The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Half a World

July, 1978

Mrs. Caswell opened the front door, took one look at me, and laughed.  "You have funny hair," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Don't be sorry.  I like it."  Her own hair was elegant, smoothly brushed.  In fact, everything about her was elegant and smooth: her face, her poise, even the blue jeans which fit her like water.  She was small, trim, confident.  Older than me.  Like many small women she knew she had power over men, and she seemed comfortable with that fact.

I had come to install two gas fireplaces.  I didn't tell her I'd never done this before.  On the phone she'd said there was already gas to the fireplace box, so all I had to do was hook them up. 

In a mirror I checked my hair.  It looked normal to me.

She showed me the fireplaces and the gas log kits.  "I'm sure it's a very simple job," she said.  "Most people would do it themselves, but my husband is insane and my son is an idiot."  She smiled unselfconsciously.  One of her teeth was crooked.  She was holding a cocktail glass.  It was 10 in the morning.

This was a house in Atherton, a classy town. 

I went back to my truck for tools.  A stringy-haired man wearing a leather vest with the Hells Angels logo was repairing the electric driveway gate.  "Another piece of shit," he said.


"Crappo gate," he said.  "Fancy design with a tiny motor.  Typical Atherton shit.  They buy first class furniture, and that carpet must be two inches thick, but look at those cheapo aluminum windows.  Shoddy.  So many of these places.  Shoddy shit.  These people have money but they wouldn't know a well-built house if they saw one.  Then they fill it with their fancy shit."

"You'd think they'd want a good gate."

He winked.  "I'm gonna sell her on that.  After I fix this."

"Did she by any chance say something about your hair?"

"She said it was pretty."  He cackled.

The installation of the two gas logs went easily enough, but when I opened the valve, nothing came out.  I started poking around the house, trying to follow the pipe to its source.  Somewhere between the main shutoff and the fireplaces, there had to be another valve or possibly a disconnect.

I saw the stringy-haired Hells Angel go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and help himself to a Heineken.  Elegant he was not.  "You seen her?" he said.

"She's somewhere in the back of the house."

He wandered off.

Outside, I found the problem.  The fireplace pipe had never been connected to the main.  I'd have to cut the main, thread it, install a union and a tee.  I went to find Mrs. Caswell to explain the extra work.  There were voices from the bedroom behind a closed door.  Hers.  The Hells Angel.  I walked away.

A half hour later the Angel came outside where I was working.  His hair was freshly brushed.

"You sell her on the gate?" I asked.

"Mmm."  He smiled.  "She's negotiable."  Then he left.

Though by now I was well into the project, I wanted to explain what I was doing.  Inside the house I called: "Mrs. Caswell?  Ma'am?"

I heard a muffled reply.  She was still in the bedroom, door closed. 

"It's a lot more work than I expected.  I want you to know."

"Just do it," she said without opening the door.  I heard the squeak of a knob turning, the hiss of a shower starting.

An hour later, I found her in the kitchen mixing a cocktail.  She'd changed into a pink dress, slinky.  Pink sandals.  Chic as ever.  She was half singing, half humming to herself.  Close to You, the Carpenters song.  She sang the instrumental break: "Waa, daba da da..."

"All done," I said.

She smiled.  "Can I fix you a drink?"

"No thanks."

"Can I trim your hair?  I used to do that, you know.  Before..."  With a nod of her head she indicated the kitchen, the whole Atherton house.  "Before all this.  I could make it cute."

"Not today, thanks."

"Well at least you have to let me brush it."  She already had a brush in her hand.  A petite woman, she had to reach high for my hair.  She smelled like - I don't know how to describe it - she smelled like the bar of a classy hotel.

Looking up at me with fingers still in my hair, she said, "We have a hot tub.  Would you like to take a look?"

"Is something wrong with it?"

She smiled.  "It's very private."

I could get laid.  Or I could get paid.  I wasn't sure I could do both.  And I desperately needed the money.  My wife was pregnant with our second child.   

Suddenly I didn't like Mrs. Caswell at all.  I was wearing my ring.  She could see it.

You talk about some things, joke about them, fantasize.  In real life - at least in my half of the world - you try for solid construction, good foundation.  "I better go," I said.

She blinked.  Nothing more. 

She wrote a check with an ostrich-feather pen, pink ink.  She misspelled ninety as "ninty," but she had elegant script. 

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