The woman in the apartment across the hall from mine is a recluse, and I hate her for it. Her name is Nigella. She’s sixty-six, a widow. Her husband died in a car bombing outside a synagogue in Istanbul. A young man in a yarmulke, a son or nephew perhaps, would visit her occasionally, but even he has stopped coming, so that the welcome mat outside her door is perfectly pristine and untouched.
I see that mat, the gilded “7” on her front door, each time I come and go from my apartment. One of the few lessons my father ever tried to impart upon me before he and mom gave me up when I was ten was not to let life get you down, even when all you wanted to do was stay in bed. I suppose for a military man like himself, staying in bed – rather than getting out of it, getting your ass into shape, and making that bed perfectly – was akin to death. Whatever the case, the lessons of the father, good or bad, drip into a young boy and stain his soul forever, so that each early pre-dawn morning when I came home from work and each afternoon when I left to go there, I looked upon Nigella’s modern coffin of an apartment with deep disdain.
I work on a casino ship in the San Francisco Bay. The Gilded Lady. I deal blackjack late into the night and come home to find Nigella sitting in her window in a robe, her living room dark and the light of her television splashing itself on the walls and ceiling. She’ll peer down at me, watching me walk up, making sure I’m not a stranger, not up to something suspicious, setting a bomb or some such.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly incapable of being around anyone else, I walk home from the south shore pier where the Gilded Lady comes to dock each early morning. Sometimes I wait for the K Bus that runs the route up Marshall Hill, where I live.
No matter what, if I’ve walked or sat the K, if I’m coming home from work or from Timber, the supermarket two streets over on Marquez, I’ll see Nigella in her window and I’ll come upstairs to hear the sounds of Law & Order: SVU through her door. I’m convinced she watches that show to keep herself paranoid, to justify her reclusiveness: because, if not for that, what excuse would she have for staying in rather than facing the world?
She has tried to talk to me before. She doesn’t have seventeen locks on her door, and she isn’t afraid of me. Occasionally I’ll come upstairs to find her standing in her open doorway, frail frame partially hidden behind the door, looking at me. She’ll tell me something she saw on the news, that there was a fight outside a sailor’s bar near the shipyard at Hunter’s Point, or that the police arrested a window peeper in Pacific Heights.
“You really ought to know,” she’ll say. “Being out late and that.”
“Okay,” I’ll say, taking my apartment key out of my black dealer pants, perhaps undoing the buttons on my Gilded Lady vest, ready to be out of it.
One afternoon I was headed out. The rain was coming down in a fury. I was getting my umbrella ready when she opened her door. “Be careful tonight. Water’s going to be angry.”
I need to be careful not to end up like you, so safe and sound, I wanted to say. “Okay,” I said instead, eager to be down the stairs and done with her.
After my parents got rid of me, I spent unending nights lying awake at St. Xavier’s trying to picture my mother’s face, what it would look like throughout all the years that I wouldn’t see her. Her hair used to be golden and curly, but I imagine if I could see it now it would look quite like Nigella’s.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid. Military family.
When we lived in Fort Collins, Colorado, on the plains north of Denver, my father would drive me to school on cold mornings before the sun came up, where gusts of wind blew weeds and dust across the highway.
There were prairie dogs everywhere up there, like they talk about rats in a city. They’d scurry over one another in the dirt right beside your tires, so that it wasn’t difficult for dad to swerve occasionally and run a few over, feeling the subtle crunch of their little bodies, the harsh rumble of rubber on the road’s shoulder before he pulled back onto cement. I cried whenever he did that, until he told me not to, saying that animals, like the zipperheads we were fighting over in Vietnam, were godless, they couldn’t feel, so what worth did they have anyway?
One night late in October I took the K bus home. It was chilly that night, a sharp wind coming in off the Pacific. I listened to it gust against the windows of the bus, imagining some Pacific islanders somewhere all gathered together: standing lock-armed, blowing in unison, sending night chills sweeping in off the Bay, cursing us mainlanders.
The bus stop closest to my apartment is two blocks away, in the middle of a neighborhood of Gothic Revival homes. Sharp corners and edges, soft lamps on porches casting butterscotch light on chairs, the sidewalk.
The bus pulled away. I took a moment to pull my jacket tighter around me. Before I had a chance to get moving, I spotted something in the window of the house across the street: a little boy, nine, perhaps ten, sitting silently with his dog, a big Great Dane, beside him. Both seemed afflicted by a deep melancholy I couldn’t explain; a peculiar kind of sadness that makes a young boy look out over the street at four in the morning.
In that boy I saw myself. He even looked like I had at that time: short, dark hair, circles around his eyes, ears a bit too big for his head, yet to be grown into.
Suddenly his house wasn’t a house anymore but the upper reaches of Saint Xavier’s, and he was me instead of himself, and I was whisked away into the memory of those endless nights sitting up staring into the darkness of rural Alabama, listening to the songs of nocturnal insects and raging at the world, at God, for convincing my parents they didn’t want me.
This boy wasn’t me, though. He lived in a nice home up on Marshall Hill, probably with loving parents. I was jealous of him.
He saw me standing on the sidewalk opposite, staring at him. To my surprise, instead of stepping back from the window, shutting the shades, he perked up and waved. That great brown beast of a dog, too, perked up: its ears rose and I imagined I could even see its nose twitch, and it began to bark.
I turned sharply on my heel, feeling the cold crush in around me more insatiably even than before, and walked quickly home.
The next day, Nigella surprised me. As soon as I came out of my apartment her door opened, as if she’d been waiting.
She was showered and dressed, not just in her robe like usual. Her hair was curled. “I was thinking,” she said, catching me off guard. I’d been deep in my head all morning thinking about that little boy, the image of him in the window.
“Not now,” I said, turning to lock my door.
She didn’t say anything for a long minute and soon I was making my way downstairs. “I was thinking,” she said behind me, “it would be nice to have company. I get lonely inside.”
I stopped. Turned. “Then go outside.”
Her door slammed. I watched it for a moment, standing motionless there on the stairs.
I didn’t hate Nigella. I really didn’t. But she could have been happy, if she would just come out into the light. She wouldn’t do it, though.
I heard her door open as I was letting myself out of the building. “You’re lonely too,” she called down the stairs.
It didn’t warrant a response. She’s wrong, I told myself. I’m fine.
We moved to Beaumont, Alabama, when I was eight. I lived there for two years with my parents, before they left me. It was the longest we’d ever stayed in one place.
For the first time in my life, I could say I was really happy. We lived not far from the coast. My friend Jackson Hartley and I spent a lot of time down there, by the water. We’d run on the beach at Ferrier’s Pier in nothing but our underwear, looking out at the chocolate milk waters of the Gulf and jumping on cancers. We’d heard crabs related to cancer in some way before. Jackson’s mom had died of cancer. It was his way of rebelling against it, and my way of helping my friend.
The ocean took hold of me in a way nothing else ever had. You could float out into it and find yourself wrapped up in its coolness, the intense heat of the Southern sun all but negated. When me and Jackson were tired we’d go out to the end of the pier, where we’d watch old men fish up stingrays, marlin, sharks sometimes, and we’d dangle our legs off the wood and see how the ocean went on and on and on without stopping. We marveled at how container ships, gargantuan metal beasts that they were up close, appeared so tiny at a distance, how they were warped and distorted on the horizon and how we could sit out on the pier all afternoon and the ships would seem hardly to have moved at all.
In those days I seldom saw my father. It was 1972, the height of the war in Vietnam. Because he was an officer he’d managed to evade being sent over there to fight. Instead, he spent his evenings at military bars just outside Fort Buford, drinking with other officers.
Mom did part-time seamstress work in Dixon County and volunteered with the Red Hat Society at our local parish. Most nights it was just me and her at home, but even then we weren’t around one another much. She was always in her room on the telephone, lying up smoking in bed in her nightgown and talking to her sisters in Tennessee. She’d call me to her room and say, “empty my ashtray, darlin,” her arm tangled up in the phone cord as she handed it to me.
She always stood by my father, too, no matter what. One night he came home drunk from the bar and said he wanted more alcohol. He was sweaty and his words were slurred. “You’re gonna drive me, Jason boy,” he said, and he forced me into the driver’s seat of his spring-green Hornet, the car he loved more than me or my mother. I was nine. I’d never driven before. He mumbled a threat about bashing up his car, then sat back in the passenger seat, told me to go, and closed his eyes. It wasn’t long before a cop pulled us over because I’d been driving in the middle of the road, halfway into oncoming traffic. As soon as the officer came to my window, my dad sprung awake in the passenger side and leaned over me. He flashed his military ID, asked if the officer had gone out on patrol that evening hoping to sabotage the Vietnam war effort – as if my dad’s procuring more Pabst Blue Ribbon was essential to defeating the VC – and told the officer he could have his son drafted with a couple of phone calls.
Dad went to jail for one night (someone from the base at Fort Buford bailed him out in the morning) and I was returned to my mother. When I got home I cried to her about my dad, about feeling unsafe around him, and she pulled on my ear and told me never to speak out against my father again – that he loved me and it was tearing him up trying to split his time between heroically representing his country and raising a son. “You’re just too much of a commitment for him,” she said wistfully, an air of accusation about her, as though it were my fault they’d chosen to have a baby in the first place.
Military wives have two options: they either become deaf and mute, or they find the courage to leave their husbands. It might take a while, but all military wives reach the point of choosing between those two options at some point during the course of their lives. My mother chose the former. My ex-wife chose the latter.
Even years after my parents got rid of me, I held onto the naïve belief that if I could become something they would be proud of they might have me back. So, as soon as I was deemed legally an adult I left Saint Xavier’s and joined up with the Army. Just like my daddy. Shortly after that, I found a woman, Sarah. I hadn’t spent enough time around my mother to ever have learned what it meant to give love, to display tenderness, but I was desperate to receive both of those things: to receive what I’d wanted from my mother all my life.
Sarah gave me those things, even though I was incapable of reciprocating. Years of my father’s influence had created a stone wall around my heart and turned me into a cruel boy, and then a cruel man, but I was handsome and in good shape and I made love to Sarah ferociously, and we were married quickly after we met.
I did love Sarah, but I couldn’t show it. I suppose she figured I’d get more comfortable with exhibiting love the longer we were together, but she was wrong. We’d make love and I’d roll over to go to sleep and she’d hit me in the back. “That’s it? You’re just going to go to sleep?” So I’d roll back over and try to take her in my arms but she’d squirm away from me and retreat to the bathroom, where she’d lock the door and stay for an hour or more, until I fell asleep. I pictured her in there: slender and long of legs, wedged between tub and toilet smoking a cigarette with the window open, mascara running. I’d stand at the door and say, “Sarah,” but that wasn’t enough for her.
Sarah leaving me was the second great heartbreak of my life, the second time someone saw me for who I am as a person, rejected that, and disposed of me.
I operate under no illusion that my parents were good parents, even though for a long time after they left me at Saint Xavier’s I chose to mourn who they could have been rather than who they actually were.
A school-appointed psychologist told me back in high school that it sounded like I wasn’t missing much having them out of my life: “An absentee mother and a psychopathic father, surely the majority of the foster parents out there are better souls.” He was one of the first people I’d opened up to about my parents. I tackled him in his chair and threw flimsy, desperate punches before running out of school.
I didn’t care that my parents were bad parents, they were blood. Without them, I was alone in the world. No foster parents could ever replace the real ones, so I never gave any of them the chance to try.
Nigella watched me come up the front walk. It was a pre-winter afternoon, the closest we get to true Fall weather out here. All up and down the Hill people had their windows open, so that out on the sidewalk the clanking of dishes being washed could be heard, along with tv shows and the conversations of strangers, a young woman’s laugh on the phone with her lover.
Nigella’s door was open when I got upstairs. “A boy’s gone missing,” she said. “It’s just come on the news.”
“That’s not good,” I said, absently, fumbling with my keys. It was going on two weeks since our heated exchange. We hadn’t spoken since. I put my key in the lock, turned it, stopped myself before going inside. I turned to Nigella. I felt guilty for having said what I said to her before. “Who’s the boy?” I asked, humoring her.
“He lives on this street, just a ways down the hill.” From beyond her in her apartment I could hear a news anchor speaking on the television: The boy disappeared from his home at 781 Marshall Street, where he lives with his grandparents. They report hearing their dog bark around midnight one evening. When they woke, their grandson was gone.
My heartbeat quickened. Could it be? I asked myself. Without thinking, I pushed past Nigella into her apartment, desperate to get a look at the tv to see if 781 Marshall was where I thought it was. Soon I was in her living room, standing on an ovular thread rug between a pair of recliners, looking at an old Panasonic television on a wooden stand.
My heart dropped. On the screen was an old man with thick glasses and white stubble, standing in front of a white Gothic Revival with a bay window in front, a brown Great Dane barking from behind the glass. In my mind there was no separation between that boy and myself, I identified so closely with him after our chance encounter that night as I stepped off the K.
“Have they said what they think happened?” I asked. When Nigella didn’t answer, I turned to look at her. It was only then that I realized where I was, what I’d done. I was standing in a place no one else had been since that grandson or nephew had stopped coming to see her many months ago, in her safest sanctum. From here I saw piles of garbage in the kitchen, a sink full of dishes, a pile of dirty clothes in the office beside the bathroom. The only place that was clean was the living room, and then only what could be seen from the door. And amid it all, an island of prominence: the table beside Nigella’s recliner, atop which sat a small, framed photograph of Nigella and her late husband posing in front of a wine tasting table somewhere in the Italian countryside, her husband holding her close and Nigella girlishly hiding her face from the camera.
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, looking at Nigella. She’d pressed herself against the wall beside the open front door, as if flattening herself in a train tunnel so as not to get hit, and her face was contorted in a look of horror the likes of which I had not seen since meeting refugees in Iraq.
She couldn’t look at me. With her face pressed sidelong against the wall, she screamed, “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
I tried to stop her, to comfort her, apologize, but there could be no soothing. The more she screamed the shriller her voice became, until I was afraid someone else in the building might hear and call the police. “I’ll go,” I said, squeezing quickly past her and pulling the door closed behind myself.
Outside, I found it hard to catch my breath. My chest was heaving, so that I had to bend over in an attempt to calm myself. What had happened? How had I so easily invaded her personal space, without realizing what I was doing? How had I been so stupid, so careless? My world was upside down. I’d defiled Nigella’s sanctum and that little boy, the little boy who so easily could have been me, had vanished.
I had to right the world, it was the only way to restore myself. I ran into my apartment, grabbed a light coat, and went back out. I ran to 781 Marshall Street and found a crowd of concerned neighbors, citizens, gathered around the elderly couple that were Heston Presley’s grandparents, while reporters from local news stations stood by asking questions and talking to producers on their cell phones.
Heston Presley. That was the boy’s name. It ran like a ripple through the crowd and became, in my mind, Jason Ridell, my own name, and I ran down Marshall Hill shouting the name – which one, mine or his, I cannot say – so that I was looking for a young boy and for myself. I ran all the way down the Hill and out along San Francisco Boulevard, where the traffic was heavy and uncaring, along the strip malls lining the boulevard and down to the docks, searching, searching, searching.
Dusk came on, the sun setting over San Francisco Bay, orange blazing across the painted pastel blues of the water. I hadn’t found Heston Presley. I was tired, my legs sore, depleted inside and out.
By the time I took the K back up the hill, back to the stop outside 781 Marshall, the crowd had dispersed and Heston Presley’s house was quiet. As I made my way up the front walk of my apartment building, Nigella’s window shades were closed.
All that night, as I lay up unsleeping, I thought about Heston Presley. I thought about the melancholy I saw in him as he sat up in that bay window all those nights ago. I didn’t sleep that night until the sun was coming in my blinds, and then finally I passed out from sheer exhaustion. My dreams were vivid and hideous. In them I was floating in the caramel waters of the Gulf, surrounded all around by crushed crabs that slowly grabbed hold of me with their pincers and dragged me under the surf. As I went down I spotted a man and a woman on the beach, one in military uniform and the other smoking, her back turned to me. They ignored my cries for help until finally my lungs filled with water.
When I woke, it was dark again, two hours after my shift was set to start on the Gilded Lady. I panicked and threw on my dealer’s uniform. I caught the K down to the docks, but I was far too late: the Lady was a spectacle of illumination and fancy far out in the Bay by then, far too far for me to reach.
I sat on the dock – broad and metal, cold through my sheer black pants – and thought on my nightmares, feet kicking at the water, imagining how it might feel to throw myself from the dock and let my body slip into the cold embrace of the Pacific. Probably my body would join with the men who escaped Alcatraz in their makeshift boat, other tortured souls lost in the world. But at last I decided I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t leave the world in so cowardly a manner – the voice of my father, even now that I haven’t heard it in decades, in the back of my mind shouting coward with alcohol-slurred speech, refusing to go away – and I decided to walk home.
I was strolling home, hands in my pockets, head down, lost in my thoughts, when I heard something behind the dumpster out back of Safeway. I gave the dumpster a wide berth, thinking the sound a vagrant, until I saw the form of a child.
I stopped. No more than fifty feet away, people were parking, coming in and out of the supermarket. Even so, here was quiet and dark, only nominally illuminated by a few tall lamps. “Heston?” I said into the dark.
A boy’s voice replied, unsteadily: “How do you know my name?”
I couldn’t believe it. “Heston Presley,” I said aloud, more convincing myself the boy was real than addressing him directly, like speaking his name would help pull him into the material world more firmly.
He came out from behind the dumpster. He looked not dissimilar to the night I had seen him in his grandparents’ window, except he was dirtier, his dark hair greasy. “They’re looking for me, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” I said. “Everyone is. Are you ok?” I looked around, suddenly suspicious that someone might be watching us, an abductor perhaps. “Who took you?”
Heston hung his head low. He hesitated, guilty. “I ran away.”
“You ran away!” I said, louder than anticipated. The boy flinched as if expecting a smack. “Well, you didn’t get very far.” We were only at the bottom of the Hill. When Heston said nothing, I asked why he’d run away.
He came suddenly to life with a practiced defense. “I don’t want to live with them anymore,” he said fiercely.
“My grandparents. Either of them. I want to be away from them.”
A plane flew loudly overhead. I was suddenly aware of how chilly it had gotten since the sun went down, and Heston wasn’t wearing a jacket. I took mine off and gave it to him. I felt very much like I was fathering the boy I used to be. It made me feel strangely at peace with myself. “Why don’t you want to live with them?”
My jacket hung in his hand, as if he were afraid of putting it on. “They’re not my parents.” Now there was clear woe in his voice, and I imagined I saw within his chest, straight past his clothing, that awful melancholy that had been present that night as he sat in the window. “My dad divorced my mom for someone else,” he said, quietly, “and then my mom died last year and I was left with my grandma and grandpa.”
A certain pain took hold of my chest. Like me, this boy had been left by his parents, but in a different way. It hit me all at once and soon I saw that photo of Nigella and her husband in my mind, the happiness of two young people healthy and in love. Just like Heston Presley, the person Nigella loved most in the world, the one person she’d found whose happiness she could link up with her own had left her, same as Heston with his father and mother.
Same as me.
I got down on a knee in front of Heston, our faces level with one another. “Do they love you? Do they enjoy having you around, you and that big dog of yours?”
For the first time, he smiled. “Scooby,” he said. “He looks just like Scooby-Doo.” He kicked around a rock, his smile evening back out. “Yes, I guess they like having me around.”
“There’s a whole world of people out here who don’t know or care about you, but your grandparents love you. You think they have to because they’re your grandparents, but they don’t have to. They love you because they love you.”
I nodded. Yes, I thought to myself, that’s enough. That’s enough. I stood and patted him on the shoulder. “Will you let me walk you home? And put on that jacket, won’t you. It’s cold out. Ah, but one other thing first.”
He looked at me. “What?”
“I need to run into the store. Wait here.”
When I came back out, he asked who the flowers were for. “Someone who enjoys having me around,” I said, “even if I don’t always show it in return.”
After watching Heston knock on his front door and be received by his grandparents, I went back to my apartment. I knocked on Nigella’s door and left the flowers sitting in front of it, a card tucked inside them. On it, I wrote, “I’m sorry. What was your husband’s favorite meal? Dinner soon?”
It would be the first time I’d cooked for another person in years.
Austin Bolton is a recent graduate of the University of New Hampshire MFA program. He is incredibly grateful to be able to share his work and hopes this is far from the last time his name will appear in a literary magazine.