Retail is debt. Storefronts create the illusion of prosperity. The city’s skyline is the visible sliver of a crescent moon, the penumbra of an eclipse; everything else lives in the red. Debt is the molten bedrock upon which all else shifts. This is a first principle of business. The question is how you manage it.
But C did manage. The proprietress of a lighting store taught her everything she knew. Use credit cards, she’d said. The interest rate was upwards of twenty percent, but when shit hit the fan, they could confiscate nothing but your reputation. Avoid banks at all costs. C confessed: What if she’d already entangled herself? ‘Also, my friend Zo. She invested.’ Turned out that the same was true of the lamp proprietress. She laughed. Most nonessentials are supported by private patronage, which of course carries its own form of interest. How did it feel, she asked, to be someone else’s pet project? She sold beautiful lamps, this woman, and a small stock of clocks. Tiffany shades tuliped over oval bulbs, their filaments twin copper seeds. The lamps were always lit. The proprietress tended to them like children. Every morning she turned each fixture on, every evening, off. Because if you blow a fuse and something sparks? she said, then snapped her fingers for emphasis. This was but one of many ways that shit could hit the fan. Better prevent it. At other moments, though, she got conspiratorial, whispering, All the same, some days, don’t you just want to watch it burn?
C checked the fine print on her lease, on her insurance. She was responsible for the sidewalk outside, liable for small disasters of all kinds that might spill over into public space, and for this reason the customer was never right. They prefer it this way, they want it like that. No one knows what they need. If someone tries to complain, the lamp proprietress said, you give them hell. It was the only way to stay out of City Hall.
C learned to manage the accounts, reduce overhead, place ads, convince Max that they couldn’t hire anyone just yet. We’ll trade shifts, she said. During the day, arranging a holiday display, she thought of her friend, the lady of light, in her third-floor showroom, surrounded by hordes of lamps that pulsed pelagically. They looked after one another’s shops for a time, whenever one of them took a rare vacation, got sick. Then, the Crash. The lady of the lamps did not survive. C arrived at the dark blue door of her building one day, on break, to ring the third-floor buzzer. Her mentor had gone without even saying goodbye. Standing there on the step in front of the permanently closed sign, C couldn’t help but feel a little shock of superiority, the thrill of survival, quickly washed away by the tides of self-disgust. Then the door swung open, and a mover came through, balancing a stack of wide, flat boxes in his arms. Who are you? C asked. I’m with the bank, he said. But my friend didn’t believe in banks, C replied. The man, it transpired, was no less startled. The two of them fumbled for space in the narrow entryway, and the boxes tipped. Thousands of tiny, antique bulbs rolled from the cardboard like so many eggs, a mass birth, a breeding ground, their futures foreclosed upon by the sidewalk on which they shattered.
It was the normalcy of debt – everyone was in it – and her pride in having outlasted the lamp proprietress that lent C her recent overconfidence, made her forget that what you owed still mattered. What and to whom. How much. Not to be too detail oriented. The problem was, paying interest soon meant forgoing rent, ignoring her mounting medical debts, which, cleverly enough, she’d halved. Hospitals – they really knew how to lend. The trick was to not pay, to not pay and not pay till you answered the call one day and said, I can’t afford this, I’m sorry, my life is the only collateral I have, if you’d like to lay a claim to that, help yourself. The administrator on the other end capitulated. Okay, try for half. Self-pay discount, her statement read. It was patients like Zo and Fran who picked up the tab. They paid both halves, or their insurance did, priced into which was a third half C hadn’t. ‘That’s another way she’s subsidized me, I guess.’
Meanwhile, the Crash kept Crashing. ‘You know, floral arrangements, limousines, air travel are all down. Art is up – but not art supplies. How do you explain that? All those conceptualists . . . never liked them . . .’
The look on her visitor’s face was blank, as if he wasn’t really listening.
Maybe the visitor was less of a visitor and more of a tenant. Maybe he’d always been there. Or maybe the word was intruder. Certainly he was not invited. He’d breezed in, unannounced, sans knock, a few weeks before, as though he’d slipped straight through the wall. C was seated on the same daybed, knitting, when she first observed the little man. Noted the distance between his bare feet and the floor, his diaphanous body, his crumpled cravat. In her haste to stand, she upset the coffee table and the modest breakfast laid out on a cheap plate. She locked herself in the bath. Cowered in the tub. She listened for the clink of a struggle with the lock. A sharp pain struck her stomach. Fear or something worse. It fought its way outwards, like something being extracted from her. The sensation consumed her body and then moved on to the room beyond, elaborating boundaries of experience. When the bath finally splashed back into place, she found some relief in the enamel of the tub, cool against her spine, her cheek. Still, she went on hiding till she began to feel ashamed. You are what you believe, as Max used to tell her. She rose, cracked open the door, peered into the room she’d fled. It was empty. Of course it was empty. A dream! Overstimulation! The summer heat distorted everything. She started the fan, collapsed back onto the daybed and into the deep relief of sleep.
And now, well, here she is. Here they are.
She sinks into the same sofa where she first received her guest. Takes up her knitting from the coffee table again.
It bears mentioning too that she’s gotten the feeling, lately, that she’s being followed. She looked into the bakery the other day, through its big front window, where a woman naturally enough was setting a white sheet cake on display, and found her – the baker, or the assistant? – already staring. It was the same at the bodega, the florist’s, on the train. When her subway car pulled alongside another and C looked across, she always seemed to meet a passenger’s hard gaze, as if interrupting a live broadcast, ‘already in progress.’ Of herself, that is. And at the bank, as she pored over her loan advisor’s dire calculations – The good news is you’re approved for refinancing, as long as you find a guarantor – she felt more than usually . . . surveilled. She told herself it was the season, the heat, the kerfuffle downtown. Or maybe it was only this: her beginning to look like what she’d become, a woman in serious debt. Financial distress reveals itself ineffably, involuntarily. It’s in the way one guards a wallet while choosing a bill. Proffering a dollar for a buttered roll at a cart, the man thanking her and telling her to take care now knew all and was judging her, she thought. But she’d jumped to the wrong conclusion. In this city, you avert your eyes from the impecunious. When people stare, they tend to stare at the insane.
Watching the little man hover like a dark charm above the window, hung up to catch the light, C regrets her resentment of the halal vendor. But it was an easy mistake to make, locating the blame with fellow citizens. Who could blame her. Who else was there to blame?
‘Unless you have some idea?’ she adds.
She is on the daybed on a Sunday evening, a magazine glossing her bare thighs. The output of a car’s souped-up sound system is uploaded into the room, dissipates on the slipcover, and in its wake lies the awareness of her apartment, street, the city’s summer swelter, the sound of her own voice. She talks, wondering if this is a breach of protocol, wondering whether she and her visitor are on speaking terms. What he does instead of answer her questions is to point out the window at a rose – a volunteer, a garden getaway – that’s pushed its way through the plinth of the heating pump outside the building across the street.
‘What’s that?’ he asks.
‘A rose, it’s a rose,’ she explains. Again.
She turns on the TV. The visitor maintains a steady altitude a few feet above the sill, picking at his toes. Foot comes near to nose, rounding him off. She is ready to admit to herself that he looks like one of those garden gnomes in the courtyard below, where the trash goes. The same oversized head, also oversized hands. Except his gaze, unlike theirs, is curious and expectant, like a pet’s. And whereas they are plump, he seems undernourished, his neck and limbs wiry, skin slack. No red cap. He wears a dark navy three-piece suit instead. Unkempt cravat, as if he doesn’t know how to tie it. When she flips to the news, he lowers to the carpet, strides, positions himself in front of the nightly broadcast as if standing guard. She observes in profile his unbridled attention. It appears our homegrown terrorists have managed to hack a Ukrainian supercomputer at a former Soviet nuclear facility, the TV says. Stay tuned for the latest on the GoodNite attacks!
C works furiously. Knit, purl. Knit, purl. On the coffee table, a few remaining digestives. C nibbles a ridge, examines the gauge of her stitches, as always too loose.
Her new companion would be adorable if it weren’t for his eyes. Glabrous, protruding like an insect’s, and just as black.
In all areas of life except for her art, and anyway she isn’t an artist anymore, C has shown a talent as a hostess. And as any good hotelier knows, hospitality depends less on ready accommodation than on leaving your guests alone. She recognizes that a different woman, Zo perhaps, would attempt to intellectualize the present situation, in particular, her apparent hallucination, with references to the brainstem, stress, a general imbalance between the world of the mind and the world of the senses, visits to the therapist. All these mitigations are available to the general public, online, not only to the specialist. But C, at least historically speaking, hasn’t gone in for abstraction. WYSIWYG, she says, and what she sees – and what she gets – she tends to accept. For years she chose thread count, warp, and weft in place of gods, God, ghosts, markets, and other esoteric diagnoses for her persistent sense of soul-sickness. Her preferred method of sorting data was by its nature additive, and so who knew how many spurious phenomena had been woven into her experience by now, for no other reason than that the pattern had been preloaded. The loom ran itself, like a program. Her program. She sat on the stool and sent the shuttle through. Occasionally, there was a glitch. But rarely anything so serious.
Then, 2008 – a twang. In a white room with a view of Queens, a nurse jellied C’s belly and applied the ultrasound. The news was unwelcome. Her uterus was swollen, distorted. We’ve not seen one like this, said Doc. There was something almost, well, sculptural about this knot she’d made. C fretted over the defunct organ as if it were the child she’d always hoped to have. Wasn’t there anything they could do to save it? There, there. They capped her nose and mouth with the small dome of the mask and let the anesthesia flow on the day the market crashed. She went under in a time of relative abundance and woke up in a different era, financially speaking. Everyone was now in debt. Welcome to the new world, Zo said. She was there at the bedside, checking her phone. As was Francesca, Zo’s girlfriend at the time. It was awful out there, she said. Awful for everyone. (Francesca was not C’s favorite of Zo’s girlfriends.) Zo reached for C’s hand. It’ll work itself out, she said. And in a way, it did. Zo kept her job. C shed her sheen of unseemly health by chucking the prenatal vitamins. They grew apart again. Three years went by and now the usual order between the two childhood friends was restored: Zo, beautiful, overworked, rich; C, the lapsed artist, restocking her store. The occasional birthday text. Salubrious relief! Or would be, if it weren’t for C’s newfound premonitions. Her loans. Her debt. It was a growth of its own. By the time the visitor arrived, she’d lost faith that she was still capable of turning things around. It strikes her at last that the world, or at least her world, might be developing according to an irrevocable logic of its own. Which is to say, separately from her. Out of her sight. Not her program at all.
This is to say the little man arrived in August at a nadir. Things must be bottoming out, C thought. Life was wilting. No art, no husband. Possibly no store, if current trends were any indication. C would have said, if there’d been anyone to ask, that her sanity was all she had left. And then, and then.
Those first few weeks, its appearance amounted to an eviction. Afraid to go home, C avoided the apartment. It wasn’t difficult. C’s shop is a one-woman show, she her sole employee. The days were long. She woke at six, bleary, perched at the loom opposite her daybed. Then to the closet to choose clothes, to the sink to brush teeth, pour a packet of instant coffee and wince at bitter taste, spit: correct protocol was coffee, then teeth; packet, then water. But she was feeling out of it. The day after the little man arrived, she raised the grate at the shop with suspicion. Looked around. No visitors. At least not yet. There was only her unsaleable stock, art supplies that, increasingly, were overrun by kitsch – the throwaway bangles, beads, origami paper, and glitter pens that mothers buy to pacify their children. Two tuitional preschools had taken up residence in the neighborhood, and C had done her best to adapt to the new foot traffic. Customers flitted in at lunch to browse the oil sets and ask the million questions that telegraph one’s intent to go home and buy online instead. It was enough to make you wonder what was so bad about her visitor. And maybe she did begin to wonder then.
But she was safe in the store. The only threats there were her customers and the ever-present GoodNite attacks, which were anyway infrequent and improbable, respectively. It was the exhausted hours after closing that posed a problem. How to spend them without going home? She visited Zo, whom she hadn’t seen much of since the hysterectomy. They were disaster friends, that’s what they were, who called only when things went wrong.
She composed a text: it’s been too long!
She ran errands. She volunteered to read once a week to an elderly woman down the street. Now they met Tuesday and Thursday evenings. C would swing by and read to Yi until she fell asleep. C tucked her in and considered staying the night. Yi’s floral loveseat looked accommodating, comfortable, spacious enough if C curled up, halved herself. She turned off the lamp and let herself out. Went past the shuttered storefronts, caught the train, and emerged one stop later to spend the night in her shop. Whenever C did return to her legal abode, the creature was always there, wafting placidly beside the lamp, investigating the electrical wires, reading the paper, slipknotting its cravat. It looked up when she came in. There was always something different about it. It updated, like an algorithm. The swollen forehead corniced over its horrible eyes, as if to hide them. And it wore a flower now. A little nosegay threaded through a buttonhole. Slipping from the daybed, it drew itself up to its full height, straightened its cuffs. As if it were trying to court her, she thought.
She joined the community garden. The gym. She took an aerobics class at an upscale studio near her store, the kind frequented by the same mothers who were willing to pay four hundred dollars to enroll their children in C’s eight-week painting course, a price she hadn’t optimized; she could probably charge more. They worked out in such perfect synchronization that they might have been a single organism. C’s own arms struck her as pitiful by contrast, pumping thinly as she stepped onto and off her blocks. (She’d already lifted twenty pounds of liquid soap, restocked the highest shelves, for free.)
She tried everywhere to emulate saner passersby. Assimilate her swaying to theirs. She strove to be agreeable, to rhyme anatomically, blend in so that she forgot about the guest at home that she was so reluctant to host. And so ridiculous a visitation at that! No beautiful guardian angels in the novel of her life. Back in this aerobics class, however, no one would ever suspect her of being the sort to attract such houseguests. Then again, didn’t everyone seem a little off? She looked into the mirror in which they were meant to correct themselves. Specious expressions stared back. Nevertheless, she smiled and laughed at what she took to be cues. She went along with the fit women for smoothies, where she was praised for her fine arts programming at the store. Oh, I’d love to sign my daughter up, said one. C sent her an email – @gothamcapital – but the woman never replied. Then C’s free trials were up.
But it’s impossible to skirt your home indefinitely. Soon C was forced to admit that, like the roaches, her newest intruder had no plans to vacate. A détente would have to be engineered. She resolved at least that she need not speak to it. She reserved the right to remain silent. She wouldn’t be one of those spinsters who chattered away to no one. At least not yet. What years she did have left she planned to spend lucid. Meanwhile, it seemed the elevator had gone kaput in her absence. After five flights of stairs she anyway wouldn’t be in the mood to talk.
It was in the kitchen when she returned, as it would often be from that day on, peering into the snout of the kettle, lowering itself into the tangle of the rhododendron above the sink. It padded barefoot across the floor and considered the loom. Kicked a pedal with its toe. Yelped. Humanized itself. He emitted a low hum, C noticed, a subtle frequency tuned to the inner instruments of her own head, so whenever he wasn’t immediately visible, she could still detect his presence. She couldn’t shake the feeling he was adapting to her. He liked to look into her jewelry box too, and watch TV. C wondered how it was he turned it on when she was out, fairly certain that visitors lacked a working knowledge of remote controls, not to mention of material existence. She wondered if he was there at all when she wasn’t home. If he weren’t material himself.
It was an open question, the matter of physical actuality. C spent an evening moving from room to room, to check. She entered the alcove to turn on the TV and found him already there. She stuck her head into the fridge, looked up – he was gone. When he did appear, he was semi-transparent, a projection, an early Vermeer, a painterly trick, but C never saw him arrive. He was always one step ahead. Transparent, diffuse, the world filtered through him, around him, one looked right through his skinny, cravated neck to the television on the other side.
What really troubled her about the visitor, she decided, was his eyes, globular and lashless and oversized, of a dark so deep it was self-referential, recalling the crude ebony of oil spills. And so she remained suspicious of his solicitations. He often spoke to C now, despite her silence. And it had been some time since she’d had someone to talk to when she came home. It corroded her resolve. Yet, GoodNite, too, was luring the public into complacency: An Alabama town of ten thousand is cast into the dark, the television said with uncharacteristic lyricism. It was a pretty tableau: people roamed the streets with candles in the night. Also horrible, of course, of course. At the local hospital, the generator failed, a ventilator ceased to substitute for lungs. Someone lost a life. C grabbed the remote and cut the anchor short. The visitor looked at her reproachfully. She ran a bath and locked the door. It was here, underwater, ears submerged, that she felt she could still access solitude, escape the sense that she was being evaluated, researched. She wondered if the gnome was here to judge her for her debt. He was a new kind of collector from the bank, sending back reports about her behavior.
He certainly dressed the part.
One night, when she came home from reading to Yi, or rereading the passages Yi missed after she fell asleep (I wasn’t asleep, she said, you just read too fast), C found the thing standing on the table on a stack of her mail, looking at the addresses, or maybe through the envelopes to the statements inside. Second Attempt. She cried, ‘What are you doing?’ Then clapped a hand to her mouth, having remembered she’d pleaded the fifth.
But of course once you start, it’s hard to go back.
These days, when C comes home and collapses onto the daybed, the visitor nods at the loom and asks. ‘And that?’ ‘An ancient practice,’ C says. He is so unformed, so ignorant of life. But with C’s help, he’s improving, growing more articulate. Hovering at the window, he observes of passersby, ‘They sure do waste a lot of time.’ The television snaps to commercial, and his large eyes sweep out the arc of a ball and chain. ‘What’s a demolition job?’ ‘The planned destruction of something,’ C says. ‘Usually a building of some kind.’ He points to the hairdryer, a blender on TV. ‘For homogeneity,’ she says. ‘Stale bread made from fresh.’ She is pleased with her explanations. She makes labels with a Post-It: ‘Toaster, for toast.’ He is the guest, she reminds herself, and she, the host. Not the other way around. It’s the same with the pain in her belly, the thrum dormant in her side.
She brings a stack of newspapers to the bedroom, showers, readies herself for bed. The visitor floats along the ceiling as she begins to undress. Chivalrous, he turns away. C slides beneath the comforter, knowing he will not look around until she has disappeared. The sheets estrange her from her freshly shaven shins, like a numbing agent applied with silk. How easy it is to slip away from your own body. It is so readily emancipated, just like that. Perhaps this error, this glitch, will be an easy fix: she’ll just have to numb her mind. The visitor peeks through its inarticulate hands to see if she is decent. Happily, it begins to bob. C watches from her bed, ensconced in the pillows with her newspapers, duvet pulled taut as a brassiere across her chest. How could she be afraid? His plain contentment – now he hovers one inch above the dresser, investigating her perfume – strikes her as dignified and childlike at once. And yet, when she meets his eyes, a wave of horripilation travels across her skin.
She imagines what Max would say if he could see her now. Quailing in her own bedroom from a creature that hardly exists. She imagines his open alarm. The thought almost makes her laugh. Then she does laugh, shaking the frame of the bed. The blue of the streetlight is an eerie luminescence in the sheets. There is something in this composition that strikes her as funny. The visitor is buoyed by the opportunity for joy. ‘What is so funny?’ Then he too is chuckling. Breaking into a round, gentle hoot. Hearing his laughter rise with hers, C stops.
Image © De Shark
This is an excerpt from The Visitors by Jessi Jezewska Stevens, published by And Other Stories.