Fiction from NER 43.4 (2022)
he building was constructed in 1923. Or maybe 1924. The ink on the records filed with the Department of Buildings was badly smudged, and anyway it doesn’t matter. There were thirty apartments in the building, four floors, and a live-in super.
An old man lived on the fourth floor. He had always lived there, he had always been as he was. He wore a bow tie that was stained and faded, but correctly tied without the aid of a YouTube video. It is not that he was an expert in bow-tying, but he had once tied it perfectly and thereafter resolved never to remove it, even in the bath. He was missing his front teeth, which we all knew, because he turned his head to smile at us as we rushed past him on the stairway.
In January, he moved out of the building. Sleet slashed against the window, and the living room radiator hissed and rattled its bones while he packed. He put his collection of broken watches in a dented old pot along with a half-empty box of spaghetti noodles and a can of Campbell’s soup. Not tomato, but something else, low sodium, good for the heart. He carried all the boxes out himself, one at a time, from January first through January thirtieth, disappearing each time into the back of a blue car with Pennsylvania license plates.
He left a stack of books under the mailbox for us to paw through, mostly fiction by authors named John or Jonathan. I didn’t take any, but other people did, one by one, until there was only a copy of an Iceland Travel Guide published in 2009, which no one took even though we all intend to go to Iceland someday. Maybe. And then he was gone.
There were three families who moved out in the month of February: a couple, a mother and a child, and Mrs. Lemon with the cats. Her name wasn’t really Lemon, was it? Probably not. The cats were named Roquefort, Manchego, Camembert, and the little kitten, Feta. Mrs. Lemon was lactose-intolerant. She moved to Florida because she said it was time. She couldn’t take another New York City winter. She gave the kitten to the young man, Raf or Ray or something, who lived on the first floor and smoked a lot of weed. Ro or Remi subscribed to the Sunday New York Times, dissected it for the crossword, and generously left its corpse for the rest of us to take, partially stuffed back into its bright plastic blue bag.
We don’t know where the couple moved to, probably Westchester, but the woman with the child said she’d found a place down the block that was cheaper and sunnier, with stairwells that didn’t smell like cat pee in the summer. Just in the winter probably. All buildings smell like cat pee at least sometimes.
The landlord listed the vacant apartments. We expected new neighbors to move in because that was a natural law of the city: the eternal churn of people coming and going, like the way sunlight sweeps across the old brick and tan façade each day between eight in the morning and one in the afternoon. I could tell time by the way that yellow light made its ascent as I worked away at a desk in my living room.
But now that I think about it, I didn’t see anyone move in. Perhaps they did when I was out. You know, I have a busy social life; I go for dinner and drinks with people I’d like to be friends with and plays and movies with people I am. So I wouldn’t necessarily have noticed not noticing anything. And I didn’t.
There was a woman on the second floor who always did her laundry while wearing a bright Stanford sweatshirt, like any of us would be impressed by that. What she was known for was the way she left her garbage bags in the stairwell bulging with good intentions going sour. She moved out in March, complaining about ineradicable bedbugs, and for a while we eyed her door like we might see them crawling out from the seams, coming for us with their sharp invisible teeth to devour our peace of mind. I don’t think I ever got bedbugs, though, and I’m very glad about that.
By June, the building was beginning to feel noticeably hollower, especially after the third floor disappeared sometime in May. It wasn’t clear if anyone was still living there at the time, and if they were swallowed by the black void that was one day just there, hanging, like the miasma from a dead mouse between the walls, from the seventh stair going up. The fourth-floor residents were annoyed, because they had to get to their apartments across the empty space that remained by climbing up the fire escape from Jose’s apartment. They were lucky Jose was considerate like that. He had a lot of lovely house plants and accepted packages for you if you weren’t home.
We were all sad when Jose died in July.
We tried to rally. Perhaps the building was only disappearing on us because we hadn’t made enough of an effort to make it feel worthy. I bought a few paintings from an artist on the street, and I hung them on walls that had been naked with expectation since I moved in four years ago. Outside, in the tree pit, the twenty-somethings who lived in 2A tried to plant roses. The roses were doused regularly in dog urine, and they died. It was a nice thought, anyway. In a grand gesture, the super painted the interior walls a hideous shade of avocado and installed new lighting of an interrogatory shade of white. We smiled at each other and said hey, how are you, in the hallways. The dog walkers and smokers tried to strike up conversations on the stoop with the people taking out their empty cans and cardboard boxes.
Then, a hot night in August, as I passed through the lobby, I noticed the cement around the mailboxes melting rapidly into goo. I would have stopped to watch it happen, but I was late for my Saturday night TV-binging. By morning, there was nowhere left for the mailman to dump the grocery circulars we never used.
The dark stain in my ceiling swallowed the light fixture in my bathroom. I asked the super if he would install a new one, but he never came. And when I went down to look for him in September, there was no 1A, just a raggedy line of residents’ bicycles chained to the stairwell covered in dust. One of the bicycles was mine, I admit. I bought it with great fanfare after an extensive search for the Perfect One, and then, once purchased, used it only twice, to visit a friend in Forest Hills and to go to Jacob Riis Park.
By October, there were only a few of us left. We sat together outside the building in our lawn chairs, prematurely bundled in our winter coats, waiting for a sign.
“Do you think it ever loved us?” complained one of the women who lived in 2F. We watched a line of bricks crumble off the fourth floor into dust like an exhalation.
Well, that was just kind of offensive. I felt miffed on the building’s behalf. And what if she’d hurt its feelings? My lease wasn’t up until the end of December. I leaned against the building with my shoulder, and placed a palm against its cold, drawn face. I told it that it was a good building, had been a good building, and everything was going to be okay. In the dark, a car drove by with a bass thumping loud as a heartbeat, and the strains of Radiohead’s “Kid A” filtered out from an old record player in the window of an apartment across the street.
“While you’re talking to the building, tell it we live here too. It isn’t fair.” This from the guy across the hall from me who ordered more takeout than anyone I knew. He said he used his oven to store socks. The pilot light kept them perpetually warm, which was a delight on cold mornings when he pulled them on.
Old Mrs. Li, the last tenant left from the fourth floor, cleared her throat and confessed: “I’m moving to California to live with my daughter. She owns a very nice house there with a pool.” It was hurtful, the way she said it, like from here on out only our lowest expectations would come true.
It was also an invitation for one of the twenty-somethings to say: “I do love Brooklyn, but I am getting tired of the commute. So I’ve actually been looking for a studio in Lower Manhattan. What? I’m sorry!” The last because we were all giving her fierce side-eye, even Mrs. Li.
The light in the intersection turned red, and some kids down the street ran into the middle of the street and planted a firecracker left over from July. We all covered our ears against the BOOM! and resumed talking about things of no consequence, except to ourselves, disintegrating into four monologues just the way we had lived, distinct and separate in our heads, passing each other in the hallways for years with dangled half-smiles and trailing ellipses and comments about the weather. What had we meant to each other after all? Generous to a fault, allowing ourselves to be heard in the echoing sounds of footsteps returning and a front door closing with a distant bang. But I loved my neighbors. I loved the building too, even though I had been brushing my teeth in the dark for weeks.
As the year drew to a close, I found an apartment in Prospect-Lefferts. The rent wasn’t great, but it was sunny. A year or two later, I happened to walk by the spot. It took me a moment to realize it was the same street, but I knew it by the tree guarded by a brittle, emaciated rose bush with a mouthful of thorns. The building was basically gone, save for a bit of floor and a single staircase extending upwards. Old aquamarine tile, protruding off a splintered wooden frame, glinted in the afternoon.
Already, on either side, two brand-new buildings were shouldering in on its lot. They had lobbies with nondescript art and elevators and in-building gyms.
I really ought to go to Iceland to see what it’s about, I thought, when I stopped to look. But by the time I went away, I was already thinking about other things, like all the work I had to do, and where I might find a truly excellent doughnut. ■