The Carpet Layers by Brian Patrick Heston

The rich customers always looked at my brother with scared-shitless-eyes. Nothing in their pristine lives could have prepared them for what they were seeing. I mean my brother was huge, about 6’4, with wild auburn hair and a thick unkempt beard filling his pale face. With his “youses” and “ain’ts,” he was a peasant through and through, which is why he didn’t much care what they thought as long as they pulled that green from their designer wallets and pocketbooks to peel away what was owed him. That’s why he always referred to them as jobs, especially the ones living in the big houses, instead of Montgomery or whatever other highfalutin’ last name they happened to have. Our name was McConnell as in Mick. If it were a thousand years ago, we’d be facing each other across a battlefield, naked, painted blue, and whooping, instead of in this doorway. I imagine the jobs didn’t care much for it, either, having these strangers bring their sweat and needs into their well-manicured living rooms.

They’d nod as my brother explained that we had to move their big expensive stuff out of the way, so we could lay carpets on their shiny wood floors. This particular job owned a five-story colonial in a neighborhood full of colonial houses with begonia and rose gardens poking through iron fences. The houses were built back in the mid-1700s, renovated to look brand-new. They pretty much did, too. With the cobblestone streets, the carriages, and tour guides dressed up like Ben Franklin, you would’ve thought that when you knocked on one of these doors, a short, stubby shoemaker would answer. When you noticed the particulars, though, like the Benzes and Lexuses parked out front, or the signs that warned not to get too close because the alarm would go off, you knew you weren’t dealing with some cobbler’s house.

Mrs. Job moved aside to let us in. A crystal chandelier dangled over the open-spaces living room. Wide windows let in lots of sunlight. The scent of flowers and floor polish hung heavy in the room. It seemed like everything was an antique. A vase sitting on the mantel of the fireplace drew most of my attention. It was Greek. Blue pictures of olive trees and nymphs were painted all over it. This was the only time I liked carpet laying, being able to see the old things inside these houses, and this vase was the first thing I came across that was Greek. I had been saving for some time to go to Greece. My anthropology teacher at the community college had this buddy running a dig on the outskirts of Athens. He told me I’d be able to get a job easily with the excavation crew on his recommendation. All I had to do was get there, which wasn’t an easy task, considering a ticket to Greece would run me a G and two bills. There was also the passport and a little for food in the beginning to consider.

I noticed Mr. Job looking at me. He was typical of the type who owned places like this—late-forties, with a streak of silver in his hair. They all seemed to wear the same uniform, too, a white shirt matched with shiny dress slacks. In his fist was a stubby glass loaded with ice and yellow stuff. I guessed brandy. These cats loved their brandy.

“I see you have a good eye,” he said.

“Yo, Pat!” My brother said.

I ignored him and just kept looking at the vase.

“Do you know its origin?” Mr. Job asked.

“Ancient Greece,” I said.

“Good. How did you know?”

“Well, they had a thing for nymphs and olive trees.”

“It’s a good nineteen hundred years old.” He smiled.  “Got it on a dig in Athens a couple years back.”

“You an archeologist?”

“Oh, no. A banker. However, I’ve funded many digs. I am the gas that goes into the engine.” He took a long sip from his glass. “A little present from The University of Pennsylvania. Their way of keeping the gas flowing. Truth be told, I’d do it regardless.”

“Okay, Lionel,” Mrs. Job said. “I’m sure these boys have a lot of work ahead of them.”

His wife was a long woman. That’s how my brother described these rich women with their pencil-point necks and thin shoulders. I admired their fluid way of moving. My brother, though, blamed the way they moved on constantly being faint with hunger.

“Come on,” my brother said.

Lionel smiled before taking another sip. “Wait until you get to the room you have to carpet. I’m sure you’ll find it an interesting collection.”

His wife led us to the room and left without saying anything. It was Lionel’s study, and it was huge. He wasn’t kidding about the collection, either. There was a mahogany desk from the Twenties, an oak bench from the Middle Ages, and a Chinese Vase that was probably a good thousand years old. There was also a glass mini-bar built into one of the walls. Across from that was a goddamn piano—a black baby grand. My muscles screamed just thinking about it. I looked at the floor beneath us. It was lemon cedar. My brother gave me a knowing look, as in, be fucking careful. He always worried about this sort of thing because once, when moving a piano, I let a leg stay on the floor as we inched it forward, scraping a long jagged line into the wood. Mr. Job was pissed, and my brother went into grovel mode. It made me sick. Here was my brother with biceps as big as my head pleading for forgiveness from this whiny little stockbroker.

“I heard you were the best,” the man kept repeating.

Finally, my brother bargained his forgiveness by charging him only a quarter of what we would usually get. I was angry because I liked the scrape I made in the guy’s floor. Guys like us would get paid for fixing it. Besides, the less we got, the longer it would take me to scrape together the loot for Greece. My teacher’s offer wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, there would be no more dig.

 

The first thing my brother did before laying a carpet was size up the room. It was to give balance to his idea of the job. This was why he was the best. He spotted the shape of the room, the bad angles and corners before he measured anything. This is when I really admired him, watching his eyes move over a room, his mind contemplating the geometry of it, all for the sake of doing something perfect. The second thing he did, the thing I hated most of all, was the moving part. We had to move everything because keeping anything in the room would get in the way of accurate measuring, which could mean ruining a carpet by cutting it the wrong way, a mortal sin to my brother.

My brother always said that there’s an exact science to moving things, that anything can be moved if you do it right. One night, to prove it, he made a bet with his buddies, swearing he could lift the back tires of a 1983 Chevy Impala off of the ground. No one believed him. They each bet twenty bucks, and my brother positioned his thick legs, squatted close to his heels, placed his fingers and forearms below the back end of the car then lifted. His face throbbed. His heavy muscles shook beneath his tee shirt. Only his legs moved, up and up, until they were straight—his back straight. His buddy Angel told me all this. Told me that when he knelt down to look under the car, he called for the rest of them to see. The back tires were a half a foot off the ground.

“Straight up,” he said. “Your bro made two-hundred greenies that night, man.”

I picked up a desk lamp.

“Big things going to be around whether you like it or not, Kiddo,” my brother said.

I hated when he called me kiddo. It made me want to throw the lamp at his big grinning face. I didn’t because I knew he wouldn’t be down for long, and whenever my brother got up, watch out! Instead, I said nothing as I passed him with the lamp, placing it on the floor in the hallway.

“We should probably do that couch next,” I said.

He shook his head, sizing up the piano, a glint in his eyes. It was the biggest piano we had faced yet, and I could tell my brother loved it. He wanted to move that piano—to feel its heaviness—to conquer the sheer size of it. Most pianos had wheels, but this meant nothing to him. Wheels made scratches. The only safe way was to have it off the ground.

“Where’s your weight belt?” My brother asked.

I shrugged.

He unhooked his belt and handed it to me.

“Christ,” I said. “I think it’ll be alright this one time.”

“Nineteen and know everything. Take the damn belt, genius.”

He had a way of making me feel like a kid. It didn’t matter what I talked to him about, either: sex, drinking, or how Alexander the Great beat the crap out of the Persians. As far as he was concerned, I was still in diapers.

Since baby grands have a space beneath where a couple people could fit, my brother’s strategy was simple, climb under then face opposite directions.

“Remember, with your legs,” he said.

I had been laying carpet with him for a year and a half and “with your legs” was something he repeated to me at least six times every job. I counted to three and on three, we both pushed up, but I had stop.

“See, you’re not lifting with your legs. One day you’re going to fuck your back up and I’m going to have carry your dumb ass to the emergency room.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“Yeah. Yeah.”

I counted again, and this time I used my legs. I felt the piano’s weight pressing down on my back. My body shook and blood rushed into my face.

“Now one step at a time,” my brother grunted. “You’re up front, call off the steps.”

During most jobs, he usually took the front, but since one of us had to walk backwards, he took the back.

“Right step,” I said.

My right foot stepped forward, his stepped back.

“Left step.”

We did this in unison, and with each step, the door seemed closer. When we made it into the hallway, it took all of my will power to keep from dropping to my knees immediately. We had to lower it slowly. When dealing with heavy stuff, quick is never an option. Leaving the other mover in the lurch could result in really bad things.

“Down, on three,” I said.

We lowered the piano to the floor. I crawled from beneath it and sat with my back against the wall, feeling hollow and rubbery. My brother was already standing. He was ready to continue, but he had to wait for me.

After we had moved the couch, the last thing in the room, he was waiting for me again.

“You good?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Okay, let’s measure.”

Measuring was the easiest part. All I had to do was hold the tape. I was terrible at math, which was probably why I didn’t get into any of the colleges I applied to and had to go to community college. I also bombed on the SAT. Can’t say it was the test’s fault, either. I spent the night before drinking Mad Dog with buddies who had as much interest in going to college as they had in getting real jobs. I remember my senior year, listening to all the kids talk about the schools they got into. They even had cracks about people who went to community colleges. My brother was constantly telling me that if I had the sense God gave me, I’d just find myself a trade and forget about this archeology jazz.

“What the hell kind of green can you pull in for doing a thing like that anyway?” He’d ask.

“It ain’t about the money

“How can any job not be about money, bro?”

He never finished high school. I have to admit I felt proud that I did. This didn’t mean much to our father. Whenever my brother came over, I would have to listen to him get praised for all the work he had done to get his business going and for taking me on. I always wanted to tell him to screw off. That spending the rest of my days in a two story on some nowhere strip in Philadelphia wasn’t my idea of a life.

 

After we finished measuring, we went to get the carpet. We didn’t bring it up right away. It was mid-afternoon, and my brother took his shirt off in front his truck, which meant it was lunchtime. I took off my shirt, too, letting the hot sun heat my tired back and neck. Its light lit the colonial houses and cobblestone streets, making a color like blood. The whole block smelled like a garden; but there was also the smell of exhaust and old garbage coming in on the city wind. We had ice water with us and hung our necks over the gutter as we poured it over our heads. This was my favorite part of the day—outside—my body sweating out the tiredness. As we ate ham and cheese sandwiches, we sat on the back bumper of his truck. I looked at my shirtless body and then at my brother’s. He was bigger in every conceivable way, but from running high school track, I had developed sleek, solid muscles that my brother said made me look like a chicken.

“Cluck, cluck,” he said.

“Fuck you.”

“Watch that beak of yours before I clip it.”

“You got to catch me first.”

We laughed. There was no one else on the street. This place was nothing like the neighborhood I came from, where no matter what time of day it is in summer, there’s kids screaming their lungs out and old people talking on stoops holding sweaty cans of bud.

“Got enough yet?” My brother asked with a mouth full of ham sandwich.

“About eight-hundred short.”

“What’re you going to do?”

“Keep doing this shit until I get enough.”

My brother pushed back his damp hair then took a swig from his soda.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” he said. “Do you good to work hard for a while.”

 

We angled the gray carpet into the corners of the room. It was the same color all of these jobs seemed to choose—no thrills. The underarm formaldehyde smell of these carpets always made me gag. It was a smell that my brother referred to as clean, the smell of new money. Though my brother complained about my attitude, he was no better when starting out. Before laying carpets, he had many different jobs. After a month or two, he’d get fired because he couldn’t handle being told how to do something. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he was doing. It was because he had to do everything a certain way: if it was drywall, he’d kick and tear most of the old drywall down with his bare hands instead of using a hammer; if it was roofing, he’d splash tar directly from the buckets on whole sections of roof; and he’d keep doing things a certain way until the boss finally came over and told him to do it the right way. This is when my brother would tell the guy to go shit in his hat.

The carpet didn’t overlap much against the walls as we spread it out. This didn’t surprise me because my brother never made mistakes. He’d probably be able to tell you the exact circumference of the earth down to the millimeter if he had to carpet it. This was the point when he would send me down to the jobs to get them to boil water. The hot water was for pouring on the edges of the carpet in order to shrink it, giving it a tighter fit from wall to wall. After telling them, I was supposed to come right back and help my brother with cutting the carpet. I got sidetracked when I went into the kitchen and saw Lionel sitting at the table. He had a bottle of Jack and the same glass he had when I first saw him.

“A whiskey man, I see,” I said.

He grunted.

“I need to boil some water if that’s alright.”

He looked up at me with foggy eyes. A silly twisted smiled came to his face.

“For tea?”

I smiled back.  “Nah, it’s for the carpet.”

He stood unsteadily then made his way to the cabinets above the sink. He pulled a kettle down. After filling it with water, he set it on the stove to heat then stumbled his way back to the table.

“Do take a seat,” he said.

I took a seat across from him.

“A drink?”

I looked at the almost empty whisky bottle and shook my head. I never touched the stuff. It always made me feel like running headlong into a concrete wall.

“So, everything going as planned?” He asked.

“Yeah, we should be done pretty soon.”

He turned away, staring off, tapping his fingers on the table.

“Did you happen to see the gothic bench?” He asked. “It once belonged to Edward the first.”

“Old Long Shanks himself.”

He smiled. “Yes. Smart boy.”

A flash of gratitude filled me for this drunk rich guy. It made me want to spill my guts to him, tell him all about why I’m laying carpets and not studying at a university somewhere.

“I want to be an archeologist,” I said in a rush. “I’m at the community college right now, but I’d like to go to Penn if I could swing it. I’m trying to go to Greece now to work on a dig. It would be good for my transcript. But I don’t have the money yet. That’s why I’m stuck in this gig.”

He squinted at me as though trying to see me through a haze. He took a sip from his glass, then clanked the ice around a bit, then took another sip, emptying the glass.

“You know, when I was a child, I wanted to be a scientist.”

I leaned forward to hear him better.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, yeah. Well, I begged my father every Christmas for a Junior Scientist’s Laboratory set.”

He stopped and stared into his empty glass. He took the bottle and poured the last of the whiskey into it.

“Well, what happened?” I asked.

“Well, dear old dad wouldn’t allow it. No matter how much I begged. He made sure to push me toward finance and business. So instead of ending up at MIT, I ended up attending the Wharton School at Penn.”

I waited for him to tell me to hang in there, that I could get what I wanted as long as I did what I had to do. He went to Penn. Maybe he was going to promise to recommend me when the time came. I started to imagine myself at Penn, arguing with brilliant people.

Lionel drained his glass in one gulp and moved in close. His breath burned my eyes. “I’ve come to realize that he was right, of course. I hadn’t yet understood my limitations.”

The look he gave me when he said “limitations” was not a look I had noticed from a job before, though I had noticed it many times when given to my brother. I wanted to take him outside. Yet I couldn’t because it meant that my brother and I wouldn’t get paid and that we would never get hired anywhere again. All of these rich types seemed to know each other. That’s how my brother always got the best jobs in the best neighborhoods. They recommended him to each other. So I had to take it. Without saying anything, I grabbed the kettle from the stove and walked out of the kitchen.

“What the hell took you so long?” My brother asked.

I didn’t say anything as I knelt down to pour the water on the edges of the carpet.

“You talking to that job again?”

I nodded once, wanting him to drop it.

My brother kicked the wet sides of the carpet into place, stapling them down. His right knee was in bad shape from using the “knee kicker” to press carpets tight against walls, though he never complained about it.

“Well, what did old money bags have to say?”

“Nothing.”
When I poured the hot water, it ran over my hands, turning the gray carpet darker. My fingertips always seemed to get the worst of it. After a whole day on the job, they looked bald, as though my fingerprints had been boiled off. My brother always teased me about it, telling me that his buddy Norman didn’t even have fingerprints anymore.

“Must’ve said something, being all pissy like you are.”

“I’m pissed because I’ve got to do this every fucking day of my life.”

My brother continued to kick the carpet into place. “Why don’t you put down the cross already before you get splinters.”

“Fuck off.”

“You first.”

“Look, you want to waste your life doing this shit, that’s on you. But I got better things to do. I actually graduated high school, remember?”

He just kept his eyes on the work. I had finally made him shut up, and I felt good about it. 

 

On the way home, I didn’t speak. I hated my dirty reflection staring back at me in the windshield. I hated the way the clean, sparkling houses and streets turned dirty and broken the further we drove. I hated my house most of all, my parents’ house, with its water-rotted door and the piece of plywood covering its front window. I looked up at the fat moon and wanted to tear it from the sky. When home, I got out without saying anything.

“Yo!” My brother said.

I turned. He dug into his pocket and handed me a clammy wad of money. My brother normally paid me once a month, which amounted to three hundred dollars. A hundred of it always had to go to my parents to help with the bills, sometimes even more than that. He had already paid me that month, though.

“Thirteen hundred there,” he said.

I stood staring at him. I knew I had his car payment in my hands, his wife’s birthday present, and the new brakes for his truck. I was confused because I didn’t know why he was doing it. He didn’t care about Greece or archeology or even Penn. In fact, he hated colleges—told me so every time he got the chance. To him, college was full of soft people who never had to lift a finger in their lives. I wanted to give it back, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I knew, too, that he wanted me to refuse it, not be in such a rush to get away.

“You think you’re better than us, don’t you?” he said.

I didn’t say anything.

“Well, you may be smarter, but at least we’re not shit, and that’s what you’ll be when you take that money and forget you ever knew us.”

I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t true, that I wouldn’t forget how our father had bad legs after forty years of standing at a factory assembly line, or that our mother had strokes because of too many years sucking down coffee and cigarettes to keep herself awake during night shift. Most of all, I wanted to tell him that I wouldn’t forget how he was the toughest guy I ever knew, and that there wasn’t anything in this whole goddamn world he couldn’t lift. But I didn’t. All I did was watch him turn away, then drive off down that dark street.

1 Comment

  1. Jeanette Tryon

    Great Story Brian! I love the character of the brother and I love where you take the narrative. Congratulations on the publication.

    Jeanette from Jersey

    Reply

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