By Colby Vargas
The classified ad went, SPR RM NICE FAM NO SMK CHP. We interviewed the would-be renters in the stale quiet of the foyer, where our name was taped on the mailbox but kept sliding to the floor. These were young men with work smells all over them: sun, sweat, rust, oil. Men seemed to like being in my mother’s presence. Francine gestured widely when she talked, and in an excited state, her fingers might brush the hairs of their forearms. She had played baseball when she was young, the real kind with the boys, was stocky but in no way fat, all hard curves except for the jagged flyaways of her high ponytail and the frayed ends of her cutoffs.
Usually the applicants made a big show over me, locking onto my shoulder with hands they used as tools, baptizing me on the spot with sharp one-syllable nicknames: “Champ,” “Tug,” “Bub.” “How old are you, buddy? Twelve, thirteen?”
I was ten, and big for my age. Fat, not stocky, not big-boned. They squinted with one eye, scanned me up and down, and I knew the information they were after: “Where’s you Pops. Why no father?”
Mom would tell them eventually, she was not ashamed, that he had been out of the picture since I was a baby. There was some disagreement amongst my grandparents and cousins as to whether there had been any marriage in the first place, but these were not the sorts of secrets you shared with a boarder.
When one moved out because he’d found a new job downstate or couldn’t come up with the rent, the ad went back in the paper. Without the extra cash, we would never be able to keep this apartment, two real bedrooms and a converted porch in a neighborhood where we could walk from our car at night.
In the hottest summer I remember—think freezing washrags to curl around your neck, running fans 24/7 in every window, still waking up on soaked sheets—we took on a carpenter whose name we thought was Joel. But it could have been Joe, or Job—he didn’t always finish his words. They seemed to get stuck under his thick moustache.
A week after Joel moved in, he called us both to the back landing, where he had a massive air-conditioning unit hoisted up high on his chest. Ropes of muscle jumped and squirmed on his forearm and wrists.
“Found her on a job. She’ll do,” he hissed as he wedged it into my mother’s bedroom window. “She’ll cut the heat.” These were the first words I’d heard him speak. His mouth flinched into a brief smile, large white teeth appearing under the caterpillar of hair on his lip.
I understood this as the sort of thing I would be expected to do when I became a man: deliver, fix, rescue.
The unit gurgled and coughed to life; in the afternoons, when our third floor apartment had stored a day’s and a building’s worth of heat, it whined at the upper reaches of human hearing, struggling to keep up. The nightly news had begun to keep a tally of heat-related deaths.
Mom hung two blankets in the long hallway that ran front to back, so the cold would collect in the bedrooms and the bathroom. Outside the blankets was a desolate wasteland where it was best to hold your breath, get what you needed, and dash back behind the blankets, where the oscillations of conditioned air would lick at your sweat and you could pretend everything was okay, death was not lurking one room away.
We moved the TV into Mom’s room, and most nights the three of us ate dinner in front of it. Joel sat on the floor, hunching over spongy, white bread sandwiches and foil tray dinners, biting and chewing methodically, deconstructing the food before swallowing. Crumbs and sauce stuck to his moustache like decorative fringe.
One time, I woke up in the middle of the night, and the moist heat had enveloped me. The inside of my mouth seemed to be coated with cotton. An ancient box fan shoved a cone of hot air in my direction.
My heart and lungs hammered in panic at the thought that I had somehow been banished to No Man’s Land, where no air conditioner could reach. The blankets were still up, but our zone of cool had become thick with humidity. It was the sort of air you could imagine swimming through.
My mother’s door was closed, but a wedge of thrilling, skin-prickling air reached under it and grazed my feet. I opened it—we never closed any doors except the bathroom.
The bedroom was illuminated by rays of streetlight. Joel had one of his veiny hands splayed on my mother’s shoulder; the other gripped her at the hip. Her head rested on her forearms. She drew deep breaths, as if she’d just sprinted a flight of stairs. I noticed at that moment how truly white my mother’s skin was. Against Joel, who was colored by rust, or wood stain, she looked like a porcelain doll, tossed carelessly into this pose.
I could have thrown my soft and clumsy body at Joel, the interloper who had disguised himself as our savior. I might have called to her—Francine!—above the relentless hum of his machine. Instead I backed into the hallway, coaxing the icy breath to follow me and fill my room one more time. I fell asleep, knowing that eventually Joel would be replaced. Summer would be over, our daily fight for breath ended. We would be restored.