The girl was surrounded by these things: the Seers of God on the left, the poodle-haired property manager in the front, and all around, the feeling that this wouldn’t end well. She knew this the first time she’d turned onto the street. Even in the shine of a sunny day, the agitating voice cast a gray sluggishness on everything in motion—like feet dragging. But her mind went to soothing itself: she could make a home wherever she went.
The apartment, though tiny, sat in a full and admirable did-it-on-one’s-own garden. Aloe, birds of paradise, and succulents of varied plumpness. Tucked greenly away from the town’s failings, this was somewhere you’d live because you chose it. The girl had been here a full five months and would have to sign the renewal, if she wanted to stay.
The poodle-haired property manager, short and yoga-built, moved with the swiftness of someone both proud and angry to go it alone. She was busy, busy, busy. Always under the gun, just hanging in there, and having to check her schedule before agreeing to anything. Fifteen years after the divorce, the ex-husband was still an asshole. She sometimes watched the evening news hoping it was he that’d been mowed down by the drunk driver. She couldn’t wait for their lastborn to turn eighteen. How she was doing was a matter of how her work was going. She pronounced my clients in such a way to remind the inquirer that hers were not mere customers. The property managing was just a side gig, after all.
“Let me know if you need anything?” An offer that sounded like a threat. The girl imagined her life, running into the poodle-haired property manager in the shared yard, the discomfort of trying to avoid pesky small talk. She worried about her persisting weakness: an inability to escape the lurking dark. The agitating voice could return and insist that everything was a threat. And yeah, the poodle-haired property manager was like gloom setting in. She enjoyed misery, sharing it through imposition, never invited. Her eyes, otherwise downward slanted, lifted and lit up as she told of calamity. A friend’s daughter had just committed suicide. It may never rain again, God help them all now that the state’s crops would certainly dry up. Oh, and she overheard the Seers-of-God couple fighting again through the kitchen window that morning. How could the girl not have heard?
The wife next door, one half of the Seers-of-God couple—she was beautiful. The girl scanned every bit of her face and it really was perfect, even the shape of her teeth. The wife sat up in the chair as if finally, here was a matter worth her while. “I can tell you really get it, you know? I’m not saying you have to be all holy or whatever. You can be yourself and that’s cool too because that’s what it’s all about.” The girl nodded. The wife looked toward her own kitchen window and then back at the shared garden. “There’s nothing left here for any of us, not even this.”
It was the second time the Seers-of-God wife had come to the girl’s apartment. The gate had been latched, and the hook was too high to undo from the outside. How had she gotten in? Growing up, the girl had known other Seers of God. Their promised paradise and everlasting life had been a refuge each time her mother moved a new boyfriend into their home. This Seer, though, spoke as if bored by her own timid efforts. When she sighed again, the girl didn’t ask what was wrong—the wife had already stayed too long, and the girl hoped she’d get going.
The ten-minute walk to the store made the girl aware of her legs. Something had changed in her gait. Something slight, not quite a limp, but perhaps the beginning of one. In the aftermath of disappointment—being committed again, against her will—she had slowed down.
The streets were empty but she wasn’t alone. The sidewalk was a plank, and this walk an epic pronouncement. If things went on to get better, if she could beat the voice this time, then this place, gray and deserted as it was, could be the means and not the end. If things didn’t get better, then this place, gray and deserted as it was, was in fact the end. The spattering of clouds had become faces and the sidewalk the table around which they gathered and judged.
It was in front of the frozen corn dogs and taquitos that she finally met the Seers-of-God husband. Until then he hadn’t said a word to her, though her walk to the mailbox and his drive in from work sometimes brought them within feet of each other. He asked if she weren’t cold, given the length of her skirt and that they were in the freezer aisle.
“I saw you two talking the other day. My wife, she likes to keep things modest. Even in the heat it’s always a long dress or pants.” He mimed the length and looseness of his wife’s dress. His eyes hadn’t strayed from the girl’s face; had it not been for his question, she wouldn’t have thought that he noticed what she was wearing at all. “See you around, eh?” They were in the parking lot within seconds of each other. She tried not to be bothered by his not asking if she’d like a ride back.
Pedestrians managed the same tense, ruthless gestures. A baby stroller knocked into her ankle. The woman pushing it rolled her eyes at the girl, as though her leg were some twig on an otherwise clear path. Drivers sped up as she stepped into the crosswalk. It would be this way each time, the walk back to the apartment. On her way out, there was at least the hope of something; returning from the store, that hope had been put to rest. The sun, too, looked in a hurry to be on its way.
“Some folks have been here ten, twenty years—can you believe it? That blue house”—the poodle-haired manager pointed to a house down the street, the smallest on the block—“has three generations in it.” Indeed, at different times, the girl had seen coming from there a child as young as three, a thirty-something couple, and an elderly man who wore red overalls. The manager knew when so-and-so moved to the street, and whether they owned the house or were just renting. The tomatoes didn’t look so happy, she said. She would trim the dead aloe stalks or get rid of the plant altogether, maybe give it to the Wilsons on the corner, she didn’t know yet. It hadn’t rained in so long, and she’d heard on the radio that migrant farmers had been hurt the most. “Boy, I tell you, we really need some rain.” The girl looked up. A grayish white pulled over the sky like a blanket. She hoped for sun instead.
It hadn’t become any easier to know what makes a place home. The girl had had the feeling only once before. At the halfway house, she’d been buoyed by the plain, steady knowledge she could stay for as long as she wanted—no mother’s boyfriend or insistent voice. But here, even with the chirps of birds and the squeals of toddlers, sadness won out. Like the girl, some had moved to this street to start anew somewhere, anywhere. There were others who lived here and had plans for nothing more. Then others still, like the poodle-haired manager and the Seers of God, for whom the street was a mission field. They had their own ideas, and the neighbors were to be used toward that end.
The girl had forever been a light sleeper, but in this apartment it was like she didn’t sleep at all. In her dreams, she saw herself in that room and in that bed as if with open eyes. Sound came from all around, the voices growing closer, until she awoke. A man and woman somewhere tried not to be heard. In the poodle-haired manager’s bedroom, a shadow moved toward the lamp and turned it off. A light in the Seers’ kitchen flickered as a different pair of voices traced the night. The girl went to the window to look.
The cruelty might’ve stayed hidden had the girl not seen it that afternoon. She was still holding the latch to her mailbox when the Seers of God got out of their car. The husband steadied the wheelchair so his wife could sit down. He squeezed the handles, and his face tightened with annoyance as if from another time. He shoved a plastic bag into her lap; startled, she slumped forward.
The husband sucked his teeth and whacked the wheelchair forward. His wife stuck out a limp foot to stop the chair’s motion. He said something the girl couldn’t hear. But in the way he walked ahead toward the house, it was clear he meant for his wife to push herself up that ramp. “You’re on your own,” he might have said, because this was what she did: alternating between the foot and her arms, she dragged herself to the bottom of the ramp.
The Seers husband joked about his age—the poodle-haired manager had recounted—teasing that he was fifteen years younger than her. “Yeah right, I know how old he really is.” Even in the retelling, her sourness simmered. “He’s the same age as me,” she reminded the girl. The husband had lived alone for most of the time the manager had known him. She sometimes cooked just to take him food, and he watered her plants when she was away. Then one day he wheeled in a girl—a girl much younger than he was, and pretty. He was as cheerful as he’d ever been, announcing that they were married now. “What’s the point of being so pretty, if you can’t even walk?” she sneered. It made no sense to her at all.
The Seers husband went inside. He left the door carefully open, just enough that the wife would have to push it to make room for her wheelchair. She turned the chair backwards at the bottom of the ramp, stuck out that limp leg, and pulled the wheels. The hem of her dress swept the ground, just like the husband liked it. On like that, she reached the top of the ramp. If she’d looked up just then, she’d have seen the girl at the mailbox. The girl looked down, pretending to read the papers in her hand: a leaflet advertising lawn care, the past-due invoice for her stay at the halfway house, a letter that ought to have gone to a house up the street. When she heard the door close, she was sure the wife had seen her.
“To be honest, I’d like to be closer to water,” the girl said. Someone had once told her, and she could now attest, that “to be honest” is defense for a lie about to be spoken. She’d never cared much for water, but in these parts, saying so was a congenial attempt at connection. Everyone wanted to be near the water.
“Near water while the whole state is parched?” The poodle-haired manager gestured the size of the state with a wave of her arms, before folding them across her belly.
She’d sensed the girl’s fragility from the outset. So, she reset the sprinkler for 4:45 a.m. and arranged the hose under the girl’s bedroom window. The noise entered the girl’s sleep as a spray of hail right there in the room. Comforter pulled to her breasts, she ran out. As the pills wore off, and realizing the source of the noise, she felt a familiar kind of crazy for running so fast and so hard, just because the sprinkler had come on.
The poodle-haired manager scuttled about her garden. The tomatoes would need replanting. She couldn’t stand those who made it through life too easily. Cheeriness annoyed her, but more than that, she hated contentedness. And she hated the girl for that reason—she didn’t seem to have earned all the years of her age, because if she was burdened, it didn’t show. She walked with the litheness of someone freer than she ought to have been. How can you trust someone that never complains? You can’t.
The girl’s strides became less pinched. For the first time since she’d left the halfway house, she realized she could return, if that was what she wanted. She didn’t imagine much there had changed; it was just that now she remembered other things: the night-shift manager’s warm fingers reassuring her of the voice’s impotence. “Nothing’s a threat,” he’d said. So, it didn’t bother her that the poodle-haired manager had begun taking her mail or that when she went to retrieve it, a theatrical door slam accompanied a clenched “Here you go.”
Her move was uneventful by any of the visible measures. She cleaned, filled the bins, and hoped someone would want what she left on the sidewalk. She boxed and taped up what was left. Moving had become like that. Still, something else came through. A feeling lit up by the decidedness of a peppermint shoot pushing through the garden cement. If she’d seen it before, it looked new now—the depth of the vein, the green gloss of the leaf. The black tulip magnolia, in contrast, had relinquished all its green for drooping, purplish blooms.
While the van idled out front, one or maybe two of the neighbors might have wondered for whom it waited. Neither could claim to have known the girl, really. Even for the ones that would remember she’d been there, life went on as if she’d never been. And it was just as well. She felt it useless to say goodbye—to the street, the apartment, the poodle-haired manager or the Seers wife. Leaving, then, was enough.
Olufunke Grace Bankole is a first-generation American of Nigerian parentage. After graduating from Harvard Law School and completing a Soros Justice Advocacy Fellowship, she left the law in order to write. Her stories and essays have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, New Letters, AGNI, The Antioch Review, Stand, and elsewhere. Among other honors, she has won the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and been awarded a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant in support of her novel-in-progress. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and their son. (updated 9/2019)