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She swept, mopped the floor and rolled out the rug. Perhaps she could trade the rug for new windows. She would call Alberto and ask him. And maybe she would do collections for him. People should pay their bills. It wasn’t her fault if they didn’t have money.
The next day, Maya and Alberto talked and Alberto brought over a list of clients whose accounts were more than ninety days past due.
“Why don’t you have them pay before you do the work?”
“They pay half up front, for materials. They don’t want to give me that. They look at me and see a thief.”
Maya nodded and sighed. When Peter’s daughter Gwendolyn had realized Maya shared Peter’s bed, she accused Maya of trying to steal the estate. But later, after Gwendolyn read the will, she took Maya’s hands. “We’re so grateful for your service,” she said, her smile bright and hard. The word service clattered around Maya’s brain. Light reflecting off Gwendolyn’s teeth blinded her. If there had been a theft, Maya had not committed it.
When Alberto left, Maya looked at the list of deadbeat customers and realized she was back where she’d started, except she was older and instead of the hospital to back her up, she had only a coscolino like Alberto. In her dreams, Peter continued to pay for groceries with credit cards whose limits were never reached. But in daylight, her pantry was empty. She had always assumed Peter would take care of her and the fact that he hadn’t made her wonder what they had been doing together all those years and whether what felt to her like love to him had felt like—what? It was the kind of thinking that could drive a person crazy.
She waited until evening to phone the first person on the list.
“Yes?” His voice was calm and put Maya at ease. Perhaps the work would be easier than she expected.
“I’m calling about the tile job Alberto Salazar did for you last spring.”
“Who is this?” he demanded.
She straightened her blouse. “My name is Maya. I do collections for Alberto. You owe him four hundred dollars.”
“I don’t owe that son of a bitch a penny. He slept with my daughter. She’s only twenty.”
Maya swallowed. “A contract is a contract.”
“Who are you? Are you his wife? Why do you let him run around like that?”
“I’m a widow.”
“You should work for someone else.” He hung up.
Maya crossed his name off the list. She got herself a glass of water and looked at the ceiling. She imagined it smooth and white.
The next call was the same, except Alberto had slept with the man’s sister. Maya wondered why Alberto hadn’t made a pass at her. She didn’t want to sleep with him, but still.
She made several more calls that evening.
A week later, Alberto came to do the windows. He had already collected the rug. He brought new panes with him.
She told him the collections were not going well. “You should wait to sleep with them until you get paid.”
“It would be wrong to plan it. Worse than getting caught up in the moment. Besides, I’m only attractive when I’m working.”
It was true. Alberto’s nose was long and his torso was short. His face was leathered and covered with spots from working in the sun. But when he worked, and the muscles on his arms and back flexed, and tools whirred and things got fixed, he seemed powerful and appealing.
Peter had never fixed anything. Even when he was younger and stronger, he hired workers. He called the building maintenance man to change light bulbs. He had his business manager hook up the cable TV.
Alberto took down a window frame and set it on the table, which he had covered with brown paper. He hammered out cracked panes and scraped away dried putty.
Maya stretched her toes and wished she could run them through the rug’s thick pile. She went into the kitchen to continue the collection calls.
“Mrs. Aguilera? How are you today?”
“No thanks.” A television was playing in the background. The woman was at best half listening to Maya.
Maya kicked the table leg. She raised her voice. “I’m not selling anything.”
“I’m not interested in taking a survey.” She sounded annoyed.
Maya breathed deeply and tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. “I work for Alberto Salazar. He rebuilt your shower last year.”
“Oh! Alberto. Of course. He did a beautiful job. I couldn’t be happier. I’m thinking of having him do more, uh, work for me. Is there a problem?” She lowered the volume on the television.
“It seems the balance on the account was never paid.”
“I’m terribly sorry. My husband must have forgotten. Why don’t you tell me the amount and I’ll send a check out today. I could bring it to his house if he’d like.”
“Mail will be fine.”
So that was what it would take. She would have to talk to the women. Thinking about it made her feel like she had eaten spoiled empanadas. Nevertheless, she would do it. She drank a cup of black tea and made a few more calls, marking the results on the spreadsheet Alberto had given her.
She rinsed out her cup and went into the living room to observe his progress.
He pressed fresh putty into the window frame and evened it out with his gloved finger before pushing a new pane in place. He nodded at Maya. “Want to try? Then when it breaks again you’ll know how to fix it.”
“Is it going to break again?”
Maya didn’t want to fix it. She wanted Peter to call someone. She had changed his diapers, run his food through a blender.
“What’s wrong with me?” Maya asked.
Alberto looked up from his work. “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re like the plum tomatoes in my garden. Ripe and firm.”
“But you keep your distance.”
Alberto took off his safety glasses, wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. “You’re thinking about someone else. He’s always in front of your eyes.”
“I can’t help it.” Beyond a hole in the wall where a window had been a band of screaming blue jays chased an owl. “I want to kill him.”
“He’s dead already.”
“Did you want to kill your wife?”
“I wanted to kill her while she was dying. She was suffering and everyone else, my kids, were suffering with her. Then, after she died, I wanted her back, even for a few minutes.”
Alberto rehung the windows. “Don’t wash them for a week.”
The cloudy windows were a disappointment. Maya thought she would have clear windows that day to console her for the loss of the rug. She had almost nothing left of Peter’s.
That night Maya paced her small house. She resented Alberto for taking her bed and her rug. She had made up the couch but didn’t want to get in. She examined Alberto’s hammer, which he had forgotten. It was an old hammer, worn at the head, the wood handle discolored. He was not a rich man, though he was richer than her. Everyone was richer than her.
She woke in the middle of the night and called Gwendolyn, who lived in Wisconsin. “I was his wife,” Maya said.
“Who is this?” She was swimming up from sleep, her voice like molasses.
“I was his wife.” Maya grabbed the hammer.
“You were his housekeeper.” Now awake, she sounded resigned, as if she had been waiting for Maya’s call and was relieved to finally get it.
“That’s what he told you, but I was his wife.” The moon appeared as a smudge through her windows.
“His wife was my mother. She died fifteen years ago.”
“He took me into his bed.”
“Did he marry you?”
“I took care of him.” She raised the hammer and considered bringing it down through a window, if only to see the moon more clearly. But she had given up the rug for the windows. Gwendolyn hung up.
A week later Maya received a letter from Gwendolyn’s lawyer. The gold letterhead was raised; the paper was thick and had a watermark Maya puzzled over. The letter warned her not to contact Gwendolyn or any of Peter’s children again. The attorney noted that certain items had disappeared from Peter’s apartment and in the past the children ignored the thefts but their attitude could change.
Maya crumpled the letter, then straightened it, then crumpled and straightened it again. She put it in the drawer in her kitchen where she kept things she didn’t know where to keep. She called Alberto and told him about the letter.
“Don’t mess with white people,” he said.
“He was my husband.”
“Do you want to take me out to dinner?”
“I like that Mexican place but I don’t want to hear about your wife.”
“Okay. Don’t order enough for two days. I’ll take you out again if you like.”
When he picked her up he was wearing clean pants.
“Did you work today?” she asked.
“I finished early.” He glanced around the room. “The windows look nice.”
“I cleaned them with vinegar.”
Alberto opened his wallet and handed her a check for two hundred dollars. “Your pay.”
As she folded it and put it in her purse, she thought about the mangos and oranges she would buy. She could already feel the juices running down her chin, the fibers stuck between her teeth.