I keep a Bible on the dashboard of my truck, so you know I'm not gonna cheat you.”
Tom wants to do repair work on my roof, so he says this to me before he gives me the estimate.
“You know, I answer to a higher authority, so I have to do right by you.”
“Good,” I say. I do see that there is a Bible on his dashboard and that he is wearing a gold cross around his neck. Seems like overkill to me, but what the heck.
“Now here's what you need.”
And he gives me a long list—shingles, nails, caulk, liner, and on and on. I had no idea there was so much stuff on a roof. And if you listen to Tom, it's a beautiful, intricate system that almost brings tears to your eyes.
“It's all interconnected,” he says. “It's like the stars and the planets. You can't have them without the sky. You know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do. So how much?”
“Well, let me tally that up.” He takes a pad and a pencil from his truck and writes some numbers down. I can see from what he's doing that he can't subtract all that well. We kind of go round on that for awhile as he tries to convince me, so I tell him let me get a calculator.
He looks a bit embarrassed when I show him his numbers are off. “Hmm,” he says. “I guess calculators don't lie.”
“Right,” I say. I want to believe he is not trying to cheat me but is just not that good at math. I could be fooling myself, but you can drive yourself crazy with trying to figure out who's lying to you and who isn't in this world.
“Okay,” I say. “You ready to go?”
“Gotta go to the hardware store and get some caulk.”
“Anything else you need?”
“Maybe some nails. I got shingles in my truck.”
“We gotta figure in gas,” he says, “because I've gotta drive there and gas is about $3.50 a gallon now.”
So we are back to the calculator, and we settle on another $5.00 as his truck only gets 9 miles to the gallon and there's the wear and tear, you know.
“Yes, I know.” I leave out that there are many kinds of wear and tear—some on the truck, some on the soul.
So he leaves and comes back, a big smile on his face. “I've got everything we need now,” he says.
I watch him set up his ladder, and I go inside. In a few minutes, he is back, knocking on the door.
“Could I get a glass of ice water?” he says.
I bring it out to him, and he says, “You know, the last time I was on a ladder, I got chest pains and couldn't breathe.”
He unbuttons his shirt, and shows me a long, narrow scar running down his chest. It's a faded tan and pink color that looks like what used to be called “Flesh” in the old Crayola boxes.
“Heart attack,” he says. “A big one.”
“I can see that.”
“Hit me hard,” he says. “I'm just 53. I don't look it though, do I?”
No, you don't, I'm thinking to myself, you look 63. But I don't say that. He's very proud of thinking he looks young. “You look great,” I tell him.
“It was terrible,” he says. “It feels like someone punched you in the chest. I was scared this was it, and of course I wanted to be right with God.”
“Yes, of course,” I say.
He has a story he wants to tell me, and he starts with the details that are most important to him. How afraid he was, how his body had never failed him before, how he didn't want to die alone.
I listen. He wants this from me. It's like a rite of passage.
He asks for another glass of iced water, drinks it down, and then starts up the ladder.
I've been inside about five minutes when he knocks again.
“It's worse than I thought,” he says. “Whoever did this roof really shortchanged you. The shingles aren't placed right, and so rain is going underneath some of them. It's a mess.”
In mathematics, there used to be certainty. Something was either true or false and could not be both. That was when there was only Euclidian geometry, and everything was simple and clear cut. Then came two other geometries, and all of a sudden there is a new option—true, or false, or possible.
I'm standing there listening to him, and I don't know what's true or false, only what's possible. And believe me, possible can drive you crazy because you just don't know what you're up against. Maybe the roof is not in such bad condition. Maybe the other roofer did not cheat me. Maybe this guy is trying to cheat me. Maybe he is not a very good roofer and so can't tell what condition my roof really is in. Maybe it's all possible. How can I know any different?
“You know I wouldn't cheat you,” he says.
“I got no reason to.”
He points to his chest. “Look, after what I've been through, I'm not going to cheat anybody. You believe me, don't you?”
“Okay, so where does that put us?” I say.
“Up to you,” he says. He takes a cigarette from a pack of Marlboros in his chest pocket and lights up. The smoke weaves its way into the blue light of late summer and looks slightly ominous.
“I say leave it and you just fix what we agreed to.”
He looks at me for a long time with an inscrutable stare. “That's what you want?” he says.
“That's what I want.”
“It'll only get worse,” he says.
“Most things do,” I say.
He takes another draw on his cigarette and sighs. “Okay,” he says. “I figure you know what you're doing.”
“All right then, let's get going,” I say.
I'm starting into the house when he says, “Hey, do you drink coffee?”
“Well, I'd like a cup then, if you don't mind. Two creams.”
Here is where all the dimensions of the universe converge. We think the earth is flat, but it isn't. A horizon is not real but does mark the limits of our vision. Clock time is an illusion. And an infinity of angels can dance on the head of a pin. There is logic and there is proof. There is the imagination and there is belief. And which is true, which is false, and which is only probable—who the heck knows? I sure don't.
“Two creams?” I say. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” he says, looking puzzled.
“I drink it that way, too,” I say.
“Huh, how about that?” he says. He seems to have found a new respect for me, or something very much like that.
“I'll get that coffee for you,” I say. “And if you find anything else wrong on the roof up there, you let me know.”
Christina Murphy lives and writes in a 100 year-old Arts and Crafts style house along the Ohio River. Her writing appears in a number of journals and anthologies, including, most recently, ABJECTIVE, A cappella Zoo, PANK, Word Riot, Boston Literary Magazine, and LITnIMAGE. Her work has received Special Mention for a Pushcart Prize and the 2011 Andre Dubus Award for Short Fiction from Words and Images.