965 16TH STREET, APRIL
J calls it boredom, which M knows from adolescent psychology is another word for age-appropriate restlessness but feels like a squirming desire to burst out of the shell of useless skin. M thinks about how it’s still a town where people leave their doors unlocked at night and in the winter warm up their empty cars at the curb.
When they step into the man’s living room, he stops pacing. M lifts her hand in greeting, not wanting to disturb the baby he’s holding. Her sister hangs back in the dark entryway in a pool of cold air. The dim lamplight picks up the blond in the man’s hair, which sticks up in front as though he’s been pushing it back from his forehead. He wears jeans and a University of Wisconsin sweatshirt.
The room is lined with built-in shelves filled floor to ceiling with books. On a table in the corner is a thin silver stereo stacked on a table. J wants a house like this, clean like this, with gleaming hardwood floors. She stares at the baby’s face, at its fat pink mouth drooping open in sleep. She imagines holding it close to her body, warm as a hot water bottle or a sun-soaked rock. In cold weather the blood runs sluggish in her veins. You’re a reptile, M has said.
When J looks at the man’s face, he’s smiling. His body has relaxed. He holds up an index finger then disappears into the mouth of a dark hallway. M and J are sitting on the prickly sofa when he returns.
“Well, girls,” he says, turning the lamp up bright, golden, “you just missed her.”
“Who?” M asks.
She watches with pleasure as puzzlement crosses the man’s face, a downward quiver of the eyebrows, before he digs a hole in his subconscious, lightning quick, and buries his confusion there.
“My wife took Emily home about five minutes ago,” he says.
J’s stomach flips. Who does he think they are?
“She might even be home by now,” he says. “You can use the phone if you want to give her a call. The night is young, right? We’re in for the evening. I guess the baby cried the whole time. He’s actually a really good baby. You can tell Emily that. I hope he didn’t scare her away.”
“How old is he?” M asks.
“Four months old yesterday. Do you two know Emily from school?”
M nods vaguely.
“Do either of you babysit?”
They don’t. M nods again.
J begins to walk the perimeter of the room. When she glances over her shoulder, the man is grinning but she can see he’s nervous. She runs her fingertips across the spines of the books. Who needs this many books? Behind the man’s back, she slides a slim volume of poetry from a shelf, T.S. Eliot, and tucks it into the waistband of her jeans, under her jacket.
M writes fake names and phone numbers on a slip of paper so the man can call them to babysit. Then they skip out the door, down the steps. The wife is just pulling into the driveway, and they wave to her as they cross the lawn, the sidewalk, the street, waiting for the deep shadows of the park before letting the loud, dark laughter unwind.
Later, after M has fallen asleep, J slides carefully out of bed and without turning on the lights goes to the front door, where she checks the dead bolt and slides the chain into place.
380 CAMPBELL ROAD, MAY
The gate hangs open on loose hinges. M traps J’s wrist in the cage of her fingers. She points to the gate and, beyond it, a perfect summer scene—grass green and even as a pool table, the walk flanked by gladiolus and phlox and purple coneflowers.
The smell of lighter fluid is strong, and the air around the grill quivers with heat. The sun has slid behind the roof of the house, but the wooden steps to the deck feel warm. M—the older one—turns the doorknob, pushes open the back door, and walks into a cloud of cold air, as though arriving at a great altitude. Behind her, J feels the breeze only around her calves and ankles, the cold current of a stream.
Standing at the kitchen island is a woman with hair the color of burning charcoal.
“Oh, hi,” M says, feigning innocence. “Is Christine here? She told us to just come in.”
“You must have the wrong house,” the woman says, with no more surprise in her voice than if she were announcing a wrong number to a caller on the telephone.
Her nonchalance irritates M.
“Hey,” she says to J, “you’re letting all the cold air out.”
J pushes the door closed and leans against it, the doorknob arching her back.
The woman has been chopping celery, and now her knife hand hangs suspended over the cutting board. The cool air in the yellow-and-white kitchen begins to thicken with her alarm.
People react differently to surprise: some are fearful first, then angry; some laugh a little before the uneasiness sets in. J is mesmerized by the physical signs. Eyebrows raised to create fat wrinkles that make the forehead resemble a bloodhound’s. The slightly parted lips, the breath panting lightly, like a boy’s when you kiss him. J’s own breath quickens.
For J, the mixture of danger and other people’s surprise makes her blood pulse. It makes the muscles in her arms and legs stronger. It improves her posture.
It makes M smarter. She considers it fieldwork in psychology, her major. It’s a social-science experiment charting how people react when social norms are violated.
Surprise has opened a window into the celery-chopping woman’s psyche, and M looks through it now as the woman considers the shelves in the psychic grocery store. What will she put into her cart? A blue box of Righteous Indignation? A red coffee can of Panic? An industrial-size jar of Hospitality packed in its own juice?
J wants a kitchen like this—yellow walls and stainless steel, a plant with marbled leaves draping down from the top of a cupboard, the clean smell of celery. There’s another scent underneath, faintly garlicky—J’s own armpits. She’s ashamed to have entered this clean place without having showered. Can the woman smell her? At least she smoothed her hair down and brushed her teeth, even if it was only with her finger. She jerks her camisole top up.
“What are you making?” M asks.
The woman stares down at the celery. Slowly, she lowers the knife until the blade rests flat on the cutting board, but she keeps hold of the black plastic handle. M sees that the woman will answer her question because to ignore it would be rude.
“Potato salad,” the woman says. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other as the seconds pass. There is a tremor in the hand holding the knife. M knows she is waiting for them to do the right thing.
“Your potatoes are boiling over,” M says. The lid on the big metal pot levitates. The pot spits starchy white foam.
“Oh!” the woman cries, turning, still holding the knife. With her other hand, she lowers the flame and tilts the lid of the pot.
J’s eyes wander through an arched doorway to a room with a plump red couch. She wants to stretch out on that couch and watch television until dinner is ready, but she has a feeling the celery-chopping woman wouldn’t approve. The woman would stand over her, frowning, as J flipped through the channels. The vision makes J angry. What has the celery-chopping woman done to deserve this house, this kitchen, this food?
“So which house does Christine live in?” M asks.
“Christine,” the woman says. She purses her lips. M can almost hear the woman’s mind tick. She fears she doesn’t know her own street as well as she thought.
“I don’t think I know anyone named Christine who lives on this block. What’s her last name?”
“Jones,” M says.
“Jones,” the woman echoes. Her face is turning pink.
She doesn’t recognize the name of someone who might live on her very own block! M watches her try to decide between embarrassment and suspicion. If she chooses embarrassment, she’ll be admitting to a weakness. If she chooses suspicion, she’ll have to be frightened by the presence of these strangers in her kitchen.
M catches J’s eye. “The Joneses would be hard to miss in this neighborhood,” she says. “Seeing as they’re black. And I mean really black, like Africans.”
The woman flinches, and M almost laughs aloud.
“You have the wrong street,” the woman says, smiling tersely.
M sighs and says to J, “I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I must have written it down wrong, and I didn’t bring Christine’s number.” She lays a hand on her stomach.
The cupboards at M’s apartment contain ramen noodles, cans of salty refried beans. Spin the lazy Susan at the house where J still lives with their mother and find ten boxes of macaroni and cheese but no milk or butter in the refrigerator to make it real. It’s four days to payday, and M has three dollars and half a pack of cigarettes. Here, there’s a platter piled with thick raw pork chops and hamburgers, another with a pyramid of shucked corn on the cob. Bags of potato chips on top of the refrigerator. Enough food for ten people. There are probably pies somewhere, ice cream. The charcoal must be ready.
What kind of story would it take to get this woman to invite two strangers to dinner? M wonders. Would it be enough if a girl broke down and cried? Are she and J too old to pull it off? Is it already too late?
J watches the woman’s gaze narrow as it moves over M’s stringy hair, pointed chin, thin arms. People like this woman have everything, but they don’t want to share it. J approaches the island and wraps her fingers around a long, pale stalk of celery. Her fingernails are short and dirty. The woman recoils, and it makes J smile.
“Can I have this?” she asks.
“No!” the woman says. Her hand tightens around the knife handle, her lips around her teeth.
J lifts the celery to her mouth and bites noisily through it. She chews with her mouth open while considering the tray of meat. She wants to pile two of the chops and two of the burgers on her hand and walk out the door, through the yard to the gate, but the woman has set her jaw in a discouraging way that tells J she would probably call the police.
J yanks the door open.
“See ya,” she says and steps outside, where the warm air is a relief. The woman should open her windows, breathe some real air for a change.
“Bye-bye now,” M says loudly as she pulls the door closed behind her.
Flip-flops slap on the warm deck, the concrete. J lifts the cover from the grill and tosses it into a bed of yellow gladiolas.
“Fuck her and the celery she rode in on,” she says.
M doesn’t speak for two blocks.
“We could be eating hamburgers right now,” she says finally.
“Dream on,” J scoffs. “No way in hell.”
“Keep your hands in your pockets.”
The comment stings. In March, J was fired from the bakery for scooping a fingerful of Holland cream from the giant industrial mixer into her mouth. So what? She washed her hands constantly at that job. The scowling bakery manager acted as though she’d stuck her finger in her ass first.
1219 STATE STREET, JUNE
A fairy tale escape from the boring party on the first floor: M discovers a back door, a rear staircase, unlit. They climb through the darkness, giggling. The door off the second-floor landing is chained, so they climb on and find the third floor unlocked. Inside, a shadowy kitchen illuminated only by the streetlights outside. The girls can hear a television blaring to cover the music from the party below, which is so loud they can feel the vinyl floor vibrating with it.
It’s like visiting their own apartment in a different dimension. The sticky kitchen floor slants toward the center of the room. Counters piled with crusted dishes. The living room is a moonscape, the light from outside cresting the lumpy piles of clothes, books, newspapers. They weave their way toward a bedroom pulsing blue light.
The room smells like a ham sandwich. In the corner a twin box spring, a mattress, and a young man propping his head up with one bent arm so he can see the television, which sits on top of a dresser. The man reacts to the girls’ presence with a bored glance. He doesn’t move when they enter the room except to pull his free hand out from underneath the sheet. His hair is shoulder length and of indeterminate color, though it shines with grease, and his bare, doughy chest is dotted with moles or acne.
“Hi,” J says. She perches on the windowsill next to the bed and stretches her bare legs out in front of her so that the man will be able to see the slender length of them out of the corner of his eye. “Why aren’t you downstairs at the party?”
The man’s eyes flash over to J then back to the television screen, where an ad for McDonald’s is playing. “I hate those assholes,” he says.
M sits down then stretches out on her side on the mat of dirty clothes that covers the floor. “Why do you hate them?” she asks. The man’s flaccid response to their appearance annoys her almost as much as the sexual desperation coming off J like heat off a grill. J would fuck this greasy-haired guy simply because he’s ignoring her.
“I’m trying to watch Star Trek: Next Generation here, girls,” the man says. “It’s one of the few episodes I haven’t seen, and Tasha Yar has to fight this Lingonian chick, so if you wouldn’t mind shutting the fuck up.”
J can’t believe he prefers a television show to two live, attractive girls in his bedroom late at night, and she says as much.
The man in the bed stares at J for many long seconds, his eyes moving over the shining hair framing her triangular face, her tits, her long, smooth legs. His eyes come back to her face.
“When it comes to women,” he says finally, “I’ll take the fantasy over the reality in a heartbeat.”
J notices that her mouth is hanging open and snaps it closed. She looks at M, who is glowering at the man, speechless for maybe the first time ever. Then M’s upper lip curls away from her teeth, and J follows her gaze back to the man, whose eyes are once again glued to the television, where two women, a tall blonde and a curvy black woman, have begun to fight. Under the sheet, the man is rubbing himself rhythmically.
J’s face and scalp flush hotly. She feels trapped, as though now she has to stay till the end of the program. But M tips her head toward the door and releases her.
“Sociopath,” M mutters as they pick their way through the living room back to the kitchen. J opens the door of the huge refrigerator and surveys its contents: a head of iceberg lettuce and a poorly wrapped block of cheese with dark, hardened corners, a stout yellow squeeze bottle of mustard.
“This isn’t fun anymore,” J whines. “Everyone hates us.”
In the freezer she finds a half gallon of chocolate chip ice cream, nearly full. She pulls a large spoon from a drawer and begins to eat from the carton, joining M at the table, where she’s filling in squares on a partially completed crossword puzzle with a ballpoint pen. When she doesn’t know the answer, she fills in her own words: “screw,” “you,” “Trekkie,” “asshole.”
1017 WEST AVENUE, JULY
The nursing home smells like piss and fear, like the veterinarian’s clinic where J and her mother took J’s cat to die. M smiles at the red-haired receptionist, then proceeds down the long corridor with J at her heels. J tries not to look at the people contorted in their wheelchairs or lying flat on their backs in bed as though practicing for the coffin. She can feel the cancer growing black and nebulous in their lungs, livers, colons. She can hear the Alzheimer’s worms eating holes in their brains.
Halfway down the hall, M slips into a room and pauses just inside. A woman with cloud-white hair sits in a chair at the window, her lap and legs covered with a red, white, and blue afghan. She turns from the window as though she has heard their breathing. Her eyes are glazed with blue-white winter ice.
“Hazel. It’s Marilyn.”
“You girls. What mischief are you up to today?”
“Us?” M says, and the old woman laughs, high and hoarse and ending on a wheeze, her lips drawn back so you can see her gray teeth—her own original set.
Hazel holds out her crooked, shaking hands, and the girls step forward and take hold of them.
They’re so ugly, J thinks, looking at the knotted knuckles, the huge blue veins, the skin marred with brown spots. But Hazel’s skin is the softest thing she’s ever touched. She wants to stroke the hand, lift it to her face. She keeps hold of Hazel’s hand even after M has let go of the other one. She tells herself it’s because old people aren’t touched enough.
“I like to sit in front of the window,” Hazel says. She says the same thing every time they come. “I can’t see anymore, you know, but I can feel the light on my face.”
They had first seen Hazel sitting in that window from the sidewalk outside, as they were walking for groceries. One set of curtains open and Hazel in the window looking out onto the traffic on West Avenue, her face an invitation.
They wheel Hazel out to the garden. J carries a leather photo album from Hazel’s room. In the gazebo, Hazel turns her face into the breeze and sniffs like an animal, trying to read the day. J opens the book of photographs.
M says, “Look at you in your horn-rimmed glasses.”
Hazel wheezes. “Which album did you take, Jennifer?” She reaches out to touch the cover. “Oh, that’s from the 60s.”
“You’re standing on the steps of a white house,” J says. “You lived there way back in the 60s?”
“Before I came here, I lived there for 50 years,” Hazel says. “On the corner of 13th and Vine.”
J cannot imagine living that long, not to mention in one place. She turns the page.
“Here’s little Carl in his pajamas eating breakfast,” she says.
“Those grandkids liked to stay overnight.”
“Here’s a screen porch with a green wicker couch.”
“The girls and I used to sleep out there in the summer when it was hot,” Hazel says. “So the breeze could get to us. We never had air conditioning.”
“Who lives there now, Hazel?” J asks.
“Oh, they took it down. Students took over that whole area. While I still lived there they tore down the house across the street and the house catty-corner from me, and they put up those cracker boxes and filled them up with students. In the summer, my heavens, they were loud. They would walk home from the bars using the most horrible foul language and pulling the pickets off my fence. What jerks, I always said. But Carl replaced all those pickets. He did such a nice job, too.”
J feels the hollow hunger that lives in her stomach. She takes the photo of Hazel on the front steps out of its plastic sleeve. She’s collecting selected photos and keeping them in her album at home—Hazel and her husband on their wedding day, Hazel and her three dark-haired daughters as little girls, Hazel standing next to Carl, who is sitting on a red tricycle.
J stares at the photo of Hazel’s house. She wants to stand on those steps holding Hazel’s hand, to sit on the wicker sofa and feel the breeze on her neck. She and M could live there with Hazel, and she could teach them how to cook meat loaf and potatoes au gratin, foods that fill a person up.
When M and J leave the nursing home, they walk the short distance to 13th and Vine, where they stand on the northeast corner and look at the building that took the place of Hazel’s house. It’s rectangular and white, with few windows. It seems monstrous to them in its plainness.
J holds up the photograph so it blots out the new building, and Hazel’s house is in the world again, white with green trim and lilac bushes flanking the front door. Inside, there’s something cooking. And there’s Hazel in her horn-rims standing on the steps, welcoming them home.v