My Rembrandt

By Michael Andreoni

ight away the night looks screwed when I pull in from the alley and Donnie’s Escalade is at the back door to the office. It’s never once been a good thing when my boss figured we needed a face to face instead of an e-mail, or mister yellow sticky-note waving from my desktop. Normally our shifts overlap about once a month, except nothing is normal anymore with that idiot in the White House screaming about illegal immigrants. Every time his big mouth opens we lose workers like they’re grapes he’s bit from our vine.

I park the truck and pop the hood to yank the battery lead because my locks don’t lock anymore. I’m guessing Donnie’s stayed late to slam me over losing another account. Like I have a magic wand to replace the twenty highly motivated Latino cleaning machines we lost. Like I’m not pulling my hair out trying to run his business with the local fuck-ups who stumble in on application days, lying their punk asses off they know how to clean restaurants.

The boss is in my chair at my desk when I come in through the storeroom past the broken vacuums and mop buckets. Donnie’s big into non-verbal intimidation, with a dead stare full of understanding that intimidation has another year to work on me because we both know this job keeps my P.O. happy-snappy. Those black-hole eyes are an unsmiling universe that if I’m honest is why I took the job. You get used to that look in the penitentiary. After two months starving on the outside, a dozen interviews with smiling pieces of shit who weren’t ever going to hire a parolee but wouldn’t come out and say it had me dreaming about going back to taking what I needed at gunpoint. It felt like coming home seeing Donnie’s kill you or kill me makes no difference face. Far as I know he’s never been inside a day, which at first was a real mystery as to how he pulled off the part so well. A few months cleaning restaurants seven nights a week put me straight on that.

Donnie’s put on a few pounds since I started with him. I take credit for managing the operation so he doesn’t need to run around to thirty restaurants on the midnight shift anymore. These days he looks like Buddha-Who-Never-Smiles, spilling out of the chair, watching me slip my jacket off. I’d congratulate him on attaining Enlightenment before age fifty, except Donnie doesn’t do jokes.

“Who’s at Frenchy’s?”

            The thing about my boss is he never asks unless he already knows. Any lies you tell get saved up for a rainy day—and guaranteed, the rain will be coming down hard on your head, not his.

            “I got that Yolanda Green in there. She’s doing real good.”

            “You like her, huh?”

            You can’t read Donnie but I glance his way because it’s plain he knows something I don’t, which is dangerous. His stone face is a reminder that my job depends on knowing what’s up at every account. “She’s the best we got since Guillermo and Rafael and Rita, and all the others, disappeared.”

            “She’s stealing.”

            “No Way.” A sudden sharp pressure behind my eyes says Donnie wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t so, even if I don’t want to believe him. I hired Yolanda Green, so my ass is on the line. “I check up on her all the time,” I protest. It’s embarrassing how desperate that sounds.

            My boss’s shoulders twitch like I’m wasting his time. “I was there today. They caught her taking fry oil.”

            It’s always cash and steaks and lobsters when we have a theft. “Like, oil from the pantry?”

            “The used stuff they keep in the back.”

            It feels like someone’s thumbs are digging into my eyes. “They complained she’s taking dirty oil?”

            Donnie heaves out of my chair like a seal going for a fish. His hand brings up the tail of the Escalade’s fob from a pocket. When the fob comes out your ship has sailed, because Donnie’s said as much as he thinks is necessary. His unspoken argument being that once you start on the dirty fry oil it’s only a matter of time before you’re cleaning out the safe and making for someplace warm. It’s now my job to fire Yolanda, hire a replacement, work with them night after night until they’re trained, plus take care of everything else. I should be used to this crap after two years with Donnie. Even so, it sure does burn. He disappears into the storeroom. The back door slams and now it’s just me, rubbing my eyes, pulling up Yolanda’s info on the computer so I can go get the keys back from the only decent cleaner I got left. Her address is another nasty jolt that has me staring at the screen. Yeah, tonight is definitely headed south big-time.

*   *   *

Every day of my eight to twelve I thought I knew what getting out would look like. It was a cloudless summer sky over a shiny blue lake, with me somewhere in the picture, maybe lying on the beach, though the promises my mind painted were never clear on where I fit in. The point was it represented everything I had never done when I took walking down the street for granted. Prison counselors gave me a bunch of crap about writing an Action Plan. Job one was lining up someone to stay with until you found work. Then make up a list of businesses that maybe would hire someone fresh out of prison. They brought ex-cons into the cell-block to preach how to beat the system by getting right with God and keeping on course through prayer. The secret, they said, was applying for work every day plus reading your bible every day. When a job came along you showed up on time, did what you were told, no matter what. Everyone insisted the biggest thing I had to do was break the patterns that got me arrested. Like keeping out of every bar I ever hung out in just in case my old knucklehead buddies were hiding under the tables, ready to run me back down the path back to prison. Getting out felt like moving to another country.

Maybe it’s why I connected with the people who came north over the border to find another life. We were new together in a strange place, where we couldn’t trust ourselves to know the right thing to do. It didn’t take long for living on the outside to kill whatever I’d imagined I could do after prison. Outside looked nothing like summer sun kissing a lake. It was hundred degree heat in kitchens slimy with grease. It looked like acres of floors caked with winter slop. Outside was all about restaurant managers screaming their toilets weren’t as clean as Donnie had promised.

So now I’m driving under an iron shell of winter dusk to make my life worse by firing this Yolanda for no good reason. Not much sense thinking back to how great it was after I hired Guillermo, but what the hell, I’m on the freeway, and the radio doesn’t work. I first saw him on a below-zero morning last winter, coming home exhausted from trying to run Donnie’s business with the idiots we were hiring. The damn wind is rattling at me through the rust holes in my doors as I’m rolling past Home Depot, and there they are in the parking lot, bunch of guys holding up signs under a flickering light. At first it seemed they were protesting something, like maybe the cheap-ass hoses Home Depot had sold me that were already leaking. If the traffic light hadn’t turned I never would have read their signs: SHOVEL SNOW; PAINTING; CLEANING. Eight young men in the kind of ragged jeans that don’t come that way from the store. Two wore light jackets, the rest were in shirts, their arms locked tight around themselves. Faces that reflected the same enduring patience I saw every morning in the mirror. I had to turn into the lot.

Those faces dipped to check me out through the windshield as I pulled up. One of them came forward then, moving woodenly, as though frozen through, and yet somehow he unstuck a smile. I cracked the frosty window. Guillermo, he called against the wind. A little brown guy like a million little brown guys, and I’m a million ex-cons leaning out of a rusty truck. For a long breath we hesitate, silent and still, while winter sunrise paints us in an instant onto graying snow plowed up into mountains. I guess you’d call the picture Poor and Poorer. Prison gave me a few words of Spanish; Guillermo had a few more words of English. They all knew how to clean, he promised, and restaurants seven midnights a week sounded bueno. Did they have a car? No, but they could get the late bus or walk. The other men hung back, as if they were okay with letting Guillermo talk for them. That they all seemed too good to be true didn’t stop me from putting them in the picture.

Here’s what’s different about employing illegal aliens: I never had to fire one. They always showed up, they always worked like hell. After a while they brought their friends and relatives to me. I didn’t care one moment about their immigration status. We were together in a struggle to live without government interference. They paid taxes out of their pay same as any other employee, after I got Donnie to see the light on hiring them. He was dead against it, from the moment he glanced up from checking the payroll and there’s Guillermo and his friends ganged up outside his office, smiling away. All the while I spun my idea Donnie’s laser eyes raked them over. “No,” he grunted across the desk. Probably he thought that was enough to put an end to this nonsense from his new Manager, except that was one time when Donnie trapped himself. I’d been promoted because he was worn thin working day and night trying to make the customers happy. Didn’t matter how much he worked, our lazy-ass, no-show workers lost us the accounts faster than he could pick them up. So in the end he’d pretty much had to give Guillermo and Friends a try before his business dried up and blew away.

And those guys sure did keep the customers happy, until that idiot in Washington screwed everything up. I just wish one of them had tipped me a hint they needed to disappear. It’s understandable wanting to lay low until this craziness shakes out. We’re all waiting on that. They could have come to me for help. There are a few decent hiding places around this town that would have kept them local. At least I could have given lifts to the bus station, maybe hit up Donnie for some traveling money as thanks for their excellent work. It was a couple months before I could accept that they needed to go quick and quiet, and wish them all the best. Whoever hires them next is one lucky boss.

*   *   *

I’m looking to get through tonight without any drama over asking this Yolanda for her keys to the restaurant. The workers we get now don’t always give them up with a smile when I cut them loose from their ten an hour. Donnie won’t be happy if he has to come up with a story for Frenchy’s about how their keys came to be flushed down the toilet “accidentally” and please, could we have another set? Yolanda’s been solid from day one so it seems unlikely she’ll be a problem, though if this job teaches anything it’s prepare for the worst. No one who knows the score asks how you’re doing in the restaurant cleaning business. You’re wading in filth seven midnights a week, no benefits, no holidays, is how you’re doing. In that way it’s like the penitentiary.

Yolanda Green’s address bothers me, as though rolling back to 321 Elm might vacuum me back up into my old life. My last address before the state required my presence elsewhere, and of course the place must have changed in the years I’ve been gone, or maybe I hoped The Hideaway Motel had disappeared. Back in the day it was the kind of place you never went barefoot in for fear of stepping on a syringe embedded in what was left of the carpet. The joke among the local criminal establishment was whoever named it The Hideaway got it right. The place backed up to an abandoned train yard littered with derelict rail cars and track, twisted together as though a God had worked off some serious frustration. Once you made it through the hole in the fence it took a helicopter or a dog to track you. I don’t imagine Yolanda Green is living there for the quick get-away, but she is supposedly stealing the used fry oil, so you never know.

She had reminded me of Guillermo and his friends at the interview, because she also looked too good to be true. Short and stocky, with dark molasses skin, a charcoal briquette of a woman dressed to impress in heavy work pants and a sweat shirt. We get these idiots in all the time wearing designer business casual. Maybe they think they’re interviewing for vice president of the bank and need to impress me. The one thing I care about is if they can impress grease off the kitchen floors. Now this Yolanda was something, the way she made eye contact when we shook hands. The way she sat quietly across my desk while I looked over her application, without once fooling with her phone.

“So you worked for a maid service up until last week. What happened?”

“What happened, they short my check every week for six months.”

“Before that you cleaned at the high school for almost a year. How come you left?”

“They say file for unemployment ‘cuz no money left in the budget. Teachers gonna sweep they own classrooms.”

Her answers came without hesitation. Either it was the truth or she rehearsed everything—and why take that much trouble for a cleaning job? Donnie tells everyone we run background checks, though we almost never do. For one it costs money, and for two, we already know more than half of everyone who applies has a police record. No sense wasting time finding out what you pretty much can count on. Mainly we interview to weed out the mass murderers. Anyone left with the breath to fog up a mirror is a candidate for a set of keys and a mop.

“You got a car?”

“Naw.”

“Well, we got an opening on the bus line. You ever cleaned a restaurant?”

“I did the cafeteria at the high school. Can’t be worse.”

And that was all of it, short and sweet. Never asked what we were paying, or about the benefits and holidays she wasn’t going to get. She started at Frenchy’s that night, and one night was all it took her to learn it. The woman was not afraid of the mop. I popped in once a week to check if there were problems. There never were. The customer loved her, plus Yolanda seemed happy enough—at least she didn’t complain. You don’t look for cleaners to be like those TV actors who get so happy over the new improved toothpaste they start dancing like morons. I know most everyone would take the commercial over cleaning, but at least we don’t have to dance about the fucking toothpaste for our money.

A couple issues are chasing me by the time I get off the freeway at Elm: There’s the unfairness of firing Yolanda. I don’t for a moment believe she’s stealing and even if she is, it’s dirty fry oil, so who cares. On top of that I’ve got this strong aversion to going back to the place where I was someone I don’t want to be anymore. I could call and ask Yolanda to meet me up the street at the gas station, if that’s still there. Just the thought of it hots me up with embarrassment. Firing workers never bothered me before, so why now? This is nothing new, I’m telling myself, so I’m going straight to 321 Elm, whatever it is now. I’m not a criminal anymore. Stopping in where I used to live won’t turn me back to armed robbery. I think. I just wish it felt easier.

My foot wants to let up on the gas when I get close, until I’m creeping like a criminal down Elm. On the left a street light etches crazy shapes into the emptiness beyond the sidewalk, which probably means the old train yard is still there. Then the low brick building I remember too well extends out of the headlights. I stop the truck in the middle of the street. The place looks the same, though the office isn’t lit up pink by the flashing Hideaway Motel sign that once hung in the window. Most of the rooms are dark. The last door on the far end is room 8, my old home. I have zero desire to see if the inside is what I remember. Pull the truck over and get out. Yolanda is around the back in 12. I lean against the hood and just look at the place. I shouldn’t have to do this. Isn’t it enough for one night to have come back? I’m here, and the fear of returning proves I’m not the person I was. That should earn me the right to get back in the truck, to go about my business. Let Donnie get rid of Yolanda, is the argument, even if I know it can’t work like that. It’s my job to give her the bad news.

So, knock knock room 12. I hope short and sweet is in my future: Sorry it didn’t work out, feel free to use us as a reference, we just need your keys, have a great life. That’s five minutes work if she’s reasonable, then back in the truck with the night’s work before me. I knock again. What a drag if she’s not home. I try a third time with my ear pressed to the door—nothing’s going on inside. I should have called first. It’s freezing out here, with no choice now except to catch her at the restaurant, which isn’t ideal if she wants to take it personal. Frenchy’s hired us to clean the place, not have scenes their late-night staff can watch and maybe get ideas from. I guess age thirty-five is past due to stop wishing that something goes easy. Taking the cash and running was easy, and look what it got me. Yolanda’s door gets a couple revenge kicks before I step away.

“What you want!” comes through the door, like somebody’s been waiting on the other side the whole time. It sounds like her, but I don’t know.

“It’s Steve from Donnie’s Cleaning. I need to talk to Yolanda.”

The door cracks. Yolanda is dressed for the restaurant, unless work pants and a sweatshirt are what she wears all the time. She doesn’t look happy to see me.

“Why you here?”

“Uh . . . something’s come up I didn’t want to tell you at Frenchy’s.”

She leans halfway out the door to look both ways, like maybe I brought cops with me, or something worse. It’s that kind of neighborhood. She checks it out, shakes her head before backing in. A hand waves me in. “C’mon.”

Probably The Hideaway Motel’s original business plan didn’t rely on renting month to month to the poor. Exactly when it went from respectable motel to fleabag apartments is something I wondered about when I inhabited room 8. The condition of the place, even back then, was an argument for The Hideaway abandoning travelers to our fair city long before I arrived. Maid service had definitely been discontinued. And since a ten by ten room with adjoining closet bathroom tends to fill up quickly with everyday clutter, most of my fellow residents had long since given up on cleaning. Paths from door to bed to bathroom were the norm.

“Ugh, you been huffing something in here?” It’s like walking into a paint factory. I take small breaths; already I feel kind of floaty. Then I forget the smell, because dead dogs are what I’m seeing. Pictures of dead dogs hang from the walls all around me.

“Well, you gonna shut the damn door or not?”

It eventually penetrates she’s asked twice. I close it, and even the back of the door holds a picture. A hook has been screwed in through the old room regulations. A rectangle of what looks like white cardboard hangs from the hook, and on it a dog, a black lab, has been painted. The stomach is torn out. Everything that’s supposed to be inside is spilling in colors so much brighter than seems right that I have to look away. At a narrow cot pushed against the far wall next to a bench piled up with cardboard. Not much else in the room but tubes of paint and brushes on the carpet, framed by once-painted cinderblock walls. They’re lined with poodles, pit bulls, dogs I’ve never seen, hung floor to ceiling with their insides hanging exposed in colors that should be for flowers and balloons.

“God. They’re all dead.”

Yolanda shakes her head. “Naw. They all right now. They been changing.” She runs a hand back and forth over a fluffy white poodle hanging by her bed as though petting it.

“Right. Into dead dogs.”

A sharp frown twists her. “Why you here,” she repeats, stroking Fluffy.

“Uh . . . It’s probably not you, but Frenchy’s—”

“The oil, yeah.” Yolanda flicks the non-stroking hand as though to get rid of the thought. “I knew that was trouble.”

“So you took it?”

She looks me in the eye. “Yeah, I took some.”

“Dirty fry oil. Why?”

She turns back to the poodle. “She my favorite. See her eyes?”

Something about the eyes isn’t right. I slide between the cot and the bench to get a closer look. This dog died a terrible death . . . but the eyes . . . so warm and wet, like they understand everything you ever been through. The line of the jaws is like a smile. If a dog could laugh it would look like this, except not with a stomach torn up like that.

“She died happy,” I say, but I’m not sure. I’m not sure of much right about now. I’m not sure I can get out of here alive.

“None of them dead, but yeah, you got it right. Oil makes the eyes shine.”

“They’re definitely shiny. Tell me you didn’t kill these dogs so you could paint them.”

“I tell you they not dead. They changing.”

“Into what?”

“What they want.”

“With their guts coming out?”

Yolanda pulls her sweatshirt up. I step back in case she’s going for whatever she killed these poor dogs with.

“See it?”

A ridge of pink brown scarring on her stomach shows above the belt. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say about it. “That looks serious.”

She pulls the sweatshirt down. “Exit wound. Four years this month.”

Again I don’t know what to say. A headache is coming on from the paint and I still need to deliver the bad news. Why can’t this be easy? Just please let me get out of here with the keys so I can go clean Frenchy’s.

“How’d you get shot?” If she was the usual shitty worker we get I’d ask for the keys now. Instead, I’m standing around wasting time, surrounded by dead dogs. I feel like I have to hear her out, which is weak as hell. Donnie would never do it like this. He’d already be gone with the keys.

Yolanda sits on the cot. “Wrong place. Coming out the liquor store, two fools shootin each other shoot me instead.”

“That’s a tough break.”

“Yeah. I’m thinking that in the hospital, screamin with the pain. Then after a while a change comes. I figure drinkin that beer like I been gonna put me in the wrong place rest of my life. That’s when I quit drinkin that beer. Four years this month.”

She’s looking at her favorite poodle. I see their eyes are a match, oil for tears, which is my fault for asking about stuff that should be left alone. Sure as shit I’m stuck here until she settles down to where I can fire her without ending up like these dogs. There’s nothing but the cot for sitting on. I sink down onto green carpet torn like pawed-up grass.

“You said she’s changing. What does she want?”

“Be something better. Something different.” Yolanda’s head shakes. “Not sure exactly. Just different.”

“How’s she get there?”

“She don’t know that either. I catch her in the moment after the changing. What come next is something no one can say.”

“Why dogs?”

Yolanda rubs her eyes dry. A weird little snorting comes out. It’s a long moment before I realize she laughed. “What’s funny?”

“I do cats first. Didn’t come out right.”

“Like the dogs, with their insides out?”

She laughs again. “Drowned. Wasn’t the same.”

“You didn’t drown them, did you?” That feels wrong the instant as it comes out, because I’m starting to think she wouldn’t. “I’m sorry. I take it back.”

Yolanda gets off the cot. I have to bend my head back to see she’s turned that sharpish frown on me again. “I paint them from memory,” she says, rubbing her belly.

“All right.”

She goes back to loving Fluffy. I look at the other laughing dead dogs. They’re not bad—I mean she paints them pretty good, not that I think any normal person would want one. Except for the insides coming out it’s as though they’ve just run in from a good romp and now it’s dinnertime.

“You come here to fire me?”

There it is. She’s petting the dog, her eyes are somewhere else, and all I have to answer is yes. She’s ready to give up the keys now—I know she will. Then I’m gone out of here. All I have to answer is yes.

“How come you don’t use oil from the store?”

“I show you.” She takes Fluffy off the wall to hold the cardboard in front of me. “Look at her. Stuff from the store is new. It don’t sit on the eyes right, like old burnt stuff. Frenchy’s oil been used and abused. Perfect for her.”

“I see that.” Strange as it is, I kinda do. Every dog in here has the same pain in their eyes. That will always be with them, whatever they change into. I guess eyes remember everything. I turn to the black Lab, those eyes . . . that smile. Even torn up like that, damn if he doesn’t have the happiest face you’ll ever see on anyone. I point.

“You think you could do me one like him?”

“He a she,” she says, re-hanging the poodle. “I don’t know. Paint costs, ‘specially if I’m not working.” She points that sharpish frown at me again.

“You keep talking like we’re getting rid of you. I had to ask about the oil because Frenchy’s complained. That’s no big deal as long as you don’t take any more. Donnie sent me to offer you a job as my assistant. We hired all these idiots don’t know how to do shit, so you can help train them. Pays a buck an hour more. You in?”

Yolanda smiles. “How much you pay me for the painting?”

“Depends. I don’t want one with his insides out. Could you do it where he’s all healed up from the change?”

“ Maybe. I think about it.”

“Well think about it in the truck. We got a heavy schedule tonight.”

*   *   *

 Donnie’s sitting on the hood giving me the murder stare through the windshield all the way down the freeway. He won’t go for it unless I can sell Yolanda to him like Guillermo. I figure bring her into the office in the morning. We’re a package deal, I’ll tell him, fire one, fire us both. Because people like us need to stick together. It’s like there’s a war coming on against the ones who do the grunt work in this country. Maybe I should say another war, or the latest war. We have to get our changing done so we can be ready. We have to get organized. I steal a glance at Yolanda, sitting next to me. What did it cost her to come through the changes; what’s it cost me? No more than Guillermo and his friends are paying. Yolanda’s dogs know the price. It feels right to have one for my little apartment, yet at the same time so damn strange I have to laugh.

“What’s funny?” Yolanda asks.

“It’s like I’m rich, buying a painting.”

“It’s a change,” she says.

Another change, and how much it will hurt I can’t tell. That this feels good now, in this moment, is something I haven’t had in a long time. Maybe that dog and I have come through the worst, plenty torn, but smiling to say we’re still here. It’s dark in the truck to look at my eyes in the rear-view.  First thing I have to do when we hit Frenchy’s is find a mirror.

___

Michael Andreoni’s fiction has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Euphony, Calliope, Avalon Review, Pif Magazine, and other publications. A working-class writer, his stories explore the complexities of low-income life. His story collection, The Window is a Mirror, is forthcoming from BHC Press.


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