He called it the new house, but it was very old. The landlord wouldn’t say exactly. He’d said it was built in 1920 or 1900 or, once, “the late 1800s.” William wasn’t sure if he was being cagey or if he really didn’t know. The floors and the walls all slanted to the center, and the basement stairs bucked and rocked. The house had no right angles, and William thought, as the landlord stood in the kitchen and insisted the hulking, tilting refrigerator was indeed operational, that it would never be possible for someone in the house to be completely straight with him.
Across the street, giant houses reclined among sweeping lawns and stone planters, garages filled with expensive cars. Beyond them lay the city. William sometimes caught a glimpse of it. If the leaves rustled in a particular pattern, he saw skyscrapers down in the valley, the river with its solid bridges and yellow lights.
Since his marriage had dissolved, he was often baffled by the things he found himself saying to strangers. “Completely rusted through,” he’d say to the pharmacist, compelled for some reason to tell her about packing up the old barbecue grill, laughing, as if broken things were hilarious, particularly broken things that could not be fixed.
“You’re grieving,” his sister Sara told him. “Just let it happen.” But he found himself in the midst so many awkward conversations at work that he could barely keep up with his A15 forms. At night he tried to catch up, sat at his crooked desk and typed numbers into squat boxes. Occasionally, the wind blew, and the city lights clustered like a distant galaxy he would never again visit.
Behind his house lay a strip of forest, and behind the forest were other crooked houses, other buckling driveways and rusted cars, tilting porches and broken windows. The houses were similar to his own, with disintegrating roofs and stained siding.
“We’re gentrifying,” the landlord said. “It’s not just a rumor.” He nodded in the direction of the forest. “Don’t worry, it’s all on its way out.”
When the A15 forms got too boring, which was often, he’d go online to a chat site where they paired people anonymously with random strangers.
“I’ve always thought of myself as middle class,” he typed to Anonymous 1, who had described herself as SWF 28. “But here I am in this house, and it’s like a club membership I’m supposed to be proud of.” He gave up on the A15 forms and saved them. “In the old neighborhood, we were never thinking about who should and shouldn’t be there.”
“Wanna see my slideshow?” Anonymous 1 wrote. “Bunch of nude pics.”
Outside the leaves shifted, and he caught a glimpse of the stadium. There was a game going and the lights were on.
“Sure,” he wrote, “why not?”