Shaugh­nessy

ERIKA THORKELSON

Room Magazine - - THORKELSON -

The evic­tion no­tice came in the mid­dle of a long win­ter, on one of those af­ter­noons when M just couldn’t warm up, no mat­ter how many sweaters and blan­kets she piled on her shoul­ders. When they’d first moved in, Rhonda, the up­stairs neigh­bour and sole avatar of their face­less land­lord, had turned the base­ment’s dark­ness into a sell­ing point. “Cool all sum­mer,” she’d said, her thin hand with its cho­rus of twin­kling rings slid­ing along an imag­i­nary ski slope.

She didn’t men­tion that win­ter would be arc­tic or that, in the sum­mer, an­i­mals would crawl into the ceil­ing and die. The ex­ter­mi­na­tor had told them to be pa­tient—the place would reek for a while, but the crea­ture would even­tu­ally mum­mify, and then the smell would go away. But new things kept dy­ing, so the aroma of death lin­gered through all the warm months. You could tell the sea­son by the taste of the air.

When they’d moved in, M and her boyfriend, Eric, had known that their time in this lit­tle base­ment suite was lim­ited. Af­ter the city had built the new train sta­tion, their neigh­bour­hood had gone from be­ing re­mote to “up-and-com­ing.” Fly­ers from city hall wafted through the streets and promised a new fu­ture. Den­si­fi­ca­tion was com­ing. No one was ren­o­vat­ing. Gar­dens, im­mac­u­late for decades, fell to weeds. White stucco cracked and lit­tered the side­walks. One-by-one, the win­dows went blind.

At first they’d had end-of-the-world par­ties with up­stairs and down­stairs doors thrown open and mu­sic pound­ing. Then, their friends had trick­led away to­ward the sub­urbs. One day, a sign the size of a drivein movie screen ap­peared right in front of the house, promis­ing a new height of lux­ury liv­ing to who­ever could af­ford to buy in. It blocked what lit­tle sun made it through the win­dows. Then, orange plas­tic nets ap­peared to pro­tect the trees; blue fences rose on ei­ther side of the house; and men with hel­mets re­duced their neigh­bours to splin­ters, leav­ing noth­ing but twin chasms on ei­ther side. Most days, it felt as though they were the sole in­hab­i­tants of a re­mote moun­tain peak.

Still, it was home, for now.

Rhonda handed M the evic­tion no­tice and shoved her nar­row hands in the pock­ets of her paint-smeared over­alls. Mas­cara smudges had

set­tled into the lines around her heavy lids. “Sorry, man,” she said in her by­gone hippy drawl.

Not know­ing whether to hug the older woman or hit her, M closed the door, wrapped another blan­ket around her­self, and turned on a lamp against the dark­ness. She sat on their old green couch, bought from the Men­non­ite Cen­tral Com­mit­tee in the more hope­ful days of spring, and stared at the no­tice in her hands. Its re­turn ad­dress was some­where in Shaugh­nessy.

She was writ­ing con­tent for a word mill out of the Philip­pines at the time—as many ar­ti­cles as she could snag in the daily auc­tions for eight-and-a-half cents a word U.S. Her spe­cialty was quizzes about med­i­cal is­sues, like “Think You’re Anorexic?”, “Name that Pus­tule”, or “Cancer or Al­ler­gies?” She had a va­ri­ety of aliases for the work, but her favourite was Michaela Turn­blatt be­cause it had the same ini­tials as she did. In se­cret, she hoped that some­day peo­ple would be in­ter­ested in track­ing down her back cat­a­logue, the way they did with Hemingway’s early jour­nal­ism. The reader would look deep into her words and glimpse the seeds of ge­nius.

When she ran out of syn­onyms for “ir­ri­ta­tion,” she would put on a hoodie and go for a walk in Shaugh­nessy, that other world west of Oak Street. The fu­ner­ary still­ness of the old neigh­bour­hood calmed her heart­beat, dis­tracted her from work and the cruel orange nets. As she walked, she thought about the things she might buy with an ad­vance for a novel, or a win on the lot­tery, or even a real job—clothes, art, a per­sonal trainer, an apart­ment above ground. All this time the shadow that owned their build­ing had lived in one of those anony­mous man­sions not ten blocks away, and he’d never even both­ered to stop by.

There were ex­tra­or­di­nary fences in Shaugh­nessy, old ones and new. Some had twisted iron gates taller than a lum­ber­jack, or were guarded by bushes trimmed into sen­tinels. Be­hind the fences, there were cars that glis­tened with fresh paint jobs, half-cov­ered by tarps. And there were man­sions: great, sprawl­ing, columned, and gar­goyled. Some of them were old and brushed with sprays of moss around the joists, cracked paint, melt­ing porches. Some were new, con­crete and square like sci-fi war bunkers. All the houses, old and new, gave off un­earthly vi­bra­tions of power.

But dur­ing those long, lonely af­ter­noons where her thoughts jan­gled with hope or fear for the fu­ture, she had never seen a sin­gle res­i­dent:

not in a car, not through a win­dow, not walk­ing the dog down the street or tend­ing the gar­den. When she did see the oc­ca­sional per­son, they were al­ways in uni­form. They were there to con­struct more man­sions or scrub floors or dredge pools for er­rant leaves. Once, an ex­ter­mi­na­tor stood outside his own van gaz­ing at a Swiss-style manor cov­ered in stucco and brown shin­gles. He wore a quizzi­cal ex­pres­sion, as if he couldn’t quite de­cide whether to go for­ward or go back.

The evening af­ter she’d seen the in­sect man, she’d told Eric that she thought the whole neigh­bour­hood was a movie set. They were watch­ing a sit­com about su­per he­roes that had been filmed only a few blocks away from where they sat. He just raised his eye­brows, the way you do when in­dulging a child through an amus­ing but fan­ci­ful story. He didn’t even take his eyes off the screen.

“Not all the time,” she said, on the de­fen­sive be­fore he said a word. “Maybe they just keep them prepped, in case they’re needed. Those Amer­i­can crews are al­ways traips­ing around the city. Last sum­mer I was walk­ing through the ware­houses by the wa­ter and I came across a whole block of snow. Win­ter Won­der­land in Au­gust. If they can do that, I bet they can af­ford to keep a few stuffy old man­sions ready for pe­riod pieces or what­ever.”

He took a sip of his beer, and a vein of tar-coloured liq­uid tracked down his chin. She missed the beard he’d worn when they first met. “Foreign own­er­ship,” he said. “Peo­ple buy them as in­vest­ment prop­er­ties and flip them when the mar­ket jumps. They’re empty be­cause they keep chang­ing hands. One day, this whole city will just be empty glass tow­ers.”

“Wouldn’t it be great to buy one,” she said. “Your par­ents could help us—it would be, like, an in­vest­ment.”

Eric laughed. “Or maybe we could buy prop­erty on the moon.”

The next day, he packed his bags to go find work in Al­berta where his par­ents lived. “You can join me,” he said as he toured the apart­ment one last time. “We can buy a house and have chil­dren.”

M looked at the floor with its worn linoleum, scarred in places and black at the edges. “I just need a lit­tle more time,” she said. “I can make it work here.”

He kissed her on the cheek, his stub­ble bit­ing in a com­fort­ing way. “You call me when it’s all fig­ured out,” he said. And then he left.

On the evening of the evic­tion no­tice, M moved with pur­pose. She was go­ing to find the per­son who owned the house, and ex­plain to them

that it would be im­pos­si­ble to leave—where would she go? What else could she af­ford? But cross­ing Oak Street, her anger faded into awe. The sounds of traf­fic, the coo of dis­tant pi­geons, the rus­tle of squir­rels seek­ing out win­ter scraps all faded away into the glow­ing char­treuse of moss be­neath her feet.

Shaugh­nessy sat on a peak, high above the city. The streets bent, di­verged and came back to­gether ac­cord­ing to a long for­got­ten logic, so the ad­dress was hard to find. It had been rain­ing all day and as she walked she had to keep an eye out for worms that had crawled into dry patches be­tween mulched leaves.

She found the house by walk­ing clock­wise around Shaugh­nessy park in the cen­tre of the neigh­bour­hood. It was an Ed­war­dian man­sion painted a creamy yel­low, with tall white col­umns be­fore a mono­lithic front door. She could hear voices and laugh­ter from a party spilling into the evening. There was a tan­ta­liz­ing scent of food and the sound of a pi­ano play­ing a fa­mil­iar old melody. A dark cloud had moved across the set­ting sun and she could see back­lit fig­ures flit­ting over the gauzy shades of a liv­ing room, the un­mis­tak­able out­line of a Tif­fany lamp on an elab­o­rately scrolled end ta­ble.

She’d al­ways wanted a re­ally nice end ta­ble, but the clos­est she had ever got­ten was an art deco-ish dresser she’d found in an al­ley that was badly in need of lac­quer. She’d brought it home and put their clothes in, but an in­fes­ta­tion fol­lowed that bore cir­cu­lar holes into all their T-shirts and un­der­wear. Eric had in­sisted on throw­ing it away.

Stand­ing there, nerves kick­ing up a flut­ter in her stom­ach, she looked down at her clothes. Jeans with a tear in the crotch. A cof­fee spill on her faded hoodie from sev­eral days be­fore. Who was she to say any­thing to the peo­ple who lived in this house? Be­fore she could turn around to go home, the great door squeaked open and a woman’s head with smooth cas­cad­ing blond hair ap­peared. Her body fol­lowed, clad in a loose white shift that on some­one less wil­lowy might have looked like a garbage bag; on this woman, the dress gave the im­pres­sion of a god­dess on a Greek urn. Even in the dim light, M could see straight, white teeth gleam through a sym­met­ri­cal smile. “Fi­nally,” said the woman, with a breath of re­lief. “We’ve been wait­ing.”

M opened her mouth to ex­plain, but no words came out. She wasn’t the per­son this woman was wait­ing for, was she?

“I’m Carolyn,” the woman said, as if that would ex­plain ev­ery­thing. “I’ll show you the chil­dren’s room. I can tell you’ll be very good with them.”

M fol­lowed into a vestibule as sump­tu­ous as the ex­te­rior. “Wait. I’m here to talk to . . .” She looked at the letter clutched in her hand, but it seemed to have got­ten wet. The name was smudged il­leg­i­ble. “I’m one of your ten­ants, and I just need to ask for more time.”

Carolyn turned around and leaned a hip against the banis­ter of a wide stair­case. “You must be think­ing about Rod. He’s not here now but if you wait, he’ll prob­a­bly be by later.”

M picked at a small crust of soup on the sleeve of her hoodie. “I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Please,” Carolyn said, her eyes sud­denly wet. “I need some­one tonight and I don’t think any­one’s com­ing from the agency in this storm.” A clap of thun­der punc­tu­ated the word and the lights dimmed and then came back.

M shiv­ered. “You don’t know me.”

“Non­sense. You just said you were a friend of Rod.”

“Is he your hus­band or some­thing?”

Carolyn laughed and flipped her hair over her shoul­der as she turned to con­tinue up the stairs. “We are so glad you could make it. I think you’ll re­ally fit in here.”

As they climbed, M half-lis­tened while Carolyn nar­rated the com­pli­ca­tions of her day—cater­ers who came late, bal­loons that were the wrong colour, a surly gym­nast who tried to leave be­fore the aerial show. Far away, the mur­mur of the party con­tin­ued at a con­stant level. On a land­ing, M looked out the win­dow and caught a breath-stop­ping view that stretched across the city to the North Shore Moun­tains. How big was this house? The stairs seemed to go on for­ever, but the dark wood of the banis­ter was smooth and cool un­der her hand. What would it be like to live here? To have dif­fer­ent rooms for ev­ery oc­ca­sion, ev­ery whim? She looked up at Carolyn’s per­fectly round but­tocks, like two ripe, del­i­cate mel­ons, bob­bing on wa­ter.

“I do a lot of yoga,” Carolyn said.

The state­ment drew M out of her reverie. She felt her cheeks heat up. “Oh?”

“You have to be in ex­cel­lent con­di­tion to live in a house this size. Some­times I move the fur­ni­ture and just run up and down the halls.” “In my apart­ment, that would take less than a sec­ond.”

Carolyn laughed again like a wa­ter­fall and looked back. “Such a card,” she said. “I had no idea you’d be so funny.”

M looked for a hint of sar­casm in her eyes, but there was none. “How long have you been here?”

Her host’s grin melted and she waved the ques­tion away. “Are you a stu­dent?”

“I grad­u­ated last April,” M said.

“Per­fect. We need all the help we can get. There’s so much go­ing on right now. I’m on a path that re­quires con­stant at­ten­tion. I barely have time to think. That’s why I need you. The chil­dren need some­one sta­ble and in­tel­li­gent, some­one who can guide them to­ward their own des­tinies. I be­lieve in you.”

A warmth came over her. Maybe it wasn’t her dream job, but she could give up the con­tent mill and fo­cus on her own writ­ing. She put a hand in her pocket and felt the edge of the evic­tion no­tice. “But where will I live? My house is go­ing to be de­mol­ished.”

“You can live here,” Carolyn said.

The stairs came to an end and they walked down a long hall­way with car­pet in deep red dec­o­rated with black arabesques. Carolyn paused at a door and knocked lightly. She waited for a mo­ment be­fore un­lock­ing it and open­ing it wide for M to en­ter. The room was mostly empty: a worn, beige car­pet on the floor and bare, grey walls; a low plas­tic ta­ble in star­tling orange with a cou­ple of child-size chairs; an easel with pa­per; and a rain­bow of mark­ers scat­tered around yel­lowed colour­ing books. “Where are the kids?” M asked.

Carolyn ges­tured to a door on the other side of the room. “They’re fast asleep. This will be the eas­i­est fifty dol­lars you’ve ever made.”

M’s heart jumped at the men­tion of money. “I don’t know these toys,” she said to cover her ex­cite­ment.

“They’re vin­tage,” Carolyn said, smil­ing like a kit­ten.

M picked up a red-haired clown doll that looked vaguely fa­mil­iar. Carolyn leaned close and touched the yarn fringe. “Raggedy Anne. A clas­sic. My lit­tle girl adores her.”

Her per­fume was del­i­cate and ex­pen­sive, flo­ral but musky un­der­neath. M felt a stir. Breath caught in her lungs.

“There’s one last thing we need to do,” Carolyn said, her voice the air through trees, her voice the smell of ozone be­fore rain. Reach­ing over M’s shoul­der, she opened a closet and pulled out a mint green uni­form, neatly folded. “Size twelve should fit, I think.”

M felt the weight of the well-laun­dered cot­ton dress fall in her hands. An im­age of her grand­mother came to her mind, a photo from when she

was new to the coun­try and fold­ing tow­els in a ho­tel to send money back to her par­ents. That uni­form had been white and pink, but it had been the same de­sign, right down to the fringe on the apron. “I’m not sure,” she said, an un­ex­pected feel­ing of sad­ness wash­ing up from her chest.

Carolyn ran a hand down M’s hair and squeezed her shoul­der. “You’ll be per­fect,” she said, with a sharp nod. “Keep the door closed, will you? No guests al­lowed in here.”

“Of course,” she said, still lost in a mem­ory.

When Carolyn had closed the door be­hind her, M changed out of her torn jeans and stained hoodie and into the stiff dress. It smelled like in­dus­trial soap. There was no mir­ror, but she could tell it was ill fit­ting—too tight in the armpits and too baggy around the hips. She walked around the room, pick­ing up toys and putting them in a bas­ket. For a time, she sat, folded onto one of the chil­dren’s chairs. It was cold, so she put her hoodie back on and then took it off in em­bar­rass­ment at the stain. She opened the door to the chil­dren’s room and found only dark­ness and the faintest sound of rest­ful breath­ing. She shut the door again and con­sid­ered tex­ting Eric, but what would she tell him?

Be­low, she could hear the sounds of the party kick­ing up. The mu­sic had grown louder, de­vel­oped a drum­beat. A woman was croon­ing to a dou­ble bass. Laugh­ter bub­bled up and then faded away. It sounded like so much fun. Maybe she could just have a look. She opened the door and peeked out into the empty hall­way. Mov­ing slowly at first and then with more de­ter­mi­na­tion down the stairs, she passed the win­dow where the moon hung fat over the elec­tric sky­line. At the bot­tom of the stairs, she edged around the cor­ner and looked into the liv­ing room. Her eyes ad­justed to the light and then she saw.

The man’s body couldn’t have been there for long. He was limp and star­ing from open eyes. In the mid­dle of the room, Carolyn was wrapped around him like a lover, her lips on the ten­der place be­tween shoul­der and neck. Around them stood a group of par­ty­go­ers, watch­ing, con­vers­ing. Soft jazz played on a pi­ano. The guests turned their faces in her di­rec­tion and gazed po­litely, ex­pec­tantly.

Carolyn looked up too, her lips turned in that friendly smile. “Ev­ery­thing okay? Did the kids wake up?

“No,” she said, her voice barely above a whis­per. “I just wanted to see the party.”

“What a dar­ling,” a woman said to Carolyn’s left. “Is she Chi­nese?”

The man be­side her shook his head. “Nor­we­gian, I think. A La­p­lan­der.”

The words rat­tled around in her head. She felt an urge to cor­rect them, but she couldn’t gather her thoughts. “I’m not,” she said and then fell silent again with Carolyn’s eyes on her.

Carolyn un­wrapped her­self from the body like a mu­si­cian ris­ing from a cello. “Are you okay?” she asked, con­cern in her eyes. She came for­ward and put a cool hand on M’s fore­arm.

Was it a body or a cello? “What’s hap­pen­ing?” she man­aged to whis­per.

Carolyn reached a long slen­der arm into the air and swung her hips. “Shadow flip­ping.”

“I don’t un­der­stand.”

“No­body does. Isn’t it a laugh?”

“I don’t think I like it,” M said, nausea ris­ing from her belly to her throat. Was the ground mov­ing? Was there an earth­quake? “I need to go home.”

“Do what you want,” her host said, a dark rivulet trac­ing its way down her chin and land­ing in the shal­low pool of her clav­i­cle. “But make a god­damn choice al­ready. You’re bor­ing my guests.”

M closed her eyes. In her mind, she saw Eric and Rhonda walk­ing away to­gether down a long hall­way. Then she saw a hole where her apart­ment had once been, fill­ing with rain­wa­ter, scraps of green cloth from her old couch float­ing in a muddy stew with splin­tered wood. She opened her eyes and looked at the shoes of all the guests. “Yes, ma’am,” she said in a low voice, and turned to climb back up the stairs.

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