First thing I notice every day driving to work is that people in this part of town ain’t as malformed as the people in my neighborhood. Or at least it seems the folks in my neighborhood have to wear their malformities right out on themselves like some kind of mark. I only been living in the city about six months, so I’m always noticing these things. Sometimes it’s like that when you move somewhere new—every little thing about the place, all the stuff that gets covered over by a guy’s everyday life after a while, stands out and shines like rubies or jewels half-buried in some muddy field. But I could be seeing it all wrong. Like I said, I only been living here about six months.
Right now, I’m wandering around the long way to Building A where I got some drywall to fix, trying to squeeze in enough time for one last cigarette before I start the first job on my list for today, and turning all this stuff around inside my head. That’s the only thing good about the job I got. I do maintenance for this fancy apartment complex. It’s hard work, but I get a lot of time between jobs to wander around and think. I’m carrying my tools and I walk fast so it looks like I’m all set on getting to one of these big buildings that all look alike to do something really important, but mostly I’m just wandering around and thinking and smoking and stretching out my time between jobs.
I work up here on the north side, but I live downtown in this old ratty apartment building that used to be a motel. It’s a long, blocky, two-story deal built probably thirty years ago. White with blue trim and black enamel-painted steel grills over all the windows. There’s a big raised-up flat place in the middle of the asphalt parking lot where the swimming pool used to be, and every time I walk across it, I think about how the pool must still be down there, probably chunked in with broken concrete and shards of block and paved over smooth to make more room for tenants’ cars.
Every morning, I cross the little asphalt plateau with my tools, load them up in the truck, and head for work. I leave early so the sun is just up and still looks, through the haze from the big motorcycle-chain factory that sits hunkered down a couple miles south of there, like some flat pale yellow thing, like something a kid might cut out of colored paper and paste up on the surface of the sky.
I haul all my tools in a five-gallon plastic bucket with an old paint-splattered canvas pouch liner that holds my hammer, my screw gun, my tape-measure, and my paintbrushes. I’ve had most of these brushes forever and they’re all covered in dried paint that’s always chipping off in big hunks to show these layers of color almost like some weird archeology dig, each layer telling the story of a painting job I done during the last ten years. Like on the History Channel when those wildman-looking guys with big crazy beards and tan safari shirts crumble through dirt in some far away desert looking for ancient buried stuff. I watch shows like that all the time at night after I get off work. I like listening to those guys talk about what they found and all the layers of dirt telling what the world was like a long time ago. Sometimes I wonder about all the stuff down there they ain’t gotten to yet.
I like the way they talk and the way they look and I always thought that would be a cool job to go zigzagging around to different places with my big old beard digging stuff up and talking to people on the TV.
“This here’s a bronze spearhead from the tenth century,” I’d say to the camera. “We never found such things at this depth before. Probably belonged to a hunter or a warrior.” Everybody back in my hometown would see me and talk about how smart I was and how I knew about all the different deserts and tundras and all the stuff under them.
But instead I put in eight hours a day up here north of the interstate where all the rich folks live, painting apartments and fixing toilets and sticking my finger up drain pipes to yank out years of hair and crud and wet black greasy stuff that used to be skin or shampoo or something.
I can’t figure how people who look so clean leave so much dirt in their pipes. I guess that’s why these folks’re so clean-looking; all the dirt swirls down the drain and builds up to where it clogs everything shut and then it becomes my problem. Where I live, people wear their crud right out on them in front of God and everybody. But not all of them are dirty; some are regular folks, some are just mean-looking, and of course, like I said, a good number of them seem malformed in one way or another. Dead gray teeth sticking out in all sorts of directions or shrunken up chins and big block-shaped foreheads.
There’s this one lady who’s always sagging against the bus stop sign where I turn out onto Washington Street every morning has this huge mouth. It’s like six times too big for the rest of her head. She’s a big doughy woman with red hair, but it’s a pale shade of red that looks unhealthy. The kind of hair you’d picture on a dead body’s been underwater for three days. She’s always yapping to nobody in particular when I go by the bus stop on my way to work. Everybody else at the stop—fat middle-aged ladies with huge hairy eyebrows run together and fast-food uniforms on and black dudes on their way to work at the chain factory wearing big blue-jean coats with dirty welding gloves hanging out of their pockets—they all ignore her. But I look at her every morning. Nothing but dead red hair and those huge rubbery lips blubbering along through some string of words to nobody in particular. I wonder what she’s saying, but I can’t never make anything out just going by in my truck with the exhaust blasting away like it does when I get on it.
Then there’s this old guy always sits on a bench a couple miles away in front of the Cash ‘n Go where I take my check every Friday. He’s missing an eye and has nothing left but these wisps of gray hair blowing out from under a dirty blue stocking cap he always wears all rolled up on his freckly noggin, even in summer. He’s always shaking his head and yelling like he’s really got a big problem with what somebody’s saying to him. Like there’s something he’s just not going to do, no matter what. Sometimes I get the idea he’s arguing with the red-haired chick down the street, that they can somehow talk with each other from twenty blocks away. It makes me laugh sometimes thinking these two could be yapping away at each other like that. I swear to God it does. The redhead laying it down for the old bastard and him just shaking his head and yelling, letting her know that whatever she’s on him about ain’t going to happen.
But it ain’t like I’m perfect or anything. I got these big knobby hands on me that look kind of abnormal with lumps and calluses all over them. They’re shaped really funny, and no matter how I wash them there’s always these half-moons of paint or dirt around the bottoms of my fingernails. That and these lines and scars and cracks in my hands tracing up and down and around like some crazy map to nowhere. They make me feel kind of ashamed, so I guess that’s why I keep them buried down in the pockets of my blue jeans most of the time when I ain’t working and I get all nervous whenever I have to shake hands. Mostly I just nod when I meet somebody new, keep my mouth shut and my abnormal hands to myself.
I walk around the back side of Building M, take another drag off my cigarette, and think about how there probably ain’t nobody up here has hands like mine or lips like the red-haired bus stop lady. Everybody here is put together exactly right and thin as spaghetti. Nobody stands in the street or sits on benches. If you see anybody not in a car, they’re usually jogging, wearing silky-looking shorts and expensive tennis shoes–those new-style shoes that look like they’re made for running around in outer space or something–and maybe one of those bands around their arms tells you what your heart’s doing and your blood pressure is and stuff like that.
Mostly the guys I work with are like me—not particularly malformed or crazy or anything like some of the people in my neighborhood, but not perfect neither–Mike’s too fat and Henry’s missing teeth, and, like I said, I got these hands. But we’re pretty much just regular guys who get sent out from the maintenance building on the far side of the pool every day with a list of stuff to repair and repaint and clean out. We go all over the complex and see all the tenants leaving for work and coming home in their little Japanese cars and sometimes I wonder what their lives are like; some of them don’t even seem like they work, coming and going all day long or jogging around with those bands around their arms. But mostly I just do the jobs on my list, try to look busy in between, and mind my own business.
I come around a corner, and out of nowhere, there’s Building A. The way this place is laid out is kind of like a maze and sometimes you can loose track of exactly where you are. You come around a building thinking you’re out by the back parking lot and instead you find yourself standing in front of the place where you’re supposed to be working. So I squish the cigarette out between my fingers and pocket the butt because we ain’t supposed to leave no trash around and head up the stairs. I let myself into the apartment and find the window in the back bedroom. The room’s all done up like an office, with a desk and a big leather chair and a computer and everything. The window looks out over the tennis court. Nobody’s home in the apartment, nobody’s on the tennis court either, and it all looks kind of lonely. The weather’s starting to turn chilly even though it’s only September and there are a few dead leaves blowing across the green, nubbly surface of the court.
I set my tools down on the carpet—this nice crème colored stuff we laid in every apartment the first month I was working here–and I take a look at the job I got ahead of me. Somehow a drywall patch done last year above the window’s been yanked out to where you can see the studs and wires underneath. You can look in and tell how cheap they make these places. Nothing solid about them. Nothing like the old farmhouse down in Spring County where I grew up. That house was all oak and plaster and stone. My cousin ended up with the place—the only one in the family with the money to cover the mortgage and the taxes after grandpa died and my folks moved out. He’s selling it now because there’s no way to make the farm pay.
It’s the same story everybody’s heard a hundred times down there. Nothing worth telling again. Besides, him selling the place don’t bother me none, and there ain’t much I could do about it if it did. But sometimes at night after I’m done watching TV and I’m in the bathroom brushing my teeth, getting ready for bed, I think about that old place.
Sometimes I think about the last time I was down there. It was February and me and my cousin, Abacus, were kicking around smoking a joint out back where he keeps all the junk that’s collected there over the years—a couple ancient lopsided flat-bed wagons with the wood planks all splintered and worm-eaten and the old-style iron-spoke wheels rusted up, a bunch of metal pipe that used to be a greenhouse until a tornado blew it into the neighbor’s field about ten years ago and twisted it up like a puzzle, a half-dozen big milky plastic tanks that hold herbicides for spraying.
Aby was talking about how he was thinking about moving to Mechanicsburg to take this job selling vinyl siding and I was just standing there with my hands jammed down in my pockets. The sky was really blue and bright but the light seemed dead somehow and gave everything on the ground a dull covering. The wind and cold was tearing across the field, burning my face and making all these weird sounds on the pipes and tanks. It was like some out of control calliope machine and it got so loud that it drowned out what Aby was saying and left him waving the roach around, pointing at stuff and mouthing words I couldn’t even hear.
Sometimes I stop in the middle of brushing and think about that wind and how everything around me that day was dull and gray and brown–dead grass and clumps of frozen dirt that’d been tore up by Aby’s tractor when he was hauling stuff out there. I remember how the whole field, this piece of land where I had spent most of my life, suddenly looked like a far-away, frozen world where old nomads in pointy hats might have ridden around whipping the air with big bronze swords a thousand years ago, conquering places hundreds of miles from their homes, foreign places where there was nothing but more dead brown dirt.
It became this frozen desert in some other country, someplace where a guy could go and dig up ancient stuff with his crazy beard and his tan shirt and figure out everything about these old buried nomads with their pointy hats and their swords. About the layers of earth beneath the surface where warriors still existed somehow, or at least their stories still existed, in crumbly layers of earth and big hunks of stone and metal. Stories that a guy could dig down into, figure out for himself, and explain by looking into a TV camera and saying all the words that would make sense of them to people sitting at home in their apartments in the dark drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
But of course it wasn’t any kind of far-off desert, only an old unused field full of junk. Someplace where you could dig forever and only come up with more frozen dirt and useless junk. More rusted up wagon wheels and steel tubing. Nothing worth talking about.
I yank down the curtains and toss them on the chair in front of the big cherry-veneer desk and I got my bucket of tools, but all the drywall stuff—my sanding block and utility knife and my mudding trowel–is down there at the bottom because I ain’t done any drywall in weeks. I jam my hand in and rumble around past my chalk line and cat’s paw and a pair of pliers.
There’s no real pain at first–the way it always is when you cut yourself really good–just a ripping sound inside my head and a feeling like I grabbed something cold. Then a tingling warm feeling. I pull an open utility knife out of the bucket and the blood’s already started. It runs from the big smiling wound across the ham of my knobby thumb all the way down my arm and dribbles onto the carpet.
The cut’s deep enough I can see right down into my hand—the little fat globlets and tendons and stuff—and it makes me feel dizzy and a little sick deep inside my stomach. That and angry at myself for tossing a utility knife back into the bucket with the blade out. It still doesn’t hurt, not in the proper sense of the word, but my heart feels like it’s jumped up out of my chest and straight into my skull and there’s a buzzing sound like bees swarming. Like there are thousands of them in my head muffling this displaced heart that’s pounding away behind my ears.
I have to sit down for a minute to keep from falling over and my bee-covered pulse is up around some crazy level that I’d know exactly if I had one of those bands on my arm. But I don’t have anything like that. All I’ve got is a ride to the hospital ahead of me in Fat Mike’s truck and the rest of the day at home without pay watching more archeology shows on the TV.
I know I’m making a big mess with all this blood and I need to get myself out of the apartment and off this fancy new carpet, but instead I’m just sitting on the floor all dizzy and cross-legged with little sparklies going off around the outside edges of my vision, watching the blood drip crazy designs all over the place and thinking. I’m thinking about how Mike’s going to have to give me a ride home after I get my hand all stitched up and how we’ll probably go right back down Washington street past all the benches and bus stops and people in my neighborhood with all their malformities. I’m wondering about the one-eyed bastard and the blubbery lip woman and if they stay there on the street all day or if they have other things they do while I’m gone working.
For some reason I feel like I really want to stop on the way home, jump right out of Mike’s truck at a stoplight with the sun still pasted up there on the hazy sky, and ask them what it is they’re saying every day when I go past, what stories they’re trying to tell to nobody in particular. I don’t know why, but it seems important to me right now. I want to ask both of them if they’ve ever seen any of those archeology shows on the TV, if they ever wonder about all the buried stuff in the world.
That and I’m thinking how I’ll have to be back to work tomorrow. I can’t afford to miss another day. The first thing we’ll have to do when I come back is get over here and clean the carpet. Being short a guy, it won’t get done today. The tenant will complain, but there’s nothing I can do about that. And there’s no sense worrying about all the stuff you can’t do nothing about. There’s just too much of it.
But the blood just keeps welling up out of my hand and, dizzy-sick or not, if I don’t get out of here soon there’ll be no cleaning the place. Everything will have to get yanked clear down to the plywood flooring underneath. We’ll end up tossing it all and busting our asses the rest of the week laying new pad and carpet.
It’ll be a hard couple days’ work if we have to replace all this, but when we’re finished no one will even know what happened here.