My uncle is a landlord in Philadelphia, and I am his assistant. When customers descend the steps into his basement office, he jumps to his feet, rocks back on his heels, listens patiently while they request a safe apartment with a front view, spits a piece of cigar over a trash can stuffed with bills, and then asks, “Students?” If they answer yes, he says, that’s good, because I only rent to students. If they answer no, he only says, that’s good. Then he digs into one of the cigar boxes stacked precariously on his desk, emptying keys from little brown envelopes into his palm. After staring at them thoughtfully, he slides the keys back into their envelopes and starts the process over again with other packets. When he’s gone through every box, cursing his workers for not returning the keys, he will smash the mound of utility bills, summonses, repair lists, payments, leases, screwdrivers, nails, and styrofoam cups, scraping together a fistful of keys, dropping them into my hands, and discharging me into the street on my mission.
I’ve promised my father that I will help Uncle Sid for the summer while I’m home from college, and now I wait in the office for him to return. Willie and Oliver are in their places. Willie slumps in the old easy chair that swallows him up like a pickle barrel. Oliver sits hunched over on the wicker stool in the corner. Because Sid’s checkbook has been stolen once, and because whenever it slips behind his desk he accuses one of these men of stealing it, I have to stand guard in the suffocating basement room. The men, on the other hand, choose to wait here, believing the closer they are to Sid’s checkbook, the better chance they have of getting their money.
“Where your uncle at?” Willie asks me. “He don’t get back here soon, you gonna have to forge them checks. Or pay us the nickel outa you own pocket.”
Oliver laughs so hard at this that he has one of his coughing spells and must beat his thighs to stop. Oliver could be 40 or 60.I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. His eyes are always puffy and bloodshot, he coughs continually, and he’s so thin and frail that he moves like an old man and can barely hold a paintbrush steady, the only job he’s able to do anymore. He’s worked for Sid for 20 years, as has Willie, who handles most of the repairs, only a fraction of which actually get fixed. Willie’s leg is laced with pins, and he limps to work with a cane and a thermos of whiskey under his arm. Sid himself is a picture of poor health, with high blood pressure and two heart attacks on his record.
I hear Sid on the stairs, puffing and grunting even though he’s going down. He shuffles inside wearing a heavy brown suit in this heat, his face flushed, his collar pinching the roll of fat at the back of his neck. Only his hair is combed neatly— wavy, blond, almost golden—the lady killer of the family as he was once called 40 years ago and a hundred pounds lighter. Now Sid seems stuffed into his polyester suit, his arteries ready to rip. Because of Sid’s heart condition, my father has asked me to lend a hand to his only brother during the heat of the summer. In return Sid will give me money for school. But what was supposed to be only a temporary job has turned into a full-time preoccupation. At night I lie awake thinking about the leaking roofs, the fire code violations, the eviction notices, the security deposits not given back, the slave wages.
Sid’s eyes fall first on Oliver, sitting farthest away on the wicker stool, who with pursed lips and artistic care is turning the pages of the Daily News.
“You finish at the Sutton?”
“I run outa paint.”
Oliver doesn’t look up. He wets his finger to turn a page. “Uh-huh.”
“You know Gene has ten cans of it downstairs.”
“I don’ know that.”
“Go back down there and finish the living room. Mark will run you down.”
“It’s five o’clock!”
“It’s a quarter till, and you didn’t get here until 11 today.” Sid stares down at his desk, remembering.”And Willie, you go with him. Someone’s missing a door down there, B-8, yeah, it’s B-8.”
“I ain’t fixing no door! I’m gone home and rest this leg ‘fore I have to sell it to you as a busted pipe!”
“Fix the door first. Just get it back on its hinges. You can put the molding and everything else on tomorrow.”
“Molding? Where the molding gone? I ain’t fixing no door. It’s quittin’ time.”
“Fix the door.”
“Give me my check first.”
“After you fix the door.”
“I ain’t hobblin’ all the ways back here to pick up no check!”
“Just fix the damn door!”
“Don’t get hot—”
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
“I ain’t telling you nothing. I just want my money so’s I don’t have to come back.”
I close my eyes and retreat farther back against the wall, dreaming of fresh air. I listen to the voices, Sid’s raw threats, hollow from years of suspicion and abuse; Willie’s empty bark that always ends in a cowering whine trying to save face while it pleads; my father’s instructions not to let Sid climb any stairs. I hear the tenants screaming out operatic complaints, their windows banging shut on the steel backs of roaches. I hear the police rapping on doors, evicting in harmony. And I hear my own voice, perfectly pitched, blending in a gospel of frustration and discontent.
“Sid,” I say, “it’s five o’clock. Let me hold Willie’s check. I’ll take him down.”
Sid stares at me, not recognizing a safe voice, perhaps sensing by now that I am not clearly on his side and would give Willie his check once we were outside.
“I can hold my own damn check!” says Willie, who is too stubborn and proud in his unending battle with Sid to let me help him.
I look around the office: pole lamps on their sides too tall for anywhere but the Sistine Chapel, a Budweiser clock stuck at 6:30, a bowl of wax fruit melted into a mutant purple lump, a coffee table with sawed-off legs, a mattress with yellow stains leaning against the wall and lampshades with yellow burns in the corner, plumbing fixtures corroded beyond recognition on the filing cabinet, bedrails layered with rust, a shoebox full of old locks and twisted keys, a decade of ragged telephone books stacked on a broken air conditioner that occupies the only window in the office. Nothing is discarded unless it hops in a trash can and finds its way up the stairs.
“Get out of here,” Sid says, pushing Willie toward the door, finally giving him his check.”You, too, Oliver.” He hands Oliver a few dollars and some change for the bus. Then he turns to me.”You need anything?”
“Got enough gas in the car?”
“You want some club soda for the ride?”
“Really, I’m fine.”
He gives me two quick pats on the back, then transfers a wad of rent money from his pocket to an envelope. I feel the envelope sink in my hand. For a moment I just hold it in front of me, remembering Sid shaking Oliver so hard this afternoon that Oliver threw up (he lost another apartment key). Finally, I take the money.”Tomorrow at eight, then,” Sid says, once I do.
After a restless night, I leave early in the morning, drive into Philadelphia as I have for the past three months, and wait outside Sid’s office for the workers.
“Mark,” says my uncle, leaning into the car, “this is Warren. Let him finish painting number six on Lombard. After you drop him off take Willie around to the Sutton.”
I’ve never seen Warren before. He hunches over in the backseat, his breath heavy with liquor. That, in addition to something malevolent about him, a conspicuous scar on his neck, an indifferent nod at me, a scowl on his face that shifts itself through stages of disgust, and the dress pants and silk shirt he’s wearing make me wonder why Sid let him work.
Once we’re moving, Willie says, “You hear ‘bout Gene shooting his wife?”
“Gene our manager?” I’m stunned by this news. Gene is one of the gentlest men I know.
“Shot her through the hand last night. He’s in jail right now.”
“He really shot her?” It becomes harder to believe the more I think about it.”Why?”
“Yeah, it was hot last night.” Willie reaches into his toolbox for his thermos. He takes a drink, then passes it back to Warren.”Them people don’t get some water soon they gonna deep-fry your uncle.”
“Since when don’t they have water?”
“Since yesterday when I shut it down trying to fix them leaks. The piping ain’t no good.”
I lean over the steering wheel, thinking about the Sutton Arms, Sid’s all-black apartment building, 75 units, that has been condemned twice and remains operating by borderline repairs.”They’ll tear the place down if they don’t have water by tonight.”
“They probably tear you up as it is just for being Sid’s nephew. Ain’t that right, Warren?” I glance in the mirror at Warren. He blinks his eyes shut to answer.”You can’t really blame ol’ Gene. The trouble started when the men come home from work and don’t find no water—again. They bang on his door. He tell them he think it be fixed tomorrow. They say they gonna kill him if he don’t do something right now. So he sit behind his door the whole night, a bottle in one hand, a gun in the other. The men keep banging and finally say they coming in after him. So Gene panic and tell them, ‘I give you Sidney’s nephew you leave me be!’”
“Oh, come on—so he didn’t shoot her then?”
“Sure he shoot her, boy! He got to show them he serious ‘bout turning you over, don’t he? How else you gonna convince crazy people ‘cept by shooting your own wife?”
I give up trying to find out the truth. After we drop Warren off, I park in front of the Sutton. The sidewalk is unswept. Orange peels and Dunkin Donut wrappers fill the mailboxes. In the lobby ceiling is a huge gash and sticking up through it on a ladder is Oliver.
“How’s it going, Oliver?”
“Fine, jus’ fine.”
“What are you doing up there?”
“Looking, jus’ looking.”
Willie stops tickling a woman who’s trying to wipe her neck with a handkerchief. He grabs me by the arm.”Look at that, boy. See all the patching? That ain’t no good. He need a whole new system.”
“He can’t afford it.”
“Well, he gonna have to afford it ‘less he planning to dig a well in here.”
“Are you positive?”
“The drainage ain’t bad but he got to do something quick ‘bout them first-floor supply pipes.”
“Did you tell him this?”
“There you go being stupid again.”
“Then I’ll drive back and tell him until he listens.”
“Now hold on—wait just a second.” He reaches down for his thermos.”Don’t go getting yourself all heated up. I take care what I can today, then come Monday maybe I can do something else—”
“What’s wrong?” He stumbles close to my ear. “Talk to your uncle! Talk to the man! See what he say. If he give me the okay, I’ll come down and put everything in—piping, unions, valves, elbows, everything!”
I trudge upstairs, four flights, blaming Willie, blaming my uncle, blaming myself for coming between fingers pointing to thin air. I unlock the door of a vacant apartment. Near the back of the room, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, Esther pulls dirt from a mop.
“How’s everything, Esther?”
“I can’t be finishing my work in here if I gotta stop every two minutes to pick away at this here mop!”
I like Esther and do anything I can for her. She takes pride in her work, assigning her own standard of perfection to each apartment she cleans based on its potential condition. If she isn’t satisfied with a job, she’ll stay until she is, regardless of how many cleanings Sid has scheduled her to do. At the end of the day, she folds her check without even a glance and drops it in her handbag.
“He gonna have to get me a new mop.” She bangs the handle on the floor.”This one ain’t fit to wipe anybody’s backside! Just look at that floor.”
It seems immaculate to me. “Like a palace ballroom, Esther.”
“Oh go on ‘bout your business and let me finish.”
“Sid wants me to bring you over to Fifty-second Street to clean an apartment there.”
“I still got the kitchen sink to go in here.”
“That won’t take long, will it?”
“About ten minutes then?”
“Wait a second now—ain’t Fifty-second Street full up?”
“The new tenants are already in, but it hasn’t been cleaned from the old ones yet.”
“They there now?”
“I suppose so, why?”
“Yeah, I think so—why?”
“You gonna be there?”
“No, I have to go . . . why do you want to know all this?”
“I ain’t gone then.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t clean no apartments when they’s occupied or just been occupied.”
“For heaven’s sake, Esther, why not? Are you in the union or something?”
“I know I’m fat and I know I’m old, but that don’t make no difference from what all I read in the papers and what all I seen with my own eyes.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Esther. These guys are students.”
“That don’t mean a damn thing to me. I don’t trust my kind, and I don’t trust your kind any more.”
“These guys aren’t going to rape you.”
“When I comes to an apartment it’s by myself and I stays by myself. I keeps the door locked and I does my work. That’s the only way I can do my work.”
I tap the two keys together. “I think they’re med students even.”
“I don’t care if it the Pope and the President playing checkers! I ain’t gone in there by myself. Your uncle know I don’t do apartments like that!” She curls her lip and picks harder at the mop.”You live down here as long as I do you know a woman got to be careful ‘bout where she go.” She reaches into her supply bucket and then points a can of Comet at me.”I seen what happen with people who ain’t!”
Esther walks into the kitchen. I sigh heavily and lock the door behind me, slipping the two keys back into their envelope. Downstairs, Oliver is sitting on the bottom step, turning the pages of the Daily News with his usual artistry.
“Oliver, I thought I told you to start painting B-10.”
“There people in it.”
“It’s supposed to be vacant.”
“S’pose to be.”
“Who are they?”
He turns a page. “I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll go up and find out.”
“Hey, boy!” Willie’s voice booms down through the ceiling.”You just stay put ‘less you want to get your head blown off”
“What is going on here?”
Willie points his wrench at me. “We already called your uncle and he sending the police down. You sit there and wait for them.”
The police arrive an hour later and quietly place the couple in the backseat of a squad car, the girl looking slightly older than the boy, both of them no more than 18.There’s no damage to the apartment; in fact the floor has been swept and the stuck window is now working freely. In the farthest corner from the door is a sleeping bag and a candle melted in an ashtray. A cassette recorder on the windowsill is turned up full volume. One policeman gathers the articles while the other points his pencil at me and asks questions. Did I ever see them before? Are there any other vacant apartments? No, I’ve never seen them before, and yes, there are lots of vacant apartments. They inform me pole locks are the best on the market. I explain that we change the locks so often that no one can keep track of the keys. Oliver loses keys all the time. And Esther won’t clean an apartment without a dead-bolt. Crazy, huh? They stare at me blankly. They don’t know Oliver. And they don’t care if Esther wraps herself in chains at night. Why am I rambling on? I tell them to see my uncle if they have more questions.
After I’ve checked the rest of the building, I go downstairs, where Oliver, Esther, and Willie are lined up waiting to depart, already time to quit. We load up the car and drive crosstown to pick up Warren, the griddled streets heating up the rush-hour traffic trying to uncoil its way out of the city. Warren is standing outside taking long gulps from a bottle. I get out of the car to help him put his supplies in, and I notice the paint cans all feel full. I glance in the window. One wall has barely been touched, the other is still unpainted.
“What happened, Warren?”
“What d’ya mean what happened?”
“The apartment—you didn’t paint it.”
“Sure I did! Look at that back wall.”
“That’s nothing for all the time you’ve been here.”
“C’mon, man, get on.”
“I’m serious, Warren. You didn’t do a damn thing here.”
He presses his lips together, finally bursting out, “Fuck, boy! Who you anyways?”
“I don’t see how you expect to get paid for this job.”
“You paying me or Sid paying me?”
“He’s not going to pay you.”
“Let’s go talk with the man.”
“Why bother? Why should you get paid for a job you didn’t do?” He takes a step toward me, squeezing the neck of the bottle.
“Get over here, boy!” Willie shouts at me from the car. I sit down on the steps and fold my arms over my knees. Warren looms above me.
“I’m not taking you back to Sid’s, Warren.”
“The hell you ain’t!”
“I’ll take the supplies back. If you want to see him, you can walk. You’ll get there just as fast with the traffic.”
“How you know Sid?” he asks, squinting.
“He’s my uncle.”
“He letting you run the business?” He points the bottle at me.”You don’t got the sense of a fucking little kid!”
I put my head down. “I’m only helping him for the summer—and don’t point at me. People have been pointing things at me all day and I’m sick of it.”
“What the hell. . . who the hell are you then?” He throws the bottle down at my feet. Liquor spills over my shoes.”You ain’t nothing! You ain’t nothing!” I lean back stiffly against the steps, my whole body tense.
“Get in this car, boy!” Willie yells, kicking open the car door and running between us.”Go on, Warren, meet us ‘round Sid’s.”
Silence, incriminating silence. I drive slowly, ignoring the bourbon on my shoes, sifting the argument of all personal fault.
“Well, do you think I was wrong?” We pull up to a stoplight. More silence.”Well, was I?”
“Just let your uncle take care of it,” Willie says.
“Yes or no? Was I wrong in what I said?”
“You wrong anytime you tell a man he ain’t getting paid.”
“But he didn’t do anything.”
“That don’t make no difference. You don’t put a man at a job and then tell him he ain’t getting shit. You at least gonna pay for the mistake of hiring him. Your uncle know what to do. He’ll buy the job from him. If it ain’t worth nothing, he’ll give him close to nothing.”
“Sid isn’t even here! How’s he going to know what happened?”
“You was gonna tell him, right? What you think you doing down here with us—sightseeing?
“Jesus, what do you think I am, a spy?”
“And you got a lot to learn ‘bout treating people ‘round here,” Esther says.”We got a whole way of acting that diff’rent from the folks you used to.”
“You don’t tell a man like that you keeping his money from him,” says Willie.
“Specially when he as drunk as he is.”
“If I hadn’t grabbed you, he mighta slit you so bad you wouldn’t know which way your ass was running.”
“That man a goat,” Oliver puts in.
Esther hitches up her shoulders. “We got us a whole lot of nice people in this neighborhood, and we got a whole lot of bad ones. And there’s a diff’rent way of talking with each of them.” She nods her head.
“Besides,” Willie says, “you don’t know what kinda problems that man have. Maybe he got something tore up so bad in him he cain’t work.”
I squint at the road. We’re in a long line of traffic right behind a bus. Another column blocks the intersection we need to cross. We wait behind the bus, tasting its acrid fumes, waiting for a space to clear. Horns blare violently for something to move. I feel the heat closing in on me, forcing the air out. Oliver hacking at the air in the back. The bourbon burning up the air. The bus choking off the air. I close my eyes. Sid’s buildings crumble. The dust catches in my throat. Deep deep I have to breathe deep down just once. . . .
“Niggers! You’re all a bunch of lazy niggers!”
I expect a commotion, a belligerent swearing, an angry muttering, at the very least a hostile silence, but instead they roar with amusement:
“My Lawd! There’s a nigger in this car!”
“Which nigger you talking ‘bout, boy!”
“Sid gonna give you a whuppin’ he hear you talk like that!”
They hoot and slap me on the back until we pull into the alley alongside Sid’s. I jam the car into park, embarrassed and furious over their reaction, needing more than ever to fill my lungs. We all rush inside just ahead of Warren who is charging around the corner, everyone screaming at once.
“Give me my money!”
“Don’t give it to him, Sid!”
“Quiet, boy! What I tell you in the car!”
“He didn’t do anything, Sid—”
“SHUT UP! I SAYS SHUT UP!” In the corner, grinning and pleased with himself, Oliver uncups his hands from his mouth.
“What happened, Warren?” Sid asks, opening his eyes wide for the first time.
“Your nephew say you ain’t gonna pay me.”
“He sat on his ass, that’s why!”
Warren swipes the air with his fist. “I ain’t telling you again—shut your fucking mouth!”
I kick the trash can across the room. “You don’t tell me anything!”
He sucks in his breath, his whole face quivering, then lunges over Sid and smashes me on the chin. His fist bores into my chest, pounding again and again. I’m knocked back against the desk while Willie and Esther struggle to hold him back.
“I want my money!”
“Okay,” Sid says, “okay.” He opens his wallet and takes out five dollars.”Here—all right?”
“Go home now.” Sid spreads one of his hands on the desk for support and massages his heart with the other, panting for breath.”Please, Warren, go home now.”
“I’m working tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, yes, fine.” He puts a cigar in Warren’s pocket and pushes him toward the door.
“You and me worked together before. . . .” Warren climbs the stairs and then yells down from the top, “Just tell him not to be messin’ with me when I come ‘round or I’ll kick his ass again!”
I sit on the floor, yanking at the lace of a shoe that has somehow been pulled off. My jaw is starting to swell. Above me stands Esther, a loose grip on my shirt. No one talks. Sid hands out the checks and everyone starts to leave in silence.
“Where you going?” he asks.
Willie slams his fist on the doorway and whirls around.
“We’re gone, Sid! Work’s done.”
“What work? We’re going out for a drink.” He checks his wallet.”I’m buying.”
No one moves.
“I’m serious, let’s go. . . .” He claps his hands and looks down at me.”Everyone!”
“Get on it, Sid!”
“Holy shit, Sidney’s gonna buy us a drink!”
“Where you taking us, Sid?” Esther asks.
“Man, that’s a delicatessen.”
“They got beer there, don’t they?”
I sit motionless on the floor. More than my jaw, my chest hurts. I can’t understand how I got here. I shouldn’t be on the floor forcing back rage and tears, but somehow I’m down here.
“Quit moping, boy!” Willie snaps at me. “Get up! We’re gone drinking. It past time already!”
We walk down the street: Oliver carrying the Daily News, Willie with his arm around me telling me who the 76ers should sign this year, and Sid walking beside Esther asking her if he doesn’t always treat her right. The sidewalk opens up ahead. Heat rises up like helium through my body, lessening the density, making me lose track of when it all began. The light changes. Willie jerks me toward him. Our shoulders bump as we cross.