The first time we try to deliver the Gold Crown the lights are on in the house but no one lets us in. I bang on the front door and Wayne hits the back and I can hear our double drum shaking the windows like bass. Right then I have this feeling that someone is inside, laughing at us.
This guy better have a good excuse, Wayne says, lumbering around the newly planted rosehips. This is bullshit.
You’re telling me, I say but Wayne’s the one who takes this job too seriously; he pounds some more on the door, his face jiggling. A couple of times he raps carefully on the windows, tries squinting through the curtains. I take a more philosophical approach: I walk over to the ditch that has been cut next to the road and sit down. A drainage pipe half-filled with water. I smoke and watch a mama duck and her three ducklings scavenge the grassy bank and then float downstream like they’re on the same string. Beautiful, I say but Wayne doesn’t hear. He’s banging on the door with the staple gun.
At nine Wayne picks me up at the showroom and by then I have our route planned out. The order forms tell me everything I need to know about the customers we’ll be dealing with that day. If someone is just getting a 52" card table delivered then you know they aren’t going to be too much hassle but they also aren’t going to tip. Those are your Spotswood, Sayreville and Perth Amboy deliveries. The pool tables though go north to the rich suburbs, to Livingston, Ridgewood, Bedminster. And lots go out to Long Island.
You should see our customers. Doctors, diplomats, surgeons. presidents of universities, people who dress in slacks and silk tops, who sport thin watches you could trade in for a car, who wear comfortable leather shoes. Most of them prepare for us by laying down a path of yesterday’s Washington Post from the front door to the game room. I make them pick it all up. I say: Carajo, what if we slip? Do you know what two hundred pounds of slate could do to a floor? The threat of property damage puts the chop-chop in their step. The best customers bring us water and leave us alone until the bill has to be signed. Few have offered us more, though a dentist from Ghana once gave us a six-pack of Heineken while we worked.
Sometimes the customer has to jet to the store for cat food or for a newspaper while we’re in the middle of a job. I’m sure you’ll be all right, they say. They never sound too sure. Of course, I say. Just show us where the silver’s at. The customers ha-ha and we ha-ha and then they agonize over leaving, linger by the front door, trying to memorize everything they own, as if they don’t know where to find us, whom we work for.
Once they’re gone, I don’t have to worry about anyone bothering me. I put down the ratchet, crack my knuckles and explore, usually when Wayne is smoothing out the felt and I can’t help. I take cookies from the kitchen, razors from the bathroom cabinets. Some of these houses have twenty, thirty rooms. I often count and on the ride back figure out how much loot it would take to fill all that space up with cherrywood tables, Federal blue carpets and ottomans. I’ve been caught roaming around plenty of times but you’d be surprised how quickly someone believes you’re looking for the bathroom if you don’t jump when you’re discovered, if you just say, Howdy.
After the paperwork’s been signed, I have a decision to make. If the customer has been good and tipped well, we call it even and leave. If the customer has been an ass — maybe they yelled at us, maybe they let their kids throw golf balls at us — I ask for the bathroom. Wayne will pretend that he hasn’t seen this before; he’ll count the drill bits while the customer (or their maid) guides the vacuum over the floor. Excuse me, I say. I let them show me to the bathroom (usually I already know) and once the door is shut I cram bubble bath drops into my pockets and throw fist-sized wads of toilet paper into the toilet. I take a dump if I can and leave that for them.
Most of the time Wayne and I work well together. He’s the driver and the money man and I do the lifting and handle the assholes. Today we’re on our way to Lawrenceville and he wants to talk to me about Charlene, one of the showroom girls, the one with the blow-job lips. I haven’t wanted to talk about women in months, not since the girlfriend.
I really want to pile her, he tells me. Maybe on one of the Madisons.
Man, I say, cutting my eyes towards him. Don’t you have a wife or something?
He gets quiet. I’d still like to pile her, he says defensively.
And what will that do?
Why does it have to do anything?
Twice this year Wayne’s cheated on his wife and I’ve heard it all, the before and the after. The last time his wife nearly tossed his ass out to the dogs. Neither of the women seemed worth it to me. One of them was even younger than Charlene. Wayne can be a moody guy and tonight is one of those nights; he slouches in the driver’s seat and swerves through traffic, riding other people’s bumpers like I’ve told him not to do. I don’t need a collision or a four-hour silent treatment so I try to forget that I think his wife is good people and ask him if Charlene’s given him any signals.
He slows the truck down. Signals like you wouldn’t believe, he says.
On the days we have no deliveries the boss has us working at the showroom, selling cards and poker chips and Mankala boards. Wayne spends his time skeezing on the salesgirls and dusting shelves. He’s a big goofy guy — I don’t understand why the girls dig his shit. The boss keeps me in the front of the store, away from the pool tables. He knows I’ll talk to the customers, tell them not to buy the cheap models. I’ll say shit like, Stay away from those Bristols. Wait until you can get something real. Only when he needs my Spanish will he let me help on a sale. Since I’m no good at cleaning or selling slot machines I slouch behind the front register and steal. I don’t ring anything up and pocket what comes in. I don’t tell Wayne. He’s too busy running his fingers through his beard, keeping the waves on his nappy head in order. A hundred-buck haul’s not unusual for me and back in the day, when the girlfriend used to pick me up, I’d buy her anything she wanted, dresses, silver rings, lingerie. Sometimes I blew it all on her. She didn’t like the stealing but hell, we weren’t made out of loot and I liked going into a place and saying, Jeva, pick out anything, it’s yours. This was the closest I’ve come to feeling rich.
Nowadays I take the bus home and the cash stays with me. I sit next to this three-hundred-pound rock-and-roll chick who washes dishes at the Friendly’s. She tells me about the roaches she kills with her water nozzle. Boils the wings right off them. On Thursday I buy myself lottery tickets — ten Quick Picks and a couple of Pick-Fours. I don’t bother with the little stuff.
The second time we bring the Gold Crown the heavy curtain next to the door swings up like a Spanish fan. A woman stares at me and Wayne’s too busy knocking to see. Muñeca, I say. She’s black and unsmiling and then the curtain drops between us, a whisper on the glass. She had on a T-shirt that said NO PROBLEM and didn’t look like she owned the place. She looked more like the help and couldn’t have been older than twenty and from the thinness of her face I pictured the rest of her skinny. We stared at each other for a second at the most, not enough for me to notice the shape of her ears or if her lips were chapped. I’ve fallen in love on less.
Later in the truck, on the way back to the showroom Wayne mutters, This guy is dead. I mean it.
The girlfriend calls sometimes but not often. She has found herself a new boyfriend, some zángano who works at a record store. Dan is his name and the way she says it, so painfully gringo, makes the corners of my eyes close. The clothes that I’m sure this guy tears from her when they both get home from work — the chokers, the rayon skirts from the Warehouse, the lingerie — I bought with stolen money and I’m glad that none of it was earned straining my back against hundreds of pounds of raw rock. I’m glad for that.
The last time I saw her in person was in Hoboken; she was with Dan and hadn’t yet told me about him and hurried across the street in her high clogs to avoid me and my boys, all of whom could sense me turning, turning into the motherfucker who’ll put a fist through anything. She flung one hand in the air but didn’t stop. Before that, before the zángano, I went to her house and her parents asked me how business was, as if I balanced the books or something. Business is outstanding, I said.
That’s really wonderful to hear, the father said.
He asks me to help him mow his lawn and while we’re dribbling clear gas into the tank he offers me a job. Utilities, he says, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Later the parents go to the den to watch the Giants lose and she takes me into her bathroom. She puts on her makeup because we’re going to a movie. As friends. If I had your eyelashes, I’d be famous, she tells me. The Giants start losing real bad. I still love you, she says and I’m embarrassed for the two of us, the way I’m embarrassed at those afternoon talk shows where broken couples and unhappy families let their hearts hang out.
We’re friends, I say and Yes, she says, yes we are.