The trumbulls—Mr., Mrs., Jr., and Tina, not yet two—moved out at the start of November. Their departure should have come much sooner, but my father intervened on their behalf, and my mother, who handled the tenant agreements and finances, loved my father enough to listen. With eleven units in our building (twelve if you counted ours), my parents had favorite and least-favorite tenants, and the Trumbulls had been slipping in the rankings. The family had lived in Apartment 2B, the bay-windowed unit facing Spruce Street, for six years. At the end of their annual lease they had not paid rent in four months, and despite promises otherwise, they gave no indication that they would begin to pay again. For weeks my father had prodded them for partial payment, not out of strict necessity but to provide evidence to my mother that the Trumbulls were a presence worth maintaining and that hope should not be lost on them. But Mr. Trumbull, a wiring expert, hadn’t had work in some time. According to his wife, who cared for their children and occasionally babysat for other tenants, Mr. Trumbull had refrained from joining the local chapter of his union over a disagreement with its president. Mrs. Trumbull mentioned this regularly, the fact that her husband was without union membership, as if it were the thing that most defined him, more than his small brown eyes, more than the way he pronounced Mondee and Tuesdee and yesterdee. But whether from the current state of the economy or restrictive union contracts or some combination of the two, the usual weeks-long gaps between Mr. Trumbull’s projects became months-long, until he found himself in debt. It was time for his family to move.
I knew little about the Trumbulls, but I knew that I liked them. Liked their footsteps, their music, their arguments, their regimented comings and goings. They were our oldest tenants and lived nearest to us, across the hall on the second floor of 1820 Spruce Street. Our hot water came from the same boiler and city pipes, our electricity from the same transformer and power grid. After a handful of shared outages and countless mislabeled envelopes, that seemed almost enough. They were the kind of neighbors to depend upon for a cup of sugar, or, as had actually occurred when the car wouldn’t start, for jumper cables. More than this, the three of them, which had become the four of them, offered a glimpse of what life could look like in fifteen to twenty years. Not what it would look like, or should look like, but what I suspected was a realistic portrayal of the middle road, nothing special but nothing especially bad. The Trumbulls were there each day at the end of my high school classes, and then the few weekends a year I took the six-hour train home from college. It was almost fitting that I should graduate and they should have to leave, and I felt somehow responsible.
My parents had known something was the matter even before rent became an issue. The state of the Trumbulls’ finances was no secret in our building, the walls of the old walk-up scarcely enough to soften their nightly disputes. Out of modest concern for others, Mrs. Trumbull did her best to restrain the volume of her voice, but its sound grew reedy, like a shout through a bendy straw, and carried up the wooden stairwell and under neighboring doorways. Eventually other tenants, better off in circumstance but hardly immune to the effects of the recession themselves, offered the Trumbulls odd jobs and errands, names of possible employers, and, when all else failed, small words of encouragement. My father was no exception. He contracted Mr. Trumbull to redo the lights in the entryway of our building. Mr. Trumbull picked out a replacement fixture, a worn chandelier with angular arms protruding from a central post, like a lifeless, upturned spider. Mr. Trumbull had spray-painted the metal frame a dull gold. Modern, my dad described it. Spare. My mother called it junk.
A month later, as she reconciled their joint checkbook, my mother saw that my father had written Mr. Trumbull a check for 850 dollars. I remember the number because she repeated it over and over again, as though by repetition she could nullify its meaning, and therefore its value:
Eight-hundred fifty dollars! Eight-hundred and fifty dollars. Why didn’t you subtract the balance from his outstanding rent? my mother asked.
The man needed it, my father replied.
I just want to make this clear, she said, clapping her palms together then slamming them onto the table as if struck by an idea. He owes us rent, so you wrote him a check.
Our hot water came from the same boiler and city pipes, our electricity from the same transformer and power grid. After a handful of shared outages and countless mislabeled envelopes, that seemed almost enough.
In times of frustration, when her typically calm demeanor slipped just beyond the threshold of her control, my mother could appear unimaginably young. As if edge or anger had hidden itself somewhere within her and was only accessible by a younger version of herself: fidgety, sarcastic, and, miraculously, ageless. Her eyes looked bigger—or else smaller. The blood beneath her skin made itself known, fattening what few wrinkles she had developed over fifty years. I loved seeing her like this. A little more impetuous, a little less—motherly.
Claire, what do you want? my father responded. He didn’t look at her directly, and I smiled with an understanding of the power she held over him—she who could hardly reach the upper shelves of our cabinets, him with his wide shoulders, a mustache coarse as steel wool, and the clear-eyed certainty of a practicing lawyer.
Your daughter agrees with me, my mother said. She looked at me, and I nodded. I always seemed to agree with her. In this instance, however, she had a point. Mrs. Trumbull had stopped me in the entryway and gestured up admiringly at her husband’s handiwork, laying her hand on the edge of the doorframe. I wondered who had really picked out the fixture and priced it.
my parents had given the Trumbulls two months’ notice, but the family did not make arrangements until days before the expiration of their lease. They waited, I think, out of the human expectation that something would change, would have to change, that either they would manage to meet my mother with a check, paid in full, or my mother and father would give in and allow them to stay. Right before they were set to move out, my father knocked on their door with a reminder to call the gas utility to remove their name from future bills. Mrs. Trumbull took my father’s words as a personal slight and, as though it were he who owed her money, closed the door in his face. My father told me this and forbade me to tell my mother. He said that times like these brought out the worst in people. I said that maybe they showed you who people really were. He paused, then pinched my cheek between his index and middle fingers affectionately. Those tuition dollars must have been worth it, he said.
On the Trumbulls’ final day, my father lined the walls of the stairwell with padding, just as he did for all new and outgoing tenants, though it took over an hour for him to tape the fabric to the walls while he balanced above his footstool, shifting its place on the stairs one step at a time. As a kid, I was responsible for cutting the tape and handing it to him, and I picked up my old duty, though it seemed my father had gotten along fine without me for the last four years. I could tell he wanted to spend time with me, feel my presence at his side. He was neither talkative nor sentimental but someone who liked the comfort of another person in his vicinity, like the low glow of a nightlight.
Despite his disappointment that the Trumbulls had not fulfilled their promises, today my father was in good spirits. He sang to himself as he hung up the fabric, tacking the tape to the wall with slaps that aligned to the beat of Billy Joel. It was one of his favorites, which he sang to my mother any time he’d had more than two glasses of wine and she called him—with his sudden affections—crazy. Youmayberight,Imaybecrazy.Ohh,butitjustmaybealuuuunaticyou’relookin’for.
I asked why he was so happy, though I anticipated his response: Because the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and my daughter is here helping me.
Why don’t we just repaint the walls once the new tenant moves in? I asked. That way you don’t have to put the fabric back up again. They could use a new coat. I snapped a piece of tape with my teeth and handed it to him.
Paint doesn’t prevent dents. Besides, there are three—I know, I know. He began to sing again.
I knew, because he repeated it so often, that there were three types of people in the world: people who caused problems, people who solved problems, and people who prevented problems in the first place. His own father had bequeathed him this wisdom, and my father must have regarded its retelling as a filial duty—something I respected as a student of the Classics. My father was one of four boys, and whenever he repeated the proverb of problems, his tone shifted almost imperceptibly, and unsettled me—because for the slimmest of seconds I thought my father imagined himself speaking not to a disciplined daughter but to a disobedient son. It became necessary for him to speak sternly, so as not to allow my mind to wander aimlessly toward wherever the minds of disobedient boys wander, as his once did. By the end of high school, I could recite the lines fluently and had even translated them into Latin. I saw problems before they occurred, and I prevented them. Now, upon graduating from college, I worried that maybe I had prevented too many.
With the help of family members, several of whom I had met previously, the Trumbulls emptied Apartment 2B over the course of a day. The three of us, especially my father, wanted to join them, but we decided that acts of ostensible kindness would not be well-received. My father used the word eviction several times, though my mother reminded him that he was, after all, a lawyer, and he should remember that business is business and eviction is eviction. We tried to drown out the sounds of their moving—shuffling feet and heavy breathing—with the TV in the living room, until the volume grew too loud and my mother said we were being conspicuous. We couldn’t leave the building because we had to ensure that the Trumbulls didn’t leave unwanted belongings for us to clean up. Beyond that, we needed their keys.
I left our door open after lunch, hoping I could catch a glimpse of the two children. Eventually Jr. approached our doorway, his father encouraging him. He hugged me at my waist. Mr. Trumbull followed suit, patting me on the back as though congratulating me on some job well done. When I looked at him, I wondered if he had been crying. His small eyes had receded even farther into their sockets. He looked weary, depleted of more energy than the trips up-and downstairs should have demanded. Still, he affected good cheer, both with me and with the other tenants who came out to say good-bye. It would be a short drive to his brother’s house in the suburbs, but a few neighbors brought out snacks for Jr. and Tina, and Mr. Trumbull made jokes and offered to return to fix their lights. I’ll miss yous guys, he said finally, walking down the steps, clutching the bannister to cushion the strain against his knees. Mrs. Trumbull handed my mother the keys. Little Tina bobbed over her mother’s shoulder, her eyes watching me.
the new tenant was a doctor, a fact which delighted my mother. As a rule, doctors made the best tenants and lawyers the worst— even my father would admit to this. Doctors worked long hours, spent the most time outside their homes, and complained very little; they prepared for the unexpected and didn’t hold the quirks of an old rowhome against you. Lawyers, on the other hand, liked to wield their authority and knowledge of lessee rights. Whenever you failed to hold up your end of the deal, however they interpreted the deal or the holding up of it, they made threats. My parents once found themselves in small-claims court over a dispute about plumbing, though they ultimately paid nothing—our lawyer tenant had not realized the landlord he was suing was a lawyer, too.
Simon Lacey was a pediatric resident who had transferred to a nearby hospital after the closure of his residency program in another state. He had signed the apartment lease without setting foot in our building and would move in within two weeks, shipping some items ahead of himself and hauling the rest in a rental truck. My mother wanted to wait to meet him in person before committing to anything, but my father said that if Lacey could trust us, we could trust him. Looking online, I found a surprisingly young man with a lean frame and a freckled nose that arced upward at its tip, like a cartoon character. He would make a good pediatrician.
The apartment required significant rehab before his arrival. The Trumbulls had not left anything behind, but their six years had taken a toll on the unit, and my parents had been unable to refinish the floors since their purchase of the building. The oak was scuffed and discolored—dark in some areas, ashen in others. In those patches most faded by the sun, the floor’s inlay border, a deep walnut, reminded me of a girl from high school who bleach-dyed her long brown hair but left her thick eyebrows intact.
I stood in the center of the poorly furnished living room, my eyes scanning the room for the book, then, eventually, for nothing at all. I saw a moth flutter from one corner of the ceiling to the other, its flight like a lazily drawn sine wave.
To give me something to do, my parents left me the responsibility of watching over the contractors as they gave the apartment new life, replacing first the backsplash and countertop in the kitchen, then the ceramic tiles in the bathroom. Without furniture, the apartment had become a woodshop, with tools strewn everywhere and a lone case of plastic water bottles in a far corner. The living room seemed smaller without the Trumbulls’ loveseat, reclining chair, and dining room table. The only place to sit was the bench beneath the bay window, half a hexagon aligning perfectly with the three windowpanes and offering three angles of Spruce Street. There I kept watch and read to pass the time.
The men ignored me as they worked. They swore and belched, they spat into the sink. The youngest of them, John, had a sharp chin and no wedding ring, and worked without a shirt on, sweating in the apartment’s radiant heat. On the third day, I shaved my legs and wore a pair of pink cotton shorts from middle school, which hugged my upper thighs, and a thin white T-shirt with a pushup bra. John nodded as I unlocked the door for him, then walked inside swinging his paper-bagged lunch, continuing to pay less attention to me than he had to my father. When the lead contractor, also named John, arrived, he smiled at me and twitched his mouth, as though searching for a small seed in his lower gums. Before returning to the bay window, I changed into my sweatpants.
The three men worked quickly, and that night I told my father that my presence or absence didn’t seem to make a difference to their rate of progress. Once they began sanding the floor, I mostly remained across the hall. I didn’t want all the dust in my hair. A large machine rolled over the floor like an overturned record player, spinning and spinning its black disk against the wood. There was a vacuum function that didn’t seem to be working because I could hardly breathe whenever I entered the apartment. The men wore blue masks, and the young John kept his shirt on.
When they had finished sanding and staining, and the floor gleamed in the sunlight, I thought how the new tenant wouldn’t know the before and after, and would take all this for granted.
as we had anticipated, Dr. Simon Lacey spent most of his time at the hospital, arriving home late at night and departing a short sleep later, challenging my father as the building’s earliest riser. He was
quiet and calm, one of those people who gave the distinct impression you were speaking too quickly even if you were the one listening. My mother admitted that my father had been right and called Dr. Lacey a perfect gentleman. I agreed, though I was frustrated that we didn’t see him more often. I thought about what it would be like to be his patient—it had only been four years since I last visited the pediatrician. He had a girlfriend, he told us after a few weeks, who was actively looking for a new job in our city and would move in once she made arrangements. And because my parents were perfectly happy with him, the surprise second tenant didn’t seem to bother them.
Dr. Lacey moved into 2B before the contractors had been able to complete their work. Because he spent his days at the hospital, I continued to let men in and out of his unit: a plumber to replace the faucets, an electrician (not Mr. Trumbull) to add dimmers. My parents wanted to finish with all necessary improvements to maximize the building’s resale value should they receive an offer from an interested buyer. This had come up with increasing regularity, the relief of selling the property as appealing now as the excitement of buying it had been almost a decade ago. In the present economy, they would have to wait, and I viewed this interval symbolically, as a narrowing measure between the social acceptability of my unemployed, postgraduate life and its eventual unacceptability, or, how long I could stay before, suddenly, I had to go. I could visualize the lengths from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end, where warm water cooled and where verbs changed—again, suddenly— from the present tense to the future perfect: hicsum,hicfuero. Here I am, here I will have been.
One morning, the HVAC company that was supposed to mount a new air conditioning unit to the bedroom wall canceled their appointment. They canceled again the next day, and then the next. My mother bit her upper lip as she dialed the customer service line, shook her head violently as they failed to answer her questions. Her exasperated adolescence emerged. Eventually, with the soothing of a glass of wine and my father’s presence, she decided that a new system could wait until spring. My parents’ exchange, their reasoning through, was the clearest definition of marriage I had seen, and I wanted something like it. Wanted it immediately, then not at all, then promised to me later, like an heirloom whose luster you admire but whose attainment coincides with the loss of someone dear.
On the morning of the first scheduled appointment, I had pushed Dr. Lacey’s moving boxes to the side of his bedroom (he had unpacked very little) and laid a canvas drop cloth between his bed and the wall. When my mother crossed the hall to inform me that the appointment had been postponed, I pushed the boxes back and folded the heavy cloth into a neat square. I followed her path and locked both doors behind me. But when I couldn’t find the book I had been reading, I returned to 2B. I searched under the bed and above the bedroom windowsill, then searched in areas of the apartment I knew I hadn’t been that morning—the bay window, for instance.
The cat rose and lifted its paw to the glass where I had accidentally rested my hand. I used the hem of my damp running shirt to smooth away the print.
The book was nowhere to be found. I stood in the center of the poorly furnished living room, my eyes scanning the room for the book, then, eventually, for nothing at all. I saw a moth flutter from one corner of the ceiling to the other, its flight like a lazily drawn sine wave. I imagined a celestial thumb, Juno’s maybe, or Minerva’s, pressing against the crown of my head, keeping me still. Finally, my limbs unlocking, I left the apartment behind me.
I returned the next day, and then the next, even after all appointments had been canceled. Simon knew that we had a key and had planned to install the new air conditioner. Was it breaking and entering if nothing broke?
On the fourth day, for which no appointment had been scheduled, I was sitting in the window when something stirred across the apartment. I screamed.
Down the hallway I found a gray tabby cat curled on the bed where Simon slept. I didn’t know where it had come from, but my parents did not allow pets, so this must have been a secret of Simon’s, one he was reckless with—what if someone else had seen it? He must have had confidence in the cat’s ability to hide itself. Or, I thought playfully, confidence in that girl across the hall.
a few weeks after this discovery (I now visited the apartment almost every day), I discovered something bigger: a woman, in Simon’s bed. I saw the dark curls of her hair that twisted above the white covers like snakes. Her clothes were thrown on the floor—a pair of jeans and winter coat and sweater—but there were no suitcases or additional boxes. I tiptoed out of the apartment, sidestepping the areas of the floor that squeaked the most.
When I returned the next day, I remembered to knock before entering. I had become careless, and I was supposed to be type of person who prevented problems before they occurred. After no one responded, I entered the apartment.
I cautiously opened the moving boxes in the main bedroom, the ones whose tape had been ripped or punctured. I found the picture frames I wanted to find. In several, there was a young woman who kissed Simon on the cheek or smiled beside him. A woman with wavy blonde hair.
Beyond the brunette, I considered how I knew only as much about Simon as his cat, as much as the moth on the wall—the layout of his apartment, the colors of his textbooks, the shapes of the toenail clippings on his coffee table and the grains of take-out rice stuck to his couch cushion. Was it a true invasion of privacy, of Simon’s privacy, if he didn’t know what I knew, if I never told anyone else? That he used Rogaine, that he kept food in the refrigerator long after it had expired, that he slept with women who were not his girlfriend—what, decisively, made these things secrets? The only absolute secret was his cat, and I accepted that burden gratefully; I liked knowing something about our building that my parents didn’t.
I remembered the myth of Actaeon, who startled Diana as she bathed and for his sin was turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs. Had Actaeon invaded knowingly, like a spy, or had he found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time? I pitied him either way. I should have left Simon’s apartment after the first day by myself, or the second or the third. But I liked the awareness I felt in a place where I didn’t belong—more aware of each inch of space I took up, each hair that could fall from my head and betray me.
After I discovered the brunette, I allowed myself to lie in the bed. If Simon found a hair, he would assume it was hers, because if I had been careless, so had he. I curled up in the bedsheets and breathed in. I smelled stale deodorant: sweat and peppermint. Did he sleep on his back, facing the ceiling and sky, like my father, or on his side, like my mother, or on his stomach, like the other woman, like me? I turned over in the bed, buried my nose in Simon’s pillow. My hand wandered beneath the elastic band of my sweatpants. The cat lurched onto the bed and rubbed against my leg. I stood up and smoothed over the sheets below me.
months later, I was running to my parents’ building to have dinner. I had moved to my own apartment on the other side of the city, in a newer building that, surrounded by even newer buildings, now looked dated. My unit was a small studio—this much I could manage without help from my parents—but it was mine. I could have found a roommate as my mother suggested and lived somewhere bigger, but I wanted to fit the narrative of the recent grad with too many clothes and books and nowhere to put them.
I had started running almost every day because a friend suggested it was a good way of clearing your head. It worked well, and the more I ran, the less I thought. I would run home after work, where I tutored anxious middle school students in English and Latin, students who behaved as if that next week’s test amounted to the greatest trial of their young lives; I ran around the perimeter of the park; I even ran some mornings with a group of young women who wanted to not-think together for a while.
As I entered my parents’ building, I saw Dr. Lacey and his girlfriend, the woman from the pictures—soon to be his wife, my parents told me. They smiled as we passed each other on the stairs.
My parents sat in the living room sharing a bottle of wine, my mother holding a piece of paper in her hand and waving it like a golden ticket.
You know what that is? my father asked, pointing. She’ll never guess, said my mother.
Guess who was just here.
The two of them looked as though they had not moved in hours. I liked the comfort of knowing that this was where I could imagine them on any given day.
Who? I asked.
Bob Trumbull! my mother replied. You just missed him. He brought a check. Look, ten thousand two hundred. That’s more than he owed.
He’s doing great, my father chimed in. He’s lost weight, and he seems less, less—
Less tired. I’m so happy for him.
I told them I was going to shower and change. Despite repeated overtures of missing my presence at home, they remained fully engrossed in their own world, drinking more wine and talking in the living room as if I had neither left nor arrived. I wondered what they made of me, whether they thought about me as work that had been completed, either on schedule or a bit delayed, but completed nonetheless. Were they better able to relax now? But if they’d ever been nervous, they never shared their concerns with me. I saw the set of building keys on our hallway table and slipped out and across the hall. Without knocking, I unlocked 2B.
The apartment was not at all as I had known it. There were no boxes in the master bedroom. A new bookshelf stood in the corner. The bed, made impeccably, had red throw pillows that contrasted sharply with the white linens. The living room looked pulled from a catalogue: light-blue area rug, long leather couch. The coffee table was the same as before, but now looked as though it belonged. My stomach climbed into my chest as I drew cautiously to the bay window where the cat had curled into a U. I looked out the left windowpane, then the right. A couple walked their dog and a woman ran around them, dipping into the street, then back onto the sidewalk.
On the corner two blocks east, I saw Mr. Trumbull, or a man who looked just like him, minus a few pounds. Bouncier, maybe, lighter on his knees. I watched him walk for two blocks, until the city, its trees and street posts and awnings, finally took him from view. The cat pawed at my side, wanting attention. I craned my neck and glanced through one of the windowpanes for a final look. The man turned around, taking in the scene. He stood as cars passed, allowing other pedestrians to slip by. It was Mr. Trumbull, I decided. Mr. Trumbull and the city. The cat rose and lifted its paw to the glass where I had accidentally rested my hand. I used the hem of my damp running shirt to smooth away the print.
Matthew Jeffrey Vegari is a writer and economics researcher. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Sewanee Review, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. He was a 2020 recipient of the Dau Prize for emerging writers from PEN America.
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