by Jim Powell
The mansion’s owner Mr. Harris is checking my work again, fourth time today. This safe room my boss Settle and I are building for him. He gauges the vaulted doorframe, the drywall hiding steel like smooth limestone masked the rough blocks of ancient pyramids. Harris sneers at me like I’m some pharaoh’s slave.
He’s into Egypt big time, like I was in middle school. Glass cases show off his collection—figurines, amulets, painted potsherds. But downstairs there’s another secret room—reached via a panel in the library—that Settle built last year to protect precious, and my bet illegal, artifacts. I’ve snuck in there though its chill creeps me out. Papyrus scrolls, golden scarabs, god-headed staffs, a mummy’s sarcophagus—without the mummy, thank Isis! On one wall that crazy old artist Taft (he who newsworthily drowned in the estate’s pond) painted a mural with the god Horus’s head replaced by Harris’s own hawk-like face! The man is obsessed—with Egypt and himself.
We’ll be finished tomorrow, Settle reminds him. My last day on any job? We’ve been at it two months, but last week I got this feeling from Harris’s look that something was off. He’s the type who’d as soon kill me as scowl. I said this to Settle who laughed at my concern, clapped me on the back like I’m his buddy. But really there’s no one who’d much miss me. Settle deposits Harris’s checks and cuts me cash. He’s dependent on these rich guys, as were those architects for the pyramids, right? I’m mere labor and could quit anytime, just not show up, but it would be my last day of any work anywhere up here in ritzy Hamlin County. Times are tough since the union died and Settle reminds me I’m lucky to be the help here—so don’t be a hindrance. Guess I’ll wait for my pay and see what turns up next.
Harris smirks as if he’d actually recognize quality work. “Good job, Settle, and almost on time.” He gives a thumbs-up as he glances at me. Settle gives me a nod as he follows Harris out. But left alone, I don’t feel safe in his safe room.
A “safe” room—safe from what? I put on the mask and open the paint can. Harris’s a big shot, smiles photogenic in the paper though he’s skinny and bald. Arts gigs mostly, “benefits” that guys like me see no benefit from. His friends might be jealous, but no one except the IRS poses danger to more than his ego. Only losing wealth causes alarm. I mean the estate has armed guards. And there aren’t a lot of Egyptian art thieves around except in movies. Kidnap his over-bleached wife or chubby college son? Who could stand them long enough to collect the ransom? Harris claims to be a self-made man but some say his business is nothing but a Ponzi … a pyramid scheme so to speak!
The paint fumes burn my eyes and haze my vision. These walls would quickly close in on me all alone, even if I was as rich as Harris. The room’s empty now, but even equipped with comfort and cameras, such safety seems twisted. No marble bathroom with gold fixtures can shine up the windowless gloom.
Fear of anything outside himself, maybe that’s it, security for its own sake—one small step from paranoia. Like Pharaoh feared the Jews, or Pilate feared Jesus. Some omen Harris sees in our stained clothes and weathered faces, as if we threaten him with some sturdy silence he wants to control. If I fought back—against what?—there’d be no winning. Better to let this chamber be a giant canopic burial jar to store Harris’s cold heart.
I shake my head to clear the giddy vapors, but keep painting. After this only cleanup’s left. Settle will stay on, overseeing the dig for a weather shelter beneath the six-car garage. A tornado this spring took tiles off the roof and apparently tizzied Mrs. Harris like she’d been bitten by an asp. Other projects loom down the road—a basketball barn, a second guest house, an infinity pool the size of infinity. Mr. Harris’s got 200 acres and his own golf course following the creek that wends like the Nile through his empire, so the possibilities seem endless. Settle will have work here for life! I only hope he calls me back when the new construction starts.
The big boss looks in again to see how I’m doing. Holding his nose he does look like Horus, a uniquely ugly superstar. I heard rumors he may run for office, Mayor or even Governor. Con or not, Harris’s so rich he must know things I don’t. Maybe I’d vote for him and let the wealth trickle down to me. What would I have to lose?
He directs Settle to the unfinished wall, painting strokes in the air before he backs out. Settle nods at me, exits, then shuts the door tight. He’s not a bad guy. I’ll work for him again in a second if I get the chance. So I tidy up a corner and move to the final wall, the narrow one beside the bathroom door. I feel like I’m moving slowly, the closed air heavy with the paint’s reek. My brush moves in slow motion from can to wall until I find my pace, a rower on a barge, bondsman fanning with a palm. There’s no use arguing with the gods, old ones or new.
My vision is dizzy, but the job looks pretty good. A sandish gold that compliments the floor’s tile. Other colors swirl in my eyes. What special pieces from his collection will Harris hold here, precious as himself? I wonder what vessel will store his soul, and picture him hiding here, scared as the rest of us, trapped and waiting for his end. I tremble to think of such a life without death, so secure, a corpse preserved for all eternity.
Jim Powell holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He received a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis for 2011-13 and has fiction recently published in Bartleby Snopes, Crack the Spine, and Storyscape, and forthcoming in On the Edge of the Prairie, and Fiction Southeast. He served as Executive Director of the Writers Center from 1979-1999.