Gary is sitting on his plastic stool next to some lady’s basket of sheep-shaped soap. His clipboard rests on his big paunch, which has separated the center seam of his Tyvek suit in several places. He is in his late 50s and has a perfect circular smudge of ash on the tip of his nose. But I’m not going to tell him. I’m going to let him look ridiculous. It’s payback for twenty minutes ago when he’d chided me for glancing at a made bed and calling out “queen sheet set.” Gary, back-dropped by a pile of blackened frilly throw pillows, had looked up from his clipboard and said, “Now, wait a minute. Do you do all your inventory this way?”

He’d lifted himself off his stool with the help of a nearby windowsill and waved an accusatory finger at me and the bed. “You don’t know it’s a full sheet set unless you check,” he’d said. “It could just be a fitted sheet under there.” Gary’d wheezed for a moment, then announced, “A sheet set includes two pillowcases, a fitted and a flat sheet. That’s quite a price difference, especially if you assume every fitted sheet belongs to a sheet set. Is that what you do?”

I’d thrown down my flashlight, wedged my head under the smoky duvet and yanked out a corner of a flat sheet. When I’d raised it up into the air for his approval and heard him scribbling with his pencil on his inventory sheet, I’d presumed we were in agreement: The owners had a queen sheet set.

I have the pleasure of Gary’s company because on occasion insurance companies hire someone to conduct a joint inventory with me—either out of a genuine effort to provide better service to the insured or a fear that the insured, or I on their behalf, will pad the inventory. This means that Gary and I have to agree on every little trinket. Is it an acrylic or plastic figurine of a cow wearing a sunhat? Is it 6 or 8 inches? But, somehow, Gary and I have fallen into a rut of mutual distrust. He politely accuses me of overestimating the client’s possessions, and I pretty much think he’s a total douche.

The thing is, if Gary and I were scientists in a submarine probing the depths of the ocean, and I said, “It’s just volcanic rock, let’s head up,” and he peered out the hemispherical viewport and said, “Now, wait a minute,” then moved one of the sub’s hydraulic arms into the “rock” mass and discovered that what we were looking at was not volcanic, was not even solid, but was an outcropping of single-celled microbes and a never-before-seen view of what Earth looked like in its earliest stages, it’d be totally different.

What a difference it’d make if Gary and I were archaeologists. If that were the case, he could sit his fat ass on a collapsible plastic stool watching me kneel on someone’s sacred spot, meticulously scraping away at it with my dental pick, take his clipboard off his paunch and say, “Now, wait a minute. Let me see that shovelful you just tossed.” I wouldn’t even be mad—at least not for long—because there would be a very slim chance that my soiled oversight could be part of an ancient trash midden and the subsequent discovery that agriculture developed in the New World almost as early as it did in the Fertile Crescent.

It’d even be different if I thought Gary was really smart and that he was just doing disaster inventory to pay for his years experimenting with psychedelic drugs and fatherhood. But Gary is of average intelligence and just making ends meet. He seems happy with his job. I’m the one who’s not happy with my job, hence the ire and self-loathing experienced when lectured on what constitutes a sheet set. My first impetus had been to stand up on a slapdashed soapbox of an overturned dresser drawer full of ankle socks and recite my burned-down house manifesto: “Look, Gary,” I’d say. “These people lost it all and their insurance company is going to pretend to be there for them, then they’re going to pull a rug out from under them. Perhaps the expensive Persian rug they bought five years ago and don’t have a receipt for because it’s burned out of existence. And you and I will never account for every last paperclip; we may have even missed a drawer full of chip clips. The least we can do is overestimate a sheet set or three.” But I did no such thing, as it would only trigger a spiral of depression by making me acutely aware of what I’m doing for a living, which is exactly what Gary is doing for a living: counting burned things. Besides, Gary and I still had the master bathroom to inventory.

While Gary perched on his collapsible throne next to the decorative soaps, letting me do the hard work of kneeling on glass shards and digging out tubes from under the client’s sink and reading off their labels, I tried my absolute hardest to make the best of things. If I didn’t, we’d be in these harsh conditions forever, arguing over minutiae. Despite the fact that every fiber of Gary’s core was beginning to prickle my skin with an unscratchable itch, I politely inquired as to how long he’d been in the business. The personal attention seemed to straighten his posture. He held his head high, looked up at a three-foot square patch of sky that shone through the roof thanks to a firefighter’s ax and said, “Twenty-two years, Dear.”

“Wow,” I said. “Neutrogena eye makeup remover, hydrating, 3 fluid ounces. That’s a long time.”

“I imagine you’re pretty new at this,” Gary smirked, while denoting the existence of three ounces of lotion with his pencil.

Believe me, I had an almost insuppressible urge to chuck a tube of Vagistat-1 at a colony of raised moles on Gary’s forehead, but then I remembered that being respected at this job was never anything I hung my self worth on. I also remembered to look at his nose. There it was, angled down at me in its 22nd year of breathing in smoke particles with a stupid black dot on its very tippy tip. I got a hold of myself and inquired as to what his most interesting discovery had been. Gary thought for a moment. The sunlight that shone through the whacked hole in the roof almost seemed to spotlight him. Finally he said, “Anal beads.”

I kept my eyes on a bottle of peach body scrub. Gary went on, “You ever find sex stuff when you’re doin’ a house?” I told him I’d run across some VHS tapes in sock drawers then quickly grabbed for a package of tampons and read the label loudly. Thankfully, the rest of my forays into his personal life only yielded the following insights:

“If you turn a fry pan over and it says 10/18, that’s OK quality stainless steel. If it says 16/18, that’s even better.”

“The problem is, you can look at a chair and not know if it’s a $400 chair or a $4000 chair.”

“My wife loves Nora Roberts.”

Gary shot me a quizzical look when I summed up eight bottles of various-sized shampoo and conditioners as “10 medium shampoos,” but otherwise, the master bathroom wrapped up without incident. Then it was Gary’s turn to ask me a question. He said, “Well, would you care to join me for a drink at the scotch barn?”

You’d think I’d turn him down, but I love scotch and barns and I’d never heard those two words used in the same sentence, so I went. An hour later, Gary and I were in a very different place. We sat on hay bales in front of a fire pit and sipped scotch into the gloaming. Gary wasn’t half bad in this quaint countryside setting. When I watched him duck out of the barn with two more amber-filled glasses, surely half a day’s pay, and walk them toward me, I got a little fuzzy. Mostly it was the scotch, but a tiny bit of it was feeling a kindred spirit. You see, I’ve wiped off soot (I hope) from a strand of beads, thinking it was a rosary—praying for a cross—only to realize I was cleaning someone’s anal beads. Surely, Gary could empathize. We may not be scientists, but we might be the only two people on Earth who know what kind of burn patterns a sex swing casts on a wall. I wasn’t about to embrace this sort of intimacy with him, though. I just said, “Hey Gary, go like this,” and mimed wiping off my nose.