This wouldn’t be a bad job if it wasn’t for that bitch,” Joego says as he and Cal try to make room by moving all the outdoor grills into the storage shed. It’s ten-thirty in the morning, eleven degrees outside, and even when they’re in the unheated warehouse—where they spend most of their day—they keep their coats on. Joego—Joseph Gorman on his paycheck—is talking about their manager, Teresa Herrera-Brown. She caught him smoking out by the propane tank this morning, called him into her office, and told him one more screw-up and he was gone.
“Because you fuck with her,” Cal says as they maneuver separate hand trucks over the cracked blacktop. “It’s like you’re trying to get fired.” As Cal unlocks the chain that holds the sheet metal door of the shed, Joego walks to the side of the building and unzips.
“What are you doing?” Cal asks.
“Take a wild guess.”
Joego’s urine splatters and steams on the side of the shed like hot coffee.
“Seriously?” Cal says.
Joego finishes, zips up. “Let’s do this, brah,” he says. “I’m freezing.”
Joego is a part-timer, Saturdays and the three mornings a week he doesn’t have class. He’s a senior at Plymouth Rock High School, headed for the Air Force as soon as he graduates.
“Wanna make fifty bucks?” Joego says once they’re inside.
“Walt Doda. He’s looking for a velocity ladder. Says he’ll pay me a hundred for one.”
Joego steals. Has this arrangement with a local building contractor. A five gallon bucket of joint compound gets him a twelve-pack of Bud Light. Ten pounds of decking screws brings home a bottle of Smirnoff Raspberry. It’s cake. All Joego has to do is leave the stuff on the loading dock, find some reason to drive his shitbox VW bug around, and throws whatever it is in the trunk. Cal knows what’s going on, turns a blind eye as they say.
“Let me use your truck and half the money’s yours.”
Cal’s been working here for the past two years, the first job he landed after quitting school in 11th grade. His dad owns EZ Mark, a convenience store with a couple of gas pumps out front, but the man trusts no one—not even his own son—to run things. Cal’s mother sits at home with four miniature schnauzers—Blondie, Anthrax, A-Ha, and Devo—all named after 1980s bands. The woman read somewhere that these dogs are especially sensitive to the cold, so she keeps the house at least 82 degrees. Seldom a night passes, regardless of the outside temp, when Cal doesn’t wake up drenched in sweat.
“I don’t know, man,” Cal says.
“I already have it worked out. I hide the ladder in one of the dumpsters on Monday morning right after pickup. Monday night I come back, unlock the gate, retrieve the ladder.”
“Why can’t you use your car?”
“C’mon, Cal,” Joego says. “That thing’s bigger than my car.”
“You get caught and they press charges, say goodbye to the Air Force,”
“Haven’t got caught yet, brah.”
“And you’re doing this for a lousy fifty bucks?”
“Hell, no,” Joego smiles. “I’m doing this for the fun.”
Cal could actually use the money. Pierce, his older brother, has recently lost his roommate and invited Cal to move in with him. But there are conditions. “Grass, gas, or ass,” Pierce told him. “Nobody rides for free.” Pierce is smooth. He works nights as a dance instructor at a place called Francine and Sergio’s Talent Studio, and he has little trouble bringing home various female clientele. Cal stayed with him for four days over the summer. They played video games and smoked weed during the day, and one night on the fold-out couch, Cal lost his virginity to some forty-year-old divorcee who was studying tap.
Cal and Joego never hung out back in high school. Cal was a loner then, but now he considers Joego his best friend. Cal values the relationship for a number of reasons. Top among them is the parties Joego throws when his parents aren’t around. There are teenaged girls invited, and although Cal hasn’t seen any real action since the middle-aged divorcee, slow dancing and rubbing against female flesh beats staying at home and scooping dog shit into a Hefty bag.
“So you good for Saturday?” Joego says.
“Come by around eight and help me set up.”
“That girl gonna be there?”
That girl is Sarah Polombo. At a party at Joego’s a few weeks ago, Cal got into it with her pretty heavy in the darkened laundry room. She wound up stopping his hand from traveling south and told him she had a boyfriend.
“Everybody’s gonna be there,” Joego says.
When they’re almost finished stacking the boxed grills, the walkie-talkie on Cal’s belt chirps. It’s Teresa, and she wants to talk to him inside.
“You got this?” he asks Joego.
Joego nods. “Just keep your hands on your nuts,” he says.
Larson’s Home and Building Supply has fourteen stores throughout southern New England. This one, in Meadow Ridge, is the largest, about one-fifth the size of your average Home Depot or Lowe’s. In June, Larson’s hired Teresa Herrera-Brown as store manager. She was somebody’s niece, had just graduated from community college with an AAS in Business Administration, and spoke passable Spanish. The employees, all men with the exception of two cashiers, had hoped for somebody better looking, but Teresa is pudgy and unbelievably buck-toothed. She carried a brown leather tote bag with her initials—T.H.B.—stamped in black, and Joego has christened her “The Human Beaver.”
Her office is this tiny room back behind the key duplicating machine. An old desk, a computer, a file cabinet. No windows. There’s only one chair, behind the desk, and Teresa is sitting in it. She’s wearing this oversized orange turtle neck sweater which, Cal thinks, makes her look like she’s submerged in tomato sauce.
He stands just inside the doorway and asks her what’s up.
“Couple of things,” Teresa says. “You make space for those snow blowers coming in?”
“Doing it now.”
“You doing it by yourself or is shit-for-brains helping?”
“We’re doing it together.”
Teresa nods, gets up, and goes over to the file cabinet. “I hope he knows I’m gunning for him,” she says.
“Yeah,” Cal says. “I should probably get back.”
“You hear about Miller?”
Miller is this 30-year-old retarded guy who works in paints. Has trouble lining up the buttons on his shirt, but the man is a master at matching colors. Cal remembers a time when this woman brought in a single kernel of frozen corn—this, for some reason was the color she wanted her bedroom—and Miller copied it perfectly.
“What about him?” Cal says.
“He’s leaving in two weeks,” Teresa says as she takes a file out and returns to her desk. “Ring’s End offered him a job.”
“Didn’t you work the mixing machine for a while?”
He did. The week Miller took vacation. It was a blast. Inside all day, no heavy lifting, just blending colors and shaking up cans.
“You need me to fill in?”
“I was thinking maybe you could take the position permanently,” she says.
Cal almost feels like he’s hit the lottery, but holds back. “Yeah,” he says. “Sure. That’d be cool.”
Teresa pushes back in her chair and Cal notices the file she’s pulled has Miller’s name on the tab. She flips it open.
“It’s not a sure thing,” she says. “There are people here longer than you. I just want you to know you’re being considered.”
“I appreciate it,” he says.
“Take a look at this number,” she says as she turns the file around so Cal can read it. “This is what Miller’s making right now, before taxes. I couldn’t pay you this much, but it’d be more than you’re getting now.”
“That’d be great.”
“Last thing. Tony Alteri. You know him?”
Cal shakes his head.
“Sim-wood,” she says.
Sim-wood, he knows. It’s this composite substitute for real wood, that termites avoid and that never dry rots. Some of the big box stores carry it, and contractors can’t get their hands on enough of the stuff.
“Alteri’s a friend of my uncle’s. Owes him a favor. He’s having this wine and cheese thing at his house on Saturday around six and I wondered if you want to go.” When Cal doesn’t answer, Teresa says, “Don’t worry. I’m not asking for a date. I just don’t want to show up alone.”
“I think I have something.”
“Too bad,” she says. “I was hoping it’d give us a chance to talk more about the Miller position.”
Teresa closes the file folder and slides it to one side.
“But it isn’t until later,” he says.
The warehouse “break area” is nothing more than a sturdy, overturned cardboard box and two plastic lawn chairs next to where the forklift sits. It’s where Cal finds Joego drinking coffee from a thermos and reading a chemistry textbook.
“What did she want?” Joego asks, looking up.
Cal takes one of Joego’s cigarettes from the pack on top of the box, lights it.
“Miller’s leaving,” he says.
“So I might get his job.”
“Why would you want it?”
“I’m not saying I do. I’m just saying if I did, it’d be enough money that I could move out.”
“Yeah, well money isn’t everything, brah.”
Joego returns his attention to the textbook.
“I just thought of something,” Cal says, and Joego looks up a second time. “I might be a little late on Saturday.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My old man. I promised to help out in the store.”
“You’re not coming?”
“Did I say that? I said I’d be a little late. That’s all.”
On Saturday night, when Teresa comes by to pick him up, Cal waits outside on the porch steps. He’s wearing an gray down vest over his brown suit and the newer of his two ties. The dogs, sensing something different, are running around inside the house like rats released from a live trap, and his mother is trying to calm them down by shooting pea-sized treats out of a plastic launcher.
Over the phone, they agreed to take Teresa’s car, and when she pulls up, she asks him to drive. Her gray overcoat is in the back, and as she goes around the front of the car, he sees she’s wearing a navy-blue three-piece suit and a white shirt with the top three buttons undone.
Between directions, she tells him how important the Sim-wood account is, how Tony Alteri is very choosy about his distributors, how this could push her up to district manager. They arrive in less than twenty minutes, an unpretentious raised ranch in a suburban neighborhood just west of Meadow Ridge.
Inside, the house is spotless. Kitchen sparkling, living room carpet with fresh vacuum swipes. Both Tony and his wife—in their thirties and dripping privilege—seem distant, anxious to have this over with. The four of them sit and drink red wine and occasionally reach toward a snack table to shave some cheese off a big block and lay it on a cracker. Teresa tries to steer the conversation toward business, but Tony tells her talking shop makes his wife uncomfortable.
“So, Cal,” Tony finally says, “You into sports at all?”
“Not even as a spectator?”
Teresa stares at him, almost imploringly.
“Sometimes professional wrestling.”
Teresa, who sits as far away from him on the couch as possible, seems to sink deeper into the cushions.
“Who do you like?” Tony asks.
Cal shrugs. “Chris Jericho’s cool.”
“Stay right there,” Tony says, and after a silent moment or two, he’s back with a framed T-shirt from Wrestlemania. “Check out the signature.”
Cal gets to his feet, takes the frame as if it’s some religious artifact, and studies it.
“The Rock?!” Cal says. “Seriously?!”
For the next forty-five minutes, while the women sit patiently, the men discuss Survivor Series and Summerslam, lumberjack matches and the Elimination Chamber, the “Attitude Adjustment” and the “Five Star Frog Splash.”
“We’re supposed to meet people for dinner in half-an-hour,” the wife eventually says, and by now Alteri is animated and jovial.
“We’ll talk on Monday morning,” he tells Teresa, “but I don’t see why we can’t make this work.”
When they leave, Teresa drives. She’s in a better mood than Cal has ever seen her, and she even has him slid a Neil Diamond disc into the car’s CD player.
“That wasn’t half-bad,” she says.
Cal pulls his tie loose, looks at the clock on the dash, and sees he still has time to go home, ditch the suit, and make it over to Joego’s before the party starts.
“Why don’t we swing by my place?” Teresa says. “Decide about this Miller thing.”
Teresa lives in a condo in Pleasant Hills, but the unit isn’t at all what he might have anticipated. Teresa’s taste is black and white, from the zebra skin rug on her living room floor, to the mounted posters—a domino board, a skull, a monochrome photo of the moon—hanging on her cream-colored walls. She takes his vest and hangs it in a closet, then tells him to have a seat on the black leather sofa with the white throw cushions.
“Something to drink?” she says.
Teresa disappears into the kitchen and returns with a glass of white wine. She sits down on the sofa next to him and slips off her shoes.
“So,” she says. “The Miller position. What do I do about the Miller position?”
Cal shrugs. “I can do it. No problem.”
“I don’t doubt you can do it,” she says. “I just have questions about loyalty.”
She leans back against the rectangular arm of the sofa, raises her feet, places them on his lap. The gesture throws Cal, and at first he thinks that this must be some mistake, some miscalculation.
“I’m loyal,” he says.
Teresa takes a drink of wine, then turns so she can rest her glass on the ebony coffee table. “My feet are killing me,” she says. “Rub ‘em a little, would you?” She’s wearing either stockings or pantyhose and her feet smell pleasant, like baby powder. Cal takes one in his hands and begins working it like a pitcher roughing up a baseball. “Hang on,” she says. She bends at the waist, hikes up her pant legs, removes the calf-high stockings she wears. Her feet are chubby and moist, but Cal doesn’t mind. The foot he isn’t massaging squirms by his crotch like a child waiting to use the bathroom.
“How loyal?” she says.
Cal’s thinking about his brother’s place, about the greatest ninety-six hours of his life, about how the right answers tonight can put him back in paradise permanently.
“Prove it,” she says.
He pictures the divorcee, twice his age, her clothes falling to the floor. Her body was smooth and tight, and even drunk, she couldn’t get enough of him.
“Joego’s stealing from you,” he says.
He winds up telling Teresa the entire plan, and afterward—as Teresa gets dressed and he sits naked on the leather sofa—guilt settles in and he tries to recant.
“I’m just thinking,” he says. “If I don’t lend him my truck, he won’t be able to do anything.”
“Lend him your truck,” Teresa says.
“It’s just that, you know, he’s my friend.”
Teresa pulls on the navy-blue pants and zips them up. “And that’s more important to you than the Miller position?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well let me tell you what I don’t know,” she says. “I don’t know if what we just did was totally consensual on my part. That’s what I don’t know.”
She drives him home around midnight, and on the way she asks if he can come in early on Monday. “I want you to start training with Miller,” she says. “And you know Miller. First one in, last one to leave.”
At the curb in front of his house, Cal leans toward her figuring a kiss might end the night on some kind of positive note.
“Don’t,” she says, holding her hand up like a traffic cop.
Teresa drives off and Cal thinks about going over to Joego’s and catching the tail end of the party. Maybe that girl will be there. Maybe she broke up with her boyfriend. Maybe Cal can take Joego aside and tell him that he’s being set up. “They’ll be waiting for you,” he can say.
Inside, he finds his mother asleep in the recliner while somebody on TV is saying, “These are the songs we danced to, the songs we romanced to, the songs that will play in our hearts forever. And now they’re available for the first time…”
He flicks off the television, goes into his room, calls his brother and tells him the new financial situation.
“This can work,” Pierce says. “Between the three of us, this can be all right.”
“The three of us?”
It seems Pierce has met somebody. She’s moving in this weekend. But they’ll still be that fold-out couch if Cal is willing to pay his half.
“Let me think about it,” Cal says.
His bedroom is sweltering and he can’t sleep, so he walks out to the living room and lowers the thermoset to 76. By the time he gets back, A-Ha has settled on the foot of his mattress. He thinks about shooing the dog off, but knows the commotion that will cause, the dog yapping, his mother waking up groggy and cold and all pissed off.
He lifts his window and leaves his door open, but before Cal can get back into bed, a second miniature schnauzer finds its way in, joined by the other two. Cal watches them take over the single bed—two at the foot, two at the head—curled with their backs turned toward him as if he’s not even there.