I was on this ladder. I don’t even want to tell this story.
I was on this ladder and I had a big glass globe balanced on my shoulder. Rae had ordered the big glass globe from the internet. A two foot diameter pendant light. Once the wires were connected the whole assembly hung from two little brass screws, both of which were pinched between my front teeth. I’d already shut off the electric to the entire apartment at the fuse box. I’d already cut the old light down. Now with one hand I connected the white wire to the white wire on the big glass globe, and then the green wire to the ground—it was tricky work but I’d gotten the first two wires connected—which felt like a miracle. Since I’d already gotten two miracles, I was confident a third was possible. I reached over for the last wire, the black wire, and as I was doing so, Rae walked into the room and said, Can I help with anything?
I opened my mouth to talk and one screw clattered to the floor and the other one rolled back in my mouth and as I gagged, I swallowed it. Fuck, I said.
Did you just eat a screw?
No, I said. I began to laugh. Yes, I said.
Rae found the other screw on the floor and picked it up. Do you want me to climb up on the ladder with you and hold the globe?
It’s heavy and its awkward, so that’d be nice, but I don’t think we can both fit … And besides I almost got it.
I stretched for the wire and got zapped with electricity and the shock made me let go of the big glass globe and it swung down on the two connected wires, and the wire nuts held, and the globe swung to me, and as I dodged it, it swung away from me, and I hobbled down the ladder, shaking my arm, wild.
Oh my god.
It’s fine. It’s fine. I’m fine, I said.
You were just electrocuted!
Yeah, I was just electrocuted. It happens. It happens a lot. People get electrocuted every day. Some people get electrocuted multiple times a day.
Rae said, You’re sweating like crazy.
I was before the electricity.
Did it hurt?
No, it felt great.
Bet it did.
I walked over to the fuse panel and double checked. Yeah the electric was off at the breaker. Off at all the breakers. So it wasn’t my fault. That at least felt like a victory.
We lived in an apartment building that was constructed in 1919. Sometimes strange things happen with the plumbing and the power and the floors and the ceilings and the walls and the windows and other things. I said to Rae, I was afraid of this.
I think the wires are coming down from the apartment upstairs. They’re all mixed up.
Upstairs there was a constant rumble of footsteps. And now was no different. The footsteps passed overhead, growing louder and then fainter and then a few seconds later, growing louder again. I said to Rae, Want to come up with me and talk to this guy?
Course I do, maybe we can get inside and snoop.
We’d never met the new upstairs neighbor. Knew nothing about them, really. I’d had some business dealings with the old upstairs neighbor, but they’d moved away. We knew a lot of faces from the building, all of which we’d seen in passing, but who was our exact upstairs neighbor now, wow, that was a mystery as strange as what God looked like.
So we left the apartment, taking the stairs because the elevator was broken. A man in coveralls and a painter’s cap was painting in the stairwell, changing the steps from pink to grey, but they were just painting half the step now and later on they’d paint the other half of the step. You just stay to the right, he said.
Everything on this earth was a convoluted work in progress.
We left the stairwell. The carpet on the second floor had been ripped up and had yet to be replaced.
The woman answered the door after just a few knocks. She had on a teal and black buffalo check robe. I couldn’t tell if she was 30 or 50. Her hair was wild like she’s been zapped too; she looked sick.
I thought you were the post man.
No, I’m your downstairs neighbor and this is your downstairs neighbor, too.
Rae said, Hello.
The woman coughed like crazy. Hello, she said through the coughs. I’d invite you in but, eh …
It’s cool, I said. So here’s the hitch. I was doing some electric downstairs and I ran into a problem.
Rae said, By problem he means he got electrocuted.
The sick woman smiled and looked from Rae to me to Rae to me.
Would you mind shutting off your electric for a little bit? Half hour, tops.
She said, Is this a joke?
I shook my head. This is serious business. The fate of a big glass globe hangs in the balance.
Shut off my electric?
Yeah, it’s a whole thing. Old building. Some of my electric is running off yours. Has been since the 70s it seems. That big renovation. Wires everywhere.
This caused her some alarm. She stood up straight, How much of your electric is running off mine?
I used to give George $5 a month.
The guy who lived here before you, I explained. I gave him five bucks a month because close as we could figure it, my closet light and the outlet I use for the toaster are on your circuit. The breaker would pop here and there. How long have you lived here?
Okay, so then I owe you twelve times two, times five, whatever that is.
Hundred and twenty bucks, Rae said.
The woman looked so confused. She coughed again, and then continued to look confused. She said, I don’t get it.
I said, Yeah, the world is a mess and so is this building. I’m trying to install a light but I just figured out that it’s on your circuit. Can you please shut it off?
I don’t know how to do that.
I’m not a licensed electrician, either, I said, but even I know how to shut stuff off on a fuse box. Flip of a switch.
Rae said, Bud, don’t be an asshole.
The woman led us into her apartment and it was a real mess. King Kong was on the television, raising all kinds of hell on Skull Island. She was sick alright, there was evidence of that all over the place. Tissue boxes. Tea cups. Six cans of chicken soup on the counter. The kitchen was nearly identical to ours.
I opened the fuse box.
I pointed at the panel and laughed, Ha, look at this. Look what George did.
The girls were not impressed. George had labeled all his circuits in the box with masking tape: Kitchen/Bud, Dining room, Closet, Dishwasher/Bud, Bed room, Bathroom, TV.
See that, I’m on two of the circuits. Maybe three.
Yeah, my sick neighbor said, I’m getting it now. One hundred and twenty dollars you said.
One hundred twenty dollars, yes. Exactly.
I reached over and flipped off all the circuits in her apartment. The noise of King Kong stopped. The lights went dark. I walked to the window and opened the venetian blinds. It was not much help because the sun was blocked by the convalescent home across the street.
Half hour, I said.
Before we left the apartment, the sick woman said, Oh—so if we are adding a light to the list, I guess it’s more than five dollars a month?
I said, The light is hardly ever on.
Is it an incandescent bulb or LED?
Rae said, It’s LED. But it used to be incandescent.
The sick woman said, Yeah those draw a lot more juice. Do you think $2 a month back pay is fair and then going forward we can do $1?
Rae said, That sounds fair.
I said, More like $1 back pay and going forward fifty cents.
The woman said, My lights are off right now. My TV is off. I’m not happy. I’m sick.
Rae did the math real quick. $144, she said.
I said, One dollar extra a month for the light. Congrats. When I come back up, I’ll bring you a check.
Cash, please, the sick woman said.
Me and Rae went back downstairs. We were arguing about the money and we’d forgotten about the steps being freshly painted, so we didn’t even notice that we were walking in the wet paint until we got out of the stairwell and we were tracking the wet paint down the marble hallway. We took our shoes off before we got in our apartment though and Rae went out into the foyer and washed away the grey footprints that led right to our door. These edited footprints ended in the center of the foyer, fifty feet from the front door, as if the culprits had vanished into thin air.
I got back up on the ladder. I grabbed the big glass globe and balanced it on my shoulder again.
Rae came in with the bucket and the mop.
She said, Be careful.
I reached up and managed to connect the last electrical wire. Then with the help of a final miracle, I got one of the tiny brass screws into the keeper that mounted the light to the ceiling, so the pendant hung down on its own cord. Crooked. The other screw was unavailable at the moment.
Rae said, It looks really good.
I got down off the ladder, nodding up at the beast I’d conquered. I said, It does look really good.
I gave Rae a kiss. I said, Good job you picked out a good thing. Our home is looking really good.
But the longer we looked at the light, the more we were bothered by a black speck that was resting in the bottom of the globe.
I said, I just have to unscrew it and I’ll wipe that out and it’ll all be done.
Please leave it, Rae said.
I got back up on the ladder. I grabbed the globe. Rae said, Don’t.
I spun the globe counter clockwise. I removed the glass. I cleaned the speck out. I screwed in the glass again. It was kind of tricky. But I got it. No big deal. It was fine. I climbed back down off the ladder.
I moved the ladder. The glass globe slipped out of its keeper and exploded on the hardwood floor, shards scattering everywhere, under the liquor cabinet, and the bookcase, on the red rug and under the red rug, and under the chair, and some of the glass flying into the dining room and down the hallway. I quietly nodded, resigned to the fate of stepping on that glass for the rest of my life.
We just stood there, looking at the mess. Slowly we came to the realization that the problem, like all true problems was not reversible just by staring. Rae pointed at the giant box the light had come in. Good thing we saved that stupid thing.
We cracked up. Yeah good thing, I said.
I went into the kitchen and got the broom. I swept it all up, though it would solve nothing. But Rae stopped me by saying, Leave the glass in the dust bin. Leave it right there.
Then I looked up at the bare lightbulb hanging in the bottom of the pendant light. Haha, it was an incandescent.
The power was still off.
I took my time. I went for a walk, hit the ATM machine at the Uzbek deli. I got a lot of cash out. I bought two sandwiches, a bottle of gin, three bottles of San Pellegrino, blood orange flavored. On the way back, there were people in the cemetery next to the church, they looked like they were having a swell time. Then I realized they were practicing for one of the plays they do. These people were doing Shakespeare in street clothes. Someone holding a cantaloupe as a prop, Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him … I stopped and stared. The man messed up his lines and started over, Poor Poor Yorick! I knew him! I walked down the block, back into the apartment building. I took the stairs. The painter was getting ready to paint the other side of the steps now. He didn’t say anything to me. I knocked on the sick woman’s door. I gave her the money. I said, Here, drink this. Vitamin C. Hope you feel better.
She took the San Pellegrino. She counted the money, quickly, emotionless. Thank you, she said. See you next month.
See you next month, I said.
Or slide the cash under the door.
She sniffled. I didn’t leave. She tried to unscrew the cap off the bottle but the bottle came from Europe and it wouldn’t unscrew. It was fun watching her. She had this look of pain on her face. I hate to be this way but I’m averse to anybody who sends me a bill. I opened my mouth again and she shut the door.
Back down in my own apartment, Rae was already on the telephone. She was talking to customer service, at whatever the place was on the internet who had sold her the big glass globe.
She said, Yeah, you’ll have to send another globe, the first one you sent here was defective.
There was a pause. A sales representative speaking.
Defective, she said into the phone.
What do I mean by defective? she said. I mean, it didn’t work. Send another one.
No we didn’t drop it. It was actually defective. Yeah, you got it, yup, yup.
Then I guess we are the first people to have ever received a defective globe from you. Uh huh.
What’d you say—can we mail the old one back? Of course we can, email the return label.
Sure. No problem. I’ll put the old one back in the box that it came in.
Rae said, Yup. Just one glass globe. The rest of it is fine. Oh, and one those brass screws. My husband swallowed the other one. Charge us for it.
I heard footsteps up there. I looked up at the ceiling.
My new boss.
My new boss must have flipped the breaker then. Because over my head, a light appeared. That bare light bulb began to glow. The wire filaments heating up. I folded the ladder up, and hid it beside the bookcase. Rae opened the cardboard box and dumped in all the broken glass from the dust bin. A brief waterfall of broken glass. Whooosh, it went.
What a lovely lovely day.
Bud Smith reports from Jersey City, NJ. Twitter: @bud_smith www.budsmithwrites.com. He wrote F250, Calm Face, and Dustbunny City, among others. He works heavy construction, and lives in Jersey City, NJ.