Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I have a mouthful of hot tea when it hits. A boom in the walls like a wrecking ball blow, then a whole series of them, pounding. Nothing breaks but the windows snake-rattle in their frames.

You flip to a new page of your magazine and say, “She must bowl in her hallway and get a lot of strikes.”

“No,” I cough. I swallowed weird and huffed a vapor of Earl Gray. “She dresses in a suit of armor and drills Stop, Drop, Roll.”

You laugh and run a hand over my ankle, down my foot that rests next to your butt on the couch, and I’m about to reach for you, too, but then the ceiling shrieks like it’s being raked and instead I spill tea on my shirt.

The building is from the 1930s, downright historic by California standards, with the original molding and hardwood floors but with updated appliances and plumbing. The right kinds of aged charm. Still, boards creak under our feet and knobs stick. The sliding closet doors are arthritic and protesting, a thing we could ignore when ours were the only ones screeching.

Then, a month after I moved in with you, she moved in. The upstairs neighbor. What is she possibly doing up there? we ask each other. The crashing over our heads is incessant. The thumping along the walls, excessive. She doesn’t open and close the closet doors; she tortures them like she’s The Inquisition. How is she so, so noisy?

We propose theories. We say things like, she must hold karate classes for tap dancers. Or, she has a stiletto pogo stick.

 

She wears a pirate costume and can’t get the hang of the peg leg.

 

I moved in with you after my job disappeared, abandoning my own apartment so I could save on rent while I looked for work. The hunt could take a little time, we both acknowledged, smoothing our optimism with healthy, adult realism. The economy is bad, the markets have crashed, a recession has hit—all just different declarations of why normal things are suddenly so difficult, or so gone.

It was a kind thing for you to do, taking me in, but also selfish, we say. You want me here; we are ferociously in love; you don’t even have to leave your place for sex; we would have done this anyway, sooner or later. So what if it’s sooner?

So what if this was the reason?

So what?

 

She juices shell-on coconuts for her all-smoothie diet.

 

Upstairs is young, more so than you and me but not by much. She could be a student at the university but she’s no bubbly sorority girl. I gasped the first time I actually saw her, through our kitchen window, hefting trash bags to the alley. “I think she’s a hunchback!”

You all but ran over. She’s never in the common entranceway we share with the three other units in the building, where the bank of four mailboxes open in the wall with four little keys. She never wanders in circles over the grass out back, talking on her cellphone in the purply twilight the way we do when one of our mothers calls.

We saw I was wrong when she reappeared sans bags, lurching but smooth-shouldered. There’s just something slothy about her, with a twisting, bent quality. She won’t pick up her feet to take proper steps and instead drags them like she’s wearing flip-flops even when she isn’t.

Still, our only sightings are like that first one: through the window, when she carries her huge bags to the alley where the cans are. The bags are stuffed so oddly full for one person. We’re curious, but, when we see them in the cans while taking out our own trash, we’re too skeeved to open them and find out what’s inside.

 

She’s a dominatrix and her whip has bad aim.

Every day that you work, I cook dinner, even though we’re supposed to take turns, the way we still do take turns buying groceries though it’s always you who actually buys them, saying, “Rainy day,” as you fold your hand over my wallet. You’re tired when you come home from the clinic. Your scrubs smell like the nursing procedures you’ve performed all day so although I know you’ve washed your hands so many times your knuckles have chapped, I urge you into the shower because I can’t believe you’re not covered in the essence of conditions whose pictures make me snap shut my laptop when I pull them up on Web MD. So dinner will be ready faster if I make it, because for now, while my master’s degree sits in a shiny frame at the bottom of a hastily packed box of some-of-my-other crap, I’ve got the time to watch a pot of water come to boil. Just for now.

While we eat you ask what I applied to that day and I tell you, explaining why I think I’m qualified, and when you agree it isn’t patronizing, it’s sincere. I let you do the dishes because this house is a democracy, and then we take a walk, another part of our newish routine of Living Together. The trees hang low and shadowed in the evening, tropical species not native but thriving in our California dreamin’ weather, and for some reason I find the whole atmosphere sexual—the trees rudely crevassed and swollen, their leaf-blood smells perversely thick and rich. Or maybe it’s just you walking next to me, holding my hand. I want to shove you against the nearest trunk and press my palms into the clammy cool bark on either side of your face to feel the contrast, since your mouth will be hot, I know.

But we just swing arms and talk, intuiting which streets the other would like to turn down. Half the houses we pass are empty and silent like something underwater. Apparently we’re under siege by a “housing crisis,” but there’s no shortage of houses; we pass them everywhere, vacant and ready. It’s just that the people who need them are no longer allowed to live in them.

Hard times, everyone at the top says. Lean times, end times. Times to test our mettle. They throw theories out like sneezes and I wake up in the morning and eat your cereal and drive, wearing an honest-to-goodness outfit, to fill out job applications in coffee shops so I have somewhere to go, too.

The houses that still have people inside are warm-vibed and aglow with lamps. I’ve already admitted that I like looking into the windows. I like seeing the living rooms and dining rooms arranged, their furniture more modern and sterile or overstuffed and grandmotherly than I can comprehend wanting.

“Does it make me creepy?” I ask, my face turned toward the glass between my life and a stranger’s like they’re a museum exhibit.

“Totally. Creepy McCreeperson.”

If I find a face looking back from a dining chair or recliner, I turn my head away quickly. If I can’t see you then you can’t see me. I wasn’t looking. I was never even here.

 

She runs a bootleg mini golf course up there. The moats explain the water stains on our ceiling, too.

 

I practice answering job interview questions in the shower so I’ll be ready when the call comes.

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

My position was dissolved when the organization lost its funding. Ninety percent of the staff was let go.

That’s unfortunate. And what was the nature of the work you did?

We were a nonprofit who worked, broadly, in community aid. I was a coordinator for our job services department.

Could you elaborate?

Absolutely. I acted as a liaison between employers and agencies, and connected the people we served with them, finding the right fit for individuals who were having a difficult time securing employment due to their experience and situation—so the economically vulnerable, single parents, veterans, people with criminal records, or just people who had been laid off, hilariously. I’m sorry. Not “hilariously.” It’s just funny, but not “ha ha” funny. I just mean it’s ironic, that I used to help people find employment and now I can’t find any. Not because I’m not qualified, of course. It’s just a hard market. Really, I’m a valuable asset. Sorry, I don’t think I’m expressing myself well. Did I use “ironic” correctly, just now?

I don’t think so.

Can I try this again, please?

Sure, but you get one chance to make a first impression, and you just burned it.

I know. Fuck.

 

She has a clumsy poltergeist.

 

The sound is part clatter, part high-pitched whine. Eyes to the ceiling, you propose, “Let’s have really loud sex to get back at her.”

“Okay. We’ll get a headboard with huge pillars made of organ pipes. Put the keyboard under the mattress.”

“Please, you’re loud enough as it is. You, Miss, holler like a cat.”

“You wish.”

“Have you had sex with you? I can’t believe I’m not deaf.”

Just to prove you wrong I tackle you and initiate a round. I prove myself wrong. I pound my fist against the wall a few times to punctuate my oh gods to prove how very wrong.

Why don’t we say anything to Upstairs, ever? Poke the offending ceiling with a broom handle? Chuck a tennis ball against it the way we learned in college dormitories to give a warning knock? We could go to her door and politely ask if she’s aware that people live beneath her, and that sound is a thing that travels? Leave a note, like chicken shits. But we never do. Even if we were, finally, to come face-to-face with her on the front walk or at the mailboxes, we would say nothing.

Because she is young and alone and clueless. Because she is possibly sad and definitely weird. Her weaknesses are also her defense; the same reasons we hate her make us love her, in that humane, Thy-Neighbor-Golden-Rule way. Agape, like my Renaissance humanities professor drilled us on years ago—the Latin for love based on charity. Far superior to cupiditās, base and carnal love, the kind you and I splatter the sheets with. I can smell it on my hands, on my upper lip, as I move around the house an hour after you’ve left for work, before I do the thing I don’t want to and wash us off.

I wonder if she can hear us? I think we’re considerate but maybe we forget ourselves and let shampoo bottles fall in the shower, get too many ringing phone calls, laugh too loudly while we have each other and she has no one.

 

She’s a watermelon farmer and Gallagher is her secret roommate.

 

“How did you even remember Gallagher?”

“How did you?”

 

She practices her lumberjacking on model trees.

 

We take a long walk after dinner, cross the highway, and pass the university’s sprawling grounds and the five-story hospital where you work. Beyond that lies the open land with its peppering of trees and there, against the twilight, the distant lamps of the tent city glow.

At first, there were newspaper stories covering the fights in the city meetings and the courts, about all the newly homeless still being part of the public and therefore, entitled to access public land. When the land was finally allowed, the fights began about how much of a shelter is too much. Fabric and coverings, fine, but wood and structure, no. Personal possessions okay but furniture, absolutely not. If someone crossed a line, Demolition was called in.

I look hard at the sky above the small, weak lights—hung lanterns, propped flashlights—and search it for smoke. I like picturing that they have a fire going to warm their hands and cook their food, a nucleus around which everyone gathers in the evening like family. But I know better. The real city said fires are prohibited and would cause the tent city to be shut down. “Shut down,” like an amusement park ride. Like it wouldn’t be torn down, mown down.

“Can you imagine being Demolition?” I ask.

“No. It would be horrible,” you say, brows bent under sincere ache, and I remember why I love you for time ten thousand and eighteen.

I look back at the pale shapes of fabric roofs sitting still as a lake. I say, “It’s like someone turned off their lives. Like a switch.”

“They’re not dead.”

“But they’re gone. They disappeared from the rest of us. Like a light gone off. Click.”

And as though I’m a wizard, one of the far-away tiny lights vanishes. You shiver. “Let’s go home,” you say. You put your arm around me, warm.

 

She’s testing the gravity of her entire shoe closet.

 

Which must be extensive: packages upon packages for her arrive via UPS, from Penney’s and Zappos and whatever girl chic boutique. We know because the UPS guy has to ring the buzzer several times until you finally let him into the common entranceway—she never answers the building’s front door herself. Ever. You politely set her packages at the foot of the stairs where she’s sure to see them. “Jesus,” the UPS guy says to you. “She orders a lot of shit.”

For what? She must never go out, because she’s never not-here, making noise. She never has anyone over. Every time I see her she’s in sweatpants, worn thin and showing off the way her underwear cuts a line into her rump like string around a roast.

We come through the building’s front door to no packages where there was a small pyramid. They’re always gone the next time we look. I tell you in a whisper that I think she orders things on the internet expressly so she can cram them, item by item, into trash bags so she’ll have something to carry into the alley.

You aren’t listening. Someone has dropped their junk mail—again—on the floor in front of the mailboxes, and you rant as you crouch to pick it up. People in this building have no respect. We should move. I can’t deal with this anymore.

I rustle a hand through your hair in a half-baked show of solidarity. You’re generally cheery but this kind of thing gets your back up, the blatant disregard of others. Oil spills because contractors cut corners. Taxes hiked as teacher salaries are gutted. Tainted beef. Our neighbors parking badly so they take up just enough of the curb for our car to not fit. Et cetera. You believe in the simple math of one good deed deserving another. I know part of why you first noticed me, fell in love with me, is what I do for a living. Did.

 

She has to dribble a basketball five hundred times a day as part of her religion.

 

I’ve brainstormed all the ways I could freelance, stamping myself with ambiguous, jargony titles. I’ve posted myself to Craigslist like an old dresser that, it turns out, no one needs.

“I might try for a job at a store,” I tell you. I’ve been mulling it over. Retail hell versus unemployment hell.

“And make minimum wage?”

“It’s what a lot of people make.”

“You’re not a lot of people.”

“That is so fucking elitist.”

“I just mean you’re too qualified. Something will give. Wait it out.”

“But while I’m waiting I could make a little money. Help out.”

“You help out plenty.”

“No, I don’t. At all. I’m like a dependent.”

“Cut it out.”

“It’s weird. I want to do more.”

You kiss me. “Just find your dream job.”

“I’m not an invalid. I don’t need babied.”

The next day I bring home hanger steaks and a too-nice bottle of wine, bought on my dollar just to make the point, any point. You smile and we grill them and drink the whole bottle until we’re singing with the radio making croonie, disgusting music video faces at each other, but that night as I’m drifting to sleep I feel you whisper on my neck, “Hey, Big Spender, don’t do that again. I just want you here.” And right then and only right then, in the seashell of the moment that is your legs tucked behind my legs tucked behind yours, that’s good enough.

 

She runs a derby for those mini Icelandic ponies around her coffee table.

 

Nights when we get home late and park across the street, we can see into the top half of her bedroom because her blinds are always open, windows lit for the long night of whatever-in-the-world ahead. We can see that she has shelves hung and on them, figurines of horses standing in lines. They stare across the room at the opposite wall on which are taped posters. Of horses. Horses standing in the grass next to a weather-worn fence. Horses running through a field of poppies. Horses asserting themselves in her bedroom, everywhere, like saints in a Catholic church.

 

She’s a stay-at-home bullfighter, and her apartment is a china shop.

 

All of the stores I apply to tell me the same thing: try again in the fall for the holidays. Which is months from now. Which reminds me that the six-month grace period on my student loans will end soon. If I still don’t have a job, I’ll need to defer the payments again, for further “hardship.” How can I claim hardship when we drink eleven-dollar-a-pound organic Fair Trade coffee every morning? How can I pay on my loans when I have forty-seven dollars in my checking account and nightmares about finally, finally having to ask you for gas money?

I have a dream that I stop on the sidewalk to look into a window. I step closer and feel the wet, slight suck of lawn and soil on my feet. The light through the window is dim and golden like it’s filtered through a glass of beer. Inside is our bed, and you’re in it asleep, and as I stare longer I start to feel my skin crawl before I realize why, even before I’m hit with the sudden knowledge that you’re not alone, that I’m there, too, but in the mattress, sealed, like a Bog Man in the mud.

You’re awake with me. “Bad dream?” you ask.

“Yeah.”

“You jumped. Were you falling?”

“Yeah. One of those falling dreams.”

You try to pet my face but your arms are sleep-clumsy and you only mash your hand into my nose like wiping it. You say, I was dreaming about parrots, weird, huh? and then, We should go to brunch tomor, and then your breath is deep again.

Six months of grace, which is another word for charity. We understand that it can take up to six months to find a job, of course, good luck. But longer than that and clearly, you’re the problem.

 

She mines for copper wire in the walls with an old-fashioned pickaxe.

 

“And dynamite.”

“Yes, but saves that for nights I have to get up early.”

 

Her kitchen tiles are tectonic. Her floorboards calve like glaciers.

 

“Can you get some more coffee today?” you ask. “We’re out.”

You’re making the movements of an early morning bustle—mouthwash gurgling, keys jingling. Your scrubs are the color of Comet.

I plant my feet into the floor. “Why don’t you get it on your way home?”

“Can you just get it? It’s easier. I’ll have to backtrack, you know.”

You don’t say that I have nowhere else to be and you do, but I hate you momentarily even if you didn’t because it’s true.

It’s not your fault I’m in a bad mood. I did it to myself. Yesterday I walked to the view of the tent city alone, like I owed it to them to visit, to witness.

The thing is, they had begun to disappear before they moved out there, so when they finally did, no one noticed. Phone calls had already stopped coming, friends had quit inviting them out because they knew they couldn’t afford it and that’s so awkward. Even if they could have bought a new shirt, they had no reason to because they couldn’t wonder how everyone at the office would like it. They were winnowed down to one random name in an applicant pool of hundreds, seen for a moment and flushed—there are new, sinister reports of applications being sorted by computer programs combing resumes for keywords, an algorithm of not-giving-a-shit.

If I buy a new shirt and you, the only person who sees me anymore, fail to notice, do I still exist?

Your kiss pelts the top of my head. “I left money in the dish. Oh hey, and bananas? I’m having this weird craving.”

 

She runs a shelter for hair band drummers laid off between tours.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization folded unexpectedly.

I see. Was it something you did?

No, I was great at my job. A real asset. Pardon me, but was it alright that I used the word “folded” in that context?

Yes, it showed you’re casual under pressure. Confident, but a real human being.

Good. I was worried it was unprofessional.

That too. Get out.

 

She’s a freelance crash test dummy with a home studio.

 

I still write two to three cover letters a day but I’ve stopped going to coffee shops, to save on gas and the overpriced cup of tea it takes to rent a table and Wi-Fi. I could ask you for help, but already, you bound into the house evenings in your athletic shoes, fit and flushed with your day, and I feel sexy as a run-over lizard. Putting on anything but fuzzy plain garments in concrete colors feels vulgar so I don’t. When you joke that it’s like I’ve joined a cloister of monks, the Order of the Brothers of Hanes, I smile, but when you repeat it I realize it isn’t a joke, it’s a protest without the sack to say so, and I pull my hood further over my hair.

One of the diners I dropped a resume at actually calls, but only to say they can’t hire me because I’m overqualified, and have no restaurant experience—so, under-qualified. I am cancelling myself out. I have a dream about the tent city, only now I’m in it, in one of the tents, and I can’t sleep because someone is outside the canvas stitching away, closing its seams, and I start to panic because I realize they haven’t left an opening for a door. Then suddenly I’m outside, looking at all of the tents spread for miles, only we’re underground, soil hanging over our heads where sky should be, clumps and roots like clouds with worms tunneling through in tendrils graceful as hair in a breeze and the real world happening above us, banging loudly overhead on its way. So loudly.

I wake up, and I can tell you do, too, when you roll over. I squint at the clock’s digital face, see that we’re looking at midnight in the rearview mirror. A sound chews the ceiling, roaming and destroying.

“It’s like a rolling pin on a spine,” you say.

“Yeah. A giant spine.”

“But also like a tree mulcher.”

“Eating a giant spine.”

“Oh my god. She can’t be.”

She can. She is vacuuming.

 

She plays Whack-a-Mole with blacksmithing equipment. And iron moles.

 

Why were you at your last job only nine months?

The organization lost its funding. Nearly everyone was let go from the bottom, up.

And you think you gained enough experience in that time to qualify you for this job?

Well—

More than the other ten percent of the state’s population who are also out of work?

Uh—

Who had careers while you were still in high school? Who have families to feed?

I—

We’re waiting.

 

She’s a tattoo artist for mannequins, the hard plaster ones, and her gun is a semi-automatic.

 

It’s part of our new routine of living together, me asking if I should just not live here anymore. (As if I have the option, or any options.) We fight, and I ask it, though it comes out more like an accusation than a question. I say I’m tired of you pitying me, so I can’t imagine you aren’t tired of it. When you say you aren’t, I grow suspicious. You say, “Oh Jesus, I meant I don’t pity you, not that I’m not tired of it.”

“So you’re not tired of pitying me?”

“Are you hearing yourself?”

“All I’m saying is, the power must be seductive. It would be for anyone.”

“Oh my god, are you fucking kidding? Yeah, I like lording it over you.”

“I’m just saying you must have your reasons for doing it.”

“How about that I love you? Or maybe I’m just, I don’t know, nice?”

You sit down on the floor like I’ve exhausted the legs right off you. You say, “How can you love me but not believe that I’m good?”

“But you’re the only one who gets to be good. That’s the problem. You give and I take. Can you imagine how that feels? How low it makes me feel?”

“Why would you even say that to me?”

Why would I? I can almost see myself like I’m watching my own body, how gnarled I’ve become, hunching over my reasonings like they’re food, a kill. Why can I say the worst things and not manage the truest? That I’m scared and going crazy and don’t know what to do anymore because I want to be here because I want to, not out of need, because wanting is the state of lovers and need the state of charity cases. I want to be able to just want again.

“I just want you back,” you say. You’re crying a little, in your quiet way. It’s the second time I’ve made you cry in a week, and all I can think is, why are you still making this about you?

 

Bees. Just lots of bees.

I get an email, asking if I’m available to come in for an interview the day after tomorrow. It’s for a real job I applied to two months ago, three maybe, with a real salary at a real company.

The night before I go in, I take an extra long shower, for the practice.

 

After dark, she turns into a giant hamster and rolls around in one of those plastic balls. A huge one.

 

The back porch of her place hangs directly over ours and, suddenly, it’s full of cages. There are five of them, the kind of wire cell in which you would keep a larger animal like a chinchilla, or a team of hamsters. They’re all empty.

This new development sets us ablaze. We say, she’s the general of a hamster army. The bedroom horsies fight the hamster squadron in cacophonous, tiny battles.

It’s like someone has opened a window between us. Light and air rush in. We say, she has a huge rodent tail she unrolls when no one’s around. That’s the sound of it wagging into things.

You laugh until you have to hold your stomach and that makes me laugh and I still can’t get over how great your smile is when it’s split wide like that, when you’ve really given it all away.

 

Two words: River. Dance.

 

I get a phone call this time. They want to do a second interview—I’ve made it to the round of final candidates. They use my first name like they know me.

You insist on cooking dinner, celebration-mode, treating-me-mode, and when our plates are empty you ask if I want to go for a walk but I shake my head and start kissing you, “start” because I’m beginning something. For a crazy moment when we’ve peeled down to nothing but us, I worry I’ve forgotten how to do it. But I haven’t, and anyway it’s like riding a bicycle—you, my sweet bad bicycle, when we come it’s like coming home.

 

She’s hoarded the Terra Cotta Warriors, who she puts on fashion shows for, and if one doesn’t like her outfit she breaks him with a blow dart.

 

“Elaborate.”

“Too much?”

“No. Well-played, actually. You’re my hero.”

 

She practices The Worm wearing rollerblading gear.

 

The call comes just as I’ve gotten home. I found a perfect parking spot and have to set down the bags of groceries on the sidewalk to answer my cell. I take a breath when I see it’s the company.

They loved me. I’m perfect for the job, a great fit for the direction they want to go, and I was their top pick. There have been unanticipated budgetary changes, and they can’t hire for the position after all. They wish me the best. Someone else will be lucky to get me.

I say thanks, pocket my phone, and pick up the grocery bags, all of which is a miracle because my hands are numb. Contending with the keys inside the common entranceway, I stop.

She’s there. Upstairs.

We gape like two different species meeting suddenly at a watering hole. She stands at the boxes, and I see that her hands are small, almost child-sized, around her mail. Her bottom lip doesn’t quite close to her top as she breathes. Her skin looks like she picks at her face too much.

I look directly into her eyes, which are brown. I say, “I didn’t get a job I interviewed for.”

There is a slide like in a child’s playland between our eyes and I am sliding down it, whoosh, smooth, so I will end up in the pit that holds her heart and she will end up in mine with my heart and we will know each other. I say, “That happens to me all the time, not getting jobs, but this time was supposed to be different. I had two interviews.”

She stares.

“Two. They were very serious about me and they just called to tell me I didn’t get it.”

Her eyes are blank.

“Just now,” I say. “On the sidewalk out there, I got the call.”

“Huh,” she says. She turns to lurch up her stairs, and before she does she drops her unwanted mail to the floor. The PennySaver flutters down like so many given-up leaves and comes to rest at my feet. Forty percent off window tinting.

When I walk into our apartment, I throw the front door shut behind me. I slide the grocery bags over the floor, releasing them down and out like they’re bowling balls and when they fall over, I don’t set them upright, I don’t inspect my damage. Instead I walk in a circle around the biggest part of the room, the spot with the most empty square-footage, as fast as I can without running. When I’ve made a perfect middle with my walking, I hop into it, bending at the knees, and squeeze my skull between my hands hard, feeling that I can’t crush it no matter how I try—I am cancelling myself out, I am stronger than I am strong. Some cherry tomatoes have escaped their plastic prison and are making a break for it across the floor, but I ignore them and go straight for the coffee, seizing it and feeling the beans give under my fingers like bugs as I carry it to the kitchen and there, I begin. I start to grind the whole bag, and when that doesn’t do it I have a moment of great inspiration, kissed by tongues of flame am I, and set the grinder on the glass cutting board, the one we hate and hardly use because the shrill clack of the knife coming down on it is so awful, the bony rattle of it rocking on the tile counter with our movements is so awful. But I want it, I want it this loud when I pour in the beans and hold down the button and let it wail, just fucking wail, louder than it should be, than it even believably could be, because I need all of you to know that I’m here, I’m here—for who knows how long—I am here.