by Anna Shannon
Originally published in the 2020 Literary Taxidermy Short Story Competition Anthology by Regulus Press.
A SQUAT GREY BUILDING of only thirty-four stories, Carol thought, wishing she could write that in the classifieds listing. The Pomfrey wasn’t high enough to be a high-rise, but was an odd, in-between-size, in-between-era apartment, with neither modern conveniences nor vintage appeal.
She peeked out the window at what she presumed was her 1:30, Ken MacMillan. He was early for the showing, the only one booked. From the ground floor, she got a good look, squinting as she chewed on toast made from stale bread. He stood on the path in front of the main entrance and looked up, bending far backwards. Must do yoga, Carol mused. Why would he look at the roof? Nothing to see there. No, of course, he was looking up at the apartment with the FOR RENT sign on the balcony, on the top floor, above the main entrance. He took a few steps back from the door, still looking up. Finally, he planted his feet with deliberation, standing on a dandelion-festooned crack in the cement.
Carol examined his clothes: they weren’t disheveled, but they weren’t particularly snappy, either. He was bending over and touching—or was it petting?—a dandelion. She had given up trying to kill them. She was the super, not the caretaker. She checked: 1:28. She stuffed the rest of the toast in her mouth and, chewing hard, left the building office that was really just a desk in her bedroom, and stood in front of the mirror by the front door. As she pulled off balls of pilling from her cardigan, the intercom buzzed, and because her apartment was right next to the building’s public foyer—or was it called the vestibule?—she could hear the buzzing out there too, as if in stereo.
She buzzed him into the building, then rushed out, locking her apartment door behind her. In the foyer, he was just walking in. She held out her hand, which he shook gently and for longer than she thought was standard. His hand was discoloured yellow—or was it jaundice? Yes, jaundice. Her own complexion was sallow. She’d studied her colours recently and threw out a coral sweater. Carol was an autumn. She looked up to see if his face matched his hand, and thought he might be a winter, and then looked away because he noticed her looking.
“Hi, I’m Carol. You must be Ken.”
“Thank you for being on time.” Carol removed her hand and gestured formally in the direction of the hallway. “Have you seen many apartments?”
“No. This is the only one that meets my requirements.”
She led him around the corner and pressed the elevator button. The door opened promptly, and she entered briskly, turning around to stand at attention as he followed. She pressed the button with a faded three and a clear four.
“You said you’re interested in The Pomfrey because of the view.”
Carol glanced at Ken to see if he smirked when she said The Pomfrey. Most people smirked. She said it in a grand manner just to see if they would. Mr. Ken MacMillan did not smirk. He seemed unbothered—or maybe neutral was the right word.
“Three hundred and six feet high,” he said.
“That should make for a decent view, and the balconies aren’t glassed-in like in the new buildings. Why have a balcony if you can’t enjoy the fresh air?”
Carol hated how slowly the elevator trundled up, swaying slightly from side to side. They didn’t make them this size anymore, either. Squat—or was it squalid? Squat was the right word. Wouldn’t meet today’s building code, but she doubted anyone would ever renovate The Pomfrey. On moving days, people complained they could hardly fit a double mattress in the elevator, let alone a couch. Carol felt a trickle of sweat run down her breasts and nonchalantly felt around the tendrils of her hair. She twisted them to wring them out, feeling a bit flirtatious, and steadied herself against the lurch that always came with passing floor twenty-two. She cleared her throat.
“Are you from here?”
“Does that matter?”
Carol felt shocked but looked straight ahead. He’d said it so calmly—or was it menacingly? She tried to see him with her peripheral vision. Was he looking at her? Was he clenching his fists? Maybe he was on the spectrum.
“I guess not,” she said sprightly, gripping her keys, wondering if she should splay them between her fingers like she learned in self-defence class. Or maybe she had said something racist? But then they were the same ethnicity, weren’t they? Maybe it was still racist.
He didn’t reply, not even a polite grunt of reassurance. She breathed, not blinking, glad they were at least past floor twenty-two. Couldn’t be much longer now. Finally, her body sensed a gravitational slowing. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, ready to be the first to walk out the door, but she over-anticipated the timing and awkwardly half-stepped toward the door before it opened. When it finally did, she turned right, marched down the hall and tried to find the master key.
Carol noticed he stood behind her, not beside her, as she opened the door and braced her body to pull the key from the lock. It was stuck. She noticed there was no chivalrous offer of help, no manly shoulder thrust. She finally freed the key, banging her elbow. She recovered, stifled her irritation, and held the door open for him to pass through. She decided, from the look of his cheap haircut, that he was probably, indeed, on the spectrum; but a tenant was a tenant, and she needed a tenant. She was going to leave the door open though, she decided. He didn’t say thank you, which confirmed her diagnosis. That’s what people do when you open a door for them. She stood, poised, watching him enter the bathroom. She reflected, magnanimously, that she had all kinds in The Pomfrey, and that it wasn’t her place to judge. She was their super, their superintendent, and not their superior. She shivered at the squeal of shower curtain rings scraping across metal. He came out of the bathroom with his hands behind his back, walking—or was it strolling?—on the thin-pile carpet, as if he were at a museum.
Without turning, he said, she thought pleasantly, “Looks like someone died in there.”
With one eye on him walking toward the bedroom, she gripped the bathroom door and checked out the tub.
“Oh! You mean the rust stains,” she said, laughing politely.
She watched him poke his head in the bedroom. He didn’t go in.
“Apologies,” she added. “The tub will be replaced for the next tenant.”
He looked at her softly—or was it benevolently?—and said, “I’m sure it will.”
Carol watched him walk up and down the galley kitchen, and tried to remember if there were any knives in the drawers. No, why would there be? Besides, he was still holding his hands behind him, hand gripping hand. No opening and shutting of drawers like others did, like kicking the tires of a car. He strolled toward the vertical blinds covering the balcony sliding window—or was it a door? She suddenly realized he wasn’t about to un-grip his hands, and was waiting for her, the super, to unveil this part of the property, the part he’d been most particular about. She hurriedly opened the blinds, clicked open the lock, and with some effort, slid the window/door open.
He looked through the screen, smiling, she thought. She tried to read him, no longer caring if he noticed. He just stood there. It wasn’t exactly a nice day out. It was spring and the wind was moving dark clouds this way. She shivered and took a few steps back. The wind cut through her clothes while she waited to hear what he thought. She looked around the room and took in the yellow-orange tinge where the wall met the ceiling, creating an illusion that the ceiling was higher than nine feet. She looked down. Hair had accumulated on the top of her shoes. Must be static. The hairs were short and white. Did the last tenants have an unregistered animal? Now that she was looking, it was hard to tell if they’d even vacuumed. The carpet was faintly yellow, like the walls. She sniffed the air. Did they smoke?
She stared at the back of Mr. Ken MacMillan and exhaled, then realized she should have exhaled more quietly, that he might think she sighed. He might think she’s rushing him. She needed a new tenant for that bonus. Not like she could spend it anyway. Just going right on the credit card. The things we do for money, she thought. Her toes pinched. She hadn’t planned on being the super for this long. She had plans, and she wasn’t bad looking. She just needed freshening up, like the apartment. Carol felt a gas bubble move in her abdomen. The dim light from the balcony was making her tired. She was getting cold. How long was he going to stand there? He wanted a view. This was a view. If he wasn’t going to go on the balcony, he could at least close the window/door. Maybe he expected her to do that, too. Burping silently, she walked towards him, still keeping a few feet apart.
He un-gripped his hands and rubbed them on the side of his pants. She looked at his knuckles, a man’s knuckles. Yes, she needed to make some changes. Get a new job. Get a man. Get a makeover. The stupid bonus wasn’t worth living in this shit-hole building, showing units to creeps. He could kill her right now and no one would notice she was missing, not until the first of the month anyway. That was almost two weeks away. But why would he kill her? She hadn’t done anything to deserve it—but then what did that matter anymore? The world was going to shit.
“May I?” Carol asked, as she slid the screen open, wondering if he had a disability—no it was lived with a disability, and not had. Maybe he had something wrong with his hands.
He stepped onto the balcony. Like the elevator, it was small, squat. Just big enough to comfortably hold him and two abandoned chairs. He turned around to face her.
“This will do just fine,” he said.
Carol couldn’t read his expression, shadowed against a sudden light through parted clouds.
“I’ll take it. Today.”
“Awesome! I mean, I’m delighted to hear that Mr. MacMillan.”
“Oh, please, call me Ken. Mr. MacMillan is my father’s name.”
He laughed, and she laughed politely, then she laughed heartily to match his laughing.
“I guess I should get the paperwork. I’ll be back in a jiffy, Ken.”
He stepped back into the living room and she closed the screen and window/door. She felt relief to see he was smiling—no, grinning—widely. His eyes seemed oddly blue, but maybe it was the odd light. It made his skin seem shiny—or waxy.
She exhaled, and her shoulders relaxed. There was nothing to worry about. This was Ken: Ken who made lame jokes, Ken who liked a view.
“So can I just ask, what kind of view do you need?”
Carol looked at the landmarks outside, at buildings even more squat than The Pomfrey.
“I think this is more south-west, no, wait, south-east. It’s been a long time since Girl Guides.”
She laughed, indulging herself. After all, Ken laughed at his own jokes, too.
But then he began to snap his fingers in what she felt was an alarmingly jolly rhythm. He closed his eyes and began to sing:
“South-south-west, south south-east, east, bom bom bom, my baby likes the east the least.”
Carol closed her mouth and felt the gas shift inside again. She preferred the quiet, brooding Ken to this, whatever this was.
“Think I’ll make the charts?” he asked, laughing at himself. “Good thing no one will hear me from the thirty-fourth floor.”
“True enough,” said Carol. “Ok, Ken, back in a jiffy.”
She wondered why she’d said that. She never said jiffy.
“Thanks again, Carol. I appreciate it.”
He held out his hand and she shook it, thinking it was too soon for the handshake. That was for after he signed the paperwork. That was just like Ken.
“My pleasure,” she said.
As Carol left the unit, she heard the balcony window/door slide open again, and felt a breeze push through the hall. She hummed, all the way down the elevator, all the way into her office, where she realized she was humming his made-up song, and then she thought, to hell with it, she was getting that bonus. After this she’d get a bottle of wine and a piece of carrot cake from the grocery store, and rent a movie maybe. As she printed off the forms, she found herself singing:
“South-south-west, south south-east, east, bom bom bom, my baby likes the east the least.”
She felt good, silly even. Maybe this was the start of something better. Maybe this summer she’d get out of debt, take that spin class, meet someone. Maybe there were possibilities with Ken, even. He wasn’t that bad-looking. A little weird, but then wasn’t she just as weird, singing a song he had just made up.
She snatched up her keys, and only paused briefly in her singing, hearing a muffled thump outside her office, outside the building, near the main entrance. Probably a package being dropped off, dumped unceremoniously as usual. She closed the apartment door behind her, and jauntily walked toward the elevator, glancing outside the main entrance, singing:
“South-south-west, south south-east, east—”