The Whisky Blot
Poppy slid the loan paperwork across her father’s desk and watched him riffle expertly through the documents. “You remind me so much of your mother,” he said lightly. “Such a spendthrift. If she had five cents, she’d spend ten, remember?”
She didn’t reply. His nostalgic tone was confusing. Money problems were the big reason her folks had divorced when she was little. Now her mother was on her fourth husband and her fifth bankruptcy, and Poppy was sitting in her father’s Salish Bank office asking for money.
He looked at her over his reading glasses. “So, what’ll be different this time?”
She got up. “You know what, never mind. I don’t need the hassle.”
“Sit, sit.” He waved her back into her chair. “I’m just verifying it’s all here. You say your financial counselor recommended taking out a loan?”
“Yes. To get me back on my feet.” This part of the lie was easy.
“And the counselor’s name?” His fingers clenched a pen.
Now they were edging closer to things he didn’t know about. Her arrest, the court appearance. She’d have to hedge the truth, help him hear what he needed to hear. “Well, I’ve been going to this city-run place that offers sliding scale fees. Emerald City Credit.”
He wrote this down. “Good, good, very reputable. Shall I call them?”
“No!” she blurted. She added, calmer, “I don’t see a specific person. I talk to whoever’s on duty. I’ll just ask someone to sign next time I go in.” The last counselor she’d seen, dark-eyed Clement, had talked earnestly about budgets and financial hygiene while diligently ignoring her flirting. She’d tossed his business card in the trash on her way out, along with her coffee cup.
Attaching a yellow Sign Here sticker, her father gave back the paperwork. “Great. Have them sign and we’ll get you into the system. I’m proud of you for doing this the right way.”
She got up. There was always one more step, one more rule to follow but she couldn’t let him see her irritation. The last cash she’d skimmed from Grammie was nearly gone. Would her grandmother even notice the theft? Poppy doubted she or Aunt Bick did more than glance at her financial statements, but Grammie was a tightwad. She’d survived the Depression. She still clipped coupons from the grocery store flier.
“See you at church Sunday,” her father called, as she left his office. She didn’t reply. She’d figured the Lord would be a part of the equation.
Poppy’s relationship with money had always been troubled. On her eighth birthday, her parents began issuing a weekly allowance. Yours to spend however you like, her father said magnanimously, as her mother counted out dollar bills. Her joy palled when they forced her to tithe on the sum, a fixed ten per cent placed directly into the church collection plate.
Her friend Diane showed her how to get her money back, to take a bathroom break during the Sunday sermon and make a quiet detour to the deacons’ office where the plates were stacked. Sometimes Poppy withdrew a little extra, so she both tithed and made money.
It seemed to her that life should always be like this. Why was someone else entitled to her cash? Even now she couldn’t bear to look at receipts or bank statements or tax forms. Seeing what was being taken from her made her feel so cheated. So not in control.
Even broke, Poppy was generous. She needed to prove she wasn’t her spendthrift mother, nor her sly father. During father-daughter dinners at Olive Garden, he’d boast about how much he was raking in on his investments, then leave a dollar and a Gospel tract as a tip. So Poppy gave, to bake sales and raffles and fundraisers for people whose houses had burned down or needed money for pet surgery.
Her giving philosophy hadn’t mattered at all when Citibank sued her over her delinquent credit card bill. A ponytailed public defender had negotiated her sentence down to a repayment plan and a pledge to go to financial counseling. He cautioned, You have to actually do it. If you don’t, they can arrest you.
Beat the system, Poppy had crowed on social media, but she was smarter now. She’d spend the loan money fast, before any of the big banks found out about it.
That night, she went over to her Aunt Bick’s house. “I’m glad you can get some me time,” Poppy said, sitting at the kitchen island and sipping Chardonnay.
Her aunt was rummaging through her purse. “Oh, you didn’t need to come all the way over here. She’ll just snooze in her chair til I get back from Bunko.”
“I’m wide awake,” Grammie announced from the living room.
“Bless her heart,” Bick chuckled. “Caroline and Carl were over last night. They just got back from a month in Mexico! We had seven-and-sevens and Grammie beat us at pinochle.”
Poppy set down her glass, irritated. Caroline and Carl were Bick’s children, the perfect grandkids; thoughtful, kind, selfless citizens with jobs and good haircuts and useful hobbies.
Jangling her keys, Bick said, “I’ll be home by nine. If you need to go, just lock the door. She’ll be fine.”
“We might be up until all hours.” Poppy went into the living room. “Right, Grammie?”
Her grandmother was dozing, a colorful afghan crocheted by Carl draped over her lap. Poppy sat down on the love seat across from the TV, watching out the window as her aunt’s Lexus glided into the street. A few minutes later, Grammie blinked awake. “Poppy?”
“I’m here. You need the bathroom? Food?”
A moment, as Grammie made internal surveys. “Well, Bick has been hiding the fudge.”
“I’ll look.” Poppy knew she was being conned. Grammie was forbidden chewy items, anything that might disturb the fillings in her fragile teeth. It only took two minutes to locate the Tupperware of store-bought fudge, concealed behind a stack of cookbooks.
Grammie bit into her treat. “Mm. I tell you what, that’s good eating.”
Poppy sipped her wine, silently praying that the ancient amalgam stayed put.
“Have you had any luck looking for a job?”
“I’m interviewing,” Poppy said stiffly. “I’ve temped a bit. I’m not going to tie myself down to just anything.”
“Bick says you have money troubles,” Grammie observed. Her eyes had a hard sparkle.
Poppy bristled. “I’m fine. My credit card was billing me for things I never bought.”
“We never had credit cards in my day. It’s a dangerous game, Patricia.”
“Oh please. You had accounts at Penney’s and Sears when I was little.”
“That was different.” Her grandmother leaned forward, reaching for the fudge.
Poppy nudged the Tupperware farther away. She was being petty, but so was Grammie. “Stop being a stinker and give me the fudge. And the remote,” her grandmother ordered.
She did as she was told, then sat back and finished her wine. She’d hoped to poke around at Bick’s desk after Grammie fell asleep, but her grandmother had turned on a game show.
Poppy closed her eyes. People in her debt counseling class wept as they talked about the stress of being broke, describing ulcers and headaches and insomnia. In the back of the room, Poppy chewed gum and tried to look interested. Not having money felt liberating. Debt was just a minus on someone else’s spreadsheet. Pruning Grammie’s money market, she only took enough to cover Lyft rides to her credit counseling class, the textbook, coffees to stay awake. Grammie wouldn’t want her to go without, she reasoned.
She might want exactly that, another part of her mind whispered. Grammie had survived the Dust Bowl and the Depression and two world wars. She’d grown up with one pair of shoes. She’d likely frown upon Poppy’s iced triple mochas. She most certainly would want her to go without.
It took an Adderall and half a joint to get Poppy in shape for church. Also, she had to get rid of her overnight guest. “Clement? This has been great, but I have to be somewhere.”
The financial counselor rolled over in her bed. His dark hair and smooth skin looked luscious against her sheets. “No worries,” he said, yawning. They’d adjourned to her apartment after yesterday’s appointment. She’d asked for another business card, making sure her fingers brushed his.
She added, “I’ll make us coffee. Could you sign that paperwork?”
Pulling on his jeans, he said, “Okay. But Poppy. We shouldn’t do this again.”
“No. Definitely not,” she said.
The first person Poppy saw when she entered the church foyer was her old friend Diane. “Patricia Ophelia Dixon, how are you!” Diane exclaimed, handing her a program.
Poppy eyed her mauve skirt suit, the matchy aubergine nails. “Hi. You look, uh, great.”
“And don’t you look wonderful,” Diane said softly, as though she were envious.
But the truth was, Diane envied no one. She was as calculating as a pawnshop clerk. They’d bonded over summers at a county-run jobs program, calling out sick from their minimum wage assignments, shoplifting diet soda and beef jerky sticks for lunch at the park. We’ll fight the system, they swore. I’ll always have your back. Call me anytime. I’m your one a.m. friend.
Fast forward a few years to the night Poppy was arrested on the delinquent funds warrant. Diane sleepily accepted the collect call. “It’s your one a.m. friend,” Poppy said.
“You’re in jail? What have you done?” Diane wailed.
“Nothing, it’s all a big mistake,” Poppy said. The cop on guard duty rolled her eyes.
“I’m not sure what I can do,” Diane was saying. “Maybe I can pray for you?”
“You promised to have my back,” Poppy said, into a dial tone.
Instead of arriving the next day with a skeleton key, a knife baked into a cake, grinning anarchy, Diane sent a bald man with rodent eyes and an insincere grin. “Poppy, I’m Mr. Mayer.”
“As in the wieners?” Poppy said, irritated. They sat down in the jail visiting area.
“As in Diane’s better half.” He handed her a bag of Avon toiletries and a Bible.
Poppy ruffled the gilt-edged pages of the Bible and slid it back across the table. It crash-landed into the cushion of his belly. “You know Diane’s just in it for the money, right?”
He stood up. “She told me about you. We’re not paying bail. Don’t bother us again.”
“Poppy?” Diane handed out her last program. The church vestibule was filling up. “Want to sit with Mr. Mayer and me?”
Poppy smiled. Maybe she could guilt Diane out of some cash. Before she could reply, a bony hand clenched her arm. “It is so good to see you in the Lord’s house,” Grammie exclaimed.
She hugged her grandmother. Aunt Bick leaned in, zipping up her burgundy choir robe. “Will you sit with her? And I need to talk to you, Poppy. After the service.”
Taking Grammie’s arm, Poppy found seats near the front. Her father couldn’t miss seeing them from his perch with the other deacons, five jowly men in Macy’s suits. As the collection plate was passed, she sat on her hands and thought about Clement. He’d told her the loan was a bad idea. A debt trap. Salish Bank would collect double-digit interest. You mean if I pay it back, she’d said, and he’d just sighed and signed by the yellow stickers.
Now the sermon. Poppy had decided she’d slip out during the closing prayer, leave the paperwork under her father’s windshield wiper and go. If Aunt Bick wanted to talk, let her call.
Across the sanctuary the Mayers sat looking prosperous and smug. She and Diane had taken so much from each other, Poppy thought. Boyfriends, gas money, trust. She missed her friend, but what was the point of nostalgia? They were speeding along parallel tracks. Intersection now would be fatal.
The congregation rose to sing the final hymn. Poppy pulled on her coat. Her grandmother took her arm again, murmuring, “Toilet.” A helpful usher whisked them out a side door and again Poppy recalculated. New plan. Get Grammie into a stall, text Bick, slip away.
But as she reached the edge of the parking lot, Aunt Bick’s Lexus glided into view, silent and menacing as a shark. The passenger window lowered. “Get in.”
She looked inside. “I’m late for an appointment.”
“You left these on your dad’s car.” Her aunt brandished the manila envelope.
“Those are legal documents. That’s a federal crime--”
“Oh, get in. I’ll give them to you when we’re done.”
Poppy slid into the passenger seat. How many times had she sat here, sullen, in trouble, her aunt the only one who bothered to show up? And thus, the target of her rage. “Two minutes. Then I’m going.”
Aunt Bick sighed. “Poppy, someone’s stealing from Grammie. She writes big checks to Manna Ministries sometimes, but this is different.”
“How much are we talking?” Poppy stared down at the immaculate floor mat, the indentations where her shoes had disturbed the expensive pile.
“At least fifteen thousand. I’m not accusing you but--”
“You think I took fifteen grand from Grammie?” Her outrage felt real. “Investigate away. It’s not me.”
“I know you’ve taken a few hundred here and there,” Aunt Bick said quietly. “The police are sending a forensic accountant on Tuesday. I wanted to give you a chance to put it back.”
“I’ll get you a check tomorrow.” Poppy got out of the car. “Can I have my envelope?”
But Aunt Bick was tucking it under her thigh. “Tomorrow. When you bring the money.”
Standing in the parking lot, Poppy looked back into the car. “So, who took the fifteen K? Darling Carl and Caroline, fresh from Mexico? No wonder they let her win at pinochle.”
Her aunt put the Lexus into gear. “You know all you have to do is ask. If you need money.”
“But it’s not about the money, is it?” Poppy laughed. It was an ugly sound.
Elise Glassman is a Seattle, Washington writer whose stories and essays have appeared in journals such as The Colorado Review, Main Street Rag, The Portland Review, Per Contra, Spank the Carp, and most recently, San Antonio Review. She is an assistant fiction editor at Pithead Chapel and blogs at busysmartypants.blogspot.com.
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