Early in my life, I used to visit homes with Samuel Halevi. He was a tax collector. He had scrabbled for a few accounts from the mighty Ferruziel family, which made him a middleman to middlemen. Dicey job. Answering to the powerful afforded some security—defaulters were more likely to be tortured than collectors—but there were malcontents, and the threat was real. Samuel brought me for protection. At first.
Still unsure about my abilities, still fearful at my very existence and what it said about him, Samuel conducted his rounds as if I wasn’t there. He had me stand a ways behind him at each door, unmoving. It didn’t take him long to realize the effect this had on payers. Command over me was one thing. That instilled fear. But playing it so subtly, that was key. No one knew what I might do. The dreary man grasping for their dinars suddenly took on mystique.
Protection became leverage. What else could he create? A clay army? He saw their faces and asked about their businesses, sometimes opening a new line of trade for himself. Soon he was rivaling the Ferruziels in collections. Samuel became Samuel the Castilian, drawing the attention of the Little Cid, the nasi himself, the closest thing the Jews had to a prince. Eventually Joseph ibn Ferruziel met Samuel and became friends with Judah, and the Halevis suddenly had a connection to the Christian court.
So where have I been?
It took Ruth some time to get over her last episode. It was more of an instant change than a slow struggle. One day immobile, the next vacuuming. Then the Chilean earthquake struck, and I feared for her once more. But she was fine. Even when I told her the entire planet had shifted, she chuckled and said, “Damn.” Then she slapped my arm. “Hey, what about your blog?”
I’ve had other obligations. If you live in the part of town where I’ve been working the past month, Jesus probably came to your door. He probably asked if he could replace your gutters.
You might have asked, In February? Jesus was prepared. “Does this look like February to you? Let me tell you about my business model. I send all our bad weather out to the east coast and down to Washington. Then I come over and work on your house.” He spread his arms wide. “Step One is finished.”
What if your sound business model breaks down? Jesus laughed. “Not a factor,” he said. “I hope it does snow. That’s when we do our best.” He started hopping and pretend-sparring.
The man behind the wheel looked straight ahead, not turning or smiling until he stood up. Long, white, vaguely Islamic garment at odds with his rhinestone shades. He is a plunger. An adapter. Ruth says he’s the kind of guy who ends up in your favorite chair. He believes in making hay while the sun shines, though he’s never heard that phrase. And so we’re using the mildest winter on record to replace the east end’s aluminum. On one street he talked five houses in a row into a package deal—downspouts, eaves, sofit, facia, all of it.
My only task during the pitch was to silently hand out a sheet of testimonials, but there’s much more to it. Jesus could afford to dance and brag because of me. I convinced them that, yes, one of these guys certainly looks like he can work through sudden blizzards.
Jesus thinks we make the perfect team. He isn’t the first to say so.
We’ve been pounding metal and brick all week. The weather has held up, and we’re making great progress so far. Already, the houses are starting to blend into one another.
“So I been looking at your website,” said Jesus, eating his Chinese burrito. We were sitting in the van, letting the sun warm us through the glass. “It’s interesting and stuff, but I like blogs that show videos and pictures and all that. You see that one monkey pissing in its mouth? Why don’t you put on more stuff like that? Or not just animals, but funny shit.
“Like there’s this one blog where the guy finds some sweet ass and follows it with a camera, and it’s just like all it is is this woman’s ass walking around the whole city. I don’t know how they don’t get caught.”
I said I didn’t think that was a blog.
“Maybe you don’t know what a blog is,” he said.
We were getting out of the van, Jesus wiping his hands on the seat, when I became aware of a car pulling up across the street. The man behind the wheel looked straight ahead, not turning or smiling until he stood up. Long, white, vaguely Islamic garment at odds with his rhinestone shades.
“Ah, look at this,” Jesus said. “You here to help us, Kosey? Do some work for a change?”
The man beamed at the sky and sucked his teeth.
“I don’t know, man, I just don’t know anymore.” He ambled over, as if each step was against his will. “You got the monopoly here. Five on one block?”
“You been watching us?”
“Don’t need to. I hear you banging away on every house in town. How you manage that, man? You charge pesos?”
Jesus made a dismissive sound. He was smiling, but hadn’t moved. His hand was gripping the door handle. Kosey took a big breath.
“Disconnecting downspouts.” His brown hands tapped the side of the van in bursts of two. Kosey liked to repeat phrases and draw out the second one, changing the intonation of each syllable. “Deees-con-NECT-ing dowwwwn-spouts. City says they come out of the ground or I have to pay a fine. You want to come by? Bring some of this metal?”
Jesus nodded. “Yeah, maybe. Got lots to do here first.”
“The city disconnects downspouts,” I said. “There’s a program.”
Tap tap. Tap tap. “City won’t do it under certain circumSTANces. They got a checklist long as my dick.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of a checklist,” Jesus said. Kosey didn’t volley back.
“Lotta big stuff coming down soon.” He was looking straight at me. “My places in Regent Park. You remember them?”
Kosey owns several squat buildings in a developing part of town, rented mostly by people from developing nations. These buildings are devoid of any character or style. Not one hedge or flower grows beside them. They can be distinguished mostly by the bustle of families in and around them, or relaxing outside on folding chairs. A few months ago he told us to come in to re-plaster an apartment, but it turned out he wanted us to remove asbestos. Jesus said no. He asked how long Kosey had known. Kosey shrugged and said he’d just found out. We didn’t ask how.
An irony of this age: To be an undisturbed part of the crowd, you have to account for yourself. It’s getting harder and harder to be no one, with no name. There were people in the hall, a woman and two children, speaking a language I thought might be Tigray. Kosey said they’d have to stay out until it was done. Jesus said we didn’t know how much was here or if it was actually unsafe; removing it could send fibers into the air. Jesus said he’d call someone who could test, but Kosey took out some cash and said he’d rather get his tenants back in their home quickly.
Jesus charmingly declined. He stepped into the hall to try to explain to the tenants that it was better to do nothing. They didn’t speak English.
While Jesus struggled, Kosey sucked his teeth and leaned into me. “You come back later and help me out, yeah?” I watched the girls looking from Jesus to their mother and back. Jesus was gesticulating wildly.
“Think of them,” Kosey said. “I got the same papers for them as I got for you.”
Sorry for the abrupt halt. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go this far. The tough ones take longer.
An irony of this age: To be an undisturbed part of the crowd, you have to account for yourself. It’s getting harder and harder to be no one, with no name. I can’t work somewhere if they need to have my background. Never mind joining a union, paying income tax. Most years in the city, I could survive on nothing and set out for the tall grass when things got uncomfortable. Now I have someone at home. Jesus is willing to accept all payments and give me my end in cash, so that takes care of the steady income, but moving in with Ruth was inviting scrutiny by a landlord.
Jesus sort of knew a guy, and that guy was Kosey. He got me the bare minimum. Driver’s license, references. And now he calls on me from time to time. I’m like one of his immigrants, except they want to be naturalized. They might get out from under him. I need to stay under. Bad things start happening when too many people know me.
Kosey needs me too. Deliveries with no questions. Disposal. He knew I’d be back that evening, trudging up the stairs past the graffiti. I half expected to see the women still in the hall, but they were gone. The door had been left open. There wasn’t very much to remove, and it was mostly around the pipes. I got it as wet as I could and worked as slowly as possible, cutting with a sharp knife. I didn’t have the special yellow bags, but I triple-bagged everything. Carried it myself, on foot. I know which dumps collect asbestos and I knew where they’d find the bags. A few days later, I found an envelope in the mail.
He always pays, I’ll give him that.
Kosey was still talking and tapping the van. “The city say they gonna replace lead pipes, but only out to the street. So I’m like, that leaves how much pipe on your property you gotta replace? It’s expensive. Tssss. I don’t know anymore, man.”
Jesus shook his head.
“Well, big guy?” Tap tap. “You always come through, right?”
I hadn’t moved. Jesus doesn’t know everything about Kosey and me, but he doesn’t like Kosey much. Pulling downspouts from the ground isn’t bad. Maybe Kosey was charging his tenants for it, but we don’t know that, and if we leave it alone, the job is straight.
Nobody’s gotten hurt yet. But the way he looks at me sometimes, I wonder how far it will go. I keep a record of everything he asks me to do. (He won’t read this blog.) Ruth, I want to stay here with you, living like a man, but I have a history of going to where the men disappear.