It’s January in South Philly and kids are screaming at each other in the street; boys in white t-shirts that hang to their knees and basketball shorts two sizes too big, girls in sweat pants despite the heat, both sides screaming in three-pack-a-day smoker’s voices.
The passing of the white city van, the letters “P.P.A” still visible through the hasty paint job, shuts the kids up and they retreat to the sidewalk. Then the van is gone and it’s back to the fight.
The van heads northeast on a street that disrupts the grid, cutting city blocks off at an angle, making it seem like the squat, tightly packed buildings lean into the street. The city van slows; traffic builds ahead of it as someone tries to parallel park. Sweating, Harry leans his head against the open passenger side window and tries to keep his eyes from crawling up the street and stopping at that apartment. That apartment over the shuttered appliance shop, the apartment that seems to lean so much farther out than the rest of the crazy buildings on this street, that apartment that leans so much that it positively looms. Kenny’s talking again so Harry pulls his eyes from the apartment and looks over.
“Personally I liked the guy…I mean I voted for him twice—” Kenny says and steers the van with ham sized forearms, fat hands free to emote, “it’s a damn sin what they did to him…” and Harry’s eyes drift back up to that window, that empty window, “…two years Hare—can you believe it’s been two ye—” the gloom behind that window so thick it seems to flicker black/grey, black/grey—“my mother God bless her, she always said you never trust—”
Harry can’t keep his eyes off it. That window is sucking him in as his partner drones on and Harry thinks how can Kenny not realize where they are and just shut the—
Harry’s breathe catches in his throat.
For a second the gloom flicks black then grey then white like something surfacing in a moon lit pond.
The shape becomes lighter as it becomes more definite, surfaces. A child’s face.
“—Harry! Wake up partna…wake up!”
They’re parked at the Dunkin’ Donuts. Kenny’s got the windows rolled up and the AC cranking, waving his giant hands in Harry’s face.
“All right.” Harry slurred. Shakes his head, “I’m ok.”
“You’re heat sick. You got the…the heat frostration. I had to pull over.”
Harry tastes vomit and looks down but there’s not much on him or inside the van.
“Yeah, you got it outside. Here.”
Kenny holds him out an iced coffee. Harry takes it, his stomach still rolling. He shivers hard when he wonders if she’s still in that window. Behind them an ambulance goes down the avenue, rollers going but the siren off.
* * * * * * * * * * *
“It’s back here,” the old woman says, sweating in her house dress. She lifts the latch on the chain link fence and turns to them, “I told them to keep it clean, hand to God I did, but they don’t clean nothing. Then my son said he’d do it,” she put a bony hand to her bonier chest, “and then he says ‘Ma I need money for the spray and trash bags and gloves’ he says ‘you don’t want me to get bit right? I said a course not Paul—”
Harry’s leans on his shovel, Tyvek suit sticking to his skin. Kenny’s nodding, his huge face streaked white and purple over his mustache.
“Yes ma’am,” Kenny says.
“—but then I give him the money from my check, and he’s gone—I don’t see him for three days. So he says ‘Ma I need more money—”
Kenny shakes his head and shows genuine concern. Harry imagines the drunk or junk jag the old lady’s son went on and his reflux fires up.
Harry burps and interjects, “How many rental properties do you have ma’am?”
Kenny looks mortified and the old lady fixes Harry with a look of wide-eyed scorn.
“This and another.”
“The other property clean? No standing water?”
“Yes it is. Nice family, from the neighborhood…not…you know.”
“Good. Can you show us the problem area please?”
“All right.” Barely audible. She pushes through the fence and lets it close behind her. Kenny shoots him a look and Harry ignores it, he’s too hung over and too hot in his Tyvek to listen to this old bag’s family bullshit.
Kenny squeezes his way down the narrow walkway, his Tyvek threatening to snag on the fence. Harry follows a few feet behind, waiting for Kenny to lodge between the house and the fence. Harry can hear muffled Mariachi music coming from the house but no voices. The windows are shut tight.
“See what I mean? They don’t clean nothin’.”
Kenny lets out a low whistle. Harry shakes his head.
“Your Mexican tenants filled your back yard with scrap metal and construction trash?” Harry asks.
“What you getting at?”
“Hey Hare lay off-ma’am!”
The goggle eyed old woman pushes past Kenny and comes at Harry.
“What’s your badge number?”
“Mosquito control doesn’t have badges Ma’am. And you called us, to clean up this code violating mess.” The old lady’s junkie son had carefully wrapped the metal bits in tarps to either hide it from other scrappers or protect it from the afternoon thunderstorms or both. Now there were puddles in every low spot on the tarp. The puddles swarmed with wriggling brown shapes.
“It ain’t my mess! Why’d I call if it’s my mess? Who’s your supervisor?”
“Him,” Harry says, pointing at Kenny who waves at him to stop. “Ma’am this wasn’t your tenants. No house full of illegals is going to shit all over a yard like this and risk us City types coming around.”
“You gonna let this skinny bastard talk to an old woman like this? In this heat?” the old woman says, turning on Kenny.
“Ma’am. Your son do this?”
“I ain’t takin’ another minute a this! Get outta my Goddamn yard!”
“You want a ticket for this? Kenny get the book—”
“I said get outta my yard!” The color is draining out of the woman’s face.
“Harry, God damn it!”
“Marie? Marie hon? You a’ight?”
Harry hears someone open the gate.
“Ma’am you play tough on this and my partner’ll give you a ticket for every one of these puddles,” Harry says, leaning back on the fence, nonchalant. God help him, he was enjoying rattling this racist bat’s cage.
“I will not! Ma’am please—” Kenny says, puts a paw on the old woman’s veiny arm and she slaps it away.
“Back here Jimmy!”
Harry turns and Jimmy’s barreling towards him down the alley. Jimmy is twice his size.
“City of Philadelphia, Mosquito Control,” Kenny says sliding between Harry and Jimmy.
“I don’t care who da fuck you ah, the lady said-”
The back door of the house swings open.
“Sir you need to calm down!”
Jimmy’s trying to push past Kenny, Kenny pushes him back, this big mook in a wife beater, the fence ringing when they hit it and Harry wonders what this hero was doing home at 11 in the morning on a Friday—
The old lady screams and collapses.
Jimmy the hero takes one look at what’s stumbling down the steps behind Harry and lit out for Broad Street. Kenny’s grabbing for the lady who’s lying in a heap of white limbs and blue veins on a pile of her junkie son’s scrap metal.
Harry turns and sees the young Mexican guy starting to collapse, eyes a raw moist red, streaks of black blood on his chin. Harry shoves past Kenny and the old bag, heading for the back steps, where the young guy is trying to hold himself up. His legs buckle but Harry gets there in time and gets an arm around his chest; the guy’s skin is burning hot to the touch. With his other hand he rips open his Tyvek and digs for his phone.
“Operator? We got a fever vic, 1121 S. 6th street-”
* * * * * * * * * * *
They’re waiting to cross the South Street Bridge when Kenny starts talking.
“That guy make it, that’s on you.”
Harry shrugs. Traffic starts moving again.
“I’m serious. You don’t wind that lady up maybe that guy never hears us.”
Harry looks out the window, watches the concrete levees as they pass over them. The Schuylkill is swollen and brown, edging closer to the top of the walls, then it’s gone and they’re heading further west.
“You think like…maybe that absolves us?” Kenny floats.
Harry blinks. “You kidding me?”
The traffic starts to bog down again as they near the sprawling hospital complex, old Ivy League architecture sprouting glass and concrete additions like tumors. Harry sees the tents, the emergency wards, it almost looks like another went up since this morning, and he turns toward Kenny again.
“I thought you were already absolved.”
The traffic moves again and the blocks of hospital give way to alternating burnt out blocks, tenements, shuttered car dealerships, and massive Adam’s family style houses, frat houses before the Fever, now they’ve all been chopped into cheap rooming houses.
“Yeah by the church and all sure. I ain’t even thought about her in awhile…today though…like sometimes it don’t feel like it.”
“Story a my fuckin’ life, Kenny, story a my fuckin’ life.”
Kenny pulls up in front of one of those Adam’s Family houses.
“Thanks for the lift. See you Monday.”
“Tuesday Hare. It’s President’s Day Monday.”
“No shit. See you Tuesday then.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
“Keep your kid out of my—” spotting Tjembe at the table, “—our room.” God damn that guy is quiet, Harry thinks. One minute nobody there, the next Tjembe standing behind you with his books or brushing past you, soccer ball in hand, bound for some patch of grass by Penn.
“Your kid—I woke up this morning she was in my room.” Now Harry’s aware he’s coming on too strong. Can see Raj reading a threat in Harry’s jerky movements, clipped speech, hang-over stubble. Harry realizing that damn yellow light on the yellower linoleum was probably giving his gaunt face all kinds of menacing shadows.
Raj doesn’t say anything. Just watches. Harry tries a smile and leans in close. Tjembe is watching from behind a bowl of cereal and a medical textbook.
“I don’t mind. It’s just that new guy in there, that Albanian guy? Don’t really know him you know, how he’d take a kid in the room early in the morning.”
Raj sighs. “My wife and daughter left yesterday afternoon. When did you see a child in your room?”
Harry can’t stop the grimace. Absolution my ass, he thinks.
“E-eight. This morning.”
“Perhaps one of the other boarders has a relative visiting.”
“Yeah. Probably. Hell,” he claps Raj on the shoulder, gives Tjembe a nod, gets nothing back from the Nigerian. “Maybe I dreamed it.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
March and it’s raining again, the remnants of Tropical Storm Armand making 15th Street steam. Harry lurches out onto the sidewalk and winces, the stink of fish and piss an invisible cloud hanging right at nose level. He steadies himself against a wall and reconsiders, looks back at the bar, but the guy on the door gives him a look that says “no dice.”
Harry shrugs and coughs hard, reaches for an antacid, finds none. The whiskey’s kicking up his reflux something fierce so he turns towards the bodega next to the bar and stops-
Ice water’s running down his back and he squints at the alley next to the parking garage where he thought—no, except a few rats the alley’s empty. Harry shudders again, the image, that tiny figure in the white top and pink pants, standing frozen, dark almond eyes taking him in—no she’s not there.
Harry shakes it off and heads for the train, antacids forgotten until he’s way underground, train running at half speed due to brownouts, and he spends the ride pressing two fingers into the hollow of his chicken chest and coughing like a TB case. He keeps saying to himself, she’s not there. She’s not anywhere.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was last October and Kenny was gently trying to back what looked like at least three generations of Honduran females out of the kitchen door of their blisteringly hot apartment; they chattered at him in Spanish, Kenny replied in South Philly Pollock with the occasional “senora” or “por favor” shoe-horned in.
“Where the hell’s Ramirez?” Harry asked through his gas mask. Harry pulled the gas mask up and let his spray gun hang from his back. He unzipped his Tyvek and dug for his Nextel.
Kenny turned toward him. “Get Juan on the phone!”
“I’m working on it.”
“Juan, Juan come back man, come back.” Harry and Kenny were due to spray 16 blocks today, all of which were supposed to have been given personal, house-to-house notification that they were coming. Juan Ramirez and the Chief himself were supposed to have done it. He’d seen the photos on the Daily News web page, the two Mosquito Control Officers smiling with a white family, the headline reading, “SPRAY DAY AT LAST!”
Problem was half the doors Kenny and Harry knocked on the people inside had no idea. The problem here was that not only did no one know they were coming, no one spoke English either.
“Ma’am didn’t your landlord tell you, we have to spray your apartment? For the mosquitos ma’am— Harry what’s Spanish for mosquitoes?”
“Ain’t that why we pay Ramirez?”
Harry looked at the Nextel again. It was 2:30. They wouldn’t get close to 16 blocks today, more like 9 or 10, but fuck it. Quitting time was in an hour unless the Chief beeped through with an offer for O.T. Shift change for Penn nurses was at 5. Harry intended to be at the bar across the street by then, and not stinking like sweat and pesticide either.
He pulled his mask down. Thumbed the compressor on his back pack which coughed to life and spat 2 stroke exhaust into the room. “Vamos!”
“Jesus Hare—come on Ma’am, you heard the man vamos, vamos!” Kenny said.
The grandmother was getting the picture now and was backing her daughter and grandchildren out the door. The mother looked nervous and her older children looked scared too. Couldn’t they understand that they could come back, Harry wondered. Only the youngest granddaughter, a cute kid of four or five all chubby cheeks and almond eyes, seemed calm. She stood there watching them, like two guys in space suits packing what looked like flame throwers bursting into their apartment was an everyday occurrence. She just watched and carefully picked cheese doodles out of a little foil bag.
“Now Ma’am a….this is…a…muy importante. You can’t eat any food that was out while we were spraying here,” Kenny said. He got blank stares. He turned to Harry, his tiny eyes imploring.
Harry pulled up his mask again, coughed in the compressor exhaust. He pointed at the daughter. “You…you can’t eat any of this,” Harry said and picked up a bunch of bananas from the counter nearest him and dumped them in the trash. He mimed eating then shook his head. “Comprende?”
“No eat,” she said quietly. She bent down and took the bag of cheese doodles from her daughter’s hand and put them on the counter by the door. The kid didn’t fuss, she just watched the astronauts. They mob started down the hall, the little girl in the pink pants and the white top stealing one last look at them and then she disappeared as Kenny shut the door.
“All right, Hare, we’re good,” Kenny said and pulled his gas mask down. Harry squeezed the trigger on his gun and Kenny vanished like a magician in a greasy plume of white smoke.
* * * * * * * * * * *
It was 6:15 and the October light was going pale yellow outside and inside, Harry was at the bar, the blonde nurse he’d been talking shit to for the last half hour giving it back now, talking closer and closer, her forehead almost touching his.
She’d come down from Minnesota, and had been probably sweet in that Midwestern way once upon a time, but that was before she started her 90 day tour in the fever ward, before she’d seen someone turn jaundice yellow and choke to death on vomit so loaded with ruptured red blood cells that it looked like they were choking on coffee grounds. Now she was just another survivor in this plague city, smelling of sweat, death, and DEET, looking to get shit faced and rut with another of the lucky ones, another survivor.
Harry ordered two citywide specials and they shot the Jim Bean and slammed the glasses down without touching their beer chasers and then she bumped against him and put a hand on his leg.
She leaned in, her tongue flicking his ear and Harry whistled to himself and wondered if this fever shit wasn’t the best thing that’d ever happened to him.
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