I was nine years old or maybe I was ten the day the man in the suit coat knocked on our door. My daddy went out to the porch and the man told him how our house had been sold, and how he worked for the new owner. This was the house on Elvira Street, the yellow brick one with the black-painted chimney—the thing looked like a big bumblebee. Maybe we would have to move, the man said.
He was, looking back on it, a young guy, younger than my daddy anyway, though I’m sure he seemed plenty old to me at the time. It was nearing supper time when he came, and from where I crouched inside the screen door I could hear grease popping in the kitchen, could smell the fat frying. My sister Daisy wasn’t much more than a baby then, this was all the house she’d ever known, and she just bobbed in her bouncy chair, chewing on her passy and staring at cartoons on the TV.
Daddy had taken off his cap and he used the bill to rake some sweat from his forehead. “Mr. Joseph never mentioned anything about selling. I told him a time or two how I might be interested in buying the place myself.”
“Well,” said the man, “he wasn’t exactly planning to sell. The house went into foreclosure. The bank took it over and my employer bought it from the bank. Most of Mr. Joseph’s properties have been placed in foreclosure.”
“Well, now.” I watched through the mesh of screen as my daddy rubbed at his belly, as if to make sure it was still in place. Earlier he’d been working on a Plymouth we had then, being good with things like that, and now his smeared hands worked motor oil and engine grit into the threads of his shirt. The man glanced down now and then at the muddy patterns Daddy’s hands made. This all happened somewhere in the deep end of summertime, the sky behind the men’s heads still soaked through with pure blue daylight, and evening just beginning to curl up lavender around the edges.
“Really wouldn’t care to move,” Daddy said, “if we could help it. We been here a while now. We always paid good.”
“Well,” said the man, looking the house up and down, looking at the porch, which sagged a little bit, stepping back to look at the roof, which I remember was dun-colored with speckles of mica in the shingles that glittered like polished dimes when the sun was high, “it might not come to that. You never know. We’re keeping our options open. I’ll need to give the place a once-over inside. Hope I’m not putting you out.” The man spied me at the screen, and he grinned at me and nodded.
They came inside. The screen door clapped shut behind them. Daisy looked up with boggling blue eyes. The man appraised the front room with his hands on his hips. The room had beige wood paneling and a green carpet; the TV fronted one wall, and against the opposite wall sat a sleeper sofa stitched with green and gold flowers. The window above the sofa was wedged tight with one of those old-style fan units that looked like a tin suitcase—a breeze would shudder and the fan blades would turn a couple of clicks, then stop. The man pulled a handkerchief and wiped it over the back of his neck. He was some taller than my daddy—already I reached up to Daddy’s chest, but on this man my head barely came past his belt.
The floorboards in the hallway gave their familiar creaks that grew louder even than the cartoon noise on the TV. And Mama flew into the room on a tailwind of fried fumes, wringing her hands on the towel she kept tucked in her waistband whenever she was cooking, the wings of her hair gummed back with flecks of flour. Her eyes, always worried and alert and a little wild—later in life they’d grow more so—fastened onto the man, narrowing to pinpoints, as if already knowing just who he was and why he was here. Likely she’d been hanging back and doing some eavesdropping herself. She never broke stride and waded right between them and up to the man’s chest, saying, “Did Joseph sell us out? I want you to know we paid him two months in advance sometimes, always paid regular. A lot of this work you see we done ourselves, ’cause last year that floor in the bathroom fell in ’cause there was a leak and we put in that brand-new bathroom floor you see in there and lots more besides....” Daddy scratched at his scalp with his fingers bunched. “My brother Willard lives down the way and he brought over a load of gravel and we smoothed it out and made that little drive you see out there ’cause before it was just grass and weeds and we don’t park on our grass like some others you see around here. We always paid Mr. Joseph regular as clockwork and he said we was the best renters he ever had.” The man had fallen back an inch or two, trying to nod along with Mama, a pale smile stuck to his mouth.
“Well,” he said, “I’d just like to take a quick look around—” Daisy all at once broke out crying, a high splitting cry, the passy slipping her lips and tumbling down her chest, rolling onto the green carpet. Daddy went over and lifted her from the bouncy chair, cooing and clucking his tongue at her. “Need just to eyeball a few things. Won’t take long.”
We trailed behind the man like boxcars bumping down a line of track. Daisy rode over Daddy’s shoulder with eyes watery from tears, breath gurgly, lips rimmed with a puffy red rind; into the hallway, its bowed floor, the doorways that all seemed out of plumb to the walls. The first room on the left belonged to me and my brother Cruk, but Cruk stayed a lot of the time with some cousins we had out in the country. He still had some clothes here though, his jeans and jersey shirts in piles in the corners. Some clothes too hanging out of the big mahogany chest of drawers, atop which there was a little RCA black-and-white, the rabbit ears extended full length so that the silver wands nearly scraped the ceiling. Twin mattresses sat directly on the floor—mine was rolled out with a sleeping bag. The next door down was to the little bathroom with the new floor; Daddy had laid the floor over with a mustardy-looking vinyl, and the shower stall was covered with a pink fiberglass wall-liner pieced around the slit of the small window, the sashes and sill of which had once been painted white and where moisture now had caused the paint to peel away from the wood in broad, browning swaths that looked like tobacco leaves. Mama clung tight to the man’s back as he went about his inspection, jabbering on. “We didn’t know the toilet was leaking … the floor caved in, nearly broke my neck…. We bought the plywood with our own money, fixed it up good. Mr. Joseph said he wished all his renters….” The man looked at the bathroom. He stood in profile to me and I watched his one eye, blinking.
Mama and Daddy’s and Daisy’s bedroom was the last door on the right, then the hallway branched leftwards, dropping into the kitchen that took up the whole rear of the house. The place had a good-sized kitchen. A gingham curtain hung over its doorway. We had pivoted in that direction when the smoke started trickling through the curtain’s split—a metallic kind of smoke carrying with it a harsh stink. Mama cursed and elbowed past the man and into the kitchen. Daddy handed Daisy over to me and jumped after her.
Bologna was burning in the skillet, the smoke pouring out and billowing around the room. Grease exploded from the pan and rained down on the stovetop, the ruddy drops ran every which way. Mama screaming, the boiling grease hissing at us. Daddy knocked the skillet square with his fist and sent it skittering across the floor, meat and mess spilling out along the way. Mama with her towel smacked at the stove knobs until finally the burner cut out. With Daisy dangling from one arm I went over and opened the back door to let in some air.
Things settled down. Smoke and stink drifted out the open door, a slight breeze blew in. The grease sorted itself into plump bubbles that for a time continued to gnash and crackle, then gradually cooled and calmed and finally faded out. We all looked at the wall—the hard heat had streaked the plaster above the stove with a spindly black burn, resembling the skin of a racer snake. The man lowered the handkerchief from his nose; with the other hand he produced a tiny camera from the pocket of his suit coat. “Sorry,” he said, to no one or everyone, and started snapping pictures of the scorched wall. I heard Mama murmur a quick something and then she bumped into me and, with her head down and arms clamped tight over her chest, she hurried out through the gingham curtain. Her steps down the hall were rushed and heavy, and we heard the bedroom door slam shut. Daisy squirmed and breathed wet against my chest, Daddy dabbed at one reddened knuckle with his tongue, his eyes down. The man looked over at him. Told him not to worry about it. Things happen. Mama didn’t come back. Eventually the man wandered out the back door and we tagged after him, leaving charred scraps of bologna laying like dog turds on the linoleum.
Those lots on Elvira Street were long and deep, and I remember that backyard seemed to go forever. It didn’t end until the ground dipped and the grass grew tall and waving and flowed into a patch of poke plants, then on into the shade of some hackberry trees. The hackberries barricaded a field of electrical towers—the peaks of the towers rose much higher than the trees and floated there in the sky like the masts of sailing ships. The power lines hummed all the time and at night you could reach out your hand and feel the humming in the walls of the house.
The man now was taking pictures of the rear exterior. The back roof was flat-pitched, rolled out with black asphalt roofing that was as buckled and rippled as weathered tarmac. The gutter was loaded with powdery leaves, its aluminum bent and dented, the fascia board behind shot through with rot. Dandelions surrounded the cinderblock stub of the foundation in thick clusters. The man looked up from his camera; he motioned for Daddy to step out of frame. It took Daddy a second to get the gesture. He gave the man a thumbs-up and came over to stand by me. I tightened my hold to Daisy and took off further into the yard, sitting down Indian-style in the grass and setting my sister down beside me.
“I rolled out this roof myself,” Daddy was saying as the man continued with his picture-taking. “Couple of springs ago. Even scabbed in a new rafter. I’m not a half-bad roofer, you ever need any work like that done.”
The man nodded.
“Anything you and your boss need around here, I can get her taken care of for you. She’s a good old house, but I know she could use some spit and polish.” He put his cap back on and took it off again. “I don’t mind helping out.”
The man didn’t seem to hear and started around the side of the house. Daddy made to shuffle after him, but, for a second, he stopped and looked over at me, and he sent me one of his winks. This was something he did a lot—he had an active face and was always flashing grins and scowls and fake grimaces, or puffing out his cheeks and making his eyes bulge to get us kids to laugh. The winks were especially common. When he changed a tire and I happened to be around, I’d get a wink. The time he managed to replace the water heater, and us both watching the water run from the spigot until steam started to rise, knowing then he’d made it work, I got a wink. If he traded in a car, and wanted to show me he’d got the better of the man on the deal, I’d get a bunch of winks, three or four fat ones. Look at your daddy, boy, he’s one sly fox. Daisy crawled the ground around me, giggling her baby giggles, talking at the dirt, beating the packed earth with her tiny fists.
The man in the suit coat left just as the sun was setting. He’d wanted to check the crawlspace—but Daddy worked on lawnmowers sometimes and stowed their stripped skeletons and motors underneath the house, so there was no room to wiggle inside or get a real look at much of anything. Then he’d wanted to see the attic. Same thing—the man opened the pull ladder, and an avalanche crashed down around him—old toys, busted lampshades, clothes hangers, extension cords, garbage bags full of odds and ends.
After he’d gone we sat around the TV and ate from a plate of cheese sandwiches. Daddy talked and laughed and pulled faces, and said how all told the man had seemed a nice-enough fella. A good sort. Mama didn’t look at him, didn’t raise her eyes, just kept jabbing forkfuls of cheese sandwich at Daisy’s mouth. Me, at the time, I had to agree with Daddy, about the fella in the suit coat. He’d been all right. I’d kind of liked him. He had seemed like a good man.
fiction poetry "fact" photography