Hammers & Nails by Robert William Wilson
Hammers & Nails by Robert William Wilson
Gordon Simms stepped back to admire his handiwork. It was crude, to be sure, but still functional. Impressive even, considering he lacked almost all the necessary tools and materials needed for the job. Eight days it had taken. Eight long rest-peppered afternoons of scraping and sanding and nailing and sawing and scrubbing and splinters and bleeding. Eight was enough. The porch looked as good as it was going to look. The restoration process was complete. There was nothing more he could do to improve upon it except rip it all down and start over. It hadn’t been entirely gruelling. The weather was great most of the time and he got to see many of the people who lived on the street up close as they walked past the house. The old Italian Joe, the large Portuguese woman, electric wheelchair guy, the Asian couple, the black businessman with the briefcase and the stiff walk, the arts students, and the young moms pushing strollers. Most of them looked at him curiously or else ignored him outright as they passed. Some of them even smiled.
He was glad it was over. His enthusiasm for the project had begun to wane. He walked around the patient several times, still hesitant to announce the whole endeavour completed. His eyes moved from imperfection to imperfection, grimacing at the spots where he’d been sloppy. He couldn’t really be proud of it, but it was an improvement. He began to tidy the tools and scraps of wood that lay scattered about the front of the house. The sound of a screen door creaking open caught his attention and he looked up to see his neighbour Amanda stepping outside with an unlit cigarette dangling from her lips. She was wearing sunglasses and yellow cotton shorts that looked two sizes too small. She sat down on the grey concrete steps, pressed her feet together tightly, and studied the shade of her red toenail polish in the sunlight.
Gordon watched her through the painted wooden planks, his movements automatically becoming slower and quieter; feeling again that little spike of adrenaline tingle whenever she appeared. There was something blatant about her, something that always caused his imagination to veer into the naughty section of the video store. Maybe it was simply basic proximity, which made it all the more vivid. They had shared a few nice conversations in passing. Once he had bumped into her at the corner store; another time at the coffee shop; and two or three times in the front yard. Always spontaneous encounters that were light and meaningless and brief. In the two months since she moved into the apartment next door, he’d learned that she was a part-time security guard at a grocery store in Little Italy. Sometimes he would see her leave home dressed in her uniform, – dark blue slacks, a white blouse and a blue blazer. It was the only time he ever saw her wearing her nerdy black glasses which always gave the illusion of intelligence. She didn’t read much, but she liked swimming. And horses.
She was dating a blond Russian giant named Igor. He came home late almost every night after work with his lazy eye and his dirty brown t-shirt. The rumbling engine of his long green pick-up truck announcing his arrival. He never smiled. The Russian embodied everything that Gordon was not. Muscular. Mysterious. Primal. Testosterone oozing through his pores. Gordon had seen them together once, – being intimate on the couch in their basement apartment. He was coming home from an Indian restaurant in the east end. It was very late. He had glanced over at the window as he mounted his front steps. The curtains were drawn partway and Igor was slouching back on the couch and she was on top riding him like a mechanical bull. His large knuckly fingers almost completely encircled her waist. He still wore his tattered brown t-shirt. Gordon looked away quickly, glancing up and down the solitary street, before his eyes were tempted back. He leaned against the banister, comfortable in the darkness, and lingered there for another few moments.
Gordon picked up his hammer, and cleared his throat loudly. He pretended not to notice but he could feel her brown eyes turning towards him from behind the dark glasses. He basked for a few seconds in her casual attention before leaning back and patting the side of the porch like a pet dog and walking around to the front yard. He smiled at her.
“Oh, Amanda, hi.”
“Hi.” She bobbed her chin at the porch. “Looking good.”
“Thanks. It’s finished. I think.”
“I hope you’re getting paid for all that work.”
“The landlord is going to knock a few bucks off the rent. And he’s covering all the materials,” Gordon shrugged. “Nice of him.”
“Nice of him?”
“Well he didn’t exactly ask me to do it. I sort of imposed it on him. It was looking pretty shabby. It’s amazing what two coats of white paint can hide.”
“I remember seeing you sanding those pillars. The sweat was pouring off you.”
“It was more work than I thought.”
“Well it looks better. Looks sturdier too, with that extra wood you added.”
“Doesn’t shake as much. Still a little crooked though.”
Amanda extended a long white leg into the air and wiggled her toes. They looked like a small cluster of ripe cherries.
“What do you think of this colour?”
“I like it,” said Gordon quickly.
“Thanks. I don’t think it works on my fingers. But I like it on my toes.”
Gordon moved closer to the fence and Amanda noticed the scratches on his face and the sores on the back of his hands.
“You look like you were in a fight.”
Gordon made two fists as he studied the cuts and scrapes.
“No…, just from doing this stuff. They’re not used to it.”
His right hand rubbed the space on his left hand where his wedding ring was supposed to be. The skin at the base of the finger had been rubbed smooth and soft by the golden band. Its absence startled him before he remembered he removed it to avoid getting paint on it. A funky-sounding ring-tone sounded loudly. Amanda picked up her phone and smiled down at the small screen.
“Hi! I was just going to call you…”
Gordon remained standing by the edge of the fence as though waiting for further instructions. Amanda crushed her cigarette in a potted plant and flicked the butt out into the street. She stood up and winked at him as she kept up her phone conversation, then turned and walked back inside the house. He smiled stupidly and waved at her back.
– – – – –
Gordon took another sip of coffee as he held his phone against his ear. He leaned back in his chair and tried to arch the kink from his back.
“So no more solid foods then…”
“Well, you didn’t know.”
“Honey, don’t blame yourself.”
“No I remember you said you’ve been pureeing everything for her.”
“Well maybe you shouldn’t have left your plate within reach when you went to the kitchen.”
“I know. You turn your back for a second…”
“She used to love fried chicken, I’m not surprised.”
“So she coughed it up?”
“Oh god… You had to reach in there eh?”
“Oh the teeth came out first? Makes sense.”
“Ew gross… I mean no, it was quick thinking on your part.
“All over the table eh?”
“No you had to do it. Thank god you did.”
“Of course I would have. I would.”
“But I might have tried the maneuver… What is it?”
“Oh you couldn’t get her up.”
“Well you saved the day. Thank god, she might have choked to death right there in front of you.” Gordon heard himself saying the words. There was a detectable lack of conviction in them.
“How’s Micky holding up?”
“Yeah, must be hard. Poor guy.”
“Tell him hi.”
He took another sip of coffee as he pushed his nose closer to the window and scanned the neighbour’s backyard.
“Nothing much. Finished the porch. Gotta clean the bathroom at some point.”
“Yeah everything is coming up great.”
“No, I’ll freeze them. Love you too. Bye for now.”
Gordon hung up the phone and walked back into the kitchen. He slid open the window and looked down at his expansive garden flourishing in the back corner of the yard. The heads of cauliflower glowed like electric bulbs in the bright afternoon sun. His cherry tomato plants now towered above his head, supported by an impressive network of stakes and twine and duct tape. All along the corner of the fence, a twisting, reaching vine twirled around the metal posts, dangling crowded mobs of thick green beans like ornaments.
He was grieved to discover his peace offering to the squirrels had not appeased them. The chunks of stale bread he scattered over the grass were gone, but in a senseless act of ignominious dissent the little monsters had savaged the potted sunflowers. They were always up to some mischief, – knocking beans and tomatoes to the ground prematurely, digging up the pepper plants and chewing the stems; hopping and scrounging between the rows and generally treating the garden as their own private playground. The bread had been a futile attempt to divert them away from the growing vegetables and maybe form a kind of understanding with them. But on the contrary, with ruthless efficiency they had decapitated the bright flowering heads of the sunflowers and clawed and scratched the stems to ribbons. He had bought them only yesterday from a flower shop on Bloor Street and schlepped the awkward bundle back in his arms, imagining how nicely they would brighten the yard, not realizing he was carrying them home to a premature death. Finding just the right spot near the back fence in a bright patch of sun, stepping back and admiring the cheerful addition, all the while, in the tree branches above his head, the little creatures watched and waited for the free lunch.
He lazed about for most of the morning and afternoon. The first time in a while that he didn’t have to think about going out to work on the porch. He watched a little television and did a little reading, and took a bike ride down to the water and along the trail. When he returned in the afternoon he went out into the backyard and gathered up the dead branches and twigs that had snapped free in last night’s storm. The mulberry tree at the rear of the house had taken a beating too. The fierce wind had shaken loose a harvest of berries that lay scattered over the flagstone in a sticky mantle of purple mush. Gordon liked the tree, but often felt it was more trouble than it was worth. Six weeks of the year it shed its bloated red bundles making a mess of everything that lay beneath its branches. It grew too close to the rear of the house, and whenever there was a strong wind, its limbs would scratch and beat against the building like it was trying to get inside. He lay awake last night for hours listening to it, waiting for the next shrill metallic creak of the trunk rocking against the metal eaves-trough, the next peal of thunder. Listening to the raindrops hammering the window. Watching the dim shadows play over the white bedcovers as the streetlight filtered through the lucent drapes. Feeling more acutely his solitude. Amanda’s face had flickered into his mind. He was reluctant to admit to himself how much he envied the scruffy Russian. He was probably imagining it but he felt like there was an attraction from her side too. He replayed bits of their recent conversations, dissecting her words. Making more of them, then less. Replaying some of his own. He felt like his mind was straying a little too far down that line of thinking. He remembered the time when he first set eyes on her naked breasts as she lay tanning in the backyard. He had even gone into a drawer filled with childhood camping supplies and dug out an old telescope that lay buried there. He zipped it out of its case, – the first time in years, – and felt an unexpected nostalgia as he looked upon the red leather casing, the mahogany barrel, the three brass draw tubes, the clear ground glass, the gold-coloured aluminum trim. He retracted the instrument, relishing the smooth movement of its parts, then turned back to the window and trained the objective lens on his neighbour’s breasts.
_ _ _ _ _
He uncoiled the garden hose and began washing the mess of berries off the paving stones and into the grass. He looked up to see Amanda’s face peering at him through a gap in the hedge. She giggled when he spotted her. She pushed the branches aside and slipped through the small opening. Her hair was pulled back from her face and her blue eyes were huge and bright. He tracked her bouncy approach, the flawless objects of last night’s recollection tucked snuggly behind the blue spandex top with the zipper pulled down low and the cleavage flaunted seductively like a piece of cheese in a mousetrap. She carried a pack of cigarettes in her hand. She looked down at the berries.
“Can you eat those?” she asked.
“Yeah, you can. They’re a bit sour.”
“What a waste!” Amanda stepped over the mush. “You should make wine out of them.”
She poked him in the chest. “Another project for you.”
“Not a bad idea.”
She turned and studied the backyard.
“It’s nice back here. Is that your garden?” she pointed.
“Uh, yep that’s it.”
Gordon tossed the hose aside and led the way to the far corner of the yard. Together they teetered their way down several narrow rows, past the cucumbers, the peppers, the cauliflower, the green beans, the rhubarb, and finally the tomatoes.
“There’s so many red ones,” Amanda tried counting them. “Can I pick one?”
Her fingers hovered past several candidates. Finally she found the one she wanted and plucked it from the branch.
“They’re so cute.”
She rubbed the tomato on her shirt and bit it in half. Juice squirted out the side and she laughed as the droplets rolled down her chin.
“Mmmm, sweet! Here…”
She reached up and pushed the leaky fragment into Gordon’s mouth. She pressed her fingers against his lips for a moment too long before sliding them down. Gordon chewed in a happy daze.
“Mmm, perfect, perfect.”
“You grow a fine tomato,” Amanda proclaimed.
“It’s good soil.”
Gordon took a small metal colander filled with the afternoon harvest off the picnic table and handed it to her. “Take these. Please, there’s lots.”
“I fill one of those every few days.”
“These will be gone by tomorrow,” she said smiling.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Gordon asked.
“An ice tea? Some lemonade? A bottle of water?”
“Oh, sorry. Didn’t make it to the beer store yet.”
“Then the lemonade.”
They walked around the side of the house, dodging the errant jets of water erupting from tiny tears in the hose that lay curling over the ground. They climbed up a short flight of steps and went into the house. They entered the kitchen and Gordon moved quickly to gather up the stray dishes and place them into the sink.
“I’m kind of in bachelor mode,” he said shyly, and cleared some dirty clothes off the chairs and tossed them through his bedroom door. “Saturday I sort of catch up on everything that I stopped caring about after Wednesday.”
Amanda sat down and placed her cigarettes on the table.
“You should see my apartment. We don’t even have any furniture. We eat at a card table. We bought a new mattress for the bed though. I wasn’t going to sleep on what was there.”
“Where’s your furniture?
“Most of it is in my mother’s basement. We’re just waiting for an apartment near High Park to open up. Should be soon. That’s what they tell us.”
“Meantime, we didn’t have to sign a lease here, and the rent is cheap.”
“It’s a dump though.”
Gordon brought out two glasses, poured the lemonade and sat down.
“There hasn’t been anyone living there in a long time,” he said. “I remember the last tenant was a Filipino woman. That was at least a year ago. She lived there for about 6 months or so, then someone broke into the place and robbed her so she moved out.”
Gordon sipped his lemonade and wondered what had possessed him to share that.
“Yeah…, but that was before they put the bars on the windows.”
“It hasn’t happened since.”
Her mouth had a way of never closing, even when she wasn’t speaking.
“You want to smoke a joint?” she asked casually.
“A joint? I don’t know… It’s been a long time. Maybe I shouldn’t. But go ahead. I’ll get an ashtray.”
Amanda opened her cigarette pack and withdrew a twisted white cylinder that looked different from the others. She poked it between her soft red lips, pulled out her lighter and held the flame beneath the tip. Thick, sweet smoke twisted languidly into the room. She drew on it with short, quick huffs. The orange ember blinked. She passed it to Gordon.
“It’s really mild,” she said, and exhaled a smoky stream past his head. He held it awkwardly between two fingers and managed a few cautious puffs. Amanda laughed as he held in the smoke, his face looking bloated and red. He exhaled at the ceiling, coughed a few times and reached for his lemonade.
“You don’t have to hold in the smoke. That’s just a myth.”
“Oh, good,” Gordon took another sip and resisted the urge to cough some more.
“Your apartment is nice,” Amanda said. “I can see the feminine touches.” She looked up above the refrigerator at the pink teddy bear with the heart on his chest.
“I put that picture of the ship up in the hallway,” said Gordon as he pointed over her shoulder. “That’s about it.”
Amanda’s eyes drifted over the open pantry with its shelves of colourful canisters with handwritten labels lined up near the stove, – sugar, pasta, flour. Several postcards from Budapest, Hungary were stuck to the fridge with small magnets.
“How long has she been gone?”
“About seven months.”
“When is she back for good?”
“Not sure yet.” Gordon took another healthy haul and then squinted through the smoke. “Soon I hope.”
“Her mother is sick right?”
“Is she getting better?”
“No. She won’t be getting better.”
“Dementia. It’s pretty cruel. Eventually it kills you.”
“Is that like Alzheimer’s?”
“Yes, basically. She’s losing her marbles is the short of it.”
“Oh that’s sad.”
“Yeah it’s a bummer.” Gordon passed back the joint. “She was a smart lady too. I mean really smart. Spoke seven languages, wrote a few books, could talk about anything. She seemed knowledgeable on everything. I don’t know…, makes it even sadder somehow. Maybe it’s because the contrast is starker. When my wife Charlotte first went over, she would pass the phone to me sometimes so I could say hello, but there isn’t much point to that now.”
“When was she diagnosed?”
“About three and a half years ago. My father-in-law was able to look after her since they’re both retired, but he got older and she got worse and they want to keep her at home. Charlotte went over to help out. She was close with her mother too. She really wanted to be there. She put her phd on hold and off she went.”
“What about you? Were you close with her?”
“No. I wouldn’t say we were close. I don’t think she really cared for me actually.”
“Have you gone over since she left?”
“Once. A couple of months later when things calmed down at work and I could get away easier.”
“How was it?”
“Depressing. She didn’t know who I was. Just a strange man suddenly living in her house.”
The flaming white splinter smouldered and shrunk its way between them. Amanda squinted and took another drag, always leaving a thin transparent layer of lip gloss on the end. She passed it back to Gordon.
“So your wife could still be there for a while.”
“She’s pretty indispensable now. She would never leave her at this stage.”
“Must be hard. Her being gone so much.”
“I’d be lonely.”
Gordon shrugged weakly. “Sometimes.”
It was true he was having a tough time. A co-worker’s wife had hugged him tightly at a staff barbecue and he had practically melted in her arms. It felt so good. He thought about the visit he had made to Budapest in the spring and in spite of the grim environment he had climbed onto his wife as often as he could, even though at times it took a lot of persuasion. He wasn’t quite on the same level of bereavement as the rest of the family. He had only met his mother-in-law three times before and had always found her demeanour toward him to be a little frosty. The whole two weeks he was over there was a mixture of horny melancholy. The solemn, serious tone of the house with the quiet, incorrigible afternoons. Always exhibiting a respectful and sympathetic bearing. And then a salacious, selfish, sexual fiend after dark. A veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Once he had even taken his wife in the bathroom in the morning as she was exiting the shower. She wasn’t in the mood but took pity on him, blow drying her hair at the same time as she leaned over the vanity in front of the mirror to accommodate him. He felt a little ashamed when he thought back on it, but he knew Mr. Hyde wasn’t very far beneath the surface.
Gordon suddenly felt a little dizzy as he pinched the small flat sliver.
“I think it’s done,” he tried to pass it back but Amanda waved it off.
“I’m good,” she said. Gordon tapped it out in the ashtray. His eyelids drooped.
“So when can I see the rest of the place?” Amanda said.
Gordon moved to get up but found his balance was shaky. He slid back down.
“Boy that stuff is potent.” He rubbed his forehead. “Thought you said it was mild.”
“It is mild. And very clean too. I know the guy who grows it and he doesn’t put any shit in it.”
“Whew…, I’m seeing double here.”
“I could introduce you sometime if you want.”
“If you want to get some for yourself.”
“Oh I don’t… I don’t think so…” Gordon’s face looked pale. He breathed deeply and struggled to bring his vision back into focus.
“Remember those old TV sets?” Gordon said slowly, “with the knobs on the front to adjust the horizontal and vertical hold?”
“Sometimes you couldn’t tune it right and the picture would keep rolling…”
Amanda stared at him with a playful grin on her face.
“You are so high.”
Gordon looked down at the blackened roach stuck in the ashtray. “I guess that was before your time.”
“C’mon,” Amanda stood up, “give me the rest of the tour.”
She helped Gordon to his feet. He grasped the side of the table for support and walked slowly along the edge. He reached the end and lifted his hand up slowly, wobbling for a second before continuing forward. Amanda slipped her arm around his waist.
“I gotcha,” she said.
He pointed into the first doorway. “That’s where I sleep. Beneath all the laundry.”
Amanda poked her head into the room and squinted at the sunlight pouring through the window.
“It’s really big.”
Gordon nodded aimlessly. “Thanks.”
“Gets a lot of sun too,” she said. You’re so lucky. My place is a dungeon.”
“Sorry about the smell. The laundry is getting a little ripe. We’d best move on.” he glided farther down the hall and through a wide archway, “Here’s the living room.”
He was a little self-conscious as he made the unveiling. It felt like a room that belonged in someone else’s home. Standing in the centre of it reminded him of how rarely he used it. His wife had arranged most of it. Gordon had encouraged her to do what she wanted to make the apartment feel like home. The problem was that it didn’t feel like home to him. Amanda drifted over to the large window that looked out onto the street.
“I don’t know about these drapes…”
She pinched the shimmering gold fabric and pulled it away from the window, frowning at the frilly green edges and gaudy design.
“Well, they weren’t cheap. I can tell you that.”
“It definitely looks like a grown-ups apartment,” Amanda said, without further explanation. “How long have you been here?”
“Almost three years.”
Amanda’s eyes fell on one of the few relics from Gordon’s bachelor days that still remained. It sat in the corner next to the lamp, the streamlined art deco cabinet with its polished walnut veneer and the robot dial in the centre.
“Yeah. 1938 Zenith.”
“Does it work?”
“Naw…, hasn’t for years. It needs a few tubes and some other stuff. But it looks cool.”
“Definitely. I love anything vintage.”
Gordon stepped closer and admired it along with her. Her enthusiasm made him appreciate it anew.
“This is what families gathered around back then,” he said, waxing sentimental. “Today it’s a sixty inch plasma screen in high def with a wifi connection and Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound.”
“And a thousand channels,” added Amanda.
“And most of them garbage,” said Gordon ruefully. “I’d rather read.”
She stopped in front of a tall bookshelf.
“You’ve got a lot to choose from.”
“They accumulate. Some have been with me a long time.”
His mind flew back over the titles, the author’s names, the book jackets from that earliest corner of his library. A slightly notorious, yet highly sentimental section. Books he had borrowed from different libraries as a young man and never returned. Books with the call numbers of the Dewey Decimal system printed on white stickers and stuck to the base of the spine. Books with names of libraries and counties stamped on the inside cover. Books with the little brown pockets at the back with the lenders cards still poking out of them. Next to those were books he had been assigned in high school English class that were never returned. Not many students really cared to own their own copies of The Lord of the Flies, or The Stone Angel, or Duddy Kravitz. None of the other students seemed to feel the same distress at parting with them. For some reason the school never seemed very strict about getting them back. The plot-lines and the characters returned to him as he scanned the titles. His head was foggy and spinning with fragments of prose. He leaned against one of the shelves, his hand sliding lightly over the volumes, his vision blurring, his mind seeing shapes and patterns in the letters and colours. The atmosphere of the room melted away. He didn’t remember closing his eyes, but when he opened them he was seated on the edge of the coffee table staring down at the collected works of Oscar Wilde lying across his lap. He felt Amanda’s face beside him. She moved closer, drifted away again, then swayed back. She was speaking to him.
“Hey! Where did you go?” she asked. Her voice seemed remote, like it had traveled across a great distance. It took an effort to decipher the meaning of her words. He was saying something too. He couldn’t make sense of it. Another part of his mind was running the show. It sounded like someone else talking. Amanda pressed her forehead against his.
“Slow down. You’re talking a mile a minute. You’re going to get a speeding ticket.”
“Oh sorry,” he found a space within the fog. He focused on her face, porcelain smooth and close.
“I can’t even remember what I was saying.” He tried to shake it off. “It was books right? I can talk about them all day.”
“You were talking about your wife.”
“A little. At the end.”
“What did I say?” he asked, dreading to know.
“You talked about how she bought you that book on your lap. Then you mentioned how you both like reading together on the porch. You said you missed that. Then you started questioning whether or not she’ll come back.”
He picked up the thick volume and placed it on the table next to him.
“Why would I say that? She’s coming back. Of course she’s coming back.”
He sat up straighter and his eyes went to the large, framed wedding portrait alone on the wall next to the front window. Two smiling newlyweds holding hands. Amanda followed his gaze.
“She’s pretty,” she said.
Gordon stared at the photo quietly, feeling a little embarrassed at the schmaltzy design of it. Remembering how silly he felt when the large Greek photographer had positioned them there in the studio beside the white pillars. The corny poses he kept encouraging. He remembered all the backstage dilemmas leading up to that moment and the stress he had felt on that day. By the time they had gotten to the photo session following the ceremony, he was exhausted. He thought he looked tired in the photo, a slightly overenthusiastic grin frozen on his face. Amanda watched him curiously, his eyes still locked on the portrait. She could see the wheels were turning.
“I think someone needs a hug,” she said.
She crouched down in front of him and slid her arms around his waist and placed her cheek against his neck. Her skin was warm and smooth. Gordon’s hands slid around her bare back. His fingers met and he noticed that he hadn’t replaced his wedding band. It was still sitting where he had left it yesterday, – on the little table beside his bed, in front of his alarm clock. Amanda looked up and kissed him on the cheek. There was no mistaking her impish smile and the look in her eyes. She slid her hand through his hair gently and kissed him softly on the mouth. She smiled broadly.
“I can’t.” Gordon could feel the eyes in the wedding photo boring into him. “Not here.”
“My place?” said Amanda.
“What about…, what about Igor?”
“He won’t be back until later. He’s on a job.”
She took his hand, collected the little colander of tomatoes he had gifted her and towed him through the front door and onto the porch. It looked like a little oasis in the fading light, with the battered mismatched furniture, the empty bottles and glasses, the pages of newspapers, and the shining, freshly painted white pillars with the burgundy trim. Gordon got a fleeting rush of satisfaction as he passed through it. They walked between the houses. A doorway appeared halfway down the narrow alley. Amanda slid her key into the lock and opened it.
“Watch your step. It’s steep,” she giggled as they descended the stairs.
The apartment was damp and stuffy. Gordon noticed some large, dusty spider webs in the corners of the ceiling. The shoddy attempts at disguising the concrete space as an apartment were fooling no one. Gordon felt slightly claustrophobic.
“Can I get you something?” asked Amanda.
“Maybe a glass of water.”
Gordon stood awkwardly in the centre of the room, swaying slightly, trying hard to be casual and easy. His eyes were burning.
“I told you it wasn’t much,” Amanda said. “But it keeps the rain off.”
“It’s cozy,” Gordon lied.
“Want me to roll another joint?” Amanda asked.
“No, no… I’m good.”
She went over to a tiny kitchenette and paused for a second before whipping open a cupboard door and jumping back. She exhaled in relief, swiped a glass and shut it again.
“Last week I saw a mouse in there.”
Gordon backed into the sofa and sat down. The springs beneath the cushions creaked and he sank in deeply. He felt his buttocks just lightly bounce against the floor. The faded blue flower pattern was brownish and musty and stained. His nose begin to itch. She let the tap run until the water was clear and cold. She handed it to Gordon and slid back down beside him. She placed her phone on the edge of the table. Willie Nelson’s voice sang out of the tiny speakers. Amanda placed a hand on Gordon’s chest and slowly slid it up and around his shoulder. She kissed him on the mouth, softly biting his bottom lip. Gordon responded enthusiastically. She peeled off her top and her soft round breasts were beneath his hands, his fingers sinking into the flesh, his thumbs sliding over the nipples. They kissing intensified. He felt the button of his pants pulled apart and the vibration of the zipper being pulled down. Gordon slipped out of them and tossed them into a pile on the floor.
A deep, rumbling engine roared above the music and a bright wash of light blazed through the drapes. The bars that covered the tiny window high on the wall made a shadowy pattern across the room. Gordon and Amanda peeled apart, feeling like fugitives on the other side of the prison wall with the spotlight falling on them. The engine faded out, then the lights, then the quick, zipping sound of an emergency brake being pulled snug. The truck door opened and closed with a forceful slam.
“Oh damn…” Amanda stood up quickly, fumbling with her top and pulling it over her head. “Not good. Not good.”
“What!” Gordon felt a rising panic. “I thought he was working late!”
“He’s supposed to be.”
They could hear the gate leading into the alleyway squeak open and slap closed. A second later, the sound of jingling keys outside the door.
“Is there a back door!?”
“What do we do?” Gordon said frantically.
“Quick! Quick!” Amanda hissed.
She kicked his pants and shoes beneath the couch and pulled him to his feet. She led him into the tiny bedroom, pulled open a narrow folding door and pushed him in to the thin, shallow utility closet next to the furnace.
“Be quiet!” she hissed as she folded the doors shut.
Wooden broom handles leaned against the wall behind him. The shelf above his head was filled with ancient bottles of cleansers and bleaches and containers of god-knows-what that had no doubt remained as many different tenants came and went. Several small metal paint cans were piled loosely on top of each other on his left next to soup cans filled with nails and screws. Other miscellaneous tools dangled from rusty nails. He could feel a long wooden broom handle had fallen forward and was resting on his back. It felt awkward now that he was conscious of it. He dared not try and shrug it off. Loud, thudding steps descended the stairs. Gordon stood trembling behind the thin plywood door, shielding his exposed genitals with both hands. He heard Amanda’s questioning tone and then a thunderous slam as the Russian smacked his hand against a wall. Gordon jumped, and for a heart-stopping second almost lost his balance. He felt the paint cans, stacked up precariously behind him, pressing against his calf muscle. He gently pulled it away.
“Nyet!” Igor roared, and smacked the wall a second time. Then a third. “Nyet!” He kept repeating in an absolute fury. “NYET!”
The whole apartment seemed to echo and shake. Gordon jumped at every loud slam. Then a different sound, – a kick and a tearing noise and the crumbling sound of drywall giving way, then being torn back.
“Igor” shouted Amanda. “Igor!”
A long train of words like machine gun fire rattled out of her, silencing his rampage. Her patience had ended. Gordon trembled inside his dark confessional. His orientation was still untrustworthy and he was startled to catch himself tilting forward before pressing hard with his toes and pushing himself back. It wasn’t easy for him to find his centre of gravity, and his mind was still impaired. He found himself slowly swaying and tilting and had to constantly try to correct his balance and posture. He didn’t dare raise an arm in the cramped space and risk bumping or upsetting something in the unstable clutter that shared the space with him. He was never more aware of his feet, pressed together tightly on the cold, vaguely sticky plywood floor. He heard it creaking beneath him, and the unmistakable scratching of little creatures scurrying somewhere in the walls. Gordon briefly wondered if this was some sort of twisted scheme to kidnap him and he strained his ears trying to decipher the hushed whispers from the next room. He heard Amanda’s soothing, gentle tone.
“You’ll find another job,” she spoke in English. “You hated that place anyway. You hated the foreman.”
“Asshole,” said Igor “Fucking asshole.”
“Are you hungry?” she asked. You want to go out? Let’s go out.”
“No,” said Igor. His voice was a petulant grumble.
“C’mon,” she said. “I’ll rub your back.”
Gordon heard the chair creak as Igor sat down, and Amanda’s voice continuing in soft, indistinguishable words as she rubbed his shoulders. Very faintly, he could hear the sounds of kissing begin, then low moaning and rustling clothing and creaking couch springs all
filtered into his cage. Gordon wondered if Amanda was putting it on a little strong for his benefit or if it was sincere. Her x-rated exclamations were loud and frequent. Underneath it all, Igor’s steady, rhythmic grunting. He felt a little intimidated as he listened. Igor was batting a thousand. The situation seemed to enhance his loneliness; crowded into the cluttered space with his guilt and his shame, forced to experience vicariously another man’s pleasure.
“Go!” shouted Amanda.”Go!” she moaned.
“Go?” said Igor.
“Go!” Just go! Fast.”
The sounds of the couch springs grew louder and higher in frequency.
“Yes! Yes! Go!”
Gordon took the unmistakable cue, and slowly and gently pushed open the wooden door. The dull scraping sound was no match for the creaking bed springs. The din of the torrid lovemaking was close. He squeezed through the door and slunk over to a small wooden bureau beneath the window. It didn’t look very solid. It had four long, skinny round legs that were a bit wobbly. He put his hands on the surface, carefully testing its sturdiness. He swung a leg up and placed one foot on the top, applying his weight gently at first, testing it for creaks. It held. He silently swung himself onto it. There was a heart-stopping second as the cabinet bore his full weight, and he pressed himself against the wall and clutched at the window ledge. He drew the dirty, tattered drapes aside and looked upon the quiet sanctuary of the backyard between the spaces of the black metal bars that covered the window. A shiver ran through him.
In the next room he could hear Igor’s grunts intensifying. The big Russian groaned loudly and openly as he came to climax, breathing heavily and making absurd blustering sounds peppered with expletives. Amanda kept the noise up for a little while longer as Gordon helplessly stared at the bars. He wondered if he should get back down and look for some sort of weapon. The moans died away and the welcome cover of sound evaporated into a cold silence. There was only the sound of deep, satisfied breathing that seemed very close and very clear. Gordon froze on the wobbly pedestal. His legs felt unsteady and ached slightly.
A few mumbling Russian words passed between the two lovers, then the sound of the couch creaking and two heavy feet hitting the floor. Gordon closed his eyes, paralyzed with fear, and wondering if the footsteps would be coming his way. But there was the jingling sound of a doorknob that he knew belonged to the bathroom just off the tiny kitchen, and then lighter, softer steps approaching. Amanda ducked into the doorway. She was wearing one of Igor’s t-shirts that fell to just above her knees. She was glinting with perspiration and her hair looked wild and damp like she had just come from the gym.
“Still here?” she whispered. “I was trying to signal you!”
“I know I know. Look!”
Gordon pulled back the curtain again exposing the black metal grill that covered the window.
“Now what?” he hissed. There was desperation in his voice.
“It’s not attached to anything,” Amanda whispered. “You can pull it off.”
Gordon grabbed hold of the bars and gave them a hard tug. He wobbled and swayed on his narrow perch as the iron grill came free in his hands. He handed it down to Amanda.
“Where is he?” Gordon asked.
“In the bathroom. He usually has a bowel movement after we have sex.”
“I’m really sorry about all this,” she said. “He got fired today.” She looked behind her down the hall and shook her head. “It happens a lot.”
They heard a loud muffled flatulence followed by a low grunting sound.
“C’mon, hurry!” Amanda urged.
Gordon swung back the window, made a little jump and hoisted his body partway through, resting against the edge of the opening, hovering there as quietly as possible, calling on every ounce of strength in his arms. His frightened, shrivelled manhood dangling uselessly in space, his undercarriage, unflatteringly on full display. It must have been quite a sight from her perspective. He reached out to the concrete steps outside and pulled the rest of his body through the aperture. He got quickly to his feet and gave a brief wave behind him before shielding his privates and darting through the gap in the hedge in a barefooted dash over the cool grass. He clambered gingerly though his back kitchen window. He slammed it shut behind him and locked it.
– – – – –
“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” Gordon took a quick sip of his coffee and nodded his head sympathetically at his reflection in the refrigerator door.
“You can’t really prepare for it.”
“Doesn’t make it easier, that’s for sure.”
“But going in your sleep… You can’t ask for better than that.”
“Oh honey I know. At least she’s at peace now.”
“Is there going to be a service?”
“Didn’t want one eh?”
“How long do you think at will take?”
“Soo, probably another week or so? I see. Okay.”
“I miss you.”
“Let’s talk tonight.”
The inevitable news brought a brief, sad reflection on his mother-in-law’s life. He felt no real sense of personal loss, only a deeper momentary self-reflection on his own mortality. Aside from a real sympathy for his wife, he privately celebrated the news. He didn’t see the point to anymore demeaning, oblivious days. He knew it would take his wife a little time to come to terms with it, but even in her voice there was something like relief. She seemed tired and composed. The sad ordeal was almost over. An ordeal that he was only too happy to blame for his lapse in judgement. Dedicated to using the unusual circumstances to absolve himself of any responsibility for his misguided indiscretion.
He had only seen Amanda three times in the past five days. And only from a distance. The day after he had scrambled out of her apartment window, he discovered a white plastic bag from the grocery store Amanda worked at with his clothes and shoes inside. Weighing down the bag was his metal colander with one tiny red heart-shaped tomato placed in the centre with a toothpick dressed up like Cupid’s arrow piercing through it diagonally.
The following week, he maintained the low-profile, until finally, a few days before his wife was scheduled to fly home, the long pick-up truck backed out of the lane and never returned. Gordon saw it leave. He was in his front room, and he heard the engine start. He stood in the front foyer peeking out of the window in the door. He didn’t get too close. He saw Amanda get in with several bags, and the mattress they had bought was in the back of the truck wrapped in plastic, along with several boxes. She looked energetic and eager as she climbed into the truck next to Igor. As the they backed onto the street, the sunlight reflected off the windshield, hiding the occupants. Gordon wondered in that moment, as the truck rumbled past, if she had glanced at his house. He couldn’t tell.
Copyright Robert William Wilson 2019