by Taylor García
Slow days like this, I consider parking my van somewhere on Garnet Avenue to drum up business. It’s a good idea, but then I’d have to walk back home. Or I could just stay in Pacific Beach all day with the van, but without Pablo, it’s lonely. Plus, I can’t work on my art. I just finished “Closed Tuesdays” this morning. It’s an old wooden frame, the backdrop a combination of postcards we got from St. Croix, rum and beer labels, and fragments of Jimmy Buffet’s book. In the center is a small pile of real sand I hoisted from Frederiksted Beach, and on top of that is a tiny pirate’s chest I grabbed from a client’s kid. This piece would fit right in at that art market, Pangaea, in PB. One day I’ll have my own booth there to sell my work. I’ll call it “Soul Kitchen.”
Now I’m looking out the kitchen window waiting for inspiration and the phone to ring. There’s a new couple in the Rose Creek Apartments across the street. Zonies. I’d say from Tempe. They look educated. The man is white like me, and the wife, or girlfriend, is Indian. My wife, Tanya, always thinks it’s strange that most of my exes looked nothing like her. She doesn’t realize that the picture-perfect California blonde girl is indeed exotic in her own right. I tell her all the time, she’s the perfect woman for me. And I’m the luckiest bastard alive because of her.
I eat lunch around two thirty. Chili and cornbread I made for dinner last night. My phone rings while I’m rummaging in the shed. 602 area code. Arizona.
“Hello? Is this D.B. Handyworks?” A woman’s voice with the slightest accent.
“Yes, yes it is. What can I help you with?”
“What are your rates and availability?” She’s so formal and courteous.
“Seventy-five an hour. But it also depends on the job. I’m available right now.”
“It’s just a shower curtain rod and our TV. We want to mount them.”
“Done. When’s a good time for you?”
“Today, if possible,” she says.
I hold my tongue. Instead of, You’re the hot new Indian woman on the other side of the cul-de-sac, I say, “Works for me. Where are you located?”
“You’re going to laugh,” she says. “I’m on Figueroa. I saw your van across the street.”
“Ha! That is me.”
“So you’re not busy now?” she says. “You can come over?”
“Absolutely. Are you in the apartments?”
“Ah, yes. Unit Six. Ground floor.”
I know exactly which unit. “Be there in ten minutes, okay?”
“Okay, thank you,” she says.
Turnover at these units is fast. I doubt renters here sign one-year leases. Standing outside it, I can see why. Chipping paint. Gaps at the bottom of doorways. And the windows. Terrible. Single-pane. If the other side of our duplex was open, I’d suggest this couple be our neighbors. They deserve better.
She opens the door, and what I’d been imagining from three hundred feet away looks stunning up close. Dark hair pulled up in a messy bun, small round face, narrow arms and shoulders, then wide hips and a protruding belly. Nothing more beautiful than a woman expecting. I see one, then I start to see them everywhere, and I try not to get excited, but it’s hard to contain it when they’re brimming over like this. I’d say she’s about six months along, though you’d hardly know she’s so tiny. If Tanya ever changes her mind about having kids, she’d be a bona fide knockout.
“Hello.” I grip my Bucket Boss in the woman’s doorway, tools up and shining.
“That was quick.” She smiles. Perfect teeth.
I thumb over the back of my shoulder, then offer my hand. “Dirk.”
“Zareen.” She pulls her hand away and a chocolate lab barrels by her and pushes into my leg. His whole rear end shakes.
“Rama,” she says. “Down.”
“It’s okay.” I scratch him and he wiggles. The jingle of his tags reminds me of Pablo.
“He’ll just lick you to death,” she says.
“We just lost our dog about a month ago.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Zareen says.
I shrug. “Yeah, it’s tough.”
Then, finally, she says, “Come on in.”
Their tiny living room is warmer than ours. A bit cleaner, too.
“We want it here.” She holds up an invisible TV over the useless electric fireplace. She glances back over her shoulder and a strand of her hair falls into her face. “There’s the mount.”
“I’m not sure that’ll hold it. Might be too small.” I crouch to lift the TV off the floor. These TVs today could practically float, and this will probably fit fine with the mount she’s bought. I just want to stretch this job out.
“I can get a different one,” she turns to me. Her bump in full view.
“I can do that for you. I’ll include it in the job.”
“Well, let me show you the shower,” she says. “I bought the rod already.”
She leads me down a short hallway off the bedroom. On a small table covered in a bright cloth is a shrine, and at its center, surrounded by candles and incense, sits a little pink-skinned elephant god with dreamy eyes. One more thing I can’t stop staring at.
“Dirk?” Zareen calls from the bathroom.
“Sorry, I was just looking at the layout. I’ve never been inside one of these units.”
“Here it is.” She points to a box next to the shower.
“Tell you what. I’ll do the shower rod right now, then go get the right mount. I can come back later or do that tomorrow. It’ll take a bit longer. About an hour or so.”
Rama nuzzles my free hand.
“Rama, come.” Zareen goes for the living room, checking her phone.
“Can you finish the mount today? My husband really wants that done soon.”
She moves around me, keeping Rama close.
“Can do,” I say.
“And how much?” she says. “For everything?”
“Hundred bucks. No charge for sourcing the mount. That okay?”
She hesitates. I’ve seen this before. Women of the house get a little intimidated when given all that power with a man they don’t know. Some just jump right in and say yes. And some let you stick around after the job’s done to have a little fun while hubby’s away. Used to, I should say. Some used to do that. No more. Never again.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
“Well, I’ve got all I need here,” I head for the bathroom. “I’ll just get started, okay?”
She dips her head. So subservient. Maybe that’s why I like the exotic ones. They know how to respect men. She looks at the front door. I have to stop thinking like that. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
“Come, Rama,” she says.
“So when’s the baby due?”
She tries to hide her bump with her hands. “Oh, early May.”
“Congratulations. Do you know what you’re having?”
“No, not yet,” she says. “We’ll find out soon. Do you have children?”
“No. No we don’t.”
She smiles. “I need to make a couple of calls, so just let me know if you need anything. I’ll be outside. Come, Rama.”
Rama follows her and I go to work.
I pass the elephant. Not only do I want to take it, I want to break my promise and talk Zareen into one of those flings like back in the day. Focus. Think of the art. The elephant. How nice it would look. That’s how the pure side of me works: a fully formed idea for a piece will just spill into my head and there it is, pulsing and eating at me until I can bring it to life.
I hate stealing from a client, but sometimes their things have a tiny voice saying, Come on, take me. They’ll never notice. And I don’t think six or seven times is a go-to-jail crime, not when it’s fritter like a toy pirate chest or a doll’s head. Besides, I needed them for my real life’s work. Handymanning is what helps pay the bills. Assemblage is what makes my heart tick and keeps me from wronging Tanya.
My ideal life is to have a studio to work on my craft. Tanya’s a financial analyst at Goring Chemix, and says she likes being the breadwinner. She knows, and I know, that assemblage may never pay the bills, but maybe I could get so good at it that people will want to put my stuff in their homes and businesses, and then I’ve got a little career. I could be museum quality.
I’m back home, prepping dinner before I go back out. Tonight it’s roasted eggplant pitas, hummus, and a salad. Tanya just got in. She stays quiet when it’s been a long day. Calls it her transition time.
“Yes.” She rubs her neck.
“I have to go back to work tonight,” I say.
“Did you leave the glue gun running?” she smirks as I pour. Comments like that used to kill me early on. Now I just let them slide. Now that we know our places.
“No, I mean, work work. I have a job. Across the street.”
“Oh? Who?” She sips.
“New couple. The wife called today. They need a shower curtain rod, which I already did, then I’m going to mount their flat screen.”
“Yeah, it won’t take long. They really wanted it all done today.”
I serve her dinner. She leans over the plate and breathes it in.
“You’re so good to me,” she says. She takes my rough hand, places it on her chest.
“I should go. So I can finish it up and get home.”
“You’re not going to eat?” she dips into her hummus.
“I’m not hungry.” I run my hands over her neck. She drops her head and accepts. “I’ll give you a back rub tonight.”
“Deal,” she says. “Love you. See you in—how long?”
“Hour or so.”
I take my bag and the new mount and walk across the cul-de-sac. The evening sky is California pink.
Zareen answers and Rama charges.
“I have the right mount. Almost an even exchange.” I set it down next to the TV. “Husband home?”
“Not yet. He’s working late tonight,” she says. Kitchen is steamy with spices. Smells like chicken tikka. One of my favorites.
“What’s he do?”
“Biotech. Up in La Jolla.”
“My wife’s in biotech too.”
She moves around quickly, putting things away in the kitchen.
For a second I think she might fix me a plate, offer some wine. Stop it.
“You don’t mind if I leave for a little while?” she says.
“That’s fine. If I finish early, can I lock up? You can pay me later. You know where I live.” I smile, but she doesn’t smile back. She pats Rama. I know when I’ve gone too far. I can read it all over their faces.
She grabs her phone off the kitchen counter. Scrolls. “Oh, look. He’ll be home sooner. He’ll be back while I’m out.”
“That works, too.”
“Do you want me to lock Rama in the bedroom?” she says.
“No, he’s good here. Aren’t you, buddy?” Rama can’t get enough scratches and I don’t mind giving them.
“Okay, well, thanks, Dirk. I’ll see you later.”
“Okay, sounds good.” I give her a thumbs up.
She leaves and, before I get to work, I pop up to make sure she’s really gone. Car’s out of the driveway. Job’s going to take only thirty minutes.
The kitchen is stocked with organic food and great snacks. They buy the good whole milk and vitamin waters, and they have a delicious Gouda cheese. I’ll have to find that one. Rama follows, waiting for me to drop him something. Their DVDs are mostly Rom-Coms and yoga. In their bedroom, their closet resembles a J Crew. He’s a tighty-whitey man and hers are full coverage, some black, some white, mostly tan. Down at the bottom she’s got a couple stringy things. Pink. Red. The second bedroom is filled with baby stuff. I could build it all for them. I’d be happy to do that.
I get to work, moving fast with Buffet jamming in my ear buds. Focus. Change your state. Power move. I don’t want to go back in their bedroom, and I don’t want to see the elephant. What if Rama has a camera in his collar? The way he follows me around, I wouldn’t be surprised if Zareen busts back in and kicks me out for opening her panty drawer.
TV’s up. I connect the cable cord, give it a test run. All systems go. I clench my fists as hard as I can. Do not go back into their room. Do not touch the elephant. I need to leave and go right across the cul-de-sac. Tanya’s there, waiting for me. The only person in the world who gets me and who’s helped me. She paid for my counselors, sent me to Tony Robbins. I mean, she’s the real saint here. I’ll do anything for her. Help me, Tanya. Help me right now.
Then that fucking little voice. The they’ll-never-even-miss-it voice. But yes, they will miss it. A lovely, rosy god like that, no matter how small, will be felt. These people keep track. I know it. Guy probably counts his ties.
It’s so beautiful though. I’ve been working on the finished piece in mind. It’ll be dedicated to Tanya, as all my pieces are. Me making for her what she’ll probably never make for me. My brainchildren.
The elephant god fits nicely inside my Bucket Boss, nestled in with my worn tools. It’s going to look perfect in that glass case I found at the Salvation Army. I’m going to adorn it with tiny blue flowers from our wedding decorations and install a yellow light underneath.
Should I leave a note for them? Maybe just my business card with the amount on the back. I take checks. Card. Cash.
Headlights pour into their front window. I catch a glimpse of our place across the way and wish I could teleport over there. A car door slams. A tall man unbends himself from his coupe. Husband is home. He opens the front door.
“Dirk?” he says.
“Hi, yes. I was just leaving. Did you want to take a look?”
“I’m Ben,” he offers his hand. “Thanks for doing all this today. It looks great.”
“You got it.” They’re such good people. You can tell by the way they look and smell.
“I forgot one thing,” I tell Ben. “A tool. In the bathroom.”
“Sure.” He sets a reusable grocery sack down, grabs the TV remote.
I face the empty altar and put the god back. Thank you, Lord.
In the living room, Ben stops channel surfing. “Hundred, right?”
“You sure?” he says.
“I’m sure. Neighbor discount.”
Back home, the shower runs. I open the bathroom door and Tanya shuts off the water. She steps out, grabs her towel. She’s a stunning nude. Makes me wish I painted instead of gluing shit together. I’d love to have her model for me all day. She combs out her long, blond hair with smooth strokes, then reaches for her toothbrush. She knows I’m watching, so she moves slower. I start to undress as she wraps her towel up over herself. She rinses her mouth and dabs her lips.
“Can I still take you up on that back rub?” she says.
“Yeah. Let me take a shower first.”
She picks up my dirty clothes and winks.
I notice something. The space behind the vanity spigot is bare. No pills. She keeps them there so she doesn’t forget to take one each morning. The foil pack shines from the trash bucket. There are only a few empty blisters. The rest are filled with her month’s supply. Oh my God. Is she going off them?
I get in the shower. Water’s still warm, but turning cool.
Around the time we lost Pablo and cried for a couple of days, Tanya said I’d been a great stay-at-home dad for him, and that she could see me doing it for real kids. We always said he was like our child, and joked that if we didn’t have him, we might have four kids by now. That’s my other ideal life: father to Tanya’s children. Maybe she’s starting to see it too.
The water goes cold, and I stay under the stream until I get used to it. It doesn’t take long. You figure out quickly how your body prefers the shock. How much better you feel when you go against what feels good. It’s like listening to the other little voice, not the bad one, and actually doing what it tells you.
Taylor Garcia’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Chagrin River Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Driftwood Press, and Pearl Magazine. He has also contributed essays to The Good Men Project. He lives in Southern California with his wife and sons.