“I brought my rap sheet,” he says.
“What?” she asks.
“I brought my rap sheet for you to see,” he answers.
“I don’t want to see your rap sheet.”
“But it’s important,” he says. “It is something you must know about me.”
She watches him as he fumbles with the zippers on his scruffy backpack. He’s a very large man and his movements are clumsy. He breathes heavily as he bends forward, digging inside the bag. The chair he sits on appears too small to hold him. Hell, her entire dining room seems too small, as if the walls have suddenly collapsed in upon them. She feels hot, squeezed.
“Here,” he says, looking up at her, leaning back in the too small chair, smiling at his success at finding his papers. He opens a manila folder and offers its content to her. “Look carefully. You will see what I have done. It is important that you know.”
She’s never seen a rap sheet before. The papers he hands her are folded, stapled and paper clipped together, creased and wrinkled. She unfolds them. It looks like a well-read manuscript printed on legal-size paper.
As soon as her eyes hit the first page they begin to swim. “Too much information,” she says, handing the papers back to him.
“I will show you,” he says kindly. He leans forward in the chair, takes the papers from her, and thumbs through them quickly. “Let me get my glasses,” he says. He reaches into the backpack again, and pulls out a pair of cheap, dime store bifocals. The frames are clunky and black. They magnify his eyes.
“Look here,” he says, shuffling the papers again, then pointing to the top of the second page with a soiled, thick finger. “Soliciting.”
“Soliciting what?” she asks.
“Drugs,” he says.
“What kind of drugs?”
“Cocaine, crack, weed. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the date. See the date up here in the corner?” He taps the top left side of the page with his knuckle.
“Nineteen-ninety-four,” he says. “Almost ten years ago.”
“Eleven,” she says.
“Sí,” he answers enthusiastically. “Eleven, exactly. A long time ago, don’t you think?”
She shrugs. “And the others?” She nods toward his papers.
“All a long time ago,” he says, flipping rapidly through the ragged sheets. “Two in 1995, one in ‘96, three or four in ‘97. Some for soliciting, some for public drunkenness, vagrancy, possession, pimping. And then…”
He pauses. She waits.
“And then no more,” he shouts triumphantly. “They finally put me in jail. I clean up. I go to rehab when I get out. Meetings every morning, every night, and sometimes in the afternoons. I get a job. I take care of sick people like your husband. I don’t do drugs no more. I’m clean.”
He looks at her. She stares down at her hands, folded neatly on her lap.
“I’m clean,” he repeats, staring straight ahead at some unknown space above her head. “And I’ve found Jesus, our Lord and Savior. He forgives me for all my mistakes. He say to me, Juan Lucas, come, make a new start. You can do this.”
He looks at her again. She is silent, thinking.
“All right,” she says quietly. “Can you start tomorrow?”
“Sí,” he says, knowing instinctively that she is, like the others he has worked for, desperate for his help. “Tomorrow will be good.”
“And don’t show me those rap sheets anymore,” she says, rising from her chair, trying to regain some control. “I don’t want to see or think about them ever again.”
“All right,” he says, shoving the papers back inside his bag. He follows her to the front door, past the hospital bed where the husband lies perfectly still, sleeping, “But I tell you, they are to me a thing of importance, you know? A record of where I’ve been, the bad things I done to myself, to other people, but also, they tell the story of what I’ve overcome. You see what I’m saying? There’s beauty in that, señorita.”
Juan Lucas moved in the next day. Like former employees, he kept his belongings in several industrial-size garbage bags and dog-eared cardboard boxes. “Papers,” he said, as he dragged a mangy carton down the driveway toward the garage. “I need to go through them. Some important, some not so important.”
She went inside the house and busied herself with dirty dishes. She’d seen this before, the sorry piles of sentimental crap—ratty letters from loved ones in prison, overdue bills and pink collection agency warnings, twisted strings of plastic flowers and cracked, useless vases, wallet-size school photos of smiling children now grown and scattered, lost, forgotten, dead. Soon as I get me a tape player, I’ll listen to this, they’d say, referring to old cassettes and unlabeled videos stuffed inside a shoebox. My VCRs in the pawn shop, but I’ll be gettin’ it back soon.
Juan Lucas began work that afternoon. He bathed her husband, gave him his midday pills, stretched his arms and legs, trimmed his mustache, dressed him in lose fitting clothes, lifted him carefully out of bed and placed him in his electric wheelchair. He turned on the TV, set her husband in front of the screen, brought him several glasses of water, plopped down beside him and chatted. In the evening she showed him the nighttime procedures: brushing and flossing teeth, cleaning ears, blowing nose, stretching limbs; night bags emptied and switched, pills given, oxygen tanks hooked up, pillows fluffed and stacked, shades pulled, curtains drawn, doors locked, lights out. He did it all with confidence and a degree of expertise. He was pleasant, kind, gentle.
Maybe this can work, she thought, as she lay down on the living room couch and drifted off to sleep. Maybe this time will be different.
The weeks went by. They adjusted to one another, and a rhythm developed in their daily routine. Juan Lucas appeared devoted to his job and to her husband. He was up early, laughing and joking with both of them while helping complete the morning rituals. After breakfast he took a nap and then went to an AA or NA meeting. He returned in the afternoon, watched TV (Jerry Springer, Oprah, Judge Judy), studied his Bible, and made nonstop forays into the kitchen, where he fixed himself two or three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cooked multiple packages of Top Ramen, poured milk over enormous bowls of Captain Crunch, microwaved bag after bag of popcorn.
Now, when she went to the grocery store, she bought noodles, cereal, popcorn, and other fast food items by the caseload, peanut butter and jam in restaurant-size jars, pasta and rice in big bags and boxes. Thankfully, Juan Lucas did not have a sophisticated palate, but his appetite was insatiable. She could not keep enough staples in the house.
“Addictions,” he explained cheerfully. “I got ’em all. Food, alcohol, gambling, drugs.” He paused. “And sex,” he added, staring at her from behind his clunky glasses.
“Too much information,” she said, ignoring the implications. She’d experienced these types of behaviors with other live-in attendants. She thought she could handle it.
About the time Juan Lucas stopped going to church on Sundays, money went missing from her wallet. At first she blamed it on herself. Even before her husband’s accident she’d been distracted and forgetful, not careful with things like credit cards and checkbooks. But on several recent occasions she’d dug into her purse in order to pay for something at the drugstore or post office and come up short. Instead of a ten and twenty dollar bill, she could find only a twenty. In place of a twenty, she’d discover a ten or two fives. She’d retrace her steps in her mind, hoping she’d recall a forgotten purchase, but the evidence was clear: Juan Lucas was stealing from her.
She confronted him. He denied it. She became more mindful of where she set down her purse. She hid her wallet in her sock drawer, kept her bedroom door closed.
This also was not new territory. In the past nine years, she couldn’t recall a single attendant who hadn’t stolen from her at one time or another. But she’d never fired anyone for theft. She’d issued warnings and threatened police action, but in the end, the people she hired stayed in her home until they were ready to leave. And sometimes they departed with items that did not belong to them.
Her friends thought she was crazy. They advised her to get a lock for her bedroom door and a safe or safety deposit box for her valuables. Can them at the first indication of theft was their recommendation. But instead of acquiring any of these items or following their advice, she stopped confiding and complaining. She already felt trapped inside her house without the addition of more bolts, latches, and security measures. As long as the thief took care of her husband, she reasoned, she could deal with a little filching.
And Juan Lucas did take good care of her husband. But he continued to pinch and pilfer. She never caught him in the act of stealing. She never saw him take anything other than sandwiches and popcorn to his room. But money was always missing. She got in the habit of paying for purchases with credit or checks, and withdrawing only the exact amount of money she needed daily from the local ATM.
Juan Lucas had trouble sleeping at night. In addition to his addictions, he had sleep apnea, a condition that caused him to wake up short of breath, gasping for air. He slept with a Darth Vader-like mask covering his face. It was connected to a machine that bubbled and hissed, and made a dinging sound when his breathing became erratic. Between her husband’s oxygen tanks and Juan Lucas’s nocturnal problems, she had difficulty sleeping herself.
She wasn’t sure when Juan Lucas stopped going to his NA and AA meetings, but it probably coincided with a new, annoying activity: he began roaming the house at night. She could hear him in his room, on the other side of her bedroom wall, turning on lights, switching TV channels, rustling papers, leaving his bed to make numerous trips to the kitchen. Cupboards opened, glasses rattled, the refrigerator door banged shut. The microwave timer rang, and water ran intermittently from the faucet into the sink. She counted the times he labored up and down the stairs, the number of visits to the bathroom, the sounds of throat-clearing, burping, belching, and farting.
One night she awoke to heavy panting, a hot foul breeze across her face. Juan Lucas knelt by her bed, his thick wet lips on her cheek, his fat calloused fingers probing her crotch, his face sweaty.
“Get out!” she screamed. “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
In the morning, she did not look at him. He was bending over her husband’s hospital bed, tenderly washing his face with a warm soapy cloth.
She went into the kitchen. It was cleaner than usual. Juan Lucas had been up early, busy.
She heard his heavy footsteps behind her as she heaped coarse, black grounds into the coffeemaker. “I am sorry,” he said to her back.
“Don’t ever do that again,” she hissed through clenched teeth, her spine rigid. Goose bumps appeared on her forearms, and the small hairs on the nape of her neck stood up.
“I swear on my Bible I won’t,” he said.
“Swear on a stack of them,” she said, turning and facing him.
He stared back at her. “Yes,” he said contritely, “a stack as high as the Empire State Building.”
“Because if you do it again,” she said, “if you touch me again, I will fire you.”
Juan Lucas smiled. “Sí,” he said quietly, looking down at his flat bare feet, shifting his bulky body from side to side. “I understand.”
But what they both understood is this: She would not fire him as long as he took care of her husband. He would leave when he was ready to move on to a better paying job in a bigger, nicer house, to work for the desperate relatives of another sick, feeble, or dying person. Then the process of finding a new employee and learning to live with them would start over for her, repeating itself in the same and similar ways, day after day, year after year, for how long, she did not care to know.
Susan Parker is the author of Tumbling After, Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill (Crown 2002). She was the recipient of the 1999 Richard J. Margolis Literary Award. She currently divides her time between Oakland CA, Bend OR, and Blue Mountain Lake, NY.