WHO YOU’RE DEALING WITH
By Raymond Arcangel
Nothing ever looked like it did in the movies. No cozy warm lounge, a half-dozen chairs of leather and wood with their backs against the cream-colored walls, low mahogany table with magazines spread in a fan. No blithesome old secretary, her desk right there among you all, the interminable clacking of her typing slowing as she asked you if it was still as hot as an oven outside. This place was more reminiscent of a North Philly county assistance office: tile floor and drop ceiling with buzzing fluorescent rods, rows of hard plastic chairs facing a wall of bilious green. Twice in six weeks Ernie had sat staring at that wall—and the backs of the heads of the others, each silently seething—and it still made his stomach churn. To their right was a long counter, behind which the tops of three crimped, saffron hairdos were visible, chatting and answering unseen phones.
Before Olive had laid down the law—no more nookie until he stopped acting like a baby and made an appointment—it had been, what, well over a decade since his last time in a doctor’s office? Perhaps there had been a time when they’d looked like the movie office; it was hard to say.
HMO’s, a self-sustaining system. A maddening hour on the website and you needed a doctor, and a psychologist, and a dentist from the teeth-grinding. Olive had sat with him on the couch, calming him, navigating the site and reading reviews.
“This guy sounds good, baby,” she’d said, clearly hoping against yet another veto. “He’s right in Mayfair. You could just go into work a little late one day.”
This was where she shined, situations where she got to be the adult, narrowing, effacing, the twenty-year difference in their ages. She had taught him how to file his taxes online, how to order a pizza on his cell without ever having to speak to an employee, and she would see to it that he saw to his health.
“I don’t like his face.”
“Oh, come on, Ernie. He’s got four stars.”
“He looks like a pervy assistant scoutmaster I used to know. Guy was always trying to show you wrestling moves and making weird jokes and breathing all over you. He tried to talk me into sharing his sleeping bag one night. Put me off camping for good.”
“You’re a man in his forties, not a sixth grader in danger of getting molested.”
“You never know with these guys,” he’d said, rubbing her pale knees, moving toward her denim cutoffs. “They get your pants off, get you hopping up on that table, wrapped in thin paper like a damn Christmas gift to themselves…”
“Ernie,” she’d said, laughing, relenting, letting him take the laptop and set it on the coffee table. “This is important.”
He guided her backwards, placing a throw pillow behind her head. She closed her eyes, exhaling audibly when his knuckles pushed against her warmth.
“I know, baby. So is this. This is the most important thing—”
“Mr. Bayag,” one of the hairdos called in the general direction of the side of his face. He stood, finding none of the three revealed faces to be looking at him. After a long moment, the one in the middle—her flat gaze never moving from her desktop monitor—said, “You can go in back with Kim, honey, and she’ll get you weighed and take your blood pressure.”
The details of the first time were a bit hazy. You’d have to ask his mother. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever had the story straight, hadn’t thought about it much or put it into context until decades later. Their first apartment, that little two-bedroom on Knorr Street. He was a year old, his mother bathing him in the kitchen sink as she used to do. She reached over to flip on the light, her other hand in the water with him.
Was it that he too had felt the shock and cried out, but somehow it hadn’t harmed him? Or was it that the shock had somehow not touched him at all? Whichever it was, in every retelling his mother had called it a miracle. She’d been knocked to the ground, the lights dimming, the hum that had run through her still ringing in her ears. She’d held him to her breast after, crying and rocking him and saying she was sorry again and again.
He sat on the leather examination table. He’d been weighed, had his vitals taken. His work boots were in the corner, his blue canvas jacket on a hook above them, but he’d been otherwise allowed to remain dressed. On the fourth floor of a six-floor, kidney-shaped medical center, he could hear the weekday sounds of the city below. Kim, the lovely Latina nurse, her red scrubs tight upon her ass like the skin of a cherry, she had given a slight tsk while reading his blood pressure.
“What, is it still high?”
“Actually it’s a little better than last time. You been taking the meds?”
He had taken them for a week, stopping the instant they’d begun to turn his manhood into taffy. He’d rather have the high blood pressure.
His cell phone buzzed from somewhere within his jacket. It reminded him of a summer morning when he was a kid, the bedroom he shared with his older brother. A fat alien-looking wasp had gotten in and trapped itself between the two panes of glass above their old rickety air conditioner, droning and warbling and banging against the glass. Freeing it would’ve involved unscrewing the AC unit and holding it precariously above the concrete of their back alley two floors below while the other boy lifted the window. As his brother had said, one of them would’ve probably gotten a stinger in the hand for his trouble.
Hey there, Poppa Bear, the text read. Everything is gonna be fine, I know it. I just hope you ACTUALLY WENT. Love you.
Yes, Little Red Riding Hood. Where else would I be? Love you.
Who could say how many other times there had been, really? Routes driven home instead of other routes, blocks not walked down nights coming home from a bar, corners not turned. If you pulled back far enough, how many Mr. Magoo near-misses had there been? Even the incident that had led to this whole doctor thingcould probably be listed among the almosts. About to gear up for a job, he’d just started up the warehouse staircase when everything went black. According to Matt, he’d suddenly collapsed, his upper back landing against the metal railing from shoulder to shoulder. He slid down, as perfectly as if it had been choreographed, his body crumpling at the bottom step and rolling to the floor. He’d gotten a bit bruised up, and he was embarrassed as hell, the guys standing around him, Lou splashing a Dixie cup of water in his face, but, hell—if he’d been higher up when it happened, he could have broken his goddamn neck.
But he hadn’t been higher up. That’s what his brother would’ve said. Would’ve told him that he looked too hard into things. He tried to find meaning in dumbass rock lyrics and he stared at things until patterns emerged. Some people turned down one street and met disaster and some people turned down another and did not. Some bugs forced themselves into a narrow crevice and got trapped and some flew right by, on to better things. It didn’t mean shit. That’s what his brother would’ve said.
There was no way of knowing how many windows he’d flown by, how many times he’d missed fate by a hair. But the second time, the second instance that had clearly been a thing, he was in his early thirties, working for a cardboard manufacturer way up in Huntington Valley.
He was one of the floor guys, the grunts, entire shifts spent taking the huge sleeves off the machine, binding them to pallets and wheeling them out to the dock. As was often the case over the course of his many jobs, he’d been friendlier with the folks up in the office, the reps and secretaries, the faces of the company.
The newly hired accounts manager was fresh out of college, a wife’s cousin or something to one of the big bosses. Ernie found him a bit soft, but the kid had taken a liking to him after finding out he was a Vonnegut fan. There was something more than a little condescending in the wonderment he’d expressed—really? A commoner like him read Vonnegut?—but Ernie chose to not be insulted. Soon the kid was coming down and hanging around on the floor during lunch hour, or buzzing on the intercom for Ernie to come have a cigarette with him mid-shift. He was infatuated with Ernie’s Philadelphia accent and working-class upbringing, adjusting his own speech patterns when they talked, laying on the cursesand the comments about female bodies. For his part, Ernie mostly just laughed at the kid’s jokes and nodded his head.
One night they got around to their long-planned drinks after work, in the back of a strip-mall spaghetti place between Somerton and Huntington Valley. The kid told him about every piece of ass he’d had, and which girls at the office he wanted to stick it to. Six Honey Browns sloshing around his gut, Ernie hit I-95 in his old Celebrity just after nine pm, regretting almost instantly not having visited the john before beginning the sixteen-mile drive.
By the Cottman exit he knew he was going to piss himself. Almost home, just a couple off-ramps to go, but holding it was like holding his breath, and the moment was coming when his body would do what it wanted and let go. Just beyond the Bridge/Harbison exit, the shoulder had been widened considerably, the result of some construction project that had been going on for as long as he could remember. He pulled over among the cones and barrels, throwing it into park with one hand and opening the door with the other, tearing at his jeans as he trotted to the concrete divider. It was one of those glorious, orgasmic pisses, clear as water. He looked to the autumn night sky, moaning, light traffic at his back.
He’d been back on the road for only a couple hundred yards when, after coming around a bend, he saw lights heading his way. They were higher up than his, clearly a truck of some make, and his first thought was that the vehicle had something to do with the construction. What the hell were these idiots doing, not even blocking off traffic before driving the wrong way down the highway? It was an old Ford pickup, slowing to thirty miles an hour as it passed him. Ernie tried to see into it, but the figure behind the wheel was cloaked in darkness.
“Real brilliant, jackass,” he said to no one.
A quarter-mile down the road, he spotted a police cruiser pulled over to the shoulder, also facing the wrong way, and it began to dawn on him what he’d witnessed.
“Hey, I was worried about you,” the woman he lived with in those years said, lifting her sleepy head from the couch, a Nick at Nite rerun on the television.
“Put on 3, 6 or 10. There’s gotta be something about it. Some nut was going the wrong friggin’ way on 95!”
“He went right by me, as close as I am to you.”
As soon as she clicked the remote, he saw the highway, shot from a helicopter.
“Jesus,” his girlfriend said, lighting a Marlboro. “He must’ve been stoned.”
The story, when all was said and done—an evening’s worth of intense coverage followed by two or three nights of exponentially declining airtime; a few articles in the paper—would remain largely a mystery.
Gary Tomlin, twenty-eight, of Bridesburg, and his seventeen-year-old girlfriend, Amy Skurski, a senior at Little Flower High, were parked at a gas station on Richmond Ave when, for unknown reasons, Tomlin grabbed something out of an idling police car and fled. The officer, who’d been inside getting coffee, heard Tomlin peeling out, saw his own car door hanging open, and gave chase. He radioed for back-up as he tailed the pickup up and down the streets of Bridesburg and Port Richmond, Tomlin eventually barreling up the Richmond off-ramp.
The official police statement was that the officer had not followed once the truck had entered onto the highway.
Immediately after he’d passed Ernie’s car, Tomlin had accelerated, witnesses stating he’d been going at least sixty miles per hour when taking the bend. His young girlfriend beside him, he plowed head-on into the car of Keisha Warner, a twenty-four-year-old mother of two. The women died on the scene, Tomlin succumbing a short while later. What he had taken from the cruiser was never stated, at least not in any of the stories Ernie read.
He was staring out the office window, listening to the traffic below. He almost dropped his phone when it buzzed again.
That’s the wrong fairy tale, silly boy. Love you.
He could take anything but this damn waiting. Twenty minutes since Kim had said the doctor would be right in. Just bring it, doc. Grin that noncommittal, thin-lipped grin, exchange a few pleasantries about how he’d been feeling, how work was, blah blah, and then say it—what Ernie already knew he was going to say. Just goddamn bring it.
This was how his brother had gone, how he’d gotten word he was going. And their old man, too. Some office like this, both of them having been urged by women to go to the doctor, go to the doctor. Tests were run, follow-up appointments made. Time spent in the waiting room, and more time spent waiting in the examination room. But, eventually, the doctor came in, the grin got grinned, and what got said got said. And both of them, father and son, they decayed with alacrity, rushing to make the words real once they’d been spoken.
The door opened.
“Ernesto,” Kim said, leaning in, her rear sneaker held slightly raised, ready to bolt once she’d delivered the message. “Doctor Murphy will be right with you, okay, hon?”
“Okay,” he answered, moving away from the window, obeying the instruction given by her eyes and the tilt of her head that he retake his seat on the examination table.
“Just a few more minutes. You need anything, hon?”
“Nah. You want to wait with me maybe?”
She laughed and sucked her teeth. “You.”
The third time he’d almost died was just a few years back, not long after he’d taken his current job with the industrial pest-control company.
Olive was one of the small group of telephone salespeople, cold-calling restauranteurs and other business owners, offering them a free inspection with one of their highly trained techs. Short punkish blonde hair, cruelly short skirts and tight blouses painted onto her thick-in-all-the-right-places frame, the word among Ernie’s fellow techs—most of them at least a decade his juniors—was that she was unapproachable. Chuck, the phone room supervisor, would fax the next day’s schedule over to the warehouse every afternoon, but Ernie began making a point of coming across the lot on his own. When word got around that he and Olive were becoming friendly—smoke breaks together behind the office building, grabbing lunch at the deli up the street—the guys were amazed.
“Ernie, no offense,” Ronnie, a skinny twenty-something, said, his buddies chuckling and shaking their heads, “but you? Seriously?” Buzz-cut and sparse goatee, ugly green tattoos on his forearms and neck. Your typical Northeast Philadelphia white boy who both hated and emulated blacks. “Girly must have daddy issues.”
“Shit, boy” answered Matt, the sole member of the crew older than Ernie and the guy who’d gotten him the job. “This is Ernie Bayag. You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You should’ve seen what this little bastard pulled in the old days.”
They’d yet to go beyond talking, Olive and he. Mostly, she talked and he listened, offering advice or a joke when it felt right. Ronnie had been correct though: girly definitely had daddy issues. She had issues with her whole family, in fact, her father having abused her trust only slightly more than the others. But she was sweet and pretty and kind, bringing Ernie a batch of homemade escarole and meatball soup the day after he’d had to have his dog put down.
The company was two two-story buildings on a dead-end street of businesses off Keystone. There was a trucking company, a tool and die maker, a mammoth auto junkyard, and, at the end of the block, the pest-control company. Like the others, their lot was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence, the top garnished with rolling loops of razor wire like the spiky skeleton of a prehistoric eel. As protected against theft as they were at night, during business hours the gate, and the doors of both buildings, were left unlocked.
It was late afternoon when, having just returned from a job in South Jersey, Ernie parked his van and walked across the lot, Olive’s Tupperware container in his hand, washed and ready to be returned. The ground floor of the office building held the cafeteria, bathrooms, a small conference room, and the office of the rarely seen owner of the company. Atop a wide staircase of lacquered wood was the phone room, which Ernie found empty. He’d later learn that the telesales crew had a great morning, filling up the schedule early. Olive had earned herself a twenty-dollar bonus for the most appointments and, along with the rest of the crew, the afternoon off.
He put the container on her desk and sat in her chair. Framed snapshots of her nieces, a prayer card from a favorite uncle’s funeral, her Ron Burgundy coffee mug.
Something was happening outside, between the two buildings. Yelling, not of anger, but confusion and—fear. A voice—Matt’s, Ernie was fairly certain—screamed for someone to call the cops. He went to the window at the rear of the room. His eyes fell first on Lou, the head tech, in the midst of an almost comic double-take, work boots skidding on the gravel, his big belly bouncing beneath his blue canvas shirt. Whatever humor the image held evaporated with the shot. It was like the splitting of a crisp piece of wood amplified by a cheap, tinny stereo speaker. Matt, who in desperation had flattened himself against the wall of the office building, fell into Ernie’s view. Another crack, and a cloud emerged from the stucco wall of the warehouse, a few feet above Lou’s shoulder.
“April, no, no. I didn’t have anything—”
He ran toward the narrow metal door, tripping as another cloud of white exploded above his head. The door opened and two canvas arms pulled him inside.
April walked slowly to the door and knocked, as calmly as a woman selling cosmetics. Early thirties, sickly thin, dressed in her usual of track pants and baggy t-shirt, her stringy bleached hair falling over her Martha Washington glasses. She’d been one of the telemarketers until earlier in the week when, after calling out yet again, Chuck let her go.
She’d not taken it well, calling back later that afternoon and begging Betty, the office apple polisher and Chuck’s unofficial assistant, to please let her speak with him. Chuck wouldn’t come to the phone, Betty informed her with polite glee. Ernie had gotten the whole story from Olive on one of their smoke breaks.
April turned from the metal door and started slowly toward the office building, putting another round into Matt’s lifeless body as she passed.
911 had just answered when he heard April calling, almost sweetly, from the ground floor. Hello?
“911. What’s your emergency?”
Her mane appeared on the horizon, ascending the wide steps. Ernie quietly put the receiver into the cradle and walked toward her, smiling, his hand extended in a friendly wave.
“Oh, my god—April. I heard they fired you. What the hell? Those idiots. You were, like, one of their best salespeople.”
“I don’t know where that asshole is. I think he sent everybody home. You should sue. They can’t just fire you like that.”
She seemed to be struggling to match his warmth, like a shy kid not sure if she was being made fun of or not. The shiny revolver hung at her hip.
“Thanks. Betty’s not here either?”
She moved to the older woman’s desk, running the barrel of the gun along the grandmotherly cardigan slung over the chair.
“This isn’t a damn coat room,” she said to herself, lips contorting as she struggled against tears. “I like how she’s always telling everybody, clean up after yourselves, clean the coffee machine.”
“I know, right? Such a total bitch.”
The phone on the rear desk went off in a loud, electronic trill, like a robotic bird that had been programmed to feel pain. April gave a low moan in commiseration.
“Who’s that, you think?” She brought both hands to her head, the gun lying against her skull as she grabbed at her hair. “That about—what I did?”
She was unraveling. Her eyes locked onto his face. He could read the debate behind them like a news feed. What was the difference now? Take it all the way.
“We better get out of here, April.”
“Oh, god. Oh, god.” Her pale fingers turned purple as she gripped the gun harder, pointing it at his chest. “I’m sorry, Ernie. I messed up. Oh, god—Matt. I’m sorry.”
He moved towards the stairs. Foot on the landing, he turned and waited for her.
“Come on, girl. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
When they reached the first level, she bolted, throwing open the glass door, running into the lot and through the gate. Hearing the sirens, she stopped, teetering on the road just before the perimeter of the company. As a cruiser pulled up to her, the roar of others on its heels, she put the gun to her heart and pulled the trigger.
Kim’s instruction, dressed in good humor though it had been, was strong enough to keep him rooted to the examination table. He craned his neck toward the window, ears canine alert. Traffic, yells and laughter, a group of teen girls singing a hip-hop song. He closed his eyes and saw Olive, walking ahead of him and looking over her shoulder. The backs of her legs, the small of her back. Her smile. Come on, mister…Oh, baby, wait up, wait up.
Fuck Kim’s eyes. His teeth tearing at his bottom lip—slowly, perniciously, a friendly assault, we’re all friends here, us body parts that attack each other—he went to the window. Blue sky, a hotel and a little mall across the street. Cars. The kids, still singing from somewhere below, would remain unseen.
The doctor they’d settled on, Olive and he, hip to hip like picking out floral arrangements or booking a room down the shore, was an older guy. Doctor Murphy. Big reddish nose, cherub cheeks, white hair, a beardless, somewhat less rotund Santa Claus. A guy who’d been around before the HMOs, before the six-floor medical centers shaped like a kidney. A guy who’d maybe once had a practice right off the street, up a few brownstone stairs, an office like the movie office. Olive read aloud his stellar reviews, which spoke of his years of experience, his personable nature.
Later that night Ernie had torn himself from the warmth of her body and gone back out to the parlor. On her laptop, he’d done some reading of his own. He knew the verdict, knew its name, before he’d ever set foot in the medical center. Doctor Murphy knew, or suspected, right away, too. The tests he’d ordered on Ernie’s first visit were exactly the tests the website said would be run. It had all been right there on the web page, laid out like a recipe for gumbo. The headaches, the fainting spells—two more since the first, both of which he’d managed to keep from Olive—and, of course, the all-important family history. Thanks, Dad. Thanks for that. The headache yesterday, it had hit on the way back from a job in West Philly, so bad he’d pulled over and curled up in the back of the van, crying and begging.
You come in screaming and you go out screaming. That’s what his brother had said, after they’d watched the old man wither like a time-elapsed film of rotting vegetables. No movie dignity. The old man had gone out bitching to the last, cursing, blaming God and everyone around him. Until the morphine took that last bit of fire. Then he didn’t even know their names, or his own name, or the name of any god to curse.
His brother had gone out better. His bravery may have been spite more than anything else, but he’d been brave.
“I can’t even stand the occasional cold,” Ernie said to himself, the windowpane against his forehead. “I’m going out the worst of bitches.”
The door opened and there was the new and improved Kris Kringle’s reflection in the glass, the naughty/nice list on a clipboard in his hands.
“Ernesto, hello,” he said, grinning the tight-lipped noncommittal grin.
“Have a seat.”
All things must be said while you’re on the leather table. You know that. We can’t go further ’til you’re on that table. Then don’t get on that goddamn table, he imagined his brother saying with a cackle. Believe this: if I could do it over, I’d have never sat down.
“How have you been? How’s work?”
Ernie sat, moved around, got comfortable, answered politely.
“Good. Now, we’ve got the results of your tests.”
“Yeah, that was lucky, huh, that they were able to fit me in downstairs last time I was here? The woman said they can’t usually see anyone on such short notice.”
Bonham was playing “Moby Dick” inside his chest. The doctor smiled, gently. He adjusted the top sheet of the printout, a purely symbolic action, for the paper was held flat, trapped beneath the heavy snapping metal bar of the clipboard.
A banshee’s bending cry tore the air. Damn good thing the windows were narrow and only opened inward, or the folks in the top floor psychiatric office would be hopping from the building like cliff divers. Ernie could barely endure it himself, painting on a smile so he didn’t scream.
Kim came into the room, her eyes a tacit question about procedure.
“I’m sure it’s just a false alarm,” the doc said loudly, his hand on Ernie’s shoulder, ushering him toward the door. “Keep everybody calm, Kim, and lead them to the stairs. I’m sure it’s just a false alarm.”
The enclosed staircase—cinder block walls the color of coffee ice cream, with drippings on the stairs, like the job had been done by a claustrophobic whose main concern was getting the hell out of there—was abuzz: people young and old, some obviously patients, others in lab coats or scrubs, and others still in the business casual of the medical administrative branch. The alarm wailed the entire way down, each rise and fall another call to panic, but the marchers, Ernie among them, maintained composure, looking at the backs of the person in front of them, more joining the stream at each turned corner.
The door let out at the rear of the building. Just before the curve, there was a similar door, with a similar stream of people exiting from it.
Ernie ran his eyes over as much of the building as he could see, looking for smoke or flames. A fire engine pulled silently onto the lot, rolling with the slow, desultory air of a giant awoken for no good reason. Waiting for word that it was safe to go back in, people were chatting, smiling, an exciting little break in their day. Doctor Murphy and his nurses stood off to Ernie’s right. Santa and his lady elves.
He took a step back, watching them recede just a little. Another step, the doctor now all but obscured by a heavy-set man in a janitor’s uniform. A third step, nearly tripping over a concrete parking bumper. He turned on the balls of his feet, toward the curve of the building and the avenue beyond it.
Olive was on a call, chair toward the window, the chord from her headset tethering her to the desk. Bare legs crossed one over the other, pen tapping against her chin, like she’d been set there from above for his viewing pleasure.
“Next Tuesday? Yes, sir. Our tech can be out at…two-thirty. Is that good? Okay, great. And keep in mind, sir, we’re currently offering one-third off for anyone who signs up for monthly checkups on the first visit.”
He returned Betty’s plastic smile and sat on the edge of Olive’s desk, making faces at her and grabbing her hands as she slapped at him. When the call was completed, she sighed and searched his eyes.
“Well, how did it go?”
“Fine. What did they say, Ernie?”
“Nothing to worry about, ma’am. Doc said I might be working a bit too hard. Take it easy, get some more sleep. You know.”
“Yeah, momma. We’re good.”
About the Author:
Raymond Arcangel writes and works crap jobs in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, between the Art Museum and the Eastern State Penitentiary, which seems oddly appropriate. His short fiction has appeared in the Concho River Review and an anthology of the Silver Pen awards.