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Location: marengo, il, United States

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Night Riders

Harvey Collins’ journey hits an unfortunate snag along the way. This seventh chapter contains language some may find offensive.

When Harvey opened his eyes the next morning, he saw little Fearless laying an inch from his face, curled up and asleep. He rose carefully and padded barefooted into the kitchen, leaving the kitten to rest on his pillow.

With the carton of milk in hand, he set his one bowl on the floor next to the sink, and then he opened the waxed container to pour. Nothing came out.

Perplexed, Harvey peered down inside the cold carton. The milk he saw looked frozen solid.

He heard a slight thump coming from the other room, and as Harvey twisted a squeaky faucet handle for the hot water, the little Manx ran to his feet and mewed.

“Good morning down there, you.”

He pressed a rubber plug into the drain, and then for a few minutes he sat on the floor cross-legged, playing with Fearless while the sink filled to thaw the milk.

“I’m going in to get me a shower and a shave now, buddy. Your food should be ready by then.”

Then after dressing and attending to Fearless, Harvey locked his front door and jogged down the staircase, and before driving to work, he made a brief stop by the manager’s office.

The Torrance Apartments boasted a huge, high billboard set out close to the heavily-traveled highway. On it read claims of the lowest rentals available anywhere in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

The complex was made up of several rows of two-story, flat-roofed buildings. The aged place, along with its low fees and suitable location, suited Harvey just fine. But he wondered if management had ever been made aware of his minor problem.

A small sign hung from a nail on the office door, stating that the place was open for business.

Harvey turned the doorknob and tried pushing inward. The door stuck fast at the bottom, so he pushed harder on the knob. A set of off-white blinds then clattered sharply against the upper glass as the door swung inward, and a cool rush of air hit his face.

An empty desk, covered with several unorganized stacks of papers, an over-flowing in-box and a black telephone resting on top of a thick directory, greeted his eyes. In one window above the desk, a small air conditioner hummed. Above it hung a half-raised blind, slightly opened and allowing in little sunlight.

After pushing the door shut behind him, he turned and saw the backside of Edgar Stiles, the man who had rented him his room the day before. Stiles was in the act of bending down, going through an opened drawer of a file cabinet in one corner of the room, but he turned his head quickly and looked up at Harvey.

“Hey, good morning. I’m the guy who rented two-twelve from you yesterday.”

Stiles didn’t bother to stand, but he looked Harvey up and down before he spoke.

“I know who you are.”

“Well, I just wanted to stop by before work to let you know about my fridge.”

The man turned then, and straightened himself up before swaggering over to his desk.

There was something about his shape, Harvey noticed; also something in that gait that put Harvey in mind of a burly seafarer. Paunchy, and sporting a blond, longish, flat-top haircut, Stiles scowled as he took a manila folder off his desk and opened it up.

Harvey waited until after Stiles read something inside, and then he watched as the man dropped it back onto another stack. Stiles then asked Harvey, as he took a seat behind the desk,

“What’s the matter with it?”

Harvey began to describe the odd switch in the freezer, along with his morning’s troubles, and how he had tried to cope with it all.

Stiles shuffled two of the piles of papers while he listened, stacking each one more neatly before moving both to new locations.

“That’s an easy fix. You leave that switch on during the day. Then you cut the thing off at night.”

Harvey felt doubtful upon hearing that gruff advice, but a clock on the wall showed he needed to hurry off to work.

Amos had already arrived and punched in. He sat across from Bart, idly cleaning his nails with the tip of a short-bladed pocket knife. Bart had his hands clasped behind his head, and was leaning back comfortably when Harvey got there. Bart then sat forward suddenly and drummed out a hasty tattoo on the desktop.

“I’m thinking about moving Maggie to evenings, and let her work with Amos for awhile.”

“Hey, that’s fine with me. Oh, and here -- you can take these heavy things back, since I’ll never use them anyway.”

Harvey laid his pair of handcuffs on the desk. A smug, thin-lipped smile spread across Bart’s face as he pulled something small from out of his watch pocket. He then slowly leaned over on the elbow of an arm that held up a tiny, silvery key.

“I was really expecting either you or Maggie to call me during the middle of night, looking for this.”

Amos snorted a laugh, and then he reached for the silver bracelets.

“Let me hold on to them some, boss.”

Bart lifted a palm upwards and said sure.

Harvey took a seat, grinning at Bart’s sly inference.

Kathy walked in then, swinging her keys in a tight little circle.

Bart barked at her before she even cleared the door,

“What! No coffee? Am I on your list now, girl?”

She stood still and gave him a pained look before leaving to get his cup.

“You guys and your darn coffee!”

Bart leaned his head back again, and then he asked Harvey,

“So how’s your new place going over there?”

Harvey gave him the news.

Bart listened with a grim expression at first, and then he spat.

“That guy’s a damn slumlord. I’d call the Health Department on him.”

“Hell, Bart. I just want me a refrigerator that won’t freeze everything I put in it.”

That evening after work, Harvey stopped by a market. Then, when he unlocked his apartment door, the first thing he saw was the small mound of fur laying on the bed in the back room. It raised its tiny head as Harvey shut the door, and then mewed twice.

“Hey, Fearless! Look! I got bacon!”

Harvey placed a carton of eggs, a block of butter and a small jar of mayonnaise in the fridge. He also shut the switch off; the freezer compartment had grown by two inches during the day, due to a coating of ice.

After filling a small aluminum pie pan with cat food, he fried up a portion of the bacon. He shared a few bite with Fearless, and then washed out the pan. Later the two played, and much later that night, Harvey began to worry.

If I leave the switch off, things might spoil.

If I leave it on, they’ll all freeze.

He decided to stay up past midnight, but he planned on waking up earlier in the morning. Maybe a shorter freeze cycle during the night would do the trick.

Fearless didn’t object to the first idea at all, and so he danced and bounced across the bed until he wore his tiny self out.

Now of course, Harvey overslept. He then had to rush to thaw milk, shower and dress; all in order to stop by and see Stiles again. He found the office door there locked; the sign gone off the nail.

Telling Bart and the crew about a dozen frozen eggs put him in a funk for most of the day, even with Bart and Amos both vowing to go over and threaten Stiles if they had to.

Harvey had replied,

“He probably doesn’t realize just how bad it really is, so I’ll go over and see him again tonight. Surely they must have an extra refrigerator sitting around somewhere.”

Maggie came in to the store around one, along with her little daughter and her old man in tow. Harvey accidentally met the trio out on the floor. He saw Maggie, who was pushing a shopping cart filled with some items, and with Nature, who stood close to her side, hugging tight to her mother’s leg.

“Harvey! Hey, come here and meet Danny, my old man. Danny, this is Harvey I was telling you about.”

Maggie in her heels looked to be six inches taller than her rotund partner. The happy-faced man wore a loose-fitting, tie-dyed shirt and a pair of cut-off jeans, along with open-toed, regulation leather sandals. His straight black hair framed a short but scruffy beard. He gave Harvey a big, friendly smile, and then shook his hand hippie-style.

“Bart called me last night at home and said I was working with Amos now. I told him sure, why not.”

“Yeah, he told me. Y’all just shopping now, or what?”

“I start in an hour, so yeah, we needed some things first, plus I get to show Danny where I work.”

“Cool. So you work too, Danny?”

“Oh, he can’t. He is still on disability for at least three more months.”

Danny grinned as the tiny blonde-haired child peeked around Maggie’s leg.

Maggie patted her curls and said,

“Stop being so clingy, Nature. And don’t be shy -- say hello.”

She then began pushing the cart slow while Nature hid behind her, and the four began walking together as they talked. Maggie stopped and introduced Danny and Nature to each of the few orange-vested employees they came across, which made Harvey wonder if that was the real reason why Bart had changed her shift. She was something of a friendly sort, he had noticed.

The Spanish lady with the thick glasses, the one who had interrupted him and Bart in the break room on his first day, made the biggest fuss over the angelic little girl and her blonde curly hair.

“Oh, my! How pretty she is! And she looks just like you, too.”

Maggie smiled her toothy smile at Maria.

At four-thirty, Harvey pushed on the wooden door to Stiles’ office. From out of the gloom, a set of dulled eyes rose to stare up at Harvey.

“What do you want?”

Harvey related his story about all the ruined food while Stiles sat, gazing at him impassively. He then put his elbows up on the desk, clasped his hands together and sighed as he looked over at the wall to his left, and then he turned back to Harvey and dismissed him tiredly with,

“I’ll see what I can come up with.”

After thanking Stiles, Harvey pulled the office door shut, but as he trudged the stairs to his own door, he suspected that he had just been brushed off, and felt properly discouraged by the man’s poor attitude.

Fearless cheered him up, though. Right away, the two began taking turns chasing each other around the room, and then from one room into another and back.

Later, when Fearless began looking bushed, Harvey stopped to open the refrigerator door. He had left the switch off that morning, since things were all frozen solid, but what he saw inside was a wet mess. His soggy package of bacon he had left on the bottom shelf now floated in an inch of brownish water. The gray metal sides of the freezer box held no trace of ice.

“Damn it to hell!”

Fearless sat over by the sink, his round innocent eyes following Harvey as he toted things to the trash and mopped up water with paper towels.

“Son of a damn fucking bitch!”

Fearless just blinked.

“Screw this, man. This is first-class bullshit. Let’s you and me go out to eat tonight.”

And with that, he scooped up the kitten and drove him down Route One to get a hamburger and a chocolate shake, which they both consumed with a great deal of pleasure before retiring to their humble home.

Harvey set a pan of water on the stove and turned on the burner while Fearless scampered about, chasing after his imagination. And while the cat continued to play, he took out a new deck of playing cards and fixed himself a cup of coffee. The cat was still going strong long after his third hand of solitaire, which made Harvey wonder if giving the cat chocolate was such a good idea.

“Hey, dummy. Slow down, will you? You going to wear out my tile floor.”

The kitten fell asleep way after midnight. Harvey shut off his outside porch light and the overhead in the kitchen, brushed his teeth and undressed, and then he crawled into bed next to the worn-out Fearless, who didn’t budge a single whisker for the rest of the night.

Work went well the next day, considering. Naturally, Harvey told everyone how bad things had went, so Bart told him again,

“Look. That guy is yanking your chain. Call the Health Department on him, like I said. They will shut his sorry ass down for pulling tricks like that, if he refuses to comply.”

He slid the phone over.

“Go ahead. I’ll look up the number for you right now.”

Back at the apartment, Harvey saw no new refrigerator where his old one sat, so he felt fine with the decision he had made to place the call. The lady there had at least sounded helpful, if but to only listen to his complaint. And she had promised she would try and do something about it.

Maybe Bart was right.

He and Fearless went to pick up a pizza, and after supper, both went to bed late.

Just as he dozed off, Harvey heard a knock on his door. He jumped up, pulled on his jeans and went to see who was there. He flipped the porch light on, and on the porch he saw Stiles standing with his hands resting on his hips and his head cocked to one side. He was looking down at his shoes, and he appeared to be winded from his climb.

Right behind him stood a tall, unknown man with sunken eyes. Something told Harvey not to open the door, especially after he noticed how Stiles weaved slightly as he stood and waited. But the deed had been done -- he had already turned on the light. They all now knew that he was there on the other side of the door.

Harvey spoke through the glass.

“Yeah? What do you need?”

He thought he saw the gaunt one smile faintly.

“We have your refrigerator downstairs.”

My refrigerator? At this time of the morning?

“Are you kidding?”

Stiles answered him impatiently.

“You want the damn thing or not?”

Curious, Harvey unwittingly unlatched his lock. As soon as it clicked, the door burst open part-way, stopped only by Harvey’s big foot. But it was just enough.

Stiles then threw a punch aimed right at his nose. Maybe he was too drunk, or maybe Harvey was just faster, but the fist barely grazed his right cheek.

“You gay-ass motherfucker! I’ll teach you to sic the Health Department on me!”

In a blur, Stiles came bumbling in with the tall man hovering right behind him. Harvey fell back immediately, and in a flash he remembered one of the cardboard boxes Maggie had helped him carry in. It still sat unpacked in the far corner across the kitchen.

Stiles hesitated just enough, once inside the doorway, and Harvey got a distinct impression of the gaunt one coming around to his side at the same time that he dove for the box.

Inside lay his tools from a summer he had worked as a roofer, and from among a tangled pile of old nail aprons, tar-stained razor knives and a silvery, metal tray for holding wood shingle nails, he withdrew a blue-handled, razor-sharp hatchet.

As he raised the tool from the rubble, the thought occurred to him how he had spent an hour one summer, watching an old German blacksmith removing most of the original blade, and then he had stood by and witnessed how the man methodically welded on a new section of England’s finest Sheffield steel to take its place.

He had observed the master next as he lovingly honed the cutting edge of the blade, and he had left the ancient’s forge afterwards, satisfied that he now carried the most magnificent tool that he had ever possessed.

Every roofer he met thereafter had shown both admiration and envy for the craftsman’s meticulous handiwork.

Less than two years had passed since that time, but the edge still continued to shave his arm when asked.

Harvey stood up tall with the hatchet raised beside his head. The metal stripper box made a horrible racket when it clanged to the dark floor just as one of the men at the door flipped the kitchen light switch on. Out of the corner of his eye, Harvey caught a vision of Fearless arched up in the bedroom doorway, baring his needle-sharp fangs at the two.

“The faggot’s got a cat, boss.”

Stiles’ dull, reddened eyes wandered from the hatchet in the air next to Harvey’s head, and then to the enraged cat in the bedroom doorway, and then back to Harvey. The man looked befuddled for a second, and he staggered slightly just before he slurred.

“You can’t keep no damn cat in my units, you fag.”

Harvey brandished the sharp ax at the two intruders who both stood rooted firm to their spots, but each unsure of what to do next.

“This thing will take both your fucking heads clean off, pal. You want to try me?”

After a lengthy and glaring stare-down, the two backed slowly out the door. But by the time both had turned to clomp down the first flight of stairs, their bragging had already started. “Boy, we showed that gay-ass fag, didn’t we boss?”

Harvey overheard him mutter a reply as they turned on the landing and started their descent down the second flight.

“I ain’t through with his sorry ass yet.”

Fifteen minutes later, Harvey made a call from inside a well-lit phone booth. His hands shook so bad he could barely dial the number.

“Alexandria Police. What is your emergency?”

After babbling on for a few minutes about his incident, the woman on the other end instructed him to come down in the morning to make out a report, if he so wished. There really wasn’t much else they could do about the situation tonight.

“Sir, do you have a safe place to stay for now?”

“Yeah. I’m sleeping in my car, along with all of my things and my brave cat, Fearless.”

8 Comments:

Blogger Master of None said...

Did not see that one coming. Great job.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

My money's on Harvey. Not looking for trouble but ready to side-step if it comes. :D

Wonderful story.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thanks again, Gone. Let's hope, for your money's sake, that he is a better gamble than Battle of the Blogs was.

5:30 AM  
Anonymous Ned said...

As the perpetual tenant living at the whim of landlords, I can understand Harvey's initial reluctance to take action against the landlord. He's got a little one to think of now.

But seems Harvey is well-equipped to take care of himself. A shiny hatchet is a very convincing argument.

Harvey sounds like one of the good guys. I am liking this very much, Harry.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Stranger Ken said...

As I see it, there are three problems: unreliable mass-production technology, modern capitalism and the viciousness of human nature (as ever was).
The only saving grace is that cats don't buy into anything we humans think is important, except keeping dry and making sure of the milk supply!
As for Stiles, well, he needs to get into his Buddha nature more often.
This is a great piece, Harry. I just don't know how you manage to observe the world in this kind of detail. It always rings so true, with just enough of a hint of autobiography to draw the reader in.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thanks to you guys for all of the kind words.
I think you present a strong case for reasoning, Ken, although I will always lay more emphasis on number three, naturally.
Humanity as a whole ain't all that bad. It's the people, I think, that make up that mob that gives it such a bad name.
And cats....cats, they know something.

4:17 PM  
Blogger jon said...

While searching for new goodman air conditioner info for my house I stumbled onto your blog. I totally agree!

Paul

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It always helps to check several places. Like this one labor law

1:11 PM  

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