The man smells of laughter, his cheeks are grease-stained, his eyes a hue so softly gray it could have been pencil-drawn. He is at my front door.
“I can fix your house,” he says. He’s holding his breath, like a starving child gazing at the displays of a bakery.
“I . . . I don’t think so.” I am blocking the doorway so he wouldn’t be able to see the dark inside.
“You think I can’t?” He licks his lips with cautious hope. “You can trust me, I promise I’m good.”
I shake my head. “I know you can fix houses.” I don’t know how I know this. I just do. He’s been around since last summer, and so I’ve seen what he can do with his hands. “It’s just that I don’t think my house needs fixing.”
He looks around. The front lawn weeds were past his knees, and if there ever was a path it was probably buried underneath all the greens. The delft blue door had that sun-bleached look and the window frames were more bare rotting wood than white paint. There is a hole in the roof, but he couldn’t have seen that.
He’s seen enough, though. He’s probably felt it too, the atmosphere of uneasiness surrounding the house.
When he looks back at me, an eyebrow is raised, questioning.
“Why are you even doing this?” I ask, a bit defensive.
He shrugs, a small smile playing on his lips. “I don’t want you to get cold in here. Besides, the dark must be scary. You need to install new lights.”
“I’m fine. I’ve survived.”
I manage to shoo him away, to send him off somewhere else where he can use his talent. Fixing. As if it’s that easy to repair my house.
When the night came, I settle on my worn couch and stare at the fireplace. It doesn’t have fire, hadn’t been aflame for so long I can’t even remember the last time I felt its warmth. But it’s good to gaze at its outline, frozen in time and in place.
The next morning, he comes back, with the same optimistic proposition and the same sunlit smile.
“I’m here again.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
“Look, you don’t have to watch me or anything. You can just lounge and enjoy yourself somewhere. You don’t even have to serve me lemonade.”
I shake my head. He’s not giving up, not like this.
“And if I don’t pay?” I ask.
That makes him pause, a momentary doubt flashing across his face. I smile, thinking, Well, there you go. But he’s waving his hands a few seconds later.
“That would be fine,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am.”
Shaking my head, I reluctantly let him in. As he crosses the threshold, the house shuddered, acknowledging the presence of a stranger. The walls had been sleeping, and the floor was in the midst of a dream, but they both wake up upon the man’s first footstep inside.
“I’ll start at the very center, then gradually make my way out to the garden and the yard. Is that okay?”
I nod. I lead him to the dining room.
Calling it a dining room is somewhat misleading, though. It’s a room. I ate in it. That was all. The table is long and solid wood, one of its feet missing. The once crisp golden wallpaper is torn in places. On the walls are gilded mirrors, but the frames are dusty and the light that shines off them showed years of flecks of dirt and food that was never polished off. The floor at first glance appeared to be mud, but it’s made of large terracotta flagstones covered in years of grime. Above the table hung an old wrought iron candelabra with several black-wicked candles in it, burnt to stumps.
He shifts beside me. “I can clean, too.”
And so I let him work. I sit at one of the high back chairs, numb to its damaged upholstery. I must admit, he’s quick and efficient and knows exactly what he’s doing. His tools seem to be a set of extensions of his arms. His fingers, deft and seasoned, appear to have a mind of their own, aiding him like a second helper.
In a few hours, he’s finished, and the dining room, though it didn’t magically become new-looking, is a decent version of its previous self now.
“All fixed!” he announces.
I walk him to the door, eager to send him away. He keeps looking back to me as if silently asking if he can stay a little longer. He can’t. He’s been here too long already.
I am about to close the door on him. “What is it?”
He’s four steps away from me, but there’s something radiating off of him and I can feel it. Embarrassment? Regret? His ears are red, and a flush is creeping across his cheeks.
He clears his throat before answering. “I found this.” He extends an arm, and on his hand is a picture. My picture. It’s of me, standing at full height. At six years old, I’m a boy of soft edges and shy smiles. I've never been the one to lead a group of peers, or to be invited to a birthday party. I was the boy whose back was to the frame, the boy who didn’t know how to talk to people.
I snatch the photo from his hands. “Where did you find this?”
“Buried underneath the pile of broken ceramic mugs.” He looks me in the eye, an air of regret breezing around him. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you right away.”
We stand there for a moment, me looking at the picture, him looking at me. The sun is about to set and he has to get home.
“It’s fine.” I close the door.
I open it again the next morning, only to see him sitting at the ground. No, he was sitting at a low stool that he’s brought. He’s smiling when I let him in, greeting me with a good morning.
“How have you been?” he asks. He’s secretly hoping I would talk about the dining room.
“I could eat again, I guess.”
I lead him to the stairs.
“Start here today. I haven't seen the second floor in ages.”
“They’re missing a lot of steps.”
The stairs ahead are twisted in a perfect spiral, like a child's slinky toy pulled from each end. Each present step is likely a deep walnut, but with the thick layer of undisturbed dust, it’s hard to tell. The rail is simply a plank of wood supported by three mean spindles. It looked for all the world that it would come crashing down with even the weight of a cat.
The work is done in five hours.
“You should try the steps, just to make sure,” he says, gesturing up to the second landing.
I step on the bottom one carefully. It doesn’t creak. The next step is easier to take, then the third, and fourth, and all the way up to the top. I can’t deny my happiness and its physical outward evidence shining on my face. Seeing me like that, he seemed to glow with pride.
“Thank you,” I say.
He hands me a picture. “I found this.” I was seven in the photo, clutching the arm of a girl ten years older than me. She has my eyes, my hair, my nose, but our mother gave her that heart-shaped lips. Even in the picture, her beauty is a thing to behold. She has the kind of face that you’ll want to wake up to, and the boys in the school and in the neighborhood had all been vying for her heart. There was Tom (soft hair, flip flops in the sand, soda coolers and milkshakes), Edward (ripped jeans, long walks in the park, mismatched socks), and Peter (infectious smile, wristwatch, pens and notebooks).
But she fell in love with Kara of three a.m. text messages and handwritten letters, of chapsticks and messy hair and small rocks lining the windowsill.
“Her name’s Arlene.”
He nods. “You guys look happy.”
Because we were happy, that’s true.
The next day, I lead him to the basement.
The basement was more of a bunker, all concrete and no personality. Close to the low ceiling, just under the rotting beams that suspend the floor above are windows, long and skinny, mostly covered in soil that lightened the darkness. Without any circulation of air, the stagnant aroma made it dungeonesque and the unsoftened echo of our feet brought on a claustrophobic feeling.
He has more tools with him now, and I notice another set of backpacks by the grubby floor.
“Do you think you can fix the basement?” I ask, looking at him and at the entirety of the small area.
He nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, of course.”
So I let him work, watching him from a corner, my body so still I can feel the tiniest movements in the air. After a while, his shirt is dripping with sweat, so I walk upstairs to get him another one. The only thing I can find is a purple shirt that I got two years back, the last time someone gave me a birthday present. It should do.
On my way back, I grab a table fan.
And a lemonade.
“Wow, thanks,” he says, a slight rise on his vocal pitch.
“You sound surprised.”
“Yeah, no. Um. It’s just that you’ve never done this before.”
I set the table fan on the floor, angling it so the wind will reach both of us. By the time he’s done with the lemonade, it’s half-empty.
“I actually brought an extra shirt,” he says. “I look like I had a shower every time I come home from here.”
The thought of him showering in my bathroom makes me stutter. “A-are you going to use this one, or not?”
He smiles, grabbing the back of his wet shirt and pulling it over his head. He stands shirtless in front of me, and the breath shudders out of my lungs, and it’s making me dizzy and—
“Are you okay?”
I nod. “Yes, I am. Here, pull this shirt on. It’s cold. The air from the electric fan, I mean.”
Just before the sun has set, and the windows on the basement completely darken, the work is finished. He stands up, proud of himself, looking at me for approval. I give him a small smile.
When I walk him to the door, he hands me another photo, this one he got beneath the narrow staircase of the basement.
“You looked sad in there,” he says.
“That obvious, huh?”
“No child should look that way.”
I was eight, and tear tracks have dried on my face. My eyes are squeezed shut. My hands are placed over my ears, two small fists by the side of my head. I can remember the tremble of my lips, the feeling of my throat tightening, the pain in my chest, the weakening of my legs.
I was on the floor, and on the room right next to mine, my father was beating Arlene, slapping her face, shouting dark things at her. He caught my sister kissing a girl.
Kara had long gone home, and at that time I knew I’d never see her again.
Arlene was a different person for the next two weeks after that night. Then mother found her in the basement, her feet hanging inches from the floor, a knot on her slender neck keeping her from going all the way down.
A warm hand touches my cheek.
“Hey,” he says, so, so softly, wiping away a tear. “You can always tell me anything. I will stay up all night just to listen to you.”
It’s tempting, so much so that I almost catch his fingers as they dry another tear.
But I send him away. Tonight I’ll cry myself to sleep, remembering my beautiful sister, and all the things we used to do, and all the wonders we used to see.
The next day, he’s at the door again. But this time, he has a bouquet of flowers with him. They’re hydrangeas arranged in such a stunning manner it almost brought tears to my eyes. I accept them, gingerly touching the petals.
“Thank you,” I say, and I mean it.
“I researched different meanings of flowers, and it said hydrangeas symbolize heartfelt emotions, and that it’s used to express gratitude,” he says. “And I want to thank you for . . . sharing things with me, things I know are hard to even think of.”
I nod. “These are beautiful. Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome.” His smile is blinding, and it sent the butterflies in my stomach fluttering madly.
I lead him to the attic.
The attic, tall and fully boarded, is made chaotic by the heaps of dusty "gems." Every one of them had been stored in battered boxes and garbage sacks for later use or enjoyment. In truth, it’s a graveyard for these treasures, a place for them to quietly die amongst the cobwebs until their sentimental value had waned. Dust has covered everything, as if hoping to bury the memories underneath the façade of carelessness.
He lays out all his tools, picking them up one by one according to when and how he’d use them. This time though, instead of watching him work, I join him.
He doesn’t stop me. He doesn’t question me. He tells me what to do and what not to do. He tells me to hold this, no, not like that, yes, that’s it, now hand me the pencil.
And I feel okay. It feels wonderful.
As we work together, I notice something I haven’t noticed before—he’s singing. Maybe I haven’t heard him do it prior to this instance because I was usually too far from him, but now it’s clear to my ears.
“You like country?” I ask.
“Yeah. I grew up to them serenading the morning. You?”
“I like jazz.”
“My dad does, too.” He pauses at his measurements and looks at me. “You should meet him. And mom, too. They’ll like you.”
At the end of the day, the picture he gives me—“I found this under one of the oldest boxes”—is of my father, standing in the middle of the road, waiting, hoping. Crying.
I stare at the photo long enough that he has to nudge me.
“Want a hug?”
But then he pulls me in, slowly, giving me a chance to back off, but I didn’t, because how could I? I’ve been alone for a long time. I deserve to at least enjoy this, this warmth, this safety.
He smells nice. That’s the last thought I have before I cave in and cry on his shoulder. He holds me there. Wrapped up around his arms and his murmurs of sweet nothings, I feel myself fall a little.
When I was ten, my mother left me and my father. I woke up to an empty house, and for months I was still hoping that she’d come back, clinging to my childish dreams that no, she loves me, a mother doesn’t leave. I never saw her again.
So I stayed for my father. He’s old and he had no one else. I had no one else, too. And for a month or so, I was always covered in bruises.
The next day, I help fix the bathroom. Then we did the roof next. Then the fireplace. We cover everything until there’s nothing else to fix or clean.
My bedroom is filled with flowers, and butterflies started to visit them. They sing and they dance, and they splatter colors on my sheets. As they ascend, I laugh. That’s when I start to laugh again.
“I’d been missing that laugh my whole life,” he says, sipping on his white coffee. “Now I feel complete after hearing it.”
He’d been wearing my clothes, and I’d been wearing his. He fixes my chipped mugs while I fix his hair. I know all his dirty jokes. He knows all my favorite songs.
The house looks pretty now. It wouldn’t forever be that way, but I’m here and he’s here and that’s a start.
In the picture, I was twenty-seven. In my hands was a puppy, his tongue visible from his slightly opened mouth. The look on my face was of pure happiness as I cradle the puppy on my chest. I was slowly realizing I shouldn’t be afraid of change, because change can be good.
You couldn’t see it in the picture, but I was smiling at the person behind the camera. He was saying, “I love you both.”