The apartment was empty the first time she saw it. The stairwell smelled like dumplings from the Chinese restaurant two floors down. Sherbie opened the door for her, and he was smiling already. He stepped aside so she could see it first. He’d looked at every listing and this place was the one. Check out the floorboards, he said. They’ve got a real patina. It had been built in the 1850’s. The floors were wide pine planks worn down at the center. The window glass was wavy. It has a loft-like feel, he was saying. They don’t make rooms like this anymore, at least not in the city. Two huge bedrooms and a dining room with three bay windows that still had most of their leading. She wouldn’t miss home in a place like this, especially when it snowed.
Sherbie was full of plans. He’d fix the kitchen floor where it was rotten. He already knew how to lay linoleum, and he’d make a checkerboard pattern. The landlord wouldn’t mind. He was one of those rent control landlords who didn’t pay attention to what his tenants did. They’d paint the rooms and cover up the crayon marks, and she could pick the colors. There’d be room for her jewelry studio in the extra bedroom, at least until it was a nursery. They’d figure these things out as they went along. People aren’t trees, he said. We aren’t meant to stay one place forever. Even your mom would say so.
Rachel walked the hallway between the bedrooms. The doorknobs and hinges had been painted so many times they looked like melted wax. She went into the dining room because that was the center of the house. It had a built-in oak cabinet with drawers for their dishes and a rail to display their plates. There were crayons wedged in the gap between the baseboards and the floor. She found a little plastic figurine of a cow sitting on the heater. She took it and cupped it in her hand. They’d driven two thousand miles from Boulder, and she needed to say yes. It was May already and there wasn’t that much time.
Sherbie came up behind her and latched his arms around her waist. They looked together out the window at people strolling on the sidewalk. Some were eating ice cream cones from the creamery a few doors down. There’s a coffeehouse on the corner, he was saying. We can walk to a Whole Foods, but she thought only about this room, this perfect room with its bay windows. Everything was dusty and the windowpanes were spotty, but the afternoon light came slanting through them and she could have a ficus here or maybe a dwarf lemon. This was a room where things could grow.
Sherbie started with the kitchen floor. He used a utility knife to cut the linoleum into strips and then a heat gun to soften up the glue. It’d be easier if it were concrete, he kept saying. The glue really sticks to the wood. He was wrecking his hands and the place wasn’t even theirs, but he didn’t listen when she said so. This was practice for when they had a house, and it was good to do these projects together because in another three weeks she’d be on her own. His first year would be brutal. He’d be on call every third day. On paper he’d be working eighty hours a week, but it would really be closer to a hundred and twenty.
He opened up the bathroom wall when the floor was done and set a medicine cabinet between the studs. She held the hammer for him and helped him with the paint. He fished out newspapers from inside the wall. Advertisements for digestive crackers. Clippings from the Boston Sunday Globe with stories of Fu-Manchu. The Golden Scorpion in installments from 1922, the Slave Girl of Stamboul. They were turning to powder at the edges, and Sherbie held them up to look at the colored pictures. An Indian head penny wedged behind the studs. A cracked ivory button that had belonged to a lady once. It was carved like a flower and she might have worn it on her sleeve. This one’s a beauty, he said. Maybe you can use it in a necklace. It’s better than a treasure hunt all these things we’re finding.
The neighbor downstairs was a concert pianist from Beijing. She played the same piece again and again. It sounded like a funeral song and the melody worked its way through the walls. There was a little boy in the building who never smiled or waved. His hair was curly, and his jeans were always dirty. Tiny little bell bottoms that were frayed along the edges. He couldn’t be older than six, but he walked like a little man. Sometimes he took the garbage down the back stairs to the dumpsters. The Chinese restaurant kept its mop buckets back there, and she told him to be careful. Watch your step, she said. Hold on to the railing, and he stopped as if stricken at the sound of her voice. He ran away when she came close.
She set up her jewelry station in the second bedroom. She sorted her pearls and her stringing silks and all her sterling wire. She bought liners for the closet drawers and velvet curtains for the windows. She found them online at Target and hemmed them so they’d fit. It had been years since she used her sewing machine, but her hands remembered how it went. Fresh paint for the dining room in sage and winter wheat. Wire shelving units that took days to put together and she cut herself on the corners. Bamboo shades and carpet tiles she found on sale, a braided ficus tree. She worked in a sports bra and her running shorts because the days were getting warmer. She had one of those cooling visors and kept it in the fridge. Sometimes she forgot to eat, and it was nine o’clock at night and she stood there in her sneakers with a bowl of Frosted Flakes. Cereal and vitamins were all her body needed.
The Laundromats and shabby grocery stores, the delicatessen with the roaches. The Portuguese lady at the bakery who had a lazy eye. The sky wasn’t blue enough. Nothing was new in the city. Nothing was shiny or clean. People looked down when they walked. They were in a hurry or on the phone or busy with their babies. They didn’t see her or say hello. Nobody outside called her by her name. All those climbing vines she’d never seen before. The alum root and the merrybells that grew between the houses, and she never knew which way to go because there weren’t any mountains.
She was at day twelve again, and he needed to come home. Sherbie looked tired when he came through the door. He only had an hour. Just two weeks into his first month and his skin had gone a little gray. His breath was sour from all the coffee he drank. He smelled like sweat and disinfectant soap, and he rolled off her when he was done and fell asleep on his stomach. She lay with two pillows under her pelvis because it helped to keep the pathway raised. He’d been talking about endocrinologists again. She was almost forty, and he knew the best ones in the state. She didn’t listen when he started. She knew her rhythms the way sailors know the tides. It was only a matter of time. That’s what her friend Eleanor said, and Eleanor knew these things.
Her father died at fifty-three and what did she remember? A December morning and the flakes were falling and he was outside under the elm. His cigarette burned in that snow-still air. The birthmark in his left iris that made his eye so black. People fade like photographs if you let them. Time will bleed out all their colors. Her mother who pulled the tubes out from his arm when everything was done. The doctors were slow in coming. Her hair was long until the day she died because someday soon he’d see her. How would he know her if she cut it? Remember these things and keep them. They’re the only thing that’s yours.
The little boy followed her up the stairwell on a Monday in late July. He came into the apartment and went straight to her beads and crystals. She had a strand of blue labradorites. They sparked like opals, and he took them to the dining room windows so he could see them flash. His name was Bobby. Blue and green were his favorite colors, that’s what he told her. Blue and green like the water when they used to visit his grandma Villares. She lived in Puerto Rico and she’d take him to the balcony so he could see the water. He used to go every year to visit, but now she lived with him. What about your momma, Rachel asked, but Bobby shook his head.
Sherbie looked like a mad scientist the way his hair was mussed. He sat in the living room with a can of Fresca and held it against his cheek. It’s nothing like I thought it’d be, he said. A patient sat bolt upright the moment he died. A twenty-three year old graduate student. A physics star at MIT with multiple organ failure, and he held the bars beside his bed like a stairway banister. The heart stops first and then the tissues, but the brain can live for hours. The neurons die one by one. It’s like a camera lens closing, he said. The way the eye grows dark. She wanted him to stop. She wanted him to be quiet, but Eleanor told her to listen even when he’s wrong.
Eleanor’s husband was a sailor. His ship had left from Portsmouth and he wouldn’t be back until September when the baby came. She knew it was a girl. She could tell from the way her belly was hanging. She’d name her Clara like her mother and her baby sister who had died at three. Her sisters would come when it was time and old Mrs. Erdwine from the second floor. They’d sit with her when the grinding pains stopped and the forcing pains began and they’d help her when she was lying in because that’s what ladies did.
The air felt gentle when Eleanor came to visit. The breeze blew a little cooler. They sat together in their chairs and watched the street below, and the city looked so peaceful through the glass. The buildings and all those empty fields where children played until their mothers called them home. Eleanor grew ferns in her dining room. She had them in glass cases. She grew jasmine, too, and a fat snake plant, and life was sweet there by the window. So much easier than it was back home in Maine. Eleanor had crossed the Kennebec River every winter when she was a girl. She was full of stories. She’d walked over it on foot and sometimes the ice was thin in places out by the Bumberhook. It was nothing but a crust. She broke through one morning and the water reached her waist before she pulled herself out. Some years the river froze in October and didn’t open until May and now she was in the city and it was easy to forget winter and how its winds could blow.
Remember the heaviness of the air just before the thunder. Her father leaving in his drab fatigues, her mother in the kitchen. The curve of the street where Roosevelt changed to Hudson and the wind in the Ponderosa needles, how it made them bend and hum. Running the track behind the Monroe School all those summer afternoons. Red rocks and red dust and the mountains cradled the city. Her father in his workshop with wood shavings in his hair. He always waved when he left for base. Six o’clock in the morning and Rachel watched him from the door. Down the stones and through the chain link gate where he parked his yellow Swinger. When he waved he never looked back because he knew that she was there.
August came and the air was perfectly still. Each day was hotter than the one that came before and the nights brought no relief. The wall fans and the couple moaning across the alley way, the sour smell of cabbage. She lay on top of her blanket, and Sherbie was fast asleep. The blanket was soaked from her sweat, but the heat didn’t bother him any. He lay on his belly like somebody who’d fallen from a building. He didn’t snore and he didn’t move and if he dreamt he never said so. The lady downstairs was practicing again. She finished and started again and she never slept, that lady. In two hundred years she’d still be playing that song.
Rachel turned her pillow over, but the underside wasn’t any cooler. She waited for Bobby. Nights like this he liked to visit. Her little boy with the curly hair and his eyes were hazel blue. Sometimes he had bruises on his cheeks. Sometimes his chin was cut. He broke his crayons just to hear them snap. He marked the dining room walls and always in the same place, but she didn’t scold him or give him trouble. That sweet little boy who reached for her arm and he told her not to be afraid.
Look at all the Asian girls in pretty summer dresses. They were gathered like butterflies in the hospital courtyard, and Sherbie was there between them. Cardiology residents and ophthalmologists, future ob/gyns. They laughed and held their plates while Brazilian men in white aprons walked around with skewers. She should come along, Sherbie had said, because spouses were invited, but Sherbie was with them now and they spoke their own language. He looked so young standing in the sun. Sometimes she forgot he wasn’t even thirty. She was shaking when they got home, and she didn’t know why. She had to steady herself against the dining room wall. The sun came through the windows, and it was almost like water how it rippled against the plaster.
The midwife knew how to give clysters and how to poultice wounds. She could cure a chin-cough and the colic and St. Vitas dance. She didn’t need a hook to coax the babies out. Three hundred six live babies she’d birthed, two hundred ninety-four single births and six mothers who had twins. There was nobody better, and still it wasn’t enough. The baby was obstructed. The baby was in breech. It was August and children were outside playing and there was no turning the baby around. Not the midwife, not the doctor and his forceps, not Mrs. Erdwine with her rosary who knelt beside the door. All things are written before we are born. All things pass and our suffering, too. Blessed be God in his boundless Goodness. Blessed be His only Son.
She was using a toothbrush on the grout when Sherbie called. Hey, you, he said to the machine, it’s easier if I stay here. He came home only every third day. He measured sleep by the minutes. He’d lost twenty pounds since he started there, and all his pants were loose. He looked like an old old man and like a boy of ten, and Rachel kept his winter jacket on a hook beside the door. Any day now the weather would turn. She didn’t pick up the phone because her hands were dirty. I’ll see you when I see you, Sherbie said, and there were women’s voices in the background and ringing telephones. Sherbie said the hospital was like a city where nobody ever slept.
Another day or even two wouldn’t make a difference because she wasn’t in her window. She scrubbed the grout and pulled crayons out from under the baseboards. She gathered them up and tossed them, but she always missed a few. She washed the dining room walls next. The markings were coming back through the paint, faint tracings of blue and green that got darker every day. She should have primered the walls better. She should have used three coats of paint instead of two because now everything looked dirty. She tried toothpaste and turpentine and those Mr. Clean sponges, but all she did was smear the wax.
Kevin Dowd died on the basketball court the summer before ninth grade. The doctors didn’t know why his heart just stopped. Sometimes there isn’t any reason. Daryl Lemosany went tailgating on Academy, Kirsten Goodbough took too many pills, and those were just the ones from middle school. All the people who went away since college. Suicide and suicide, bicycle crashes. ALS at thirty-four and a quick decline. It began with a single tremor at a LoDo gym. Rockclimbing and melanomas, plane crashes in Turkey. Her mother took her vitamins like they were a magic elixir, and none of it mattered and none of it helped. Everyone falls away, this is what she learned. The culling is relentless as gravity, as the shining sun.
Four days without Sherbie. Five days and six of the walls were in the wrong places, why hadn’t she noticed this before? The kitchen needed to be smaller, and there should be a pantry with cupboards and a countertop where Eleanor liked to roll her dough. The parlor was a bedroom now, but it used to have a piano and a fireplace and that’s where Eleanor kept her finches. A pair of them in a golden cage with matching wire turrets. It was like Eden before the fall, and they needed to bring it back. She found the hammer in the hallway closet. She found a rusty pry bar, too, that was flecked with yellow paint.
There was horsehair in the plaster. She used the hammer to break it open to the lath, which was attached with square iron nails. She popped out some of the boards and set the pry bar into the cavity, leaning hard against it. The lath resisted at first, and then it came out in pieces with the plaster still attached. The air went milky from the dust. It was fine as flour and covered the leaves of the ficus tree and turned them gray and yellow. It fell on the dining table and the carpet tiles, caking her skin where she was sweaty. She coughed and her eyes watered and she should have gotten some goggles and a mask but she kept on going, breaking the wall open one piece at a time. The hole was three feet across before she stopped to rest. Three feet, five feet and then eight, and she was only starting. She worked her way across the wall toward the built-in cabinet. She used her kitchen stepstool and the plaster turned to drywall which came out in jagged pieces. There was a cavity up there above the cabinet, three feet deep just like the built-ins. That was where Bobby said she needed to look.
They were her shelter, these people. They were her only company. She quivered when they came to visit, she was their tuning fork. Eleanor and her footling daughter, Bobby who cracked his skull against the tub the night his stepmom shook him. He’d left the garbage on the stairs once too many times. The baby she’d given the doctors the summer she left for college. They used suction and the needle. Her mother drove her to the clinic and she took the secret with her. A dozen dead from cholera in 1866. Patrick Miller the shoemaker and little Eddy K. who was only seven, and those poor men at the cracker-bakery who drank the dirty water. Rufus Wyman stopped to help. He tended to the sick until it took him, too, and there were always more.
She sat by the dining room window and held her boy whose eyes were gold and blue. She was in her September window and Sherbie needed to hurry. Four o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was shining through the panes. That sickly yellow light that turned everything to amber and the noise outside from the horses and the hammering. Men were working even on Sundays. They built over the bee balm and the day lilies, the last foxgloves of the season. The city smelled like tar and sawdust and burning paper, and it was growing one building at a time.
He’d fuss about the walls when he saw them. What in hell have you done, he’d say. How are we going to fix this? He’d talk about the landlord and the deposit and how hard it’d be to patch the holes. They’d need a drywall guy and it would take a miracle to match the texture. He was right, of course. She needed to finish what she’d started, but it was hot and the plaster dust stung her eyes. She’d do it in October when the air was cooler. She’d tear out the walls and carry them down to the dumpsters one bucket at a time.
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