Tuesday, 10 AM
Truman and Juan sat in the truck. They couldn't get out of the alley; a garbage truck blocked their way. Truman figured at least ten minutes had already passed and wondered how much longer they might be stuck there. Juan blasted the horn. It looked like a three-man deal, one driving, and two in the back dumping the load. "Now that's the last job I would ever want," Truman said.
"Hey, they make good money. My cousin, Diego, he does it."
"Yeah?" Truman said, furrowing the space between his brows.
"Yeah. But his wife, she makes him strip in the backyard and hose himself down before he even gets in the house."
"Even in the winter?" Truman asked.
"Nah. It don't smell so bad then."
Up ahead, the men didn't seem to be moving any faster. Juan blasted the horn again. He did all the driving. Truman was still getting acquainted with the city, he'd only been on the job three weeks, and he'd spent the first two just watching Juan, who had a way at looking at the world that was entirely different from his own.
Juan was the kind of guy who had been everywhere and done everything, but didn't have much to say about any of it. At least not until you asked. Nothing ever seemed to bother Juan. He never reacted when a customer got pissed off or tried to manipulate the circumstances. Truman wished he could say the same for himself.
The garbage truck moved and the alley cleared. They were on their way to pick up a refrigerator. Cheerio hadn't mentioned this part of the job when he'd hired him, that they'd have to go to some poor soul's house and take their refrigerator or stove because they'd gotten behind in payments. Juan said once he'd had to take a TV right before the play-offs and nearly had to call the police.
They drove to the address on the docket and parked the truck in the alley behind the house. It was one of those neighborhoods where every house looked just alike: two-story wood-framed, small front porch, a garage in the back, and built as closely together as the building code would permit, with a narrow sidewalk along the side leading out to the alley.
They walked to the back door together, Truman pulling the empty dolly behind him. Juan knocked and called, "Mrs. Fletcher?" The door opened as far as the chain and latch would allow.
"We're from Universal Rentals.” Juan held up his ID card. An old white woman, maybe eighty-five, opened the door and let them in. There were cats everywhere and the pungent odor of cat box and wet cat food burned Truman’s nostrils. Two black cats, large and long-haired, curled on top of the refrigerator looking like the kind of fur hats Russians wore in Dr. Zhivago. (He knew this because Dr. Zhivago was one of Gracie’s favorite movies.) An orange cat sat on the stove. Two or three calico versions nested in shadow under the kitchen table. Mrs. Fletcher had her hair curled in bobby pins flat against her scalp, wore a thin cotton housecoat and dirty blue slippers. Her ankles were thick and leathery. She didn't have any teeth.
A black and white photograph of a young soldier hung on the wall. A few greeting cards stood open on the window ledge. Two small potted plants were trying to grow next to the sink. From another room Truman could hear Bob Barker asking about the price of macaroni. A statue of Jesus and a yellow candle stood in the middle of the table.
"Can I make you boys some tea?" Mrs. Fletcher asked. Her left eye was filmed over. Truman felt squeamish. He didn't want to touch anything. He could barely breathe.
Juan answered. "Sure, we'll have some tea. How are you today?"
"I'm doing okay," she said. "Lucille here is about ready to have her kittens any time now.” She pointed to a hugely wide gray cat sleeping on a pile of clothes next to the refrigerator. Juan bent down and ran his hand across the cat’s back. "You know, I'm going to name the kittens after the presidents and first ladies. Don't you think that's a good idea?" Truman didn't want to be there anymore, didn't understand how Juan could be so unaffected. Mrs. Fletcher sat at the table, folded her arms across her lap. "I already had a Jackie but she ran off one day, never came back."
Juan opened the refrigerator and began to casually sort its contents onto the counter top. He pulled the wastebasket close to him and began dumping scraps of food from inside blue plastic margarine containers. Truman leaned against a far wall and watched Juan stack can after can of cat food onto the gray kitchen counter. Bob Barker was now onto the price of steel wool pads.
"So what else is new with you?" Juan asked as he emptied a carton of milk into the sink, the last part looking like thick yogurt.
Mrs. Fletcher got up from the table. “We got a letter from Junior yesterday.” She started to rummage through a basket of papers on the counter. "They're doing an awful lot of fighting over there in Vietnam. I pray every night that he'll come home.” She stopped searching through the papers and looked at Juan. "I heard President Johnson on the news, he said it'll all be over soon."
Truman eyed the stacks of newspapers in the kitchen hallway. A regular fire trap they were. He read the top paper’s headline: Three die in record heat wave, and then the date, August 18, 1992. The stacks of papers formed a line into some unknown room, undoubtedly the room from where Bob Barker was telling a contestant to spin the wheel. Truman put his hands in his pockets as Juan rinsed the last containers out and placed them in the sink. Juan finished emptying the refrigerator, took out the freezer's sole contents, an ice encrusted carton of cherry vanilla swirl, and set it in the wastebasket.
Mrs. Fletcher never made the tea. Truman supposed Juan knew that she wouldn't. He watched Juan gently poke the cats on top of the refrigerator, cooing softly to them, "Wake up, wake up.” They didn't move. For a slow second Truman wondered if they were dead. Juan picked them up one at a time and put them on the floor, out of the way. Truman could see them breathing now. Not dead, he thought, just a deep sleep.
Juan picked up Lucille, who made a low moaning noise, and put her in the woman's outstretched arms. "Mrs. Fletcher," he said, "we've got to be going. I'm leaving my card here, you call if you need anything.” They leaned the refrigerator on the dolly.
She grinned at Juan. "You're such a nice man. When my husband gets home, I'll tell him. He handles all the important things.” Bob Barker was reminding anyone who would listen to spay or neuter their pets. She looked at Truman. "Do you have a cat?" He shook his head. “What about a girl?”
Truman stared at Mrs. Fletcher, surprised by the directness of her question. She seemed to stare back at him, as if sizing him up, and said, “It’s not good to be alone, son.”
Truman and Juan rolled the refrigerator down the steps, along the sidewalk, and then up the drop ramp, and into the truck. "Thank God she's got a husband to watch out for her," Truman said.
"She had a husband," Juan answered. "She's got a caseworker now. Checks up on her once a month, I think. Her daughter stops by on Saturdays, drops some food off, tries to help her pay her bills. She's a little off herself. You know how that goes."
"How do you know all this?"
"Oh she's a regular customer. This is her fifth refrigerator. You know that stove she's got? It don't even work, the gas ain’t even hooked up."
About the author:
Sharon Bippus lives in rural Michigan with her husband and two basenjis. Her work has recently appeared online in the Del Sol Review and Ducts. Tuesday Ten A.M. is an excerpt from her unpublished novel, Truman and Jerry.