Workers of the World

A Short Story
This story is included in these collections
Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849 (Wikimedia Commons)

Vin’s bogus suicide scrawl lay pinned beneath an ashtray filled with an alp of smashed Camels—we saw it on the folding table when we entered his garage. Vin is our cousin and he’d hired my brother Ralph and me to remodel the three-million-dollar beach monstrosity he’d bought in Jersey just north of Belmont.

I’d recently and just barely graduated from Rutgers with a psychology degree I couldn’t see the point of. I’d read the scribblings of Misters Winnicott and Fromm but couldn’t tell you how one differed from the other. I’d also been dished the yawning theory which declares that every problem in my orbit, from the struggling pistons of my heart to traffic clots in central Jersey, could be blamed on my mother. This was convenient: neither Ralph nor I had seen or spoken to our mother since we were freckled grade-schoolers trying to figure out long division and what it could possibly mean for us. She went poof on our father and us without any warning I could discern, after which Ralph and I saw her twice and never again, though my dreaming life was full of her. Ralph was bitter. I was not, though I was in the bad-taste habit of telling people that she was a virgin in a convent.

My brother is an artistic carpenter and doesn’t mind bragging about this, all those wood skills he learned from our dad. I had not learned them, but Ralph was giving me this charity-work for the summer, mocking me when I screwed up, which was often, and lauding me when I pounded in a ten-penny nail without bending it, which was not. We started at six each morning, and for someone who’d just spent four years in college cocooned in bed till ten, this was downright unholy. I had to learn what a soffit is, a gable, that hanging a door requires shims, that two-by-four studs are spaced every sixteen inches in a wall, that spackle takes a full day to dry. I loathed every day of it, but my prospects were pretty dismal. Anyone can tell you that an undergraduate degree in psychology is well-nigh worthless except to go to grad school, which interested me not at all.

It was still dark that August morning. We could hear the waves swishing onto the sand, and I clicked on the fluorescent lights in Vin’s garage. The hood of his new Cadillac—his second in as many months—was still warm, which told me he’d been wide-eyed all night and recently returned after some excursion to god-knows-where with god-knows-whom. Ralph went to the table, yanked the note from underneath the ashtray, read it, and said: “No way.” He then handed it to me, adding: “S.O.B. has really flipped his lid this time.”

Four years earlier, Vin had begun to slip, chemically. He was tagged with bipolar II and fed Lithium, and then Zoloft, and then new pills I’d never learned the names of, all of which refused to get along with his odd blood. He’d become the batty ill one in our family, so we were no longer jolted when he lay catatonic in bed for a week, or began dating the Mexican food-delivery woman, or came home in a new Corvette or Cadillac he couldn’t afford, or announced to everyone that he was becoming a priest, a copy of Aquinas under his arm. His many millions were hostage in numerous real-estate ventures, which had begun imploding and dissolving one by one, sometimes two by two, and this didn’t help. This absurd beach house he’d hired us to improve had been bought during another burst of mania.

Because I’d read all the relevant names in college, my family made the error of looking to me to help mend Vin’s blighted mind, to somehow rescue him. When I tried explaining that one majors in psychology mostly by default, only when one can’t get any traction in anything useful, employable, they wondered why I’d borrowed a fortune for a degree it would take half my life to pay back. It was, I saw, a good question.

Vin had addressed the note to Ralph. It began this way: “I’m bummed it has to be you who finds me, cousin, but you’ve always been the mighty one in our family.”

I said: “Holy moly.”

“Goddamn guy snapped his cap.”

We went to the back deck and patio we’d just built the week before and there we spotted Vin hanging from a second-story window. The dawn had yet to breathe out its brighter hues but I could see that Vin was wearing his flannel shirt, paint-stained jeans, and Yankees cap.

Ralph said: “Jesus in heaven.”

I couldn’t say a thing.

When we approached the side of the house we saw that Vin had concocted an impressive dummy and dressed it in his work clothes. He must have spent half the snoozeless night crafting this thing.

I said: “Son of a bitch.”

Ralph scratched at his stubbled scalp and looked only moderately relieved. The first hint of tardy sun glowed now at the ocean’s rim and I saw that the back gate had been swung open, the same gate and fence I’d spent three medieval days scouring with the electric sander, priming with clear coat, and painting white. Out there on the sand, walking down to the water, were footsteps, but no footsteps returned, and no sign of Vin.

Ralph said: “The psycho drowned himself?”

We rushed to where waves spread on the shore and Ralph hollered out for Vin. I trotted over to the wall of wet rocks to see if he was hiding on the other side, wading waist-high. Way out there were men on boats who knew nothing about us or how this day would unfurl.

A gray jogger came past and I said: “Sir, you see a guy in the water? About my height? Crazy-looking?”

He shook an indifferent head and kept jogging. I dashed over to Ralph and looked into eyes wider than I’d seen since our father had told us that our mother was gone. Although the morning was still a welcome sixty-five, dots of sweat had showed up on my lip. I began rehearsing ways to tell Vin’s mom, our too-rich aunty who’d always been sweet to me, that her son had gone to slumber in the Atlantic.

Ralph said: “Look,” and pointed up at Vin’s house. In an upper-floor window was the silhouette of someone in front of a shadeless lamp.

“Bastard’s up there laughing at us.” Ralph began striding and I followed.

I loved Vin for a lone reason that had zero to do with blood. When our father was killed falling from a roof, Vin didn’t leave my side for three days and three nights. Between his death and resurrection, Christ spent three days giving tips to the no-doubt grateful damned. Vin was like that: he slept nights on the floor beside my bed, and as I seized with grief he reached up his hand to squeeze mine. He fetched my flavorless food and took all my weeping phone calls. You cannot buy that breed of devotion. There’s a word we could use more of.

So I couldn’t guess what I’d do now when we found him. Ralph, though, was incensed, I could see. With such roving weathers inside him, he was likely to backhand Vin. Going through the patio door into the kitchen—it took me eight tries to get that door on right—I was surprised to see a tear plummet from Ralph’s mustache.

Working with him five, often six days a week was a mild perdition I probably deserved. He was forever promising to can me because I had no knack for carpentry or building of any sort. Indoor plumbing was a mystery up there with the grace of God. Ralph said I was not our father’s son, and very far from the carpenter Christ was, and how could I counter that? I was a clumsy one, yes, and couldn’t tell 1/16th from 1/8th on a tape measure.

Because he was two years older, and because our father was dead, Ralph considered it his familial duty to teach me sundry lessons about living and what it leads to. Lessons, he was adamant, that are impossible to pick up on a university campus. Never mind that I’d trekked to almost every state in our land, and to Iceland and Sweden, too, while he had never even left the New York/New Jersey tag-team. To him I was still an inept clod because I’d never been a member of the workforce. I didn’t care to see the workers of the world unite. So I suppose I was not a real American in that regard: I did not buy the dogma that declared hard work the avenue to happiness.

 

His eyes were misted, though not from drugs. The mania was pausing.

In the master bedroom upstairs we found Vin so drug-smacked that his eyes had gone into swollen slits. He was there giggling at us and right away Ralph grabbed him.

“The hell is your problem? You think you’re funny?”

“Ralph,” he said, giggling. “Ralph, Ralph, cousin.”

I wedged myself between them and told Ralph to ease down, while Vin was saying: “It was a joke, guys, a joke, wasn’t it good?”

“No, Vin,” I said, “not good. You scared us. No one wants to be scared.”

He said: “People watch horror movies to be scared.”

Ralph: “Life ain’t a horror movie, stupid.”

“Depends who you ask, cousin.”

“You need goddamn help,” Ralph said. “You think I wanna cut down my dead cousin at six o’clock in the goddamn morning? On a goddamn Friday?”

“The dummy’s good, ain’t it?”

“You’re the only dummy I know. And I ain’t a babysitter. I’m here because I have to earn a living. Not like some of us. I don’t have a sugar mommy and I don’t have time for these goddamn games.”

He said: “Relax, cousin, let’s have some coffee. I’ll make some downstairs.” He put a joint to his lips and pulled on it hard, his face inflating, going redder as he tried to keep all the smoke in.

“I ain’t having coffee with you,” Ralph said. “I’m outta here. And you’re giving me a day’s pay, too, for this goddamn aggravation. I don’t care.”

“Come on, Ralph,” I said. “Calm down. Nothing’s broken here.”

He’s broken,” and he pointed hard at Vin. “You two Sallies can play games all you want, but I’m outta here.”

He stomped down the steps, mumbling colorful aspersions. Vin didn’t hear; he was working with crossed eyes to fire the joint plugged into his face. The lighter zipped and zipped but offered no flame. I told Vin that I hoped he was driving me home, now that Ralph was gone, and he replied with Neolithic grunts I took to be yes or probably. He was dressed in a wrinkled white button-up, black Rutgers sweatpants—a gift from me on a birthday long ago—and costly leather loafers with no socks. He looked hideously unslept, and I could tell from his posture alone that he was unshowered.

“Vin, are you taking your meds?”

“Yes I am. I crush ’em and snort ’em, you know. Faster effect.”

“Please don’t snort Lithium. Give me your doctor’s number. I’m calling her about this.”

No work would get done this day. Vin had trouble keeping track of our hours anyway and so ended up paying us the same wage each week whether we put in forty hours or four-and-a-half. He liked helping us, too, if “help” is the word we want. Ralph said it gave him a sense of purpose, something to bond over with his cousins. He had nothing else important to do; he’d never needed a job—something else that irked my brother into fits of icy ridicule.

But when he worked with us, sweating over everything, we had to babysit him in case he lost his hand on the Bosch table saw or else shot himself through the face with a nail gun. He and I weren’t so different in that regard. Ralph was always babysitting me, too, calling me dipshit and dolt. One of his favorite lines was: “Let me hear you say, Would you like fries with that, sir?

Ralph also liked calling me “moocher” because I lived with our grandparents. When I explained to him that they had asked me to live with them after I graduated because they needed company, because they were numb with puzzles from Walmart and only each other to blink at, and because they missed my father with a fanged grief that would not go, Ralph flicked me in the forehead with his pointer finger. I’m the baby grandchild, and Ralph railed against the reality that Gram still doted over me.

Most of the time on the job, I couldn’t savor the sandwiches and chocolate Gram packed for me in the mornings because Ralph would raid my lunchbox when I wasn’t looking. He would leave the Hershey wrappers and empty zip-lock bags and juice bottles for me to find. His girlfriend of six years had recently left him when he balked at buying her a ring. He was now getting acquainted with the blunt force of regret and wasn’t satisfied unless he could make everyone in his orbit as afflicted as he was.

Instead of brewing us coffee that day, Vin sat in the kitchen booth and looked out the window at the water. A house such as this, with that vista, would have done oodles toward my contentment. But not Vin. He was quiet now, having a moment, whatever a moment meant for him. His eyes were misted, though not from drugs. The mania was pausing.

“Shit, I’m sorry. Ralph is pissed. I’m sorry.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“I can’t sleep. I walk around this house all night, from window to window.”

“You’ll be alright. We have to call your doctor.”

“I scare myself,” and in another minute he was sobbing there in silence. I handed him a napkin, he lay down in the booth, and soon he was asleep.

I found his doctor’s number on his phone and tried to get ahold of her. But of course it’s not possible to get a doctor on the phone. The answering service was, like all answering services, impotent.

 

The storm in my stomach briefly settled. The scent of shampoo, soap, and deodorant fumed from my brother like incense.

At this time in my life there was a woman I loved. For some of us, there’s always a woman we love. I don’t say that as a boast but more as an admission of radical weakness, since I hadn’t yet learned to be alone, hadn’t learned that the only cure for loneliness is solitude.

Myra had just turned thirty-two, eight years older than me. Her husband, Louis, was living somewhere else at the moment, Myra thought with a man, and I didn’t meddle. He was gone for now and that was good. I’d met Myra on her front porch one morning at the beginning of that summer. Ralph and I had got a referral from another builder who had too much work, and Myra hired us to install new kitchen cabinets. My unconscious had an agenda that first day, I suppose, because when Ralph and I returned home to his garage after eight hours of removing her old kitchen, we saw that I’d left a Makita battery drill there. Ralph called me “shit-for-brains” and ordered me to go back and get it before it disappeared. I drove the ten minutes across town and listened to Springsteen growl about a road called Thunder.

Myra answered my knock in a beauteous mess of tears.

I said: “I’m sorry if this is a bad time.”

“What is it?” she said, wiping paths of mascara from her cheeks.

“I left our drill in your kitchen.”

“Drill?” She squinted at me just then as if trying to understand what on earth a drill could possibly mean to her life.

Ten minutes later we were sitting on her screened-in back porch, daiquiris on the table between us. That’s when I heard all about Louis and the man he was probably living with. She’d been waiting to tell someone about the shameful deception she’d suffered, and, as she swiped at her eyes with the bottom of her shirt, I heard it all. To reciprocate, to show her that hardship rejects no one, I told her about Vin, though I said nothing about our parents.

“He should see somebody. My father’s a physician in Princeton. I can get you a referral for somebody good.”

And then, with no segue: “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Ah. Twenty-four.”

Ah? What was that Ah? From where did it come and to where would it lead?

“And how old is your brother?”

“Two years older than me. He’s just about the best carpenter in central Jersey.”

“I heard that. Your parents must be pretty proud. I admire a builder. What’s the opposite of a builder? Destroyer, I guess.”

There was no invitation to a second drink or to anything else that day, though already I could feel the gale coming up in me. I was there with her for only an hour, and when I left there were no kisses, not the faintest embrace. At her front door, I took her hand and squeezed it in a way that meant the world would soon right itself for her, though I knew that wasn’t true. And when I got back to Ralph’s garage that day, I realized that I hadn’t even looked for the drill in Myra’s kitchen.

From the next day on I would go to Myra’s place each evening for daiquiris, and in two weeks’ time we’d be lovers, speaking somewhat seriously about a future that might make room for us.

I told Vin about Myra. He said: “I’m so happy for you, little cousin,” and he was. If nothing else, he was skilled at keeping secrets, which was important because if Ralph knew about Myra and me he would consider it some kind of breach, a threat to his reputation as a professional. On the day of the bogus suicide note, Vin drove me home after we both slept two hours. Myra and I had been on for two months at this point. She’d got me a referral from her father for Vin, and I had the name of a Princeton psychiatrist plugged into my phone, someone with a history of fixing nuts like Vin.

We had an hour’s drive from the Jersey beach to our hometown, just north of Princeton, and I dialed Doctor Franz. Vin kept saying: “I already have a doctor.”

“Shut yourself. We’re getting you a new doctor. No more fake suicide notes and dummies for you.” At which point he asked me again if the dummy was really as impressive as he thought it was.

He dropped me off at my grandparents’ and after I showered I went to Myra’s, and we went to bed with the urgency of finality, though I didn’t know it then. Later, over a back-porch meal of blackened grouper and rice, Myra told me that Louis had wept at her through the phone that morning.

“What did he say? Between the weeping.”

Her eyes were wet now too and she put down her fork and had a bit of trouble swallowing.

“He’s confused,” she said.

She looked past me into the backyard where finches were elbowing each other at the feeder, and her silence made my stomach shift.

“He sure is,” I said. “Are you confused?”

“He wants to see me.”

My hands had innumerable nicks on them from all the wood and brick of my days, the screws and nails I would soon disown.

“I’m eight years older than you, Ronny. I’m still married to him.”

“We’ve had a nice summer. These past two months have been nice.”

“Very nice,” she said.

“Are you telling me something here?”

“Dessert?” she said. “I bought a chocolate layer cake.”

“You didn’t finish your fish.”

“Neither did you. You didn’t finish either.”

I thought of Vin, if he’d keep his oath to see Doctor Franz, if his blood would ever behave.

I said: “I’m going outside to smoke.”

“You don’t smoke.”

“I do in emergencies. I have a pack in my glove box.”

“Where’s the emergency?”

“Right here,” I said.

When I went onto the front porch, my chest in a somersault and smoke on my mind, I saw Ralph down there by the curb, leaning up against his van. My guts kicked and I thought: this day began with Vin’s dummy hanging from a second-story window and will end now with my getting dumped by my married girlfriend and fired by my marred brother. But that look on Ralph’s face was not one of malice, not an announcement that I’d just been caught, but rather one of placid acceptance, even calm. As I went to him, I had lots of trouble meeting his eyes, though no trouble nodding the nod of the guilty.

“How long have you known?” I said, glancing back at Myra’s house.

“All summer. You could have told me.”

“No, I couldn’t have.”

“So you’re laying a woman we worked for. So what?”

“Don’t say that. I’m not just laying her.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t mention it.”

“What are you doing here?” He looked dejected to me, and because of that, more brotherly than I’d seen him since the funeral. And I think I understood, before he answered my question, that the reason he was here had heaps to do with him and not much to do with me.

“I just came from Vin’s. He said he’s seeing a new doctor tomorrow who’s gonna change his life. He’s dumping all his beer down the sink.”

“Why did you go to Vin’s? You hate Vin.”

“No I don’t, Ronny. You went to college and you can’t see that?”

The storm in my stomach briefly settled. The scent of shampoo, soap, and deodorant fumed from my brother like incense. Someone was cutting a lawn on the next block.

“Do you need anything from me right now? I’m kind of busy with the end of something here.”

“I had a nasty feeling that you weren’t all right. I don’t know why that is.”

“I’m fine, Ralph.”

“Is this serious?” he said, nodding to Myra’s house.

“Maybe not anymore.”

Then he said he’d pick me up Monday morning, the usual time. We had to finish the staircase on Vin’s beach house. He touched my shoulder, got in his van, and drove away. At the end of Myra’s street, he didn’t make a right turn toward his house, but rather a left, toward St. Ann’s cemetery, where our father is buried. I didn’t know if he was headed there, but I preferred to think so.

Things were mostly back to normal on Monday. Ralph hadn’t undergone any real transformation. None of us ever do, or at least not for long. But whatever moved between us during those few minutes in front of Myra’s house was enough for me, until the following month when I said goodbye to him and my grandparents, fled our town, and ambled into the right life, the one that was waiting for me.

When I turned to go back inside I saw Myra standing in the window between parted curtains. I stopped there on the walkway to return her stare. She half smiled and raised her hand to me, slowly, in a gesture of either hello or goodbye, be mine or be gone, I didn’t know which.

Published in the August 9, 2019 issue: 
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William Giraldi’s newest book is American Audacity (August 2018).

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