“Thanks for taking the job, Jake. Holidays and all. And more rain coming.” Handing him the keys to the empty house in the rear, before walking off. “Gonna be another wet Christmas.”
Wet Christmases. He knew all about those. If you didn’t count the one in rehab last year, he hadn’t had a dry one in years.
Monday morning, he brought in his gear and the paint, opened all the windows and doors, and started working.
Quiet neighborhood. A vacuum cleaner whirred in the front house.
The sound of a washing machine running, later in the morning, reached him where he was standing just inside the front door, stirring the paint.
A woman stepped out of the front house, full laundry basket on her hip. Plump, maybe mid-thirties, face somewhere between plain and pretty, hair clipped in a loose bun. She dropped the basket on the grass under the clotheslines, then saw him. “Oh — Hello… You’re the painter?”
She came over to the porch steps, looking past him into the house. “Standard landlord white.” Smiled at him. “Looks good.”
She turned and walked back to her laundry basket, and leaning over, grabbed a shirt and shook it out and clipped it on the line, grabbed another, shaking it out, clipping it, and so on; she worked fast. He was still stirring the paint when she picked up the empty basket and went back into the house.
In the afternoon, he sat out on the porch and ate his sandwich.
A fence divided the rear house from the front house. On his side, bare dirt. On the other side, thick green grass was neatly cut, there were rose bushes, and a tree spreading shade over a bench.
She came looking for him the next afternoon. “If you’re Jake, the landlord’s calling you on my phone.” He put down his brush, was following her over to the front house. “Did you forget your phone at home?”
He no longer owned a phone. No longer owned a house. The house holding all those wet Christmases was a blurred memory.
She opened the door; he waited on the back porch.
The kitchen was immaculate, sun streaming through the window over a little table. On the stove, something cooking in a pot smelled good.
Through a door, the living room. A decorated Christmas tree faced a window. Sitting on the floor in front of a television was a small boy, rocking back and forth, making odd noises.
Looking at the boy stirred memories. Special Needs: back when he was a PhysEd resource for the school district, he worked with children like these, modifying exercise routines to meet their abilities. He’d loved that job. Just not more than he’d loved drinking.
The woman came back, phone in hand. “I guess he hung up.” She held it out. He could hear the dial tone. “Would you like to call him back?”
“No. Thanks anyway.”
As he was closing her door, she said, “How’s the painting going?”
“Good.” He closed the door.
He was eating his sandwich on the porch when she walked across the grass, a steaming bowl, napkin and spoon in her hands. “Here.”
“Oh — No, I — ”
“Eat. Can’t you tell I’m a good cook?”
He took the bowl. When she had gone back inside, he carried the bowl and spoon to the back door and left it there.
Saturday, he was working when he heard a man’s sharp voice. Then hers, frightened. Then the unmistakable sound of flesh being hit, and the woman’s high broken cry.
He put down the brush and walked out of the house, across the grass, over to her back door, listened. Inside, he heard the woman pleading. “Please — please, just go — ”
He opened the door.
In the living room, the woman was crumpled on the sofa, coffee table knocked aside. A man, short, dark, balding, in a green uniform, was standing over her.
The boy was in front of the television, rocking, grunting, flailing his hands, shaking his head.
He stepped inside the house. “She said go.”
The man looked around, eyebrows raised, red mouth opening. “Who are you?”
He took another step. “Now.”
The man stared at him, taking his measure: 6’2”, still ripped from his gymrat days, nothing-to-lose face. Want it?
The man turned, walking past the boy, directing one last eye-shot at the woman. “Done with your shit, Linda.”
The door slammed.
She moved after a moment, to sit on the floor next to her boy.
“It’s okay,” she whispered to the boy. “It’s okay.”
Monday, he heard the washing machine. A while later, she came outside, laundry basket on her hip, dropped it, was shaking out a shirt, pinning it.
There was a bruise on her arm.
He stopped painting, leaning out the window. “Your husband — ”
“He’s not my husband. My husband left us.”
She finished hanging clothes, picked up her basket. Turned. “Why didn’t you eat what I gave you?”
Why… Eleven years married. They were both alcoholics, both lost good jobs. On Christmas Eve last year he found her in bed with a guy she’d met in a bar. He left, went into recovery; a year later, he didn’t know if this would be another wet Christmas.
“I just came to paint.”
Wednesday morning, he was packing his gear, when she came in. Hair curled, face made up.
He had just come to paint.
She said, “Would you have Christmas dinner with us tomorrow? Me and my son.”
He could barely manage himself, much less a woman, much less her and the boy.
Her eyes were brown, shy as deer.
He said, “Okay.”
She brightened. “Okay.”
They walked out to the porch.
The sky was clear; maybe the weather was turning.
Maybe tomorrow he could coax her boy away from the television, maybe they could play a little catch in the yard.
A dry Christmas, anything was possible.
Katherine Lopez writes stories, poems, essays, blog entries, letters, notes, and doodles. Some of which have been published.