1 • The Visit
What an old man needed with a pair of roller skates, Will would never know. Yet there they were, scuffed gray leather, hanging by their laces over a dusty walnut kneeler just inside the front door.
Watching how the old man moved, how he favored his left side when he walked away after letting him in the door, Will knew he didn’t use them. He could see Joe praying, yes. Skating, no.
Joe 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 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 in-line nylon wheels on the narrow paved road crossing in front of his faded green bungalow like it were perfectly normal for 75-year-old men to do in this 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 him 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 he could predict nothing. Odds were, Hurricane Camille herself 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 opening shut and leave him inside with the rats.
When a guy’s day could start with a man falling asleep with a cigarette watching Jay Leno 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 gets 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 the gray cityscape out his 16th story window filled his mind when Joe Murphy said he retired early from the Chicago fire department with a herniated disc. He 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, and decided it was just that: a coincidence.
The old man ended his call and slipped his phone in 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 to 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, piles of fluffy shed fur covering the back and arms and floor around it 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.
By all appearances, the old firefighter was well groomed. 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 stacked 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 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.
(to be continued)