Goodwin Lee and his brother Morehouse had bought it at auction, for nothing. Even the local housing shark had looked down at his list and frowned and pinched or maybe itched his nose, but then waved his hand to clarify: no bid. The house was a dog. However, it had a bedroom on the first floor and was located in the same town as Goodwin and Morehouse.
They were therefore fixing it up for their parents. Goodwin and Morehouse were good with fixer-uppers, after all; they were, in fact, when they were working, contractors. And their parents were Chinese, end of story, as Morehouse liked to say. Meaning that though they had been Americans for fifty years and could no longer belay themselves hand over hand up their apartment stair rail to get to their bedroom, they nonetheless could not go into assisted living because of the food. Western food every day? Cannot eat, they said.
Goodwin had brought them to a top-notch facility anyway, just to visit. He had pointed out the smooth smooth paths, so wonderful for walking. He had pointed out the wide wide doorways, so open and inviting. And the elevators! Didn’t they make you want to go up? He had pointed out the mah-jong. The karaoke. The six-handed pinochle. The senior tai qi. The lobby was full of plants, fake and alive. Always something in bloom! he said, hopefully.
But, distracted as they could be, his parents had frowned undistractedly and replied, Lamb chops! Salad! And that was that. His brother, Morehouse, of course, did not entirely comprehend their refusal to eat salad, believing as he did in raw foods. He began every day with a green shake whirled in a blender with an engine like a lawnmower’s; the drink looked like a blended lawn, perfect for cows. But never mind. Morehouse accepted, as Goodwin did not quite, that their parents were fundamentally different; their Chineseness was inalienable. Morehouse and Goodwin, on the other hand, would never be American, end of story, which was why their parents had never been at a loss for words in their prime. You are finally learn how to act! You are finally learn how to talk! You are finally learn how to think! they had said in their kinder moods. Now, though, setting their children straight had at last given way to keeping their medications straight. They also had their sodium levels to think of. One might not think the maintenance of a low-salt diet could be a contribution to inter-generational peace, but, in truth, Goodwin found it made his parents easier to love – more like the diffuse-focus old people of fairy tales, and less like people who had above all held steadfast against the irresponsible fanning of their children’s self-regard.
The house, however, was a challenge. See these walls? Morehouse had said. And he was right. They were like the walls of a refrigerator box that had been left out in the rain. The bathroom was veined a deep penicillin green; its formerly mauve ceiling was purpurating. Which was why Goodwin was out scouting for dumpsters. Because this was what the recession meant in their neck of the woods: old people moving into purpurating ranch homes unless their unemployed children could do something about it. He did not, of course, like the idea of illicit trash disposal; he would have preferred to do this, as all things, in an above-board manner. But Morehouse had pushed up his sun visor, flashing a Taoist ba gua tattoo, and then held this position as if in a yoga class.
Tell me, he said patiently. Tell me – what choice do we have? Tell me.
The gist of his patience being: Sure it was illegal to use other people’s dumpsters, but it was going to save him and Goodwin eight hundred dollars! Eight hundred dollars they didn’t have between them, four hundred they didn’t have each. It was about dignity for their parents, said Morehouse. It was about doing what they were able to do. It was about doing what sons were bound to do, which was not to pussyfoot around. Morehouse said he would do the actual dumping. Goodwin just had to figure out where other people were having work done, and whether their dumpsters were night-time accessible. As for why Goodwin should do the scouting, that was because Morehouse was good with a sledgehammer and could get the demo started. Goodwin was dangerous with a sledgehammer, especially to himself.
Now he scouted carefully, in his old Corolla wagon, eating Oreos. One dumpster was maybe too close, he thought. Might not its change of fill level be linked with their dumpsterless job right around the corner? Another possibility was farther away. That was a small dumpster, though – too small for the job, really. Someone was being cheap. Also, it was close to a number of houses. People might wake up and hear them.
The third dumpster was a little farther away yet. No houses nearby; that was because it was for the repurposing of a bowling-alley. Who knew what the alley was being repurposed for, but an enormous bowling-pin-shaped sign lay on the ground, leaning horizontally against the cinder-block building. It looked as if the pin had been knocked down for eternity and would never be reset. The dumpster in front of it, in contrast, was fresh and empty, apparently brand new. Bright mailbox-blue, it looked so much more like the Platonic ideal of a dumpster than the real-world item itself that Goodwin found it strangely heartening. Not that he would ever have said so to Morehouse, of course. And, in fact, its pristine state posed a kind of problem, as dumping things into an empty dumpster made noise; the truly ideal dumpster was at least one-quarter full. Goodwin had faith, though, that this one would soon attain that condition. The bowling alley was closed; a construction company had put its sign up by the street. There would be trash. It was true that there were street lights nearby, one of them in working order. That meant Goodwin and Morehouse would not have the cover of darkness. On the other hand, they themselves would be able to see. That was a plus.
At the house, Goodwin found Morehouse out back, receiving black plastic bags full of debris from some workers. The workers lifted them up to him like offerings; he heaved them, in turn, into a truck. Of course, the workers were illegal, as Goodwin well knew. He knew too that Morehouse knew Goodwin to be against the use of illegals, and that Morehouse knew Goodwin knew Morehouse knew that. There was probably no point in even taking him aside. Still, Goodwin took him aside.
Did you really expect me to demo this place all by my friggin’ self? asked Morehouse. Anyway, they need the work.
The workers were Guatemalan – open-miened men who nonetheless looked at each other before they said or did anything. Their names were Jose and Ovidio. They shared a water bottle. As Morehouse did not speak Spanish, and the Guatemalans did not speak English, they called him Señor Morehouse and saved their swearing for each other. Goodwin remembered enough from his Vista teaching days to pick up ¡serote! and ¡hijo de la gran puta! and ¡que vaina! Still the demo was apparently going fine. Goodwin watched as they delivered another half-dozen bags of debris to Morehouse.
And that’s not even the end of the asbestos, said Morehouse.
Asbestos? cried Goodwin.
You can’t be surprised there’s asbestos, said Morehouse.
And indeed, Goodwin was not surprised, when he thought about it. How, though, could Morehouse have asked Jose and Ovidio to remove it? Their lungs! Goodwin objected.
They want to do it, Morehouse shrugged. We paid them extra. They’ve got it half in the bags already.
But it’s illegal!
We have no choice, said Morehouse. And: They have a choice. They don’t have to say yes. They can say no.
Are you saying that they are better off than we are? That they have choices where we have none? That is a gross distortion of the situation! argued Goodwin.
Morehouse looked at his watch: time for his seitan burger.
Dumping asbestos is like putting melamine in milk, Goodwin went on. It’s like rinsing off IV needles and selling them back to hospitals. It bespeaks the sort of total disregard for public safety that makes one thankful for lawsuits, as Jeannie used to say.
Jeannie was Goodwin’s prosecutor ex-wife – a woman of such standards that she’d been through some two or three marriages since theirs. Morehouse smirked with extra zest at the sound of her name.
You seem to think we have no choice, but we absolutely do have a choice, declared Goodwin then. We could, for example, take Mom and Dad in to live with one of us.
For this was the hot truth; it seared him to say it.
Morehouse, though, gave him the look of a man whose wife brought home the bacon now. It was the look of a man who knew what would fly in his house, end of story. He lowered his dust mask.
Did you or did you not find a friggin’ dumpster? he asked. His mask was not clean, but neither was it caked with dust, like the masks of Jose and Ovidio. What you could see of their faces looked dull and crackled, like ancient earthworks that had started off as mud.
In the end, Goodwin looked the other way as more bags were filled. And though Morehouse had promised to do the dumping, it was Goodwin, finally, who drove the bags to the mailbox-blue dumpster. At least there was, as he predicted, some trash in it now. He did not make much noise as he threw his bags in deep, where they were less likely to be seen by the bowling-alley crew in the morning. The bags were heavy and shifted as if with some low-valence life force. Still, he hurled them as best he could, glad for the working street light but a little paranoid that someone would drive by and see him. No one did. He did think he saw, though, a bit of white smoke rise from the dumpster as he drove away. That was not really possible. The asbestos was in bags, after all; the bags were tied up. He was probably seeing some distortion in the lamplight. And didn’t other things send up dust besides asbestos? Sheetrock, for example. Sheetrock sent up dust. Still, he thought he saw asbestos rising up on that dump, and on another dump he made before switching to yet another dumpster he had found, behind a Masonic temple. He didn’t think there was asbestos in any of the new bags of trash, but who knew? He didn’t ask, and Morehouse didn’t say.