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Rita's Rules

Sharon Bippus

I'm on my third whiskey sour and fourth cigarette at a trucker bar in Saginaw, Michigan when a fat guy I call Roll-o pulls a stool up next to me and orders a beer. The TV set's high above the bar and the ten o'clock news is on–something about a guy going nuts and killing himself at a county land auction. Roll-o wants to hear the details, which are hard to make out with the jukebox blasting.

"Damn," he says, then chugs his beer and grabs a handful of pretzels. "A man gets behind on his taxes and the next thing he knows they're auctioning his land right out from under him. Jesus." He turns to me, "You ever hear of such a thing?"

I nod. I'm in. Just for the amusement.

"You think that's something," I say, motioning up to the TV. "One time I heard a story about a guy at one of those auctions, shows up with a gun. He waves it around threatening to waste everyone there, then he grabs the county treasurer." The bartender hears me. He puts his towel down, walks over, his face looking concerned. Roll-o stuffs his mouth with pretzels. "Guy tells her, no way she is selling his land. He's a fool, there's cops everywhere. And it's all legal, by the books. He's in the slammer now. She got a bruise, that's it."

"You're shitting me," the bartender says.

"Seen another one where a guy's church, I mean the whole goddamned congregation, picketed in front of the auction."

"You said 'seen'?" the bartender says, looking more curious. "You been to these things?"

"Been to a few." They look at me. "You can get some good buys. A lot of the stuff is mostly abandoned land, not worth much. Sometimes, though, there are some real sweet deals."

Roll-o leans into me. "Like that poor guy's land?" There's a pretzel crumb on his lip.

"You gotta look at the big picture," I say. "Guy's been warned, it isn't a surprise that the tax bill is due. These people are taking advantage of the state, not paying up what they owe. And somebody's gonna benefit from their misfortune, why not let it be you?"

Roll-o shrugs and moves to a table, taking the pretzel dish with him. The bartender hangs around. "You at the sale on the news?"

I nod. "I ran the sale." The bartender doesn't look too surprised. "But it wasn't me that pushed the guy over the edge. The way I figure it, he was standing too close to begin with."

"Was he like that guy with the gun? Did he cause a scene?" He brings me another drink. Sets a dish of peanuts in front of me. Somebody else comes up to the counter and the bartender takes his order. On TV the weatherman's predicting sunshine for the next three days, low humidity. The bartender comes back. "Tell me what it was like," he says.

"You know, the guy shows up early, way before the sale. I'm setting up, schmoozing Rita, the county treasurer. She's the one that hired me. Then this old couple interrupts us. He's wearing bib overalls and she's got her hair all pinned up in the back. 'Excuse me,' he says in this raspy voice. 'Could I talk to you for a moment?' he says to Rita, polite and all. She nods. 'We own that land on Stoldt Road. Eighty acres, a farmhouse. We've got cash.'

"It takes me a bit to figure it out, but old guys got a hole in his throat. That's where his voice is coming from. You ever see that before? It sounds damn weird. Anyway, the wife cuts in, 'What he's trying to say,' she says, 'is that we don't want our house auctioned off. We've got cash. We want to pay our bill now.' Gramps pulls out a roll of bills wrapped together in a rubber band.

"'Sorry,' Rita says. 'There are rules. I can't take it out of the sale. Not without a court order.'

"'But we got cash,' he says.

"'Go and register, get a number, and bid. Sorry,' she says. She looks at me and shakes her head. 'Why can't people just read a bill, pay it, and leave me alone? They get three notices. The sale's in the paper. They're years behind in payments. And they come to me on sale day looking for a favor. I'm sick of this shit.'

"I shake my head along with her, she's calling the shots. I know she can give them a break, but I don't think much of it and go on schmoozing her and getting set up. And then it's sale time and I'm really on a roll, getting good prices, making Rita happy, we're about half way through when Gramps stands up in the middle of somebody's bid and faces the crowd.

"'This is my house,' he says in that raspy voice. 'I know you didn't know that or you wouldn't be bidding. So let me just get it back.'

"Rita stands in the back of the hall, her arms folded across her chest. There's nothing I can do, but go on calling the bids. 'Sir, we're at four thousand. Would you like to bid?' I say. I have to play by Rita's rules. I want to keep the contract with her. In fact, I want her to be so happy that she tells all the other treasurers how good we are. You know, that's how I make money. That's how business is run."

I take one of my cards out of my wallet, slide it on the counter to the bartender, but he doesn't look at it. "What about Gramps," he says.

" Okay. The bids at $4,000. Gramps says, 'You don't understand. We only owe twenty-seven hundred thirty six.'

"'Sir, you'll have to bid or take a seat,' I say. So he ups the bid by fifty. I don't usually accept fifty dollar bid increments, it wastes everybody time, but hell, I guess I'm feeling sorry for him. But the next bid goes up by five hundred, just what I expected. You know, his neighbors are to blame. They bid against him. They took his house, not me.

"Anyway, Gramps stands again. 'Folks, there are other properties here,' he says. I'm watching him, trying to figure out how he can move his lips and still have that voice come out of a hole in his throat. I remind him about the cops at the doors and tell him again to bid or take a seat. I look over at Rita, who is not smiling anymore.

"So Gramps ups the bid by another fifty. He didn't learn the time before, and it just quickly goes up another five hundred.

"'It's all I got' he yells out in that scratchy voice. 'For the love of Christ,' he says, 'Quit bidding against me!' The wife, she's sitting next to him all teary eyed, and she's trying to get him to sit back down, which he finally does. But the crowd doesn't stop bidding."

The bartender leans toward me. "Couldn't you stop it?"

I can tell this guy's green, doesn't understand the true art of pleasing a client and running a successful business. "My job is to get the most money I can for my client. In this case, the county treasurer. I'm good at what I do," I say. "I travel all over the country. I make more money than anybody else in the field."

The bartender just looks at me. Like he wants more of an explanation. But that's it.

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