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Norton R. Nowlin

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A Measure of Worth
By Norton R. Nowlin
Friday, August 31, 2007

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Tim Harding has reached the end of his credit, and his attempt to elude his relentless creditor. He doesn't realize that his real worth is about to be painfully measured by the ounce.








A Measure of Worth


          The commotion inside of Tim Harding’s head was as violently stormy as the unexpected late-October weather outside his Walla Walla apartment.  The clash of overlapping seasons, pitting freakishly warm autumn air over the Cascades against a belting arctic blast from above Canada, was creating a cold electrical rain storm of sizable proportion.

 Sitting, fidgeting nervously in a stained gray sweat suit on the edge of a rickety wooden chair, Tim struggled to watch the local evening weather report on his ancient black and white television. The twisted black clothes hanger wire serving as a makeshift antenna wasn’t doing its job of bringing in even a facsimile of a clear picture.  Half-rising from the chair, he reached with an unsteady hand to twist it this way and that before finally seeing the dim outline of a car salesman in a commercial on the fuzzy white picture screen.  The image Tim saw resembled a man caught in a fierce snow blizzard, while a screechy hissing sound, much like a devilish wind, emanated from the tube.

 Then the weatherman, Chuck Charles’ chubby distorted figure suddenly appeared on the screen, his large lips working vigorously while only exuding an incoherent babble that was severely garbled.  Angrily, Tim slapped the sides of the TV with his hands and a faint voice emerging out of the cacophony became barely audible.  Made faintly understandable in the chattering static, Charles’ thick Southern accent was accented by his trademark smile as he preened for his admiring television audience.  Or was it more of an arrogant smirk adorning his face that stuck out on the screen?  Tim couldn’t decide as he grimaced, straining to hear the subdued voice.

          “How are you all doing out there in Walla Walla land?” The cherubic meteorologist crooned. “Snow flurries east of the Cascades are on their way to our fair city, and they’ll be here to greet us right after an electrical storm gears up for a lot of thunder, lightning, and heavy rain.  Get ready for an extremely cold gully-washer.  Maybe even some flash flooding.” 

The words weren’t at all comforting for Tim as an explosive clap of thunder right overhead made  the whole apartment vibrate for an instant.

“Damn you.” He swore at the flickering gray box, stood up, and ambled over to the one large window in his studio that looked out over a quieting city street.  There he raised one of the dirty Venetian blinds, bending it noisily to furtively peer outside into the torrential downpour that had commenced moments earlier.  Then he turned toward a cracked Formica dinette covered over with a cluttered accumulation of unpaid bills and legal demand notices. 

Grabbing the chair behind him, he dragged it to the table where he sat down again in front of a dirty green rotary-dial telephone that was covered over with torn envelopes and folded papers.  Pulling the phone toward him on the table, he stared at the device apprehensively.  Hesitantly, he put his hand on the receiver and gingerly raised it from its cradle.  Slowly lifting its buzzing end, he nearly raised it to his ear before quickly slamming it back down onto its base.   

Suddenly making a tight fist of his right hand, Tim raised it to his mouth and bit down hard on calloused knuckles.  Abruptly, his face mutated into a mask of painful anxiety. The defined muscles of his gaunt physic flexed rigidly with the severe tension that gripped him.  His long, greasy, coal back hair hung over his ears and fell onto colorfully tattooed neck and shoulders, its oily sheen glimmering in a dim overhead light. 

His red sleepless eyes tiredly blinked away the impulse to close and remain closed, to shut out the day, the night, and everything else.   Reaching into his sweat-suit pocket, he pulled out a crumpled plastic bag from which he removed the last of ten red uppers he had bought from a pusher three days earlier.  Popping it into his mouth, he swallowed it, forcing it down without water.

Then leaning forward, Tim rested his elbow on the table and his head in the palm of his hand.  Fearfully, he looked down at the phone, as though it had teeth and was somehow going to attack him.   Even though the gas for the apartment had been disconnected a day earlier for failure to pay a two-month bill, making the temperature inside the room was well below 50 degrees, his face and brow were dripping with sweat.  The electricity was due to be turned off the following morning.  The only bill he had paid was for the phone.

 Nevertheless, he steeled himself, clinching his jaws with a determination to control his fear, and grasped the phone to make the call to his creditor, Joey, that he so awfully dreaded.  In that brief instant of time, when his harried mind was tiredly working overtime, he morbidly focused on the depraved man he was forced to call, and why he was so scared to do it. 

 The day of reckoning he had known would eventually come was here.  In less than an hour, the moment would arrive.  Its imminent arrival had been indelibly etched onto his psyche for nine long months.  Yet, he thought euphemistically, while doubting.  He doesn’t know where I am.  Or does he?  There’s no way he knows. But if he does, maybe I can work out another payment plan. . . if I call him.  Yea, I’ve got to call him.  

But in the moment that he moved his hand toward the phone to do the unavoidable, it rang loudly, abruptly.  It made him jerk away from the table, nearly falling backward in the chair.  Luckily, he caught himself in a crouched position and grabbed the edge of the table to get his balance while the chair fell noisily back against the tile floor.  The phone’s bell was clanging a second time before Tim forced himself to seize it.  His hand caught the receiver in one swift motion.  Mumbling into the mouthpiece, he leaned over the table.

“Uh, yea, who’s it?”  His voice was raspy and filled with uncertain foreboding.  Frantically, his brain talked to him as he waited for a reply. 

Who’d be calling me besides Joey?  No one really knows I’m here.

                Then suddenly he heard the heavy breathing on the other end before the familiar monotone voice.

“You know who this is, Timmy.  Don’t you?  Are you going to let the weather keep you from your appointment tonight?”  Huh, Timmy?  Cat got your tongue?”

Tim had hated that name, and Joey knew it. It was what his drunken father had started calling him after his mother had died and just before the beatings had started. His entire body trembled as he lowered the phone from his ear and glared at it in unbelief, just as the voice continued. 

“You have a debt to pay, Timmy.  It’s almost collection time.  Did you think that you could run away and avoid your obligation?” 

Oddly, the ominous words were as frighteningly clear and distinct with the phone held away from his ear.  Panicked thoughts flooded his mind. 

Shit, oh shit. Oh God, he found me.  I’m so dead.  What can I do?

 Tim returned the phone to his mouth and stammered into it a rush of words.

“I ain’t got the money, Joey.  I ain’t got anything, man.  I’m flat broke.”

“Why did you run, Timmy?  Didn’t you know I would eventually find you?”  The impassive words were hurtled into Tim’s ear, and caused the blood to run cold in his veins. 

“Please, Joey.  Give me some more time.  I’ll pay you, I swear.  Right now I ain’t got anything of value.”

“But you must be worth something, Timmy.  What are you worth?”  Joey’s  tone was bland as ever, as though he was casually ordering a pizza.  The words of his question were too much for Tim to handle as his loins tightened and his penis felt shrunken and forcedly pushed into the center of his anatomy. 

“What the hell do you want, Joey?” He screamed tearfully into the phone.   “Five pounds of my flesh?  I told you, I ain’t got the money.  I lost all my rent in a card game last night.  Tomorrow I’m going to be out on the street again.”

“Oh, Timmy, I don’t want five pounds of your flesh.  Actually, I’ll take less than a pound.”  A low sinister chuckle followed Joey’s demand.  For a moment Tim paused.  Then he spoke slowly and hesitantly.

“Whadaya mean, Joey?  I don’t get it.”

“That gold ruby ring on right hand, Timmy.  I’ll settle for that.  You know, the one you took from the old man on the park bench. . .after you mugged him and. . . you know. . .”

 Another chuckle came from the phone’s receiver as Tim’s racing heart stopped for an instant.  Distinctly, he remembered a late night of looking for an easy  score in Seattle, at Pioneer Square, two years earlier.  Then there suddenly was the old bearded man and the gorgeous ring that had adorned his swollen arthritic finger.  On spotting it, Tim had immediately coveted the ring, salivating like a hungry dog as he watched it sparkle in the scanty light, the only thing of value the old man had.  He recalled the night clearly in his mind, the way it had gone down. 

The old wino was in a drunken sleep on a bench in the darkest part of the tree covered park.  It should have been an simple heist, if it hadn’t been for the unexpected.  When he had converged on him, and pummeled him hard several times in the face, the old coot had stopped breathing and had lain still as death.  No one else had seemed to be watching as Tim struggled to get the ring off the man’s boney gnarled finger.  At least Tim hadn’t seen anyone. But the ring hadn’t budged, even as he had cursed and sworn at it.  That’s when he had panicked, when he had pulled out his razor-sharp stiletto to hack-off the old man’s finger.  There was no question about it. He had to possess that ring, and it had taken him less than a minute to do the job.  For he was exceptionally good with a knife. Then he had fled into the night toward Puget Sound with his prize.

Tim glanced down pensively at the same golden ornament on his finger as another clap of thunder sounded loudly overhead.  Then it fearfully dawned on him, what Joey had meant about less than a pound of flesh.  Taking the phone with his left hand, he closely examined his right hand and fingers which had been smashed two months earlier in a fight with some punk gang-bangers in downtown Walla Walla.  One of them had swung at him with a metal bat, and Tim’s hand had taken the brunt of the hit.  He should have seen a doctor, but had, instead, wrapped the injury in ice.  Now all of his fingers on that hand were crooked and enlarged, and he could hardly bend them.  And the knuckle of his ring finger was much too large to get the ring over it, and off.  At that moment, Tim suddenly realized what it would take to remove the ruby studded ring.

“Damn, Joey.  Do you know what you’re asking?

“Of course, I do, Timmy.  I know more about you than you do about yourself.”

“How’d you find out ‘bout my broken hand?”

“I keep tabs on all my investments over time, Timmy.  Now, what’s it going to be?  I’ll give you a half-hour to make up your mind.  Either you do the chopping or. . .I will.  I don’t really care what you choose to do.  Both ways, I’ll get the ring, and, if I do it, maybe another digit for my trouble.”  Tim started shaking uncontrollably with fear and a puddle of urine began gathering by his feet.

“You’re crazy, man!  You don’t really expect me to hack off my own finger. . .do you?” 

“You have less than 30 minutes to decide, Timmy.  You hear me?  One way or the other, that ring is mine.”  Then the phone abruptly clicked and Joey was gone.  But Tim knew he wasn’t far away, and that he would be coming with his enforcers to collect.  Joey always kept his appointments. 

Slamming the phone down, Tim frantically rushed to the front window of his apartment and peered again through the blinds into the looming night.  The two-lane street in front of his apartment building was almost empty of traffic and pedestrians as the rain cascaded off the pavement and into the gutters.  Frequent thunder boomed out of a Cimmerian sky, which was followed by lambent bolts of lightning streaking crookedly across the horizon.  The storm conditions were making everything Tim saw look grossly out of kilter with his own skewed perception of reality.  Knowing full-well that Joey was out there somewhere, biding his time, watching, enjoying the terror he was creating, made Tim suddenly realize his own feeble mortality.  

It was nearly 6:30 and the old television’s static sound was pitifully grating on Tim’s nerves.  A bank commercial droned through the cacophonous blend of words and electronic noise to make only the announcer’s query to the potential customer, “what are you worth?” perceptible to Tim.

“Damn, what am I worth?”  He shouted out loud what he thought, then looked at a wind-up alarm clock that was on a rickety chest-of-drawers next to his unmade bed.  Fifteen minutes of the half-hour remained.  Provoked by the awful electronic sound, he lunged at the TV and switched it off, just the telephone rang again.  On picking it up on its second ring, he could again hear the heavy breathing.  And then came the unwelcome words.

“Timmy, you have less than fifteen minutes to decide.  You know I won’t be coming alone, that is, if I have to do the job myself.  I’ll bring three of my big boys to make sure you sit perfectly still while the cutting is being done.”  Then came the click and Joey was gone again.

Sitting irresolutely down at the table, a shiver ran up and down Tim’s spine as he reached into the pocket of his sweatpants and withdrew his turquoise switchblade.  It was as sharp as ever and as Tim clicked it open, the shinny silver blade flashed in the hazy light.  Rising briefly from the chair, he reached to grasp a crumpled paper bag that was on the end of the kitchenette counter top.  Extracting from it a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels, he removed the cap and held the container of spirits up in a mock toast,

“Screw you, Joey.” He quipped stoically, and gulped down several mouthfuls of the strong whisky.  Then he picked up the knife and immediately began applying its severely honed edge to the fated finger, directly below where the ring was tightly bound, flaying both flesh and bone.  When the finger was finally amputated and lying in a large pool of blood and spattered flesh on the table, Tim poured whisky over the uneven stump to disinfect the wound.  Then wrapping it tightly with several strips of cloth from a ripped tee-shirt, he felt the surging pain that began to grip his body.  The bloody severed ring finger stared obscenely at him from the table, the gold ring obscured by red viscous liquid. 

Feeling dizzy and nauseated, his right hand pounding with an intense fiery ache, he forced himself to use his left to work the ring off of what used to be his third finger.  Holding the offending piece of jewelry in the palm of his left hand, he glanced dizzily at the clock. Its hands were blurred, but Tim could make out that it was time for Joey to collect.  His whole body shaking from the trauma he had inflicted on himself, Tim waited for the knock on the door and Joey’s inevitable presence.

Yet, at that exact moment, the telephone rang again, and it kept on ringing until nine rings had elapsed.  Though in shock, his eyes dilated, Tim sat at the table and watched the phone vibrate with each ring.   On the tenth ring, he numbly, painfully picked it up and instantly heard a sickening snicker emanate from the plastic earpiece, followed by Joey’s impassive words.

“Good boy, Timmy.  I can tell you’ve discovered what you’re worth.  Now, perhaps, you’re worth a little less than you thought.  Does it hurt, Timmy?  I hope so.”  There was a pause as Joey snickered again.  Then he said, “I’ve changed my mind.  Since now we both know what little you’re really worth, you can just keep the ring.”  Then came the subtle click on the phone and Joey was gone for good.  He had gotten what he wanted.        

































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Reviewed by Jerry Bolton 9/1/2007
Pretty good moral tale you have here . . . A bit overlyu flowery with your description in my opinion, but nothing that can't be corrected in a rewrite . . . I liked the plot . . . Very much . . . It is strange, but I am reading a book as we speak about a man who kidnaps women and asks the husbands or boyfriends to "pay what she is worth."

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