Gene had been sleeping soundly when he heard his wife’s voice. It came to him toward the tail end of something that he was feeling strongly about, but knew he wouldn’t remember once he opened the eyes and took in the big, sad, brown ones of his wife. A dream. Gene never remembered his dreams. His wife. Gene heard her thick accent again, Georgian, but simply “European” to make it easier on the people in the building whenever they complained to him about how they couldn’t understand a word she said. She has a thick “European” accent that we just couldn’t beat out of her, Gene would say, and then let it go and set about fixing whatever needed to be fixed, careful not to screw up and light a smoke inside of someone’s apartment. Gene had learned to hide the remnants of his accent under a thick mangling of New York syllables.
“Gene, you mus’ wake up,” Alyona said. “De people in 1R want deir light fix.”
“What?” Gene said. He raised his head and saw the shadow of his wife blocking the light in the hallway. No big, sad, brown eyes. Then Gene held the left side of his head. It still rang from where the pipe fell on it a day ago at the construction site in Park Slope. He missed most work because of it.
“I heard you.” He rose from the bed, swung his legs, and sat rubbing his eyes. Gene grabbed his pack of smokes of the nightstand and lit one. His mouth was dry and the first drag burned, but he liked feeling the smoke entering the lungs, engorging the nostrils. “What time they call?”
“She come over,” Alyona said, coming deeper into the room. Gene braced himself. The overhead light came on. It illuminated the room, hurt his eyes, and made the pain in his head pound even more.
“The little light,” he said, pointing.
“Sorry.” Alyona walked past him and turned on the little light on the nightstand. She went back over to the door and shut off the overhead light. “Yes, she come over about an hour ago.”
“Needs the light fixed?”
“Said you promise since August.”
“I didn’t promise anything,” Gene said. “I told them that as soon as the landlord gave me the part, I’d be over to fix it.”
Alyona stepped in closer again. “De part came. It came two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks ago.”
Gene looked up at his wife. He felt tired and disgusted. He got like that sometimes. It was hard not to, working a construction site, doing weekend landscaping and odd jobs, and then spending evenings acting as superintendent of this building. Goddamned place was falling apart. Rusty pipes making horrible noises in apartments. Leaky faucets and toilets, and puddles with no beginning in random places in the basement. The gas pipes never worked. People didn’t put their recyclables in the right place, if they hauled their garbage to the staging center at all. Elevator always needed service. Everyone on every floor always complaining over ever little thing, like light fixtures busting a circuit. Gene held his head, and had another deep pull on his smoke.
“Coffee,” he said. He made sure to say it “cauw-fee,” like a New Yorker would. Maybe Alyona would get the hint. “I need a cup of coffee.”
Gene sat there while Alyona went to fetch the coffee. He heard her rattling around in the kitchen, getting his cup out of the cupboard, fiddling with the pot, pouring, opening the fridge to get out the milk. Gene thought about his wife. In Georgia, in “Europe,” she’d been a trained economist. Alyona had a master’s degree. He had little education beyond classes comparable to high school. She had him beat 3 to 1 in the intelligence game, and he knew it. But Gene had a trade. He had a knack for building and fixing things, even if he hated doing that. America was about progress then. And when they came there Gene gave Alyona a choice. You go ahead with your master’s in economics, and your thick “European” accent from right off the goddamned boat, and you see who hires you. Or you stay home and raise the kids. Guys like me; they pick us up in morning trucks along with the Mexicans lining 5th Avenue. Guys like me can always make a good buck here.
Alyona listened to Gene because he knew better. She stayed home and raised the kids while he moved from job to job, and got them settled in this apartment building as its superintendent. She stayed home and raised kids and fetched packages for tenants, and took tenant complaints. She tried to do the light maintenance stuff that Gene had shown her, like getting the gas to power through in the basement washers and dryers when they went out, or sweeping away the leaves outside, or salting the pavement if there was snow or ice. Alyona had done this work; she’d lived this life of banal servitude for twenty years. Gene thought about this. He thought about his wife.
“Here’s coffee,” Alyona said, coming back in the room.
Gene took the cup from her hands, and put it to his mouth. It was warm not hot. It was the way he liked it, so that he could almost shoot it down. Alyona had perfected the art of a lukewarm cup of coffee. He took a sip. Then he had two good gulps, alternating them with the last of his cigarette, while she stood there watching him. He looked up at her. Her wide eyes were expectant, anticipatory, as if watching Gene prepare to fix a light fixture was the highlight of her day. Christ, was it? He shook his head and felt a dull pain. He had one more gulp on the coffee then set the mug down. Alyona came to fetch it while he stubbed out his smoke.
“1R you said?” he asked.
“Yes,” Alyona said. Then she left the bedroom.
Gene shook his head. 1R; they were okay tenants. They were a couple of intellectuals from Buffalo, playing at New Yorkers. Writers. Librarians somewhere. They had problems with the psycho up in 2R who thought the rusting, wailing pipes were them intentionally banging on them at five in the morning. Gene felt a little bit bad for 1R dealing with that guy. A sixty-five year old man with no one and nothing to do but cause problems for everyone else when the mood struck him. It really had been since August for their overhead light. 1R was okay, even if they complained about his cigarette smoking getting in their window from time to time in the summer.
“Here’s you shirt,” Alyona said, coming back in the room. She went to hand Gene the white Dickies shirt that he always wore for the superintendent job. He looked at the shirt a second then took it.
He stood up and put the shirt on as she waited. “This shouldn’t be more than fifteen minutes, a half-hour tops.” Alyona nodded. “Foyer needs to be swept.”
“No, I can when I get back,” he said.
“But you head?”
“Head’s fine.” Gene smiled at his wife. “You think that’s the only knock I’ve taken.”
He left with the light fixture package. He took the elevator down to the basement to get his ladder. While down there he noticed that someone had left their trash in the wrong place again. Building management put up a sign threatening a $150 fine for the next person doing that, but what was the point, Gene thought. You can’t fine people if you don’t know who’s doing it in the first place. Ugh. Something else to think about, and something else to do before the night was over. Gene stared at the garbage then grabbed his ladder. He took the elevator back up.
He rang the buzzer at 1R then waited. He could hear muffled voices. Then the deadbolt clicked, and the regular lock clicked.
“Hey Gene,” John said, opening the door.
“Johnny,” Gene stepped inside. He liked John. He seemed down to earth enough. “I got the light fixture.” He held it up for John to see.
“Cool. Here, let me put a light on for you.”
Gene waved to Alyssa, the wife, and then followed John down the hall. He liked the look of 1R. The apartment had large pointed archways. The floors were decent. John and Alyssa had decorated the place with photos of cities that Gene assumed they’d been to, and pictures of musicians and writers. In the bedroom, John had a large collection of photographs that were tapped above his desk. Inspiration, he said, the one time Gene was in their bedroom to install the air conditioner.
John turned on two nightstand lights. “Hope that’s enough light.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “Can’t really do much more light. My eyes. I got bumped.”
“On the head. A pipe. At the job.”
John winced. “Christ.”
“Yeah, so my head. My head don’t feel so good.”
“Put some ice on it.” Gene looked at John. John looked like he had better things to be doing.
“Yeah, well, anyway, this shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes, half hour tops.”
“Great.” Then John left the room.
Gene got to work. He put the light fixture package on the bed then set up the ladder. He grabbed the package and climbed. When he got to the top he realized he was still a few inches too far from the overhead light. It was right over the bed. So Gene stepped down the ladder and moved the bed to the right about two feet. He could hear John and Alyssa murmur in the living room after he did this. Gene looked down. On the floor where the bed had been, it was littered with dust. The dust was in mounds. There were also old pieces of tissue, and lost socks. He noticed a little bit of old cat vomit. He nodded at the mess. Then he moved the ladder and climbed back up.
The job took about twenty minutes, but when Gene was done the tenants had a new overhead light fixture, and two 100-watt bulbs to go with it. As he packed up the ladder, he heard the rattling of old pipes above and the hiss of the heating system as it worked its way through the apartment’s walls. They were the same old noises he’d heard in this building for twenty years.
“Johnny, it’s done,” Gene called down the hall.
More murmuring, but then John appeared. “Looks great,” he said, staring up at the light fixture. Then he looked down at the mess of dust and other sundries on the floor where the bed had been.
Gene looked at John. “Sorry, I, uh, had to move the bed a little.”
“No big deal. Actually I’m sorry you had to look at all of that shit.”
Gene shrugged. “Hey, no big deal. My apartment would look the exact same way, except I have Alyona there all the time, you know.”
John nodded but he didn’t know. He started walked Gene to the door, but something made Gene stop. “You know I messed up real bad,” he said.
“How’s that?” John asked.
“My wife, Alyona, she’s got all the brains, you know. She’s got a masters degree in economics...from Europe. But we come here and I tell her, no, you gotta raise the kids because that’s your job. I’ll go to work. And here I am twenty years later, doing three jobs like an idiot. We could’ve had something, you know, like a house or something.”
“I know,” John said, opening the front door. He didn’t know a thing, Gene thought. “Anyway thanks for getting that done. Alyssa and I have people staying with us this weekend...and....well, thanks. And take care of your head. Watch for falling pipes.”
“Yeah, I will,” Gene said, heading out into the hallway.
John shut the door. Gene listened for the regular lock first and then the deadbolt, before he made his way down the hall. Just when he turned the bend, Alyona came out of their apartment with a broom. She looked at him and smiled.
“What’re you doing?” he asked.
“You said we need sweep. I sweep,” she answered.
“No, no, no.” Gene put the ladder up against a wall then came over and took the broom from her. “It’s too damned cold outside for you to do that. I’ll sweep. You go inside and put on another pot of coffee.”
“But you need a hat. A coat.”
“It’ll only take me five minutes, ten tops.”
Alyona looked at Gene with concern. He stared at her until she smiled. Then he smiled back, and told her to get back into the house. She did as asked. Gene waited until she rounded the bend and he heard the door open and then close. Then he grabbed the broom tight, and went to the front door of the foyer. He opened it and could feel the cold air of the night seeping in. Then he went outside, lit a smoke, and began sweeping the old leaves away from the pavement in order to make room for the new ones that would be there tomorrow.