There she was, ringing the doorbell again. Open your ears, Finn, and hear the sound of persistence. She was the kind of person, she wasn’t going away. He would have to let her in. The problem was, he could not just say, “Don’t worry, Maddie, I’m as sane as you are,” and expect to be believed. It was important to him that she see it, feel it, accept it. She had enough power – the system she represented had enough power – if he did not convince her he was totally compos mentis she would ruin his life. Once a basket case, always a basket case. They kept files.
It had been a mistake, her first visit, joking about his Bat Cave. She took it the wrong way, seeing him as one of those perpetual adolescents living in a superhero fantaverse. The fact of the matter was, he thought better in dark spaces. There must be a valid physiological reason for that.
Before going down the stairs to let the woman in he jotted a quick note in the Weather Report. Summer coming on apace in Hardyton. Morning sun prickled the skin of my forearms when I stepped outside. Hollyhocks in bloom by Mrs. Crump’s garage. The smell of cut grass comes and goes.
No use putting off the face-to-face. The attic apartment had its own set of stairs tacked onto the back of the house. A little shaky but not really unsafe. Mrs. Crump was always promising to call a carpenter. He was always telling her not to worry about it, he’d be careful.
Ground level at the bottom of the staircase was an enclosed landing where you could leave muddy boots, broken tools, out-of-print books. A door. He opened it. She was carrying two coffees with plastic lids. Handed him one.
Finn McPhail was thirty. Maddie Fairfax was a little older but not much. People expected a loner like him to be full of contempt for the average human being, looking down on regular people who got out of bed every morning and lived a normal life. In a word, a misanthrope. Not Finn. He had nothing but respect for the social worker whose case he had mysteriously become. Earnest but not too earnest, a generous heart, a solicitousness that did not overstep its bounds. Her ears turned out a little, peeking through a curtain of long dark hair. When she stood still, her feet turned out at the same angle. He found her sexy: tall and gangly with a fresh look; descended from daisies.
You learned to live with sexual loneliness the way you lived with all the other kinds.
He took the coffee. “Hello, Maddie.”
“I didn’t know if you took sugar.”
“I’m guessing you want to come up.”
Her expression gave her away.
“You think I’m pretending to be sane,” he said. “Be polite, and I’ll throw you off guard. You’ll go away and leave me alone.”
“I don’t think you’re insane, Finn.” Her voice was perfect for reading fairy tales out loud; the adult versions.
“Well, come on up.”
Upstairs, he opened the curtains and pointed Maddie to a chair in a square of sudden sunlight. The apartment was big, but it was all one room. A kitchen on one wall, a space-efficient bathroom in the southeast corner. He had promised Mrs. Crumb he would repaint the walls when – if – he moved out. Nobody else, she was certain, would choose to be surrounded by black all the time. Mrs. Crumb was in her seventies and worried about all sorts of things.
“I appreciate the coffee,” Finn said, taking a chair across from Maddie, “but this is a work visit, isn’t it?”
“It is. I’m checking in. I wanted to see how you’re doing.”
“I’d be more forthcoming if you told me who ratted me out.”
“Nobody ratted you out.”
“Then who called your office and said there was a crazy man living in a hibernaculum in Mrs. Crump’s attic? He might be dangerous, although he might just be criminally sad, something along those lines, I’m guessing. It had to be one of the people I work with at the Quik-‘N-Easy.”
“Where certain animals go to get away from things. Bears, bats. The reticent. Where they hibernate.”
“Are you getting away from things, or are you hibernating?”
“Who told you about me?”
She shook her head. Sipped her coffee. Finn felt a debilitating antipathy to the Starbucks logo on the cups she had brought. It had to do with vacuous marketing, and the tyranny of images. But the coffee was drinkable.
“There are laws,” Maddie told him. “There are ethical codes, and regulations. Some things I can say, others I can’t. I hope you can appreciate that someone expressed concern about your state of being.”
“My mental health.”
“That’s part of it.”
“And that gives you the right to interfere in my life.”
“I’m doing my job, Finn.”
“Part of which is trying to suss out the precipitating event.”
“You have an M.S.W.”
“I’m sure your professors taught you to look for evidence of trauma in your clients. Some terrible thing must have happened to these people that made them the mess they are today. There are problematic assumptions in that approach, of course.”
“I notice you don’t have a computer.”
“I don’t have a phone, either. I choose to live an analogue life.”
“Why is that?”
Her eyes moved anxiously around the dark apartment. Once you got away from the patch of sunlight, the black aspect of things predominated. She was looking for his tinfoil hat, trying to get him to spout some paranoid theory about the internet that would confirm her hunch: Finn McPhail was in dangerous misalignment with the world that was. Give her that much, and she could make a diagnosis. Diagnosis in hand, she could propose a course of action to her superiors at Social Services. The end of Maddie Fairfax’s course of action would be the end of Finn’s experiment in autonomous living.
He would not go down without a fight.
“Do you sleep in the hammock?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, I do.”
He found the swinging action soothing, but she didn’t need to know that.
“Why is it black, Finn? Why are the walls black?”
“This was a DIY hibernaculum. I did the best I could.”
She nodded thoughtfully. They could hear Mrs. Crump vacuuming down below. Sound traveled in the old house.
“I wonder if you would be willing to talk with a man I know at the clinic.”
“Thanks, I feel no need to have my head shrunk, just now.”
“Bill is a counselor, not a psychiatrist. I believe he would totally ‘get’ Finn McPhail. If you kept an open mind, it might turn out useful.”
“All this because I live alone, and I like black, and I don’t have a phone.”
She knew she was not going to talk him around. If she had coercive means and measures up her sleeve, it was too early to put them in play. She told him she hoped he would think about her suggestion. Leaving the apartment, hand on the doorknob, she turned back.
“So was there a precipitating event?”
She meant it playfully. He suspected that was how she did her serious work.
“My father had an old soul, and my mother was superstitious. She used to throw salt over her shoulder.”
One last look, successfully conveying the message that he had not seen the last of Maddie Fairfax.
At work that evening he was suspicious, wondering who had ratted him out with Social Services. He worked the afternoon shift at Quik-‘N-Easy, a budget grocery store that sold in bulk. He liked being able to walk to work from Mrs. Crumb’s, and the job gave him a project he was developing in tandem with the Weather Report. He called it the Grocery & Humanity Log. He used the G&HL to record observations and impressions of the people he saw at the store, customers and workers both. The things they said, the things they did, the mysteries they inhabited. He had no interest in publishing the log. It was a labor of love.
Flora. She might be the one who had called Maddie Fairfax. Flora was the oldest employee at the store, and had the most seniority. She had been a cashier since the doors opened twenty-some years ago. Her face was deeply wrinkled, and she took twice as many smoke breaks as the contract allowed; nobody was going to mess with her. She was raising her granddaughter but had a hard time acknowledging that her daughter, the kid’s mother, was in prison on a drug charge. She used her religious conviction as an excuse to stick her nose in everybody’s business.
He ran into her on the loading dock, where she was watching a semi full of pallets back up. The pallets contained, among other items, colorful boxes of cereal, including Cheerios in the shape of little hearts. A detail worth noting in the G&HL.
“What’s eatin’ you, Finn? You look like somebody just stole your binky.”
Not wise to antagonize her, but Finn’s back was up. The visit of the social worker was a threat to his way of life.
“How’s your daughter, Flora?”
“What do you know about my daughter?”
“Do they let you take Bethany when you visit her in jail? What’s that like?”
Flora glowered and lit a second cigarette from the stub of the first. Bethany was the granddaughter.
“I used to be like you, you know.”
“I doubt it.”
“Before I opened my heart to everlasting love.”
“Did you call Social Services?”
“Why would I call Social Services?”
“It was a yes or no question.”
She made slits of her eyes, blew a dagger of smoke in his direction, made it clear he would not get a straight answer from her. No point wasting his time.
At eleven he punched out and walked the seven blocks home. A balmy night in a medium-sized city that was proud of the condition of its sidewalks. Open your ears, Finn, and hear the leaves growing on the trees, the deer creeping from the woods to snack on bushes, the scratching of rose bush thorns against the Kasparovs’ aluminum siding in the slightest of breezes.
He was surprised to be accosted by Mrs. Crump, pacing in the driveway.
“Good evening, Finn, or should I say goodnight?”
“Hello, Mrs. Crump. Are you okay?”
This was unusual behavior. Normally she went to bed after the ten o’clock news. She was fully dressed, and in the untrustworthy glow of a streetlight it seemed to him that she had put on makeup. She had the proud eyes of a flamenco dancer, not so unusual in a woman of her age as most people thought.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Thank you for asking. I wanted to mention…” She hesitated, and Finn wondered whether Maddie might have been in touch with her. Were they allowed to do that? If the social worker suggested to the landlady that her eccentric renter was a nut job, Mrs. Crump would find a reason to evict him. Who would blame her?
“It’s my niece. Her name is Marie Louise, but we all call her Lou.”
“What about her?”
“I thought… She is about your age, and she does not have a steady boyfriend. I thought it might be nice to introduce you to each other. I could do the honors, invite you both. I’m famous for my glazed orange cake, you know.”
A misanthrope would curtly dismiss the idea with a cutting remark. Finn, by contrast, asked his landlady to tell him a little about her niece.
“She’s kind of a medium build, I guess you could say. A brunette. She’s a dental hygienist and has a wonderful sense of humor. I have no idea why she doesn’t date more.”
It occurred to Finn that Marie Louise must be pretty hard up if her aunt was reduced to engineering a match with a man living in a hibernaculum. But he recognized that was not fair to Mrs. Crump. You had to be careful, living alone, not to make summary judgments, since you lacked someone close to counterbalance your impressions. He might have consented to meet the niece – he was love hungry and not too proud to admit it, at least to himself – if Mrs. Crump had stopped there. But she went on to talk about how much time Lou spent on her phone, how she loved TikTok and Twitter and all those frittery jittery telephone curiosities people were into. Dealbreak, on grounds of incompatibility.
Having lived thirty years in a world of artful temporizing, Finn knew how to put off Mrs. Crump with a non-answer.
He was on the register at work the next night when Maddie Fairfax came through his line. The 2% milk she placed on the belt was an unconvincing pretext for conversation. There was nobody else in line. She had timed her appearance.
“Something you said has been bothering me,” she told him.
“About me thinking you’re not sane.”
“What about your Social Service rules? Is it ethical to talk here, now, like this? I’m not the kind of person to do it, but I could complain to your boss.”
His reaction caused frustration to build up in her. Another minute, and it would spill over.
“Okay, Finn. Fine. I want to say one thing, and then I’ll go.”
“Do you want your milk in a bag?”
She shook her head. “This is taking a risk.”
“I’m picturing a line.”
“On one side of the line is loneliness. On the other side is mental illness. It’s important, it is so very important, Finn, how a person puts their foot down.”
Out of the mouths of social workers.
She paid with a debit card. Finn handed her a receipt, and she picked up the carton of milk. As she walked away he knew he would not see her again. She had taken her last shot, an uppercut, and it missed his chin. At home, after work, he remembered to make an entry in the G&HL. Now they make Cheerios in the shape of hearts.
Another reason he slept in the hammock was his insomnia, which was worse in a bed. That night his tribulation had to do with the effort of not giving way to a fantasy. It was the fantasy that something might develop between Maddie and him. Now that he was not going to be her client, she would be allowed to have a relationship with him, right? But even in the dark of the hibernaculum, which encouraged the hatching of contrary-to-fact hypotheses, he forced himself to admit that she would only and always see him as a case. In her mind he existed in a file folder, possibly digital.
So he won. She had done her best to bring him into the Social Services net, and failed. He should have felt good about that. Victory felt hollow, though. He was not sure why. At any rate he was free.
The summer sped by. Time moved faster than he remembered its ever having done. The leaves on the trees turned a darker green and got leathery. They had a stubborn look. In the daytime, dogs lay on porches with their tongues hanging out. At night, they set up a cascading chorus of drawn-out howls that expressed their fundamental discontent with city life. Open your ears, Finn, and hear the planet’s consternation.
At work, to his annoyance, he got tangled in a feud with Flora from which he found no way to extricate himself. Any time she brought up his crying need for everlasting love, a.k.a her home-brew religion, he made a sharp comment about her incarcerated daughter. Sometimes he drew blood. That did not make him proud, but she bugged the shit out of him, and he could not stop himself from taking her on.
One night on the loading dock her hands trembled as she lit a cigarette. She was under considerable stress. Money, the unending demands of caring for a young child, ongoing shame and dismay over her daughter’s condition. You could see it in the greed with which she sucked in smoke.
“What are you lookin’ at?”
“I hear those things will kill you.”
“That your idea of how to give a body some friendly advice?”
“Your daughter light up? I don’t even know, do they let people smoke in prison?”
“You son of a bitch.”
“Jesus never swore like that. In my Bible, he only says clean words.”
He couldn’t help himself.
Flora shook her head in disgust. “I was right.”
“You’re a head case. I told them you were, but they never done nothing about it.”
Now he knew. She was the one who had called Social Services on him. Walking home, he could not stop thinking about Maddie. Get real; stay there. The absence she inhabited was permanent.
He was free to disintegrate. That was one way of putting it.
As the summer months went by the Weather Report and the Grocery & Humanity Log grew fat with entries. He believed his skill with sentences was improving, no small thing, in his system of values. In the hibernaculum he heard all the clocks that weren’t ticking. Smelled the perfume that was not on the air. Remembered the touch of a woman who did not exist. He made a list of all the mistakes he was not going to be allowed to make.
Midway through August he walked home after a particularly nasty exchange with Flora, who kept wanting him to pray with her. He knew he had overdone it, asking did she worry about Bethany winding up behind bars just like her mother. Until Flora, he had not known himself to be capable of cruelty. Regret. That was the new feeling coursing through him. It took him a moment to recognize what it was.
He turned onto his street smelling lilacs and thinking he would forever associate the sweet smell of the flower with sour regret. At Mrs. Crump’s, the garage door was up. She never left it open; she worried about bad men getting in and hiding there. When he reached for the handle to bring it down he noticed a bundle in the darkness, on the floor. He switched on the overhead light.
The bundle was his landlady. She was not conscious. He felt for her pulse. It felt normal, not that he knew what normal was supposed to be. He raced into her house and called an ambulance. An EMT crew showed up inside six minutes and took her away.
He could not sleep that night. It was a different kind of quiet that filled the air of the hibernaculum. What happened to Mrs. Crump was not his fault, but he felt strangely responsible and did not know why.
Two days went by without news. On the morning of the third day he heard footsteps coming up the back stairs and thought, for a fluttering moment, it was Maddie Fairfax. It wasn’t.
The woman who knocked on his door told him, “My aunt said to tell you she’s okay.”
Brunette indeed. Slightly thick in the middle. A face whose openness and regular features riled Finn up in an unfamiliar way. Something juvenile in the voice that Finn associated with excessive screen time, although that was not fair, it was his digital hostility baring its teeth.
“Are you Marie Louise?”
She nodded. “It was her heart. They put in a stent. The doctor said there was no permanent damage, but from here on out she has to be careful.”
“I’m glad she’s okay.”
“She comes home tomorrow. I’m going to stay downstairs for a while, until we’re sure she’s okay. Anyway we don’t want her to come home to an empty house.”
It occurred to Finn that he had never asked Mrs. Crump about her deceased husband Frank. He wished now that he had.
Marie Louise looked around the apartment.
“She told me about the black walls.”
“What else did she say?”
She shook her head. “Aunt Elizabeth likes you, you know.”
The comment distressed him. It sounded like hand-me-down sympathy. Her phone bleated, and her head bent obediently to the screen. Unstop your ears, Finn, and hear the sound of the world that is, the world that wants to be.
That night at work Flora was gunning for him, he had no idea why. It was strangely reassuring to have an enemy, but he knew she could do him serious damage.
As usual they ran into each other out at the loading dock and exchanged insults. She was drinking a Red Bull. She needed the buzz to get through her shift. Her days were long. She could not afford child care for the granddaughter.
“Shorty in his office?” she asked him casually.
Shorty Burford was the night-shift manager. He had a period-piece mustache and was the most conflict-averse person Finn had ever met. Shorty hated dealing with people’s problems and went out of his way to stay clear of employee squabbles. He addressed managerial difficulties remotely, doing the paperwork to fire people without ever confronting them. Because of Flora’s seniority, he would have to take seriously any complaint from her. Finn did not want to lose his job. It was an important component of his snug situation. He walked away from Flora in order not to give tongue to any of the nasty comebacks that came to him.
Then, a strangeness. An inexplicability. That same night he was behind Flora in the line to punch out, keeping a prudent self-protective distance. When she realized he was there, she turned around. The suffering on her haggard face was not a mask, it was what a mask was meant to hide.
She said, “It ain’t never going to get any better for me. You know that, right?”
All he could do was nod. She looked at him for a minute. Her turn to nod. She punched out. He punched out behind her. He watched her cross the parking lot and get into the old minivan she drove. Unlocking the door, she tossed down a spent smoke. He knew there was a kid’s carseat in the back, crumpled McDonald’s bags on the floor, lipsticked butts jamming the ashtray.
He walked back to the apartment trying to understand what had changed.
The next day, Mrs. Crump came home from the hospital. He made a quick visit, keeping it short in order not to tire her out. He wanted to satisfy a curiosity. The eyes. After death’s shadow fell over her and she underwent a serious surgery, they were still the eyes of a flamenco dancer.
Her niece, Lou, took a few days off work and waited on her. One afternoon, before he left for the Quik-‘N-Easy, Finn heard her coming up the back stairs and was at the door before she knocked. She handed him the better half of a glazed orange cake on a glass plate. “Aunt Elizabeth baked it. She’s feeling better.”
“Can I come in a ‘sec?”
He moved away from the door, watched her wander through his space like an authorized inspector of hibernacula. After a few moments she stopped. Told him, “I think you should paint your walls.”
“Don’t you get tired of all this black?”
He shrugged. The question made him self-conscious. It occurred to him that might be a good thing.
Another lag, then, until her phone made one of its notification noises. She ignored it.
“If you want,” she told him, “I can help you pick a color.”
“A change, you mean.”
She looked at him. The openness of her face was striking.
“A change is exactly what I mean.”