Current Occupation: Novelist and Poet.
Former Occupation: Novelist, Poet, Furniture Mover, Poetry & Philosophy Teacher.
Contact Information: Raymond Philip Asaph, known as “Philip” by family and friends, lives on the north shore of Long Island, the primary setting of Brothers of the Ox, his novel-in-stories from which comes “The Dot-com King.” “Humping furniture for thirty years,” he says, “took me into almost every kind of home in America–a spiritual education that could only come out in the form of a comedy.”
The Dot-com King
WE WERE FINE-TUNING the furniture in a brand new home in Westhampton Beach. The home, some architect’s acid trip–a colossus of circles, triangles and trapezoids–was surely the eyesore of the neighborhood. The homeowner wasn’t too pretty either. A bearded man, bulging out of his vest, he reminded me of a painting I’d seen as a kid in my high school history book. Except for the unlit cigar he was sucking, he looked just like Henry the Eighth.
For the hell of it, I scratched my neck and said, “Nice castle, jack–how’d you get so successful?”
With a voice like a dump truck dropping a load of gravel and all the charm of a garbage man, he admitted he had made his millions starting and selling doomed dot-com businesses.
“I screwed people,” he said, “then got out before the bubble busted.”
“Hmm,” I said. What else could I say?–congratulations on your early retirement?
Like many people who quickly ride to riches, this dot-com scam-king seemed to have become simultaneously wealthy and mentally lame. Now, having reached the top of the heap, he needed to hire professionals to make even his simplest decisions. One of those professionals was Maxwell Foxwell the Third—yes, the highly celebrated interior designer– who had picked out every stick of furniture in the place, all the high-class knick-knacks and each piece of art. As a result, the interior here looked exactly like the interiors of a dozen other homes in the area.
Because Smitty and I had served under Max’s direction before, we knew the game and played along. True, working for interior decorators–I mean, designers–could be mental torture. Physically, though, the work was sweet. Easy hours, lots of waiting around and you only had to remember two rules: A, you had to act as if each piece of crap was a one-of-a-kind treasure; and B, you had to pretend that each of Max’s placements, no matter how silly, was as brilliant and beautiful as a painting by Monet or an interlude of Debussy.
Max, I’m afraid, was the queen of silly.
A guy with a mustache like Salvador Dali’s and a personality as temperamental as a poodle’s, he was presently directing us to move a bed with a very high headboard right in front of a window. At first, we thought it was a typical designer ploy—you know: put the piece in the worst possible place in order to emotionally disturb the customer and then push it into a normal spot to create immediate relief and appreciation. So we picked up the whole bed, waddle-stepped it across the white carpet then set it down in front of the sunny window.
The room, of course, dimmed immediately. I gave Smitty a wink across the mattress. Because we knew it wouldn’t be staying there long, we didn’t even bother to straighten up. Instead, we waited in our stooped-over positions so that we could skip one bend when the nut with waxed mustache would tell us to pick it up again and put it somewhere else.
“Perfect,” he said with a clap. “Next room.”
“Hold on a sec,” said Smitty. “This ain’t perfect.”
“Oh?” asked Max. “Are you a designer too?”
“Hey, this is stressful enough,” the owner told my partner. “You just keep your mouth shut and do what the artist tells you.”
“But there’s two blank walls in this room,” Smitty pointed out. “Why stick a headboard in front of a window when you don’t have to?”
“Smitty,” I whispered, “don’t blow the tip.”
“Man, we gotta take a stand on this one. The kid’ll catch a draft in the winter.”
Max rolled his eyes and gave the homeowner a tight-lipped smile. I think he thought he was being subtle, but the meaning of his expression was as blatant as a bus: We who are great must be patient with the peasants. Then Max turned to Smitty and spoke extra slowly as if Smitty had the mind of a snail.
“I doubt that adequate heating will ever be a concern in this home.”
“That’s right,” said the customer. “I got all the fucking heat in the world. Now let’s do the guest room. I’m sick of this shit. We’ve been doing it for two days and it’s not even feng shui. I’d like to move in and so would my family.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, reaching across the mattress and giving my buddy a light slap in the face.
“Now, look,” said Smitty, missing or ignoring my love-tap completely, “we can work this out like adults. There’s no competition here. No need for any cursing either.”
Max touched his hands to the front of his thighs–the gesture of an exasperated genius.
“I’m listening to an inner symphony,” he insisted, “and you’re like static on my radio.”
“We’re standing in the bedroom of an eight-year-old,” Smitty reminded us all. “We’re supposed to be thinking about what’s best for the kid. So, please, just follow my line of reasoning. Look at that headboard; it’s going to block out the sunlight every single day for the child’s entire childhood.”
As if suddenly recognizing that thing called common sense, the homeowner plucked the cigar from his mouth and turned to the expert. Hey, his expression seemed to ask, is this moron onto something?
Smitty was glowing. An honest man who was also a tight-assed perfectionist and loved to march the rest of us up to higher ground, especially when he could do so without criticizing us to pieces and chastising us into submission, he probably felt like a big hero. Without even raising his voice, he had protected some rich kid from a flaky decorator and the stupidity of his own dad. But Maxwell Foxwell the Third was not about to be conquered. Leaning back in his loafers and narrowing his eyes in the manner of a cat, he seemed supremely unchallenged.
“Smith,” he said, “you’re a gifted lifter. That’s why you’re here. Not for your aesthetic commentaries.”
The homeowner must’ve remembered why he was paying Max a fortune. Dipping his head as if to beg the artist’s pardon, he returned the wet cigar to his lips then stuck a hairy finger in Smitty’s face.
“Leave the bed where it is and let’s get the goddamn guest room done. I’ve got a plane to catch next week, okay?”
I shot Smitty a look. “The customer has spoken.”
Smitty lowered his face, shook his head. Then he leaned against the kid’s dresser and folded his arms.
“I’m not backing down this time,” he told the carpet.
If a moving job could be compared to a ship, the Titanic had just hit the iceberg.
“What’s wrong with your friend?” the homeowner asked as if Smitty were some dysfunctional farm animal.
I knew exactly where the brother was coming from. After two days of being told to do stupid stuff, all his false subservience was shot. Besides, Brother Smith was right. There was an innocent child in this equation who, growing up in the shadow of a father like this, was going to need every ray of light possible.
My head was twisting and my heart was torn. I wanted to join my partner’s revolution and refuse to participate in any further abnormal furniture-arrangements. But I was engaged to a woman with a fourteen-year old son at the time and running the risk of getting fired when I was about to become a step-father, needed to resemble a role-model and was still desperately trying to pay off a diamond ring shifted my thinking straight into the wisdom of ass-kissing. I was no longer free to make brave decisions or take bold actions. I was a future father-figure, and an aging mover losing his step. The customer’s eyebrows were impatient now as he waited for my answer. I knew I had to think fast. I certainly couldn’t communicate any part of the truth–not without insulting his majesty and enflaming a decorator who thought he was up there with Picasso.
“He forgot to take his meds,” I announced. “Let me take him outside and give him some shock therapy. Trust me. We’ll be back in two seconds and everything’ll be blue jays and roses again.”
Max stomped one shoe on the carpet. “I will not be creatively challenged by a slob with ketchup on his cheeks.”
I took a look over my shoulder. Sure enough, my man appeared to have red whiskers. Rushing to the job, he’d wolfed down half a dozen White Castles for lunch. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? Was I so obsessed with work-work-work that I failed to see even the face of my coworker?
“You really are a messy eater,” I told him.
But I doubt he heard me. Poor Smitty was out of his mind now, a sane voice crying in the wilderness: “Children need light! We all do! We’re creatures of the sun–remember?”
And that was the end of his service there.
Max turned to the homeowner. “He must leave at once.”
The owner peeled off a fifty and slapped it in Smitty’s mitt. “Thanks for all your help, guy. Go sit in the garage. You,” he said, poking me in the sternum, “get on the phone and tell your boss to send over another mover.” He turned back to Max and humbled his voice. “If that’s okay with you.”
The designer nodded as Smitty, defeated, slumped toward the doorway. I gripped his shoulder as he passed to show sympathy and solidarity; but inside, I was so damn glad it was his twig that had snapped this time instead of mine. Coughing politely and bowing my shoulders, I excused myself from their totally excellent presences to call the boss from another room. The kitchen seemed best, far enough out of earshot to insure discretion and work some finesse. So I went downstairs, opening the refrigerator as I flipped open the phone.
“Yeah,” I said, spotting a case of pomegranate juice, “we got a problem here. Smitty twisted his ankle bad. I don’t think it’s broken, but he can’t even walk. And the show must go on, right? So, got anybody else you can send over?”
Fortunately, our boss did have an extra body lying around–Louis, who was sleeping off a drunk on a sofa in the warehouse. He showed up twenty minutes later, swaying and smiling, toothless and booze-drenched, the prince of first impressions. One of his eyes was purple and swollen shut, no doubt the result of a bar-fight the night
before. But the artist and the king got over the initial shock pretty quickly and both were soon appeased, because Louis said “Yes, sir” as automatically as a parrot and did what he was told like a soldier or a slave. So the fine-tuning of the furniture resumed and in the end everybody was happy. Everybody except Smitty, who sat in a wheelbarrow, holding his imploded head.
As I stepped out of the castle and into the garage with Louis ping-ponging behind me, Smitty reminded of another picture I’d seen way back in my loose and limber youth before all my dreams involved struggling with people’s furniture and dealing with their insanity and I woke up in the morning for more of the same. His resemblance to the painting was uncanny. Maybe it was the wild wideness of his eyes or the way his mouth hung open, but he looked just like the figure in that painting called The Scream.
“Here,” I said, tossing him a bottle of pomegranate juice. “Just drink it. It fixes everything. And don’t forget to limp when we get back to the warehouse.”