by Tabaré Alvarez
|part 1 of 5|
Dutch regularly works as a mover: boxes, furniture, all the clutter of everyday life. But he once helped the Mayor solve a problem with squatters. Dutch removed them from the Mayor’s properties through a combination of force and what Dutch liked to think of as charm. Since then, Dutch has become the Mayor’s ad hoc factotum and troubleshooter for delicate situations.
Now the Mayor has called for help from both Dutch and Mrs. Medina, who is the Mayor’s former wife and a professional chef. While married to the Mayor, Mrs. Medina had effectively served as co-mayor: rational and practical in the face of her husband’s numerous erratic and far-fetched plans.
For fifteen years, Dutch and Mrs. Medina have been mere acquaintances, people who nod to each other on their way elsewhere. Now, though, they will come into close contact in close quarters...
The air was heavy with humidity. It stooped Dutch’s shoulders and made his shirt cling to his back. When he entered the restaurant, the cool air was like that first morning cigarette with your coffee that crossed you over from the sluggishness of sleep to the briskness of day.
It was also dimmer inside the restaurant, the mood lighting and whatnot, and the humming of the air conditioning was soft white noise, a welcome respite from the harsh sunlight outside and the blaring, screeching, and backfiring of the traffic. It was two-thirty in the afternoon, edging toward the lull between lunch and dinner, and the restaurant was mostly empty.
A college-age girl with a clipboard, the hostess, he supposed, came up to him with a smile already forming on her face. He was impressed with the smile: it didn’t seem like much of a struggle. But he was here on work, so he smiled right back — beamed, actually — like an idiot.
The girl’s smile faltered. There it was: the brittleness, the dead eyes, a grown-up’s smile. No romance for him. Mission accomplished.
“Mrs. Medina, please,” he said.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Who may I say–”
“I work for Mister Medina. Say it’s Dutch.”
But Mrs. Medina was already coming out of the kitchen, her apron impressively filthy. Dutch had always pictured her as operating in a more supervisory capacity, ordering minions about; it pleased him to see that the chef got dirty.
“How are you, Holland?” she asked, and she shook his hand. She had a strong grip for a hand so small. She looked tiny, overall: this pale, delicate woman with short blonde hair and small fingers. “Thank you for being punctual.”
“Thanks for not making me wait,” he said. He jutted his chin at the hostess and she backed away with the second version of the smile still on.
“Are you hungry?” Mrs. Medina asked. “I could make you a quick steak-and-fries.”
She had to have been coming off a four-hour stretch in the kitchen. It was an absurd kindness to volunteer herself for any more cooking. He lied and said he’d already eaten.
He hesitated at the door, reluctant to leave the cool air and slog back again through that humidity. “There is time for a stop at your residence, Mrs. Medina.”
“Not necessary,” she said. “I’d rather you call me Chef.”
“I’ll try, ma’am–” he smiled to take the edge off the ma’am, the coldness, the distance, the implication of age, “but no more Hollands, please. My mother, may she rest in peace, did me no service there. Had the Mayor never paid me a dime over the last fifteen years, I would still be grateful to him for giving me the nickname. It gets tiresome having to beat up that many people.”
“I’m sure it was invigorating for them, though,” Mrs. Medina said.
“Yes, ma’am.” He finally opened the door. The day slapped him on the face with both hands.
Mrs. Medina said, “It’s hot.”
Once inside the cabin of his truck, he turned on the air conditioner and trained the vents toward Mrs. Medina, who sat in the passenger seat. “It’ll cool off in a sec.” He went to help her with the seatbelt buckle, but she had already figured it out.
The streets of Sans Souci were clogged with the blue pickup trucks employed by the city. Some of them were already loaded with tree branches. On the sidewalks, sweaty men and women in blue overalls worked the almond trees, cutting off branches with chainsaws. The noise was deafening.
“‘Tree-Pruning Day.’ On a Wednesday.” Dutch cranked up the air conditioning fan, more to drown out the chainsaws than for climate control. It was futile. He had never sprung for a radio, and he regretted that now, but he knew the regret would pass. “He can’t stagger it over a few Sundays like a regular mayor.”
Next to him, Mrs. Medina turned her hands up theatrically as though to say, Don’t look at me, I divorced him.
Dutch asked her to open the glove compartment, where he had the address written down, but Mrs. Medina recited it from memory. And he remembered now how things would go in the time before the divorce: the Mayor doing his Hamlet routine over some city business, hemming and hawing, wringing his hands, and then he would disappear upstairs and return mere moments later with a simple, reasonable solution.
Dutch had considered other sources — the various advisors, the Mayor’s father and brother — but the common element every time he came back downstairs with that confident, resolute air, which he wore insufferably, of course, had clearly been Mrs. Medina.
In the cool cabin of the truck, they talked a little about the best route to take in this traffic. Here Dutch had the advantage: whenever he wasn’t doing anything specific for the Mayor, he was driving this truck, at all hours, all over Sans Souci. People paid him money to help them move. Sometimes he just drove, sometimes he did the lifting, sometimes he even bubble-wrapped. It depended on the client.
He parked the truck alongside the curb. The place was an old apartment building, one of many clustered tightly together in a residential area a few blocks from the coast. Dutch stepped onto the sidewalk, and even from this distance and through the dense wall of humidity, he could smell the fresh salty air that wafted in from the Gulf.
For a moment he wished he could go fishing, just sit down in a boat on the Gulf of Mexico and drink cold beer and feel the wind in his face. All his adult life he had been saving money. He was a mover: day upon day of seeing the junk that people accumulate had instilled in him a reluctance to commit to furniture.
He liked the liquidity of cash, its portability, its denseness: you could transform a small clutch of bills, on a moment’s notice, into almost anything. He kept telling himself he would do so at some point, spend some money, go on that fishing trip — which would add little, certainly, in the way of clutter — but that day, for no good reason, had yet to come.
He locked the truck and then pointed his chin at the building’s entrance. “You go ahead and do the talking when we go in there. I’m going to play sleepy.” As he was taking the few steps toward the building’s entrance, a breeze blew in from the ocean and a fat drop of what turned out to be rain fell on his head. He scanned the sky. The day had been bright, and now clouds were rolling in, partially blocking the sun.
The super’s office was musty. It occupied a basement, just below street level, and the shaft of sunlight that came in through the little sidewalk window revealed dust motes floating in the air. The air held a faint smell of boiled cabbage. The superintendent wore the uniform: hairy shoulders and wifebeater spotted with old crumbs and a few indeterminate stains.
Mrs. Medina did not introduce herself. She asked directly about the occupant of apartment 501. Dutch stood there with his eyes half-closed.
The super shrugged. “Her rent check cleared. There have been no noise complaints....” He let the sentence drift off so that it turned into a question: Is that why you’re here? When neither Mrs. Medina nor Dutch volunteered anything, he tried again: “You here to prune the trees? Cause they’ve already come and gone. Is there something else today? Fumigation? Lice control? Paint your door?” Finally, emboldened, perhaps, by the non-production by this point of badges or official papers of any sort, he asked bluntly, aggressively, as a challenge: “Are you relatives of the old lady?” He stuck his chest out and a few of the crumbs tumbled to the floor.
Dutch lowered his head and shuffled forward a little. The super instinctively stepped back, keeping a constant distance between them. Dutch dropped one shoulder and then the other, shifting slowly, at an odd pace, from foot to foot. The super kept backing up until he felt the wall behind him, then started saying, “Hey, hey, what are you about–” and edging sideways along the wall. From the corner of his eye Dutch scoped out Mrs. Medina, who stood as though completely absorbed by the back of her hand. A quick study, that one.
Without comment, Dutch grew still again, his eyelids once more at half-mast. From that point on, the super kept his eyes on him at all times, even while addressing Mrs. Medina.
“It would not be inconceivable,” Mrs. Medina began — her voice steady, reasonable, not quite friendly — “that Miss Potter might have accumulated some debts toward this building’s administration.” This was utter nonsense, spun out of whole cloth; and again, as with the address, she had committed to memory the old lady’s name.
The super stood up straight and grew a few inches. “Doesn’t surprise me. Sure, her rent’s always been on time all these years, but that doesn’t surprise me at all, that she would have accumulated debts to this building’s administration.”
Mrs. Medina gave a neat little nod and gestured toward the door in a sort of Shall we? motion.
The super, suddenly silent, grabbed his key ring and pointed them up the stairs. To Dutch, it seemed the super was already spending, in his head, all his new, fictional money.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Tabaré Alvarez