Thanks, wretched cell phone contract that I can’t escape for another year.
Unlike the deferments on my student loans or the temporary hardship agreements with the credit card companies, the phone was an expense I couldn’t put off. Already I was a week late with the payment and didn’t want to risk losing service. Potential employers can’t call a phone that’s not working. So there it went—another hundred and ten bucks gone in an instant.
I console myself with the fact that an unemployment check will be automatically deposited into my account at the stroke of midnight. It’s cold comfort. I’d rather be receiving an employment check for an honest week’s work.
Because my current cushy situation doesn’t feel honest.
It feels like freeloading.
Never take anything you haven’t earned, my father used to say. You always end up paying for it one way or another.
With that in mind, I decide to clean, even though the apartment’s already sparkling. I start in the upstairs bathroom, wiping down the spotless countertops and spraying the mirrors with glass cleaner. Then it’s on to the bedroom, where I dust and sweep the carpet with a sleek vacuum found in the hall closet.
The cleaning continues in the kitchen, where I wipe down the countertops. Then in the study, where I run a feather duster over the desk, the top of which has been cleared of the previous owner’s belongings. It strikes me as odd that so much of what she owned remains in the apartment. Her furniture. Her dishes. Her vacuum. Yet anything that could identify her has been removed.
Clothes in the closet? Gone.
Family photos? Also gone, although in both the study and the sitting room are discolored rectangles on the wallpaper where something used to hang.
I look around the study, acutely aware that I’ve moved from cleaning to snooping. But not in a prurient way. I have no interest in any of the dead owner’s dirty secrets. What I’m after is a hint of who she was. If this was the apartment of a CEO or movie star, I want to know who it was.
I search the bookshelf first, scanning the rows of volumes for signs of the dead owner’s profession, if not her outright identity. Nothing gives it away. The books are either classics bound in faux leather with their titles embossed in gold or bestsellers from a decade ago. Only one catches my attention—a copy of Heart of a Dreamer. Fitting, considering the location.
It’s a hardcover, in perfect condition. So unlike my beloved paperback, with its cracked spine and pages that have been so thoroughly turned they’re now fuzzy at the edges. When I flip the book over, the author stares back at me.
It’s not an entirely flattering picture. Her face is made up of harsh angles. Sharp cheekbones. Pointy chin. Narrow nose. On her lips is the barest hint of a smile. It makes her look amused, but in a way no one else would understand. As if she and the photographer had just shared a private joke right before the shutter clicked.
She never wrote another book. I looked her up after Jane read me Heart of a Dreamer, eager to find more of her work. Only there was nothing more to be read. Just that single, perfect novel published in the mid-eighties.
I put Heart of a Dreamer back on the shelf and move to the desk. Its contents are meager and disappointingly generic. Paper clips and Bic pens in the top drawer. A few empty file folders and old copies of The New Yorker in the bottom ones. Definitely no personalized stationery or documents with names on them.
But then I notice the address labels stuck to the magazine covers. All of them bear not only the Bartholomew’s address and this apartment number, but a single name.
I can’t help but feel let down. I’ve never heard of her, which means she was, in all likelihood, your average rich lady—born with money, died with money, now has family squabbling over that money.
Disappointed, I drop the magazines back in the desk and continue cleaning, this time in the sitting room. I hit the biggies—carpet, windows, coffee table—before running a dust mop across the crown molding, my nose mere inches from the wallpaper.
The pattern is even more oppressive up close. All those flowers opening like mouths, their petals colliding. The oval spaces between them are colored a shade of red so dark it flirts with blackness. They remind me of eyes studding the wallpaper.
I take a step back and squint. My hope is that it’ll erase the impression that the wallpaper is a series of eyes. It doesn’t. Not only are the eyes still there, but the flowers now no longer look like flowers. Instead, those spreading petals take on the shapes of faces.
It’s the same with the crown molding. Hidden within the intricate plasterwork are similar wide-open eyes and pinched faces.
The sensible, rational part of my brain knows it’s an optical illusion. Yet now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t trick my eyes into returning to what they originally saw. Those flowers are gone. All I can see now are the faces. Grotesque ones with warped noses, mutated lips, elongated jaws that make it look as though they’re talking.
But these walls don’t talk.
Yet something inside the apartment is making noise. I hear it from my spot in the sitting room—a muffled creak.
At first, I think it’s a mouse. Only, the Bartholomew doesn’t seem like the kind of place that would have mice. Also, it doesn’t sound like any mouse I’ve ever heard. The creak is accompanied by the groan of something that’s normally still being forced into motion. It brings to mind rusty cogs and stiff joints.