Town Square Delaware is thrilled to share excerpts from local author J.E. Fishman’s latest novel, “Cadaver Blues.” Below is the second of three weekly installments. (Missed the first? Read it here.) If, like us, you’re already hooked, pick up your copy at Amazon.
Three rules to live by. Never owe. Never sweat. Never apologize.
My clients, when I have any, share certain characteristics. Optimism caused them to borrow. Expectations are making them sweat. And nobody but nobody wants to hear their apologies. Unless, of course, those apologies appear in the memo section of a check endorsed to King Cash.
Years after my father dies, a beautiful woman will introduce me to my next dead body, and when it’s all over there’ll be no apology.
I should know she’s trouble the moment the phone rings. The too-innocent voice…the shot from left field.
We begin inauspiciously. She hems and haws, then says something about the free evaluation that I mention in the Google ad. Free’s just a come-on, of course, but if the prospect brings it up in the first two minutes that usually means she has her eye on the wrong prize.
Anyway, we don’t get far. Within a few breaths she’s garbled my name four times. Which leads me to the final rule: if you want to work with me, then spell my name right and learn to pronounce it. Easy to oblige if you’re called George Washington, I admit, and not so easy when it’s Phuoc Goldberg.
When I correct the caller, she presumes to ask about my name, as if I’m a guide working the afternoon shift in the Asian pavilion at Epcot Center.
“What’s it mean, that name?” is how she puts it.
Needing the business, I slide open my right-hand desk drawer and remove a shiny blue squeeze ball, proceeding to torture it.
“Gold mountain,” I say.
“Not that one. The first—”
I hang up the phone, seething, frustration a foul taste in the back of my throat.
I’m a student of the art of persuasion. Therefore, should I call back and apologize for taking offense? Should I explain that I was hatched at the base of a bitter tea tree in the middle of a war zone? That my adoptive parents, Myron and Phyllis Goldberg, gave me an obscenely un-American first name so I wouldn’t lose my identity?
Not a chance.
The squeeze ball settles into a shallow depression on my desk and quivers. Like the squeeze ball, I have trouble containing my misbegotten energy. My anger isn’t new, only newly stoked. It flowed into me over time, like blood filling a vial, and it boils still, a low-grade fever that now stirs me to my feet.
I work in a second-floor two-room office on the north side of Wilmington, Delaware, nowhere near downtown. It’s a cheap addition to a small house that was overtaken by strip malls a decade ago and went commercial, and the insulation is uneven, leaving drafts in unexpected places. There’s a window in each room, in both cases situated too high on the wall to present any kind of view, so all you can see is the clouds skittering through, when they bother to skitter. Today there’s mostly blue sky, not worth a second look.
I pull on my coat and take the stairs down in quick succession, the angle of descent a controlled crash landing, rubber soles thrumming the nosing. At the bottom is a vestibule not big enough for any furniture, with a slanted arrow on the wall, directing my victims to the lair, where I will improve their balance sheet—maybe their credit score, too, if they’re lucky—but only while separating them from the last of their funds on hand.
Smart people in my profession don’t rent space high up in office towers. Their clients might jump.
In the parking lot my yellow Mini Cooper glistens under winter sunshine, black racing stripes down the hood game for any adventure, white roof as seductive as a little chapeau. The Mini is one of my few pleasures in life—maybe my only one at the moment. But the lunch place is only two blocks away and I need to walk off some steam.
It’s January, cold air well established. The cracked sidewalk and the narrow brown grass strip have the lonely feeling of manmade tundra. I walk briskly with my hands in my pockets and my head down, crossing the street without breaking stride, thinking that turning cars can kiss my ass.
Somewhere over my brow, two shapes approach, hogging the sidewalk. As we close in on each other I move to one side, but my feet don’t leave the concrete. The shapes press forward, unyielding. They’re black teenagers, and I view their stubbornness as a form of aggression. I am slightly built, not tall, barely one-twenty after a big dinner. You could fit three of me inside the bigger kid with room to dance. The other one is a little taller and broader than me, though his open parka probably creates the illusion of more heft than he really carries.
As we meet, the smaller kid leans in to invade my personal space, jostling me. Ready for him, I give no ground, and my elbow catches his ribs, backing him into his friend. His arms flail forward, but he misses me. He stops and strikes a confrontational posture. “Out my way, man. Out my WAY!”
I pause on the sidewalk, not three feet between us.
The kid carries his hands chest high, ready to rumble. “What’s wrong with you! That how they walk in Chinatown?”
For the record, Wilmington has no Chinatown.
They step toward me in unison and take up positions off each shoulder, so I can’t look squarely at one without losing sight of the other. They smell young and feral, like fresh sweat. Both wear red Nike Air Max sneakers with black laces, baggy jeans bunched at the ankles, and printed T-shirts hanging loose below their puffy open parkas. I don’t risk pausing to read what the T-shirts say, but I see the rest.
The smaller kid is light-skinned and freckled with a Phillies baseball cap nearly covering his eyes. The bigger kid goes bareheaded. He has much darker skin with a sheen to it, broad nose, full lips framing a wide mouth. He’s easily a foot taller than me, so my angle is poor. Still, it’s important to establish a strategy and stick with it.
You always go after the big guy first.
I ball a fist and nail him with a left hook, catching his lower lip and feeling his teeth cut into my knuckles. He goes down in a heap and the smaller kid forgets me quicker than Wednesday’s fifth race at Delaware Park. He drops to a knee to tend his friend, muttering, “Damn. Damn.”