The snowfall had diminished, almost stopped, when the doorbell rang. He thought it must be Jitterbug and his older cousin Malik, the two neighborhood kids who normally came around to clear his driveway and sidewalk after a snowstorm. However he opened the door and discovered a young woman armed with a large snow shovel.
—Clean your sidewalk?
—Two kids from the neighborhood come around and do it.
—I’m here now.
—We kind of have an unwritten contract. Isn’t it heavy work for you?
—It’s honest clean work. I like it. My name is Tasha. Can I leave you my number 'case they don’t show up?
—As in Natasha?
—No, jes Tasha. Gotta piece of paper?
He had liked her. He thought about her after she had left. He regretted not hiring her.
When it snowed again a week later, Tasha reappeared at his front door, even before the snow had stopped. This time he paid her $20 to clear the driveway and get the snow off of his car. He saved the sidewalk for his regulars.
He noticed than a young man had gotten out of a car that was parked nearby to help her. He would later learn that he was her brother.
That was the last storm of the winter, so he didn’t see Tasha for several months. However, in June he had to undergo minor surgery that incapacitated him for several weeks. Vatsala flew in from Hanalei, Hawaii and stayed eight days shopping, cleaning, and cooking for him. When she left, he found Tasha’s phone number and called to ask for help with the housework.
He had been reticent about calling her for help with housework. This reticence was due to a network of reasons involving age, gender, skin color, and economics. But Tasha was grateful for the call and the work. He worked with her doing what he could: supporting the step ladder when she dusted or vacuumed the bookshelves, helping her move the couch, desk, or chairs, fetching rags and towels.
He told her that he was retired and liked living alone. He complained about how the surgery had limited his activities.
She told him about her brother and her fourteen-year old daughter; about her life on a small farm in South Carolina, on the dangerous streets of West Philadelphia, and in the apartment she shared with her brother, his girlfriend, and her daughter in nearby Linden, New Jersey.
He was surprised that she had a fourteen year old. She looked young.
She was solicitous about his health and meticulous about her work. She would not allow him to go up and down the stairs to help her, nor to lift anything heavy. Although their agreement was $75.00 for three hours work, Tasha did not leave until she was finished and would not accept any extra money that was offered.
Even after he was strong enough to do things himself, he continued to pay her to come over and help out once or twice a week. He knew she needed the money and he enjoyed her company.
He invited her to bring her daughter, her brother, or both to his house while she worked, but she never did.
Occasionally, she would stay for lunch. He was a vegetarian and often prepared an Ethiopian lentil salad for lunch, served with rice, with lettuce and tomato on the side. Sometimes he would heat up food from an Ethiopian restaurant in nearby South Orange. He taught her how to scoop up the shiro, atkilt salata, gomen, or aterkik alicha with the injera.
She also liked his simple Spanish dishes of rice and beans or refried beans with lettuce, tomato and hot sauce on soft tortillas.
He went to Vermont in September to visit some friends and his ex-wife, and to look at a house on a street called Robinwood Lane in the woods above Montpelier. When he returned at the end of the month, he called Tasha several times without getting her or her voicemail. When at last someone answered, a male voice gruffly informed him “They ain’t no Tasha here.”
He put the house up for sale and made a down payment on the little house in the woods of Montpelier. Tasha stopped by late in November without calling first. He discouraged even close friends from doing this, but was glad to see her.
They sat in the kitchen over cups of tea and talked.
She talked about the boyfriend she never saw again after she had told him she was pregnant. He admitted it was difficult to live alone, but less difficult than living with someone--even if one loved the someone, and he mentioned Barbara and Krystyna.
He didn't mention his ex-wife or how after three years of married life she discovered she preferred women to men.
Tasha asked when he was moving. He told her he needed to sell the house first: he could not afford two mortgages. She told him she might take her daughter to South Carolina and live with her sister and her two daughters.
When she left, they said goodbye with an undertone of finality.
He was unable to sell the house and stayed in New Jersey. He was disappointed but not that disappointed: he wasn’t sure he could have endured the prolonged winters, muddy springs, and black fly assaults in Vermont. He was not sure if he wanted to live anywhere near his ex and her "wife".
There's something grotesque about gay marriages. They are even more grotesque than regular marriages.
When it snows these days, Jitterbug and Malik come by to clean his sidewalk. The two young men have found a lot of business in the area. He noticed that they now clean the sidewalks and driveways of three of his neighbors.
It’s been two years since he last saw Tasha. He still thinks of her now and then and hopes she is doing well. She deals in good faith and tries to do what’s right--whatever the hell that means.