Little Helper

by Gessy Alvarez

In front of the tenement building there was an overweight doberman leashed to a parking sign.  The doberman sat on the pavement and whined. 

Sabi and her father walked by the dog and towards the front door of the tenement building.  Sabi's father rang the buzzer.  There was no answer.  He rang the buzzer twice more until finally the buzzer rang back and the door unlocked. 

It was eight p.m. but the summer sun was still up.  Sabi heard the door snap closed behind them.  This building was much smaller than the one Sabi lived in.  There was a lobby in her building with an elevator bank in the middle and tall rubber plants in every corner.  There was no lobby in this building, just a set of stairs leading up to darkness. 

Sabi held on to her father's hand.  It was hot inside the building.  The cracked marble floor was sticky.  Candy wrappers, flattened cans of soda, and gum littered the steps. 

"Where are we going, Papi?" Sabi said.

"Third floor.  That's where my cousin Jai lives with his girlfriend.  They have an old refrigerator that needs some help.  I told him I'd come by and fix it."

Sabi had been stuck in the apartment all afternoon and had wanted out.  She was only six and was not allowed to play outside with the other kids in her neighborhood.  Sabi's mother didn't trust anybody.  She still had nightmares from the big blackout that happened last week around this time.  Sabi and her mother had watched an army of New York City teens run down the streets, hollering and hooting. All night, Sabi's father guarded their building with all the other male neighbors.  Tonight, when Sabi watched her father pick up his toolbox, she begged him to take her with him.  Sabi's mother said no, but her father said yes, and his word was always final.  "Besides," he said to her mother, "it won't take too long.  We'll be back before you know it."

Sabi and her father walked up to the second floor.  Three black doors lined a narrow hallway.  One door still had American flags and cartoon firecrackers taped on it from two weeks ago.  On the third floor there was a trash bag in front of one door.  They stepped around the bag and walked towards the last apartment door.  A slaphappy Johnny Ventura merengue was playing inside the apartment.  Sabi's father pounded the door like he was afraid no one would hear him.  A short woman opened the door.  She wore a wrinkled blue housedress. Her honey eyes looking at Sabi then down at the floor.

"Hey, Oscar," she said.

"Hey, Maggie.  Is Jai home?" Sabi's father said.

Inside on a black couch lay a young man.  Three small metal fans faced him, oscillating from one side to the other.  "Who's that?" he said, not bothering to turn to see. 

"It's Oscar," Sabi's father said.

"Oh, shit, man. You actually came over."  The young man rubbed his eyes.  He took his time sitting up but didn't stand.  He stared at Sabi and said, "That your kid?" 

"She's my helper," her father said.  He pulled her a little closer to him. 

"She's a cutie."

Sabi pulled on the side of her father's t-shirt and covered half her face.

Jai led them down a short hallway.  At the end of the hallway was the entrance to a small kitchen.  Maggie stood by the refrigerator.  The fridge stopped working two days ago.  Jai stepped back out into the living room to smoke.  Maggie opened the fridge door.  The stench of rotting meat and fruit made Sabi cover her nose.  Water leaked from the bottom tray onto to the linoleum floor.  In the living room, a loud bang was followed by Jai's apologies.  He had tripped over one of his fans.  Maggie ran out of the kitchen.  A few minutes later she returned.  In her hands she held a couple of tattered towels.  She spread the towels on the floor by the fridge.  Sabi's father ignored her while she did this and spoke to Sabi.

"I'm going to look behind the fridge," he said.

"That's where the engine is," said Sabi.

"No," said her father.  "It's not an engine.  It's called a compressor.  It compresses refrigerant vapor.  That's how a refrigerator remains cold."

"Oh," Sabi said.

Just then there was a loud knock at the door.  A muffled male voice followed.  Maggie stepped out of the kitchen to see what was going on. 

When she came back, she had a brown bag in her arms.  She set the bag down on the kitchen table.  She pulled out from the bag a bottle of tomato and clam juice, and a 40-ounce beer bottle.  She moved quickly around the kitchen, opened a cabinet, and grabbed a couple of plastic cups.  She poured some juice and beer in each cup. 

Sabi's father said thank you when Maggie handed him a cup.  She grabbed three cups and headed out to the living room. 

"Papi, I'm thirsty," Sabi said. 

Her father grabbed an empty plastic cup and filled it with cold water from the faucet. 

Sabi sipped the water.  

"Don't drink too much.  If you have to pee you have to hold it until we get back home, okay."  Her father said reminding Sabi of one of her mother's rules about visiting strangers' homes.

Outside, the men were cackling over some bad joke. 

Maggie returned.  "I hate it when Vinnie comes over," she said. She sat on a chair by the kitchen table.  Sabi's father moved the refrigerator away from the wall until he had enough space to crawl behind it.

"Sabi, go to my toolbox.  There should be a small black box inside.  You see it?"  Sabi handed him the black box.  She watched her father open the box and pull out something that looked like a hand radio. 

"I'm measuring how much electricity is needed to run this fridge, Sabi.  In these old building sometimes the electricity doesn't work like it should.  Maybe the refrigerator isn't the problem.  In a little while, I'll figure it out."

After a while, he crawled out from behind the refrigerator and looked through his toolbox.  He pulled out a wrench, screwdriver, and what looked like a hose with two small clocks on either side.  He crawled behind the refrigerator and went to work. 

"Ask Jai and his buddy, to come in.  I need them to tilt the refrigerator."  He said to Maggie. 

Later when he put everything back in place, he asked Jai and Vinnie to keep the refrigerator tilted to one side a little longer.  Vinnie lost his grip and the refrigerator door opened and hit Jai in the face.  "Fuck!" he said.  Sabi stood by the kitchen sink, away from the men and the refrigerator.

Her father crawled out from behind the refrigerator and told Jai and Vinnie to  push the refrigerator back into place. 

"See, it's working now, Sabi," he said.  "How does it feel to be my little helper?"

"Feels good, Papi."  She stared at the floor so as not to see everyone looking at her.

"That's twenty bucks," her father said, heading to the sink to wash his greasy hands.

Sabi wanted to sit down but no one offered her a seat.  Her father finished washing up and put all his tools away.  Jai pulled out his wallet.  He rubbed the bump that was forming on his forehead. 

"Just put some ice on that, man," Vinnie said.  He poured himself another cup of clam-tomato juice and beer. 

Maggie looked nervous.  She stood by Vinnie and watched Jai pull a bill from his wallet. 

"Twenty bucks is a bargain.  I just saved you two hundred dollars.  That's what it would have cost you to replace your refrigerator.  You should be a little more grateful."

Sabi's father smiled and poured himself another drink.  "I fixed that in record time, Jai," he said.  "Re-aligned the wires like nothing.  You know how many wires are back there?  And you got to know what you're doing cause once you pull them out you got to remember where they belonged."

Jai counted the money from his wallet.   "Yeah, man, you're a fucking genius," he said. 

"Maybe your lady can help you settle the bill."

Jai looked at the short woman.  "Maggie was supposed to keep an eye on you.  Make sure you actually worked.  Well, Maggie you think he's worth twenty bucks?"

Sabi's father threw his arm over her and kissed her forehead.  "Papi?" she said, not knowing what to ask him. Something felt wrong.   

"Just pay me, man," he said.

Jai handed him a crushed up five-dollar bill. 

Her father's voice dipped low. "I said twenty dollars."

Jai's face hardened.  He stepped closer to Sabi's father. Sabi stared up at Jai then her father. 

"What no discount for relatives?" 

Her father shoved her towards Maggie.

"I don't think you're worth twenty bucks," Jai said.  "It took you what?  Fifteen minutes to fix the refrigerator. Besides no new parts required, right?"  Jai shoved his finger against her father's bony chest.

"Just take the five dollars," Vinnie said.

Sabi's body tingled as she watched Vinnie step behind her father.  He was getting too close to him.  Before she knew what she was doing, she kicked Jai on the shin.

"Fucking kid," Jai said, but her father grabbed her and pulled her up in his arms. 

"Jai," Maggie said, "you promised.  No trouble."  She pulled on Jai's arm.

"I'm gonna kill him and his brat," Jai said. Maggie pulled him close, wrapped her arms around his neck, so that his nose was only a hair width away from her lips. Jai closed his eyes.  She told him to forget them.

Vinnie drank some more. 

Sabi cried on her father's shoulder.  He leaned down to pick up his toolbox and walked around Jai, Maggie, and Vinnie.  "I'm sorry, sweetie," Sabi's father whispered as he carried her out of the apartment. He let her go so that she could walked down the stairs on her own. 

"I probably shouldn't have brought you with me," said her father.  "You shouldn't have seen that."

"Will Maggie be okay?"  Sabi asked.

"Yeah, she'll be fine.  She's used to them."

"Why did your cousin get so mad at you, Papi?"

"I don't know.  I guess he didn't have enough money to pay me."

"Was he going to beat you up, Papi?"

"No, he was just acting tough in front of his friend.  Men do that sometimes."

"Do women act tough?"

"Women don't have to act tough."

"They don't?"

"Sometimes they do, but you'll never have to because I'll always be there for you."



"What are we going to tell Mami?"

"That's a good question.  If we tell her the truth, she'll never let you leave the apartment.  So we'll tell her we did a good job tonight and leave it at that."

"What if she asks me about tonight?  What do I tell her?"

"Tell her you were an excellent little helper."

Outside, the fat doberman was gone, but his leash was still tied to the parking sign.

BIO: Gessy Alvarez received her MFA from Columbia University in 2010. She's taught fiction in the New York City public school system and at Columbia University Medical Center. Her fiction has appeared in Camroc Press Review, Black Heart MagazinePure SlushConnotation PressApocrypha and AbstractionsLost In ThoughtThrice FictionLetras Caseras, and Pank.