“That makes sense.”
“But it would be nice to have something to call you at intimate moments,” she said. “There was a moment before when you said my name, and I have to say it gave me a little tingle.”
“Julia,” he said.
“It works better in context. Anyway, I don’t know what to call you at moments like that. I could try cher, I suppose, but it seems sort of generic.”
“Keller,” he said. “You could call me Keller.”
In the morning he backed his car out of the garage and visited cemeteries until a tombstone inscription provided him with the name of a male child who’d died in infancy forty-five years ago. He copied down the name and date of birth, and the next day he headed downtown and asked around until he found the Bureau of Records.
“Got to replace everything,” he told the clerk. “I had this little house in St. Bernard’s Parish, so do I have to tell you what happened?”
“I’d say you lost everything,” the woman said.
“I went to Galveston first,” he said, “and then I headed up north and stayed with my sister in Altoona. That’s in Pennsylvania.”
“Seems to me I’ve heard of Altoona. Is it nice?”
“Well, I guess it’s okay,” he said, “but it’s good to be home.”
“Always good to be home,” she agreed. “Now if you could just let me have your name and date of birth — oh, you’ve got it all written down, haven’t you? That saves asking you how to spell it, not that Nicholas Edwards presents all that much of a challenge.”
He went home with a copy of Nicholas Edwards’s birth certificate, and by the end of the week he had passed a driving test and been rewarded with a Louisiana driver’s license. He counted up his cash and used half of what he had left to open a bank account, showing his new driver’s license as ID. A clerk at the main post office had passport application forms, and he filled one out and sent it, along with a money order and the requisite pair of photos, to the office in Washington.
“Nick,” Julia said, looking from his face to the photo on his license, then back at him again. “Or do you prefer Nicholas?”
“My friends call me Mr. Edwards.”
“I think I’ll introduce you as Nick,” she said, “because that’s what people are going to call you anyway. But I’ll be the one person that calls you Nicholas.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so,” she said, and took hold of his arm. “But when we’re upstairs,” she said, “I’ll go right on calling you Keller.”
She came upstairs with him every evening, then returned to her bed in the first-floor den in case her father needed her during the night. Both professed regret at the enforced separation, but on reflection Keller realized he was just as happy to wake up alone. He had a hunch Julia probably felt the same way.
One night, after they’d finished their lovemaking but before she slipped out of his bed, he mentioned something that had been on his mind a while. “I’m running out of money,” he said. “I’m not spending much, but there’s none coming in, and what’s left won’t last too much longer.”
She said she had a little money, and he said that wasn’t really the point. He’d always paid his own way, and wasn’t comfortable otherwise. She asked if that was why he’d mowed the front lawn the day before.
“No, I was getting something from the car” — the gun, still in the glove compartment, which he’d finally gotten around to relocating to his dresser drawer — “and I saw the mower, and earlier I’d noticed the grass needed cutting, so I went and did it. An old man with one of those aluminum walkers watched me for a few minutes and asked me what kind of money I got for a job like that. I told him they didn’t pay me a dime, but I got to sleep with the lady of the house.”
“You didn’t tell him that. Did you? You just made that whole thing up.”
“Well, not all of it. I really did mow the lawn.”
“And did Mr. Leonidas stop and watch you?”
“No, but I’ve seen him around, so I put him in the story.”
“Well, he was the perfect choice, because he’d have told his wife, and his wife would have broadcast it to half the city before you’d put the mower back in the garage. What am I going to do with you, Keller?”
“Oh, you’ll think of something,” he said.
And in the morning she poured his coffee and said, “I was thinking. I guess what you have to do is get a job.”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“You don’t know how to get a job?”
“I’ve never actually had one.”
“I take that back. When I was in high school I worked for this older guy, he’d get jobs cleaning out people’s attics and basements, and he’d make his real money selling what he got paid to haul away. I was his helper.”
“And since then?”
“Since then, the kind of work I’ve done and the people I’ve worked for, you don’t need a Social Security card. Nick Edwards applied for one, incidentally. It should turn up in the mail any day now.”
She thought for a moment. “There’s a lot of work in the city these days,” she said. “Could you do construction?”
“You mean like building houses?”
“Maybe something a little less ambitious. Working with a crew, renovating and remodeling. Putting up Sheetrock, spackling and painting, sanding floors.”
“Maybe,” he said. “I don’t suppose you need a graduate degree in engineering for that sort of thing, but it probably helps if you know what you’re doing.”
“You haven’t been doing it in a while, so your skills are a little rusty.”
“That sounds good.”
“And they did it a little differently where you come from.”
“That too. You’re not too bad at making up stories yourself, Miss Julia.”
“If I do a good job,” she said, “they’ll let me sleep with the gardener. I think it’s time for me to make a couple of phone calls.”
The next day he showed up at the job site, on a narrow side street off Napoleon Avenue. A longtime tenant had died, leaving the upstairs flat vacant and in need of a gut rehab. “Owner says turn it into a loft, one big room with an open kitchen,” said the contractor, a rawboned blond named Donny. “You missed the fun part, ripping them walls out. Let me tell you, it gives you a feeling.”
Now they had half the place Sheetrocked, and the next step would be painting, walls and ceiling, and when that was done they’d work on the floors. How was he with a roller, and how did he feel about ladders? He was fine with ladders, he said, and he’d be okay with a roller, though he might be a little rusty at first. “You just take your time,” Donny said. “Be no time at all before it all comes back to you. I just hope ten bucks an hour is all right with you ’cause that’s what I’m paying.”
He started with the ceiling, he knew enough to do that, and he’d used a paint roller before, painting his own apartment in New York. Donny had a look from time to time, and gave him a tip now and then, mostly about how to position the ladder so he wouldn’t have to move it as often. But evidently he was doing okay, and when he took the occasional break he managed to watch the others nailing sections of Sheetrock in place and covering the seams with joint compound. It didn’t look all that tricky, not once you knew what it was you were supposed to do.
He worked seven hours that first day and left with seventy dollars more than he’d started with, and an invitation to show up at eight the next morning. His legs ached a little, from all that climbing up and down the ladder, but it was a good ache, like you’d get from a decent workout at the gym.
He stopped to pick up flowers on the way home.
“That was Patsy,” Julia told him, after hanging up the phone. Patsy Morrill, he remembered, was a high school classmate of Julia’s; her name had been Patsy Wallings before she got married, and Donny Wallings was her kid brother. Patsy had called, Julia told him, to say that Donny had called her to thank her for sending Nick his way.
“He says you don’t say much,” she reported, “but you don’t miss much, either. ‘He’s not a guy that you have to tell him something twice.’ His very words, according to Patsy.”
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he said, “but by the time we were done for the day, I guess I pretty much got the hang of it.”
The next day he did some more painting, finishing the rest of the ceiling and starting in on the walls, and the day after that there were three of them, all painting, and Donny had switched him to a brush and put him to work on the wood trim. “On account of you got a steadier hand than Luis,” he explained privately, “and you’re not in such a damn rush.”
When the paint job was finished, he showed up as instructed at eight, and there were just the two of them, him and Donny. He wouldn’t be using Luis for the next couple of days, Donny confided, because the man didn’t know dick about sanding floors.
“Actually,” Keller said, “neither do I.”
That was okay with Donny. “Least I can explain it to you in English,” he said, “and y’all’ll pick it up a damn sight faster’n Luis would.”
The whole job lasted fifteen days, and when it was done the place looked beautiful, with a new open-plan kitchen installed and a new tile floor in the bathroom. The only part he didn’t care for was sanding the wood floors, because you had to wear a mask to keep from breathing the dust, and it got in your hair and your clothes and your mouth. He wouldn’t have wanted to do it day in and day out, but a couple of days’ worth now and then was no big deal. Laying ceramic tile in the bathroom, on the other hand, was a genuine pleasure, and he was sorry when that part of the job was over, and proud of how it looked.
The owner had shown up a couple of times to see how the job was going, and when it was finished she inspected everything and pronounced herself highly satisfied. She gave him and Luis each a hundred-dollar bonus, and she told Donny she’d have another job for him to look at in a week or so.
“Donny says she’ll be able to ask fifteen hundred a month for the place,” he told Julia. “The way we’ve got it fixed up.”
“She can ask it. She might have to take a little less, but I don’t know. Rents are funny now. She might get fifteen hundred at that.”
“In New York,” he said, “you’d get five or six thousand for a space like that. And they wouldn’t expect ceramic tile in the bathroom, either.”
“I hope you didn’t mention that to Donny.”
And of course he hadn’t, because the story they’d gone with was that he was Julia’s boyfriend, which was true enough, and that he’d followed her down from Wichita, which wasn’t. Sooner or later, he thought, someone familiar with the place would ask him a question about life in Wichita, and by then he hoped he’d know something about the city beyond the fact that it was somewhere in Kansas.