One blind black man with white hair like dandelion snow. One cup of coffee, black. One jangling cash register. One more opportunity for injustice at the Jefferson County Hall of Justice.
“A coffee,” says the customer in front of Jimmy as he hands the cashier a crisp new bill.
“Out of one?” the blind man asks.
Suddenly Jimmy realizes this customer he’s behind could cheat the blind man easily, if he wanted to—and had the nerve. Jimmy wonders if he’s got the nerve himself, though there’s no way that he, a bartender, would rip off the blind guy, even for a few dollars. What kind of low life does that? Still, it would be so easy. All the guy in line has to do is tell the blind man that the one dollar bill is a five. How will a sightless cashier know the difference?
If he is only legally, rather than totally blind, he might try to hold the bill up to the light, squinting, trying to make out the denomination. Even then, his vision’s probably no better than 20/200, which means at twenty feet he can see what a person with 20/20 vision sees at 200 feet.
Hell, this blind man might be so impaired he can hardly tell light from dark. Only one way to find out. Will the guy in front of Jimmy take the chance?
The dude, who’s wearing a tie and a white shirt, looks around anxiously. He’s probably a lawyer, Jimmy figures, though he could just as easily be a defendant. But who says lawyers are any better than anyone else anyway? Jimmy’s got the idea in his head that some trial lawyers are like jet pilots who can’t wait for that next adrenaline rush. If this one gets caught, he can always claim it was a mistake, right? He just looked at the bill wrong. Who’s going to dispute him—the blind man? Jimmy?
Well, hell yeah. The very idea of putting one over on the blind man offends him. But it fascinates him, too. What is this dark side of himself that’s presenting itself? And of all places, here at the Hall of Justice, where he is about to exercise his duty as a citizen in a matter of justice. Jimmy’s seen a lot of weird shit in his twenty-eight years on this planet, but it seems like life just has a way of topping itself.
The hypothetical lawyer’s next to last in line, with only Jimmy in a position to see what’s going on. All the other customers are focused on their doughnuts and their coffee. They’re not paying attention at all. Still, the would-be thief hesitates. Does he have the balls to do this? Jimmy waits, the suspense killing him, to see what the guy will do. Of course, he realizes it might all just be in his imagination. But then the guy glances back over his shoulder and Jimmy notices a worried gleam in his eye. Is he checking to see if Jimmy’s paying attention? To calculate the odds of Jimmy giving him up?
“Out of one,” the man says.
Jimmy sighs, the way he might after seeing someone almost step off the curb in front of a bus. A moral bullet has been dodged here, he’s convinced. Should he tell the blind man what he suspects? Nah, no harm, no foul. While he believes that intention matters—a lot, in fact—it’s what you do that counts in the end. Jimmy hopes St. Peter will see it the same way. The thought makes him smile. He hasn’t seen the inside of a church in years. Still, ethics matter. He believes this. It’s why he’s here.
Now it’s his turn to pay, and there’s absolutely no question of cheating, especially since he’s paying the blind man with quarters, four of them. Not even a blind man is going to mistake quarters for some other coin. Coffee is dirt cheap at a buck here, which only makes the lawyer’s theoretical dalliance all the more despicable. Jimmy assumes it’s the equivalent of morning happy hour, a way to shoehorn in more business.
What would people think, Jimmy suddenly wonders, if they could read my mind? They would think I was flipped out for sure. Would they condemn me for my thoughts? Or smile because they’re in on the joke? People are hard to figure. That’s a lesson Jimmy’s learned from bartending. Anyone might cheat you, and then turn around and give you a big tip. Maybe that’s why Jimmy pulls out two more quarters and drops them into the blind man’s tin tip cup. Tips are how he makes a lot of his living, too.
At this moment, feeling virtuous and oddly relieved, Jimmy senses someone’s eyes appraising him, and he looks up with his own guilty eyes to see a woman across the room staring at him.
“Jimmy? Jimmy Delahanty?” she calls.
She’s sitting at one of the small tables by the window on a stainless steel chair, with one spectacular leg crossed over the other, her hand wrapped around a foam cup. Her hair is fiery auburn and she looks just like she did back in high school, maybe better. Phoebe Snyder
She smiles and waves. He goes over.
“When I saw it was you, I got all excited,” Phoebe says.
Jimmy’s grin widens. He’s never had that effect on her before. She hardly paid any attention to him back in high school.
“How long has it been?” Phoebe says. “You look great.”
He’s pretty sure she doesn’t mean his chinos and least wrinkled shirt, so what does she mean? The thought makes him shiver.
“You’re the one who looks great,” he says.
They lock eyes. Hers are still green. Maybe greener than a decade ago, when she was a senior. And yet there’s something sad about her, as if life hasn’t measured up to her expectations.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“My job. I’m a process server for the sheriff’s office. What about you?”
“Couldn’t get out of it, huh?” she says, with that naughty expression he remembers so well. Not that it was ever directed at him, of course. But it is now.
“Why would I want to get out of it?” Jimmy asks.
“Lots of people do.”
Phoebe hasn’t lost her knack of keeping him off-balance.
“Jimmy Delahanty,” she says once more. “Oh, my God. I can’t believe it’s you.” She touches his sleeve. “We all had some wild times back in the day.”
None come to mind, but Jimmy nods just the same
“Gosh, it’s great running into you like this, Jimmy. I never get to see any of the old crowd anymore.”
Phoebe mentions several names. But he was never part of the old crowd, and doesn’t know what’s happened to any of them. After a moment of this, he glances at his watch, not wanting to be late back to court. He notices the blind man is rearranging his merchandise, and the thought of cheating him crosses Jimmy’s mind again. Then he realizes Phoebe has asked him a question.
“Am I married? No. How about you? You and Steve still together?
“Steve who?” Phoebe says, tossing her hair.
“I always thought the two of you would end up together ever-after. Everybody did,” Jimmy says.
“Well, everybody was wrong. It’s ancient history.” Phoebe checks her watch. “Well, it’s been great seeing you.”
“Yeah. You, too.”
Phoebe gets up and turns to go. But she pauses and looks back, way back, as if an idea
has just come to her across the fields of time.
“Want to get together later for a drink?” she asks.
“Sure,” Jimmy says. “I’d like that.”
Phoebe names a place on Bardstown Road and leaves. Jimmy laughs. It’s where he works. He can’t wait to see her face when he tells her.
Before leaving the Hall of Justice, he puts the red plastic badge identifying him as Juror 124 in his pocket, like the judge said to, as a way of protecting his identity. Considering the criminal bent of his thoughts today, Jimmy wonders if perhaps he needs even more protection, if only from himself.
At 5:30, he’s waiting for Phoebe here at the big Cheese Bar & Grille, where happy hour is well-advanced. He’d been surprised when she chose it. He would’ve expected some dim downtown joint. Maybe she was just hungry, or wanted to get away from her work place. Five minutes after he’s grabbed a booth, she makes her entrance. Every man in the place notices.
Jimmy says hi.
For happy hour, as Jimmy well knows, there’s no server. After finding out what Phoebe wants to drink, he steps behind the bar and mixes Phoebe a frozen strawberry margarita, today’s three-dollar drink special. Then he pours himself a hoppy draft beer and drops some bills on the counter. With a nod and a grin to Brian, his boss, he brings the drinks back and slides into the booth beside Phoebe.
“You seem to really be making yourself at home here,” she says.
“What makes you say that?” he says, and bullshits her as long as he can before she catches on.
“You sneaky bastard,” Phoebe says. “So how long have you worked here?”
Jimmy smiles as he tells her how he became a part-time bartender at the Big Cheese, where he works three nights a week.
“So the owner of this place used to be your assistant?” Phoebe says.
“Yeah, at the Nook, over in Clifton. We split my hours when I went part-time to go back to school. Then he came into some money and bought this place. I liked him a lot better than my other boss, so here we are.”
“College? What are you studying?” Phoebe says.
“Right now I’m taking general courses until I figure out exactly what I want to do. But I know I want to do something besides bartend all my life.”
“I get that,” she says. “You need to love what you do. I do.”
“But isn’t serving papers dangerous?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s a rush.”
And for a moment, Jimmy thinks of the hypothetical lawyer from the canteen.
“How’d it go today?” Phoebe asks.
“Swell. Got picked for the jury. I’m excited.”
She stirs her margarita. “Really? Sounds like you could use a little more excitement in your life.”
“Well, better than waiting all day in the jury pool.”
“Almost anything would be.”
Jimmy tells her the judge said the jury’s work was important. That even if they just sat there all day, they were making justice possible.
“There’s no justice, Jimmy. Don’t you know that?” Phoebe says.
“Well, the legal system does seem overwhelmed.”
“Tell me about it. I see it every single day,” she says.
“But it’s still my duty as a citizen …” Jimmy begins.
Phoebe interrupts, wanting to hear about Jimmy’s court case. He tells her he can’t discuss the case, that the judge has warned the jurors against this.
“Oh, don’t be such a goody-goody,” Phoebe says. “Why, at this very moment, I’ll bet some of your fellow jurors are talking their fool heads off about it.”
“If I told you, and the judge found out, what do you think would happen?” Jimmy asks.
“He’d probably hold you in contempt. Maybe throw the case out of court. But don’t worry, my lips are sealed.”
Pressing them together, Phoebe leans over, kisses him, and unseals her lips.
Back at Jimmy’s place off Barrett Avenue, she pulls a joint out of her handbag and smiles at his surprise. Jimmy guesses they’ve both changed since high school. He takes the lighter from her and flicks it to fire. She puts her hand on his as she takes a long toke, then exhales.
Only four rooms, but Jimmy’s proud of every one of them. He’s hung up several paintings by friends. Asked what she’s been doing for the past ten years, Phoebe says she’s drifted from job to job until getting hired at the sheriff’s office. She’s been there three years.
“That’s great.” Jimmy asks if she’d like some wine and goes to the kitchen for a bottle of his best Chianti. Why is she here? Clearly, a bartender’s life is no rush.
“Where are you living these days?” He hands her a glass of wine.
“I’m crashing with my sister temporarily.”
“Didn’t know you had one.”
“She’s older than me.”
“And not as pretty, I’ll bet.”
Phoebe’s eyebrows lift. A roguish smile plays about her lips. Soon, Jimmy’s bed is groaning. Phoebe is an inferno. Just touching her skin makes him feel scorched. Jimmy has dreamed of this ever since the time she showed up at the Crescent Hill pool when her boyfriend, the quarterback, was away at a college football camp. Lonely and depressed because her grades wouldn’t get her the scholarship she needed to go with him in the fall, Phoebe had moaned about it to Jimmy. He’d tried to comfort her, resulting in their one and only kiss.
“Phoebe, do you think people are basically honest, or dishonest?”
She gives him a puzzled look, as if to say, Is this really your best pillow talk, big fellah?
“Say there was an opportunity to cheat a blind man out of some money. How many people out of ten would do it?”
Phoebe asks if they’re talking about that blind man at the courthouse, the one who runs the canteen. This is one of the busiest buildings in the state, she says. Maybe ten-thousand people pass through it every day, and a lot of them are felons. Some of them are bound to have tried.
“But how many out of ten-thousand?”
“Math was never my best subject,” she says. “But you’ve been thinking about doing it yourself, haven’t you.”
“You must’ve been better in psychology.”
“So I’m right. You have been thinking about it.”
“Okay,” Jimmy says, “you got me. But I wouldn’t do it. I mean, it’s just wrong. Besides, imagine the humiliation if you got caught. You might even go to jail. Could you face that?”
“Maybe. Sounds like a hell of a rush to me.”
Back in court the next day, Jimmy keeps thinking about Phoebe and the blind man while the attorneys argue obscure legal points. At noon, he drops by the canteen for a cup of coffee.
“Anybody ever try to take advantage of you?” Jimmy asks, paying.
“Rip me off because I’m blind, you mean? Why, you thinking about trying?”
Jimmy laughs nervously. “No, just curious. That’s all.”
“Yeah, well it happens. Eight or ten times a year, I’d say.”
“If some guy ripped you off once and came back again, would you know it was him?”
“Well, I’d know his voice. And his height,” the blind man says.
“How can you tell how tall someone is?”
“By where their voice is coming from. I'm pretty good at it. For instance, I’d say you're five-eleven.”
Eleven and a half, actually, Jimmy thinks.
The blind man says he usually knows when someone is trying to cheat him. “If it’s not a twenty, most of the time I can tell by the feel of the bill. Ones get more use than other bills. They feel soft. Twenties stay crisp. And when someone is trying to put something over on you, their voice usually gets higher, and their sentences shorter. They’re nervous. If I take the bill and start to pull out change, they think they've gotten away with it and that’s when they come up with some overly polite thank-you. That’s when I know.”
Jimmy is amazed. How does he still have any faith in humanity?
“I'm not naive enough to think that everybody who comes in here is going to be honest. I know I’ve had some people cheat me. But most of my customers are my friends. They look out for me.”
But right now Jimmy and the blind man are the only ones in the canteen.
That night as Jimmy lies beside Phoebe, inhaling her perfume—My Sin, an older brand that seems ideal for her—the subject of stealing from the blind man comes up again. This time, she broaches it, saying she could get away with it. Jimmy is appalled. Realizing how tempted she is, he tries to talk her out of it, mentioning morality and shame and everything else he can think of. Finally, he reaches the bottom line. “You might get caught.”
“I wouldn’t, though,” she says.
Jimmy doesn’t know how to answer her. But she pulls him closer and rolls him over onto his back, and he stops trying.
In court for the third day, Jimmy learns that the attorneys have failed to settle the case, so the trial must continue. All morning and afternoon, he listens to testimony. He finds it hard to concentrate as his thoughts keep returning to Phoebe and this harebrained scheme he’s half put her up to. Why did he ever say anything about it? Twice during recesses, he buys coffee. No sign of her. Jimmy hopes she’s given up the idea. At four o’clock, the judge calls a halt to the proceedings and instructs everyone to return tomorrow. On his way out, Jimmy sees Phoebe going into the canteen. By the time he gets there, she’s chatting and handing the blind man a bill. As soon as he puts it in the till, she speaks up.
“That was a twenty I gave you.”
Jimmy knows it wasn’t. But in spite of the blind man’s supposed caginess, he hasn’t seemed to notice that her voice is in a higher register than before, or that she seems nervous. There’s still time to call Phoebe on it, but if Jimmy does, he’ll surely lose this fabulous sexual treat that has fallen into his lap like a ripe red apple. As the blind man starts counting out her cash, Jimmy sees Phoebe is going to get away with it, and something sours in his stomach.
After a deep breath, he says, “Hey, wait a minute. That wasn’t a twenty you gave him. You’ve made a mistake.”
So have you, Phoebe’s look says, but she hands the money back.
Rick Neumayer has published short fiction in such journals as The Tulane Review, Deep South, 34th Parallel, Euonia Review, Bartleby Snopes, New Southerner, and Louisville Review. Three of his Broadway-style original musicals have been produced locally at RiverStage. A native of Louisville, he completed his MFA in Writing at Spalding University in 2014.