Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 3 — The Assignment
The room never gave off a welcoming, comfortable vibe, but today it seemed extra dingy. Mitch noticed quickly that one of the light bulbs hanging from the ceiling on a rope had blown during the night. He sniffed deeply and the ever-present mustiness cautioned him against remaining in the room for too long. It was the feeling shared by gravediggers, he imagined, as they gathered tools for their trade from the damp stone dens that appeared to be uniform items in every cemetery. And he was almost glad to receive incoming work orders each day, as they kept him from the unfriendly apartment complex maintenance room. But, as he found himself seeking refuge in one strange apartment after another, accepting watered down coffee and the occasional slice of cake from old women and welfare moms, monotony often chased him back here, to the dim utility room, where sink parts, toilet seats, and an array of misfit hardware scattered amid his tools.
Every time he looked at the mess he was needled with guilt over the part-time maintenance helper he recently fired. The task hadn’t been easy and he went out and got good and shitfaced the night before he broke the news to Scott. It wasn’t that they were friends, but he enjoyed a little company every once in awhile when he went to take care of a job order. Never mind the fact that Scott worked tirelessly on the most boring of tasks. He took inventory of nails and screws and bolts without flinching, and sweeping up the shop (including the dead flies that fall off the fly paper affixed to the ceiling) seemed to be a real pleasure for him. But Scott’s one flaw was unforgivable, especially since it held Mitch’s ass just as liable as his own. Mitch had trouble believing the woman at first when she called in the complaint about the missing items from her apartment. “There must be some mistake, an oversight. Are you sure they were there before we came to do the work?” he asked. He and Scott had changed the washers in the woman’s leaking sink that morning, and yes, she was “quite sure” that two girdles and bras had been hanging from clothespins above the bathtub. In Mitch’s field of work, he was allowed a window into the most personal, and often the most repulsive, corners of people’s lives—sex toys wedged into a radiator, dried blood caked to the sink edges, and of course underwear to suit obesity. It was the latter that turned out to be Scott’s secret fetish, and Mitch found the incriminating evidence stuffed into the pockets of the guy’s oversized army jacket.
With Scott gone, the work load seemed to triple, and Mitch was forced to work strings of twelve hour days, alternating his time between virtually all of the buildings that comprised Black Rock Villas. The residents of The Villas were, of course, unaware of the short staffed maintenance department, and most of them failed to hesitate calling on Mitch for the most trivial of problems. He found “broken sinks” that were nothing more than hair clogs, and most of the “useless” electrical outlets were caused by overloaded sockets. One genius plugged a power strip into the wall, and then three more power strips snaking off of that source. “I need light,” he bantered. “You’ll know it one day, son. A man can’t live without his light.”
Scott went silently. He didn’t even look embarrassed. He gave no explanation for the theft of the oversized female undergarments, and that was fine with Mitch. It was a conversation he figured he could do without. He was equally grateful when, upon returning the girdles and bras, the woman promised that she wouldn’t call, Mr. Hayward, the building’s super, about the incident as long as the “perverted” culprit was gone for good. Mitch agreed that Scott was a sicko, but while he nodded his head and smiled at the woman’s endless chins, noticing that he couldn’t really tell where her tits ended and her belly began, he wasn’t quite convinced that ‘pervert’ was the right word.
Monday was usually the busiest day of the week for him, and now he was extra short-handed. The management office had promised him a new “full time assistant” for weeks. But in a booming job market, where anyone with an IQ that registered a positive number could find a decent job, who the hell wanted to count screws and sweep up dead flies? He’d already been out on two work orders that morning and was ready for a short break.
Perched atop a three pronged stool in the center of the room, he studied a strip of fly paper that uncoiled from the ceiling as a swirling crypt. The specks of his black victims were each unique, a few attached head first to their death as if they had flown directly at the tacky strips, while others clung to their demise with a solitary wing. He imagined those in their final moments, one free wing jittering listlessly in the air, fighting for release from the trap. Mitch had affixed the streams of fly paper around the room as a preventative measure. He’d grown tired of showing up to do some work at an apartment and laying parts out on the floor only to discover a sink drain with a stiff fly or two wedged in its holes or a radiator duct speckled with flies long encrusted in death. He didn’t know much about insects but he constantly found himself imagining fly larvae left in his coffee or atop one of the sandwiches he often needed to leave unattended during a lunch time interruption.
The smell of sulfur provided a pleasant change in the air while a match stick fired up his cigarette. As monotonous as the room seemed to him at times, he was grateful for the freedom he achieved while he was in there. “Please don’t smoke in here. I have allergies.” “Could you try not to make such a racket?” “Will you be finished soon? I have company coming.” He often spent the brunt of his morning fielding these complaints as he shuffled in and out of strangers’ apartments, fumbling through paperwork to appraise the next job before it was staring him in the face. It seemed that he was always the guy they were glad to ask in, seeing as they’d shorted out an electrical socket, backed up the toilet, or had a peach pit clog the garbage disposal. But, as soon as the work neared fruition, he felt their congeniality evaporate, leaving him as an unwelcome invader. Those were the moments when he longed to sit right back in the utility room where he was allowed his own space to cuss or smoke or fart. There was nobody here to tell him what to do. He was the boss.
Right now, the boss was following his own orders to laze around and smoke a butt.
Part 5: After School Not So Special
“Well, why don’t you get your own fucking car then?” the lanky man yelled. He struggled for balance and poked around the hood of an old Buick with a cane extended from one arm. The blue paint on the car was faded almost to white and the front bumper angled toward the ground.
“I would if they’d allowed me a license, Harry. Lord knows I’m a better driver than you,” the pudgy little lady retorted, hurt lacing her voice. She bunched the hem of her purple house dress into one fist and eased herself through the passenger door. It shut behind her with a dull thud, the sort of noise a casket might make in one of the old black and white horror flicks.
Harry’s door was still open and he just couldn’t seem to figure out a way to get the cane into the back seat. After three or four fruitless shoves, the backseat’s empty space finally swallowed it up like a fish gobbling up food. Cooper imagined the car’s backseat was big enough to stand up in, or better yet, to roll around in with a girl. The car’s engine turned with a grunt, and as the old couple rolled past him, he heard Harry whine at his wife. “You get enough practice driving Dolores. You’ve driven me fucking crazy for fifty seven years!”
Cooper chuckled, but realized that it wasn’t all that funny. Their relationship was a testament to longevity, but not the type that was depicted on television or in the books that he read. Fictional old folks often became exaggerations of harmless souls who imparted bits of wisdom while they waited around for death. The idea was even extended to retired people in the good guy / bad guy movies, when cops with expired careers were drawn out of the woodwork to help their ambitious, yet inexperienced, successors solve the crime. But not all of the elderly drifted along amicably. And some, like Harry and Mrs. Harry, apparently fed off of one another’s nastiness right up until the end.
“I hope I never end up like those freaks,” Cooper whispered.
He had jumped off the school bus a few stops too early, already tiring of the routine. By October, he figured, he’d know which kid got off at each stop and he’d also recognize who wasn’t riding the bus that day just by appraising the empty seats. Even though they weren’t assigned seats, most kids took the same one every day. It probably just seemed safe that way, he thought.
On the morning commute, he landed pretty close to the back of the bus and noticed that some kids got nauseated back there, unconditioned to having their oxygen supply cut with exhaust fumes. But the status that accompanied riding in the back was worth it to most of them. After school, though, he had some trouble opening his new lock and stood at his locker for more than ten minutes fiddling with the numbered dial. It turned out that he was going left-right-left instead of right-left-right, a common mistake among rookie lock users. This delay made him late for the bus and, consequently, he was forced to take a seat toward the front, sandwiched between a pair of band geeks. Sweat glistened on the chubby neck of a girl across the aisle, and she smiled at him, profiling her braces. Some kids near the back of the bus shouted about a flag football game where some “hotties” might show up, but they were all jocks and he didn’t really fit in with them either. So he jumped off about a mile from home, lit up a cigarette, and tightened the straps on his backpack for the walk ahead.
Now, he sat on a curb in the parking lot of The Villas taking hauls from another cigarette. There was only one more secured beneath the brim of his Sox cap and he hoped his mom would leave a fresh pack lying around so he could sneak a few more to enjoy out in the tree fort after dinner. He’d have headed out there right then, but hunger begged him to wait, and he decided that he’d need to rig up some sort of food supply in the tree. It would need to be something tightly contained to keep the animals from getting to it, but he supposed that one of the empty Tupperware bowls his mom kept stashed in a kitchen cabinet would do the trick. He could fill it up with chips, cookies, and maybe even apples as long as he resupplied on a regular basis. There was nothing worse than biting into a piece of rotten fruit. And, he thought, he’d need to lug a few gallons of water up there and keep them sealed with lids. It would be his own private kitchen.
The idea was exciting.
Cooper looked across the parking lot. Empty spaces mingled between parked cars. Most of the cars were big boats like the Chevy Caprice or the Olds Cutlass that belonged to some of the older folks who lived at The Villas. Almost all of them remained stationary, and when the residents did leave, they were carted away by a big van with Senior-Transit scripted on the side in big blue letters. It took them to many of the shopping centers off island, and even made runs to the city. He wondered why some of those old folks even had cars at all.
The olive-colored maintenance truck was parked illegally at the far end of the lot surrounded by large space that had NO PARKING painted on it. Scabs of rust peeled from around the wheel wells and the bed of the truck was filled with scrap metal and pipes that stood erect like misplaced patches of hair after a long nap. For some reason, he imagined the inside of the truck littered with beer cans and food wrappers. Maybe there was junk mail crumpled on the floor, or even a few nudie magazines stashed beneath the seat. An old dog lay sleeping right behind the rear wheel of the truck and he visualized it standing up in fear, an instant too late as the truck popped into gear and rolled backward. He’d seen possum road kill once, the animal’s guts shot out right through its mouth into a neat pile, just like it’d thrown up and then decided to sleep beside the mess. Cooper wondered if the lazy mutt would endure a similar fate.
He hoped the ol’ boy would wake up soon and hurry in to wherever it belonged. Then he headed inside himself, thinking about dinner. Would it be Hungry Man frozen meatloaf? Gravy, stuffing and imitation turkey? Morton Chicken pot pie? The possibilities seemed endless, each of them more grim than the one before it.