I couldn’t stop thinking about the circus. My parents took me once when I was a kid. It was a travelling circus; the kind that pulls into the city one morning and transforms a stadium into a big top. I sat in a bucket seat craning my neck as I tried to take in everything that was happening under the bright unflinching glare of the mounted lights. This was thirty years ago and the performers were all Russian. The lion on the pedestal was underfed and the whip that whistled through the air made contact with leathered scars that no one in the audience gave a hint of a shit about. I saw maybe twenty seconds of the entire lion act through the porthole of space created by a hand resting on a hip. The adult standing in front of me had decided the circus was too exciting to take in seated, but not so exciting that her feet found themselves overwhelmed. The tall woman sagged in every possible place, and her body had the same contours as a beanbag chair. By moving side to side at opportune moments, I was able to see a half minute of the elephant and most of the trapeze acts. Then the little boy beside the woman convinced her to put him up on her shoulders so he could see even more of what I was missing. The newly erected tower of humans offered me a small window with a view of the clowns. Six men came out from behind the curtain and feigned panic at the sight of the emaciated bear. The sight of the clowns sent people in droves to the concession stands and washrooms. The clowns, obviously used to the mass exodus, upped their game and began loudly honking horns. When they did manage to turn a head their way, it never lasted. I had been holding it through the last two acts, but there was no way I was leaving — I could finally see the show and I wasn’t about to get up.
The clowns were all variations of the same tramp. They fluctuated in height and weight, but the cheap costumes and sloppy makeup were the same. I saw every tumble and every prank without having to navigate my way around a constantly shifting human obstruction. Near the end of the act, two of the clowns disappeared behind a curtain and returned less than a minute later in the front seat of a compact car. I remember thinking the car must have been European because I had never seen one on the road before. All six clowns surrounded the vehicle and began vaulting one another over the hood. The lingering disinterested crowd managed only a few weak oohs and ahs for the acrobatics. Everyone shut their mouth when the bear came over. The trainer, at the behest of the clown who had been behind the wheel of the compact, led the animal to the car; he opened the door and pointed to the interior. After a few sharp commands that echoed in the silent stadium, the bear wedged his bony ribs through the door and into the car. The audience responded with the sound of creaks as they got out of their chairs. What came next surprised everyone. The clowns opened the three remaining doors and began to get inside. I got out of my seat and strained to see how the clowns, who already had little chance of fitting inside the car, managed to do it with a bear in the front seat. The doors began to close one by one. When the final door slammed shut, the sound was met with an eruption of applause.
It was that car, at least a decade old thirty years ago, I was thinking about while I watched the front door. How many people were going to walk through that entrance? I had counted seven in the last hour. The meet had been scheduled for nine, by my watch a half hour ago, and people just kept showing up. A couple of guys had been early; most were late. I was late to the meeting myself, but not late to the house. I had been in the neighbourhood at four and in a parking space with a view of the house at five. The townhouse was in Jersey City on the quiet end of a busy street. Someone was home. Through the open blinds, I saw movement every few minutes. At seven p.m., a Volkswagen pulled into the driveway and a man got out and walked to the trunk. He yanked out numerous grocery bags and worked to get them all into his hands. He managed to lug all of the bags up the stairs to the front door. Rather than put the bags down, the man chose to kick the door. Porch lights came on and a woman opened the front door. The man sidestepped his way into the townhouse and used his heel to close the door behind him. After that, the house was a buzz of energy. Lights went on in every room and people moved quickly around the house. At eight thirty, a pickup pulled into the remaining half of the driveway. A man got out and strode the steps to the door. He was easily a head taller than the cab of the truck. He spent less than a minute on the porch before the door opened and he ducked his way under the door and into the house. In the foyer, the tall man paused to hug the guy who had brought in the groceries. I caught a second of his profile, but it was enough. The hug lasted long enough to make these two men partners, not the life kind — the job kind. The hug ended with simultaneous back claps and then the shorter of the two men closed the door.
Ten to nine brought another man; this one parked down the street and didn’t need to duck to cross the threshold. The third guest also wasn’t greeted with a hug from the man who clearly fulfilled the role of host. The next six guests arrived in an order that could only be described as random. The intervals and appearance resisted any form of pattern, but the numbers woke something paranoid in my brain. The binoculars put the monster back in the cage. Too many of the interactions were stiff — far too stiff for men who knew each other. Had these men been on the job, they would have been on the job. No one would be shaking hello if they were getting down to the business of killing someone who was about to show up.
My plan had been to walk in five minutes after the last man showed up. The problem: the last man never seemed to show. People kept walking up to the townhouse, making awkward introductions, and walking inside.
The eighth man came from the busier end of the street. He wore a wool pea coat and a scarf knotted around his neck. The dark hair pushed back by the brisk March air never lost its shape. Even in the wind it looked cool. He effortlessly shifted his hips and glided around an elderly woman doing her best to keep her grocery cart from tipping over. She forgot about the rickety cart and the wind when she passed the man on the street. The old woman stopped on the sidewalk and turned her head to follow the ass of the much younger man. Through the binoculars, I watched the man’s face as he gave a small wave to the woman he knew was staring at his back. Miles was smiling ear to ear.
I had worked a job with Miles more than two years back. We had made money, but not friends. Miles let the smile dim a few watts as he turned up the path to the door. He knocked and was let inside. There was a handshake, but this one wasn’t awkward; it wasn’t that Miles and the Volkswagen driver were acquainted — Miles just didn’t do anything awkward. I saw Miles’s mouth move rapidly, and suddenly the host seemed uncomfortable. He directed Miles with a wave of his hand and closed the door.
I checked my watch as I unbuckled my seat belt. The numbers were unusual, to say the least, but nothing else read as dangerous. I got out of the car and felt the cold spring air collide with my exposed neck. I ignored the chill and checked the street for traffic before walking to the other side. I angled my approach and stepped up onto the sidewalk a few feet from the path Miles had taken a few minutes before. No one watched me from the windows as I walked towards the house. I stopped at the door and checked the street again before knocking twice. Half a minute later, the door swung open.
“Yes?” Up close, I could see that the host was in the less fun end of his thirties. His stomach pushed against the buttons of his shirt and his belt was just holding on to the last hole.
“I’m here for the meeting,” I said.
The host’s face stretched into a smile that exposed straight white teeth. He extended a hand and gave my own a vigorous shake.
“Name’s David. It’s really great to meet you. My brother-in-law told me all about you. You did a job together eight months back. You remember Alvin, right?”
“’Course he does.”
I turned my head and saw the man who had been forced to duck as he entered the townhouse. This time I had more than just a second’s look at his profile.
“Alvin,” I said.
“How many times I gotta tell ya? I’m goin’ by Vin now.”
“Right,” I said. “Everybody here?”
“We’re still waiting on someone,” David said. “But that’s cool, there’s beer and snacks downstairs. Make yourself at home.”
I looked at David. He was serious; there were snacks in the basement. I looked at Alvin, but he just nodded and turned towards the stairs. He hunched his shoulders in anticipation of the slanted ceiling and led the way down the stairs. I stepped onto the basement carpet and immediately saw a pool table and a large flat-screen mounted on the far wall. The television was so large I could make out the stats scrolling underneath the game. Folding chairs had been scattered against the walls throughout the basement. The pool table occupied two other men and the couch across from the TV was at capacity; three men had squeezed themselves in to watch college basketball. Miles ignored both games and set up shop alone at a card table.
He saw me and nodded. “Do you think this is a rumpus room?” He said as he ran his hand back and forth across the felt-covered table. “I have no idea what a rumpus room is, but I think I might be sitting in one. I have no facts to back it up. It’s more of a gut feeling.”
One of the men at the pool table paused midshot and gave Miles a hard stare. The pool player was big — big shoulders, big hands, big gut. Even the hair that wasn’t saddled by the old baseball cap was big. The curly and wild locks passed his ears and deformed the shadow of his head on the worn tabletop.
Miles followed my line of sight to the man. “Oh, did I do it again? You were shooting weren’t you? Sorry. I’ll try to be more quiet.”
I circled the table and took a seat that allowed me to keep my back to the wall.
“You’re late,” Miles said.
I looked over the bowls of chips that surrounded a warm shrimp ring. I had never been to a meeting with a shrimp ring before. “A lot of people here,” I said.
Miles nodded. “A lot of people in a rumpus room.”
“How many times are you going to say rumpus room?” the pool player barked.
“Depends,” Miles said. “Do you think this is a rumpus room? If you’re sure it’s not, then I’ll definitely stop saying it. I don’t want to sound like an idiot.”
The pool player muttered something loud enough for everyone to hear and went back to his game. Miles ignored the insult and turned his head back to me. He smirked and then his face lost all trace of expression. “You have a problem with the numbers?”
I nodded. “Every man you add to a job adds more than just a pair of hands. It adds baggage. All the personalities and ideas create variables, layers of unexpected consequences that will need to be dealt with. Every job has something, and you deal with them as they come. Most times you can because an isolated problem isn’t usually enough to sink a job. But every number you add expands the potential fuckups and makes them exponentially harder to solve because you have to work out a solution that makes the whole group happy. I see eight men walk through a door and I get a headache just thinking about the homework.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
The pool player wasn’t playing pool anymore. He was standing beside the table with the cue in two hands. Seeing the man bent over the table didn’t give me a real impression of his size. I had pegged him as big. Standing at full height suddenly made the word feel weak — the man was huge. His white T-shirt hugged his barrel-shaped torso; the logo on the old shirt had faded into an indecipherable smear that matched the grey streaks running through his tangled hair. His heavy hands wrung the cue, and the motion revealed prison ink on the inside of his forearms. The tattoo was faded and poorly done, likely from his first fall a long way back. Based on his eagerness to fight in order to cement his position as the alpha in the room, I guessed he did more than one stretch.
I nodded my head towards Miles while keeping my eyes on the man holding the cue. “I’m talking to him,” I said.
“Your talking is fucking up my game.”
“That’s because we’re all crammed down here in this rumpus room.”
The big man brought the cue up in a single hand and pointed it at Miles’s head. “What did I say about your mouth?”
Behind him, the other pool player had given up on the game. He was taller than the other man, but slim in every way his opponent was immense.
Miles opened his mouth to say something and then gave up on it. He turned his head towards me. “You said you watched eight men walk through the door. I just caught that. You weren’t late, you were just on the fence.”
“Not so much on the fence now that I see the workload,” I said.
“Too much homework?”
I nodded. “A nine-man job is worse than calculus.”
“What about a job with nine men and a woman? What subject is that?”
I followed Miles’s nod and watched a black woman take the last two steps down into the basement.
The pool player forgot about us. “What the fuck is this? Tony, you seeing this shit?”
The other pool player said, “I see it, Johnny.” Tony had a deep southern drawl that matched the mullet trailing down his neck.
“What the fuck we need a nigger for?”
“She-nigger,” Tony added.
If the woman on the stairs heard the two men, and there was no way she could have missed it, she didn’t let it show. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and gave the basement a slow once-over. After considering her seating options, she selected a spot on the far side of the card table next to Miles.
The second her ass made full contact with the seat, Miles leaned in. “Let me ask you something.”
The petite woman stopped scanning the room and turned her eyes to Miles. She had a face made for the table she was seated at — pure poker. Her eyes had the dull interest of a woman who had heard it all before and had sat through the re-runs.
Johnny jabbed the cue towards Miles. “I swear to God, if you say rumpus room . . .” He let the threat linger in the ether.
“What the hell is a rumpus room?” the woman said.
“I think this might be a rumpus room,” Miles said. “No one else seems to have an opinion on the subject though.”
The woman looked around the basement. Her gaze lingered a little longer on Johnny and Tony. “I’m not sure there’s enough room to rumpus.”
Johnny crossed the room, jolting the table violently with his hip as he passed. He took a handful of shirt and pulled Miles’s face to his.
“What did I tell you?”
“Alright, everybody, it looks like everyone is here, so how about we get started?” Alvin was at the bottom of the stairs, looking our way. “We got a lot to talk about and no time for this shit.”
Johnny held onto Miles long enough for him to feel like he hadn’t lost any face, and then he let him go.
David came down the stairs a second later, a laptop under his arm, and walked around Alvin to the television. “Sorry, guys, I have to turn this off.”
One of the guys on the couch said, “Just mute it.”
David looked apologetic. “Can’t. We need it for the presentation.” He fiddled with a long remote and the basketball game became a black screen. After a few seconds at the keyboard, the TV mirrored the laptop display.
“Pull the chairs around,” Alvin said.
When the five of us didn’t move from the table, Alvin said, “There a problem here?”
“There’s an asshole here,” Johnny said.
Miles leaned in towards the woman. “He means me.”
She let an eyebrow lazily creep up about half an inch. “I gathered that.”
“See what I mean,” Johnny said. “He won’t fucking stop. Maybe if there were a few less teeth in that mouth of his, he’d be a bit more careful about opening it.”
Alvin sighed. “We don’t got time for this. You want to hear about the job, find a seat. You want to pick a fight, get the hell out of here and find a fucking bar.”
“I don’t know about you, but I want to stay,” Miles said.
Johnny looked at Tony. His partner returned the look with one of his own. There was some kind of communication in the exchange that only the two men understood. Whatever wasn’t said was enough to convince Johnny to stay and hear Alvin out. He stepped in close to Miles and jabbed a finger into his chest. “Just keep to the other side of the room.”
The two men walked away from the table and found two chairs against one of the walls. The woman gave the two men a head start before she got up, pushed her chair back into place, and found a chair far away from Johnny and Tony.
When it was just the two of us, I looked Miles in the eye. “Why are you here?”
“Same reason as you.”
“I’m here to work,” I said.
“Same goes for me.”
“That what you’re doing?”
“What? Those guys are assholes.”
“Those guys are here for the job.”
“So the job is only the job if it gets done. That can’t happen if you get murdered with a pool cue in the middle of a rumpus room.”
Miles clapped me on the shoulder. “So you do think this is a rumpus room.”
“Don’t know. That makes two things I don’t know.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“If this is the only job you’re working,” I said.
Miles went a beat without saying anything. It was long enough for me to let a bit of a grin form on my face and for him to rebound.
“You really comfortable with guys like that watching your back?”
I looked over the group of men as I considered my response. Alvin had gotten to his feet and was giving the room a once-over of his own. He worked hard to catch my eye, but I gave his stare the slip. “You want to work with upstanding citizens, go be a bank teller. The background checks weed out most of the riff-raff. Right now, you’re not in a bank, you’re in a basement with nine criminals. We’re all riff-raff. You’re sitting around hassling two guys because you think they’re not decent human beings. Your only concern should be if they can do what they say they can do. If they can do that, everything else they say gets a pass.”
“So you want me to give them a pass?”
“I want you to shut your mouth and keep your feelings to yourself because every time you piss them off you take their minds off the job and put the rest of us in a bit more shit.”
“You really sticking up for that white-power asshole?”
I nodded. “You want a noble thief, get a library card.”
Alvin gave up on being subtle and spoke loud enough to be heard over the rest of the conversations going on. “We ready to get started?”
Miles ignored the question; he had one of his own for me. “Do you really think you can trust those two to watch your back?”
I looked over at Johnny and Tony and found them staring at me. I stared back until I got bored. It happened fast. “My back doesn’t need watching. I just need them to do what they say they’ll do.”
“And you think they can?”
I looked back at the two thugs. “I’m going to find out.”