WE WERE MEETING a lady at a home in Dix Hills. She was buying five or six pieces of good-name furniture from a family who had to sell everything. Our dispatcher told us the story before we left, so we knew what we were walking into. But we also knew the story from the news.
The man of the house—a white-collar dude, age 42–had embezzled five-point-three million dollars from his company, some big U.S. banking concern. The company had pressed charges because the money was never recovered. The gentleman had ditched it somewhere, maybe in one of those accounts overseas, where they give you a number instead of a name. No Tennis Court Prison for Ex-Exec the latest headline had read. I think the judge gave him seven years.
As we drove through the neighborhood, passing nice homes on lovely lawns, I thought about time and money.
“Is five million bucks worth seven years of your life?” I asked out loud.
“Hell, yeah,” said Billy as he backed down the driveway.
A married man with a couple of kids and a dozen injuries, he was almost twice my age and so he felt he had the answer to everything we ever talked about. My two-year marriage and my five years of moving furniture didn’t seem to count for anything. You don’t know nothing, he was fond of saying, till you know it for ten whole years, and then you only know something.
Semi-crippled from a week of killer jobs, we climbed down from the truck and grunted. But before we could stretch away the stiffness in our hips, a yellow BMW pulled up at the curb below. Then a lady with bright red hair stepped out and started marching up the lawn.
“Right on time,” she called, waving for us to meet her on the stoop.
Engulfed by her perfume, we stood on either side of her as she rang the bell and then knocked on the door. Because she struck me as someone with the attitude of a parasite, the energy of a piranha, I skipped the civilities and imitated a statue.
“Think about it,” Billy said. “Even if you invested conservatively, the interest alone would buy you complete financial freedom. Maybe he won’t be collecting yachts and planes when he gets out, but he’s never going to have to work again.”
“Good thing,” I said, “’cause nobody’ll ever hire him.”
“Man, he doesn’t care about a shot reputation.”
“Guess not,” I replied, noticing how the lady was bristling now, one of those people who didn’t like it when her workers were conversing instead of waiting for their orders like servants.
I yawned without covering my mouth and cast a glance around the property. The For Sale sign was covered by a sign that read SOLD. That I had noticed from the street. Now I was thinking the lawn could use a haircut and that the ornamental shrubs looked like poodles overdue for grooming.
“He’s out of the rat race,” Billy said.
“Bullshit,” I whispered. “There’s no such thing as an easy life.”
“I don’t think you understand the real numbers,” he told me. “Money, if you don’t touch it, doubles every seven years. That’s the miracle of compound interest. So he’s looking at ten-point-six, not five-point-three.”
I stared at my torn sneakers, thinking I’d need to replace them soon. Fifty bucks, if I caught them on sale. Take care of your feet, they always say, and they’re always right. But when I added up how many hours I’d have to hump furniture in order to pay for a new pair, I decided to keep my blown-out footwear for a few hundred miles more. It had been a really dry summer. I’d pick up new ones before the autumn rain storms.
Billy must’ve thought I was daydreaming because he reached behind the lady’s back and whacked me in the shoulder.
“It’s like he hit the lottery and won The American Dream.”
“Now you’re selling yourself a lie,” I told him.
I knew how Billy felt about money. All the other guys called him a ‘work-whore.’ Always in pain, always exhausted, always worried about his family’s future, he was always volunteering for more.
“Come on, come on,” said the lady between us, pressing the door bell three more times.
She was hiring us by the hour, so she didn’t want to lose any money waiting. She bought and sold, our dispatcher had told us. She owned a store or something, but she didn’t have a truck, and here she needed one. I noticed a purple birthmark on the side of her neck, a bit of fat through her blouse under her bra strap. Maybe she was a good mother, a good wife, a good daughter, a good friend to the friends in her circle, but here she was capitalism personified. She wanted to scribble out a check to our company and be done with us as quickly as she could.
No tip here, I thought, but from some people you don’t want a tip anyway. If you can’t get respect up front, no money at the end can mend it.
“A future of no work and no worries,” Billy said. “You can’t tell me you wouldn’t be willing to twiddle your thumbs for that.”
“But it’s not like he’s going to be sitting around reading Shakespeare. They make you work in there. He’s gonna be stamping out license plates with muggers or mopping floors with bank robbers. And then there’s the problem of Bubba. Seven years with Bubba, Bill. Is any amount of freedom down the road worth that? And what if he catches AIDS? The guy could die before he ever gets to spend a dime.”
But before Billy could answer, the woman of the house, an attractive brunette with a sorrowful face, opened the door. You could tell she was used to being elegant, but she was not that now. She was wearing sweats and her once-high hair was in a state of collapse. I felt bad for her right away. People who are used to suffering suffer better; the ones who drop from up top tend to break. Lowering her gaze as if she were the guest here, she stepped back from the doorway. The redheaded buyer walked right in, her bracelets clinking.
“That couch,” she told us, pointing, “and the wall units there.”
I nodded at the woman who was losing her things and Billy said, “Good afternoon, ma’am.” But she appeared to be in shock, as if the fact that her husband was going upstate had hit her like news of his death. It felt weird to be walking through her rooms when we were not working for her, so we softened our shoulders and tried to keep our movements small.
Much of the furniture and furnishings were already gone and the half-empty home felt heavy with silence, except for the heels of the quick-stepping redhead who pointed out the pieces we were to load onto the truck then immediately started negotiating with the slender, bent brunette, trying to pick up a few more things as cheaply as possible. It was clear that she wanted the grandfather clock thrown in for free, if she was going to give the woman any money at all for the wing-back chairs.
“Damn,” I said as we carried the couch out past a Japanese maple, “how would you like to be this woman?”
“Pain now, pleasure later,” said Billy. “Soon as he gets out of prison, she’ll be set for life.”
“Seven years,” I said. “That’s a lot of loneliness.”
We slid the couch onto the back of the truck then headed back across the slate walk, carrying the handtruck between us. The day was a nice one, some sun, some breezes, and although we weren’t far from the Long Island Expressway, the spine of the Island, you could hear the scratchy footfalls of squirrels in branches and the notes of distinctly different birds. In a neighbor’s pool, kids were squealing and splashing and somebody a house or two away was practicing the clarinet, shooting for a likeness to Debussy. Because I’d lived on busy streets my whole life—motorcycles, trucks, blasting radios around the clock—I was always impressed by neighborhoods like this, the tranquilizing effects of basic peace and quiet.
“I don’t know about you,” I said, tearing a leaf off a shrub, “but if I were about to be parted from my mate for that many seasons, all those birthdays, holidays and special occasions, I’d be real damn worried she’d find somebody else and fall in love with him.“
“Don’t you think he thought of that?” Billy asked. “He hid the money even from her. Look at her face. Look at what they’re doing here. They already sold the house and now their selling what’s left for pennies on the dollar. That’s so she can have some money to get by on before she has to find a job.”
“You’re probably right,” I said as we stepped back inside, carrying the handtruck toward the dining room, “but if you are, that’s some pretty cold calculating on his part.”
And that’s when we saw the man. He had just walked into the dining room from the kitchen and like his wife, he was drenched with silence. It was him, the guy whose face I’d seen in the paper and on the local television news station. Tall, black hair, strong eyebrows–a woman would’ve called him handsome, I guess, though he did need a shave.
“Hello,” one of us said as we crossed the oak floor.
Whatever rug had been under the table was gone.
“Yes,” he said, running a hand through his hair.
A man accustomed to wearing white shirts, he was wearing one now, even though he was unemployed. But the sleeves were partially rolled up and the shirt was wrinkled. Maybe he had worn the same shirt yesterday.
I studied him obliquely as we strapped his wife’s china cabinet to the handtruck. He seemed to me like someone who had come here for some reason, then forgotten what that reason was. He was just standing there—barefoot—staring at a tear in the wallpaper.
Physically, the guy was in top shape. Maybe he had a personal trainer at a gym. That wasn’t going to help him, though. His face and hands were free of scars and you could tell he had never faced a street fight in his life. He’d be a piece of property soon. I was about to turn away, when his kids wandered into the room–three boys, all of them looking as stunned as their parents. And that hit me hard. By their sizes, I guessed them to be twelve, eight and six. I knew Billy’s face, so I saw that he too had just been shoved off balance, especially when the man absently put his hand behind the youngest one’s head.
Instantly, we made ourselves invisible—the work we were doing, rather than the two people who were doing the work. Billy grabbed the handles of the handtruck; I tipped the piece in his direction–and we were out of that house in less than seven seconds and back into the fresh air. As we thumped the handtruck across the slates, I heard the birds and breezes again and wondered how I would feel if I were living in a neighborhood like this and had to lose it.
“How do you feel about it now?” I asked as we pushed and pulled the piece between us.
“Glad I’m not him,” Billy said, because now he was probably thinking how it would be for his kids if Daddy was about to get locked up somewhere for years.
We had to use the ramp this time. The china cabinet was too heavy to lift to the ledge of the truck safely. So we flung a curse or two at the sky and went to the side of the truck to pull out the walkboard from the rack underneath the chasis. People everywhere hate some part of their jobs. For us, getting the walkboard was a task we hated every damn day. Thanks to the position of the exhaust pipes, handling the walkboard meant getting our hands blackened with soot. Diesel soot, the dirt that sticks all day. And then we’d be worried about touching our faces or the food we ate on the run.
“How the hell is that woman going to raise three boys alone?” Billy asked as we set the heavy ramp on the edge of the truck.
“And what’s in front of them?” I said. “If they don’t know that daddy’s a thief yet, they will soon enough. The other kids in school will fill them in for sure.”
“Yep,” said Billy, wiping his forehead with his forearm, “they’re gonna have a lot of fights.”
“But at least the guy’ll be able to pay for therapy,” I said. “And all three of ‘em will get to go college if they want. They can still have the good life. Nothing’s impossible.” I threw a wave at the neighborhood. “Especially if you’re starting from this.”
“Maybe we got the good life,” he said. He held up his blackened hands. “My hands are clean and my kids know it.”
Raymond Philip Asaph has published poems and stories in many journals. He teaches poetry at The Long Island High School for the Arts and is working on a novel-in-stories about blue-collar views of the United States as it tripped over the Twenty-first century.