He stretched out on top of the unmade bed, naked. From the bathroom came the squeak of the faucet as his wife turned on the shower, the sound of the water splashing in the tub, then the water beating against the wall, then because she didn’t like the water beating against the wall and running into the soap dish and wasting the soap, the water beating on the plastic shower curtain. The water continued to run, but sounding further away as she closed the door.
There was a time when they always took their showers together, weekdays and weekends. But time brought practicality into the marriage. Because the shower was in the tub only one of them could stand under the stream of water at a time. The other had to stand at the back, getting cold. And because he was so much taller, the water splashed off his shoulders and into her face whenever it was her turn to wait. He had decided, all things considered, that it was easier for her to call him when she was through.
What with her hangover; and the stiff muscles in the back of her neck; that she wanted to wash her hair; and she needed to shave her legs—he figured she’d be in there twenty minutes. At the minimum. And from the sound of it, she wasn’t even under the water yet. Sigh. The water was whistling, which meant that someone else in the building was also taking a shower, someone else was fighting for supremacy of the hot water. He knew his wife would have none of that battle. She’d sit on the closed toilet seat until the proper temperature and pressure returned, arms folded, waiting.
It took several minutes but the pipes stopped whistling. The pressure returned to normal. He had been there often enough; he could see her unzip the long quilted gown and step out of it, hanging it on the back of the door. See her put on the shower cap covered with plastic flowers, even though she’d take it off again halfway through in order to wash her hair. See her pull down her panties and step out of them, fold them carefully on top of the toilet seat, and get tentatively into the tub, closing her eyes against the flow of water and groping with outstretched arms until she found the handles and made the right adjustments. He sometimes missed seeing it in person.
The sound of the water changed as it was directed into the tub, against her body. She adjusted the showerhead from spray to massage; the low vibrations rumbled through the building’s plumbing. It was a wonder no one had complained about that. Every pipe in the building carried the vibrations of the spinning shower head, walls gently massaged from the inside, the dark spaces between floors and apartments pulsing with the flow of water, the building undulating, dancing, humming a tune to itself among the other staid apartment buildings on Russian Hill. He stretched again, reaching his hands between the cool brass of the bedstead, touching the wall.
He worked his ass a couple of times, enjoying the feel of the rumpled sheets and quilt against his skin, then raised up on one elbow. Each square of the quilt was embroidered with the name of the woman who made it. He could imagine the stiff, bored ladies of his grandfather’s congregation in Kansas, sitting in the parlor of the parsonage or in the Sunday School room in the basement of the old frame church, sewing away the winter evenings. He lifted up. His buttocks had been resting on the signature of Mr. & Mrs. Earnest J. Boyd. He grinned when he thought of the expression on the Plains woman’s face if she could see her handiwork seventy-five years later.
He tried several poses: spread-eagle, his hands through the open framework of the headboard and his feet touching the footboard as if he were tied. From there he went into a crucifixion. Pardon me, would you mind crossing your legs, I only have one nail left. Then a coy fetal position. When he went into a variation of Marilyn Monroe’s first calendar pose, he knew it was time to get up. He padded into the hall.
A new batch of cat food bits was scattered across the kitchen floor. A minefield in bare feet. He made his way carefully to the cupboards and surveyed the shelves for something to eat, a snack of some sort, something sweet or crunchy. But the supplies were all business, the basics of homemade items, flour, salt, cans of broth and sauce, boxes of rice and seasonings. The refrigerator was the same, all basics. Not a frivolous item in the larder, not a cookie or treat in the apartment.
He picked at the crumbs of the breakfast muffins still sitting in the broiler tray, dipped them in the small puddles of orange marmalade left on their plates. He thought of heating up another muffin, but his wife had allotted only two for the day, the rest were packaged and labeled and frozen for another time. It was better to go hungry than to disturb the order. On impulse he took a box of cat cereal from underneath the sink and shook one of the small brown stars into his palm. He looked at it, sniffed it, and threw it away.
He settled for sticking his finger into the jar of peanut butter and licking it off. A couple of times. From downstairs came the high-pitched screams of a soprano, part of the weekly dose of opera from the woman who lived below them. In the dining area he rose up on his toes and arched his hands over his head, performing half a dozen toe-steps across the rug until he stepped on a stray piece of cat food and yelped. Grendel, surprised from her nap, looked at him from beneath the dining table. He picked the piece of cereal from the crease on the ball of his foot and threw it at her. It hit her on the side. She sniffed at it and settled down to go back to sleep.
He tried the ballet routine again, this time adding a few leaps and pirouettes across the room, dipping gracefully to a swell in the music. Then he went to the hall to watch himself in the full-length mirror. He did the routine again, tempered down a bit this time so he could keep himself in view. Then he stood in profile to see how he was holding up. His ten extra pounds were quite visible around his middle, but disappeared if he stood up straight and sucked in. The front view didn’t seem so bad though. He pumped his hips a couple of times to watch his penis and testicles bounce up and down. As he turned away he noted, as a girl he once dated had pointed out, his ass was square.
There was a noise from the rear of the apartment. The woman who lived across the back stairs had her kitchen door open as she talked to someone. He hurried to the back door and put his ear against it. She was a relatively new tenant, a mystery woman, he had only seen her once in several months and that was from the front window—a stylish woman in her forties, picture hat and sunglasses on a foggy day, followed up the front steps by a driver of a private car who carried her luggage. In the entryway downstairs he had noticed packages addressed to her, forwarded from Santa Monica.
“Well, if you want it, you should get it,” she said. Her voice sounded thick and boozy.
A male voice from inside the apartment said something in reply.
“Oh shit on it,” she said. “Oops, it’s the weekend. Sorry neighbors.”
He wanted to call back, “That’s okay.”
Her mules clattered halfway down the back steps and she dropped a bag of bottles into the garbage chute. Most of them broke when they fell into the empty can. She giggled and tried to walk a little quieter back up the steps.
“You’d think we had a party last night, wouldn’t you?” she said before closing the door.
He stayed where he was a few moments as he ran it over again in his mind. She walked back up the stairs and just as she reached the landing he opened the door and stood naked before her. What would she have done? What would he have done? Nothing. He went back to the kitchen, walking lightly so the floor wouldn’t creak.
The paper was on the table in the dining area. He reached across in front of the window for the Entertainment section, then thought what the hell and sat down in full view. The only one who could see him at the back of the building was Mrs. Tree on the third floor, and he figured she was too old to care. The living room shutters were open, directly across from him. If the girl across the street watched him as much as he watched her, she would get an eyeful. Though he was probably too far away, and the light wasn’t strong enough. He considered going over and sitting on the chest in the bay windows, but decided that would be too blatant.
His ass stuck to the seat of the wood chair and he had to shift his weight. In the paper there was a review of a novel about an abortion; a feature article on the Rhododendron Dell at Golden GatePark; photographs taken in Muir Woods, and an aerial view of the Bay. It was his third time through the section and he still wasn’t interested in it. He crossed his legs and sorted out the skin of his testicles. He adjusted the shutters on the window behind him. The draft from the partly opened window tickled his mid-section.
Grendel appeared from underneath the table and sniffed at his toes. She took several licks at one of them then went to have a drink. He got up, out of view of any of the windows, watching himself approach in the hall mirror. In the bathroom the shower massage was still going on. She would be standing there in a trance, rolling her head slowly from side-to-side as the water beat against her neck. It could be hours before he had the chance to get in there.
He paced through the bedroom, listened again at the back door, and returned down the hall. A car horn sounded on Union Street. He hurried to the doorway of the living room, wondering if he dared go to the windows just as he was. He didn’t. He got down on all fours and scurried across the floor until he was underneath the windows, then reached up and closed the shutters before raising up on his knees. Grendel sat in the doorway to the kitchen, giving him a strange look.
There was a bald spot pacing about on the front patio over the garages. A tonsure of thin hair surrounding a man’s dome, with one long strand pulled over the top. Circling the man’s neck was a red and blue paisley scarf. Circling the man’s feet was a standard poodle. The man was orbiting the large round planter filled with ivy, which was crowned with a small bush in the center; the dog was orbiting the man. They appeared equally nervous.
The front door slammed and all the pacing stopped as the young socialite from the first floor made her appearance. She always dressed as though she stepped out of the Thirties: short bobbed hair; long loose skirts reaching to the middle of her calves; high-heeled black suede pumps. She was tall enough to know that her escort had a bald spot. They brushed cheeks and she bent down to make a fuss over the poodle. The gentleman offered his hand to help her down the front steps and into his maroon Rolls-Royce. The poodle wasn’t anxious to get in the car, but after several minutes of coaxing the dog got into the back seat. As they drove away, the young woman picked a few pieces of lint or dog hairs from her skirt and flicked them out the open wind-vent.
He discovered he wasn’t the only observer of the scene. Across the street in the young couple’s apartment, the girl was standing at the open window. He closed the slatted panel facing her and opened it again a crack. She was wearing a red and white football jersey, without numbers, that reached to her bare thighs. While she watched the street she brushed her long blond hair as it draped down over her right breast. She swayed back and forth, doing little steps, dancing to music that he couldn’t hear, her lips silently forming the words. She turned around quickly and disappeared into the depths of their apartment.
He opened all the louvers again, and lay back across the floor. He stretched and scratched his back against the rough carpet; he pressed his legs together and lifted them a few inches from the floor, but let them drop when he felt the pull in his stomach. Then he just lay there. For reasons he didn’t understand, he suddenly felt melancholy and sad. The opera from the apartment below swelled with a roar of brass and timpani. He thumped his heel three times on the floor.
The overcast was beginning to break, the fog drawn inland and burning away. Definition was beginning to come to the sky, wisps of gray traveling eastward, broken up by patches of blue. The louvered panels created soft layered shadows across the walls and furniture.
He lay in the trapezoid of light from the shutter they left open for Grendel, a light as yet without heat. From his position he could see only the rooftops of the buildings across the street, the fluted and decorated cornices above the bay windows, the struts of the fire escapes as they climbed over the parapet walls, half a dozen sheet metal chimneys titled at crazy angles, each with a different odd-shaped cap. To the left was the top of a pine tree, hidden from street level in someone’s backyard, nodding occasionally in the slight breeze. Behind it, the windows of an apartment tower a block away rose up out of his field of vision. The white façade was in the process of being repainted, the sealant in the cracks of the block work creating a crossword puzzle of lines. To the right was the upper half of the American flag flying next door, the pole topped off by a large gold globe the size of a melon. The flag hardly moved, but the gold ball quivered.
There were times when he still had trouble believing this was their apartment. With its grass-cloth walls and the green carpet running through every room, it was like an extravagant dream. When he first came to the city, a student at Berkeley, he used to ride the cable cars on Hyde Street and look up at the bay windows of the apartments, wondering about the people who lived there. Now as he lay on the floor, he could hear the clanging of the cable cars as they passed Searchlight Market at the corner. And when he looked down at the passing cars on Union Street, there were often faces looking up at him.
They had lived here ten years, the ten years of their marriage. They found the apartment by chance as they were walking along the street one day, and only asked to see it on a lark, sure that they could never afford such a place in such a neighborhood. But the Chinese houseboy who showed it to them—from the landlord’s house next door—took a liking to them, especially to his wife, and the rent was within reach as long as they both worked. While their friends saved their money, invested in homes in the suburbs and fought mortgages and taxes, they stayed in the apartment on the theory that it was better to be able to walk away and not be tied down. Ten years later, it was a theory that had yet to be tried, or proven.
There was a blast of air in his ear, and a sudden cold damp spot on his cheek. Grendel sniffed at the side of his head, down his shoulder, stepping carefully over his outstretched arm. The animal worked her way slowly, methodically down his chest, hips, thighs, calves, her nose bouncing off his skin each time it touched. She paid particular attention to his ankle bone and licked it a couple of times before sitting down to take a few licks at her own side. She continued down to the end of his toes and, apparently satisfied that he was all there, jumped up on the afghan in front of the open shutter to check out the rest of the world.
His wife had changed the showerhead from Massage to Spray and was beginning to wash. He raised up on his knees and joined Grendel at her level at the window to see what it was that interested her. In a downstairs apartment across the street there was a face between the curtains. He thought he knew who occupied the apartment, an elderly Russian couple who either owned the building or managed it. He recognized the couple, but he didn’t recognize this face. It was a woman’s face, only distorted, grotesque, elongated and covered with lumps, like a Halloween mask of a witch. Maybe they were having company, a visit from a deformed daughter, or a crone from the old country. Maybe they thought he was spying on them and put on a mask to freak him. The face disappeared and the curtains closed.
Down on the street a guy in tennis clothes was getting into his Jaguar. His date from the night before, still dressed for a party, stood uncomfortably on the curb, waiting for him to reach across and unlock the door on her side. But he was in no hurry. She tried to ignore the two teenage boys bouncing a basketball who stared at her as they passed. Following the boys was a girl in a granny dress who was in turn followed by a sheepdog. Upstairs in his own building someone was starting to vacuum.
Grendel wasn’t interested in any of it. She was watching the sky for birds, gulls or crows. The young man leaned over and put his face in her fur, blowing against her side. She looked at him as if to say “Why’d you do that?” He leaned over and did it again. She batted him on the cheek.
His nose was full of cat hairs. He brushed them away and listened. From the sounds of it he guessed his wife was washing her hair. He looked across the street to the girl’s apartment. The shades were up in the bedroom and living room but the interior was dark and the windows reflected his own building. Then something moved in the shadows. In the rear of the apartment he could barely make out the outline of her puffy hair, the line of her arm. She was sitting at her dining room table, slowly turned the pages of the paper. Her arm was bare and he wondered if she was naked too.
He stared at the dim vision for several minutes. Then he crawled back across the room on hands and knees. He scooted down the hallway, stopping in front of the bathroom door. All he could see through the keyhole was the candy-striped shower curtain. He listened to the water splashing against his wife’s body and the plastic curtain, the sound of the shampoo bottle being returned to the windowsill.
Slowly, carefully, he turned the knob without a sound and opened the door a few inches. He waited, then opened it further. She didn’t hear him or suspect anything. He crawled into the room and closed the door just as carefully behind him.
The room was thick with steam. Drops of water formed on the walls and trickled to the floor. He stood up. In the mirror above the sink he was only a flesh-colored form in the misty glass. He stood there several minutes. The water was still running but her movements had stopped. He was afraid to breathe.
“Did you come in?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. One step took him beside the shower, a foot away from where she stood on the other side of the curtain.
“Honey?” she said.
He thought of the tricks he used to play on her when she was in the shower. He would reach around the side of the curtain, or even over the top, presenting a groping dismembered hand. Once he had even reached under the bottom, grabbing her ankle; she screamed and almost fell over. Now he just stood there.
Her fingers appeared around the far edge of the curtain and pulled it back a little ways. He leaned as far forward as he could. Then the curtain fell back into place; in a moment she began rinsing again. He didn’t know whether she had seen him or not.
He waited another minute or two, then opened the door and slipped back outside. His skin was damp and he felt chilled. He hugged himself and went back to the bedroom, climbing underneath the covers.
In a few minutes the bathroom door opened and she called, “I’m out.”
He called back, “Okay,” but she had closed the door again and didn’t hear him. He was still shivering when he stepped again into the bathroom. She held a towel in front of her.