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"I think Percival Everett is a genius. He's a brilliant writer and so damn smart I envy him." —Terry McMillan
Douglas Langley owned a little sandwich shop at the intersection of Fourteenth and T streets in the District. Beside his shop was a seldom-used alley and above his shop lived a man by the name of Sherman Olney, whom Douglas had seen beaten to near extinction one night by a couple of silky-looking men who seemed to know Sherman and wanted something in particular from him. Douglas had been drawn outside from cleaning up the storeroom by a rhythmic thumping sound, like someone dropping a telephone book onto a table over and over. He stepped out into the November chill and discovered that the sound was actually that of the larger man's fists finding again and again the belly of Sherman Olney, who was being kept on his feet by the second assailant. Douglas ran back inside and grabbed the pistol he kept in the rolltop desk in his business office. He returned to the scene with the powerful flashlight his son had given him and shone the light into the faces of the two villains The men were not overly impressed by the light, the bigger one saying, "Hey, man, you better get that light out of my face!"
They did however show proper respect for the discharging of the .32 by running away. Sherman Olney crumpled to the ground, moaning and clutching at his middle, saying he didn't have it anymore.
"Are you all right?" Douglas asked, realizing how stupid the question was before it was fully out.
But Sherman's response was equally insipid as he said, "Yes."
"Come, let's get you inside." Douglas helped the man to his feet and into the shop. He locked the glass door behind them, then took Sherman over to the counter and helped him onto a stool.
"Thanks," Sherman said.
"You want me to call the cops?" Douglas asked.
Sherman Olney shook his head. "They're long gone by now."
"I'll make you a sandwich," Douglas said as he stepped behind the counter.
"Really, that's not necessary."
"You'll like it. I don't know first aid, but I can make a sandwich."
Douglas made the man a pastrami and Muenster on rye sandwich and poured him a glass of barely cold milk, then took him to sit in one of the three booths in the shop. Douglas sat across the table from him, watched him take a bite of the sandwich.
"What did they want?" Douglas put to him.
"To hurt me," Sherman said, his mouth working on the tough bread. He picked a seed from his teeth and put it on his plate. "They wanted to hurt me."
"My name is Douglas Langley."
"What are they after, Sherman?" Douglas asked, but he didn't get an answer. As they sat there, the quiet of the room was disturbed by the loud refrigerator motor kicking on. Douglas felt the vibration of it through the soles of his shoes.
"Your compressor is a little shot," Sherman said.
Douglas looked at him, not knowing what he was talking about.
"Your fridge. The compressor is bad."
"Oh, yes," Douglas said. "It's loud."
"I can fix it."
Douglas just looked at him.
"You want me to fix it?"
Douglas didn't know what to say. Certainly he wanted the machine fixed, but what if this man just liked to take things apart? What if he made it worse? Douglas imagined the kitchen floor strewn with refrigerator parts. But he said, "Sure."
With that, Sherman got up and walked back into the kitchen, Douglas on his heels. The skinny man removed the plate from the bottom of the big and embarrassingly old machine and looked around. "Do you have any chewing gum?" Sherman asked. As it turned out, Douglas had, in his pocket, the last stick of a pack of Juicy Fruit, which he promptly handed over. Sherman unwrapped the stick, folded it into his mouth, then lay there on the floor chewing.
"What are you doing?" Douglas asked.
Sherman paused him with a finger, then, as if feeling the texture of the gum with his tongue, he took it from his mouth and suck it into the workings of the refrigerator. And just like that the machine ran with a new steady hum, just like it had when it was new. "How'd you do that?" Douglas asked.
Sherman, now on his feet, shrugged.
"Thank you, this is terrific. All you used was chewing gum. Can you fix other things?"
"What are you? Are you a repairman or an electrician?" Douglas asked.
"I can fix things."
"Would you like another sandwich?"
Sherman shook his head again and said. "I should be going. Thanks for the food and all your help."
"Those men might be waiting for you," Douglas said. He suddenly remembered his pistol. He could feel the weight of it in his pocket.
"Just sit in here awhile." Douglas felt a great deal of sympathy for the underfed man who had just repaired his refrigerator. "Where do you live? I could drive you."
"Actually, I don't have a place to live." Sherman stared down at the floor.
"Come over here." Douglas led the man to the big metal sink across the kitchen. He turned the ancient lever and the pipes started with a thin whistle and then screeched as the water came out. "Tell me, can you fix that?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Yes." Douglas turned off the water.
"Do you have a wrench?"
Douglas stepped away and into his business office, where he dug his way through a pile of sweaters and newspapers until he found a twelve-inch crescent wrench and a pipe wrench. He took them back to Sherman. "Will these do?"
"Yes." Sherman took the wrench and got down under the sink. Douglas bent low to try and see what the man was doing, but before he could figure anything out, Sherman was getting up.
"There you go," Sherman said.
Incredulous, Douglas reached over to the faucet and turned on the water. The water came out smoothly and quietly. He turned it off, then tried it again. "You did it."
"It's nothing. An easy repair."
"You know, I could really use somebody like you around here," Douglas said. "Do you need a job? I can't pay much. Just minimum wage, but I can let you stay in the apartment upstairs. Actually, it's just a room. Are you interested?"
"You don't even know me," Sherman said.
Douglas stopped. Of course the man was right. He didn't know anything about him. But he had a strong feeling that Sherman Olney was an honest man. An honest man who could fix things. "You're right," Douglas admitted, "But I'm a good judge of character."
"I don't know," Sherman said.
"You said you don't have a place to go. You can live here and work until you find another place or another job." Douglas was unsure why he was pleading so with the stranger and, in fact, had a terribly uneasy feeling about the whole business, but, for some reason, he really wanted him to stay.
"Okay," Sherman said.
Douglas took the man up the back stairs and showed him the little room. The single bulb hung from a cord in the middle of the ceiling and its dim light revealed the single bed made up with a yellow chenille spread. Douglas had taken many naps there.
"This is it," Douglas said.
"It's perfect." Sherman stepped fully into the room and looked around.
"The bathroom is down the hall. There's a narrow shower stall in it."
"I'm sure I'll be comfortable."
"There's food downstairs. Help yourself."
Douglas stood in awkward silence for a while wondering what else there was to say. Then he said, "Well, I guess I should go on home to my wife."
"And I should get some sleep."
Douglas nodded and left the shop.
Excerpted from Damned If I Do by Percival Everett Copyright © 2004 by Percival Everett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted June 12, 2014