Stoned

byMercuryLove31©

I couldn't believe, as much as I'd degraded my mother for going to a loan shark every year so she could afford Christmas presents, here I was doing the same thing. It was absurd. I kept telling myself it was one time. I would have the money right after Christmas. It wasn't a big deal. But I still felt horrible as I waited in the tiny outer office, two flights above a corner store, to meet with Vince, the local loan shark.

Hi. I'm Georgia. Everyone calls me Gia. I'm 34, I have a 6 year old daughter who just started first grade this year (and she is doing quite well according to her teacher), and I live in a modest one-bedroom in an "okay" part of Queens. My baby girl's daddy? A married man I met at the family-owned grocery store where I'm a cashier. As soon as he heard about the kid, he stopped visiting the store. If I'm honest, it was just a hot and heavy short-term thing. We slept together for a few weeks and I didn't even know his last name. So, I couldn't track him down after she was born. I didn't really mind. Yes, I'm always a little strapped financially considering my job and my education (I'd been expelled from school in the 10th grade and hadn't bothered to attend the school for juvenile delinquents they tried to send me to, earning my GED instead), but I was doing okay. My Keni, McKenzie, my baby girl, was healthy, beautiful and smart. She had cinnamon brown skin, thick, long ebony hair that hung past her shoulders (her father's non-Black heritage most likely), big, sweet, brown eyes, two adorable dimples...clothes on her back and enough food to make her just a little chubby, so we were doing okay in my opinion.

I was also a little chubby, or at least it felt that way when I watched television or picked up a magazine. I had the same cinnamon brown skin as my precious girl, my hair was thicker, shorter and curlier, but long enough for me pull into a ponytail (which I did most days). I had the same doe-brown eyes, but only one dimple in my left cheek. I was five-foot four and just a little curvier than most women preferred. Still, I never failed to draw attention...hence my baby's daddy. And no, I hadn't known he was married at first. But I didn't stop sleeping with him once I found out (he was pretty decent in bed), so I blamed myself for my predicament. Not that my baby girl was a predicament...I considered her an unanticipated, yet absolutely wonderful, gift.

Anyway, I was waiting to talk to the local loan shark because my Christmas Club money was "tied up" until after Christmas. If you ask me, that defeats the purpose, but Joey T, the guy running the Christmas Club for the first time this year, said he calculated the dates wrong and the investment was tied up a little longer than he expected. I had been putting away $100 every 2 weeks for more than a year, so my Keni was not only going to have a great Christmas, I was also going to get ahead on some bills. I was very much looking forward to the relief that would bring.

So here I was, borrowing $2,000. That is a little less than what I was expecting from my Christmas Club (I was expecting about $3,000), so I would be able to cover the high interest and pay the loan back immediately. I believe my mother told me if I borrowed $2,000 and paid it back within a month, I would owe something like $2,500. Which meant I should be okay.

I was hoping the interest rates had remained the same. My mother hadn't borrowed money in a while and the old loan sharked she'd used had retired (or died, no one really knew). So this was the loan shark that had inherited the business. And by 'the business,' everyone on my block knew, that meant not only loan sharking, but gambling, a strip club not too far away, a local pizza shop, a dry cleaners, and probably some other 'businesses.' I didn't care about all of that. I just needed to get some Christmas gifts and pay a few bills. That would be the extent of my dealings with this seedier side of life.

I glanced at my cell phone, wondering how long they would keep me waiting, when a door leading to a back room opened and a tall, white (possibly Italian) giant of a man indicated I should enter. I stood, nervously wiping my sweaty hands on my black jeans and tugging at the cream, thick cowl-neck sweater I'd bought for a steal. My low-heeled ankle books clicked noisily as I made my way through the narrow doorway.

I was surprised, to say the least. The room was spacious...and nicely decorated with comfortable looking sofas and chairs. The walls were painted soft cream with a burgundy accent wall. There were nice paintings of landscapes hanging here and there. A popular hip-hop song was being piped, at a decent level, through a speaker system. In front of a wall of windows that looked down onto the very busy street below (we were on the third floor) was a huge wooden desk with a glass top. And I do mean huge. There were papers stacked all over the desk...and to my surprise, a woman was sitting in the massive leather chair behind it.

Even sitting it was clear she was tall. Probably over six feet. And big. Not fat, but...broad? Wide? Thick? I wasn't sure what the proper term would be. Her skin was darker than mine, a rich milk chocolate, her hair dark, silky and cropped close to her head. She had full lips, a large, crooked nose, thick, dark eyebrows and long, thick dark lashes...the combination was not flattering or attractive in any way. She looked...scary. Even dressed in a nicely fitting, charcoal grey suit. Not to mention, I was totally surprised to see a black woman sitting behind that desk. And her name was Vince? I thought I would be dealing with Italians. I stood, waiting for her to acknowledge me, staring at her with a little shock and awe.

"How much?"

Her voice was deep and gravely...she hadn't looked up yet.

"Uh...yes. I have a Christmas Club invest—"

"Don't care. How much and how long?"

I swallowed, "uh, $2,000 and I can p-pay it back right after Christmas."

She stopped doing whatever she was doing on her computer and finally looked up...and my breath caught. Her eyes were blue. A light, beautiful, piercing sky blue. A black woman with blue eyes? Amazing. I watched as she took me in, looking me over for a moment, before she seemed to get back to business.

"25% interest per month. A day late, interest increases to 50%, you get another month. A day late again, it's 75%...we clear?"

I nodded, still a little stunned that I was doing this. I blamed my inability to process what was happening for the next words out of my mouth.

"You're Vince?" I asked incredulously. Then I closed my eyes, wondering what the hell was wrong with me.

She didn't respond. The guy that had waved me in, who was standing behind me, chuckled. I opened my eyes and she was still watching me, a brow raised.

"I'm sorry. I was expecting a middle-aged, fat white guy. My mother used to borrow money from Vinny all the time. I just assumed you were his son. And I've seen his son...I'm sorry. That was rude."

"Not that it's any of your fucking business," the big guy standing behind me answered, "but Vinny is her uncle. She was named after him."

I saw her look up at him, that brow still raised.

"Your name is Vincenzo?" I asked, continuing with my ridiculous line of questions.

"Vincenza," the man behind me corrected, humor in his voice.

"You here for a fucking interview or a loan?" She finally snapped.

I shook my head, "I'm so sorry. The loan, please. I'll shut up now."

Which I did. She nodded in the direction of the man behind me and he moved over to a safe I hadn't noticed in the corner of the room. Moments later, he was handing me $2,000. I didn't count it. I was already freaking out about my rude behavior, no way I was going to insult them by counting it in their face. Even if it was short, I wouldn't say a damn word.

"January 20th," she clipped.

I nodded, stood, and quickly left.

*

Vince met Johnny's eyes after he closed the door.

"What the fuck?" She snapped.

He smiled, "haven't seen you lose it over a chick in a while. Was just having some fun."

Vince raised a brow again...then sighed.

"Get me everything on her."

Johnny smiled, "sure thing boss."

***

"I don't understand what you mean," I repeated to Cheryl, the head cashier. It was three weeks later, I had given Keni about half of the things she'd written on her very long Christmas list (my mother and sister had sent her a few of the remaining items), I'd paid some bills, and now I was anxious about paying back my loan. I wanted to pay it back early so I could relax. Except, Cheryl was trying to explain something to me that just could not be.

"He's gone. He quit. And no one can find him. And he took all of our money with him."

I shook my head, the beat of my pulse increasing exponentially.

"How is that possible? I don't understand."

She shrugged, "well, we paid him, he made the 'investments,'" she used her fingers for air quotes. "We didn't have a back-up person watching over him because we never had a problem when Michelle ran the Christmas Club. I mean, who knew?"

"But...I need that money," I whispered, suddenly very, very anxious. How did one tell a loan shark they could not pay them back? I didn't recall Vince mentioning $100 bi-weekly payments as an option. Where was I going to get $2,500?

"Tell me about it. We all need that damn money. That fucking asshole. If I ever find that fucker..."

I swallowed, trying to focus. My shift was over, my drawer had been counted and I'd only stayed a little longer because Cheryl said she wanted to talk to me. I swallowed again, "how much did he steal?"

"Considering about 15 of us contributed to the Christmas fund? Over $30,000."

I closed my eyes, trying to calm my breathing. I was in trouble. I was in big trouble. My mother was retired and lived off of a modest pension. My sister had her own bills to worry about, considering her husband had been laid off recently. So, I was in serious trouble.

"Cheryl, what's the likelihood of me getting an advance on my salary?" I asked abruptly, the thought just occurring to me.

"Uh, you'd have to talk to Dave. I've been here 10 years and I've never heard of him doing that. How much of an advance?"

"I need $2,500. And I need it in a week."

She whistled, "jeez, I can't help you out either. I'm going to be fucking tapped because of this for a little while. What about your mom?"

"Pension. And my brother-in-law was laid off in October, so my sister can't help."

She looked at me with sympathy, but shook her head, "talk to Dave, but don't get your hopes up."

I swallowed once again, nodding. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God...I was in trouble.

*

I already knew the answer, but I had to ask my mother and sister anyway. Neither could help me. They would be able to lend me a few hundred dollars, but that was about it. I'd asked Dave for an advance on my pay, but he said that was against company policy. So much for the dedicated work of an employee who had not taken a single day off in five years, even when I was pregnant.

The morning I was required to pay back the money, I stood in my tiny kitchen after taking my daughter to school wondering if I would be picking her up after a visit to the emergency room. Did they still beat up people who didn't pay their debts? Did they kill them? I doubted they would kill me over $2,500, but if the months continued to pass and I couldn't pay...I would easily wind up owing $10,000 or $20,000. Would I be killed then? Jesus.

My hands were shaking, my stomach knotted...so I stopped trying to eat the bowl of Cheerios that sat before me. Instead, I washed the morning dishes and tried to breathe. I had no other choice than to go see Vince. I would tell her I didn't have the money instead of avoiding her. Maybe she would allow me to pay it back in installments...although I wasn't feeling optimistic about that.

I took my time getting ready, blowing out my hair, adding a little make-up, wearing a form-fitting jersey knit emerald green dress and low black heels. I knew I looked good, and hoped that would help prevent them from bashing in my kneecaps. I tried to force down a cup of hot tea, but again, my stomach wouldn't allow it. So I tidied up the house and puttered around until noon, and then I left the apartment to make my way to the corner store that housed Vince's office.

I had to wait again...I did so anxiously. I was just a half second from biting my nails all the way down when the door opened and the same giant guy who waved me in last time waved me in again. I took a deep breath, stood on shaky legs, and entered the office. She didn't look up when I stood before her desk, so I just started.

"Ms...uh...I don't know your last name."

"Vince," she offered curtly, still not looking up at me.

I took another deep breath, "Ms. Vince, can I speak to you privately?"

Finally she stopped working on her computer and looked up, that brow raised again. We all stood in silence for a few moments until I saw her nod in the big guy's direction. He immediately left the room and closed the door behind him.

She leaned back in the chair and gave me her full attention, those clear, startling blue eyes staring directly at me. I swallowed again.

"I didn't want to avoid you...uh...," I licked my lips nervously, "uh...I-I don't have the money."

She didn't move. Didn't even move that brow. She just continued to stare at me. So I continued.

"I had it. Or I would have. See, we have a Christmas Club collection at work. And I put $100 into it every two weeks for more than a year. I was supposed to get $3,000 before Christmas. Except the money was supposedly tied up. Then, I just found out yesterday, the guy who was in charge of the collection quit and disappeared with the money." She didn't say a word so I continued to babble. "So I had the money, or I should have had the money, but he has it now. And I don't have a way to get it. I asked my mom, my sister, I asked for an advance on my pay...I can make payments every two weeks, but something tells me you're not going to allow that. So, I was hoping there was something else I could do. I'm not sure what, but something that would allow me to pay back the money. Something that is hopefully not illegal, I mean I have a daughter and I can't go to jail..."

I finally forced myself to shut up, only to encounter more silence as she continued to stare at me with those intense blue eyes...I fidgeted nervously.

"Name."

I was surprised by the question. She didn't remember my name?

"Georgia Adams."

Her lips twitched and I saw the first sign of emotion register on her face. It was nice. It calmed me down a little.

"His name."

"Who?"

"Guy who stole the money?"

"Oh, Joseph Taggert."

Surprise registered on her face, "you guys gave your money to Joey T.?" She asked. "How much?"

"My supervisor said he probably got about $30,000."

She nodded, "that would explain how he had the money to buy in."

I had no idea what she was talking about, "buy in?"

"Poker. A seat at the table is $10K."

I stared at her in silence, blinking slowly.

"He gambled with our Christmas Club money?" I asked softly.

She shrugged, "he's never been at the tables before. Couldn't raise the cash."

I was silent. I had nothing more to say. How could someone do that? I didn't know Joey very well, but he'd worked at the small, family owned grocery store for over a year. There was no reason to believe he would steal our money. He'd volunteered to oversee the Christmas Club...no one ever thought to do a background check or have a second person overseeing the fund. Again, we'd had the fund for years and never had a problem. Still, as I was explaining it to her, I felt like an idiot. To just turn over my money, every two weeks, to someone I didn't know very well just because I worked with him? It was actually quite foolish.

But I still had to deal with my current situation. So I focused on her again, reigning in my thoughts. She was just watching me, her face blank.

"We'll be in touch. Send Johnny in."

Startled, I paused for a moment...and then turned to do as she ordered. As I walked toward the exit, I was more anxious than ever. Would she make me sell drugs? Become a drug mule? Prostitute myself? Was there anything legal I could do to make up for that kind of money?

I'd been hoping for some indication of what might happen, but I still had no clue. I wasn't sure if this was better or worse.

*

Vince ran her fingers through her soft, short curls, sighing.

"Fucking Joey T," Johnny muttered.

"Yea," she agreed. Although she wouldn't admit that her mind was focused more on the woman who'd just left her office rather than on that degenerate. "Find him."

Johnny nodded, knowing he was going to enjoy this.

*

"Remember to use your fingers, honey. If you have 8...here, put up 8 fingers...and you have to take away 5...okay, put these 5 down...how many are left?"

"Three!"

"Good job, baby. Write it down. Okay, try the next one by yourself."

We'd been working on her math worksheet for 30 minutes. This was after we'd worked on vocabulary words for 45 minutes. At this rate, the only time I would have to spend with my baby girl would be to do her homework. I assumed the teacher just wanted to get the ball rolling, hence the heavy load. I would wait for it to lighten up. If it didn't in a week or two, I might have to schedule a parent-teacher meeting.

She was able to do the next one by herself and was starting the last one when my phone rang. I removed it from my back pocket, not glancing at the screen.

"Hello? No baby, you didn't put up enough. You have to put up all 10 fingers."

There was silence on the other end.

"Sorry, hello?"

After another moment of silence, I was about to hang up when I heard a deep, raspy voice say, "found Joey. We'll collect from him."

And she disconnected. Just like that. I stared at the phone, shocked. Could it be that easy? I wasn't sure what was going to happen next, but I hadn't expected this. I stared at the phone for another moment before Keni interrupted.

"Mom, did I get it right?"

I glanced down at the page and smiled huge. "You did, baby girl! Good job! Okay, let's pack up your stuff and get ready for a shower, okay? Then frozen yogurt, then bed."

"FroYo! Woohoo!"

I smiled at her, wondering where she'd picked up that term, and helped re-pack her backpack. She was in the shower minutes later as I made her lunch for the next day. Then we sat and watched 30 minutes of television, eating her favorite, pralines and cream frozen yogurt, before I put her to bed. It was then, when I had a moment to breathe, that I glanced at my cell phone. The number had been blocked. I know it wasn't logical, but I was uncomfortable that my problem had now become her problem. I wasn't sure what I was going to do about it, but I felt pretty certain it was not the last time I would be seeing Vince.

***

The next week was pretty quiet, but Vince's generosity continued to bug me. It turned out that I wasn't the only one at our grocery store that had borrowed from Vince, so it made me feel better that I was not the only one affected by her charity. Still, it bugged me...or maybe it just confused me. I wasn't sure which.

The following Tuesday, I had to leave my shift early to pick Keni up from school. According to the phone call, she'd been involved in an 'altercation.' I was not at all happy about that. She and I had discussed, quite often, what to do if someone was bullying her at school. She was not to hit, no matter what. She was to tell the teacher. She didn't understand it, but I didn't want her labeled as a troublemaker at school. The label could stick with her, passed on from teacher to teacher, for years. It had with me. I didn't want her to have to deal with that.

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