The Air Down There
By Rodger Jacobs
Earl pocketed the $9.10 and spit on a pile of scrap aluminum to show his displeasure.
“You saying that’s all what the brass and copper in that thing is worth?” Earl scowled.
The recycling dealer never liked Earl. He had the hooked nose and beady-eyes of a predatory bird and his clothing always smelled of beer and Wonder Bread. But what he disliked even more than Earl was so-called “modern” or “abstract” art. Destroying those tangled heaps of twisted metal was a personal fetish and Earl was his enabler. Stupid Earl who wouldn’t know a Jackson Pollock from a velvet Elvis.
“The effort alone to get that thing out of the storage yard is worth fifty bucks,” Earl protested.
“This is a metal recycling center, Earl. I pay for the content, not for your time and effort. If that’s what you’re lacking, get a nine-to-five.”
There was an old wood-frame church across the street from the recycling center on Wilmington Boulevard, right smack dab in the shadow of one of the thirteen refineries that churn out millions of barrels of oil a day and leave the air down there thick with the sickly sweet smell of gasoline.
It was Sunday so there was hymnal singing going on in the church and it carried in the emission-laden air to Earl’s ears where it made a most unpleasant noise.
“Hey-a, Pete -?” He called after the dealer, who had turned his back on Earl and was trudging back to the small shack that was his office. “He’s got one in his storage yard that’s ten feet.”
Pete paused in the dirt pathway and kicked at a mound of swarming red ants. “How d’you know it’s ten feet?”
“Measured it,” Earl announced proudly. “Measured it with a tape measure.”
“Uh-huh. And what’s it look like?”
“Like all the rest of the stuff, Pete. Garbage.”
Pete understood that an Abraham Verton sculpture of that size would probably fetch $29,000 from a collector. Tearing down an abomination like that would provide Pete with an almost orgasmic thrill. Who was Verton anyway? A nobody. He never studied art like Pete once had. Abraham Verton was a 71-year-old black man, a retired welder who still liked to tinker around with a torch and metal. He was something of a folk hero in South Central all because someone paid $5,000 for one of his tangled pieces of junk and before you knew it an “artist” was born, a regular Grandma Moses from Watts.
“I’ll give you a hundred for it,” Pete said in a voice that did not invite debate.
“Jesus, Pete.” Earl hooked his thumbs in the belt loops of his jeans and inched them up over his beer gut. “The old man’s put up razor wire on his fence and he’s bolted the sculptures down. Next thing you know he’s gonna buy a guard dog. I swear to it. He will.”
The church choir across the street stopped praising God in ear-splitting song. With the sudden silence Earl felt a vague emotion come over him.
“It was on the TV, you know. On the news.” Earl said. “They said he was dying of cancer and isn’t it all terrible that someone is breaking into his storage yard and stealing his stuff. And I know, Pete, ‘cause of what I heard on the news. I know what these hunks of junk’re worth and you best start paying me better or I return to bringing you beer cans.”
Pete gave Earl’s challenge the gravest consideration. He couldn’t pay Earl one-tenth of what a Verton was worth. But for the sheer pleasure of reducing another one to scrap he would now have to dig a little deeper in his wallet.
“Tell you what,” he said, shifting on his feet like a shy dancer. “Bring me the ten footer and I’ll give you two hundred and I’ll throw in a twelve-pack of Tecate.”
“Miller Genuine Draft,” Earl countered.
Earl scratched his rear end through the seat of his pants and ambled back to his white utility truck parked near the gate. He was a gifted haggler, just like his dad.
© 2004, Rodger Jacobs
All Rights Reserved