. The manager waved away the supervisor and counted Patrick’s money personally. He appeared disappointed to see that it added up.

     On his second round with the cards, Patrick saw Kara. They had been friends at the store, but then she had watched him led away by the police. He would have done anything to avoid the awkwardness ahead. Fortunately, Kara was just as nervous. She hid her cigarette under the table—she had never smoked at the store—and greeted him too loudly. “Patrick! How’s it been going?”

     “Well, I’m working again,” he lied.

     “Bingo hall’s not the dream job, but neither was the last one. At least it’s money, though.”

     “Yeah, we’ve been missing you. It’s good to see you.”

     “You too. Take care.” He began walking away.

     “Hey, Patrick?” “What’s up?”

     “I just wanted to buy a couple of cards. You can keep the change.”

     When he ran out of cards again, the manager was waiting to count the money. He held up the extra $5 from the tip. “What’s this?”     

     “It’s a tip.”

     “Not for volunteers. It can go into the staff fund.” He placed it in his pocket.

     “You’re going to take away my only tip?”

     “Employees earn tips. You earn service hours.”     

     Patrick consciously avoided Kara’s section for the rest of the evening, unwilling to make any more tips for the manager’s pocket.

     She was back the next week. She put out her cigarette when she saw him coming. Still, a little smoke rose from the ashtray. “Hey, Patrick. How’s life? Is the baby here yet?”

     “Should be next month. We’re getting by, I guess.”

     “Well, I’ll take another couple of cards. You can keep the change.”

     “Nah, the manager took it the last time.”

     “Well, just hide it, then. It’s not like he’s going to search you, as long as the rest of the money adds up.”

     “Okay, I guess.” As he made change, he purposely dropped the cards onto the floor. While picking them up, he slid the extra bill into his sock.

     It was no use. As soon as he got back near the office, the manager demanded, “Let’s count that money, including whatever’s in your sock.”

     The place must be covered by cameras, Patrick reflected.

     “Anything more like that, and you’re finished here,” said the manager, putting the five dollars into his pocket. “Now, get out of here, and make sure you’re on time next week.”

     “But I’ve only been here for twenty minutes. I need the hours,” Patrick pleaded.

     It was no use. Fortunately, he didn’t have to explain his early dismissal to Sharon, who was at her parents’ house for the evening. When she didn’t return the next day, Patrick called Sharon’s phone.

     “I’m staying here. You’re clearly going nowhere, and I’ve got the baby to think of.”

     His money ran out that week. Only a few loans from friends and trips to the food bank got him through until the next Friday.

     “That sounds rough,” Kara told him, as he sold her a couple of bingo cards. “Tell you what, I can’t give you a tip, but I’ll buy an extra card. If it wins, I’ll split the money with you.”

     “I’d better not,” he replied. “The last thing I need is to be accused of gambling during my shift.”

     “I guess you’re right,” she smiled. “Hey, Patrick. You’re going to be okay.” It sounded more hopeful than confident.

     Patrick was quickly wrapped back up in his work, with little time to think. Several minutes later, Kara walked by Patrick. “Could you watch my stuff? I need to use the ladies’ room.”

     She returned looking shaken. Her usual smile was replaced with wide-eyed terror. She spoke quietly, looking down at the table.

     “We need to leave.” Patrick couldn’t understand.

     “Is something wrong? Are you okay?”

     “I’m fine, but we need to get you out of here.”

     “My shift is over in an hour. We can go somewhere afterward if you want,” he offered.

     The manager walked over. “Hey, Patrick. Phone call for you. Sounds urgent. Pick up line one in the break room.”

     “I’ve got to get this. Sharon’s due any day now. This could be it,” Patrick told Kara.

     “No, Patrick. I need you to know that I’m the one who turned you in at the store. I didn’t understand that—”

     “You? I thought you were the only one who had my back, not the one who stabbed me in the back.” He quickly turned and hurried away.

     From behind, he heard, “Don’t go in there. It’s a—” He tuned her out, unwilling to listen to another word.

     Sharon was waiting on the line. “Sorry to bother you. I thought I was feeling contractions, but I think it’s just my imagination.”

     “Are you sure? I can tell the manager I need to come right over.”

     “No, I’ll be fine. I’ll call back if anything changes.”

     Heading back into the hall, he was surprised to see Sharon’s father waiting for him. He sat across from Kara, who was clearly uncomfortable. She looked at Patrick, misery on her face and making no effort to hide her cigarette. Two uniformed police officers approached the table. “What seems to be the problem, Mr. Durham?”

     “Good evening, officers,” Sharon’s father greeted them. “We seem to be missing a substantial sum of money—$5,560—and I was hoping you could help me with my search.” He pointed at Kara. “We have a witness here, who I’m sure will verify that only one person has been in the break room in over an hour.”

     Kara sat, frozen in place.

     “Did you see anyone else enter the room?” one of the officers asked.

     Kara’s voice was barely audible. “No.”

     The police led Patrick to the break room, with Mr. Durham close behind. Inside his locker, they discovered Patrick’s cell phone, his wallet, and a stack of cash.

     “$5,560. The exact amount reported missing. I’m afraid we’ll need to take you in for some questioning,” an officer told Patrick.

     “I don’t know how it got there. I just came in here to take a phone call.”

     The officer shook his head. “With your history, this doesn’t look good for you.”

     They led him outside. Kara looked away as they passed her table. She hesitated, then followed. As Patrick was placed in the back of the police car, Kara cried, “I’m sorry. I didn’t want this.”

     Mr. Durham put his arm on her shoulder. “You did the right thing. People like him just can’t change.” He turned and met Patrick’s eye. “And at least my grandchild won’t be raised by a thief.”

                                                                                               * * *

     The next court visit didn’t go nearly as well as the first. Accused of a second felony, Patrick was held on $50,000 bail. There was no chance of raising that much, so he waited in a cell for his next court date.

     Three days later, a guard informed Patrick that someone was waiting to see him. “It must be Sharon with the baby,” he thought, and hurried to the visiting area. He was shocked to see Kara.

     “I just need you to hear me out,” she told him.

     “I heard everything. You reported me at the store, and—”

     “Because I love you.”

     “What?”

     “I had hoped for years that you and Sharon would break up. When I heard about the baby, I figured it would never happen. Then I saw you with the money at the store, and I thought it might break you two up if you got caught. It was stupid. I didn’t think it through.”

     Patrick was silent for a minute. “You got me arrested and got my baby’s mother to break up with me…because you love me? That’s idiotic.”

     “I know. If I was thinking clearly, I wouldn’t have done it. It was a stupid decision in a moment of passion and panic.”

     “And then you got me arrested again?

     “I tried to warn you. A man was in the bathroom at the bingo hall. He wanted me to help set you up. I walked away and came to tell you.”

     “You told the police I was the only one in the break room.”

     “I had no choice. I hadn’t seen anyone else go in. And after I tried to warn you, Mr. Durham threatened me.”     

     “Threatened you?”

     “He came over to the table and said, ‘I can make things go very well or very poorly for you. Follow my lead, or you’ll both pay the price.’”

     Patrick fumed, “I can’t believe that man. He’s always hated me, but now he’s determined to never let me see my baby. And I’m sure his connections can make that happen. It’s like playing against the house—I don’t see how I can win this one.”

     “Don’t worry about that,” Kara whispered, her eyes glinting.

     “When I got home that night, I found a lottery ticket in my purse. I hadn’t bought one, but I checked it, and it’s worth $100,000. I suppose it’s a reward from Mr. Durham.”

     “For setting me up?”

     “I had nothing to do with that, but here’s what I was thinking—what if I paid your bail and hired a lawyer?”

     “You’d do that for me?”

     “I just want to make things right. I can’t sit back and watch them throw you in prison. I know I messed things up, but I really do care about you.”

     “I don’t know what to think. I guess it’s my only hope, but—”

     “I know it doesn’t make sense, Patrick. I always hoped we would end up together, but I got everything wrong. Please let me try to fix at least part of this mess.”

     In spite of his anger and confusion, Patrick had to smile. “Thanks.”

     Two days passed with no news and no bail. On the third day, Patrick was excited to hear that he had another visitor.

     His heart sank when he entered the visiting area and saw Sharon’s father. Mr. Durham smiled. “I thought I owed it to you to tell you that Sharon and the baby are fine.”

     Patrick’s eyes lit up. “The baby’s born? It is a boy or a girl?”

     “Don’t you worry about that. With your record, I’m sure the courts will give Sharon full custody. Not that you’ll be getting out anytime soon, anyway.”

     “Unless I can post bail.”

     Mr. Durham laughed. “Right. That was the other thing I came to say. I got wind of your plan and had to tie up one last loose end.” He showed Patrick a newspaper headline: Local Woman Claims Lottery Prize; Arrested for Stolen Ticket.

     “You mean that you—”

     “Yes, it’s too bad Kara didn’t just take the money, but she got her wish. You ended up together after all. Just not the way she had hoped.” He turned to leave. “Remember, Patrick—the house always wins.”