Drebel started when he was fourteen organizing a grocery shopping service for the elderly in his neighborhood. He charged a flat rate per bag, accepted gratuities, and handled the cash exchange between the grocery store and the old people. Once he gained a customer’s trust, he would skim a percentage off the change, especially when the old man or woman couldn’t see that well. He would smile winningly while counting out the money; the old folks loved having a young person to socialize with. Seeing themselves reflected in his eyes, they thought they were smart, plucky oldtimers. Later, he was able to arrange a small quid pro quo from the supermarket manager’s petty cash to steer his customers away from competitors. He never bought bulk or generic. When an elderly party insisted on cheaper brands, Drebel would shrug and say the store was out. He watched for customers whose memory was failing and preyed on them, lifting a hundred dollar bill from the open purse or pocketing an expensive watch from the sideboard. Once he swiped a handful of silver cutlery from a drawer, sweeping it into his courier bag and clanking out the door. But he had trouble fencing the forks and spoons, and he was really only interested in the cash. He couldn’t help becoming fond of the old woman who said she would put him in her will, though he knew she wouldn’t. He didn’t take any offer of warmth or affection personally. He knew the old people were wrapped tight in their narrow lives, narrower and narrower as they grew older. They could be just as devious and mean as the next person. Drebel noticed how the codgers took a perverse pride in trying to shortchange him, arguing over the receipts, shaving the tip. “Here’s another quarter, son. Oh, drat. I thought I had another quarter. Next time?” He didn’t care. All he wanted was his cut, the skim. He thought of money as a sticky substance that only needed to be pried loose from its temporary owner; floating, he could grab it and make it disappear. Like a magician, he was adept at using misdirection to cloak the vanishing act. What no one noticed belonged to him.
By the time he was eighteen, he had enough cash to make a down payment on a trailer in a nearby mobile home park. One of his customers owned it but was falling behind. This was Raylon Weems, a former singer with a band that went nowhere in the 60s, a music teacher for decades at the high school, reduced by cancer and addicted to opiates. He had a daughter in the next state who was managing his money; as far as Drebel could see she was skimming and managing it right out of existence. So Drebel took Raylon some extra hits of Oxycontin and proposed that he ante up $2,100 in three installments, $700 down and the rest in six-month intervals, and take over the payments in return for the deed to the trailer. Raylon could stay as long as he wanted at a reduced rent; Drebel would even come in and fix the place up, do some cleaning and painting. Raylon was reluctant. He wanted to talk to his daughter. Drebel waved the $700 under Raylon’s nose. He came in with his mother’s vacuum cleaner and a box of cleaning supplies just to show Raylon what the future could be like. He kept leaving envelopes with extra drugs, not a lot, a couple of pills now and then, which he palmed from Raylon’s own drugstore orders. One day he simply left the $700, a fan of bills on Raylon’s kitchen table, and the next time Drebel dropped by, Raylon had the papers for him. Drebel took back $100 from Raylon’s next grocery delivery, calling it a management fee. Raylon was confused. He tried to reverse the deal. He grasped Drebel by the front of his shirt and dragged himself up on his unsteady legs and spit insults. Drebel called Social Services and said he was afraid the old man was unable to look after himself. He showed the social worker where Raylon kept the spare Oxycontin. The social worker, name of Ty-Ty Pilcher, was an old hand and knew enough not to listen to anything the incoherently angry Raylon Weems said. Dementia was everywhere these days. Drebel paid a negro welfare woman named Damsona Venables $50 to clear out Raylon’s things. He sold the old man’s prized Martin guitar himself. Then he rented the trailer out to an elderly couple, the Pemberleys, from the next bigger town, down on their luck, dazed by events yet perfectly aware they were sliding into a pit of no return. Drebel seemed to offer them a temporary haven where they could at least get by on Medicare and Social Security, maybe put a few dollars aside. They wanted to believe that. He sold them lottery tickets, charging an extra dollar a ticket. He did their shopping, ran their errands, walked them around the neighborhood, found them a new doctor. When old man Pemberley started to lose his memory, Drebel would hit him up for the rent twice a month. He was paying off the mortgage and building his reserve fund.
At this time, the Church of Twelve Mercies, gave Drebel a Good Samaritan Award. He bought himself a suit. He leveraged two more trailers. He went to his prom with a poor girl in the tenth grade named Nancy Ryland. Nancy was so poor Drebel had to buy her shoes for the dance. She lived in the trailer park with her mother, who was an alcoholic and addicted to opiates. Mrs. Ryland was dealing for Drebel who had branched out, though carefully. He lifted the drugs from the old folks he took care of. It was all smalltime stuff, but he saved his money. He lived in the percentages, didn’t dream of the big kill. Money didn’t flow, it seeped into his pockets. Nancy was not bright but she knew when she was being used. Drebel repulsed her. When he wasn’t wearing his suit, he dressed wigger with a reversed black ball cap, black t-shirt, elephantine black pants and shoes like boats. He had a gerbil named Casimir. He read science fiction paperbacks and self-help books. Think and Grow Rich was his favorite, a book he found in the library dumpster. He had a huge Adam’s apple. He smelled of gerbil and old people. He flashed her a wad of bills, but aside from the shoes and the prom ticket, he bought her nothing. He even told her not to scuff up the shoes because he was going to return them after the dance. Between dances, during that special moment when they were not crowned king and queen of the prom, she dropped the shoes in the toilet and pissed on them. Then she brought them out dripping and handed them back to Drebel. “Sorry,” she said. “I must be drunk.” They went and stood under the football bleachers where couples without cars congregated to drink and engage in furtive sex. Drebel smacked Nancy across the face with the wet shoes and pushed her down on her knees. This was no more than she expected, and she was drunk, finding that an appealing respite from the pain of living. She gave Drebel a drunken, unenthusiastic blow job, gagging with revulsion. His cock smelled like gerbil shavings. There were little pellets of smegma under his foreskin. But he came almost immediately, which wasn’t so bad, and she spat the cum out as usual. Then he dragged her further into the shadows and made her squirm into various positions so he could examine her pussy and asshole. He had never been with a girl before, though he had watched plenty of porn. Even in the shadows, with the panting, squealing couples heaving around them, it was a deeply satisfying moment for Drebel. He could imagine no greater possession. When he took Nancy back to the trailer park, Mrs. Ryland slapped Nancy for losing her shoes. But then she cackled when Drebel told her what had happened, the toilet, the piss, swiping the wet shoes across her face. Mrs. Ryland gave them chilled chocolate-flavored vodka in jelly jars. She toasted true love. They snorted some Oxy. She turned on the radio and made Drebel dance with her, rubbing herself shamelessly against his crotch. Nancy watched them, drinking fast. She urinated in her dress, on the chair. Drebel scared her. She knew he had her mother in his grasp. She knew what happened to people Drebel paid attention to. But, luckily, she was not afraid for long. Soon she blacked out. So much for romance, it seemed. Drebel had the Rylands evicted.
When he was twenty-one, he bought the park – it was called Shangrila – and cashed out the last of the trailer owners. Everything was strictly rental now, and he specialized in seniors and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. The blind and the deaf were welcome. He tried to get himself declared a group home for the mentally disabled. The newspaper did a story on how he had cleaned up the disreputable eyesore out by the sewage lagoon and turned it into a profitable shelter for the disadvantaged. More money seeped into his pockets. He sharked loans to his tenants, whittled them down by tiny cuts, till, weakened, they collapsed and he could dispose of them. The rents went up. Management fees went up. He became friends with the town bailiff, a Gulf War veteran with an open carry license, who, along with Ty-Ty Pilcher, helped him keep order in the park. The Church of the Twelve Mercies, elected him to the board. He was the youngest ever board member in the church. He ran for town selectman on a tax cutting, small government platform but lost to a Christian woman who ran on a no government platform; God clothed the lilies of the field, why not the poor, colored and helpless of America? Drebel vowed he would never be undersold again.
He started infiltrating another trailer park. He ran into Nancy Ryland who had a ring in her nose and a new career frying potatoes at McDonald’s to support her mother. In her spare time, she wrote spoken word poems, which she performed on open-mike nights at a secondhand CD store. Nancy said, “You are like dry rot. Once you get hold of something, it gradually disintegrates until the whole shebang collapses.” He took her to the dog races, pretending he was a big spending punter with a yen for romantic risks. “You know, I can’t stop myself,” he said. He made two-dollar bets and always lost. They saw two dogs destroyed after accidents. To Nancy, the dogs, bred to run in circles after a fake rabbit, seemed beautiful and pathetic. She hated the spectacle because it reminded her so much of her life. She wondered if the dogs, released suddenly from the gate, chasing after the rabbit, felt as if they too were free. Naturally, she managed to get drunk despite Drebel’s miserliness. He had smuggled in a pint Burnett’s vodka and kept topping up her can of Jolt. She said, “After this, can we have sex for a change?” They ducked into the trailer park service shed. Drebel put on two condoms and handed her an Encare vag tab. He was deathly afraid of real responsibility. He didn’t want the money to start draining the other way. She shrugged and said, “Let’s not.” She rolled the condoms off like a sock and jerked him while he stuck his fingers up her asshole. After that, Drebel thought of them as a couple and got blow jobs on a weekly basis, sometimes at the drive-thru window at McDonald’s.
Drebel bought a third trailer park and began investigating a down-at-heel seniors home sponsored by the Church of the Twelve Mercies. It helped that he was on the church board. He converted the first trailer park into a sex offenders-only operation and jacked the rents up. The sex offenders were perfect tenants, scared to death they’d be evicted and never find another home. The sex offenders arranged Bingo nights and taxi-pooled for groceries. Drebel put a menu board up in front the trailer park with the names of the sex offenders and what they had done. He was elected selectman for the ward on an anti-tax, anti-abortion, anti-muslim, anti-education platform. He was for home-schooling and posse comitatus. He made headlines talking about what he called “zero footprint government.” Most everyone ignored what he said and voted for him because God had clearly blessed him with superior business acumen. He audited online MBA courses from Liberty University. He was caught drawing Food Stamp benefits on seniors who had already died but was able to convince investigators that this was an accounting screwup. He was ordered to make restitution but since it was the government he owed, he let it slide.
When Drebel was twenty-five, he preached his first sermon at the Church of the Twelve Mercies. Nancy Ryland was in the front pew, wearing a sheath dress he had bought her at Walmart online and a tiny cloche hat with a net veil. Very classy, he thought. Nancy was so drunk she went down on her face when she knelt to pray. She had been fired from McDonald’s. She wondered, staring at the worn church floorboards, how her life had managed to take all the wrong turns, how she had ended up without a cent, with a man who repulsed her. She felt that, on the whole, she had chosen none of this, that it had a certain barren inevitability in which she had no say. Things just went bad for no reason and then developed perverse elaborations of badness. She had evolved an emotional jujitsu approach to life, fending off greater evils with smaller evils. A blow job here, a swirl into drunken anesthesia there. Cocaine was too expensive but she liked it when she could get it. Her mother was doing crystal meth these days, a walking corpse with sores to show she was still alive. That crystal meth was a siren call to Nancy. She knew it was awful, it was death, but she saw her mother’s wanting and knew it must be good. The zen of crystal meth, of not caring any longer, the zen of turning yourself into a corpse.
Drebel had plans to run for state legislature. There was an election coming. But while he was running toward that future eminence, the past was after him like a hunting pack, yipping and baying, now nearer, now receding into the distance. Everything was a percentage for Drebel, he lived by what he could skim. Like shavings off a planing table in woodshop, he thought. He made deals, leveraging everything he owned to open new lines of cash flow. He had created a pyramid mostly because his goal was to increase the take, not to pay off and secure the property. He skipped payments, welshed on debts, let the plant run down. There was always a needier tenant, someone more desperate than the last for a moment of respectability on the long slide down. He was getting rich off an aging America in decline. But he barely kept a cent, shoving it all back into the mouth of the machine. He never answered the phone, lived strictly by cash, never used a credit card, slept in a studio apartment owned by a real estate holding company without a name.
He was ashamed of Nancy. He had seen enough fancy women to know that she was not quality goods. But he was frightened of those fancy women, he despised them, dreamed he could buy them, ruin their husbands, and force them to do despicable acts. He dreamed of reducing them all to beggars and whores, dreamed universal destruction. The making of money was a fantasy of power, destruction, and abasement. He was the dark angel of apocalypse. The hounds of the IRS, the creditors, the stale truths of the broken lives he left behind drove him into a frenzy of greed. He dreamed there would one day be a moment when the baying stopped, when he finally had it all, and the all would create a state of unassailable perfection, the suspension of time itself. He had a campaign manager named of Ferriter, a disbarred lawyer with a blog. He was running on a Libertarian ticket. He told everyone his family had once owned slaves, though they had only immigrated from Riga in the 1940s. He called himself “Drebel the Rebel.” He condemned drugs, banks, premarital sex, evolution, homosexuality, global warming, government handouts, immigrants, unions, university professors, and regulation of all kinds. He was tall and lanky, with a face like a cadaver and that projecting Adam’s apple. He wore black suits. Ferriter said he looked like a young Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly it was in the news that he looked like Abraham Lincoln. He had been discreet; nobody important knew about Nancy Ryland. He said, “I have some heroin. You should try it.” She gave him a blow job while he put his fingers up her ass, some circular symbolism in that structure, which she sensed but could not express. It was the only time Drebel was ever connected to anything, and it was the wrong way. She loved heroin. She loved that it came from a flower. She thought it was her fate, classier than crystal meth. Anything to detach herself from the loneliness and the wanting. Anything to get away from Drebel. She shot up while he watched. Her mother slept in the next room, would sleep til her strange hunger woke her. After the primary, he would be a legitimate candidate, a beacon of freedom in a decadent land. If the IRS didn’t get him first. Or Raylon Weems’s daughter—he had never paid off the estate, she kept asking what happened to her daddy’s guitar. He who dealt the thousand cuts was dying the death of a thousand cuts, bleeding out. But if he could get through the primary, break out into the cleansing air of public acclaim, he might just be able to weather the storm.
Nancy had said he should change his underwear more, buy boxers and not those adolescent Y-fronts. His crotch smelled of piss, she said. People notice. He should never try to sleep with another woman in piss-stained Y-fronts. Good advice, he thought. He was not drunk any longer. Nancy trembled slightly, her gray pallor turning cyanotic. Foam flecked the corners of her mouth. She seemed formed of marble. She seemed enviably peaceful and inert. No one could push her around now. She felt no fear. Drebel didn’t like that peaceful expression, the slight look of surprise in the upturned eyebrow. Some irony there. So before he left he kicked her face in with his shoe. He felt infinitely better having eliminated one of the baying hounds. He didn’t dress like a wigger any more. He was a young Abe Lincoln in boat shoes, chinos, a polo shirt with an animal emblem, and an Apple watch. His favorite words were liquidate and fester. He had $10,000 in his pocket in a roll. He had snorted some Oxy off the kitchen table on the way out. His mind was fixed on the same goal to which he had always aspired. He imagined himself rising like a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain.