What does an old man need with a pair of roller skates?
Like a lot of things, this was something Will would trouble over, but never know. Yet there they were, scuffed gray leather, hanging by frayed laces on a dusty walnut church kneeler just inside the front door.
The old man was on the phone, and Will noticed that he favored his left side when he walked away after letting Will in the door. Will knew the old man didn’t use the skates. He could see Joe praying, yes. (Standing up.) Skating, no.
Joe Murphy had called twice to reschedule their appointment after all, saying he’d thrown his back out a couple of weeks ago and was laid up so he hadn’t been able to do any housekeeping. Will appreciated his good intentions. Most folks don’t see the need to tidy up for a claim adjuster. Isn’t that the whole point—that a house would be a mess after a sudden brush with fire or water? He hardly even noticed anymore, cutting through cobwebs or stepping over underpants lying on the floor, legs open, right where someone had walked out of them on the way to the shower or bed.
But then again, he thought, maybe Joe did roller skate. Maybe that’s how he’d hurt himself, practicing some sort of spin move on inline poly wheels on the narrow paved road crossing in front of his faded green bungalow, like it was perfectly normal for 75-year-old men to do this in a quiet farming town. He probably even had a widowed neighbor named Midge who practiced her belly dancing behind a walker on the front lawn.
Not much surprised Will anymore. “Leaky roof, single story,” the dispatch note from Mad Dog had said. “Keep it simple. You’ll be back by noon.”
“Right,” he typed back. “Noon next Friday.”
The only predictable thing about working claims with Mike “Mad Dog” Delaney was that Will could predict nothing. Odds were, Hurricane Camille herself had resurrected after all these years and was coming his way, all dressed up in the straight line skirt of a supposed open and shut case.
He remembered the day Mad Dog said, “Leaky drain pipe. How hard can it be?” The next thing he knew, he was suited up in his coveralls crawling in the mud under the double-wide through spider webs thick enough to hide your grandmother, with the angry homeowner standing outside wielding a hammer, threatening to nail the skirting shut and leave him inside with the snakes and rats.
When a guy’s day could start with a man falling asleep with a cigarette watching Colbert and starting his bed on fire, or a woman having a heart attack behind the wheel and crashing her car into the side of the local hunting lodge, her last breath exploding through safety glass and into a brick wall, the element of surprise got harder and harder to come by.
Will Phillips had been an adjuster for as long as he could remember. And before that, he’d dreamed of it. Saturday afternoons when his friends were playing tackle football in the vacant lot, he was watching Double Indemnity in black and white. When no one was home he’d sneak into a three-piece suit and tie from his father’s closet and lean across the kitchen table like it was a big wooden desk, making believe he was his hero Barton Keyes lecturing Sam Garlopis about insurance fraud. He’d tousle his hair and hold a Tootsie Roll between his fingers, punching it into the air like Keyes’ stubby cigar. Every month hundreds of claims come to this desk. Some of them are phony. And I know which ones, he’d say, staring at Garlopis until he squirmed. How do I know? Because my little man tells me. … The little man in here. He’d turn his thumbs to point to his chest and then slip them into the vest behind the gray pinstripe lapels before he turned to look out the window, pausing to put a little more heat on his imaginary Garlopis.
Will wanted to be an adjuster someday, a job no one else he knew had ever sought on purpose. He would learn to listen to his own little man.
He interned with La Salle Mutual in Chicago during college, and by his 25th birthday had a desk of his own downtown, smoked three packs a day and kept a fifth of bourbon in his bottom right desk drawer which he never drank before 2:45 in the afternoon.
Images of that gray cityscape out his 16th story window filled his mind when Joe Murphy had said he retired early from the Chicago fire department with a herniated disc. Will considered the coincidence, that they both left the city for these flatlands where every distance is measured by how many miles it is from the old Johnson place that burned down back in 1978. He decided it was just that: a coincidence.
The old man ended his call and slipped his phone into his pocket, apologizing again for the mess. “I’m working on an addition to the house so I have a place to put all this stuff.”
He waved his arms as though to take all of it in.
Joe Murphy shuffled through the dining room to the living room, and a puff of dust hung low to the ground with each movement. Will suspected he left a trail too, but didn’t turn to look. His nostrils burned with the ammonia of cat urine and he nearly stumbled over the calico that wove between his feet while he walked. Murphy dropped himself into an easy chair, the nubby boucle pattern worn bare on the arms and seat.
Will looked around for another place to sit. A large golden retriever lolled across the davenport, layers of fur covering the back and arms and piled on the floor in front making clear that it was a davenport for one. He decided to stand where he was, which might mean not having to brew himself a flea dip when he got home.
That the old firefighter was well groomed seemed out of place. His polo shirt and Wrangler jeans were clean and pressed, his hair combed, his white sneakers laced and tied. He had a manicured green lawn and clean-swept sidewalks.
A polished black Silverado pickup sat in the driveway. But every visible inch of space inside the house was covered with thick gray dust and stack upon stack of collected miscellany. The dining room table was piled with unopened packages of lightbulbs, a dozen boxes of golf balls, books, cartons of paper cups. Most of the packaging was hard to make out because of the dust film.
With his throat tightening against competing odors, Will reached for his work gloves in his back Levis pocket, wishing to add one more layer of separation between himself and the space he’d entered.
To his left he noted a Hammond organ. Its keys were littered with greasy brown x’s and o’s, morsels spilled from the cat dish next to the music rack on top. The organ was the same as he remembered from the den in his childhood home on Dupont Street. He reluctantly stuffed the gloves back into his pocket and stepped to the side of the organ, leaning his hip against it. He crossed his feet in front of him. With his open, ungloved palm pressed against the frame next to the keys, he turned to look at Murphy, who was petting a gray cat in his lap, just behind the ears.
Why would a guy like Murphy suddenly decide to call in a claim? His house—piled high with collected junk, cat litter, and dog hair—was slowly eating itself from the inside, its habitable space growing a tiny bit smaller every day. He said he’d peeled the carpet out ten years ago, but never got around to replacing it. Putty colored wallpaper was blistered and cracked on two walls and stripped to the wainscot on another, leaving the plaster exposed. From the looks of the kitchen, he hadn’t fixed a meal in his house since the 1990s.
An ice dam built up on his roof last winter, and Joe Murphy ended up with a small leak in his living room. The faint line of brownish discoloration, not even three feet long, would be barely noticeable under the most meticulous housekeeping. But six months later, Murphy said, he’s leaning back in his chair petting the cat and sees it. A glaring eyesore, he called it, and it kept him up at night.
The old man eased the cat to the floor and got up from his chair.
“Hey, come over here and help me, would you?”
Will followed him to the built-in oak cabinet next to the fireplace. A painted ceramic Madonna, supported by cobwebs strung between the wall and her baby-blue shoulders, stared down at them from the mantle while Murphy leaned into the cabinet. He pulled out a leather case and set it on a chair. A cloud went up from the orange velour seat cushion, like a giant smoke ring.
He fingered the latches but didn’t open them. “I’ve been worried all that water got in back here. You’re going to love this little girl.”
Will cursed himself under his breath. He should never have let the old man sit down. He would pay for his split-second lapse of sociability with Murphy on stage for an afternoon of show and tell.
The old man exhaled and flipped the latches with his thumbs, in perfectly timed unison. He lifted the top and stared inside, then slowly ran his rough hands along the red crushed velveteen.
“I haven’t played her in ten years,” he said, as he lifted a white squeeze box from the case. “She’s a hundred years old. I’ve got two others, but she’s the most beautiful of the lot.”
He shuffled back across the room, cradling the German concertina in his arms. Then he dropped himself into his chair and touched each of the pearl inlaid keys. “You know the old carousel horses?” he asked.
“I do,” Will said.
Damn, Will thought. He looked at his watch.
Murphy closed his eyes and started playing. Will turned toward the kitchen, certain that polka dancers were just waiting to spin out in a row of rounded skirts and beehive hairdos.
The dancers didn’t come, but the old man kept playing. He opened his eyes. “I don’t read music, you know.”
“What then,” Will asked. “I suppose you just feel it?”
“Something like that,” Murphy said and closed his eyes again, smiling like a man who had never smiled before.
Will took his phone from his pocket and tapped a quick text to Mad Dog.
Job bigger than you thought. Reschedule afternoon calls. Damn fool will take all day.
He wondered if Murphy was one of those lonely folks who concocted reasons for someone to visit. One day it was the plumber, the next day the electrician. Today was Wednesday, a perfect day for the claims guy, just to have someone in the house. It was like those widows who lived in his granddad’s apartment building and always had some complaint about a small appliance gone haywire and called Clarence to fix it. He was famous for his handyman skills, and ever since Grandma had passed on, a half dozen or so women set their sights on Tucson’s oldest most eligible bachelor. Usually it was a matter of tightening a light bulb or just plugging in the “broken” appliance while the damsel in a fancy new dress and fresh coat of “Besos Red” lipstick batted her eyelashes and said, “Oh, silly me.” He saw the ruse, but wasn’t above enjoying a slice of pound cake and coffee in exchange.
But the old man? It was hard to see where anybody besides Murphy had been in this house in years. Even a plumber or electrician.
Will unclipped his tape from his belt. He fiddled with the tab absentmindedly, pulling out a few inches and letting it spin back into the case with a small thwack. He tried to match it to the old man’s rhythm, failing every few times. Will had no good sense of rhythm. In his junior high marching band days, he was given a pair of cymbals to carry, one tucked ceremoniously under each arm. Whatever you do, his band director had told him, don’t let the plates touch each other.
Cymbals were meant to crash, but for the privilege of wearing the uniform, Will fought against the magnetic force that seemed determined to pull the two together. In truth, it was really the hat. He liked the mystery of the tall furry hat sitting just above his eyes, obscuring them slightly. And he liked the spats over his shiny black shoes, for no real reason at all.
During the homecoming parade in 8th grade, Will lost the battle with magnetism and allowed the very top gold edges of the plates to skim each other. He hoped no one heard it, but then felt the thump of Randy Dalbright’s trombone slide on the back of his head. It hit just right to open the spit valve, and he felt Randy’s cold saliva run down his neck.
“Left! Left!” Randy hissed. “Your other left, Loser.” He bumped Will’s hat with the slide on every downbeat. Will had gone out of step and never could tell his right from his left under pressure, so he hop-skip-stumbled through the rest of Hit the Road Jack, trying to regain his stride while his left shoulder rolled forward and back resisting the trickle of spit now making its way down his spine. He tried not to let the cymbals touch when he raised his right hand to move his hat out of his eyes.
After the parade, Will hid in a practice room until everyone had gone, then folded up his uniform and set it on
Mr. Reeve’s desk. He wrote a note in red pen on the back of a hall pass and set it under the hat, polishing a smudge off the onyx brim with the cuff of his shirt:
I never did like music anyway.
Murphy stopped playing and Will let go about six inches of tape into the case with a loud snap. Something about wearing a tape on his belt made him feel stronger, more rugged. Some guys used a laser measuring device, but Will always figured those pansy-asses just wanted to take the easy way. Anybody could point and click at the red dot on the wall. Will used a Mighty Max, heavy duty, and replaced it every six months to keep it tight. On quiet afternoons in the office he’d lean back in his chair with his feet crossed on top of his desk and ease the tape inch by inch into the air to see how far he could stretch before it collapsed. His record with the Mighty Max was 13′ 2″ even though the tape was only rated to twelve feet. It took patience and a steady hand to push it along another foot. He was sure he could get another two inches out of it but every time he tried lately, Mad Dog hollered something from across the hall and startled him, so the tape would collapse.
Will went to the corner where Murphy’s water stain was and moved a small stack of boxes to the side to get within reach, then extended his tape above the built-in bookcase.
He rounded up to four feet and shook his head at the idea of patching and painting this tiny corner space, considering the rest of the room looked like it had already had that encounter with Hurricane Camille back from the dead. He scratched the numbers onto a sheet of quadrille paper on his clipboard and flicked his pencil back into his shirt pocket.
This would be a good time to shake Murphy’s hand and say, “I’ve got to do my paperwork. I’ll be in touch.”
But the old man was way ahead of him.
“I’ve got a real mess in my garage.”
“Don’t know what happened there, maybe there’s a hole in the roof. Come on,” Murphy said. He waved Will toward the back door. “Let’s have a look.”
Will glanced at his watch again. It didn’t make a difference now, but maybe the old man would get the hint. He clipped his tape back on his belt and stuck his clipboard back in his bag, then picked up his gear and followed.
Murphy had a small breezeway between the kitchen and the garage. Inside, the sheetrock was falling off the outside wall, and square acoustic tiles had fallen one by one from the ceiling and littered the floor. Will ran a finger along the drywall as he stepped down the short set of stairs. It was soft, damp. A speckled black pattern had made its way along all of the edges and matched the strong moldy smell when Murphy opened the door.
“When did this happen?” Will asked.
“Gosh, I don’t know. I never go back here, it’s such a mess. Probably November. Maybe December. But there was too much snow on the roof to check it out.”
“That’s six months ago. Did you call your insurance guy?”
“Well, no. I didn’t think much of it. Forgot all about it until you came. I was just so worried about all that water in my living room.”
“Worried.” Will nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
He wondered about Murphy’s sense of perspective. A barely visible water stain kept him up at night. Walls and ceilings collapsing were entirely forgettable. And they weren’t even to the garage yet.
Will pulled out his tablet and penciled a quick sketch, then took his tape and measured up the walls.
The old man pushed past him and opened the door. The garage space had finished walls and a high ceiling, large enough to hold two vehicles, but his Silverado pickup sat outside in the driveway, subjected to harsh prairie elements while cases of diapers and deodorant and boxes of old clothes and dishes sat protected under the roof. The graying walls were stained brown from water running behind the sheetrock, the oval and horseshoe-shaped discoloration looking almost like the plain surface was morphing into wood grain. The drywall on the ceiling sagged over half the space, weight of water-soaked insulation pressing down and wishing to be set free. Piles of Murphy’s accumulated wealth in irresistible flea market grabs left once-stiff cardboard caving under water’s softening effects. Joe didn’t seem to notice.
“Look over here,” he said. “I bought these shelves to put my books in but they’re ruined.”
Will turned around. The old man had a half dozen sets of bookcases from KMART, unassembled and still in the packaging. He was right. They would be useless after sitting wet for six months, pressed wood soaking up moisture like a sponge.
“I haven’t even moved my full library from Chicago yet. I’m going to build an addition to hold it. My brother will help me.”
So the old man had family. A brother, at least. This was good. Will wondered when was the last time this brother came to visit.
He took a few pictures of the walls, ceilings, boxes. He eyeballed the length of the garage but didn’t bother to get out his tape. Most times, he used it for show. He could estimate visually within six inches. Will was tired.
“Do you know Ivan Rebroff?” the old man asked.
“Rebroff? Haven’t heard of him. Is he your contractor?”
“No, no. Rebroff. R-e-b-r-o-f-f. Write it down. You’ll want to look him up later.”
The old man’s eyes flickered brighter than the twitchy garage fluorescents should have allowed. Will smiled from one side of his face. “Let me guess. He sings or something.”
“He sings? Oh, he sings! In a four-octave range. Are you done in there? Let’s go listen.”
Murphy was already in the breezeway waving his arms and remembering the night he heard Rebroff live in Paris.
Will wiped a hand down his face and let out a deep sigh. He looked up at the ceiling and let his shoulders sag. He patted the wall as he trudged past. “You’re here every day, huh?”
He found the old man in the living room rummaging through a pile of CDs, where he finally pulled the one he was after and pushed it into his player.
Ivan Rebroff’s bass reverberated off dingy walls while Will let the old man go on about the singer’s history as though they had studied voice together in the day. As the song reached its end, Murphy put a finger to his lips to hush himself mid-sentence and pointed the other hand toward the sound of
Rebroff’s aria. He tipped back his head, stretched out his arms and directed the final measures.
The old man stood frozen in time as he and Rebroff held the last clear note. Will knew he had slipped away to the opera house of his mind.
He walked quietly to the kitchen to see if Murphy had any coffee and two clean cups.