In the Garden of the Hesperides
Breakfast was over, dishes lay jumbled in the sink, and the remnant of stale coffee was growing bitter in the pot. But the crisp air that hit Dooley’s face through the open window boded promise. Even in these latitudes, the seasons eventually changed, and Dooley, percolating with something that might be called initiative, was eager to divine what that promise might be. He sensed that it lay within him to overcome his unremitting reluctance to go out and get whatever it was that life held for him, even if the last clean socks in the drawer were mismatched and noon was already long past. He had gradually come to realize that he didn’t really want his life to keep flaking away like the brittle paint on the window sills and the rusting radiators.
He closed the door of his apartment and descended the stairs to the sidewalk, where he paused to look in both directions, bobbing his awkward, lanky frame ever so slightly on the balls of his feet as he tried to make up his mind. The city appeared much as it always had since his childhood days. Each stage of his life had flowed into the next without any clear delineation, only the occasional realization that time had indeed elapsed. The longed-for freedom after high school had never materialized, nor had the vain hope for his brief marriage. The broad sidewalks and wide avenue provided an outsized, treeless expanse of concrete that he always tried to avoid in the summertime, when temperatures could burn the soles of feet through shoe leather and make the façades of the stores and apartment houses across the way ripple in the humid mid-South haze. Drab despite their hints of bygone architectural charm, these buildings appeared even in his youth to be of another generation and to paint their occupants with the aura of an earlier, unfulfilled time; it seemed to Dooley that the hairdressers, supermarket assistant managers, and assembly-plant workers who moved in and out of them continued to make little progress.
But today was different. Fall had arrived: the air was cooler and the sky blue. Dooley perceived the hint of something that he hoped would involve either a job or a dog, of which he had neither, and either of which, he was sure, would bring a significant improvement.
When he had lost his position at the convenience store a few weeks earlier (“Not as many customers,” the manager had said. “Too many people defaulting on their mortgages; fewer with money to spend”), he had cancelled his subscription to the Commercial Appeal before realizing that the classifieds were something he might need to find new employment. He had taken to buying the paper a couple of times a week or trying to scrounge one up as best he could, but so far to no avail. Since today was Saturday and the paper short on ads, he figured he could save two quarters by ignoring the battered metal dispenser on the corner. Moreover, the starter on his car had given out to the point where even banging it with a hammer didn’t help, and he needed to save every nickel he could for the repair. Since they had moved the public library several miles further east from where it had been in his childhood, he could no longer walk there, though it probably mattered little, for the unemployment rate seemed directly proportional to the number of people who hung out in the reading room competing for the want ads and computers. He had kept his dial-up internet connection for as long as he could, although he had used it increasingly to immerse himself in a virtual world of random trivia and questionable attempts at gratification than as a way out of his predicament. He could spend hours searching etymologies, little-known historical connections, or simply babes. Within his array of interests, one thing led to another, and then on to yet another.
The rattle of a faulty muffler brought him out of his reveries. The streets were not particularly busy, though the motorists, as usual, drove either too fast or too slow and thoughtlessly occupied the wrong lane, inhibiting even the hope of a smooth traffic flow. The affluent arrogantly considered it their right to drive any way they wanted to, and the disadvantaged, after years of low expectations for the future, could not even anticipate the immediate advantage to be obtained by adapting their driving to the current conditions. Before he could decide which direction to take, a large delivery van lumbered over toward the curb with a squealing hiss of brakes, and a man leaned out the window on the passenger side. “Hey there! How’d ya like to earn a few bucks?”
Dooley looked at him and hesitated. He’d set out to make his own discovery, not be roped into someone else’s plan. The slightly pudgy man looked friendly enough, but the flinty-featured driver, who leaned across his companion to yell out of the same window, gave him a harder, craftier look.
“Did you hear what he said? Good pay for two hours work, three at most.”
“Doing what?” asked Dooley.
“Unloading furniture. Thirty dollars.”
“Not far from here. Over on Poplar.”
Dooley didn’t have much cash for the weekend, just a few boxes of macaroni and cheese. He took a step toward the truck: the door opened, and he squeezed in.
After they had passed a number of stop lights Dooley asked, “How far out Poplar is it?”
“We’re almost there,” said the driver, who had introduced himself as Travis.
Before long they pulled into one of the parking spaces in front of an abandoned storefront
in a row of low brick buildings. “COLOSSAL ANTIQUE SALE. ONE WEEK ONLY. SUNDAY THROUGH SATURDAY” proclaimed a large paper sign affixed to the inside of the plate glass window. Dooley waited while Travis unlocked the door and paused after entering, eyeing the space. Travis then walked to the rear and opened the door at the back. “There’s an alley. I’ll pull around and we can unload there. It’ll draw less attention.”
As Dooley and Buddy, the more lethargic assistant, stood waiting, a little yellow dog hesitantly entered the back door. After sizing them both up, it made a beeline for Dooley and, sitting back on its haunches, looked up at him with moist, appealing eyes, its visible ribs trembling ever so slightly. The only sign of life in the empty space, the dog received the entire focus of Dooley’s attention. As he leaned over to pet it, Travis suddenly reappeared with a “Get the hell out of here, you mangy bitch” and a kick in the dog’s direction. The dog, unstruck, let out a yowl nonetheless and skittered back out the door. “All we need, a dumb-ass dog underfoot while we’re trying to unload.”
Dooley, as shocked as the dog, put his hands defensively in his pockets.
The corrugated aluminum ramp sent a grating cringe up Dooley’s spine as Travis jerked it out from its bed beneath the truck. Dooley soon realized that Travis’s role was to get the tasks underway, rather than performing any of them himself. After he had opened the truck’s wide rear door and directed them to unstrap the dolly, Travis yelled, “O.K., you two! Grab these sideboards and line them up along that wall in there. And be careful! They’re antiques!”
Dooley looked to Buddy for guidance, but Buddy’s expression seemed to ask, “Who’s going to pick up the front and who’s going to grab the back?” Since neither had an answer, they just let fate take its course. As they rounded the corner into the store with the inlaid Sheraton piece, Travis let out a fierce “Whoa! Careful! That’s cutting it mighty damn close. We can’t afford to piss off Mr. Legrand.”
It was an eclectic collection that reminded Dooley of the hodgepodge that his mother had sold in her second-hand store until she died and his father liquidated the remainder for cash to fuel his bad habits. Dooley had loved hanging out among the old furniture, sprawled across a sofa as he daydreamed over his homework or familiarized himself with the styles of the finer pieces that occasionally passed through. The items he was now carrying in, most with identifying labels, brought it all back. There were early American step-back hutches with irregular glass panes in the upper doors; country pie safes with pierced tin panels; straight-backed chairs of darkened wood and some indeterminate Hispanic origin; long French Provincial dining tables; and tabourets of teak, carved in elaborate Chinese patterns. Dooley and Buddy followed Travis’s instructions to line these up along the walls and down the middle to provide aisles on either side. Then came the unpacking of the boxes and crates: large bowls of Chinese porcelain, their grey-green celadon glaze delicately cracked in an intricate hairline spider web; nineteenth-century Japanese prints in faux bamboo frames; tarnished silver in dusty velvet sacks; classical-looking marble statuettes; and various other knickknacks, bric-a-brac, and objets d’art.
Dooley was aware of Travis hovering closely to make sure that none of the items were dropped or nicked: he eyed Dooley carefully as he unwrapped a fifteen-inch statue pulled from a cardboard drum. Made of painted plaster of Paris or terra cotta, it revealed a tired but powerful giant, his head bent and seemingly displaced by the weight of the orb that he bore upon his shoulders, held fitfully in place by too-short arms that extended awkwardly up behind him. “Atlas,” said Dooley with satisfaction as he placed the figure gently in a position of honor on a nearby Chippendale bow front chest.
Travis’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Dooley with a look somewhere between impatience and contempt. “That ain’t Atlas,” he spat out.
Taken aback, Dooley muttered hesitantly, “Sure it is. You know, the mythological figure who carried the world on his shoulders?”
“Of course I know,” replied Travis. “Every business between here and L.A., from chiropractors to fork-lift operators, has a picture of Atlas on their sign.”
Dooley noticed that Travis never overlooked an opportunity to show who was boss.
“You look again,” Travis continued. “That ain’t the world. See the stars?”
Sure enough, the cerulean globe was dotted not by islands and continents, but with lustrous celestial objects. “He’s standing on the world.”
Dooley dropped his gaze to the smaller, more mundane sphere that formed the base of the statue and for a moment didn’t know what to think. He racked his brain, trying to recall from his high school days the story of that grandson of Ouranos and Gaia who relinquished his burden when Herakles, to avoid the task himself, asked him to fetch the golden apples from the orchard of the beautiful Hesperian daughters. But Atlas was then tricked by Herakles into taking the load back after he had retrieved them. And it was the heavens after all, Dooley finally remembered, though he didn’t see any reason to point this out to Travis now. Some bygone cartographer in need of a symbol had probably performed a sly etymological switch. In school Dooley had plowed his way through Virgil as well, for what purpose, he wasn’t sure: “Long will be your exile, the desolate surface of the sea must you cut through, and you will come to the land of Hesperia...this is our true home.” His class report had impressed his teacher, however, who began to drop suggestions that he should consider applying to college. Dooley never pursued that goal either: with his mother gone, and his father constantly in debt, he set out as quickly as possible to make it on his own.
During the five-minute respite that Travis allowed them Dooley gazed around at the accumulation. A bronze pot with a sea-green patina and an intricate decorative band around its rim caught his eye: “Pompeii, 79 AD, $2500,” read the small tag tied to its handle. Dooley wondered about the plausibility of the information as he asked, “Where’d all these things come from?”
Buddy, who had plopped down on a Victorian love seat and was staring off into the distance with a vaguely pleasant smile and a seeming contentment with whatever came along, replied, “Oh, I don’t know, here and there. Estate sales and stuff like that. Mr. Legrand has his sources.”
Dooley wondered if his own face looked as pasty and phlegmatic as Buddy’s. He then tried to imagine any of this abundance in his own apartment and to figure out how it might fit in. At first he could no more conceive of giving order or meaning to this collection of objects than he could to the detritus of thoughts and memories that littered his mind. But as he concentrated he began to picture the statue of Atlas on his dresser as a sort of reminder to give him focus.
Travis, who had been taking a cigarette break in the alley, gave the smoking butt an underhanded backward flick and reentered with a clap of his hands. “O.K., let’s go. Not much left.” After removing the last items from the truck, Dooley and Buddy stuffed the scattered wrapping paper back into the cartons, which they stowed in the small office. They returned to the truck to fold up the blankets and stack them in neat piles. The little dog eyed them from its spot a safe distance away, giving a single, hesitant wag of its tail when Dooley looked in its direction.
When they had finished, Travis planted his feet firmly and broke into an unctuous smile as he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill for Dooley. “We finished in two hours. You done good.”
Dooley took it hesitantly, staring down at it a while before venturing up the courage to say,
“I thought you said thirty.”
“Thirty would have been the max, for three hours’ work, but you only did two.” Travis’s reply was quick.
“But you didn’t say anything about hours. You just said thirty.”
“Sure, I did.” Travis smiled and patted him paternally on the shoulder while slowing his tempo and increasing his articulation to drive his point home. “Remember? I said it would probably take two hours, maybe three at most. Thirty would have been the most, and we certainly would have given it to you, had that extra been required. It’s well above minimum wage as it is, not to mention tax-free.” He punctuated his last remark with a wink.
Dooley looked over at Buddy in a vain hope of support, but his co-worker replied with what could only be interpreted as a “there’s-nothing-to-be-done” shrug of his shoulders. Dooley folded the bill and put it in his pocket. “Can I have a ride back to my place?” he asked.
“Sorry,” Travis said. “We’ve got to stay here and check the inventory lists and then wait on Mr. Legrand. He sure would be pissed if he came back and we weren’t here.”
Dooley waved a halfhearted goodbye to Buddy and started down the alley. He turned onto Poplar and headed back along the gritty sidewalk. The afternoon had turned much warmer and more humid, and his labors and consternation were heating him from the inside out.
The sun was staring him in the face, weighing him down like a heavy burden. At one point he stopped and looked back: the little dog, who had evidently been following him from the store, stopped when he did and waited expectantly. With the light hitting it directly, the dog’s fur glowed like burnished gold. His new companion had made his decision: Dooley grasped that it was also time for him to make his. Nodding in the dog’s direction, he turned once again and continued his trek with a new resolve. The dog followed.
Calvin Jones lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.