When Sammy knocks, when she says, “Sheriff’s office,” she stands to the side of the apartment door. No one has tried to shoot her, not yet. But you never know. The peephole darkens. She waits for the door to rattle open, and when it doesn’t, she knocks again. “I know you’re in there,” she says, and the apartment manager, a man with bony arms and shoe-polish black hair, leans close to her and says, “I know he’s in there.”
This is the River Side Apartment Complex, and Sammy is a deputy with the civil division of the Deschutes County sheriff’s office. Every day people are falling behind—every day there is a taller stack of evictions, small claims notices, repossessions of property, wage garnishments for unpaid debts—and every day there is another address to visit, a door to knock on, sometimes to kick down.
The carpet is a burnt orange. The walls are pine-paneled. The fluorescent light above them buzzes on and off. She hates her job, hates that she spends most of her day trudging through dumps like this, delivering subpoenas, hurrying people out their doors and down staircases with garbage bags full of clothes, cardboard boxes spilling over with frozen food. In the three years she has worked in the civil division, only once has someone been happy to see her—and she was serving him divorce papers. She seized her baton as he hugged her.
She knocks again, this time using the side of her fist, booming at the door. “Hello,” a voice, a man’s voice, says. “Okay. I’m opening.”
She supposes she feels bad for people. When they cry or beg or point to their grubby children and say, you’re doing this to them. Maybe pities them, maybe that’s a better way of putting it. But then a dog will come padding out of a back room or she’ll spot a video game console, a pool table, a cappuccino machine. And she’ll decide from their carelessness that they’re getting what they deserve. She’ll want to say, “How much you spend on dog food a month?” or “How much you think you could have sold that Xbox for?” But she won’t. Instead, when people show their teeth or kick over chairs or get down on their knees and take her hand and beg, she simply says, “I’m no judge, no jury,” so that people contain their anger and sadness, bottle it up for someone else.
Every one of these addresses is like a hole—the same hole, many-chambered—and sometimes, when she thinks back on all the addresses she’s visited, she feels as though she is falling through them, through their living rooms and kitchens, seeing hundreds, thousands of faces all twisted in an upset expression directed at her.
At her hip she carries handcuffs, a telescoping baton, a .40 caliber Glock. She keeps her hair short—ever since, seven years ago, when she was working patrol, a drunk yanked her ponytail, grated her cheek against the asphalt—and she knows her square face, her broad shoulders make her look a little like a man. People blink a few times when they first meet her, trying to make sense of her.
That’s the case now, when the door clicks open and she moves into the dim light of the apartment and faces an old man, mid-seventies, wearing pale blue jeans and a ribbed white tank top. His head is bald except for a horseshoe of white hair. His feet are bare—their skin spotted and knotted with veins, the toenails a chalky yellow.
“Yeah.” His square-framed glasses take up most of his face. He peers at her through them and they are thick enough that she can’t distinguish the color of his eyes.
“I have a court order,” she says and holds out the paper, folded twice as if to better contain the secret. “Notice of eviction.”
She steels herself, ready for him to plead his case—like all the others—to smack his fist into an open palm, shout so loudly spittle flies from his lips. To say that he has rights, that this is an illegal eviction. To say that he’s been cheated, that the landlord has been cashing his checks all long.
But he doesn’t. “Okay,” he says and waves both hands as if to clear a bad smell from the air. “Okay. All right.”
They are standing in his kitchen. The counter is bare except for a brown mug and a plate dirtied with crumbs. The smell of old coffee and cigarette smoke. Beyond the kitchen, the living room. Same pine-paneled walls and orange carpeting as the hallway. Dirty light seeping in through the tan curtains. A wooden box of a television playing Fox News with the sound off. She wonders if he has children, even grandchildren, who could help. She doesn’t see any photos magneted to the fridge, hanging on the walls. Everything is bare.
Frank still hasn’t taken the paper. She shakes it at him and he snatches it from her and says, “Fine.” He unfolds it and folds it up again without reading, drops it on the counter. “I suppose you want me to leave?”
“How long do I have?”
“Fine.” He departs her, walking toward a blackened doorway that must lead to his bedroom, where he pauses. “While you wait, don’t suppose you want a glass of water? Or some milk?”
No one has ever asked her this before, so it takes a moment to reply: “No. Thank you.”
“I’ll only be a minute.” He coughs, his cough sounding like pennies rattling at the bottom of a paper cup. “I got to warn you, though. I die sometimes. I been dying all day.”
He taps his chest. “My heart stops beating. My lungs stop breathing. I die. Not officially but it’s death all the same. Then I wake up. I’m telling you this because I feel a spell coming on. Wouldn’t want to alarm you.” His smile is damp and pink—he hasn’t put in his teeth yet—but she doesn’t sense a joke.
She looks to the manager for help, but he is in the hall, muttering into his cell phone, chewing his thumbnail. “What should I do?” she says to Frank. “If you die? Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“Don’t do nothing. Give me a couple minutes—I’ll come back.” He picks at a splinter in the doorframe. “Doctor calls it a heart condition. I call it a Korean condition.” His chest hair is as white as dandelion fluff. He reaches into it, under his tank top, and withdraws his dog tags, and rattles them at her.
Normally she doesn’t talk to tenants during repos or evictions except to say, “Hurry,” or “I don’t care.” But Frank is old. And alone. And though she is used to dealing with people who have made the wrong choices, they are, almost all of them, young and furious and seemingly capable of rectifying whatever ruin has come to them. He is different. A lone cloud coming apart in gray filaments, a few drops of rain. She feels, no other word for it, sad.
She calls to him, “Frank?” just as he clicks on the light in his room. His eyes are thin black slits behind his glasses. “You don’t mind me asking, what does it feel like? When you die?”
He considers this a moment before answering. “You feel like you’re falling,” he says. “You feel like you’re falling down a very deep hole.” His hand makes a falling motion. “Every time I keep expecting to hit bottom. But so far, no bottom. ”
John peels up the duck-patterned linoleum in the bathroom and lays down tile. He rips away the aquamarine carpet in the guest room and pliers out the hundreds of tacks and staples beneath it to reveal the hardwood gleaming beneath. He scores the floral wallpaper in the kitchen and sprays it with DIF and scrapes off damp shreds of it and gouges the drywall so that he must mud and texture before splashing the walls over with paint. He unscrews the light fixtures—all white orbs with brass collars—and replaces them with wrought iron. He hangs new gutters. He trades out the appliances for stainless steel. He installs new hardware on all the cabinets. He removes the cracked and yellowed switches and outlets and screws in white plates.
Now the house looks like the house he imagined when, five years ago, he walked through it and laid his hands on its walls and said, “I can see the potential.” Five years and he hasn’t flipped open his toolbox until now—now that he has to move. His marriage is falling apart. His daughter is starting to bring home college brochures. His boss at the biodiesel company where he works ordered a thirty-day furlough for all employees. So he spends his evenings and weekends alone—his wife has moved in with her parents and his daughter spends all her time in her room—restoring the house, his house, which he has come to hate, to think of as a kind of grave, for someone else to enjoy.
The back porch overlooks a hillside crowded with big pines. For the decorative posts—staggered every ten feet along the railing, squared and beveled, as tall as a rifle and as thick as a thigh—the builder didn’t use the treated fir or cedar he should have, and dry rot set in. When John pulls off the old sheathing, tearing into it with a hammer and a short crowbar, he reveals their hollow core, and in it, the skeletons of four birds along with their rotten wig of a nest.
John uses the crowbar to claw them from the post, for ten years their tomb. Bones and branches and broken bits of shell scatter at his feet. He toes at a skull and it crumbles into a white powder. He guesses the birds were nesting when the house was being framed, maybe up in the rafters, and the builder climbed a ladder and cradled the nest in his hands and cooed and whistled at the baby birds and then tossed them inside the post before hammering on its cap and whispering goodbye.
For more than a month they have lived here. A month is the longest they have ever gone before getting caught—the owners walking in on them watching television, taking a shower, knifing mustard across bread. Then they run—they have learned to be fast—and eventually find another house.
They look for a subdivision with brickwork driveways and three-car garages, with columns flanking the front doors and maple saplings struggling to grow in the front yards. They find a four- or five-story house with no dog toys or playground equipment in its backyard. They discover an unlocked window or a sliding glass door. In a guest room in the far corner of the walkout basement, they drop their backpacks. They wait.
The first few days, they spend a lot of time listening to the footsteps thumping overhead, the muttered conversations overheard through the heating ducts and thinly insulated walls. They take note of the owners’ patterns. If there are no children and no pets, that usually means the couple spends their days, sometimes their nights, working, these doctors and lawyers and engineers. What little time they do spend at home, they spend in their room.
After the shower hisses, the door slams, the Lexus growls to life, the garage door rumbles closed, the house is empty and will typically remain so until evening comes.
So the two of them—the boy and the girl, brother and sister, homeless for more than two years after running away several times over from foster care—they steal the clothes from the edges of the closet, the backs of drawers. They pawn the jewelry and cameras and DVDs. They slip money—just a few bills, not enough for anyone to notice unless they were really looking—from wallets and purses. They walk on the sides of their feet so that they don’t leave tracks in the white carpet. They hide from the maid when she comes on Mondays and Thursdays. But mostly they just hang out, watch television, raid the fridge for treats.
One morning, they are in a master bedroom with a vaulted ceiling, a four-poster king-size bed, and two walk-in closets, each of them bigger than any bedroom they’ve ever called their own. An archway leads into the bathroom, where the toilet rises up on a pedestal, where the counters are marble and the shower is surrounded by glass bricks and the tub is a deep cauldron with two dozen jets.
She, the sister, rummages through the closet and climbs into a suit seven sizes too big, while he, the brother, pulls on a black cocktail dress that won’t zip up his broad back. A flat screen television hangs on the wall. They punch through the channels, finally settling on VH1—a Best of the 80s countdown—and leap from one side of the bed to the other, playing air guitar, yowling along with the big hair bands.
They are laughing, hitting each other with pillows, when the screen goes dark, when the music falls away. They stand in a mess of sheets, breathing heavily. A man is watching them. His face is a severe shade of red. He has small eyes and a small, pinched mouth. He is as tall as a doorway. They recognize him from the photo albums shelved in the living room, from the wedding photo hanging in the hallway.
The brother and sister look at each other—neither of them knowing what to do. He is blocking the door. And the nearest window drops twenty feet into a thorny hedge, a broken leg.
“Who are you,” the man says, not yelling, not yet, “and what are you doing in my house?”
In another story, they might have told him their names. They might have told him about their father running off, their mother drinking heavily—the social workers with their tired eyes and sleepy-sounding voices, the cat piss-stinking foster homes decorated with crosses and strangely colored paintings of Jesus petting sheep. And the man might have listened. His eyes might have softened. His posture might have relaxed. He might have even smiled briefly when they told him about the week they spent living in a Super Wal-Mart.
And when they finally said, “We’re sorry. We’ll leave now,” he would have yelled, “No!” his arms outstretched to block their way. “No,” he would say, his voice softer this time. “Stay. Please.” And the brother and sister would shrug at each other when he motioned them downstairs, when he led them to the kitchen, where they would make sandwiches and pour tall glasses of milk and eat together in the breakfast nook that overlooked the green expanse of lawn that ran into a pond with a concrete swan vomiting an arc of green water in the middle of it.
When they were finished eating their sandwiches, when they licked their lips and settled back in their chairs, he would look out the window and quietly ask them if they would like to stay. They would say, no, they couldn’t, they had to move on, and he would say, stay, really, I mean it—and they would know that he meant it, that he wasn’t going to trick them and call the police, that maybe the house felt a little too big for him, that maybe he needed them as much as they needed him, and they would all smile and finish their glasses of milk.
But that is another story.
Mr. Peterson has taken a job in Seattle with a software company. As part of the hiring bonus, if the house doesn’t sell within the next two months, the company will offer him x amount of money and assume the title.
The Petersons try. Some of the neighbors will admit to that—that they do try. They install new countertops, new carpeting, new sinks and faucets. They brush paint on the walls. They remove all of their family photos and hide all of their toys so that the house could belong to anyone, so that the couples who follow highheeled, lipsticked realtors through the rooms, up and down the stairs, their fingers lingering on the railings and doorknobs, can imagine the house as their own.
They list the home for $599,000—a fair price, everyone agrees. A price that will reflect well on the neighborhood. But the months pass without an offer. And the Peterson’s garage fills steadily with cardboard boxes sealed with tape. And then one day the Bekins trucks pull up to the curb and the movers—the sweating, thick-waisted men with mustaches—leap out to haul away all of the furniture and books and wedding china. They leave the house vacant of everything except the window treatments, the dimples the couches crushed into the carpet.
Now the original realtor sign comes down and another one goes up listing the house at $399,000. The neighborhood, red-faced and narrow-eyed, hates the Petersons for this. Over the past few years they have watched property values climb—doubling, tripling, and they have counted on that equity—they believe in their houses as investments more than as places to live. So they scowl at the empty house as if it is to blame. They call the realtor—they call the Petersons—to express their outrage. They encourage their dogs—their yellow labs and golden retrievers and Siberian huskies—to shit in the front yard. Someone spray-paints fuck you in black swirling letters across the garage door, but the next day it is painted over. Someone rips the realty sign from the front yard and shoves it into a nearby storm drain, but the next day it is up again—and within a week it is topped by a red banner that reads sale pending.
In this neighborhood, a subdivision called Swan Ridge, no one can paint their houses anything but earth tones. Nor can they plant vegetables or store play equipment in their front yards. They cannot park RVs and boats in their driveways for more than twenty-four hours. And when you live in a neighborhood like this, there are certain expectations of you. There are rules you must abide by, and now the rules have been broken.
So they wait until it is night. The streetlamps buzz to life. The garage doors rumble open. People collect red three-gallon jugs of gasoline and carry them sloshingly down the block and gather in the driveway of the house, the empty house. There are twenty people altogether, mostly members of the neighborhood association. Others watch from their front porches. The moon is out and its reflection glows in the living room window like a spectral eye. The siding is vinyl and the porchboards are made of recycled plastic and nobody knows how well these will burn. They want inside—they want the house to burn from the belly up.
They try to kick open the front door, but it is deadbolted and no one can make it splinter inward like the cop shows on TV. So they circle the house and try the windows and find one of them unlocked and rip off the screen and boost a middle-aged woman named Susan Pearl through it so that she can unlock the front door and allow them to rush inside, to splash gasoline along the walls, to soak pools of it into the carpet, waterfall it down the stairs. Their eyes tear over. The fumes make them dizzy. They cough and laugh at once.
They make a trail of gasoline—gasoline they would have otherwise used to power their riding lawnmowers across lawns of Kentucky blue grass—they make a trail of gasoline down the porch, along the brickwork path, to the driveway, where Susan sparks her pink rhinestone Zippo and lights a menthol cigarette and takes a deep drag off it and flicks it in a sparking arc.
Her lipstick has made a red collar around the filter that matches the red ember at its tip. It spins through the air and bounces off the cement and comes to a stop in a pool of gas that ignites with a huff. A tongue of blue and orange flame licks its way speedily toward the house.
It isn’t long before the windows explode and the flames rise through them and the siding around them blackens and buckles and melts and runs like tears. Sparks swirl up into the night, lost among the stars. The roof vanishes in a snapping crown of flame. The street appears sunlit. The heat is tremendous. Everyone staggers out of the driveway, into the street, with shadows playing across their faces, making them appear as strangers to each other.
There is a knock at the door. At first Brent doesn’t hear it because of the TV—the game show that doesn’t require talent, only luck, the contestants choosing among the fifty beautiful women who stand on stage holding silver briefcases full of money. Brent is yelling when he first hears the knock, throwing up his arms and condemning the greed of the man who could have gone home with 100,000 grand but decided to keep playing. “The idiocy,” Brent says. “The fucking idiocy people are capable of.” And then the knock.
Brent punches the mute button and rises from the couch to open the door, wondering vaguely who it might be, maybe the Jehovah’s witnesses he saw prowling the neighborhood earlier? Or maybe Papa Johns—had he ordered a pizza? He had, hadn’t he? It is so hard to remember anything anymore, every day bleeding into the next, a weekday the same as a weekend, night no different than day, ever since he lost his job.
Under the yellow cone thrown by his porch light stand two men. They wear black boots and black jeans and black T-shirts. Their hair is buzzed down to their scalps like a wire brush. Their shoulders are rounded with muscle. Behind them stands a cop—black windbreaker with a yellow star on the breast. A woman, he realizes, only when she speaks, when she hands him a piece of paper, a repossession notice, she explains.
He looks at the paper, but doesn’t really read it. The men shoulder their way past Brent, while the woman tells him they are here to retrieve the 55-inch HD plasma he bought on an installment plan at Best Buy. He was $1,000 into his $3,000 payment plan when he lost his job as a financial consultant at Wells Fargo. He has not, as he advised so many others to do, nested away his money. For the first three months he lived off his severance pay. He sent out queries for jobs that did not exist. He has not applied for unemployment. He has not asked his parents for help, has not even told them about losing his job. He has not written a check in six months, doesn’t answer the phone when the creditors call, will not listen to the messages that go from stern to snarling.
The woman remains on the porch as the men approach Brent’s television, which rests on a two-tiered glass console with black metal legs. One of them hits the power button and shoves the remote in his pocket. Then they rip the wires from the wall and wrap them around their fists like tangles of hair. They station themselves at either side of the television and say, “Ready?”—and lift it without any trouble. It ought to weigh more, Brent thinks, considering how much it cost. He is folding the repossession paper in half and then in half again, and then again, making a square he can fit in his pocket. He does not feel much of anything. These past few days he has spent mostly on the couch, his mind empty except for simple needs, the next diet soda he will drink, the next program he will watch.
Their invasion of his condo does not bother him, not particularly, even though they act like the television is theirs, like their employer is a parent and they are its vengeful children. He is too tired to care. It isn’t until one of the men bumps into him and says, “Move, loser,” that something sparks inside him, something electric, as he remembers the weight of his manager’s hand on his shoulder—the sad smiles of his co-workers when, in a daze, he packed up his desk—the Wal-Mart bag he found on his front porch the next day, big-bellied with the things he left behind, his Trailblazers coffee mug, his calculator from college, the M. C. Escher calendar.
On the coffee table sits a half-empty bottle of Budweiser. The glass is warm in his hand when he picks it up. The men are not looking at him. They are looking at the open doorway, taking baby steps toward it, taking care not to trip over a magazine rack, to knock against the edge of the coffee table. And the cop is already gone, walking toward the black sedan parked in the street.
Brent doesn’t say anything when he approaches the men, doesn’t scream a wild animal scream. He simply snaps his arm—the bottle spiraling through the air, the beer twisting and fizzing from it—into the gray and watchful eye of the television.
Tonight the mother reads the little boy the story of Harold and the Purple Crayon. They lay side-by-side in his bed, and when she finishes, when she snaps shut the book, he asks her to stay a little longer. “To cuddle, Mama.” She tells him no. She has to go. He has to sleep. “Just for a minute,” he says. “A mini-minute,” she says and remains curled up by him for a few breaths before climbing out of bed, pulling the covers up to his chin. “Don’t leave,” he says and she says she has to and kisses his forehead and lets her lips linger there another moment before she snaps off the light, says goodnight, closes the door.
He’s not scared of the dark. He’s not worried about monsters beneath his bed or aliens at the window. It’s his mother—whose eyes are red-rimmed, whose hair is going gray at the roots because she hasn’t been to the beauty parlor in months—who worries him. He hears her crying through the walls. He hears her on the phone: “We’re underwater,” she keeps saying, along with that word, foreclosure. They are going into foreclosure.
One night he asked her where it was, foreclosure. “I’m sorry?” she said and he said, “We’re going there. You keep saying we’re going there. Foreclosure.” Her lips flattened and her eyebrows came together and she asked him if he wanted to watch cartoons—would he like that?
He has heard at Sunday school the story of Noah and the arc that survived the great flood. And he has seen on the news the waters that rose up from a river to swallow towns in a place called Iowa. This is what his mother is worried about, he feels certain. This is why she is packing all of their things into boxes, suitcases. A flood. A flood is coming. And its waters will be black and roiling with terrible fish, their eyes white, their fangs thin and crooked. He imagines the first wave of the flood surging along the street, splashing against the side of their house, foaming and reeking of the terrible fish that wait outside, gnawing at the wood. The water will seep under the doors and lick its way down the hallway, rising, rising.
He needs to work quickly. And he knows his mother might notice the light under his door, so he pulls the shades instead, allowing the moon into his room, its light silvering over his walls. Slowly he slides open his closet. From a shelf devoted to art supplies he pulls a box of crayons and fumbles through them until he pulls out one he thinks to be purple, though it could just as well be black in the uncertain moonlight.
And there, on the wall, he begins to draw a boat, one big enough for the two of them, to carry them away to foreclosure.
The neighborhood is empty. It has always been empty. It was built by a custom homebuilder that has developed subdivisions in three different states. Since the market crashed, the company has laid off most of its employees in its building and land development divisions. It is working with financial advisors and legal counsel on vendor payments and other cash obligations.
Construction has stopped. All the signs and sales trailers have been hauled away. No sod has been laid; the yards are made of mud. The farther you travel into the neighborhood, the more unfinished it becomes. Houses that are naked of siding—the sheets of felt paper stapled to their exterior coming loose to flap in the wind like rotten skin. Houses that are missing windows and doors. Houses that are nothing more than a skeletal frame and lots that are nothing more than an excavated hole, a muddy cavity collapsing inward.
The neighborhood runs up against a pine forest. And it isn’t long—after the payloaders and bulldozers and trucks stacked high with lumber grumble away—before the animals begin to creep from the shadows, to explore the houses and consider them a kind of nest or burrow.
A great horned owl sails into an attic—through the octagonal hole cut for a gable vent—and makes it his roost. Crows blacken the rafters of an unfinished frame. A black bear claws aside the latticed frame of a porch and roots and burrows beneath it. Feral cats wander the streets. Wasps and swallows mud over the eaves.
Beyond the subdivision’s river-rock entryway—Swan Hollow, the gold lettering reads with etched cattails rising around it—stands a model home, a design known as the Apex IV, with its 2900 square feet, its hardwood flooring and enameled woodwork, its formal and informal dining rooms, study, great room and a kitchen bigger than most restaurants’ with granite countertops, a center island, and custom maple cabinetry throughout.
Months ago, a realtor left the back door unlocked, and tonight it comes unstuck when a hard wind sucks it open. It groans and swings on its hinges, as though beckoning the forest. And the forest answers. From between its trees, like shadows come to life, steals a pack of coyotes that noses through the door and into the kitchen, where they pause and lick their chops and sniff the air. No one has been here for a long time: the house is theirs. They yap and growl and set off through the many rooms, their paws thudding across the carpets, clicking across the tiles and hardwood. They pee in the corners. They gnaw at the legs of the dining room table. They leap onto the beds and leather couches and snap playfully at each other.
One day a teenager in a Ramones T-shirt with nothing better to do hurls a brick through the Apex IV’s picture window. It shatters, crashing inward, leaving behind a square shadowy mouth framed by fangs of glass. The teenager stands in the front yard, grinning widely, pleasuring in the music of destruction, the crash and tinkle of broken glass still biting the air, soon replaced by snarls and yaps that come from inside the house and that come together into a terrible howling, the howling of a dozen coyotes, growing louder and louder like a siren that sends the teenager stumbling back, into the street, where his bike lies on its side.
He pulls the bike upright and climbs onto it and kicks at the pedals to get them turning, to get the bike moving, just as the pack of coyotes pours through the broken window, a surging gray wave of them, all jabbering and clacking their teeth as they pursue him for his trespass.
Her hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Gertie can still hear the knock at the door, even from upstairs. She doesn’t like to be bothered, likes to keep to herself. When the phone rings, she lets the answering machine pick up. And at church—her only destination these days besides the doctor’s office—the First Baptist church where she serves as a deaconess, where she has hardly missed a Sunday in fifty years, she shakes hands during the sharing of the peace and lingers afterwards for coffee, but doesn’t go out of her way to say much except, “Lovely day,” or “Lovely to see you.” So when she hears the knock at the door, she goes to the window of her bedroom, pulls aside the lace curtain, peers down at the front porch.
Nobody knows about her troubles. Nobody asks how she is getting along, and even if they did, she likely wouldn’t tell them. She has never been one to complain. Not about the arthritis chewing at her fingers and not about the cataract that fogs over her left eye and not about how badly she misses Harry, how empty the house feels without him. And not about the crooks—though she’d like to give them an earful, maybe crack them over the head with a can of soup—who convinced her to take out a 30-year, 6.4 percent mortgage for $37,000, along with a $10,000 line of credit.
She and her husband had owned the home since 1951, had raised their son here, his height still faintly sketched in the kitchen cupboard door, the pencil marks like the broken blood vessels that trail down her legs. She couldn’t keep up with the payments. Over and over the writs of possession have been posted on her door. Over and over she has ripped them down and folded them in half, and in half again, and again, until they are tiny white squares she places at the bottom of her garbage can, as if the dark truth contained in them might decompose along with the coffee grounds, dissolve like a communion wafer on her tongue and absolve her.
On the porch stands the policeman—no, a woman, Gertie realizes, when the figure moves into a slant of sunlight, peering into the living room through the bay window, a big woman with the haircut and bow-legged stance of a man. She knows Gertie is home—her Buick is parked in the driveway. The policewoman isn’t going away this time. She isn’t going to post another notice and clomp down the porch and grumble away in her unmarked car. She hammers at the door again and then forcefully tries the knob, so that Gertie imagines she can feel the force of the hand on her, shaking her, strangling her.
Gertie withdraws from the window and the lace curtain falls slowly into place like a spider’s web. Her husband is dead. Her son is dead, too. So many of her friends and neighbors. Everyone is dead. She says this out loud—everyone is dead—her voice a metallic rasp as she pulls open the drawer of the night table and pulls out the revolver, the .357 her husband kept around the house for security. It is heavy—she holds it in a two-handed grip, the muzzle drooping, aimed at the floor between her legs. She sits on the edge of the bed. The springs moan. The policewoman hammers at the door again—and then yells something, Gertie doesn’t know what.
She can’t recall if Harry ever took the gun to the shooting rang or out to a gravel pit to blast pop bottles. As far as she knows, it has never been fired. She wonders vaguely how old the bullets are, whether they can expire, when she brings the muzzle to her breast—not her mouth, that would be too much trouble to clean up, too much ugliness to look at for whoever found her—and pulls the trigger.
Sammy can’t dwell on the sad stories. The family that moved into their van. The man who says his store has been empty ever since the second Wal-Mart opened up. The woman who says her husband has cancer, says their insurance dropped them, says they had to put all their medical expenses on their credit cards. The rank piles of laundry in the corners, the stained pizza boxes and crumpled soda cans decorating the floor, the child wearing a T-shirt as a dress, clutching a one-armed teddy bear.
Sometimes she wishes she lived in a world without doors. There’s too much hurt out there, and every time she opens a door, she opens herself to it, their collected voices, their collected failure—all powered by voices that scream and whine and blame and beg and reason—punctuated now by a gunshot on a summer afternoon.
She does not want to open this door. She does not want to pound up the stairs. She does not want to face the body she knows is waiting for her inside. She drops the eviction notice and it flutters to the porch like a broke-backed bird and she stares at it for a long time before stepping out from the shadow of the porch, into the sun, heading back to the car where she will radio an ambulance before roaring off to the next neighborhood, the next address, the next door to drag her knuckles across, dreading what waits for her.