map Tungsten Steel

by Morgan Schulz

Published in Issue No. 258 ~ November, 2018

Earlier in the fall, the white guy in maintenance with a lazy eye did me a good turn. On a Saturday morning, he knocked on my door on a routine inspection to see if everyone’s heat was working now that the boilers were on. He was wearing his khaki uniform and cap, and when he spoke, he presented the right profile of his face more forward. I knew this was for me to look in his good eye. Which was where I looked, telling him that the weather hadn’t been cold enough for me to turn on the heat yet. But he could come inside and check it out for himself if he wanted to.

He tugged down firmly on the bill of his cap and ducking his head a little, strode through the front door. I shut the door behind him and moved around him to stand by the console table. The thermostat box was on the entryway wall to the right of the kitchen entrance. The maintenance guy turned on the heat and cranked up the thermostat. The fan came on. He raised a hand to the vent.

After about a minute, he shook his head, muttering, “That makes three of them.”

He turned off the heat and went to the circuit breaker box on the opposite wall. He opened the panel and located the HVAC breaker, switching it off then on.

“Sometimes you have to reset the system,” he said. “I’ll be back in thirty minutes to check again, if that’s all right with you.”

“Take your time,” I said. “I’m here.”

He lifted then re-seated his cap on his slicked back, flaxen hair. Less than an arm’s reach above his head, the entryway overhead was dark. I remembered the light bulb had exploded in the socket the week before. I didn’t know how to remove it with the shards of glass in the way.

“Say, man,” I said as he turned to leave. “You any good with electrical stuff?”

He gave me this sideways glance. His khaki uniform jacket was thick and bunched over his stooped, bearish shoulders. “You mean like wiring,” he said.

I shook my head and pointed to the entryway overhead. “The light bulb blew last week. I’m afraid to unscrew it from the socket. I have a pair of needle-nose pliers, but I read online that even when the breaker’s off, there’s residual charge. I don’t want to electrocute myself.”

“Nobody ever showed you the trick for that,” he said. He faced me with a paternal smile.

For a moment, I forgot myself and gawked at his lazy eye. The deep blue iris wobbled trying to look at me. I wondered if the eye could see as well as the other one.

“Nope,” I said. “Sure didn’t.”

By nobody, I knew he meant my father. I never knew my father. He was killed in Vietnam. One of the last of the draftees. Lottery of ’72. Joining the long list of other fallen brothers. My stepfather was a mailman and pothead from Florida with flat feet. He was lucky if he could screw in a light bulb straight on the first try. Even after my mother divorced him when I was in high school, he still wanted to keep in touch. Like he was my father.

The maintenance guy made sure the light switch was turned off. He reached up and began loosening the pressure mount nut on the entryway overhead’s frosted glass shade.

“I need a cardboard tube from a roll of paper towels or toilet paper,” he said.

“Be right back,” I said.

I went upstairs and fished out a spent tube of toilet paper from the bathroom wastebasket. By the time I returned, the maintenance guy had set the overhead’s glass shade on its head on the kitchen counter. I handed him the tube of toilet paper. He tore the tube open and folded it crosswise, pressing the cardboard flat and creasing the fold. He bent two joints in the flattened tube to make it moldable. With the tube ends, he grasped the shattered bulb by its metal base.

“The cardboard also insulates you from the residual charge,” he said. He unscrewed the bulb in swift quarter-turns to the left. “So long as the cardboard’s not wet.”

“Yeah, I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, semi-droll. I was shaking my head to myself at the ingenuity of his solution. There I’d been on the verge of calling an electrician. He just saved me an arm and a leg.

When the maintenance guy was done, he asked me where the trash can was. His gaze was fixed on the jagged mouth of the exploded bulb, which he was careful to point away from me. I directed him to the cabinet under the sink in the kitchen. He tore off a sheet of paper towel from the roll on the vertical holder on the counter to wrap the bulb in before disposing of it. Good housekeeping, I thought.

I opened the cabinet above the refrigerator for the megapack of incandescent light bulbs. I really should start using LED bulbs, I know. They last longer. You save on energy, and that saves money and the Earth, and all that jazz. It wasn’t the first time I’d said it to myself. I’d also read online somewhere that incandescent bulbs were outlawed in the U.S. a few years ago. Not explaining why you could buy them just about anywhere, but anyway. I removed a bulb from the pack, rotating it in my hand. The thing is, incandescent light is softer than LED light. It doesn’t emit as much blue light and pierces the eye. Gives off a warm yellow glow.

I shook the bulb gently by my ear to make sure the filament wasn’t broken. Good to go. I returned the pack to the cabinet. I was all set to screw in the bulb myself, but the maintenance guy wouldn’t hear of it.

“I’m right here, aren’t I,” he insisted.

I handed him the bulb. He screwed it in, and then flicked on the light switch to make sure it worked. The soft white sixty-watt bulb shone so brightly I forgot to look away. Even after he turned off the light to remount the shade, the afterimage floated in my vision. I went inside the kitchen to the refrigerator. This was cause for celebration. I grabbed two bottles of Budweiser from the side panel of the refrigerator door. I twisted off the caps and discarded them in the big glass jar on the counter by the toaster.

I offered a beer to the maintenance guy, but he warded me off with a polite wave of his hand.

“Not while I’m on duty,” he said.

“Some other time then,” I said.

“Sure thing.”

The guy was old school. On the job, start to finish. You can’t argue with that. Doesn’t matter what walk of life you came from or who your people were.

He tugged down on the bill of his cap. His good eye stared at me baldly, its blue unflinching. “I need to check the heating in the other units on this floor,” he said. “Then I’ll be back to see about yours.”

He lumbered out of the apartment. Two-fisted, I saluted his departing form. I was guzzling beer like from a flagon when the front door slammed shut of its own accord.

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A 1992 graduate of West Point, I served in Italy as a lieutenant until 1995, the stuff of my own legend, or so rumor has it. After receiving an honorable discharge, I then happily took up the pursuit of the life and times of a writer and teacher. Writers I’ve studied under include Ernest Gaines, Luis Urrea, Rebecca Lee, and Philip Gerard. In 2001, I completed an MFA in Fiction at Brooklyn College, working with Jonathan Baumbach and Carey Harrison. I teach creative writing and literature at Hunter College in New York.