by D.A. Taylor
Gerry knocked on the trailer's door again. She couldn't help glancing in the window to the left, past the simple white shades. The window would be where a burglar would enter, not the door (if a burglar was hard up enough to break into a trailer). A yellow plastic cat reclined on the ground below.
It didn't make sense rejiggering the locks on a trailer, but Gerry knew you give the client what they want, as long as they can pay. They weren't looking for advice. She figured that the money Merlin's clients paid for wasted effort could cover her path to Denver. And a lot of that waste would come from folks on the trailer stretch of Route 1, where she was now. The main thing was that she turn the money into something better for Marty.
Suddenly the window she was looking at blew out with the force of what a fire marshal later called "an overpressure." Like popping a massive plastic bag. One of the shades sailed out onto the grass, propelled by a knickknack.
Gerry didn't hear the blast, of course, but she felt a light smack of a pressure wave and turned away from the flash.
Joe, at the office, would play off her deafness with stupid stunts like talking to her while filing a key, just to see her answer when any hearing person wouldn't have known what he had said. It was stupid, but it showed he was proud of her. "My rookie," he called her still, after two years. She had mastered any lock he could throw her way. Still, it was better than the treatment she had gotten from the born-deaf crowd at Gallaudet. That's what she told people.
"They got all these little groups," she'd say. "There's American Sign Language and English, you get put off in one little group. Lip readers get put in another. Everyone's got a pigeonhole. And they hate hearing people. I'd say, 'There's a big world of hearing people out there.' It drove them nuts. They couldn't stand it."
Gerry had gone deaf at fifteen, it just seemed like one more in a string of accidents that headed her way, in part because she was stubborn. Soccer, volleyball, field hockey. She went at them all like she was killing snakes, the body be damned. It was field hockey where someone had hit her in the head with a high stick.
Moments after the blast, she realized that someone inside the trailer was yelling. She glimpsed the movement through the window, then an older woman opened the door, still in her nightgown. The woman was yelling back inside to someone.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" Gerry asked.
The woman had two strands of grey hair falling down on either side of her face, which was flushed. She had hazel eyes and a gap in her lower teeth that kept flashing when she spoke. Gerry had to urge her to slow down so she could understand.
"I'm fine," the woman said, slower. "Fine. It's my son."
A half-dressed man flashed by the doorway behind her.
"What happened?" Gerry said.
"Nothing," the woman said. "I saw a cockroach in the sink. A couple of --" The woman turned away inside and was yelling fast again. Gerry lost what she said. Smoke lifted off the tops of the windows.
"I got a call that you wanted to change a lock," Gerry said.
"No point in that now," the woman said. "I eff-ed up."
Gerry missed the last part.
The man reappeared, this time in a pea-green Virginia Tech sweatshirt. "I'm sorry about this," he said. "My mother just set off a bunch of bug bombs in the kitchen. I think the stove blew 'em up."
Gerry asked him to say it again, to make sure she got it right. He wasn't bad-looking -- his eyes were almost silver, and from his neck and arms he looked like he'd been an athlete, back before he'd gained weight and his hair had gone pepper-and-salt.
"Bug bombs," he repeated, slow. He looked wrung out.
"Sorry to hear it," Gerry said. The trailer's front wall bowed out slightly. At the bottom it sagged like a stack of slick magazines.
"She sees one bug, they all gotta die," the man said. He stuck out his hand. "My name's Ray."
"Mine's Gerry." She pointed to the name tag on her uniform.
"I can read," he said.
"Sure you're all right?" Gerry said.
The man scratched the back of his neck, shook his head.
"Well, you folks give a call when you want new locks," she said. She turned to leave.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder so she turned back to the trailer. It was the guy, Ray. "We'll need them locks changed sometime. In case Al comes around. Al's my brother," he yelled. "He's a bad egg."
"He's not a bad egg," the mother said. "He's just upset."
"We'll carve it on his headstone: 'He was upset.'"
Gerry felt a distant rumble on a low register, the bleeting of a fire engine.
She hated Route 1. It bred mean, ignorant people. People so ignorant you felt bad for hating them. Joe knew she felt that way, and it was cruel of him to send her on trailer park jobs. They were rare enough. Most of Merlin Locks' business came from tonier suburbs around Mount Vernon, where people got the jitters whenever newspapers reported a burglary and wanted new locks. Gerry liked those challenges -- clean. But along the strip of apartments and warren of duplexes off Route 1, break-ins didn't scare folks much. Joe said it wasn't because people there didn't care; it was because they trusted folks more. Gerry thought of her father, and said bullshit.
"You folks take care," she said to Ray, and made for the van.
But Gerry kept walking. She sensed a commotion behind her. She turned.
"You forgot something!" He was waving a hand.
"Your card," he said. "Give me your card."
She fished into her breast pocket for one. A woman seated on a step in front of the trailer across the narrow access road was talking on a cordless phone. Excitedly, looking at the smoke that was still oozing out of Ray's mother's place.
The fire-engine rumble felt very close, and there was the shudder of a horn blast.
Just for a second, her hand still in her pocket, Gerry thought of Marty. She wondered what class he was in at school. She felt a sudden rush of relief that he would never see this guy Ray.
She handed Ray a card and headed back to the van. She sat there for a couple of minutes, watching Ray's mother talk with the firemen in their bulky jackets with the yellow reflector stripe across the back. Smoke continued to seep from the windows. The emergency workers looked casual, curious more than anything. Gerry watched as one fire helmet inside moved from window to window. They'd be checking for gas leaks, she guessed. Ray's mother was gesturing to them and to the neighbor with the phone, who had wandered over. Audrey was a histrionic old woman. Gerry watched the spectacle of trailer chatter and fire truck a minute more, then switched on the ignition.
Back in Wilmington when she was growing up, trailers were the site of all the world's craziness and depravity. "Monsters" is what her father called the people who lived there. He'd fold the newspaper and say, "Those monsters off the highway have been at it again." Or, "Had a guy come into the office today, complaining about the hookup. If those freaks paid their bills, they wouldn't have no problem."
Her father would say that with that half-smirk of his, the same one that, after her accident, made it so hard to read his lips. But she could turn off her aid in a fury and, seeing that smirk, still know what he was saying. When she got pregnant, she knew he was comparing her to the monsters. She knew without watching his lips that he was calling Marty a little monster-to-be.
"Nice way to talk about your grandchild," she said.
It was cruel for Joe to send her to these places, she thought again as she started onto the highway. And she'd tell him so when she got back to the Merlin shop.
"You won't believe what I saw today," she told Marty over dinner that night.
"A trailer blew up in front of my eyes."
"Not cool. Dangerous." She explained about the bug bombs, the gas pilot light setting them off. "You got to be careful around gas. That old woman could have killed herself."
He just looked at her, and gnawed off a big bite of pepperoni. He was getting big, nearly ten years old.
"So remember that when you're playing with matches," she said.
"I don't play with matches," he said.
"I know. "
Marty was so smart. She couldn't believe he was her child. She'd make sure, when they got to Denver, that he got in a school that would draw the most out of him.
"You're going to like that new school," she said.
He just kept eating. "The Rockies is a stupid name for a baseball team," he said.
"Maybe," she said, "but I hear there's a great view of the mountains from the first-base line. The real Rockies. I looked it up."
Three days later, Gerry got to an address Joe gave her -- a squared-off, brick-a-brack apartment in Huntington -- and Audrey met her at the door. For a second, Gerry couldn't place her.
"You're the locksmith," Audrey said. "I remember. We're staying here with my sister until our place is fixed. Such a stupid accident."
She explained they wanted the lock on the apartment's front door changed.
Gerry was a little rattled, but she set down her tool box and got to work. It was a standard model Schlage deadbolt, sturdy enough. Audrey just wanted to change the key.
Gerry kept her eyes down and her focus on the door. She didn't want to look into the apartment and see Ray. She imagined him in a lounger with his feet up, watching t.v. She didn't want to think about the brother, who was probably motivating this lock change like he had at the trailer park. These were seedy people.
She had the cylinder broken out in two minutes. She hoped she could use the same bolt and strike plate, just swap the cylinder, but it was an older model and it looked like that wasn't going to work. She sighed, realized she'd left the chisel in the van. Just then she realized someone was over her shoulder.
She turned and saw Ray. "I said, How's it going, lady locksmith?"
She glanced at him for a second. "Hard to say, Ray. How about you?"
"Can't complain, I guess."
"Lucky you got your aunt here to stay with." She turned back to the door. "Are we doing this because of your brother?" she said.
She didn't want to watch his answer, didn't know why she'd asked. She felt only a low murmur.
"Uh-huh," she said.
After a minute, Ray walked away. She got the shaft for the new bolt drilled out. Then she went back to the van and got the chisel, and scraped the bed for the strike plate. She was nearly done in a half hour, and impressed with herself.
"Not bad for a rookie, eh, Joe?" she said as she slipped the cylinder into place. She turned toward a movement at the corner of her eye, and saw Ray there again.
"So what did he do, anyway, your brother?" she said. Gerry was feeling powerful, good about herself, so she didn't really contain herself like she should've.
"Some folks say he robbed them," Ray said with a half-smile. "Main thing is, he called and asked Momma for money. He's a loose wire. When Al asks for money, he don't fill out an application." Ray shook his head, rubbed his left hand over the hair of his right forearm. "So, were you born deaf?" he asked.
Because she was feeling strong, she told him about the field hockey accident, going for the goal. It seemed to quieten him a bit. So she told him about breaking her wrist playing volleyball, and how the doctor had to set the bone with pins and take part of her hip bone as replacement.
"He said they might have to take more, but I said no. So they used coral. From the sea. Cool, huh?"
"Cool." Ray looked a little distant.
She said, "I got hit with a softball once, so I'm practically blind in my left eye. Pretty tough, huh? In my work, my eyes are my ears."
"Huh," said Ray. "You're hard on yourself, aren't you?"
"Nope. Just life. Think so?" She twisted the key in the lock, shot the bolt back and forth. "I just like sports. I don't hold back."
Ray didn't say anything. He wasn't too bright, she figured.
Joe had his own theory about her injuries, which he repeated over and over. "You just can't get used to the fact you're a woman," he'd say. "You keep treating your body like it's a man's, and when it can't stretch that far, you get hurt."
Joe looked real smug when he said that. He couldn't believe she'd really go to Denver, although she'd told him three times now that it was just a matter of a month or so.
As Gerry saw it, the problem was that her reflexes were too slow. She'd push herself through batting practice, through spike and defense leaps, through stick practice on the field. Her reactions improved, but her eye was faster than her reflexes. Or had been.
Her father had a theory too. She didn't like to think about that.
"Ma'am?" she called into the apartment past Ray, who was still standing in the foyer. "Audrey?"
"What's that?" Ray's mother came bustling into the hall.
"She's finished, Ma."
"Well look at that. You're so fast! Now Ray, you should have a skill like that. See how fast she did that? I bet she makes good money doing that."
"That'll be fifty dollars," Gerry said with a grin.
"You take a check? I hate to borrow from Doris. And Ray's no good for it." The old woman poked her son.
"Yes, ma'am," Gerry said.
By the time she left, Gerry almost felt sorry for Ray. But she was glad to be gone.
Gerry's father did a job on her all right. His story of passing the shacks in the alley on his way to school when he was a boy, the sour smells and sad cries of wartime Delaware. "Self respect," he said. That's what he learned. "You have to take yourself seriously. Nobody else will."
He told the story over and over, it got more frequent when she went to Gallaudet -- a deaf college.
Gerry had seen her father uncomfortable only twice, and both times it was on the Gallaudet campus. He came there once to bring her mother for a visit Gerry's first semester, and the second time to help Gerry move her things out when she dropped out. Both times he never said a word out of line, but moved with purpose, like he was crossing enemy territory. He parked the station wagon, he flipped down his shades, he got from Point A to Point B. When they reached her new apartment, the second time, and he sank into the old overstuffed blue chair that they'd wrestled up three flights of stairs, huffing and wheezing. He looked around and said, "I guess this place is as safe as most places you've been." His face was a killer.
Take yourself seriously.
On the field, that's what she did. Complete focus. And that's what she brought to the locks, whether they were the new smooth fingerprint pads or old tumbler boxes. They were puzzles she could take seriously, and solve. She had gone through all the books that Joe had in his office, plus some. She sometimes told Marty about them -- she wanted to share that part of her she liked. In Denver she knew her skills would pay off.
Her father had eventually warmed to Marty, probably because he saw something of himself in the boy's face, the skinny calves. Nothing more than tribalism and vanity. Since her mother passed, the old man came for the day more often -- too often. When she saw him and Marty come in the door together after a game at Camden Yards, yakking about Ripken, she felt a sour love -- the grating bond that held them together without the respect he harped about. It was bitter love, and she worried that it was turning poisonous.
She ran into Ray in a sub shop on Route 1 two weeks later, when she was rushing lunch between two jobs that Joe had scheduled too close together. She was trying to keep the sauce from her meatball sub from messing up her uniform when someone tapped her shoulder.
"Hey," he said, "how's the break-in business?"
She tried to stay cool, but it flustered her. "Keeping me busy," she said. She made a point of laughing. "Pays the bills. How's your mother?"
"Okay. We moved back into the trailer. A new trailer," he said. "They hauled the old one away. Insurance covered it. You believe she had insurance? How's Marty?"
This shook her even harder. She didn't remember mentioning Marty to these people. It's possible she had, but it made her scared, in the grim fluorescence of Jerry's, to see her son's name on this guy's lips.
"I have another call," she said. "See you around."
When she picked up Marty late that afternoon, she found herself looking around the school entrance for suspicious characters.
"How was school?" she asked.
"Fine," he said. In profile, his snub nose looked exactly like her father's in old photos.
It was generally not a good idea to talk with Marty while she drove, it wasn't safe. Usually, she sidestepped the problem by unreeling a monologue, about her plans for their move out to Denver, new security technologies she was learning (he perked up when she talked about the fingerprint and eye signature technologies she was reading up on), his fake eyeball collection, or anything else that occurred to her. She knew it was good for kids to have a lot of stimulation, and she thought by sharing all the thoughts that rattled around in her head, she could do that for Marty. Sometimes it came out as worry.
But Marty never objected. He had grown up as man of the house. Gerry joked that puberty would be a step backwards.
When they got out of the car, Marty hitched his backpack onto his shoulder and said, "I don't want to go to Denver."
"Sure you do, it's beautiful out there," she said. They started up the stairs to the apartment. "Remember when we went hiking on Skyline Drive? It's like that, only a hundred times better. The air is cleaner, the mountains taller, the sky bluer."
"I don't know anybody out there," he said.
"You'll make new friends." She smiled. "You just don't want to miss Ripken's last game."
"That's not it," he griped. "It's a stupid idea."
"Hey, watch your mouth, young man. It's your mother's idea."
"Oh," he said.
He wouldn't turn ten for three months, but Marty was already showing signs of looming adolescence. Fastidious combing of the hair, for one thing. Her sister with three boys said that was a six-month advance warning of puberty. Gerry couldn't believe it. Ten years old!
"You don't know anyone in Denver either," he said. "You don't have a job there. What's out there?"
"The good life," she said. "You'll see."
She was putting boxes in the cupboard but she could tell he had said something.
"What was that?" She turned to face him.
She stared him down, level. "You don't do that," she said.
He twitched in his seat a moment. "Sorry," he said.
"I forgive you."
"But I don't want to go."
"I already said! We don't know anyone there. Why do you want to go?"
She looked at him, his part straight as a paper cut through the sheaves of dark umber hair. Adolescent. He was catching up to her, and she was still racing away from her folks.
On her twelfth birthday, Gerry's parents gave her a hockey stick. Her father didn't smile much when she ripped off the wrapping paper, but she noticed him watching, and she was glad when he said he'd take her out to show her how to use it. They walked to a field he said was nearby, it seemed a long way for her. They crossed the highway, and jumped the fence and waded through the tall grass to where it was cut short and lined with lime.
"You know who lives over there, doncha Gerry?" he said, tilting his head to the far side of the field. She squinted across the low fall sunlight to shapes above the grass there, and shook her head.
"Monsters," he whispered with a smile. "But don't worry, I know all them slackass bastards in Pinecrest Park. And they know me." He gripped his stick harder and pumped it up and down, as if he used it every time he met the people from the trailers. "You and me are here just so you can see how to play stick. Mostly though, you should play only at the school field. You hear me?"
"What did I say?"
"I should play stick only at school."
"Why is that?"
"Because monsters live over there."
Her father smiled. "They're not scary monsters, you know," he said. "But just the same..."
She didn't know what he meant, but didn't ask. They knocked the little ball back and forth across a short space on the field until she got better and missed less. She felt very fast when she chased down the ones she missed. By the end, she could hit back almost every time and he said she was little star material.
"We got a call from your friend in the trailer park," Joe said the next morning. "She asked for you by name."
"What the hell?" She slammed down her box of lock pins on the counter. "You're kidding, right? They just got a brand new trailer, they can't need new locks already!"
He blinked. "How did you know that?"
She told him about running into Ray at the sub shop the other day. "Christ, Joe, just tell them I didn't come in. Give it to Hermie. If I see those people one more time I'll have to detox." She almost said 'those monsters.' What she said was, "They give me the creeps."
"Gerry," Joe said, "the woman asked for you."
"Joe," she said, mimicking his pleading eyes, "screw you!"
Hermie's morning call went long, so she ended up going. The new trailer was in the same spot the old one had vacated. The other trailers herring-boned off from the service road, some with deco-like fins waving up, one with 'Detroiter' labeled onto the roofline in mailbox letters. She passed a parked Chevy, and a shiny green Ford 4X4. The turf around the new blue-trimmed trailer was cut up and muddy from the move. Again, Gerry felt herself tightening inside at the embarrassing intimacy of poverty. The same neighbor was sitting on her front step across the road with her cordless phone to her ear as Gerry knocked on the door. She wondered how anybody here could afford new cars.
The old woman came to the door. "Here you are!" she said. "Our lady of the locks!"
Gerry couldn't help laughing. But a look at the door sobered her up. "Why is it we're changing locks on a new door?" she said, barely masking her irritation.
"I gave a key to Al," the woman said, shaking her head, "in a weak moment. I thought he was better. I wanted to..." Her voice trailed off.
Gerry couldn't think of what to say. "You don't got any bugs, do you?" she said lamely.
"Nope," Audrey said. "Not a one. You?"
"Just my boy," Gerry said impulsively, "but he's a good one." She could see Marty's face the day before, when he was being defiant.
"Like my Ray."
Gerry jerked up from the lock she'd begun to handle. She wanted to spit something out at the woman, that Marty was in no way like Ray. She clenched her jaw, had to suppress herself really hard to keep quiet, not to look the woman hard in the eye. These people were ignorant, that's all there was to it. No need to hate them for it. But she felt like she was grinding her teeth just to keep her mouth shut. Mean-spirited ignorance was what it was. And the sooner she got Marty away from here, the better. She wouldn't raise him in a place where he'd get mistaken for this woman's trailer trash. In Denver he'd be judged by the content of his character. Which was A plus plus.
The door was hollow and the sides were cheap half-inch plywood, so Gerry had trouble getting the lock positioned. It was the first time this had ever happened to her, and it was because the materials she was dealing with were for shit. She would make sure Joe understood that. But maybe she could work it, at least a temporary fix. By the time Audrey called again, Gerry would be in Denver.
She twisted the knob left and right, checking the bolt action, seeing if it would hold. Maybe for a week. Gerry started blinking quickly, like when onions burned her eyes. If she left them closed even for a second she saw her father talking to her.
Then the bolt wouldn't retract. She slapped the door. "God dammit," she said. She'd have to call Joe.
Suddenly the old woman was there. She asked if anything was wrong.
"Nope," Gerry said tightly.
"I wasn't born yesterday, honey," Audrey said. "I can see something's --"
"I need something from the truck," Gerry barked. "You know this door won't protect you from bad eggs, no matter what lock we put on it."
"I'm just telling you." She stalked out to the van, climbed into the driver's seat. She rested her arms on the steering wheel while she gained control of her breath. Her forehead went down against the rim, just for a moment. Then she sat up and started to call in to Joe, looking at the radio set's TTY display. It said, "What's up, Gerry?"
"Joe, I need you to come out here and finish this," she said, holding her voice down. "Their door is hollow, the mechanism is crap, and I can't deal. These are your folks now. Sorry," she added, though she didn't feel sorry.
She watched the display. "My rookie's bailing on me?" it said finally.
She exhaled and looked around at the trailers. "Just come out here, would you, Joe? I'll cover the counter." She stared down at the brake and gas pedals for a few moments, then looked at the display.
"Well come back here, then," the screen said. It stayed like that for ten seconds or so, then went blank.
About the author:
D.A. Taylor's stories have appeared in Eclectica, Potomac Review, The Baltimore Review, Fodderwing and elsewhere, and received a Literary Arts Film Award from Web Del Sol. He also writes nonfiction, which he likes to call 'reality fiction.'