Saturday, February 7, 2009

Hide the Scratches

He took off one of her shoes slowly. She didn't make a noise other than the steady flow of her breathing that had just a slight hint of a snore in it and to Charlie sounded more like a purr. He took off the other shoe and she curled her feet up into her jacket with her and rolled onto her side, facing the sofa back and clutching a throw pillow under her head. He spread the blanket over her and tucked it in gently. She let out a tiny sigh and he stood looking down at her for a time before going to his bed and fighting himself into a light sleep.

He awoke to find himself alone. Rosa had left either the night before or sometime early in the morning. Charlie stood in the center of the living room and appraised things. Everything was still there. He chided himself for actually holding out hope that she had stolen something. At least he could have been outraged, gone out to stalk the streets in search of her, had an excuse to go to Jonny's asking after her. But no, nothing of the sort.

Sitting in the recliner, he flipped on the tv. The morning talk shows were just giving way to the game shows. Turning the remote over and over in his hands, he vacillated between the twenty-four-hour news channel and a children's show. The news had a story running about how hundreds of area residents had been scammed by some guys posing as exterminators. Apparently they had sold people liquor bottles full of agricultural pesticides. The people, thinking that they were playing it smart by paying so little and spraying the stuff themselves, were now dropping like flies. The symptoms included nausea, dizziness and vomiting. He wondered if his landlord had sprayed his place before he moved in. He dismissed the thought, however, because his kitchen had a healthy supply of tiny cockroaches.

He flipped off of the news and settled down to an episode of Speed Racer, who, as the opening theme purported, was a demon on wheels. It went by predictably enough with Speed's little brother and the monkey hiding in the trunk and Speed having to race the evil-doers. Racer X swooped in to save everyone from some horrible fate or another and Pops chuckled.

Charlie poked at an ash filled pipe and got up to make coffee, turning the tv volume up enough to be heard from the kitchen. He leaned against the counter smoking and listening to the coffee maker sputter and gurgle as it went through its paces. He found a clean cup in the refrigerator and put two spoonfuls of sugar in it while he waited. Back in the living room, he locked the front door with its two chains and deadbolt and peered out through the peep hole. He could see up and down the street and nothing was going on, as usual. He sat and blew on his coffee as he stirred it noisily. The tv spewed nothing but commercials until he forgot what he had been watching and turned it off. Traffic blew by outside his door at an average rate of four cars per minute. He sipped at his coffee and looked at nothing. The four clocks in the room all agreed that the time was somewhere near eight-thirty in the morning. One of the neighbors, probably the man, stomped from the back of the house to the front door and paused. Charlie waited to hear the door open, but it never did. Finally, the dolt stomped off to some important matters in the back of the house. Charlie got up and turned the heater on to try to drown out the neighbor, and because the cold had begun to penetrate the joints of his toes. He stood fooling with the knobs of the heater for a while until he felt satisfied with the settings and returned to his chair.

He took a tentative breath to assess his health and found that he could take a more-or-less full breath, only hitching a few times. He looked up at his ceiling and worried about the danger of asbestos falling from it. After all, it was one of those styrofoam jobs with the squares hanging in a steel grid. Really a bad choice for such an old neighborhood, but then, the rest of the place wasn't exactly a candidate for Architectural Digest or Better Homes. . .

He suddenly couldn't let those squares sit up there any longer. He jumped up and stood balancing on the arm of the sofa. Stretching up, he pushed a square up and into the unknown void above. He simply had to see the beautiful wooden cathedral ceilings that the fool landlord had so stupidly hidden behind this modern atrocity of a ceiling. He peered into the dark gap and pushed a little further and got a shower of insulation material. The fuckers had put at least a foot of insulation on top of their pitiful ceiling!

He jumped down from the couch spitting and blinking away the horrible pink crap. Now he was convinced. This stuff had to be the problem. He immediately went to stand in the bathroom to see if his breathing improved. It seemed to be a little better, but he couldn't be quite sure, so he found his keys in his pants from the night before and opened the back door deadbolt. He then unlatched the other three locks and peeked out of the blinds before opening the door. He sat on the stairs and pulled the door closed behind him. Breathing still seemed a little better than in the living room. Gospel soul music was switched on in the house next to him, which was separated from his own by only a ten foot wide alley, if that much. The old woman next door began singing along with the music as she clanked pots and pans around in the sink.

Charlie retreated inside for a cigarette, carefully locking all the locks on the door. He saw that his answering machine had a message and he played it.

"Hello, Chuck. This is Wendy from Norill Temps with a job for you," the voice said. "The pay's four-fifty an hour and you need to be there at ten o'clock. The address is forty-five-oh-eight Tchoupitoulas and it's the Gershwitz-Franz furniture warehouse. Please call if you can't make it."

Charlie knew the place and didn't relish the thought of going back, but he pressed out his cigarette and began gathering up his steel-toes and his weight-lifter's belt. He made it out the door by twenty after nine and walked quickly to cover the three blocks to the ferry landing. The boat was running late, filled to capacity with cars. He ran the last thirty feet of the landing, breathlessly thanking the ferry worker who begrudgingly held the gate for an extra couple of seconds.

The ferry ride afforded a nice view of the city's skyline, but he sat stony-faced thinking that he was being watched by some of the other passengers. There was the old couple who stood motionless in front of him and kept staring at the city through the window, but Charlie could see their reflections in the window. They were watching him, not the city. They kept turning to each other and whispering, pointing, not at the city, christ no, at him. . . and every now and again, one of them would turn around as if to look over his head at something. Charlie knew that one, he knew that there was nothing behind him. He could see their eyes glancing over him on purpose and never coming to rest on anything, but seeming to just move over him one too many times for it to be a coincidence.

The city loomed large in the windows and the ferry lurched slightly as it docked. The horns blew and everyone in the little chair-filled room stood at once. They all tried to smooth it over, searching pockets, stooping to tie shoes, snuffing out cigarette butts, folding newspapers. . . but Charlie could see it happening. They all seemed to be mooing softly to themselves and occasionally looking up to check on him before returning to chewing their cud. The bovine image was almost too strong to bear, but somehow he managed to stand nonchalantly and flow with them off of the ferry.

Walking over countless steps in the landing, he measured his stride carefully so as to not draw undue attention to himself. He could still feel the hot stares on his back. He picked people out from far away and steeled himself to walk by them. Their disgust with him barely hidden on their faces. All of them somehow held their tongues and kept from murderously launching themselves at him.

He continued down and out of the ferry landing building to the foot of Canal St. Mentally checking his map, he walked a couple of blocks up and took a left toward his destination. He stopped and pretended to wait for a pay phone. He peered at the arm of the woman on the phone and thought he saw that it was now five minutes until ten o'clock. He slapped his forehead and moaned loudly for the benefit of anyone who might wonder why he suddenly left his place in line for the phone and took off in a run, his heels quickly burning in his heavy boots.

A crowd was gathered in front of the giant steel doors of Gerschwitz-Franz. Charlie almost kept walking for fear that there was some sort of trouble going on, but reminded himself where he was and lit a cigarette and waited. Before he took two drags, a gray-black man of about fifty was mumbling for a cigarette. Charlie recognized him as Joe, with whom he had moved furniture around an office building for two weeks once. He gave him a cigarette and sat down against a dirty brick pillar to wait for the bosses to show up. Joe Henry sat down next to him and they both managed to look almost as good as leftover macaroni.

Charlie only remembered one thing about Joe Henry from their two weeks together, moving furniture from one office to another, up and down stairs and freight elevators, all at the whims of the executives, who treated the movers like the slaves they were.

"How're them hemorrhoids, Joe?"

Joe Henry turned and looked at him for a long time before getting up and walking to another area of the crowd.

Charlie thought Joe'd perk right up on that one. After all, all he had heard about while they humped credenzas up and down all fifty floors of that office building had been Joe's asshole. That and how many women Joe had taken up to the twelfth floor storage area.

Joe sure did seem to still be walking like his ass was killing him. . .

Charlie lit another cigarette from the butt in his mouth just as the fat, white bosses drove up and opened the doors. They all slowly trickled into the warehouse and had their time cards signed and collected. Then, suddenly, everyone seemed to know exactly what to do and where to go. One of the bosses saw Charlie standing around and pointed to a hulking man who looked like a mountain of lead sculpted into a set of filthy overalls and told him, "You're with him."

Charlie tightened the velcro straps of his weight-lifter's belt and put on his gloves. Everyone was grabbing a dolly or a cart and Charlie squeezed in to get a strong dolly. He ended up with a good solid one with straps and a chipped yellow paint job. He rolled it along behind the giant man he had been told to follow and waited.

Everyone else was busily moving furniture from one place to the other. Now that the crew was in place, trucks started pulling up to the row of shipping doors. Men spit into their palms and hefted desks and dining room sets into dark semi tractor trailers under the watchful eyes of the bosses, who, sitting in their elevated office, with their tv blaring, smoking cigarettes, could see the entire floor of the warehouse through dirty windows.

Sweat darkened the men's' T-shirts and was dripping into their eyes within minutes. Fifty men, all negroes, humped the furniture around, grunting and wheezing. Charlie and his partner just sat at an empty gate.

"Shit, I'm glad we're not over there." Charlie said in a low tone to the big man who just grunted in reply.

No more than five minutes passed before a full sized eighteen-wheeler pulled up and began maneuvering into place at the loading dock behind them, beeping loudly. Charlie stood and gave the driver signals. He wasn't ready for what was in the truck. The big man opened it with a swoosh and there were huge boxes lined up to the very edge of the trailer. The driver walked briskly by them with some kind of chipper remark about how he had to get moving and how they'd better "git to it."

The big black man slammed his dolly underneath a twelve-foot tall box with a picture of a thick couch on it. He twirled it around expertly and rolled it out of the truck.

Charlie stepped up and worked his dolly underneath a box with a stencil of a recliner on the side. He had to jump up and over the top of the box to lean it back. The bag man just stood watching him, still holding up his sofa confidently. Once Charlie had the recliner tilted back the big man started walking rapidly off deep into the catacombs of the warehouse.

Rows upon rows of beds and couches and all manner of giant furniture were lined up to the distant walls. The big man strode easily with his couch as Charlie bumbled along trying to keep the recliner from toppling things as he passed by precariously stacked dining room tables and plates of glass. Finally, they arrived at the correct spot and the couch was off of the dolly in a second, quickly wedged into the ranks of other huge boxes. Charlie dumped his recliner, pushing it up against another box, and started back to the truck to await further instructions. He met the big man on the way back, who had two recliner boxes stacked on their sides strapped to his dolly.

"We unloading that whole truck?" he asked breathlessly.

"Yeah, an you bes git movin ifs you'll be wantin lunch."

"It all goes back there?"

"Yeah." he said, and pushed his load off into the warehouse.

Charlie hurried to get to the truck so as not to fall behind his partner. He managed to get two disassembled dining room tables onto his dolly and strapped securely before the big man was in sight. He rushed furiously to get to the storage area and on the way back, he met the big man a little bit closer to the truck than the last time. He continued to rush his trips until he and the big man had established a rhythm, always meeting in approximately the same place.

Slowly Charlie got more confident with his dolly and started loading larger and larger boxes. Soon he was carting two recliners at a time. He tried three, but a boss stopped him and made him only take two. The big man nodded approvingly at him on their next pass. He pushed hutches and tables and boxes of beanbags and mattresses and box-springs and secretary's desks and things he couldn't identify, even with the pictures right there on the box.

He and the big man took turns smoking Charlie's cigarettes outside, sitting next to the truck's big wheels. The furniture in the truck seemed like it would never end, but by the time his stomach started murmuring about food, it looked as if they'd have the thing unloaded before lunch. They slowed their pace and stretched it out perfectly so that they were squeezing the last box into the packed area at the back of the place just as one of the bosses yelled lunch.

Everyone got out quickly and walked in different directions to acquire lunch. Charlie spotted Joe and followed him to a small diner in the foot of one of the big office buildings. He stood in a long line and ordered a burger and fries to go. He got back with ten minutes to spare and wolfed down his meal while smoking a cigarette. When the bell rang, everyone disposed of his trash quickly and quietly moved back to work.

Charlie's sphincter tightened when he saw another full truck waiting at the dock and his giant partner wrestling with some difficulty with a heavy looking box. Charlie put his belt and gloves back on and retrieved his dolly from where he had hidden it before lunch. He sure as hell didn't want to have to deal with a wobbly-tired dolly for the rest of the day. The contents of this truck seemed to be mostly hutches and display cases. The hutches looked expensive and after examining the boxes, Charlie found that the average one cost in the neighborhood of four grand.

The driver of the truck was in more of a hurry than the first one and helped out some. He stayed in the trailer, pushing the huge boxes into position for Charlie and his friend. They were half-way into the truck and things seemed to be slipping along, almost in a groove, when Charlie tilted a large hutch, apparently with leaded glass doors and a safe built into the bottom, on his dolly. It tilted, and tilted, and fell back and over. Charlie caught it with his belly and spread his arms above him to try to catch the corners as the thing continued to crush down on him. In a flash, he could see the lawyers from Gershwitz-Franz slapping him with a bill for five thousand big ones and him having to pay it off for years with a twenty percent interest rate. He had stopped it from smashing down and breaking itself, but now it was threatening to crush him. The trucker just stood by and watched, afraid to incur any part of the debt about to be created in the back of his rig. The hutch finally settled down over Charlie, pinning him between the handles of his dolly. He just lay there waiting for the pain to come, but it didn't. That really got him worried. He couldn't budge the hutch and he couldn't move from under the dolly. His partner had, by this time, returned from rolling three or four of the very same hutches, no doubt. He and the trucker carefully lifted the hutch off of Charlie and seemed almost disappointed when Charlie wiggled out, apparently unscathed. A boss had seen the commotion and was already cutting open the box to inspect the damage to the hutch. Nothing seemed broken on the precious piece of furniture. He looked from Charlie to the behemoth and said "Come with me."

For the rest of the day Charlie worked with an old man whose hair had gone almost entirely white. The old man gave Charlie a box of markers ranging from black to a reddish-brown. Dining room chairs with ornately engraved legs and backs were placed in their area and the old man instructed Charlie in the fine art of scratch hiding. Every chair that came through did so because someone had found a scratch on it. He had to search carefully over each chair and color in any gouges or scrapes that he could find. They were then whisked off to be delivered with the rest of the set.

Charlie guiltily stole a glance at the unloading dock where he saw his big friend starting on another full eighteen wheeler, this time alone.

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