Tom Hurdle

by Helen Healey

Editor's note: the pieces in our Interregnum 2016 series were originally submitted to the Creative Writing competition as part of Interregnum XII at The King's College. The following piece placed second. It was submitted on behalf of the House of Thatcher.

Editor's note: the following piece received further edits and changes after it was submitted for the Interregnum competition.

 

My first real boss, who everyone called “Boss,” was 6”8 and owned a storage company in the South Bronx. He hired me as a customer service representative when I was 25 in 1993. It just so happened that I was fucking Boss. The company had a big warehouse in East Harlem, but it operated out of a small office upstairs from a kosher deli on East 92nd Street. It was performing well numbers-wise, even though it had only been established for three years. Boss said that five storage facilities between East 79th Street in Manhattan and Hunts Point in the Bronx had closed up the first year he was really in business.

Boss was 43 and, even though he basically lived in squalor (in his office, in which he ate every meal), he was charming. Our first date was at the Water Club on 23rd Street, which wasn’t at all cheap. Food is the one thing he never skimped on.

We set up traps because mice would come after the leftovers that were scattered around his office. But we often couldn’t remember where we hid the traps, and over the course of three days, the whole floor smelled more and more underworldly. Boss would pay one of the warehouse guys $50 to come find the rat, and by the time he did, it was all decomposed. The worst part is that Boss would never have noticed the smell; he would have just let the rat parts fester if I hadn’t called the warehouse guys. That’s how focused he was on business.

Boss was not by any means intellectual, organized, or well-spoken. He never wore a suit, but always a vest that had his company name on the back, even in the summer. He had no qualities—like, at all—of a manager or business owner. The only thing he had going for him was complete single-mindedness, understanding that he was comparatively pretty dumb, and the ability to scare the crap out of anyone. He spent most of his time in his office, but he would also spend at least three hours a day boxing in the basement of his warehouse. He’d hit the punching bag hard so that all of his aboveground employees could hear him. He was always worried someone would try to cross him. Once, he caught a guy on a security camera pocketing $100. He grabbed the guy by his forearm and dangled him over the elevator shaft. The guy peed all over himself.

Every day of work up until August 16, 1993 was pretty perfect. I was enamored with Boss, always feeling simultaneously challenged, gratified, and protected. But on August 16, 1993, Boss got a phone call from the fire department in the middle of the night, which notified him that his warehouse on East 125th Street had burned down.

That morning, I found him sitting on the floor against a photocopier, shirtless, with his head in his palms.

Finally, I got him to slither up into his chair. I asked over and over again what the hell happened, but it took about thirty minutes for him to respond. He said:

“Danny Moloney. You want to see a picture of him?”

Boss reached into his wallet and pulled out the picture. He sounded drunk.

“Son of a bitch would call and call and say, ‘You watch out because one day I’m gonna burn all your shit to the ground’ and then he’d just hang up. I’d call all the guys in the business I knew from board meetings. They’d tell me Danny was just a nut and not to worry about it.”

Danny Moloney owned a storage warehouse on the Lower East Side.

“Then you know what Danny did to Patty Dugan a year ago, right? You know, Dugan—has that warehouse on Bowery. Well, Danny cut his balls off and put em in a pickle jar.”

He threw everything on his desk—the gum wrappers, the Rolodex, pens and the Yellow Pages—onto the floor.

“There is no more this,” he waved his arms around in a circle, “because Danny Fucking Moloney went to my warehouse last night in his fucking pjs and lined its perimeter with gasoline and dropped a match.”

***

Boss was basically useless for the next few days. His warehousemen formed a line outside of his office door and he had to tell them individually that for the time being they were out of a job. Say what you want about Boss, but those guys worked hard and he knew it. He knew they were the whole reason he got to take me to the Water Club—and the elevator shaft stuff and the boxing was only really a way to keep them in line. Other than that, they loved Boss and would wait around before they got another job. They drove around all week in a truck looking for Danny.   

No one ever found Danny and we never found out for sure, in any real legal way, that he burned the building down, but that didn’t matter to Boss, who was certain.

As for me, fucking Boss wasn’t fun or sneaky or lurid beginning August 16, 1993. It’s one thing to blow a guy who’s hanging someone down an elevator shaft, another to blow a guy who might have to fire you afterward.

I had to call each customer to let them know that all of their goods—including Steinway baby grand pianos, Louis XVI furniture, fine china, and lots of old valuable stuff—had burned in a fire. Boss never bought fire insurance because he pays “guys to lift boxes, not to sit around and wait for someone to cross [him].” Within a week, Boss had 86 official lawsuits on his hands. But he, who had no real knowledge about legalities, not really ever having a good relationship with cops and the law and all that, had the feeling that the whole ordeal would be expensive and didn’t have the money to pay a lawyer. The warehouse fire made it into a local paper, The East Side, which looked really bad for Boss, who had once thought he owned the best company in his industry. Boss became depressed and for a whole week refused to shower, work, or even eat until all of the lawsuits disappeared.

***

Two weeks after the warehouse fire, a man called and asked to speak to the owner. I put him on hold and told Boss he had line one. He just kind of played with a rubber band at his desk and looked sullen.

“The owner isn’t in right now. Can I take a message?” I said.

The man on the other line introduced himself as Tom Hurdle, a “friend of the owner.” He first apologized for what happened to the warehouse—he’d seen the story in the paper.

In 1988, Boss moved Tom from Brooklyn to the Upper East Side. Back then, he only had one van and would move people around all by himself for way cheaper than what the professional companies charged. Boss strapped everything in Tom’s two-bedroom apartment to the roof of that van and didn’t break a thing. Tom was really impressed with Boss, his work ethic in particular, and had been watching the company ever since. He was a Harvard Law graduate, and he offered to help us with the suits, pro bono. When I told Boss, he straightened up in his chair and said he needed to “check this Tom guy out first.”

Tom came into the office the next day. He was middle-aged, maybe 50, and wore a really clean solid navy suit with a white collared shirt, and oxfords I knew he shined recently. He was bald and came in with a copy of the The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Iraq Today. Boss came out of his office for what seemed like the first time all week to shake Tom Hurdle’s hand. The height difference between the two wasn’t even drastic. I could tell that Tom was disgusted at the state of our office—the gum, now black, permanently stuck to the maroon floor, the rattraps, and the smell of highlighters and spearmint air freshener. But Tom didn’t mention the mess or the smell.

Tom said that he could resolve most of the cases over the phone. For about fifteen of them, though, he had to go to court. Boss sent me as Tom’s assistant to all of them over the course of eight months. I was happy to get out of the office and over the course of those eight months, I fell in love with Tom Hurdle.

***

I kept all of Tom’s legal letters in a separate file in my desk, just to have. He printed them all on cardstock paper. Every night after work, I went to Tom’s apartment and organized his paperwork while he worked through each case. I filed and sorted mountains of records on each storage lot—payment history, etc.

I would stop Tom every once in a while to ask a question--about what “on remand” meant or what a Siamese connection was. Working with Boss meant gossiping about all the “phonies” he worried would cross him, but working with Tom was technical, an execution of tasks. Tom was heroic and noble, like Apollo or the Constitution, and I loved watching him. His living room was made almost entirely from mahogany. There was never anything on his desk besides the papers he was working on at that particular time and a lamp. The rest of his apartment was spotless, as if he’d never eaten there or even moved around.     

There was no flirting between Tom and I, but a lot of small talk. He’d ask where I was raised, if I’d ever been to the opera at Lincoln Center, and whether I like to travel. I was usually uninterested in all of those questions, but I didn’t care that he never started meaningful conversation with me, so long as he was there with me, starting conversation.

Boss didn’t notice that I was falling in love with Tom Hurdle because he was back in his office trying to find ways to make money with a few small vans and ten men. He dispatched them around the city on small moving jobs. At the end of every job, his men would bring him the contract and the cash. He’d chew gum and check their calculations. If something didn’t add up, he’d stand over the guys and say, “Where’s my eight dollars?” If everything added up, he’d pay each guy what he was owed, plus an extra $30.

Once every three weeks or so, Tom would come see Boss in the office. He’d report back on the status of the suits and ask whether Boss watched football or invite him to go golfing. Boss didn’t own a TV, and thought golf was a “fag sport.” Tom was very loud and large, but also very cordial. That’s the kind of guy Boss historically hates. He calls them—the fake laugh, golfing, football-watching-but-not-playing types—“phonies” or “fags.” But Boss liked Tom and let him hang out in his office for as long as he wanted.

Tom and I continued to work late nights and when City Hall finally set up some court dates, I got to watch Tom argue on our behalf. There’s not really much to say about it, except that he slept through all of his opponents’ arguments, presented his with exactness, and made all of the complicated legalities sound interesting, like something everyone in the world should want to watch on TV. He won every case he argued and I watched without blinking.

I noticed though, over the course of those months, that every now and then Tom would have a new band-aid on his face, and eventually holes appeared on his cheeks, on his neck, and on his nose. His nose was the worst. It literally began to disappear. When I really noticed all the holes, I asked what happened, and he said he just had to get some minor stuff removed. The face holes never preoccupied me after Tom said that he was fine and it was all minor.  Everything he said was so resolute but calming and matter-of-fact that I took him at his word.

The night before a court date, when Tom was set to argue one of our final cases, he called and said he wouldn’t be able to make it. I asked why and he said he had to schedule a minor surgery. I asked if I could go with him and he said no, “It’s minor.”

We missed and therefore lost the case. Boss owed our client $5,000 in damages and just shook his head at me when I told him.

The morning after Tom’s minor surgery, he called and asked me to come to the hospital to help him gather his things. I took a taxi down to Lennox Hill Hospital and rode the elevator to the 17th floor, to Tom’s room. He was wearing a light blue gown. He was gray, had no nose at all, with a crusty mouth, hooked up to an IV station. All of Tom was gone; he no longer looked like everything he said was true or like a golfer or lawyer. He looked like a ghost, noseless, ready to haunt me. His briefcase and papers were spread all over his lap. He said, “I’m sorry.”  

He spent the whole night running through the remaining cases with me. He would begin to talk and fall asleep. I had to tap him to wake him up so that he could finish his sentences. He was too tired to hold a pen, so I took my own notes.

***

Tom Hurdle died at 5:45 AM on March 20, 1994. His sister read his eulogy; apparently Tom was afraid of flying on airplanes and sucked his thumb until the 3rd grade. It was never fair of me to compare him to Apollo. He was a real man--a good man. I’m not sure whether to apologize to him for reducing him to an idea or for exalting him as an ideal, but I am sure that I didn’t love him. 

I spent that day at my desk, crying quietly, shooting a rubber band. Boss sat in his office, staring at the empty chair across from his desk and skimming a golf magazine. When he’d pass my desk or when I went into his office to ask him to sign something, he’d just repeat, “He left his briefcase here. Is there anyone we could give it to?” 

Boss and I got married shortly after Tom died. We fought about our infidelity and my lipstick, and our fights ended with him telling me to take however much money I wanted and I’d throw my shoes or something at him.  He refused to sleep anywhere but his office, even after he bought four different locks for the front door. 

We called off the marriage after a month. Even after that, he would write me long notes of apology on toilet paper and leave them on my desk. I could never make them out completely because his hands would sweat on the paper and smudge the ink. The toilet paper notes made him seem more like a kid than a monster, completely innocent, not knowing how to behave, but knowing that he hurt me, and in a primitive way, caring about that. So I decided I’ll always be here, at my desk, waiting for him to call me back into his office to tell me who the “fags” and the “phonies” are. 


Thumbnail image by Evelyn Stetzer.