David Ebenbach: The Quiet House
I don’t think this one’s going to last. She’s too skinny, already. Pretty much all bone. Sometimes that means they’ve already been, like, carved down to the hardest parts and so they can take a lot, but this one—what it looks like is she needs whatever she already lost, and that she can’t live on just all that bone.
That’s why I’m at the bodega this morning, grabbing up all the sugar and fat and carbs and everything. Protein. All of it. Because what it looks like is she needs muscle and she needs fat, and so everything’s got to be on the table. I take four cans of corned beef hash—they’re all pretty dusty but the sell-by dates are okay. I take chips and dip. Cheese. I take milk, a gallon of whole, with the blue cap, because milk is always important. Bananas but also the lettuce and grapes and stuff, because bananas can block you up and sometimes they get blocked up because of the emotional things. Plus sodas. They have beer here, but I don’t believe in beer, for me or for the girls. And while I’m shopping I get some of the other one’s favorites. She used to like the Corn Nuts, but by now her teeth are so bad that she just wants the soft stuff, ice cream and so on. She says the cold hurts her teeth but at least she doesn’t have to chew it.
At the counter, behind his half of a wall of bulletproof glass, Manny rings up all the stuff. “Having a party?” he says. Manny says that a lot of the times I come in here.
“Party of one,” I say, like usual.
He scratches his face, which is all chewed up from some old skin problem that never healed right. It’s not the thing you want to see when you’re buying food, but he does keep the place clean enough, and it’s the corner shop. It’s part of the neighborhood. Manny himself lives just a couple blocks over, and we’re friendly.
“Some of the boys are playing cards tomorrow night,” he says, bagging up the food in the plastic bags. Which is better than paper because, with all this, I need the handles. “You want to bring some of this over, share the wealth?” The funny thing is he really wants to know why I buy all this food. He’s always asking about it.
“That sounds good to me,” I say. “Whose house?”
“Eduardo,” he says. “Ten o’clock.”
“That sounds good to me. I’ll host in a few weeks.” I like hosting the cards, but I need a few weeks just to get the new one to understand how it all works, how to act and so on. Manny gives me a wave as I haul all the food out of there.
“Say hi to the wife,” I say.
“Oh, you can have her,” he calls after me.
His wife is not the kind of girl I want around, believe me.
Outside it’s all kinds of bright. The city’s getting hot. And we don’t have any trees in the neighborhood. This one guy I know, he says it’s because the city brings them in, saplings, and kids just tear them down. And we have some no-good kids around here for sure, who would do something like that. But I know the real reason we don’t have any trees is because they don’t even bring them in in the first place. I mean, in my bus I go all through this neighborhood, and I never saw anybody bring any tree anywhere near here. Anyway, I’ve got a while before my shift starts, so I just take it slow walking home. The bags get heavy, but I’m plenty strong.
One of the reasons I like to walk is unusual. It’s maybe ten minutes, nothing much to look at except buildings and metal shutters and broken sidewalk, but, right toward the end, the last corner I turn before there’s my house, I always have this feeling. It’s a feeling like, when I turn the corner, the block is going to be all full of cop cars, with their lights going and everything. I get that every time, even though it never even happens, like a fantasy. A fantasy because I get a little bit scared each time—almost nothing, but not nothing—and, besides that moment, I basically don’t ever get scared in my life. So the unusual thing is I kind of want that, walking up to that corner—it’s the same feeling when I drive home, but it goes by slower, lasts longer, when I walk. And of course I turn the corner and there’s the brick apartment building people are always moving in and out of, and there’s the empty brown house, and then my little white house, which is actually gray because I ought to repaint it, and all the houses past it, some empty and some not, and there are a few old cars parked around, but there aren’t any cop cars. It’s a kind of relief that I don’t feel any other way.
A black guy I never saw before is sitting on the stoop of the apartment building, skinny as hell in his wife beater and jeans. “Hey, man,” he says, and I can tell he’s about to ask me something.
“Yeah,” I say. I wish this apartment building wasn’t so close to my house.
“You need help with those groceries?” he says.
“I’m good.” I just keep going, but he gets up off the stoop and follows me a few steps.
“Just trying to be neighborly,” he says.
“I got it,” I say, walking along past the brown house and turning into the little yard in front of my house, the concrete path up to the porch.
I can hear the man stop behind me, at the edge of the property, even though I don’t have a fence. “Oh. So you the one lives in this place.”
I turn back. It’s almost like that feeling from when I turn the last corner.
“This is one quiet-ass house,” he says.
I look around at the other houses on the block. From some, you can hear music, or people yelling; from others, nothing. “There’s a lot of quiet houses on this block,” I say.
“Yeah, but don’t nobody live in those places,” he says. “Somebody lives here. And still.”
Then I turn back and go up the steps. From my place, also nothing. “That’s the way I like it,” I say.
With the door shut behind me, it’s all kinds of quiet for sure. I do like it that way. I like it that way because noise makes me crazy—I don’t take any kind of noise on my bus, for example—and also because I know it could be loud in here if either of them made noise, but the old one knows better and the new one’s in the quiet room. There’s something cool about that—three people in a house, but you don’t hear a thing.
I put away the groceries for the most part except I keep some stuff aside for the girls. I haven’t been gone that long but I know they’ve got to be hungry by now.
First I go up to the old one with the ice cream. When I unlock the door she looks up at me from her spot in the corner, on the blanket. “Caramel,” I say. She doesn’t smile, but we’ve been together a lot of years, so I know when she’s happy. I go through the routine, checking the straps and everything. “How are your teeth?”
She looks at me. And then, “Bad,” she says.
I stand up again. Everything’s tight. “If I can get to the supermarket, I’ll get you the sensitive toothpaste.” I look her over. “And a shower. We’d better do a shower tonight.”
She hangs her head down, which is how she nods yes. I leave her with the ice cream and a plastic spoon. “A special treat,” I say, because really it’s breakfast time.
She doesn’t say anything then, but when I get to the door, she says, “Who is she?” Meaning the new one. Maybe she’s jealous. Because for sure this girl in here is not the prettiest one in the house any more. That’s why you have two. Because they just don’t stay pretty.
Next I go to the basement, and this time I’ve got lots of different things. Maybe she wants grapes and maybe she wants chips, and there’s soda and milk and a bowl of the corned beef hash which I heated up in the microwave.
The quiet room is small, and here it’s not straps but cuffs. She flinches when I come in, which is normal. But she really is all bone, even in the long-sleeve Steelers shirt and the sweatpants I gave her, and it’s hard to look at. Somebody carved her down—probably her parents. It’s usually the parents that do it.
“I brought you all kinds of stuff. You like corned beef hash?”
She looks at me with her shaky eyes—green eyes—like she doesn’t believe me about what I’m saying, or like she doesn’t believe in me at all. They’re usually a little slow, the ones I like, and anyway it takes time to show them that I’m real.
I lock the door and sit down with her, spread all the food around, put a hammer next to me so she can see it, unlock the cuffs. “Eat something,” I say.
“You’re going to watch me?” she says. Her voice is hoarse, which means she’s been screaming. Which is why there’s the quiet room.
“I’m going to watch you,” I say.
When it’s time to go in to work, I think about calling in sick, because I’m thinking maybe I need to stick around and make sure the new one eats enough, but I leave her with some soft bread and bananas in easy reach, and just take a chance that she’s got the survival instinct, that she’ll do what she needs to do. It’s only one shift, anyway, and not even a long one. I lock the house up and head for my car.
It’s still hot—worse—and that man from the apartment stoop is still out on the stoop. “Hey, brother,” he says. I hate it when they call me brother. “You drive a bus?”
I turn back from my car. “Where’d you hear that?”
“I got no idea,” I say, and I go around to unlock my door.
“Don’t anybody want to be neighborly,” he says as I climb in.
All through that shift I wonder if I did the right thing, leaving her alone. There’s lots of time to think on the bus, because you get so used to all the different streets and turns. I know some guys who get crazy from that and they try to keep things interesting by talking to the riders or getting worked up about traffic and honking at people, but normally it’s fine for me, just being alone with whatever’s going through my head. This time, though, it’s not fine, and I get to thinking about the new one so much that one time when we’re sitting at the longest light on my route I mutter to myself, “She better be alive when I get back.” Aloud. But nobody hears it. Nobody hears anything on the bus.
She is alive when I get back that night, which I shouldn’t have even been worrying about, and she had even gone through two bananas and a little bread. I watch her eat some roughage and then I take yogurt upstairs for the old one, and I get her into the shower. Mostly she just leans against the wall of the shower and I do the shampoo and the soap and everything. These days it’s like washing a dog; I don’t even want to do sex. Something about it makes me so angry that I pin her up by her neck part of the time, and that almost makes her eyes wake up, almost. Then I dry her off and get her set up back in her room and go back to the basement, where I do want to do sex.
After, I watch the game with the sound on low. It’s Pirates-Cardinals, and the whole time you can see the Pirates are going to drop another one. Except then McCutchen and Jones go crazy in the 8th and 9th, and it’s extra innings. I don’t really like baseball, but this game is a good one.
That’s when the phone rings. It hardly ever rings, so I always forget it’s there, but then, when it does, it’s the loudest thing you can imagine. Loud enough that that guy from the stoop could probably hear it, and then maybe he can shut up about my house being so quiet.
“Hello?” I say, standing in the kitchen where the phone is.
“Hey, Neno.” It’s my sister Isa. “How you doing?”
I sigh. “I’m watching the game.”
“You don’t even like baseball,” she says.
“Yeah, well.” I look around the kitchen and realize I haven’t eaten anything myself practically all day, I was so busy looking after those girls. Sometimes I don’t get hungry.
Like she’s reading my mind, she says, “You want to come over for dinner?”
I look at the clock on the stove. “It’s like ten o’clock,” I say.
“I mean, some time. Tomorrow night.”
I smile. This is mama, who is behind this. She made Isa call me because she worries I don’t know how to take care of myself, when actually I take care of a whole household. But of course she doesn’t know that, and it’s sweet. “How is mama?” I say.
Isa laughs. She knew I would see through her to mama. “She’s good. Come on—dinner would be nice.”
“I have cards tomorrow night,” I say. That’s not until ten o’clock, but I wouldn’t want to do two things in a row. “But I could do, like, next week some time.”
“Cards. I bet that’s not even until late,” she says.
“Tomorrow’s no good,” I say, messing with the phone cord. It’s one of those wall phones, with a cord. And then, “Hey—you still going with that one guy? The doctor?”
“Okay, okay,” she says. When she first started met him, she thought he was a doctor, but he was just a guy who wanted to study to be an EMT. “I’m still seeing him.”
“It’s got to be only the best guy, for my sister,” I say.
“Yeah, right,” she says. “You stop worrying about my love life.”
“You stop worrying about my eating life,” I say. But we’re kidding around.
“Tomorrow night,” she says. “Mama and I will both cook.”
“I can’t do tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow night,” she says, and she hangs up.
When I get back to the living room, the game is over, and the local news is just starting—same old dumb stuff. They don’t say anything about how the game turned out, because it’s not the sports part yet, and I realize I don’t really care, so I just go to bed. I can hear the music and the yelling from some other houses, but it’s far away.
The next day is my day off and I go to a real supermarket. We don’t have one near enough for walking, so I drive there. And then I go up and down the aisles, looking for stuff you don’t get in the bodega. I get ground beef, for one thing, and that sensitive toothpaste. And some regular stuff, too, because the prices are better, and I don’t want to have to go back to the bodega too soon, anyway, and get the whole “party” question from Manny again.
It’s even brighter in the supermarket than it is outside, and the A/C is crazy cold. I don’t know how anybody can work here. But there they are, unloading stuff from big boxes or working the register or whatever. People do what they do. The girl in my check-out line, popping her gum and not even looking at me while she grabs the food with her pink nails, she doesn’t care that I’m buying a lot of stuff. She just grabs it and scans it, eyes on nothing. I look at her, though. She’s not the kind of girl I would want around—too ethnic—but I study her like figuring out what I could buy or sell her for.
“I’m having a party,” I say.
She cuts me a look and doesn’t say anything.
When I get back to my house, that guy from the stoop is up on my porch, looking in the window of my front door. I’m out of the car fast.
“Hey. Hey, asshole,” I say. “Get the fuck off my porch.”
He spins around, all surprised. “I was just looking for you,” he says.
By then I’m right up in his face, which looks like somebody made it out of dirt and sticks. “You saw me drive away in that car an hour ago,” I say, pointing. “How you going to be looking for me here?”
“I—I—” he starts.
“Get the fuck off my property,” I say.
He starts moving away. “Okay,” he says, hands up in front of his chest. Then he stops and says, “Hey—you got a cat in there?”
“I thought I saw a cat up on the second floor,” he says, “messing with the curtains. I love cats. I used to have one before I lost my last place.”
Curtains. Curtains moving. I feel that same feeling from when I’m walking to my house, about to turn the corner. But stronger. “I don’t have any cats,” I say. I step toward him again. “And it’s none of your fucking business if I do. Get off my property.”
“Okay. Okay,” he says, backing up.
“And if you ever get back on my property—” I stop a second, so I can, like, savor saying this—“I’ll call the cops.”
“Okay, man. Shit.” And he backs up all the way and goes over to the apartment building.
He watches me the whole time I unload my groceries.
Inside, I drop the groceries and go straight upstairs to where the old one is. There are curtains in this room. They’re pretty far from the corner where she is, but they’re there. Blue. I look at her, and she sees my face and knows that she’s about to have to relearn some things. She hangs her head down. There was a time when she would have asked why, but not anymore.
Afterward, I start thinking maybe I shouldn’t even go play cards, shouldn’t leave the house at all. I call Isa from downstairs and leave a message. “I can’t come over,” I say. “For real. Don’t cook anything because I can’t come over. But maybe next week. For real don’t cook anything.” And then I go back to the front door, on the inside, and stand looking at the house from there, so I can see what that guy would have seen. There’s nothing to see, and it would be even less looking at it from the outside of the house. Still. I sit down right there, with my back against the door. It’s a little like I can hear sirens.
There were some times when I really almost wanted something to happen. I mean, it would make sense, for something to happen. Especially at a time like this, when the new one has only been missing for less than two weeks and everybody should be out looking. What doesn’t make sense is coming home every day and there are no cops waiting for you, but just the usual household. But you get used to it.
After a while, I get up and go bring the toothpaste upstairs. I make her do her own teeth because I’m pretty sure I’d lose it if I did it myself, go too far, and then maybe I’d have to get out the trash bags and shovel. I’m in that kind of mood. When she’s done, there’s some blood in the sink, and she looks at me almost like she’s saying see? Almost.
That night I tell myself I’m worrying about nothing and once I get dinner served and do sex downstairs I drive over to Eduardo’s, who lives six blocks over, but I feel like driving. Before I get into the car, though, I look around for the stoop guy. I don’t see him, but he might be around anyway. I tell myself to knock it off and get into the car. As soon as I get to Eduardo’s place I remember that I hate his place—he’s got a wife and four kids, and two of them are babies, so it’s all noise, all the time, even down in the basement where we play cards. That’s why I don’t get married, and that’s why, if any of the girls I bring home gets pregnant, they’re done. I couldn’t have a house like Eduardo’s house. And then the guys are noisy, too, four of them and playing the music and laughing about stuff. Plus everybody’s drinking, and I don’t believe in that. But I hand over two bags of chips and take a cigar and sit down, because I’m here. “Deal me in,” I say. The boys smack me on the back and deal me in.
After we’ve played a couple of hands, Manny looks over at me and says, “Now, this is a party.” He turns to the other guys and says, “You should see what this guy buys in my place. He buys me out.”
“Then how’s he stay so skinny?” Paulo says, patting my belly. Because I’m not skinny.
“I think he’s got a little lady stashed away somewhere,” Manny says, which he’s said before, so normally it wouldn’t be a thing, but today it feels different, maybe. Still, I laugh like the rest of them.
There was one time cops did show up at my door, a few years back. It was those first two weeks of a girl being missing—not one of the ones I have now but one I used to have—so they were trying to figure everything out. And this was a girl I knew from around, who someone saw me with her one time, and on top of that I have a couple of domestic abuse reports from before, even if they never pressed charges. So the cops came to ask me about the missing girl, and I invited them in, and we all sat in the living room and talked about how I didn’t know anything about anything, and, if you want to know the truth, the cops looked bored as hell. It was a tall one and a regular height one, a white guy and a black guy, both of them fat, and they looked bored, like someone made them come to my house. They didn’t stay too long.
We play a bunch of hands. I don’t have a lot of luck with cards normally, and it’s even worse tonight because I’m just picturing that black guy from the apartment building looking in all my windows, and maybe getting inside somehow. And then all the blue and red lights up and down the block. Sometimes you see that on TV, a person getting rescued from someplace, and the cops have like a blanket around them and there’s just cops everywhere, talking into their walkie-talkies, trying to explain it all to whoever needs it explained to them. Because nobody understands how these things ever happen. So I’m thinking about all that and telling myself everything’s going to be fine, and I lose more hands than usual. I keep reaching in my pocket and touching the bracelet that I took off the new one. Off her bony wrist. It’s one of those friendship bracelets that you weave or something. Pink and white. I keep touching it, and losing. My only luck is these guys don’t play for big money. They’re all working guys.
At some point Eduardo says, “Okay. Get the fuck out,” He’s smiling, but really we do have to get out, which I’ve been wanting to do anyway.
“My place in a few weeks,” I say.
Then I get back in the car, but, instead of going straight home, I can’t deal with that yet, so I drive around a little. There’s nothing to see in the neighborhood, but I drive around because I’m feeling that feeling, and I don’t like it this time. I run through all the possibilities: my sister pacing on the porch wanting to know what’s going on, or cop cars, or one girl dead or the other. I run them through my head again and again. Meanwhile, I drive by the stores, which some of them are in business and some are empty, and I go past the bus stops, and I go past the school. It’s late and nothing’s moving except me. And the driving helps, it turns out. It helps because after a while, when I’m going through all the possibilities another time, I realize that I don’t feel anything, that I’m just trying to make me feel it. I stop. I stop the possibilities and also the car, in front of a lopsided mailbox. The neighborhood is the same tonight as it always is. And then I lift my foot off the brake and head straight home, park on my almost empty street, and go back into the dark and quiet of my dark and quiet house.