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BAXTER I hate working with Javi. Look at him there, smoking against the truck. The brick of him. His grin and his invincibility. I bet he would love put his cigarette out on that white kid—smash it into his arm and listen for a burning sound. Give the kid a scar and some kind of sanctity. He told me before that he doesn’t like white people. I just kind of nodded, like, “Yeah, they’re not to be trusted.” He’s a hard worker. I’ll give him that. He slams everything around, but he gets things done. Always with the cut-off sleeves and the stained carpenter jeans. I guess you’d call him “intense.” That’s what Isabela had said about him once. He has eyes like little heat lamps. You can feel them on your skin. I got mad at her for it—for calling Javi “intense.” I told her that if she had a thing for Javi, maybe she could just go live with him—cook his eggs in a dirty pan in his eastside lean-to and get treated like some kind of inflatable. She said maybe she would. She didn’t even look up from her magazine. Maybe that’s what she was looking for all along. Maybe I was too soft. Papi used to say that women love you when you don’t give a shit. Then as soon as you do start giving a shit, they know somehow. And that’s when they go out and find someone else who doesn’t. I think I was seventeen when he told me that, when he caught me in my room upset over Karla. He told me to think of myself first and the women would come. Papi maybe was right. Javi doesn’t care, and he gets ass all the time. Javi jumps back in the truck and slams the door. He drives crazy, too. I wonder if he’s so violent with things to make up for being short. The world should at least be thankful he’s not in the shipping industry. I’m always wanting to grab on to the handles in the truck, but he would see me and think I was a pussy. “Listo cabrón?” This is a term of endearment. I’m fairly sure he likes me, or at the very least, thinks absolutely nothing of me. I always wonder what it would be like if I was more obvious about my dislike for him. It’s difficult though, because it’s not like he’s a dick to me. He checks the side mirror and we thump forward. We’re headed to our second job for the day. It’s in Jersey. Suburbs. It’s a big move, so it’ll probably take the rest of the day with just two people. We’re supposed to have three people for bigger jobs like this, but the other guy Jaime called in today because one of his kids was running a crazy fever. Javi does most of the talking, obviously. He is the type that always has stories. I don’t know how much of it is made up or exaggerated or whatever. I don’t really care to know. A few


weeks ago he told me he’d gotten in a fight outside this apartment party in Washington Heights and stabbed this guy and ran off. He told the story like it was supposed to be funny—with that tone you would use to describe, say, how a friend of yours stole a box of cereal from the hospital. There was a weird moment where I didn’t know whether to fake a laugh or act surprised and concerned. I had to wait for him to flash me a smile, then I knew I should laugh, so I did. Once in awhile he’ll ask me about my life, and I never know what to say. I can’t tell him about Isabela. He would just tell me that bitches are all the same, that they’re like Matchbox cars, to be wheeled around for a bit and shelved until the basement floods. Then he might tell me about some party he could take me to where I was sure to get laid. But if I went, there’d be ten or twenty Javis around and a bunch of slutty girls I wouldn’t know how to talk to, and I wouldn’t get laid at all and then Javi would just think even less of me. So usually it’s, “So what’s going on with you, Man?” and I say, “Oh, you know, same. I’m thinking about getting some Knicks tickets for next month.” or just “Nada, amigo.” We get to the house in Jersey in about an hour and a half. The couple is just moving from one side of town to the other. Their new place is bigger, with a stone porch and a swing. There’s gardens all over and two floors and lots of space. It’s two guys, the couple. Javi has some opinions about that, which he shares with me under his breath every chance he gets for the first five minutes we’re there, and I have to just nod my head and laugh whenever I get the feeling I should. They seem like nice guys. I don’t see why Javi has to say all this shit about them. He makes jokes about having to scrub himself with a wire brush when he gets home because we had to touch the mattress, and I’m thinking, Javi, these guys are ten times cleaner than you. You don’t shower and you fuck all these nasty women every weekend. It takes us a couple hours to empty their first place. It’s just one story, a little bit creaky. It’s probably been around a long time. They’re going to have to get some new furniture to fill up the new one. I imagine it will be a pain in the ass. Isa and I fought a lot about furniture when we were first getting our place, but mostly about whose to keep and whose to sell. I wish I hadn’t sold some of that stuff. Now I don’t have a TV any more. I’ll probably get one soon though. Before the playoffs, hopefully. I hear TVs aren’t that much these days if you get them used. Ethan and Doug are the guys’ names. They actually don’t look too different from each other, so it’s a little hard to remember which one’s which. Doug is a little taller and a little older, with hair the color of rye that looks like you could blow it off like a dandelion puff. He must be about 45. Ethan’s hair is slightly darker. He looks maybe five years younger but slouches like my little brother.


They are standing in the yard, half-watching. Ethan’s holding their little housecat, who’s pawing at his sleeve and attempting to escape every few minutes. Their neighbor has come over to say his parting words. All three are nodding at each other with their arms crossed in front of them, occasionally looking at the grass. White people. Get yourselves some cigars. Javi’s forehead is sparkling with sweat. He wipes it with a grimy rag he keeps in his back pocket for such purposes. I can feel myself heating up as well. The heat’s not so bad today, but heavy lifting like this will do it to you no matter the weather. Whenever I came home and Isabela was already there, I would always head directly to the shower. She told me she liked her man to smell good, so I never let her close until I had cleaned off. Once in awhile, I’d be in the shower and I would hear the door of the bathroom crack open, and it would be Isabela. She wouldn’t say a word, but I could see her silhouette moving around in the light of the vanity before she climbed into the shower. We would make love right there in the steam. When the water got really hot or really cold all of a sudden, I would get in the way of it to protect her. Then after, we would dry off and she would fall asleep on me on the couch while I was reading and she would smell like oranges or like flowers. We didn’t talk much on those nights, and I never knew when they were coming. Those were the best nights though. In a few hours, everything is in the truck and we’re headed over to the other side of town. Javi is smoking his cigarette as he drives. He inhales and asks me which one I think is the pitcher and which one is the catcher. “They probably take turns, I would think,” I said. “Is that how it works?” “I guess I don’t know.” He laughs. “Verdád. I’d had to throw you out this truck.” He laughs again and flicked the rest of the cigarette out the window. “Fucking patos, Man.” I laughed and looked away. “I know...crazy.” We start unloading at the new place, and unfortunately there are some stairs, so it doesn’t take long before Javi and I are glistening like horse eyes again. Javi especially. He sweats a lot because of all his violent motion, and he can’t breathe as well because he smokes. Occasionally I’ll catch him stopped and panting somewhere, but as soon as he knows I can see, he churns back to speed again. Doug is upstairs arranging things as we bring them in. I have to admit, his exactitude regarding placement is starting to piss me off a little. It’s always, “A little left, now back a little, no, not that much.” Then he’ll go back to unpacking dishtowels as we walk back downstairs. Ethan seems a little shyer. I suspect he wouldn’t feel right ordering us around.


When we’re about halfway through, Ethan offers us some strawberry slushies. We’re surprised to hear him talk and we accept gratefully. “Great,” he says, and sets about in his new kitchen. We go back downstairs for another load. The next piece in the truck is one of the last—a big, heavy chest of drawers made of finished hardwood. Doug traipses down the stairs behind us. “I’m headed to the corner store for a minute. Just drop that big ol’ thing in the master bedroom. Ethan will show you where to put it,” he says cheerfully, and jams his hands in his pockets and heads down north down the sidewalk, his wisps of hair blowing around in the light breeze. “Heavy fucker,” says Javi, grunting as we set the dresser on the dolly. I nod. It is heavy. We take it on the dolly as far as we can, then rest and look at each other for a few seconds. This is the most tolerable moment working with Javi. He looks at me as an equal right here, when it comes to feats of strength. He’s very strong for his size, but I’m a good deal bigger than he is and can probably even lift a little more. No one else in our company can match us in the heavy-lifting department. If there is ever any “bonding” between me and Javi, it is here, this silent moment before we lug some fucking monster furniture up a flight of stairs. We exhale and inhale and lift. We take it one step at a time. I have the back end, so I have a lot of the weight and all of the risk if the thing were to fall backward and take me with it. The upside is that I get to walk forward up the stairs, and Javi must walk backward up them. We’re about halfway up when a really loud grinding noise—presumably Ethan’s blender—starts coming from the kitchen at the top of the stairs. It startles Javi enough that he catches his heel on the next step, causing him, with his sweaty hands, to drop his end of the chest and stumble back a little. He catches himself on the railing. The chest itself should be all right. It wasn’t that far of a drop. What’s alarming is the new noise coming from underneath it. The sound of the blender is still going on upstairs, but there’s a screeching emanating from somewhere I can’t see with this giant thing in my hands. I watch Javi’s eyes go big. He’s looking at the source of the screeching sound, then he whips around, looking upstairs, just as the grinding noise is dying out. By now, I’ve adjusted my grip enough that I can look around the side of the chest to see the head and shoulders of the owners’ cat protruding from underneath the piece of furniture. The blender noise is almost gone now, and Javi scrambles to his feet and stomps on the cat’s head with his heavy boot, crushing its skull and silencing it immediately. I don’t know how to react. A small pond of blood is starting to form under the cat’s broken head. One of its eyes has popped out slightly and its all empty looking. “Everything okay down there?” We hear Ethan’s concerned voice coming from the staircase. He appears in the entryway a few beats later. “I heard someone fall.”


Javi has already arranged his wide body so that the person at the top of the stairs can’t see past him. “Yes, I’m sorry. I dropped the chest. We’re going to have to get a rope for this one. Thought we could just do it ourselfs, but it’s too heavy.” Ethan nods. “Oh I see. Yeah, that’s probably our heaviest piece of furniture. Did you want a third person?” He takes a step down. I stand dumbfounded, feeling the horror rising in my gut. “No, No. Thank you. Staircase isn’t wide enough, so it wouldn’t do much good, you know?” “Right, okay,” Ethan says. After a little hesitation he smiles and heads back to the kitchen. I must still be wearing some horrified look, because Javi whispers to me in Spanish, “I had to man. He was going to hear. It was going to die anyway.” “What the fuck do we do with it?” I ask, also in Spanish, fighting off a tremor in my voice. “That other dude is probably on his way back.” I realize I’m still holding the dresser. Javi lifts his end again and sort of kicks the cat carcass from underneath. It’s smashed into something almost cartoonish. Now that I think back, the drop didn’t make the bang it should’ve. The cat had taken the whole weight on its ribcage. Fortunately for us, there’s not a huge amount of blood. Most of it is from the head that Javi stomped on. “Stay here,” Javi says, and scoops up the carcass. He runs off toward the truck. I shimmy the chest to the left to hide the pool of blood on the hardwood staircase. I see it run in a thin line down to the stair below it and quickly look away. I concentrate on breathing. Ethan appears in the entryway again to inform me that the slushies are ready for us. I thank him and nod, hoping my face is coming across as somewhat normal. Papi used to tell me he could read me like a book. He said I needed to work on that. “A man should be able to control his face,” he said. Isabela told me the same thing—that I was easy to read. Maybe I should have been more mysterious. I’ve read before that women like mysterious men, I think in a couple different places. Ethan smiles and turns back toward the kitchen. Where is Javi? How long has it been? I realize that I have no idea. In a few seconds, though, he comes pistoning up the stairs with an old rag. “Shit,” he whispers, again in Spanish. “The other guy—he’s coming.” He drops to his knees and sops up most of the blood in a matter of seconds and stuffs the rag into the back pocket of his jeans. There’s still a little trace left, but it’s not too apparent on the dark wood of the staircase. He re-lifts his end and we haul ass up the stairs with the thing, both full of adrenaline. Ethan sees us emerge into the room. “Did you guys not end up using the rope?”


“Oh, jah, we couldn’t find it,” says Javi. I’m surprised at how quick he is with his fibbing. As an afterthought, he adds, “Oh, your cat, Man. I think he got scared. He ran out the door when I fell.” Ethan turns to face us. “Wh— oh he did?” He looks anxious. “He knows he’s not supposed to go outside!” He makes for the stairs, pausing to say, “Oh, help yourself to the drinks, gentlemen.” Javi and I look at each other when he disappears from view. “What did you do with it?” I whisper in Spanish. “I put it in the truck, behind the seat. We can dump it somewhere when we go.” I nod. Javi rises from his chair to grab his drink. “Quieres?” I am dying of thirst. “No,” I say. “You sure, man? Shit is fucking good, man. Faggot knows how to make a drink!” “Okay, I guess.” I walk over and Javi pours me a glass. We’re standing against the counter making quick work of our drinks when Ethan, accompanied by Doug, who’d returned from the corner store, bounds back up the stairs. Doug asks us if we’d seen what general direction the cat had gone in. Javi explains that he’d seen it veer off to the right, but didn’t have the angle to see where it went after that. Doug nods. “He’ll turn up.” He rubs Ethan’s back affectionately. “He’s never liked the outdoors anyway.” Javi seems to agree. His square-ish head is bobbing as he presses the cold, wet glass against the side of his head before finishing it off. I drink the rest of mine too. “Thank you for the drink,” Javi says, “Only a few things left.” We go and grab the last few things from the truck: the mattresses, two wall hangings, and a small bench with swirly iron legs. Meanwhile, Ethan ambles aimlessly over his lawn, calling “Baxter!” I don’t like that it has a name. At least it’s a pretty conventional one. The less individuality to the thing you just murdered, the better. Isabela wanted to name our cat Sonrisita when we were thinking about getting one. I wonder if she has one now. I wonder if she watches TV with it, and if it sleeps on her legs. Ethan is down on his knees, looking between the clapboards under his porch. The sight of him on his knees in the dirt looking for his cat makes me turn away. Even Javi hasn’t said anything in a little while. When we finish to Doug’s satisfaction, he cuts us a nice check and thanks us for putting up with his exactitude. We nod. Ethan is still in the yard, just kind of shuffling around yelling “Baxter,” but not too loud, not wanting to embarrass himself in front of brand-new neighbors. “Sorry about your cat,” Javi says to Doug, “I’m sure you’ll find it soon.” “Thank you for the drink,” I say, and we head for the truck. “Buenos dias.”


Ethan notices us leaving and gives us a nod as he scans the branches of the oak in the adjacent yard. Javi turns to me in the truck. “He ain’t finding shit!” He throws his head back for a laugh and slams the truck into gear. A few blocks away we pull into a gas station and deposit the carcass of Baxter into the dumpster along the back fence. I’m going over possibilities of how we might get caught in my head. But I know we won’t, because what actually happened was so absurd that I doubt anyone could think of it. The little movie of Javi’s boot crushing the cat’s head is playing in a loop in my head—how the noise just stopped. I guess I should be relieved that we got away with it—that we didn’t have to have the awkward “we accidentally killed your cat” conversation, that we didn’t lose our jobs, that Ethan and Doug won’t have lower opinions of Hispanic people because of what we did, that we got our full pay plus a little more, that Javi really had done everything anyway and if they did find out, I could just blame most of it on him without perjury. Yes, that’s what I should feel. I should feel relief. That evening, I get home to my place in Greenpoint at around 7:00 and peel off my damp T-shirt and collapse on the couch. Isabela would yell at me if she were here. She would tell me to get my sweaty ass off the couch and shower. She’s not here though, I tell myself. The couch can smell however it smells; I don’t care. But in less than half an hour I get up and head to the shower, where I sometimes masturbate. But nothing is happening down below no matter how much I fumble around with it. All I can think of is the cat—the memory-movie of its skull collapsing like a dropped cantaloupe. I curse to myself, and I wash my hair. I don’t really know what to do after my shower, so I pick up a book and lie on my bed for a little. I can’t concentrate on that, so I pick up a magazine because I don’t have to think about the words. There are pictures of sun-kissed girls in there with huge tits that I can look at while I rub absent-mindedly at the crotch of my jeans. I fall asleep. When I wake up, it’s dark out. I try to read again but find that all I’m doing is looking at the words and thinking of the possible scenarios in which Javi and I could have been caught. “Stop it. Stop it,” I mutter to myself. I try to think of something else and of course the wheel lands on Isabela. What she would say. She would probably tell me I was pathetic. I decide to call her. To my horror, she picks up. “Daniel?” “Yeah, it’s me,” I say. “How’ve you been? I haven’t heard from you in—what—months. How are you? Is everything good?” She has a voice like peppermint. “Yeah. I don’t know. Me and Javi accidentally killed these guys’ cat today out in Jersey.”


“You—you killed a cat?” Isabela says this carefully, like she’s talking to a patient or a nephew. “Not on purpose,” I say. “We dropped a big dresser on it while we were taking it up the stairs.” I pause, but she says nothing. “But then we didn’t tell them. We told them it ran off into the neighborhood. I feel bad about it.” “So they don’t know their cat is dead?” “No,” I say, “I guess not.” My pulse races and I can feel a billiard ball lolling through my midsection. My ears are getting hot. This was a mistake. “Javi said we would get fired. I just— you know—I don’t wanna lose my job.” “Javi, huh? You’re going by what Javi says now?” Some of the edge has come back into her voice, as if she might fly into yelling. At this point, I realize that this is why I have called: to be scolded. “No, but I mean, I still don’t want to get fired.” There is a small pause and then, “OK, well. As long as you’re ok. Is that all you’re calling to tell me?” The edge is gone, and she’s adopted her clinical tone again. “Yeah, I just—sorry. I don’t know. Just wanted to say something to someone. Guess I should’ve called my mother or something.” “No, no. I’m glad you called. I haven’t heard from you in awhile. What else is new?” I think for a moment. “I’m thinking about getting a new TV.” “Oh, that will be good. Playoffs start soon, right?” “Yeah,” I said, “You know how I like to watch the playoffs.” I swallow, realizing I’d acknowledged our past. It’s a dangerous choice. With it comes the eighteen-wheeler implication that there was more to this, and it is that much harder to be safe and plasticy. She doesn’t say anything right away. There’s just a quiet crackling of imperfect reception. I can feel it everywhere, the silence, like humidity. I feel something move through my body in waves, starting in my throat, and I look down to find my left fist clenched. She finally continues, “OK, well I’m glad you’re not in trouble. Steer clear of those kitties, Dani.” She laughs a little. I think about asking her how she is, but I don’t want to take the chance of hearing about a new man, if there is one. There has to be. There has to be. “Yeah,” I say, and it comes out like a breath. “Bye Isa.” “Take care!” I can see her slamming her phone shut. I know exactly how she does it— sort of flips it around in her palm and snaps it with her fingers like a castanet. And as she’s doing that, I can see her eyebrow going up, her sidelong glance at the man who’s in the room with her. Then she starts complaining about the person on the phone and nestles herself in his chest like, The world is so crazy. I’m going to hide here for a few minutes.


I fight urges to call her back, blurt all kinds of things. Tell her I think about her always. I can’t decide if it’s brave to hold back or brave to go for it. She told me it’s over. She told me that a long time ago. Papi said it’s small hopes that will really kill you. You have to piss on them until they fall over, he said, like some carnival game. Then you can start again. I sit frozen for a few moments, going over what I should have said, what she might have said if I’d said that and what I would have said then. My keys are refracting the lamplight onto the far wall. There’s a tiny, barely vibrating spot of light over there. When I was a boy I would use my wristwatch reflection to amuse the cat. I would move it around the wall, and she would pounce at it when it got near enough to the floor. I used to laugh at that cat. It pounced so hard at that reflection. To this day I wonder if she was just playing along, or if she really thought there was a prize to be had. I go and pick up my keys. I glance at the clock and it’s nearly 10:00pm. My car’s parked about a quarter mile away. Before I know where I’m going, I’m over halfway to New Jersey. All that’s happening in my head is what I should have said to Isabela. I don’t know what’s brave. I never have. It’s such a quivering, shifty, shapeless thing. It’s watery Jell-O and we only have forks. They tell you all kinds of things about bravery. All kinds of parables, proverbs. They all tell you to be brave, but some tell you that brave is silent and strong and some tell you that brave is loud and fierce. I remember this book I read in school. There was this tragic character in it, a young doctor with a crazy wife. I remember a line: Wanting, above all, to be brave and kind, he had wanted, even more than that, to be loved. So it had been. So it would ever be. So I guess you can’t want both. That was his tragedy, if I remember right. He wanted both. I pull into the gas station parking lot. At the back of the lot there’s the dumpster Javi dumped the cat in. I peer down into it and find that it’s been emptied. There are only a few pieces of soggy cardboard and a Wendy’s bag. I think for a moment. I can feel the smell of the dumpster settling into my evening clothes. I get back into the car and head out to the suburbs. After awhile I am lost, and I search my memory for details of the place we’d moved those guys into today. I can’t recall anything, so I drive through the gentle streets of the suburbs, the time passing ruthlessly, until I spot Ethan staring out of a bay window and slam the brakes. It’s about midnight now. I sit for a minute in the car and then head toward the house. I watch Ethan’s face change from frightened to confused as he sees a large Latino walking toward the house, and then recognizes me as the mover from earlier. Before I can knock, he opens the door partway, with the chain attached. “Hello,” he says, “What can I do for you?”


“Hi, I came about your cat.” I pause for a moment and look at the ground. “We, uh, we dropped the dresser on your cat. It’s—it’s dead. It was on the stairs and we didn’t know. I’m sorry.” Ethan looks at me blankly and I can only look as high as his left shoulder and tap my thumbs together. His partner Doug calls from behind, in a concerned voice. “Who’s there? Ethan?” Ethan doesn’t answer him. “He’s dead? Baxter? Why didn’t you tell me before? You’re telling me now? Why now?” His voice is getting higher, and shaky. I know all these answers, but I figure there would be no point in saying them. Doug appears from behind, nudging Ethan to the side. “What’s going on?” I hear Ethan: “Baxter’s dead. They killed him with the dresser.” He is on the verge of angry tears. “What? Ethan!” Doug turns back to me. “You killed our cat? And you didn’t tell us? Where is it now?” “We put it in the dumpster at the gas station.” I swallow. “I looked for it on my way here. Looks like it’s gone.” “You put it in the dumpster at the gas station. Of course you did. Jesus Christ. Well, I will be calling your boss in the morning. If not the police.” Doug slams the door in my face as he mutters “Unbelievable.” I can hear Ethan weeping quietly inside. I don’t know what else to do, so I amble back through their new lawn toward my car parked in the empty street. Dew from the grass collects on my shoes. Before I get in, I look back and see Ethan again, looking out the window at me. The hardness is gone from his face. He looks heartbroken, but he also looks a little sheepish. He knows somehow. He knows there is something that has not been understood. There are men like him, and they are rare—the kind that gets big white wings when they die, brave enough to forgive. We look at each other for a frozen moment. Then I nod to him and get in my car, which is too small for me. Numbness sets in, and as I drive I watch the car’s hood change colors in the weird illumination of the evenly spaced street lamps that hang on wires suspended over the road. There’s a rhythm to it: light dark light dark light dark. A bump in the road knocks me from my stupor, and I check the rearview mirror. In the center of the big pale yellow circle of light on the road behind me, there’s a small dark mound. Some matted fur glimmers at its crest. I stop the car there in the middle of the road and consider getting out to examine it. I decide against it. Already dead, I tell myself. Whatever it is was probably already dead.


I drive on, settling back into my thoughtless trance, with the window open and no music. New Jersey is flying at my windshield, all cut grass and mailboxes, tenderness and symmetry, until I’m almost to the Tunnel and I have to pay attention to all the other cars.

Baxter  

Fiction, 2009

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