The upstairs neighbors one evening pipe-snaked a slow drain, but it sounded like they were driving a big-top stake into the floor. A little later, sure as the rain, shower water came dripping, then seeping steadily through the kitchen ceiling. Darkness spread on our side of the drywall, and we set out the trashcan, and a baking tin.
Soon a man came and removed the ceiling. We didn’t see him do it. Rather, we arrived home one day and a four-by-eight patch of saturated drywall was simply missing from the ceiling. I say four-by-eight, the most convenient size for a replacement panel to be, the standard size of panel goods, but it was that only in the roughest sense. The material had come fitfully from the charred beams, in the teeth of or the fingers of that man.
The kitchen reeked of twice-burned heartwood soaked in bathwater.
I came home one day when he was there, Jorge, patching the hole he’d made. He spoke English, but was more comfortable with Spanish. Where his teeth should have been were ground and rotted stumps, dead nerve quicks on eaten gums, nary a skinny pillar of ivory left. It was more for that than my rusty Spanish and his halting English that I leaned in close when he spoke, into a warm little cloud of spirits.
Wedges and tattered-edge segments of gypsum hung above in addled constellation. It was a drinking man’s plug job. Jorge pressed me to ask Cleo the landlord to repaint the place, because it was a boring color, he said. I told him I’d mention it and if they wanted, I’d paint it myself. Why do you want to take my work from me, he asked, reminding me that he was a painter as well.
A week later I arrived home to find the ceiling in its current state, which is to say badly taped and mudded. Cleo texted and asked if we were going to renew the lease. We couldn’t afford to move, so I said yeah, send over a renewal. He asked if there was anything I wanted, and so I told him how the ceiling was weighing on us, and gauged his interest in fresh paint. As a consolation he said he’d paint the kitchen and the living room, the shotgun flat’s largest rooms, and if I wanted anything else painted he’d provide paint of any color as long as I did the work. Also, the ceiling would be fixed by the end of the week.
The next day his dad, Anacleto came to the front door and Jorge came to the back door. They met in the kitchen. The old man said to Jorge that he looked like hell, and he did. He wore a loose hospital bracelet on his right wrist, his jeans were shredded at the knees, and his bleary eyes moved slowly from his client to me, and back again. From the living room I heard Anacleto in Spanish tell Jorge that if he was so sick, he should just stay home and rest, that the job had to get done and they’d get someone else until the painter’s health improved. After that, the older man left out the back door.
Like anyone else I was thumbing at my phone when Jorge, who conspicuously had not begun the work he was there to do, begged my pardon. You know I have cancer, he told me, colon cancer. I got up and went to him, and propped myself against the doorway. He told me he’d been in the hospital, and showed his bracelet to me as if I were a bouncer with the power to let him pass. Why didn’t he go home and rest, all understood, and work when he was well again. His lips went rubbery, and a tear rolled down his cheek, edged around his graying mustache and seeped into his mouth. Do you believe in angels, the tortured syllables scratching past his lips, because you want to help people and there is an angel inside of you. He asked after my faith; yes, I had been Catholic but I reconfirmed on the spot, yes I’m Catholic, only to learn a moment later that the casual chauvinisms that motivated the hedge were to be disappointed and depressed by Jorge’s tearful, wretched descent into an explanation of the forthcoming seven years of suffering that all the world was to endure, and did I know what the word “antichrist” meant, because he was going to rise and pit himself against Jorge’s God, who by the way was my God too under a different name, who by the way would scoop up and save almost nobody because everybody only helps themselves, no, nobody would help Jorge because of the cancer, not Anacleto, no way, never - and here the painter reached up and with a stiff arm supported himself on his side of the jamb, mirroring my pose - and then Jorge said that he’d been fucked up by some black guys yesterday, at which point he reached into the ragged hole at his knee and pulled down some binding undergarment, revealing a fresh wound, an angry scrape, and went to reveal its twin on the other knee, saying that on the other hand the only way a sinner can prove their worthiness at the kingdom’s gate, can only really help themselves by helping others, through kindness extended become angels, not like these black guys that fucked him up, the antichrist will fuck us all up if we don’t help those unable to help themselves, like I was doing by giving Jorge my leave to go home immediately to plant himself in bed when he stated in soberest truth that he felt like doing absolutely nothing today, and pointing to the fractured ceiling said, especially not that, but by this point in the rambling diatribe I’d smelled whiskey on his swollen, impassioned reasoning, fishhooks fashioned for a homeowner’s heart, and so early in the morning a pity, and I’d realized that Jorge was drunk enough to have mistaken me for the client.
The old man had been gone 20 minutes. When he walked back in he asked what had happened, why the work wasn’t even started. When Jorge pointed to me and deflected, saying he’d told everything already to me, I knew who his demon was and who he with real tears had made into his fiscal angel. I helped Anacleto pull up the plastic sheeting they’d spread out to catch any drops of mud or paint, and when Jorge excused himself to the restroom the old man wagged his finger at me and warned me not to talk to Jorge, that he was once younger and a good worker but now, but now….