The Wages of Sloth
Joe Malone | Mark Reihill
A strong pair of hands jerked me out of bed and deep sleep. I opened gummy eyes. I was staring at DiCarlo.
DiCarlo stinks. His breath stinks. His body stinks. Maybe it’s what he eats. Maybe he doesn’t bathe. Maybe it’s his soul.
I turned my head away but it didn’t help. The clock told me it was four in the morning.
“Give me my money,” DiCarlo said.
“I haven’t got it,” I said.
“If I don’t get my money by midnight,” he said, “I will beat you until your bones show and then I will kill you.”
I believed him. Tommy Kelly owed him money. Tommy Kelly hadn’t been seen for two months.
“You’re the laziest bum I know,” DiCarlo said. “Earn some money. Steal some money. Do something. Anything. This is your last chance. You understand me?”
I nodded. With his smell, there had to be particles in the air. I didn’t want them in my mouth, so I kept it shut.
DiCarlo punched me in the nose. Blood spurted everywhere.
He shoved me back onto the bed and left. He didn’t bother closing the door. I bled on the sheets. They hadn’t been changed for a month, so it didn’t matter.
I washed the blood off my face in the bathroom and stuffed tissue up my nose. Thought about going back to bed but my head hurt too much and I needed two thousand dollars fast. I got dressed. Left the two-bit hotel.
I walked over to Parker Square in the dark. The day was already warm, with the sun still an hour away. Kroger was loading his bus with winos for a day out at Lopez Ranch hoeing weeds.
“What happened to you?” he said.
“I need a ride out to see my brother,” I said.
“You want to work today? I could use you.”
“You ever know me to work?” I said.
He shrugged. I got on the bus.
I tried to sleep on the way out, but the bus hit every pothole in the county road and my nose was killing me. The homeless drunks did the sleeping for me.
At the ranch, I walked over to the office shed in the dawn light and sat down on the pavement to wait for my brother to show up. There were two other buses parked in the yard. Mexicans were already out in the fields. The winos joined them.
I tried to sleep leaning against the shed. No luck. My nose wasn’t broken but it was bent pretty good. DiCarlo made me mad and my mind wouldn’t settle down enough to let me drift off. That made me madder.
Anne showed up first. My brother’s secretary. She let me in, so at least I had a chair to sit on. She made a pot of coffee and brought me a cup. I hadn’t eaten since noon the day before. I was broke and hadn’t gone dumpster diving. The coffee burned my tongue. Anne didn’t speak to me. She didn’t ask about the blood on my shirt. She knew me too well to bother.
When Jeff came in and saw me, he groaned.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“If I don’t give DiCarlo two thousand dollars by midnight, he’s going to kill me.”
“How much have you got?”
“Same as usual,” I said. “Nothing.”
“You’re not here to ask me for it, are you?” Jeff said.
“Yeah, I am, but only because he’s going to kill me.”
“Look at you,” Jeff said. “You’re a bum. You’ve sunk as low as you can go. No, I take that back. You sank as low as you could go a long time ago and you’ve stayed there. You’re the most useless, shiftless, lazy person I’ve ever known. Your high point was the day you were born. It’s been downhill since then.”
“My life isn’t worth two thousand dollars to you?”
“Two thousand dollars won’t save your life. Two thousand dollars will just postpone the inevitable. Get out of town, Dominic. Leave and don’t come back.”
“Give me the two thousand and I will.”
“Look,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Go outside and put in a solid day’s work. Talk to Kroger. Work for the day and I’ll buy you a bus ticket out of town. Plus you’ll have a day’s pay from Kroger. Do one good thing for me today, one good thing, and you can get out of town and go rest and relax like the bum you are some other place. OK?”
That was the only offer I was going to get. I went out and found Kroger. His field boss Armando gave me a short-handled hoe and I joined the winos in a field filled with some sort of big green plant.
I did OK for a while. I couldn’t keep up, even with the worst alkies, but I kept my back bent. I was hungry and tired and my whole face hurt. My nose started bleeding again. The sun came up and the day got hot and then got hotter.
At lunchtime I got a sandwich with the winos. A couple of them had livers that could no longer handle food. They gave me their sandwiches against a promise to pay them back when we received our wages on the bus at the end of the day.
I stayed with it in the afternoon. By then I had probably worked more than the last year combined. The three sandwiches barely fit in my stomach. I think it had shrunk. At some point, sweating and dizzy, I found myself at the end of a row, alone, near a cottonwood tree next to a little irrigation canal. I lay down in the shade and fell asleep.
When I woke up, Kroger and his crew and the bus were gone. The light was fading in the west although the day was still hot. I walked back to the office shed but my brother had gone home.
I walked out to the country road. Two hours later I caught a ride back to town in the bed of a filthy pickup.
“You’re a week late with the room rent,” Luis said to me at the desk when I came into the crummy hotel I was calling home. “You’ve gotta leave in the morning. Go back on the street or go down to the shelter.”
“The street isn’t any worse than this dump,” I said. “Fewer roaches. Cleaner toilet facilities.”
I went up to my room. It was stifling. The window would only open halfway, just enough to let in the exhaust fumes from the street below. The roaches scattered when I turned on the light, a single bulb hanging from a wire.
Even though I had slept all afternoon, I could barely move. I was too tired to think. I had an hour or two before DiCarlo showed up to keep his promise. My lunchtime sandwiches had vacated my stomach.
I lay down and all of a sudden, I had a burning in my chest. I touched my nose and the burning got worse.
I got up and went to the heating register in the corner of the room. Yanked off the grill. Reached in and pulled out the old .38 Police Special I kept there.
I crossed to the cardboard chest of drawers and fished out the white wool sock from the back of the top drawer. Shook out the one lousy bullet stored in its toe. Loaded the gun with it.
The Video Palace on 45th was lit up in neon. I pulled open the door and was slugged by a wall of sound. It was ten o’clock and the place was full of noisy teenagers playing the games.
I walked to the back and down the hall.
“He’s waiting for you,” said Ivan, DiCarlo’s thug minding the office door that night. “I hope you’ve got something for him.”
He opened the door for me. Joey Ice, DiCarlo’s other little helper, pushed past me going out, and joined Ivan in the hall. Ivan winked at me and pulled the door shut.
DiCarlo sat behind his desk. Probably planning how to screw up somebody else’s life. I walked over to him. I pulled out my gun and pointed it at his nose.
“Are you nuts?” he said. “You know what’s gonna happen, you pull that trigger? Ivan and Joey Ice are gonna come in here and shoot you so full of holes your pockets are gonna fill up with your brains.”
I shot him in the nose. He pitched back with a clean hole right through his head. His nose bled more than mine had.
The door burst open. I pointed my empty gun at Ivan. His was already in his hand.
I had done one good thing for the day and now I was leaving, to rest and relax in some other place. Permanently.