Jack was in a bad mood because he had no money and because it was Saturday morning. We were walking through a flea market and everything irritated him.
“Why are you so chirpy?” he grumbled.
“It’s Saturday,” I said. “I don’t have to go to work. I’m not blind. My muscles seem to work. Etcetera.”
He looked at me as though he’d suddenly realised how shallow I actually was.
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
“You have a job,” he said. “Saturdays mean something to you.”
“Well,” he said, “even though you’re not working today, you still have money.”
He stopped and frowned at me.
“Since I don’t have a job,” he explained with a professorial air, “every day is Saturday. But I’m poor. So I’m poor every Saturday. See?”
We walked on.
“At least you get to do nothing every Saturday,” I ventured. “Sometimes I have to work.”
Jack stopped again.
“I should’ve beaten the shit out of you when we were kids,” he said.
We walked between the stalls of the flea market and marvelled at the crap that was for sale. One man stood behind a small table upon which sat a box of vinyl records from the seventies and an assortment of broken computer parts. An old woman was trying to sell what looked like empty tubes of superglue.
A man with styled hair and a forty Watt nose jumped into the aisle in front of us.
“Sir!” he accosted Jack. “Do you drink water?”
On his table were stacks of water filters. There was a flyer which read H-too-O, with friendly water droplets standing in as the two o’s of too. Jack eyed the man.
“No,” he muttered. “I drink beer.”
Forty-Watt feigned surprise.
“I hate water,” Jack added. “It rusts things.”
“Surely,” Forty-Watt resumed, “you drink water now and then?”
“Often, actually” Jack said, “but when it’s inside beer.”
“And when you cook?” Forty-Watt asked with mock suspicion.
“Sure—” Jack admitted.
“Aha!” Forty-Watt cried. “I bet you use tap water when you cook, right?”
Jack looked at me for a brief moment.
“Who gives a shit?” he asked.
Forty-Watt had clearly dealt with water-based ignorance before.
“I do!” he exclaimed and guided Jack to his stand.
“I don’t want to buy a filter,” Jack mumbled.
Forty-Watt dismissed this and delivered a monologue about the H-too-O system that was as detailed as it was mind-numbing. I watched his nose redden as he got more and more excited. Finally it was time for the sell.
“All this is yours for just—” he teased, and paused. “What would you guess?”
“I don’t guess,” Jack growled. “What’s it cost?”
Forty-Watt became business-like.
“A hundred,” he said.
He spoke as though he’d just concluded a lengthy proof.
“On the dot,” he added.
“One hundred. I’ll throw in a free carbon refill too.”
“I’ll give you fifty,” Jack said as he inspected an H-too-O filter.
“Fifty!?” Forty-Watt howled. “Come now! It’s a bargain at a hundred!”
“OK,” Jack said, turning the filter over in his hands. He inspected it for what seemed like ages. Then he said, “OK. You have a point. It looks like a quality product. Forty-five.”
Forty-Watt blinked a couple of times and glanced at me.
“Forty-five?” he asked and swallowed. “I could’ve considered ninety, but—”
Jack fingered the filter again. He held it up against the light.
“Forty,” he said. “And nothing less.”
“Forty!” Forty-Watt wailed. “But that— ”
“OK,” Jack interrupted and held up his hand. He stepped to the table and picked up some of the other filters and inspected them. “OK,” he said. “Thirty. I can do thirty, but that’s as low as I’m willing to go.”
Forty-Watt furrowed his brow and scratched his head. His nose was red and pulsing.
“I don’t understand!” he bleated.
“Look,” Jack said, “I really don’t want a filter. I told you so at the beginning. In fact, I’d rather have a brand new haemorrhoid. So I’m actually doing you a favour here. I’ll take it for twenty-five.”
“Twenty-five?” Forty-Watt whimpered. “How about sixty? Or seventy?”
“Alright,” Jack said, “alright. Have it your way. Twenty.”
Forty-Watt was dumbfounded. A distant, dreamy look had come over him.
“But—” he whispered.
I held out a twenty.
“It’s the best I can do,” Jack explained.
As we walked on, Forty-Watt watched us go, the twenty clutched in his hand.
“What are we going to do with this thing?” I asked. “H-too-O. Can you imagine?”
“I don’t know,” Jack grunted. “We could’ve bought something to eat with that twenty.”
Forty-Watt was still gibbering when we returned to his stand a minute later.
“What does this thing really cost you?” Jack asked.
“About fifty,” he said softly.
“So,” Jack said, “if we returned this, you’d be able to make thirty if you sold it again, right?”
Forty-Watt swallowed and did some mental arithmetic.
“No,” he said at length, “I’d make fifty. As always. Surely?”
“Sure,” Jack smiled, “of course, but only if you got it from us for twenty.”
Forty-Watt looked at the filter and at each of us.
“What do you mean?”
Jack adopted a conspiratorial tone.
“Surely you understand that we’d have to ask at least forty for this filter, no?”
“But you got it for twenty!”
Jack waved this away.
“For our trouble,” he explained. “We had to endure your whole speech. Also, forty is double twenty, just like a hundred is double fifty, and it’s still ten less than you’d usually pay.”
Forty-Watt looked ready to cry.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he whined.
“Look,” Jack said, “this thing is no good to us.”
He gestured at the two of us until Forty-Watt nodded.
“We don’t want it. If you resumed ownership of this filter,” he said — he held up a finger in stipulation — “for forty, you’d still be able to make thirty and all would be good.”
Forty-Watt clasped his cheeks and stared at Jack.
“Look,” Jack explained, “you’d have paid seventy for it, yes? And selling it for a hundred will still give you a profit of thirty.”
“But I’d be giving you twenty,” Forty-Watt sniffed.
“I know,” Jack nodded sagely. “That is true. But right now you’re down thirty. If you take it and sell it, you’ll be up thirty. It’s the right thing to do.”
Forty-Watt watched us as we walked away. Jack held up one of the twenties. “This one is mine,” he announced. “I’ve earned it. Let’s have lunch.”