Debt man Phuoc Goldberg thought he knew what “dead broke” meant.  Then he went looking for a missing client and found a broken body.

Phuoc Goldberg knows the tune.  The world made him cynical and he gets daily revenge as a debt negotiator in Wilmington, Delaware, battling a system that exploits the little guys.  Most of his powerless clients pay him barely enough to keep the lights on, but beautiful Mindy Eider parts readily with the fee, and Phu figures her for just another sucker who’s about to learn that nobody has her back.  But when Mindy’s Uncle Gunnar disappears and dead bodies start cropping up, this mismatched pair find themselves singing a melody that’s neither protest nor love song — more like Cadaver Blues.
Three rules to live by.  Never owe.  Never sweat.  Never apologize.
My clients, when I have any, share certain characteristics.  Optimism caused them to borrow.  Expectations are making them sweat.  And nobody but nobody wants to hear their apologies.  Unless, of course, those apologies appear in the memo section of a check made out to King Cash.
And even then, my friend, what good saying you’re sorry?
I hang up the phone, seething, frustration a foul taste in the back of my throat.  On my desk lies a handful of folders.  Make that two — one just went inactive and slithered into the round file.
A fourth rule: if you want to work with me, then spell my name right and learn to pronounce it.  Easy to oblige if you’re called George Washington, I admit, and not so easy when it’s Phuoc Goldberg.  But, then again, I’m not the guy who stood with his torch in the air beseeching the globe’s huddled masses, am I?
So I blew my top and lost a client today, an exceedingly white woman who presumed to ask about my name, as if I’m a guide working the afternoon shift in the Asian pavilion at Epcot Center.
“What’s it mean, that name?” was how she put it.
Needing the business, I slid open my right-hand desk drawer and removed the shiny blue squeeze ball, proceeding to torture it.
“Gold mountain,” I said.
“Not that one.  The first—”
I’m a student of the art of persuasion.  Therefore, should I have apologized for taking offense?  Should I have explained that I was hatched at the base of a bitter tea tree in the middle of a war zone?  That my adoptive parents, Myron and Phyllis Goldberg, gave me an obscenely un-American first name so I wouldn’t lose my identity?  That they were socialists at the time and lived among delusions?  Not a chance.
The squeeze ball settles into a shallow depression on my desk and quivers.  Like the squeeze ball, I have trouble containing my misbegotten energy.  My anger isn’t new, only newly stoked.  It flowed into me over time, like blood filling a vial, and it smolders still, a low-grade fever that stirs me to my feet.
I work in a second-floor two-room office on the north side of Wilmington, Delaware, nowhere near downtown.  It’s a cheap addition to a small house that was overtaken by strip malls a decade ago and went commercial, and the insulation is uneven, leaving drafts in unexpected places.  There’s a window in each room, in both cases situated too high on the wall to present any kind of view, so all you can see is the clouds skittering through, when they bother to skitter.  Today there’s mostly blue sky, not worth a second look.
I pull on my coat and take the stairs down in quick succession, the angle of descent a controlled crash landing, rubber soles thrumming the nosing.  At the bottom is a vestibule not big enough for any furniture, with a slanted arrow on the wall, directing my victims to the lair, where I will improve their balance sheet — maybe their credit score, too, if they’re lucky — but only while separating them from the last of their funds on hand.
Smart people in my profession don’t rent space high up in office towers.  Their clients might jump.
In the parking lot my yellow Mini Cooper glistens under winter sunshine, black racing stripes down the hood game for any adventure, white roof as seductive as a little chapeau.  The Mini is one of my few pleasures in life — maybe my only one at the moment.  But the lunch place is only two blocks away and I need to walk off some steam.
It’s January, cold air well established.  The cracked sidewalk and the narrow brown grass strip have the lonely feeling of manmade tundra.  I walk briskly with my hands in my pockets and my head down, crossing the street without breaking stride, thinking that turning cars can kiss my ass.
Somewhere over my brow, two shapes approach, hogging the sidewalk in proprietary fashion.  As we close in on each other I move to one side, but my feet don’t leave the concrete.  The shapes press forward, unyielding.  They’re black teenagers, and I view their stubbornness as a form of aggression.  I am slightly built, not tall, barely 120 pounds after a big dinner.  You could fit three of me inside the bigger kid with room to dance.  The other one is a little taller and broader than me, though his open parka probably creates the illusion of more heft than he really carries.
As we meet, the smaller kid leans in to invade my personal space, jostling me.  Ready for him, I give no ground, and my elbow catches his ribs, backing him into his friend.  His arms flail forward, but he misses me.  He stops and strikes a confrontational posture.  “What the fuck, man.  What the FUCK!”
I pause on the sidewalk, not three feet away.
The kid carries his hands chest high, ready to rumble.  “What’s wrong with you, fresh-off-the-boat motherfucker!  That how they walk in Chinatown?”
For the record, Wilmington has no Chinatown.
They step toward me in unison and take up positions off each shoulder, so I can’t look squarely at one without losing sight of the other.  They smell young and feral, like fresh sweat.  Both wear red Nike Air Max sneakers with black laces, baggy jeans bunched at the ankles, and printed T-shirts hanging loose below their puffy open parkas.  I don’t risk pausing to read what the T-shirts say, but I see the rest.
The smaller kid is light-skinned and freckled with a Phillies baseball cap nearly covering his eyes.  The bigger kid goes bare-headed.  He has much darker skin with a sheen to it, broad nose, full lips framing a wide mouth.  He’s easily a foot taller than me, so my angle is poor.  Still, it’s important to establish a strategy and stick with it.
You always go after the big guy first.
I ball a fist and nail him with a left hook, catching his lower lip and feeling his teeth cut into my knuckles.  He goes down in a heap and the smaller kid forgets me quicker than the fifth race at Delaware Park.  He drops to a knee to tend his friend, muttering, “Damn.  Damn.”
The lunch place sells nothing but hotdogs and sides.  There’s a narrow space by the counter with a plastic chain strung between white stanchions for crowd control, but you can’t help rubbing up against the others in line — AstraZeneca employees with I.D. badges, hospital workers in scrubs, ordinary people from all walks of life in full-throated hunger for their nitrite and sodium fix.  I’m in here at least once a day, sometimes twice.  I know every face behind the counter, but no one has ever acknowledged my loyalty or bothered to ask my name.  Maybe when you only have twelve things on the menu everything in life starts to feel equally familiar.
Today I order two Boston Back Bay Beanie Weanies, large chili fries and a large vanilla shake.  I lay my iPhone on the table and set it to stopwatch mode.  The first dog disappears in just under a minute, the second in 37 seconds.  I don’t time myself every day, just on a lark.  If I put my mind to it, I’m convinced that I could suck down as many sausages as Joey Chestnut or Takeru Kobayashi, the dudes who always run neck and neck in that great patriotic stuff-face known officially as Nathan’s International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.  But I couldn’t come close to scarfing as many in the time they make.  Kobayashi has a good ten pounds on me.  Chestnut is a giant by comparison and, by percentage of one’s own weight consumed, he doesn’t touch Kobayashi.  As Franklin said to Harry, watch out for a Japanese with something to prove.
The skin on two of my left knuckles has peeled away where they caught the big kid’s teeth.  The cuts sting a little under the dab of a napkin, but they’re not bleeding much.
I set the napkin down and bide my time with the fries, eating them with one hand while I play cell-phone hangman, waiting for the too-cold milkshake to melt.  I never intermingle dishes.  I don’t believe in food miscegenation — the hangman word I nail after acquiring two stick arms and a leg.
I admit to having something of a racial obsession.  Or, to be more polite to myself, a high level of racial awareness.  It’s not that I believe in assigning particular characteristics to a given race of humans.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I have my radar finely tuned to the racial distinctions that all people make, and I’m rarely disappointed in my cynicism about the intentions of others.
During my early years of high school — before my father wandered into the woods and hung himself from a tree — a certain group of tough kids alternated between throwing pennies at me in the hall to see if I’d pick them up and asking me for help with their math homework.  At first, I walked right by those flying pennies, but then an idea formed.  After a couple weeks of humiliation, I began to pick up the coins, but only those thrown by Nick Deluca, the biggest brute in a tough crowd.  When others dropped a penny at my feet, I’d pause, look at it, and walk right by.
A couple weeks after I started this, I heard Nick say, “Little half-Jew don’t do it for anyone.  He just picks up my pennies.  Heh.”  He’d seized on my strange behavior as a point of personal pride, and his worldview wouldn’t let him see it any other way.
For the better part of a semester, I didn’t just stoop to pick up Nick’s pennies.  If he rolled one down the hall I took off through the crowds on period break like Walter Payton going for a loose football, bobbing and weaving, falling to my knees and pocketing the little copper with a satisfied grin.
But as finals neared, he stopped slinging pennies my way.  In fact, he seemed overcome with contrition.  “How you doin’, little man,” he’d call to me.  “Everything all right, little man?”
Nick had his reasons.  Not long before the end of the term, he approached me with a different agenda, leaning against a locker and looking down my way.  “Hey, Goldberg, no hard feeling about the pennies.  You know it was a joke, right?”
“You’re almost a week early.  Exams don’t start till next Thursday.”
“I’m planning ahead this year.”  He looked at me and cocked his head — a quizzical great ape.  “If I flunk this math final I can’t wrestle for the rest of the year.  I don’t suppose you’d be up for helping me.”
“Sure, Nick.”
“You would?”
“You’re the jock and I’m the math geek.  Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to work?”
We agreed to meet the next day in the library during free period.  Nick showed up first, so desperate he actually had his textbook open on the table.
I reached into my knapsack and pulled out a roll, fifty pennies wrapped tight with red paper and carefully sealed on each end so it wouldn’t come undone.
“Yo, Nick, check it out.”
“It’s a roll of coins.”  He absorbed my stare.  “Oh, I get it.  The pennies I threw at you.”
“I can’t keep them.  Religious reasons.  Before the semester’s out, I wanted to return them.”
He watched as I daintily picked up the roll with my fingertips and placed it into the palm of my right hand.  He continued to watch, bemused, as I wrapped my fist around the cylinder of pennies.
The first two blows caught him so quick he didn’t have a chance to defend himself.  Then I kept going, pummeling his face and head.  I broke his nose, his jaw, his left thumb and two of my own fingers.
Consequences?  The assault charges would get buried as a juvenile offense, and my long suspension from school gave my hand time to heal.  More important, Nick Deluca never wrestled another match.  Forget the fact that he had his jaw wired shut for a month.  He couldn’t face his old friends after Phu Goldberg kicked his ass, and he moved schools the next year.  Much later, he tracked me down and wrote a letter thanking me for knocking him in the right direction.  Turns out he became a corporate lawyer, no doubt now picking on old ladies who dare to ask for refunds on their broken toasters.
The bigger point is, I’d planned for that moment of confrontation, but I hadn’t trained for it.  The element of surprise helped and pure anger served as the multiplier.  That’s how a bantamweight brings a heavyweight to his knees.
Walking back to work, half sated, I come to the teenagers again.  There’s a black uniformed cop there now, middle aged and balding with sergeant stripes on the shoulders.  He’s wearing a thousand-yard stare, but I’m sure he’s not looking past me.  As I close in on his position, his right hand rises with great subtlety and poises near his gun holster.
I draw to a stop on the sidewalk about ten feet in front of him.  The noise of lunch-hour traffic on Route 202 has risen to a dull roar, and passing cars and semis stir up gusts of cold wind.  The black-and-white has come to rest with one tire on the curb.  The lights are flashing and the driver’s side door remains open.  This scene strikes me as a bit melodramatic.
The big kid’s on his feet now but half bent over, one hand resting on the hood of the cruiser, lower lip hanging slack, young white teeth stained red.  He groans and issues a long belch, then spits a stream of blood into the dead grass.
The sergeant frisks me and finds nothing sharper than my iPhone.
He returns it to me gingerly.  “Don’t suppose you’ll do much damage with that.”
“You’d be surprised.  I get you on another line, I could chew your ear off.”
His name is Buxton, according to the brass plate on his uniform.  Sergeant Buxton steps between me and the big teen, looking back and forth.  He extends both hands, palms up, and seesaws them up and down like an old-fashioned scale, weighing us against one another.  Then he points.
“You did this?”
“Yes, officer.”
Buxton’s mouth drops open and he laughs heartily, without regard to whether he’s shaming me or the big teen.  He almost doubles over, looks away, catches himself, guffaws again until he’s milked the moment to its full enjoyment.
“They called you?” I ask, suppressing a smile.
Buxton shakes his head, more serious now.  “I was just happening by and they waved in distress.  Wanna explain to me what all this was about?”
“Sure thing.  It was about dignity.”
“Yours or the boy’s?”
“Take your pick.  No matter how this shook out, only one of us was going to walk away with his dignity intact.”
“I see that.”  He still has my wallet.  He holds it open at arm’s length, scanning my driver’s license.  “You got a car?”
“Where were you walking to?”
“Lunch.”  I point to the hotdog joint.
“There.”  Indicating the office.
“Who do you work for, Mr. Goldberg, when you’re not nailing people in the teeth?”
“I’m a sole proprietor, debt relief negotiation.”
He nods in a way that makes me wonder whether he has more than a passing knowledge of the subject.  “Helping people pay their bills, that sort of thing?”
“More like helping them avoid paying.”
“Above board?”
I snatch a breath.  “Cast your eyes down the road here, Sergeant Buxton.  You walk into that mattress store across the street looking for something basic and they sell you the deluxe model with financing, no interest payments for fourteen months.  What they don’t say is that the interest payments you aren’t making are an accruing debt.  You end up owing interest on top of the interest, and you’re still paying for the damned mattress when it’s turned gray and the springs are popping out.”
“How I figure it, too.”  He frowns and adjusts the thick leather belt on his hips.
“Less than a mile from here there’s a phone store happy to give you unlimited services you don’t need while charging you in the fine print for all those services you really do require.  Next door is a payday loan place that’ll skim more vigorish than Shylock for a two-day advance.”
Sergeant Buxton flashes me the heel of his hand, but I’m in flow.  “On your way there, you can stop into the car-title company that cheerfully claims three hundred percent annualized interest while taking legal possession of your wheels.  When you’re ready to pray for your car’s return, on the right is a church that asks its parishioners to tithe ten percent of their income, people scraping by in tiny little houses, renting apartments.  The minister lives tax free in a mansion in Greenville on the other side of the tracks.”
He scratches at something on his uniform shirt, maybe the big kid’s blood.  “I know the church.  My sister attends.  I keep trying to tell her…”  His voice trails off.
“It’s the pattern of life,” I conclude.  “Screw or be screwed.  I can’t turn my clients into studs — they’re too far gone for that.  But I can lend them a strap-on.  That’s what I do.“
This is a canned speech that I’ve given a thousand times.  Like all canned speeches, it has its effect.  Buxton nods knowingly, but he doesn’t know.  Not really.  The truth is simpler.  The truth is that I’m a blood-sucking parasite, just like the rest, all my activities perfectly legal, of course, as is the mattress store’s game and the title loan company’s and the church’s.  But legal doesn’t make it fair, not for a second.
The teens are huddled together in a state of shared amazement at my conversation with the sergeant.  He goes to the trunk of his cruiser, pops it open, and finds a big metal First Aid kit in the mess back there.  He snaps that open and fusses around inside, then tosses a clean white cold pack to the big teen.
“Hold that on your mouth for a while, son.  You may need some medical attention, but you’ll be all right.”
The kid does as he’s told.  Buxton turns to the shorter one.  “I heard your story and I heard what you left out.  Did you fail to yield to this man on the sidewalk?”
“Motherfucker failed to yield to us!”
“Hey, hey.  That’s no way to talk.  Mr. Goldberg here is a solid citizen and you just sound like another punk.  No wonder he felt threatened and overreacted.”
He walks over to the big kid and pulls the hand with the cold pack away, angling his head for a better look.  The cold pack has red on it already.
“You may need a stitch or two,” Buxton says, gently returning the kid’s hand with the cold pack to his mouth.  “You can file assault charges, if you want, but any judge looking at you three in a room — well, his sympathy’s not gonna be with the smart-ass gang banger whose mouth is full of four-letter words.”
“Ain’t no gang banger,” the smaller kid mumbles, more uncertain than before.
Buxton quiets him further with a frown.  He looks into his palm and seems surprised to find my wallet still there.  “Debt relief,” he says, handing it back to me while returning his attention to the teens.  “You or your families might need this man one day, and now you know where to find him.”
The same occurred to me a minute ago, though I’m not as sanguine as Sergeant Buxton about the benefits.
“Mr. Goldberg,” he winks, “if you’ll give each of these boys one of your business cards for future reference, I think I can persuade them to drop the whole thing.”
Well, I already pointed to the damn office, and opening myself up to crank calls seems preferable to a free taxi ride to the station house, so I comply with Sergeant Buxton’s request.  The smaller teen looks stunned by the injustice of it all, like he’s finally on the right side of the law and a guy who could be his father is letting the perp off the hook without cause.  The big kid just looks on with wide eyes, cold pack pressed into his mouth, the burning sensation of the lip still his top priority.
I leave them all standing there.
But I harbor no illusions about the deeper reason Sergeant Buxton so readily lets me go.  In the sight of my straight black hair, my narrow eyes, my bow lips, he finds a portrait of harmlessness.  In other words, I walk scot-free because no one in America fears the little Asian man.

From Cadaver Blues. Copyright © 2009 by J.E. Fishman.  All Rights Reserved. 
Read more of Cadaver Blues, serialized weekly on The Nervous Breakdown.