“Vent? What kind of name is that?” The super’s blue denim shirt was tight around the middle.
“My father’s last name, sir.” My hands were folded on my lap. The only dress shirt I owned didn’t fit at the collar. I had to suck my neck in to button the top button and wore the black clip on tie I’d bought at a yard sale for fifty cents.
“You all right, son?” The super’s glasses kept sliding down his nose. He didn’t have a proper bridge for glasses, just a steep flat patch where the plastic nose grips couldn’t find footholds. “Need a cup of water?”
“I’m fine, sir, just eager to start working.” I tried to think away the bead of sweat cruising down my temple.
“Yeah, about that,” he leaned back in his chair, which moaned under his weight, “I don’t know what got into Sally at the head office. I never asked for more guys. We got too many as is. I told them pencil heads months ago.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Yet, here you are.”
“I’m built for hard labor, sir. I’ve been around construction my whole life. I can do anything that needs to be done. I’m just asking for the chance, sir.”
“Enough of that ‘sir’ crap. You in the military?”
“Wouldn’t take me on account of my flat feet.” I looked down at my shoes.
“Huh, I’m flat-footed too.” The super smiled then grabbed a soda can. He spit a brown filmy residue into the mouth of it, then looked at the trailer roof and sighed.
I spoke before he could. “Sir—I mean—Mr. Thornton, I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve tried every construction site in the city and been told they don’t need anybody. But I’m a worker and here to stay. I won’t take off on you and I’ll never not show up. I don’t get sick, and if I did, I would work through it. All I’m asking for is a chance.”
Mr. Thornton looked from my eyes to the single page employment application in front of him. “What’s this here about an arrest?”
“A misdemeanor, sir, I mean, Mr. Thornton. Two years ago. Got cold-cocked by a guy who’d been drinking. What I did . . . was in self-defense.”
“Ah-huh.” He paused and combed his stubby finger nails through his gray mustache. “Well I’m sorry, Vent, but I—”
“—I’ll take less pay—half-pay—for a year. Call it a probation period, please, Mr. Thornton.” I dragged the chair I was sitting in closer to the desk.
Mr. Thornton crossed his flabby forearms and shook his head. “I wouldn’t ever pay a man less than another man for doing the same job. I pay a guy what he’s worth.” His voice took on an authority as if he was standing at a podium speaking to a crowd. “I’m just not hiring, Vent, and that’s the simple fact.” He picked up the soda can again and spit the whole wad of brown chew down the hole.
I took the bleached, white, sealed envelope out of my pocket. The front side of the envelope read “third notice.” On the back side, was a grocery list I’d scrawled in fading ink: tuna (3 cans), mayo, angel hair pasta, beans, hot dogs, and eggs. I walked with list and basket in hand through the small market, which fortunately was walking distance from my apartment. As I loaded my basket, I marked the prices next to each. Before I got in line I added the items up; the total being $14.87. There was only one register open and I bided my time in the line reading celebrity headlines and staring at the rows of different flavored gum.
The clerk and I exchanged the usual mumbo jumbo and due to a sale item the total only came to $13.06. I opened my wallet and the gaping mouth was filled with folded white receipts. I peeled out a worn credit card from a cracked leather sleeve and slid the plastic through the swiper pad. The screen read, “DECLINED.” There is no harsher word in the English language than ‘declined.’
“It’s declined, sir.”
“My name isn’t, sir. Why don’t you try it on your swiper, there.”
“Okay.” She took the card from me and slid it through. Each time the screen went red and the machine emitted a sad, electronic beep. “Do you have another card I can try?”
“Must be some mistake, I have plenty in that account.” The word “plenty” was an exaggeration and felt wrong passing through my lips.
I wasn’t unaware of the line of people behind me. A guy wearing a tailored suit, looked at his silver watch and then checked to see that there weren’t other lines opening up. An old lady behind him with a heavy cart was squinting her eyes at me, purple make-up smeared above her lids and red lip stick made her look like a shriveled clown. I was still in the collared shirt I’d worn for the interview and was vaguely aware of the fact that I could feel myself frowning at the clerk, while underneath my shirt from my arm pits to my chest, I was slick with sweat.
The clerk brushed her hair behind her ear and turned to the phone beside her register screen. “Let me call my manager.”
“No!” I hadn’t meant to raise my voice as loud as I did. It clearly scared the clerk whose mouth went wide like a blow-up doll. “I mean, I’ll go call the credit card company. You can keep my groceries there.” I hesitated, then turned away. “I’ll be right back.” As I walked out the doors I took out my wallet and held it to my ear. I hadn’t been able to afford a cell phone in years.
I waited in another line at the bank. As I stood there I snapped off my clip-on tie and loosened the top two buttons. The teller behind the glass was a tall, doughy Irish kid whose red hair was shaved to a buzz cut. He gave me some mumbo jumbo as he looked down at me from his side of the glass. With a wave of my hand I shut him up and laid into him. I was angry, and not above showing it to this guy.
His cufflinks shined as he put his soft, puffy hands up to try and calm me down. “Sir, you’re account has been overdrawn and the credit card was charged over the limit.”
“My name ain’t, sir, pal.” My words came with droplets of spit, which stuck to the glass between us.
The red-haired teller raised index finger and said, “Let me get my manager.”
“Good, I want you to get your manager!” I hollered at his back.
There was a brief pause as he left and I could feel the other tellers looking at me out of the corners of their eyes as they shoveled money and slips back and forth through their port holes. My foot got to tapping and I leaned my forearm against the glass. I smiled. I’d checked my statement the day before and knew, for a fact, that my account had credit, not much, but enough for a $13.00 grocery bill.
The manager was wearing a tie, not a clip on, and a gray suit jacket. “Hello.” He looked at the teller’s computer screen. “—Mr. Vent, my name is Mark, how can I help you today?”
Mumbo-fucking-jumbo. “I want you to show me my account statements and tell me why my accounts are overdrawn, because they aren’t and it’s your fault.”
“My fault?” The manager pointed four fingers to his own chest.
“Your bank’s fault,” I said.
He didn’t respond, instead he printed the statements, took a quick look at them, circled twice with a red pen, then stuck the first paper to the glass. “This is where you went overdrawn on your checking.” When I saw the paper my shoulders dropped. I’d told Marinda specifically to wait to cash that child-support check. I breathed out a high-pressured exhale.
The manager, Mark, offered up the credit card statement. “That’s your credit limit and that’s where you went over.” I leaned in close to saw the charge circled in red. “Le Petite Flower Shop. Visa XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-3241 – $42.50.” I ground my teeth and grabbed the edge of the counter. “Do I look like the kind of person who has money to blow on flowers?”
“Someone did, sir. They were purchased in the store, right off of 14th and Chestnut St.” The manager looked back at his screen. “The shop is only . . . three blocks from your home address.” He pursed his lips making him look like a duck. “Would you like me to direct you to the number of our claims department, sir? If your account has been compromised you can file a claim.”
I glared, my voice sunk to a deeper tone. “My name ain’t, sir . . . .” I pressed my finger to the glass with each word.
“Sorry, Mr. Vent.” He showed me his palms, then said, “Otherwise, due to your overages in your accounts, you currently owe the bank four-hundred and ninety-seven dollars in overages and fees.”
“Yeah, well try and get it from me, guy, just you try.” My feet stomped the floor with each step to the front doors, but the sound was muffled by the rug.
“Mr. Vent, can you please enlighten the court about what happened next?” The lawyer was slick: the suit, the briefcase, the smoothness of his speech—oil slick.
“As I told you, I went home, back to my apartment where the building manager, Mr. Fong, was waiting at my door.”
“How did you feel seeing Mr. Fong at your door?”
“I don’t know, how do you think I felt?” My court appointed lawyer looked at me hard then made a motion with his hand as if to tell me to settle down.
I frowned, then answered the question. “I felt like telling Fong to go shove sand up his ass and leave me alone!”
“Did you put your hands on Mr. Fong at any time?”
“On that occasion . . . no.”
Once I got Mr. Fong out of my face, and made him a promise I had no intention of following through with, I looked at my empty fridge and decided to take a minute on the couch to collect my thoughts. After twenty minutes, I put on a new tee shirt and left the apartment, walking at a brisk pace.
It wasn’t until I got to the door of my childhood home, whose white paint was chipped and flaking off, that I got a bad feeling in my stomach.
Ma was wearing a faded pink robe. Her hair was frizzy and the wrinkles gathered around her eyes seemed to be deeper than the last time I’d seen her. “Oh, it’s Frank. Hey, Jim, Frank’s at the door. God it’s been so long, look at you.”
“Can I come in?” I asked.
“Yeah, your father has been watching the news . . . so you know how he gets.”
When I got inside, I was surprised about how cold the house was. It was October, but the house was colder inside than the weather outside.
“Look what we got here . . . you get a job yet?” Pa turned in his chair and gave me a look from shoe to hair.
“What the hell’s the matter with you? You’re just like these punks on TV. Crying about not having jobs and how you got it so hard . . . bunch of pussies.” Pa had been willingly confined to that lazy boy for seven years. Disability had given him the right to never move again.
“What brings you out of that trashy apartment to see us, huh? What do you want?”
He was direct so I’d do the same. “Money.”
“Go figure.” There were yellow chip fragments on my pa’s stomach. He looked away from me then back at the television.
I didn’t bother to sit down. I just stood there watching the blob watch his damn TV, until finally I asked, “Well, are you going to say anything?”
He gave me a sour look, grabbed the clicker, and muted the TV.
I should have never come here, was the thought that ricocheted through my brain. A flush came from the bathroom.
“Even if I had money to give you, Frank, you know I wouldn’t give you a red cent. What the hell you thinking coming here asking me for money?”
Ma came into the room. “You need money, Frank?”
“And I told him what I told him last time—hell no!” Pa was more animated than I’d seen him in years.
“Frank, we barely have enough on our own, and your father with his disability. I have to agree with Jim on this one.”
I had choices now: I could yell and cuss them out, thus ending our relationship forever, beg on my hands and knees to the two rotten piles of people I called my parents, or turn around, walk out the door, and say nothing. I chose the quieter option.
“Mr. Vent, where did you go from there?” the court prosecutor asked.
“I went to my ex-wife’s house. My house, before she took it away from me.”
“And what happened there, Mr. Vent?”
“What do you want, Frank?” Marinda hadn’t even opened the door. She kept the chain lock in place speaking through the inches of open space.
“Just let me in, Marinda, I want to talk.”
“Go ahead then . . . talk. The kids don’t need to see you.”
“Marinda, you got to wait for the child support. I’m looking for a job and you cashing that check really screwed up my account.”
“You’re broke, Frank, is that what you are, broke?” Her words were sharp and her tone was acidic.
“I’m tough off, but I’m going to land a job soon.” I put my hand on the door frame of the house I’d put together with: my wood, my nails, and my paint. “Rin, you know me, everyone knows me. I’m a worker. All I need is a job.”
“Why did you come here, Frank? You know I could call the cops. That restraining order’s still valid.”
“I just need you to give me some time off from this child-support stuff. Just till I find my feet.”
She closed my door, in my face, and locked the padlock. I pounded my fist three times. The door was still strong, stronger than me.
“So this was right before the incident at your apartment?” the prosecutor asked.
“Tell the court what happened when you went back to your apartment, Mr. Vent.”
When I got home I decided to check the mail box for the first time in weeks. It was stuffed with bills, fliers, and colorful garbage. I tossed the pile into the can and headed up the stairs to my apartment. Mr. Fong was there again, which annoyed me seeing as I’d already dealt with him only a couple hours before.
“What is it now, Fong?”
He wasn’t much of a man in size, but he still kind of intimidated me. “I talked to the owner of the building, he wants you to give me the rent money now.”
“I can write you a check.”
“He wants cash, Mr. Vent.”
“What are you, nuts?”
A smooth voice interjected saying, “Can’t pay, Mr. Vent?” A man, who’d apparently been listening from the small common area, started down the corridor to us. I recognized the guy. He was the man from the grocery store, the one with the tailored suit, the fancy watch, and the can’t-wait-a-second attitude.
“Who the hell are you?” I asked.
“Sidney Waters, I own this building.” He paused, then scratched his chin. “Wait, I know you.” He snapped his fingers then pointed at me, his hand imitating a gun. “The guy from the check-out line. Having money problems are we, sir?”
“And what happened next, Mr. Vent? Please tell the court.”
“I punched him. As hard as I could, right in that smug face of his.” From the stand, I noticed my lawyer stand up and grab his hips. “I gave the bastard what he deserved, really slugged him good!”
“How many times did you hit, Mr. Waters?”
“Lost count, but when it was over, it was clear. I won!”
“That’ll be all, your honor.” The prosecutor rubbed his hands together and offered a quick sideways smirk to my lawyer.
My lawyer sank back into his chair, rested his forehead in his hand and shook his head.
With blood on my knuckles and Mr. Fong yelling like a chased off baboon, I looked down at the building owner as if I had just slid into a dream that wasn’t my own. Blood was splattered all over his clothes. He was moaning and barely conscious. I knew it was me that had made him this way because my hands felt cracked and bruised and the blood was dripping down my fingers wasn’t my own. I shook my head and left Mr. Waters writhing on the floor. I stepped into my apartment, washed my hands clean in the sink and dried them with a rag. Police sirens wailed from the street several floors below. I walked to the window and pushed aside the thin white curtain. Two cruisers pulled up on the side walk jaggedly.
I looked down at the small table beside the window. Resting inside a large glass vase that still had the “Le Petite Flower Shop” sticker were two dozen yellow tulips.