Lock and Gun
Kelly told me that her dad and brothers never hired movers; they got some friends together and they moved themselves. That’s fine, I told her, but I’ve moved around a lot of times now and I have my own system. The movers’ names on this end are Rod and Anthony and they’re smoking and waiting for me on the street in front of the new row house as I pull up in the U-Haul truck. That’s how I move, with different crews on each end, and I do the driving myself. Anyway, it’s my system. We shake hands and the older one, Anthony, says, “I grew up close to here. I didn’t know this was the kind of neighborhood people were moving into.”
Both men have watery brown eyes, and both are sizing it all up: me, the block, the truck, the three steps up the stoop.
“Sure they are,” says Rod. “Lots of people just like him.”
“You bought this house?” says Anthony.
“No, we’re renting.”
“That’s good,” he says.
“It doesn’t look like much but the price was right,” I say.
I don’t care how it looks. I know it doesn’t look great. The question is if Kelly will agree to live in it. But at least the price is right. She says that all of our money decisions have to start making sense from now on, which will be a brand new sensation for us. I unlock the truck’s back gate to get things started. It rolls up and away, and the movers whistle low and loud at the mess inside.
A laundry basket full of portable phones and old remote controls tumbles at us and crashes to the ground.
“That is no way to pack a truck,” says Anthony.
“That’s the worst-packed truck I’ve ever seen,” says Rod.
“The movers up there were no good,” I say.
“They just crammed it all in,” says Rod. “Look, they broke a leg off your couch.”
“That was me. I had to rip it off or the gate wouldn’t close. I’ll fix it later.” I’m good with furniture. There’s a lot that I know how to do. But if there’s a way to make a steady living off that, I haven’t found it. After a series of disasters I’m looking at a new city and a new line of work.
“You didn’t want to re-pack it?” says Anthony. “Pull it all out and re-pack it?”
“Wasn’t time. I was trying to be on time down here for you guys.”
“You have to be careful about who you hire, who you allow to touch your stuff,” says Anthony. “They just jammed all this in. You should never have let them handle your belongings. That is, if you care about your belongings, which I assume you do.”
“Sure he does,” says Rod. “But me, I would’ve got myself a bigger truck.”
“Well, this truck’s in a handicapped spot,” I say. “We should get started.”
Rod gets the idea and drops his cigarette to pull on work-gloves coated in blue rubber. “Maybe you can wait with the truck,” he says, “and keep an eye on these belongings that remain inside it. And we’ll start moving it all in.”
I step on Rod’s cigarette and stand on my new street under a woolen August sky, sweating and watching for Kelly as the movers carry the boxes up the steps and into the house. The elevated interstate is up there at the end of the block. Kelly won’t like that. Down the other end, the neighborhood’s main drag intersects our street and the corner has a fruit stand and a pizza shop along with a florist and a barber. The barber has a motorized striped pole, and the flower shop is painted like a green gingerbread house, but the sidewalks smell like urine. It all looked and smelled better last month when I did the walkthrough and paid the deposit, when the sky was blue and there was a breeze off the river.
Anthony steps outside onto the stoop and points at the metal piece on the outer front door, the thing with the spring-rod and cylinder. “See this thing?” he says. “This uh, mechanism, is taking up our wiggle room. I can’t get the big boxes past. What do you say we remove this whole storm door?”
“That thing is called a door-closer,” says Rod. “Either a closer or a door spring, you could call it either one, take your pick.”
“Whatever you want to call it, it’s in our way,” says Anthony. “Let’s take the door off.”
“No,” I say, “but I can take the door spring off.”
“The door spring is a door-closer but it’s also what keeps the door open for us,” says Rod, “by way of this sliding toggle.”
“We’ll prop it with a block or something,” I tell him. The door spring is rusted and doesn’t really work anyway so I get a screwdriver and take the thing off its mounting. I take the broken couch leg and stick it in the upper corner of the door to prop it open. When I come inside a little while later to check on things, the movers are wrestling with my mattress on the stairwell. Bright streaks of fresh blood mark the white plaster in the living room and on the stairway wall. Rod is in mid-staircase, holding up the bottom end of the Macy’s queen that Kelly’s mom bought us for a wedding present. “You exposed a screw on your front door when you took that thing off,” he says. “I cut my arm open on it.”
He dismounts the stairs, leaving Anthony at the top holding the mattress. “Any staircase this steep,” says Anthony, “should be called a ladder.”
Rod tears off a wad of paper towels from a roll on the floor and dabs at the scratch on his arm. Then he takes a fresh wad and pokes at the wide smear of blood on the wall. I try to help but he says the scratch is nothing, and he slaps at it to prove his point. It doesn’t look like nothing, especially after he slaps it with his hand to show it’s not bleeding, and the blood blots and pools on his arm, then drips on the floor. “It’s fine,” he says, “What it comes down to is, some peoples’ doors are safe and some peoples’ aren’t.” He blots and wipes at the wall with the paper, spreading the clouds of blood into ever-widening circles. The house has been baptized in blood. This is not an omen, a jinx, or a curse, I tell myself. Rod is fascinated by the blood oozing from his arm. “You’re lucky I’m not drunk,” he says. “You ever see someone bleed when they’re drinking? We’d be standing in a pool of it.”
Anthony is still up on the stairs, holding the mattress. “Right or left?” he calls out. “Where do you want the mattress? The left bedroom or the right?” There’s no hall up there. The stairs hit a wall and end at a small landing with a bedroom on each side.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Either one for now. My wife will know. She’s following in the car. One of the rooms will be the baby’s room.”
“Your wife hasn’t picked one?” says Anthony.
“She hasn’t seen the rooms yet,” I say. “I just found this place.” Anthony snakes his head around the mattress in order to make a face at his partner.
“Put it wherever’s easier,” I tell him.
“Right or left?” says Anthony. I tell him right and he horses the mattress through the doorway. Rod goes into the bathroom to wash his arm.
“Let’s get this blood off the wall before she shows up,” I say to Anthony.
While the movers finish up I walk across to the deli to buy them a six-pack for a tip, the way people do in Ridge, where I grew up. An orange cat is roaming near the fridge, which exhibits only soft drinks.
“You don’t sell beer?” I ask the girl. I guess from the wattled look of her eyes that her mother had been on crack or alcohol. I’m always noticing people's eyes more than any other feature, probably because my parents both had jade green eyes but mine are plain brown. Also, Kelly has what’s called keyhole eyes, which are extremely unique. Her pupils are vertical slits like a dragon’s.
“We can’t. It’s the law,” the girl says. She says distributors can sell beer in this state, but most corner markets can’t, and the distributors sell only by the case. “If you want a six-pack,” she says, “go to a bar.”
By the time Kelly pulls up, I’m back with the six-pack and the bloodstains are wet shadows on the wall due to Anthony and me using half a bottle of Fantastik. The movers are sweeping out the rental truck. Kelly stands on our new street with baby Percy on her hip and she looks around with her keyhole eyes. She’s wearing a shirt with a cartoon of a creature that’s half donkey and half bunny-rabbit, which is one of her best-selling shirts.
“Ma’am, be careful,” says Anthony. “You’ve parked pretty close to the hydrant.”
“What is this doing on the curb?” she says. It’s our box spring.
“It won’t fit up our stairs,” I say. “It doesn’t bend like the mattress, and it can’t make the turn into the bedroom.”
“We’re throwing it out? Sleeping on the floor?”
“Not on the floor,” I say. “On a mattress on the floor.”
She looks up the block and sniffs.
From their perch in the truck, Anthony and Rod don’t even pretend to look away or do any work.
“The river’s right over there,” I say. “We’re only a block from the river.”
“The river? That’s 95. We live a block from Interstate 95.”
“And just past that is the river,” I say. “There’s a park.”
“What kind of city covers up the river with a highway? And who rents a house on the same block? Did you think the cars would be like listening to the ocean at night?” She lifts the baby and lowers him into my arms.
He’s so light. He croaks, then bares his gums in a slow careful smile that Kelly thinks is like mine, though she’s wrong about that.
“We put the baby’s things in the left-hand bedroom,” says Anthony. “Seemed to make the most sense.”
Kelly just points her eyes at him. Then to me, she says, “This neighborhood is crumbling.”
“It’s already crumbled,” says Rod.
“People are living here. There’s no empty houses,” I say. “That’s what I see.” I also see the type of life people had been living a few decades ago. I want to live without too many electronic hook-ups, and work with wood and fabric and glue and my tools. That is, once I get some new tools to replace all the ones I’ve sold.
“There’s a community pool,” she says.
“Great,” I say.
“But it’s closed for the season.”
“It’s not even Labor Day.”
“Well, it’s closed,” she says.
“Well I believe they’re more on the school schedule,” Rod says. “The public schools. They don’t care about Labor Day. It’s when school starts. They close the pool.”
“I think your little man is hungry,” says Rod.
Up on the side of a building near to our new house I see a painted yellow sign with black letters and two revolvers with their barrels crossed to form an X over a padlock. Lock and Gun. The business is gone but the sign remains, and there’s a message there.
“Just trying to be helpful,” says Rod. “It could be that you end up deciding that New Jersey is more to your tastes. It could be you end up picking out a little town out there that you like, and settling in.” He nods at Anthony. “That’s what me and my brother did.”
Kelly doesn’t like familiar talk from strangers. She’s on the record about that. She takes baby Percy back and jostles him in a way that makes him laugh. “No, we’re going to like it here just fine,” she says to the movers. “We moved here for a reason. We moved here on purpose.” She looks at me. “Have we paid them yet?”
I give Anthony the money plus twenty dollars and then I pick up the paper bag with the six loose beers. “Do you guys have any interest in this? Where I come from this is the usual thing.”
I hand the bag to Rod. Anthony sees the paper bag and says, “What is it, peaches? Because if it is, no thank you.
I don’t eat any kind of fruit.”
Rod looks inside and says, “You eat this kind of fruit,” and shows him and they laugh.
When they’re gone Kelly asks how much I gave them. I tell her eighty.
“You hired them for sixty, paid them eighty, and also gave them a six-pack?”
“One of them cut his arm,” I say.
I reattach the door spring and pull out the couch leg while Kelly watches me from the sidewalk. She still hasn’t seen the inside of the place.
“Do we get a tour, or what?” she says.
After I show her around she locates the sheets in a box in the kitchen and makes up the mattress. I take this as a good sign.
“Do we have to bring back the truck?” she asks.
“Not till tomorrow.”
“Percy will sleep with us tonight.”
“What happens after that?” I say.
“The crib,” she says. “He’ll sleep in his room in his crib. I don’t think either of us wants to put together a crib right now.”
“At least if he rolls out,” I say, “we’re already down near the floor.”
“He’ll be between us,” she says.
I give the baby a bottle and she puts him to sleep on the mattress. I go from room to room slashing the tape on the box tops, and the cars on the highway sound just like the ocean, and sometime during the night, while we’re all asleep, a cop comes along and tickets both our car and the rental truck.
Three days later Kelly announces that she’s taking Percy and moving in with her sister Mary up in Montclair. After I help her pack the car I click Percy into his seat and kiss him on his arm and I lean into the driver’s side window so that my face is even with hers and I ask her was it the house, or Philly, was it me, or what.