The house would have depressed Alonso. My ten-year old son walked in once right after I started working there and right away saw the nail pops and badly cut drywall; some of the outlets plates didn’t even cover the holes. Seven hundred grand, which was what it cost to get bad drywall in the Orange County.
The homeowner saw an eighteen-foot ceiling and bonus room. She didn’t notice that the loft looked into a wall. She didn’t see the corner that dropped away in the living room, probably from a dissolving foundation. She didn’t even see the windows clouding up because they were installed wrong and now the seal were broken. She was not smart. Which was good, because she didn’t see me watching her.
I’d heard the stupid jokes, and I knew the cliché, which never applied to me. No client ever slipped off her robe when she saw me coming. I never had to explain to my wife a strange pair of panties in the pocket. I didn’t do that shit, and neither did other contractor I knew, though we laughed over beers at Hollywood’s idea of our lives.
I didn’t like myself for knowing where she was whenever I was in her house. I didn’t like remembering the music she listened to. I didn’t like my eyes for noticing the glint of red in her hair illuminated by the light coming through the crappy window. “Where do you want the outlet to go?” with other client I found out about kids and vacations. I said, “Are you planning to stain this trim?” she held up two paint samples. “What do you think?”
I couldn’t stop myself- I said “That one,” because the other one would look like chalk, and it was important to me that she lives in a nice house. At night I thought of her and twitched with the need to save her from bad choices.
When I got home I checked my son’s homework and snaked the bathtub drain. I became super husband after taking that job, and my wife smiled when I walked through the door. I wondered how much quiet deceit a marriage could contain.
At work the home owner asked me to recode her garage-door opener. There was a manual; all she had to do was read it. Instead she stood next to me while I read, then trailed me to the garage while I instructed her to punch in her new code. Don’t tell me what it is, I said.
“Silly, I trust you.”
“You want to keep the information to yourself.”
Her blouse was buttoned wrong and it was unbelievably hard not to reach out and fix it.”
If I want to change the code, I will call you.”
A few times I stayed late, hoping I could meet her husband. It would have helped to shake the man’s hand, but he worked late paying for that shithole house, and his wife was alone a lot. She wasn’t alone. She was with me.
Once the addition I’d been hired to build was finished, she kept finding new jobs for me and when those threatened to end I drew her attention to a crack that ran all the way around the downstairs bathroom.
“Is it dangerous?”
“Only if you want to your house to keep standing.”
Her face was a cartoon of confusion and sweet alarm. She was what Betty boop would have looked like if she were talking to her contractor. I would have looked like the wolf.
I went back to that house yesterday. Its brown now and the trees make it look less crude. Kids’ toys are scattered on the driveway; either she’s a grandmother or she sold place. I heard that she and her husband split, but I don’t know whether that’s true. Even now I can make myself gasp a little at the idea of her available.
I got out of the job without ever kissing her. All my crazy, pent-up need got poured into the next job, Marcie, until my marriage blew apart. She and I lasted three years. Pretty good, for how these things go. Three years after that my son started to talk to me again. Eventually we pasted the edges back together. He comes and sees me now sometimes just he wants to.
I live in a house south of town. It isn’t much, but the land is good and I keep the place clean. I could bring a woman there without feeling too bad. Most of the time I don’t bring women there. That fire burned itself out after the divorce, after Marcie, after I lived through all the destruction that I knew I was bringing on myself and couldn’t stop. Didn’t stop. Of course I could have.
This house I used to work on looks pretty good now. Somebody’s keeping it up. The gutters look good, and the roof, and the mulch is pulled away from the foundation. If I look at it like this, from the street it’s a solid house that could hold any number of good lives. If I tilt my head just a little, I can feel the edges of the old thrill. That’s all it takes that little tilt.
Credit: Erin McGraw