Cheap

A short story.
Cheap
Photograph by Adam Voorhes. Lettering by Joe Zeff.

I’d called Ben López about dumping my old water heater for a new one. Since he couldn’t do it, and his uncle Manny Aceves didn’t have time either, Ben gave me the number for Luke’s Construction. I don’t know why it was surprising to me that Ben was buddies with a big white guy like Luke, but that was based only on my dating Ben’s sister, the activist Chicana, years earlier. Ben did air-conditioning, sold weed, and did a little plumbing on the side. He was right about Luke—he offered to do the job for what could only be called better than fair. He had to resheet the rotted floor, replace old valves, some copper tubing and fittings, and make three back-and-forths to Home Depot. He cussed to himself a couple of times—I heard that—but not much else. He got that new tank in right, dragged away the old one, and left the water heater closet in better shape than it’d been in since long before I owned the house. And he didn’t ask for a dime extra. I considered offering more or tipping him. I didn’t. It helped that I led him to believe I might want him for more work. A few days later, he brought me formal, printed-out contract bids on a new deck, on painting the outside of my house, and on installing the new toilets and sinks I was thinking about. Truth was I only wanted to know what he would charge so I could compare that to what some Mexicanos would charge me.

Over a year later, I wanted more. I still taught guitar. My students kept getting more talented, though, more mature, as my musical career rose. I’d won an obscure award, I had CDs that very few listened to, let alone bought. Good news was, I no longer supported a poet girlfriend who didn’t have a job, smoked dope and watched TV until three a.m., and insisted on every meal out because she didn’t like my cooking. So I had more money. The bad news was that I was starting to go blind. I could drive, but I couldn’t see up close. As in read. I couldn’t paint the interior walls of my house. It wouldn’t seem like that should have anything to do with sight.

I called two Mexicans who left business cards at my door (I could use a magnifying glass), but both numbers were out of service. I called friends to see if anyone knew anyone, and I searched the Internet. All I got were expensive estimates. I decided to check with Luke’s Construction and didn’t remember why not first.

I saw you in the paper,” Luke said, excited. “I didn’t even know you were a musician.”

You read that article.”

That’s the one.”

I was never good about talking celebrity with anyone, even my far-from-it version. But Luke was nothing but impressed.

Most everybody here in Austin plays guitar. You play a twelve-string, right?”

No.”

But don’t you play Spanish?”

It’s a common misunderstanding.”

I thought it said that you learned from a Spanish gentleman.”

Okay, yes, the newspaper said the music descended from Andrés Segovia.”

There!”

He’s just a famous name they pull out, everyone always says—”

And that night you were playing some new Spanish music.”

Not exactly new. It’s cool you read the article.” The newspaper story wove in a couple of the usual clichés but wrote it better than he read it. “I did pieces by Isaac Albéniz and Heitor Villa-Lobos, who isn’t—”

Spanish guitar music!” he said, cutting me off fast like it was a game show.

I’d learned it was easier to surrender rather than explain even a little—say, by mentioning not just Bach but John Williams. Why, and why go on? “Anyway, not a twelve-string,” I told him.

I would’ve swore,” he said. “I thought for sure it was special twelve-string music.”

He wanted to go on. I didn’t. “Let me show you the rooms,” I said.

Not really old, maybe in his mid-forties at most, his legs moved stiffly, and the boots that propped them up clacked loud against the wood floor of the hallway. In my bedroom he measured the floors roughly, then he taped the hall and my office studio and the other bedroom as we talked about the colors and trim. He tossed out a number for the work that was very low. I grabbed it, and we set it for the next week.

I got a couple men that can knock this out fast,” he said. “They won’t bother you none either.”

So that’s with the paint too?” I asked, not believing this really low bid was possible.

Yes, sir. Take ’em a day.”

That’s fabulous.”

You won’t mind they’re Mexican?”

His idea of Mexican ran as deep as his idea about music.“You’re asking a Mexican if he minds if you hire Mexicans?”

Just making sure. There’s members of my church who do. They think they’re making things worse in this country.”

I was born and raised in El Paso. My grandfather was from Juárez, my grandmother from Parral. My father was a pachuco back in the day, and my mother had barely stopped using a tortilla as her only eating utensil. I was the only one in the family of two brothers and two sisters and ten thousand cousins who journeyed away. The rest were within a ten-mile radius. Worse, I never took strangers, conversationally or otherwise, back there for a visit. Not even myself, for that matter.

Sounds like that church needs some church lessons,” I said.

It saved me,” Luke said, not noticing any criticism. “Been hard days, especially this last year. It’s when I started going again.”

Bad out there for working people.”

Least I’m feeling a little better now, and it’s because of the church. My wife up and left me and my daughter.” He spoke to me like we were good friends, like I already knew these details of his life, if vaguely. He was

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