Tuesday before last, I left my job early, telling them cramps, but really just being too hung over to sit in my cube coughing and waiting for death. Since I am not good enough to "freelance," I have to suffer the daily indignity of a cube--smelling other people's reheated Chinese food and microwave popcorn, overhearing about their mundane sex lives and car troubles as their phone blather seeps through the burlap-covered burgundy partitions that define our places in the company. I am an illustrator for anatomy textbooks, which means that I can make a hand look like a hand, render a nerve damaged on paper. It pays well enough, so it is a good job for a person like me, someone with just enough education and who knows where everything is connected, but without much interest in rearranging it. For a couple of years, I went to school with the idea of becoming a nurse. Things were going well until my second year of nursing school, when I had to start working with live patients. The feel of real blood and guts between my fingers did not fit into the relationship that I had tried to establish with the world. This realization coincided with some personal problems that I was having (female problems) and, with the help of a kind-hearted instructor, I was able to withdraw with only a limited tuition liability. She was the one who suggested that I might like to work as an illustrator because I had written on my withdrawal slip that the smell of people made me sick. I did not anticipate that office work would also be infused with so many decidedly human aromas. There is no avoiding it I suppose; the smell of people seems to follow me wherever I go.
So on that Tuesday that I finally decided to utilize a sick day, thereby getting paid to do at home what I was doing at work, the hunchback girl was sitting out on the stoop in front of her building. Waiting. Fitz told me that she moved in about two weeks before I did, with the boyfriend moving his stuff in on a night about a week after that. The people in my neighborhood watch things like that and make notes. They sit outside and drink on the stoop that joins the two buildings. Marcel from Ireland. Ted and Jeannie who are getting married in a few years. Fitz, the gravedigger/night janitor who was in some war or another. Paul the computer guy. Me. The apartments are tiny and cheap. The security deposit is only half a month's rent, which is why I took it. That alone brings the kind of people that need to move in a hurry, which is really a special class of people in itself. If the apartments were any cheaper, they would be public housing, so the people that live here are either poor or lazy, or as in my own case, an awful hybrid of the two. There are no children living in the complex of one-bedroom apartments. Somehow, that keeps us from feeling poor. We are not real poor, just the kind of poor that comes from having no money. Not the kind that festers into poverty.
She was right by the mailbox, so I had to look at her. By accident I said hello, a habit instilled in me by a shy but pleasant mother. She said hello back, wiping the hair out of her eyes. I coughed and stopped to check my mail. The box was jammed full of supermarket fliers and 15-percent-off coupons. The lock is rusted, so each time I open it, I have to kind of shave it off. As I understand it, this weakens the integrity of the lock.
"I'm locked out," I heard her say as I was walking up the stairs. Her voice was flat in the middle and round on the ends. It didn't sound good to hear.
After hesitating too long for politeness, I asked if she wanted to use my phone.
"My boyfriend should be home soon," she said, declining my false offer of friendship.
The smoke alarm in the hall was beeping like a cricket. I could still hear it when I shut my door. Then, I couldn't help it. Maybe it was the sound of a cricket that made me think of better days, or the feeling that my life was in jeopardy. Either way, I made a space in the blinds with my peace fingers and looked at her through the murky glass. For a few seconds, I watched her through the blinds. Just sitting there with her shoulders slumped forward in her yellow uniform shirt, knees up to her chest to cover her bloated belly. I wondered if her boyfriend with the loud voice even knew that she was pregnant. She started to hum and move her fingers in the air, like the teensy-weensy spider. I wondered how he would be able to hold a baby since it sounded like he dropped things a lot. From my window, it sounded like she had some female problems of her own.
I curled up on the couch and fell asleep. I dreamt of losing my fish, finding instead a pair of roller skates in his bowl. Then, the dream dissolved into snow, not the real kind but the kind on a television. Eventually I woke up and boiled some water for soup.
When I went to take my garbage out, she was still there.
"What time is he coming home?" I asked because I had to.
"Soon I think," she said.
Turning around on the stairs, I asked if she was sure about using my phone. There was no other way to get the teensy-weensy spider out of my head.
"I guess I should."
She followed me up the stairs, her limping leg thumping an irregular rhythm on the stairs. All of that rising and falling action made me nervous. I didn't really want her in my apartment, but that was where the phone was. I held onto the railing tightly, willing her not to fall.
She pointed out that my name wasn't on my door. I told her I took it off.
The resident manager had put little name stickers on all of the doors one day. Jeannie said she thought it was meant to foster closer inter-tenant relations (she's a teacher). A week later, two people were served with eviction notices that were tacked to their doors, right under the name tags. I wasn't afraid of eviction, but I didn't want to come home and find bad news at my door either. That female problem that I mentioned.
I went into the bathroom to give her some privacy. There isn't really any place else to go in those apartments. The angel statue that Fitz gave me was on the windowsill. He had soaked her in water to soften the plaster, then broke her wings off. He gave it to me because even without wings, he'd said, she kept flying around his place. I traded him a draft sketch of an esophagus and told him I knew what to do. A lot of things flew around his apartment, he said, as he carefully plucked at the curls left on the drawing by the spiral binding of my sketchpad. I put Band Aids where her wings should have been and kept the angel in my bathroom. The steam from the shower melts her a little every day, but I just wipe her down and change her dressings. No one knows that I do this, not even Fitz. Mostly because I like it and partly because keeping secrets makes me feel secure.
The hunchback girl's muffled voice came through the bathroom wall, even over the running water. Not any words really, just a lot of wha, wha, wha. It got quieter, then a little louder, then she hung up.
When I came out into the living room, she was sitting on my couch, petting my cat. She looked up at me. "He's pretty," she said.
"Was he there?" I asked. She looked to the side, like she didn't know how to respond. So I tried to clarify: "Your boyfriend? Was he there?"
"He was out on a delivery, but I left a message." She continued to pet the cat. "What happened to his tail?" She held the cat's crooked tail in her hand, gently playing with the end.
"She was hit by a car few years ago," I lied. "It never grew back straight." You can't tell people that your boyfriend threw your cat out the window one day because you accidentally bought Russian dressing instead of Catalina. People think things about you. They think you are strange if you tell them that you brought a bloody broken cat home from the vet because you couldn't afford for the proper care of its wounds. It sounds ghoulish to say that you waited for three days for a cat to die in a box under your bed. They don't believe you when you say that she just crawled out of the box one day and hid in the closet until she was better, that she had fixed herself. They like it better when you say that she was hit by a car. That makes the crooked tail look triumphant instead of grotesque.
The girl tried to pick up the cat. The cat flattened out and ran into the bedroom closet. She can stay there for a few hours whenever someone does something she doesn't like. Then, the girl looked at me kind of embarrassed. I apologized for the cat, telling her that cats just do stuff like that. I could tell that she wished that she had a cat.
Looking around she saw my pad and colored pencils.
"Are you a artist?" She said it like that, a artist.
"Not really," I said. "Just for work."
"Are you a cartoonist?" she asked. I was struck by her ability to make such a quick connection.
"No. I draw other people's insides for school books," I said dryly.
"That must be hard," she said, impressed. Her tone was more engaging than conversational, which meant that she was starting to think we were friends.
"How about you?" I asked, not caring at all.
"Oh, I just work over at the recycling plant," she said, brightly.
I nodded once firmly to indicate that her response was sufficient, but she continued: "Separating the colored paper from the white paper. They make paper towels and toilet paper out of that stuff. The colored paper ruins it, so I have to pull it out."
"Interesting," I said, uninterested.
"They mash it all up in a big bowl like dough and then roll it out into toilet paper and paper towels."
"What about staples?"
"Hunh?" She pushed her hair out of her eyes.
I know that I shouldn't have asked that question but I couldn't think of anything else to say. "What if someone leaves staples in the paper? Does that get in the toilet paper?"
She blinked before responding. "Like I said, I just separate the colored paper out. I don't know about staples."
I nodded in agreement. But still it made me angry that she didn't think was part of her job, even if it wasn't. I feared we had both said too much.
"Did they say when he'd be back?" I asked.
"They said soon. He had just left on a delivery."
"Maybe you should call again," I offered.
"I don't want to bother him," she said. Apparently she did not feel that she was bothering me. This touched me, but not enough to settle my stomach or stop my head from pounding.
Trying not to stare at the hump that her slouch made, my eyes went to the baby. She saw me looking and straightened up. "He will probably be here soon," she said as she stood. " I should go wait for him."
I should have told her to sit down and relax. I should have put on some herbal tea and opened the tin of English biscuits that I had in the cupboard, sliced up a kiwi, and told her about night cream. She could have benefited from my knowledge about the health benefits of framed art and colored walls. I should have put on some music and asked her about her baby. I could have drawn her a picture for her refrigerator door of it nestled like a clenched fist inside of her curved spine and crumpled body.
What I wanted to do was to wipe her off. She didn't belong in my apartment, not the way that she was. I didn't even want her across the way. I wanted to tell her to shut her windows at night because the noise from her apartment kept me from sleeping. That noise always floated into my rooms, the rooms that I had painted yellow and covered with Monet and Picasso to forget about that kind of noise. I wanted to tell her that if she brought a baby here, she would ruin it for me. Ruin everything that I had tried to make out of a crappy little apartment. To tell her that when you move, you should never put your name on your door because that's how they find you. I wanted to get her to understand. I wanted her to know about the goddamn staples.
Listening to her clippity-clopping down the stairs as I stretched out on the couch, I tried to push the headache out of my head. I thought about the coming baby. He wouldn't be the crying type, not a fat pink fuzzy baby. I imagined it to be a thin gray hairless thing, whimpering in its bed. Having no expectation of being bounced, caressed, or spoiled, it will not cry loud full cries. I have only seen two other babies like that, enough to know that they exist. Seeing the second one made me realize how good my life has been not to have seen more.
When it got dark, I heard bottles clinking and Marcel's cigarette smoke floated into my window. It could have been Fitz's. Some said my name, then someone else yelled up to me. I crouched low and pulled the curtains closed without responding to the implicit invitation to drink. The cat came back and sat on my stomach, stretching out her body on mine. I stroked her fur, trying to stretch her tail out straight. But it just kept bending. Female problems again.
Editor's note: The author is an erstwhile City Paper contributor.
And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest
An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Guerrilla Gardening (5/24/2006)
An Adventure In Urban Gardening
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