The frantic keyboarding continued. I heard two men (the cell phone fiddlers?) come toward me. And as confirmation of this, I saw the bright light which still pierced the bag get overshadowed by their approaching forms. My heart rate shot back up again.
They yanked me to my feet and wrestled me into a very heavy wooden captain’s chair, making sure to slide the chair’s back up between my spine and my still-bound hands. With both my elbows hooked around the sides of the chair’s back, they pulled my hands downward behind the chair, stretching my arms so far toward the floor that I actually yelped in pain. Once they’d maxed out the distance my arms could be extended, they secured my hands to the bottom rungs of the chair with more plastic binders. And finally both my ankles got strapped to each front chair leg. The dull ache in my shoulders now became shooting pains radiating down my arms and up my neck. After they finished this perverse feat of engineering, I heard them step behind me. They paused. I held my breath. At last they snatched the black bag right up off my head. I clamped my eyes shut from the powerful light.
*** *** *** ***
I arrived at the shop yard by ten thirty. Once home to a used car dealership, I’d bought the old cracked blacktop lot eight years earlier, keeping its rusty nine-foot chain link fence. After knocking down the dealership’s rotting one-room shack, I hauled in two second-hand work trailers and propped them up on cinderblocks. One served as an office, the other acted as an equipment storage shed.
I entered the now-open gate, walking along the crumbling driveway that sat flanked on both sides by neatly stacked bundles of pipe that my son referred to as "metal Lincoln Logs." Just a few paces beyond the gate I paused to survey it all. It was a “neat” work yard (I kept it organized) but still gritty looking from the dark stain of urban pollution and the sad truth of plumbing being such an unromantic craft of pipes and machines. I looked around in awe --not to admire its neatness nor to lament its ugliness. No. On that day I looked around in a surreal moment of self-actualization, basking in the euphoria of knowing that as of that very morning I had finally paid it off.
I entered my office, strangely comforted by the fake wood paneling which I’d always deemed so tacky prior to that life-changing morning. Stephanie looked up from her desk in terror. Today she wore her inhumanly jet black hair pulled back extra tight behind her multi-pierced ears (usually signaling a non-shower day for her). With more nervous tongue-ring clicking she asked in a timid whimper if I wanted her to clean out her desk. I laughed and held up the fresh loan amortization. Her face twisted in amazement and I even saw her eyebrow ring pivot sideways. After a series of reactions from her --ecstatic jumping, joyful tears, heartfelt hugs-- we both spent the rest of the morning at the delectable task of calling creditors to square up my many delinquent business debts.
By lunch time I told Stephanie she could take the rest of the day off. Since it was Friday she gladly jumped at that.
After she left I called my lawyer to discuss MK’s hostile phone call. But his secretary said he was on vacation until Monday. I asked her to have him call immediately upon his return. Then I sat down and composed an e-mail to him, itemizing everything I recalled from MK’s rant.
I later headed to the back of the trailer, to a room originally meant as a bedroom by the trailer manufacturer. Beyond that "bedroom" lay a full bathroom.
I'd initially employed that rear bedroom as a spare storage area for more delicate stock items like faucets and valves (leaving a foot path through the inventory to allow anyone who needed it access to the trailer's only toilet). After a while Stephanie claimed a spot on the floor for her office supplies. The room served us both quite did well as a storage area.
But then, during the previous autumn after MK demanded the divorce, I briefly had to live in that room for the first few months of our separation, just until I could move into the apartment by Locust Street. Even though the pathetic ordeal of my temporary lodging there came to a blessed end as long ago as Halloween, I still had some of the resulting second-hand furniture shoved behind plumbing parts and boxes of printer paper. The bathroom still functioned as a mere lavatory, but almost ten months earlier I covertly disconnected the shower as a deterrent to Stephanie. I’d figured out in mid-December that Stephanie used her key Thanksgiving weekend and "entertained" someone on my old bed. She was slick about it, covering her tracks well. I never would’ve known except that she and her “guest” both generously used the shower, causing a huge over-usage penalty on November’s water bill. I guess the queen-size mattress (stashed upright behind a shelving unit) made the temptation irresistible for her, especially since she had nosey roommates. While I never confronted her about it, I figured if she knew the all-important shower no longer worked, she might think twice about using my shop as a crash pad again.
As I entered the bedroom/storeroom on that sunny Friday in September of 2018, just three months before the Big Crash, the rear closet off to the side of the bathroom door was my real goal. In there I kept my work clothes.
I changed into a white t-shirt, making sure it was a not-so-yellowed one. On top of it I meant to layer one of my dark blue button-front work shirts bearing a white oval pocket name patch declaring “Pete” in red embroidery. But with the same care used in picking a t-shirt, I sifted through the hangers until I found one with the crispest shade of blue, and a name patch that wasn’t half falling off. On its back hung the large decal: “Pete’s Plumbing.”
After finishing up with my least-worn pair of dark blue work pants and steel-toed construction boots, I headed outside to my red work van and tidied its interior. I admit I over-tidied it, self-conscious from the dented exterior and my inability to do anything about it. After a vacuuming and a dash-polishing, I opened the other trailer, the equipment trailer, and loaded the van’s rear cargo doors with everything for a tank repair: pipes, valves, fitting kit, welding kit, oil pump and a whole rack of hand tools. By three PM I locked the office, equipment trailer and work yard, then drove the van from the now-locked gate and down the street to a local gas station. That was back in the days when a town like Philly would easily have over a hundred gas stations within its city limits. In retrospect I have to admit a typical late-twentieth century gas station is perhaps the ugliest piece of architecture ever conceived of with pen and paper. I don’t miss those either.
As I stood by my van squeezing the gas nozzle into my fuel port, I watched the numbers on the gas pump flicker upward in value. Two years earlier if you’d told me my van would eat nearly four-hundred dollars per fill-up I’d have laughed. But now the only thing laughable about that day’s refueling session was my debit card didn’t get declined. I checked the time: three-fifteen. “Meet me at six-thirty tonight,” Mystery Lady had said. If I wanted to beat Friday evening’s rush hour out of Philly I had to go right then.
After finishing at the fuel pump I fumbled with my wallet to quickly stash away the debit card and the gas receipt. But in my haste I let one fold of my wallet flop sideways, causing a large silver-looking coin to slide out and bounce on the concrete at my feet. I gasped and instinctively lunged down to try and grab the coin back. Tilted to one side it rolled in a circular whirl until it hit the high curbing of the gas pump island. I snatched it before it could plop on its face. Straightening up again in mild terror, I held my breath while examining it. The coin’s image of the grinning rat in flight shades and flak jacket remained unscratched. I double checked both sides for damage. Finding none, I let out a long sigh of relief.
They were called “challenge coins” because, when challenged (or when “coined”), you had to instantly produce the coin for your challenger, proving you had it on you. Failure to have it with you meant one of several penalties, depending on the setting and circumstance of the challenge. If someone challenged you as a civilian in peace time, you had to buy your challenger a drink. But if you had it on you, he had to buy a drink for you. (I had been coined a half dozen times in bars after returning to the States. I got the free drink out of it every time.) If challenged during active duty, since alcohol wasn’t allowed on-base, the loser usually had to do push-ups or minor grunt work. In one instance back in Kuwait, two guys in my unit called me over to the officers’ shower tent because they decided we should all be a bunch of wise asses and try to coin Captain Warren while he was in the shower. (I asked them why the hell they needed me to join in with risking a reprimand for entering the officers’ shower. They said because Captain Warren liked me and would probably be more lenient if I was in on it.) We snuck up on the poor man, cornering him in an open shower stall where he stood under the running water, buck naked with nothing but his dog tags on his neck and a bar of soap in his hands. His towel and bathrobe hung off to the side where it might have been possible that a coin lay tucked in the pocket of his robe. But “off to the side” wasn’t good enough because the coin always has to be physically on your person. So we figured that unless he had one shoved up his ass, we’d nailed him. Standing beneath the spray of water, he turned to face us with a look of surprise, followed by dead-pan annoyance as he demanded to know why we were in the officer’s shower. When we explained our mission, his irritated expression gave way to … a sly smile. His grin widened as he slowly held up his bar of soap. And there we beheld a coin lodged inside the bar itself. He then ordered us to make good on our loss of the challenge by having us do his laundry that night. The next day when we delivered the bundles of folded garments to him at his quarters, he invited us to join him in the officer’s mess tent for lunch. We gladly accepted.
But beyond merely having it on you, the method of carrying could not in itself cause damage to the coin. Even keeping it in your pocket, jostling around with your keys and regular coins, posed the danger of scratches. So if you produced the coin but it proved in any way defaced, you’d committed an unpardonable sin. At that point it’d be far better to lie and tell your challenger you didn’t have it on you, for you had now betrayed the honor of the coin. Punishment for allowing a challenge coin to suffer damage usually involved far more push-ups than just a few, and the grunt work handed out was the worst detail possible. And I once heard of an unusually vindictive measure of punishment where some guy from a neighboring unit in Kuwait was disrespectful (and stupid) enough to drill a hole through his challenge coin to wear it around his neck on a chain. When the guys in his unit found out, four of them waited for him one night and beat the daylights out of him. Then as he lay moaning on the ground they took the desecrated coin from him and melted it down with a blow torch.
Although I hadn’t been in the service in over 25 years, and hadn’t even been coined in four years, the habit of keeping it on me simply would not die. In my leather wallet, enfolded behind the soft protection of both flaps of a credit card slot, its safety never struck me as a problem. But the wallet had grown worn with time, suffering a few rips, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when such an accidental dislodging finally happened. Yet still, that one careless moment at the gas station rattled me.
After securing the coin in a different and more intact credit card slot, I put my wallet away, took a breath and climbed back in the van. I then pulled out the paper napkin Mystery Lady had scribbled on in her beautiful penmanship: 385 Lincoln Highway, Interlochen, PA. I set my GPS and started driving.
After an hour on the highway I took the designated exit. And after yet another hour I found myself in Lancaster County, which back then was the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country. Along the way I passed a few tall, black, box-like horse-drawn carriages, each trotting along the shoulder, bearing orange hazard triangles on their rear panels.
Just before sunset I arrived at the end of my GPS journey. There I found a 24-hour diner wedged between an old boarded up video store and a deluxe-sized gas station. At first I thought I’d keyed in the wrong address, but I checked again and it proved correct. I glanced at my watch: almost six. So I parked in the diner’s lot, went inside and bought a coffee to go --one of the worst coffees I’d ever had.
As I sat in the van, waiting, sipping my crappy coffee, I recalled the moment outside Hal’s when I got my first glimpse of Mystery Lady. Rich. Pretty. Polite on the surface but maybe a snob underneath. But still, she seemed like a nice person. Rich people who were truly nice were usually “above” snobbery, yet also above the likes of me.
I got annoyed with myself as I recalled my unprecedented care in choosing my stupid blue work clothes, followed by the meticulousness in cleaning my piece-of-shit work vehicle. Then I shifted toward a devious hope as I pondered Mr. Mystery’s absence. Maybe he traveled a lot. Maybe she threw him out recently. I wondered if she was lonely.
Why the hell did she shell out a whole fifty-grand so effortlessly? I wondered if she was just plain crazy. And if I still looked good naked.
Ditching my car back in July did wonders for my physique. Suddenly having to walk everywhere helped me lose ten pounds and got my lower body strength back up again. As for my upper body, yanking at wrenches and pipes all day long helped me maintain that with little problem over the years.
Would she think I’m sexy?
Maybe Mystery Lady would enjoy pissing off her husband by having a fling with a plumber. Not the mailman, or the landscaper. A goddamned plumber! I chuckled, recalling a conversation from a year ago that had originally scathed my soul. But now while thinking about Mystery Lady, those venomous words just amused my ego. “I married a PLUMBER for god’s sakes!” Mary Kelly had yelled those words at me one night right before our separation. “A goddamned plumber!”
-------------------End of Chapter 4-a--------------------