Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Some of the old houses too far gone. You only get by in this hustle by knowing when to work it and when to tear it down to studs. Got to have a good crew, too. That Zimmermann showed up one wet morning to the double I was working. I ain’t trust him. He was a scruffy little cat and smelled of whiskey. I left to check another job. But when I came back, he had trimmed out the whole living room. The crown molding so clean, it looked like a dollhouse.

Still, Zimmermann came on the job wasted sometimes, and I made him sleep it off in his rusty pickup. On paydays, he went right to the closest liquor store as soon as I cashed him out.

One day, he showed up straight, his hair combed and his eyes clear.

“My girl’s back,” he said.

There was always a girl.

We was tightening up a ranch house in Lakeview when she rolled up in a hatchback. That chick, Stace — she was okay for a skinny, white girl. Still, I ain’t like having her around. A girl on a job bad news. Anyway, I can’t fault nobody for their love relations. She had Zimmermann’s heart in a box. I never saw him drunk again.

Stace pulled up one morning in Zimmermann’s pickup. The doc told her that he’d seen it a thousand times: a drinker goes clean and his body can’t modulate without the stuff. The dry rot finally catch up. I asked Stace why she’d come to town for that Zimmermann anyway.

Stace flipped her hair back and stared at the house behind me.

“I couldn’t stand the thought of him killing himself slowly.”

Maurice Carlos Ruffin is the author of The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You and We Cast a Shadow, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the PEN America Open Book Prize.