Empty Chambers

For Rent: Two chambers of the heart belonging to a 31-y-o woman, available for lease or sublet, mostly furnished, very clean and spacious. Please contact Meredith Elton, 839-2983 or email meredith.love@hotmail.com.

There were often long stretches when nobody answered the ad. Meredith got busy during those times. She reorganized the kitchen and swept clean the tiled floor. She wiped down the counters and table and she did loads upon loads of laundry. She sat in front of her computer and hit “refresh” while the same page disappeared and returned, still with no answers. Usually it was a while before she heard anything, but usually too there was an inquiry from someone before she started to seriously worry. Only once did the waiting go on long enough that she had no laundry left to do and no reconfiguration of cabinets to try. It had been so long that Meredith was probably less careful than she should have been. When a new email finally slipped into her inbox, her pulse stuttered. She flew up and sat herself back down. Her fingers twitched and hurried over the keyboard.

They set up a time to meet for an interview the following week. When she walked into the café, she recognized her new tenant at once. It was a man this time, a lanky bearded man with blue eyes and dark hair. He smiled when he saw her. She sat across from him and they had a pleasant conversation. The words shivered and dropped into the air between them like coins into water, shimmering to some distance away and then resting at the bottom. The words didn’t matter so much. Meredith had already decided that this would work.

The man moved in at the start of the next month. She helped him. It was difficult at first, between the heavy furniture and the boxes filled with the miscellany of his life, but it all seemed to fit, more or less. She was sure that even the oddities would find a home on a shelf somewhere. He seemed very glad at first to be there. He looked into her with a smile she knew would grow familiar, and she trusted him. She gave him the keys and a brief lecture on things he shouldn’t do, though she told him she was sure she didn’t need to say these things. They rested their tired shoulders against the bare wall and watched the light filter in through the windows.

She was often wary about people staying in the chambers of her heart. After they left, the lease done with and ripped up and the keys returned, there was work to do. She had to scrub the traces of them from the rooms they had just left. She had to pick up the litter they left crumpled in the corners. She had to decide what to do with the movie posters, the folk music CDs and the canned black beans left hiding around corners like thieves. Then she had to get used to her empty heart again. She walked through the rooms that echoed with each footfall and paused in the hall, knowing that nobody could see her there with her hand caught in half a caress of the doorframe and her fingers fitted to the bumps in the molding.

With this new man Meredith was not wary. She didn’t worry about the scuff marks of his shoes on the floors or the scrapes he might leave on the counters. He settled himself into her heart and she let him without reservations. He looked like he belonged there. She thought the color of the carpet in the bedroom was just the same shade as his eyes. The windows were the right height for him to look from and his bookshelves fit across the living room wall as though made for them. He walked into her heart and belonged there like nobody else had done.

When he left it was a surprise. They were halfway through the lease. She knocked one day and nobody answered. When she went back for her spare keys and let herself in, worried, there was nobody there. She found a note taped to the refrigerator with too few words on it. She let herself sink in sadness against its cold smooth surface. She’d thought this one might stay. He’d taken most of his things. She walked through the rooms, forcing herself to step through each doorway and look at the neatly made bed, the swept floors, the empty bookcases he must have decided to leave. He hadn’t left her anything to do. It was all clean, without even a whisper of him. Her heart was left empty.

Meredith had to be busy, so she did her own laundry. She cleaned her kitchen and she swept her floors. She stayed out of the chambers of her heart. She had nothing to do there. She spent her time crinkling her forehead at stains and resting her aching back. She hasn’t decided yet whether she will let out her heart to someone else again.

Insides

Doesn’t it ever amaze you the you have bones building the shape of your body and muscles layered onto those bound on with tendons and sinews and there is fat pillowed around those and veins laced and woven and then skin stretched and sagging over the whole damn thing and when you glance over and see that teetering miracle of unlikely fortune, all you see is a person? Someone you like or someone you want to get out of your way, really, but isn’t it just so strange that you can only see the very outside of all a person is? It amazes me. It certainly does. It is so strange that people stop being amazed by it. When there are little babies and they’re all wide-eyed at everything because the world is so brand-new beautiful, that’s what that is. They are amazed at the folded twisted wrapped-up gift of guts and grime that is a human being.

There was this little kid I used to see at the playground when I went sometimes after work. I would just sit on the swings with a cigarette. It’s okay because there usually wasn’t anybody there that late, not when it was getting so dark I couldn’t see the black of the smoke that swept into the air and sank into my skin. This kid though, she would show up like a ghost, walking down the sidewalk and appearing of a sudden like something come to haunt me. She would come and sit next to me on the swings at eight at night, just casual, sitting with a stranger like it was no big deal.

I don’t know what kind of parents this kid had, but it must have been something strange that they let her wander around and talk to strangers like that. They must’ve been holding onto her so loosely that they nearly let her drop and fall and hit the ground. It was lucky that all she met was me, because I never did a thing, I’m not like that, but there are some real creeps out there. I told her stories sometimes but it didn’t help, she just listened all solemnly to me telling her that the pervs and murderers might be just around the corner. She didn’t even care. I’m pretty sure there was something really screwed up with her family I guess, there had to have been.

Anyway she liked to come and sit next to me like some weird friend or something, this little girl who must have been nine years old or something like that, about half my height so that she had to hoist herself up when she wanted to sit on a swing by gripping the cold bumps of the chains and pulling until her entire little body was suspended in the air, and then she would thump into the swing.

I told her mostly other kinds of stories, I mean I didn’t just tell her the ones about the crazy people who wanted to hurt her. I didn’t want to scare her or anything. Mostly I told her about me. I don’t talk that much in general, there aren’t so many people who want to listen to me ramble. It was a nice thing to be able to tell this little kid stories of who I was and watch her face all still and calm, listening to me go on. She had some kind of gift for listening, that kid, I swear she could hold herself on that swing and be so statue-still until the only thing that moved were her eyelashes when she blinked. She just listened like nobody else ever did.

Sometimes I also asked her about her life, of course I didn’t just tell her stories about me and never want to know anything about her. She didn’t like to talk about herself though, so that’s where my best stories came from. Anyway I would ask her how her day was, how things were going, and when she wouldn’t tell me or didn’t say much I would make something up. I would tell her that the reason she was so quiet was probably because she was tired from spending the whole day climbing the very tallest mountain in the world and then climbing down again. When she was at the bottom she realized that she left her fuzzy hat at the top of the mountain and had to go all the way up again. Plus then after that she had to get on a plane and fly around the world to get back to our neighborhood so she could come sit on the playground with me and my cigarette and listen to me. She laughed at that. Sometimes I think that there is nothing in the world as delicious and strange as the laugh of a little kid like that. It just curls through a person until it nudges a smile out.

The one thing she sometimes said to me, without me asking her and bugging her to tell me things, was that she was thinking about how people were made. She would say that there was so much stuff inside a person, so much blood bottled up under skin and bones pushing their way around in there. We can only see the faintness of veins wandering the paths of our body, and there’s so much of it. From that little kid I learned to look for the depths of people. I know now to look at the tangles and woven strands of a person, even the ones I can’t see at all.

I don’t see her anymore because she stopped coming to the playground. I don’t know what happened, maybe she just got too old to hang around on the swings with a stranger. Maybe she moved away. I hope that’s what happened, anyway. I don’t know. Sometimes I still go to the playground and smoke a cigarette, hoping that I’ll blink the stinging smoke out of my eyes and turn my head and she’ll be there, appearing on the sidewalk in the dark like a ghost. I don’t think she will, though. You will probably never meet that little kid, so I’m telling you to look. Pay attention to people, because all you see is their outsides, the way they talk and move and the curl of their neck as they pull in their head because they don’t want to say what they mean. That tells you something but it doesn’t tell them enough. The next time you look at a person, try really hard to see all of it, the blood moving under the skin and the softness inside and the bones holding the whole person up because otherwise she’d fall and be nothing but a pile of pulpy muck on the ground and not a person at all.

Quiet Shoes

You can’t just buy magic shoes at an ordinary place. It’s not like you can walk into a department store and browse their new fall line of seven-league boots. For that sort of thing you really need to search the deeper depths of eBay or something. I happened to stumble on mine by luck, as though my slip-ons already had a touch of the fairy about them. I wouldn’t even have bought them normally, they’re sort of plain and gray and a bit scuffed around the toes, but when I tried them on they felt so close and comfortable on my feet that I loved them at once. I took them off, paid for them, brought them home, and promptly forgot them at the bottom of my closet for a couple of months.

The first time I wore them, I barely noticed anything odd at all. In my gray shoes I walked to the library at the end of the day, when the world sighs and settles into the beginnings of night. It was starting to be dim and yellow in the streets, so it didn’t seem strange to me that people were bumping into me a lot. I got to the library I leaned into the door so that it rang the bell, and people looked a little puzzled at the sound. The book I needed was way up on the top shelf so I stood on the soft toes of my new flats and coaxed it closer with the tips of my fingers until it fell and hit me in the forehead, pages splaying open.

The only thing that day that was really weird was the librarian at the desk. I stood there, leaning on the fake wood, staring at the librarian’s profile for maybe ten minutes. In that time I coughed, shuffled, sneezed, thunked my book down, and started saying “Excuse me?” When I spoke she glanced over and looked right past me, sweeping her eyes across the room and then turning back to her book. I kept saying it though. My tone went from the politely inquiring pitch of the barely bothered to that nasty hook of a voice that dips and sways on the dangerous edge of making a goddamn scene. I leaned and shifted around, picked up a foot out of its shoe to curl and uncurl my toes, and nearly yelled it at her. My “ExCUSE me!” echoed in the library and she whipped around to look at me.

In the haughtiest tones I think she could probably muster, she said, “Yes, dear, all right, you don’t have to yell.” I shoved my book toward her and waited while she scanned it, then slipped the shoe back on my foot and whisked myself out of the library. I walked home bumping into people again, but I figured that all the elbow-brushing and shoulder-swiping was just me being so annoyed.

It was maybe another week before I really figured out the power of those gray shoes. I mean, that I figured out that it was the shoes and not just everyone ignoring me. It must’ve been the day I fought with Andy – that’s my husband – because at the end of my yelling I kicked off my shoes until they flew and thumped into the wall and I cried. He’d been ignoring me while I ranted, getting dinner together while I delivered a tirade, calling my name out every once in a while when I was right in the middle of a sentence. It only made me angrier, of course, and I told him what a selfish ass he was, how rude he was being, and how pissed I was right as he must have just been so confused by hearing my voice faint in the distance and not knowing where I was.

Once we figured it out I was a lot less mad. Well, Andy really figured it out. He went and picked up the shoes and put them back on my feet as I was sobbing like Cinderella’s freaking prince in our little apartment that smelled of Ramen and laundry. The gray shoes fit back on my feet and Andy’s eyes just went round. He looked right through me. He figured out a way to focus on me so he could see me, after a bit. If he really tried, concentrated on my face, he could see me, but apparently if nobody’s looking right at me and thinking about it I just slip right past their vision. I tested it a lot.

Even when I jump up and down my feet make no sound on the floor in those shoes. The soles tap into the linoleum, or the marble or wood or concrete, and there’s no noise at all. It’s eerie if you’re paying attention, though of course if I’m wearing the shoes nobody else is really paying attention.

I don’t wear the gray shoes that often. I don’t want to scuff them up any more and I don’t want to abuse the magic that lets me duck under people’s notice and sneak around a little bit. I walk in the gray shoes sometimes, not often, when the night is creeping up the horizon and everyone’s glance slides right past you anyway, shoes or no. I don’t do it so often because I don’t need it that much. It is useful every once in a while, though, when there’s some reason that I want to step lightly.