Bill “Guillermo” Martinez arrived at my door for the first time looking like a person who’d recently disembarked a cruise ship. He had on a denim shirt, sweater vest and sandals. It wasn’t until I looked closely that I noticed his clothes were covered with a fine spattering of paint.
Handymen from Craigslist had been coming for days. They all had baggage. There was the registered sex offender. And the twitchy guy who wanted to be paid upfront. Guillermo, whom I found through a friend, was of another breed. For starters, he was at least 75 years old, though he didn’t look it. He had a shock of thick white hair, black eyebrows and a crooked smile. His skin was smooth as leather.
I took him to my crawl space. The two of us peered up at the rotting floor beneath my bathroom. I watched him calculate in his head. Could he fix it? Yes he could. He gave me a very good price.
“You don’t have to hire me,” he said as he was leaving. He had a thick Argentinian accent. “But I should tell you that when I read your last column, I had a feeling we would meet.”
Coming from any other handyman, that would have sounded strange. From Guillermo, it seemed perfectly natural, as if we’d both stepped into a magical realist novel. Of course the 75-year-old Argentinian handyman had premonitions. Why wouldn’t he?
Guillermo showed up early the next day, unrolling more drop cloths than necessary. He carried a fastidiously organized array of tools so covered in patina it was as if they’d arrived by time machine. He listened to two types of music while he worked: opera and Argentinian folk.
I’d just bought a 50-year-old duplex. His first job slid into another. And another. He rehabbed ancient windows. He tiled the kitchen. He carefully erased a long crack in my dining room wall.
Details preoccupied him. The distance between screws. Disturbances in paint texture. Jobs took longer than expected. Once I hired him to patch a piece of bathroom ceiling ruined by a leak. I arrived home and found the entire ceiling gone. He stood atop a ladder wearing a flimsy mask, an aria soaring out of his boombox. Flecks of insulation floated down around him, making the air iridescent. I asked what happened to the ceiling.
“It had to be done,” he said like a surgeon discussing an emergency amputation. He didn’t charge me for the work.
He always had a joke to tell. Usually something salty involving a priest and a nun with a long wind up and a punch line that was probably funnier in Spanish. He’d crack himself up so much that, by the end, he could barely get the words out. He also favored a handful of Argentinian idioms that were awkward in English. At least once on every job I would ask him how things were going and he would reply, “I am working like a midget.”
If I was home, he’d tell me stories from the old days. How he became an American citizen decades earlier. Or the time he discovered he was doing masonry for a mobster. Or the man he knew in Argentina who turned out to be a fugitive Nazi. He lectured me frequently. It is important to suffer, because suffering makes you appreciate how good you have it, he’d say. A lucky person loves his work and does it well. Working keeps you young. His own father lived for a century.
He lunched every day at Taco King on Northern Lights and A Street, where he ate a single beef enchilada with rice and beans. One of the cooks there, a Mexican guy named Chava, accompanied him on jobs sometimes and helped him with heavy labor. Every winter, Guillermo went to Argentina until the snow melted. Years passed like that. He painted every room in my house.
Last spring, when he showed up to give me a bid, I was pregnant.
“You look like a rope with a knot tied in it,” he said.
He had another premonition, he told me. It would be his last summer in Alaska. He was closing in on 80.
My dad hired him to build a shed. It soon became all he talked about. He analyzed Dad’s expressions endlessly, trying to gauge whether he was pleased. He obsessed on every phase. The footing. The framing. The placement of the windows. One Sunday, I visited him in Dad’s backyard. His hair was full of sawdust. He kept dreaming about falling from the shed roof, he said. The plywood went soft, he said. He couldn’t find the beams.
He toiled on the project for most of the summer. When it was done, it was truly spectacular, like a house for elegant, miniature people. It had two doors and a dormer with a small window in it. Cedar shingles covered the outside. Sometimes he’d take a slow detour down my dad’s street, he told me, just to admire it through the side yard.
August ticked away. One night, I started to have contractions around dinner time. They let up around 10 p.m. I heard a knock at the door. It was Guillermo. He asked to come in.
He’d been at the gas station the week before, he said, when the gas smell overcame him. Next thing he knew, he was in an ambulance, then an emergency room. Doctors suspected a brain tumor. He was agitated. I tried to calm him down but he kept talking in circles.
“Your son is coming to the world,” Guillermo told me. “I am leaving.”
He was going back to Argentina as soon as possible. This was goodbye.
“Maybe some day you will write about me,” he said. “Maybe you will say I was a man who came to this country, who tried his best to make good.”
I wrote that phrase down on the back of my electric bill. As he left, he slid a business card into my hand. It was another client of his, he said. I should meet her.
The next night, my son was born. Months later, I came across the business card and dialed the number. The woman on the other end of the line was a doctor in town. We decided to put together a care package to send to Argentina. She came by my house with her young son and a handful of children’s drawings.
Guillermo worked for her for years, she said. After the gas station incident, he came to her house, where he had several projects going. He mentioned what happened. She suggested he get an MRI. He didn’t see a doctor, so she ordered it for him. When she looked at the film, she saw a spot on his brain.
After work, she came home and he was painting a wall in her kitchen. She asked if he’d like to sit down. She tried to be gentle as she explained the MRI result. Be frank, he said to her. Was he going to die? It didn’t look good, she told him.
“He just paused and said, ‘Okay.’ He seemed very accepting of it. More so than I had seen with anybody.”
He finished every project he’d started in her house before he left for Argentina, she said.
I took our care package by Taco King, where I found Chava taking orders during the lunch rush. He wiped his hands and wrote a long note. I tucked in some pictures of my son and sent it on its way. Months went by.
Last week I heard from his daughter, Ana, that Guillermo had died. He told her about me, she said. He used the expression “Hacemos buenas migas” or “We make good crumbs.” The idiom is a little awkward when translated into English, she said, but it meant we’d been good friends.