It was one of those freak things that never should have happened. We had just had lunch at the Workingman’s Club, and while I was backing out of the parking space, a wino wandered up to the truck to tell us that he’d been a furniture mover back in the old days.
“Is that so?” Whitey said.
“Son of a bitch,” I said, as if this were the eighth wonder of the world.
Old man Bostrom, sitting in the middle, didn’t say a word, but he knew what was coming. We all did. We’d been hearing the same stories for years, usually from characters in about the same shape as this one.
But the wino surprised us. He actually said something almost interesting. “I used to work out of your Madison Street warehouse,” he mumbled.
Madison Street had burned to the ground in the ’68 riots, way before my time, but the old man had worked there for years.
He leaned forward. “Who’re you?” he asked the wino.
“Garrity,” the wino said.
“I know you’re not Tom Garrity because I was one of the pallbearers,” the old man said, and he made the sign of the cross.
“My brother,” the wino said, and he nodded his head as if to say, Pleased to meet you.
“Son of a bitch,” the old man said.
He made the sign of the cross every time some dead person’s name came up, or if a hearse went by, or if we passed a cemetery. It was his own little religion. He didn’t go to church or anything like that. But he was 67 years old and he knew more dead people than live ones.
A couple of times a week I’d catch him making the sign when we weren’t even talking. “Who was that for?” I’d ask.
He’d give me some name and tell me who the person was if I didn’t already know. As often as not he’d say, “The wife.” She’d been dead going on ten years.
“Tom was a hell of a mover,” he said to the wino. This was the old man’s highest compliment.
“The best,” the wino agreed, and he smiled, and just for a moment he looked like a regular person. His body seemed to straighten up, the wrinkles came out of his face, and he suddenly looked ten years younger. But when he leaned in the passenger window a foul smell filled the cab and he was a wino again.
“What do you got today?” he asked.
Whitey was sitting right by the window. He turned his head, rolled his eyes, and tried to fan the smell away.
“The same as every day,” I said. “Pianos.”
“Boy oh boy,” the wino said. “The piano crew, the big shots. I didn’t think anybody did that anymore.”
“We’re it,” Whitey said.
We were the last full-time piano crew in town, and I was proud to be part of it. At one time almost every big moving company had one. Now they had computer crews instead.
“You guys must think you’re pretty hot,” the wino said.
I winked at Whitey. Now we were going to hear about the days when movers were men.
But the old man had other ideas. “What happened to you, Garrity?” he asked, and there was an unusual edge to his voice.
“You look like shit,” the old man said.
“I’m fine,” the wino mumbled. But the old man was right. Garrity looked like shit. He was a wino. What did the old man expect?
“Your brother was a hell of a man,” the old man said, “but I’ll tell you the same thing I told him 20 years ago: lay off the sauce.” He tapped me on the leg. “Come on, let’s get out of here. The smell’s too much for me.”
I’d had the truck in reverse for a while with my foot on the clutch. But the wino stayed right there leaning in the window. I goosed the gas a bit and the engine roared, but the wino didn’t take the hint.
“You guys need any help?” he asked. “You got a grand or an upright, a fourth man wouldn’t hurt, just for old times’ sake.”
“We’ve got an easy day,” I told him. “A couple of spinets and then we’re done.”
“Hell, you don’t need three men for that. What’s the old guy do, sit in the truck and watch?”
Well, everything the wino said about spinet pianos was true enough. Two good men, a four-wheel dolly and a burlap hump strap is usually all you need. But he was dead wrong about the old man. “You never two-timed a piano in your life,” the old man said, and the edge was even harder. “The closest you ever got was hearing your brother talk.”
“Who are you?” the wino asked. “What the hell do you know?”
He backed off a few inches. I jumped on the gas but my timing was off on the clutch. The truck jerked backward with a loud roar. I’d been checking the left mirror as we talked, but with the wino there I couldn’t see the right one. I’ll be honest, it never crossed my mind that there could have been a car back there.
Later, nobody could figure out where the girls came from or why they pulled in so close behind us. The wino started yelling and waving his arms around as I backed up, but I didn’t think anything of it. That’s what winos do.
“Get a job,” Whitey yelled back. The truck hesitated for a moment, just a hint of resistance, then I shifted into first. But I only got a few inches before the wino leaped onto the running board.
“You stupid son of a bitch,” he shouted. “There’s a car back there.”
I jumped out and started back. One quick glance was all I needed. It was one of those Beetles, but now the roof and the windshield were separated from the body like a convertible top that someone had just started to raise. The tailgate of the truck, with its hard tapered edge, was sitting there inside the car.
Whitey stopped next to me. “I hope there’s nobody in that thing,” he whispered. The old man made the sign of the cross, then knelt down right there in the street. I leaned against the side of the truck and threw up.
But that wasn’t the picture on the front page of the next morning’s paper. I never saw the photographer, but whoever he was, he did something my wife rarely could. He caught me with what looks like a smile on my face. I know exactly what I was doing when the lens opened. I was gesturing towards the wino. He was telling everybody who’d listen how he’d yelled for us to stop. “That son of a bitch sure seems happy about the whole thing,” I said.
“Everybody gets their day in the sun,” the cop agreed.
The caption under the photograph read: “Driver William P. O’Boyle, 42, whose truck backed into an automobile decapitating and killing the two teenage girls inside, talks to police after the accident yesterday afternoon. O’Boyle, who told police he never saw the car, was ticketed for backing without due caution. The dead girls were identified as Sandra Long, 17, and Barbara Peters, 18. Both were students at Lincoln Park High School.”
I didn’t see the picture until the next morning when I walked into work and found the place in an uproar. It showed me and the cop and the entire side of the truck, with “New City Moving and Storage” in large letters along the top and “Established 1871” underneath with the phone number. Toward the back of the truck was the drawing of a mover, dressed in overalls, tipping his cap. “Careful, Cheerful, and Dependable Service,” said the tagline.
I dropped into a chair in the driver’s room and held the paper on my lap. Somewhere across town, my wife was riding a bus on her way to work. I knew she was staring at the same picture.
“How was work?” she’d asked when I got home the night before.
“Got in an accident with the truck,” I’d said.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she’d said.
She would know the whole story now. We were in one of those quiet periods, waiting for the clouds to pass. It was the second time around for both of us. In times like this I always tried to remember what living alone had been like.
“O’Boyle, the boss wants to see you.”
“Where’re Whitey and the old man?”
“They’re already in there.”
We’d all talked to the boss the night before but that was before the picture, before the phones started ringing. Now he wanted to fire all of us, especially me.
“I wasn’t smiling,” I said.
“No, I know,” the boss said. “You don’t smile like that. But there you are for the whole damn city to see, and now they’re all calling to cancel jobs or tell me they’ll never use us again.”
The old man did most of the talking. He and Whitey both tried to share blame for the accident. They should’ve gotten out and backed me up, they told the boss. But the truck had been parked almost to the corner, and when we’d come out of the restaurant there’d been nothing back there. There should never have been anyone back there. It turned out that one girl was teaching the other how to drive. So maybe they’d just pulled over to change seats. We’ll never know.
“You say you weren’t drinking,” the boss said. “OK, I’ll believe you this time. Although, why anybody would stop at the Workingman’s for anything other than a drink I don’t know. That’s the same pot of chili from 25 years ago. From now on, if I catch that truck even slowing down by a saloon you’re fired. And if I ever see that liftgate up while the truck is moving you’re fired, I don’t care how many flags you’ve got on it. And if I ever catch a helper sitting in the truck while it’s moving in reverse the whole crew’s fired. Understand?”
“O’Boyle, you got anything to say?”
“It’ll never happen again,” I said. I know it’s lame, but what do you say?
The old man leaned forward. “We’re all sick at what happened,” he said. “You know I could have retired two years ago, drawn my pension and social security.
I stayed because I wanted to make 50 years here.” He didn’t say anything for a moment. “I don’t know what that’s got to do with anything.”
“You could retire now,” the boss said.
“Not like this,” the old man said.
We went out that day and moved pianos. Nobody talked much. The old man kept crossing himself, but I never asked for who. It was the first day in a long time we didn’t get even one tip.
That was a Friday. I spent the weekend drinking beer on the back porch and trying to explain to my wife why I hadn’t told her what had happened. As it turned out, she hadn’t gotten the paper on the way to work, but one of her coworkers had been kind enough to show her the picture. She would have heard one way or the other. The phone rang all weekend long. I was the only William P. O’Boyle in the phone book and everybody who’d seen the picture wanted to know what’d I’d been smiling about. After a few calls we didn’t bother to answer.
On Monday we were back to the pianos. The old man kept crossing himself. He said he’d gone to a memorial service for the two girls. I told him I didn’t want to talk about it.
Whitey seemed hungover. I know I was, probably the first time I’d ever managed it from drinking at home.
When we got back to the barn somebody had pinned one of the pictures on the bulletin board in the driver’s room. “Why is this man smiling?” was written above my head. I tore it down and threw it on the dispatcher’s desk.
“What’s this shit?” I asked.
“Oh, Christ,” he said and threw it into a wastebasket. “It’ll all die down. Just take it a day at a time, Billy.”
I punched out. “See you in the morning,” I said.
When I got home the phone number had been changed. There were two beers left. I finished them with dinner. The wife hardly said a word. I took a shower, then slept for 11 hours.
The next day while we were heading to the second piano the old man crossed himself. “Who was that for?” I asked.
“The girls,” he said.
“Let’s not talk about it,” Whitey said.
“They forgive us,” the old man said.
“What do you mean they forgive us?” I shouted. “How do you know?”
“I went to church last night,” the old man said. “I lit two candles and I knelt down and said a prayer, and the girls came to me and told me they forgive us, that they know we didn’t mean to harm them.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m glad to hear that. Now could we talk about something else?”
“You should go to church, Billy.”
“Maybe I will,” I said, just to get him to stop talking.
“Come with me tonight,” he said. “We should all go.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Maybe it’s a good idea, O’B.,” Whitey said. I looked over and he shrugged as if to say, What have we got to lose?
I didn’t have any answer to that. “Why not?” I said, and I guess I meant it.
As it happened, we never got the chance.
In the afternoon we were bringing a grand down from a third-floor walk-up. The legs were off and it was on its side strapped to a piano board. The old man was bringing up the rear. Whitey had the front outside handle of the board, his usual position because he was the smaller man. I had the front inside handle. We slid the piano down to the step before the first landing, and then the old man brought the back of the piano up.
“Pick,” Whitey said when he was ready, and we all lifted. We started to make the turn and the stairway broke free. It didn’t make a sound, but suddenly we were swinging away from the building.
“Jesus, Billy,” Whitey said. He’d never called me Billy all the years we’d worked together.
I ended up lying on my back in the courtyard. Whitey was a few feet away under the piano. I could hear him moaning.
I looked up and the old man was standing in the doorway to the apartment we’d just come out of. He was 67 years old and he’d been in the business for 48 years and he was standing up there with his hump strap in both hands, like a boxer holding a jump rope, and he didn’t even look like he was breathing hard. Somehow he’d gotten up five or six stairs and across the landing while the stairway, the piano, and everybody else were going the other way. One of my many regrets is that I didn’t actually see him do it.
After a moment the old man shrugged his shoulders. He really should have retired, I thought. Then he made the sign of the cross and stepped out into the air.
And that was the end of the crew.
The old man was dead when the ambulance got there, and Whitey died later that night. I broke both legs, shattered an elbow and a kneecap, and fractured several ribs. I’ll never work in the trade again. As far as anyone else knows the old man came down with the piano.
I was in the hospital so I missed both funerals. But after the casts came off my wife drove me out to the cemetery. The old man’s grave was in a back corner, far from the highway. I set some flowers on the gray stone and knelt down.
I’d been to the same spot ten years before, on the day they’d buried the old man’s wife. For years, when we’d driven by the cemetery in the truck, if the old man was in a playful mood, he’d invite us to visit his final resting place. He’d had his name and the year of his birth chiseled when he’d ordered the tombstone and the grave was waiting for him.
We’d never taken him up on the offer because we knew it was made in jest. The old man would never have allowed us to tell jokes over his wife’s grave. I once promised that after he died I’d bring the crew out on some slow, sunny afternoon, and we’d pass around a bottle and tell moving stories until the booze was gone.
My wife stood a few feet away. She had long ago grown sick of moving stories and of drinking, which seemed to go hand in hand.
After a few minutes I made the sign of the cross and stood up.
“Maybe we’ll drive down and see Whitey someday,” I said. He’d been buried downstate, in his old hometown.
“What about the girls?” my wife asked. “You never talk about them.”
“I never knew them,” I said.
“We could put some flowers on their graves.”
“That won’t change anything,” I said.
She gestured toward the old man’s tombstone. “What are those going to change?”
“Nothing,” I said.
I picked up the bouquet and flung it into the air. The flowers scattered as they fell. A few landed in the branches of a tree. The rest came down around us, yellow flowers as cold as rain.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jorge Colombo.