“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 again, 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 under 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 olive 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.
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 fidgets nervously and checks the compartment built into the arm rest. 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 covered with 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 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 pale blue and bloodshot. There’s knots of dirty blonde and gray 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 oily and black, so much so they look like paint specks. Browne notices an odor too, not disgusting or anything, more like rip fruit about to decay. The jacket hangs from the man’s shoulders and is at least two sizes too big. It’s covered with islands of sweat stains and the 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 its 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 imagines 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. He nods at the sign.
“What right?” asks the man.
“The sign. You willing to do a little work if you get some food?”
The man just shakes the can again and shoves it closer.
“Com’on, is it bullshit or not. Just so happens I’ve got some work to do around the house and I could use some help. Wha’daya say? It ain’t rocket science.”
The man draws the can to his chest and leans forward. “I haven’t eaten in two days, mister. Can’t you spare a little?”
Browne can see that one of his front teeth is cracked. There’s a thin, dark fissure vertically dividing it. The tooth looks loose, and the two half-pieces swing from the pustular gum like mud flaps.
“Yeah things are tough all over,” Browne smirks. “Look you really looking for work or you just trying to score some booze money?”
The man’s eyes sweep up and down the line of cars. “I gotta eat, mister. Everyone’s gotta eat. Right?” He shoves the can deeper into the car, 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 sees the light turn green. “Damn bums.” He inches forward a bit and looks for a break 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 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 gray Lexus. At last the traffic is moving. He relaxes. “First off,” he begins, “here’s the deal. My wife is due back from her mother’s later this afternoon. Now in order for me to play golf tomorrow I need to get these storm-windows down. You know what storm windows are, don’t ya?”
“Yeah sure they’re windows.”
“Right… windows. Where was I? Oh yeah, my wife, 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 windows down today. She hates havin’ 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 your 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 twenty years old fer chrissake, wha’duz she expect?”
The man makes no effort to join the conversation. He sits stoically, his hands together, eyes fixed on the dashboard. 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; a dry, raspy wheeze that scratches their stale, cool pocket of air. He decides to lighten things up: “You won’t believe where we’re playing tomorrow. You play?”
“No … I didn’t think so. Well let me tell you, 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 turns into the driveway. The house is a one story ranch with a low, white roof and brick veneer going half way up the walls. It’s got an attached garage with a lucent backboard fastened to the front gable. The postage stamp lawn is already a deep rich green and is cut tight. Putting-green perfect.
Browne grabs the clicker from the visor and the garage door creeps up. “Ladder, 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! Your name…?”
“Mickey,” the man answers.
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, hitches up the waist of his dirt-crusted pants and goes back to work.
Browne watches from the his 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 an occasional burst of static erupting from the set which he assumes is the crowd responding to a great hit or difficult catch. He wants to 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 observe his worker, looking for signs of deviant behavior - anything that might look suspicious. Never know, he tells himself, as Mickey jams the screwdriver behind an aluminum frame and pops out the pane, 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 or something. 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.
As Browne emerges from the side door off the kitchen Mickey is sitting under an elm beside the garage. It’s small and affords little shade, yet it gives some degree of support to his tired muscles. His can is nestled between his legs and he counts the coins and crumpled up dollar bills. Almost ten dollars total. 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 when he sees Browne walking toward him. It looks like he’s got a tire iron or large knife in his hand. Mickey 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 sly grin and laughs like they’re sharing a joke.
Mickey points to the stack. “You going to store these anywhere special? 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.”