The flies showed up in January. I left for work and there was nothing, but when I got home there they were—maybe fifty of them, coating the long fluorescent light above our bed, like fuzzy, vibrating moss. I called my wife’s name. Even though I knew she wasn’t home. I closed the door and went out into the living room, sat on the loveseat and stared at the wall.
The wall looked different. I couldn’t tell how from across the room; in our attic apartment all the walls slanted so steeply that they made me feel claustrophobic. They disoriented me—were they walls or ceilings? But today there was something else about the wall across from me. Like it too was buzzing with life.
I heard Elaine at our door, downstairs. It always took her a long time to get up to our place. We lived at the top of a house divided into apartments. The other units were home to undergraduates whom we never saw as we came and went. There were no neighbourly exchanges. The turnover rate in the building was high. We had lived there the longest, ten years together, watching the students come and go. Elaine held the record for all time. The landlord loved us but couldn’t believe it; we could hear him shaking his head on the phone.
In all that time, Elaine never learned to keep her key out ready for our door. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand her. She would have had to take her keys out at the front door to the house, no matter what. Then all she had to do was keep them in her hand while she walked up the main stairs, so that when she reached the landing, she’d be ready to let herself into our place. Instead, she must have thrown them back in her purse once inside the front door, and then shaken the bag around for good measure, because she always stood outside our door forever. First I could hear her searching for her keys, and then there was a sound like she was scraping the key against the lock. Struggling to perform such a simple task. I used to start down our stairs to get the door for her, but then she’d get it open herself and catch me halfway down the flight.
This day, the Day O’ Flies, I sat and waited. She finally made it to the top. “Did you get milk?” she asked, standing on the top step. Breathless, hopeful.
Her hair stood straight up from her head in fine, individual strands. She looked like she was in a horror movie facing a ghost. Or, she was experiencing some static cling. Her expressions had become unreadable; terror and banality could be the same thing, and she might leave me under the influence of either mood. I heard myself becoming argumentative. “How was I supposed to know we needed it?”
“So you didn’t get it,” she stated, confirming only one of many facts she must have known already to be true.
“You were just out,” I said. I waved my hand up and down, gesturing at her outerwear.
“Not for milk.”
“Well, I don’t even like milk. Why would I get it?”
Her eyes were angry and her nose ran clear, wetting her upper lip. “Fine,” she said. “Don’t expect to use any.” She turned and went back down the stairs, fumbling at the door again with her key. I heard her all the way down and out of the building, down the porch stairs, and then it was quiet.
So quiet I heard the flies buzzing behind the bedroom door.
The wall buzzing across from me.
I didn’t know whether Elaine would come back. I thought that this was how my life would sound forever if she left me.
Then there was a loud scratching sound and I thought she must be back with the milk. It seemed a little fast, but we didn’t live that far from the store. The Hasty Market by the hospitals, just up from the art school. She might have run. It was cold out. The scratching kept on. “For fuck’s sake, put the key in the hole,” I said to the room. I couldn’t stand it anymore; I got up and went down to meet her.
I thumped loudly down the stairs so she’d know I was coming to stop her painful attempts to get in. I flung open the door but she wasn’t there. I leaned around the corner and looked down the main stairs. I went back into the apartment, locked the door. I was feeling a little unhinged. Misaligned. I stood in the middle of the room and looked at the wall. Of course it wasn’t vibrating.
It was flapping. I could see it now. She’d taped pictures up. Just the tops were taped; the bottoms were moving in the hot air currents coming up from the register. The way the sun came in the slanted skylight on the slanted roof and hit the slanted wall, it looked like the whole wall was flapping. I walked over to touch it, hold it still.
There was the sound at the door again. Except I could feel it now in my hand. It wasn’t at the door. An animal was in the wall. Elaine had been saying for weeks that she heard one, a big one—“As big as a bear! There’s a bear in our walls!”—and of course I’d never paid her any mind. I never heard anything. Now the noise seemed to be at the door again. I looked at the wall and waited. It might not be my wife. Then the noise was behind me and there she was at the top of the stairs, watching me watch my hand where it held back the wall.
Her cheeks and nose were red from the cold. Her eyes were glistening and she was breathing heavily, lustily, after climbing the stairs. I wanted her more at that moment than I ever had before. When she had left the house I was sure it was over, but here she was, home, walking up to me. She kissed me.
“Hello,” she said, drawing out the “o.” She sounded like she was trying to seduce me. She heaved up a Hasty Market bag. “I got milk.”
I know you got milk, I wanted to say. That’s what you went out for. But she seemed so happy about the bag and the hoisting of it, that I felt myself give a little. “Yum,” I said, even though I didn’t mean it.
She turned to put the carton away, holding it so tenderly as she set it in the fridge beside the bell pepper going soft and grey, that I said, “Actually, leave it out. I want a glass of that.” The pepper looked squat and lonely and too familiar as the fridge door started to close on my view of it. She caught the door before it met the frame. She pulled the milk back out and turned around. She walked the carton to the counter and pulled two mugs down from the cupboard. I’d expected her to kick the fridge door shut and say, Why didn’t you tell me that before I put it away? Then she’d walk quickly off to the corner of the bedroom she had roped off as her alone space.
But here she was. Her lips two frozen raspberries, meeting. I kissed them and was surprised to find they were warm. Melting.
“How about hot chocolate?” she said.
We stood grinning. Like idiots. There was some odour in the air we were breathing that made us stupid. An animal smell. An indoors in winter smell.
“You sit down,” she said.
“I make the best hot chocolate.”
I tried to think whether this was true. I ran my hand down my face and saw her watching. Did she imagine the feel of my soft skin? Did she scorn it, remembering the beard that I had had and she had loved? It was three years since I’d shaved it, and it was at least that amount of time since she’d made me this drink. Everything had changed. I remembered the two of us in the bathroom mirror. I’d spilled the hot chocolate all over myself, and she’d chased me to the bathroom. “Let me help you!” she said. We took turns running our nails down the hairs of my beard, one by one. Trying to peel off the hardening chocolate. “Cocoa-covered follicles,” we said. “Dead amino acids?” “Mummified keratin corpses?” Our best attempts at the science of things. “What is hair made of, anyway?” she said, and guided my hand down under her waistband. “What hair?” I said, and tugged hard on her pubic tuft. Her face in the mirror, her mouth on my mouth.
“I used to make the best,” she added now. “I’m sure I still can.”
Elaine stirred the milk in the saucepan the whole time it heated. The wooden spoon nudged the bottom of the pan to keep the milk from sticking. It sounded dull and safe. She poured in the chocolate powder, bent over the mugs and mashed the little chunks with the back of a teaspoon. She carried the mugs over to the coffee table and apologized for no whipped cream. I made a bad joke about my waistline: “Can’t you tell this gut’s had its share of Dream Whip? It’s all starry eyed with the memories.” I lifted up my shirt and squeezed my navel into a four-pointed, dark-creased twinkle. She stuck her finger in it and sat beside me on the loveseat, her finger twisting against the skin as she moved. Her nail dug in.
I yelped and extracted her finger. I wanted to kiss her but when I looked at her, sitting beside me on the loveseat, I couldn’t focus. The walls seemed to be crowding in around her head. The loveseat was the only place we had to sit, shoved under the slanted wall. Or was it the slanted ceiling? This again. In the attic, all the lines seemed to blend together; taxonomy was impossible. The walls and ceiling performed the same function. There was no division. Living room was a joke term, used to describe one loveseat and one television tacked onto the end of the kitchen. It resembled a living room; it had some features that were familiar, that recalled the true species. But ours was a deformed specimen, changed into something else. Who could really tell what was anything anymore?
She looked at me, eyes expectant and searching over her mug. I nodded, meaning, Good, this is good. She nodded back, caught a drip that was running down her chin with her finger. I grabbed her finger and put it to my own mouth to lick off the chocolate. She watched me as I sucked hard on her skin. She had desired all things over me for so long but now her eyes closed and she leaned towards me. I kissed her and she kissed me back. It seemed that it would never end, that we had made it to the parallel universe where we were happy together. Then we pulled away to drink from our mugs, with no words, as if we’d been ripped out of that scene and set rudely back into this one. My drink tasted too sweet now, and I set my mug on my lap, aware of its heat and fullness as I tried to balance it between sips.
There was awkward silence. I didn’t know what she was thinking but I guessed the fantasy was over and I drank in disappointment. Each sip tasted different: too hot, too sweet, too bland, too cold. I didn’t know what to expect anymore; I was nostalgic for the way it used to be.
I asked, “What’s with the stuff on the wall?” at the same time that she said, “Guess what happened on the way home from the store?”
“What stuff?” A frown transformed her face, starting high up between her eyes.
I gestured with my mug at the wall across from us. The papers still flapped—the whole wall still seemed to be flapping—and my drink sloshed out of my mug. It landed dark and heavy on some mock-ups on the coffee table. The liquid sat thick on the surface and looked like it would stay there, but by the time I got a rag and came back, it had seeped into the little model boy’s face, darkening his toothy smile, giving the ad a sinister look, despite the fresh and bright Healthy You in bold below his chin. “Change the lighting behind his head,” my boss had said. “Make him look more angelic. Give him a halo. What are we selling, after all?”
“Angel Food,” I recited obediently.
“Angel Food.” He shoved the poster designs into my hands.
“Guess what happened on the way home from the store?” Elaine tried again, and I gave up on the wall for now.
She’d run into a man she used to know, was my first guess. That would explain her new mood. My wife had a habit of running into men she used to know, when she was out without me.
“Okay, I’ll tell you,” she said. “You’ll never guess.”
She was bouncing up and down and squeezing her hands together under her chin. She couldn’t wait to tell me. Looking at me as if I were the only man in the world. But then, maybe she saw someone else when she looked at me.
“Or no,” she stood up, put her hand on my thigh to lever herself, “I’ll show you.” She clapped her hands together, made an “eeeee” noise and skipped off to the counter. She picked up her purse from where she’d set it on the floor. She came back to the loveseat and unzipped it, reached in like she did when I gave her that first birthday present, the cake in a box at the bottom of a bigger box. The white cake looked pristine, but when she cut into it, we saw that red jam had escaped its thin layers and had seeped into a whole section of it, turning the cake into a soggy, brain matter mess. We’d made blood jokes all week. Cooked around it: blood pudding, blood oranges. Left crime scenes for each other with red paint and old clothes and mirrors.
She pulled out her wallet.
“Someone gave you his card?” I guessed. I had no idea what could have happened that would give her something to put in her wallet. The material was thin and peeling but she seemed to take no notice as she unsnapped the folds. Why didn’t it bother her? I could feel the peeling corners creeping under my fingernails, and I wasn’t anywhere near the thing. “A gallery owner?” I tried again. “He took one look at you and knew—” there was an infinite source of artistic potential under that faded winter jacket?
“No no no,” she shook her head. “Nope.”
“Five bucks?” I said. “You found a five on the street?”
“Better.” She held up her treasure, pulled its edges to snap it smooth and straight in front of my face.
She nodded. Was nodding. Had been nodding.
“You found a twenty dollar bill? Where?”
“On the sidewalk. On the way home. Isn’t it amazing?”
I took it from her. “Is it real? How did it get there?”
“It looks real. I don’t know. Someone dropped it, I guess. I saw it lying there and I kept walking at first, didn’t believe it. Then I stopped and turned around. Looked all up and down the street. There were two guys way up at the corner with a case of beer. It could have been theirs. But they walked on, didn’t seem to be looking for anything lost. And there was no one else.”
“Even behind you, the other way?”
“No one.” She hitched her body closer to me and put her hands on my forearm. “I still didn’t want to pick it up, though. I thought, Maybe it’s a trap. I checked for a string on it, like maybe someone was going to pull it along, and me with it. I looked around for one of those big, boxy vans with no windows, a kidnapper van. Like in the movies.” She paused. “Crazy, I know.”
“Crazy. What movies?”
“Oh...I don’t know. Every movie. Every movie ever made!” She was giddy with excitement. Vibrating. I could feel what was happening on the inside of her body with the inside of my body. Pressing my hand against the wall, I felt the animal in there.
“Although. It is just twenty bucks. It’s not like we’re destitute.” I paused for dramatic effect. “Even though you wouldn’t know it to look around.” I tried to keep a lightness in my voice, but it came out sounding mean.
“It’s not the money, Alan. Although you would think that.”
I went to say something truly light this time to make up for who I am, but as soon as she saw my mouth open she jumped on it. “Of course you won’t go for...for...this.”
“What is this? Magic?” My voice was dripping. I was dripping out onto the floor, my soul sliding right off the couch. Runnier than our drinks, than the stained Angel Boy.
“What if it was?” she said.
“People find money all the time—”
“—Even little Charlie Bucket—”
“—twenties? I’ve found some coins before, a five maybe a few times. But a twenty? People don’t just leave them lying around. Come on, Alan. Charlie Bucket? Fuck Charlie Bucket. What did he find, like a dollar?”
“A five, a twenty, what’s the difference? The bills are exactly the same. Same size, shape. It’s just as easy for a twenty to slip out of your pocket as a five.”
“It’s just the value, Elaine. The value we place on things. We’re the ones who make something worth more or less than anything else.”
“Okay, whatever. But still, it doesn’t just happen. This happened to us. Why us?”
“Us, Alan. We’re in this together.”
“Okay, if we’re in this together, tell me this. What’s with the stuff on the wall? Your stuff? Our wall?” I couldn’t leave it alone.
“Those damn drawings,” I pointed, without the mug in my hand. I could learn from my mistakes.
“What do they look like?”
“I am an artist.”
“You have your art space.” I swung my arm around to aim at her rope, but I forgot I’d closed the bedroom door. The rope was red velvet; she’d gotten it from a theatre when it crossed over. To those poles with the strips that retract into their bodies like at the airport. This rope was in excellent shape, nothing wrong with it that should make someone want to replace it. Its colour was still rich. A blood colour. I imagined the flies in the bedroom lined up on the rope now, feasting on it in a row. A sick nursery rhyme. Fifty fat houseflies sucked the beast dead. One fell off and the other ones said, Roll over, roll over. Forty-nine houseflies sucked the beast dead.
“But the whole apartment. The walls are so bare,” she said.
Fifty fat houseflies on the animal in the wall. Fuck. What if the flies came because of a dead animal in the wall? Or, or, what if the flies came from a dead animal in the wall? Slimy maggots crawling into life, then nibbling off the flesh until they were fat and bursting and ready to enter the world beyond the wall.
“Alan? Are you even listening to me?”
“The walls? You want to talk about the walls? The bare walls? You painted them that way. That nice new white right before I moved in. I loved it, it made everything so clear. Made this shit hole bigger. And now you’re taping up these sketches—and of what? Bears?—and they’re flapping against the wall and the walls may as well just keep collapsing all the way on top of us.” I stopped, my chest heaving. I wanted to keep going but I couldn’t think of anything more to say. She looked at me, her eyes full. She stood up and walked to the sink, banged her mug down. Brown liquid shot up in a stream above the sink. She went into the bedroom and shut the door. I went to the sink to put my own mug in beside hers. I moved hers to make room and I saw, while I was holding it, there was a crack down the side. When I set the mug down, a giant piece broke off and it must have cut my hand, because I bled into the empty mug. I walked the mug over to the bedroom door to show her, before I remembered that she wouldn’t want to see it. I needed her to see it. I’d call a truce and then she wouldn’t have to stay in there with all the flies.
“Elaine.” I knocked, and tried to summon a humour for her that I couldn’t get for myself. “Do you vant to drink my blooood?” I did a pretty good all-purpose Eastern European / Russian / Transylvanian / Vampire accent.
“You can’t stay in there forever.” I didn’t mean it to sound like a threat. “The flies! What about the flies?”
I heard the sound of her chair scraping on the floor. Then the door was open enough to frame her face, the soft round cheeks. “What flies?”
“There were a million flies earlier. Literally like fifty or a hundred, on the light,” I pointed at the light. It was throwing off brilliant light, no vibrating black bodies. “Fat ones, big sticky winter ones.”
“No flies,” she said.
“I’m going to work some more.”
“Why don’t you work out here?” I heard the begging in my voice. Finally my voice sounded the way I felt.
“No thanks, I prefer my corner.” She said this as if I were to blame.
“No flies on your rope, either?”
“No flies,” she said. “Who’s crazy now?”
I sat up late in the flashing blue TV light of a Japanese game show: human Tetris. Men in helmets and shiny silver space suits stood in front of a pool of water. They waited for giant foam walls to close in on them, sliding forward mechanically, inevitably. In the foam walls there were holes cut out in strange, contorted shapes. Yet, each hole was identifiably a body, and each contestant had to copy the shape with his own body so he could fit through the hole, escape the oncoming wall by moving through it, and save himself from being knocked into the cold-looking water. Most of the people didn’t make it; the walls scooped them along and dropped them in the water.
When it was over I went into the bedroom, feeling depressed. There was no lock on the door, and I felt like a maggot sliding along the floor. I didn’t know if Elaine would let me sleep with her, but when I crawled into the bed beside her, she didn’t react. Her body was so warm beside me. I’d forgotten, just since the night before, what another body could feel like. I fell asleep fast. I dreamed I was on the game show but the foam walls were our apartment walls, and there was no pool of water behind me. The only cut-outs were in the shape of giant flies, and I couldn’t fit. Wall after wall came and pressed against me, until I was very flat, and feeling very cold. I woke up to Elaine’s voice saying, “Who’s crazy now, eh?”
“What?” I was still hearing the bouncing game show music, the siren that meant a wall was coming.
She was picking the comforter up off the floor. “You were thrashing around all over the bed.”
She climbed back in with me and I tried to get close to her. I was still cold. I thought I heard the laughter from the show, the host shouting as I struggled to get all my limbs into the shape of the fly body. There were exaggerated cartoon wings that proved the shapes weren’t meant for me.
“You hear that?” she asked.
“What?” I thought she meant the laughter.
“The animal in the walls.”
“There’s no—” I started, but then I heard it too. A definite scrabbling. What sounded like small paws over loose bricks.
“I told you. Just because you couldn’t hear it—”
“Do you think the walls are coming apart in pieces in there?”
“Well, with an animal that size.”
“No, it must be just a small thing,” I insisted. “A mouse. A squirrel maybe. Hoarding his nuts.”
She grabbed my balls. “A squirrel and his nuts? It’s not a squirrel.”
I woke to a buzzing sound near my head. I thought it was the game show siren again, until I felt the sound moving in my hair. A fly. I pleaded with my sleeping wife, “Elaine, wake up.”
She went deeper into the covers.
“Flies are shitting in your hair.”
She sat up and tousled her hair, slowly, not alarmed. She looked calm and sexy, but her reaction made me feel more panicked.
“What’s with you and flies?” she asked.
“Look,” I pointed up. There they were on the light again. It wasn’t even on.
“What the hell?” She jumped out of the bed and ran over to the door, hid half behind the frame. “Have they been there all night? Where did they come from?”
I stood by the window across the room, watching her at the door watching the flies. We had them cornered but we couldn’t do anything.
“The army of one hundred,” she said, her voice breathy and philosophic.
“Is that from something?” I asked, annoyed. I couldn’t tell if she was making light of the situation.
“I don’t know.”
“I have to go to work.”
“I can’t stay here like this,” she said, without looking away from the flies.
“You could get a job,” I said.
She shot me a look. Jobs were dangerous subject matter at this time in our marriage. I shrugged. I left her to the flies for the day.
Knowing what to expect from Elaine when I got home from work was a skill that eluded me. A kind of knowledge I would never have, the same way I would never have a body knowledge or an artistic knowledge. I had none of those specialized kinds that others were gifted with. I was unspecialized.
I came to the top of the stairs and there she was, lying on the loveseat. This was either a very good or a very bad sign. She only waited for me like this, doing nothing, when she was depressed or ecstatic. Although, I wasn’t sure anymore which was very good or very bad.
Her face popped up over the arm of the seat, giving her the mannerisms of an alert rodent. “You’ll never guess what happened today.”
“What? You found another twenty? Or you whisked the flies away like a pied piper?” I sighed. It was only now, opening my mouth for the first time since leaving work, that I felt the full weight of my day. My boss was trying to get me to screw over a whole school board of children. Then on the subway, there had been a class coming home from a field trip. I hadn’t seen so many children up close in a very long time.
“Yes!” she squealed.
“Yes! Well, not the flies. They disappeared on their own. But the twenty! You’re never going to believe it.”
“I already don’t,” I said, and took off my coat.
“I used the twenty to buy some eggs—”
“Why?” All I could picture were little transparent fly eggs, maggots breaking through the thin skins and curling out of them.
“What do you mean, why? Eggs are a staple food.”
“We never have eggs.”
“We do now. Anyway, the eggs cost four twenty-six. And this is the crazy part. Guess how much I got back?”
“Fifteen seventy-four.” I’ve always been good at doing math in my head. Elaine was terrible. It was one of the reasons she stayed with me. To figure out the tip at dinner, how to split the bill with friends.
“No! Thirty-five seventy-four!”
“What?” I said. “Oh, oh, I see. The guy made a mistake. Thought you gave him forty.”
“No. I said to him, Here, you gave me too much. I only gave you twenty. But he shook his head really sternly and said, No. Forty. He wouldn’t let me give it back.”
“Maybe he doesn’t like admitting when he’s wrong. Or maybe you did give him forty.”
“No. It was the only twenty I had. I’d bought some brushes earlier. I was trying to save it but then I wanted an omelette. Isn’t that crazy? The twenty morphed. Into two twenties.”
“That’s weird,” I said, still not believing. One of them had made a mistake. Money doesn’t just morph into more money.
“No kidding,” she said.
“Did he give you the street twenty back?”
“I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, we better hope it will morph again.”
“Why?” She looked at me like she couldn’t tell what I was getting at.
Wasn’t this the kind of reaction she’d always wanted from me? Belief? Enthusiasm? “I want some ice cream,” I said. My new job had instilled in me a heightened capacity for sarcasm and a craving for sweets. My face had turned hard at the mouth and my tummy was getting soft; children-targeted, faux-health food advertising was yet another wall pounding the shit out of me on a daily basis, the bruises and the sound of the game show siren following me home.
“Really?” She jumped up and ran into the bedroom to get her purse. She was keeping it in the bedroom again. That was a good sign. She came back digging her fingers into her wallet. “Here.” She held out the bill to me.
I reached out to take it from her, but as I did there was a new kind of movement on the wall behind her. “What’s that?” I grabbed her shoulders. “An animal?” My eyes were bad as sin from that distance.
“Oh,” she ducked her head sheepishly. “That’s the animal in our walls. My, er, interpretation of it.”
I moved closer to it. It was a bear’s head, mounted on the wall, and below that, a single paw, claws out, attached at a place that looked about right. About where it would need to be to attack.
“I’d been looking for something for a long time—a way to represent him just to get the stupid fucker out of my head—and I found this guy the other day. I’ve been getting him ready.”
She had hung it on the part of the wall where the slope was steepest, so to get a good look, I had to stand right under it. I flinched, picturing its jaws parting and swallowing me into the dark, gaping centre of its mouth, the rest of the bear’s body hidden behind the wall.
“Isn’t it funny? I think we just need some comic relief around here.”
“It’s scary as hell,” I said. “I can’t even talk about this.”
“Then here, take this,” she handed me the bill.
It looked the same as the one she had found. I rubbed it between my thumb and middle finger. I held it up to the light as if I knew what I was doing. “I want to see this in action,” I said. “Come on, get your coat.”
We dressed quickly, pulled the excitement on under our coats and scarves.
“Do you think it will happen again? The magic?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I still think there was a mistake.” But the material of my coat was pulsing.
At Hasty, I opened the door and we walked in together. An electronic chime repeated as we stomped the snow off our boots. It sounded like the game show siren, but I hurried us off the doormat and the noise stopped. We went straight to the freezer.
“Mm, chocolate,” she breathed.
I pulled out a carton of chocolate. Double fudge brownie something. She grabbed it from me and took it up to the counter. Her hand was shaking as she pulled it away from the container.
“Seven sixty-one,” said the man, after he’d punched in some numbers. The convenience store price so high, so arbitrary.
I reached into my wallet—I’d been the one to keep the twenty after I looked at it—and pulled out the bill. I rubbed it to make sure there was just one, and handed it across the counter to the man.
“Out of forty?” He sounded a little confused. But he counted the change anyway, handed me thirty-two thirty-nine.
I stood still, looking down at the bills in my hand. “Thanks, Stan,” Elaine said, and she pulled me away from the counter, towards the door.
“Here.” She took the pile of money from my still-open hand and put it in her wallet. She was good at taking care of people, my wife. We walked without saying anything, and when we were in front of the Michener Institute, my wife stopped.
She was staring at the ground. “There’s where it was.” She sounded like she was talking about the Christ Child, or some other miracle—the Angel Boy! Her voice sounded so exalting, awestruck.
I looked down and saw just the dirty, smudged sidewalk. “Here?” I pointed where I thought she was looking.
“Right here,” she tapped a spot with her foot.
We stood for a long while. I looked over at her face a few times, but she was still looking at the sidewalk, at something that wasn’t there. Finally an old man had to tell us to move out of the goddamn way, and we gave the spot a final look and went home.
“What do you think it means?” she asked as we walked.
“I don’t know.” I didn’t think it meant anything. Or it meant that Hasty had to hire some new employees.
But she spoke slowly, seriously. “How did it get there? Who left it there?”
“I don’t know. Was that the same guy as earlier, at the store?”
“The cashier?” she said. Surprised, I guess, that I was still stuck on that end of the mystery. “No, that was Stan. Earlier it was the other one, I can never remember his name.”
That wasn’t the answer I’d been expecting. “It’s all very weird,” was all I could say.
We walked on in silence. Thoughtful. I felt with her in that moment the way I’d felt the night before on the couch, kissing her in the parallel universe. Happy. I groped in the air between us for her hand to clutch it in mine. My bare hand clinging to her mitten.
When we got to the door I reached into my pocket for my keys and let us in. She closed the door behind her and we felt the stream of cold from outside disperse and fade away. We walked up the flight of stairs in the heat of the building. My nose started to run and I dabbed at it with the back of my finger. On the landing I let us into our apartment. She shut that door too as I pulled my shoes off. It was even warmer in our own stairwell, and as we climbed the stairs I was thankful for the attic.
“At least heat rises. That’s one good thing about this place,” she said as she climbed behind me, seeming to read my mind.
My wife knew me so well. I couldn’t wait until we got to the top of the stairs. I wanted to pull her down onto the loveseat with me and just hold her. We had milk and eggs and chocolate ice cream and we could live for the rest of the week in luxury on the change. I had to keep going to my fucking job but that was okay. She would try to sell her paintings and fail but that was okay. She wasn’t any good at them, but I wasn’t with her for her paintings. She would realize soon enough and it would be tragic but she would get over it. She would cry and I would comfort her, and then she would get a job and maybe one day we’d have kids and a dog and move on with our lives. We were at the top of the stairs and she was taking off her coat. She hated the cold but it gave her skin a pink glow. She looked alive. I felt alive, too. I pulled her down and she laughed, “Take off your coat! It’s still cold from outside.”
I put my hands under her shirt on her belly and she shrieked. When my hands were warm with the heat from her body—“Magic!” I wiggled my fingers at her—I got up and took my coat off. I hung it on the bear claw. “Convenient.”
“Hey. That’s art,” she furrowed her eyebrows and giggled. Such a little girl. “Representing our problems. Remember our problems? Did you put the twenty away?”
“You took it.” I hummed a little tune as I unwrapped the scarf from my neck and draped it over the bear’s snout.
“What problems, eh?” I waggled the bear’s nose. Our problems seemed suddenly like a big joke. Able to be overcome. Extraneous, not so serious. A little pudge turning a man’s navel—the keyhole for sloppy, nutrient-rich life—into an extraterrestrial body.
“No I didn’t. I took the rest of the change but I left the twenty with you so you’d have some cash. And a little magic,” she winked. “I thought you put it away.”
“No,” I said, ready to argue. But as I said it I thought back to the store and knew she was right. I saw the twenty she’d left in my hand. I couldn’t remember putting it away. I went over every action, and nothing involved the bill. I could have dropped it at the store, or held onto it, unknowingly, the whole way home. “Maybe when I got my keys out?” I said, and shoved my hands into my pockets, hoping I’d find it there. When I didn’t, I knew it was gone.
“Oh,” she gasped, and ran down the stairs. I heard her all the way down to the front door. I followed her and stood on the porch until she finished stomping around the snowy lawn. “It’s nowhere,” she said.
“It’s gone,” I said. “We’ll never find it.”
“We have to keep looking.” She turned her head from side to side, looking everywhere but at me. As if she would be able to see it from there, wherever it was.
“Let’s go in,” I said. “I’m sorry, it’s my fault, but let’s just go back in where it’s warm. We can think about it more in—”
“Wait!” she interrupted, not listening, and I watched her run down the street until I couldn’t see her anymore. I walked down the path and stood shivering and pacing on the sidewalk until she ran back up, out of breath. “It wasn’t near the store either. It wasn’t anywhere,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was crying. She bent over trying to catch her breath.
We went back upstairs, with the noise of her breathing heavy all the way up. We stood in the kitchen, my arms around her. Her skin was freezing. She hadn’t worn a coat.
“Hot chocolate?” I said. “I’ll make it.”
“You don’t know how,” she said, her voice carrying the despair I knew she felt. She stepped back from me and started taking things out of the cupboards. A pot. Two mugs. She slid the drawer open for spoons.
I stood rubbing the bear’s cold nose for luck before going over to her. “His nose is cold,” I said. “Like a live animal’s. The cold made it feel wet with life. I thought it would start breathing and rear up, but then it warmed up so fast. In my hand.” We stood at the stove and she showed me how to stir the milk. There was the sound of the spoon, quiet on the bottom of the pot. Steam rose warm between us. It was the last of the milk so I flattened the carton. We both watched as I tossed it away.