A Delacorte Review True Short Story
Every fifth house had a heavy-boned dog shackled to its porch and the beasts lunged at me and recoiled as their chains stretched. The houses — white, gray and hay-colored were scattered along the streets, looking like thrown dice on the flat patches of land. Most of them were box-like, clapboard style, built with thin overlapping planks. Here and there red, white and blue flags floated against the walls, and inside the fenced lawns little limbless trees stood erect.
My destination was a small house located behind a bigger one. I knocked and a lock gave way, then another. The man at the door was square like the house.
“Sorry for the delay, man. Fucking Broncos game,” he said, waved me in and sending a gust of weed my way. His name was James. We were supposed to meet earlier but the game traffic had backed up the main roads, forcing James to spend his evening crawling homeward on a bus. I had come to see about renting the spare bedroom. I hadn’t seen much of America yet.
James closed the door behind me, and I nearly stumbled over a body on the floor. It did not stir. It was covered in tattoos and was as thin as a blade of grass. It belonged to Jorge and I was relieved when he eventually exhaled and sent silver clouds of pot curling and crashing on the ceiling.
“Whaddup,” Jorge asked in a spongy and half-choked voice. I was unclear to me if Jorge lived there or not, and so it would remain throughout my stay.
The house was faintly lit. There was a tattered sofa, a wobbling fan, and a footstool the color of dishwater.
“I haven’t really had time to clean the room yet,” James confessed as he led me to the corner of the kitchen-living area. He was muscular with an impressive jawline and strong, chapped hands. There was white paint on his hoodie, and threads from his jeans brushing the floor. He pushed a door open. “But you’re free to move in right away.”
Roll the tape back. Hours before I met James, mere days following my flight from Stockholm to start my job, I stood in a hotel lobby, arguing with this button-faced manager about the loss of my bag.
“Sorry sir, but the hotel has a no-fault policy. Your possessions are your responsibility.”
“Even if they’re in your luggage storage?”
“It says so in the contract.”
It did indeed. Without my clothes and the cash I’d kept in my suitcase, my scanty budget had ceased to be a budget at all. The sun dipped behind the hotel’s flat roof and I hunched over my laptop in the lobby, scrolling through housing sites, occasionally looking up at the counter to mad-dog the manager. With the search bar set at a maximum of $400 per month, my options were limited: a few trailers, a camping spot an hour from downtown, and someone offering a place in the back of his ‘67 Chevy Van (pets allowed).
There was one picture, shot from the corner, into the same corner – displaying only the edge of what looked like a black office chair and a sort-of white, nicotine-stained wallpaper. I reasoned that even if the corner constituted the sublet in its entirety, it still outshone the tent and the Chevy Van. I used up roughly 30 minutes to compose a self-blessing, two-paragraph email that closed with my sincere interest in inhabiting that corner. The reply was nearly instantaneous:
“Come see it tonight.” So I did, stepping off the train a tick after midnight.
“I’ll take it,” I heard myself say because it was either that or go back home.
The room was furnished with a brown futon and a barber chair. Other than that, it was a wilderness. Dirty tank-tops, ragged handbags, washed-out bras, empty cans of hairspray, nail files, lighters and cigarette butts that formed little hills on the carpet that was pocked with burns and now looked like a map of a woebegone archipelago.
It took me a few hours to clean up the mess. I was exhausted. James snored and coughed in the armchair outside, and I spread out on the futon wrapped in a towel I’d stolen from the hotel. Inside the wardrobe, behind columns of canned corn and stacks of salted crackers, I’d found a court order with a woman’s name on it and two positive pregnancy tests. Someone before me had left this place in a hurry. I lay still for a while. The smell of wet leaves drifted in through the window and I listened to the ticking of the radiator in the bathroom next door, as it cooled and warmed. I stared at the walls. The glue had loosened along the backline and stickered fairies floated around on the dirty backdrop. They looked peaceful. I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Those hopes were dispelled the next morning. I woke up mid-cough, eyes burning. Is it on fire already? Then I heard rap music, a voice repeating the same words in rhythm with a slow four-stroke beat. We put in work. We put in work. In between the mantric lines, silence, and the bubbling of a bong as James paused his recording. Blurry digits on the screen of my phone showed 7 a.m. – on a Saturday? The graffiti-covered door hung askew in its frame and fumes drifted through the cracks and the fist-sized hole in the center. I decided, there and then, that I would have to consider my time here as boot camp. It would be like the army all over again: get up early, work hard, eat, sleep, repeat – then get out of there as soon as possible.
Heat from the ancient dryer spewed out of the doorframe and enveloped me in a cloud. Under the living room’s anemic lamplight, pot smog formed a tissue-like mist over the graveyard of coffee cups, ashtrays and soda cans. In the days that followed, coming home was like slipping into a fever, and I felt as if I would never again take a healthy inhale. I would stay at the office late, hit the gym, and then press silicon plugs into my ears and work inside the train station before catching the last commute back to my room.
James always greeted me. I’d retire to my room and watch YouTube clips until everything fell silent.
It was sometime in October, after a boozy night with some colleagues, that I had my first real conversation with James. I had come home to find Jorge frying chicken with a cigarette in his mouth.
“Where’s James?” I asked.
“Looking for his dad. Old man’s been gone for a week,” he said, ashes dropping onto his bare chest. James and his father came home an hour later. James, still wearing his tool belt, looked tired. His dad looked worse.
“This is Carl, Dad.”
I shook his hand. He gave me a nod and a quiet, “Hey.” He had James’ square frame. Muscular, with an expansive walk, chest like a continent, and red-rimmed, liquid eyes. James rolled him a joint, lit it up, then disappeared into the room next to mine to prepare the bed where Jorge usually slept. He emerged and led his dad into the room, hand resting on the older man’s shoulder. His father stared at the carpet as he followed.
“Drugs,” James explained to me when he came back. He threw himself in the armchair across from me. With its thin walls punctuated by holes, the little house wasn’t a place for secrets. Over the course of my first weeks I’d already – quite involuntarily – learned a lot about James. I knew he worked in maintenance for a company that had hired him while he was on parole. I knew he rarely drank and dreamed of becoming a rapper. He liked bacon crackers and was behind with the rent to an owner who threatened eviction.He liked to say, “Things’ll get better.” His girlfriend was in jail.
What I didn’t know was how he felt about any of this because he rarely spoke and never complained. Not when his face was left bloated and bruised after a random beating in the street, or when his car broke down, or even when burglars broke in and stole his recording gear. Every day there was something new, something else, rushing to block his path, and the reaction was always the same: more work. Coming home, I’d find him balancing on wobbly stools, filling holes with putty, or crouching over a broken stereo on the floor, screwdriver in his hand, or changing light bulbs, unclogging drains, mending electrical cords, measuring, hammering. He ate while pacing the living room – mac and cheese from a plastic bowl – then he worked again until his eyes were crimson and he’d pass out in a corner of the house – somehow always close to where tomorrow’s chores would start, always with the same motivational tape playing in the background.
“My girlfriend got out,” he’d say, either to avoid the topic of his father, or not considering it a topic at all. “She’s pregnant.”
In the chaos, I’d failed to connect the dots; the pregnancy tests, of course, were hers. It was uncomfortable to imagine raising a kid in this chaos. But maybe my insight – that of someone taught to view the world as a mostly benign and cuddly place – wasn’t really applicable now. Useless, even. James was born here, and people had raised kids in far worse places, and maybe things would, after all, get better. So I said nothing about it.
“Is she American?” I asked.
“Down the block.” He offered a smile, for once, and seconds later he was asleep. I needed a walk.
October had sucked all the light from the streets, obscuring the cracks and holes, and it was quiet. I liked the neighborhood at night. No footfalls, no train rumbling through, only the far-off hum of the traffic on Colfax splashing past the low dive and strip club a few blocks down. I walked north, with the mountains to my left. Dogs guarded the homes in the other direction and they would be extra aggressive now, their senses sharpened after sunset. There was still some warmth in the air, a feeble suggestion of a breeze whispered through the darkened leaves and a light rain fell through the few functioning streetlamps.
After a while the silence was interrupted: muffled thumps, desolately thin in the sodden air. An old heavyset woman was standing barefoot on her porch, straddle-legged, beating a thick brown rug. Her movements were precise and gracious, well-rehearsed, like a musician pounding a bass drum. Peculiar time for household chores, I thought. But maybe she was a night owl like me, or a hard worker by necessity, like James for whom so much of his work was maintenance, rarely for progress.
The eviction notice arrived a week later.
There had been a bunch of them in different versions taped to the door, filled with words like violation, failure and penalty in a very lawful font. But apparently this was final.
“Get the fuck out! Is what that means,” Jorge explained, nodding in mock appreciation. The previous night had brought the last deep breath of Denver warmth, as if the arrival of the cold had called a halt to my stay. It was timely; I’d just found another place up by the mountains, clean and quiet.
A couple of days later I packed my few belongings in a slow, ceremonial pace while listening to James’ indistinct voice through the wall. He was on the phone, speaking in a lower tone than usual. A concluding “Ok…” then he hung up. I lingered in the doorway, looked at my room one last time and experienced a slight sensation of accomplishment for leaving it in better shape than I’d found it.
He came out, marching about as usual, only faster and unusually stooped. On every turn, he took a deep drag from a cigarette. He pointed to the pack on the table, offering me one – generously, because cigarettes were hard currency in this house. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye, so I placed my bag by the front door and took a seat on the sofa. For the past two months, I’d wanted nothing more than to leave this place. James, always disciplined and pragmatic, relentlessly rushing to establish a foothold before the next cataclysm. Yet I suspected the scene playing out in front of me was the climax of the tragedy I’d stumbled into, and as we do with all heroes, I needed to know if there was a limit to his strength.
So I stayed, watching him pace the room with broad waddling steps, dragging his burdens like a plow behind him. Throughout our time together, I’d become an ardent believer in the tenacity James harbored and that his determination would never wane. And although it seems strange to me now, when he exhaled and told me his girlfriend had lost their baby, I’d expected nothing less of him than to tackle it with the same equanimity.
A lost child. I should have produced some words of comfort. Maybe I’d been hoping for it, because the thing I finally did manage to spit out was, “Well, maybe it wasn’t the right time anyway, you know.”
He stopped, stared at the floor, his eyes two dark zeros. I felt myself being dragged out of my sheltering apathy. The rain beat against the windowpanes and I looked at my bag by the door, and looking back on this moment, I feel certain that I was about to face the moral of the entire story. Now, at the arrival of what I assumed was the final blow, I had nothing to say. Completely useless, I lit another cigarette. Smoke rose into the storm-tossed living room, now seeming the material equivalent of James’ inner self.
When he eventually looked up and found my eyes, his expression was so mild: “Blessings are coming my way. I can feel it.”