Authors: Tim Waggoner
The Men Upstairs
© 2011 by Tim Waggoner
Cover Artwork © 2011 by Daniele Serra
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
For my Liana, and for all the others, wherever you may be. I hope you find your way out of the shadows.
She’s sitting on the floor, her back against the wall, tears running down her face, legs drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around them. I see her as I leave the men’s room where I’ve just pissed out the extra-large Diet Coke I bought at the concession stand before the movie started. A terrible film, supposedly a comedy, though there were precious few laughs in it and one too many fart jokes for my taste. But it killed a couple hours, so who am I to complain?
She’s crying quietly, but from the way her body hitches as she tries to breathe, I can tell she’s fighting hard to keep from sobbing. She’s pretty—in her late twenties, maybe early thirties, straight black hair almost down to her waist, thin figure, small breasts. Her lips are full—bee-stung lips, my mother used to call them—the flesh red with a purple tinge. The rest of her skin’s too pale, and her cobalt-blue eyes are overlarge and set too far apart. These flaws don’t detract from her beauty, though. Instead they heighten it, making her appear exotic. She’s wearing jeans and a brown old-lady sweater over a black T-shirt with the words
framing a picture of a spark plug. I have no idea what it means. Her feet are bare, the nails free of polish. The middle toe on each foot is longer than the others, including the big toe, and seeing this oddity makes my stomach do a tiny flip.
She makes for a striking image, and I wish I had a camera with me, if for no other reason than seeing her pain through the filter of a camera lens would make it easier to bear. My ex-wife says that I use photography as a way of hiding from the world, that when I’m taking pictures I’m not seeing what’s really there, only what I
I can’t say she’s wrong.
I wonder what this black-haired woman is doing sitting here in the lobby of a second-run movie theater, barefoot and crying. Did she just break up with her boyfriend? Or maybe she just received some heartbreaking news of some sort, learned of a relative who’s suddenly ill, perhaps even dying.
I think these things as I approach her, but I don’t turn my head to look at her full on, and I certainly don’t slow my pace. There are perhaps a dozen other people in the lobby—young couples, gray-haired couples, parents with little children, a handful of teenagers—some leaving like me, some just arriving. But no one besides me seems to notice the woman, or more likely they’re doing the same thing I am, keeping their expressions neutral, avoiding making eye contact. Witnessing the woman’s sorrow on public display like this has forced us into an unwanted intimacy with her, and it makes us all uncomfortable. Some because they find being exposed to another’s pain difficult, perhaps even distasteful. Others because they feel a sympathetic urge to go to her and offer to do what they can to help. But they resist. Maybe because they don’t want to intrude on her grief, want to help her preserve what dignity she can in the situation. Or maybe simply because they fear she’s not crying from sorrow but because there’s something
with her. Whatever their reasons, no one slows as they move past her, myself included.
I’m not unaffected by her pain, but I imagine that if I go over to talk to her, she’ll just think I’m some creep trying to hit on her. I’m forty-seven, twenty years or so older than she is, and I don’t want to look like the clichéd middle-aged man on the prowl for young pussy. I tell myself that whatever’s wrong she’ll be okay, that if she really needed help she’d ask for it, that someone else is bound to go over and check on her. Hopefully another woman. I tell myself that by not going over, I’m giving someone else the opportunity to help her, someone she’ll be comfortable with. By ignoring her, I’m providing the best assistance I can.
But I know that’s bullshit, and before I reach the lobby door, I stop, take a deep breath, and walk back to her.
When I reach her, I just stand there for a moment, unsure what to do or say. I feel stupid looming over her like this, and I kneel down so I can look her in the eye. She doesn’t notice me right away. She’s too caught up in her sorrow, too many tears in her eyes. I give her a moment, and while I wait, a thought crosses my mind.
This is your last chance. You can still get away.
Before I can wonder too much why I’d think such a thing, her eyes clear and her gaze focuses on me.
“Hi,” I say. It seems so inadequate for the situation, but it’s all that comes out.
She continues looking at me, tears still trickling from her eyes, but she makes no move to wipe them away and make herself more presentable, as the phrase goes. She seems utterly unselfconscious, and I find that as charming as I do strange.
“Are you all right? Is there something I can do to help?”
More banalities, but I smile to reassure her I’m someone safe, that I’m sincere in my desire to help.
She regards me for a moment, her gaze deepening, intensifying, as if she can see straight through me. No, not through me.
Her gaze softens then, and she returns my smile.
That’s how it begins.
* * *
“Can I get you something to drink?”
She’s sitting on my couch, a ratty old thing I picked up at Hotel Liquidators, a business that specializes in selling used hotel furniture. I bought almost every bit of furniture in my apartment from there. The couch, the armchair, the glass coffee table, the floor lamps, and the huge king-sized bed that’s way too large for me but was all they had in stock. The furniture’s not really in all that bad a shape, but a musty smell clings to it, giving my apartment a stifled atmosphere, like a storage closet that hasn’t been opened in too long a time.
She nods, but she doesn’t tell me what she’d like. I think about asking her, but I don’t want to seem too pushy. I mean, here she is, sitting in a stranger’s apartment—a
stranger—and I don’t want her to feel any more nervous than she already does. If she does. Truth to tell, she seems calm enough, if not exactly relaxed.
I go to the kitchen and get a bottle of water for her from the fridge. My hand shakes slightly as I remove the cap and toss it in the trash. She might not be nervous, but I am. It’s been nine months since I left my wife—or more accurately, was asked to leave—and I haven’t been on a single date in that time, and I haven’t invited any women back to my one-bedroom apartment with its used furniture, funky smell, and king-sized bed.
I think about how big that bed is and wonder how many people have had sex on it before. It
come from a hotel, after all. I’ve never believed that physical objects retain impressions of the people that use them, but right now I have no trouble imagining the bed is suffused with stored sexual energy from all the couples that have lain on it before, and I wonder what it would be like to make love on that bed, the two of us, this strange, beautiful woman and I, if we’d be able to tap into all that lust and use it to stoke our own passion.
I tell myself to stop being ridiculous, and feeling vaguely guilty, I walk back to the couch and hand her the water. I don’t look her in the eye, though. It’s as if I’m afraid that she’ll be able to guess what I was thinking if I meet her gaze.
Liana—she told me her name back at the theater—takes the bottle, holds it up to her nose, and sniffs it. She then takes a tentative sip, and I think how it’s almost as if she’s never had bottled water before. But that’s impossible. I mean, everybody’s had bottled water some time in their life, right?
The water evidently meets her approval, for she drinks it straight down. Given the amount of tears she shed earlier, I’m not surprised. She must be dehydrated. I’m about to offer her another when she sets the empty bottle on the glass surface of the coffee table and smiles at me.
They’re not the first words she’s spoken to me. We spoke back at the theater and on the car ride here, and while so far she hasn’t been the most talkative woman I’ve ever met, she talks enough.
But her voice…every time I hear it, it hits me like the first time. It has both high and low tones, almost like two different voices speaking in perfect unison through one mouth. It’s a more subtle effect than I’m making it sound, but it’s all the more impactful for that subtlety. It has a way of capturing your full attention and focusing it upon her. When she speaks, you become completely still and listen to her,
listen, for you can’t do anything else.
“You’re welcome,” I say.
I feel as if I should sit down, but I’m not sure where. The chair might be the best choice. It’ll keep some distance between us so it doesn’t seem like I plan to make any moves on her. On the other hand, too much distance might make me seem cold and uncaring. Before I can choose, Liana makes the decision for me.
“Come sit,” she says, and although she doesn’t pat the couch cushion next to her, I understand that she wants me to join her. So I sit—not
close—and wish I’d brought some water for myself, for my mouth is as dry as old straw. I’m near enough to smell her now. She exudes a faint scent that reminds me of the Bradford Pear, a pretty-to-look-at tree whose white flowers smell like a mix of dried semen, unclean vagina, and rotting shrimp. Because they’re so pleasant to look at, a lot of towns plant them in their business districts despite their smell, and Ash Creek is no exception. I normally find their stink repulsive, and I give the trees a wide berth when they’re blooming. But somehow, coming from Liana, the smell isn’t so bad. Not pleasant, exactly, but not repugnant, by any means. I take a deep breath through my nostrils without realizing it and let it out slowly, almost as if savoring it.
She looks at me, still smiling. “Thank you for your kindness. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Back at the theater, Liana told me why she was crying.
I’ve been traveling with…friends. They weren’t good to me, so I left. Just started walking. I ended up here, so I came in and bought a ticket to a movie. I don’t even remember which one. I tried to watch it, but I couldn’t concentrate. I kept crying, so I came back out to the lobby. I didn’t know where else to go, so I just sat down and cried some more.
It was the way she hesitated before saying
along with the deliberately casual tone she used when speaking her next words—
They weren’t good to me
—that made me understand what had happened. The basics of it, at least. Pam, my ex, had been sexually abused by her stepfather when she was a teenager. She didn’t like to talk about it, and when she did, she acted like it wasn’t that big a deal.
I figured if he wanted to do that, it was his problem. Not mine.
When I got old enough to better understand what was happening, I told the sonofabitch to stop, and he did. The end. And life went on, you know?
Pam spoke of her abuse with the same casual tone as Liana had used, and while I didn’t know if the abuse Liana suffered had been sexual, physical, psychological or a combination of the three, I knew it was bad enough to make her leave her
and go walking barefoot in mid-November—and to make her sit crying in the lobby of a cheap second-run movie theater because she was afraid to go anywhere else.