Charity, Part 1
A new piece of fiction
The attic air swallowed Jim Wallender whole on the first day of summer. Back in the mild spring, when the azaleas bloomed late, he had thought that after 48 years he was inured to the primordial lowcountry heat. Now, as he hunched and lumbered over the ceiling joists in the Danielsons' attic, he thought of what a fool he had been.
Jim grabbed a low rafter and hung forward as he fought for breath, fanning out his diaphragm like a sail. A shallow breath would come, followed by another slightly deeper, and then ten thousand more and summer would be over.
It was Jim's fifth time in Pinky Danielson's attic in as many weeks. Pinky had called in early May complaining that his AC was blowing hot air, and Jim had diagnosed the problem in only the most general sense: Refrigerant was leaking. It was a 15-year-old system, and a lousy installation job in the first place, now showing a hem of rust along every metal edge. After Jim descended the ladder on that first visit, he had given Pinky a grim look and flipped the notepad out of his breast pocket, doing up the numbers for a full system replacement. Pinky had interjected before Jim could say a word.
"You gonna work some magic for me, Jim?" Pinky had said.
"Pinky, the thing isn't worth saving."
"It has to be."
Now, on his fifth abortive fact-finding mission in Pinky's attic, Jim felt his foot slip off a joist and sink into a nest of insulation. He heard a creak, felt a brittleness beneath him, and lunged back onto the joist. Each of four successive patches had staved off the leak for about a week at a time before Jim would get another call from Pinky. "Guess what?" Jim knew what it was from the caller ID.
This time, as Jim waved the handheld leak detector along the ductwork and lines, he couldn't find a single leak. He'd traced every line twice. He felt a stabbing pain in his lower back as he crept along the length of the attic one last time, so he hunkered down until the pain passed. He knew he could not afford to treat the pain of a kidney stone the way he had treated it last time. The pills had nearly killed him, and he had vowed to his wife to never touch them again.
He kicked the insulation off his pant leg and tried to weigh his options before heading back down and confessing his ignorance to Pinky. He said a little prayer for clarity of mind, but when he said amen his only thought was about the trill of the cicadas outside and how they sounded like they aimed to kill him. He felt nothing and resolved not to pray anymore.
A flimsy remnant of hair clung to his scalp, and sweat had turned his work shirt three shades darker, rendering the logo for Wallender Heating and Air all but invisible against his broad flabby chest. Resigning to the fact he would never formulate a rational thought in an attic that felt like an oven, he powered off the leak detector and swung a leg down onto the ladder.
Back on steady footing, Jim put his hand on the door frame to Pinky's living room and felt the rough contours of the chintzy trim they slapped up in these prefab homes near the county line. Pinky's oldest son Levi was lying shirtless on the carpet propped up on his elbows, massacring an alien horde on the TV screen. A lunchbox ice pack was draped over his tiny sloped shoulders.
The living room was bare of domestic trappings, decorated instead by a sea of technicolor plastic toys, an off-brand dollhouse overrun with trolls and army men, and an easel covered in psychedelic marker scrawl. Pinky's daughter made little yipping sounds from her bedroom; his younger son had the refrigerator door open in the kitchen and was about to pull a pitcher of blood-red Kool-Aid onto his head.
"I can try a patch, but it's just a patch," Jim said as Pinky dove into the kitchen to grab the pitcher.
"That's all I'm asking for," Pinky said.
"Anyway the good news is you stumped me. I won't charge you for the Freon this time," Jim said. Freon didn't come cheap — especially not R-22, the old pollutant kind that Pinky's AC system kept gulping down and then spewing into the atmosphere — but Jim had decided in three seconds of lucidity that a failure on his own part should not constitute an expense on Pinky's.
Jim's overworked left kidney cried out for mercy again and his mind flashed to the emergency room doctor who had chastised him three summers ago for chasing his sweat with Mountain Dew. He willed away the knife-twisting sensation and noticed that he was holding Pinky's outstretched hand now. Pinky was staring at the floor blinking furiously to keep tears at bay.
"You're a fair man, Jim."
Jim shook the hand that was offered, nodded once, and walked out to retrieve the freon tank from his van. He hobbled back toward the house with one hand carrying the tank and one hand clutching his side. It was only June, and the heat was winning the war.
His mind was brackish and stirred, and the last thing he needed was more of this bullshit with Devon Smalls. But there Devon sat, hunched on the front stoop of the Wallenders' brick ranch house studying his hands. Jim figured the kid must have written some notes on his palms and rehearsed a whole speech by now.
Jim slammed the van door shut, and Devon Smalls bolted to his feet. As Jim willed his legs up the hill, Devon stood worrying at the hem of his dress shirt, staring now at something three feet above Jim's right shoulder.
"Mr. Smalls," Jim said. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" Good Lord, he was even wearing a tie.
"Got a job at the call center today, Mr. Wallender," Devon said. "The pay is good. Also, I didn't tell you when we spoke on the phone last week, but my parents kicked me out of their place a month ago."
"Then where’re you staying?"
All at once Jim noticed the brokenzippered duffel bag on the step beside Devon and the amoebic mildew stains radiating from the seams of his shirtsleeves.
"You'll stay for dinner," Jim said.
Dinner was for two that night, and Devon ate most of it as Jim and Mary watched in silence. Skirt steak doused in a can of Ro-Tel and shriveled on a cast-iron skillet, served on corn tortillas from the Food Lion cheap aisle. Devon was licking the grease off his fingers from a fourth fajita before he spoke a complete sentence.
"I know I haven't been around for the first seven months," he said, straightening his back as he did. "But ever since we talked on the phone last week, I've been thinking about what you said, Mr. Wallender, about what kind of a man I aim to be. I think I want to be a man who stays in the picture."
Mary stood up from the table. She walked out onto the patio to spit in the centipede grass and stab a gardening spade into a pot of dirt. Jim gave no answer. Devon made himself a fifth fajita.
Mary stepped back inside and started to scrub Crisco into the skillet with a checkered dishrag.
"I'm guessing it's no coincidence that you had this epiphany while you needed a place to stay, Devon,” she said.
"I'd say homelessness has given me time to think, ma'am."
Mary scoffed aloud at this.
Devon swallowed a pint of tea with a single tilt of the glass and excused himself to use the toilet.
Mary cleared the table and they moved into the living room. They watched a TV show about people who were bored and wealthy enough to take out walls of their home with a sledgehammer. Jim was falling asleep already, and he felt the tape on the couch cushion adhering to his arm but did not care to move. Finally they heard the scratch of a key in the deadbolt, and Olivia walked in the front door sideways, protecting the tip of her belly with an extended hand.
Devon turned and opened his mouth but said nothing.
"You still driving that piece?" Olivia said, jerking her head toward the street. A smile flashed on Olivia's face and then clouded over, and she turned down the hallway. They all heard the click of her bedroom doorknob, a sign by now universally accepted that the evening's conversation was over.
"The boy isn't homeless,” Mary said. “Trust me, I see homeless every day."
Jim sighed loudly through his nose, the only assent he could muster at this hour between supper and sleep. Mary was right, no doubt, and always was on matters of poverty and charity. But Jim's mind was far from the greasy-collared indigent who was now snoring on the pull-out couch with his sneakers on.
An image of Pinky Danielson's children huddled and sweating around a lunchbox ice pack was floating in his mind, and he couldn't shake it, caught in the half-lit logic of a dream. Not poor Pinky, the little brother of Lee County. Not him and his innocent family, not in this heat.
Jim lay still as a corpse on a fluorescent Myrtle Beach towel that Mary had laid over the comforter of their bed, a high-visibility landing pad for a man who was often too tired to change into nightclothes or even to shake the pink wisps of insulation off his workshirt.
What little muscle definition Jim Wallender had been able to muster as a wrestler in high school had been lost to memory now, eroded like the low peaks of an ancient mountain range. Mary could still trace a Superman-square jawline somewhere within the neckmeat that grimaced in her direction as Jim lay on his back, and she even had come to love and understand the blue-white arc of belly that smiled from beneath the waistline of his yellowed undershirt. Jim, for his part, had not looked at himself in a week.
Mary still looked the part of her high school self, the petite debate-club champion of '89, give or take some smile lines and a streak of white that she had never attempted to hide in her severe crop of brown hair. She persisted.
“I say we send him packing in the morning,” Mary said.
She wasn't a fan of Devon Smalls, never had been, not since the day he tried to snip a piece of her only daughter's hair with a pair of safety scissors on a second-grade field trip to Brookgreen Gardens. A lump of puppy love had metastasized into something bolder and more loathsome, a great big grown-up love that was starting to show now in the contour of her daughter's abdomen.
“Well, I agree,” Jim said.
“Well, OK then. Will you tell him?”
Silence from the human foothills beside her, silhouetted in the lampglow that he never managed to turn off before falling asleep.
“I know you pity the boy, Jim. But we both know we can barely afford one more mouth, let alone two.”
Jim was awake but had decided not to speak.
In the morning, Mary entered the hallway bathroom and found an oily handprint on the wall to the left of the toilet. Looking at it in the mirror, she could read a faint blue inscription across the palm: “Call center. Homeless. Stay in the picture.”
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