Diligent People


Tammers in her tower looked down from the perch of her plywood couch, her new dog silent and obedient sleeping at her feet. So small, everybody moving through the rain. Like ants, she thought, or some other industrious insect. She paused to consider her profundity, looked around her bare apartment, cold and concrete. If only we could all have this.

She stroked the cold dog, got up from the plywood couch, her body sore from sitting so long on the hard wood, and in the kitchen she poured the last of her Julius from the blender through a strainer to catch the bits of eggshell. She took a sip and let it linger in her mouth. Something wasn’t right. Too sweet, or not sweet enough. She would try again tomorrow.

She had been without a refrigerator since discovering that hers was a prop; only after becoming sick did she begin to store her food in a cooler full of ice she had delivered daily. Her stove and the dishwasher were fake, too, but she didn’t care—the blender was real, and as long as food could be pulverized into a smoothie, she would be fine.

She held the Orange Julius to her nose and had a vague memory of the mall and a friend—Cheryl, she thought—when had she last seen her?

Her life of leisure afforded her many trips to the mall, not to shop, but to wander and watch; most often she opted to sit on the hard couch gazing into the middle space between her high-rise and the high-rise across the street, or down on all the diligent people below braving the weather to go to their jobs.

Good, productive souls, she thought. She liked to take their pictures from above, to zoom in as far as she could to try to see the details of their faces and sometimes she could—hard faces, pale and fallen.

Right now, these good people are going to office buildings where they make things that we need. Like this camera! Or my blender!

She got so excited she thought she heard the dog bark.

She stood at the window, looked down through the rain, and spied a tiny man in a red scarf scampering along the sidewalk.

His name is Harold and he works in an office where they invent custom sandwiches for people. When he gets home from work he likes to take a long bath with the dog, drink Orange Juliuses, and stare out the window at people on the street.

She could go on and on, inventing lives for these people.

Had something made a sound? She looked at the silent dog.

No, nothing had made a sound.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been to the mall. Her desire for it had faded for unclear reasons—she’d had a friend, she was sure, a best friend, her absence now more vivid than any memory of her presence.

Oh, yes. She’d been to the mall three days ago, an uneventful trip. She’d ordered a Julius, sat on a bench, waited for something to happen.

She looked at her phone, tried to find Cheryl in it, but couldn’t. Cheryl. She tried to conjure Cheryl’s face in her mind’s eye but her mind’s eye conjured instead a doughy blob where a face should have been.

Cheryl. Cheryl. Cheryl.

Because her days were mostly the same—at the mall, at home staring and stroking the new dog—she had trouble with time. She had seen Cheryl, yes, but was it yesterday? A week ago? A year? Was Cheryl somebody she had seen on T.V. or a person on the street she had only imagined was her friend?

She had no idea how to make friends; she was many years into the period of adulthood where forging new relationships was so much work.

Cheryl was definitely a character on a television show. Yes.

Or a person she’d seen on the street.

Or the art museum! She had surely been to the museum. Yes!

She pretended to turn on the television and nearly knocked it over.

From the couch she pretended to flip through channels.

A dull pain took root in her temples and made its way slowly across the front of her skull and she wondered why she couldn’t feel the thoughts banging around in her brain in the same way she could feel food in her stomach after she’d eaten it.

She lifted her glass to her lips and tasted the froth, exactly as she imagined it would be.

“Ah” she said. “Refreshing.”

She pretended to turn off the television, sighing as she hit the imaginary switch because the new shows were not as good as the old shows.

She looked at the dog, still nameless.

“Cheryl,” she said, trying it out on the dog. No response. “Cheryl.

She was sure the dog looked up at her that time. Maybe Cheryl was the dog.

She heard the doorbell ring, but had never heard the doorbell ring before so did nothing, not registering it as a doorbell or anything but a thing in space that was suddenly something and again, just as quickly as it had become, nothing.

Maybe she would take a nap; it seemed like nap time—the gray light had parted and afternoon sun appeared in the cavern between high-rises, warming the living room.

Again, the bell. Then a knock. Somebody at the door requesting her attention.

She looked through the hole in the door—outside a man holding a box looking at his phone.

“I’m here to fix your drain, ma’am,” he said, looking up when she opened the door. He showed her his toolbox, like a toy, small and plastic, impossible for it to contain drain-fixing tools. A hammer hung from a loop attached to his pant leg.

“My drain’s fine,” she said.

“Are you sure? Somebody called it in. Said your drain’s stuck. I’m here to service it. Plunge it, snake it. Whatever it takes.”

“I know how to take care of my own drain. I don’t need you to service it.”

“Are you sure? I have special tools.” He held up his tiny toolbox. His shirt was tight over the hard bulges of his muscular body. “It’s probably clogged up with hair and food. Maybe broken glass, even. You wouldn’t believe what I find.”

He wasn’t unattractive, but he didn’t look like somebody who knew his way around a drain. His nails were smooth, manicured. Some subtle cologne drifted from his skin.

“Once a squirrel had crawled up from the sewer and died right in a woman’s disposal. Its head had come off. A real mess.”

“There’re no squirrel heads in my drain. I keep it clear. I don’t need your tools.”

“You probably have a squirrel. I’d bet money on it.”

“I live on the 25th floor; there’s no squirrel.”

“Have you noticed any strange smells? Like something rotting?”

“Is this a joke?”

A woman walked through the open door of her condo and pushed past the plumber and Tammers. She wore a gold jacket with an elaborate crest patched onto the breast.

“Excuse me, can I help you?”

While she talked to the new intruder, the plumber took his tools to the kitchen and got to work on the drain.

“Hey, I told you I don’t need your help, okay?” The plumber ignored her.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” the woman said. “I’m supposed to show this unit. I’m Pam, the Realtor.”

“This is my condo.”

The plumber had his hand down the drain, fishing around for something.

“I have this listed as a model.” Pam consulted her folder, held it up so Tammers could see. “Unoccupied.”

Tammers wanted to turn on the garbage disposal; she was suddenly hot, imagining the plumber naked and semi-erect, his hand grinding in the maw, screaming in a way that could be either pleasure or pain.

“Yes, it’s a model condo, that’s why I bought it. Model unit. The best.” She turned to the plumber. “How is it in there? Clean, right?”

“But, on my list here, it says this is an empty unit.”

“I think I found your problem,” the plumber shouted, smiling and dumb. He was sweating through the back of his shirt. “You mind if I take my shirt off? It’s so hot in here.”

“I’m not paying you. I told you I didn’t need your help.”

“Take a look at my list,” Pam said. “See?”

“No, that’s wrong. I live here. I’ve lived here for years.”

Pam looked around the apartment, looked oddly at Tammers. “Are you sure? This unit doesn’t even have a refrigerator.”

“Oh, I’ve got that figured out.” She held up her Julius to show Pam.

“How long have you lived here? Is that your husband?”

“We’re not married,” he said, smiling. “Yet.”

“That’s not funny,” Tammers said. “I’m happily single.”

He pulled something out of the disposal like a rotted braid of grass. He had taken his shirt off even though she hadn’t given him permission, but he was not unpleasant standing there holding the rotted debris like a fresh kill, his skin glistening in the afternoon light.

She didn’t know, maybe she would marry him.

“You put that there,” she said. “That wasn’t there!”

“Definitely the problem,” he said. “Or one of them. I’m still feeling a blockage down there. I’ll have to go deep.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“If there’s a blockage, you really should get that taken care of,” Pam said.

“There’s no blockage!”

“Oh, there’s definitely a blockage.”

“Will you please go?” Tammers asked, wanting him to put his hand down the drain again. Maybe the blades could take his fingers.

“Hey, what’s wrong with your dog?” the plumber asked.

“Nothing’s wrong with the dog.”

“I don’t think you can have dogs in these units,” Pam said.

“It’s my unit. I can have dogs if I want to. Plus, he’s docile.”

“I’m very certain this isn’t your unit,” Pam said. “When did you close?”

Tammers turned to Pam. She couldn’t remember closing for some reason. “I bought this condo with money from my app.”

“I don’t have any record of this condo being anything but a model.”

“It’s mine.”

“Is that dog stuffed?” Pam turned to the couch and approached.

“Oh, that’s just my friend Cheryl,” Tammers laughed. “Can I make you an Orange Julius?”

“Can I pet her?”

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

“Hey little guy.” Pam reached toward the dog’s unflinching mouth.

“Please don’t. He’s not for you to touch.”

A young couple, thin and eager, appeared in the doorway.

“Wow,” the young woman said to her partner. “This is amazing. Tom, isn’t it amazing?”

“This is Tom and this is Alice,” the woman said. “They’re the buyers.”

“But this is my condo.”

“Isn’t Alice cute? Just look at that dress,” Pam said. “Polka dots!”

“We love it,” Tom said, nodding in approval, pulling a finger across the wall. “Great light. Great layout. Sweet counters.”

“It’s all very top end,” Pam said. “Normally people buy these units, but they don’t usually live in them.”

“Oh, we’re not going to live, here,” Tom said. He laughed and looked at Alice. “Are we, Alice?”

Alice cackled as if she was in on some plan that only she and Tom understood. She crossed her arms, stood over the couch. “What’s wrong with this dog?”

“That’s it. That’s the ticket.” The plumber was in elbow deep, moaning a little.

Alice fished in her purse and found a tape measure, stretching the metal tongue the length of the window. “Too bad there’s no balcony.”

Tom agreed. He hovered close behind the plumber, resting his hand on the counter next to him as the plumber pushed his arm farther into the drain. Tom looked at his wife. “He’s really going at it!”

“Can we knock down this wall?” Alice pressed her body against the wall between the living room and bedroom, spreading her arms and legs like a crushed insect. “I can really feel the space in there, wanting to be free.

An elderly man standing in the doorway cleared his throat. “May I speak to the man of the house?”

“That’s me,” the plumber answered, wiping his hands on a rag. Tom looked hurt.

Pam answered. “There’s no man of the house. This is a model unit.”

“I need to talk to the man of the house,” he said, holding up a piece of long paper, like a scroll. He unfurled it, tapped it with his fingers. “I have very important news.”

“There’s no man,” Tammers said. “I own this condo. I bought it with money from my app, and I’d like you all to leave.”

Everybody paused, looked at Tammers, saddened by her force.

“Who are you?” she asked the man holding the scroll.

“The inspector,” he said.

“What’s your important news?”

“I can only tell the man of the house. It says so right on the scroll.”

“Do you think we can paint the ceiling like the sky?” Alice twirled around the living room. “It’s so airy in here.”

The plumber held up the wet, headless body of a squirrel. “See, your drain needed me after all!”

Pam found a tape measure in her gold coat and pulled it across the kitchen wall, then tried to measure from the floor to the ceiling, but the flimsy tape measure collapsed. She dropped the tape measure, then turned to the plumber, took the hammer from its loop on his pant leg, and took a hard swing at the wall.

“I love it,” Tom said, crossing his arms, proud of his wife’s great idea. “We’ll paint the ceiling like the sky!”

Tammers remembered Cheryl—her face, her eyes, her lips—and missed her.

She sat on the couch, stroking the cold dog, and watched these diligent people in her home, the energy of their movement a kind of excitement. She looked out the window, the light of the sun an array of halogens on an airship floating down the street like a parade balloon; the light faded as the airship turned a corner and vanished. When it was gone, the red-gray sky returned and dropped hail and the hot sidewalks below disappeared in a cloud of steam.   

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