(Read the other chapters here.)
Waking with a slight headache, I rolled onto my stomach to shield my eyes from the sunlight that was streaming full force through curtainless windows. My watch on the nightstand read 7:30am, which reminded that me I still needed to call Glory to let her know the move had gone fine. But mainly, I needed to call my mother to see if I was still in the doghouse, or in her case, seated in a first pew next to the vapory Widow Busby who always required fanning.
The phone rang once. “Well, it’s about time,” Glory began.
I exhaled deeply.
“I would have thought you had the common sense to know that I’d be worried.”
“I should have called sooner, true, but I packed the phones and couldn’t remember what box I put them in,” I lied.
“What, they don’t have payphones? You couldn’t go find a phone booth and make a collect call to your mother?”
“They don’t have payphones in Baltimore.”
“Well, you go to a neighbor’s then.”
“They don’t have phones, either.” Even with saying this, I wasn’t absolutely sure how far this was from truth.
“Well, where in the world did you go and move, this place, where nobody has phones? Sounds downright primitive, it does…Estella, what in the world are you doing?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s that noise. All that gulp, gulp business, sounds like you’ve got the hiccups. Do you have hiccups?”
“No, mother. Just having a drink–”
“At this time of the day?”
“Oh, well, you know you don’t swallow correctly, that’s probably why you have such bad digestion. All your gluten this, gluten that nonsense, if you’d just stop taking in all that air, if you’d only–”
“I know,” I interrupted, remembering that this was to be the first day of a multitude of great days where attitude and mindset were key to my ultimate success, and knowing this, I uttered once more with conviction, “That’s my other line, Glory. I better take it,” and promptly hung up.
Phone still in hand, and itching to talk to someone sane, but unable to think of a single soul, I began dialing Benny, then thought better of it. He had said he would call me first thing in the morning, which I understood to mean, anywhere between 12-noon and “Oh, did I say I’d call?” Instead, I pulled on the tee shirt discarded at the foot of the bed, and walked over to the window. Except for several men milling about without noticeable reason for doing so, a young guy washing his car from a bucket, no hose in sight, and a battered red pickup parked directly in front of the house, whose driver appeared to be sound asleep, all was quiet on Pete’s western front.
After showering, I scarfed down the last of the leftover Moo Shu Pork — which, despite Glory’s diagnosis that I was a malingerer who merely had gas issues — I prayed wasn’t loaded with gluten. Fortified, I had started to unpack those boxes marked fragile, along with items hastily stuffed Hefty bags, when I realized it was Jose asleep the red truck. My hand had barely grazed the door knob when the doorbell chimed.
“Morning, call me Estella.”
“Estella, muy bonita,” he nodded, stepping inside.
“Two coffees, you must really need to perk up after yesterday, Jose.”
“For you, if you like.” he said.
I liked. I was dying for some coffee and couldn’t imagine which direction to head or even what would possibly be open at 8am on a Sunday morning other than church.
I grabbed the cup he handed me, sighing deeply as I took my first sip. I knew it wasn’t physically possible, but I swear I felt the pain in my head all but disappear.
“Muy good,” I said, laughing. After an awkward silence he offered, “You forgot?”
“I need to check on a couple of things. The deck? See if the rails are all the way dry.”
“Right,” I said, nodding, gesturing for him to lead the way as we made our way through to the house to the roof. The work was good, not the slap it up, slipshod variety that was often produced when one’s budget is tight or, then too, when you’re a single female trying to make a go of it alone. All five bedrooms were now free of the hideous striped red and blue flower print wallpaper; the four bathrooms had new tile, along with new fixtures. The style, Art Deco, something I thought would lend itself nicely the Harlem Renaissance vibe I wanted throughout the property, ran throughout the rooms. I especially loved the work that had been done in the kitchens. The one on the lower level still had the original aluminum stamped ceiling. Though a lot of work and money, Rudy had the little guy that stripped the bedrooms, also remove the paint from that area of the kitchen ceiling, and then seal it with a translucent glaze tinted the same shade the original copper the ceiling had once been. It took some hunting, but I located a 1950s stove and refrigerator, both reproductions. The refrigerator, not large enough to store food for a handful of guests, had to be supplemented by a double door refrigerator that was fitted with cabinet doors that matched the kitchen cabinetry. Everything down to the wide cedar plank flooring made me imagine James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry and Richard Wright in my kitchen, all of us, eating hammocks nestled in hoppin’ john, sopped up with golden crust cornbread made in a cast iron frying pan and, and, of course, drinking whiskey – and not the watered down kind — talking art, its politics, simply the craziness of the world. This was my dream. I looked over at Jose, the smile on his face matching my own.
“Good, I want you to be happy with me, my work. Now, I need to check on the roof.”
“Okay,” I said, as we started up the spiral stairs, the only style of stairs that would fit into the small former walk-in closet space. I watched as he toggled switches, and as he placed long, tan fingers all along the deck’s rails to gauge the stain’s dryness.
“All good.” He said, smiling.
“But wasn’t it good last night, Jose?” I teased.
“Si, but today, even better,” he said, smiling.
He took my hand as we stepped up onto the ledge which connected my roof top with that of the property next door. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of color, an ‘I thought I saw a pussy cat,’ shift in time, a little something suddenly out of sight. But other than one little pumpkin sitting on the adjacent wall dividing our two properties, nothing appeared out of place.
Before I realized it, it was almost noon, and Benny still hadn’t called.
“It’s late, Jose, you should head out.”
Jose looked at his watch, “Not too late, not really.”
“Well, maybe Ava Maria, would like to see you home early?” I said looking at the tattoo on his well-defined bicep.
“Ah, Ava Maria, she’s my mother. She died ten years ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I never knew just what to say at these moments. The only person who had ever died in my life was my father when I was five in a car accident, so long ago that I never had to endure awkward silences over the fact that he was no longer around, and that I was essentially an orphan, not counting Glory, which most often I didn’t.
“Does your mother live here, in Baltimore?”
“Oh, no,” I laughed. “She’s in Florida, thank God.”
“You don’t like her?”
“Let’s just say I owe the sunshine state a great debt of gratitude. One I’ll never be able to fully repay.”
I looked at him, his furrowed brow, knowing that there was no way to explain to this Latin man, Ava Maria’s son, why I didn’t and never would have a tattoo reading, Glory.
“We get along fine. God, I’m glad you reminded me, I should call her later,” I said, failing to mention that we had in fact already spoke, however briefly. Still, I knew I needed to make up for the abrupt end to our conversation the day before, and again this morning—I needed to do better. I said this walking slowly to the front door, hoping he would take the hint, and as Benny would say, “Hit the bricks.”
Jose walked toward the door then turned and said, “You need an alarm, Miss Estella. It’s not safe to stay in a house by yourself.” I had thought about this, but figured, seeing how I would be home all the time, why incur the extra expense?
“I don’t know, Jose. That’s extra money that I don’t really have to spend right now. With all the updates to the house, money’s a little tight right now. Perhaps, once things settle, I can absorb the expense of an alarm system.”
“No big expense. I can do for you. You can buy from the store, and I can install for you, no expense at all. I did this for my sister. You can monitor it through your cell phone when you’re not home.” I was embarrassed to admit I couldn’t afford an alarm system, but had no problem finding the funds for a 1950s reproduction of a refrigerator that didn’t hold enough food to feed a small family of mice.
“Okay, but can you pick one up? I’ll pay you for it and to install it. Then, I’ll just need to get a cell phone.”
“I can do,” he said, “This way no one worries. Your mother, your friend, he won’t have to worry, either.”
“You mean Benny? Believe me, Benny’s doesn’t do too much worrying. It might give him wrinkles.”
“He should worry, you’re a beautiful woman. I wouldn’t want my woman in a house all alone, not here, not anywhere.”
I started to explain my relationship with Benny, but thought better of it. It was probably for the best and would likely keep what was clearly something palpable between us strictly employer/employee.
“Okay, I’ll come back tomorrow to install alarm, okay?”
“Sounds good,” I said, standing on the front stoop where there was now even more people out and about, or as Glory classified them: shiftless, no good necks. But to me they looked like zombies. I noticed just to my left at the adjoining house, an elderly woman, dusky white, sitting on her stoop smoking. She deposited the remains, a pile of crumpled filters, into an old, cracked tea cup at her stocking feet. I waved to Jose as he drove away, stepping out onto my stoop, ready to introduce myself, when she deliberately and with theatric precision, turned a back cracking ninety degrees away from me, leaving me with only her robed and bowed back covered in scorched iron marks to regard.
to be continued…
Willett Thomas is the president of Write of Passage, Inc. She earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins. She has received artist fellowships from Blue Mountain Center and the Millay Colony. She was selected as a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation fellow for the District of Columbia, and is the recipient of the 2008 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award for fiction.