Teak Week in the Hamptons
by Raymond Philip Asaph
You couldn’t see the mansion from the street. Grand, white, a world of its own, it was set way back and surrounded by a hedge, a green wall rising to twice the height of your average man. Here’s the joke the working people tell: Why do they have twelve-foot-high hedges in the Hamptons? Answer: Because the law prohibits twelve-foot fences.
I told it to young Justin, my theoretical helper, as I was backing our zippy little Japanese truck down the winding bluestone driveway, but he was too blown out to get it.
“Damn,” he slurred, staring at the palace in the side-view mirror, “you could fit five fat families in that house and nobody’d even know their neighbors.”
I listened to the bleep-bleep-bleep of the truck backing up and told myself not to say anything. Acceptance, acceptance, I repeated like a mantra. Patience and tolerance, I reminded myself. Even Mom’s voice came to mind: If you can’t say something nice, dear... Then I said something anyway.
“Hate to disturb your coma, Justin, but we’re about to meet the customer and you need an education. When you’re dealing with the super-rich, you have to act like the lifestyle doesn’t faze you. That’s what they want. They expect it. And if you do it right, they will tip you enormously. But if you gawk, or say anything stupid, anything that makes them feel self-conscious for being obscenely wealthy, it triggers their subconscious guilt. Then they hate your guts. Then they cancel the account and hire somebody else. And then your boss hates your guts. You have to yawn a little at the wealthy, my friend. You have to send out the vibe that you come across money like this all the time, which, if you’re working out here, you will.”
His face was on the verge of drooling; his eyes were under the sea.
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”
He smoked and shook his head.
“I try to tune you out.”
We were backing past the lawn ornaments, large marble statues of the gods of Greece or Rome. My self-restraint felt like a straight jacket, but I reminded myself I was not alone. In a million other trucks all over the nation, the guy in charge of the job was riding beside a helper who was circling the rings of Saturn. Justin must have noticed that I was strangling the steering wheel.
“Okay,” he asked, “what’s up your ass now?”
“Worried about customer relations,” I said as the gravel crunched under the tires.
“Well, worry yourself no more,” he told me, “‘cause you sure ain’t no relation to this customer.”
Some bare-breasted goddess–or maybe she was a nymph–was holding out a cluster of grapes. Nice grapes, I thought as we backed past her and then I was back in reality again, stuck in a truck with a wasted coworker. This was our biggest problem these days — the new guys were all on drugs. God, how I missed the old days, when all the movers were only drunks. I just knew Justin was going to embarrass me somehow–and do a little damage to the name on the side of our truck–when he offended the customer in some dumb way.
“Good customer relations are important,” I said, still trying like hell to stay spiritual. “Call me corny, bro, but I like to make a fine impression from start to finish. It matters in a kind of love-thy-neighbor sense. And it sure makes a big difference in the pocket.”
“Your point?” he asked.
“If you blow my tip with a lame remark,” I said, “I’m going to choke you very hard with a strap.”
My lower back was hurting badly. It was that twitchy-stabby type of pain, so I knew the old L-5 could strike me down at any moment with another round of agony and crippledom. And life was hairy now. I was a married man again—this time, with a step-son. My grocery bills had risen like the Hindenburg. I needed income and income meant tips.
My impaired partner, not yet a full-fledged member of the working poor, could not appreciate my situation. Nor did he understand there was more to moving furniture than moving furniture. He was young, free, still flexible and living with his parents, who were living with their parents. And because he was twenty, he probably believed he would remain unbreakable forever.
I, however, had limped over forty and was at that place where the body’s betrayals just piss a person off. Why, I often wondered, did we have to wave goodbye to our physical powers when we finally gained the wisdom to know how best to use them? And why had God done such a lousy job designing the human spine? Was God on a smoke break when the complicated matter of vertebrae arose, or just grooving too much on the kundalini and the chakras? Anyone can catch a bad attitude and my mood that day was black and blue. Not a shred of sympathy for anybody else’s stupidity. Even God was on my shit-list. I couldn’t get hurt; I couldn’t stop making money. I was trying to save up for a health insurance policy, the new and reduced American Dream.
I killed the engine, yanked the brake.
“You’re sniffing heroin, aren’t you?”
He took a long, slow drag and gave me a stare that said, You need to shut your mouth, old man.
“It’s show-time,” I told him. “You’re the salt of the earth, a blue collar boy without a care in the world. We both are. Our whole purpose in life is to serve – it really is, by the way–and we’re cool with that. It’s natural. It’s in our genes. Got it?”
His dull eyes were bright with hatred now. In his stoned imagination, he was probably shooting me like a squirrel off a branch.
“Better not talk at all,” I said. “I’ll tell them you’re a deaf-mute.”
“I’m not laughing,” he told me.
“How could you? That would require muscular exertion.”
“Now you’re pissing me off.”
“Forgive me. I’m a mover, not a diplomat. And keep your mouth shut.”
Just before we slid off our seats onto the driveway, his tone changed in a way that resembled honesty, which always gets me.
“Why you gotta talk to me like I’m some kind of idiot, huh?”
I thought about his question as we walked along separate sides of the truck and met up at the back doors.
“Because you’re a druggie,” I said. “And a druggie is an idiot. An idiot or an addict. So you tell me – which is it?”
He dropped his lit cigarette on the driveway. “I might surprise you one day.”
“By whacking you in the back of the head with a blunt object.”
“Do you want me to lie to you?” I asked as I flung open the back doors. “Do you want me to pretend it’s cool that you’re blowing out every brain cell in your skull, killing your soul? Would that make me your friend? Would that make me cool? No, that would make me a liar.”
I took a step forward, crushing his cigarette under my sneaker. Then I bent over and picked it out of the bluestone and flicked it onto the lawn, so the homeowner wouldn’t notice any litter in the wake of his laborers. This was also my way of taking my eyes off of the boy, just to show him I felt sure there was nothing I would ever need to watch out for. And then I was standing to my full height again, half a head taller than him.
“And as far as threatening to assault me, young man: Make sure you kill me.”
Our little truck, thank God, was loaded only with lawn furniture which had been stored in our “climate-controlled” warehouse for the winter. Why put your lawn furniture in your shed or your basement or your multi-car garage, when you can pay inflated prices to store it in the warehouse of a moving company? Now it was the start of the summer season, so the people’s lawn furniture — almost always teak — had finally thawed. Every day for a week, our crews had been delivering chairs and chaise lounges to CEOs, movie stars, super-models and wanna-bes.
I had just unbuckled the yellow straps at the back of the load and was yanking out the first chaise lounge, when the customer called out, “Morning, boys.”
My Yes-boss face was automatic. But when I turned round, I was flabbergasted. The man approaching us conjured to mind some version of the hunchback of Notre Dame. He was leaning to one side that dramatically and practically dragging one of his slippered feet through the bluestone. Probably forty, he suggested a furniture mover of sixty or a normal man of ninety-five. His face was a mask of tortured wrinkles; his smile more of a wince. It was obvious at once: The dude in the magenta bathrobe was a brother with a back injury.
“What happened to you?” I asked, forgetting my station.
“Broke the back,” he said.
“Whoa,” I said, nearly feeling it, “how?”
“Better not laugh,” he told me, dragging his leg and lurching toward us.
“Of course not.”
“If you laugh,” he said, now that we were close enough to read each other’s eyebrows, “I might have to call out the Dobermans.”
My attention tightened at that remark. Even nice doggies like to bite the movers sometimes. I stabbed my coworker with a stare and said, “We won’t laugh or say anything stupid.”
“My wife was walking on my back,” he said, “and I felt it–it just snapped.”
“I ain’t asking my girlfriend do that shit no more,” said Justin.
“When?” I asked.
“Sixteen years ago.”
“Holy fucking God,” I said.
I stared at the man’s tan slippers–or were they the color called cream or champagne? How an intimacy could turn into a tragedy seemed outrageously, obscenely cruel. Then I started to wonder if the universe was sending me a message: You will be like this man soon. And that was it. My act collapsed. I sat down on the bumper and lit up a cigarette, rubbing my face as I smoked. Justin had to take over the conversation.
“There’s nothing the doctors could do?” he asked.
But the question was moot. The man was a billionaire. The mansion behind him had a five-car garage. One of the garage doors was open and the car you could see was a gray Rolls Royce. This was a person who could buy the finest medical care on the planet. Just the watch on his wrist had cost more than my annual income, gross.
“You name it, I’ve tried it,” he said.
He offered examples of physical therapies bordering on torture and spoke of a slew of surgeries, both here and abroad. He mentioned acupuncture, hypnotism, some top-dollar hippie-chick hitting him with barrages of white light and love. He even spoke of a pilgrimage to some place in Europe where the water was infused with blessings of The Virgin or some such thing. But I was no longer listening. I was too busy thinking, Thank You, and resolving myself to being a good mover – as pleasant as possible, as friendly as appropriate–and willing to do something extra if asked. And when I stood up, the pain in my back had lessened and my tip no longer mattered. How could it in the presence of this poor rich man?
Raymond Philip Asaph has taught poetry and fiction for twenty years at The Long Island High School for the Arts and been a furniture mover for the last thirty years. He won scholarships and fellowships for his poetry to Eckerd College, Bucknell University and New York University and has had poems and stories published in Poetry, Literal Latte, Zone 3 and elsewhere. He lives (and moves) on Long Island and is a longtime student of A Course in Miracles.
Art by Margarita Korol.