Handle with Care
by CB Bassity

      “—B, don't drop it!” It was a spinet piano Eddie and I were carrying downstairs. He and I, the current workforce of Eddie’s Moving Service, were carrying that little spinet downstairs, when my foot slipped.
      Two guys carrying anything on stairs, you put the taller one downstairs of the shorter.  This levels the load and keeps Mr. Upstairs from having to fold over double.  When Eddie heard my foot shuffle— downstairs—and felt the piano tilt, he didn't say, “CB, be careful there, buddy,” like he might have been thinking.  No, it all came out in a rush, and he never called me CB again—always “B.”
      And you have to know, I didn’t like that.  I had been soured on my given name, Chris, after school one day in the fourth grade when Tommy Bidler's mother said, “Oh, hi, Chrissy, would you like some popcorn?”  Nothing was the same after that.  I was twenty-something before I could hear the dignity in Christopher.  (I've known men named Beverly and Shirley and wondered what's that like.)  When I was seventeen, someone called me CB (my first and last initials), and I did nothing to discourage that.  Linguistically, CB headed off into Jesse James territory, leaving Chris the mild-mannered reporter, in the dust.  But shortly after I began working for Eddie, my foot slipped, the piano lurched—and in his mind I became “B.”  Far from Jesse James territory, all I could think of was Andy Griffith's Aunt Bea.  One time I told Eddy that I preferred "CB," and he said—I swear—“Okay, B.”  But I liked Eddie, and it became unimportant what he called me.
     When I worked for him I was a tall, skinny kid, eighteen years old.  Eddie wasn't big, about 5' 7," but if you could have stretched his solid pack of muscle onto my 6' 2" frame, I would have looked Olympian.  We moved someone's stuff to a third-floor apartment once, and another guy who was supposed to be with us didn’t show up.  We stopped by a tavern down the block, but forty bucks couldn't raise any help so it was just Eddie and me.  As I was laboring up the stairs with my sixth armload of boxes, Eddie came trotting past with a dresser on his back.  If you ran onto Eddy after not seeing him for a while, he'd smile and say, "Are you in shape?"  He always was.
     But Eddie didn't look muscular.  He wasn't a tight-teeshirt and gold-neck-chain kind of guy.  He often wore a sweatshirt, but his are the only sweatshirts I've seen that looked like they came from a tailor.  When he wore a white shirt, it still looked crisp at four-thirty.  And if the sleeve had a dark smudge, on Eddie it would look no more messy than a cufflink.  He never made a big deal out of being muscular, but he seemed to relish being "in shape."
     Eddie was black, and he didn't make anything out of that either.  He was more sensitive about being bald; he always wore a hat.  I had worked for him a month or two before I realized he was bald.  He had several hats, and every one sat on him at a jaunty angle.  Eddie wore slacks, and when he wasn't burning calories lifting a sofa, his hand went to jingling change in his pocket.
     But that muffled jingle of coin signaled more than just a fidgety hand; Eddie was a calculator.  How many boxes should we stack in the front corner of the truck before we lock them in place with the refrigerator?  If B drives the step-van, could I follow with the truck and swing by Lyndonhurst for those recliners on the way back?  And he calculated well.  During the workday, while we trucked furniture around northern New Jersey, his secretary took calls from potential customers.  And in the evenings, after work, while I was off smoking dope somewhere, Eddie would go and scope out the jobs and price them.  When he and I arrived at someone’s house or apartment, we inevitably had the right-sized trucks to haul the contents.
     Mornings, when I got to his office about 7:00 or 7:30, he'd be studying the big cluster of five-by-seven file cards pinned to a board on the wall and talking over his shoulder to Mrs. Haversham, his secretary.  "Call Mr. Lucas and tell him we'll be there . . ."—coins jingled—“about ten-thirty or eleven."  Then, smiling, “Hey, B, how you doing there, buddy?”  Eddie’s voice could almost keep up with him—he didn’t stutter, but sometimes one word stumbled over the next in his staccato delivery.
     His office was tucked into one corner of the upstairs of a combination garage and warehouse out back of his house.  To get to the office you passed thru a jumble of used sofas, bedroom furniture, framed pictures, an old red Coke machine, coatracks: odd bits of household jetsam he’d bargained for in the course of business.
     Sometimes in the morning when I came to work, a table and several chairs were set up, and liquor and beer bottles overflowed the trash-can.  If I said, “looks like someone had a good time last night,” Eddie would grin and tell me, “oh, that was some guys I know; I don’t touch the stuff.  We had a poker game.”  His father, I knew, was an alcoholic, a sad case who had gone badly downhill.  Eddie had good reason to distance himself from drink.  He was always crisp and pulled-together—he didn’t seem like the drinking type.
     He was a careful operator, packing a fine old mahogany dining table, a baby grand piano, eggshell-delicate china lamps, and a refrigerator all into the same truck in such a way that nothing shifted in transit and nothing was scratched or marred, and taking care to balance the load over the axles, too.  It was always: “cover the piece, B”—put a quilted blanket pad over every piece I carried or packed on the truck.  Carrying a mahogany dresser through a doorway I learned from him to “hug the backside, B” —keep the back of a piece tight to the door frame and favor the front, risking any nick or scrape only to the unfinished side that faces the wall.  To carry a piece without a pad—even a washer or dryer headed for the cellar—was a lapse as serious as dropping it off the truck.
     His attention to detail had earned Eddie a reputation in that old-money New Jersey suburb of Manhattan.  He had assurance and poise.  I can still amaze people sometimes with some trick I learned from Eddie, like standing a huge sofa on end and sliding it through a doorway, jockeying it at unlikely angles through a tight corner.
     I do remember him rattled, however.  Once, we were moving a troublesome woman out of a house—the truck was nearly packed—when she said, “What about the mirror?” and pointed to an unframed, wall-mounted mirror the size of Delaware.  Eddie protested.  “Oh, no,” he smiled, “You never said anything about that.  We’re not going to handle that thing.”  But she insisted she had specified moving the mirror, insisted that Eddie had agreed to it; and Eddie finally consented to take it.  We rearranged some things on the truck, unscrewed the mirror from the wall, and stepped carefully out the door and down the steps with it.  It was a huge piece of glass, and halfway to the truck a gusty breeze hit it broadside and turned it into several lethal pieces, and Eddie and I had to jump back from the shards we were left with.  Mrs. Whoever-she-was was mad.  Eddie was disgusted, and once we got on the road he told me repeatedly—“She never mentioned that mirror.  She didn’t tell me about that thing.  I wouldn’t have taken the job.”  I don’t know what it cost him to replace it, but I know he did.
     Once, we moved a guy to an apartment on the east side of Manhattan.  Across the street from where we were parked was a hat store.  The move went smoothly and we finished before noon.  Eddie had his eye on that hat shop.  After we folded and stacked the quilted furniture pads in the back corner of the truck, slid the door shut, and clanked shut the latch, Eddie hopped down to the pavement.  "C'mon, B, let's see what they've got over there."
     In my dirty jeans and with long hair under a bandana I felt out of place in the genteel world of pressed felt and glass cases.  But Eddie was at home anywhere.  He tried on two or three hats.  Swiveling his head in front of a mirror, he asked, "What do you think, B?"  After ten or fifteen minutes, he narrowed it down to two hats, wavered some, and bought one.
     We crossed the street, swung up into the cab of the truck, and, "You know, B,"—apparently the hat looked different in the rearview—"I don't like this one after all."  We re-crossed the street, back to the counter and the salesman who'd sold the hat.  Eddie set the hat on the glass counter and said he'd changed his mind.
     "I'm sorry," the salesman said, "all sales are final—no refunds."
     Eddie laughed.  It was a good-natured laugh, like you don't understand.  He pointed to his truck across the street.  "Hey, I just walked across the street with it.  It's not like I wore it all over town or something."  He handed the receipt across the counter.
     But the salesman would have none of it.  "Store policy," he said.
 "Look, if I had stayed here longer, tried on two or three other hats, you wouldn't even have my money.  What’s it been, four minutes?”  But the salesman seemed deaf to logic.
     Eddie, with his college business courses and his dozen years in business, was a reasonable guy, and he expected the same from others.  "Look, just pretend I never bought it.  Take the money I gave you out of the drawer, tear up the receipt—no problem."  Nothing doing.  Eddie was smiling still, but his smile was tenuous, it wasn't well-anchored.  He was jingling change.  He looked around the store, nodding slightly, as if maybe he'd missed something.
     Eddie turned to me.  "Do you believe this, B?"  I shook my head, although I was thinking, you win some, you lose some.  I was more than ready to leave.  The salesman turned to some papers on the counter as if we had already left.  Eddie turned back to the clerk, "I'm trying to be reasonable here—"  But across just two feet of glass counter, the clerk didn't even look up from his order sheets.
     "Okay, buddy," Eddie said in a chilled but even tone, "you might as well call the cops now, 'cause I'm gonna tear this fuckin' place apart."  The clerk snapped his head up—Eddie wasn't invisible now.  The shop was all glass cases and mirrors and hats—one wild bull could make a hell of a mess in short order.  The salesman made the right assessment and opened his cash drawer.  Crossing the street to the truck, moments later, Eddie had no parting shot, no I showed him; just, "B, I'm hungry—let's find a place for lunch."
     Another time, we backed up to one bay of a loading dock at a Huffman-Boyle furniture warehouse.  I think it was Mr. Huffman that Eddie knew, and we were there to pick up an overstuffed chair and deliver it to an apartment the man kept for a girlfriend.  We went inside, Eddie carrying an invoice and me trailing behind him.  All around us were guys carrying crates and cartons into the line of trucks backed up to the dock.  Then the foreman appeared.  He told Eddie they were too busy, and we’d have to wait—it would be a while.  Eddie pointed out that we had an invoice for one chair.  The foreman was unmoved: one chair or no, he wasn’t going to pull the piece—we could come back later.  But Eddie stood firm.  As the argument escalated, work came to a standstill around us.  It got quiet.
     It hadn’t been a full two months since I had seen an old movie, in which William Bendix played an underhanded warehouse boss who killed crew-member Sidney Poitier for challenging his authority, killed him with a loading hook to the back while the rest of the workers stood by.  This looked too much like the same scene.  I kept waiting for Eddie to say, "Hey, I know the owner—it’s his chair."  But he wouldn't play that card.  Instead he was a rock firmly planted in fairness, logic, and dignity.  At the moment when I thought fists would fly the foreman turned, pointed to someone and said, “go get his fucking chair”—and he walked off.
     You could get the impression that Eddie was tough, that working for him exposed me to a number of near-scrapes.  If anything, I would have characterized most of our work days as tedious.  But when Eddie was pressed to the wall he grew into something, like matter expanding with heat.

 ******
     On some four-lane highway, up in the truck cab—look, B! Down here—look!— Eddie sounded like he’d discovered a cache of hundred dollar bills.  Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that  a woman’s skirt would hike up when she drives, and that her thighs would be on display.  But I think Eddie considered those views some of the high points of his profession.  Fringe benefits. Oh, B—get a load of this!  At eighteen, I wanted more than just a look to get excited over.  But Eddie would often alert me to a thigh-view—Look here, B!  Look—Ooh!  Hey baby, c’mon home with me—and I’d crane around and grin appreciatively.  Sometimes he was more of a kid than I was.
     Besides northern New Jersey, Eddie’s jobs took us to Pennsylvania, New York City, and north into New York state.  After one such New York job Eddie, me, and my brother Bruce (who worked with us sometimes) were coming home in the empty truck, headed south toward Jersey, when we came up on two young girls hitchhiking.  Eddie hit the brakes and pulled toward the shoulder.  The three of us filled the cab and I wondered where he meant to put the girls.  “In the back, of course—you guys can ride back there with them.”  He grinned hugely.  “You might even have some fun,” he said.
     All three of us climbed down from the cab.  The two girls, it turned out, were running away from home, headed down Route 17 through New Jersey to New York City, where the one girl’s aunt lived.  They were hitchhiking because neither was old enough to drive—neither was eighteen, in other words.
     The girls climbed eagerly into the back of the truck, sat themselves down on quilted furniture pads against the passenger-side wall, and Bruce and I settled ourselves on pads across from them, on the driver’s side.  Eddie pulled the strap on the truck’s back door, it rattled shut, and utter darkness fell with it.  No one said a word.  Eddie pulled onto the road, and the truck roared and rumbled down the highway.  Riding in roaring darkness, ill at ease, I wondered: Eddie, you’re black, they’re runaway seventeen-year-old girls, and you’re taking them across state lines—what are you thinking.  An hour later in New Jersey he stopped the truck, let us all out, left them on the highway; and Bruce and I climbed back into cab.  “Well,” he said, grinning, “How’d it go back there?  Anything happen?”
     “No.”
     I think he was vaguely disappointed.
 ******
     Eddie got more calls for work than he could cover, and after I had been working for him about six months, he got to calculating.  He started talking about running a second crew: hiring a couple more guys and sending me out on jobs with a man and a truck.  It sounded good to me.
     But then I was sidelined for a week or two.  I slid my motorcycle off a highway in a gravel-loving moment of inattentiveness.  And, about the same time friends of mine were starting a commune, moving to a farm in far upstate New York.  I decided to join them.  When I was back on my feet and my hands and arms were beginning to heal, I called Eddie’s office about collecting my final paycheck.  Mrs. Haversham said Eddy was carrying it with him, in his wallet.  He was hoping to talk me into staying on.  When I called his house one night he wasn’t there, but his wife told me where he was playing poker.
 He lit up when he saw me.  “Hey, B,” he said effusively, genuinely glad to see me, “how you doing buddy?  What’s up?”  But I noticed immediately, the staccato was gone from his voice; he spoke slowly, deliberately.
     “Doing good, Eddie, much better, thanks.  I need my paycheck,” I said.  He just smiled.  He was confused, clearly drunk.  “You’ve got it in your wallet, remember?”
 ******
     A few days later I moved to an old farmhouse, three hundred miles north, and I haven’t seen Eddie since.
CB Bassity © 2000, All Rights Reserved
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