Any day Jeff Ruskin spent with Uncle Marty was a great day, a day of adventure and fun, and only a subway ride away. Now that summer had come, his high school sophomore year finally at an end, he could visit his uncle during the week, not just on Saturdays, and this Thursday he intended to finally see Uncle Marty’s new office.
The subway stop – 5th street – was an unfamiliar one. Usually, Jeff rode to 20th street, which was close to his uncle’s one room apartment. At 5th street, he was in the heart of downtown, with tall buildings everywhere, a block of fashionable and expensive stores nearby, and a square-block park with a beautiful fountain and meandering cement pathways interspersed with lush grass plots. Too bad that litter and slobbering drunks and the dismal homeless marred the inviting lawns.
Marveling at the tall, glass-embraced buildings all around, Jeff pictured his uncle’s building as an ornate stone edifice with a towering antenna atop the roof and exquisite architectural adornments all around He didn’t expect a four story rundown structure stuck in the middle of a block of ramshackle storefronts, all with a red-on-white “Condemned” sign nailed to their front doors:
He ignored a similar sign at his uncle’s building, bounded inside, bypassed the “out of order” elevator and hurried up three flights of stairs to Uncle Marty’s hideaway.
“You know,” he said as he walked into a small square room, “there’s a condemned sign downstairs.”
“Good to see you, too,” Marty said from behind a sheet of drywall propped up on cinder blocks on the seats of two chairs. His gray eyes twinkled behind thick lenses, the black frames wrapped with tape where they irritated the tops of his ears.
“Is it okay you being here?” Jeff asked.
“You sound like your mother.” Marty waved a hand at the open space around him. “Whatcha think?”
Jeff shrugged. “Small. And you need a desk.”
Marty slapped the drywall. “I got one.”
Three telephones lined up at the edge of the desk rattled in response to the slap. Marty picked up the receiver of one and spoke into it, his large teeth flashing, his wide face beaming.
Jeff followed the cords leading out of each of the instruments. They dangled a few inches off the floor. They didn’t connect to the wall.
“What’re you going to do with – “
“Again,” Marty interjected. “You sound like your mother. You didn’t tell her you were coming here, did you? I don’t want her complaining at me.”
Jeff grinned. At age 15, he didn’t ask permission to leave the house or say where he was going.
“I didn’t tell nobody nothing,” Jeff said in imitative tough-guy talk. Then, in a more thoughtful tone: “Is this place safe?”
“There’s water and electricity, so I got lights and a toilet down the hall”
Jeff looked left and right. Chips in the wallboard led to deep gouges; peeling paint and thin cracks thrived on all the walls, especially at the uneven corners where walls and ceiling met.
“I got a lead on a line of DVDs,” Marty said. “Pirated stuff. And I got a crew of about 6 or 7 guys. They give me 2 bucks for each disk and they can sell them for however much they can get. Good, huh? “
“Doesn’t sound legal,” Jeff said.
“Come on, kid. Shake off that mother you’re feeling.”
Jeff sighed. Mom hovered at the back of his mind. She didn’t like her younger brother’s wild ideas, legal or not, and often criticized him because he couldn’t keep a job for more than six months.
“You still got your apartment?” Jeff asked. “Or is this it?”
Jeff didn’t press. Uncle Marty would tell him everything in due time.
“I gotta store the product when it comes,” Marty said, and stepped to a closed door and rattled the doorknob.
“What’s in there?” Jeff asked.
“It’s locked. How do I know?”
“Call a locksmith.”
“That costs money. I need an electric drill and I can drill out the lock myself.”
“Pick the lock,” Jeff offered.
“Yeah. Like on TV.”
Jeff noticed the hinges just then. “The hinges are on the outside.”
“What? Let me see.” Marty stepped closer to the door’s edge. “Why didn’t I see that?”
He produced a dirt encrusted flat blade screwdriver and a claw hammer. Moments later, he and Jeff pried off the three hinge-pins. It took only seconds to pull the door away from the jamb.
Marty peered into a dimly lit room. Jeff looked in from over Marty’s shoulder. Stacked chairs, old desks arranged in three lines of three desks each, floor lamps, a couch, and several swivel chairs absorbed him as he followed his uncle into the room.
“Your office was probably this office’ closet,” Jeff said, thinking about the hinges facing out.
“Pretty smart for a kid.” Marty moved about the cluttered space. He pointed at the three tall windows with green shades drawn all the way down, which blocked most of the outside light.
At his uncle’s signal, Jeff went to the windows and pulled each shade one at a time so the rollers tensed and the shades spun up. Sunlight immediately bathed the room, along with city noise. Horns blared and trucks rumbled four stories below. Buses spewed exhaust. People streamed by, all with places to go.
The telephones rang and the lights dangling by chains anchored to the high ornate ceiling suddenly lit up. A machine in the corner started clattering and paper billowed above it for a second before falling to the floor in a neat pile.
Marty grabbed one of the ringing telephones. He reached across the desk for a notepad and a pencil. To Jeff, he said, “Answer the phones.”
“What?” Jeff laughed. Okay, he’d play the game. He answered one phone and then another. Then he answered more because they kept ringing, pulling him deeper into the fantasy. Voices on the other end of the line shouted their orders at him.
“A gross of your number threes.”
“A double dozen of sevens.”
“Where’s my order from last week? You lost it? You want my business? Don’t lose my order.”
Exhausted by juggling just a few of the calls, Jeff staggered backwards and plopped down on the sofa. Marty expertly fielded more calls. He took orders. He offered apologies. He vowed he’d look into it – whatever that was.
“Uncle Marty,” Jeff called.
“What, kid? Can’t you see I’m busy? Come on. There’s business coming in. Answer the phones.”
“What’s going on?”
Marty bounced from desk to desk, a telephone receiver pinned between shoulder and jaw, stretching the coiled black cord connected to the base. He pulled paper from a manual typewriter’s roller. Other typewriters rattled on their own. At a product catalog on a stand, Marty thumbed through the pages as though he needed a code number.
Where had all this come from? Jeff rushed back to the windows and looked out. The buses and the trucks and the people – men in suits and gray felt hats – were throwbacks to another time. As were the telephones with their dials, the manual typewriters, and the overhead light fixtures.
Jeff pulled on his uncle’s shirt. “Let’s get out of here.”
“You go. Go to lunch. Be my guest. Buy yourself a sandwich.” Marty handed Jeff a one dollar bill.
Jeff laughed. Lunch for a dollar? In some other tine, not today.
“We gotta go, Uncle Marty.”
Marty pushed Jeff out of the way and lunged for a ringing telephone.
“This isn’t real!” Jeff shouted.
“Business is pouring in, kid. Can’t you hear? Can’t you see?”
Blaring street sound slammed the tall windows, making the rolled up shades shake and the glass panes shudder. Jeff rushed to the windows and pulled down the shades, stifling the noise as well as the sunlight.
The room went quiet, as though a shroud had fallen across it.
“What did you do?” Marty squealed, his voice several octaves higher than usual. “We were doing so well, kid. Whatcha do?”
“Come on, Uncle Marty. None of that was real.”
“Then what was it? You’re like my sister. You got no imagination.”
Jeff left the room. Marty followed. He sat at his makeshift desk.
“You can go, you know,” he said. “Go home if you want.”
“It wasn’t real, Uncle Marty. What went on in there wasn’t real.”
“Seemed real to me.”
Jeff didn’t want to say what had come to mind, but he did. “It’s one thing to have imagination. It’s another to fool yourself.”
“What do you know?” Marty said. ‘You’re just a kid.”
Jeff stepped backwards and reached behind him for the doorknob. He turned it, pulled the door open and back-stepped partway out of the room.
“Come with me, Uncle Marty. Before the building falls down on you.”
“I’ve been having buildings falling down on me all my life.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t have to be this one.”
“Perhaps it does. I don’t know. Do you?”
Jeff knew. He turned quickly and nearly tumbled down the steps, scrambling to his feet at each landing until he reached the bottom. He pulled open the front door and dropped from the top step. A wire fence sectioned off the building from the street. Workmen in yellow hard hats grumbled at him with:
“Hey! Whatcha doin’? Huh? Get outta here, kid.”
Jeff pushed past a burly man in stained overalls. He got to the street. A deserted street except for the construction equipment. Where had all that come from in the short time he’d been with his uncle?
“My uncle,” Jeff sputtered at a man with a clipboard. “He’s still in there.”
Someone shouted, “Any more squatters?”
Two men came to the open front doors. “All clear.”
“But it’s not,” Jeff shouted..
“Look, kid,” the clipboard carrier said, “we checked. We always check for squatters. What were you doing in there anyway?”
Jeff shut his eyes, but the sounds of this crew intent on demolishing the building still penetrated his mind, and he asked himself the question he’d just heard. “What was he doing in there?”
Standing across the street, Jeff watched a chain-wrapped wrecking ball swinging from the tip of a crane smash the top floor of the building. Plaster and wood and glass rained down into a cavity carved from the structure’s interior.
“I’ve been having buildings falling down on me all my life,” Uncle Marty had said.
Mom would get the news about her brother, Jeff supposed. No reason why he should tell her what happened. Besides, what if he’d been drawn into his own imagination and not his uncle’s?
“What was he doing in that building anyway?” Mom might ask. Jeff couldn’t answer her question; not now and not if she asked later in the day. Watching the wrecking ball — the building’s dust and debris a billowing cloud — he pictured Uncle Marty happily answering the ringing telephones and taking orders and living a different truth than anyone.