Friday, August 2, 2019

A Dirty Job Chapter 5

5 DARKNESS GETS UPPITY Hey, Ray,† Charlie said as he came down the steps into the storeroom. He always tried to make a lot of noise on the steps and usually fired a loud and early â€Å"hello† to warn his employees that he was coming. He'd worked a number of jobs before coming back to take over the family business, and had learned from experience that nobody liked a sneaky boss. â€Å"Hey, Charlie,† Ray said. Ray was out front, sitting on a stool behind the counter. He was pushing forty, tall, balding, and moved through the world without ever turning his head. He couldn't. As a San Francisco policeman, he'd caught a gangbanger's bullet in the neck six years ago, and that was the last time he'd looked over his shoulder without using a mirror. Ray lived on a generous disability pension from the city and worked for Charlie in exchange for free rent on his fourth-floor apartment, thus keeping the transaction off both their books. He spun around on the stool to face Charlie. â€Å"Hey – uh – I wanted to say that, you know, your situation, I mean, your loss. Everybody liked Rachel. You know, if I can do anything – â€Å" It was the first time Charlie had seen Ray since the funeral, so the awkwardness of secondary condolences had yet to be forded. â€Å"You've done more than enough by picking up my shifts. Whatcha working on?† Charlie was trying desperately to not look at the various objects in the shop that were glowing dull red. â€Å"Oh, this.† Ray rotated and pushed back so that Charlie could see the computer screen, where there were displayed rows of portraits of smiling, young Asian women. â€Å"It's called Desperate Filipinas dot-com.† â€Å"Is this where you met Miss LoveYouLongTime?† â€Å"That was not her name. Did Lily tell you that? That kid has problems.† â€Å"Yeah, well, kids,† Charlie said, suddenly noticing a matronly woman in tweed who was browsing the curio shelves at the front of the store. She was carrying a porcelain frog that was glowing dull red. Ray clicked on one of the pictures, which opened a profile. â€Å"Look at this one, boss. It says she's into sculling.† He spun on his stool again and bounced his eyebrows at Charlie. Charlie pulled his attention from the woman with the glowing frog and looked at the screen. â€Å"That's rowing, Ray.† â€Å"No it's not. Look, it says she was a coxswain in college.† Again with the eyebrow bounce, he offered a high five. â€Å"Also rowing,† Charlie said, leaving the ex-cop hanging. â€Å"The person at the back of the boat who yells at the rowers is called the coxswain.† â€Å"Really?† Ray said, disappointed. He'd been married three times, and been left by all three wives because of an inability to develop normal adult social skills. Ray reacted to the world as a cop, and while many women found that attractive initially, they expected him eventually to leave the attitude, along with his service weapon, in the coat closet when he arrived home. He didn't. When Ray had first come to work at Asher's Secondhand, it had taken two months for Charlie to get him to stop ordering customers to â€Å"move along, there's nothing to see here.† Ray spent a lot of time being disappointed in himself and humanity in general. â€Å"But, dude, rowing!† Charlie said, trying to make it all better. He liked the ex-cop in spite of his awkwardness. Ray was basically a good guy, kindhearted and loyal, hardworking and punctual, but most important, Ray was losing his hair faster than Charlie. Ray sighed. â€Å"Maybe I should search for another Web site. What's a word that means that your standards are lower than the desperate?† Charlie read down the page a little. â€Å"This woman has a master's degree in English lit from Cambridge, Ray. And look at her. She's gorgeous. And nineteen. Why is she desperate?† â€Å"Hey, wait a minute. A master's degree at nineteen, this girl is too smart for me.† â€Å"No she's not. She's lying.† Ray spun on the stool as if Charlie had poked him in the ear with a pencil. â€Å"No!† â€Å"Ray, look at her. She looks like one of those Asian models for Sour Apple Flavored Calamari Treats.† â€Å"They have that?† Charlie pointed to the left side of the front window. â€Å"Ray, let me introduce you to Chinatown. Chinatown, this is Ray. Ray, Chinatown.† Ray smiled, embarrassed. There was a store two blocks up that sold nothing but dried shark parts, the windows full of pictures of beautiful Chinese women holding shark spleens and eyeballs like they'd just received an Academy Award. â€Å"Well, the last woman I met through here did have a few errors and omissions in her profile.† â€Å"Like?† Charlie was watching the woman in tweed with the glowing frog, who was approaching the counter. â€Å"Well, she said that she was twenty-three, five feet tall, a hundred five pounds, so I thought, ‘Okay, I can have fun with a petite woman.' Turns out it was a hundred and five kilos.† â€Å"So, not what you expected?† Charlie said. He smiled at the approaching woman, feeling panic rise. She was going to buy the frog! â€Å"Five foot – two-thirty. She was built like a mailbox. I might have gotten past that, but she wasn't even twenty-three, she was sixty-three. One of her grandsons tried to sell her to me.† â€Å"Ma'am, I'm sorry, you can't buy that,† Charlie said to the woman. â€Å"You hear the expression all the time,† Ray went on, â€Å"but you hardly ever meet anyone really trying to sell his own grandmother.† â€Å"Why not?† the woman asked. â€Å"Fifty bucks,† Ray said. â€Å"That's outrageous,† the woman said. â€Å"It's marked ten.† â€Å"No, it's fifty for the grandmother Ray is dating,† Charlie said. â€Å"The frog is not for sale, ma'am, I'm sorry. It's defective.† â€Å"Then why do you have it on the shelf? Why is it marked for sale? I don't see any defect.† Evidently she couldn't see that the goofy porcelain frog was not only glowing in her hands, it had started to pulsate. Charlie reached across the counter and snatched it away from her. â€Å"It's radioactive, ma'am. I'm sorry. You can't buy it.† â€Å"I wasn't dating her,† Ray said. â€Å"I just flew to the Philippines to meet her.† â€Å"It is not radioactive,† the woman said. â€Å"You're just trying to jack up the price. Fine, I'll give you twenty for it.† â€Å"No, ma'am, public safety,† Charlie said, trying to look concerned, holding the frog to his chest as if shielding her from its dangerous energy. â€Å"And it's clearly ridiculous. You'll note that this frog is playing a banjo with only two strings. A travesty, really. Why don't you let my colleague show you something in a cymbal-playing monkey. Ray, could you show this young woman something in a monkey, please.† Charlie hoped that the â€Å"young woman† would win him points. The woman backed away from the counter, holding her purse before her like a shield. â€Å"I'm not sure I want to buy anything from you wack jobs.† â€Å"Hey!† Ray protested, as if to say that there was only one wack job on duty and he wasn't it. Then she did it, she quickstepped to a rack of shoes and picked up a pair of size-twelve, red Converse All Stars. They, too, were glowing. â€Å"I want these.† â€Å"No.† Charlie tossed the frog over his shoulder to Ray, who fumbled it and almost dropped it. â€Å"Those aren't for sale either.† The tweed woman backed away toward the door, holding the sneakers behind her. Charlie stalked her down the aisle, taking the occasional grab at the All Stars. â€Å"Give them.† When the woman butt-bumped into the front door and the bell over the jamb jingled, she looked up and Charlie made his move, faking hard left, then going right, reaching around her and grabbing the laces of the sneakers, as well as a scoop of big, tweedy ass in the bargain. He quickstepped back toward the counter, tossed the sneakers to Ray, and then turned and fell into a sumo stance to challenge the tweed woman. She was still at the door, looking as if she couldn't decide to be terrified or disgusted. â€Å"You people need to be put away. I'm reporting you to the Better Business Bureau and the local merchants' association. And you, Mr. Asher, can tell Ms. Severo that I will be back.† And with that, she was through the door and gone. Charlie turned to Ray. â€Å"Ms. Severo? Lily? She was here to see Lily?† â€Å"Truant officer,† Ray said. â€Å"She's been in a couple of times.† â€Å"You might have said something.† â€Å"I didn't want to lose the sale.† â€Å"So, Lily – â€Å" â€Å"Ducks out the back when she sees her coming. The woman also wanted to check with you that the notes for Lily's absences were legitimate. I vouched.† â€Å"Well, Lily is going back to school, and as of right now, I'm back to work.† â€Å"That's great. I took this call today – an estate in Pacific Heights. Lots of nice women's clothes.† Ray tapped a piece of notepaper on the counter. â€Å"I'm not really qualified to handle it.† â€Å"I'll do it, but first we have a lot to catch up on. Flip the ‘Closed' sign and lock the front door, would you, Ray?† Ray didn't move. â€Å"Sure, but – Charlie, are you sure that you're ready to go back to work?† He nodded to the sneakers and frog on the counter. â€Å"Oh, those, I think there's something wrong with them. You don't see anything unusual about those two items?† Ray looked again. â€Å"Nope.† â€Å"Or that once I took the frog away from her, she went right for a pair of sneakers that are clearly not her size?† Ray weighed the truth against the sweet deal he had here, with an apartment and under-the-table income and a boss that had really been a decent guy before he went 51/50, and he said, â€Å"Yeah, there was something strange about her.† â€Å"Aha!† said Charlie. â€Å"I just wish I knew where I could get a Geiger counter.† â€Å"I have a Geiger counter,† Ray said. â€Å"You do?† â€Å"Sure, you want me to get it?† â€Å"Maybe later,† Charlie said. â€Å"Just lock up, and help me gather up some of the merchandise.† Over the next hour Ray watched as Charlie moved a set of what seemed randomly chosen items from the store to the back room, directing him to under no circumstances put them back out or sell them to anyone. Then he retrieved the Geiger counter that he'd obtained on a sweet trade for a stringless oversized tennis racket and tested each item as Charlie instructed. And, of course, they were as inert as dirt. â€Å"And you don't see any glowing or pulsating or anything in this pile?† Charlie asked. â€Å"Sorry.† Ray shook his head, feeling a little embarrassed that he was witnessing this. â€Å"Good first day back to work, though,† Ray said, trying to make it all better. â€Å"Maybe you should call it a day, go check on the baby, and make that estate call in the morning. I'll box this stuff up and mark it so Lily won't sell or trade it.† â€Å"Okay,† Charlie said. â€Å"But don't throw it out, either. I'm going to figure this out.† â€Å"You betcha, boss. See you in the morning.† â€Å"Yeah, thanks, Ray. You can go home when you finish.† Charlie went back to his apartment, checking his hands the whole way to see if any of the red glow from the pile of objects had rubbed off on them, but they seemed normal. He sent Jane home, fed and bathed Sophie, and read her to sleep with a few pages from Slaughterhouse-Five, then went to bed early and slept fitfully. He awoke the next morning in a haze, then sat bolt upright in bed, eyes wide and heart pounding when he saw the note sitting on the nightstand. Another one. Then he noticed that this time it wasn't his handwriting, and the number was obviously a phone number, and he sighed. It was the estate appointment that Ray had made for him. He'd put it on the nightstand so he wouldn't forget. Mr. Michael Mainheart, it read; then upscale women's clothing and furs, with a double underline. The phone number had a local exchange. He picked up the note, and under it was a second piece of notepaper, this one with the same name, written in his own handwriting, and under it, the numeral 5. He didn't remember writing any of it. At that moment, something large and dark passed by the second-story bedroom window, but by the time he looked up, it was gone. A blanket of fog lay over the Bay and from Pacific Heights the great orange towers of the Golden Gate Bridge jutted through the fog bank like carrots from the faces of sleeping conjoined twin snowmen. In the Heights, the morning sun had already opened the sky and workmen were scurrying about, tending yards and gardens around the mansions. When he arrived at the home of Michael Mainheart the first thing Charlie noticed was that no one noticed him. There were two guys working in the yard, to whom Charlie waved as he passed, but they did not wave back. Then the mailman, who was coming off the big porch, drove him off the walkway into the dewy grass without so much as an â€Å"excuse me.† â€Å"Excuse me!† Charlie said, sarcastically, but the mailman was wearing headphones and listening to something that was inspiring him to bob his head like a pigeon feeding on amphetamines, and he bopped on. Charlie was going to shout something devastatingly clever, then thought better of it, for although it had been some years since he'd heard of a postal employee perpetrating a massacre, as long as the term â€Å"going postal† referred to anything besides choosing a shipping carrier, he felt he shouldn't press his luck. Called a wack job by a complete stranger one day and shouldered off the sidewalk by a civil servant the next: this city was becoming a jungle. Charlie rang the bell and waited to the side of the twelve-foot leaded-glass door. A minute later he heard light, shuffling steps approaching and a diminutive silhouette moved behind the glass. The door swung open slowly. â€Å"Mr. Asher,† said Michael Mainheart. â€Å"Thank you for coming.† The old man was swimming in a houndstooth suit that he must have bought thirty years ago when he was a more robust fellow. When he shook Charlie's hand his skin felt like an old wonton wrapper, cool and a little powdery. Charlie tried not to shudder as the old man led him into a grand marble rotunda, with leaded-glass windows running to a vaulted, forty-foot ceiling and a circular staircase that swept up to a landing that led off to the upper wings of the house. Charlie had often wondered what it was like to have a house with wings. How would you ever find your car keys? â€Å"Come this way,† Mainheart said. â€Å"I'll show you where my wife kept her clothes.† â€Å"I'm sorry about your loss,† Charlie said automatically. He'd been on scores of estate calls. You don't want to come off as some kind of vulture, his father used to say. Always compliment the merchandise; it might be a piece of crap to you, but they might have a lot of their soul poured into it. Compliment but never covet. You can make a profit and preserve everyone's dignity in the process. â€Å"Holy shit,† Charlie said as he followed the old man into a walk-in closet the size of his own apartment. â€Å"I mean – your wife had exquisite taste, Mr. Mainheart.† There was row upon row of designer couture clothing, everything from evening gowns to racks, two tiers high, of knit suits, arranged by color and level of formality – an opulent rainbow of silk and linen and wool. Cashmere sweaters, coats, capes, jackets, skirts, blouses, lingerie. The closet was shaped like a T, with a large vanity and mirror at the apex, and accessories on each wing (even the closet with wings!), shoes on one side, belts, scarves, and handbags on the other. A whole wing of shoes, Italian and French, handmade, from the skins of animals who had led happy, blemish-free lives. Full-length mirrors flanked the vanity at the end of the closet and Charlie caught the reflection of himself and Michael Mainheart in the mirror, he in his secondhand gray pinstripe and Mainheart in his ill-fitting houndstooth, studies in gray and black, stark and lifeless-looking in this vibrant garden. The old man went to the chair at the vanity and sat down with a creak and a wheeze. â€Å"I expect it will take you some time to assess it,† he said. Charlie stood in the middle of the closet and looked around for a second before replying. â€Å"It depends, Mr. Mainheart, on what you want to part with.† â€Å"All of it. Every stitch. I can't stand the feel of her in here.† His voice broke. â€Å"I want it gone.† He looked away from Charlie at the shoe wing, trying not to show that he was tearing up. â€Å"I understand,† Charlie said, not sure what to say. This collection was completely out of his league. â€Å"No, you don't understand, young man. You couldn't understand. Emily was my life. I got up in the morning for her, I went to work for her, I built a business for her. I couldn't wait to get home at night to tell her about my day. I went to bed with her and I dreamed about her when I slept. She was my passion, my wife, my best friend, the love of my life. And one day, without warning, she was gone and my life is a void. You couldn't possibly understand.† But Charlie did. â€Å"Do you have any children, Mr. Mainheart?† â€Å"Two sons. They came back for the funeral, then they went home to their own families. They offer to do whatever they can, but†¦Ã¢â‚¬  â€Å"They can't,† Charlie finished for him. â€Å"No one can.† Now the old man looked up at him, his face as bereft and barren as a mummified basset hound. â€Å"I just want to die.† â€Å"Don't say that,† Charlie said, because that's what you say. â€Å"That feeling will pass.† Which he said because everyone had been saying it to him. As far as he knew, he was just slinging bullshit clichs. â€Å"She was – † Mainheart's voice caught on the edge of a sob. A strong man, at once overcome by his grief and embarrassed that he was showing it. â€Å"I know,† Charlie said, thinking about how Rachel still occupied that place in his heart, and when he turned in the kitchen to say something to her, and she wasn't there, it took his breath. â€Å"She was – â€Å" â€Å"I know,† Charlie interrupted, trying to give the old man a pass, because he knew what Mainheart was feeling. She was meaning and order and light, and now that she's gone, chaos falls like a dark leaden cloud. â€Å"She was so phenomenally stupid.† â€Å"What?† Charlie looked up so quickly he heard a vertebra pop in his neck. Hadn't seen that coming. â€Å"The dumb broad ate silica gel,† Mainheart said, irritated as well as agonized. â€Å"What?† Charlie was shaking his head, as if trying to rattle something loose. â€Å"Silica gel.† â€Å"What?† â€Å"Silica gel! Silica gel! Silica gel, you idiot!† Charlie felt as if he should shout the name of some arcane stuff back at him: Well, symethicone! Symethicone! Symethicone, you butt-nugget! Instead he said, â€Å"The stuff fake breasts are made of? She ate that?† The image of a well-dressed older woman macking on a goopish spoonful of artificial boob spooge was running across the lobes of his brain like a stuttering nightmare. Mainheart pushed himself to his feet on the vanity. â€Å"No, the little packets of stuff they pack in with electronic equipment and cameras.† â€Å"The ‘Do Not Eat' stuff?† â€Å"Exactly.† â€Å"But it says right on the packet – she ate that?† â€Å"Yes. The furrier put packets of it in with her furs when he installed that cabinet.† Mainheart pointed. Charlie turned, and behind the large closet door where they had entered was a lighted glass cabinet – inside hung a dozen or so fur coats. The cabinet probably had its own air-conditioning unit to control the humidity, but that wasn't what Charlie was noticing. Even under the recessed fluorescent light inside the cabinet, one of the coats was clearly glowing red and pulsating. He turned back to Mainheart slowly, trying not to overreact, not sure, in fact, what would constitute an overreaction in this case, so he tried to sound calm, but not willing to take any shit. â€Å"Mr. Mainheart, I appreciate your loss, but is there something more going on here than you've told me?† â€Å"I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean.† â€Å"I mean,† Charlie said, â€Å"why, of all the used-clothing dealers in the Bay Area, did you decide to call me? There are people who are much more qualified to deal with a collection of this size and quality.† Charlie stormed over to the fur cabinet and pulled open the door. It made a floof-tha sound that the seal on a refrigerator door makes when opened. He grabbed the glowing jacket – fox fur, it appeared to be. â€Å"Or was it this? Did the call have something to do with this?† Charlie brandished the jacket like he was holding a murder weapon before the accused. In short, he thought about adding, are you fucking with me? â€Å"You were the first used-clothing dealer in the phone book.† Charlie let the jacket drop. â€Å"Asher's Secondhand?† â€Å"Starts with an A,† Mainheart said, slowly, carefully – obviously resisting the urge to call Charlie an idiot again. â€Å"So it has nothing to do with this jacket?† â€Å"Well, it has something to do with that jacket. I'd like you to take it away with all the rest of it.† â€Å"Oh,† Charlie said, trying to recover. â€Å"Mr. Mainheart, I appreciate the call, and this is certainly a beautiful collection, amazing, really, but I'm not equipped to take on this kind of inventory. And I'll be honest with you, even though my father would be spinning in his grave for telling you this, there is probably a million dollars' worth of clothes in this closet. Maybe more. And given the time and space to resell it, it's probably worth a quarter of that. I just don't have that kind of money.† â€Å"We can work something out,† Mainheart said. â€Å"Just to get it out of the house – â€Å" â€Å"I could take some of it on consignment, I suppose – â€Å" â€Å"Five hundred dollars.† â€Å"What?† â€Å"Give me five hundred dollars and get it out of here by tomorrow and it's yours.† Charlie started to object, but he could feel what felt like the ghost of his father rising up to bonk him on the head with a spittoon if he didn't stop himself. We provide a valuable service, son. We are like an orphanage to art and artifact, because we are willing to handle the unwanted, we give them value. â€Å"I couldn't do that, Mr. Mainheart, I feel as if I'd be taking advantage of your grief.† Oh for Christ's sake, you fucking loser, you are no son of mine. I have no son. Was that the ghost of Charlie's father, rattling chains in his head? Why, then, did it have the voice and vocabulary of Lily? Can a conscience be greedy? â€Å"You would be doing me a favor, Mr. Asher. A huge favor. If you don't take it, my next call is to the Goodwill. I promised Emily that if something ever happened to her that I wouldn't just give her things away. Please.† And there was so much pain in the old man's voice that Charlie had to look away. Charlie felt for the old man because he did understand. He couldn't do anything to help, couldn't say, It will get better, like everyone kept saying to him. It wasn't getting better. Different, but not better. And this fellow had fifty more years in which to pack his hopes, or in his case, his history. â€Å"Let me think about it. Check into storage. If I can handle it, I'll call you tomorrow, would that be all right?† â€Å"I'd be grateful,† Mainheart said. Then, for no reason that he could think of, Charlie said, â€Å"May I take this jacket with me? As an example of the quality of the collection, in case I have to divide it among other dealers.† â€Å"That would be fine. Let me show you out.† As they passed into the rotunda, a shadow passed across the leaded-glass windows, three stories up. A large shadow. Charlie paused on the steps and waited for the old man to react, but he just tottered on down the staircase, leaning heavily on the railing as he went. When Mainheart reached the door he turned to Charlie, extending his hand. â€Å"I'm sorry about that, uh, outburst upstairs. I haven't been myself since – â€Å" As the old man began to open the door a figure dropped outside, casting the silhouette of a bird as tall as a man through the glass. â€Å"No!† Charlie dove forward, knocking the old man aside and slamming the door on the great bird's head, the heavy black beak stabbing through and snapping like hedge clippers, rattling an umbrella stand and scattering its contents across the marble floor. Charlie's face was only inches from the bird's eye, and he shoved the door with his shoulder, trying to keep the beak from snapping off one of his hands. The bird's claws raked against the glass, cracking one of the thick beveled panels as the animal thrashed to free itself. Charlie threw his hip against the doorjamb then slid down it, dropped the fox jacket, and snatched one of the umbrellas from the floor. He stabbed up into the bird's neck feathers, but lost his purchase on the doorjamb – one of the black talons snaked through the opening and raked across his forearm, cutting through his jacket, his shirtsleeve, and into the flesh. Charlie shoved the umbrella with all he had, driving the bird's head back through the opening. The raven let out a screech and took flight, its wings making a great whooshing noise as it went. Charlie lay on his back, out of breath, staring at the leaded-glass panels, as if any moment the shadow of the giant raven would come back, then he looked to Michael Mainheart, who lay crumpled on his side like a stringless marionette. Beside his head lay a cane with an ivory handle that had been carved into the shape of a polar bear that had fallen from the umbrella stand. The cane was glowing red. The old man was not breathing. â€Å"Well that's fucked up,† Charlie said.

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