Charles D’Ambrosio  | Loitering | November 2014 | 25 minutes (5,836 words)

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Loitering: New & Collected EssaysFor our latest Longreads Exclusive, we are delighted to share “This Is Living,” an essay from Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays, published by Tin House. Subscribe to Tin House and check out their book titles. Buy the book

I was seven and had a leather purse full of silver dollars, both of which, the purse and the coins, I considered valuable. I wanted them stored in the bank. At the time, the bank had an imposing landmark status in my map of the world, in part because it shared the same red brick as the public school, the two most substantial buildings in our town. As a Catholic school kid I did a lot of fundraising in the form of selling candy bars, Christmas stamps and fruitcakes, and my favorite spot for doing business was outside the bank, on Friday afternoons, because that was payday. Working men came to deposit their checks and left the bank with a little cash for the weekend. Today, that ritual is nearly gone, its rhythms broken, except for people on welfare, who still visit banks and pack into lines, waiting for tellers, the first of every month. But back then I’d set my box of candy on the sidewalk and greet customers, holding the door for them like a bellhop. Friends of mine with an entirely different outlook on life tried to sell their candy at the grocery store, but I figured that outside the supermarket people might lie or make excuses, claiming to be broke; but not here, not at the bank, for reasons that seemed obvious to me: this was the headquarters of money. Most of the men were feeling flush and optimistic, flush because they were getting paid and would soon have money in their pockets, optimistic because the workweek was over and they could forget what they had done for the money. On their way in I’d ask if they wanted to buy a candy bar and they’d dip a nod and smile and say with a jaunty promissory confidence that I should catch them on the way out. And I did. I sold candy bars like a fiend. Year after year, I won the plastic Virgin Marys and Crucifixes and laminated holy cards that were given away as gifts to the most enterprising sales-kids at school. I liked the whole arrangement. On those Friday afternoons and early evenings, I always dressed in my salt-and-pepper corduroy pants and saddle shoes and green cardigan, a school uniform that I believed made me as recognizable to the world as a priest in his soutane, and I remember feeling righteous, an acolyte doing God’s work, or the Church’s. Money touched everyone in town, quaintly humanizing them, and I enjoyed standing outside the bank, at the center of civic life. This was my early education into the idea of money.

My hand will always remember the density of those silver dollars, the dead weight as I tumbled them back and forth, the dull clink as the coins touched. The nature of that weight offered a lesson in value too; you knew by a sense of the coin’s unique inner gravity that the silver was pure, that it wasn’t an alloy. Holding the coin in your palm you felt the primitive allure of the metal itself, its truth. Years later, I would pay for college by fixing washing machines and dryers. I was a repairman for a company that installed coin-operated machines in apartment buildings and laundromats. We had collectors in the field, men who worked set routes, hitting laundry rooms all over the city, emptying the coin boxes into canvas sacks. Late in the afternoon they returned to the shop and delivered the dirty bags to the counting room. The coins were filthy, turning everything they touched the lugubrious gray of pencil lead (you see the same graphite stain on the fingertips of people who play slot machines compulsively). The counting room was a dingy, windowless, fortified cement vault in back of the repair shop. Inside was a conveyor belt and a slotted metal chute and a machine for sorting the coins. A woman named Laurel did all the counting. She was thin and pale and her hair was limp and she wore black-rimmed glasses and a flowered smock that seemed a peculiarly sad flourish in that colorless place. She was a drudge in the operation, and unconsciously I equated her plain looks with honesty, her weak sexual presence with a lack of guile. Every afternoon thousands of dollars worth of coins slid across her tray. The metallic droning of the coins was mind numbing, and yet this woman, hearing the slightest deviation in that monotony, would toggle a switch and stop the belt, poke through the money in the chute, and pluck out the one silver coin—a Mercury dime, or a Washington quarter that predated copper-nickel composition—and replace it with one of her own. Thus in a matter of seconds she would make between a hundred and a thousand percent on her investment. One day she invited me into the counting room and demonstrated all of this, tapping a quarter against the tray, trying to teach me the subtle difference between the sound of a standard and a silver coin, and I never thought of her the same afterwards. The racket of those rattling coins was hellish in the confinement of her concrete bunker, but this pallid, dreary woman had a keen ear for that one true thing, the soft dull sound of silver as it thunked against metal, and she would eventually amass a small fortune in rare and valuable coins.

…this pallid, dreary woman had a keen ear for that one true thing, the soft dull sound of silver as it thunked against metal, and she would eventually amass a small fortune in rare and valuable coins.

My silver dollars felt like a fortune, assembled and protected and given value by an abiding faith, a loyalty to them. They were Christmas gifts from my father, one for every year of my life. My vague, instinctive resistance to the coins as legal tender—as pure purchasing power—added to their worth. Somehow I knew that I would never spend them, never convert them into baseball cards or Slurpees or rides at the Evergreen State Fair. I didn’t view them as vehicles for my desire; they were things in themselves, they held their own fascination, and I knew the continuing life of that fascination depended entirely on taking them out of circulation. As they lost currency, an element of worthlessness thus entered into my idea of money, an aesthetic dimension. I understood that their value increased the more they sank into the past, and because of this the coins had some of the quality of buried treasure. At that age, I lost things, I broke them or outgrew them, my interests changed, but I guarded those seven silver dollars jealously, aware of the link between their personal interest to me and their significance in the world. The coins had very little real toy value. I couldn’t throw them or use them to improvise scenarios of valor or heroism; and I couldn’t include anyone else in my play, as I did with my guns and Tonka trucks. I kept the coins in a leather purse that was shaped like a boot, a souvenir my father brought home from a trip to Tucson, where he had presented a paper at an academic conference; the boot zipped shut, and MEXICO was printed across the sole. I hid the purse in the bottom drawer of my dresser, stuffed beneath clothes I no longer wore, but then there was a moment in which I decided it was time to put the whole thing—the boot-shaped purse and silver dollars both—in the bank.

The only times I’d actually been inside the bank were in the company of my father, who, among other things, taught business finance. In back of the bank was the vault, the door a polished steel slab with a spoked wheel such as you would find at the helm of a ship, and inside the vault was my father’s safe deposit box. He kept important papers in the box, insurance policies and a few stock certificates that must have had sentimental value, as either early or important trades he’d made in his career, because normally a man with my father’s acumen would have held the issues in their street name. Also in the box, he kept an ornate silver watch and fob and penknife, a beautiful set stored in a case lined with crushed green velvet. It had belonged to his father, a man I’d never met. My father would set the watch on the table inside the vault and let me play with it while he shuffled through his papers, always telling me that his father had given it to him, and that he, in turn, would pass it on to me, when the time was right. Imagining that far-off juncture thrilled me, in large part because it implied that my father knew the future, and that he’d considered my place in it. I had only recently learned to tell time, and my sense of it was shaky, but I would pull the crown and adjust the delicate black hands until they closely matched those of the bank clock, then I would wind the stem and hold the watch to my ear, listening as the seconds ticked away inside.

Imagining that far-off juncture thrilled me, in large part because it implied that my father knew the future, and that he’d considered my place in it.

My father seemed affable and relaxed in the bank, friendly with the tellers and the president alike. He addressed everyone by name, he flirted and joked, walked briskly and with confidence, taking command of the space. His own father had been a bookie and a figure of the Chicago underworld. More than once my father had seen him viciously beat other men over money, and I would come to understand, with time, that it had terrified my dad, seeing his father so violent in the conduct of business. As a young boy, he would visit the local precinct, first with my grandmother, then on his own, to bail his father out of jail. Because they were on the take, the police had to make a show of arresting my grandfather periodically, and on those occasions my father would come to the station, only to find his dad laughing and joking and playing cards with the cops who’d arrested him. My father’s early education in money must have given him a glimpse of something savage and hollow in the heart of the system. The shock of that insight took the form of shame, as it does for so many of the son’s of immigrants, and so now, as I look back, it makes perfect sense to me that my father’s public self glowed in the company of people who did their business legitimately. His passion for securities—and common stock, particularly—was where he ultimately acquired his citizenship; in the bank, or on the phone with a broker, or in class teaching others about finance, he acted like a man with the rights and privileges of a native, a status his own father had never fully attained. Funny, charming, seemingly at ease—he became these things the minute he walked through the bank door. He especially loved the buildings that housed the institutions of money, banks among them. The enormous trust implied by the whole system was palpable to him, perhaps because he knew the fragility of it first hand, how beneath the flirtation and joking, the first names and handshakes, without some essential civil arrangement between people, it could always devolve into brutal beatings.

People who knew him in his capacity as a money-wiz have told me that he was a genius, and there’s no question that he was a smart man. Whether he was explaining why cigarettes were price inelastic or describing the dissonant notion behind fairly standard ideas of diversification (that you’re actually seeking an utter lack of correlation as a form of harmony), you felt the force and elegance of his mind—and at our house, this kind of stuff was table talk. And so what happened with my silver dollars and my shoe-purse is a mystery, a moment that I’ve returned to again and again over the years. The whole thing had the character of a lesson, of something more than a simple transaction. Put plainly, here is how I remember it. My father and I drove to the bank and stood in line and waited for a teller. When it was our turn, I reached up and stuck my shoe on the counter, which was about level with my chin. My father had instructed me at lunch that I would do all the talking, and we had even rehearsed the lines, so I said to the woman that I wanted to put my purse and silver dollars in the bank. Even to this day, I can see myself standing there, I know the hour, the weather outside as seen through the bank’s high windows, the slight feeling of confusion, the hesitance as I wondered if my words were making sense, the coldness at my temples where a faint doubt registered. My father exchanged a glance with the teller, and I looked back, over my shoulder, at the vault, and when he asked me if I was sure, I said yes, because that was our script, that was the story we had rehearsed and agreed to tell. The teller did her work, and then handed me back my empty shoe and a green savings book. At this point I was so flustered that I couldn’t summon the courage to tell her what I was thinking—that the shoe was part of it, that I wanted my leather boot in the bank too.

Naturally, when I went to retrieve the silver dollars they were gone; and yet I was devastated when I was handed, instead, seven ordinary dollar bills. I felt rooked. All the alchemy of imagination that had brought me to the bank, that had enlarged the idea of those silver dollars, was undone. What has remained curious to me over the years is why my father didn’t see what was happening and intervene. He had all the savvy, while in some ways my idea of the bank was based on banks in old Westerns. For me, it was a place where people stored money, and where criminals could grab it, if clever or brutal enough. The bank kept money safe. It was the physical place, it was the vault with the polished steel door, it was the safe deposit box in which I’d store my silver dollars beside the watch and fob that would one day be mine, when the time was right. Most of all, the bank was where my father and I spent some of our best days, the rare place where I saw him happy and at home, his private and increasingly troubled and violent self set aside in favor of the public man who was upright and worthy and could stride across the carpet to shake the president’s hand. It seems so obvious now, but ultimately that’s what I was investing in when I decided to put my silver dollars in the bank, that future with my father.


Our business at the bank finished, we took a walk. Town was only one block long but my father was dressed for Michigan Avenue, dapper in his wingtips, navy blue blazer, and the sort of rakish flat cap favored by southern Italians. I wore dungarees and leather boots and a green flannel shirt from Penney’s. I kept a native’s eye on the Sammamish, where sockeye ran in the fall, flashing red in the slow murk of the slough, and a disused granary that rumor said was full of rats, but to my father that beckoning world was terra incognita, and at the corner, already impatient, the main drag used up, he steered me across the street, leading us toward what we called our “secret destination.” It was fun to play along with my father in this conspiracy, to hold this secret in common, though we’d both known all along exactly where the day would end. We were going to the bakery and we were going to eat chocolate cake.

On the way there my father mentioned that when he was a boy he had a favorite uncle who gave him a Morgan silver dollar every Christmas. He didn’t need to explain to me that the seven Morgans I’d just put in the bank were the direct descendants of that distant gesture.

“Where’s your uncle now?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” my father said. And then, in a way that registered very strangely for me, he added, “He was unmarried.”

I didn’t know what my father meant but I never forgot what he said. My ear seized on the distortion, heard the lurch in logic, the faltering fact: unmarried. He seemed to have answered a question I hadn’t asked, drawing on a depth that was wholly private. Briefly, he was alone. In the worshipping eyes of a son any father’s life is epic, I suppose, but nothing in my father’s life ever approached the coherence of narrative. He was, I know, a proud and high-minded man, but with the kind of rigid pride and impossible rectitude that’s a form of suppression, an immigrant son’s pride, the triumphant pride, namely, of having overcome the past. In his epic life the trail of evidence was scant, the facts meager and few; an odd scattering of fragments and then a vast surrounding silence. That unmarried uncle was one such fragment, but my father would return to this uncle so often, feeding off the same thin fact, that I began to collect the pieces, storing them up as zealously as I had guarded my silver dollars. And so, in time, this one false note, this strange detail, this favorite uncle, this unmarried uncle eventually acquired a name, he was Chris, he was Uncle Chris, an Uncle Chris who lived alone, alone in a single room, a room that was spare and clean, a small cheap room in a flophouse on Chicago’s near West Side, and one day, a winter day, my grandfather, Antonio D’Ambrosio, viciously beat his brother and left him, this brother, this Uncle Chris, the giver of silver dollars, bloody and unconscious in a hillock of dirty snow beneath the El tracks at Argyle.

In the worshipping eyes of a son any father’s life is epic, I suppose, but nothing in my father’s life ever approached the coherence of narrative.

The Argyle El stop served as my grandfather’s front, and all through elementary school my father, always a go-getter, worked the counter in the afternoons and on weekends. In his mind the front was the family business, a Father & Son operation, and it was his job to hustle commuter sundries, all the newspapers, magazines, cigarettes and candy that would show sufficient income on my grandfather’s modest but fraudulent tax returns. “I saw him beat the living daylights out of my Uncle Chris,” my father would tell me, years later, in language that had never escaped 1944. “It was ugly,” he said. “I ran,” he said. “I ran the hell out of there, I ran all the way to the lake and”—with a dismissive wave of his hand he shut the story down, a thing beyond words, pointless to try, what can you say? He ran and it was winter and in his fear he’d fled without his coat. Now whenever I visit Chicago I make the same run myself, chasing after my father, pursuing him all the way down Argyle, crossing the Outer Drive until I too hit the lake. My father doesn’t know I do this, and he probably wouldn’t care or even understand, and really, I have no idea why this lunatic errand matters to me, beyond the foolish belief that, one of these days, when I reach the lake’s edge, I will find him, I mean literally find him, still there, an eleven year old boy, cold and alone, with nowhere else to run.

Late at night my grandfather would crush saltine crackers in a coffee mug and fill it with cold milk. That was his favorite snack, and the sweetest memory my father ever shared with me. Whenever I imagine it I’m right there with him, looking over his shoulder in some half-lit, long-ago kitchen, watching a boy watch a man he loves spoon a gruel of milk and saltines into his mouth as he totes the vig on a loan or reads over the race results in the Chicago Tribune, tallying up the winners he’ll pay off and the losers whose money he’ll pocket. I have a somewhat desperate need to witness the scene and to know my father had that love, that small store of tenderness in his memory. My grandfather worked twelve hours a day, six days a week and then seven during World War II, when so many horses ran at Mexican tracks. He went to sleep at 2 AM, he woke at 8 AM. He rarely attended church but he tithed and then some, always the single largest contributor to St. Thomas of Canterbury’s coffers, back in the days when those numbers were brazenly published in church bulletins. In a bookie’s universe cash flows constantly, and then there’s the siphoning. His front at the Argyle El stop was prime real estate and it’s unlikely that the cops at the local precinct were the only people he greased. In that era, on the North Side of Chicago, he would have answered to Hymie Weiss, Bugs Moran and, later, Paul Ricca, heir to the Capone Syndicate.

I find it much harder to imagine the intricacies of my father’s confusion as he walked to the precinct, suddenly the man of the house, an envelope of cash in his pocket. Once he had the drill down, once he realized he wouldn’t find his father behind bars, in prison stripes, guarded by men with drawn guns, it only took him ten minutes to make his dad’s bail. The sham arrests kept the record straight, but the hero of the story was cash. Cash was magic, cash was powerful, cash was the savior. Although I imagine the short walk home was conducted in silence—after all, this was just another day on the job—I suspect that in some tacit but troubled agreement an economist was busy being born. I can guess what my father would say now, belatedly filling the silence, and here’s my weak imitation of his mind at work: to legitimize an illegal business such as bookmaking, you needed the approbation of the law, or at least the approval of the people who enforce the law. Those enforcers grant the bookmaker a license that isn’t legally theirs to give, but which, by virtue of their position, they have the power to create or destroy at whim. The law enforcers charge a fee for the mythical but economically significant license and, to protect both themselves and the licensee, they create an insurance policy, issued to the bookie, that provides ongoing protection for the life of the illegal business. Neither the insurance and its protections nor the license are free. There is a cost to everything. There are no free lunches.

Of course, graft and corruption and gambling make a grab at the free lunch and the D’Ambrosios did more than OK in America. They owned their six-flat outright, my father was enrolled in a fine Jesuit academy and was meeting Catholic “swells” from all around the city, and he had at his disposal a new black Buick with a necker’s knob on the steering wheel, which allowed him to coolly turn a corner and squeeze a date’s thigh at the same time. Then in 1950, Antonio D’Ambrosio dropped dead of a heart attack on the sidewalk outside his Argyle front. He was fifty-two years old. In the box on his death certificate for USUAL OCCUPATION my grandfather was listed as “Proprietor” and in the box for KIND OF BUSINESS a clerk neatly printed “Cigar Store.” He passed away a month after my father finished high school. I know nothing about those days except that my father had the key to a safe deposit box, and at the bank, when he was alone in the vault, in the quiet of the armored walls, with the day gate locked, he turned the key, opened the box, and found one hundred thousand dollars, cash. Or, in today’s dollars, my father turned that key and opened the lid on a million dollars. That, as my father would say, is a nice chunk of change.

My father didn’t want the burden, particularly the burden of his mother, my grandmother, who beat him pitilessly with a broom handle all through his boyhood. “The broom treatment,” he called it, without any elaboration. It’s not hard for me to imagine that those beatings did all the things beatings do to people. Still, the moment he turned the key and opened that safe deposit box his career in finance was determined, and my grandmother would live off the money, conservatively managed by her son, for the next thirty-six years. The bookie’s boy went legit, breaking with his father, and yet, a good son, kept his hand in a world whose fated, narcotic action is gambling’s kissing cousin. Instead of handicapping horses he played the market, trading racing sheets for Value Line, and his career in finance was, in some ways, an apologia for a life of crime. That early death broke my father, dividing him from his past, but the heavy tectonics of one of our most cherished myths—that each new generation will surpass the previous—did a lot of the heaving and sundering too. It’s a brutal business, making Americans. As soon as he finished his dissertation, looking for a fresh start, my father found a job in a world as remote from Chicago as he could imagine, in a place neither he nor anyone in his family could really picture, and was carried along on the buoyant currents of yet another American myth, moving as far west as he could go and still be standing on the continental US.

That early death broke my father, dividing him from his past, but the heavy tectonics of one of our most cherished myths—that each new generation will surpass the previous—did a lot of the heaving and sundering too.

Which brings us to the secret destination. Warm from the sun, warm from the ovens, warm from the smell of rising yeast and freshly baked bread, all this safe and sleepy warmth was a kind of quiet, and in that white-tiled Dutch bakery my father’s voice, I remember, boomed a little too loudly, waking the place to life. He tapped the counter bell twice and when a stout woman with her hair in a snood appeared my father was already reaching deep into his pocket. As sophisticated as he was about every manner of financial instrument, cash was where it was at, cash was holy, and all his life my father kept bricks of it, bill-strapped at the bank, stored in a safe at home. His stash, he called it. He always had to have his stash. And whenever he plunged a hand into his left pocket it was time for ostentation. He’d stretch his arms out to clear his cuffs, hold his gaudy gold money clip chest high, lick his fingers and flick through bills, a c-note on the outside, of course, implying wealth in a fat wad that might in fact hide a poor truth, that the bulk of the bankroll was made up of singles, then he’d snap off one, two, three bills, whatever was needed. This wasn’t the father with the doctoral dissertation on railroad economics. This was someone else, this was my father in his fluency, flashing his cash and slapping a sawbuck on the counter as if we were back in Chicago, maybe the Empire Room at the Palmer House, and not a bakery in the boonies on a Saturday afternoon. I watched the whole performance from a tiny table by the window. We’d done our business at the bank and now we each had big piece of chocolate layer cake, thick with icing. It was yellow cake. I don’t know how they got it yellow but they did and the yellow was beautiful against the warm brown frosting. We loved that chocolate cake. This was a good day, a really good day, and I knew what was coming next. My father stared for a long while out the window, at what, I don’t know, but I waited, waited for his famous phrase, sure it would come, and when his reverie broke and he returned to the bakery and our little table, he smiled at me, then looked down at his cake, and there it was, sure as rain.

“This is living,” he said, “huh, Charlie boy?”

Of course, of course—the past followed him out west, and now we had our own history, easily as troubled as the one he’d left behind in Chicago and far more violent. Every time I visited my father I was certain it would be the last. Months would go by, even a year, and I wouldn’t know whether he was dead or alive, and then I would see a sign—a leaf falling just so, a plastic sack blowing through an empty intersection—and corny as those omens were, the spookiness was real to me, always there, lurking below the surface of my days, and would haunt and harass me until the only cure was to call him again. Or I’d pay him a visit after dwelling on some silly, old, odd, obscure chain of memory. Other times I’d show up intending business, bringing a family grievance to the table. He’d sent my sister a letter smeared with his blood. He’d tried to sell his mentally-ill son a cemetery plot. He’d shown up at several of my readings wearing a Chicago Cubs hat dangling with fishing lures, a crown of thorns fashioned from spinners and spoons and treble-hooked crankbaits, and then he’d just stand there, thirty feet away, staring and saying nothing while I signed books, in a grotesque martyrdom that I somehow understood.

One day I was drinking coffee on a bench in Victor Steinbrueck Park, at the north end of the Public Market, next to a Japanese man, who was reading what I believed to be a biography of Hitler. The title was Hitler, anyway. His son sat between us, a little boy of roughly four; he was bored and antsy, pestering his father with questions that went unanswered. “What year did you first exist in, Daddy? When did you first come alive?” In his frustration the boy kept trying to close the book, slapping at it and mussing the pages, and the father kept pushing him away. I finished my coffee and walked to the south end of the Market and called my father from a payphone outside Delaurenti’s, an Italian grocery, asking if he’d eaten. He hadn’t. I brought spaghetti and meatballs, buffalo mozzarella and roasted peppers, green olives stuffed with pimentos, and a jar of hot pepperoncini, indulgences out of his past, hoping the feast might provoke that old famous phrase, but the food didn’t matter. Nothing in this world seemed to matter anymore. Instead he kept referring to the mystics, as if in fact those mystics were in the room. “As the mystics tell us,” he would say. “all is well, all is well.” In rejecting the material world, he seemed to have found an alibi, an elsewhere, glorying in a triumph that was hard for me to hear. He would eventually make himself destitute, giving all his money, every scrimped nickel, to the Catholic Church, becoming a ward of the dioceses. This contemptus mundi included his kids; he wanted it known that he did not need us for his happiness, did not need us at all. He no longer spoke to any of his seven children. He rarely left his apartment. He was a physical mess, obese, wheezing, unable to lift himself from his chair without tremendous exertion. Now and then I could see the old fire in my father’s eyes, and with the urgency of some thought roiling inside him he would struggle forward, but he seemed trapped in his body, wholly bound by his physical decline. The great and engaging brilliance, and the passion that made it so infectious and forceful, was struggling, it seemed, toward an apophatic mysticism, negating facts and fictions and emptying itself of pride and all its projects. He was done with all those corrupt and violent appetites, but alone, divested of business and free of family, the unknowing was agonized. After we’d eaten, as I washed and dried the dishes and a hard rain whipped against the windows, my father said, “You know, I’ve never been to the rainforest. Isn’t that a hell of a thing?” It seemed terrible to have come so close to the ocean and never set foot in the Pacific, as if his journey west were never completed, but when I offered to drive him out to the coast he waved me off.

“As the Desert Fathers tell us,” he said. “all is well, all is well.”

At the end of the night he led me down the hall to a closet and gave me what remained of a box of red pens and asked if I wanted his old safe. It was beige, about the size of a milk crate, and weighed at least 100 pounds. I took it, I said yes, just because he’d spent the night renouncing the world, trying to let go, and I felt that I might offend his pride by refusing this parting gift. I carried the safe down the corridor and sat on it, breathing hard, while I waited for the elevator. It was one of those nights in Seattle when the wind downtown was strong enough to blow flowerpots off the decks of high rises and the traffic signals danced a crazed tarantella over the empty intersections. The streets down there were always drifting with deranged characters but that night even people with nowhere to go had found somewhere to go. The weight of the safe was ponderous and uncooperative, too heavy to hoist on my shoulder for long, impossibly awkward to carry in front of me. The die-cast edges cut my fingers, and it took me forever to lurch and waddle the five blocks home. Every fifty feet or so I dropped the safe on the sidewalk, gasping for breath. Then I’d sit on it and roll a cigarette, smoking in the rain. I wondered if passing cops would think I was a thief, in an inept heist, making an even more pathetic getaway. I wish I could say that I did the sensible thing, ditching the safe in a dumpster or abandoning it on someone’s stoop, but I didn’t, I carried it as far as I possibly could. By the time I got back to my apartment I was too wet and miserable and exhausted to haul the safe up the stairs, and I had no use for it anyway. I didn’t have the combination and I didn’t own anything valuable. I left the safe in the alley behind my building, in a patch of dirt beneath a tall cedar, and it stayed there for a long time. No one took it because it was heavy and it was empty. And then one morning I looked out my window and it was gone.

* * *

Copyright © 2014 by Charles D’Ambrosio. First appeared in Loitering, published by Tin House Books.

Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.