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Wes Prussing

 

 

 

Will Work

 

 

“Son-uf-ah-bitch! Move it!”     

     Browne hits the horn. Two quick taps. Waits. Nothing. “… the hell’s going on,” he whines. “Aren’t these guys supposed to be on commission? Come on man!  What’s your problem!” This time he smashes his palm on the padded center of the wheel and lets it wail. Five full seconds. Still no movement. He glances left. “Shit.” There he is, standing right here on the median - looking his way. Same pathetic, hangdog expression plastered across his face like one of those theater stage masks. Browne sighs, yeah it’s tragedy all right. Same cardboard sign, too. Same flipped over five gallon paint bucket positioned just below the YIELD sign - like a fuckin throne.   

     Then. Finally! The big mud-colored UPS truck lurches forward. Browne is right behind him, not three feet from his bumper. The line of traffic advances. Stops. Advances some more. Browne is willing the UPS truck to move. At the very edge of his vision he sees a dull gray-green smudge glide past him; an army field jacket. “Give me a break,” he snorts. “Fuckin draft dodger for all I know.” He sees the man is waving the sign around. It’s no bigger then a place mat. Browne can’t make out the words - the letters, from where he sits, look like small black daggers. Probably left it out in the rain, he thinks. The traffic light turns green. “Com’on! Com’on!”

He knows he’s not going to make it. He swears and watches the UPS truck nose into the line of traffic crawling perpendicularly in front of him. The bastard …  made damn sure he got through, didn’t he. He looks up again and the light is red - has been for a couple of seconds. He decides not to chance it. He knows this light. Got to be the longest one in town. He fidgets nervously and checks the console between the bucket seats. It was designed to hold cassette tapes and CD’s but it’s stuffed with plastic bottle tops, business cards, a pair of sunglasses, receipts, pens and pencils and loose change. He spots a couple of dimes and a pile of pennies coated in cough drop goo. He knows he has some cash in his pocket but he doesn’t bother to check. Not going to give the asshole the satisfaction. He pokes the search button on the radio. Talk. Pokes it again. More talk. While he’s punching buttons he hears a tapping sound, like Morse Code … tap … tap … tap,tap…. He doesn’t look up. What to do? Shrug his shoulders? Display his empty palms and smile apologetically? It’s worked before. If he’d only made the damn light, or at least not gotten stuck up here, right at the head of the line of exiting traffic. The guy only has enough time between green lights to shake down a couple of cars.

Then it hits him. A revelation; a vista into the human psyche. And just like that, he knows what to do. All those management seminars. Finally, something he can use.

He presses the tiny lever on the door and the window hums. He sees before him something he normally manages to avoid and rarely, if ever, confronts head on like this: raw, human suffering.

The man must be in his forties (same as him) but looks older, especially around the eyes which are dark brown and bloodshot. There’s knots of bleached dirty blonde hair hanging over his forehead and a short ponytail tied in the back. His face is clean shaven but lined with blue-black creases of dirt - the pores on his nose and chin are also oily and black, so much so they look like paint specks. Browne notices an odor too, not disgusting or anything, something like rip fruit about to decay. The jacket hangs from the man’s shoulders and looks about two sizes too big. It’s covered with oily sweat stains and the many pockets are overstuffed, bulging out in odd directions like a sack of onions. In one hand is the sign; a piece of masking tape holds two panels together where it must be folded when not in use. In the other hand is a coffee can wrapped in tattered construction paper. Browne supposes that  it too displayed a message at one time. The man gives the can a shake. Browne hears a faint jingle, checks out the sign again- closer this time: Will Work for Food. Ha! Just as he thought.

“That right?” He juts his chin in the sign’s direction.

“What right?” asks the man in the jacket.

“The sign. You work if you get some food?”

The man shakes the can again and shoves it closer.

“Com’on, is it bullshit or not. I’m asking if you’ll do some work if I get you  some food.”

The man draws the can back. “I haven’t eaten in two days, mister.”  He gives Browne a weak smile.

 Browne can see that one of his front teeth is cracked. There’s a thin, dark fissure running diagonally across it. The tooth looks loose, and the two half-pieces dangle from his tobacco stained gum line like a broken garden gate.

“Yeah sure,” Browne says,  “but do you want to work or you just looking for booze money?”

The man’s eyes sweep up and down the line of cars. He says, “Gotta eat. Everyone’s gotta eat - right?” And presents the can again, this time stopping about two inches from Browne’s nose.

“Riiiight,” Browne says to the overhead lamp and hits the window button. The man pulls the can back just before the rising glass can trap it inside the car. Browne glances ahead and the light’s green. Mutters: “Damn bums.” He inches forward a bit and looks for some space in the line of traffic. The flow of cars slows and he gets ready to punch it the instant he spots an opening.

From the passenger side window he hears again;  tap… tap….

“Huh? Well what do you know,” he almost laughs. He pops the lock and the man sides in. “Changed your mind, huh?”

“Said I was hungry.”

“Hey… look, just be careful where you put your shit, okay. This thing’s not paid for yet.”

The man places his can on the floor along with a filthy baseball cap and a brown, grease -stained paper bag. “Where we going?”

Browne slips in behind a new Lexus. At last the traffic is moving. He relaxes and begins:  “First off, here’s the deal. My wife is due back from her mother’s later this afternoon. In order for me to play golf tomorrow I gotta get these storm-windows down. You know what storm windows are, don’t ya.”

“I know.”

“Good. Where was I? Oh, the windows. She’s been nagging the shit out of me for the last month. Sez all I ever do is play golf and watch sports. That’s all I ever hear. So I promised her I’d get the damn storm windows down today. She hates having em up over the summer. Sez she likes the fresh air in the house. Likes to have everything open.” He looks over at the man to see if he’s listening. He lets a few seconds pass. “You married?”

The man shakes his head.

“No, huh? We’ll you’re better off. Believe me.” He flips the AC lever up a notch and continues: “She says I spend way too much time on the links and we can’t afford to hire people to keep doing all these chores and repairs and all. The house is forty years old fer chrissake, wha’duz she expect?”

The man makes no effort to join the conversation. He sits stoically, his hands together, fingers touching tip to tip, like he’s preparing to pray. They leave the four lane highway and turn onto a tree-lined residential street. Browne feels uncomfortable in the closed confines of the small compact. He can hear the man breathing, each breath sounds like the far away swing of an old garden gate. He decides to lighten things up: “You won’t believe where we’re playing tomorrow. You play?”

“Uh- uh.”

“No … I didn’t think so. Well take it from me, you get the chance to play at Emerald Dunes you take it. The promised land - we call it. The course I usually play costs seventy five bucks on weekends. Know what this place gets? Three big ones for eighteen. Can you believe it? Only tomorrow, I’m playing for nothing. We’re compted - ya understand? Compted? Some kind of deal Kenny at work set up. So you see, I can’t afford anything going wrong. Especially my wife tossing my clubs under the wheels of her new Camry - which by the way I got for ten percent under retail though this guy I know. I might never get an opportunity to play at this place again. Okay? So this has got to go right. She’ll be home by four so we got what? About five hours? Any problems with anything I said so far?”

The man shakes his head again and steadies his can as Browne swings into the driveway. The house is a one story ranch with a low roof and brick veneer going half way up the walls. It’s got an attached garage with a rusted basketball hoop clinging to the gable over the fiberglass door. The front lawn is already a deep rich green and the shrubs are perfectly trimmed - looks like a golf course itself.

Browne grabs the clicker from the visor and the garage door creeps up. “Ladder and tools and stuff are in there. I gotta go drain the vain.”

The man collects his things and steps from the car. He looks around nervously wondering where to store his can and belongings.

“Leave your stuff right by the door there.” Browne calls from the front stoop. “What’s your name my friend?”

The man says something but he’s bent over setting his things on the concrete driveway and Browne can’t hear him.

“Hey! You name…?”

“Mickey,” the man shouts.

Browne pulls his key from the dead bolt. “Mickey? The hell kind of name is that?” He sees the man has already wandered into garage. He shouts, “you can call me Brownie, okay?” He hears what sounds like an empty paint can bounce off the garage floor and shakes his head. “Mickey - fucking - Mouse, more like it”

The storm-windows are removed and stacked neatly, by size, next to the garage. Mickey works in a slow, methodical manner, dragging the fiberglass ladder from window to window, unscrewing the small brackets, popping out the frames with his screwdriver and dropping the windowpanes carefully onto the grass. Every fifteen minutes or so he stops, drops his tools and sits crosslegged in the grass. He waits for his breathing to slow and for the dark patches of sweat on his jacket to evaporate. Occasionally he pulls a blade of grass from the lawn and chews on it while he stares at the house. After awhile he stands again, gives a yank on the waist of  his mud-crusted pants and goes back to work.

Browne watches all this from the living room. He’s got a cold beer in his hand and there’s a baseball game on the television behind him. The volume is turned down low but he can hear occasional bursts of static erupting from the set which he assumes is the crowd responding to a great hit or difficult catch. He wants to turn and check out the action but Mickey’s peculiar work habits amuse him more then the early season double hitter. He thinks maybe he should just go ahead and raise the volume but he’d told Mickey that he had to get some tax papers together and he’s afraid he’ll hear the noise from the TV and come snooping around. Dumb ass probably doesn’t even know that the filing deadline has already come and gone weeks ago. Browne continues to watch, looking for signs of deviant behavior - anything that might look suspicious. Never know, he thinks, observing the way Mickey jams the screwdriver behind the aluminum frame and pops out the pane with one quick blow, doesn’t take much to set some of these guys off. Forgot to even check and see if he was carrying a knife or gun. He peeks at his watch. Twenty to four. He decides to go out and see how things are progressing and make sure there’s nothing missing from the garage. Better bring some protection, he decides, just in case.

A few minutes later Mickey is sitting under an elm that Browne planted about two years ago. It’s small and affords little shade, still it gives his back some support as he rests his shoulders against the trunk. His can is nestled between his legs and he counts the coins and crumpled up dollar bills. Almost ten dollars. He licks his lips. He’s incredibly thirsty but ignores the grape Cool Aid Browne left on the patio table. He places the can in a clump of mulch and stands. He sees Browne walking toward him with what looks like a tire iron or large knife in his hand. He begins to shake.

“So how’s it going?” Browne calls to him.

“Almost done,” Mickey says, his voice too loud.

Browne regards the stack of storm windows next to the garage. “Nice work. Say you ain’t any good with taxes are ya?” He says this with a wide grin and laughs like they’re sharing a joke.

“You going to store these anywhere special?” Mickey asks, blotting a bracelet of sweat from his forehead. “Didn’t seem to be room enough for them in the garage.”

“Naw, where you left them’s fine. I got some extra space in the basement. I’ll take care of that. What you did looks great.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Mickey looks down at Browne’s arm that is stiff and pulled in close to his hip.

Browne notices him staring  “Oh… hey, found this crowbar in the basement while I was digging out last year’s returns. Thought I’d give you a hand.”

“All done except for the one window over the front door. Gonna need a longer ladder.”

“Forget it,” Browne tells him, looking past him into the garage. “That’s been up there for years. I never bother to take it down.”

Mickey shrugs and begins picking up his meager belongings. Browne walks into the garage and takes a quick inventory. Sees everything more or less in place. He tosses the crowbar onto the work bench and walks up behind Mickey. “Hey, can’t help but notice your jacket. You in the service?”

“Yeah.”

“No kidding.” He walks a half circle around him, checking out all the different insignias. “How long you in for?”

“Just did my four.”

“Four, huh? Well four’s plenty.

“Was for me.”

“You know I got a lot of respect for you military guys. A damn lot of respect. What’s all those badges mean? Looks to me like you got around. See much action? Grenada maybe? Desert Storm?”

Mickey looks down at his own chest. “These? Don’t mean anything.”

Browne steps closer and examines the different symbols and faded patches: anchors, eagles, crossed swords, gold stars. “Listen,” he says,  “I know you think I’m just making small talk, here - you know, just humoring you. But you’re wrong, okay. Guys down on their luck. Sumpin happened to them.  Maybe in the war.  Maybe after they got back. Nothing they done really, just happened. I can understand that. Hell, knew this guy once, was making a killing in the market. I mean raking it in. Then one day decides -- screw it. Walks out of his office and disappears. No one hears from him for months. He finally turns up living in a shack in New Mexico making necklaces out of coyote bones. Stuff like this happens all the time.”

The man takes a deep breath and gazes up into the sun. “Mister, this jacket ain’t even mine. I found it over at the Good Will on Second Avenue. It was right before Christmas and cold as hell. It was the only thing that fit me so they let me have it. Besides….” He drops his head and looks at Browne. “I wasn’t even in the Army. I wasn’t in any war and even though I was in the Navy, I was never on a ship for more then a day or two. I spent most of the time in the mess hall sweeping up trash and washing dishes. The closest I ever got to seeing the world was Governor’s Island. And I ain’t ever owed a stock in my whole life.”

Browne grunts. “Navy man, huh?” Just then he sees a car swing into the driveway. “Ah shit, there’s my wife now.”

The two men watch as a car comes to a stop next to Brown’s Lumina. The woman inside gathers up packages from the back seat and wiggles out from behind the wheel.

“Look,” says Browne, grabbing Mickey by the elbow and turning him toward the garage. “Don’t say nothin okay? She finds out I dragged you here to do this for me I’ll never -.”

He hears the clicking of his wife’s high-heels and spins around.

“Hi Hon.”

“Hi.” She stops and sees the windows stacked next to the garage. “You’ve been busy.”

“Yep. Just about finished. Turned out to be a little more work then I thought but hey it hadda be done, right.” Browne sees her eyeing Mickey suspiciously and his mind races. “Oh, say hon, this is Mickey.

“Hello” she says. “Doreen...”

Mickey mumbles hello and looks over at Browne who is shifting his weight from foot to foot.

“I picked up some nice chops and some fresh veggies,” Doreen tells her husband. She expects him to reply but he just stands there with a blank expression. “I thought we’d eat around six-ish.”

“Sure.”

Doreen regards Mickey who averts her gaze. The man looks shipwrecked. She notices a slight tremor that seems to affect all his extremities. She clears her throat and says, “I’ve got plenty here so perhaps Mickey --.”

“No,” Browne cuts her off. “I mean jeez, we gotta run.” 

There’s a pause and Brown looks pleadingly at Mickey.

“That’s right, I almost forgot,” Mickey says. “The tow - remember. I need to arrange for a tow.”

Browne, suddenly alert, agrees. “Yeah the tow.”

“My car’s down on the parkway,” Mickey explains to Doreen.  “Busted axle. I forgot my wallet and was going to hitch a ride to the service station. Know a guy who does some towing so long as you catch him before he closes up. Your husband was out here stacking these windows and offered to give me a lift.”

“It’s not a Toyota is it?” she asks,  “I’m still hearing funny noises in the Camry.”

“Chevy,” he replies.

“Well you were very fortunate finding my husband out here working Mickey, normally he’s glued to the tee-vee, watching football or golf or God-knows what sport. Midget wrestling, I imagine.” One of her packages slips and she heaves it back up on her hip.

Browne accepts the verbal jab and smiles affably. He just doesn’t want Mickey saying much more - Doreen already seems incredulous.  “Hey - I guess we better get a move on.” He has his keys out and starts off toward the car.

“You’re coming right back?” she calls after him.

“Won’t take more then ten or fifteen minutes.”

They both get in the car. Doreen watches them back out of the driveway. Mickey gives a quick wave. He sees a couple of her fingers peek from underneath one of the bags and delicately wave back at him.

Browne comes to a stop at the end of the block, looks both ways. “Appreciate that,” he tells Mickey. “She woulda had my balls for dinner tonight. Know what I mean?”

“No problem.” Mickey tells him.

Browne eases into the left hand lane then pulls his wallet from this hip pocket. “Look,” he says,  pressing his knee against the steering wheel as he continues driving, “I know we was supposed to eat. I mean that’s what the deal was, right? But… here …” He doesn’t bother to count the thin fold of bills but he thinks there’s at least four or five ones left over from the twenty he broke to pay for Friday’s lunch. There was also the two lottery tickets ….leaving?  Ah, what the hell, he thinks. Ain’t like we signed a contract or anything. He drops the bills into Mickey’s can.  “… it’s all I got. Better’en a couple of burnt pork chops, huh?”

            “Sure, thanks,” Mickey replies with derision.

“There a problem?”

“No, no problem.”

“Well okay then. Where can I drop you.?”

“Next light make a left. You’ll see a liquor store about three blocks down..”

“Thought you wanted to eat?” Browne asks sharply.

“I aint hungry no more.”

“Ha! So I was right after all!”

“Right about what?”

“About you. About all you guys. You know, all you idiots standing on the corner saying you’re hungry and you’re willing to work for some food. It’s all a big con isn’t it?”

“I did what you asked, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, but that’s not the point.”

“What is the point? You figure you overpaid me?”

“Hey look, all’s I said was that I’d feed you.”

“Unhuh.”

“Ya can buy a burger or something. You can even get a beer to go with it. I know you got some dough in that can too. Probably got more then I carry.” Browne pauses as he changes lanes. “I’m just saying you should lay off the hard stuff. All right? Eat something. You look like hell.”

“How bout some nice chops and veggies,” Mickey says.

“Geez, I’m not taking about food here. I’m talking about self respect. Ain’t you got any self respect?”

“Look mister,” Mickey says, staring down into the can like he’s looking straight into his own soul. “I’m a bum. Okay. I’m no shell-shocked GI drowning the horrors of war in an ocean of  booze. Ain’t no Harvard wiz kid who dropped out because I couldn’t stand all the phonies on Madison Avenue. Okay? I’m just a bum. I tell people what they want to hear so that I can buy a bottle. When you introduced me to your wife … and she thought my car broke down … guess I just thought it’d be nice to just sit down and have a decent --.”

“Whoa! … partner … it’s not my fault you - .”

“Right up here,” Mickey interrupts, pointing at a sign that reads: Discount Liquor.

Browne pulls over to the curb and Mickey gets out. “Hey listen … Mickey.” It’s the first time Browne addresses him by name. “I just wanna say, good job. Ya know. I mean you did a good job back there.”

Mickey nods.

Browne leans way over and sticks his hand out the window. “You take care.”

Mickey is clutching his can, his greasy bag and bits of clothing. He peers down at Browne’s pink palm. He gathers everything into the crook of his left elbow and they shake.

             “Maybe we’ll run into one another on the golf course. someday,” Mickey says and walks off toward the store.

“Sure thing, partner … we’ll do lunch,” he calls after him, grateful there’s no one around to hear him.

 

 

                                                                                                ------------------------------------------

 

 

It’s a few minutes after nine and Browne has just picked up Wayne. They’ve got a 10:15 tee time and he wants to be at the course a half hour early to hit a few drives. Wayne’s about ten years younger then Browne and about three inches shorter. He’s got a buzz cut and that fleshy, bloated look that young men with too much wealth and too little ambition eventually acquire. Between the lime-green legs of his husky Sears’ slacks is a giant size Dunkin Doughnut’s coffee cup.

 “You shudda been there Brownie …” Wayne is saying. “I swear, he couldn’t of made a putt like that again if his life depended on it. Thirty feet, if it was an inch.”

Browne hits the usual bottleneck of traffic and slows. He’s thinking about a sand-wedge he saw in the pro shop at Emerald Dunes two weeks ago. The clerk told him they were asking one twenty five but Browne thinks they’ll take a even hundred. He purposely stopped at the bank after work on Friday and got ten brand new ten-dollar bills. He plans on stopping by the shop on their way home today and closing the deal. Let’s see that smart-aleck salesman turn down a hundred - cash., he thinks smugly.  He tries to picture the club, the odd-shaped head and new synthetic grip. His instructor said he should work on his short game, didn’t he? Told him he’s only a few strokes away from braking 80. Browne pictures Augusta and sees himself on the front 9. He’s studying the green while a hushed crowd looks on --

“…The Fuck outta here!”

He snaps out of his daydream. Wayne is holding his cup up by the dash and has his back arched up off the seat. “Fucking guy surprised the piss outa me. Coming out of no where like that. Look at this mess …”

Browne looks past Wayne and sees Mickey standing there, right outside the passenger side window. He’s wearing the same green field jacket and has his can pressed against the window. Browne almost calls over to him but stops himself. What’s he supposed to do, shake his hand? Ask about the wife and kids?

Mickey’s head is down, peering into the can just like he was when Browne left him. His eyelids are swollen and sag beneath his brows like wet tea-bags. He looks even more lost and desolate then he did a few weeks ago.

Browne pulls the billfold from his pocket - the ten crisp tens. He starts to peal one off but stops and refolds them. He’ll borrow a couple of bucks from Wayne later on, he decides. “Here,” he pushes the stack into Wayne’s free hand. “Give’em this.”

Wayne looks at the bills. “You’ve got to be kidding, man. These aren’t ones, you know.”

“I know.”

“Let me get this straight, you wanna  - .”

“Just give him the money Wayne.”

“The man’s a goddamn derelict!”

“Give him the fuckin money,” Browne barks.

Wayne powers down the window and shoves the bills into the can. Browne watches everything. Wayne resumes blotting coffee from his pants and muttering curses. Mickey picks the bills out of the can and examines them. His eyes blink and when he glances up to meet Browne’s stare, his ashen lids flutter like moth wings. A moment later he’s turning and walking away. Browne watches him disappear. Behind him he hears a horn, then another horn. “Okay, okay, asshole.”

Wayne lets out a long breath and chides: “Can’t believe you gave that bum - what?  A hundred bucks? Ya know what he’s gonna do with it, don’t you.”

“Shut up, Wayne. Just shut the hell up, okay?”

Browne accelerates with the traffic. In his rearview mirror he thinks he sees Mickey’s green jacket; a green dot against the morning’s milky haze. It shrinks from sight like a fly caught on a current of wind. When he sees that Wayne has set the coffee cup back in his crotch he hits the gas and pulls up next to a teal-blue BMW.

“Ya know something, ya really outta watch what you say about people,” he says to Wayne, flashing a smile at the blonde in the Beemer. “Guy back there … I happen ta know the man’s a fuckin war hero.”

 

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