[This is a flash fiction I penned in 2008. This story requires a full rewrite, because there is no clear protagonist, there is no ticking clock, and the central conflict of the story is only tangentially related to the characters. It tells, rather than showing. It is a perfect example of David Mamet's "crock of shit" talking-heads scene writing and is entirely bereft of drama as a result. Essentially, nobody would want to read this. Perhaps you may enjoy it as a cautionary example of what can happen when you have a plot-theme but no conflict development to back it up.]
by Michael Bahr
"I raise you $50," said Roger. The mustachioed physician slid five yellow chips toward the pot.
"Always have to push me around with your big stack, eh, Rog?" smirked Bill.
Roger shrugged. "If you're holding the jack you're representing, why, you've got nothing to worry about, now do you?"
Bill pushed bifocals up the bridge of his nose and studied the pot, counting and calculating the same as he did when he prepared Doc Roger's income tax return.
"The pot odds are terrible here," frowned Bill. "I don't think my tens are good. Your queens take it." Bill mucked his ace-ten.
Roger smiled into chubby jowls and turned over a pair of jacks. "Odds you caught one of the last two were pretty safe for me."
"Queen-high straight," declared Mark, who had dealt the hand.
"Good read!" nodded Charlie. "The turn was everything. I can't believe Roger called that flop bet."
"It's low-limit anyhow," shrugged Bill.
Charlie's eyebrows shot up. "Hey, fifty bucks ain't no penny-ante, Billy. Fifty bucks will buy a day's groceries for a family of four. Five, if you’re a Hoffer who don't care much about feeding the kids."
The four men laughed. Mark's walkie-talkie squawked, but the gaunt patrolman ignored it.
"More trouble in Hoffman?" asked Bill.
"Same as it ever is," shrugged Mark. "Hoffer kids running around in the woods east of town. Freddie and Ray can handle it."
Roger took the deck and riffled the cards. "You know, I can't help but notice that most of the problems here in Juniper these days tend to involve the word 'Hoffer' at some point."
Bill shook his head. "I've said it time and again: the Juniper valley ain't got room for a whole city's worth of people. If it ain't the Hoffers, it's the yuppies up in Palm Vista."
Charlie sipped his beer. "At least the yuppies pay for their food with money. I can't remember the last time a Hoffer didn't pull out a benefit card at my till. They look at me like I ought to be grateful, as if I couldn't sell that same bag of liquor and TV dinners otherwise."
"What's your recovery on those?" asked Bill.
Charlie waved his palm back and forth. "Eighty-five, ninety percent, not counting the wait time."
"I didn't think Valley Grocery had much room in the margins for that," said Roger, dealing out two cards to each man.
"I don't. Hoffers are a push. I keep the doors open off Juniper folk and the occasional Palm Vista commuter."
Mark smiled to see a suited queen-king, and called into the flop in third position. "I guess it's the 'broken window' theory. Not for the Hoffers, I wouldn't need four more officers, and I couldn't take a night off to come down here and play cards once in a while."
Roger mucked his four-eight on the button. "Blinds option? No? All right. Anyway, yeah, I have to have two more girls at the desk to process all the medical benefits for my Hoffer patients. So at least there are more jobs. Medical benefits won’t pay off at anywhere near full invoice, either, because you’re supposed to be beggin’ to thank them for the added volume. So I lose money on the bill and I lose money processing the bill. Cuts into the ol' retirement fund a bit, I'll say, but I've got more than I'll ever get around to using."
The flop landed ace-three-nine.
"Check," called Charlie.
"Check's fine," said Bill.
"No aces in the blinds, eh?" mused Mark. "Ten bucks to go." He snapped a yellow chip from his stack to the table.
Charlie mucked. "Small-blind special. Hey, though. The Hoffers might not bother all you working professionals with your stock portfolios, but Main Street proprietors like me are taking it in the face. It ain't right, and I say it ain't right that they bleed you either, even if you've got reserves to spare."
Bill brought two yellow chips and a green chip. "I raise you to $25."
Mark chuckled and folded his cards in a grandiose motion. "Check-raising a police officer, eh, Bill? I may have to book you for robbery, you know!"
Bill smirked. "Did your king just lose to my rags?"
Mark shrugged. "Show the cards or it didn't happen."
Bill slow-rolled turning over his cards, then pitched them into the muck. "I suppose I might have had an ace in there somewhere."
Roger belly-laughed. "I'll bet you did. Here you go, Chuckles. Shuffle up and deal."
Charlie riffled the deck. "Can someone hold the screen door for my wife?"
Bill crossed the room to admit Elizabeth. Charlie's wife smiled and deposited a plate of sandwiches on a side table.
"You having fun, boys?"
"We sure are, Beth," said Mark.
"Thanks so much for the food!" said Roger.
Elizabeth kissed Charlie. "Well, thanks so much for the company, fellas! Honey, the girls and I are going across the street to drop in on Mrs. Colvin. We'll be back in a little while."
Charlie smiled. "Tell her 'get well' from us."
Roger sipped his beer. "All right, then, let's deal. Night's getting on."
"Keep your pants on, Doc," said Charlie.
Bill blew his nose and sat back down. "Actually, Mark, you mentioned the 'broken window theory.' You know it's a fallacy, right?"
Mark's eyebrows raised. "I did not know that."
"Yeah, the business generated by destruction isn't actually a net benefit, because the original owners of the damaged goods have to spend that money just to return to par, instead of redirecting those same funds toward other goods. The money I spent cleaning the Hoffer graffiti off my office door could have gone toward a new set of dishes. Instead, the dish manufacturer loses a sale."
"Never thought of it that way," mused Mark.
"Makes sense, though," said Charlie.
Roger mucked his hand. "You're an attorney, Bill! You can't tell me you don't have enough money to just buy the dishes anyway."
Charlie called his ace-jack on the button. "That's just it, Doc. Bill shouldn't have to pay twice. Sure he can afford it, but it isn't right. Same as all the extra expense you spend to treat the Hoffers."
Roger shrugged. "I'm the only general practitioner in the Valley. Where else will any of them get treatment?"
Bill called his small blind on a pair of sevens. "I'd hate to drive to County. Sixty miles up the freeway is a real hike."
"What do you care?" asked Mark, shipping a three-five off-suit away. "They all have fuel benefit cards just like they have food benefit cards. Let County take care of them. Shut your practice except to private insurance or cash-and-carry."
Roger blinked. "They'd be fine, wouldn't they? A bit of inconvenience, but they can get care. I've been stressing over this for months, and I never realized they had the fuel cards all along. Those Hoffers 'been runnin' a hustle on me!"
"Parasites are what parasites are," said Mark.
"True," agreed Bill. "We can't blame old Art Stockton for selling his acreage. He had no way of knowing the government would turn the Hoffman side of the Juniper River into project housing. I know Art. If he had any inkling, he would never have sold the farm."
Charlie dealt a flop of ace-seven-nine.
Roger ruminated for a minute, then fired in four green chips. "Twenty to go."
Bill called silently and took a bite of his sandwich.
"Say, Bill," said Roger. "What if we did something about the Hoffers?"
"Like what?" asked Charlie.
Roger looked at each man at the table. "Not just us. Maybe us for now, but then all of Juniper's small businesses. What if we stopped doing business on anything that makes us lose money to red tape? What if we denied the government's unfunded mandates?"
Mark swallowed his sandwich. "Not sure I follow. My department runs pretty lean as it is."
"Your part would be enforcement," said Roger. "But I could stop accepting government medical benefits. If I don't take their money, I'm not obligated to serve their people. Bill could quit taking cases for the public defender's office. Charlie could stop accepting food benefit cards."
Charlie dealt the turn card, another ace.
Bill held up his palm. "Wait a minute, there. I have no choice in the matter. I have to do pro bono work to keep my law license. Taking cases for the PD lets me get it out of the way early every year. There are always plenty of clients."
"It's true," said Mark. "I have two Hoffers locked up at the station right now for public drunkenness. You'd think they would be at home, watching their kids, but who are we to judge, right?"
"That's what I mean," said Roger. "I'm kind of peeved now that I realize how I've been had. I always thought I was a good doctor and provider because I went into general practice instead of grinding out a fortune in cardiology in San Francisco or somewhere. But no matter what I did, it was never enough. I worked hard and saved and built a nest egg, and because I could 'afford it,' I was always the one who had to 'help out' when the community asked for it. I'm not sure I want to do it anymore. And as for you, Bill, couldn't you do your pro bono for St. Christopher's Church instead of the municipal court?"
Bill nodded slowly. "I could do that."
Roger smiled. "That's what I mean. Oh, by the way, fifty to go."
Charlie turned up the river card, a red four. "That's all well and good for you high-rollers, but what about the little guys? I can't just close my store. Wouldn't I get shut down in about ten seconds if I kicked the Hoffers out? I know my sign says 'I reserve the right to refuse service at any time,' but that sign would be cold comfort if I had to fight it out in court."
Mark sipped a cola. "He's right, guys. I'd have to cite and arrest him for 'discriminatory business practices.' You know how the law is these days."
"That's a puzzler, I'll admit," said Roger.
Bill pushed his entire stack into the middle. "The bet is $425."
Roger's eyes opened wide. "I have you covered. Call! Call!"
Charlie made circular motions with his fingers. "Turn 'em over, boys."
Roger flipped up his ace. "I have a set of ones."
Bill nodded. "I only have a pair of those, but they're riding a boat made of three sevens."
The doctor pounded the table. "Incredible!"
Bill swept almost $1000 in chips to his stack.
Mark counted his chips. "I'm under $300. I think that breaks the table."
Charlie shrugged. "Want to start it over at $200 each and play a knock-out sit-and-go?"
Bill pushed his glasses up again and held up his palm. "Just a minute. I think I have it. Charlie: Are there items you can't sell in order to have certification to accept food benefit cards?"
"Well, sure," said Charlie. "Vehicles, fuel, firearms, pesticides and poisons, wholesale durables, you get the idea."
Roger interrupted, "Good thinking, Bill! All Charlie has to do is sell guns and he can't accept the benefit cards!"
Charlie frowned. "I don't have the spare cash to buy inventory, and I don't have a dealer's license in any case."
Mark finished his cola. "The license is easily enough done. We do that through the Department. Come on by the station and I'll run the check myself. As long as you don't have any felonies, you're fine."
"Bill?" asked Roger.
Bill nodded. "Roger and I will provide the seed money for your inventory. This isn't charity: We're furthering our own objectives by doing this. We'll call it a 'long-term loan,' no interest. You can pay us back with the profits from the sale of firearms and ammunition."
Charlie's eyes became distant. "The Palm Vista boys are going to love this. I'll bet you they line up to be the first one on their block to fill their McMansions' wall safes with click-click-boom."
Roger clapped Charlie on the shoulder. "I can think of a few Juniper guys who will be glad of a place to buy shells without taking the freeway all the way into the city."
"What will you do about your extra staff members, Roger? You won't need them, now."
"I'll think of something. They're both part-timers, girls from Juniper High who needed something to do during the summer, and I kept 'em on all the way through their second years at State. I’ll just tell ‘em it was a short-term thing and now it’s over, and they should concentrate on their academics these days anyway."
"I like this, guys," said Bill. "Our country has been drifting into a sorry state for so long that I almost forgot what it was like to be free of those ankle weights. I can't wait to practice law my way and only my way. I'll do some taxes, take a few cases for Juniper folk, and see what sort of help I can be to old Father Leo at St. Chris."
Charlie shook his head. "I just hope it works. I can't wait until the first day I get to tell those worthless Hoffers to take their problems to the Big-Mart over in the city. Are we going to be okay with this, Mark? First phone call they're going to make is going to be you."
Mark's walkie-talkie squawked again, and he replied, "I'm on my way in five." He donned his wide-brimmed hat and nodded. "I've got you covered, boys. This plan of yours will be unpopular with the Hoffers, but it's legal, and my job is to enforce the law."
Roger's eyes met Bill's, Mark's and Charlie's. The men smiled, savoring the moment.
Roger exhaled. "Well, I'm excited. We need to think of a name, something snappy, something that tells people that Juniper is setting things right by making our town a place where a person is entitled to the sweat of his own brow. I'll talk to some of the other Main Street shops and see who we can get on board. I'm sure Walt and Eddie will join in, and beyond that, who knows."
"Think this kind of thing could ever catch on beyond Juniper?" asked Bill.
"Let's find out," said Mark, standing to leave. "Here's to whatever happens next." He held out his fist.
The other men bumped it in turn.
"All right, then," said Charlie. "How about if we switch to Omaha Hi-Lo for this round?"
"Works for me," said Bill.
Roger wiped beer from his moustache. "Shuffle up and deal, Chuckles! Your chips are as good as mine!"