As he worked anger infected the job. He became frustrated at being frustrated. He ran a splinter into his palm and narrowly missed slicing a finger because he wasn’t concentrating…”
by d.e. fredd
He drifted through high school, a loner and lackluster student with no discernable interests or direction, personal or academic. He did enjoy the outdoors, camping, hiking and reading books related to it, so, for the want of something better, he majored in forestry at the University of Maine in Orono. He also found some diversion and a few extra dollars by joining a National Guard unit. Late in his freshman year Allison Simmons entered his life. He was surprised at how easily he came out of his shell when around her. She was the daughter of a local funeral director and, through her influence, he picked up a part time job driving a hearse for her dad’s mortuary.
In December of 2003, during the middle of his junior year, his National Guard unit was called to active duty in Iraq. Two days after that bombshell Ally informed him she was pregnant. There was talk of marriage but little came of it before he shipped out.
Since he had listed working at a funeral home, he was, in typical governmental wisdom, assigned to a mortuary unit. Duties included sifting through suicide bomber blast-sites for pieces of anything vaguely human. Remains were placed in pouches, taken back to a temporary morgue and prepared for shipment to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Early in 2004, just as he’d gotten settled in south of Baghdad, Ally wrote him to say that she’d gotten rid of the baby and met someone else. He never wrote back as there wasn’t anything he could think of to say. He finished one tour of duty then transferred to a rifle company for a second. In 2007 he left the military with a decent nest egg and a desire to keep as far from people living or dead as he could.
Following a model set by Thoreau, he bought five acres of timber land on Square Pond in East Waterboro, Maine, near the New Hampshire border. He hauled in a small trailer as a temporary base and began building a house, using as much of the natural landscape and local timber as he could. Within six months he had the foundation laid, a stone chimney, four large rooms framed and shingles on the solar paneled roof.
When he needed money for his project, rather than touch his savings, he hired himself out as a general handyman. Word quickly got around that he was one of the best in the area, a bit meticulous and therefore slow but a consummate craftsman. He had to refuse many jobs that were just too big or took too long.
When Mr. Gutpa called in late September he told him he charged sixty-five dollars an hour and took a bit longer because he didn’t cut corners. He also used top-of-the-line materials. Gupta wanted eight windows and some rain gutters and fascia boards replaced. The house would soon be up for sale prior to a move back to India. He accepted the work thinking that it was a five day job at best.
The elderly Indian woman had been in the room watching him since he started at seven that morning. He thought she might be bored, and he was her entertainment. When he took out the first window, he saw the sill and frame were filled with dry rot. He asked her if she wanted him to replace it. She spoke no English but babbled in a dialect unknown to him, petulantly waving her hand for him to get back to work. Then it dawned on him that she was his overseer. He tried to get her to view the damage and explained what the result would be if he went ahead without fixing it, but she was resolute, sitting in the exact center of the couch, several inches of flesh poking out between bare midriff of her sari.
He was about to put the new window in when Gupta’s wife, the watchdog’s daughter-in-law, came into the room trailing three young children. She spoke excellent English. He explained the right way to do things. She said her husband had a budget, but she would call him.
Minutes later she came back into the room and handed him the phone. He spoke to Gutpa, outlined the work he recommended–materials were under one hundred bucks and possibly four hours extra labor. He was told to let things alone, just replace the windows. That was the original deal. He hung up and thought about packing up and leaving, but the living room was now without a window, and he could never leave a job like that. He went back to work, replaced the rotted sill anyway and spent the rest of the morning adjusting the header and shimming the frame before putting in the new window.
He liked Anderson windows. You paid a bit more for the brand name, but they were an excellent product. He’d turned down several jobs because people wanted to use “builders’” windows. Mr. Gupta had blinked at the cost when he recommended the High Performance, Low “E” glass, but reluctantly agreed. Probably because he knew he could up the price when he sold the place.
He took a lunch break at twelve-thirty. As he was leaving, the wife, Raina, came out to his truck carrying the two year old on her hip. She handed him twenty dollars.
“My husband says I am to do this so you will return.”
“I’ll be back to finish out the day. You don’t need to give me anything.”
In reality he had been thinking about leaving, chalking the four hundred dollar window and his time up to experience.
“In our country this is custom, bakshish.”
“I don’t need a bribe to do a job. When I’m done I’ll give you a bill and that will be it.”
She looked hurt. “I do this because my husband tells me to. I explain it is not American way, but he insists. There is much embarrassment for me. We are not poor peoples.”
He got into his truck and over the deep throb of the engine told her he’d be back by one.
Driving northwest on Route 4 out of Dover, New Hampshire, he remembered when most of this country was still farmland. Over the last ten years there had been a building boom. Entire neighborhoods appeared at summer’s end each year. Contractors now worked through the winter. He had nothing against Indians or Pakistanis except they tended to swarm into an area. Specialized grocery stores, video rentals and ethnic restaurants dotted the locale, and he’d even seen men in white shirts playing cricket Sunday mornings on an old little league diamond he’d used as a kid.
He pulled into Flo’s diner and ordered the blue plate special. At home he always ate organically. Supper during the summer was often a plate of raw vegetables from his garden. But when he was working in the area he stopped at Flo’s. For a few months there had been a waitress that interested him. Each day he made a mental note to ask her out, but something always came up. Either she was busy at the register or bantering with other customers. On the morning he finally decided he was going to do it no matter what, he learned that she had left the job and moved to Massachusetts. Surprisingly, he was relieved.
He got back to Bayberry Lane just before one. He felt relaxed. Jobs went smoothly when he didn’t fight himself. You go out into the world, do what you have to and retreat to a foxhole when you’re done. Gupta would get his windows; he would have a bit more cash to spend on his project. He named his half-built home “Wemmick” after a minor character in Great Expectations, the only high school novel he ever enjoyed. During the day Wemmick clerks in the London law office run by the shady Jaggers. At night he goes home to a miniature castle complete with drawbridge which he raises to keep the outside word at bay. Tonight he would go home, eat, read his library books and be in bed by nine. Since leaving the military his goal was to simplify his environment. Isolation was an essential ingredient to that end.
By two he established a rhythm and by four he had three downstairs windows roughed in and the casings measured and cut. He was so absorbed in the work he didn’t notice that the old woman had curled up on the couch and was fast asleep despite the continual noise of the miter saw.
At five he packed up his tools, put up plastic to protect the house inside, made a note of where he would begin tomorrow and checked the weather on the truck radio. Before he pulled away Raina came out bearing paper plates wrapped in foil. She had made extra begun pora (eggplant) and kosha mangso (curried mutton). It was Bengali, very spicy so he should beware. She smiled and rolled her eyes when she used the word “spicy”.
He could not begin to guess her age but noticed her tiny, delicate hands and bare arms displayed a shiny patina, as if there was a layer of wax highlighting the light bronze of her skin. She was not a pretty woman. Her nose was too large and out of place for her small, angular face. He’d always wondered why some women wore their hair long, continually tucking it back behind their ears every few minutes. Raina did the same thing with her sari, constantly adjusting the cloth that covered her shoulders. She apologized again for any offense on her husband’s part. He still used the ways of their country was her feeble explanation. He thanked her for the food, the odor overwhelming him in the cab even with the windows open.
His favorite time of day was dusk. He had taken to smoking a pipe, sitting on a slight rise behind his house, contemplating how it might look if he departed from the blueprint and added this or that to the project. He’d seen some old pipes at a yard sale a few years ago, bought aromatic tobacco from a specialty store in Boston and devoted as much as an hour to puffing away and letting his mind drift as the smoke wafted downwind.
By seven he was done with the food Raina had given him. It was a welcome change from the bland diet he was used to, and he made a note to add curry powder and some other spices to his staple of garden vegetables. He kicked on his generator powered by propane and decided to read. He developed the habit of picking up a novel by Dickens, opening it at random and allow the words to run through his mind as if they were smooth sand sifting through his fingers. When he hit a passage or description that he liked, he would put the book on his lap, tilt his head back and replay it in his thoughts over and over again.
Tonight, however, he wanted some adventure. He enjoyed the travel books of Paul Theroux, written in a realistic and often cynical style. He picked up The Great Railway Bazaar and leafed through until he found the section where Theroux’s train journey enters India. He read for an hour noting the heat, stench, inefficiency and governmental incompetence of that continent, all of which was underscored by the gentle humanity of the great unwashed. By ten his eyes were blurry and there was a slight chill in the air. He turned off the generator, grabbed a blanket and wrapped it around him like a cocoon. He decided he’d spent such a relaxing evening that he’d just sleep in his reading chair until dawn.
He woke up at dawn. His body was stiff from sleeping in an awkward position. He’d built a sauna which was his pride and joy. He stripped off his clothes and spent twenty minutes letting the heat and steam loosen his body. By nine-thirty he was back at Bayberry, cleansed and ready to meet the day.
Gupta was angry. He claimed he had wanted new trim boards and gutters and that the estimate included that. He pulled out his copy which proved Gupta wrong. He was then accused of doctoring the invoice. Gupta stomped off saying he would only pay a certain price and no more. While they argued Raina kept peeking out from behind the plastic covered window, her children appearing now and then like pop-up ads on a computer.
It was not in him to do sloppy work. He could punish Gupta, but it would be the new owner who suffered water damage and sticking windows if he didn’t caulk or plumb each unit. As he worked anger infected the job. He became frustrated at being frustrated. He ran a splinter into his palm and narrowly missed slicing a finger because he wasn’t concentrating. Before noon Gupta came out of the house and roared down the gravel driveway in his BMW. Soon after that his wife came out and apologized for the fight. Her husband had a bad temper. While she was speaking, he noticed bruises on her upper arm and wondered if they were recent or he’d just missed them yesterday.
He debated whether to stop for lunch. There was a chance he could finish and not have to come back if he did. But he was hungry and needed some time to clear his mind. He stopped work and went inside. He thanked Raina for the food last night. It was quite good. She invited him to sit and put a plate of vegetables in front of him along with a special type on nan that she’d baked. She stood while he ate. It made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t enjoy the meal even though the food was very tasty. The children hung in the doorway giggling and looking at him. He ate quickly, thanked her and asked for water. She poured him a glass, and it was then that he noticed the left side of her face was slightly swollen. She noticed his stare and quickly used her sleeve to cover it up.
He worked feverishly. He wanted to get away from this job as quickly as possible. He’d promised to prime the casings but didn’t. The windows were in, reasonably watertight and plumb. It was five-thirty. He wrote up a bill looking over his shoulder for signs of his nemesis roaring up the driveway. He took the invoice into the house and handed it to Raina. She barely had time to look at it before her mother-in-law ripped it from her hand like an animal stealing food from another and scurried away, evidently to call her son.
“Take me away from here.” She said very softly holding his forearm with two hands. “He is not a kind man. He beats me. She beats me.” There was a tilt of her head towards the hallway down which her mother-in-law had disappeared. “My children laugh when they do it. I am a servant to them.”
He pulled away. He suggested she go to a shelter. He wasn’t sure but there must be one nearby; most every city had one. They’d take care of her.
She pleaded with him. She would do anything. She knew how to cook. She was very clean. He would be pleased. There was an innuendo of sexuality when she reiterated that he would be happy with her.
The mother-in-law re-entered the room. She had a handful of bills. Raina immediately stepped back and leaned against the kitchen counter. He took the money and decided to count even though he’d never done this before with a customer. It was one hundred short. He glanced at the older woman who had a smug look on her face. He put the money in his jeans back pocket and left. It wasn’t worth the battle. He would use the night to wash his mind clean from the past two days. Tomorrow he’d start fresh on another project.
He packed his tools. He was proud of the truck’s organizer. There was a sense of completeness when each piece of equipment fit neatly into its storage unit. He thought about taking a picture of the house. He did this when he finished each job; printing the picture out on his computer and placing them in an album. But this was a job he wanted to forget so he secured the truck’s gate, checked the bed to make sure everything was secure and got in.
He was at the end of the driveway and reaching to tune in the radio when he sensed her presence. She had an odd smell to her, mostly from the pungent food she prepared but a heavy scent of something overly sweet, flowery. She was tucked down between the extended cab’s rear jump seats and the floor; to the unobservant, a pile of faded orange and pale yellow fabric. When he pulled to a stop she begged him with her eyes.
He knew he should turn back but part of him enjoyed the idea of revenge. He thought of Gupta coming home, gloating on having saved money from the local yokel carpenter. Then suddenly discovering his wife was gone. Who would he take his anger out on for this outrage? He would keep Raina safe for the night then take her to a shelter or whatever social service agency handled this type of thing.
After twenty miles he stopped and beckoned her sit up front. They were in Maine by now and Gupta, if he even knew she was gone, had no knowledge of where he lived. She huddled against the window clutching her worldly possessions which she had packed in a child’s Dora the Explorer knapsack.
He showed her around his cabin. There was no furniture to speak of–his reading chair, a sleeping bag and a table to eat from. She again promised to be his servant, adding laundry to the list of duties she’d previously catalogued. A safe place to sleep was all, and she used her fingers to indicate how little food she needed.
He suggested they not use lights tonight. She could have the sleeping bag. If there was any trouble she was to go to the root cellar. He showed her where the opening was in the kitchen floor and led her down to see the tins of food, cider and vegetables that were preserved there. He lived at the end of a dead end road. If she saw any headlights it probably meant trouble. He acquainted her with the bathroom and shower then left her alone while he went outside to smoke his pipe. When he came back in she was sound asleep in the sleeping bag, so petite one wouldn’t know she was there until a stuttering snore broke the silence.
He felt like he was back on patrol in Iraq. He stationed himself on the window seat in the far corner. He had night vision binoculars. He owned several weapons but selected a 357 Sig which used a 9mm shell. It was light and easily hidden. He placed it on the floor beneath his seat. The night came alive. Deer slipped through the trees, pausing every few steps to make certain no danger lurked. Skunks, woodchucks and raccoons began foraging. He doubted Gupta could locate him or even bother. Maybe his wife’s leaving was a blessing. Yet he’d stayed alive in a war zone by thinking of every contingency and preparing for it. He considered himself fortunate that he needed little sleep. Tomorrow evening his world would return to normal.
He was dozing and thought the light was dawn peeping through the pine windbreak he’d established. His watch glowed 3:10 AM . He came full awake to distinguish that is was three cars coming towards him. They stopped down the hill and he felt a sense of satisfaction that the shadowy forms were headed up his path. He tucked the Sig into the small of his back, slipped on a jacket, roused Raina putting her in the root cellar then walked noisily out to meet them.
Their flashlights blinded him. There were five–Gutpa, two old, white haired men and two others about his age. He wondered how they found him. It wasn’t hard because he’d never kept his place a secret. Most any convenience store or nearby restaurant would know. He hoped they ruined a muffler getting down the dirt road and would later complain to the township about the ruts.
Gupta did the talking. He was like a mafia chieftain. The two younger men carried sticks. There’d be no trouble. He wanted his wife. She was crazy. He pointed to his temple and twirled his forefinger to indicate the intensity of her insanity. Many people needed their houses fixed. He would be recommended to everyone Gupta knew. He stepped forward holding some money between his fingers. His mother had made a mistake. This would make up for his being shortchanged this afternoon.
“I don’t know where she is; I haven’t seen her since I left your kitchen. You can search my land if you want.”
There was a quick conference in a foreign language. Four people were talking all at once to Gupta. He guessed some were advocating going while others were keen to go over every inch of the property. They evidently compromised by wanting to look inside the house, reserving the right to come back when it was daylight to survey the rest. He beckoned them to go inside. Gupta stayed outside with him while his minions entered. A few minutes later they returned shaking their heads.
They left. Gupta issued a stern warning. He was a fair man. If his wife was being helped by Americans, she should be given back to him. He would take her home to India where doctors knew how to cure her sickness. But he was a man of little patience. Even if he were thousands of miles away, he had many friends to act on his behalf. He swung his arm around in an arc and paid several compliments to the beauty and solitude of the property. Having made his point he led his entourage back to the vehicles.
He went back into his cabin and watched them inch their way back up the road. He went to the root cellar, assured Raina it was safe to return and helped her with the trapdoor. She was shaking, possibly from the cold but probably because of the close call. He took her to the front window and gave her the night glasses. “He’s left at least one car to spy on us.”
There was a brief flash of the passenger dome light down by the bend followed by the orange glare of a cigarette. Come first light he’d use his laptop to find service agencies who’d take over his burden. Smuggling her out into the truck would be easy enough as well.
He tried to sleep but his mind was going a mile a minute. Raina was a symbol for Gupta, a mere possession. There was no practical reason to want her back. He was saving face at the very least. He was like a millionaire bookie that has a horse player killed over a two hundred dollar debt. If they didn’t harm him physically, they’d go after his little enclave. He would have to spend each waking hour trying to out-guess when and where they would strike. Every sound would become an alarm, something his mind needed to sift through and weigh its danger.
By six he saw that the watchdogs had gone. The coast might be clear although he needed to scan the bushes and trees for someone they may have left behind. They were not trained in camouflage so they would make a mistake. They did not know the extent of his ability to spot them. He need only be patient.
After eight o’clock he decided there was no one watching. He walked down the driveway under the pretense of mailing a letter. Everything was peaceful. Once he freed himself of Raina, he would go back to Gupta and tell him what he’d done. He would admit that he lied to him last night. He would also stop by the town police and tell them exactly what happened in the past forty-eight hours.
On the way back up from the road, he stopped to check his kitchen garden. It had been ravaged. Corn stalks bent over, pumpkins and squash split open, sunflowers beheaded. His first thought was raccoons or deer but then he saw the footprints. So Gupta had fired a shot across his bow last night. His anger was physical. He kicked at a half broken pumpkin, injuring his toe as it scattered into more pieces. He could care less about the crops. Last year he grew much of the same and barely ate any of it. He was going to try his hand at home canning but never had time. This was a sample of what Gupta could do. Invade his tiny castle any time he wanted and bit by bit vandalize whatever he wanted. Maybe it would be as miniscule as knocking over his mailbox. Or maybe he would have someone torch the place during the afternoon when he was far away at a construction job.
He told her to get ready. They were going to visit a woman who knew how to help her. She could leave her possessions here. They’d be back by lunch time. That relaxed her. When they got to the truck, he told her to lie down on the floor of the extended cab. Although he doubted it, Gupta might still have someone watching them. He drove for around the countryside for an hour, carrying on a pleasant conversation. The marriage had been arranged. She was twenty-seven; Gupta was fifty-five. He had many women to sleep with. He was a rich man, but never bought her anything.
By ten he was in Gupta’s driveway. There were several parked cars; he recognized a few from last night. He told her to be quiet. By the time he got out and around to the passenger side, Gupta and three men were standing on the front deck. He opened the cab door and pulled her out. It took a few seconds before she knew what was happening. She screamed. She clung to the seat then the door. He tugged on her legs. In an instant an older man and Gupta’s mother were on the scene pounding their fists on her hands to loosen the death grip. In a few minutes they had her on the ground. From nowhere a carpet was produced, she was rolled into it and hefted into the house. Gupta came down to his truck. He was smiling, arms folded across his chest.
“You were right. Your wife is crazy,”
Gupta tilted his head back and laughed. His motley crew joined him. “You are not the first one she tried to escape with.”
He lifted his work shirt, reached into his rear pocket and pulled out the money given him yesterday, making sure the handgun he carried was seen in full view.
“I apologize for lying to you last night. I was wrong.”
A young man next to Gupta stepped forward and took the bills.
Gupta nodded to him. “I will be gone in three weeks, but some of my friends here might need new windows and gutters.”
He didn’t answer. He got into his truck. Her smell was still there so he lowered the windows and turned the air conditioning on full bore. As he drove towards his diner for lunch, he hoped it had ended. Just to be safe, however, he’d stop by Elgin Hardware and pick up sensors and an alarm system. He figured it might take a year before he could relax, return to the isolation he so loved. Between now and then was just another military exercise.
(illustrations: dee sunshine)
D. E. Fredd lives in Townsend, Massachusetts. He has had over one hundred short stories and poems published in literary reviews and journals. He has been included in the Million Writers Award of Notable Stories for 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.