Súbeme paso apasito. Ho quieras pegar brinquitos.
From The Lotería, La Escalera (The Ladder)
Mutual forgiveness of each vice
Such are the gates of paradise
Female, single, lonely, elderly and rich. It was the demographic he preyed upon. Arnie Benson knew how to handle these older women. He watched from his obscure table in the corner and listened as she talked with her advisor.
She made a halfhearted attempt at her yogurt and fruit. Across from her, the financial advisor listened intently to her every word. He was the roadblock, the protector Arnie would have to get through. Register that.
She periodically gazed out the window of the Frolic Cafe. Lackadaisical. Lost in some reverie of the past. She looked like an easy mark. But, Arnie knew these women were often tougher than they seemed at first sight especially with an aggressive advisor like that young man at her side. Competition.
“I’m so lonely, Sam. I miss James terribly much. I don’t want to keep him waiting too long..”
“Come now, Maya. What’s it been, two years? James would not want you to pine away the rest of your life on his account. He’s got all the time in the world. You’ve got a life to live. He’ll wait.”
“Oh, I guess you’re right. But what’s the point? There’s no one left. We never had children. And family, well I’ve outlived them all. But, that’s not why we’re here.”
“No, it’s not,” said Sam. He glanced over his shoulder in Arnie’s direction. It was slow at the cafe this late in the morning. Sam turned back toward Maya and spoke in a softer tone. “You want me to setup a trust, is that right?”
“Well, I’m too old. I met James sixty years ago on his first trip to Mexico. Against my family’s advice, we married and moved to his ranch here on the coast. It wasn’t much back then but we built it up. We logged for a few years, added livestock and then vineyards. Eventually we turned a profit. Your predecessor, Max, encouraged us to invest in stocks. After James got sick, we sold most of the ranch and invested in one of those newfangled start-ups. My God! I’m rich beyond my wildest dreams. Haven’t got a clue what to do with it.”
Arnie had to be discreet. He knew Sam was suspicious.
“Tone it down, Maya,” whispered Sam. “Let’s keep this between us.” Arnie focused intently on his eggs and potatoes.
Maya seemed to be staging a show for the man in the corner. Sam couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t like her at all. He wondered if age was catching up with her. “Oh well, maybe I’m just paranoid,” he thought to himself.
Maya went on without lowering the volume.
“You know, I’ve got a lot of work around the property and a lot of space. I’d love to find a live-in caretaker. Give me some company. It’s gets lonely out there on the ridge.”
Arnie knew he was being watched. He felt Sam’s eyes probe the back of his head like a shovel trying to dig up a grave. He kept eating and he focused on his newspaper. He didn’t look up. He showed no interest in the goings on around him.
“Putting the trust together should be straightforward. I’ll put together a draft. I’ve got everything I need except the beneficiaries.”
“Yea. Got to think about that,” said Maya with a sly smile. She knew several folks around town were counting on her largesse. She wondered sometimes of even Sam was hoping for a bite at the apple.
“I’ll get back to you in a few weeks,” said Maya as she glanced over at Arnie.
Sam got up, pulled out his wallet and put some money on the table.
“This should cover breakfast. I’ve got to run. Got to get to the courthouse in Ukiah. Let’s get back together when you’re ready. Give my secretary a call. In the meantime I’ll get that trust going.”
Sam leaned over and gave Maya a peck on her forehead.
“You take care now.”
“I will, Sam. Thanks. You always make me feel better.”
Sam glanced in Arnie’s direction. Maya can take care of herself, he thought. Still, I’ll register that face for future reference.
There are hilltops east of the village of Mendocino where you can see every star in the sky all at once. There are tiny streams through the redwoods where silvery salmon jump into the air and fly. There are insects and butterflies and bees that march and float and swarm in unison. This was the special place that James and Maya Rafferty made their home.
Maya was eighty-five years old. She met her husband James sixty years ago when he visited Mexico. Her Mexican family warned her against “the soulless gringo” and they opposed the marriage but Maya was fiercely independent. She moved to her new husband’s home in Mendocino. They raised sheep and cattle, planted vineyards, managed the forest and made everything they touched beautiful proving her family wrong. Then, James died.
Loneliness is a disease as deadly as the cancer that took James, thought Maya as she left the market with her cart piled high with sacks of groceries. She recognized the man from the restaurant on her way to unload the grocery sacks into her car.
“Scuse me ma’am. You look like you could use some help. Let me give you a hand loading those bags into your car.
Maya’s eyes met Arnie’s fiercely.
“Oh geeze, didn’t mean to scare you. Sorry ma’am.”
Maya’s face relaxed. She laughed. “Ha! You’re the man I saw at the Frolic Cafe. New in town?”
“Been here a few weeks,” said Arnie as he moved the bags from the cart to the car. “Tryin’ to get my bearings, to see if there’s some place I might fit in.”
Maya looked at him up close. She guessed he was around forty but looks could be deceiving. He had a pleasing face and had kept his body in good shape.
“Where are you staying?”
“Right now I’m renting a room by the week at the Art Center.”
“You’re an artist?”
Arnie finished loading the groceries into the back of Maya’s SUV and closed the door. “No. I can paint, but not art, and I’m handy with carpentry and plumbing. Right now they’re trading me a room for some work around the Center. But, I have to move out when classes start next week.”
Maya looked him over. Arnie didn’t know it but she’d heard about him from a friend of hers, Thera Maddox. Poor Thera, this Arnie fellow had taken her for a ride. Somehow he had managed to con her out of ten thousand dollars. “With these newfangled computers people can do anything. I’ll never trust the bank again,” cried Thera when she told Maya. “I’m so ashamed.”
Thera couldn’t prove it of course. You seldom can in these cases. But Thera knew he’d stolen things from her purse during a show she put on at a gallery in town. Thera was one of Maya’s best friends. Maya hatched a plan to get justice for Thera, to teach this Arnie fellow a lesson. She’d been thinking about it ever since she first heard the story but she kept it to herself. Poor Thera was too embarrassed to tell anyone else, especially the police whom she didn’t trust after having had a bad experience after an auto accident. Someone rammed into her car as she was going through a four way intersection. The other driver said Thera ran a stop light but according to Thera it was the other way around. It was he said-she said. He was young and had a business in town. She was an old lady. The police took her license away.
“Well, thank you young man for loading my car. What’s your name?”
“Arnie. Arnie Benson.”
“Have you got any references?”
“Yea. If you checkout I might have some work for you and maybe even a place to stay.”
“Gee, that would be great,” said Arnie enthusiastically. I’m sure the director of the Art Center would vouch for me. And, the owner of the Frolic Cafe knows me pretty well. I’ve done some work for him. Like I said, I’m new to town. Before Mendocino I lived in Santa Rosa.” Arnie reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. “Here is the phone number of my last landlord. I always paid on time and I left the place better than I found it.”
“I’ll make some calls. If I like what I hear, I’ll leave a note at the Art Center for you.”
“Gee, thanks. I’m pretty handy with tools and I like to keep busy. What’s your name?”
“Maya. Maya Rafferty.”
Arnie dug through several old copies of the local newspaper. He made a visit to the town’s historical society and museum. It didn’t take long to verify that what he’d heard at the Frolic Cafe was true. Old lady Rafferty was loaded.
A couple of days later he found a note in his room from Maya. She invited him out to her ranch to discuss a live-in caretaker job. She gave him directions and also a phone number in case he needed a ride.
When he arrived at the Rafferty ranch, Arnie fell in love with the place. A beautiful house and some outbuildings surrounded by apple trees and a vegetable garden. Rolling acres as far as the eye could see filled with redwoods, fir and pine. Even a stream that flowed past the house. But, the place needed work. The property had clearly been neglected at least since Maya’s husband’s death and probably for several years before.
Maya took him to a small cabin. She wore a long, loose dress, her gray hair tied with bow. No jewelry. Her skin was dark and wrinkled. She hadn’t put on weight like many of the other women her age. Arnie saw a pair of red tennis shoes on her feet. They seemed a little out of place, a little too chic, in comparison to the rest.
“You can live here as long as we get along and your work around here is satisfactory.” Her voice was huskier than he remembered. “No drugs and no women. You can drink as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. One thing I’ve learned, the only thing that works on my arthritis is the booze.” Arnie noticed a twinkle in Maya’s eye when she mentioned booze.
“I’ll give you a list of chores from time to time. If you see anything that needs doing, ask me first. You’re on your own for food but I’ll invite you up to the house when it’s convenient. Go ahead and get settled. Dinner tonight at the house at 6. Until then, walk around and get the lay of the land.”
Maya left before he could respond. She was all business. He didn’t realize that Maya had sized him up while they were talking. He had a Midwestern accent and looked like a man who enjoyed the outdoors, probably a hunter. She bet he could skin and butcher a deer with the finesse of a professional. His hands were rough. That was consistent with what he’d said about tools and work. If it hadn’t been for this business with Thera, she might have been inclined to keep him around. She had to remind herself this was just a short term game she was going to play and win.
Arnie unpacked his things and organized the cabin to his liking. Then he took a walk around. He noticed a fence that needed mending. There was a pile of oak logs that had sat long enough for weeds to be growing up through them. He kicked one. It was still solid enough to make firewood. He picked an apple and took a bite. They weren’t yet ready but they would be in a week or two. There was plenty for him to do around the ranch. He saw that. He knew immediately that he was going to like living here. Patience, he reminded himself, patience.
At 6 sharp he walked up to the house and met Maya for dinner. Things went well, or so he thought. His plan was to work himself into her good graces and to look for opportunities to enrich himself although he wasn’t exactly sure yet what opportunities they might be.
A couple of weeks went by quickly. Maya kept Arnie busy with chores long neglected. She grew to depend on him, even to like him and that surprised her. She wondered if she was losing her touch. But, as usual, she caught herself before she lost sight of her plan.
Maya discovered that Arnie had a checking account where he kept a substantial portion of his funds. She had seen him write checks. Once when he was in the woods away from his cabin, she went through his things and wrote down the information on his account. He had foolishly put the login and password information in his check binder, so she had access to everything. This was going to be easier than she thought.
In spite of her age, Maya was computer savvy and she was meticulous in her bookkeeping. She drove her financial adviser crazy with her endless questions. She read every quarterly report, every prospectus, and every communication in detail and she underlined and circled anything she wanted further clarification on. While most people just threw these regular communications away, she always had questions. When the time came, she had no trouble logging into Arnie’s bank account and transferring $10,000 into Thera’s account.
“Is that legal?” Thera asked when Maya told her.
“Was what he did to you legal? He filched $10,000 from you, Thera. And, we just filched it back.” Maya had to laugh, but it wasn’t funny. Elder abuse is not funny and that’s the game Arnie was playing. Even though she had grown to like him, she could not condone his actions.
When Arnie noticed the money missing, he called his bank and they told him he did the transfer himself online. That’s when he realized he’d been played by Maya. He went to the house and confronted her.
“Yes, I did it,” she said. “Why did you steal from my poor friend, Arnie? How many others are there? Did you think you could steal from me too?”
Arnie was pissed, but he was also impressed. And, embarrassed. He’d been caught with his hands in the cookie jar by the very person who had more cookies than anyone he’d ever seen. What’s more, he’d grown to like Maya, actually like her, and he thought she liked him. He didn’t want to lose that.
“I have no defense, Maya. I made a mistake and that led to another, and another, and …”
“How many, how much in total?”
“Six women, maybe $50,000 or so not counting Thera. I know it was stupid, but it was so easy. And now it’s done and most of the money is gone. God! What an idiot I’ve been.”
“You’re a crook, not an idiot, Arnie. You’ve been a boorish lout. But, we’re going to fix that, aren’t we? We’re going to clean up the mess you made. You’re going to pay those women back, every cent. And, you’re going get your life on the right track. And, you’re going to give me reason to like you. I want to like you.”
Arnie felt an unexpected relief. Something about Maya attracted him. He wanted her to like him. He wanted to like himself.
“How are we going to do that, Maya? How am I going to do that.”
“One dollar at a time kid. And, you’re going to work for me until those women are paid in full with interest.”
And, he did. It took him two years. Over that time his admiration for Maya grew and he earned her respect. Arnie knew how to do more than skin and gut a deer. He laid water lines to the garden. He rewired the cabins and replaced the shoddy and dangerous equipment James had jerry rigged together. He repaired fences, roofs, floors and foundations. In short, he became useful, maybe even indispensable.
Dinners at the big house became more frequent and ultimately routine. Maya learned a lot about Arnie and Arnie learned a lot about Maya.
“Don’t call me Mrs. Rafferty. James is dead, rest his soul. Like Sam always tells me, I’ll see him soon enough. Just call me Maya.”
“What was your name before you were married, Maya?”
“Everyone called me Maya Azul because of my blue eyes. Blue eyes were very unusual where we lived.”
Maya was a baby during the Depression but she retained memories of the hardships her family went through during those times. Arnie suspected those memories were responsible for her strong feelings about money and work. While she was not a child of the sixties, she was deeply and personally impacted by the aura of those years. She was adamantly against all wars. While she was risk averse in many ways, she was ironically more willing to take risks when she felt the odds were in her favor. She had an unquenchable thirst for standing up to power, to challenge authority especially authority she believed to be illegitimate. She wanted her investments to provide social value as well as profits. The biggest surprise to Arnie, she smoked dope. That was something he discovered the day he made the last payment to clear up the debts to the women from whom he had stolen.
“Let’s get high,” she said. “The wicked witch is dead.”
Poor Arnie. He didn’t know what to make of her—sister, mother, daughter. There were times she seemed like each.
“Come on with me to town for lunch,” she would say and then laugh. “I want to show you off to my friends. And be sure to dress up, you schmuck.”
Maya loved a game they play in Mexico called the Lotería. It reminded Arnie of Bingo. Maya’s favorite card was La Escalera, The Ladder. Every card had a saying. The ladder card read: Súbeme paso apasito. Ho quieras pegar brinquitos. (Climb me step by step. You don’t want to hop up.)
And that’s what they did. Step by step they won each other over. “It was a match made in hell,” laughed Maya if anyone asked her, and Arnie never refuted it.
Maya lived to a hundred. Arnie was not so lucky. He died long before Maya of pancreatic cancer. It tore Maya apart, especially after watching James die.
Maya was once again alone. She missed James but oddly she missed Arnie too. After Arnie died she went through the things at his cabin. Arnie had never talked about a family but she found records of a wife and two kids in Illinois. For some reason Maya couldn’t fathom, Arnie had walked out on them and never looked back. But, he carried around a helluva lot of guilt about it. That explained his occasionally violent and depressed moods.
Maya had Sam locate Arnie’s family and find out what they were up to. The kids, two boys, were in their twenties, both in college. The wife had never remarried. Apparently Arnie had been anonymously sending her a check now and then whenever he could. This is where the money he filched from Thera and the others went. Just before he died, Arnie sent them all the money he’d saved from the odd jobs he’d done around town. He never mentioned any of this to Maya. She really didn’t know him at all.
Maya had Sam include them in the trust, the JAM Trust (for James, Arnie and Maya). She told him to use his judgment as to a reasonable amount. She left everything else to local charities she was fond of. She appointed Sam successor trustee before she died.
“Make sure to dole the money out step by step, Sam. No one should hop up all at once.”