The Scam


Mitzi is a tidy, compressed little woman who lives alone but is not lonely. Her apartment is cozy. Her middle-management job is a happy match for her skills and experience, and the benefits are secure. When she retires in five or ten years, she’ll be a free-moving woman who will never have to order cheap or walk home in a storm.

Mitzi’s off-time is taken up with coffee dates, workouts at the gym, and cultural pursuits. One night a week, every week—rain, snow, or Renee Fleming at the Opera House—she takes a bus to the dark side of town and, holding tight to the rail, makes her way down a steep stairway to the vestry of the Good Shepherd church, where she and a fellow volunteer set out a KFC dinner for twelve homeless people, some new, some returnees, who then spend the rest of the night sleeping or awake on a perimeter of folding beds with fresh linens and warm blankets. Compassion shines from the pale eyes behind Mitzi’s round, beige-rimmed eyeglasses.

A man like Steve can spot a woman like Mitzi from the far end of a football field. Steve is nearer than that, in front of a bank building, watching Mitzi come out of the traffic, stepping briskly onto the curbstone. It’s late Friday afternoon in early April in a city where April can be cold, and it is. The young man is standing in a circle of perplexity, neat but disoriented. He doesn’t have to catch Mitzi’s eye since she has already found him. Mitzi sees him needing warmer clothes than his tie-less white shirt and his helplessly open blazer. He is a sweet-looking boy, not tall, not short, with blunt, babyish features, skin as even as maple sugar candy, a head of dark hair. He holds her eyes. “Excuse me, Ma’am. I’ve got myself kind of mixed up here. I wonder if you could give me some information.” He takes from his pocket an open deck of legal tender and spreads it in his outstretched hand. “I’m new to this part of the country.” he tells her. Mitzi wonders. She’s not street-dumb. But there is no danger in his face or his voice.

Mitzi was married once. It didn’t work out. After the ceremony she and what’s-his-name never got really close. The physical thing never got beyond physical. She didn’t like it. She didn’t like him over her—panting, sweating, pushing himself in. She is almost sure that it wasn’t her fault, that with a different man, someone more poetic, more adept, she would have wanted to give herself.

“How can I help you?” Mitzi asks Steve. This is ironic because she’s the one who needs help. She’s loaded down with a bulky Gap shopping bag on one arm, and a tote full of books on the other, and a designer-knockoff shoulder bag bobbing between them.

He’s showing a handful of tens and twenties with a couple of hundred-dollar bills. He wants to put his money in the bank, but the bank is closed. Mitzi gently pushes his hand to his chest. “You shouldn’t display your money.”

The ATM entrance is seductive, circus-colored. WE’RE HERE TO HELP YOU. The starry sign arches over the parade of customers entering with pass cards, exiting with money. Steve observes them with round, brown, harmless eyes. “I have two thousand dollars here,” he says to the general public. To Mitzi: “It’s my savings. I don’t want to carry it around all weekend.”

Of course he has no account, no card, no pin number. Mitzi shakes her head.

Steve stops her from leaving. He’s supposed to meet some Big Man from the University. An interview to get into business school. He has the marks but, as Mitzi knows, interviews carry a lot of weight.

“We’re supposed to meet in the hotel lobby. I can’t have all these bills bulging out of my pocket.”

Mitzi has to laugh. “You’re studying business?”

His eyes bug when he smiles. “That’s what my Momma asks me. I tell her that’s right, I’m only studying. I haven’t learned it.”

He can’t put the money into his hotel safe because the kind of place he’s staying in doesn’t have a safe.

Mitzi’s smile is sympathetic but irked. They’re just outside the ATM entrance. An exiting customer holds the door open, and Mitzi says No thanks. “She shouldn’t let people in,” she explains to her young friend. She inserts her card. Steve holds the door for her. “Can you believe it—I’ve never used these machines?”

No. She can’t believe it.

“Momma took care of everything. One major reason why I had to leave home.” That’s something Mitzi can understand.

“Okay,” Steve says, “so I need to open an account. I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.” For now, he’d be obliged if Mitzi would put his money into her account.

“You can’t put money in. It’s got to be a check.”

“So how about if I give you the money tomorrow?”

The boy is hopeless. She says, “I know you can trust me but you can’t be sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“How would you reclaim it? I don’t live in the bank.”

She sets her shopping bag on the floor. Steve holds her tote and stands aside while Mitzi makes her withdrawal, careful as always to cover her pin number. “It’s easy,” she explains. “The screen tells you exactly what to do. I’m withdrawing two hundred dollars.”

“Such a little bit,” Steve muses. “Will it last you?”

“I’m not a big spender. I don’t like to carry a lot of money.”

“Neither do I.” His laughter dances in her head.

Once or twice a month Mitzi addresses her needs. She prepares herself primly. A light cover. A used towel. Vaseline. She sometimes thinks it is sad to be alone, but then she recalls one or another of the few men she has been close with since her divorce and she is grateful, though rueful, for the satisfaction she achieves. Self-stimulation carries none of the interactive problems—impotence, rough handling, unseemly grunts. Once with a woman friend she ventured into a sex toy shop. The two ladies were ambushed by implements in a jarring array of sizes and color, many of which Mitzi couldn’t imagine the use for, none of which she would dare to buy. She said to her friend, feeling adolescent as they left the premises, “what if I were in an accident or had a heart attack and someone found one of those things in my drawer?”

The ATM delivers ten twenty-dollar bills through the mouth of its miraculous dispenser. Mitzi counts them. It is her habit to place her withdrawals in her big-bill wallet compartment and to slide the wallet into the zippered pocket of her handbag. But today she is interrupted. A young blonde woman bumps into her, knocking her off balance. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” The woman, fashionably dressed, bends to pick up Mitzi’s shopping bag. Steve returns her tote. “Just hold my money till tomorrow.” He waves it in her face.

“No. I won’t take it. I really can’t.” Where did that woman go?

“Oh, please, Ma’am. It would help me so much.” He thrusts the wad deep into her shoulder bag. The move is quick, decisive, in and out. Then he walks away. “But you don’t have my number!” she hears herself calling after him.

Mitzi stands in a circle of light, gripping her open bag. The shopping bag bulges at her feet. The tote bag, stiff with library books, leans against it. She pulls out Steve’s pile of bills. It’s cut-up newspaper. She looks for her own money. The two hundred dollars. Not in her wallet. Not in her shoulder bag. She unzips all the zippers, unsnaps all the snaps, feels into the pockets, her coat pockets, her skirt pockets.

“Are you okay?” A younger woman in a knitted cap has come to use the ATM. Her face is long with concern. Her hand hovers over Mitzi’s arm. Mitzi pulls away.

She is not okay.

“I’m fine. Fine. Thank you for asking.” She shuts her mouth, zips her shoulder bag, drops the fake money into the waste can, digs it out again thinking it might be evidence. She is panting, as if something heavy and hard had jammed into the pit of her stomach.

Mitzi never longed for a child. Growing a baby in her small frame, squeezing a seven-pound product through her narrow pelvic channel and her tight crotch was too painful to imagine. No less harrowing was the specter of an eating, excreting, breath-taking, noise-making object for which she would be responsible. So she was surprised at how blue she felt when menopause overtook her. The change came on stealthily. No hot flashes or embarrassing sweats. She hardly noticed the ebb of her monthly flow.

It is gray out. Mitzi pulls her coat around her and snaps the collar tight. She wants to be home in bed under covers, but the rush hour buses pass her by. She enters a coffee shop and gets into line to order hot tea with lemon. The plastic cup pitches in her hand while she finds a place at the narrow ledge facing the street. She sets her bags between her feet and climbs onto the stool, brushing off the crumbs of the previous occupant. She imagines she sees Steve outside, looking for another dupe. Dope.

The tea bag steeps. She needs something strong and hot to fill the hollow left from the blow she has taken. She sips and sets the cup down. She takes another, longer sip. She is so ashamed. It was her fault. Her ridiculous vanity.

She’ll never tell anyone. She sees her friends rolling their eyes behind her back. Her mother in Florida jumping on a new argument for Mitzi to move closer, buy into a gated community. Mitzi looks into her tea. She takes the stirrer and makes a whirlpool.

The tea braces her. She remembers. She has to tell the story once, to report the theft. She dreads the prospect. She knows she will sound like an idiot. But it’s her duty to go to the police. Not that there’s an iota of a chance to get her money back, but a crime must be recorded. Her blood is turning to cement. With a last long swallow, she slips to the edge of the stool, waiting till the tip of her shoe touches the floor.

Mitzi is a prize alumna of her Alma Mater, a regular and generous donor, on hand to interview prospective students from her area. Visiting campus one day, not long before the bank incident, she arranged to sit in on Professor Knowlton’s afternoon class in contemporary literature. As a student, Mitzi had signed up for English classes—stealthily, guiltily indulging in unearned luxury, not a part of her parents’ investment in her future financial security. She read her literature assignments after hours, the same secretive way her roommate sneaked out through the window to sleep with a boyfriend.

Knowlton—a ton of knowledge: Mitzi liked that. Besides, he was tall and paunchless, appropriately dressed in khakis and a sweater, watchful eyes, not much of a shave. He was younger than she, just approaching the cusp between youth and age, but Mitzi was in trim jeans and jacket and wisely made up. He took a second look before pointing out a desk chair at the side of the classroom.

Mitzi was fond of young people who were old enough for intelligent conversation. But not these kids. They sauntered or shambled in late. When the professor asked how many had read the assignment, only four hands went up out of twenty-five students, two of those hands half-hearted. So he read the story aloud.

Just as the scary stranger in the story was rapping at the screen of the cabin where the girl, all alone, was preparing to wash her hair, Mitzi felt a warm wetness between her crossed legs. The sensation was unsettling, but not unwelcome. It had been months since her last visitation from “the curse.” She wasn’t carrying a tampon.

The familiar thick, moist feeling, accompaniment to a secretion of intimate blood, carried an exciting message. A ray of joy entered her spirit. The story was cumulatively terrifying. The professor was still reading when the dismissal bell rang.

Mitzi went directly to the newly co-ed lav. She hurried into a far stall, lowered her pantyhose and underpants in one neat gesture, squatted over the seat and took a look.

She expected to find a little blood—not messy, not soppy—just a thin, rust-red smear like a brushstroke on a dry canvas, a meaningful sign on an ancient wall. She looked very carefully because she had, she really had, felt quite damp, quite hopeful. Nothing.

The night is starless as she works to push open the heavy steel door. Inside, the on-duty policeman takes a look at her, assessment and dismissal in one glance. Mitzi says in an authoritative voice.

“I’m Mildred Petrow.”

Detective Leblang, who awaits her in a back room, is more ceremonious. He stands and introduces himself, a youngish, bulky man with a smudgy moustache. He holds his pen correctly, the hair on the back of his hands showing sandy in the sharp light. The holster on his hip and the heavy gun thrust into it give her confidence. She tells him what seems pertinent, eliminating the parts that make her look like an utter imbecile.

“But you’re all right. You weren’t hurt in any way?”

“Not at all. Except for the injury to my pride.” She squeezes her eyes.

“You feel violated. You were violated.”

“I don’t suppose he’ll be caught.”

“You can never tell. These guys usually think they’re smarter than they really are.”

Without seeming to hurry, Officer Leblang leads her to the outside door. “You get a good night’s sleep, Mildred, and try to put this matter out of your mind. It’s in our hands now.”

The name of Mildred must have meant lot to her mother—the name of a proper child, demurely posed, in one of those elaborate filigree frames. Instead her mother got a stumpy little kid with a flat face and evasive eyes—a scuffer of shoes, a bumper into furniture, with limp hair that wouldn’t take a curl. To make up for her failings and to keep out of trouble, Mildred kept herself small and swallowed her appetites. She grew up with the qualifications of a first-class wife, but not long after the wan honeymoon, she insisted on getting a job and that was the ruin of her. She started calling herself Mitzi. Her husband was shocked when she decided to separate. He didn’t know what had gotten into her.

The season has changed. Mitzi has vacuumed her closets and disposed of clothes she never wears. It is a hot July day, but she is coolly at her desk in her thermostatically-controlled office, looking through important papers. She is not as patient as she used to be. She has a new assistant who moves quickly and never forgets a message. The new assistant sets Mitzi’s skim-milk latte on a coaster to protect the surface finish of the desk. She answers a phone call and, covering the mouthpiece, mouths the name of Detective Leblang. She mouths “Mildred?” Mitzi frowns and pictures blue eyes and a smudgy moustache, the gun at his side. She swings around in her posture chair.

Leblang has a suspect. Being held on a related charge. Answering Mildred’s description of person and MO. Will she come down and identify him?

“If you’re worried that he’ll see who you are, don’t be. He’s behind a glass wall. You see in. They can’t see out. Honest to God, he’ll never know.”

He waits for the words to kick in. “You got off light,” he reminds her. “This guy has taken other women for much more. We need to nail him.”

What Mitzi hates about growing old is the dismissal in men’s eyes. It is not the look she wants. She wants to be considered. When she was young, she failed to recognize the signs of interest. She would drop her eyes and ponder later, lying in bed, if perhaps that man had something in mind. Once in early middle age, on a vacation tour, ready for flight, she was introduced to a pilot—the face of a Renaissance portrait, smooth skin, penetrating eyes, a man’s strong body under his impeccable uniform—and he looked at her that way. This time she met the look. She and the man shook hands intimately and ruefully because they were departing on different planes. “Too bad,” she said, and his eyes shimmered. That look comes in dwindling frequency and from the wrong eyes.

Mitzi selects a pair of mid-heeled pumps that make her taller and more confident. The charcoal gray black pants suit is right for a serious occasion. She makes herself up to look as attractive as possible, and walks, breathing deeply to slow down her heartbeat, toward the precinct station, where her appearance makes no impression. The receptionist points her to the door of the witness room.

Two women are already there, a pair of sparrows sitting on the edge of an armless bench staked to the floor. Stale smoke odors hang under tubes of light and the tile floor is chipped. The water cooler has no cups. Mitzi stays buttoned, takes a seat on a bench near the door, pulls a newspaper from her new stronghold of a handbag. A fourth witness enters unobtrusively and sits at the end of Mitzi’s bench. She looks like the others—tidy and compressed, dyed or graying, sweet-faced, carefully dressed. Mitzi pictures herself as more chic than they are. On good days, she even feels winsome.

“Did we all have the same experience?” the newcomer asks in a fluttering voice.

Steve got around—though he wasn’t always Steve. He had an umbrella when it was raining, but never a hat. Rain or shine he wore a white shirt and an open blazer. His repertory was limited. He worked ATM centers. Always a woman accomplice, sometimes blond, always well-dressed. “I almost invited him home for dinner,” one woman says. Mitzi understands perfectly. She can see herself poking through the refrigerator, looking for something nutritious while Steve waits at the kitchen table.

A fifth woman tiptoes in. “I didn’t want to come,” she says. “I’m still so damn mad at myself.”

The other women look at her.

“At yourself? Be mad at him!”

“He thinks we love being conned.”

Mitzi wonders what made her such an easy mark. He surely had to work harder on these women.

The flustered one takes a chestful of air. “We don’t know whether they’ve got the right perp.”

“We’ll know when we see him.”

A tingle of apprehension goes up the back of Mitzi’s neck.

Purple light floods the waiting room as the door opens. Officer Leblang, in brass-buttoned uniform, is framed in purple. Mitzi is up first. He calls her Mildred.

She’d like to retaliate by using his first name, but she doesn’t know it. She scurries behind his tall stride, becoming smaller with each step. By the time they enter a huge box of a room, she’s a miniature. A policewoman sits heavily at a small table. She finds Ms. Petrow on the list, checks it off, asks questions, recites the procedure. She juts her chin toward an isolated chair. Mitzi sits on the edge, peering through the glass wall in front of her.

Six men walk in from nowhere. They arrange themselves into a jagged row in striking individual postures. They are a runway show of the latest in men’s street clothes—pimp clothes, homeless clothes, geek clothes, scam clothes—modeled in various postures of aggression, indifference, scorn, humility. From Mitzi’s close-up view, they take on a sameness, like the women in the waiting room, like a row of ATM machines. She changes her eye glasses. Rule out the tank-top with tattoos. Rule out the basketball player with a shaved head. The one in the business suit is short and looks Latino. It can’t be the fourth one unless Steve has gained a lot of weight.

Mitzi is hoping he isn’t there. But he might be the one in sneakers and khakis. He is not as she remembers him. The hair seems shorter. There is a little chin beard. His flannel shirt has long sleeves like a druggy’s.

Mitzi is taking too long. She is told to stand even closer. From a yard away, she looks hard at the Steve one, and she is perplexed. She can’t find the appealing student, the clean young man whose white shirt billowed and whose loose-hanging jacket flapped in the corner wind, whose lively eyes laughed at his own greenness. This Steve is bigger. And older. The face is still smooth and rounded, but it has no entry. He looks into a room he can’t see, but there is no seeking in his eyes. Mitzi is studying a man she could never reach, who would not respond to kindness or reason or pleading. She would be afraid to meet him on a lonely street. She would be afraid of him without the glass. She’s afraid of him with the glass.

Mitzi closes her eyes and waits for her strength to come in. She puts away her glasses and takes as long a look as she can bear. She moves her handbag from her right arm to her left. The hand with the finger to point has turned to solid brick, but Mitzi gets it up and points.

Rolaine Abrahams Hochstein has published two novels (W.W. Norton and Doubleday & Co.) and 34 short stories, two of which appeared in O. Henry Prize collections and
another which won a Pushcart Prize. Her story "Virtuous Woman" recently won the Very Short Story competition of Glimmer Train magazine. Another,
"Art in America," in a Spanish translation, is in a recent issue of La Revista de la Universidad de Antioquia in Medallin, Colombia. She is a member of the
Writers Room and a mentor at Girls Write Now in New York City. Her husband Mort writes about wine and restaurants.

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