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Andrew Plattner

LANDLORD

From the age of twenty-one through twenty-seven, I worked on a horse farm in Midlands, Kentucky called Burroway. I started off there as an ordinary hand, then became a yearling groom, then assistant to the yearling manager. I had four men working under me, and the owner of Burroway, Harry Linderman, would phone the barn every so often to check on things. He was a nice old guy and I was polite with my answers. I had a tenant house, free of rent, to live in, and the last year I worked there I was paid to watch over the farm's young horses and to teach new grooms how to handle them. I judged our stock for racing potential or how much they might bring at the sales. It was a good set-up.

Then the horse business in Kentucky went bust. This is the mid-eighties I'm talking about. For years, there'd been all this over-investing, calculated profits and this ridiculous go-getter mood. It took a while for all these greenhorn investors to understand race horses weren't reliable for earning quarterly interest; most animals couldn't win back their inflated purchase prices. These new investors were driven out of the game and, subsequently, sales prices plummeted. Horse breeders had borrowed money on projected earnings and the banks were nervous. They began calling in loans. Being attached to the horse business was now considered to be poisonous. The value of land dropped. I could go on. The result was that a lot of farms got wiped out.

Mr. Linderman didn't lose his place. It had been in his family for generations and that type of old money Armageddon can't loosen. But when the farm stopped showing a profit from its horses, he put them all up for sale. A couple Texans came to look over our yearling crop. Somebody from Canada visited us. An English bloodstock agent representing the Arabs bought nine of our horses during a forty-five minute tour of Burroway.

Mr. Linderman was generous enough about letting the help go. He gave each employee a month's salary and told me I could stay in my tenant house until I found something else. This was a fine offer, but I didn't want to just linger there, waiting for some wonderful new job to come my way. Waiting is a bad thing and you can get too used to doing it. The problem was, no other farms were hiring. Horsemen were being laid off everywhere and even regular jobs around Midlands were hard to find.

I decided to move to Lexington, about forty miles south. It was twice as large as Midlands. I thought there'd be better opportunities. I found a duplex on McGinny Street, the other half of which was rented by this fairly old lady. I began looking for a job. The economy was bad around Lexington, too. The whole town had been tied to the horse business in one way or another: nice restaurants for celebrating the profitable sale of a yearling; clothing stores that offered designer labels; new car dealerships--anything that meant a better lifestyle--and these places had begun closing down, too. Now, if there was an employment listing in the Herald-Leader, it had a dozen applicants by noon. People waiting in those lines appeared tense.

I got lucky and got on with a real estate company, Shively and Furman. They'd downsized, combining a maintenance job with a groundskeeper's. Neither man who'd held these positions previously was willing to have a double workload at the same pay. Maybe they'd wised up and headed the hell out of Lexington. At any rate, I was hired the day I applied.

My job at Shively and Furman consisted of general fix-it work and looking after different apartment buildings, houses, and vacant lots. If there was something I didn't know how to do, I'd call a plumber or an electrician. Lee Shively would scream about paying somebody extra, but I figured he'd rather have the bills than a house with an exploding toilet or ashes for walls. I was still a cost-saver for him--we both knew it.

I'd been at Shively and Furman about a month when they brought Joe aboard. Joe Albertello was his long name, but everybody at the office called him Spaghetti Joe or Joe Martini. When Shively first introduced Joe to me, he called Joe my "assistant." Joe had a dome of baldness for the crown of his head, thin black and silver sideburns, a salt and pepper mustache. He was six feet tall with slightly stooping posture. Joe was wearing pressed slacks and a button-down shirt. Right away, I wanted to ask Shively if Joe knew what I did primarily was clean gutters and stick my face in cobwebs searching for breaker boxes.

"Joe can do anything," Shively said. "Just ask him." We were standing in his office. There were pictures on the wall of Shively with his arm around friends at a barbecue or some golf course. There was a photograph portrait of Shively and his wife and weedy kids. Shively clapped Joe on the back. "Right?"

"Well," I said to Joe.

"Yeah," he said.

That first day, I didn't ask Joe to do anything that resembled grubby work. I dug up the ground around the septic tank at the Bakers Road property and Joe stood watching with his arms crossed. "This is it," I said. "This is what we do."

He shrugged. "I'm only gonna be here until I get something better going. You know."

He showed up for work the next morning dressed in gray suit pants and a polo shirt. Our job was to take Weedeaters out to Simms Circle and trim around the trees and the foundation of the building.

I took the Weedeaters out of the bed of the truck and filled them with the gas/oil mix. Joe took one and started over for the building entrance. He stopped and pulled the cord to the motor a few times. It spit and began running. Joe stepped away from his work every few minutes to brush out the cut weeds that landed in the cuffs of his pants.

The stories that went around the office were like this: Joe was from Cincinnati and had gone belly-up in the catering business. No, somebody said it was land development. Joe had been weaving his way in and out of bankruptcy court for the past few years. Loan officers held up silver crosses whenever he walked by. He was Shively's wife's brother or something and was working off a debt to Shively.

But Joe was all right by me. Any work he did was something I didn't have to and he always had stories to tell. Once in a while we'd get a beer after work. We were sitting in the 427 Bar a particular time and I decided to ask him if he didn't own some old T-shirts or jeans or any clothes suited better for the type of work we did. He sat up straight on his barstool and touched his chest with the tips of his fingers. "I dress well because I expect good things to happen," he said. "I'm not down on my luck like these other bastards you see around. When my ship comes in I want everybody to know I never doubted it." He grinned. Everybody in life has their little speech and clearly this was Joe's. "Let's have another," he said to the bartender.

Joe and I didn't work together every day. When we were looking after the Shively and Furman houses on the east side of town, we'd split up. Lawns needed mowing, gutters had to be painted--one-man jobs that took a single afternoon. Joe and I would ride over to the east side in the mornings in my pick-up and we'd divide up assignments. I'd drop him off or he'd take over driving after letting me off. I always volunteered to do anything connected with the house at Vine and Conner and Joe always let me. He knew I liked the woman renting there. Her name was Sophia Winslow. She was mid-thirties, with collar-length auburn hair and olive colored eyes. She was home during the day whenever I worked there. The house wasn't much, a single-story brick deal with a concrete path to the front door and a carport at the end of the driveway.

The first time I saw Shively's car parked in that driveway, I didn't think much of it. He was there to check on the rent; maybe she'd been asking for improvements in the place. A couple weeks later, I saw his car there again. I was supposed to trim the hedges around the house anyway, so I guess I started near the windows. I was using these old manual, scissor-like shears with wooden handles, the kind that didn't make a racket. At the third window, I saw Shively and Sophia sitting on a tiny couch together, Shively with his stocking feet propped up on her coffee table. They were watching television and smiling at something.

It was funny, but I didn't see Shively over there again. I hardly knew what to make of it. Then, one afternoon, I was over at Sophia's house replacing shingles on the roof. I was climbing down the ladder, ready for lunch, and there was her face behind the rungs, staring out the window. "Come in and have a drink with me," she said through the glass.

We sat in the living room and had a beer apiece. I'd been trying to figure out how to work up to this point, then there it was all of a sudden. Sophia looked unhappy. "How do you like this work?" she said. She was in a tan blouse, jeans, no shoes.

"Not much," I said.

"I understand," she said. She stood up and headed down the hallway. After a minute passed, I heard, "Are you coming?"

When it was over, we just laid on our backs in silence. "Your boss is tossing me out at the end of the month," she said. "Did you know that?"

I was still. "No," I said. "I didn't know that."

It was quiet again. "He's so rotten," she said. She cleared her throat. "You better get back to work," she said.

I spent the rest of the day spidering my way atop her roof. I thought about the way Sophia looked lying there on the bed. Making love can fix your day, but when it doesn't things look worse. I guess I hadn't helped much.

I returned to the house the following morning to finish the roof job. Sophia's car wasn't there and the windows were closed tight. She'd said the end of the month. I wanted to see her again. I got one of the secretaries to give me Sophia's phone number, but she never answered when I called. I drove by the Vine and Conner house in the evening a couple times. Sophia's car was in the driveway. One time, I walked up to the door and knocked. Lights were on inside and I could hear movement. Nobody came to the door, though.

Two nights after Sophia was evicted, Shively called me at my apartment. "When's the last time you were over at Vine Street?" he said.

"A couple days," I said. I'd been over to mow the grass, which really didn't need it. The house was shut up tight and Sophia's car was gone again.

"Garbage," Shively said.

"What?" I said.

"First thing tomorrow, get over there," he said. "You and Joe. Stop by the office and I'll give you the key."

The following morning, I sat in the Shivley and Furman office lot, waiting for Joe. The morning fog was dense and car headlights were haloed as they went up and down Carothers Road. Brakes would squeal intermittently. A horn would sound.

The only other car in the lot was Shively's Volvo. He was sitting at the receptionist's desk in the small lobby of his office when I went in. He held a key in front of his nose. Shively was about fifty, had a cone-shaped face and small ears. It was difficult to gauge what a woman might see in him, other than he was a landlord. "I want you to take care of this quickly and quietly." I shrugged. He flipped the key to me.

The key was in my jeans pocket as I sat in the truck now. That was the worst thing about a job like this: you couldn't tell your boss exactly what you thought of him. Forget it, fuck, I thought. You went around with something eating at you all day and that day would end up being about fifty hours long.

Joe pulled into the lot. He drove this ancient, two-tone Seville. Light green top half, dark green bottom. It had a hundred and eighty thousand miles on it. A real piece of work.

Joe walked over to the truck carrying two steaming Styrofoam cups. "Just took the lids off," he announced, as I pushed the passenger side door open. He got in, handed me one, pulled the door closed. I turned over the engine. The tools in the bed of the truck rattled on the drive over to Vine. The fog was lifting. I traveled with one of everything: hammer, shovel, rake, ladder, two lengths of saws, a toolbox heavy with wrenches, screws, washers, etc. I had a small expense account for anything else. I tried to imagine what this job was going to entail.

"Old Shively's playing fast and loose," Joe said, when I told him we were going to the Vine Street house and that Sophia was gone.

"Yeah," I said. I hadn't told him about the afternoon she and I had spent together, not that Joe would've cheapened it. I just felt more protective of what happened between her and me. I hadn't done much of a job there; she was gone now. I felt like busting Shively's lip open.

When Joe and I pulled up to the Vine Street house, the driveway was empty and swept. I'd just mown the lawn within an inch of its life. Joe and I got out of the truck and walked to the front door. The windows were shut , the curtains were drawn.

"I smell something," Joe said.

I stuck the key into the knob of the door and pushed it open part way. A terrific odor rushed out.

Joe laughed. "Jesus."

I shoved the door all the way open. The living room carpet was covered with trash, bags and bags of split-open deep green plastic. It was a foot high along the walls and in the corners. The stink was intense.

"A little unhappy with things, was she?" Joe said. He shook his head and there was a hint of admiration in his tone. "She must've gone out and brought this in from somewhere. Raided the dump." He set his hands on his hips. "I knew a guy once who tried filling a motel room with water. Turned on the spout in the tub, faucet in the sink. Had it three inches high before a maid noticed water dribbling out the front door. Kid stuff." We just stood there a minute and looked around the room.

Joe began stepping carefully over the piles. I followed. The kitchen was the same, worse actually, because the garbage was stuffed in the sink and crammed into the drawers. Everywhere, there were newspapers, rumpled frozen dinner trays, cereal boxes, beer cans, egg cartons, plastic soda bottles, magazines, rancid vegetables, filthy clothes, brand new clothes, hardback novels, wine jugs, stray parts of household appliances, plastic toys, shower curtains, greasy pizza boxes.

"Another satisfied customer," Joe said.

I went down to the pay phone on the corner and called the office. "What exactly do you want to do about this?" I said to Shively when he came to the phone.

"I don't want you parking a dumpster on the property," he said. "I don't want a lot of attention called to this. Can you just bag the stuff up, set it around back until the end of the day? Throw the bags in your truck and take them to the Simmons Road Complex. There's a nice dumpster there."

I went back to the house and reported what Shively said. Joe sort of snorted at this. We drove to Sears and bought two 50-pack boxes of garbage bags. We returned to Vine Street. I got the shovel out of the truckbed. We pulled on our leather gloves.

I'd take a turn shoveling while Joe held an open bag, then we'd switch. There would be something interesting every few shovels full. We found a photograph album that began with pictures of a wedding; a perfectly good Texas Instruments calculator, which after a brief discussion we returned to the pile; a half-dozen shot glasses, each bearing the seal of a southern state; a three-iron with a badly bent shaft--there were other clubs like it; a little diary-like book with an X-rated lyric printed on the opening page. The rest was blank. Joe looked over one of the shot glasses for a moment, then tossed it into the bag I was holding.

By the end of the day we had filled forty-one bags of garbage. We weren't anywhere near finished, either. It seemed like Joe and I had merely removed a layer of it. It was fairly disgusting work, overall. We had to make three trips to the Simmons Road complex. The dumpster there really was a big mother, blocked out the sun. After all this was done, I dropped Joe back at the office lot and went home.

The person who rented the other half of the duplex I lived in was Margaret Ellison. She mostly stayed in her apartment. She was in her mid-sixties and through the slender walls of our building I could hear her moving pots and pans atop the stove. She never had friends or family stopping by. She liked The Jeffersons. I'd been in her apartment twice, both times to fix something. Shively and Furman had offered me a one-bedroom in one of their buildings at a discount rate, but I knew what that meant: I'd be a twenty-four hour handyman for the place. Every time something went wrong, people would be at my door. It sounded tiring. The problems Margaret had, loose hinges, faulty cable connection, were nothing. She held a five dollar bill out to me each time I was finished. Come on, she said. She pushed it closer. I know every little bit helps.

Joe and I met at the office and rode back over to Vine Street the following morning. We started the same process as the day before. A hundred different smells hit at the same time whenever I leaned over to thrust down at a pile with the shovel, but overall it combined for this mildew, rot odor. I couldn't tell if it was worse than yesterday.

We were working over in a corner of the bedroom and I was about to spear another pile when Joe said, "Hang on a minute." He leaned down and brushed a pocket-sized thesaurus aside. There seemed to be an ashtray or something there.

Joe lifted out a dinner plate. It was trimmed in gold. He reached for a torn-out arm of a flannel shirt and wiped a streak of coffee grounds from the plate. He held it out to me. It was a commemorative plate. In the middle of it was picture of the Houston Astrodome, more like an architect's drawing, actually. The dome of the stadium looked like the bottom half of a tremendous eggshell with beams stretching across its surface to keep it from floating away. In a half-circle above the drawing it read,

Coming Soon, The Astrodome

Eighth Wonder of the World
Under the drawing was a tiny red star with a 'T' in a white ball at its center. Texaco, was written under the star.

Joe looked at me. "This, I can sell," he said. "I know a guy in Louisville who handles things like this." Joe stood slowly. He brought the plate closer to his eyes.

"Somebody had it all these years," I said. "Why would they throw it out now?"

"They figured it was crap. Got tired of looking at it. Who knows?"

"How much is it worth?" I said.

Joe glanced up. "Fifty bucks, maybe a hundred. You never can really tell. It's worth a drive for me to find out." Something was clicking behind his eyes. "You drive me over to my car. I'll run the plate to Louisville. On the way back, I'll pick up some bourbon, wine, stuff to eat. You come over about nine. I'm throwing a party. The more we get for the plate, the more people I'll invite."

"Fine," I said. "Okay."

"This is great," he said. He slapped me lightly on the back. He let out a short laugh. "We find commemorative silverware, we'll have another party tomorrow."

"Grits and Fritz salt shakers," I said.

"Seattle World's Fair gravy bowl," he said.

I drove Joe back to the office. The plate rode on his lap. I returned alone to the Vine Street property. I discovered it was fairly impossible to use the shovel and hold a bag decently, so I laid the shovel aside. Working with my hands was harder, but I didn't mind. If Joe hadn't been here, I probably would've just thrown the point of the shovel at the Astrodome plate--breaking it to pieces without really knowing what I'd done. I was working more carefully now.

It was midafternoon when I heard a car pulling into the driveway. Bits of rock popped under the tires. I was still working in the bedroom and heard the front door open. I didn't raise from my crouch. If it was a burglar or somebody, they'd just stepped into their worst nightmare. After a moment, there was somebody in the doorway of the bedroom. It was Shively. He was in the Lee Shively uniform, pressed white shirt, tan pants, shined boots. "This isn't dream work, I know," he said. He glanced around. "Where's Joe?"

"Wasn't feeling good," I said. "All this stink was giving him a headache."

Shivley nodded. He looked apologetic, different from the way he was this morning. Maybe this room and what was in it was working on him. "When I stopped by here a couple nights ago, I couldn't believe it," he said. "She kept this house so nice." He leaned against the doorframe.

I was resting my hands on my thighs. "Something must've provoked her," I said.

Shively let his eyes roll across the garbage.

"Did you know the woman who lived here well?" I said.

He glanced at me, the look on his face indicating I'd asked an inappropriate question. "I know all the people who rent from me," he said. "What they do for a living, how much they make, if they're having financial trouble. Kid needs braces, dad's off to AA. The rent's late, I get all the stories." He watched me evenly. "Just checking on my property." He looked at a corner of the room. "This whole damn thing is going to need scrubbing, a new coat of paint, new carpets. Just a write-off, the entire thing."

I wanted to say, you're wrong, asshole. Joe found this plate here. It would've been stupid, childish, so I didn't say anything. But what I was feeling was something else: we'd come up with something of value and I was feeling a little elated all of a sudden.

So I said, "Whatever."

His face seemed stern and I thought he might say something. He stood up straight. "Tell Joe to take some Tylenol and get back to work. You ought to be through with this tomorrow. I've got sagging gutters over on Rollins." He turned and walked back out again. It sounded like he was trying not to step in something.

I stayed in my crouch for a few minutes after his car pulled out. I held my hands together. It almost felt as if I'd triumphed over him in some way, though I might be the only one who'd ever understand it.

The afternoon I'd spent in Sophia's bedroom with her was something I thought about now. I'd gone in there and she was naked except for a slim silver chain holding a St. Christopher medal around her neck. The curtains had been drawn. I started taking off my clothes. Sophia sat on the edge of the bed. I walked over to her. Kneel, she said. I did. My eyes were level with her breasts. She brought the back of her hand to my forehead. You're sweating, she said. She leaned closer and blew softly on my forehead. She moved her lips past my face to one collarbone. She blew on that. She did the same to the other.

It had been and unexpected thing--extraordinary. And I thought now that she was someone who understands things. A real survivor, probably. Things might actually turn out all right for her somewhere. Look at this shot she'd taken at Shively.

I decided to knock off early. I set the bags I'd filled outside the bedroom door. I went outside and got in my pickup. I rode over to the 427 Bar, The normal bartender, Mitch, was there. "Where's your friend?" he said, after I ordered a shot and a Coors.

"Day off," I said. "Day off for everybody."

"Not me," he said, wiping out a glass that already looked clean. I shrugged. I had two more rounds and we watched a soap on the bar television. Then I drove back to my duplex. I laid on my couch and closed my eyes.

When I woke up, it was almost dark out. I went to the bathroom to brush my hair. I walked to the refrigerator and made a sandwich. Nothing was coming from Margaret Ellison's side, though I'd seen her Olds in the carport.

She only opened the door a crack when I knocked. She saw it was me and opened the door wider. Margaret was a thin woman with ash-colored, powdery hair and blinking blue eyes. She had on something that looked like a painter's smock, with little splashes of color on it.

"A friend of mine's having a little get-together," I said. "I'd like you to come with me."

She smiled. "Son, it's a lovely invitation, but I've just started in here."

I drove over to Joe's. He lived on Tower Place in a complex called Valley Arms. Valley Arms was a pair of two-story brick buildings, each containing eight units. There were cars lining the curb; they couldn't pull into the Valley Arms lot because it was assigned parking.

I pulled along the curb on the opposite side of the street. There were two cafeteria-style tables in the yard next to the right-hand building. The tables and a few lawn chairs shone in the floodlight coming from near the top of the building. There seemed to be dozens of moths flittering under that light.

The tables were partially covered with bottles and bowls. I thought I could see Joe's silhouette there. People were milling around, ten, fifteen, a good crowd for a same-night invitation. I got out of the truck and started across the street.

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