You turn the corner onto the Avenue. He’s right where the lady on the phone said he’d be: the little red faced man in a pink alligator shirt, in front of a big yellow truck. He’s slapping a clipboard and yelling at a broken man in a dirty t-shirt.
“Are you Rusty?” you ask, walking up to him.
“You! You’re fifteen minutes late! Please! Come on!” Rusty throws his arms out. “People, come on! My people who work get paid! People don’t work, I’m not paying them shit! When my people are late, they’re not working! When they’re not working, guess what?”
“They don’t get paid,” you say.
Rusty slaps his forehead. “Lou!” He yells. “Take this big asshole downstairs! Show him what he needs to do! I need this truck loaded and out of here by two o’clock!”
Rusty climbs into a gold Mercedes and skids into traffic, leaving you with Lou. Lou’s face is etched with thin white scars, and he looks angry, like you just cost him 20 bucks. He pulls a sidewalk street gate open, and you follow him down into a basement. You’re wrapped in a warm, musty smell, like steamed dirt. Corridors of shelves are packed with silt-covered objects. Hundreds of Sandy McCarthy ventriloquist dolls. Dozens of water-stained erector sets. Rows of Korean Police riot helmets. Two men clear whole shelves with fast sweeps of their arms, sending items crashing into boxes. Another wraps things delicately in newspaper.
“This here’s the collection,” Lou says.
“Collection of what?”
A row of Shirley Temple dolls stare down at you through crusted eyes. You pick one up and throw her head-first into a dust-filled box.
“You mean like that?”
Lou’s gold teeth glint in the darkness.
“I mean like that. Only faster.”
* * * * *
At 2:45 the others squeeze into the truck’s cab. Lou says, because you’re the new guy, you have to ride in back. You climb up into the truck. Lou pulls the door down and locks it. In the heat and darkness, against the shifting mountain of boxes, you lose your senses. You start to panic. You can’t breathe. A horn blasts. Things crack in the boxes. The truck swerves. You hurtle through space, braced for a collision.
* * * * *
The truck stops. The door opens. Rusty stands in front of you, on a loading dock, beating his clipboard against a steel pipe.
“I said 2 o’clock!” He yells at Lou.
“Yeah, Mister Rusty,” Lou says, pointing at you. “What can I say. I’m breaking in a new guy.”
A huge brick building with steel-shuttered windows soars above you. In its shadows you unload boxes, crates, mannequins, carousel horses. Lou pushes a button. An elevator thumps down a shaft and opens. Hunched on a stool inside is an old man in yellow shoes and a checkered hat. He pulls the lattice gate closed, then presses a button. You rise ten stories to a vast showroom lined with empty tables. Black curtains hang from bare brick walls between huge windows. You drop the boxes by the tables, then return to the elevator for another load.
On the fourth load up, Lou starts making fun of the old man.
“Mister Lee,” he says, “I smell apricot brandy. You been drinking apricot brandy?”
“I’ll say this much, my friend. Nobody drinks nothing on this job. I worked in this building 44 years. I know my job.”
“Mister Lee, those are some shoes. Do you play golf in those shoes?”
You ride up and down, eight more times, ten times, until the truck is empty. Rusty points to the delicate packer.
“Billy,” he says, slapping his clipboard. “Billy and the big idiot! Get upstairs and start setting up! And the boxes better be unloaded and set up by the time we get back!”
Upstairs on the showroom floor, you look out at the hundreds of boxes, stretch, yawn, and light a smoke.
“Man,” you say. “I never seen so much shit in my whole life.”
Billy picks up a box.
“I really thought I was gonna suffocate in the back of that truck.”
Billy turns away from you.
“Hey,” you say. “You want a smoke?”
Billy starts walking across the room. “No,” he says. He pulls open a box and starts carefully unwrapping antique tea sets, wiping each delicate piece and placing them on trays, in a row, on a table.
You pull back a curtain and push open a steel window gate. You blow smoke out into the hot afternoon haze. You look down onto five-story walk ups laced with ornate fire escapes. The sun beats down on silver roofs.
Below you, on the top floor of one of the buildings, you can make out an open window. In it, an old woman is crying. She presses her face with thick red hands. Her elbows rest on the ledge. Huge bare arms shudder, like somebody’s jiggling her from behind. She drops her hands and looks up at the sky.
She turns slowly toward you. You jump back, wait, hold your breath. When you look out again, the old woman’s face is back in her hands.
You flick your cigarette out the window. You open one of the boxes. It’s filled with little Victorian porcelain dolls, in yellowed lace dresses, cracked and tangled. Arms and legs pop out in all directions. You close the box back up. Another box is crammed with old copper medical equipment, now dented. You pick up a crate filled with surviving antique fire trucks. You walk it down to a table next to Billy. You start to dump it on the surface, then stop. You set the box down and start untangling the trucks. You spread them out in a neat row, side by side, a fleet. Then you return to the elevator landing for another box.
* * * * *
The truck horn blares repeatedly downstairs. “Let’s go!” Rusty yells from the street.
You press the elevator button. Mr. Lee pulls the gate open.
“How’s it going,” you say.
“I’m just fine, son,” Mr. Lee says, clutching the throttle. “Thank you for asking.”
Lights flicker on a console: 9, then 8, then 7.
“This is some building,” you say.
“Been here 44 years. I used to be floor manager. Down in the steam engine.”
“Sure! This whole building was a printing press. Biggest in the city. We ran a steam engine down in the basement. 2 blocks long, block wide. I had 20 men working for me. We pumped steam up to ten floors of print rollers, running night and day, 365. They shut it all down twenty years ago.”
“Really? What happened?”
“I don’t know. ‘Lectricity.”
Mr. Lee shifts his hat higher onto his brow, mops his forehead with a hankerchief, and stops the elevator.
“Well, thanks for the lift.”
“Later son,” Mr. Lee says. “Later on, maybe I got something to show you.”
You work late into the night, in silence, and increasingly carefully, unloading two more truckloads. Rusty lets everybody go at 12, then glares at you.
“Everybody better be back here at 8 am,” he says, “the key word being “eight!”
* * * * *
You walk home through the crowded canyon, past shifting shrouded figures. It rains violently for a minute, then stops. Shattered umbrellas spread out everywhere. The streets and sidewalks hold pools of black water. You buy a rack of tallboys at the 24- hour deli and climb four flights to your rental share. In the living room the answering machine isn’t blinking; none of your roommates wrote down a message. You enter your tiny room off the kitchen, sit on your bed, and drink the tallboys methodically, one by one, staring out the little window into the airshaft.
* * * * *
You wake up, still sitting on your bed, at 8. You jog downtown. You push the loading dock button, but the elevator is silent. You find an open door and run up the ten flights of stairs to the showroom.
The early morning sun glares off the wide floor beams. You’re soaked in sweat. Rusty’s voice thunders through the showroom. You follow a row of old vaudeville posters to its source.
“Don’t let one of these pissants touch nothing,” Rusty’s saying, “not one goddamn thing! They ask to touch it, say no! They reach for it, bite their goddamned finger off!”
You try to sneak in behind the others, but they’re all wearing identical black work suits, ‘Rusty’s Auction House’ emblazoned in pink letters across the backs. Rusty catches you in the corner of his eye.
“What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “My watch stopped.”
Rusty reaches out and grabs your wrist. He jerks your forearm up to your face.
“It says 8:25,” Rusty says, calmly now, squeezing your wrist tighter.
“It, um, must have started again.”
Rusty releases your arm. He throws a jumpsuit at you. You climb into it, but it’s too tight: the legs only come down to your knees and the sleeves barely reach your elbows. Lou looks at you and breaks into another gold grin.
“Man,” he says. “Now you look big and stupid.”
“The showroom floor opens in five minutes,” Rusty announces. “They have one day to look over what we’ve got. The auction starts this time tomorrow!” He looks at you. “If you show up on time, some of you may still have a job tomorrow. If not, I can always find another set of idiots. And I don8 0t have to pay people nothing. Not one red cent. So if I fire people, they’re fired! If people finish the job, they get paid!”
Rusty takes a deep breath. “Alright. Get to stations! No smoke breaks! No bathroom breaks! No screwing off. Remember these are our customers! And don’t let anybody break anything. They break anything, break their necks!”
You turn to Lou. “What’s my station?”
“Toys!” you say. “Sounds great.”
“No,” Lou says. “Not great. Toys is the most stupid ass job. Everybody wants to touch them. Everybody wants to wind them up, see if the winder works. But nobody can touch nothing. Not one goddamned toy. Got that?”
“You gotta look like somebody’s gonna get smacked.”
Lou starts to walk away, then stops.
“But don’t smack nobody.”
“You need to smack somebody, you call me.”
The toys line three rows of tables. You look down at an ancient wind-up clown, with a maniacal face, pedaling a tricycle. Old paint flecks cling to fine brown rust. You can’t stop yourself from picking it up and turning the winder half a notch. Its legs start pedaling, slowly, and its head rocks back and forth. Everything works, despite the many years in the basement, despite the truck ride.
You picture yourself showing it to the old lady across the street. You can just knock on her door, hold it out to her, and show her how it works.
“Look,” you can say to her. “It still works.”
The clown stops pedaling. You put him down gently, in the middle of the table. You pick him up again. Slowly, as if your arm is independent of your body, you try to stuff the toy into the half-zipped jumpsuit, under your arm. Just to see. But the suit is too tight. Then the main elevator doors start opening. Hundreds of people enter the sh owroom. Fifty of them head straight for the toys. You place the clown down.
“Please don’t handle the toys,” you say, walking up and down the aisle. “Please leave the toys on the table.”
“Oh! I am sorry,” an elderly man with sunglasses says, dropping a doll.
A pair of miniature men stand shoulder to shoulder, their backs turned to you. They wear tweed jackets despite the heat and thick glasses perched on their noses. They’re handling an old coin bank, testing its various parts.
“Please don’t handle the toys,” you say.
They turn to you, look you up and down.
“It’s a bank,” one giggles.
“Please put it down.”
The elevator doors open again. More collectors file out onto the floor. They rush across the room, swarm around tables, touching everything.
A thunderous noise echoes through the showroom: one of the tea sets has been knocked over. Through the crowd you see Billy fall to the floor and try to gather a few surviving pieces among the smashed shards of china. A woman stands over him, laughing. “Oh, Come on! It’s all insured,” she shrieks. “Isn’t it?”
The crowd closes around Billy. You take a few steps toward him. Maybe you can help. Then you remember the toys. You turn back to the tables, now more crowded than ever. The two miniature men have found your clown. They are twisting his legs to make him pedal faster.
“Put him down,” you say. They turn away from you.
“I said put him down!”
They see you’re coming at them. Their mouths drop open and they step back. You take the toy from their hands. They shrink, contracting into smaller forms. A surge of hot blood races from your forehead, down your arms to your hands. You reach for the two little men. Lou grabs your arm from behind.
“Woah, now. Mister Rusty wants to have a word.”
He leads you through the crowd to the loading dock elevator doors where Rusty stands, glaring at you.
“I saw that. Think I didn’t see that?”
“They are our customers! They are very important customers! And you’re nothing to me! You hear me?”
Your hands are still hot. They want to grab Rusty by the ears. They want to twist and rip his head.
“Nothing. Now get out of my suit and get out of here!”
They want to twist and rip his head, but don’t. They go stone cold, fumbling with the jumpsuit zipper. You drop the suit on the floor and walk to the service elevator. Mr. Lee pulls the door open, nods to you. When the door shuts you really do smell it — apricots, turpentine, wet cardboard.
“Man,” you say. “I could really use a drink.”
Mr. Lee says nothing. You ride down in silence- 6, then 5, then 4. At 3 he says, “So, now you want to see something?”
“Sure,” you shrug. “Why not.”
* * * * *
The elevator keeps going, past the loading dock floor, to the basement. Mister Lee climbs from his stool. He’s permanently bent; a walking question mark. He leads you down a long dark cement hallway to a beaten, scraped fire door. He pulls the door open.
“Here it is,” he says, flipping a switch.
A huge red machine spreads in all directions. Rows of polished brass pistons squat, waiting to pounce, or fire. Boilers and steam valves and pipes twist in reds and greens and blues, golds and coppers and silvers. Every square inch of the machine and the room is swept, scrubbed and polished.
Your heart surges. It looks like a battleship engine, ready to fire; or a pregnant mechanical spider, waiting to pounce.
“Isn’t she something?” Mister Lee asks.
“Does she still work?” You ask him.
“Oh, yes,” he says, staring into his machine with wonder. “You better believe she still works.
Frank Haberle (firstname.lastname@example.org) read in The L Magazine‘s Literary Upstart competition last year; his story “Beauty” appeared later in So New Media’s Necessary Fiction. Other stories have been featured in Birmingham Arts Journal, 34 Parallel, Adirondack Review, Hot Metal Press, Melic Review, Johnny America, East Hampton Star, Smokelong Quarterly and 21 Stars Review and elsewhere. Frank is a Board member of the NY Writers Coalition, a community writing program.