Storyglossia Issue 16, October 2006.

Finalist — Storyglossia Fiction Prize 2006

 

Vacancies

by Gabrielle Idlet

 

It was ninety-three degrees the night the new neighbors moved into the empty apartment downstairs. My mother was telling lies on the phone behind the bedroom door to pay the rent. First call, she was nineteen and surfed the south beaches in her free time. Then she was fish-netted and using her black braid for a whip, doing whatever someone's wife wouldn't do. Then she was nothing, just a voice that said Give it to me over and over. When someone made her call him Baby I stopped trying to read and went outside to look in windows.

Traffic on Interstate Five sounded like heavy breathing right into my ear. I crawled along the plantings people grew to block freeway noise, and at the first bungalow with a lit room I squatted on a recycle bin and rose up.

The old guy who lived in this house scraped dishes into a sink not four feet from my face, but none of the light spilled onto me. His air conditioner whirred. There was a head-sized shadow where his naked chest bowled in. He flicked dust strands off the ceiling light with the dishrag, and when he turned away I exhaled against the glass.

Two doors down, the window was open. A circular fan fluttered newspaper sections every time it rotated. The man and woman who lived there sat apart at the ends of their couch. The woman who always wore the same sleeveless nightgown had her feet tucked between couch cushions. Blue shadows from the TV rolled over the couple's faces with the changes on the screen. A few months back I saw them naked together on the couch. Her arm hung over the side, and her hand opened and closed like a baby's.

"Hey!" A whisper made me drop backward, and a lamp went on. I sprinted around the house and down the alley until I was out of earshot.

"Hey, sneak." The new neighbor stood with the streetlight behind him. He had his hands on his hips like a superhero.

"Thanks. They heard you," I said.

The way he strolled toward me, he didn't seem worried.

"What you were doing back there is illegal," he said.

He stunk of pot. Before she changed, my mom used to get stoned with her sister.

I sniffed the air: "I wouldn't talk."

He took his hands off his hips and slumped a little, like that pose had been keeping him standing.

"I don't need to make it any harder on Debbie while she's pregnant," he said.

"Marijuana makes men sterile," I told him.

I couldn't see his expression in the dark.

"Fag," I added quietly.

"Bitch," he said, but he didn't sound mad.

I brushed some leaves off my knee. "Fuck off."

"You got a lonely hobby."

I spat on the ground. Then I ran.

"I know where you live," he called.

 

The next day I was stretched out on a beach towel next to the empty pool in my new and first bikini, a pink crocheted one, letting the sun brown my belly and trying to imagine the face of my father. Mom had me in the early eighties when she was doing coke. That was her explanation. So I could be the daughter of many men. Until seventh grade I thought I was actually made from my mother plus several men. I collaged my fathers, the rock star types she liked with strong jaws, teased hair and electric guitars shaped like lightning bolts, the ones off the covers of her LPs.

I was watching the dust and amoebas slide around the insides of my orange eyelids when the new neighbor squatted next to me and announced his name was Rick. He smelled like weed again, and suntan lotion, and his head blocked the sun. Blond hair glowed around the edges of his blacked-out face.

"They ever fill this thing up?" He flicked a gum wrapper into the deep end.

"I would've asked before I signed the lease," I said. Our building was only half occupied, and repairmen never came around. Toward the end of each month potential renters drove up, saw beer cans and crumpled cigarette packs and fast food bags blowing around in the courtyard and cluttering the bottom of the pool, and drove away. We stayed. Rent was cheap. Anyway, Mom just couldn't get herself to walk out the front door.

"Why'd you move here, anyway?" I asked Rick.

A drop of sweat from his face landed on my shoulder, but I didn't wipe it off.

"Magic Kingdom," he drawled. "Security."

"You're kidding me."

"What's your name?" he asked. "I told you mine."

"Asia."

"You're kidding me," he copied.

"Hey, I know it's a porn name, okay. My mom was into the band." I nodded toward the apartment.

"You live with your mom?"

"I am in high school, Rick."

He finally sat down cross-legged, and I cupped my hand over my eyes so I could see him. He had a roughed-up oval of a face, a man's face.

"Is your wife watching you?"

"She's waitressing at Denny's over there." He nodded toward the other side of the freeway, where gas stations, convenience stores, and chain restaurants clustered around the offramp. "She's not my wife," he said. "She's my girlfriend."

"Sure it's yours?" I said before he even finished the sentence. I didn't know how to erase what I said.

He chewed on his lip. Then he said, "Who the hell raised you?"

I tried to laugh like I was bored, but it came out as a weird little moan. I stood up and bent to grab my towel. He was scowling, but he was watching.

"You should move out," I told Rick. "If I could—if I were you, I would."

When I got to our door I thought I could still feel his sweat drying on my shoulder.

 

"It's a fucking goddamn oven in here," Mom slammed out of the bedroom. Without make-up, which she didn't wear anymore, she could have been my age. Freckles, pale lips, hair pulled back with blonde wisps falling across her shiny eyes. "Did you call the bastard or what?"

Our shitty window-mounted air conditioner was blowing warm dust into Mom's bedroom, so now she had to use our box fan, which rumbled. This was giving her problems at night because of her work as a phone sex operator. I loved that word operator, like she was plugging wires into sockets in the fifties. Callers had already complained that there was too much static on the line, and she was getting warnings from the service.

"The repair guys have a lot to do because of the season, because the heat makes the cooling systems go out."

"Fucking drug lords," Mom said. Her theory on why our building was empty and falling apart was that high-level coke dealers owned it as a front. She related many things to cocaine. She had been forced into rehab when my aunt and a couple of their friends did an intervention. It worked. But afterward, Mom would not leave the apartment. She said she had demons. She said to shut up, because everybody has them.

When she went back to her room I put my face against our window. Rick sat with his legs dangling over the edge of the pool. He looked like he was watching the brush next to the freeway, which shook from tankers rolling by. Or he might have been looking over the freeway toward his girlfriend. A flock of pigeons spilled off the roof and started flapping. He looked up and watched the birds, and their shadows striped him for a minute before they were gone.

 

Summers I read what we would be reading in Honors in the fall—this year it was Orwell, Huxley, Eliot. The library gave out the reading list in May, but a lot of people just waited for school to start back up. Most Honors students at Katella lived in gated communities nowhere near the 5 and spent their summers at arts or sports or music camps. I wasn't friends with those kids. I just watched them. I read at nutrition and lunch, I read after school and I read in the summer, and I had only one word in my mind: Out.

Mornings, I read with the table fan on me. Then I took the bus to the market, the check casher's, the mini-mart, the laundromat. Later in the day, Mom walked around the apartment in a t-shirt until her coffee was ready, then go back to her room. She kept another TV on in there all the time, even when she was working I could tell from the whine it gave off when it was muted.

While Mom worked at night, I crisscrossed the side-streets between Palm and South Anaheim. Tonight, at the first ring of the cordless, I put on my sneakers and closed the front door lightly. Rick's face floated in my mind, and I had the sense that someone I couldn't see was watching me. There was nothing to see on our block or the next. Shades were down, or people were at work. I sat on the curb for a while, and then I crossed our courtyard and climbed the stairs.

Rick and Debbie's window was shut, and the air conditioner dripped onto my wrist when I lay my hand on the molding. Their unit looked exactly like ours, but reversed, with all the rooms facing the other way. She had on a loose yellow housedress and was resting a glass of orange punch or juice on her belly. He was behind her, his teeth working on his lower lip. She couldn't see how he stood so near, watching her. If I were Debbie, I would have shut off the TV. I would have turned on the couch and thrown my arms around him.

Without warning, Rick looked straight at the window, and I thought he saw me drop to the ground. I waited, but he didn't come outside. Tasting the metal of adrenaline I looked again. He was sitting beside her now, mussing her hair, and I could see from her wide laugh why he liked her. When he put his head on her chest, I stood in full view. I made a face like someone screaming, but they didn't see. There was no chance of it, from how they sat there connected.

In her room, Mom was practically yelling over the grinding fan, in the voice she saved for the end stretch. I curled and turned over and curled the other way in the wadded-up sheet on the couch. I spread my hands against my cheeks the way glowing fetuses did in fiber optic movies they ran on public television. The blood beating in my ears sounded like the thumping of a womb. "I feel you," Mom moaned. I pictured Rick climbing the stairs three at a time and kicking open the door to reach me.

 

We were in the triple digits and under a second stage smog alert. First stage and we were supposed to stay inside or die early. By the pool I smoothed vegetable oil over my legs. I lifted them up so they caught a shine in the sun and I looked at Rick's dark windows. I even ran my hand up and down my calf, but he didn't come out. Eventually I fell asleep.

"Want some ice tea?" His shadow cooled my thighs and I followed him inside.

"So, what happened to your dad?" Rick called in from their kitchenette.

"I wouldn't know."

He seemed to perk up. "He out of the picture? Hey, my father left, too!"

"Crazy!" The cold apartment smelled like Freon and potpourri. I touched a hanging planter with silk ivy and it swung back and forth, and the white parts of the leaves sparkled when they passed through the sun. I saw a glass ashtray on a high shelf. "No smoking?" I asked.

"I usually just do it at night." Rick cracked an ice tray.

A beige crib in the corner was full of stuffed animals. "How far along is she?" I asked.

"Thirty-two weeks. I keep telling her to request short shifts, but she's stockpiling tips so she can take off more time when the baby comes." He brought out our glasses and sat near me on the couch.

Then he got back up to turn down the air conditioner, which was blowing out icy fog. When he sat next to me again his leg touched my leg.

"I've got reading to do," I said.

"You had to take summer school?"

"No, just—for my transcript."

We sipped and didn't talk.

"I was going to finish my Associate's," he said.

His hands lay over the crotch of his cut-offs. His knee tapped against mine.

"Asia. That's a great name. Asia."

My mother's work talk flew through my head, and I wondered what Debbie wouldn't let Rick do while she was pregnant.

Then I turned, to see if he would turn to me, and also because I wanted to. When he shifted to face me, though, I saw from his concrete shoulders and the flash in his face that he could shove me under him if he wanted. I jumped up, and he crossed his legs.

"We can be friends," Rick said fast. "Friends don't have to be the same age." He patted his hands together.

"Is that applause?" I said. I had gooseflesh.

He lifted an arm and I ducked. But he just waved his arm around.

"The other night when I saw you," he said, "I started thinking. This is terrible, what you got going."

"Oh, did you get a degree in psychology?" I said. "Oh, that's right—you didn't graduate."

"You don't know those people," he said. "You're ripping them off."

I picked up my towel. "Thanks for the tea. It tasted like dog shit."

"I'm just saying, I'm only saying," he said, but he didn't finish, and I slammed the door behind me.

Mom was waiting. "What did you do?"

"We didn't even touch," I said.

"You're down there alone with him and he's got a wife, a pregnant wife?"

She pointed up and down my body. "You, you stay inside!"

"Rick's a good man." She shut her door. "A good one," I said.

 

I had change from errands in wads around the house. Mom stayed in her room, and I zippered forty-eight dollars in ones and fives into the couch cushion nearest the front door. She worked that night, and I heard her, and her voice was shaky. I slept on the money and had heat dreams.

It was close to Debbie's due date, you could see. She headed out of the house in the mornings with her apron strings tucked in her pockets, her belly high and hard looking under the fabric. I watched her do that pregnant duck-walk through the courtyard, scattering sparrows on the way to her car.

Mom came out around nine.

"Are you still mad?" I asked her.

"I just can't talk to you, Asia."

She made coffee and grabbed a bag of barbecue chips out of the cabinet and then she stood near me, but she didn't look at me. There was no sound in the house. Her TV was off, even.

"I'm not doing anything with Rick," I said.

"Shut up now," she said softly, like she was saying goodnight to a child.

I watched her. She seemed like a bird that had accidentally flown inside. I kept my palm on the couch pillow. "Any weird calls last night?" I asked her.

"Pathetic." She sat down. "Guy wanted a mommy, but I mean a for-real mommy. Not even a spanking, just hugs."

"Do you ever run out of things to say?"

"Turns out I'm good at it," she said.

I didn't spend time outside anymore, except to do errands. I was up to sixty-one and coins from change. Rick wandered around the courtyard. He seemed to be introducing himself to other neighbors the Chinese lady on the first floor that fed lawn grass to her sick cat, the truck driver who wore an Angels cap backward. Rick cupped his hand over his eyes a few different times and squinted up at our place. But I knew the sun made mirrors out of the glass. Instead of walking around at night, I lay on the couch and pictured Rick. I blocked out Mom's voice and sat close to Rick in his cooled-down apartment, and we talked like people who cared about each other.

A week later I'd run out of books. There was nothing on TV. I looked out the window while Mom nursed some poor sucker: "You need it, you know you do." Some man with a family, he was pulling her hair like the mane of a horse, I guess. He might as well be my father, needy and fat and curly-haired, bearded and mushy and skinny, quick and mean and packed into a business suit, not a rock star now, just married to someone who wouldn't do what he wanted. He didn't know how pink Mom's eyes were, or how she looked in the daylight, standing next to the couch with coffee and potato chips. "Do it," Mom cried. Then she finished him off with cooing.

She coughed, dialed. "Long legs I've got, sure. Long legs, tan," she said. "Well, I can't tell you how old I am." There was a pause. "And a bikini, sure," she told the stranger. "You know, crocheted." I couldn't swallow. "Pink."

I was up and kicking her door, kicking until she opened it, and then I had the receiver.

"Who the hell are you?" I screamed. "What's wrong with you?"

Mom tried to grab the phone out of my hand, but I threw it against the wall.

"The words just flew up in me," she whispered. "I can't explain it." I unzipped the money from the pillow and left.

 

In the courtyard, the heat, the exhaust, the freeway noise all batted at me until I started to break apart. My body was a billion dust specks rippling toward the freeway onramp, and the car that rumbled to a stop was Rick's.

"I know you," he said.

I got in and tilted right over against him. We drove through In-n-Out and he bought us burgers which we drove around and ate while I cried. He passed me napkins from his bag so I could blow my nose.

"I think about leaving," he said.

"You don't want to be a father?"

He parked the car. We were right next door to our building.

"I'm selfish, and I'm ashamed of it," he said.

"I'm ashamed of everything," I said.

He got out, walked around, opened my door. I stood up, shaking because it was over. But he pulled a sheet out of the truck bed and took me through the bushes at the edge of the freeway to the embankment. He spread the sheet so we could lie down.

"You don't have to work?"

"Called in sick-in-the-head."

The 5 roared. Semis flew by, and the gusts they threw our way made me feel wild, electric. I figured Rick was going to light up a joint, but he just leaned back on his elbows. He looked at me, face and body and everything.

"Come here," he said.

I shook my head.

"Come on."

I bent toward him, and he pulled the sheet edges up, so that when he held me he wasn't touching my skin.

"Nobody at school knows I live here," I said.

"You're smart," he said. "People don't worry about someone like you."

"Do not wish you were somebody no one worried about," I said.

We just lay there with the truck wakes pushing at us. "You're like something in flight," he said, finally. "I guess it's lonely either way."

 

Copyright©2006 Gabrielle Idlet