The Bagman

Christopher Lowe

On Sunday mornings, the bagman burns his receipts. His wife sleeps late on these days, but the bagman rises early, layers the charcoal in the smoker box, uses lighter fluid to flame it to a brilliant, chalky whiteness. In the refrigerator, the pork shoulder is in its brine. When the charcoal is ready, he adds chunks of hickory, and as they begin to smolder, as the smoke begins to puff up from the small metal chimney at the top of the smoker, the bagman takes out his wallet, removes the week’s receipts, and drops them one by one into the smoker box where they curl and blacken and fall away to ash.

The bagman knows that he could throw them in the trash, knows that no one is looking for these receipts, and since he uses cash, no one can prove much of anything anyway, but he likes the ritual of the burning, likes to see the last shred of incrimination wither and fade. There is power in this act, and power is important to the bagman, more important, maybe, than anything else.

He has the pork on the smoker by the time his wife rises. She shuffles out to hug him good morning, to smell the wood smoke that clings to his clothes and his beard, then she goes inside and begins her day – moving through the house like an eraser, making all the detritus of the weekend disappear so that they can head into the new week in an orderly fashion, then to the bathroom, where she preps and primps before being spirited to shop or visit friends or run errands – and the bagman is left alone outside. He sits in his chair and watches the smoke chug out of the short chimney. Once every hour he stands, opens the smoker’s lid, and mops the pork with a sauce made of vinegar, apple juice, and spices. By the time the pork is ready, his wife will return, and she will sit while he slowly pulls the meat from the bone, and she will tell him about her day, about the silly, inconsequential things that she did with the money he gives her. Because it went low and slow for nine hours, just like his father taught him, the meat shreds easily with a fork.

“Controlling the temperature’s your first priority,” his father told him, many years ago. “You’ve got to be patient. Don’t overreact to some little fluctuation.” The bagman holds this in his mind each Sunday, makes sure that in the midst of everything else – Geremy and Frank and all the rest of it – he has a handle on the rate of this burning.

A month after his father’s funeral, the bagman went to lunch with Tony, his father’s best friend. Tony coaches youth sports, and at the lunch, he told the bagman what his father did. In addition to the string of pawnshops, the bagman inherited from his father a love for the state university’s football team. They went to games together, tailgated, drank bourbon and cheered wildly, but his father was not a booster. Tony explained this to the bagman. A booster is a known quantity for coaches, administrators, other teams, the NCAA. A booster has a monetary affiliation with the university. A booster cannot do the things that the bagman does.

There was a time when the bagman imagined himself in a box suite at the stadium, imagined himself and his wife cheering and drinking expensive liquor and eating expensive food. He had seen those people before, the high-level donors, and he thought that he wanted what they had, the notoriety, the influence. He thought that all of this was possible, but when he sat at lunch with Tony, he began to understand that he was not one of those people.

There are many things about being a bagman that the bagman dislikes. The kids are flighty, their whims shifting and fluttering with no rhyme or reason. Just when you think you have a recruit locked up, just when you think he’ll honor his word – the word that you’ve paid for – he decides he really does want to visit LSU or Alabama or Tennessee. And then there are the 7-on-7 coaches, always looking for a little bit of side cash to sway their players to your school. When the bagman meets these men, he makes it clear that the money he’s handing out is one-time-only, but even he doesn’t believe this. Two weeks before signing day, the coach will post something on Facebook or Twitter about his player decommitting, and the bagman will have to drive back out to some parking lot in the southern part of the city, will have to go through the whole process again.

The bagman has had a scare, a knuckle-charged shock of a scare that has left him wandering through his house in a daze these past few weeks. Geremy Renfroe is missing, has been missing for nearly a month now, and the bagman knows that something ineffable can be taken from him very easily now. He watches the reports on TV, reads the message boards for chatter and rumors, and when it becomes clear that Geremy’s uncle, Frank, is a person of interest in the case, the bagman begins to wait for what he knows will happen next. There is some measure of power in the waiting – not in the act itself but in the knowledge that comes with it. He redirects his mind to the waiting, breathing deep, gulping lungfuls of the smoke on Sunday mornings, letting it ratchet against his lungs in a painful, enlightened way.

When the bagman’s father died in a car crash eight years ago, the inheritance of the pawnshops was smooth. There were no other children, and his father was the sole proprietor. Just a lot of paperwork, really, and then the bagman went from an underpaid store manager at one of the shops to the owner of the whole string.

His shop, the shop he once managed and that he still runs five days a week, sits on the southern edge of the city, halfway between dilapidated row houses and a working class suburb. He does business with both classes of people. He gives the old black men from the city cash advances and short-term, high-interest loans. He is not licensed to do this, but none of the men complain. They have come here for years for this service, and the bagman does not extend it to anyone else. The rednecks from the suburb bring him their too-expensive HD televisions, their car stereos, their children’s laptops. He writes out receipts, holds the property, and eventually, when they cannot afford to buy it back, he sells it at a profit to other rednecks. His business is done in cash, which is the way his father designed it. He does not court new business at this location, does not advertise with billboards or mailers the way his other shops in the city advertise. He relies on word of mouth. He is known here, on the edge of things, and his customers recommend him to their friends, mention one another when they come in looking to make a deal. The bagman’s bank account swells with money from the other locations – deposited by the men who manage those locations – but the bagman has little to do with those other shops. To do otherwise would be to court disaster. Too much of the business in his shop is done in the margins, and while the money he makes doing this marginal business isn’t substantial, he enjoys the process of it. He likes skirting the rules and handling what must be handled to keep that skirting quiet. He likes knowing more than anyone else – his managers, his wife – can know. Having a handle on things, keeping life steady and even is the finest form of control the bagman knows.

When business is slow at the shop, the bagman sits behind the counter and watches videos that he finds posted on Instagram and YouTube by dermatologists, who have recorded the process of removing cysts, extracting blackheads, slowly bleeding clogged pores of their accumulated build-up. The bagman does not know why he watches the videos. It is not sexual, though he has not told anyone that he watches these videos, especially not his wife, who would assume some level of complicity in the action, some desire to be the popper or the poppee. The bagman is not alone in this fascination. There is a whole vast community that enjoys these videos, people who comment on them, ask for more, discuss technique and approach. There are popper chat rooms and message boards, though he does not go to these. He does not have any interest in discussing the videos he watches, does not see this as a hobby that requires interaction with other people. It is his and his alone, a ritual that he indulges for his own sake and for his own reasons. There is no need for connection; there is only need of the act itself, the watching, and in this, he takes great pleasure.

Geremy Renfroe was a middle linebacker who projected as a safety at the next level. The bagman identified him early – saw him play on a JV team and immediately knew the boy would be good. That night, he reached out to Tony who reached out to the coaches who acknowledged that yes, they were interested in Geremy and that, yes, any help that could be provided would be appreciated. The next day, the bagman introduced himself to Frank.

The bagman’s wife is cheating on him. Has been, he thinks, for at least eight months. Finding out was an accident. She, soaking in the bathtub, asked him to retrieve her phone from her purse downstairs. He obliged, and halfway up the staircase, the phone buzzed in his palm, and he looked at the screen, saw a text message from a strange number. It took him three weeks of sneaking her phone from her purse before he figured out her pass code. It was his high school football jersey number, repeated four times, and when the phone finally opened for him, he found the texts, all of them.

That day, when the phone made itself available, his wife was in her garden, tending her spriglets of rosemary and basil, her still-green tomatoes. He felt a slow drone of fear creep into his knuckles, the same sensation that came when, as a boy, he took the snap, dropped back, and realized his receivers would all be covered. Then, he’d simply tightened his grip on the ball, tucked it, and plowed ahead for a small gain, though now he had nothing to grip but the phone, no hole to run through, no way to release the mounting tension in his joints.

After a time, he locked the phone and slid it back into her purse. When she came to him, sweaty, dirt arcing her brow, he kissed her fully, eyes closed, hands groping for some purchase at her hips.

In the popping clips, the doctors use a range of tools to extract the blackheads, to burst the pimples, to wiggle the cysts’ off-white dirtiness from their patients’ flesh. There is a metal instrument, a slender, hooked device that is pushed around the pore, looping the blackhead free of the skin. The bagman likes these videos, but they are not his favorites. There is a procedure to the cyst videos that speaks to him on some base level: a quick piercing with the needle, the rocking motion of fingers around the edge of the wound, coaxing the filth free. Sometimes what comes free is a hard lump that must jostle its way out of the wound. Other times, it is a slow leak of fluid, puss that must be shed from the wound until rich, dark blood replaces the glistening whiteness. The bagman likes these videos very much. There is a release, after that initial piercing and pushing, a slow freeing, a feeling of relief that swells within him, though he doesn’t understand why he should feel these things, watching strangers being cleansed.

Sometimes, it seems like all of the kids the bagman meets have an uncle, a caring father-stand-in who is only interested in what’s best for his nephew.

At his first meeting with Frank Renfroe, the bagman said, “I want you to know how much we value Geremy,” and Frank nodded, smiled, said that actions spoke louder than words, that he would be handling the recruitment for his nephew.

The bagman’s first recruit was Leonard Goston, a defensive end from the city’s largest high school. The boy was tall and lean, and the bagman liked the easy way he smiled when he spoke of the schools recruiting him. There was a confidence there, a steady knowledge that the schools needed him – wanted him – and Goston was cocksure enough to cater to that desire. When the bagman gave his first fumbling innuendo, his first, “Is there anything we can do for you or your family?” Goston had earnestly told him that his mother’s car was about to give out, that she needed to be able to get to work and back.

The bagman arranged for Goston’s mother to receive a pre-owned Camry – something believable, something in her price range – from a sympathetic car dealer in the north part of the city. He made sure that the Camry was fully equipped, installed the stereo himself, out back of his shop. When he delivered it to Goston, the boy shook his hand and thanked him. In the years since, only Geremy has been as polite to the bagman, and then, it was only on that last night.

The bagman paid Goston, his mother, and his coach close to forty thousand dollars over the course of a year. Much of that money was culled from interest on the under-the-counter loans he offered to his customers, but a chunk of it came from other bagmen, people who the bagman never met, people who funneled the money to him through Tony. There was plausible deniability for all of them. It can’t be a network, Tony said, if no one knows each other.

During that first year, the bagman worried that his wife would discover this indiscretion, but after a time, the fear left him. He handled the bills, handled the budget. There was a steady stream of reported, taxed money that flowed in from the rest of the pawnshops, and he never had to tell his wife that they’d be tightening their belts. He gave out extra loans, didn’t report some sales, and just like that, he had the money he needed.

During the seventh game of his freshman season, Leonard Goston recorded his first sack – a pivotal, jaw-breaker of a hit on Auburn’s easily-rattled quarterback – and in the stands, in his normal seats, the bagman had hooted and whistled, had clapped his hands and said, “That’s my boy” while all around him other fans clapped and cheered and heard nothing and knew nothing. In that fine moment, the bagman knew that he would keep doing this, keep feeding this feeling, for the rest of his life.

His wife does not much care for football anymore. When they were younger, she’d sit and watch games with him, though the act was less about the sport and more about his presence, his enthusiasm. She cheered because he cheered, and now, all these years later she does not watch and she does not cheer because he does do those things.

He thinks that maybe he doesn’t know her at all, this once-girl who floats in and out of his days in a cloud of lavender body mist. For many years the bagman did all of the laundry. He enjoyed the process of it, the steady rhythm of clothes in, clothes out, of sorting and folding and arranging in drawers and closets. His wife did the cleaning – insisted upon it – but she let him handle that mundane chore, let him portion out the fabric softener, let him fluff still-warm towels into the bathroom cabinets. There came a point though where her anger boiled over, where his inability to follow her complex instructions became too much for her. Shirt A must be washed on delicate and not dried. Shirt B should be washed with whites even though it is pink, and it should be dried on Permanent Press. Skirt C can be neither washed nor dried. Eventually, he ceded the task to her, let her wash her own things, and now he does one small load of clothes – his clothes – each week.

There is a reporter assigned to the investigation for the city’s newspaper. Initially, the disappearance was handled by a sportswriter, but as the weeks have shuffled on, one of the writers on the city beat has taken the reins. He charts Geremy’s last movements, from the night he disappeared, again and again: home for dinner at seven, the disagreement with his uncle at the table, leaving to run an errand he wouldn’t explain, and then gone, with no explanation, with no witnesses. The reporter reiterates the lack of an alibi for Frank, who left Geremy’s house shortly after he did, and he discusses the dark history of recruiting handlers in the state, of men who bled every drop of money they could from their nephews, sons, grandsons.  The bagman reads the articles each morning while he sits on the porch with his wife. They take their coffee together, their chairs so close that their legs brush against one another. He considers reaching out for her hand from time to time, but he doesn’t do this, doesn’t make this movement. Instead, he focuses on the articles he reads, on the case that is slowly emerging against Frank. It is circumstantial, yes, and the bagman doesn’t think an arrest will come unless something more is discovered, but the repetition of Frank’s name still troubles him, still gives him that crackle of tension in his joints.

The bagman does not have pimples or blackheads himself, has none of these small wounds to cleanse from his face or back in the bathroom mirror. He’s always had good skin – a gift of genetics or good diet, he is not sure which – but sometimes he wishes for a growth to form at the side of his nose, bulbous and protruding, something that he can watch in its evolution. He imagines it swelling, drawing the eyes of the people in his shop, growing larger with each day until, finally, he can stand its presence no longer, until he can use a needle to break its surface, use his fingers to ease out all of the filth.

Geremy’s recruitment was not as easy as Goston’s. Once or twice a month, the bagman took a stack of cash from the safe in his office, went to a furniture store or a clothing store or an electronics store, and bought something nice for the Renfroes. He discovered early on that it was not money they wanted, that they were not interested in envelopes of cash. Regular payments would not be disbursed, and so the bagman found an alternative. Gifts. A new flat-screen TV for their living room. A new sectional that would fit nicely in Frank’s apartment. A new laptop for Geremy – to help with his schoolwork, the bagman told Frank, smiling.

Newness was the key to all of the purchases. Frank did not want second-hand castoffs from the bagman’s shop. He wanted to be treated well, and so the bagman treated him well. He pretended at being frustrated by this when he spoke with Tony, but the bagman secretly enjoyed this. He liked feeling the cash bulging against the confines of his wallet, liked the eyes of the clerks who rang up his purchases when he peeled off crisp hundred dollar bills, liked, of course, holding the receipts until Sunday so that they could be burned down to ash.

His wife always showers when she gets home, always sluices off what she says is sweat from her time at the gym, but the bagman understands that it is more than that. The bagman sits downstairs and listens to the water pattering on the tile. Just knowing that he could stand, walk upstairs, let himself into their bathroom, sit on the closed toilet, say, “I know about Hayden,” is enough for him. Holding this card, clutching it tight, is enough to level off the jealousy and anger, enough to give him back what he felt slipping from him when he saw that first text message, and he can wait a while longer to bring an end to things.

The night Geremy disappeared, the bagman’s burner cell rang. His wife was out, gone to the place she’d rather be, and the bagman, sitting on his porch drinking a beer, answered on the first ring.

“I need to talk to you about something,” Geremy said.

“Where’s Frank?” the bagman asked. “He doesn’t like me talking to you directly.”

“My uncle doesn’t…I just need to talk to you,” the boy said, and the bagman agreed, named a parking lot in an abandoned strip mall. He finished his beer before he left the house.

For many years the bagman marinated his pork instead of brining it. The marinade had been his father’s recipe, one that called for many of the same ingredients that the bagman still uses for his mopping sauce. The old man believed his marinade could seep into the meat, could tenderize it and prepare it for the slow crusting of that low, steady heat. The bagman does not use this recipe any longer, though he couldn’t tell you why. The first time he brined his meat – a straight brine, just pickling salt and water – he feared that this would be a tipping point for him, the end of his progression away from his father, but when the meat took on the smoke and the dry rub flavoring, when he discovered it glistening with melted fat as he pulled it, he knew that he’d been right to veer off in this way.

There were tears in Geremy’s eyes when he told the bagman that he wanted to go to LSU. The bagman was leaning against his truck, his arm draped over the side, into the bed.

“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” the boy said.

“My uncle doesn’t like it, but I just got to do what’s right for me,” the boy said.

“I appreciate all you done for us,” the boy said.

“I’ll pay you back for everything when I make the league,” the boy said.

There is a freshman at a high school in the city. He is a receiver, a tall, lanky boy who still has baby-fat cheeks. When he goes up for a jump ball, the bagman can see him in his team’s uniform, can see him hauling those passes down from an All-American quarterback purchased from some other city by some other bagman. He knows that he cannot create the entire team, that he does not possess that amount of power or influence, but he can do his part. The receiver’s father is a janitor, his mother a dollar store manager. The bagman can feel the itch of discovery gnawing at him, the desire to know the best approach to these people, and he knows that soon he will reach out – not yet, it is still too early – and that once he reaches out, he will finesse a strategy from them. Maybe he will deliver cash or maybe he will provide new vehicles. Maybe he will give them some benefit he hasn’t even come up with yet. The possibilities thrill him. And he knows, of course, that the boy might say no to his team, that he might decide to go to Auburn or Georgia or LSU. The bagman will not slip again. It was so easy with Geremy. The boy, crying earnestly. When the bagman reached down and felt his fingers graze the heavy jack-handle, he felt control slip from him. It is not a mistake he will make again, he tells himself.

In the slow bleed of his life, the bagman knows that his time might still come, that the things he has done might well lead him to ruin. He knows that one day he might confront his wife, or that maybe she will see the popping videos. The different possibilities don’t matter, because the result will be the same, he knows: she will leave him for Hayden, and he will be alone. These things could come to pass.

And then there might one day be the knock at the door, and the bagman will be led away from this life and into another. If that day comes, the bagman knows that he will be able to fight off tears, that he will be able to control himself. When he permits himself to think about it, he wonders sometimes why Frank hasn’t already spoken his name. He marvels at the thought that perhaps, to Frank, he is of such little consequence that he’s not even worth mentioning.

They’ll not find Geremy, the bagman is certain. He is buried, in a deep part of the woods that sprawl out from edge of the city, that bracket it from the suburbs. Many times, the bagman thinks of himself as belonging in these woods, the wild, harried margin between places.

They will not find Geremy, and after a time, the story will go away. The reporter and the police and everyone else will look at Frank, will think that this man got away with something, this man is lucky to have gotten out from underneath his crime. But the bagman knows that luck and fate are not real. He knows that the only lives we can live are those we carve out for ourselves. The story will fade, and the bagman will forget that any of this ever even happened, will focus instead on this young man, this receiver, who will be such a fine addition to his team. All of this will come to pass, and in the meantime, the bagman will wait and will be happy in the waiting.

Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011) and You’re the Tower: Essays (Yellow Flag Press, 2016). His writing has appeared in Brevity, Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, Fiction Southeast, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He lives in Lake Charles, LA, where he teaches in the MFA program at McNeese State University.