by Alex Pieske

Katrina looked like a lot of girls that Daniel was embarrassed to be attracted to.The first time she knocked on his door he had been waiting for a real estate agent, sitting in the overstuffed leather chair his wife hated. The television was off and an unopened book sat on his lap. Emily had arranged the appointment, still dictating his schedule from Michigan.

“Not the best market to sell a house,” she said. He couldn't tell how old she was. Very early twenties would have been his guess, but he had gotten worse at this game and could be several years off in either direction. Might he rent it out? she wanted to know. He hadn't planned on it.

She wandered around, through the kitchen and bathroom, poking at things, opening cupboards. When she came back into the living room, she sat down in the overstuffed chair he had been waiting in when she arrived. She pulled up her feet and sat cross-legged in the warm leather, looked out the front windows and inhaled deeply through her nose. “I like it.”

"Quarter million," he told her.

“You paid that?”

“It was a good market to sell a house,” he said. Outside, an orange AMC Pacer that lived next door sputtered to a start.

“Where's your wife?” she asked.

He sat on the couch, kitty-corner from the girl, looked out the window for the agent. He wished he could watch the sun spill into the horizon until the sky went black.

“Back to Michigan, with her family,” he said.

“How long were you married?”

“Not too long,” he said. “But I guess she thought otherwise.”

“Oh.” She stared at him without blinking, like a cat.

He was surprised when Emily agreed that they should wait until spring or summer to sell the house. That would give them time to make some improvements, she said. The bathroom especially. If they could get rid of that mildew smell that permeated the rest of the house, they had a much better chance of finding a buyer. And she'd found some used water heaters that would probably work a lot better than theirs. She had thought a lot about this. It surprised him until he realized that he had just caught her in the middle of second thoughts, the moment when she had their new plans all pulled apart and ready to be submerged in the acid of her doubts.

“We're still getting divorced, right?” he said.

There was a pause, and then he could tell that she was trying to say something but her throat was closing. He hadn't said it right; he wanted it to sting, but just a little. He wanted her to throw it back at him, to laugh and tell him to fuck off. But people never do what you want them to.

He would have apologized but he knew that would just make it worse, make her feel guilty. Before, the only thing he could do to make her stop was to tell her how much he loved her, over and over, until he sounded like he was about to cry. But now he just listened in silence, trying to think of what to say.

She cleared her throat but he could still hear the thickness in her voice when she spoke. “You know who you should call?” she said.

He didn't know.

“Jane Coleman.”

Of course she would, he thought. After Emily first met her, when Jane stopped and said hello to them at a basketball game, she kept saying how pretty Jane was. Didn't he think she was pretty, she kept asking, not accepting his nods and simple "yes" as a sufficiently enthusiastic answer. Jane taught Language Arts at McKinley and had helped him out when he subbed across the hall from her. He liked Jane. She was pretty. But if Jane had a twin brother, he figured that he would be the kind of guy that he'd want to punch in the mouth, and he'd realize sooner or later that she was pretty much just like him.

A month later, they ran into her again, in a restaurant with some of her girlfriends. Jane had cut her hair short and hi wife needed to tell her how great it looked. “I better keep you away from my husband,” she said. “He already thinks you're gorgeous!”

His silence sucked all the air out of their phone conversation. He couldn't explain himself anymore. He wanted to know how she had been doing, wondered if her Polish Catholic father was still pushing for an annulment, if her mother was driving her crazy yet. But he needed to hang up.

He knew he should have asked her more questions, gotten references or pay stubs, or run a credit check, but he had already proven to himself that he wasn't going to say no to this girl, so he didn't bother.

There were three guys sitting in his living room when he got home from school. They were eating pizza.

“Trina,” one of them yelled. “He's here.” The kid had a long face like a spade shovel and wide, chapped red lips. He was tall and skinny, and smelled like wet cigarette butts. “You're the man, huh?”

Katrina called him from the bedroom to come in. She was kneeling on the floor, unpacking clothes into an antique-looking dresser. He nearly tripped over the mattress next to her — the largest, thickest mattress he had ever seen. The second bedroom was decent-sized but the enormous bed took up nearly all of it. “Daniel,” she said, “we got a problem.”

“She tell you we got a problem, Daniel?” the kid said from right behind him.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Your door's too small,” the kid said. “Just barely couldn't fit the box-spring.”


He wanted to take off part of the molding from the door jamb and then, he was sure, it would slide right under.

“Teddy thought we should wait for you,” Katrina said, “before we started tearing your door apart.” She was still kneeling on the floor, and this made it difficult for him to look at her, or at Teddy, so he stared up at the door jamb, uncertain of how much abuse it could take.

“Go for it,” he said.

He didn't know any of these people, but it was nice to have them in the house. He and Emily had been there for over a year and these strangers were the first guests in his home. In the bathroom, Katrina had already unpacked her things. Hair brushes, blowdryer, eyelash crimper, a purple bottle of shampoo in the shower, next to a green bottle of conditioner. She had the same pomegranate face scrub as he did.

He felt, now, like she had touched every single thing in the house. He could sense that she had picked them up, one by one, the drinking glasses, the light bulbs in the lamps, the miscellaneous contents of his sock drawer, examined each item and returned it to its proper place. Her smell was everywhere. She hadn't showered and it was like breathing in her pillow through the whole house.

From down the hall he heard Teddy cursing. Then Katrina: “Fuck, Teddy.” He saw the split piece of wood in the boy's hand and he had to smile.

He was up late watching a comedian on TV when Teddy came back to fix the doorway. Katrina had left hours before with the other guys to get more stuff and had yet to return.

“She left you a mess, huh,” Teddy said.

“Little bit, I guess. Yeah.”

It was maybe too late for hammering, but he didn't really know the neighbors and he didn't care, so he just went in the kitchen to spare his ears while Teddy worked on the door. He looked in the fridge for a snack and decided on a bottle of beer. He liked to pop the tops off on the edge of the counter top; it was the closest thing he knew to a magic trick. He got it on the first try and he was so pleased with himself that he went for another. “Hey Teddy,” he yelled, “you want a beer?”

Teddy's real name was Theo. Not Teddy, and not short for Theodore. Katrina liked to infantilize him, he said, but that was her thing. He had a booming, clear laugh that sounded like he never got embarrassed and he slouched against the armrest of the couch. The same comedian was still on television but he was funnier, now, with Theo laughing at all of his jokes.

He had been using a framing hammer, with longer, flatter claws than a normal hammer, for pulling out bigger nails, and Daniel wondered if this was Theo's line of work. Daniel had framed houses for about a month, ten years ago. He was horrible at it: afraid of heights and lacking sufficient hand-eye coordination, he became the mule, carrying sheets of particle board up steep ladders, hauling windows in for someone else to finish, moving stacks of shingles up to the roof, doing things more easily done with heavy machinery when the heavy machinery was busy. He could have mentioned this but decided it was better not to get into it than have to either lie or tell the truth.

Theo's laughs had trailed off and he was asleep now, his own scrawny shoulder for a pillow. Daniel envied his ease with poor manners; Theo possessed the strange comfort of the abject failure that he was only beginning to grasp. He had been too successful and well-protected as a boy, too often praised and loved to know the darker truths that more often shape a life, that he had wasted too much time struggling against.

Katrina was evil with glee when she arrived to find Theo unconscious. She straddled his outstretched legs and leaned her face in, right up close enough to inhale the warm, bacterial air flowing out of his dreaming head. Her two male friends were still following her, hauling in the last of the boxes, and he noticed that they all three had the same black triangle drawn on their faces. She caught Daniel watching her as she gently slid the felt tip of a laundry marker across Theo's face.

Do you want one? — she mouthed silently to Daniel, nodding her head yes for him.

He shook his head no, smiling, and prudently crossed his legs away from her.

“Is that a permanent marker?” Theo asked, awake now.

“It wears out,” she said, still over him, trying to keep him from twisting it away from her. “Come on,” she said, “let's go to the Norway house.”

“I'm asleep.”

She squeezed his legs in between hers and shook him by the shoulders. “Nor-way-house!” she chanted. “Nor-way-house!” But he had her by the waist, and in an instant she was horizontal in the air, straightening out her legs for balance.

Daniel couldn't not watch them. It seemed he should say something, but he was frozen as she took her hands off the boy's shoulders to stretch them out like wings, and they began to tip over the back of the couch. He could see her about to crash, her delicate, unprotected face first onto the floor, and all he could do was hold tighter to his chair. She let out a shriek of excitement and fear as Theo pulled her back and flopped her down across the couch, next to him, and another when he smacked her, sharply, on the ass.

“Jerk,” she said, with half a smile still clinging to her mouth.

She left, eventually, and Theo went into her room, muttering under his breath. Daniel figured it wasn't any of his business what he was doing in there, but after a minute he realized that Theo would not be returning home to go to bed. He was already in bed, already home.

Daniel's neck stiffened, as he sat in the chair considering this. He tried to twist it back into shape, but, for all of the spinal crunching, something remained crooked. It was a good thing, he had decided, to not be living alone. He liked the idea of eating from the same box of cereal as someone else, that someone might take note of his greetings and farewells, that there would be another person to share the apathy and irony of the day. Otherwise, with no one there to bump into, his life was beginning to feel like a secret, and the boredom, the emptiness of his days was taking on the magnified importance, the portent of something kept hidden.

But failing all of that, what he really hoped for was simply that to have her sleeping in the next room would make it easier for him to sleep in his. He hoped that, in the way running water aided a toddler's potty-training, her yawns would have their effect on him, that she would stretch her arms in the air, wish him pleasant dreams, and they could pass, in separate rooms, but together, into sleep. He had hoped.

It had been a while now, since he had known the normal pleasure of lying down. Even before he felt the relief of his body being dismissed from duty, a restlessness would begin to infect his muscles and double back into his thoughts. It had become his Sisyphean task. Every night he waited for his thoughts to tip one way or the other, to drift into somnolent nonsense, or cohere into a spike of obtrusively alarming self-awareness. He had been doing it the wrong way for some time and he couldn't remember how he had done it before. It seemed a miracle that for most of his life he hadn't even known that this sort of failure was an option. It was like forgetting how to breathe or to make your heart pump. When he did sleep, he'd wake up a few hours later with a shock, having landed in a cold bath of sweat. He had to wear socks to bed now, and sweatpants, after thirty years of sleeping in his underwear, and he had to change everything, even the sheets, every time he woke up.

Later that night he was pulling his only clean bedding from the dryer, in the lonely hours between late night and early morning, when he heard Katrina calling to him in a loud whisper. She was in the living room, on the couch, her knees pulled up inside an oversized t-shirt, a book he had recently reread for school, The Great Gatsby, in the hand poking out through an armhole. What was he doing up, she wanted to know.

“I try to be quiet,” she said, “but Teddy talks in his sleep. It keeps me up, trying to figure out who he's talking to. But he says he doesn't even have dreams.”

He didn't know where to start with Katrina. He didn't know where their baseline of agreement was so that he could talk to her without feeling like a strange old man.

“It's not really noise that bothers me,” he said.

“Do you take sleeping pills?” she asked.

“They don't work.”

“Sleeping pills aren't good for you. But you should exercise more,” she said.

“I should.”

“Do you have any more blankets?” she asked.

He pulled an old afghan from the cedar chest, and her limbs popped out when he tossed it to her. She held it up and looked at it, pleased at first, then disappointed. “It's all holes,” she said. So he brought out a quilt, and threw it over the top of her. He pulled it snug and tucked it under her knees and toes, so she was completely covered, only visible from the chin up. It was only play affection but he was in love for a moment.

“I read this before, but I don't remember anything,” she said. “Except I remember liking it.”

“Me, too. And the car crash, but I didn't like that part,” he said. “I don't know what I liked about the rest.”

“It's very dreamy,” she said.

He had gathered up his laundry and was slowly escaping to his bedroom. “Yes,” he said. “It is.”

She held it up to him. “You should take it,” she said, “to put you to sleep.” But he demurred, books kept him awake.

She jumped up and came around the couch after him to help him with his bedding. He could hear Theo making noises in their bedroom. He tried to refuse, but she was already pulling out the elastic edge of the fitted sheet and he knew it would be quicker to just go along.

It made him hesitant and graceless to have her in his room, aware of all the wrong parts of his body. She told him to wait for a second while she got something. Two shallow breaths later, she came back with an orange pill bottle concealed in each hand. “Choose one,” she said, “left or right.”

They weren't normal sleeping pills, she said. On the left, the Ativan she had scored from her friend, Kelly, who had some serious problems. On the right, Theo's Klonopin, which he wouldn't notice if they took some, but if he needed more Theo could probably get it from his doctor. She liked Ativan, it had a buzz, but it was more addictive, that's why Kelly needed to get rid of it. She figured it was more powerful, since Kelly was a lot more nerve-wracking than Theo.

She had left her door ajar. He could hear Theo calling for her in a zombie drone.

“I think I'm just going to try to get some sleep,” he said.

“Well, that's the point,” she said. She opened up one of the bottles and stuck her finger inside, but he put his hand over it to stop her.

“I'm okay,” he said. The sight of the prescription bottles gave him a bitter, chemical taste in his mouth that dried it out and no doubt made his breath unbearable.

“You'll feel so much better,” she said.

“I can't —”

“Look, they're no big deal,” she said. “Look,” and dropped one in her mouth.

Then her finger was up in the air, again, with another white pill on the end, coming towards him. He told her not to, but she wouldn't stop. He could only grab it and bend it away from him until she made the abrupt, high-pitched report of a small animal with its paw suddenly caught in a trap.