A Phone Call from Dmitri

As you can maybe tell from a name like Dmitri, Dmitri isn’t originally from around San Diego, or the United States originally. And that might suggest to you that he came here from Russia or Ukraine or wherever, and that he either already had money or was really good at making a lot of it in a short time. I couldn’t tell you exactly how he came to get set up so well as he is, but I give him all the credit; it’s a pretty sweet gig if you can get it. Dmitri is in construction some way. At least, that’s my connection with him. Far as I can tell, his entire job is to get on the phone and call up me and the other guys. How you get paid for that I don’t know, but he gets paid pretty well, from what I see. Dmitri lives in Manhattan, nice apartment, I’m told, though I never was there personally. It’s supposed to be right in the center of the action, close to Times Square. You can see him picking up the phone and starting the phone chain, and as he does, looking out this picture window, and he’s seeing all those giant animated screens around Times Square, cars and taxis and people swirling around, headlines crawling around the buildings. Although maybe not; it could be totally different. Any time he shows up in person, it’s nothing but the best. Dmitri kind of just shows up. Calls you, says he’s in town just for the day, can he take you and the wife, if any, out to dinner? High-end all the way. Best I ever ate. Never knew San Diego had restaurants like that. Norman, he lives in Minneapolis and says Dmitri did the same thing. Matt, he lives up around Irvine, and Dmitri showed up and whisked him off to Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, a place Matt had only heard about. Showed up outside Matt’s condo in Irvine in this stretch Mercedes, makes Matt put on a suit and tie, something

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none of us had ever seen before, I can tell you, stuffs him in the limo, shoves a glass of champagne in his hand, and off they go. Matt said it was like a movie. I’m not thinking Matt had too bad of a struggle enjoying himself. Dmitri and Matt like their liquor and probably didn’t have much mercy on the champagne. Matt said they got through two bottles before they hit the Five Crowns. And that is not a long drive. And the Christmas presents. Every man in the crew gets one, even Mahmoud, who is Islam, and Zach, who is Jewish. They’re really great, and it’s like a woman bought them, because they show Dmitri knows what you’re about. He sent me this ring box. I didn’t even know they had ring boxes, but Jennifer said they’re traditional, porcelain, painted pretty on the outside, just big enough to hold two wedding rings, because he remembered me saying something about popping the question to Jennifer. I’d been thinking about it ever since she’d given birth to Solly. I felt bad Solly had been born without us being married, not that it matters so much these days, but I could tell it mattered to Jennifer: she worked hard to pretend. And it mattered to me, partly for the same reasons, partly because the main thing in the way was the cost of rings. Which made the ring box that much more special, because crumpled up inside was a gift certificate to a jewelry store in Old Town. You know what that meant. Hank, our foreman forever, got a dog one year for Christmas. Someone told Dmitri Hank’s golden, Henrietta, had died, super-old, couldn’t say it was an untimely death, right? But Hank sort of went into mourning over it, and for Christmas, Dmitri made him go choose a new puppy. So it all starts with a call from Dmitri. Hank, the foreman, he’d get the call and start the chain. Past four years, it’s been me as foreman, so I get the call, and I turn

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around and call Norman and Matt, and each of them call two guys each, until all 14 of us get the news. What it is, you’ve seen these stores called Pillow Paradise? Just about every mall you go into? Towels, pillows, bedsheets, kitchen things . . . house comfort stuff. Pillow Paradise. They turn out to be pretty big stores with lots of different areas inside. One area for, like, comforters, another for rugs, another for cushions, another for pots and pans, and so on. You might also have noticed, when you go into one of these places, that they’re all the same. That’s the idea. Every Pillow Paradise store is standardized. Let’s say some store goes belly-up in some mall, the space comes open, and Pillow Paradise takes it. Basically, you can build a Pillow Paradise, the entire physical store, from this big preexisting kit the Pillow Paradise engineers designed. All the stuff you need – electrical, drywall, wood, PVC – can be loaded onto a single 18-wheel flatbed. Once you get that truck loaded and parked in some warehouse, all you need is a crew of guys willing to work 23 hours straight, and you’ll have a brand-new store just waiting for the stacks of soft stuff. All in one weekend. That’s where the rest of us guys come in. Dmitri has assembled a team of guys who know how to build a Pillow Paradise in 23 hours. He calls the foreman and mails him a ticket and a set of keys. The rest of the guys get a plane ticket in the mail. We go to wherever it is – Utica, New York; Providence, Rhode Island; Cour d’Alene, Idaho – and pile into some rundown hotel room Dmitri got for us, sleep six to a room. In the morning, the foreman goes to a local warehouse, unlocks the door, and drives the 18-wheeler he finds inside to the mall. We assemble, work our asses off until it’s done, and get on the

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next plane out. Twenty-three hours. Each of us has a specific skill. I’m a plumber. Matt is the best drywall man I have ever seen – he can throw it up faster than you can think about it, gets the tape and joint compound real smooth. Norman does electrical. And all of us are all-purpose builders, master carpenters, including me. So we do the group stuff and also help one another out here and there. After three or four go-rounds, you know the drill. About 12-14 of us, and after a while we got real good, real clockwork. A few weeks later, you get a nice fat check; by then, you’re almost recovered. I wonder all the time whether the other guys and I are friends. It sure feels like it when we’re all together, putting in a store. It’s crazy, mush, yah, mule, keep on truckin’, and it’s a lot like work in general: you hate it and hate how it makes you feel, but also you’re pretty interested and want to do the job right. We being scattered around the country like we are – Jamie in Seattle, Scott in Florida, Felipe in Baltimore, Me and Matt in California, Norman in Minneapolis, and so on – we never see one another except on jobs. Still, you know, the jobs are so intense you pretty much get to know a guy by how he works out and how you work out with him. So I have a fair idea of the other guys. After a job, we’ll be standing round at the airport, out on our feet, dirty, drunk, and stoned – and we’ll laugh, because it’s so weird, and there’s usually some story or other we can chew over. Anyway, the jobs are so intense it doesn’t feel like you have to keep in touch. All the guys are known quantities to one another, and I guess there’s a comfort level. I do see Matt, he’s only a couple of hours away, and Norman has a brother in San Diego, so when he visits he always comes around, and we do have a good time. But it’s not normal. We know. A phone call goes around the country, we all hop on planes, toolboxes in the checked baggage, and we jet off to some goddamn where,

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someplace we won’t actually get to see because we have 23 hours to complete the store. . . . well, OK, you’re off the one night, but almost all of us just go eat dinner at some Denny’s or something and then crawl back to the hotel room and have some beers or other substance. A couple of us try going to the movies, but even with Vin Diesel or Batman blowing up the city, you’re snoring in five minutes. We’re sort of cut off. You go back to your life and it’s like this whole huge thing never happened. Your wife is pretty unhappy she had to solo for a weekend with the kids, but she cheers up when the check arrives. I go back to my plumbing business, knowing that now there’s a new Pillow Paradise that probably this moment, if it’s Monday morning, is getting all stocked with blankets and comforters and towels and bathrobes and whatever else. You got the pencil-necks with their clipboards and the fat-loser types who always seem to be the managers of these places. But I have nothing more to do with it. Or with any Pillow Paradise until next time. All these other guys, who you just worked like a demon with all weekend, they’re back to their lives, too, and not thinking of you probably. So it’s weird. I’ve been trying to figure it out but am not having much luck. Just like I had trouble figuring out Hank. I mentioned him before. Hank was one of these older guys you see in the building trades: past 50, but all his hair and not all white yet. He’d been foreman for a bunch of years before I came along. (Dmitri has had this racket going for 15 years or so; he’s got it down to a science.) I reckon he was the ideal foreman. Some of the faces of the crew changed, as guys dropped out, got tired of it, or got fired by Dmitri when he heard complaints. One and all, though, they respected Hank. He was straight with everybody, didn’t play games, was steady, dependable, and a

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damn good carpenter. Even knew a little about plumbing, which we discussed a lot. Tall man, rawboned, I guess you’d say. Stood straight and talked low. If you screwed up, Hank’s voice never got raised; it just took on a tired-of-this quality you’d rather not be the recipient of. Hank also was a teetotaler but not judgmental if the other guys wanted to light up or get blasted (which some did regularly, every night). He’d be pleased to sit around and nod and smile at everybody’s silly jokes. You could get drunk, stoned, or laid on your own time; you could stay stoned the whole weekend and as long as you did the work, he wouldn’t say a thing. Again, though, if you screwed up because you were drunk or stoned, Hank would have to tell you, and nobody argued. One time Matt drank just way too much on the Saturday night; I don’t remember if there was a reason or not. Next day, his work was for shit. It just wasn’t looking as good as it usually does. Hank led Matt away from the work site, took him for a little walk around that damn, stupid little mall in Plattsburgh. Matt’s a pretty angry guy, but with Hank, well, he had nothing to say, he knew Hank was right. Appreciated how Hank hadn’t done it in front of the other guys. Hank’s judgment was real steady. Not only was he seldom wrong – I mean, he knew his stuff, and didn’t offer opinions about anything outside of that – but also when he did offer an opinion, you immediately wanted to agree with it, because this was Hank talking. One time, on my second go-round with the crew, Hank asked me to step aside with him. “I was noticing the women’s bathroom,” he said. Damn, I whispered to myself. I did it different from the plans. Just a little.

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“It’s different from the plans,” Hank said. “Fact, it’s different from the men’s room.” “Well, so.” “I’m not saying customers will notice, but Dmitri could,” he said. “I’m not here to make you miserable or nothing, but the whole idea is to put this store in just like the plans say. May not be the best way, may not be the way you’d do it.” “It’s not.” “Well. Dmitri is paying us what he’s paying us just to do the job. Do the job and get the heck out of Dodge. We don’t really have much say. Not if we’re taking the man’s check.” I redid the women’s room. Strange, I wasn’t like I usually get when another man corrects my work. Hank was right. I’d just gone off and wildcatted, and even at the time, back of my mind, I knew it was stupid. See how he handled it, though? Made it so I understood, so you just about had to agree. Nothing personal. And that’s the way it was for seven years. I think Hank was the reason the basic group stayed together, pretty much, all that time. If we are friends, Hank is why. Even if he’s not here any more. He’s sort of an invisible center, even though it’s me as foreman these days. The last time Hank was foreman, all I can say is, it was a fated job. In the bad, dark sense. Fated. A bunch of things happened, and at the time each one seemed, by itself, maybe not a deal-breaker, but weird, unusual, and since the whole thing is set up to avoid the unusual, I just, well, all of us, we could tell something was off. First, about halfway through the Sunday, when we should have been finishing – we were in Albany,

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late March – rain playing bongos on the roof of the mall – and it found a seam someplace in the roof, and the rainwater collected someplace, building up, building up, then it all burst right through the ceiling, and a bunch of the wiring, plus some of the flooring, was nice and ruined. Hank had to call Dmitri. “Well, is too bad,” Dmitri told Hank. “Contract says is done by 7:30 in morning Wednesday. I get you materials easy, motel, change airplane, but 7:30 in morning Wednesday is done, I don’t care how.” I don’t eavesdrop. All right? I don’t. People who do, well, don’t let me know if you want to stay my friend. This time, though, I made an exception. Everybody could tell it was a tough phone call; all of us were watching Hank. He heard Dmitri out, stayed calm, listened to Dmitri laying out his points, told him a few things about how he didn’t know our schedules, let Dmitri say, “I don’t care,” took down some phone numbers, nodded as Dmitri said some more, and said, “All right then.” Hank was on the mournful side as he approached us with the news. “No give on this one, boys,” Hank said. “We stay on the scene until we’re done, which we have to be by Wednesday morning.” We started saying we had work, families. Wives mad. Girlfriends set to kick us out. Bosses and clients steamed. Schedules. Hank let every man have his say and just shrugged. “Man on the phone, he had nothing to say,” Hank said. “This gets done. There’ll be another truck tomorrow. Today we pull out what’s ruined, salvage what we can, and . . . make arrangements.” None of that was easy. I’d say the job was at least half wrecked. Worse, so were

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we. We thought we were already at the end of a 23-hour rush job, trashed, aching, crapped out, burnt. We were all ready to buy some beers, sleep until morning, and get on the plane back home. Instead, we were in the middle, not the end. All of us had hard calls to make, pissed women, disappointed kids, bosses and customers who did not understand. Next morning, Hank found the truck in the warehouse, just as if the job had never happened, full kit loaded up. (I bet he groaned.) Rain was still trashing down as he drove the truck – through hopeless, rain-battered Monday morning rush-hour traffic – to the mall. Albany in March, three days away from spring, 40 degrees, rain slanting down, us guys trying to offload at the truck dock. We all got soaked just in getting the kit unloaded. Hank called us together. “A word, boys,” he said. “See this through. Work today, maybe a little tomorrow, and we’re gone. It’s pretty lousy today, specially as there’s no heat I can feel, but just keep the job in our heads and get her done. Dmitri, case I didn’t mention, says he’ll double your checks. So that’s not a bad thing.” That may well have headed off an uprising, I don’t know. Me and the others were three-quarters desperate that morning. Our heads had gotten all the way back home already, and we had to recall them and get them back on our shoulders. You might think half a job would take only half as long to do, but that’s not how it works. A lot had to be redone from square one, and a lot of times, repairing a wrecked part next to a done part makes the work slower. Thanks, I think, to Hank’s little talk, we took it medium-steady. Hank wasn’t around much: he was off talking to insurance guys and mall reps, and later he had a few words with the roofers. Idiots had done a finger-inthe-dyke job Sunday night, to stop the flood, and now they were back to do it right. That

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really tired him out, I think, judging from how he was walking, as if stepping on his own long face. Once he got his tool vest on and started working, he brightened up some. Hard drinking that night. We’d worked until past 9, so we had only a little bit left next day, probably wouldn’t take us much past noon. That would be a pain because our flights weren’t until late afternoon; we’d be stuck either in the motel or at some crap movie until it was time to go. We ordered Chinese, which called for beer, and we made a beer run that was also a Jim Beam run. I had a few brews but stopped when I realized how drunk I was getting how fast. As mentioned, Hank let the boys do what they pleased pretty much, within reason. Tonight went right up to the edge and over: had to hold a few guys over the bowl, or over the railing outside if there was already a man in the john. Stripped one or two guys and ran the shower on them, too. Did not make for a restful evening. I mean, at the best of times Dmitri stuck us six to a room. Usually these hotel rooms had just space enough for one roll-in cot, which left one man on the floor, which is why we all brought sleeping bags. We rotated who got the floor. On a night like this, room smelling a lot like a stomach, I volunteered for the floor. I blew up my mattress, rolled out my roll, and tried to catch what sleep I could when not tending to some man who’d had too much. That role saved me from a hangover next morning. Hank, too, I could see. The other 10, well. Not much conversation at breakfast – but a lot of looks from hotel management and staff, who could smell our rooms all the way from the restaurant. We’d never stay there again, I bet. OK, so. As sometimes happens, we worked better hung over than healthy. When you’re hung over, it’s harder to get distracted. You complain the whole way, and

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everything seems to go about as slow as you could imagine anything ever went by in the history of the entire world . . . then you turn around, and somehow you finished what you were doing, and not half bad. That’s how it worked when we got to the mall. We did not want to be there and truly; it was still raining, and we were still sore at being held hostage, and each man was worried about all the loose ends dangling back home, broken dates, promises, deliveries, attendance at school functions. Each of us could just imagine the face of the woman he’d come home to, and he didn’t like to think about it. At the very end, we were, I believe, we were in shock. We were in a little shock most times when we finished: we worked hard and fast, 23 hours. That Tuesday, just around noon, we’d been going 50. My legs were killing me, not to mention my hands. Shooting pains right up my sides. “Can anybody think of any more work we could do?” Hank asked. We laughed kind of helpless-like. We packed up, got in the vans, and went back to the hotel. Or at least the van with Hank and me did. The other one peeled off at some point, I barely saw in the rearview mirror. I was planning a nap. Which I began to take, me and Hank just caving where we flopped and closing down for the afternoon. Hard snooze like that, it’s hard to wake me up, but little by little, what seemed like three weeks later but couldn’t have been much more than an hour, it worked in on my brain. “What the hell is that?” I said, when it got to be too much and I had to get out of my sleeping bag and go see. Hank, who I thought was still asleep or mostly so, made a noise. I didn’t know it then, but it probably was some kind of chuckle. I slipped on my boots, and as I opened my door to go outside, a lady, a little high,

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a little scared, came up the stairs, saw the number next door, and knocked. I got there as the door opened to smoke, laughter, and sights I did not want to see. The girl’s perfume curled around me as, to claps and cheers, she made her way in. It was already standing room only. Know what thought came to me? Three for ten; better than two for ten. “Come on in, boys,” the boys shouted. That made me realize Hank had come up behind me, a that’s-different smile on his face. I thought he was going in, but he only leaned a little toward the door as he said: “Ladies.” The ladies waved hi, including the new one, getting ready. When that van peeled off on the way back to the motel, I don’t know how they knew where to go, but they did, and now the hardest-working girls in Albany were our guests. Or we were theirs. I don’t know how it works. “Be good to them, boys,” Hank said. “Anybody gets out of line, ladies, I’m right next door. Y’all settled up?” They hadn’t yet. “Better take care of it now. Head off trouble later. Who’s holding the wad?” One of the ladies raised her hand. She said how much, and all the boys went for their Levis at once, funniest thing I ever saw. “Other thing,” Hank said, as a fourth woman up from the stairs went past. Four for ten is better than three . . . I scanned the crummy parking lot and, sure enough, number five was walking in from Route 21. “Keep it down. It’s not but 2 o’clock. You want to get on the plane without getting in jail first, keep the noise down to about nothing. If you have to something to say, whisper in her ear.” Before closing the door, Hank said: “Be gentlemen, boys. Show your

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appreciation.” Everybody did like he said, but that didn’t mean now I could sleep. When everything’s quiet, you listen harder. Especially when you tell yourself not to. And every once in a while, different times, something fell over in there. Plus the silly giggles. “Not going in?” I asked Hank as we stretched back out, him on a bed and me on the floor. “Was a time I might’ve,” he said. Then a sound like a closing door. Hank laughing. If I know Hank, he wasn’t going to let his crew see him except as they saw him now. Not that anyone was exactly thinking of him at the moment. They were being quiet. It’s not like I judged anybody, or thought it was bad or anything. It’s just that something like that would never have happened before. If a man wanted to pay for a date, fine. Might even bring her back to the motel, but with six other men in the room, well, all I can say is he’d have to be drunk. Was I tempted? I don’t even remember, which means, I guess, I wasn’t. Better to stay on one side of that wall, Hank and me. More than a month later, back in San Diego, round about the time my check came, the phone rang at dinnertime and it was Dmitri. “Can you call him back?” Jennifer said. “Hi, Dmitri,” I answered her, taking it into the living room. I stared into the night past the windows; Dmitri was asking did I want to be foreman.

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“I don’t know,” I said. “What does Hank say about that?” “Hank takes care himself,” Dmitri said. “Hank has other plans. He said ask you, which I do anyway.” Dmitri said he paid the foreman more for being foreman, job by job, but he also paid him something on the top, “kind of retainer.” San Diego is an expensive place to live. We do all right, long as I keep bringing in the work. Even at that, it’s close to the bone. When a drought hits, Jennifer always starts saying she can get a job, but (a) her heart isn’t in it; (b) she’s just saying that because she knows I start worrying when things get tight, and she doesn’t want to be the one to say, “You don’t earn enough”; besides, (c) she likes being at home with the kids; and (d) I’ll be damned if she works. She’s expecting me to hold my end up, and by damn, I’ll do it. Still, San Diego’s expensive. We liked it here. Dmitri was offering a good piece of change. I couldn’t not take it. Even with my conscience killing me. Like I’d been disloyal. Betrayed Hank. Which I was. Even though it seemed like Dmitri fired him. . . . he hadn’t said so in so many words. . . . He couldn’t fire Hank. “This you, Hank?” “You bet.” His voice sounded small on the phone, not weak, just small. “Dmitri just asked would I be foreman.” “You should take it. Pays good.” Then he said not a thing. I said: “What happened? What about you?”

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“Never you mind what about me. I’m all right.” “I know you’re all right. Just what is Dmitri talking about?” “I got nothing to say about him. I got nothing to say to him.” Jennifer stood up from the dinner table, where Solly and Meems were throwing bread. Jennifer’s eyes were welling over, which meant mine must have been. I waved her to sit back down. Not that I could think of anything to say, but all sorts of stuff was fighting to get out. “You’re a good man, and you’ll do fine,” said Hank. I was a little stunned at that; he said it so I’d have to hang up. I sat back down. “This can’t be happening,” I said, and called Dmitri back. “You say yes, I think.” “I got to know why you fired Hank.” “Is none of your business.” “I know. Still. I’ll keep it to myself. Only I want to know what I’m stepping into here.” Dmitri had some sort of classical music on in the background. Every time he called, I saw his apartment, glass tables, big stuffed couches, glasses of wine all over the place, Dmitri lounging around in a suit and tie, Times Square going on out the big window and down below. Not that I ever was there. “He steals.” “Hank did not do that.” “What, you are police now? Some kind detective? Know everything? Last job, flooding, you stay, do again, I get second kit on truck?”

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“Kind of hard to forget.” “OK, Mr. Genius. You do one and a half jobs. I arrange two full kits. This leaves half kit. Where is half kit? Disappears. I ask Hank. He thinks I don’t keep track, but I keep track. Every nail. Overage, he sells.” “He sold the overage?” “All the time you think he is speaking to insurance man, roof man, mall man, yes, he speaks, but he also speaks to other man. This Hank, is maybe good foreman, but I keep eye. I know he is doing this years now. Most of time, is almost nothing. Not much left over most of time. To dispose, more trouble than is worth. I figure, ‘Hank deserves,’ you know? I figure, ‘Price of job.’ I figure, ‘Is like tip.’ This, no. Is too much. He thinks I do not see. I see.” I didn’t say, “I won’t believe it” until after I hung up. “You won’t believe what?” Jennifer asked. “I’m foreman now.” I wasn’t looking forward to calling the rest of the boys, and it wasn’t easy. I don’t like telling bad news to anybody, especially when I can’t explain. The boys helped me out, though, by (mostly) not asking questions. Mainly, they wanted to know when the next job was. Like me, they’re all playing it pretty close to the line and want to keep the dance card full. Dmitri’s a smart guy, and he had given me a time and place, so it was like I was calling with good news that kind of balanced the bad. He’d also asked me to find another man to replace myself. I said most of the boys didn’t ask. The one who did was Matt, who might be my closest friend on the crew.

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“I can’t tell you, man. Might as well not ask.” “Do you not know? Or do you know and won’t tell me?” “I . . . whoa, partner, I almost answered you on that one. I better not say yes, no, nor neither.” “I think I know. He fired Hank over the girls.” “Dmitri don’t give a flying crap about the girls. Just let it be. Someday you

and me can have a beer and I’ll run the whole mess down for you.” “So it is a mess.” “Not if I can help it it’s not.” We just got lucky. That’s how I explain the next seven years. All of us. We got lucky because the whole United States of America got lucky. Or a little touched in the head. Looking back, I see those days as so far away, it’s almost like another planet, like a story in a kid’s book. The things people did. The money they made. The things they spent it on. Seemed there was no end to it. Malls kept getting built, and Pillow Paradise kept expanding, because everything was, so hot it could catch fire, merchandise flying out the front door, people running in pleading for help spending their dough. The very folks we needed to feel good were feeling good, as if good were a brand-new idea. Looking back, I think everyone went a little crazy for a few years there. The first year I was foreman, we did six stores, two more than usual. The next year we did eight, and I was like about to keel over sometimes with being busy and tired. Just as we got the check for the last job, Dmitri called with another. One night, he called with two of them. “Is going to get very, very busy,” he said, sounding tight and pleased with

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himself. “Some of the boys are saying they don’t know if they can stand it.” “Find boys who stand it.” Seriously, all the boys were ready to stand whatever money got thrown at them. Seemed we were getting on planes every other weekend. Messed up our home life something awful, at least until the check came, and then all was forgiven. No, I’m not saying it’s always that simple, like you can pay your wife to stop being pissed at you . . . sometimes it does seem to work that way. “We’re seeing the United States,” I said. We even got smuggled over the border to put in a store up in Vancouver, which is in Canada, and that whole thing was totally illegal. We got the hell out of there before anybody showed any interest, though, and the check came in as good as usual. One day I came home and told Jennifer that in the next year, we’d be doing 12 Pillow Paradises. “Oh, come on,” she said. “You mean one a month?” “Well . . . not that regular. One month has three, a couple others have two.” “Three? Three? I’m gonna have the kids all weekend all the time?” I explained that Dmitri was jacking up the pay since he was working us to death. I didn’t know where the money was coming from, where the stores were going, and I didn’t care. I told Jennifer how much more we were going to have in the bank. She stayed mad, but she also was smiling. Which I don’t understand all that well. Look, I wanted to be home more. She knew I loved her and the kids. I was trying to be a good dad. And I’m first to say, it wasn’t fair she got all the kids and all the house stuff, and no time off.

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If she wants to fly off to West Butthole, Idaho, and throw up a pillow store in 23 hours, she’s welcome to. I don’t believe we’ll be seeing that any time soon, though. Sleepwalked through that next year. So did the rest of the boys. Put in a dozen stores from coast to coast, and not a bend in the road. We just put her on autopilot. Good thing, because think too much, and you might start thinking how exhausted and alone you are, and then you might walk away, no matter how fat the check. I didn’t see many signs of that among the boys. They were like everyone else in America: jazzed by how crazy it was all going, how things were speeding up, growing, how, when you say “The sky’s the limit,” what you mean is, “Limit? What’s a limit?” I mentioned how Dmitri sent Christmas gifts to us all, even Zach, who is Jewish. That year, I was sitting at the breakfast table, late December, and feeling every bone and muscle just begging not to go to work, when a knock came on the door. It was Dmitri’s gift. Man gave it to me. All it was was an envelope, but that green Certified Mail sticker always makes you take special notice. It had a note in it: This is not for you. I send everybody gifts for wife this year. To say “I am sorry for too much work”! Merry Christmas with thank you for busy time Dmitri Inside was a smaller envelope, red, with a little ribbon. I put it under the tree, and when Christmas came, I handed it to Jennifer. She stayed mad, but she also went nuts. “Oh, my God. Two weeks in Maui, all expenses paid,” she shouted. That startled

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Meems, and that baby started to scream his head off. “Five-star hotel. Meals included. Oh, my God.” She sounded like one of those ladies who win a contest on the radio. “You’re our fifth caller” and that. Right away she went and called her sister. Which she wouldn’t do if she was planning to stay mad. That’s the highpoint of all this. Jennifer sitting on the beach in Maui, waves coming in, Solly and Meems playing in the sand, a big smile that didn’t believe it was there bigger and bigger on Jenn’s face. I was sorry for her that she had to be married to me, but that went away in front of how it feels to know your wife is happy, that for once in your lives together, and who knows when the next time’ll be?, you’re carefree, like in the songs and commercials. It just kept rolling, and I won’t tell you I did as good a job as Hank did, but I can say the boys seemed fine about everything. Sometimes they had a desperate look, what with getting on planes every other Friday, leaving life behind, and slaving away until you couldn’t see. It could mess a man up bad. Plus it could begin to seem like you had no life. But they couldn’t argue with that number on the receipt after the check cleared. They worked hard and knew they had a good thing going. As time went by, they seemed to look at me for approval. I might be imagining that, or I might not. Not that they needed it or I was some kind of expert or better than them. Maybe it’s just natural, when a man takes over a group. Not that I was taking it over. Or letting it go to my head. All I was was foreman. One time I almost had to fire Mahmoud. It was tricky. I didn’t want it to seem like I was picking on it because he was Islam or because I thought he was some terrorist. To tell the truth, he’s a pretty good man in most things. So I’ll just say what I caught him

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doing: stealing Felipe’s Hilti gun. He just looked up at me. “I should fire you on the spot,” I told him. “I know it.” “I mean, you’re stealing another man’s tools. And his best tools. Stealing a hammer or something, that’s still bad, still enough for firing, but this? How could I ever trust you again?” “I know it, I know it,” Mahmoud said. “Aren’t you saving any money out of all this?” I asked him. “I have enough money,” he said to me. “I just wanted it. I’ve been looking at it when we do the jobs. I just wanted it.” I told him go back to work and I’d talk to him later. I think maybe Hank would have had less trouble just having him pack his things quiet-like and take off. I think maybe Mahmoud, if Hank had caught him like that, would have packed up and left on his own. At least, these were the thoughts in my head as I told Felipe the news. Felipe went looking for Mahmoud. I laid a hand on his shoulder. “Man, you don’t need – ” “Take your hands off me,” Felipe said. “Don’t tell me what I need to do.” I signalled to Matt to follow us a few steps behind in case there was trouble. When Mahmoud saw Felipe from a distance, he startled. “Look, I’m sorry, I’m sorry – ” he started. “You were stealing my Hilti gun? Stealing my Hilti gun?” Felipe said. Wow: his eyes were welling over a little. He was hurt, personally hurt, like you get when someone

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in your family, someone who isn’t supposed to hurt you or treat you like a stranger, does it anyway. Felipe just couldn’t believe it. Mahmoud didn’t say anything, and I motioned to Matt not to follow too close. I stood between them and the rest of the workplace, hoping none of the other boys could see. It passed. Felipe, seemed like he couldn’t figure out what to do, and he just left the scene. Later, when we were packing up for the night, Felipe came up and said just “I gave him the stupid thing.” “What?” “I gave it to him. Shit, if he wants it so bad. I got a better one at home.” No, I didn’t handle that one so well. I just lucked out because it solved itself. There were times I had to take an active hand in things. Sooner or later I have to tell this one, so I’ll tell it now. It had to do with Matt. Matt always had a thing, which we knew about, but we never said anything about it, because (a) he wasn’t alone – more than one of the boys had the same or a similar thing from time to time, and (b) we figured if it didn’t get in the way of his work we had nothing to say. Problem was, as more jobs came up, and as job followed job, it was starting to get in his way. I didn’t want to see it at first. I probably let it go on a little too long. It’s a hard call: do you say something right at the get-go, before it gets to be a problem, or do you wait until it really is a problem? If you go the first way, what you get, usually, is a stare like the man doesn’t understand. Like “Why are you bringing this up right now? You’re saying, ‘It’s not a problem, but might be’? So . . . you’re talking about something that’s not a problem?” And if you go the second way, the fire’s already started and you

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have charred acres all over the place already, when you could have opened the hoses in time to prevent it. Hank would have hitched up his jeans and just told Matt, right at the start. Why didn’t I? The real reason? Matt and I were too good of friends. I knew what he’d look like if I said something. Like Felipe looked when he realized what Mahmoud had done. And I couldn’t stand it. If me and Matt hadn’t already been some kind of friends, maybe I would not have had such a hard time. It surprised me how big a friend I counted him. But as job led on to job, I was seeing it, a little thing at first, but it was getting more and more. Until, the job at hand, I was staring at a day’s work by Matt, and nothing could keep me from seeing it was just not up to standard, not his, not anybody’s. If someone said something – they might not or they might – it’d get straight to Dmitri, and then you’d have a real mess. I’m not kidding when I say I wished I wasn’t foreman then. I wondered, just for a moment, why I ever took the job. Or liked it. Or wanted it, even. Which I did. When we wrapped up on the Saturday night and got back to the hotel, I asked Matt to go downstairs with me to check out the hotel restaurant. It was on the stairs I stopped him. Cold outside. Dark. Matt’s face had a streak of light across it from some door being opened. “I have something to say to you, Matt. I looked at your work, and, look, I’m sorry, but it’s not your best. You can do this stuff in your sleep, we both know that, and this isn’t, it isn’t what you can do.” Matt looked at me, and I was thankful only part of his face was in the light. But I

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did see one eye and part of another, and it got me dead in the chest. “There’s a problem,” he said, in that hangdog way men have, how they say, when they’ve messed up, I always knew I was no good, and now you found out. “There’s a problem,” I said, soft as I could. And this man, six-two at least, slim and muscular like a wide receiver, he folded in the middle, sat on the stairs and started to cry. “Jesus, Matt. Come on, man. It’s not like that.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, man, I know, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I messed up, I always mess up.” “Hank had to talk to you a few years ago. I remember that.” “I know, man, I know. I know. I know. I know.” He was crying like nobody in the world cries but a little boy when he’s afraid and everything’s bad, his whole body clenches and his face stretches almost to break and nothing comes out, nothing, no voice, just one big strain almost to exploding. “Oh, God, oh, God, every time, every time,” he was saying now. He was only speaking for every man on the face of the earth. A strange thing to think, I know, but that’s what came to me just then. Every man secretly knows he doesn’t measure up, always afraid he’ll get found out someday. It’s all just borrowed time; you’re always just a step ahead of total exposure, when everybody will know and humiliation rain down. Doesn’t matter how good you are, how good other people say you are. You know. Matt knew it and now he knew (this is how he was thinking) I knew it, too. “Look, let’s get back there and see what needs doing,” I said. We sat in the truck a few minutes before getting out, and in the lights of the

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workplace Matt’s face was all swollen. Turned out we could save some of it. More, maybe, than I thought at first. No doubt, though, you could see too much that wasn’t right. Usually, Matt’s work, you can’t see a seam. One smooth white wall. Him and me counted the bad sheets and estimated tape, joint compound, and primer. We decided not to borrow materials from the overage – not after what happened with Hank. A round trip to Loew’s later, and there we were, ripping down drywall that wasn’t quite dry and putting up new stuff. Not a good night. Even before it began, we’d been through a full day of work and could barely stand. Now, just when your body is screaming for rest, we were pulling an all-nighter, cold and hurting like hell. Hands raw and getting ripped. Working against the clock so the boys wouldn’t see. That night was all white, sheets of raw drywall everywhere, primer, that ghost-colored joint compound, glaring lamps. Somewhere during the night, I could tell Matt went from drunk to hungover, and I stopped pitying him then. What I mean is, you’d pity someone you didn’t really love, but Matt, well, the word low is too high for it. I was glad, weird to say, I was glad I was working as hard as he was so we could both suffer the same. Nothing good about it. At the end, we stood in the middle of the glare, and if it wasn’t perfect, at least we were better than even. “I’m not firing you,” I told him. “I can’t do it. But you’re a fool if you don’t do something to get this thing under control some way.” “First thing I do, first thing I do, I promise, I promise,” he said. “I don’t want you promising me nothing. Just maybe you should take off the next

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job or two until you get things straightened out.” “That’s what I was thinking.” “My job’s on the line, too, brother.” “I hear you.” A couple of weeks later, Dmitri called. “You find other man?” “I’m looking,” I said. “This is drinking?” “A lot of the boys drink.” Dmitri paused at the other end of the line, maybe to take a sip. “I don’t care who does job, how job gets done. I just want job done.” “Have you heard any complaints?” “Don’t worry what I hear. Just is strange a man turns his back on so much money.” “I might want him back later.” “Don’t bother me with this. Do what you need to do. Lots of special business is coming. Many big opportunities. Keep doing good, get better job, you never know.”

Special business. Big opportunities. I know, I know Dmitri, he was keeping me on the hook. I was curious. More stores to build? Or something else? And what was this “better job” I might get? I thought of myself as a guy in a shirt and tie, the guy I never wanted to be, not that much, I mean, I’ll take that guy’s paycheck any day . . . but maybe Dmitri was watching closer than I thought. Maybe he saw potential in me, in how I was

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running things. Maybe he saw me in management some way. Which would mean even more money. Put the kids in a better school. And take Jenn back to Maui. I didn’t tell Jenn what Dmitri said, but I did look in the mirror once or twice, looking for the special business and new opportunities. I did find a replacement for Matt. It didn’t take that long. Hard work, but you couldn’t argue with the money. And another job was roaring up fast, so I could press guys for an answer: “I need to know semi-soon, I won’t say ASAP, but the job’s about here and I need a full crew in place.”

It was someplace way out in western Maryland. That’s one strange place. You think of Maryland, at least I do, as right next to Washington and all built up, but this was pretty backwoodsy. Everybody was getting paid a little extra on this one because it was part of a brand-new mall and Dmitri wanted it extra-good and extra-quick. As usual, we met at the hotel on the Saturday morning. I took Norman and Felipe with me in the van to find the warehouse and get out the truck. I followed the directions, I had the keys out of my pocket, I was about ready to unlock the warehouse gate, when a car pulled up. Not the kind of car you would have expected. “We’ll take those keys, thanks,” said a man in a mask. “What are you talking about? No,” I said, stepping back from his hand. He sighed. “No heroism, OK? Smart thing to do, give me the keys and walk away. I have no interest in prolonging this.” “No,” I said for some reason. “It’s not right.”

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“What, you want to see a gun, make it official?” He nodded to the other man. And there it was: a gun on us. Norman and Felipe put up their hands and stepped back. “No trouble, man, be cool, no trouble.” I saw them trembling. I was. “Everything’s fine,” the man in the mask said. Almost soothingly. One last time, I hesitated. “Keys?” I saw I would never be different from anyone else. I laid them in his hand.

When I could handle a phone again, I called Dmitri. “Nobody hurt?” “No.” “Nothing to do. Cost of doing business. I set up new truck, call in morning.”

When I got back to San Diego after the job, Matt asked me out for a beer. I told him the story, and he shook his head and chuckled. “You know what that was, right? The mob guys, either they sell the stuff and the truck for a big mark-up, or they use it on some construction site they got going. Dmitri gets a nice little thank-you from them, then he turns around and gets the insurance money. ‘Cost of doink beezness.’ Sweet.” “You figure it’s a scam?” All Matt did was chuckle again. I took it personal, though he didn’t mean to be laughing at me. I was thinking, this was the big new job Dmitri was thinking of me for.

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“So what I wanted to talk about was,” he began. “Yeah?” And Matt apologized to me. It was the last thing in the world I wanted, but I figured it had to be part of his 12-step thing, so I let him do it. And I didn’t say, “You don’t have to” or “It doesn’t matter” because he did and it does. After he thanked me, after we stood up and hugged each other there in the bar, we sat back down to our beers. “So,” Matt said, “I was wondering whether maybe, when a place comes open again, maybe I could get back on the crew.” “Oh, sure, yeah, absolutely,” I said. “Might be an opening soon, if not this next job.” I didn’t tell Matt I’m quitting. That’s because I haven’t told Jennifer yet. I mean, now that Matt’s asked, I guess I just committed myself to one more job or two, until he’s back reinstated, but then I’m gone. I wasn’t going to, but now he’s asked. It’s going to blow a hole in our bank account, a big hole in our plans. But I’m done. Matt and I sat on the tailgate of his LT-150 and shot the breeze for a while after our beer. He had work; the meetings were helping; things were OK. The sun always shines in Southern California. It started getting dark, so we figured we should say Merry Christmas and see you later. Even though I had only the one beer, I took my time driving home. When I got back, Jenn met me with a smile wider than the door. “A package came from Dmitri,” she said, out of breath. “Yeah?”

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“God, I can’t believe your check.” “You looked again?” “Sorry, I couldn’t help it. It’s usually more around now, and I just wanted to know how much more. But, baby, it’s like double. It’s like more than double. And look.” She led me to the kitchen table. There was a gift-wrapped box. “You could open it later,” I said. “Or I could open it now.” Jenn might as well have been on her knees to me. What was I going to do? She gave me a big kiss. Ribbons and paper fell away under her fingers, and she looked inside. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, baby. Oh. My. God.”

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