Friday, November 08, 2013

An Older Story of Mine

Fighting Over Angels
by Katherine Gotthardt
Copyright 1993


The words stuck with him, like the smell of a big rig’s exhaust on the highway even after it has passed. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” He wanted to tell Kenny this, but he couldn’t slip the words in.

“I mean it. I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world,” Kenny was saying. “Nothing bad has ever happened to me. I mean sure, I’ve had a share of unhappiness, but nothing serious. This sounds crazy, but I really believe I have a guardian angel looking over me.” Kenny looked at him with that intenseness Joe hated, the look he reserved for confidential, profound talks that were supposed to make Joe respect his employer as a sage and not just the owner of a cleaning company. At moments like this, Kenny looked like he wanted to jump up wielding Excalibur rather than a vacuum hose. Joe exhaled slowly, purposely silent, and sipped his beer.

“Now don’t laugh, Joe,” he said. “But let me tell you about this time I was playing poker with Jeremy and the boys over the North Side. The place is dark except this lamp on the table – you know how that place is right? Kind of ware-housy but the drinks are cheap. We should head over there some night. But not Thursdays. Thursdays they play for some real money over there. Well this was a Thursday. I know that because I was losing a lot of money. And you know how I hate to lose money, Joey. I mean, usually I just play for nickels, dimes, maybe a dollar here and there. But we’re talking I was in the hole for two hundred and the night was just getting started. Damn rotten luck, so far.” He raised his glass to his lips, red swollen lips. Joe thought of a girl he used to date with lips like that. After three hours of making out, they looked like they had been fighting instead of kissing. Maybe if he went over and laid one on Kenny, he would shut up.

He had met Kenny standing in the unemployment line. Kenny stood smiling like he had nowhere else he would rather be. Joe wasn’t living anywhere particular at the time – usually spent the night on a friend’s couch. Rules were he could stay as long as he came in after the wives and kids were in bed and left before anyone was up. Kenny started talking about opening a small business, he needed a partner. Was he interested? What better partner than someone who needed work as much as he did? Good motivational factor. “Call me next week,” Kenny had said. “It should all be arranged by then.” Joe called and it was.

“So I’m holding these cards and cursing my luck and I think, Kenny old boy, you are really stupid. Work hard all week, pushing brooms, running Joey like a slave (we were working on that White Cliff’s account, remember that Joe? Damn huge place. Never did get those fingerprints off the banister. They’ll have to have it refinished, I guess.) Jeremy is talking and laughing, rest of the guys are real silent like, me I’m just holding my cards close to my chest like I always do. And now I’m scowling I guess because Jeremy starts making cracks about my face, how I look like someone died or something. So now I’m getting aggravated when all of a sudden, I feel like someone’s in back of me.” He paused and took a dramatic sip. Joe looked quickly around the crowded bark, hoping no one was listening. No one was.

“Well, it’s like I said. You know how creepy North Side is. So very slowly, so no one would even notice, I kind of turn my head to look behind me. My eyes slide around to the sides and over my shoulder. And there, I am not kidding you, is this dark shadow standing right behind me. And it’s got a hand on my head.” Joe stared at him with what Kenny must have mistaken for fascination. “I’m not kidding you, Joey. And you know what else? This figure or shadow or whatever it was, was the exact height and size of my grandfather.” Kenny gripped his beer glass. His knuckles looked as red and swollen as his lips. “And in a second, I turned back to my cards. Trying not to look shook up, you know? I turned in three. I picked up my three.” He stopped and took a drink, looked around the bar. His long white hair dipped into his glass and for a moment, he didn’t say anything else.

Joe traced the wood grain on the bar then looked up suddenly. He watched a pretty woman across the way laugh and touch the shoulder of a guy clad in mechanic’s overalls. He glanced at his boss who was staring into nothingness. “Well what happened?” he demanded.

Kenny turned to him. “Full house.” He downed the rest of his glass and quietly placed it on the bar. “Full house, everything anted. Won back my two hundred and then some. Left right after. I might be a gambler, but I’m not a fool. Said good-bye to the boys, thanks to my Grandpa, and walked out.”

Which is what Joe wanted to do right now. Kenny uncannily said, “Well, I guess we should get going. You never been to the Vandercourts, have you? Wait’ll you see the place. Old Man Vandercourt – now there’s another lucky guy. Doctor of something. Works with kids. They say he’s a great guy and a great doc. Don’t hear much of that happening anymore.” He dropped some bills on the counter and slid off the chair. Joe reached for his pocket. “Got you covered, Joey.”

The sunlight blinded Joe and he had to shield his eyes to see the van. It was one of those warmer spring days when all that’s wanted are long sleeves and a good attitude. Joe had the sleeves. He sulked in the van seat, kicked a foam coffee cup that had been on the floor for three days now, and scowled at the faded red rug. Kenny whistled and clicked up the driver’s side door shut. “Hey, what did I tell you about buckling up?” Joe eyed him contemptuously and pulled the strap around his shoulder.

“So what do you think of my story, Joey? Pretty crazy, huh?”

Joe shrugged. “I guess I’m not one to believe in things like that,” he said. He was thinking of a woman who gave him her phone number last week. Maybe he could call her, clean up his apartment a little, and have her over for dinner.

“Yeah, most people aren’t,” Kenny said. “But I sure have been lucky in life. That’s just one example. There was this other time me and Jim were coming back from a long haul down south. I ever tell you about that?” Joe sighed and looked out the window. It was going to be a long afternoon.

Kenny took a sharp left. Joe grabbed on to the handle by the van’s cracked ceiling. “Me and Jim were coming back from Nancy’s wedding (this is just after you started working for me, Joey, as I remember) and like I said, it was a long haul. We drove for days through Georgia it seemed, wanted to make it back by sunrise. Had a big job to do in the morning, lots of stripping and waxing. You know how long that takes. Anyway, I’m driving and Jim’s in back drinking and singing and carrying on. I’m a little peeved because I kind of expected him to help out with this driving gig but oh well, let him have his fun, right? So Jim is carrying on like I say and…damnit it. Forgot to stop for gas. Joey do me a favor and grab that ten out of the glove box will you? Might be a few minutes late, but if we run out of gas, we’ll be a lot later. And we’ll need plenty of gas just to get up that driveway of theirs. Wait’ll you see the place, Joey. It’ll knock your bloomers off.” Joe opened the glove box and reached for the cash.

If he ever was going to rip someone off, it would be Kenny. Kenny was one of those people who didn’t believe in ATM cards and as a result, he tended to keep wads of cash in open places. Like the glove box. “Petty Cash” Kenny called the stash in there, but it equaled about fifty dollars and the balance mysteriously never dropped below that amount no matter how many times they used it for gas or beer or floor wax. He knew Kenny had money, and lots of it. It just wasn’t all that apparent from the van. Or from his clothes. If I had that money, Joe thought. Boy. You wouldn’t see me trucking around in this old heap cleaning other people’s messes. No, he would hire a crew to do that and spend his time visiting investment firms and doing lunch with beautiful, bored housewives. Something like that.

“…next thing,” Kenny interrupted Joe’s thoughts. They were stopped and the gas was pouring into the tank. Must be full serve only. Kenny never did full serve if he didn’t have to. “I hear Jim snoring back there and I think, well, that’s better anyway. Now I don’t have to listen to him. But now I’m getting tired and it’s dark and late so I start my keeping awake ritual. You know, singing, keep the window down, tell myself jokes, that sort of thing. But something happens and I must have dozed off.” Kenny thanked the attendant and handed him the bill. The attendant smiled broadly and wished them a good afternoon. He was a middle aged guy with greasy hair and thin legs that didn’t look adequate enough to hold on his jeans. He whistled as Kenny started the van back up. Must be stoned or something, Joe thought. No one could be that happy pumping gas all day.

“And all of a sudden, I hear ‘what do you think Kenny?’ from the back seat. My eyes fly open and I’m headed for the Jersey barriers on the other side of the damn road. And Jim is fast asleep again! He hadn’t said a thing for hours, but just at the moment I needed to be woken up, there he was. Didn’t say a thing after that either. Slept like a baby until we hit Virginia border. If it wasn’t for him and light traffic, I wouldn’t be here telling you this story right now.”

Kenny pulled into the driveway. It was long and steep and had a security gate. What a place, Joe thought. He could see a rolling front lawn abutted by trees, a house the size of a hotel, giant white pillars and regal black shutters. “I’ll tell you, I got myself an angel, Joey. Best damn angel. You believe in angels?” The van stopped.

“I don’t think so,” Joe said, hopping out and sliding open the van door.

“Well, I’ll tell you, I do. I’ve had nothing but good luck all my life and I’m proud of it.”

“Well, I’m glad for you,” Joe huffed, lugging out the wet-dry vac. “See, I come from a different kind of perspective though.” He hauled out the drum of wax and polish, the all-purpose cleaners, the squeegee. “My father used to tell me ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’ which is kind of what I’ve lived by so far. I guess that goes for angels too.”

He stopped, breathed and wiped his face on the back of his sleeve. “I guess if I was going to have an angel, I’d know it, wouldn’t I? I mean, he would have showed up by now, right?”

Kenny looked at him. “Maybe he has,” he said and headed up the walkway toward the house.

Joe felt his arms tingle the same way they used to during scary movies when he was a kid. “I don’t want no damn old person following me around,” he said. “You can keep your angels.”

Kenny kept walking and shrugged. “You forgot the rags,” he called over his shoulder and disappeared into the house.

“Damn Kenny,” he grumbled, feeling around in his wrinkled pocket for the van keys.

The keys weren’t there, but a piece of crumpled paper was, something he didn’t remember carrying around. He pulled it out, held it up towards the streetlight. Ulysses S. Grant frowned at him from the front of a fifty-dollar bill.
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