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I can’t say how far they took me or how long the journey lasted. I only know we briefly used the highway. When the van finally stopped, the unseen hands, knees and shoes all released. Two men dragged me from the vehicle out into a blistering cold wind and forced me to walk with them across a blacktop surface, clutching me by my aching elbows. Through the bag I heard a tug boat sound its horn somewhere nearby. And when the fierce wind pierced the black cloth I detected the aroma of salt water in the air.
I wore a nice business suit that day, a mode of attire quite rare for me. And my newly-bought, not-quite-broken-in-yet dress shoes scuffed clumsily along the pavement as the men marched me forward. On top of the suit I wore an equally new, full-length designer rain coat. While those many layers of garments offered me some protection from the arctic air that blasted against us, they also compounded the restricted motion of my arms.
We eventually entered an unheated building with a concrete floor that echoed with our steps. I tried to count the footfalls and it sounded like at least six men --including my “escorts”-- accompanied me. Then we entered a room.
Once in the room they threw me forward, releasing their grip, hurling me against a wall that felt like brick. With my hands still tied behind my back I lost my balance and fell sideways, hitting another wall (it turns out I was in a corner) which kept me from hitting the floor.
I stood hyperventilating in the frigid corner of the brick room, my back to whoever my captors were. There I waited.
*** *** *** ***
The next morning I strolled through my kitchen, sipping the day’s first cup of coffee, all while composing in my head how to tell my lawyer about MK’s phone call. After I’d had enough of that sordid mental exercise, I took a glance at my power meter which hung fixed to the wall by the phone. I clicked through the dozens of charts and graphs available on the meter’s display screen, seeking one chart in particular. And when I found it, the data on it spawned a sick fear in my gut. Even though I’d used less electricity that month than any prior month since my lease began in November, the dollar figure the screen claimed I’d owe in two more days was double what I had in my bank account. Still in a mild fog from the sleeping pill, I wasn’t up to the task of analyzing the numbers in search of a hoped-for error.
In defeat I tipped my head against the wall by the phone, oblivious to the mug cooling in my grip. I imagined the power getting shut off next week right as Jason and I walked in the door with his suitcase Friday afternoon.
My head still to the wall, and a shuddering fear creeping over my soul, I realized that for the first time in my life I faced true insolvency. I hadn’t paid my lawyer August’s installment, and here I was getting ready to rack up further billable hours. I felt the sudden urge to pray. That urge surprised me since I hadn’t prayed --really prayed as if I fucking meant it-- in decades. Yet that avenue of desperation started to appeal for the first time since grade school. But then I recalled the starry-eyed words of my ever cheerful secretary Stephanie. “Our ancestors watch over us from the Heavens,” she beamed to me one day from behind her deathly white face makeup. I remember grinning at her, then asking if she was Native American (if so that would’ve made her the first goth-chick tribal member I’d ever met or heard of). “No,” she said, smiling with black lipstick. “I just think it’s a cool concept,” she shrugged and went back to her work, just as cheerful as ever.
I didn’t know any of my “ancestors” except my deceased grandmother who’d always been way too Catholic to entertain such a quasi-pagan concept as ancestral guardianship. But if anyone really was watching my pathetic life, I needed their help right then.
That’s when the phone rang, inches from my ear. I jerked my head back from the plaster to glare at the offending phone. After overcoming the shock of its loudness, I noticed with a twinge of guilt the same red light blinking with the same unretrieved messages. I sighed, knowing if I didn’t answer then yet one more message would get stacked up behind the others. But rarely inclined to face the world before seven-thirty, I turned away and began working through my coffee.
Then I noticed the caller ID gave the nameless label “CELL PHONE, PA.” A cell phone wasn’t likely to be a creditor. Fearing the remote chance of an emergency involving Jason, I put down my mug, braced myself and answered.
“Yes, good morning. Is this Peter Walczak?”
Neither bill collectors nor emergency room representatives say “good morning,” so chances were good the call would prove harmless. Whoever she was she had a sweet voice. Not only do I admire a nice telephone voice, I appreciated her flawless pronunciation of my name: “vall-chuck.” Few people on the western side of the Atlantic knew to render that Polish “w” as a “v.” So since immigrating to the USA my forbears settled for the Americanized “w” and introduced themselves as “wall-chuck.” As for the rest of my name, most people bastardized it as “wall-ck-zack” or “wall-shack.” But Mystery Lady here nailed it beautifully: vall-chuck. This all so charmed me that I nearly dropped my guard against the lingering possibility I was about to get dunned.
“Uh, yes it is,” was all I would let myself say.
“Hello, Mr. Walczak,” Mystery Lady continued in her kind and tender treatment of my name. “I, um …” and here she grew timid. “… I hope this isn’t … too early in the … morning?” She ended with the insecure upward inflection of a question. Her sudden anxiety over the hour struck me –-she’d only just realized her error! From her mildly British accent, I formed the (weak) theory that she hailed from a Euro or Indian call center with calls re-routed through a Philly transfer station, and after I answered she noticed too late that she’d called my time zone prematurely. My lawyer assured me collection agencies and telemarketers can’t call private homes at “inappropriate hours.” So I said, “That depends on what this call’s all about.” Her answer told me she definitely wasn’t calling from overseas.
“Well, I was hoping to secure your professional services.” The hesitation disappeared so now her speech exhibited a certain brand of refinement that only comes from years of boarding school -–in short she sounded rich. My hunch became even more plausible when she added: “And since it’s going to be a rather unorthodox contract, I feel obligated to pay you considerably more than your usual rate.”
That rang all the bells of my happy-meter. Elated at the prospect of a wealthy client with money to burn, I ignored her peculiar choice to call my home instead of my shop office, and asked what the contract involved. She said, “I’d rather not discuss that on the phone, but I also want to know if you’re willing to accept cash,” which meant it’d be an under-the-table job. My happy-meter instantly shut down and my caution lights started blinking. Had this woman called at any other time than right after MK’s confrontation of the night before, I’d have deemed it a blessing. But in my sudden fear of MK’s shenanigans I postulated this woman might’ve been hired by my ex-wife’s lawyer to get me caught doing something illegal.
I kept one hopeful eye on this being legitimate. So to head off any illicit discussions, I gave the delicate speech on professional ethics and losing my license. That speech sometimes offended people, especially rich ones. After all who was I, a mere “common laborer” (actually, I’m a “craftsperson”), to tell anyone with buckets of money I had more scruples than they? Surprisingly she took no offense. And with overt promises that nothing was illegal she gently persisted. She never got pushy, just tried to entice me by offering the cash up front and tossing in a contingency bonus at the back end. When I asked how much cash she had in mind, she gave me her answer. I then fell into a breathless silence, frozen in uncertainty. She had just quoted a dollar figure so outlandishly high there was no way any of this could be real. But still -- that kind of money would’ve gotten me on my feet again with loads left over afterward. Caught between paranoia and finances, this conversation was proving to be a real head-fucker.
“Mr. Walczak? Are you there?” she asked, making me realize I was taking way too long to second guess everything.
I summoned an inner calm. The coffee started kicking in, boosting my alertness. And then I pondered the bizarre fact of her calling me at home.
“May I ask where you got my home phone number from?”
She paused. At first I thought I’d tripped her up, assuming the hesitation meant she was scrambling to think up a lie. But her pause turned out to be awkward embarrassment.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she sounded downright mortified. “Are you saying I called your private residence just now?”
“Well ... yeah.”
“I truly apologize!” She fell into a nervous laughter (but lacking any silly giddiness). “I had your name and number on a scrap of paper and assumed--” She interrupted herself and regrouped, squashing her nervous laugh, shifting to a more heartfelt conviction. “I had no intention of disturbing you at home. I confess I wondered when you answered why you merely said ‘hello’ and didn’t recite some sort of canned business greeting and--” Another regroup. “I only called this early because I wanted your business’ voicemail, not a live person and--” Yet one last regroup. “You’re probably still in the middle of your breakfast!”
“Uh, well,” I laughed, taken in by her candor as I relaxed my suspicions, “I actually haven’t had breakfast yet.”
She then seized upon my not having eaten. So to make up for disturbing me she offered to buy me breakfast if I’d hurry over to Hal’s Diner by eight o’clock. Though I still meant to turn down her contract, Hal’s had an awesome breakfast.
When we ended the phone call, I gently eased the receiver into the wall-mounted phone base then paused, holding it, lingering over the warmth emanating from it. I recalled the description she gave of herself: “I’ll be wearing a brown velvet hat with a flower on one side.” I indulged in the thought of touching soft brown velvet. But I shook off that thought and began my leaving-the-apartment rituals.
I raced around, closing windows, tidying up, and noticed an extra spring in my step. But then I realized: She never gave her name. That struck me as … odd. I stopped pondering that when I saw the time: seven-forty. I had to go!
I snatched my jacket, keys, and cell phone (strangely, I don’t miss cell phones) then opened my apartment door which sat perched atop the straight staircase leading down to my front door. My hand still on the knob I paused on the top step and looked back inside. Recalling MK’s vicious phone call, I defiantly thought to myself: It’s not THAT bad!
I kept it immaculate (two years in the Army will do that to you). And it had a nice rear view to a garden tended by an old man across the way. Sure, it was small -- smaller than the townhouse I relinquished to MK in the divorce -- but it was pleasant. I even wangled a break in the rent in exchange for taking care of the furnace and the plumbing.
Lingering in the door I turned to the mirror. Blue jeans and a green corduroy shirt -–not very authoritative, but the leather jacket looked cool. It was autumn so while a jacket wasn’t needed it also wasn’t unreasonable. This is a business breakfast with a prospective client, I thought, so I have to look good. I also took solace from the fact that Friday was a shower day for me, so I smelled good at the moment. As an added bonus my shower included a shampoo, allowing me to go hatless that morning. (I always deemed my hair one of my better assets, but only when it was clean.) I adjusted my collar then headed down the stairs, locking the door behind me.
*** *** *** ***
“Sit down!” a man’s voice ordered. So I leaned sideways against one wall and used it to brace myself as I slid down to the floor. During my descent, the rough surface of the bricks snagged against the fibers of my raincoat.
Seated on the icy concrete floor, both hands behind me and one screaming shoulder propped against the harsh wall, I continued to wait. My breathing started to slow and my heart rate leveled off. I now merely trembled. The black cloth of the bag started growing damp from my respiration and sweat. In that frigid room, the trapped humidity in the bag chilled my head. I could no longer tell how much of my trembling came from unceasing fear or relentless cold. I recalled my Army field medic training, and considered the possibility I might go into shock from the combined extremes of trauma and temperature. I further considered whether going into shock might be a godsend.
*** *** *** ***
After I made it downstairs and onto the sidewalk, the danger of even just meeting with Mystery Lady started weighing heavily. I can’t risk my license! I stomped along, dreading getting caught up in something shady. Losing my license would mean I’d lose my business, file bankruptcy, lose the apartment. Then I’d lose Jason due to my inability either to support him at MK’s house or provide a decent place for visits with me. And even if found innocent of any wrongdoing and my license and business remained intact, the scandal of my undergoing such a licensing review would never get by the scrutiny of Family Court. I resolved just to eat and say good-bye to this woman forever, regardless of whatever she had in mind.
What exactly does she have in mind?
“Just tank work, Mr. Walczak,” she’d vaguely said. And in spite of her claims to the contrary, I doubted it was legal. But as I rounded the corner onto Locust Street, the image of the blinking red light on my phone began to gnaw at me again. And the looming threat of the power getting cut off compounded my mounting anxiety. So I started to rationalize accepting her contract “just this once” as long as it stayed in code requirements.
The divorce settlement back in June cleaned me out. Giving up my half of our grossly-devalued house gutted my financial profile. Then I had ten months of back-child support to pay all in one shot, followed by regular monthly child support from then on. When July started getting rough the first bit of damage control I resorted to was selling my personal car for almost nothing --while I made no profit on its sale, my real goal was eliminating the monthly costs of parking, gas, and insurance premiums. Next I ditched my home cable and internet, and hocked my electronics. Then I broke a cardinal rule of business: I dipped into the company account … deeply. That lack of operating capital proved a near-fatal mistake. Not only did the price of diesel for my two work vehicles suddenly exceed fifteen dollars a gallon that summer, but my freon compressor broke, so I couldn’t do air conditioning repairs or service all during July. On top of that a contract I’d lined up for August to do the pipe grid on a new townhouse fell through when the builder went bankrupt. So for the first time I fell behind in the mortgage payments on my shop. In desperation I cashed in an IRA to keep the lights on and pay my secretary, figuring if I could hold out until heating season I’d pull through. In September businesses and landlords do pre-winter maintenance on furnaces, so a handful of those might’ve put me in the black again by the start of autumn. But another damned nationwide banking collapse had been unfolding since April, rippling yet more destruction through the economy and prompting most of my regular heating clients to chance the winter without me. My only hope now was for the random heating system here and there to break down, warranting emergency repair. But between an unusually warm September, and Philly rental laws not requiring landlords to provide heat until the First of October, such breakdowns wouldn’t happen for another ten days. Meanwhile my bank was nearing the end of its patience. So perhaps Mystery Lady here would be my salvation.
As I walked down Locust Street, I pulled out my phone and called the office to leave a voice message. “Hey Stephanie, it’s Pete. Gonna be late --got a business meeting. I’ll be in b’fore ten. No calls, ‘less it’s an emergency. See ya’.” I collapsed my phone while glancing at my quickly strolling reflection in a dark and empty shop window: the jacket definitely made the outfit. I fished out my sunglasses and donned them. Very cool, very business-like. At least on the surface I’d look like I had it all together.
I passed other pedestrians, my nostrils assailed by their group blending of perfumes and colognes which only somewhat masked a wide array of body odors. I sometimes caught scent of a person who seemed genuinely clean. In rare instances I inhaled a human smell which rivaled that of a dead animal. Yet these weren’t homeless people, just regular folks trying to get by in the face of the City’s latest water restrictions. While some people’s body chemistries allowed them to squeak through a full 48 hours without bathing, others clearly could not. But they had to go without. We all did. I usually managed to hit the 40-hour mark before getting flat out offensive, so my luke warm shower from an hour earlier lent a needed air of confidence to my stride.
As I continued my brisk walk, I focused hard on my more than 20-year habit of always walking very straight and very tall, walking “with a purpose.” I took another glance at my reflection in the next smeary set of dark deserted shop windows. Observing my momentum, I recalled the command I’d been given many years earlier in Kuwait: “Walk like you have a purpose in life, soldier!” Very straight and very tall. With a purpose.
Satisfied with my gait, I again asked myself, Is this job going to be illegal?
Rich people get away with doing lots of illegal things with their private houses (or at least try to). They dig their cellars down deeper than local ordinances allow so their fully finished basements can have twelve-foot ceilings instead of nine-foot. They build separate apartments for their live-in nannies over their garages --complete with full baths and kitchens-- even if the neighborhood is zoned for single-family dwellings. And they sneak across the boundary lines of adjacent and federally protected wildlife preserves to chop down dozens or even hundreds of trees to enhance their picturesque views of lakes and mountains. And in order to get away with all these forbidden dream-house renovations, they hire guys like me under the table. No permits. No inspectors. Just cash and no questions asked. But if a guy like me ever got caught doing a job like that, it would mean massive fines, a revoked license, the shuttering of my business, and then I’d never see my son again. While being snagged in patently illegal jobs like that would certainly cost me my license, a legitimate contract merely done off the books would get me in trouble with no one other than the IRS. So maybe I could risk it “just this once.” I walked along, half hoping, half dreading, and fully musing on that woman’s beautiful voice.
Distracted by these thoughts, I didn’t notice I was walking by the pawn shop where I’d hocked my electronics. The shop owner spotted me, waved, and ran outside. I bristled.
“Hey, Pete!” he called. “Ready to sell me that last coin?”
-------------------End of Chapter 2-a--------------------