I am twenty years old, and after withdrawing from two different universities, I have, once again, moved into the basement of my parents’ house in Indianapolis, my childhood home. Each morning I rise before six, make coffee, and eat breakfast. Then I wait for the bleating horn of a pickup truck. I work as an extra pair of hands alongside a general contractor, a friend of the family who could use the help, but more importantly who took pity when I came back home and needed a job. I have taken this job because, as a twice college dropout, I have found few other prospects. Also, I am broke, and I am desperate. I am looking for some small point of pride, and I hope that seeing things constructed—or torn down—will provide some sense of accomplishment.
My duties, as a younger back, include any task the contractor does not wish to do himself. This includes painting, both interior and exterior; hauling equipment and materials around varying job sites; holding a large sheet of drywall in place until he is ready to fasten it to the appropriate stud. Trim carpentry is my responsibility, as is the insulating of crawl spaces. Set-up, clean up, climb a ladder of shaky standing and awkward height. I do all of these things for fifty dollars a day, cash. Whether that day is twelve hours long or six, it is what I am handed. This is not where I want to be (I don’t know where I want to be), or what I want to be doing. But at this point, it’s where I am, and I am grateful for it.
The contractor’s name is Kevin. He is a man well over six feet tall with a sizeable girth he doesn’t attempt to conceal. He keeps his hair cropped close to his scalp, “Beating it to the punch,” he says. He speaks in clichés. “Pretty soon,” he says, “I’ll be as bald as a cue ball.” He is rarely without a twenty-ounce bottle of Diet Coke, even in the early morning, and the cab of his pick-up truck often has the pungent smell of pot. We never speak of it, and he never offers to share.
As we drive to different work sites, I sometimes wonder if we’ll make it. We weave through traffic, ignoring speed limits, turn signals, and other etiquettes of the road. He honks his horn, “Get the fuck out of my way!” I wedge myself into the corner where the bench seat meets the passenger door. I make sure it is locked. “Bitch,” he screams through his closed window as we pass a foreign compact. A bottle of Diet Coke rolls from the dash and crunches at my feet.
“Mayo’s got another house for us,” Kevin says. And it’s these jobs that I truly hate: the cleaning out of left-behind possessions at homes that have been abandoned or repossessed. We do these jobs for Coldwell Banker, a real estate firm that has become a major lender of mortgages to people with less than perfect credit. Many of these houses are in lower income neighborhoods, and even with prime interest rates low in 1998, many of the borrowers find that the payments soon become untenable. When they default, Coldwell steps in and takes back the house. Then they call us. We clean out whatever is left behind, do minor repairs, repaint, make it sellable again. The whole process inevitably repeats itself.
Mayo is a short, thick woman with orange hair who dresses in pastel pantsuits and speaks in run-on sentences, “Kevin here’s the combo to the lock box at the new house it would be great if you could have it done in a couple of days and then there will probably be another one ready to go and the sooner you get that done the better for all of us and okay I have to go thanks.” She is the primary agent we deal with, and she seems more likely to drive a pink Cadillac than the silver Nissan SUV that occasionally meets us at the repossessed houses. We regularly have several of these jobs going at once. And many times, these houses, once they are sufficiently “fixed up,” will be put up for auction. Sometimes they simply go back on the market.
Kevin has already bought several properties through his connections at Coldwell. He said he was able to get them for a steal. He was then able to sell or rent the houses, turning them over, making a considerable profit and adding another source of income. I asked him once how he felt about this, ethically. “They were in over their heads. It’s not my fault that they’re deadbeats.”
Now the back of Kevin’s hand thumps my chest. “We’re here.”
I am surprised to find that I nodded off for much of the ride this morning. It is late July, it is humid, and the temperature has already reached the eighties. I look out the window at the house we have stopped in front of—a single family A-frame with white vinyl siding on what the sign says is Wheeler Street. A little porch is attached to the front, and above it are two small windows, framed by black shutters, that watch us like eyes as we make our way up the walk of broken concrete. The grass of the tiny front yard reaches mid-calf, and weeds have taken over wherever possible—along the chain link fence, running up the sides of the house. Propped up against the fence is a Coldwell Banker sign with Mayo’s name and telephone number. Kevin orders me to drive it back into the ground so it can be seen from the street.
He spins the combination to the lock box and removes the keys. The door is stuck and he has to use his shoulder. “Deadbeats,” Kevin says, and steps through the door. For some reason, I think of Kevin as being racist, even though I have never heard him say anything that would support this. Maybe it’s the scraggly beard, or that he wears suspenders attached to his belt, or it could be the way the bill of his baseball cap points a little too skyward. Maybe it’s my own desire to appear more tolerant that those around me. I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too judgmental.
Inside the house there are piles of newspapers, cereal boxes, men’s and women’s shirts, pants, and other things I can’t identify yet. At every house, I wonder how these piles get here. Does Mayo have someone else come in and move stuff around before we arrive? I can’t imagine the former inhabitants, on the way out after being evicted, have decided to help us out and organize the things left behind.
“God, look at all this shit,” Kevin says. The walls, which at one point must have been off-white, are now dingy and yellow. Sickly looking. Kevin kicks at a throw pillow on the floor, “We’ll come back tomorrow. You have some other painting to do.” The couch to which the pillow belongs is nowhere to be seen.
Outside, I look to my left and right, and I notice the long row of houses extending in either direction. They all look similar. And I can see at least three other signs in front yards advertising different real estate firms, their phone numbers in thick, black font.
Across the street is a small park. A sign announces it as Oxford Terrace. There are several picnic tables, and deciduous trees, with their broad green leaves, surround the perimeter. And for the first time I recognize where we are. I know this place. This is Brightwood, a neighborhood on the near northside of Indianapolis, a neighborhood known more for its crime rates than its historical standing, which dates back to 1872. Since at least the early ’90s, Brightwood has been synonymous with drugs, black-on-black crime, murder, gang violence, and general urban blight. I have been to this neighborhood before. I have witnessed it firsthand.
I was still in high school, and with two of my friends, going to score pot from a dealer with the apt alias of Brightwood Corky. Corky was a thick black man in his early twenties. We were seventeen. Corky wore his hair in tightly threaded cornrows with red beads at their tails. In each of his ears, a large diamond studded earring. Our hair was kept short: crew cuts, flat-tops, bald fades. Our ears stuck out from the sides of our heads, and one of us, I don’t remember which, had a thin gold hoop dangling from his left ear. We attended a Catholic high school and were probably still wearing our uniforms: khaki pants and maroon polo shirts with Scecina Memorial emblazoned in gold stitching over our hearts. Corky wore his own uniform: baggy black jeans, several sizes too large that hung off his backside threatening to expose his shorts. And his shirt, which was also too large, was red, always red. This was a neighborhood of colors, and Corky wanted people to know his affiliation.
We had bought pot in Brightwood before. We all knew Corky, he knew us. Still, we were afraid of him. And when he got in the car, giving us a round of something like secret handshakes, and told us to drive, we simply asked where he would like to go.
We pulled up in front of a shabby duplex and honked the horn. A man about the same age as Corky came out. He was skinny, addict skinny, his pale face was acne scarred, and he was missing several of his front teeth. Corky opened the passenger door and moved over next to the driver, Skinny slid in next to him like a shadow.
“What’s up, man,” Corky nodded. “These are my boys.”
None of us said a word, just raised our eyebrows in Skinny’s direction when he looked at us.
“All right, man,” Corky said. “You got the green?”
“Yeah,” Skinny said, handing over to Corky a bundle of marijuana.
Corky took the pot and tossed it over his shoulder to the two of us in the back seat. It looked to be about an ounce stuffed into a plastic sandwich bag. Double what we expected.
“Hey, man,” Skinny said. And my friend, the driver, reached into his pocket.
But before my friend could come up with the money we had pooled together, Corky reached into his own pocket. And instead of cash, Corky produced a knife, a large knife, that he put up to Skinny’s throat.
“I’m going to tell you what’s going to happen next,” Corky said to Skinny. “One, you’re going to forget about that herb, understand?”
From where I sat, I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of his shaved head, the way it was tilted back, trying to get away from the blade, straining against the headrest. If there had been any color in it, it was gone now. The knife was at Skinny’s windpipe—Corky’s lips close to his ear.
“Second thing you’re going to do,” Corky continued. “You’re going to give me whatever cash you got. And don’t fuck with me, I can see the knot through your tight ass jeans.” Shaking, Skinny handed over a thick wad of bills held together with a rubber band.
I kept waiting for the splash of red to come, to cover the windshield, to cover us. But it never did. And while watching, while waiting, I could hear Skinny breathing: the scared, heavy, nasal inhale/exhale, fearing each breath might be the last. “Now get out of the car,” and Skinny obliged.
When we dropped Corky off, he told us that the bag of weed was his gift to us. For helping him out, giving him a ride. I wondered if we were some kind of co-conspirators. I wondered if Skinny had friends. We didn’t speak about what had just happened, we didn’t exchange theories. We just smoked and tried to forget.
Most of my evenings are spent at a small neighborhood bar that, as long as I behave, they tell me, is willing to look the other way at me being a year underage. When I turn twenty-one, they will offer me a job, tending bar, on Monday nights; I will accept. This is a blue-collar bar, and I sit among men who have permanent grease under their fingernails, creased palms and calloused fingers, and gnarled knuckles. I am learning how to emulate them: their stoicism and their dour looks; the way they hold their cigarettes close to their face, never flinching from the smoke. I listen to the way they talk in short strong sentences.
My hands are still speckled with paint from today’s work. And each time I tip my bottle I think I should wash up better. But I don’t. I have been sitting here drinking for several hours already. The jukebox has been turned off, and there is a baseball game on the television. I listen to the commentator announce the starting lineups. The bar is relatively empty, seven or eight people scattered about, hunched over on stools.
There is little conversation, for which I am thankful. I think about the house on Wheeler Street. I think about Brightwood, about being carefree and careless in high school, having fewer worries. I think about those two friends. When did I last speak to either of them? A year ago? Two? They’re off at college somewhere, working towards degrees and preparing for careers. They are a long way from Brightwood. A long way from me, bellied up to this bar, working as cheap labor. And there is something that wells up inside me, something that calls for a do-over. This is not how things were supposed to happen. I did not mean to end up here.
I don’t want to feel sorry for myself. It could be worse. And I think about that house again and how someone used to live there and they were forced to move. And I look around at the men who sit and drink with me, and I think that there is a strength in some of them to be admired. But more than that there is a sadness to be avoided.
The nights I am not at the bar, I spend in the garage, usually with a six-pack and fresh cigarettes. I am refinishing an old dresser. It’s oak, or some other heavy wood. Somewhere along the line it has acquired a slopped-on coat of white paint. The brass hardware has turned black from tarnish and corrosion. I imagine what it must have looked like new: the wood stained dark, the brass a soft yellow. I want to get it back to that point—somewhere near its beginning before it accumulated this added weight. Layers must be pulled back, stripped away.
The next morning, Kevin drops me off at the house on Wheeler Street. He has left me with all the supplies I will need for the next two days. “Two days,” he says. “I want this place done in two days.” That means clearing out, cleaning up, cutting the grass and getting rid of the weeds. That means repainting. I have a mop and some cleaning solution in an unmarked bottle that I have been told to dilute before using, something about burning like hell. I have wall paint, ceiling paint, brushes and rollers, screens and buckets. I have extra large, extra strength garbage bags for whatever will fit into them. Anything that won’t gets dragged out to the front yard. Before he goes, Kevin pauses as if he has just remembered a very important piece of information. At the back of the pickup, he reaches into his toolbox and comes back with a claw hammer, “Here,” he says. “Just in case.”
Inside the house I smoke a cigarette and stand over the ruin that represents someone’s life, or past life. A quick scan shows dishes, presumably emptied from the kitchen cabinets, plates and glasses—some broken, some still whole and surprisingly clean. There are cheap electronics: a VCR, two small clock radios. There is no television. There are, however, books: cheap paperback copies of popular fiction, legal thrillers, crime dramas, and romance novels. The titles are those that pepper bestseller lists; many of their covers are missing. There are copies of People magazine, and another glossy that is geared towards African American women.
At the first house like this, I asked Kevin questions: What happened to the people living here? Who piles this stuff up? Why did they take the couch and leave the cushions? “Who cares,” was his response. “They’re deadbeats—I don’t know where they went. I don’t care. It’s not my problem. It’s not your problem.” I haven’t asked again.
There are blankets and sheets and pillows and pillowcases. There is no bed. I wonder why they (whomever) might have taken the mattress only to forsake the linens. There are empty picture frames. And I wonder if they carefully removed the pictures and took them away when they moved. Why not just take the whole frame? And it’s this, the empty frame, that seems like the loneliest artifact in the world.
I imagine the former inhabitants as a young couple swept up in a variable rate mortgage they couldn’t afford. Someone offered them the American dream with a yo-yo interest rate, and they wound up with a starter home that never had a chance to get started. But I think of them standing on the little front porch, maybe with a glass of wine after they unpacked, looking across the street at Oxford Terrace Park, watching the sun sink behind the Elms. And maybe they thought, this is a good start, a few years here and we’ll move to a nicer neighborhood, a bigger house; and we’ll get a dog, and start a family. Then what happened? Did the prime interest rate jump up and they watched as their monthly bill grew exponentially? Were they already too debt-laden, their credit history so bad that they never had a chance? I let my imagination run where it may. I realize this borders on the ridiculous.
As sad as it is, this game, and it is a game, of trying to unpack some unseen life, keeps me going through the day. It keeps me picking through the piles.
Back at home, I’ve removed the hardware from the old dresser and set it to soak in a mixture of warm, soapy water. I hope this will loosen some of the build-up. Later, I will take steel wool and, working in one singular direction, try to bring the brass as close to its original form as possible.
With a paintbrush, I have layered on a special solvent that promises to “gently and completely” remove the paint from the dresser. The directions say to let the solvent dry, and then, with a damp sponge, work in a circular motion until the solvent and paint are gone.
The solvent is caustic, and my hands turn red and burn. I have not thought to wear rubber gloves. Anytime I smoke another cigarette, I have to first wash my hands. This process repeats itself—working the sponge, the burning of hands, washing and smoking—until the dresser is free of paint, leaving a rough looking block of wood.
I am hauling things out to the Wheeler Street front yard when I hear the music. It’s more like a mix of heavy bass and the rattling aluminum of a trunk. Across the street, in front of the park, a late ‘80s Oldsmobile is parked and idling. The car is dark blue with a white top. Rust tinges its back tire wells, but the fenders and wheel rims glint clean in the sun. The driver is a young black man with a shaved head and heavy eyelids. His forearms are crossed on the driver’s side door, and his head and shoulders jut slightly out. He is staring at me, or at least in my direction. For the first time, just on the other side of the car, I notice the three other men. One has a dog, large, and dark in color. Its collar is a length of heavy chain. I think about the hammer I left inside on the kitchen counter.
“Hey. Hi there.” Standing on the other side of the fence of the neighboring house is a man in what I judge to be his seventies. He wears shorts and a t-shirt, and over his almost-white Afro is a floppy straw hat. His skin is the color of an expensive chocolate bar and just as smooth.
“Why don’t you come on over here for a few minutes,” he says. “I got a little stand in the back. I’ll get you something cold to drink.”
I follow his eyes across the street to the crowd still looking in our direction.
“It’s okay,” says the old man.
If I were younger, I might feel wary or awkward about this stranger, in essence, offering me candy. But given the choices, I figure the old man is the safer bet. “Sure,” I say, and follow him around the back of the house.
“I keep this place for the kids in the neighborhood.” He unlocks the door and invites me in. His little stand is more like a mini convenience store. The back wall is lined with vertical coolers that hold a myriad of soft drinks, juices, sports drinks, and water. The opposite wall houses candy bars and bags of chips along with other snack foods. There is a window just big enough to frame the old man’s torso and head. And it is from here, he tells me, that he collects whatever the kids can pay, “Don’t have any set prices. They usually pay at least something.”
“Sometimes, we even organize basketball games.” The rear portion of the driveway is smooth blacktop. At its end sits a regulation basketball hoop.
He hands me a cold bottle of Gatorade and a Snickers bar. I reach into my pocket, but he waves me off before I can even finish my offer. “No, no. That’s all right,” he says.
I wonder if he thinks that I am performing some kind of service for the community by cleaning out the foreclosed home. I’m not. All I’m doing is performing a service unto capitalism. Making way for this cycle to be repeated.
“You know, I’ve lived here over forty years.” He doesn’t expound on this. He just shakes his head and lets that fact hang in the air. But I imagine him as a young man, when the neighborhood was different, before it was riddled with drugs and violence. Was he naively optimistic like my imagined young couple next door? I wonder why he didn’t move when this place turned in to what it is now. I see him aging, shaking his head as the neighborhood decays before him. This little stand is his way of doing something about the problem—his way of trying to reach out. And I want to ask him if any of it is working, but I know the answer. I don’t press. Instead, I ask if he knows what happened to the people who lived next door. I don’t share my theory, but I’m curious about his. He shrugs, frowns, “People come and go around here. They all got different reasons why.”
We hear an engine accelerate and the bass and trunk rattle begin to fade. “You can probably go back to work now,” the old man tells me. I thank him and leave.
I am finished clearing out the house when Kevin returns. He backs the pickup as near to the fence as he possibly can, and I lower the tailgate, start to pile things in. Garbage bags land in the bed with clinks and thuds, and I think about their contents, the picture frames, the dishes, books, how they once occupied their own space within the house, now jumbled together and juxtaposed against things which don’t belong. And although inanimate objects don’t have feelings, as I throw these things in the back of the truck, it feels painful to me, watching them all disappear.
At the city dump, I climb into the bed of the truck and start to throw things out. The items I thought made up a story, a profile, a life, now disappear among so much other nameless junk. And I know it won’t be too long before I forget about all of it.
Later, at the bar, I listen as Jimmy, a man in his fifties, a man with an above average I.Q. who has worked behind the counter of the same liquor store for twenty years, tells a story that breaks my heart.
“So, they’re sitting there. Right there,” he gestures to where the bar comes together in a right angle, where two other men now sit. “And they’re cutting cards. Five dollars a card. High card wins.”
It’s a simple form of gambling. And I can imagine the frustration on the part of the loser on any given cut, and the effort by either man to “will” an Ace.
“Tommy, well, he just can’t win,” Jimmy says. “Hand after hand, he keeps cutting the lower card. Jack asks him, ‘Do you want to quit, you done?’ But Tommy just tells him to fuck off and cut.” The six of us listening grunt shallow laughs that encourage Jimmy to continue. We know the two men; we don’t know this story.
And as Jimmy explains, Tommy kept on cutting, and Tommy kept on drinking. Until between the drinks and the cards, the stack of bills that had sat in front of him was gone.
“Once that pile dried up,” Jimmy says, “I thought poor Tommy was going to plain lose it. I thought he was going to burst into tears right there at the bar.”
The cards were cut in mid-December. The stack of bills Tommy had been gambling with was intended to purchase Christmas gifts for his kids. Tommy thought he would stop off for a quick pop before shopping, to steel himself against the crowds. The bartender that night had to call and pay for a cab to take Tommy home. “And I said to him, ‘Jesus, Tommy, what’s Mary going to say when you get home?’” No one says anything when Jimmy finishes the story.
I hear this story and I try to remember if I saw any toys at the house in Brightwood. Did I see anything that said “children?” And I want to call Kevin, right now, from my stool at the bar, and quit. I don’t want to go back to the house in Brightwood, or any other house that has been foreclosed upon.
I look down at my own stack of bills, my day’s pay, sitting in front of my beer and my cigarettes. I think about how with each drink, the pile decreases just a little. And I wonder how much of it will have to disappear before I say enough.
By eight o’clock I have cut the grass of the Wheeler Street house, and my shirt has become heavy with sweat. I keep looking across the fence to see if the old man might return, and, again, extend his offer of a cold drink. He does not appear. I move on to trimming the weeds that line the chain link fence and the sides of the house. I am alone, Kevin having dropped me off with the lawn mower, weed-whacker, and all the painting supplies I need for the interior. I am expected to wrap things up today. Mayo is anxious to get the house back on the market, and Kevin tells me he is seriously thinking about placing a bid, “So make it look good, but not too good. We ain’t building a rocket ship here.” I nod at Kevin’s instructions like I understand, like I care.
I paint the ceilings first, careful that any of the microscopic spray from my roller winds up on my clothes or the drop cloths I have put down instead of the carpet. I move from room to room deliberately covering the space, making sure the paint is even. After the ceilings, I work with a two-inch sash brush and cut in around the walls and baseboards. I am taking more time than Kevin would want, and putting forth more effort than I usually would at these jobs. I follow, intently, the last bristle of the brush as I pull a stripe of paint across the bottom of the wall.
Part of me thinks I’m doing this out of a sense of pride, because this is my job; it is what I get paid for and so I should do my best. Another part thinks it’s out of some kind of reverence towards my fictionalized (idealized) former residents. And even though I realize that I have romanticized this entire ordeal, I can’t stop thinking that this will make a difference to whoever moves in here next, that it will somehow shape their approach towards home ownership.
Kevin comes back in the late afternoon, after I have finished and cleaned everything. He does a quick walk through, “Good enough,” he says and hands me a slim fold of bills for the day’s work.
I put the bills in my pocket, hoping that someone, anyone, maybe the old man next door, will notice the even pressure with which I coated the walls. How I ran up to and over the very spot where I cut in with the brush. How I moved up and down, making sure the stipple all flowed in the same direction so that there was a discernible pattern, one that was pleasing and not erratic. But, really, I know, no one will.
That night I stay home. I smoke a cigarette and look at the naked dresser. I can stain it any shade I choose, or I can leave it as is and protect it with a clear coat of polyurethane. This is catharsis. It allows me, if I so wish, to forget about the house in Brightwood. But I don’t want to forget. Not yet. I think about the work I did, how I took care with the brush, the roller, the stipple. I run my hand over the hard flat surface of the dresser’s top and think of the possibilities. But first it needs sanding. It needs gentle pressure, especially in the more intricate grooves. With 100-grit sandpaper, I wear the rough edges into a fine dust. I work them smooth.