Scavengers

By Valerie Laken

So many people had moved out of the neighborhood that the dogs had just about taken over. Mostly they were forlorn and peaceful, but every once in a while a frenzy of barking and low-level madness would erupt in the back alley and lurch through the side yard toward the street. At the window I’d catch their silhouettes, a group of them tussling over some piece of garbage. Then they’d settle the matter and drift apart down the middle of the wide street, where hardly any cars went any more.

The day the girl showed up it was the odd sound of a big old car grumbling to a stop out front that drew me to the window. A dark and rusting Cadillac stood there, its back corner hanging so low I expected a huge fat man to emerge, but when the door popped and swung open it was just a scrawny girl in black jeans and several layers of sweatshirts. She had dark, bobbed hair that clung to her head damply. A little older than me, mid-twenties maybe.

When she rang my doorbell I watched her for a while from the window, trying to decide if she had the jittery anxious look of a dangerous person. I’d already heard every kind of endless tall tale from the desperate types who get stranded here. They’ve got broken down cars, they’ve been mugged or beaten, they’re lost, evicted, foreclosed, someone’s taken their kids. They park themselves on your porch, shivering, and break down until maybe you give them a few bucks or some left-over pizza or a ride to the bus station. You could threaten to call the cops but even they know the cops won’t come. As soon as you get rid of them and have time to comb over their story you discover its many impossibilities and know you’ve been had. It’s hard to know how to feel about yourself on such days. My dad’s old friend Lenny says one day it’s folks like those that’ll get me. I’ll head out to jump start their car or something and their unseen partner will come in my back door and rob me.

I don’t have much to steal, Lenny, I tell him. And his face twists up and goes sour, because he’s thinking of all my dad’s old things in here.

I’m making it sound like a scuzbag dangerous neighborhood, but it isn’t. It’s no Brush Park, it’s not leaking mansions filled with squatters. Until the last couple of years it was pretty much normal like anyplace, rows of little two-bedroom brick houses built in the sixties. Sidewalks, alleys, normal working people. I came up fine.

When I opened the door she showed me a mealy grin and said she was here about the room for rent. Does it matter if she’s good-looking? Imagine her however you want: big eyes, high cheekbones, wet lips, whatever, then throw in some little flaw so you can believe she’d materialize before the likes of you. Her teeth in front were too short — stunted and gray. I said I didn’t have a room for rent. This was one I hadn’t heard before.

The Olsons’ former black lab, Dooley, came vulching toward us and the girl hugged herself closer toward my door. I shooed him away no problem, but he glanced back at me in an insulted way, as if to say there’d been some big misunderstanding and he belonged indoors. All of them gave you this look at first. Eventually they got over it, forgot about who they’d been.

The girl was pointing at her car along the curb for some reason, like that qualified her as non-desperate. Then she showed me her little notebook where she had my exact address written down and the word room in big black letters, as if that verified everything.

“From an ad in the paper,” she said. As if anybody reads papers any more.

“Maybe you got the address wrong?” I said.

At this point the average conniver would start asking for something, trying to touch my arm or call up some tears. But she just nodded, like she was used to getting things wrong. Her mouth moved into a funny cramped up position and she couldn’t look at me. She turned and headed back to her car, which was filled to the ceiling with stuff.

“Shit. Hang on.” You never know. You never know about people. There might be one in five telling the truth now and then, and what kind of asshole do you want to be in the final tally?

Part Two

I grabbed my keys and my coat and we headed down the street a ways, looking for a room for rent sign on a block of empty houses. Before we turned the corner I glanced back, fearing some crew of guys with crow bars would pile out of her car. But nobody did.

“Was there a phone number in the ad?” I said.

“Just sunny and clean, was all it said.” She said her name was Molly. She said she was a good roommate, clean and considerate, and then neither of us said anything for a while. She had pulled the hood of one of her sweatshirts over her head so it was hard to see her face as I walked alongside her. With her fists jammed into the pockets in front she looked more or less like any regular hoodrat I’d known in high school.

Most of the houses had big posters in the windows with two huge eyeballs and the words, this home is being watched, but we all knew that wasn’t true. Folks had started scavenging them, breaking out the back windows and pulling out appliances and copper plumbing in the night.

“Why would you want to move here?”

She made a noise I couldn’t decipher.

After a while, looking around at the houses, she said in an awed and mystified voice, “It’s like missing people.”

“Sure, like a fucking zombie movie,” I said, maybe too meanly, and she got quiet again.

Dusk came along and slipped in around us. We walked up to Old Aggie’s house over on Elm, and her lights were on bright as a construction zone. “Maybe here?” I said. She compared Aggie’s address to the one in her notebook. “I don’t think so,” she said.

I could feel Aggie shuffling around behind the door, wondering about us. “It’s just me, Aunt Aggie. It’s Tommy.” She wasn’t my aunt but that’s what we called her. She opened the door bundled in a red robe over her regular clothes, like St. Nick. She knew everything about everyone in the neighborhood but she hadn’t heard about any room for rent.

By then it was fully dark out, though it was only 5:30 or so. Fucking December. We kept going, approaching every house with lights, but no dice.

On our way back to Molly’s car I said, “Might be that somebody placed the ad and then had to move away sooner than they thought.”

“You stayed put. Why haven’t you moved?”

“Ours is paid off.”

“You live with your folks?”

I didn’t say anything, just shook my head in the dark, where she couldn’t see it. “I grew up here.”

There in my front yard I had a déjà vu to my first date, with Malgosza Gombrowicz, Old Aggie’s granddaughter. It was Christmas time, every house gaudy with reindeer lights, and I walked her home and we stood in the middle of her front yard which was shaped just like mine. She was staring at me with her big bulbous blue eyes and leaning in with her lower lip hanging when her dad opened the front door and spooked me, but I went ahead and kissed her anyway. That was big courage, back then.

In this girl’s car there were sweaters in laundry baskets, grocery bags bulging with CDs. A bundle of crumpled sheets with a hairdryer on top.

“How much did the ad say the rent was?” I finally asked.

There’s one thing I didn’t mention before, because I didn’t want to come off as some creepy self-righteous douche. The truth is, before Molly showed up that day, the truth is I was praying. It’s not like I do it all the time or anything.

Part Three

I didn’t like the idea of putting her in my dad’s room. I hadn’t deliberately enshrined it or anything, but his stuff was still pretty much the way he left it. His shirts were hanging in the closet, his socks and underwear folded up in the top drawer, his workpants and T-shirts in the big drawers underneath. In the nightstand next to the bed, I knew, were stacks of Playboys arranged by date, unwrinkled. And pinned on the walls everywhere were his little quotation cards, things he’d made from scraps at his print shop on slow days. Hell is other people, and Never hurry, never rest. That sort of thing, letterpressed into thick pastel paper left over from somebody’s wedding.

I got a couple of laundry baskets and started packing things out of my room, putting them into my dad’s closet. I stripped the sheets off my bed and stacked a fresh set on the desk for her. It was a small room, and I didn’t need everything in it. I hesitated about the stereo, then left it for her.

“OK,” I said. In the front room she was sitting in my dad’s reading chair, staring out the dark window to the yard, where the Jacksons’ dog, Mabel, was staring back.

She said, “You won’t hardly even know I’m here.”

The house was about 900 square feet. I was pretty sure I’d know exactly where she was.

She made her way to my bedroom, a little warily. I stepped back so as not to crowd her. She looked around, gave the mattress a squeeze. “OK then,” she said.

The stuff in her car wasn’t exactly what you’d call packed; it was more just thrown in there piece by piece, so we carried it into the house best we could, leaving a trail of items across the lawn and down the hall to her room — a Red Wings sock, a half-eaten Snickers, a Radiohead CD. When the car was about half empty she said, “OK, that’s probably enough stuff,” and she locked it up.

“You hungry?” I said as we walked inside.

She looked surprised by the question. “No. Just tired.” She went in my room and I waited, but she didn’t come out.

*   *   *

That night in my dad’s bed I rode out my usual ambush of night fears, but now there were new ones related to this girl. I imagined her going from house to house each night, nestling in and then stripping your place clean and driving off at dawn in that packed tight car. A reverse kind of Santa. But then I heard a soft cough on the other side of the wall, and a while later there was a yawn and a creak of the mattress. My mattress. She was falling asleep like anyone, filling the house with her breath, her real life. I slept like the dead. I dreamed my mother came back, she came knocking at the window and I got up and pulled her in, scraping her stomach on the sill until we tumbled down in each other’s arms. It was eleven years since I last saw her but she hadn’t aged. Her hair was still the same black flapper’s mop. She said, “Your father has finally stopped harassing me with his phone calls. What happened?” and I gave her the rough outlines of his demise. She listened without much reaction. I screwed up my courage to ask, “So will you move back, now that he’s gone?” But I could see her retreating even before I finished the question. So I closed my eyes to stop seeing her that way and I dozed off in her arms and dreamed another dream of her, a better dream inside the first one. We were floating over the city in a hot air balloon looking down at the lights and the big dark holes where lights used to be, over the vast, abandoned central depot and down Michigan Avenue toward the old heart of town. She was a great explorer and I was her navigator. Her hair flew up around her face and she leaned over the edge of the balloon’s basket, giving me a look so bright and intense it was like she had just given birth, and I gasped and grinned back at her until she said, “Don’t you have anything bigger than this to dream of?”

So I did what I knew she wanted me to do: I climbed over the edge of the basket and jumped, and woke up. It was like I’d been infected by my dad’s pillows and taken on his fever dreams from the very end. And I felt pained for him all over again, if that was the kind of dream his last dreams had been.

The house was quiet and bright by then so I got up and stumbled toward the bathroom door, which was open, though it shouldn’t have been, because inside, there was Molly. Sprawled in the bathtub, naked and gone. The water was cold. Her mouth hung open. She was like something washed up on my shoreline.

Part Four

There was no blood anywhere, just a few pill bottles floating in the water, with my dad’s name on the labels. I dropped to my knees and squeezed her wrist, waiting — fuckit, praying. In a way, every body is the same in the end, cool and lackluster, abandoned. “Goddamnit,” I said. “Too much, Goddamnit.” And finally I felt it, like a worm swallowing something under the soil: a pulse. I put my cheek near her mouth and felt the faint sour whiff of her breath. OK, then. OK.

Step by step. I let out the water, threw some towels over her, and went to find the phone. The 911 lady let it ring a long time and then asked in a skeptical voice if this was an emergency. When she heard Molly was breathing, she lost even her meager reserves of urgency. She said, “If you can get her to throw up, that’d really help us out.”

On TV the operator stays on the line until the emergency crew shows up, but that didn’t happen. This woman seemed to have someplace to be.

I kneeled down next to Molly, waiting. Her skin was clammy and cool, blue-gray. I lined up the empty prescription bottles and tried to remember which ones had been for the chemo, which ones for the pain.

Then finally a low, funny moan came from some great subterranean distance, and she moved.

“That’s right,” I said. I made all kinds of retarded cheerleading remarks. “Come on now, you can do it. Let’s go, Molly.”

“What’d you do to me?” She came to life. “Oh, fuck, it’s freezing in here.”

So I carried her into my dad’s room. She was piled in towels on top but still naked and wet underneath. It was like picking up a strange furry animal and discovering its slick, heavy underside. I set her in my dad’s bed and piled all our spare blankets over her. I brought over the garbage can and asked if she could find a way to throw up. “I’ll get right on it,” she said.

I gave her a T-shirt, sat down on the edge of the bed. “I called the paramedics.”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be fine.”

They probably wouldn’t come anyway. “What were you thinking?”

“What were you thinking?” She was still slurring her words from the drugs. “Who lets some stranger into their house? What exactly were you expecting?” She said it in a leering way that set me off.

“What if you died here? In my house? I mean, fucking go next door if you want to do that.”

She went big-eyed and quiet. “I thought about it.”

A big angry weight collapsed through me like a live demolition. She tried to patch it over, take it back. “I didn’t plan it. I just saw those little pills and wanted to try them out. I didn’t want to die or anything. God.”

I shook my head. “Who does that?”

“I do,” she said. And then at last she started throwing up. The sound and smell of it all was bringing back my dad so fierce. My body was holding the garbage can for her but the rest of me was someplace else, staring at one little card pinned up over her head that just said Solvitur Ambulando and nothing else, and I wondered what it meant or if it could be a guy’s name and if so, who that would’ve been. There were all these mysteries now that no one could answer.

After a while there was nothing left in her stomach and she was seized up, gagging out yellow bile. I got her some water and she lay back. Her face was red and teary, strained like a balloon.

She said, “Don’t you have to go to work or something?”

I was keeping his print shop alive on my own now, but nobody much would notice if I opened a few hours late or not at all. So we sat together against the headboard, just breathing. A light snow started coming down outside and I think both of us dozed off for a while.

“Maybe we should take a vacation day,” she said, which woke me up. Her words were clearer now, her voice had lost its angry edge. “We could turn up the heat real high and make sugary drinks.”

“OK,” I said. I had nothing against it.

“I want to go someplace really hot, you know? I want to go someplace where it’s sunny all the time.”

“You should.”

“Shit,” she said, like this was the equivalent of going to the moon.

She closed her eyes for a while and I thought she’d dozed off again. I sat watching the snow. My legs were falling asleep and my tailbone ached. I was considering sliding out of the bed when she said, “Hey, for real, can we turn up the heat real hot, just for this one day?”

I got up and flushed away her puke and turned the thermostat to 79. Underneath us, the furnace whirred into motion with great purpose, like it had finally been called upon to fulfill its dreams.

“Hey, it’s snowing,” she said. By now there was already a couple of inches on the ground. It had even covered over the hole in the Wozniaks’ roof.

I thought of something my dad used to say. “Snow is the one thing the movies have never gotten right, and therefore haven’t quite destroyed.”

She smiled and sat up more straight to get the full view of it. “Yeah, that’s true.”

We watched it coming down in its weightless way, turning the whole back yard and alley into some kind of dream. I wanted to help her somehow. “Anybody you want me to call?” I said, but she wouldn’t answer. “Anybody, anything you believe in?”

She made a sound like wind rushing through her teeth.

“Me neither,” I said, which was just about true. The praying had been only an experiment, and look what it had yielded.

A pair of little dogs started yelping at each other in the ally and Molly said, “I’d like to do something for those goddamn dogs, before I go.”

Part Five

The extra heat brought a funny new set of smells to the house, a kind of festering mushroomy jungle quality, and it really did start to feel like we were on vacation someplace exotic. The landscape outside was powdercoated and muffled, totally uncorrupted by shovels and snowplows. We sat at the kitchen table having sandwiches and staring dumbly out, and I knew that one way or another she was going to vanish as abruptly as she’d arrived. And even if she didn’t take anything at all, I’d spend the rest of my days going from room to room trying to figure out just what was missing. But for now she was just making chewing noises and shifting in her seat, making plans.

Her idea for today was to break into the old homes of all the dogs I recognized and let them at least go curl up and sleep in their old beds, out of the snow. At least for the night. She said, “Don’t you think that would quiet them down a little?”

I didn’t answer.

She wanted to start next door. “While you rustle up Mabel by the collar I’ll climb in the back windows and open the door for you. I’m good at this,” she said.

“With the snow we’ll leave tracks,” I said. “From our house to theirs. It’ll be obvious who did it.”

She said, “It’s kind of sweet how you still think anybody cares.”

I went back to my sandwich, thinking it over, and she went on trying to convince me. A real nice, hopeful look came over her face, like she was imagining that those houses inside still looked like they used to, with couches and chairs, and bowls of dog food on the kitchen floor, and beds with blankets and pillows, the whole place warm and dry. She was right that the dogs would be overjoyed at first, unable to believe the world had finally heard their appeals and decided to put things right. They’d race through the door barking Honey I’m Home and scramble on their long, unclipped claws from room to room. They’d go hunting for traces of their lives, finding foul new smells and wires exposed and puddles from burst pipes. Big empty spaces where the beds had been. They’d start making those panicky high-pitched noises and they’d look back at us, perplexed and answerless, all of us realizing together that we had no solution at all for this, we knew nothing. I knew this because I’d already tried it before.