When my landlord knocked Sunday at nine to install storm windows, I’d been rolling in bed for hours, trying to fairly distribute a hangover. The pain of it would pulse at one side of my skull, then I’d turn over to let it seep to the other, half-dozing in a damp sweat and thinking of cold chowder dripping through an hourglass. As I rose, it all seemed to make a viscous slide toward my stomach.
“R.K.,” he shouted, “you up?”
It had been weeks since we’d spoken; I’d forgotten what day he was coming. He continued to call my name as I threw on jeans and a T-shirt, and though the door of my tiny back apartment was only ten feet from the bedroom, I couldn’t raise the air in my lungs to shout back. My mouth tasted of stale mucus, and while he tried the knob, I spat in the bathroom sink and ate a finger of toothpaste. I shuffled through the tiny living area and around the half wall that separated the kitchenette and put the kettle on for tea, figuring that was about all that would stay down. I stepped back to open the door just as he began filing through his keys.
“Sorry, Allen,” I said. “I was in the bathroom.”
The apartment opened to an outdoor landing just four feet above the building's pebbled cement backyard, and there Allen stood, wiry with electric hairs sprouting from
every pore except for where he was bald on top. They were the kind of hairs that had worked hard to make it out, so that while he was a well-mannered man who trimmed his long beard evenly and combed his monk’s fringe with care, he still looked wild. A paint-spattered stepladder leaned at the bottom of the short staircase behind him, and at his side was a long wooden toolbox, overflowing with tools and aluminum cans of nails and screws. The scent of oxidizing metal floated in on the fall air, weaving through the radiator heat.
Allen lived alone, just two blocks down the street. He’d been an associate professor of anthropology over at the college for a number of years, during which time he’d acquired three apartment buildings off-campus in Brey. After he missed tenure, instead of moving to a new school, he stayed put. He taught one introductory class as an adjunct faculty member, and beyond that he supported himself with his rental income and thought about applying for grants. He said he made out okay.
In late August, when I arrived in town two nights ahead of my furniture, he insisted on lending me a foam-sleeping mat so I wouldn’t need to pay for a motel. Though saving motel money was good, the mat was no more than a half-inch thick and two feet wide with one corner torn off, and it wasn’t much different than sleeping on the carpet. But I told him how comfortable it was, and he’d liked me ever since. In the first weeks we spoke several times. Running errands to set up the apartment, I’d pass him out trimming his lawn with a motorless push mower, and he’d wave me down to chat and offer advice on where to get a city parking decal or where the closest laundry was. But when the days got shorter, I rarely encountered him. Through October we talked just once, by phone, to arrange a date for the storm windows.
“How are you settling in by now?” he said.
“All right,” I said, blinking as veins twitched in my temples. “Thanks.”
My apartment’s windows looked out on nothing but the brick side of the next building and a small bit of sky above, and given the cramped space, even my minimal furnishings – a desk, bookcase and armoire – mostly blocked them anyway. What the windows didn’t provide in terms of a view, though, they made up for in draftiness. The building was three-quarters of a century old, and the wooden runners were so worn that the sashes rattled in even a light breeze.
“We’ll need to clear this stuff out of the way,” said Allen, surveying the furniture.
My brain felt swollen, as if cerebrum were pushing out my ears, and I reeled at the thought of any heavy lifting. I had expected Allen would just take the ladder out in the alley, climb up, and screw on the storm windows from outside while I occasionally waved or offered him something hot to drink.
“They don’t go on the outside?” I said.
“I need you to get up close on the inside too, so you can help hold them in place,” he said. “Two-man job’s always better.”
We slid the desk away from the first window, and I found myself incapable of looking down without becoming faint. I hadn’t really drunk so much the evening before, but I hadn’t eaten enough to soak it up. I had ordered a steak, medium, at the bar around the corner, but it came overcooked, and the noise my knife and fork made as I sawed my way through it became more than I could bear after a few bites. I don’t mind eating alone, but I don’t need my utensils reminding me or anybody else in my proximity about it, so I pushed away my plate and instead worked at my stout, which went down smooth and silent for the rest of the night.
As we moved the desk, I breathed only through my nose, doubting the potency of the toothpaste. Allen said nothing but kept his head turned away until we got the piece clear, then stepped back to open the window. He was accustomed to trouble with his arts district tenants. He said they tended to leave behind ash-stained carpets and two months’ unpaid rent, maybe penciled murals on the walls. But me he had promised storm windows right off, as soon as I told him I was in news and sometimes wrote at home. The winds off the Elizabeth cut in hard during the winter, he said, and a draft wouldn’t do. A thinking man’s craft required consistent temperature.
The kettle blew, and I shuffled back to the kitchenette, my shoulders up at my ears. I spat in the sink twice more before I turned off the burner.
“I had coffee with the paper.” He brought in the toolbox and set it on the carpet under the windowsill. “If you don’t mind, hand me the tools from in here so I don’t have to keep running up and down the ladder.”
He went out and carried the ladder down the alley while I poured the hot water and steeped my tea bag with my eyes to the ceiling, feeling prickly heat roll up my neck and through my head. When he shouted to me, he was already holding the first metal storm window in place against the outside wood casement, testing the size. It was double-hung to match the main window, but its frame was rusted. So were its guillotine-like sashes, and the broad single panes they held were slightly smoky. He’d stripped the thing from another building, from someone else’s apartment, but it was intact, and it fit.
“R.K. The drill. Pass it through. The bit’s already in.”
I tried to lower myself to the toolbox in a squat, so that I wouldn’t have to bend over, but tipped backward and fell on my tail. The floor had some spring in it, and the tools jumped in the box. Off the top rolled the drill, heavy, the manual sort that spins by winding a handled gear on the side, like with an eggbeater. It smelled of oil. Sitting there on the floor, I thought of egg yolks frying, squinted, and handed it up to where Allen now leaned through the window, looking down to see if I was still conscious.
“Looks like you’ve found the Cantina all right,” he said.
“I stop in once in a while.”
The drill required two hands, so that he could only hold the storm frame in place by pushing his side against it. He had the panes fully open and locked at their highest catches, so the frame, top-heavy with the weight of the glass, kept wanting to topple over on him. I managed to get back on my feet. I reached up and out, leaving a slight crook in my arms to hook under the sashes of the raised panes, and with my hands I felt high up along each of the side rails for an outside grip. When I got one, I leaned back with all my weight, my toes against the baseboard, and closed my eyes.
“I see some nice-looking girls go in there,” Allen said. For a man of small build, he had a resonant baritone voice.
“I’m kind of keeping to myself so far.”
“That’s the way,” he said. “A good journalist knows. Ease in.”
He moved his drill from corner to corner. The bit ground against the sides of the screw holes in the frame, then bucked and squealed into the weathered casement. All the sashes shuddered in their runners at once, so that metal, wood and glass all clattered directly at my ears.
“There’s this grad student who grades papers for me who you might like,” he said, speaking loudly over the racket. “How old are you again?”
“She’s twenty-one, but she’s earthy. Blonde too. She’d keep you straight.”
I didn’t like the idea of needing to be introduced to anyone by my landlord. I had been married once and managed it all by myself. Yet the vision of a large-boned girl, handsome with long yellow hair, swam and glowed beneath my eyelids. She had just the hint of a second chin, cherubic and unsure whether it was coming or going, and I imagined tucking my head beneath it and bobbing in her embrace.
There I remained until the vibration from Allen’s vigorous winding shook one of the storm panes loose from its catch, and it fell. Its bottom rail dragged a rust thorn down the inside of my forearm, and then trapped my wrist against the sill. I didn’t look, but instead concentrated on a bubble of nausea that slid into my chest. Allen tucked the drill under his arm and re-opened the sash to the lowest catch, high enough I could slip my hand out, but low enough the pane wouldn’t fall far a second time.
“That might be a keeper,” he said, looking at my forearm. Most of the pane was between us now and he sounded far away. “Had your tetanus?”
I leaned the side of my forehead against the coolness of the glass and raised the arm to eye-level. The cut was deep, but the blood barely pooled. Only pinheads of red rose along its length. As I stared, the bubble of nausea slipped the rest of the way up, bursting with a guttural staccato pop. I coughed and tried to excuse myself, but Allen cut me off.
“Did I tell you how the corner got torn off that mat I lent you?”
He slid his own forearm under the sash and inside. I looked down as best as I could. He flexed it a couple times so that the knot of muscle at the elbow went in and out. You couldn’t normally tell because of all the hair, but there was a good scar there, thick and ragged.
“Years back I was coming in from camping off-trail in the Blue Ridge, right around Natural Bridge. Ever been there?”
“Well, at the range’s foot I got turned and ended up in one of those car-camp sites about dusk. I’d been carrying a full pack all day and had at least a couple more miles to get back to my truck, so I paid for a spot.”
“Sure,” I said.
“They’re loud, those places. The night air carries about everything. I could hear teeth being brushed a dozen pop-up trailers away. And the posted rules say no dogs, but I could hear people sneaking them out to the woods to do their business.”
I kept my forehead against the window. The bass tones of his voice vibrated through the glass and across my skin. I watched the dots along the cut blur and melt into one another, unsure if blood was really filling the wound or my vision was only doubling. More bubbles, larger now, squeezed up my esophagus. I held my mouth closed and tried to swallow them back down.
“Hand me the Phillips head and the screws.”
I squatted again, keeping the hand of the cut arm on the sill to hold my balance. With the other I handed him the first screwdriver and can I felt for.
“Screws,” he said. “One more over.” I lowered the can and stiffly bowed my head to see I’d given him tacking nails. I ran my fingers down the box and felt for the next can, then stood to help him hold the frame in place again, gripping the bottom edge of the lowered sash with both hands while he climbed the ladder and put a hip against the middle.
“I was so beat, nothing was going to keep me up. I didn’t pitch my tent. I figured it was warm enough to sleep under the stars and rolled out my pad and sleeping bag. Didn’t even have the energy to heat up my canned stew. So I leaned my head back against my pack and started eating it cold, but I was out before I got halfway through.”
The screws were a tight bore for the holes he had drilled in the wood, and they groaned quarter twist by quarter twist. He turned the screwdriver with both hands, rocking up with one shoulder and down with the other. The first place where I put my forehead on the pane got too hot, so I slid it over a few inches to a fresh section, but that heated up too, so I just started sweeping back and forth in an arc. The rhythm of the sway did little to help the churn of my midsection, but my brow stayed cool.
“I had a dream that the camp site had a barber shop, a clapboard cabin with leather barber chairs and steaming tin basins of water and hot towels,” said Allen. “Two barbers had me tilted back, trying to convince me to shave. I could feel the warmth of lather at the top of my neck, and I was too comfortable to stop them. Then I felt a nick and woke up with a dog right on top of me, nosing under my beard.”
He came two steps back down the ladder so that his face was right in front of mine. I stopped in mid-arc, and he lifted his beard with the back of his hand for emphasis, so that it flattened and spread against the pane. I could see a stray fleck of toast nested in the tuft. I breathed heavy to fog up the glass and block him from view.
“I don’t know what kind of dog it was,” he went on, “half-lab-half-pit, maybe. Anyway, I jumped and it went right for me. I managed to roll over and pull the pad over me, but it ripped that corner off six inches from my nose, and then I stiff-armed it, but it clamped on me good, right below the elbow. I had to jam all three knuckles of the pointer finger on my free hand up its rear to make it let go.”
I burped up a mouthful of lukewarm tea, and bile wafted into my upper sinuses.
Allen had the frame mostly secured now, and I stepped away, turning and pretending to sip as I let the tea fall back in my cup. If a mad dog were gnawing its way up to my neck, I wondered, would I reach for its anus? I turned back, eyes watering.
“How did you decide on that?”
He paused over the last screw, his shoulders in mid-rock, as if he’d never considered the question, then shrugged and went on with the work.
“It would make me let go,” he said. “When I collected myself, all I could smell was stew. I’d spilled it all down my front when I nodded off. The dog was still hungry and growling, but kept a distance. Nobody claimed it, but somebody went for the ranger, and he collared it.”
I looked back at his scar. His forearm was so sinewy that even without the hair it wouldn’t have stood out. It probably used to look worse.
“How bad was the bite?”
“Not as bad as it bled, I guess my pulse was up. The ranger tried to take me to the hospital, but I just wanted to get to my truck. He had butterfly bandages in his First Aid kit, and they don’t close it as tight as stitches, but they close it. I’ve got some at home if you want.”
A gust of wind blew through the short opening below the sash and chilled my waist where my shirt hung loose. My head still pounded, though more hollow now. I raised my cut to look at it again. Only a few thin red rivulets had begun to creep from it and across the fair skin.
“I’ve got Band-Aids,” I said. I felt my neck to make sure I had a pulse.
“All right then,” he said, climbing down the ladder.
I shuffled back to the kitchenette to rinse my mouth. There couldn’t have been anything more than a few sips of tea in my stomach, but I could feel it swell and drop as I bent to the faucet. Allen came back inside behind me to move the bookshelf for the next window.
“I had this one student back then with a thing for me – Ph.D. candidate, serious girl. I asked her to go with me that weekend, but she had something come up at the last second.” His voice boomed through the apartment now. “I bet we’d have spent the night curled up in the tent. I sure wouldn’t have passed out with canned stew in my beard.”
We dragged the shelf, the front edge of its base stuttering along the carpet along with my stomach. We got it clear, and I rested with my hands on my knees while he went back out and around to the new window.
“You should meet this grader I’ve got,” he said. He only had the panes open a few inches, and he sounded far away again behind the glass.
I closed my eyes again and looked for her, but the cloudiness between my ears began to crystallize into something more jagged, and I couldn’t find her.
“Was the dog rabid?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But it had a thing called leptospiroris, and I ended up with jaundice and diarrhea for three weeks. Worst runs I’ve ever had.”
A last wave of dampness lurched through me, and I stumbled for the sink, where I threw up short, drooling heaves of limpid fluid. It was as if all the cells in my body had been wringing out poison and sending it to my gut, and it finally had pooled there to red-alert critical mass. I wiped my mouth with the dishtowel as Allen raised the next rusted frame into place. This wasn’t even the last one.
“I can’t do this now,” I said, softly panting.
He rested the frame on the outside of the sill and looked up at the sky. It was a washed-out blue, strung with wisps of dirty white, as clear as it had been all month. “Today’s as good a day as we’ll get.” He put a fist to his mouth and blew on it. “That hangover will take half as long to run its course if you keep moving.”
“I can’t,” I said. I could smell the oil and oxidization of the tools from across the room. “If you leave me the toolbox, I’ll get them in later today.”
“No,” he said, lowering the storm frame and heading down the ladder a last time. “I’ve got other things I need them for.”
I quickly splashed my face and patted it down with the dishtowel, and I met him at the door. “I’ll check in with you later then,” I said.
“No need,” he said, retrieving the box. “Either we’ll get them in, or we won’t.” He stepped back out to the landing. The uninstalled storm frames now leaned against the railing at the bottom of the staircase; he wasn’t leaving them behind either. He blew on his fist once more and pulled the door shut.
I swabbed my cut with wadded toilet paper and put a row of Band-Aids across it. I closed the second window, but left the first one open the few inches where he’d set it and crawled back into bed. The bedroom radiator would build a pile of heat, and then a thin slice of wind would shoot the gap under the open panes and cut the pile to pieces. I adjusted the blankets so I had just the right amount of me under them and just enough sticking out. With a pillow pressed across my eyes, again I tried to find the grader, but I fell into sleep fast and hard and dreamed only of floating in a black, warm breeze.
I woke, hungry, as it was getting dark. In the bathroom, I peeled up one of the Band-Aids to see blood had soaked the bandage while I slept, and the cut had begun to fill in evenly with a wide scab. I called Allen but he didn’t pick up, so I left a message saying how sorry I was and we could finish the windows any time he said. I showered, brushed my teeth, dressed and then called him again, this time leaving a message that I was going to the Cantina to eat and catch the Sunday night game, and I’d buy him a beer if he stopped in.
Outside the air was sharp enough for my wool overcoat, but not so bitter it required buttoning, and I only wrapped it shut to fend off the heaviest blows that sent leaves skating along the sidewalk. On Allen’s block, a car slowly passed me from behind, then parked up the street. In the dim orange glow of porch lights, the figure of a young woman got out and walked back in my direction. As I passed Allen’s house and we came closer, I could see she was small, fine, with short-cropped hair, bleached white. She wore a surplus Army jacket, with the top a bottle of wine sticking out from where she clutched the jacket closed at her throat.
“Hey,” I said, soft from the back of my throat, as we crossed.
She nodded, her jaws locked to the chill, only the gracious hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth. I went on another few yards, then looked back to see her turn up Allen’s walk. He came to the door, his monk’s fringe wetted down, and greeted her with a hug, which she accepted with her lips turned away but her cheek pressed to his beard. As she pulled the wine from her coat and he guided her in, I headed to my dinner, hoping for quiet utensils.