“Bad sparkplug wires,” Axmet said, straightening up.

“Didn’t you change them last month when you tuned it?”

Axmet shrugged cryptically and closed the hood. He had been a mechanical engineer back in Chechnya, but Jonathan suspected that he was not a very good auto mechanic. His repairs were never without complications. For instance, the Subaru had been guzzling fuel since the tune-up. Jonathan was loath to complain, though, because Axmet had only charged him for parts (air filter, points, plugs, and wires). Axmet himself had insisted on listening to the engine just now; he’d been sitting on a kitchen chair on the sidewalk when Jonathan pulled up.

“I can replace wires.”

“Well, I’m kind of running around today, Axmet.”

“Leave the key, Jonathan! I can fix it now.”

“I told my mother I’d take her to Home Depot. Can I look for you in an hour or so?”

“Of course, Jonathan!”

This was all part of a complex system of barter between his mother and the Gulnaevs. Axmet worked on his Subaru and Helena’s Civic. She’d had eyeliner tattooed on her face at Zabet’s salon. (The idea creeped Jonathan out). Zabet was always bringing food upstairs: black bread or borscht or some Chechen dish. All this was in exchange for rent forgiven — their mandated contribution to the Section 8 payment. And, he suspected, other favors. As much as he liked Axmet, Jonathan found the Gulnaevs frustrating and depressing. The stories his mother told him about them were full of baroque Chechen problems requiring Chechen solutions: bribes, arranged marriages, Soviet-era medicine. It seemed to him that the family was not any better off after seven years of his mother’s interventions, and he wondered if she would have become so involved with them if they were from somewhere else. On her bookshelf: Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, Idries Shah.

“Tell your mother dryer is fixed,” Axmet called out as Jonathan climbed the front steps. “Tell her it was thermal fuse. And thanks her again. For Alla.”

Jonathan found Helena in her kitchen. She poured her coffee into a mayonnaise jar, screwed on the lid, and put the jar in her purse — one of her bizarre habits of thrift.

“Axmet says to thank you for Alla. What does that mean, thanks for Alla?”

By the set of his mother’s jaw, he could tell she’d loaned them more money.

“What do you need at Home Depot?” he asked when she didn’t answer his first question.

“A door.” She belted her jacket. “For the dining room in the first floor. Zabet is bringing Alla back from Dagestan in a few days with her baby, and they need to turn it back into a bedroom.”

“Alla’s moving back in?”

“Zabet doesn’t want to leave her with her husband’s family while she’s recuperating.”

“Recuperating from what?”

Helena waited until they were in Jonathan’s car to answer. “The doctors said it was herpes simplex five.”

“Simplex five? I’ve never heard of that. Did her husband pick it up from a hooker?”

She frowned. “I should do some childproofing.”

“How long is she staying?”

“I don’t know. I’m hoping she doesn’t go back at all. Zabet didn’t come out and say it, but I think her husband has been abusing her.”

“Jesus. What next?”

Helena looked tired under the fluorescent lights at Home Depot. As she reached up for a package of cabinet latches, Jonathan noticed her tights had worn through at the heels. It infuriated him to think how the Gulnaevs must see his mother: a rich American landlady. “You should get the cheapest piece of hollow-core shit they have, Mom,” he said as they walked through the aisle of doors, craning their necks.

“Hah. You sound like Adlan. I asked him what happened to the old door, and he said he threw it away. ‘I never saw a piece of shit like that before I moved to your country.’ That’s what he said.” She leafed through the doors on the rack like pages in a newspaper. “The cheapest six-panel is $80.00, without the hardware. Maybe I can get something at the salvage yard.”

The rest of them were depressing. Adlan, though, Jonathan actively disliked. He assumed Adlan, who struck him as some kind of charlatan with his skull cap and hiphop pants, was behind the family’s religious turn — and therefore, he assumed, this latest misery.

“Why do you let him talk to you like that?” he said. “They aren’t even paying rent.”

“Yes they are.”

“You told me they weren’t.”

“I’m getting Section 8,” she said crossly.

“I know that. But you said they were supposed to be paying some of it themselves.”

“Axmet lost his job. Zabet’s hours got cut back.”

“Of course they cut her hours back. Who wants to get make-up tattooed on their face by a lady in a burka?”

“It’s not a burka. It’s a hijab.”

“Anyhow, I guarantee you Section 8 did not approve that apartment for four adults and a baby.”

Helena took the mayonnaise jar out of her pocketbook and unscrewed the lid. “Maybe it would be better if Alla and her baby stayed upstairs with me.”

“What? Where are they going to sleep?” Helena had two bedrooms in her apartment, but one was stripped down to the studs and completely filled with tools. “Mom?”

“I heard you. They can sleep in my room, of course.” She screwed the lid back on without taking a drink.

“And where are you going to sleep?”

“The sofa pulls out.”

Jonathan enjoyed telling people about his mother’s crazy building: the Chechens, the Tanzanians, sneaking around with the passive solar panels. Still, the thought of her in her flannel nightgown, stacking the cushions on the floor and pulling out the sofa bed, of the dusty old blankets he remembered from his own childhood, her scratched reading glasses and pill bottles on the cluttered end table — the whole picture filled him with shame.

***

Helena had spent a week removing the old shingles from the front wall of her building — a job that should not have taken more than a few days. She pulled out the nails with a cat’s paw, bundled the shingles with twine, and stacked them in the alley on the side of the house so she could put them out for the trash men a few bundles at a time. Now she was nailing on new shingles, working from the ground up. She used a chalk line to keep the courses straight. She was almost up to the second floor windows. Looking around, she saw that she’d forgotten to bring the level with her the last time she moved the plank.

Axmet sat on a kitchen chair at the end of the flagstone walk, looking out at the street. It had become his regular spot in the last few months. Helena called out to him: “Axmet, can you pass me that level?” He didn’t turn around, so she called again, louder this time, and he jumped up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. Could you pass me the level?”

He got up and steadied himself against the neighbor’s house.

“Are you okay?”

“Headache,” he said.

Helena knelt on the plank and reached down as far as she could. He passed the level into her extended hand. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m so tired of climbing up and down. So, Axmet, did Alla tell you about the place we looked at?”

“What place?”

“Horizon House.” She held the level up to the shingles and pried loose the one she’d just nailed on. “They offer GED classes. Alla shouldn’t need much help, though; she could probably pass the test if she took it today. But they do have some job training.”

“Alla is going to college?” Axmet looked confused.

“No. Well, maybe. It’s more like a residential program.”

“Why Alla don’t stay here?”

“I’m not sure it’s … well, do you think it’s safe for Alla and her baby to stay here right now?”

“Why not is safe?”

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