Friday, February 16, 2007

The Coin of the Realm

This was the part of the job he hated. All week he enjoyed the early rise, the long quiet bike ride with the heavy bag full of papers, the small signs of stirring, the late night stragglers struggling with house keys. But then the serenity of routine would shift come Sunday and people had to pay him for his services.

Yeah, he got paid, but all it meant to him was he had to deal with these people. They weren't asleep today, they had to pay up. You'd think he was coming to collect the vig from a late lowlife in a scummy Italian restaurant, instead of picking up a few extra bucks to be able to buy pizza after school got out.

To make matters worse, he had a new customer. He'd not met her yet, but she lived in an apartment building, house really, that was filled with angry septegenarians. As bad as making regular visits was, the first visit was always the worst for him. His normal bike-ride sweat would be layered over with a nervous sheen, an anti-social coat of perspiration. All of a sudden he'd be far more aware of what he was wearing, the sound of his voice, the way he walked, all of that shit.

The apartment complex was a big old Colonial house really, one he'd stood at the front door of many times. Someone would come trudging down the hall on a walker, or roll out in a scooter. He'd never had a customer on the second floor, which he'd not noted before this morning. He rang her buzzer. Just a second, she said, and buzzed him in.

Disoriented by the invitation, he hesitantly stepped through the door. Standing in the lobby he felt like an explorer. His bag of papers seemed to gain shape and weight, but somehow became more pleasant to carry. A door opened out of sight above him and heels clicked on hardwood. His blood picked up.

A brunette with wet hair and a purse over her shoulder approached the top of the steps. She asked him what she owed him but he didn't hear her. As she sat on the highest step and began to rummage through her purse, her bare knees clung together to repel his eyes. They almost totally succeeded.

Somehow he made her laugh; maybe about the huge sum she owed him, maybe a self-deprecation about his timeliness or lack thereof. Either way, that sound was to be the last sound he heard as a child. By the time her laugh had tapered off, he was thinking like a man.

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