Daniel decided we were moving to Iowa. He'd never been there, hadn't been north of Tennessee in years, but he read in the paper about a new campaign to keep small towns from extinction: Move there, promise to live for at least ten years, and get the land for free. "An opportunity," Daniel called it. "A good place for us to raise the kids." The only thing was, we didn't have any kids and I wasn't pregnant. In seven years of marriage, we'd never tried to be. We'd barely had sex in months.
Days later Daniel paid a contractor and flipped through floor plans over dinner. We ate ham. He narrowed it down to three: the Georgian, the Beaufort, and the Winchester Deluxe. I nodded my head. We had ice cream for desert.
Our house wasn't in perfect shape. It needed a bunch of repairs before we put it on the market. The basement flooded every time it rained. There was a fist-sized hole in the hallway wall from once when he got drunk and angry. Daniel bought books on home repair from Bob Vila online. "We can save money if I fix everything myself," he said. "I can get Mexicans from outside the hardware store, if I need extra hands."
Daniel was far from the fix-it type. He has a woman's hands, with round, even fingernails. If he had hips or eyelashes, I'd describe him as feminine. But he's more like a little boy. I picture him in an oversized T-shirt, racing the neighborhood kids on his bike. And losing. I'm sure he would lose.
The basement was his first project. He moved the storage boxes into the middle of the room and covered the pile with plastic sheets. He slapped tar onto the holes in the wall. I could hear the smack on the concrete all the way upstairs.
The next night he came up around midnight and made hot tea. He stood over the sink and blew on the mug. Pieces of tar were stuck in his hair and behind his ear. For the first time in months, I thought of taking his shirt off. I wanted to see if the tar had spread to his chest.
Daniel showered before coming to bed. He smelled of soap. The entire house did. It was one of Daniel's things, neatness. He washed the sheets every week, vacuumed after he ate popcorn. When we first moved here four years ago, he made me take my shoes off before I could walk on the carpet. I'd wait until he passed out to put my sneakers on. I ran laps around the house.
On Saturday, he woke up early and drove to the hardware store. He came back with a ladder and four short Mexican men. They had round, pancake faces and pink fingers. They stared at the floor when they came inside.
Around lunchtime I found one of the Mexicans standing in front of my refrigerator with the door open. I jumped a little. He turned and smiled.
"Lo siento," he said. His voice was deep and broken. The man said I could get a drink.
He was older than the group Daniel brought home. I couldn't figure out how he got there, if he'd showed up later than the rest, or if I just missed him before. He stood many inches shorter than me, with that smile, lips fat and wide. The front of his shirt was stained with sweat.
"Oh, of course," I said. "What would you like?"
"We have bottles of water," I said. "Maybe some Coke. I don't think we have any beer."
I moved beside him and pointed across the refrigerator to the bottles on the bottom shelf. He reached in to get one, and closed the door, leaving black smudges on the handle. My finger brushed his arm. It was warm. He smelled of beef.
That afternoon I listened to the workers through the vent behind the living room sofa. No one talked much, but there was grunting and tools dropping on the concrete. When Daniel led them upstairs and out to the car, I stood on the front porch. Daniel looked exhausted, his dainty hands bleeding in several places. The last Mexican to leave was the old one. He handed me the empty bottle of water.
"Gracias," he said.
"Yes," I said.
Daniel got a new bunch of them the next day. They filed out of his car, which he complained now smelled of burritos. Their faces all looked like one face, except for the old one. He was the last to arrive.
I ran to the refrigerator and got a bottle of water. I waited to hand it to him.
"Gracias," he said, his finger touching mine. The skin above his eyebrows was already sweating.
Later I heard him singing to the radio through the vent. I went downstairs to watch them, and he had his shirt off. His back was covered in hair.
That night I dreamed of him. I called him Hector, and we spoke long beautiful verses in Spanish. I knew every word.
The next week, Daniel rose every morning and picked up more workers. He left them at the house during the day and then drove them back before dinner.
"I keep getting lucky," he said one night at dinner. "One of the guys at work said the Mexicans he hired stole his wallet. But the ones I pick up seem to be honest."
He chewed each bite of food many times before swallowing. His hand reached to rub my neck and my back tensed.
"I would hire some local boys, it's just these guys are so cheap," he said. "I could probably pay them in Monopoly money and they wouldn't know the difference."
He laughed after swallowing. It was a weak laugh, disappearing for seconds when the pitch got high.
Hector came every day. With Daniel gone, he and the others played the radio loudly. The songs were in Spanish. I left the basement door open so I could hear them and danced in the kitchen. I kicked my feet to the side and put one arm above my head. I snapped my fingers, as I'd seen a dancer do in a bar in Spain. Hector walked in while I was twirling.
"That is nice," he said. The skin on his fingers was worn. He licked his lips.
"You can sit down if you want," I said. "I'm almost finished with your lunches."
He looked confused, stopped smiling. I couldn't remember how to say "sit" in Spanish.
"Sit-ay," I said, bending my knees to simulate the action. He shook his head.
I opened the refrigerator door and pointed to the bottom shelf. He smiled. He walked over and pulled out two bottles.
I couldn't remember how to say "You're welcome," either. My dictionary was probably in one of the boxes stacked underneath the plastic in the basement. I nodded and said, "Gracias," in return.
Daniel gave notice at his job. He was anxious to get to Iowa. We didn't worry about what he would do for work once we got there. There was no real hurry. We had our savings. Daniel owned some stocks.
He was ready to move. The city was getting dangerous. He said so every night after he watched the news. He wanted to live in a town where we could leave the doors unlocked, where we could sleep in peace.
I nodded my head. I filled out change of address forms.
Hector started growing a moustache. He already had a few black hairs above his lip, but they began to show up thicker, along with some grays.
I went to the basement pretending to survey the work, nodding and squinting my eyes to appear concerned. The younger ones kept working with their backs to me. Their skin was tight and smooth as a child's. Hector stopped and smiled at me, his eyes followed mine around the room. He wiped sweat from his face and rubbed it into his chest hair and wrinkles.
"I need someone to repair this hole upstairs," I said.
Hector followed me to the hole in the hallway. I watched him sand the edges. His fingers moved quickly. He opened a bucket of plaster paste and spread it with his hands across the hole.
"Do you?" he turned and asked.
"No, no. Not me. The man did that. Señor," I said.
"No," he said. He held the paste in front of me. "You want?"
He took my hand with his, covered in dirt and white paste, and pushed my fingers into the bucket. His fingers were rough. My skin settled into the lines of his hand closing around mine. The paste wasn't as cool as it looked, or as wet. It was dry and light. I made a fist with my hand and felt the paste move through my fingers. He led my hand to the spot on the wall and ran it back and forth, pieces of the paste falling to the floor. I laughed.
"Leave it," he said.
I nodded and walked toward the kitchen. At the sink I put my hands under hot water. The dry clumps turned to suds and washed away.
I made enchiladas for dinner. The recipe was from a cookbook with spotless pages. Daniel gave me a plastic book protector as a housewarming present when we first moved in. He Windexed it whenever he cleaned the kitchen.
I wanted Hector to smell my cooking, the meat, the spices. I wished he would ask for some. When he came up the stairs to leave he sniffed loudly twice, then smiled. Later, Daniel complained the meat was too spicy.
The next day Daniel went to work without going to the hardware store first. I called him at the office. He said the work was done, mostly. He could do the rest of it by himself. "The contractor called," he said. "We have to pick out the awning."
The house was lonely that day, empty and quiet. I couldn't find the Spanish station on the radio. There was nothing but static.
After lunch I drove by the hardware store. They were lined along the road, some smoking, talking, sweating. They were short and brown and many had moustaches, but none was Hector. At the stop sign I paused too long and groups of them herded to my car. One tried opening the back door. Another tried the trunk. A man with a ring too small for his finger pressed his hand against the window and motioned for me to roll it down. "Por favor," he said. "Trabajo." I stared at his sweaty palms leaving marks on the window. "Señora." Voices came from the other side. "Work hard."
I wanted to drive off, but I was afraid I'd hit one of them with my car. They surrounded the vehicle, the front, the back, maybe even some on the roof. They all had faces like Hector's. His nose, his eyes, his dark hairs above the lip. But none was him. New heads grew behind the first ones, trying to push up to my window. I imagined the car crushing underneath their weight and suffocating me inside. One banged his fist against the passenger side. The one with the ring kept sliding his hand down my window as if he were petting it.
I started to scream. At first it was a loud yell, just a sound. Then it became words. "Get the hell away from my car. Don't touch me." I pushed my hand against the horn and waved the other arm above my head. "I'm going to call the police," I screamed. Their faces stopped talking and their arms stopped clawing. The group took many steps back, and I grabbed the steering wheel and stepped on the gas. My breathing was heavy. In the rearview mirror I could see the bunch of them staring after me. One might have thrown something, a cup. I couldn't tell if it was meant to hit me. At the light I turned back onto the street and, in the corner of my eye, I saw Hector leaving the gas station with a brown paper bag. He saw me and squinted.
That night Daniel asked me to make spaghetti from a can. I spilled sauce on my jeans. Daniel said we needed to pick out the deck design. We could have the Dorchester, shaped like an octagon, or the Royale, with one side closed off for privacy. I told him whichever one he wanted. He said we needed to settle on the topic of a pool.
In the window I thought I saw Hector's face sprouting out of the hedges. The wind moved the tree branch, and I thought it was Hector's hand rapping on the glass. I closed my eyes to hear if his Mexican radio station was playing, but it was only passing traffic. Daniel was pulling out sample pictures of pools.
The noodles tasted damp and moldy. I walked to the sink to wash the rest of them down the disposal. The branch outside hit the window again. It tapped three times. I turned on the hot water. The wind blew, and this time I brought my face to the glass and pressed my nose into it. I thought of Hector standing outside, waiting for me to see him, waiting for Daniel to go to bed.
I kissed the window—even licked it—but what I tasted was cold, hard glass. When I pulled away the window was wet, and Hector was nowhere to be seen.
Daniel kept talking. We're getting a pool.
Copyright © Anne Corbitt 2007.