The Affairs of Others: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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“Pleeeaaase.”

The wall took blows again. And a hand clapped on skin—hers. What else could it be?

Sex could fragment into clichés. But in the acting out of them they weren’t anymore; those familiar positions, roles, words—they became sensation, feeling. A shock of feeling: a slap given was particular to the shape of his hand, its strength, and to where on her body she took the flat of his palm, how welcome it was or wasn’t, how much it stung. I had almost forgotten this as I mapped them in my mind—her beneath him, the table digging into her stomach as she gave him the full of her backside and took his weight and its concussions. It hurt, because it always did when you wanted to be no better, no worse, than animals.

I couldn’t leave the window when the phone rang, though I imagined yanking it from the wall. Could they hear it? And didn’t they imagine I could hear them?

She’d given me a glorious display of her maternal self on Sunday. It seemed to matter I saw it, her fine management of the afternoon, her children: “Mumma’s here.” That thin scarf around her neck tied so jauntily. And now the colors of Les’s voice, dark blues and browns, all hewn marble, and its pace, never hasty. Was it him making me party to this? Or was I simply beside the point? Here, in my own home. They did not know that sound carried so, that the floor that was my ceiling was old and every day more permeable? I shut the window as the telephone stopped ringing, poured myself a tall whiskey in semi-dark that wore too dark suddenly, and turned on all my lights. I left the kitchen but so did they. As I dialed my voice mail to find out who called, thudding followed me. If someone were with me, my husband, we might have laughed at something showier than that gardenia’s scent. We might have been able to package all this into commonplace. I would not have worried for her neck or where else he might leave his mark. But alone the noise was everywhere. It was the liveliest thing in my apartment. I had no place to put it.
Uh-uh-uh
. That’s what I thought I heard bearing down as Mr. Coughlan’s daughter told my voice mail, “He’s not answering his phone or the bell. I was there. I tried your bell too. You didn’t answer. Have you seen him?” Something fell overhead. A lamp? George’s elegant lamp? “Can you tell me if you’ve seen him lately.
Please
. I’m so worried.”

I did not know I was running until I stumbled and felt my heart in my legs and feet too acutely. I gripped his key in my hand like a dagger, as if it had remedy in it already. But when I got to his door, all of me froze. I almost turned around. I studied his door. The imperfections of the paint. I did not paint this door, not this one, others, but I had chosen the color. I touched it. The comfort of wood, the waxiness of high gloss. I knocked carefully. He could be home, just returned, or sleeping, or merely wanting privacy. No one answered the phone anymore. I knocked again. Please, I said to myself while hearing not Jeanie Coughlan, but Hope saying it at the same time, drawing it out as she had, threading it into an evening that was not intended to be my evening. I got angry then, insensibly. I stabbed at the lock, finally working the key in, but of course it was already unlocked. The key was useless. How many times had I spoken to him about this? I was a landlord, not a nurse or a mother-confessor. I was not his daughter.

“Mr. Coughlan?” It took work to hold my voice as low and impersonal as that. “It’s Celia, your landlady. Are you here? I’ve had an inquiry from—”

Darkness as in a cave, silence as absolute, and me diminishing with knowing I had to break it. There was no one here, no one who could or would respond. My hand searched and found the switch for the overhead light. Objects jumped to—his chair, standing lamp, radio, the yellowing charts on the wall, the blue enameled kitchen table to one side, where he took the meals he didn’t take in his chair. An arrangement which in its extreme simplicity didn’t mean things didn’t matter, but that it was just these few that did or should, that chair, that old lamp, that radio, and the path from them to the window. How many times had he walked it to see water? In this bedroom, the double bed on a metal frame had no headboard and no occupant; the sheet and a rough blue blanket had been assembled and pulled smooth. In the bathroom, the single towel was dry. The surfaces had been wiped down lately, if not scrubbed. Two cans of soup were left in his cabinet. In the fridge, the cheese was mostly gone; the bread, of which four slices remained, had begun to mold. Perhaps his eyes couldn’t decipher it, flecks as yet. None of this spoke of a hearty appetite, but it did not necessarily speak of illness or precipitous departure either. In the past weeks, Hope’s presence had distracted me: I had bought the soup for him, one or two cans at a time so as not to be overly conspicuous; when I could, I’d replace the cheese he’d once picked up, once chosen himself; I’d done so at least a half-dozen times. I always opened it, cut off the hard end. I stuck ten- and twenty-dollar bills in his wallet, once or twice a month—he never remarked the money or the food, or if he did, saw fit not to comment.

It was nearly 10:30. I fell into his chair, a recliner that was mostly wide planes of worn wood save for leather-upholstered padding on its seat and back that had begun to lump and sag to fit the shape of the missing man; the chair’s seams were full of crumbs, its smell musty, old, but not unpleasant. I let my lungs fill with it, and with the stillness that had shocked me when I entered his apartment.

I hadn’t noticed till it stopped, but I had been shaking a moment ago, and now I was here, alone, far from everyone else. I was grateful to Mr. Coughlan, yes, wherever he was. I’d simply wait for him here. I’d explain the intrusion with worry, his daughter’s. By midnight he’d be home surely. Even an old man wasn’t immune to the spring air on his skin, under it. He’d be home by midnight surely.

*   *   *

I woke to bare bulbs shining on me—the overhead light I had switched on. Mr. Coughlan had removed the cover, perhaps to change one or both of the bulbs. How bright it was, how sharp, and then came low and high whines, scraping—the rearranging of things, heavy pieces. It sounded like furniture. The Braunsteins underfoot at their own adventures. It was just after midnight. Late for redecorating. I stood and surveyed the place before leaving. The only window he’d left open was the one with the view. On a calm night you could hear the ferries sounding. I heard the roll of wheels outside on the street, a cart or skateboard, the chirping signal of a car locking, and finally with the Braunsteins agitating again, I knew some defeat. I would have to call his daughter first thing. She’d want to call the police and she’d be right to. I in turn would have to talk to my tenants about rules and order, about quiet and prudence.

Turning off his lights, locking two and so all of his locks, I took a right in the short hall outside and tried the door to the storage room beside his apartment; it was the reason his place was smaller than the other units, that and the lower ceilings. Inside, things from a former life. Books, tapes, CDs, old movies:
His Girl Friday, Wings of Desire, Notorious
. Things I could not give away, that I didn’t want to risk to dampness in the basement, but that, looked at too often, might become as common to the eyes, and heart, as wallpaper. Then I called for the elevator. If ever I needed to be carried it was now. It woke from its waiting and climbed to me with a whirring that soothed me until I remembered Mr. Coughlan relied on the elevator when he was tired. I hadn’t checked it or even cleaned it in days. It was a graceful antique, a workhorse. On its ceiling was a ring of old lights fit for a carnival, a merry-go-round. It had two doors. You could not see whether it was empty or not until you pulled open the first door with its gold-plated handle and small window, then the next, a slider that retreated automatically when the first door opened, and was fitted with the same window. My hands began trembling again. The hinges creaked, the aging sliding door serpentined slightly in its narrow tracks. No one there or not quite, for when I stepped inside, taking a full breath of what I thought would be relief, I took in an odor—ammonia first, the first note of what I recognized to be urine. It was so powerful, having been trapped, left to fester, that I stepped out and leaned back on the first thing I could. Mr. Coughlan’s door, where his absence was now as alive, as unsettling, as the smell of piss in my elevator.

*   *   *

I used bleach. I did not care if it was remarked by the environmentally sensitive in the building. The discovery required something that matched, even overwhelmed it in its noxiousness. As I mopped out the elevator there was a suspension of noise, of everything, as if the building, out of respect, contained all its annoyances, all the nerves that were my tenants and their guests or the one guest. I thought of waking them, every single one—the vision of it gave life to my body—asking them without prefacing apologies when they’d seen Mr. Coughlan last. I wanted to draw them out of their dramas as surely as they’d wanted that of me on occasion, but I wouldn’t. I would call his daughter directly, perhaps I would call the police myself—what was the etiquette? I did not know, but I knew the body’s defections had to be addressed with efficiency and already I was behind. I still remembered my father cleaning up my vomit when I was a child, in the sore-making hours of the night or early morning; I remembered my mother’s cool, thin hands on my hot face, steadying me through what she assured me was temporary. I held on to that sort of sweetness back when I contended with my husband’s accidents, one after another. For him the messes his illness made were indignities and so it was up to me to wipe them away as quickly as they happened, as if they never had, this vigilance the only answer to the body’s failures.

Back in my apartment, I peeled off my clothes and left them in a pile on the floor. I found Coughlan’s daughter’s number, dialed, but it was nearing 2
A.M.
and I let it ring once before hanging up. I would try her and the police when it got light. I sat in my own favorite chair from which I watched the movies I liked, sometimes the news, listened to the radio, but it soon became Mr. Coughlan’s chair and my body his, that heavy, that unknowable to me. I got up and paced until I couldn’t and found myself in front of my medicine cabinet again. I had more than sleeping pills stored away on the shelves and under my sink, even in my fridge. There was morphine, in liquid, tablet, capsule, and sublingual forms: MSIR, MS Contin, Avinza, Oramorph, Roxanol. A whole language of opiates. Not to mention the liquid Ativan, tablets of Percocet, Xanax, Klonopin, Seconal. Most of the bottles bore my husband’s name, a few my own. His doctor had been as forthcoming with his prescription pad as state and federal guidelines would allow. I’d intended to throw the stuff away many times but didn’t. It wasn’t just because of a pamphlet of Angie Braunstein’s found under my door months and months ago, that had warned about the effect of discarded pharmaceuticals on the water supply; it spoke of fish with confused sexual physiognomy, of extra gills, depressed immune and nervous systems; fish drunk on Prozac, Ambien. The drugs had sustained my husband and me—the names and dates on the labels were there for me to see every time I reached for dental floss. Small markers. Memorials. Not a matter of choice for him then and often magical in their impact. Still potent for all these reasons even though the majority of the expiration dates had long since passed.

Our hospice nurse, Helen, believed in generous doses of palliatives for everyone, the terminal patient, the family of the terminal patient. She didn’t believe pain had to be tolerated, or not forever. She’d send me to bed telling me I looked ratty, placing a pill square in my palm. “Grab on to it,” she’d say. I had liked her—she was less reverent of death than the other nurses we auditioned. “You have some say in all this,” she’d say, squeezing my arm. “So does he.” She rarely spoke in a whisper or mooned at me sympathetically and always laughed with her mouth open—and I’d let myself fall asleep for short runs with her in the next room with him; I’d sometimes wake with the pill, having melted some, stuck to my hand. Now I swallowed a Xanax. I ran a bath.

I tried not to imagine where Mr. Coughlan could be or the variety of ways a city like this might harm him. I tried not to recall the smell in my elevator. The water ran too hot. I let it. I took a Seconal before I eased my way in.

*   *   *

The bell—my husband was meant to ring it when he needed me or the nurse. He used it to joke, ringing it when he knew I was on the toilet or phone, ringing it to show me this could all be a game until it wasn’t and he rang for meds, to stop the pain.
Why don’t we end this? Leave me with the bottle, baby. C’mon, this is nonsense. C’mon,
he’d urge, like we could shuffle this off, like, yes, of course, we had some say. At that stage he couldn’t do it without me—he couldn’t hold things in his own hands for long; sometimes he had difficulty swallowing and the coughing hurt. And so I told the noise—what I thought was him making his case again with the bell—
a little longer, I’m not ready
. But the sound kept at it until it became a bleat, then a buzz, teeth bared, cutting into my sleep just enough for me to feel the bed was damp, the ends of my hair too, and to see the light in the room was high and splashing, outlining a moving tree copse on the wall beside my bed, pressing the shadow of the windowpanes into the shade. Late-morning sunshine and what I knew now was the persistence of the outside door buzzer, someone wanting into my building, without delay.

I stood into a whirling; the room spun with me in it. I sat back down to stop it. I stood once more, reaching out to objects that seemed to shy and float from me. I made my way to the door, reassembling what I could of last night so that where I found myself now, as I pressed the front-door entrance release, could begin to feel real and firm, could matter again. The absence of sound, its teeth, slackened me, and when, at the sink, I brought cold water to my face, inside my mouth, my insides went cold and liquid, too. I put on my robe to warm myself, combed my hair away from my eyes, but everything lifted and sloshed as if in an Atlantic tide.
He loves the Maine coast and likes to tell me Long Island Sound is a sad dirty little pond.
Who was I telling? Helen.
Maybe we could bring him to Maine one more time
.

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
3.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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