Rob Hill lives in an abandoned subway tunnel under the streets of New York City where he trains rats as pickpockets and nurses sick pigeons back to health.
Burt spent the last of his rent money on pizza. Somewhere in the back of his mind he must have figured there might be consequences to his action, but this didn’t stop him from forking a wad of cash over the pizzeria counter. The sweaty pizzaiolo behind the cash register issued him his change—all thirteen cents of it—and handed over the platter-sized cardboard box with an artificial titanium spatula hand. He belched at him to have a nice day. When Burt got home, he realized they’d gotten his order wrong. He’d asked for anchovies and bamboo shoots but opened the lid to discover grape leaves and pinecones. He fiercely disliked pinecones.
Loni was still chained to the bed. She had one leg propped up on the frame and was listening to an old Dire Straits album. All their music was on scratchy vinyl, acquired from various yard sales in the neighborhood. As a result their album collection consisted of bands with names like Foghat, Supertramp, and Jethro Tull. Their record player was a red plastic kid’s model that collapsed into a suitcase, which Loni had rescued from a funeral sale.
Burt scraped off the pinecones with a plastic fork and set them on the kitchen floor to feed to their ferret Bonaduce, who sniffed in disfavor but went ahead and nibbled anyway. Burt brought Loni a de-pineconed slice, but she wasn’t hungry so he ate it himself.
“What are you going to do on Tuesday when the chain comes off?” he asked her.
“I dunno. Maybe go to the botanical garden and soak up all the oxygen I’ve been missing.”
“Can I come along?”
She shrugged. “I’m thirsty. Do we have any lemonade?”
“I think we’re out. How about some ginger ale?”
“No, I want lemonade.”
She rubbed her wrist where it chafed.
“Want me to fluff your pillow?” Burt asked.
“No, I’m fine.”
He indicated the record player. “Do you mind if I put on something else?”
“Yes I mind. I’m listening to this.”
The hole in the record had been drilled slightly off-center, causing the music to wobble drunkenly.
“I could take off the chain now and we could go for some papaya juice.”
“We agreed on Tuesday.” Her voice was stern.
“I know, but.”
“If you want to be helpful,” she said, “you can get a washcloth and clean off the remains of my makeup. It feels all crusty around the corners of my mouth.”
Burt spent a long time at the sink adjusting the water’s temperature so it wouldn’t be too hot or too cold. As he swabbed under her eyes, he looked down at where the metal chafed against her salmon skin.
“I can loosen it a little for you.”
Burt returned to the bathroom to rinse the washcloth and hang it up to dry. He cleaned the stray hair from her hairbrush, which was always positioned on the right bank of the sink. She’d had that brush as long as he’d known her. He shoved the knots of hair down into the wastebasket so Bonaduce couldn’t get to them and cause a mess. He went into the kitchen for another slice of pizza, sprinkling on stale parmesan for a change of pace. He opened the refrigerator to get some ginger ale and found a pitcher of lemonade hiding behind a bag of wilting lettuce. He poured a glass and brought it into the bedroom for Loni.
“I found some lemonade.”
“I’m not thirsty now.”
“I’ll put it beside the bed in case you want it later.”
She exhaled as if she was smoking, but she was not. “You don’t have to stay around here, you know. Go do whatever you want.”
“I don’t want to do anything. Would you like me to brush your hair?”
“Look, you’re making me kind of nutty just hanging around. Go watch a movie or something.”
In the living room they had a cheap VCR player rigged up to a battered ten-inch television. They owned two movies on video cassette, both snagged from garage sales: Escape From New York and Blackbeard’s Ghost. They had seen both at least a dozen times. Burt wasn’t in the mood to watch either.
“I guess I’ll just go out to the kitchen, okay?”
Burt set about reorganizing their refrigerator magnets. He slid all the ladybug magnets to the upper left corner. The square ones with witty quotes he tiled along the right side. None of the magnets was actually being used to hold anything up.
He helped himself to another slice of pizza. He could taste the residue of pinecone and it irritated him. Next time he would remember to check the toppings before paying. He rubbed the stub where his finger used to be and thought about things he’d vowed not to think about. He let Bonaduce run along his shoulders and fed him a dead leaf from the plant which hung above the sink. He didn’t know what kind of plant it was but it smelled like the rubber cement he used to get on his fingers when gluing construction paper in kindergarten.
From the kitchen window he could look out at the rotting courtyard. There he saw a bedraggled couple embraced in silent tango. Their bare feet left circular patterns on the dirty ceramic. He felt sad that he and Loni would never tango in rotting courtyards. The time for that had passed. This led to a sudden bitterness toward the entwined couple. He suspected they were taunting him deliberately and nursed a hope they would step in dog poo. He fed another dead leaf to the ferret.
He pried himself away from the window and sat at the table, in the vinyl chair that was in danger of collapsing under his weight. The kitchen wall above the stove was scarred with a substance he didn’t recognize. He hadn’t noticed this before, but then he never was very observant. Perhaps the previous tenant had been involved in a bizarre cooking mishap. It looked like there was something pasty leaking from behind the wall, like the house itself was bleeding. He wondered if buildings could feel pain. Or loneliness. Or spite. He wondered if the discoloration would wash off easily with a rag and spray or if it would require something stronger. Maybe he should do nothing and pretend he hadn’t noticed it. Obviously it didn’t bother Loni, so why should he let it bother him?
He leaned over for another slice of pizza but the box was empty. He had eaten the last slice without realizing. And yet he was still hungry. Then he remembered about the rent.