Writing: Patrick Irelan
Mario Zuber wanted to live someplace warm and far away. He spent entire weekends peering at a map of the Mediterranean Sea and the islands scattered across it—Corsica, Crete, Malta, Cyprus, Sicily, and hundreds of others. On one of those islands, he told himself, he'd never see another snowplow.
Mario made his living as a bookkeeper. Every day, Monday through Friday, he gathered the cash-register receipts, scribbled notes, and stacks of other records provided by his customers. Then he walked out of his apartment in the village of Albany and drove his old Chevy ten miles south to Carlville, a busy little town on the Maple River. Along the way, he passed a new church, a large white building with a vast parking lot and street lights that circled the lot like a spiral nebula.
The church stood in the middle of the cornfields, waiting for the housing developments promised by various real-estate interests. The housing had not yet appeared, and neither had the congregation expected by the parish priest. The mere existence of the church was an act of faith. Mario had thought about attending devout observances at the isolated church, but hadn't found the time.
In the center of Carlville, Mario parked in front of the Palermo Coffee House, which occupied a building displaying plate-glass windows and imitation bricks. Between the coffee house and an identical building, a fountain frothed and bubbled every day, except for the annual six months of winter.
Once inside the building, Mario seized a large table, ordered coffee, and got to work. For the next eight hours, he updated and reconciled the books for his clients while ordering just enough coffee to justify his residence at the table. Because Mario kept the books for the coffee house, Angelo Bach, the owner, told him to sit wherever he chose. In fact, Mr. Bach soon began giving Mario all the coffee he wanted.
Mario could've worked at his apartment in Albany, but the place was small, dark, and fetid. Assorted chemicals had failed to evict an army of roaches, and the antique plumbing had flooded the building five times in five years. Mario worked at the Palermo Coffee House because its name reminded him of all the places he’d never been. He hoped to live in the city of Palermo or someplace like it after making his fortune, although he didn't know how long that would take.
In order to speed things along, Mario began to relieve the Palermo Coffee House of more sugar, straws, and other commodities than he really needed. He collected silverware, plates, and cups. He walked out with bananas, apples, and oranges. His apartment contained a growing supply of artificial flowers, boxes of tea, and bags of potato chips. Once each week, he went home with a gallon of milk, forty-eight bagels, and a bucket of cream cheese. And because he drank so much coffee, he found ways to rescue toilet paper, soap, and paper towels during his frequent visits to the men's john.
Mr. Bach noticed that the shop was using more of these items than in the past, but this didn't seem to affect his cash flow. The books showed that he was doing fine, and Mario always kept good records. Meanwhile, back in bucolic Albany, Mario began holding sidewalk sales every Saturday afternoon. Because his costs were zero, he sold everything at a discount and developed a regular clientele. “Mario,” one lady said, “you always have such a nice variety goods.”
“I do my best,” Mario said.
Mr. Bach sometimes had to leave the shop to conduct business elsewhere. Because he trusted Mario so much, he started asking him to run the place while he was gone. On those occasions, money fell to earth from a merciful God. Mario found it easy to collect forty or fifty dollars by pocketing the money from only ten percent of the sales. Each morning, he brought along a cigar box filled with change and used it instead of the cash register for those transactions. “No records, no loss” became his motto.
But when even this didn't bring in the money fast enough, Mario began to escalate his operations. Two or three times a week, he went to a store owned by one of his other clients and set up there for the day. While working at a card table in the storage room of a small hardware store, he helped himself to nails, nuts, and bolts. Hammers, flashlights, and power drills found their way out the back door and into the trunk of his car. At an entertainment store, Mario collected CDs, DVDs, and video games. Finally, after removing bird feeders, sprinklers, and flagstones from a yard and garden store, Mario realized that he needed help.
He found it in the person of a young woman named Carlotta Ludwig, a perky blonde who had just graduated from the Carlville Community College and was eager to find a job. She proved to be an excellent bookkeeper, and Mario soon turned over much of his work to her, leaving him with only the most lucrative businesses to serve—places like those selling designer fashions, electronic hardware, and glass knickknacks that were both useless and expensive.
Mario made these acquisitions carefully, removing only one or two objects per month. His trophies included laptop computers, a 65-inch Toshiba television set with light-emitting diodes, and a late-model Mercedes-Benz worth $92,350. As Carlotta became more acquainted with the business, Mario introduced her to his most-rewarding ventures. “Always remember,” he said, “as far as the records are concerned, products can't disappear from inventory if they were never added to inventory. And live simply so that you won’t draw attention to yourself. Imitate Meyer Lansky, not Bernie Madoff.”
As he grew older, Mario began to think about religion. The housing developments had never arrived in the neighborhood of the lonely church, but Mario had already lost interest in that kind of religion. Instead, he now believed in polytheism. He worshiped the Greco-Roman Gods and Goddesses of the ancient world, to which he added other gods of his own making. At the top of this celestial gathering, Mario installed Palermos, the God of Coffee Houses.
Mario had also become an important member of the local community. He joined the Chamber of Commerce, the Better Business Bureau, and the United Way. He solicited contributions for the Salvation Army. He collected toys and clothing for needy children. He gathered contributions for the victims of natural disasters. He advocated better academic programs to educate future legions of bookkeepers. Ultimately, as one might've predicted, he received the prestigious Carlville Community Betterment Award. During an emotional acceptance speech, Mario said, “I've never felt more loved and more needed.”
One week later, fire destroyed Mario's apartment. When they heard the news, hundreds of people rushed to his aid. Luckily, he'd insured all the expensive furniture, appliances, and electronic equipment lost in what the fire marshal said was an unusually hot fire.
A week after the fire, having toiled for thirty years, Mario sold his entire business to Carlotta Ludwig, who promised to continue running it in a thoroughly professional way.
Mario Zuber died in Palermo, Sicily, at the age of sixty-four. He'd just visited a number of stores in the city and was returning to his villa when he fell down a flight of stairs and cracked his skull on a marble balustrade. The medical examiner noted that Mario had four rolls of toilet paper and a nice set of silverware in the pockets of his raincoat. As Mario had previously requested, a mortician transported his body to a crematorium and spread his ashes on the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea.