Just before six on Friday evening Steve climbed the creaky wooden steps of the furniture store’s loading dock and found Matt waiting. He worked Friday nights and Saturdays, ten bucks an hour. Not much, but Steve could make deliveries of his own on the job: grass grown by his cousins under lamplight in an old sow barn in the country. The back of the warehouse was stuffed with plastic-shrouded couches tipped up on their ends. Joe walked up and picked the jar of sauerkraut off the brokedown forklift. He unscrewed the blue lid and pinched some out. He chewed a while, then took a pull from the little plastic tequila bottle next to the jar. He handed Matt a list of receipts. The breath of the men fogged up into the air.
“…and you end up at that nursing home by the highway.” Steve realized with a start that he’d tuned out Joe’s instructions.
The men spent twenty minutes loading the truck, then rumbled off.
Steve turned up the radio. “I love this song.”
Then there was a voiceover inviting everyone to a sale at a car dealership.
Matt shook his head.
Their first three deliveries went without incident. On the way to the last one Steve called when the station said the 8th caller would get Hip tickets.
“Ok Steve the Deliveryman,” the DJ said, “you know the game? I’ll give you the first part of a saying, and you have to finish it.”
“Got it,” Steve said.
“It’s raining cats and…”
“Uhhh…ok, we’re just gonna keep going here. A bird in the hand is…”
“Hard to hold.”
“No good deed goes…”
“A chain is as strong as…”
“The guy holding it.”
“A living dog is better than…”
“A stuffed cat.”
“What in the world,” the DJ said. “How do you….ok, round two. Things will get a little tougher, you ready?”
“How would you show the fly the way out of the fly bottle?”
Steve thought a moment. “A laser pointer.”
“Why did the cage go looking for a bird?”
“It was bored.”
“What would you fill Gabriel’s Horn with?”
“Gabriel’s Horn. A geometric figure with infinite surface area but finite volume.”
“What is your concept of virtue?”
“I don’t know,” Steve said. “I guess you just know.”
“What risks have you taken with your life?”
Steve was silent. A buzzer went off.
“Thanks for playing, Steve the Deliveryman! You didn’t get the tickets, but we appreciate the call.”
Steve stared at his phone. “What the hell was that?”
“Tough questions,” Matt said. “Was the one a paradox? I don’t know, sometimes they just mess with people.”
“Paradox,” Steve repeated.
“Sure. Like the donkey that couldn’t decide between two bales of hay the same distance away. Starved to death.”
“That makes sense,” Steve said. “I never decided to do something either. I don’t really know how I got here.”
“I wasn’t saying you’re the donkey,” Matt grinned at him.
“No, I know,” he said. “Sometimes things…”
“Sure,” Matt said.
They were greeted inside the front door of the retirement home by a man behind the desk. A woman in a wheelchair eyed them in the foyer, unmoving. Steve tried not to look. She didn’t have a nose.
“Mrs. Morrison will be right down,” she said.
She arrived ten minutes later, thanked them for coming, and apologized for taking so long. Steve had expected someone like his grandmother, God rest her, hardly able to walk or talk, but Mrs. Morrison breezed over to them, and chatted with them on the way up.
They fitted the frame together. Steve thumbed a blade open and cut the mattress free of its plastic. They laid the box spring on the frame, then the mattress on top.
“Ok, Mrs. Morrison,” Matt said. “Enjoy.”
“Hard to think about bed without Bill,” she said.
Matt balled up the sheeting. He nodded, then walked out.
“What happened to Bill?” Steve asked, as he read a message on his phone.
She just shrugged and unfurled a sheet. Steve watched it bloom upwards and slowly drift down.
“I’m sorry,” Steve said.
An elderly man in a blue blazer and pajama pants caned his way to the door. He nodded at Steve, who made a shooing motion with his free hand at him.
“She knows,” he said.
Steve looked at her in surprise, then shrugged and handed him a baggie. The man handed over a pill bottle.
“How much do I owe after those?”
“I don’t take trades,” he said, and squinted at the bottle: Cialis. “I’m not a pawn shop.”
“You look like you could use them,” the man said. Mrs. Morrison started laughing, then the man joined in.
“What the hell,” Steve said. “Never mind, I’ll get you next time.”
He walked down the hall. Residents’ pictures on the walls, their families on their doors. Most were open, and as Steve walked, the open doorways began to coalesce one after the other, like trees in front of the moon as you drive. The doors were nights, the rest of his nights upon the wild and forgetful earth. He wondered what those nights would look like, who would be beside him during those nights, whose restless body, drunken body, hungry body, if they’d be happy, if another would arrive to sleep on a smaller mattress, how many sleeps there would be until the next sleep, the sleep each of us is promised.
The woman in the wheelchair was now next to the door. Steve saw now she was making a break for it, with one hand, an inch at a time. He stopped and looked around. No one at the front desk. Time to leave the fly bottle, he thought.
“Where to,” he said, as he took the handles of the wheelchair and pushed her out the door, where they were greeted by the wind and Matt’s puzzled look behind the wheel of the truck, “we can go anywhere.”
About the Author: Mark Wagenaar is the author of three award-winning poetry collections, including the Saltman Prize-winning “Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining,” just released from Red Hen Press. His fiction and poetry appear widely, including the New Yorker, Tin House, the Southern Review, Gulf Coast, the Cincinnati Review, and River Styx, among many others. He is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University.