Dawn edged toward an uneven horizon of rooftops above groggy drivers speeding down Front Street who tapped their breaks at traffic signals and then punched the gas to flee the drug-infested junkie haven justifiably known as The Badlands. Cruising with the traffic, Manny caught sight of a car closing in on him from out of the corner of his eye. He lifted himself on the left pedal of his bike, flexed his right leg and slammed the bottom of his work boot into the side of a late model BMW leaving a size nine-and-a-half imprint of white plaster dust on the door. The startled driver’s cellphone flipped into the air as he grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and jammed his foot on the gas.
The traffic light at the next corner turned red. Manny pedaled furiously with the one-way traffic until he reached the line of stopped cars—five, four, three, two—the squeal of squeaky hand breaks slowed the bike just enough for him to lean down and see his reflection in the driver’s mirrored sunglasses. He flashed a smile, and through clinched teeth seethed, “Fuck you!” and pedaled away, cutting through a narrow alley on the next block before the light turned green.
Just another workday commute on the iron horse—a once wheelless, dented, sparsely painted Orbea that Manny found in a vacant lot. The cycle’s Spanish name pleaded for him to take her home, to care for her. He polished her sleek frame with tenderness, filed her jagged gears smooth, lubed every one of her mechanical parts, sprayed her with expensive paint, and then rode her from job to job throughout the city. He pampered her, for she treated him better than those who should have loved him, those who should have rescued him from abusive foster parents and indifferent social workers. Every day the Orbea delivered Manny to his sanctuary—labor.
The city woke like a drunk. Commuter trains rumbled above on the Ben Franklin Bridge, truck and bus engines coughed exhaust, fists pounded steering wheels keeping beat for car horns, cursing at falsetto pitch—rush hour symphony. Giant exhaust fans forced the aroma of warm yeast and dough from a bakery into the sweet scent of mash and hops that saturated the block-long brewery on Girard Avenue—urban perfume.
Manny’s backpack bulged with tools, its threads straining to keep his livelihood from spilling onto the asphalt. A sledgehammer handle stuck two-and-a-half feet out of the top flap. He steered left onto Church Street, slowed at a house with boarded windows, and coasted to the curb. An elderly woman a few doors down turned from the tulips in her window box toward the squeak of brake pads on metal. She lowered her head to see over her bifocals, adjusted her housedress.
“Lovely day,” she said.
“Buenos dias,” said Manny, shrugging his shoulders and feigning a confused expression. He shaped a smile, a business gesture, small gratuity to keep neighbors from calling city inspectors who’d come snooping around the property for permits at rehabbed houses, break balls, leverage their position to extort a few bucks.
General contractors and developers hired Manny for demolitions because he was fast, conscientious, and cheap. He’d gut houses, demolishing everything into tiny pieces to maximize space inside of dumpsters. "No air!" he’d say, meaning to fill every square inch of the bin, which saved his employer hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. He’d play head games, like count how many seconds he handled material before throwing it into the dumpster, or the number of blows with the sledge it took to tear down a wall. If he exceeded his estimate he’d drop to the floor, rip off twenty pushups Marine Corps style—a habit ingrained in him at Parris Island, and sealed with the blood of his best friend who sacrificed himself by jumping on an IED in Afghanistan to save the lives of his platoon brothers.
Manny sized up the house in front of him—two-story row, two windows per floor, making scrap removal a piece of cake. He shouldered open the front door, walked to the middle of the living room, let his backpack slide from his shoulders, and pulled out the sledge. Twenty-pounds of hardened steel cradled in his palm like an infant’s delicate skull. He raised it above his head, rotated it round and round, and then unleashed its fury against the wall. Plaster flew in every direction. A large section of ceiling loosened from the impact and crashed to the wooden floor. Manny opened his hands, tightened his grip, and continued wailing until the wall was a timbered skeleton.
Bare-knuckled demolition was his therapy to ease aggression. Labor was natural and more effective than the drugs the VA doctors prescribed. Manny’s friends sought crack and alcohol to escape the ravages of blight and violence; he found solace in destroying things with brute strength. It settled him. He looked at a gutted house the way an artist would a blank canvas. Where most people saw a barren shell of brick and mortar, Manny envisioned a home for the living.
~ ~ ~
“Who do you work for?”
Manny turned around, annoyed at the interruption. A guy who looked to be in his mid-thirties dressed in a sweat-stained gray tee-shirt, dirty jeans, and brown leather shoes, stood a few feet inside the doorway. The laptop in his hand didn’t fit someone who looked like he spent the morning cleaning out the basement of an abandoned building.
“I work for me,” said Manny.
The guy looked around. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
“I am the crew,” Manny said impatiently.
The guy smiled and disappeared downstairs. Manny went back to work, and after a few minutes he heard footsteps coming back up the steps. “You’re pretty fast.”
Manny stood, peeled off his gloves, opened and closed his hands a few times like a boxer. His short sleeves stretched over bulging biceps. He looked the guy in the eye, and said, “Time is money.”
“So I won’t take up much of yours,” the guy replied. “I just fired the crew next door. Come work for me and I’ll give you one hundred-fifty bucks a day.”
Manny looked at him suspiciously. “Why me?”
“Why not you?”
Manny’s expression resembled a chess player contemplating his next move. “I work by the job, not the day, not the hour.”
“How’s that work when you’re part of a construction crew?”
“They’ll have to keep up.”
The guy seemed to appreciate Manny’s cockiness. “Your pay will be between me and you.”
Manny waited a few seconds, and then in an even, deliberate tone said, “Deal.”
“When can you start?”
“I’ll be done here tomorrow. How about Monday?”
The guy massaged his face in concentration. He pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket, scribbled an address and handed it to Manny. “Instead of going next door, meet me at 326 Quarry Street on Monday. Seven-thirty.” He was about to leave, but stopped. “What’s your name?”
Manny watched him closely, then smiled. “Manny. How about you?”
“Jim,” he said. “I’ll see you Monday, Manny.” He turned and walked toward the door.
“See you Monday, boss.”
Jim hesitated, but didn’t turn around, and then continued out to his car.
~ ~ ~
Seven o’clock Monday morning Manny pedaled up to a dumpster sitting outside a neglected house on Quarry Street. He walked up and tried the front door. It was locked. A piece of paper nailed into the wood read:
Gut the house. I’ll be around later.
Manny grabbed the doorknob, lowered his shoulder and thrust his weight into the door. It didn’t budge. Under his feet was a rubber doormat that looked as if it had been glued to the wood floorboards. He stooped and put his finger under a corner that had been pried and found a key. He put on his backpack, opened the door and walked across the first floor and up the stairs. The room at the end of a short hallway couldn’t have been fifteen feet square, and at five-feet-nine he pressed his palms against the ceiling. He walked back out and ducked his head into a tiny bathroom furnished with a small cast iron tub with clawed feet, pedestal sink, and toilet. Where the wall joined the ceiling he could tell the room had been added; that the second floor had originally been one large room.
He put his backpack on the floor and walked down the stairs to a single room on the first floor. Condensation streaked the masonry walls. Wide plank floorboards creaked as he crossed the room and descended a narrow, winding staircase to a dark lower level with the stench of age and mold. His eyes adjusted to the outline of a stove, cabinets, table and chairs. A small boiler and water heater sat in the corner.
Manny walked back up to the second floor. He pulled the sledgehammer from his backpack, took a power hitter’s stance, and swung for the fences, shattering a heavy wooden bureau. A thick piece of lumber shot up and tore through the plaster ceiling that had been softened by a leaky roof. Manny looked up and laughed when he saw the blue sky. A two-foot chunk of plaster fell and hit him in the head. He rubbed his fingers against his scalp and held out his hand. “Ha! Can’t draw blood from a rock!”
The gutted second floor appeared larger with only the bed remaining in the middle of the room. He pulled off the mattress and propped it against the wall. Manny had found medieval weaponry rehabbing houses in drug-infested neighborhoods, as well as pictures of naked men wearing superhero masks, women having sex with animals, a shopping cart full of ceramic penises in every state of erection, but he’d never seen anything like the intricately designed wooden box that lay on the box spring. He admired its carved cherry wood, a sculpted crucifix intertwined with leafy vines, birds, an equine galloping across the bottom. He didn’t see it as a box, but a work of art, a woodworker's masterpiece—once a sculpture's blank canvas, no different than a gutted house was to him. Manny placed the box in his backpack, finished tearing apart the bed, and then walked downstairs just as Jim walked in the door. “How’s it look up there?” Jim asked.
“Don’t bullshit me, Manny.”
Manny flexed his arms like the muscleman who kicks sand in the wimpy-looking guy’s face on the beach in comic book advertisements.
“This place is small.”
“Trinity House,” said Jim.
“This is what they call a Trinity House—three one-room floors—the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” He gave Manny a sarcastic look. “I thought your people were religious.”
“My people?” said Manny pretending to take offense, and then added, “I got booted out of Catholic school in sixth grade.”
“I made it to junior year in high school,” said Jim.
Manny couldn’t restrain from smiling. “I got another chance in high school. I had a cool guidance counselor named Father Brand who smoked Camels and would beat the shit out of kids who gave him a hard time. For some reason he liked me and got me into vo-tech for carpentry.”
“You were lucky,” said Jim. “I went to work when I was seventeen laboring for bricklayers. They taught me how to do masonry work and I started my own business when I was twenty-one. I always seemed to be at the right place at the right time; made a few investments that paid off. Life’s all timing, Manny.” Jim paused, and then asked, “You do anything besides demo?”
“I got a carpentry certificate in vo-tech, and picked up other trades from guys on the job. I drywall, paint, do some masonry work.”
Jim rubbed his chin. “How about I give you a try with the structural work?”
“Sounds good,” said Manny, thinking he would finally get a chance to work a property from demo to completion. “Can you get the lumber delivered by tomorrow morning?”
“I’ll be done gutting this place today. I’ll start framing tomorrow.”
Jim waited for Manny to say he was kidding. When Manny didn’t respond, he said, “I’ll get one of my guys to drop material and equipment off in the morning.”
Manny looked hesitant for the first time. “Why are you doing this for me?”
Jim’s tone turned serious. “Let’s just say I got a feeling.”
~ ~ ~
A stream of hot water massaged Manny’s taut muscles. He raised his head to let the soothing drops splash against his face and filter through the stubble on his cheeks and chin. When the water shut off, the room hushed. He stood patting his body dry, let the towel drop to the floor as Coltrane’s saxophone playing on the stereo seeped through the walls.
The first thing Manny saw when he opened the bathroom door was the backpack leaning against the sofa. He walked across the room, sat down and unzipped it. He pulled out the box, placed it on his lap and ran his fingers over the carved wood before he opened it. Inside was a notebook with a worn, cushioned blue cover, its pages filled with elegantly penciled cursive that looked like notes floating from a concert piano in a cartoon. The words were a stream of charcoal-colored lead on white-lined pages, so captivating that he didn’t even read them. The penmanship curved and swirled, changed textures in different parts of the same line, even the same word, expressing inflection and poise in graphite, a message in itself. Words flowed from one page to the next in continuity. Who writes like this? He scanned its pages sensing a story of the life that occupied the Trinity House.
Manny flipped to a picture placed inside the book. It was a portrait of an elderly black woman with a dignified face, attractive in her advanced age—sharp features, high cheekbones, glimmering eyes. A little girl with tight shiny black curls cascading over her shoulders sat next to the woman. Manny couldn’t help staring at the little girl’s trance-inducing blue-green eyes.
He began to read: What will become of my home, my neighborhood, of me now that I can no longer afford food with the latest tax increase? Who will live in the home where I gave birth to my daughter, and her to my granddaughter? Will the new owners know about our heritage? Will they even care? The writing got shakier. You said, ‘My yoke is easy; my burden light.’ When does it get easier, Lord? When?
Manny wondered what type of person had faith so strong they’d petition the unknown in a journal nobody would ever see. And he thought about gentrification that descended upon the neighborhood, investors indifferent to the history and DNA of the community; callous entrepreneurs who bought properties solely for their own selfish gain and displace honest, hard working residents. Manny felt ashamed to be a party to the scheme.
~ ~ ~
The scent of pine filled Manny’s lungs when he opened the door. A note and a blueprint sat atop a waist-high stack of two-by-fours against the far wall.
Use this floor plan. I’ll be around later.
The gutted Trinity House became Manny's incubator for promise and hope; the construction trades were his medium. He was through destroying things and would now practice his craft—carve wood, mold plaster, splash colors—and one day make this a home.
Manny lowered lumber down the narrow winding staircase to the kitchen, grabbed his tool bag and walked down the steps. The first thing he saw when he unfolded the blueprint were lines that represented walls. The woman’s note was still fresh in his mind, her heritage, the DNA of the community, and it inspired him to maintain the simplicity of the single-room concept. On only his second day working for an employer who gave him an opportunity most laborers in the city never got, he was conflicted. He put the plans to the side and worked as if the builders of a bygone era guided his hands to build an open pantry and a three-quarter partition with shelving on top to separate the utilities.
He framed-out the kitchen before noon, and then moved his tools to the first floor. Again he felt the layout on the blueprint disrupted the integrity of the house, and disrespected the honor of the principled minds that designed it hundreds of years ago. He laid down the blueprint and built an entertainment center and open storage space in a far corner.
Late in the afternoon he moved to the second floor. Intent to maintain continuity, he continued constructing half-walls and partitions with openings to separate the bathroom and create closet space. He built shelving against the far wall. When he finished he walked to the corner of the room, turned around and admired his work, satisfied he’d preserved its unity.
A car door slammed and in a few moments the front door unlocked. There was silence before footsteps disappeared down the stairs to the kitchen. After a few minutes the footsteps started again, sounding more deliberate, their measured pace getting louder, clearer, and then stopped. Jim appeared in the doorway. Manny stood and brushed sawdust off his pant legs.
“Let me see the blueprint, Manny.”
Manny picked up the print, walked over, and handed it to him. Jim glanced between the blueprint and the room. “Why didn’t you follow the plan?”
The veins in Manny’s neck were suddenly visible, his biceps tightened. “It didn't work with this house.”
“What do you mean, ‘it didn’t work?’”
Manny cleared his throat. “The Trinity House; it represents unity, strength.” His voice strained. “There is a reason …”
Jim interrupted. “You know, Manny, I’ve fired guys for not following my directions.”
Manny clasped his hands together, and his voice grew louder. “… there's a reason these houses were designed this way…"
Jim cut him off again. “Slow down, Manny. I just asked a question.”
"So why did you mention firing guys?"
Jim smiled. "I was just pulling your chain."
"Not funny, boss."
“Think of it as a lesson.”
“Yeah. If you have a different idea than I do, or want to change something, talk to me first.” Jim nodded, then added. “But I’m okay with what you’ve done.”
Manny finally looked at ease.
“I made settlement on the two houses next door,” said Jim, pointing his thumbs in opposite directions, “and I’d like you to work them.” He extended his hand. “You in?”
Manny reached out and shook Jim’s hand. “I’m in.”
“Good," said Jim. "We can talk specifics later.” Jim turned and walked out to his car.
Manny walked to the door just as Jim made a U-turn in the middle of the street. He slowed to a crawl, reached his hand out of the car window and patted a dent in his door. “See you tomorrow, Manny!” he shouted, and then sped away.
~ ~ ~
A young woman called Jim shortly after he put out the sale sign and asked to see the house at six o’clock that evening. Manny was downstairs bleeding the heating system when Jim arrived. At six-thirty, Jim said, “The woman seemed in such a rush to see the house, but doesn’t have the courtesy to call to tell me she’ll be late.” He was about to leave just as a young woman pulled up on a bicycle.
“Sorry I’m late. Everybody stops me so they can see my baby,” she said, referring to her Golden Retriever on a leash. She leaned the bike against Manny's Orbea and looped the leash around the handlebars.
Jim opened the door wider. “I put the house on the market this afternoon. How did you find out about it so quick?”
“I’ve had my eye on this house for years. My grandmother raised her family here. She was the first black community activist in the city.”
“That’s interesting,” said Jim.
She looked around as she followed Jim into the house. “This place was vacant for a long time, maybe a year. You did a nice job.”
Jim raised his eyebrows. “You have been watching it.”
Manny heard the female voice and started inching up the stairs. He stopped before he got to the top and listened.
“The Trinity House has always interested me,” she said, “its openness, and simplicity. Stories about this neighborhood filled my childhood, romantic stories like the ones you hear about pioneers; the simple but hard, honest life.”
Manny climbed another step.
“What do you do for a living?” Jim asked.
“I’m an artist,” she said, “I ride my bike by here all of the time, stand outside and imagine a sun-filled second floor studio where I could paint.”
A wrench slipped from Manny’s grip and bounced down the steps. He hurried down to get it and threw it in his backpack with the rest of his tools. When he walked back up into the room, his face was flush.
“Everything okay, Manny?” Jim asked.
“Everything’s good,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Hello,” the woman said to Manny.
“Hi,” said Manny, barely making eye contact as he walked by.
She shrugged her shoulders and turned her attention back to Jim. “When can I make settlement?”
“Don’t you want to see the rest of the house?” he asked.
“No need to. It’s perfect.”
They walked to the door together. Jim locked up, walked to his car, and drove away.
She stood, amused watching Manny play with her dog.
Manny felt her presence but didn’t look up. “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Cu,” she said.
“I’ve never heard that name before,” Manny said as he stood. He looked into her unmistakable blue-green eyes and smiled.
"I got him from a shelter. It's short for rescue."