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!”
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.
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.
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.
right?” He juts his chin in the sign’s direction.
right?” asks the man in the jacket.
sign. You work if you get some food?”
man shakes the can again and shoves it closer.
is it bullshit or not. I’m asking if you’ll do some work if I get you
man draws the can back. “I haven’t eaten in two days, mister.”
He gives Browne a weak smile.
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
sure,” Browne says, “but do you want to work or you just looking for booze
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.
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
the passenger side window he hears again;
Well what do you know,” he almost laughs. He pops the lock and the man
sides in. “Changed your mind, huh?”
I was hungry.”
look, just be careful where you put your shit, okay. This thing’s not
paid for yet.”
man places his can on the floor along with a filthy baseball cap and a
brown, grease -stained paper bag. “Where we going?”
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.”
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?”
man shakes his head.
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
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?”
… 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?”
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.
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.”
man collects his things and steps from the car. He looks around nervously
wondering where to store his can and belongings.
your stuff right by the door there.” Browne calls from the front stoop.
“What’s your name my friend?”
man says something but he’s bent over setting his things on the concrete
driveway and Browne can’t hear him.
the man shouts.
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”
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.
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.
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
how’s it going?” Browne calls to him.
done,” Mickey says, his voice too loud.
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.
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
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.”
thanks.” Mickey looks down at Browne’s arm that is stiff and pulled in
close to his hip.
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.”
done except for the one window over the front door. Gonna need a longer
it,” Browne tells him, looking past him into the garage. “That’s
been up there for years. I never bother to take it down.”
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?”
kidding.” He walks a half circle around him, checking out all the
different insignias. “How long you in for?”
did my four.”
huh? Well four’s plenty.
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?”
looks down at his own chest. “These? Don’t mean anything.”
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.”
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.”
grunts. “Navy man, huh?” Just then he sees a car swing into the
driveway. “Ah shit, there’s my wife now.”
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
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 -.”
hears the clicking of his wife’s high-heels and spins around.
She stops and sees the windows stacked next to the garage. “You’ve
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.
she says. “Doreen...”
mumbles hello and looks over at Browne who is shifting his weight from
foot to foot.
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.”
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 --.”
Browne cuts her off. “I mean jeez, we gotta run.”
a pause and Brown looks pleadingly at Mickey.
right, I almost forgot,” Mickey says. “The tow - remember. I need to
arrange for a tow.”
suddenly alert, agrees. “Yeah the tow.”
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.”
not a Toyota is it?” she asks, “I’m
still hearing funny noises in the Camry.”
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.
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.
coming right back?” she calls after him.
take more then ten or fifteen minutes.”
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.
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?”
problem.” Mickey tells him.
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?”
thanks,” Mickey replies with derision.
okay then. Where can I drop you.?”
light make a left. You’ll see a liquor store about three blocks
you wanted to eat?” Browne asks sharply.
aint hungry no more.”
So I was right after all!”
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?”
did what you asked, didn’t I?”
but that’s not the point.”
is the point? You figure you overpaid me?”
look, all’s I said was that I’d feed you.”
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
bout some nice chops and veggies,” Mickey says.
I’m not taking about food here. I’m talking about self respect.
Ain’t you got any self respect?”
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
… partner … it’s not my fault you - .”
up here,” Mickey interrupts, pointing at a sign that reads: Discount
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.”
leans way over and sticks his hand out the window. “You take care.”
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.
we’ll run into one another on the golf course. someday,” Mickey says
and walks off toward the store.
thing, partner … we’ll do lunch,” he calls after him, grateful
there’s no one around to hear him.
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.
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.”
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 --
Fuck outta here!”
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 …”
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?
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.
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.”
looks at the bills. “You’ve got to be kidding, man. These aren’t
ones, you know.”
me get this straight, you wanna -
give him the money Wayne.”
man’s a goddamn derelict!”
him the fuckin money,” Browne barks.
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.”
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.”
up, Wayne. Just shut the hell up, okay?”
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.
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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