Reed Farrel Coleman

Hose monkey

Monday Morning,Presidents’ Day February 16th, 2004


Joe Serpe just assumed there was no more, that things had moved well beyond loss and grief, beyond worsening. He was only about an hour from learning there’s always more and there’s always worse.

He felt like the leftovers from autopsy class. Mulligan, the last thing he had left to show for fifteen years of marriage, was pawing the empty Absolut bottle, pawing at it then pouncing on it. But it wasn’t the cat or the scraping of the bottle as it rolled over the gritty linoleum floor that had slapped Joe out of his stupor. That honor went to the phone.

“Fuck!” He propped himself up on one elbow. Trying to sit would have ripped him in two. Still, it would have been easy enough to reach over and slide the volume switch to zero on the answering machine. He didn’t move. Instead he counted the rings, his lips moving silently, the numbers resonating in the fog. Two… Three… Four… The voice that filled the room was not his own.

This is Vinny. I’m out swallowing smoke or stout. If it’s a one-alarmer, leave your name and number and a message. If it’s a two-alarmer, call 911. If it’s gone to three alarms and you’re still in your house making this call, bend over and kiss your ass goodbye, cause you’re screwed. Have a nice day.

Joe had written those words for his brother to say. Scripts helped Vinny with his stuttering. It’s how he dealt with emergencies on the job, how he had passed the entrance test. Joe’s heart raced every time he heard his little brother’s voice. It was all that was left of him. Sure, there were pictures-hundred of pictures-and Vinny’s uniform shirts that still hung in his closet like offerings in a lightless shrine. There was his badge and his crushed helmet and the flag that had draped his coffin and the stories from the newspapers. But those were things, artifacts, fossils, as dry and meaningless to Joe as a squirrel skull dug up in the backyard. No, the message tape was alive. It was more a reflection of Vinny’s life than any object or eulogy.

September 11th, 2001 had robbed a lot of people of a lot of things, but Joe Serpe could not and would not be convinced that anyone had lost more than him. When you’re already in a place where further down looks like up, any loss, never mind that of your baby brother, is magnified, amplified a thousand fold. Few people who knew Joe, even those cops who didn’t speak to him anymore, would argue the point. It was Vinny who took him in after the divorce. Vinny who stood by him through all the departmental hearings. Vinny who stopped him from eating his gun.

Vincent Anthony Serpe was just one of three-hundred-forty-three New York City firemen killed that day. Some had died heroic deaths. Some not. From all accounts, Vinny’s was neither particularly heroic nor inglorious. He was felled by debris as he ran for cover when the first tower collapsed. In fact, Joe Serpe had been told he was lucky. Vinny’s body, at least, had been recovered intact. A lot of the men who had perished were pulverized. Their families would bury empty coffins.

Joe knew he was supposed to take comfort in a full coffin. He took none. He found the concept of closure the purist form of bullshit ever conceived by man. The way people talked about closure it was as if grief was as simple as going back to cross a forgotten “t”. Whether his brother’s coffin contained a broken torso or a sack full of rocks was of no consequence to Joe. Dead was fucking dead, body or no body. What mattered was that of the two creatures left on earth whom he loved and who loved him back, one was gone forever. Two and a half years of facing that reality hadn’t lessened the ache of it. Neither, as it happened, had the vodka.

“Mr. Serpe, this is Captain Kelly,” a booming voice poured out of the little speaker. “I was your brother’s commander. We met at his funeral. It’s Monday and I know I’m callin’ real early, but I got alotta calls to make. I just wanted to let you know that Pete Hegarty’s wife Pam’s throwin’ a second birthday party for the twins and…”

Joe half-listened to what Kelly had to say. The tone of the captain’s voice intrigued him. Clearly, Kelly was annoyed by the continuing presence of Vinny’s voice on the answering machine. Joe couldn’t have cared less. He’d stopped caring about what other people thought of him a long time ago. He’d had to. It was a matter of survival. Given the last four years of his life, caring would have crushed him as surely as the hurtling concrete and steel had killed his brother.

Joe was shocked to find the phone in his hand. “Captain Kelly, this is Joe Serpe here.”

If it had been almost anyone else from the department, he would have turned down the answering machine and gone back to his coma, but he remembered Kelly as being good to Vinny, welcoming him, mentoring him. Unlike the other hypocritical pricks at his brother’s memorial, Kelly had cried real tears. The rest of them, as far as Joe was concerned, could all go to hell. These same men who carried his coffin and called him brother in death had taunted Vinny for his shyness, his stuttering, and called him fag, retard, and Va-Va-Vinny on September 10th. Death was too big a price to pay to finally get into the fraternity.

“Hello, Mr. Serpe, I was just callin’-”

“Yeah, I know. I heard.”

“Pam Hegarty wanted me to… She thinks we need to be together.”

“I can’t make it.”

“But, I haven’t given you the date and-”

“Whenever it is, I can’t make it.” Joe was regretting having picked up. His head was pounding and he could feel the tears beginning to well up. He knew he had better speak his piece and get off. “Listen, Captain, I didn’t get a chance to say this at the funeral, but I wanted to tell you that I really appreciated the way you treated my little brother. He told me how good you were to him.”

“Your brother was a fireman’s fireman,” Kelly said.

The phone was back in its cradle.

Mulligan had given up trying to slay the bottle. He wanted real food, the smell of which induced a round of vomiting in Joe the likes of which he hadn’t experienced in years.

“Fuckin’ cat,” he whispered, knowing he couldn’t afford to alienate Mulligan. Mulligan was all he had left.

Joe threw on his stinky oil clothes from Saturday. After three years working oil, he had a week’s worth of uniforms that he washed on Sundays. This past Sunday, he’d been a little too preoccupied researching the subtle differences between the flavors of Swedish and Polish vodka to care about the wash. Actually, his research had started late Saturday night. When he was first on the job, his wife used to say he smelled like a cop. That was crap. An oilman really smells like an oilman, especially in last week’s clothes. Anyway, a fresh uniform didn’t suit his mood. Nothing, not his breath nor even the snow that had fallen on and off since Saturday night, was fresh and clean. Things didn’t stay fresh in Joe’s world for very long.

The sun was just up when Joe squeezed into his Honda-Vinny’s, really. They’d repo-ed Joe’s car after the divorce-between the dump-ster and a mound of exhaust black snow. He knew it was going to be a busy day. Winter Mondays always were, especially after it snowed. People got all psychotic about running out of heating oil when it snowed. It could be ten below and people didn’t give a rat’s ass, but if the weatherman mentioned snow, people went apeshit. Joe didn’t mind busy. Busy was good. Busy meant more cash in his pocket. Busy meant no time to think. He was sick of thinking.

He was still a little unsteady when he got out of the car, the 7-Eleven coffee cup shaking in his hand. He glanced over to where the trucks were parked, making sure that Frank had started up the tugboat. That’s what the drivers called Joe’s old, green Mack. It’s air horn had been broken for years and it sort of sounded like a fog horn. The big blue Mack was running. So was the red Mack, and the International cab-over, but not the tugboat.

“What the fuck?” Joe moaned, half-stumbling into the office.

Frank understood. “Sorry, Joe, the tugboat’s off the road. The tank’s got a pinhole leak and I’m taking her over to Suffolk Welding this morning. You’re on the International today.”

“I hate that truck. It’s a bitch gettin’ in and outta that thing.”

Вы читаете Hose monkey
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату