Ethan Little had never been part of any kind of mafia, but it was clear that he had thought about it.
He joked about his own last name far more than anyone else, a joke that reeked of an insecurity that would always be masked by the shade of an ever-present chuckle.
“They should call me Ethan Big,” he would smirk, over and over, to anyone who would listen, “I’m not that little, am I?”
Ethan liked to think of himself as an entrepreneur, a man who could drive a hard bargain and whittle a decent deal out of anyone who was bold enough to work with him. Mark Harris had first come into contact with Ethan when the man had hired him to do a few odd jobs. Odd was the word used in the classified ad, and looking back, Mark had to admit that it was a fairly accurate description. Straight away, the younger man had been struck by Ethan’s aimless ambition, the unstoppable desire to follow his dreams, even if he couldn’t ever be quite certain what those dreams entailed.
Mark would never forget the time he managed to make a joke about Ethan starting his own organised crime syndicate, and the far off look that had appeared in his boss’s eyes as a result.
“Yeah,” he nodded, “Reckon I’d be good at that.”
“You’d be good at organised crime?”
“I mean,” Ethan had frowned as he attempted to explain his comment, “Crime, maybe not. But organised. Could be organised.”
Mark had settled on a polite nod as his response, focusing on getting back to the task at hand. Since then, he had thought of Ethan as ‘The Father’. Don Little, ready to get organised as soon as the necessity presented itself. Don Big, as he would have undoubtedly renamed himself.
Although Ethan lacked the outright audacity to break any serious laws, he seemed to gain confidence from the petty misdemeanors that he would carry out to save a few bucks here and there.
“Don’t pay it just yet,” he had instructed Mark on the day his aging Hyundai had been given a parking ticket, “Go put it on the hood of the car across the street.”
“If they’re not paying attention, they’ll pay it without checking the details,” Ethan had advised, with the wistful grin that Mark knew meant he was already picturing himself in the fancy Italian suit of a mafia boss, brushing away the few stray hairs of the cat he would be stroking when he got home to stare out of his imaginary third story window.
“And if they are paying attention?”
“They won’t be paying attention,” Ethan smirked as he turned around and walked back towards the rusty gates that scraped the pavement of his well-worn driveway.
Mark nodded, making a show of walking towards the BMW on the other side of the road, before tucking the ticket carefully into his belt. Glancing over his shoulder to see that Ethan was heading inside, he grabbed an old receipt from his pocket and stuck it to the BMW, just in case Ethan came back to check. ‘Don’t ask,’ he wrote on the back of the receipt with a fading pen he happened to be carrying.
Over the years that followed the initial work Mark had done for Ethan Little, he would regularly find himself called on for one random task or another. Mark had proved himself to be a reliable worker, apparently, one who could follow instructions.
“You’re one of the good ones,” Ethan had often said to him at the completion of a job well done, “They’re not all like you, you know.”
Mark nodded, knowing that he should accept the compliment without further comment, but feeling unable to stop himself from poking the bear, just enough that he would stir.
“What happens to the others?”
“Well,” Ethan had huffed, straightening his shoulders as he contemplated the question, “We won’t talk about the others.”
Mark had accepted the answer in silence, knowing better than anyone that the worst those ‘others’ had ever received was the anonymous theft of one of their good work boots. One, but not the other. Ethan was the kind of man who wanted to keep his enemies guessing.
Although Mark liked the occasional extra cash that would be slipped to him in an unmarked envelope after his latest job for Ethan Little, his girlfriend was not such a fan. Amy seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing when it was ‘The Father’ calling Mark’s mobile at any hour of the day or night.
“Was that him?” she would demand, once Mark had slunk back into the room after hanging up the phone.
“Was that who?”
“Mark,” she would glare at him over her aggressively crossed arms, “You need to stop answering when he calls you.”
“Good money, though.”
Amy seemed to know that it wasn’t so much the money that appealed to him as it was the endless amusement he could collect from a single interaction with Ethan Little. Thankfully, she rarely pressed her irritation further than a few half-hearted complaints.
At first, Ethan had presented the work he wanted Mark to complete in a fairly professional format, explained over the phone before the terms would be agreed upon. After a while, it became apparent that Mark was game for just about anything, as long as it came with the promise of a good laugh, a bit of cash and a six-pack of beer.
“What are we doing today, boss?”
Ethan smirked, waiting to explain today’s task until he had ensured that the door was firmly closed behind them. He was already nodding to himself, clearly pleased with whatever scheme he had whipped up this time.
“We’re gonna sell some fruit,” he explained, in a tone that was laced with what Mark considered to be baffling levels of sinister intention.
“Wanna know where we’re gonna get that fruit?” Ethan followed up quickly, grinning like a game show contestant who has just seen all his opponents bomb out on an easy question.
“Very much so.”
“Ok,” Ethan nodded, “Here’s what we’re gonna do.”
He turned around and started striding through the dimly lit corridor that lead to his lounge room. Despite having received no instruction whatsoever, Mark figured that he was probably supposed to be following. After reaching the dusty couch, the ancient TV set up and the endless broken gadgets that lined the room, Mark trailed Ethan to the window, where the blinds had been propped slightly open. Ethan leaned against the wall next to the window, gesturing with his hands to indicate that Mark should look outside.
Mark frowned, looking out over the dry, suburban landscape and struggling to figure out what he was supposed to be seeing.
“Fruit trees,” Ethan explained, without waiting for Mark’s response.
“You mean Mrs Lassiter’s mandarin trees?”
“Those,” Ethan grinned, staring out into the distance, “And others just like them.”
Mark could practically see the cartoon dollar signs springing up in Ethan’s eyes, but he still couldn’t figure out what had inspired them. He opened his mouth and closed it again, so lost that he wasn’t even sure what question he could ask to make any sense out of the cryptic suggestion.
“You see, Mark,” Ethan continued without needing a prompt, to Mark’s great relief, “We have a lot of neighbours. A lot of those neighbours grow fruit. Big, bushy trees full of it, spilling out over their fences. Ready for the picking.”
“You want us to steal fruit from our neighbours.”
“That’s the best part,” Ethan cackled, so loudly that Mark struggled to prevent himself from taking a small step away from him, “They don’t mind if you just take it!”
“I think they do mind.”
Ethan shook his head in response, still laughing at his own perceived genius without pausing to consider Mark’s hesitation.
“It’s foolproof. They grow the fruit, we make the money,” he congratulated himself, “Think smarter, not harder.”
It was an expression the man was often heard repeating, one of his favourite catch-phrases. Mark had yet to work up the courage to inform him that he’d been getting the idiom wrong the entire time.
After a minimal amount of further discussion, Mark was sent home with his beers, his white envelope and a head full of confused ideas about mandarin sales.
“What does he want you to do this time?” Amy demanded, seeing the expression on Mark’s face as he walked in and sat himself on the couch.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
His theory was, that as often happened, Ethan would re-examine the finer details of his latest scheme and realise that it was completely and utterly ridiculous. Mark had never once heard him admit to such a thing, but he always knew well enough what had happened when ‘The Father’ would call him back with a new plan, leaving the old one completely, silently behind.
Mark was glad that Amy was already at work when his phone rang the next morning.
“Mark,” Ethan’s voice boomed confidently down the phone line, “I’ve got an idea.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
It was a cycle that never seemed to end, though it did have a tendency to ebb and flow with the frequency of Ethan’s ideas. Very few of these schemes achieved any degree of success whatsoever, but Mark still managed to walk away with his white envelope, his six-pack of beer, and a new story to tell his friends. He didn’t like to think that he was making fun of his boss when he retold these stories. In all honesty, he admired the man very much and he would consistently say so to his friends, as long as Amy was out of earshot. Mark had always found something very encouraging about the way Ethan remained full of bottomless optimism, no matter how many of his ideas ended up in the scrap heap behind his house, next to the rusted bain-marie he had hoped to one day install in a hypothetical food truck. Time and time again, Ethan would bounce back from failure with a new idea, a new scheme that he trusted Mark to help him implement. It was refreshing. Even a bit inspiring. That inspiration was the reason he would give to people when they asked him why he was always answering the phone, ready to trot off back to work for ‘The Father’, no matter what it was he’d been asked to do this time.
That, and he really liked the beer.
SJ Justice is an established writer across many genres. Her career highlights have included being named a National Finalist in the 2018 Australian Poetry Slam, being invited to present her work at the 2019 Adelaide Writer's Week, and performing an original one-woman show as part of the 2016 Adelaide Fringe Festival.
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