"[E]xpect to find insights that make you stop, go back and read again.... Take it from us: You don't know what's coming in the last third of this book, and you will be astounded." —O, the Oprah Magazine
A beautifully wrought story of an ad hoc family and the crisis they must overcome together.
Edith is a widowed landlady who rents apartments in her Brooklyn brownstone to an unlikely collection of humans, all deeply in need of shelter. Crippled in various ways—in spirit, in mind, in body, in heart—the renters struggle to navigate daily existence, and soon come to realize that Edith’s deteriorating mind, and the menacing presence of her estranged, unscrupulous son, Owen, is the greatest challenge they must confront together.
Faced with eviction by Owen and his designs on the building, the tenants—Paulie, an unusually disabled man and his burdened sister, Claudia; Edward, a misanthropic stand-up comic; Adeleine, a beautiful agoraphobe; Thomas, a young artist recovering from a stroke—must find in one another what the world has not yet offered or has taken from them: family, respite, security, worth, love.
The threat to their home scatters them far from where they’ve begun, to an ascetic commune in Northern California, the motel rooms of depressed middle America, and a stunning natural phenomenon in Tennessee, endangering their lives and their visions of themselves along the way.
With humanity, humor, grace, and striking prose, Kathleen Alcott portrays these unforgettable characters in their search for connection, for a life worth living, for home.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Kathleen Alcott is the author of the novel The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, which was translated into several languages. Her fiction, criticism, and essays appear in publications including The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coffin Factory, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. Born in Northern California, she currently resides in Brooklyn.
Read an Excerpt
THE NEIGHBORS HADN’T NOTICED the building’s slow emptying, didn’t register the change until autumn’s lavish colors arrived and leaves sailed through the windows the man hadn’t bothered to shut. The wind captured various vestiges—a sun-bleached postcard covered in outmoded cursive and a chipped plastic refrigerator magnet shaped like a P and a curling photo of a red-haired woman asleep on a couch—and flew the tenants’ things before relinquishing them to the sidewalk.
He was often visible in the evenings, backlit by a feeble table lamp, immobile in a plastic school chair placed against a top-floor sill, and he seemed untouched by any changes in sound or light or weather, an ambulance’s amplifying moan or the snap of a storm on parked cars or the inked saturation of the sky at dusk. Some nights his seat remained empty, and yellows and whites and golds briefly filled each room before darkening and appearing in the next, the lights traveling from the first floor to the third, and the movement of electricity was a quiet spectacle, like the reappearance of hunger after a long illness.
When the cold knock of air came and New York turned white, he closed the windows.
ASIDE FROM THE GIRL on the top floor, they all came out to watch the fire, and most saw the woman walk into it: Thomas still wearing his disability like a new shirt, unsure of how it fit his body; Edward in the baseball cap pulled low that had been his uniform all summer; Claudia and Paulie, she begging that he not ask the firefighters any questions about their outfits; Edith repeating the name of the neighbor trapped inside, a woman she’d known for forty years. Three stories above them, Adeleine came and went, a face in a window, her hands often tugging at the curtains.
“It must have been candles,” Edith said from the lowest stair of the stoop, as if naming the ingredient at fault in a lackluster meal. “She does love those, the tall kind with the saints.” She was the only one who did not appear panicked, who did not worry that tragedy might prove contagious. Sitting beside her, Thomas held the wilted side of his torso with his right arm and stared at the idling ambulance, trying to divest himself of personal associations with it. He didn’t ask Edith where she was going as she rose, slowly as a diminished balloon, didn’t watch as she moved towards the throbbing orange light.
Paulie, as excited as he’d been to comment on the show of red hats moving through the dark, had soon settled all his six feet and two inches onto his sister’s frame, his chin sharp in her collarbone, and closed his eyes. Just beyond them, taut hoses crossed from their hydrants to firemen who stood with their feet planted on concrete, who gripped ladders that emerged from the trucks at a lean.
It moved from the first story to the third in a matter of minutes.
Standing with a hand still on their gate, Edward looked down the slight slant of the street. All the buildings had emptied of people, some already dressed in pajamas and nightshirts, and they moved together in the dynamic flicker, passing sweating bottles of water, readjusting the children on their hips. The low thrum of air conditioners and the silver-blue glow of devices in the apartments they’d come from were briefly forgotten as they speculated on the fates of their neighbors, four of whom had already departed in speeding, flashing fanfare.
“Nothing brings a community together like a good old fire,” Edward said. “‘And how’d you meet your wife?’ ‘Fire!’ ‘Where’d you get this wings recipe?’ ‘Great guy I met at a fire!’” Claudia permitted herself a restrained snort against the tightness of Paulie’s body, which pressed against her like a vigorous current. Through the curls of her brother’s hair, she saw Edith’s slight shape moving and raised her hand to point.
“Hey,” she said, trying to reach Edward through his cynical haze. “Hey, that’s your landlord.” His face slackened from its smug expression and assumed a limp astonishment as he watched Edith step beneath the angle of a ladder, her wizened body newly divided into frames by the steel rungs. He gestured to Thomas, a low, brief fold of the hand, as if indicating the fleeting presence of a grazing deer or a rare bird. In one square, they saw the veins of her upper legs, the cotton of her shorts tucked higher by sweat on the left side; in the next, her torso, the arms reaching away.
Edward and Thomas abandoned their disbelief almost immediately, and soon they were crossing through, placing their hands on anonymous shoulders, kicking their knees up to step over rubble, holding their shirts over their mouths, working towards the glow.
A fireman had reached her before they could, had shoved her from risk, and as they approached, he looked down at Edith as though she were a total impossibility. She opened and closed her mouth but it was apparent, without being able to hear over the roar, that it produced no words, did nothing, a door blown unlocked by bad weather. When they got to her, when they each took a flaccid elbow, he had brought a small black box to his mouth and was speaking into it. “Yeah, I need an escort for a possibly disoriented older woman. That’s correct. She almost walked right into a fire here.”
“There’s no need for that,” Thomas said in the brawny man’s general direction, determining his confidence in the statement as he went. “We’re her neighbors. We can take her home.”
“Just across the street,” Edward said, motioning with a quick shrug, as though denying his involvement in a crime. The man raised his hat a little to look at them, the odd slump of the taller one’s body, the established sweat and food stains on the shorter one’s shirt, and pressed a button on the device, preparing to issue some further instruction.
A sound filled the next moment, something like the forcing of an object into a space much too small for it, and the man in the heavy black cloth was gone. The two neighbors, briefly meeting eyes over the meager fluff of their landlord’s hair, began to advance, their fingers still fixed to the crooks of her arms. Thomas took naturally to small reassurances, the restrained lilt of them, and with each step he offered another. “We’re just going to head home. We’re just going to get you out of this heat. It’s only a little farther now.” Twice Edith looked up at them, examining their faces, giving off benign blinks. The crowd parted like water around a rock, and they watched her shuffling in the same way they’d watched the windows of the ignited building buckle.
Outside their home Thomas and Edward waited, their backs turned to the heat, for her to speak. When she couldn’t, they began the work of filling the air. “Here we are,” Thomas said. “There’s your kitchen window, Edith, with the spider plant and the rosemary soap you like and the tall blue kettle.” Rattled by the pressure to comfort her, Edward spoke too loudly. “And there’s the front door, and just inside the brass mailboxes and that ridiculous sign that says No Flyers What-So-Never.” As Paulie untucked himself from his sister, he seemed to spring into his full height, the jungly curls of his hair moving half a second behind the momentum of his body. Confused by the nature of the game, he mentioned objects as though they were questions. “A bucket full of umbrellas no one uses? All the doors painted differently?” Edith’s stare remained fixed on something they couldn’t see, and her mottled arms hung limp as dishrags.
Claudia, behind Paulie, made faces at Edward and Thomas, raked her teeth over her lips. The men looked at each other, mouthing words: Well? What now? The night had become, after the swiftness of the lights and sirens and the unremitting whip of the heat, very long.
After a minute Edith moved, her shoulder blades working, her feet flexing tentatively against cushioned sandals. “Oh, forgive me,” she said, picking up some unknown conversation where it had left off. “It’s gotten late.” As she climbed up the stairs, both hands on the left railing, her torso contorting to meet its line, she murmured, “Good night, good night,” and the sound of it paralyzed them, her inflection like that of a young woman turning in after a long, amorous outing in a car.
DECADES OF NEGLECT had left the property an elaborate obstacle course, and navigating it depended on delicacy and memory. Of the sixteen interior steps from top to bottom, two were unwise to use and rotted quietly. The tenants left these stairs to the wear inflicted by former occupants, as they did much of the leaning banister, which from any given angle revealed at least four layers of dark red paint. The wallpaper that ran along the stairs had not seen a change since the late sixties, when Edith had requested Declan install a pattern she’d fallen in love with: gold leaf details of trees, the background beige but made rich by the gaudy foliage, all of it smeared with a sluggish gleam. It hadn’t detached or discolored except at the base, where the sun reached it, and served as one last tribute to Declan’s craftsmanship, the forest he had pasted there to stand forever. The peeling door of each apartment was a different color, some by most definitions ugly and others slightly more palatable. Declan had insisted on this from the beginning, thought it a unique touch that spoke to his role as an eccentric. Edith’s was a deep royal blue the color of the Atlantic at a certain time of summer, Paulie’s a pastel pink nearing heartburn antidote that he called “The Terrific Tongue,” Edward’s a lavish purple he forever hated and for whose retirement he campaigned, Thomas’s a kitsch butter yellow he secretly found quite pleasant, and Adeleine’s a bath-tile green that suited her no matter what because after all it was a door she could close.
HAD SHE NOT BEGUN mentally confusing the words for appliances with those for breakfast items, had she continued as the attentive and reliable and well-liked landlord she once had been, Edith would have noticed. The turnover in the building had always been high; she had always kept around the ad she placed when an apartment opened, pulled it from the same bulging, marbled green file that held decades of obsolete lease agreements. She had liked this coming and going, especially the moment when she opened the door into the newly empty space, walked around it remembering her own first tour of the building. Had she not begun discovering her purse lodged in the freezer, her keys hidden in the forest of her potted plants, she would have understood that her current tenants were terribly intent on staying, that each of them had seemed to grow roots in an urban area known for a perennial turnover of wealth and identity, for changing impossibly around any fixed point. She might have observed that Edward retained a garish and incongruous set of silk curtains for most of a decade, and surmised he was waiting for the redheaded woman who’d lived with him to come back and take them down. Certainly, she would have recognized that Paulie’s sister, Claudia, had barely looked around the place before she signed the lease, most likely because there was no one else in the city who would rent to a strangely loquacious man of six-two with an eight-year-old’s disposition. She knew Thomas better than the rest of them, and she would have continued to visit him, seen the frames and canvases bulging from closets and cabinets, from under his couch and bed, and sensed the irrational belief he lived daily: that he had to stay in the place where the stroke had found him, where his gift had left him, in case it returned. She would have knocked on Adeleine’s door for never seeing her and concluded that the stockpiled cans of nonperishables, the desperate collection of coin banks and postcards, indicated a woman who kept her entire world close at hand.
But Edith didn’t and couldn’t—her incapacities growing each year—and still the tenants avoided the fourth and ninth steps, knew intimately the three important milestones in unlocking the front door, forgave the brokenness of their pre-war windows, placed pots under leaks and called the sounds of the water coming in familiar.
SINCE THE DAYS when Myrtle Avenue around the corner was nicknamed Murder for cautionary reasons, the days before crews from the city came to dismantle the yellow cane seats and leather hand straps of the elevated train, the days when men who built ships at the Navy Yard used to travel in packs with their cigarettes rolled up in their sleeves and curtsy at women and hoot, the days when several generations of family overflowed onto their stoops in the summer: sixty-six years she had spent at the same window. Of course there was much that remained: the magisterial art students from the nearby institute, their fashions shifting but their insolence and unwieldy bags of supplies the same; the steady pour, between six and seven o’clock, of those with jobs in Manhattan, the grunting up their stairs nearly collective.
At her core, Edith believed herself to be the same person she’d been at five, twelve, twenty-three, and so aging was mostly a point of interest, almost an entertainment were it not for its increasingly tangible interceptions in her daily life. Were these really her veins, a purple so bright as to seem inorganic? Her hair, thin and staticky, so reluctant to cooperate? She forgot sometimes: that these were hers, and more recently other things, gaps she found amusing or depressing, depending. Using a can opener became a deliberate, thought-through act; while reading, she had to concentrate, or else she was likely to follow some memory around a low-lit corner. Her daughter Jenny’s first birthday, the living room vibrant then and filled to the ceiling with balloons the baby didn’t know whether to carouse with or to fear. She and Declan, just married and new owners of the building, naked and sweating out August in one of the apartments yet to be rented, her linen dress balled under her head as a buffer between her tawny waves and the hardwood floor, his expression so different than when he’d courted her with flowers and offered handkerchiefs. How feverish her sister June’s eyes had gotten when she’d visited Brooklyn and then the city, how she’d marveled at Edith for going without hose and hailing black taxis. Owen, born second, surrounded by primary-colored blocks, content to play alone. The taxi he insisted on taking to college with money he’d saved.
Declan, an Irish drinker with a nervous heart besides, buried twelve years now, and Jenny gone or dead more years than Edith had actually known and held her. The same building, their apartment unchanged, though the spring before Declan died he’d had the whole thing repainted the color of milky coffee, had enjoyed sitting on the scaffolds with the men, yelling things down to her and passing emptied glasses of lemonade back through the windows. Theirs had been a protected love, this fact reliable to her since the Navy Yard produced vessels as tall as seventy men, and even after he collapsed, finally, while applying lather to his face with the wide-bristled brush. It was another object she kept in a box full of things that told her the story of her life, and she fingered it some afternoons and felt wildly envious or obsessively tender, it being the last item that had touched the perfect line of his jaw.
The tenants over the years had followed a cycle nearly generational, seeming to arrive and leave in demographic groups, their incomes growing and manner refining as the years went by. The couples who showed up with hands clasped, the women peering into the closets as if they might find another room or some other unexpected benefit, the men checking the locks on all the windows: few, in the decades of suburbia’s blossoming, lasting more than a year after the appearance of children. When they knocked to return their keys, the towheads balanced on their hips and reaching for their mothers’ earrings, Edith always wished them well in their new lives.
The present mix of renters was somewhat unlikely; that is, Edith might have thought so had she possessed the curiosity and energy to find anything at all very strange. She drank them in like tap water, unconcerned about their original source and the details of their travels to her, though she welcomed them in for coffee or tea and always waved when they passed on the street.
The young-seeming man in 2A, right above her, was certainly the kindest. He called her “darling Edith” and “Rose garden” and smiled at her so broadly that she never minded the music he made, which filtered through his floor down to hers, a muddle of cymbals and electronic keyboard and fractured song. There was something wrong with him, she’d noted when he first moved in: a slant to his eyes and point to his ears and thud to his step. His sister, a tired woman in business attire, stopped by daily, her arms often full with groceries.
Across the hall from Paul—who preferred “Paulie,” or “just ‘pal,’” he joked—was another man, and he didn’t look or behave young at all. He’d been there the longest, fifteen years or twenty, and had changed as much as the neighborhood. A stand-up comic, or he had been, in the beginning, and doing well—gigs at all the best clubs in the city at a time when New Yorkers lined up around the block for the chance to laugh and drink beer in those crowded, sub-street spaces—though things had slowed down for him and he didn’t seem all that funny anymore. Edward used to have people over, loud ones who seemed to be competing with one another for the sonic space until the outbursts of synchronized laughter came, amplified by liquor. When Edith saw him now, he always seemed to be burdened, ascending the stairs slowly, sometimes sitting on the stoop for hours at a time with a pen and a small black notebook, rooted and still. She had once spotted him at the corner bodega, standing in front of the glass doors by the six-packs of imported lagers, and nearly approached but retreated when she noticed the shaking of his shoulders and shining of his cheeks.
On the third floor, sweet Thomas. He reminded Edith of a professor, the way he thought so visibly, part of his forehead often wrinkled. A few weeks after it happened, he had recounted his stroke to her over tea with such grace that she had reached for his hand—the one he could feel—and squeezed. Struck with an urge to give him something, she hurried down to the long-untouched portion of her closet, withdrew Declan’s favorite sweater, wheat with leather elbow patches. He had not recoiled at the dead man’s cardigan, had instead pressed the wool to his face and breathed in, and after that he wore it regularly and always attached small notes or pressed flowers with his rent checks. When they appeared a few months later, Edith did not ask about the scars on his lifeless arm, the lines straight as the grids of maps. His thirty-four years had done almost nothing to dull the glowing skin of boyhood, which made the slack left arm, the unmoving side of his face, even harder to witness.
The girl across from Thomas, in the last years of her twenties, acted like something hunted: Edith doubted she’d seen Adeleine four times in the past year. She dressed much like Edith had when she’d first arrived in New York: tailored wool skirts and silk gloves, hats with netted veils, leather clutches. Her hair crafted with the care that had disappeared from fashion long ago, her lips colored but not glossy as was typical of young women now. Either she came and went in the middle of the night or she came and went very little, and her hands shook like underthings on a clothesline. The few times Edith had been up to the top floor recently, she had lingered outside Adeleine’s door, drawn by the sounds: warm, crackling music, low but still audible, songs Edith had spent time with decades before. From the street, one could see the browned lace curtains that hid the girl, and the lights, always on, attending to her as she fought off sleep.
THOMAS HAD BEEN AN ARTIST, had made things that explained systems: the way in which a cloud processed water; a methodical rendering of the evolution of architecture, from the woven shelter to the skyscraper; the journey from zygote to infant to octogenarian. These processes were expressed in captions and careful colors and an arrangement of space that suggested plans drawn in pencil, calculations and rulers. He had started to show in galleries that used light with the precision of scientists and hawked absurdities for too much money; to sell his wall-sized pieces to people who invited him to their opulent homes and stared at him, waiting to understand his composition, loosening him with bitter beers and aged Scotches. He had begun to think this was his life, days of work chased by dinners with patrons, restaurants in lower Manhattan that served ludicrous small plates, seaweed foam and hay reductions.
His friends had told him to think of the stroke as offering a new set of parameters to work within, but he could tell by the protracted way they looked at the old pieces that they didn’t believe it. He had never been one to enjoy rolling around in the abstract, and so the thought of using the partial death of his body as an excuse for paintings that merely suggested depressed him so much that he set about eliminating the possibility, putting his paints and graphite pencils and fine and broad brushes and scissors away without knowing if he’d take them out again. With the apartment suddenly bare, he understood that he had been living life as completely as he’d meant to—an idea he meant to follow pinned to every surface—and from then on, he kept it clean and stark as a reminder of how much there was to fill.
He began to see the friends who stopped by as silly, vapid vessels, containers of undercooked opinion and little feeling. His congenital kindness remained, but he couldn’t bring himself to dance in their conversational circles anymore, could not bear to discuss whether some video artist had effectively captured the spirit of the working class through the documentation of silent after-hours factory break rooms, could not say with confidence that he saw one creative life as worthless and another as formidable. They sensed his discomfort and shifted the conversation to gossip. A woman he had dated, a beauty but something of a drunk, had lit a bathroom trash can on fire at a recent party and stayed on the toilet laughing for a full ten minutes until the flames reached the curtains and someone came in with an extinguisher. Could he believe it?
Yes, he said. He could. What was there to doubt? Nothing of their lives—the gathering of warm bodies to trade catty comments, the rush to make a late-night train, the unlikely success or failure of an acquaintance—felt remarkable to him. He began to find other things amusing. Washing machines, for instance; that self-important buck when they started. The tendency of rats eating their breakfasts on the rails of the subway to sit up on their haunches and sniff arrogantly, and all the people above waiting, refusing to touch each other. If grief was finding laundry comical, and the thought of picking up phone calls from family members and friends peculiar, and newspaper headlines or pedestrians on the street below more and more foreign, then so be it. He still found plenty of reasons to get up in the morning. Edith, for one.
He made a mental list of things he liked about Edith; it made him happy to put names to them. He enjoyed the way Edith disliked openly. She didn’t feel the need to offer complex criticisms or to imply that her preference came from superiority. Tomatoes? “Hate ’em!” she’d said. Also: sweaters that pilled, the man at the corner store who always said, “You look tired,” the smell of unwashed art students in the summer. She threw these off her back with efficiency and purpose, as though beating standing water from an awning, and it made Thomas feel more at home with his own distastes. But he adored Edith for plenty of other reasons: She understood slowness. She knew how to wait for the kettle to warm, how to move across a room and appreciate each photograph and plant within it. She was careful about laughter, went to it only when it truly called her. The anecdotes she offered were always well-formed, compact things he felt he could keep and carry with him. “Edith,” Thomas had said on several occasions, in moments drunk on self-pity. “Sometimes I just don’t know! What recommends the rest of my life?” She was the only one he exclaimed around. When he said such things, she made a crumpled face, waved her hand through the air to banish his wallowing as it bounced off the high ceilings. “Dear heart,” she said. “Of course you don’t know. How could you? But have you ever been astounded by what you knew was coming?”
EDWARD USED TO BRING WOMEN home only to make them laugh, to watch as the different points of their naked bodies rippled with a punch line in the half-dark, as their ringed hands playfully slapped him to stop. He would calm enough finally to do what they expected, to cup their breasts with hunger and move and keen until they were still. Sometimes he even managed the tenderness afterward, the holding and sighing and postcoital half-sentences, the wiping of sweat and come, the leaving for two glasses of water with the promise to be right back. But then he was onstage again, there in his own bedroom, doing his best to make the girls cackle and stay awake on a mattress growing lumped, and he would remember how it began.
He’d never been able to sleep; neither had his brother. Their parents were not alcoholics or child abusers, nothing so directly antagonistic, but they cultivated in their children a mounting fear of the universe, a suspicion of evil in the familiar that transcended caution and became paranoia. They spent breakfast stabbing at the pages of the newspaper, challenging each other to produce the more horrific news story. A father, somewhere in Kansas, who killed his wife and children before cutting his own feet off! Drug lords in faraway cities keeping prostitutes in cages and feeding them only dog food or Styrofoam packing peanuts! Three and four decades later, Edward had a hard time deciphering which of these had been exaggerations; the text of those headlines seemed to pulse at the periphery of his thoughts the moment he walked a darkened street alone, approached a window at home he didn’t recall opening.
They had brought their horrors in closer circles, too, warning Edward and Zachary about the gas station attendants three blocks down—hoodlums, criminals—and the single man up the street with the many cats: There is something about him I just don’t trust, his mother had said.
At night, instead of letting all these things sift and combine into a web of nightmares, Edward had crept into his younger brother’s room and lain on the floor, kneaded his fingers into the carpet kept so clean, and invented a place for himself and Zachary to hide. Edward made shadow puppets on the wall: talking heads of their parents bickering about the exact ingredients of the pastry they’d shared; the older girl down the street with the huge breasts and the way she tottered forward. He impersonated their grade school principal, who Edward thought spoke as if concealing a vat of cream cheese at the back of his throat, embellishing the nasal insistence, the sounds of the fat cheeks’ suction on squat teeth while he delivered the overused catchphrase. Dish-ipline will be dish-tributed, Edward would say. Now build me a schity of bagels!
His inability to play the somber lover aside, some of the women returned, insisted on it even, pushed him up against the sandstone of Greenwich Village and offered to hail a taxi. He always had trouble, though, giving them a humor they could confidently claim was inspired by their bond, personal between the two of them. Or not saying anything when they farted in a particularly musical way, even if their eyes said, Not now, not today. The ones he didn’t abandon out of sheer negligence, failing to call for days, left him violently, always using terrible names like bastard and narcissist and making dramatic accusations about the poverty of his heart.
This was the period after the glow of quitting his day job had worn. He’d begun appearing on nighttime television, sitting with an ankle on a knee in one of those interchangeable plush chairs and gesturing with the provided coffee mug actually filled with water. He still preferred the tiny, sweaty crowds, the possible explosions given the night’s chemistry. He brought other comedians and audience members alike back to his apartment in Brooklyn, always paying for cab fares and drugs and drink, thrilled each time by the continuation of the night. Wary of his success, he kept his cheap apartment.
A woman who could spit back and thrive in the unsavory back rooms and at the mostly male after-parties, Helena became a fixture by the mid-nineties. She wore high-waisted linen trousers and pale silk shirts that buttoned up the back in the fall, oversized maroon faux-fur coats in the winter, and her bones formed a collection of angles he grew to need. She worked for little pay as a social worker, touring the homes of destitute families, and talked about them over dinner, their names and misfortunes floating over the candles on the cramped restaurant patios where she and Edward ate.
The night she moved in, she hung small globes of light, placed red porcelain mugs in the cupboards, swept corners it had never occurred to him were dirty. Even when they fought, she exercised perfect timing, and after, while they made up, she held his arms against the sturdy wood bed frame she’d also brought with her, and insisted that the lights stay on.
He liked to maintain that she’d left when his success dwindled, despite so much proof of the contrary, and clutched this in his mind with all other things growing old and ossifying. But then he remembered her soft murmurs on waking at four a.m. to an empty bed, her coming to him on the couch and curling up and expressing fond interest in the decades-old movie keeping him company. The moment when she got up to put the kettle on, the sound of the old drawer unsticking so that she could retrieve a spoon for his sugar. How many times she had fallen back asleep there, in his lap, though the bedroom was a mere ten feet away. The way she accepted his deepening morbidity, listened intently to the story of his mom forbidding him to leave the house for two weeks at the rumor of a nasty flu, of the cleaning tasks she’d assigned her son during the quarantine. How Helena had insisted on washing the sweatpants he’d begun resigning himself to, how the use of fabric softener was evident. How he had cried when she cut off her hair the month before she left him, a child who couldn’t recognize his mother, and how she had held him, even then.
AS A CHILD, Paulie had liked to wake his parents with song and, once his hands were able to manipulate the large carton, glasses of orange juice. He called his mother Lovebird and his father Mr. Sheep, after his other favorite soft but crusty-looking thing. They had adored the intensity of his glances and taken to calling him The King for the way he trounced around the house, assigning all objects an enthusiastic nomenclature. His teeth, so pointed, so white, always showing. And the singing: a song for the dishwasher, the morning, the cat, the routine appearance of the mail through the metal slot in the living room, the shifting colors of a laundry cycle.
Of course there were signs, of course there were, but Lydia and Seymour rarely had time to finish their conversation in the mornings, she brushing her teeth while sitting on the master bathroom toilet with her nightie bunched around her hips, preparing herself for the task of waking and guiding two children in picking clothing and eating breakfast, and Seymour at the sink splashing cold water in his eyes and clearing his throat. He was a good husband, that evident always, and he kissed her good-bye no matter what, and sometimes arrived to the office ten minutes late on account of hearing her troubling or wonder-filled dream. In any case: they loved Paulie, loved the dramatic curvature in his chest, loved his upturned eyes. They loved his inability to grasp the ambitions of villains in the films that flickered across his tiny body where he lay on the carpet.
With the beginning of school, it changed, and they could no longer misbrand his behavior as idiosyncratic. Lydia remembered it sharply for the rest of her life: How well it began, how she exhaled with relief when Paulie ran up to his kindergarten teacher—a woman who must have been trying to look like Ms. Santa Claus, a rope of white hair down her thick torso and wire glasses that clung to the tip of a diminutive nose—and introduced himself. How impressed the woman had been when Paulie spoke: “Hello there, I’m here to learn and laugh, if you don’t mind, my darling!” But within two weeks the phone call. Paulie had come out of the bathroom with his pants down several times and politely requested the teacher’s help; he could not participate in an activity wherein she asked the students to draw simple shapes. Lydia had begun to protest, but Ms. Susanne had interrupted gently: “I’m not saying he refused to, Ms. Fontaine, or that he tried but his coordination was below average. I’m saying that he looked at his pen and paper and he looked at the blocks in front of him and he looked at the other children and he plainly could not.”
Lydia did not tell Seymour for a full two days. When he came home from work, he was tired and slow, and quite often the only thing that visibly cheered him was Paulie. Paulie balancing on his leg; Paulie offering impersonations of a humpback whale, a jet plane, a Christmas tree. So when she finally did it was unplanned, it just came out, while she was sitting on the closed toilet watching him shave, in sobs that attempted words and reverted to sounds. Once he’d comforted her enough to understand what she was saying, he called in sick and tucked Lydia into bed; he promised that when he returned, they would figure it out, and he took Claudia to school.
He let Lydia sleep most of the day, and in all the time she was out she hardly changed positions under the great white comforter. Through the morning and afternoon he watched Paulie, held his hands and then his feet, listened as his son told him a story about an elephant searching for a tree large enough to shade his mother during the summer. “Where did you hear that story,” Seymour asked, though he already suspected the answer. “From my daydreams, of course!”
EDITH AND DECLAN had always prided themselves on their taste in people. Their renters, mostly blue-collar and from somewhere else originally, paid on time and stopped to say hello to each other in the hall; they held doors, gave away laughter freely and sat out in the overgrown back garden in the summer together, sharing sun tea and simple sandwiches. For a full decade, theirs was the most-attended Fourth of July party in the surrounding blocks. Declan would weave among the tenants and their friends, a lit sparkler attached to his thin silk tie, spilling whiskey into glasses without asking, butchering patriotic adages with his thick Irish accent in a way that left his guests cackling.
Declan made himself available to his tenants, and so did Edith, although after he died she began widening the scope of her generosity, drawing leases to those she found unusual, or hurt, or in visible need of asylum. She knew what he would have said, how he would have bit down on his smoke and brought a palm over his cheek—that it wasn’t her job to mother the world, no matter what regrets she had about their own children. But he was gone and that was his fault, she reminded herself frequently, for living hard on his body like he had. He could have quit the cigarettes, could have downed a few more vegetables, could have ended a few nights without landing in the bed like a felled pine.