Aus der Fiction Issue 2017
Nothing sucked more than moving your stuff out of storage. Luckily Jack had a hand. Guy he'd never met before named Mike. Ryan, his yard guy, had hooked them up. Mike worked for Ryan, or knew Ryan somehow. Jack didn't ask. He was just glad to have the help. He did hope this Mike was more efficient than Ryan. Ryan – what a talker.
Mike pulled up to the gate at the top of the hill and honked. Jack went over to the gooseneck post and keyed the code in and the gate began to retract. Mike was 20 bucks an hour. A fair price. Worth every penny, too. But one more reason to hope he was efficient.
Jack allowed his gaze to wander as Mike came toward him down the blacktop path. Boring place, the U-Stor-It. Ugly. The whole thing a chore.
Totally reasonable, as Mike approached, to expect him to slow up, roll the window down, and introduce himself, shake hands, etc. before parking. But no, he blew right past him. Well, alright. Fair enough. Jack undraped his arm from the post and followed after.
When he reached the rental unit, Jack expected Mike to hop out so the two of them could get down to business. But Mike idled behind tinted windows for the next ten minutes. Texting a buddy in there, or updating a profile. Who knows what. Well, you couldn't expect a younger man to have the same manners and priorities as a man of 42. Jack leaned against the van and waited.
When he finally stepped foot from his pickup, Mike wasn't a young man after all. Had to be 50, at least. Paint-spattered work boots and a puffed-up face. Prickly sort of man. That was the impression, anyway. The neighbors would know to steer clear. The croissant and latte Jack had bought him that morning as a gesture of kindness seemed wrong now, real wrong, and would unfortunately go to waste.
"Hey, you Mike?"
Mike replied with a single nod. He fixed a can of chewing tobacco between his tiny teeth as he screwed on a Yankees cap and flicked the door shut. Didn't say Jack's name in return. Not there for names. There for a simple exchange: labor for cash.
And that was OK. They could get straight to work that way.
"Thanks for coming on such short notice, Mike. Did Ryan tell you what we're up to today?"
"Said you needed a hand moving," Mike said.
"I need to clear everything out of here and take it all down to Red Hook," Jack said. "Moving in with my fiancée. We're getting married in June. You married? No, you'd be wearing a ring. Then again, not everybody wears a ring these days. Lisa and I have been talking nothing but rings lately. Anyway, this friend of ours owns a vineyard in Livingston, looks out over the Hudson. Beautiful place. And he offered it to us, so… why not? Hayrides for the kids afterward. And there'll be dancing, of course. Getting a nice big tent for that."
Mike turned at the mention of Livingston, nodded once and turned away again.
"Anyway," Jack continued. "This unit is a relic of the old life. I need it emptied out, need all my stuff in one place, need to be done paying the monthly fee. It's 69 bucks a month – adds up, you know? Every little bit counts these days. Nice people, though. In the front office, I mean. If you ever need a storage unit in the area, I'd recommend it. Anyway," he said.
When Mike made no reply to any of this, Jack knew the man hated him. It was only an intuition, but it went bone-deep. Mike had driven right past him when he should have stopped and introduced himself, and then made him wait ten minutes in the cold while he texted or whatever. A man like Mike would be terrible to Jack if given half the chance. He wouldn't let Jack stop to relieve himself on a long car ride. He'd stop only to fill up on gas, saying to Jack, "If you're not out here by the time I'm done, I will leave you." And he wasn't joking. Jack ran to and from the men's room in terror.
Mike turned and looked at Jack for the first time. He had startlingly wet, beautiful blue eyes. "Did Ryan tell you how much I charge?"
"He said 20 an hour."
Mike nodded. "Twenty's my hourly rate."
"I couldn't do it without you, Mike, obviously, so to me 20's a steal. And I'm sure you have better things to do with your time on a Sunday morning."
"Twenty's my hourly rate," Mike repeated.
"Twenty it is, then," said Jack. "Shall we get started?"
Jack raised the gate on the rental unit and he and Mike sized up its contents. He was reminded of just how many boxes there were, how much crap he owned. He had a fantasy of leaving it all behind.
"Well, what do you think, Mike?" he said. "How should we do this?"
"I think we just start moving it," Mike said.
He took two steps forward, picked a pair of boxes off the nearest stack and strode up the ramp with them as if storming a castle. Before Jack could take hold of a box of his own, Mike was on his way back down again.
You couldn't win. If you said, "Let's plan this out so we do it right," a man like Mike looked at you like you were an idiot. "It ain't brain science, boy," he'd say, and then he'd just go at it. But if you said nothing of the kind, if you just went at it yourself, a man like Mike would stop you right away. "Whoa whoa whoa! Don't be a fucking retard. You can't just willy-nilly start throwing shit in when you're moving a big load. Are you no brighter than a fucking lamppost?"
Jack picked up two boxes of his own and headed after Mike in a hurry, but midway up the ramp he lost his balance. To steady himself he had to let the top box go as it began to slide off. A few things went through his mind before it even hit the ground. Clumsy. Not up to the task. Never send a boy to do a man's job. But when he looked back, Mike wasn't even paying attention. He carried on into the van.
Mike came up behind him in no time with two more boxes.
"Sorry," Jack said, hurrying to get out of the bigger man's way.
He retrieved the box that fell, and Mike headed to the storage unit for two more boxes. They met up again seconds later, Mike now at six boxes to Jack's two.
Why was he keeping score? It wasn't a competition. And if Mike thought it was? Well, he'd hired Mike. If he wanted to, he could sit back and make Mike do all the work.
They worked in silence to start with, but soon Jack made an attempt at some friendly conversation. The weather, and what a pain in the ass it was to move.
"You live around here, Mike?" he asked.
"Oh, I was just asking… do you live around here?"
They were coming out of the van, Jack first, looking back, both men stomping down the dull metal ramp. Jack thought he saw Mike nod. But he offered no further detail and Jack didn't pursue the matter. Some guys had a scruple about their privacy. And who could blame them? Mike might have taken a dislike for whatever reason, but Jack appreciated a man who didn't feel the need to talk all the time.
But could you imagine offering a man like that a latte and a croissant? There was no way! He shook his head at himself.
He caught up with Mike a few seconds later. "So you're a Yankees fan, huh?"
Jack gestured at the hat on Mike's head. Mike removed it, looked at it cockeyed, and put it back on. Then he picked up two more boxes and took them into the van.
The two men soon hit on a rhythm. Jack picked up two boxes, walked them into the van, and returned down the ramp, just as Mike was heading up the ramp with two boxes of his own. Then Mike came down the ramp as Jack was going up it, and on they went like that, back-and-forth, up and down, real companionable for 20 minutes.
"Oh, hey, Mike, I almost forgot," he said, when Mike was still in the van. "I picked up a pastry for you. If you're hungry. It's in the cab of the truck. It's from La Perche."
Why not? Stupid just to let it go to waste. And stupid not to follow through on a gesture of kindness just because Mike had a mean-looking face.
Mike came forward, pulling chewing tobacco from the can. Jack didn't see how such a fat wad was going to fit inside Mike's small, angry mouth, but Mike deposited it with a weird elegance and it completely disappeared, tightly packed away behind a lip. He wiped a glistening brown fingertip on his jeans and screwed the lid back on. "From where?" he asked. He spat to the ground.
"Oh," Jack said. "From La Perche? You know it? The French place on Warren? With the good pastries?"
Mike looked at him. "French place," he said.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, jumped down to the pavement, and that was that. He carried on to the unit and went ahead by two more boxes.
What was only intuition a moment ago now seemed obvious. Mike hated him. It was strange. With an unreasonable hatred like Mike's, you almost feared for your life. Not that he'd bash Jack's head in with a table lamp for being annoying or for making the same mistake over and over again. But he'd certainly sooner watch him die than show him any kindness or respect.
Well, if that was how he wanted it, and if he couldn't say thanks or keep up his end of a little conversation, Jack would just stay silent, too. Why make any more effort trying to befriend him, or reassure him? You couldn't reassure a man like Mike, not of your competence or your kindness or your membership in the fraternity of men. You just had to go about your business, keeping your guard up, and part ways as soon as possible, to protect yourself. What better way to do that than by keeping silent? Jack vowed not to say another word unless and until Mike said something first.
"I'm sorry about all these boxes," Jack said the next pass up the ramp.
Mike just shrugged. What did he care? It was 20 bucks an hour for him either way.
Mike had the misfortune of resembling Donnie. The thing was, just very recently Donnie had turned sentimental. Didn't understand why Jack wasn't inviting him to the wedding. "Then your mother's not going, either, forget it," Donnie told him over the phone. It was just like Donnie to be on the line when Jack was trying to talk to his mom. Well, OK, fine, stay home, both of you. It wasn't like his mom was some great hero. What had she ever done to keep Donnie in check when he was a kid?
But Lisa's complaint was: If you don't invite anybody from your family, who's going to be sitting on your side of the aisle? We can't have a wedding where all the guests are on one side.
Like the wedding was some kind of boat and it would capsize if Jack didn't invite every single person he'd ever known.
"I'm not saying you have to invite every single person you've ever known," Lisa said whenever the topic came up. "I'm just saying why not let bygones be bygones?"
Well, a wedding wasn't a boat, was it? He wasn't going to invite Donnie just to put butts in seats.
But this guy Mike wasn't Donnie. Mike was a friend or an associate of Ryan's, out here in the cold on a Sunday morning for a measly 20 bucks an hour. Jack didn't hate him. To be honest, he felt sorry for the guy. Must have fucking sucked to be so old and still making a living on your back.
"Give me a hand with this, Mike, will you?"
Mike looked at the leather sofa Jack had taken hold of. "You want that in the van now?"
"Let's just get it over with," Jack said.
"OK," he said, squatting low. "Your call."
A man like Mike usually had some kind of a nickname. Jack couldn't say just what it would be. He thought it might come out at the wedding. "Call me Griff," Mike would say. Both men would have knocked back more than a few by then. "We sure had fun moving all that stuff of yours down to Red Hook, didn't we, Jack?" There was nothing like a day of manual labor to forge a bond between two guys. "Hey, and by the way. Thanks for inviting me. I'm real honored." Lisa would have to pull him away. "I do love how easily you make new friends," she'd say. He'd circle back before the night was through and part from Griff with a hug. Griff turning to his date afterward, saying, "Love that guy."
So it didn't work out that way. So what? It had always been a long shot.
Once Mike warmed up, he started to spurn the ramp. With a load in hand, he leapt from the blacktop to the metal bumper and into the van. He wrangled extension cords like a ranch hand. And even when you thought a load was too heavy and his hands all full, on his way out he reached for a standing lamp and took that, too. He was impressive. But it was laughable, how little he said.
When Jack brought in his next load, he found Mike in there talking on the phone. Turned away, muttering low, filling the back of the van completely, so that Jack was forced to go around him.
So he did talk, just not to Jack.
Jack wouldn't have minded talking on the phone. One more conversation with Lisa about the goddamned invite list would have been preferable to moving boxes out of storage and into a moving van.
He took out his cellphone. How was Mike getting service? Discount carrier, probably. They had weird coverage. Oh, well. Jack put his phone away and returned to the unit.
He dropped off another load and went back for more. He made a second trip and then another. Mike was still on the phone.
Well, you know what? People call, they need your help, nobody can time an emergency. All Jack needed was a little gesture. "Sorry about this," Mike might have whispered while cupping the mouthpiece. "Off in a minute."
But another five minutes went by and still no such gesture. He had even taken a seat on one of the boxes in there!
Once you disdain someone, once you decide they're not worth your respect, you do whatever you damn well please, even when he's paying you 20 bucks an hour.
"It's 27–24, just so you know," Jack said to him.
Mike looked up from his call. "What's that?"
"Oh, I was just saying that I've brought in 27 boxes to your 24."
Mike's dark monobrow furrowed. "You're keeping score?"
Jack left the van. Yeah, like Mike hadn't been keeping score, too, until he found it more important to talk on the damn phone.
He expected an apology when Mike got off at last, but Mike didn't offer one. He simply came down the ramp and carried a new load into the van.
What are we here for? Jack wondered. The question had started running through his mind before Mike was even off the phone. What are we here for? It obviously wasn't mutual respect. It wasn't to make new friends. So what was it? Was it just lifting and moving things in exchange for cash? Was that it? Squatting and lifting and climbing and digging and kneeling and hammering things in for a payday and nothing more?
"What are we here for, Mike?" he found himself asking out loud.
Not gonna go over well. But you know what? Fuck it. What did he have to lose?
Bent over, Mike looked up at him with one squinting blue eye. You could practically smell the fumes pouring off him from last night's bender.
"Is it just to move things? Or do we have some greater purpose in life? I like to think we're here for something greater. As men, I mean. But that's my two cents. What do you think? Think it's possible that you and I – "
Mike let out a grunt as he lifted the oversize AC unit flush off the cement floor and began to crab-walk it toward the van.
It wasn't until Jack happened upon an open box of old photographs that he began to rethink everything. Here was a shot of his Uncle Vern wearing several strands of Mardi Gras beads, puckering up before a silver trumpet. Uncle Vern would have been invited to the wedding were he still alive. And here was a rare one of his dad, also dead. His buddy Horvath – lost track of that guy after leaving Denver. Here was one of Steve and what's-her-name. She never cared for Jack, and when Steve married her, that was the end of his friendship with Steve. And here was a little photo album in among the loose pictures documenting his tortured years with Sandra. Obviously couldn't invite her. Here was one of Donnie: wide grin, cigar in his mouth, holding a fish in each hand on some dock, that stupid gap between his two front teeth. He couldn't invite him, he just couldn't. Or any of them. Take your pick. Except for Aunt Julia. But she had sent her regrets.
He tossed the box aside. Add it to the rest of the heap and let it burn.
"Be right back, Mike," he said as he left the van.
He walked up the blacktop path, past the office (deserted on Sundays) to County Route 9. Service was less spotty up there. He paced near the busy road as cars washed by until Lisa picked up. "What?" she said.
"Invite 'em," he said. "Whoever you want, invite 'em."
"Do you mean it?"
"Yeah, I mean it," he said. "What do I care? I just want you to be happy."
"Oh, Jack," she said. She hadn't sounded so warm in weeks. "What a relief." She let out a big sigh. "Donnie, too?"
"Whoever," he said. "What do I care? You can finally meet the bastard. Might be nice, actually. He'll ask your niece for a blowjob and your mother will finally understand why I never bring family around."
"Jenny's 11, Jack."
"I'm trying to prepare you."
"Let's not talk about my niece, OK?"
"Jack," she said, "thank you. This means so much to me. You have no idea."
"What else are we here for, right, Leese?"
"I love you, Jackie. You're such a good man."
"Love you too, Leese."
He hung up and went happily down the hill.
"You got a problem," Mike said when he returned.
"What is it?"
They had run out of room in the back of the van. But that wasn't Jack's fault! That was Mike's fault! He was the one who had failed to make a plan!
"Told you it was too early to put that sofa in," Mike said.
"Oh, so this is my fault?"
A minute passed. Mike took a seat on a box as if he were inside the van talking on the phone again.
They could either push on, or they could take the sofa out and start over, as Donnie would have insisted he do. "And do it right this time," he'd have said, giving Jack a slap upside the head.
"Well, what are we doing? It's getting cold."
"Let's take the fucking thing out," Jack said.
Donnie had been right a lot of the time, that was the trouble. Jack had to admit it. Donnie did things properly. He knew a thing or two. Jack had known very little. Of course, Jack had been ten years old, or whatever. He couldn't do things as Donnie wanted them done, as a grown man did them. But now Jack was 42 years old, and he was still making a hash of things. There were boxes on the ground; there were boxes in the van; there were boxes in the unit.
Maybe his age had had nothing to do with it. Maybe Donnie was right about that, too. Making a hash of things was just what Jack did.
They were relaying the last of the book boxes from the van to the ground before taking the sofa out.
"How about I pay you in books, Mike?" he said. "God knows I got enough of them."
Mike handed off a box and went back for another.
"Not 20 bucks an hour, but 20 books an hour," he said. It was something Donnie would have said, but he wasn't serious like Donnie. He was just playing around. "What do you say? Will you take your day's pay in books?"
He came back for another box, but Mike met him at the edge of the van empty-handed. He stared down at Jack and the look on his face said it all.
"It was just a joke," Jack said.
"Twenty's my hourly rate," Mike said.
"I know," he said. "I was just joking."
But now in his mind the question had been raised, and Jack realized that Mike's view of things was the only correct one from the start. This was a simple exchange, labor for cash. It had nothing to do with gestures of kindness, or if you knew the other guy's name or not, or what man's ultimate purpose on earth might be. What the market would bear – that was the only relevant question.
So, was 20 really a fair price?
The answer was no. And not because Mike disdained Jack from the start, or wasted all that time talking on the phone, or took a seat whenever he felt like it. These days, there was bound to be someone willing to work for less – for 15 an hour, even ten – and to toss in a bit of humanity for free.
The matter was settled long ago. But whoever said negotiations couldn't be reopened? "Look, Mike," he might have said, "you and I both know that in today's job market, I don't have to pay 20 bucks an hour to find unskilled manual labor. So here's what we're going to do." He'd hand over what was owed to Mike, saying fair's fair. "But if you want the full job, I'm afraid it's 15 an hour from here on out." What would the big man say to that? Would that get him talking?
"Hey, Mike," he said.
Was he really going to do it? They had removed the sofa from the van and were loading things back in.
"What did we say, 20 an hour?"
Mike stopped what he was doing and straightened up. "Yeah?"
"Because I've been thinking more about it."
"Well, like how you were in there for a while talking on the phone."
More displeasure from Mike's monobrow. "Yeah?"
"Is 20 really fair?"
Suddenly Jack felt like an asshole, like Donnie. Donnie did shit like that, not Jack. Mike, poor Mike, out here on a Sunday in the cold, getting yanked around! And for what? For nothing more than reminding Jack of Donnie. And in the meantime, look what it was doing to Jack. It was turning him into Donnie!
Boom, boom, boom. Mike was down the ramp in no time. What the hell was he going to do, beat the shit out of him? "I told you already," he said. "I don't do anything for less than 20."
"But it's just moving shit."
Mike, agitated, cocked his head. The look on his face was pure murder.
"How's 25?" Jack said suddenly.
"I said how's 25?"
"But we agreed to 20."
"And now I'm offering you more."
"Oh, just take it, Mike. You're out here in the cold on a Sunday morning. Take it."
Mike shook his head in confusion and returned up the ramp.
Not worth 20, and now suddenly he was paying him 25. Over and over again he'd been told to keep his fucking mouth shut, but did he ever listen? No, and now look at what you've gone and done.
Even after reorganizing the van, there wasn't enough room for all of Jack's things. They were going to have to make two trips, after all. Jack shuttered the gate and joined Mike in the cab.
Mike had his boot up on the dash and was eating the croissant from La Perche. Jack stared at him in open disbelief. "What are you doing?"
"You didn't want that."
"Yeah, I did."
"You sure didn't acknowledge it."
"Yeah, you didn't acknowledge it. You didn't say thanks. You didn't say anything. Would it have killed you to say thanks when I offered it to you?"
"Thanks," Mike said.
"What are you, a fucking retard?"
It just came out. Mike stared at Jack as he pointedly dropped what remained of the croissant, crumpled the bag up while chewing, and tossed it to the floor of the van.
Jack put the van in gear. They went like a cloud over the fresh blacktop, through the gate and up the incline to County Route 9.
They passed the rock quarry on the left, the gray pyramids of limestone and granite, and the iced-over pond in the distance, cowlicked with reeds. The road was stained white with salt from a long winter. Jack glanced over at Mike, who was now staring out the passenger-side window as if dreaming on his way back to the penitentiary. He wasn't going to say a word. All the way down to Red Hook and all the way back, not a fucking word. A man could do that, a man could choose not to speak. Be a man like Mike and shut up. Will you just shut the fuck up? Shut up now or God help me I will shut you up.
"You never asked my name," Jack said.
He waited for a reply. When none came, he said:
"This morning, when we met. You didn't ask and I didn't offer. You remember?"
"You know, you talk too much," Mike said.
"Is that right?"
"Yeah, that is right. We'd have been done a lot sooner if you talked a little less."
"That's interesting," Jack said.
More silence. Then:
"I said, 'Are you curious?'"
"What my name is."
"Oh. Well, Ryan told it to me."
"So you know it, then."
Dull brown fields extended for acres. Then the road narrowed and shade trees crowded the shoulders. In clearings swiftly opened and swiftly shut again, modest ranch houses flitted by. Then the long brown fields returned.
"What is it?" Jack asked.
"What's my name?"
Mike stared straight ahead.
"You don't know it, do you?"
"Ryan did tell it to me," he said finally. "I must of forgot it."
Jack was silent.
"I believe it might be Jack," Mike said. "Is that it?"
Jack didn't answer. They turned down a private drive lined with tall trees. They climbed a slow meandering hill to a restored farmhouse with a view of the mountains where they unloaded without a word. A lovely porch, a tree swing, a cherrywood canoe beside the artificial pond. He had everything in the world he ever wanted. Stupid to let Mike get under his skin like that.
"What do you think, Mike?"
"About this view."
"Asshole," Mike muttered.
The two men got back in the van. The miles rolled by, and the silence intensified.
"I talk too much?" Jack said.
"I think so," Mike said.
"Well, you talk too little."
"Is that right?"
"Would it kill you to carry on a little conversation?"
Mike made no reply.
Halfway to the storage facility, Jack pulled off to the shoulder. "You drive," he said.
He opened the door and the sounds of the world rushed in. He went around the van and opened the door on Mike's side.
"What am I driving for?"
"Because I'm paying you."
Mike moved over and Jack got in. Mike pulled out among the traffic heading north.
"But not $25 an hour, Mike," Jack announced on the straightaway. "I'm not paying you that."
Mike looked over. "You told me you would," he said.
"I told you 20. Then I got to joking around and this other thing came out, I don't know why. I made a mistake and I apologize for it. But 25's too much."
"You're paying me 25," Mike said.
"I don't think I am."
"I think you are."
Mike went through the light at the junction and turned into the storage facility. Jack got out at the gate and punched in the code, then slipped through the fence while Mike had to wait for it to retract. A minute later Mike blew past him. When Jack arrived at the rental unit, the bigger man was not in the cab texting as he had been earlier in the day, but pacing back-and-forth on the blacktop, his breath visible in the cold. He came to a sudden stop and said, "I ain't helping you with the rest."
"Oh, yes you are."
"Something's wrong with you," Mike said.
"Something's wrong with me?"
"I want what you owe me. And I want 25 an hour for it, just like you promised."
"You know what I used to be told, Mike? Stop acting all high and mighty, that's what I used to be told, and get the fuck back to work."
Every time Donnie came forward, as Mike did now, Jack called social services, but nothing ever changed. Well, this time Jack swung first, aiming for Mike's throat.
Mike looked silly going down. "You look like a little girl!" Mike would have said to him had the tables been turned. But no, Mike looked more like a big fat 11-year-old boy, a bully easily stunned and not likely to fight back when you stood up to him once and for all. Jack was surprised. Mike gripped his throat on the way down and began to gasp for air.
Had the tables been turned, Mike would have told Jack to get up, get the fuck up you little pussy, but Jack didn't want Mike up. He had put on a pair of steel-toed boots that morning to protect his feet during the move, and now he walked around Mike, timing every kick with a question.
"You drive past me? You don't introduce yourself? You make me wait in the cold while you text? You talk on the phone for ten minutes, but to me you can't say a word? You eat my croissant and you don't say thanks? You don't know my fucking name?"
He grew short of breath and had to stop kicking. He bent over, resting his elbows on his knees.
Mike was still clutching his windpipe. He made a sucking sound as he tried to take in air. There was blood on the blacktop.
"Alright, get up," he said to Mike. "Come on now, get up."
Jack nudged him. Then he sat next to him on the pavement. The traffic was washing faintly past high up on County Route 9.
"Alright, I'll pay you," Jack said. "I'll pay you the 25. OK?"
Jack bent down close to listen for an answer, but all he heard was the struggle for air. That was hard to believe. Mike was such a strong man, much stronger than he was.
He should have started without him. If only he'd taken a few boxes into the van while Mike was in there texting, he might not have fallen behind in the count and then none of this would have happened.
"I was even considering inviting you to my wedding," he said.
Didn't matter now. Pretty much all that mattered was what Jack would do next. He had options he'd never dreamed of having as a boy when he was under Donnie's thumb. He could say to Mike, as had so often been said to him, "You have only yourself to blame," and leave him there, struggling to breathe in that desolate storage facility, so as to teach him a lesson. Or he could man up, as he had fantasized the men of the world would do when he was still at their mercy. Mike was turning blue. He needed to see a doctor. Jack was a good man, but now he had to ask himself a serious question. What does a man do – and I mean a real man, now, what does a real man do – when he knows he's done something wrong?