Tony and I sat in the cab of his pickup eating Egg McMuffins and slouching toward Pasadena. We were on our way to television star Della Bryce’s house, a beautiful 1930s era mansion that she shared with husband and fellow TV star, Jerry McKinney.
“It’s a big job, but I think we can get it done in a week,” Tony said.
“What all do we have to do?”
“Pull a lot of wire. A lot. That old cotton insulated stuff just rots inside the conduit.”
I nodded like I knew what the hell he was talking about and sipped my Coke.
The house sat on a small hill. A long, landscaped driveway wound upward from the main road. Tony pulled behind the house and backed his truck next to the garage. He knocked on the kitchen door, and a black woman dressed like The Brady Bunch’s Alice answered. “May I help you?” she asked.
“We’re the electricians,” Tony said. She let us in, and then she pulled Tony aside. I leaned against the counter. The kitchen was bigger than Jody’s and my apartment. A giant island rested in the center of the kitchen, and on the island sat a brown paper grocery bag. While Tony and Alice talked, Della Bryce entered. She didn’t look like a TV star, but rather like one of my childhood friends’ mothers. She opened the enormous fridge, grabbed a six pack of Diet Coke, and stuck it in the grocery bag.
“Off to work?” I said.
“Yeah,” Della said.
“Another day another dollar.”
“That’s right. If y’all need anything you just ask Evelyn, okay?”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. “Have a good day.”
“Thank you. Y’all be good,” Della Bryce said, and she picked up the grocery bag and left.
“Come on James, let’s get to work,” Tony said. I followed him out to the truck. He strapped on his tool belt and rummaged through his toolboxes. “You’re not in trouble, but we’ve been asked not to speak to Ms. Bryce or Mr. McKinney.”
“She didn’t seem to mind,” I said.
“We’re servants. We’re supposed to be invisible. Come on, we’ll start in the study.”
We walked through the kitchen, then through the dining room. An oil painting of Della Bryce towered over the long, shining table. We made our way down a short hallway and turned left through the last door. The study’s walls were covered with dark wood paneling, heavy bookcases, and animal heads. Tony switched on the overhead light and handed me a walkie talkie. “I’m going to the fuse box. When this light goes off, tell me. Copy?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Don’t say okay, say copy.”
A leopard hide curled over the back of a green leather couch as if it were a tree limb. An autographed head shot of Della Bryce rested on the end table: To Jerry. All my love, Della. A bearskin rug lay in front of the couch. The overhead light flickered, then went dark. “Light’s out,” I said into the walkie talkie.
“Copy,” said Tony. “Heading back.”
A wing chair sat facing the green couch. A leather bound book and an ashtray were arranged just so on the table next to the chair. I heard Tony’s heavy boots clunking down the hall. We removed all of the light fixtures and power outlets, then we went outside. Tony paced around the perimeter of the big house until he found a small door. He opened it, squatted down, and shone his flashlight into the opening. “That’s tight. You’re going to have to go,” he said.
I squatted next to him and followed the path of the flashlight beam. There was just enough room under the house for me to lie on my back and scoot around by pushing with my feet. “What do you want me to do?”
“Pull that old wire out of the conduit.”
“What if there are snakes?”
“There aren’t any snakes, James.”
“You don’t know that.”
“It will be fine,” Tony said. He handed me pliers and a screwdriver. “Make sure your radio is on,” he said.
Tony directed me with his walkie talkie and I wriggled deeper beneath the house, like I was crawling into my own grave. When I finally made it to the right spot only a few inches separated my face from the floor joists. “Some kind of fuzzy shit keeps falling in my face,” I said.
“That’s asbestos insulation. Try not to disturb it, and try not to breathe it. Over.”
“That’s pretty fucking hard to do, Tony,” I said.
“Don’t forget to say ‘over,'” Tony squawked.
For the rest of the morning I tried not to breathe while I yanked on wire whose cotton insulation had grafted to the rusty pipes through which they ran. Sometimes I was lucky to make a few inches of progress over twenty minutes, rocks digging into my back and insulation scratching at my eyes. When the conduit was empty I shimmied back to the little door and lay in the grass and the sunlight.
“Big job,” I heard Tony say. “Let’s go get some lunch.”
After lunch we went back to the study to drop off some supplies. I took a quick leak in the bathroom off of the study, and then we walked through the rest of the house while Tony took notes. Photos and paintings of Della Bryce stared at us from every room. On her dressing table she kept an autographed head shot of Jerry McKinney: To my darling Della. Always, Jerry.
Evelyn the maid pulled Tony aside again. While they whispered I admired Della’s dollhouse, which stood chest eye and faithfully reproduced Scarlett O’Hara’s family home.
Evelyn left, and Tony said, “You’re not in trouble, but if we need to used the facilities we need to go to the servants’ quarters.”
“What? Are you joking?”
“It’s no big deal,” Tony said.
“Look, if I have to piss I’m going to piss.”
“Those are the house rules, James.”
“Well, fuck the house rules. I’m not a fucking servant. I’m supposed to avoid eye contact, eat their fucking asbestos, and then run to the slave quarters to pee?”
“It’s Zen to serve, James.”
“Then I guess I’m not very Zen, because they can kiss my ass. Copy that?”
I finished the job, but Tony never asked me to help him with another one. Losing the movie work was disappointing, but that seemed like an even trade for avoiding mesothelioma and retaining some semblance of dignity.