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SHORT STORY: “Trouble Man”

SHORT STORY: “Trouble Man”

Sep 28, 2023

Jeffrey Cooper

“Get me Marcus Betts!”  

The plea sounded like a command to Marcus Betts even if it wasn’t.  He shuffled his feet in place with his hands stuffed inside the pockets of his black nylon jacket, wondering if he was in trouble.  He just spent $80 on these orthopedic black sneakers. You need good shoes in a job like this.

“He said that?  He said my name?  I didn’t even think he knew my name.”

“Those were his exact words.  He wants you, Marcus.  He asked for personally.  Can you believe it? Isn’t it exciting?”  The idea certainly was exciting to Marcus’s supervisor, the overeager-to-please Vince Graves, who saw whole new worlds of professional possibility opening up in the entertainment business because of it.

Unfortunately, the idea wasn’t all that exciting to Marcus Betts himself, who didn’t see what the big deal was and why the Singer wanted him and him specifically.  Marcus was a fifty-five-year-old security guard, and he wasn’t even an armed security guard. Marcus was the type of security guard that was a distracting presence, a human speed bump, a body posted outside a residence or office building to let everyone know that someone was at least watching what was going on around the place.  This wasn’t a specialized position. Marcus wasn’t fighting any real crime. The only thing he had to defend himself was the cell phone that would call 911. It wasn’t even a good cell phone.

“Get someone else to do this,” Marcus said, firm.  “He’s trouble, man.”

“He doesn’t want anyone else.  He wants you.”

“Me?  Why does he want me?”

The Singer could have anyone or anything he wanted.  Marcus called him the Singer because that’s how he separated out his different jobs.  Over the years he’d worked for the Banker, The Sports Guy, The Restaurant Owner, the CEO, and the Record Company Guy before coming to work for The Singer.  Marcus didn’t know the particulars of the jobs these people had and quite frankly, Marcus didn’t care. It didn’t matter what the people whose homes and businesses he watched over did for a living.  They could have been the fry cooks at McDonald’s. He got paid the same money no matter what they did. That indifference was a big part of Marcus’s appeal.

“He likes you, Marcus.”

“Well, I don’t like him.  I don’t like the way he treats people.  I told him that, too. All the money in the world don’t buy you manners and class.”

Vince was mortified.  “You said that to him?”

“Nobody else would,” Marcus replied.

The thought sent shivers down Vince’s spine.  If he could get things right with the Singer, it would lead to the kind of high-profile entertainment jobs he craved and would bring his business into the big time.  That’s how things worked in this town. Once they see you working for someone, then everyone wants to work with you. But you only get one shot, and you better get it right the first time.  Marcus’s attitude wasn’t helping.

“I need you to go back,” Vince told Marcus.

“Give me another post,” Marcus answered.  “I don’t want that one.”

“There are no other posts, Marcus,” Vince said.  “This is the post.  You don’t take this job, I’m out of business, do you understand that?  Just talk to him. Sort things out, and I’ll see what I can do for you on my end.”  It was a promise Vince had made before, but only because Vince knew he had leverage.  He knew that Marcus didn’t want to change companies again this late in life, where he’d lose all his seniority and have to start over at a lower salary than people who were thirty years younger than him.

“What if I still don’t like it?” Marcus asked.

“If you still don’t like it, then don’t take the job,” Vince answered.  He didn’t say it out loud, but there was something underneath what Vince said it that made Marcus believe that if he didn’t like it, he wasn’t going to have a job much longer.

“Fine, I’ll go,” Marcus conceded.  “You owe me,” he said, walking out the door.

“You’re the best, Marcus!  I’ll take care of this, I promise!” Vince yelled.  Vince’s promises and a dollar were worth exactly a dollar.  Marcus trusted his word about as far as he could throw the building they were standing in.

Marcus knew that he really had no other choice.  He had to go. Marcus was a man of simple means, but what Marcus wasn’t was someone who could afford to miss a paycheck.  Everything was so expensive these days. Prices kept going up and up. It was easy to get behind, and even easier to stay behind.  Marcus could be stubborn, irascible and combative all he wanted, but Vince expected him to be there so Marcus was going to see the Singer whether he liked it or not.

The security guard at the front gate called up to the house to announce Marcus’s arrival when Marcus pulled up in his 2003 Toyota Camry, which was still going strong at 162,000 miles.  The guard was a young man named James who knew Marcus worked up at the Singer’s house. James asked Marcus to slip the Singer a CD of his songs, which Marcus didn’t really want to do but did anyway and the Singer’s manager promptly used it as a drink coaster.  Marcus hoped James wouldn’t ask about it but if he did, Marcus would assure him it was sitting on the Singer’s desk at that very moment.   

The Singer’s manager was a polished twenty-eight-year-old fast-talker named Tyrell Martin who was entirely too busy for just one man.  Tyrell was always on his phone and if he wasn’t on the phone he was talking to someone in the room and if he wasn’t talking to someone in the room then Tyrell was asleep, which most days he only did between 6:00AM and 10:00AM if he slept at all.  Tyrell evaluated people quickly. A person was either making Tyrell money or costing Tyrell money if Tyrell were to regard them at all. Seeing SECURITY in bold white letters emblazoned on the back of Marcus’s black nylon jacket made Tyrell’s decision to disregard Marcus easy.  That was how Tyrell treated people who didn’t make him money. It wasn’t that Marcus didn’t exist. It was that Marcus just didn’t matter.  

The Singer must have told Tyrell to be nice to me, Marcus thought.  It had to be killing him.

“Morning, Marcus,” Tyrell said.  “Thanks for coming over. Can I get you anything?  Coffee? Bagel? Massage?” Tyrell hated that he had to waste his time, much less his breath, on this conversation.  But Marcus knew that what the Singer wants, the Singer gets. It’s the only reason Marcus was here.

“No, thank you, Sir.  I’m fine. I’ll just go out and post up outside in the front.”

“No, no, no, no, no, no.  You have to talk to him first.”

“Talk to him about what, Sir?”

“This little tiff you had.  We don’t want him in a negative headspace now, do we?”

“Sir, with all due respect he’s in a negative headspace most of the time.”

“Yes, yes, I know he is,” Tyrell said, laying down bullshit thick with phony camaraderie.  “And it’s up to us to create the best environment we can give him so that he can do his best work.  Go on. Go up there and talk to him. He doesn’t want any negativity. He likes you, Marcus.”

“Can I ask you a question, Sir?”

“Of course.”

“Why does he like me?  I mean, I ain’t nobody special.”

“I haven’t been able to figure that out, either.  Maybe you could ask him and answer the question for both of us?”  Tyrell’s hand swept aside, pointing Marcus the way up the stairs to the Singer’s bedroom, where, on most days, the Singer didn’t emerge before three in the afternoon.  “Walk down the hallway, it’s the first door to the left. The door should be open. If it isn’t, make sure you knock. He hates when people enter without knocking.”

“Fair enough,” Marcus conceded and made his way up the stairs.  The staircase wall was packed with highlights of the Singer’s iconic musical career.  Gold and platinum albums were mounted next to industry achievement awards and photographs of the Singer with every musical figure, famous Hollywood celebrity, politician, world leader or iconic figure that Marcus knew and a good number of people that he didn’t know.  Damn, Marcus thought, the Singer sure does know a lot of people.   

At the top of the stairs, Marcus looked around for the first door to the left.  Was that his left or my left?  To Marcus’s left, people milled about in the hallway.  Some tried to look busy, others tried to look like they belonged and a few looked like they were waiting for a life-changing event to take place.  There was an open door, but the open door was off to the right. He thought he remembered Tyrell saying that the door would be open, so Marcus walked to the right and entered.  

Marcus quickly realized that even though the room contained a bed, this was not a room for sleeping.  The room had high ceilings, was wide and open, and had a huge, circular bed covered with a comfortable looking purple duvet that took up the entire middle of the room.  Above the bed, a swing and a trapeze bar were bolted to the ceiling, hanging on either side of a sleek silver dancing pole.

“I’ll bet this is the prayer room,”  Marcus giggled. The in-laws wouldn’t be staying here on their next visit, that was for sure.  Marcus’s eyes moved to the walls that were crammed with framed 4×8 inch pictures hung in every available space there was to hang them.  The sheer number of pictures was staggering. Marcus guessed there were probably six hundred pictures on the walls.

He moved in closer for a better look, and the realization dawned on him gradually.  His focus went from picture to picture, up and down from one row to the next and then on to the following wall.  The more Marcus looked, and no matter how many individual pictures he saw, he realized that every single picture showed only the Singer.  There were no other band members, no crew, no fans, no friends, no family, and no pets or animals of any kind. Despite the fact that the Singer did concerts for hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, had a huge touring crew and was constantly in the public eye, not one other person appeared in any picture.  Marcus made it a game to see if he could find even one picture that had another person in it. He lost.

“Yes.  They’re all me.”  It was the Singer, who was smiling as he walked into the room.  He wore a crisp green and white Adidas tracksuit to match his classic and very rare Adidas Superstar shoes made for Boston’s 2008 championship team.  The Singer had an easy, natural charisma and a face so handsome that he would have done fine for himself even if he’d never sung a note his entire life.  The Singer reminded Marcus of his good friend Terrance King, whose cast-offs were better than most guy’s best tries and who kept his good friend Marcus busier in high school than he had any right to be.  “Nice to see you, Marcus,” the Singer said. “Didn’t Tyrell say first door on the left?”

“I wasn’t sure if that was his left or my left,” Marcus answered.

“I’m down this way,” the Singer said, turning and walking down the hall to his bedroom.  Marcus assumed that he was supposed to follow, so he did. He’d never been upstairs in the Singer’s home before since it was explicitly off-limits for household staff and he was told if he were found there it was cause for immediate termination.  

The number of people in the hallway had swelled.  The Singer’s usual roll call of groupies, flunkies, and sycophants had fallen out of the Singer’s master bedroom and now clogged the hallway to make sure they were still included in the Singer’s orbit.  They eyed Marcus with suspicion and malicious intent since the last thing anyone around here needed was another person to distract the Singer’s attention.

“Marcus, I got to get you some better clothes,” the Singer chuckled.  “You can’t be hanging round my house looking like you’re guarding a strip mall.”  The Singer’s orbiting satellites laughed. Everyone laughed except Marcus.

“Thank you.  I don’t need any clothes.  My clothes are fine.”

The Singer pulled back.  “How come you left, Marcus?  You don’t like it here? What’s the matter?  Is it the view?” The Singer pointed out a group of comely young women who were waiting for the Singer’s attention and would have done anything, or anyone, the Singer asked them to do.

It was best to be diplomatic.  “It’s not my place, or my job, to tell you how you should treat people, Sir.”

“What are you talkin’ about?  How do I treat people?”

“I’m gonna get myself in trouble again,” Marcus lamented.

“No, go on.  This is why I called you back.  I’d like to hear this,” the Singer said.  “C’mon, man. You ain’t that attached to this job to begin with, so what you gotta lose?”

Marcus thought for a second, searching for the right words to express what he was trying to say without offending the Singer, who was known for his quick temper.  “You don’t really live on the same planet as the rest of us. You know that, right?”

“What does that mean?”

Marcus looked to a nearby table filled with papers, food containers, beverages and assorted trash.  Something specific caught his eye, and Marcus reached out and plucked a piece of paper off the table.  “This is a check for $150,000. Sitting on pizza.”

“That probably shouldn’t be there,” the Singer admitted.  One of his hangers-on stepped forward and took the check from Marcus’s hand.  “Go put that…on the…fridge or…something,” the Singer said as his hanger-on ran off and he turned his attention back to Marcus.  “So is that it? Money?”

“No.  Money’s got nothing to do with it.  You got no perspective,” Marcus said.

“Man, what are you talking about?  Perspective?  I got perspective for days.  People give me awards for perspective!”  

“Okay,” Marcus challenged.  “How much is a gallon of milk?”

The Singer guessed.  “Ten dollars?” 

“Maybe from your cows,” Marcus admitted.  “I’m not begrudging your success.  You earned your success. I know who you are.  I know ‘bout the things you went through to get here, and I respect you as a man for that.  An’ you can act any way you want. You’re entitled. Like I said, that ain’t my place to say anything about that.”

“So how come you don’t want to be around here anymore?  You don’t like me personally or something?”

“This ain’t a real world you live in.  People don’t act like this, the way they act around you.  I don’t dislike you at all. But no one ever says ‘no’ to you, Sir.”

The Singer contemplated Marcus’s answer, nodded, then turned around to address everyone in the room.  “Out. Everyone. Get out.”

Tyrell, who had followed Marcus upstairs and was monitoring the conversation, marshaled the troops.  “Okay, come on, everyone out, right now! Move it!” Marcus included himself in the marching orders until he was called out by the Singer.

“Marcus, stay here,” the Singer ordered.

Tyrell put his arm out to stop Marcus.  “Marcus, don’t go anywhere.”

“Tyrell, you go.  Marcus, you stay.”  Tyrell showed no emotion, but Marcus watched his face subtly tightened as he ushered the final person out and closed the door behind him with a slight nod to Marcus, who rightfully took it as a warning.

“I want you to come work for me, Marcus.  Stop wasting time with that Security company and the lousy money they pay you.  I’ll double it.”

Marcus had a feeling on the way over here that the Singer would do something like this.  This was one of the reasons no one ever said ‘no’ to the Singer. Money. In doing this job over the years with the people he’d worked for, Marcus saw what money and power did to them.  Money compromises people. It compromises their judgment, their beliefs, their morals, and integrity. Worse, there was never enough. Everyone, including Marcus, always wanted more.  But Marcus knew he had enough. His life wasn’t glamorous, but it was comfortable. He’d turned a Security guard’s wages into a pretty good life over the years and he never felt compromised.  Not like now. This didn’t feel right. He still couldn’t figure out why the Singer was so adamant.

“I appreciate the offer, Sir, I do.  But I have to ask. Why me?” Marcus asked.

“What do you mean?” The Singer asked.

“You got all these people hanging ‘round your door.  Most of them smarter than I am. Bet they sing a lot better too, although I had a pretty decent falsetto until my nuts dropped.  But they’d work for nothin’ just to be around you. What do you need me for?”

“Like you said, Marcus.  I haven’t got perspective.”

Marcus was confused.  He was the first to bring up the Singer’s lack of perspective, so he nodded along like he understood where the Singer was headed, but he had no idea where this was going.  “You need me for perspective?  On your life?”

The Singer swung his thumb toward the bedroom door.  “Those people out there? They all want somethin’. Thieves in the temple.  Money, women, music, television, labels, the internet, movies, everyone wants a piece.  You? You’re the only one I know with no agenda. You don’t want nothin’ from me, Marcus.  You don’t even want a job!  And you need a job.  Man, that’s pure.  Simple. You ain’t selling me anything, I don’t need to call in any favors, give you a loan or fund some stupid project.  That shit gets tiring. People kiss my ass so much Marcus, I got chapped butt cheeks.”

“You still haven’t answered the question,” Marcus reminded him.

“You told me before that no one says ‘no’ to me.  That’s true. See, that’s respect. I mean, for the most part, you say no to me, I’m gonna fire you.  I don’t pay people to say no to me. But then I started thinking. I’ll explain what I mean, an’ this is just my opinion.  Okay, so Michael, right? His three best albums, arguably, were the ones Quincy produced. You know why? Because Quincy could say ‘no’ to Michael.  Why? Because he’s Quincy. After those three albums, Quincy leaves, Mike gets a new producer who ain’t Quincy. New producer is good, but he ain’t tellin’ Mike what to do.  He ain’t Quincy, and this is Michael!  See, Mike got too famous and too big, and he lost all those people who could check him.  No one could tell Mike no anymore. I think I lost those people too. I got no one in my life that says no to me.  I make them all too much money.”

“Sir, I ain’t no Quincy,” Marcus admitted.

“You’re missing the point.”

“I’m not going to come to work for you,” Marcus said.

“You know,” the Singer said, disappointed.  “You don’t have to say ‘no’ to me all the time, Marcus.  I’m not the worst person in the world to work for, believe it or not.”

“I’m gonna stay workin’ at my current company where I’m at,” Marcus explained.  “I won’t be your direct employee. A little separation might be helpful. At least that way, when you finally do fire me, I still might have a job to go back to.”

“You sound pretty sure I’m going to fire you,” the Singer admitted.

“I’m realistic,” Marcus answered.  “You know what they say, ‘If you haven’t been fired in the entertainment industry…”

“… then you haven’t worked in the entertainment industry for very long,” the Singer finished.

“I still don’t know why you’re makin’ such a big deal about me,” Marcus said as the Singer stood up, walked over to the window, and looked out.  

The Singer took a deep breath of the fresh, salty ocean air then looked over at a group of pictures on the wall next to where he was standing.  His eyes settled on one photograph, taken years ago, that showed a young boy with a huge smile on his face hugging an older man wearing a black nylon windbreaker.  The older man had a black baseball cap with the word SECURITY emblazoned across it. The older man was the spitting image of Marcus Betts. 

The Singer turned around and smiled.  “Because people like you deserve a chance at a good life too, Marcus.”