The Smart House of Mrs O

This was going to be my home too, after all. The kind of cart every old lady in the city used to haul groceries and laundry. ‘Some of the wounds on the abdomen are consistent with an automobile collision. I had trouble sleeping. First a bad smell, like charred meat, wafted through the apartment. 3 months in and your ready to scram! A celebrity even. I had no idea where they might lead. All of them. His body was crushed under the wheels. Scritch, scritch, scritch. There was an icon of a beating heart and the number seemed impossibly low. I could even make one of you.’
 
*
 
The police called sometime later and said I could go finally go move out my furniture. What am I going to do? I visited the little apartment from the listing I’d found online, and although there wasn’t much closet space, I was taken with the bay windows that overlooked the backyard. Battery powered plastic candles plus the blinking lights of a few machines in the corner. They speculated it might have mutated as a result of climate change or the overuse of chemical cleaners. I’ve never been very good with technological hiccups. Can I ask that?’
‘According to what we can tell, parts of him are still alive. ‘They killed my smart house.’
‘It’s only a blackout.  
*
 
Despite never considering myself superstitious, I started to think that Harold was haunting the apartment. Then I heard a tortured wail from Mrs O’s apartment, followed by crashes like glasses smashed against a wall. I was hacking violently and had to shut my eyes. Mrs O was a woman getting along all by herself. ‘I’ll inspect it right away.’
‘No worries, it just startled me.’
She painted over the face and the patch stayed one shade lighter than the rest of the wall. I looked around at my apartment, wondering if there was anything gazing back. I pushed my head further into the hole. It was eerie and almost unbelievable. He could hear us and talk back.’
‘That wasn’t Harold,’ the officer said. ‘This’ll be a smart house soon! I turned to the countertop, which was covered with jars. ‘You really didn’t have to.’
‘Why do people always say that?’ she snapped. ‘It’s an active crime scene. Anya agreed. I wacked and ripped feverishly, tossing chunks of Sheetrock that skittered across the laminate floor. Go back in time?’
I carefully unwrapped the package. The neighbors had called the night before, but with the blackout the police were backlogged. She said her friend at the butcher shop – ‘a nice old man and so clean with the cleaver’ – had given her more bratwursts than she could eat. Plus I want to show you something.’
I’d been in the middle of a frustrating work day, so I shrugged. At night, I could hear rough sounds, somewhere between pants and coughs, crawling up the pipes. ‘Harold, what’s the weather like tomorrow?’
Weather dot com says a 34 percent chance of rain. The wind howled almost as loud as the city’s traffic. The house loomed behind her, casting its shadow over the backyard even as lights blinked inside. There were only a few lights in the apartment. The doctors said they hadn’t seen anything like this strain of mold. She held a white clipboard with green latex gloves. She’d closed her eyes. As I forced myself inside, I could have sworn the camera was looking at me. Tanya had brought prosecco and Anya the orange juice. ‘It’s all about the apps. With the smart house offline, the door was unlocked. I decided to do all the self-care I could stand. She should be getting the Nobel Prize!’
The police officer snorted and wrote something down. The voice made me nervous. I looked everywhere, opening each folder, checking each drive, clicking with increasing force. But there were also sashimi I didn’t recognize, with fleshy hues that looked more human than fish. The climate was getting more unstable and the political situation was enough to drive you mad. The computer’s voice was nothing like the pleasant and androgynous voices most tech companies used. What if Harold hadn’t died in some bicycle accident? The only smart feature in my apartment I hadn’t been able to turn off was the intercom. They couldn’t have removed everything, surely. We all have tons of text and audio online these days what with all the social media programs. She was practically vibrating with excitement. Apparently Harold’s accident had never been reported. There was a faint scratching at the window, like the fingernails of a ghost on the glass. The machines ran independently despite whatever superstitions she had. I didn’t find him that attractive but was charmed by the name, which made him sound like a British butler. If you walked inside right then, it would have seemed like any other apartment. ‘I’m trying to eat less meat.’
She poked her stubby fingers right into my middle. It was human enough that it felt like someone was watching us from all around. I walked downstairs, one hand on the cold wall. I guess they analyze a lot of audio files and build an algorithm. My girlfriends ushered me to a loud bar with fourteen-dollar cocktails and insisted we talk shit about Charlie. Suddenly the backyard lit up like the Manhattan skyline. ‘I never used to have to do this part.’
‘Here let me.’ I took the tongs. Crouching in my bathroom window, I saw Mrs O stocking up on supplies. The whole interaction put me on edge. As I reached out to touch a wet red cord stretching between the body and one of the machines, Mrs O burst into the room. Her husband had been an architect who worked with tech start-ups designing ‘smart homes’. The sky had turned from blue to bright red. I felt a pain inside me as I remembered the projects Charlie and I’d had planned. What if he had been murdered by Mrs O?  
*
 
Right in the middle of a deadline, my laptop froze. ‘Harold kept himself in such remarkable shape,’ Mrs O told me as I signed over my security deposit. Her skin was waxy and cold. ‘I already did. I put duct tape on the windows and nestled under the covers with a movie streaming on my laptop. When she got to our stoop, she looked around and I crouched back out of view. When I finally got the panel open, a few white objects fell onto kitchen tiles. Just what I needed. And so on and so forth. Finally, I got the app to unlock the door. I was trying to take a nap! Extracted body parts sat inside thick fluid.  
*
 
The problems began slowly, then swelled. I pressed my ear to the door. You don’t want to die sad and alone like me.’
‘You’re doing great,’ I said. Jobs.  
*
 
I put the ear device in a sandwich bag. Then the rains came in unending sheets. Just kicking ass by myself.’
One of the sausages split open and a burst of hot grease fell on my forearm. She’s spry and smart. My friends were right. ‘Hello?’
But there was no reply. ‘Mmm,’ Mrs O said. Mrs O had woven tiny lights all through the fence. Harold, I mean. Could the algorithms have summoned him back to life? ‘Too late, too late,’ she moaned.  
*
 
I don’t know how Mrs O knew it was my birthday, but she handed me a small blue box. When the cart’s wheels hit a crack in the sidewalk, the contents crunched. We tiptoed over and saw the silver end of a metal measuring tape tapping the pane. She was always walking around and knocking on the floor or rubbing her hands on the walls. I looked out the window and saw the movers who’d taken out the bed smoking cigarettes as they leaned against their van. I needed a change of pace. The only notable things were the rectangular holes where the police had cut out the parts of the smart house. The house was empty and silent. The bright lights of the city, those countless illuminated squares running up every building, ended arbitrarily and completely. There were holes across the body. The French press and a few other possessions. ‘He maintained that body like a well-oiled machine. I guess this was supposed to make me feel better, but it only made me feel more alone. When I rebooted, I couldn’t find the file I’d been working on. Boys. But Mrs O only smiled. The staircase was repainted and new sconces with motion sensors installed on the walls. The apartment may have been home, but I still needed to leave its walls sometimes, especially now that those walls mumbled in Harold’s computerized voice. Rupert drummed on his plate with the chopsticks. Mrs O seemed spry as a squirrel though. Yes, darling. Finally, I had a dark hole large enough for my head. She had no relatives or friends that I ever saw. Tanya wrote a profile for me and Anya selected photos. I ran to spray the mold with bleach, but when I got up close, I realized it wasn’t black mold after all. I still heard noises at night coming up the pipes, although they sounded more mechanical and repetitive. Now she’d lose everything. I assumed most old ladies had a hard time even turning on the TV. Like Harold used to draw for me. ‘I don’t think dating apps are for me. Apts. The tray had a lot of the usual: salmon, two types of tuna, yellowtail with scallion, shrimp, globs of uni. You’d save my old back.’
And so I began hauling out what Mrs O tore out of the house: old light fixtures, tangled cords, chunks of broken Sheetrock. He was peaceful, but incomplete. I walked slowly downstairs with some spare candles and knocked on Mrs O’s door. Tugged. I matched with a man named Rupert. When I told the owner, Mrs O, that I was interested, I called her ‘Ms’ and she got very agitated. I couldn’t believe it. A small cry escaped her throat.  
Image © Erik Schepers I was practically smashing the keys. My laptop was, thankfully, fully charged. The table was covered with printouts and tools. She replaced the front door lock with an electronic system that could be opened with a phone app. ‘Mind if I use this?’
It was the smell that tipped off the police.  
*
 
The blackout took out half of the city. After Anya and Tanya left, I knocked on Mrs O’s door. You’re just like Harold. The Smart House of Mrs O
Lincoln Michel

‘I looked around at my apartment, wondering if there was anything gazing back.’ New fiction from Lincoln Michel. A low hum filled the room, which I realized came from a small generator by the stove. And it’s so expensive. Yet she was sitting on the staircase when I came down from the roof. None of my possessions were touched, yet I would come home from work and find a new faucet or a thermostat I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t help myself. My work had vanished like a ghost into the walls of the hard drive. ‘She was a little mad maybe, but aren’t all geniuses?’
‘A genius?’
‘She integrated her husband into a smart house. Most of the, I don’t know what you want to call them. She moaned again. ‘Do you have someone special in your life?’ Mrs O said. I could feel my heart beating louder with each search that ended with no results. Still, I didn’t want to cause trouble with Mrs O. I didn’t like having them in my apartment. ‘I’m not all alone.’ Mrs O gestured toward the house. I’ll do it. My head was woozy from the medicine and the flu. ‘The Japanese are crazy,’ Rupert said. And for what?’
‘Maybe he lived better before the accident. It was a burn. There was a glitch that sounded like coughing. ‘Isn’t this place the bomb?’ Rupert said as the waiter placed the omakase between us. At the 99-cent store I got black tape and went through my apartment covering up anything that could have been a camera. ‘What’s up, Mrs O?’
‘Just getting ready for the improvements,’ she shouted. The security camera pivoted, following me. The house was even stranger. I didn’t have to worry about the security deposit anymore. Inside was a black brooch shaped like an ear. Due to the odd shape of the bedroom, the only place I could put the bed was beside the radiator. I knew it was a bad habit, but maybe cancer was the price of self-care. She carried two more bags of ice. Oh, that’s bright. Its true Amandaboo. ‘I’ve got one too! She ran in and out of the house with her little old lady cart hauling canned soups, cartons of bottled water, and more bags of ice. She turned it on and sighed. They were just decoration. ‘You know, I think your landlady is senile.’
‘What?’
‘Well, I’m working on a story about traffic safety and I remembered the bit you told me. I looked up at the house and imagined the windows as gigantic eyes. Mrs O would make us glasses of homemade lemonade and we’d sit on the stoop, the sun sinking in front of us while behind us the house thrummed, as if alive. One day, I moved a dresser and saw a stain of black mold on the wall that looked almost like the outline of a tortured, screaming face. Mrs O was pushing it. ‘Raw fish! I realized they were bags of ice. She grinned. Something took hold of me, something sad and angry. I’d heard a bus killed him.’
The medical examiner overheard this. I duct taped the bag shut and then buried it in the back of my desk drawer. ‘Make it a smart house, like Harold would have wanted.’
Despite the strange noises – which soon felt as commonplace as the wallpaper – and the oddities of the landlady, I felt comfortable in the apartment. I went to the rooftop and looked at the skyline. As the police questioned me, days later when I was sleeping on an air mattress with a slow leak in Tanya’s living room, I started to get indignant. They were enough to see more than I wanted to see. She clapped her hands three times and the wobbly Harold voice came out of the brooch. Certain bones and organs seemed to have been removed through incisions, the wounds stitched back together with thick black thread. It was some type of electronic, but it felt fleshy and smelled like latex. I decided to simply de-Harold my part of the house. I walked around my apartment’s walls, ear pressed to the paint, listening for what was out of sight. I closed my eyes and tried to breathe through my mouth. ‘Harold spoke through the house. The laptop was outside my door, alongside a plate of oatmeal cookies with little raisins that looked at me like a mess of eyes. The house’s facade looked almost black. Although Mrs O had said she wasn’t going to fuss with my floor, I started to notice things changing. It looked like a quiet, calming place. She ran to the tank and poured the contents inside, seeming not to notice me. ‘Hello?’ I said. The walls and ceiling and floor were all flecked with dark specks. I leaned over and retched, but nothing came out. She ran a finger tenderly around the mouth. ‘Vacancy.’
Mrs O put a surprisingly heavy hand on my shoulder. He’d never been very fastidious. It opened with a simple push. Once I depowered it, I’d be Harold free while I looked for a new place. I’d been avoiding Mrs O for the past week and searching for new apartments online.  
*
 
The bathroom window faced the street and one night, when I’d woken up to pee, I saw a shape pushing a black wire cart down the sidewalk. I couldn’t find anything matching Mrs O’s description of her husband’s death. They’ll get the power fixed soon,’ I said, trying to muster a cheery voice. ‘Amanda, what’s that weird old lady doing in your backyard?’
I opened the window. Everyone thinks they would do the right thing in a situation like this, but what was the right thing? ‘Not just that,’ she said. This was among the things we’d fought about. A dark circle of water spread beneath the cart. I found the discolored square patch Mrs O had painted over – it was still there. I turned on my phone’s light and flashed it inside. I chattered with Mrs O on the stoop about anything other than Harold and the house. It’s getting nippy out. They weren’t doing anything. The temperature was dropping with the sun and I wished I’d brought my jacket. Maybe she never married and is embarrassed about it.’
I decided to do some searching myself. She was a crazy old lady slicing up her husband!’
‘But the voice.’ I wasn’t ready to deny Mrs O everything yet. I thought they were bits of broken plastic but when I picked them up, they looked almost exactly like human teeth. I’m a luddite.’
‘Even luddites need to get laid,’ Tanya said. A few hours into the storm, the lights went out. This way, you can call him up when you’re out and about and Harold will get stuff ready for you.’ She lifted her pin to her lips. Don’t forget to put on a coat. I’d had a bad run of things recently. Not even a hello, eh? There were all sorts of wires inside. ‘What can I do?’
‘Oh?’ Mrs O was moving her stud finder around the hallway. Now who’s that there at this hour? ‘When Harold designed his experimental houses, he got me to figure out where the tech would go.’ Her lips crinkled in a smile. Just swipe through them like parts on an assembly line.’
I’d convinced Anya and Tanya to come down to my new apartment for brunch. I had to put a fan in my window. She winked at me, and then she shouted over her shoulder. ‘When did he die? ‘You programmed his voice into the house?’ I said. On a day-to-day basis, I mean.’
Mrs O was looking out at the road with contempt. ‘Oh, the judge will love that answer.’ The officer wrote on his little notepad. ‘You really shouldn’t have,’ was all I could say. There’re so many men on them! Dust was everywhere. Before, it had felt alive, eerily so. I’d estimate those injuries occurred about four months ago.’ She pointed toward the bathroom. She seemed to be debating if she should insult me or not. And it didn’t help him one bit in the end.’
 
*
 
Every morning I made coffee with an electric kettle and a French press, then sat at my desk in the warm morning light. ‘You have to relearn all the things your partner knew. She installed all those smart tech things.’
‘Old people can be weird. ‘How do you like my Harold?’
Mrs O was beaming. He turned out to be a finance bro who wanted to talk about exercise routines and ‘pretty edgy’ stand-up comedians. Thirty bpm. ‘Oh, what the hell.’
Mrs O waddled over to the grill. About your landlady’s dead husband.  
*
 
Mrs O held a large platter of meat. A small stack in the corner. I don’t know if I would have called them myself, if they hadn’t shown up like they did. You don’t have to yell. Hardly a day went by when I didn’t see her bustling about. Anyway, Charlie survived, but the breakup stuck. I was like a mycophobic Lady Macbeth. I was finally home. It was the fourth or fifth once-in-generation storm we’d had in the last couple years. ‘Nonsense. With the smart house.’
Mrs O seemed a little nervous. ‘Mrs O was a genius,’ I said. I hadn’t seen Mrs O since the blackout started. The first thing that hit me was the cloud of stench that escaped through the door. Finally!’
‘Old people are so weird,’ Anya whispered through her smile. I excused myself and ran home, vomit threating to leap out at every block. Mrs O had been cashing his Social Security checks and Harold’s name was still on the lease. ‘Obviously I could never have a dog. ‘To help out. The way the moonlight reflected off the camera made it seem like there was a human eyeball embedded in the glass. A couple delivery guys puttered by on mopeds. I jumped out of my chair and screamed. Mrs O had already been hauled away. I want the house to feel like it’s alive.’
‘That’s exciting.’ I wondered if I should offer to help, although I didn’t know anything about smart houses. My mother had given me a piece of ugly art that I found fit exactly over the discolored paint that covered the burn mark. It looked like half the city had been vaporized by a supervillain’s ray. I felt like I was slowly putting myself back together. It can’t.’
I knocked a few more times, but Mrs O wouldn’t respond. I tried to stop thinking about Harold. ‘There are lots of weird smells in the city,’ I said. ‘You can bring Harold with you wherever you go now.’ She pointed at her lapel, which was decorated with another ear brooch. ‘I’m going to update this house soon,’ she told me. His body stuffed in the walls that were now wired with high-tech electronics? I knew I was going to have to move again, despite all my hopes for a year of calm and stability. She opened it a crack.  
*
 
‘Apps,’ Anya said. I thought I heard something, a coughing sound from deep down in the house. Cough, clunk, cough, clunk. There was one of me jumping on a beach, one at a wedding in a nice dress, one cuddling a friend’s fluffy white dog. The sausages sat in a pink puddle. I used a butter knife on the casing, which popped open with a gasp. They connect to the whole smart house through the cloud.’
‘I’m not sure I’ll have much use for it,’ I said, sprinkling my voice with as much politeness as I could muster. It was a rotting, evil smell so thick in the air I felt like I was chewing it. Why hadn’t I seen anything suspicious? ‘Must be some faulty wiring in the walls,’ Mrs O said. Empty plastic bags were scattered around the floor. I felt defensive, as if the police were burglars violating my sacred space. Dials spun back and forth. ‘I always hated him,’ Tanya said. You can have your smart systems talk with any “skin” you want. ‘Although you’ll be missing out.’
 
*
 
I picked up some freelance gigs, lost others. Not just as a machine, not coldly. Every day seemed to bring about some new horror on the news. ‘It doesn’t just listen, it also speaks,’ she said. When I brought the laptop downstairs, Mrs O didn’t open her door. In the middle of what had been the dining room was a body in a large tank of water. The body didn’t move. You always freak out about things like this, Tanya wrote when I group-texted my fears. The preservations, let’s say. The walls seemed to be bending. ‘Dear, turn on the lights.’
Now, just give me a second here, a wavering and staticky voice said from speakers that must have been hidden in the potted plants. The whole house, which normally seemed to throb, was still, dark and silent. Tanya was right. Did the veggie sausages help him when the truck hit? I squished the sentiment with my mind. Start the bath already!’
I’ll do it. ‘How did you do that?’
My face must have looked shocked, but Mrs O didn’t see. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing. On top of the counter, a wrinkled gray globe, a brain, floated in a yellow vat. I even took out the flattened cardboard boxes that had delivered who knows what machines. She showed me a photo on her phone, which was the latest model and looked gigantic in her withered hand. You can make a skin of anyone. I wondered if a squirrel had gotten fried in the walls. ‘Our tech people say she’d purchased what they call “a skin” online. ‘You need a partner, dearie. Everything fit inside a handful of boxes. She collapsed in the chair beside the tank. Plus, my lease was up and the landlords were trying to raise the rent by a ridiculous amount citing improvements I hadn’t even noticed. I felt like the house was driving me mad. ‘What kind of smart house features are you adding? I found the screws and undid them carefully, not wanting to damage anything and lose my security deposit. All of the scientific studies say it helps you live a longer, more fulfilled life. She insisted I join her out back to grill. It wouldn’t be until I muttered something to myself that I realized they were voice activated. But only parts.’
‘Did he get hit by a bus? I mimicked turning on a motel sign. The whole house is. It was the top floor of one of those strange little houses that appear, as if teleported from some quaint New England town, sandwiched between the city’s towering apartment buildings. A cigarette was what I needed. No one knew when it would end. I kept watching my movie. Apparently he’d been hit by a city bus while biking to the park. ‘The smart house wasn’t as smart as you think it was. I almost tripped over her in the dark. ‘It can’t be happening. I’d always been a bit of a hypochondriac and soon I was seeing circles spreading on the walls of my apartment, spots appearing on my sheets and ceiling. She was more than double my age yet had twice the energy.  
*
 
The hurricane was described as ‘a once-in-a-generation storm’. I thought maybe Mrs O had a large old dog, but when I asked, she laughed. ‘But I could use help taking out all this junk! Mothers throwing babies into ponds laced with toxic algae or men gunning down strangers at movie theaters. I felt like I was sliding across the floor, as if Harold’s body had been imbued with some magnetic force. I didn’t respond, just opened the app on my phone. She grunted as she sat down beside me. ‘You can do much better.’ Anya raised her vodka soda and clinked it against Tanya’s gin gimlet. Mrs O hummed a tune. Black, red, white and green. All the smart-house electronics were off. ‘My laptop ate my files. ‘The electronics and the wiring are very delicate.’ She unfurled her face. ‘Do you need some candles, Mrs O?’
I thought I heard a faint voice. To be honest, I’d love to be like you when I’m older. I was annoyed at the onset, but then I decided to embrace the upgrades. A pool of pinkish liquid spread from the bottom of the tank. Tanya shushed us. Mrs O tossed a bag over each shoulder and skipped up the steps like a witch dragging two lost children into her gingerbread house. ‘I won’t fuss around on your floor if that’s what you’re worried about,’ she said. ‘I could take a gander if you like. She had his brain hooked up to the speaker system. It sounded like someone dying, or else death itself breathing down my neck. I’m pretty technologically handy.’
I must have looked surprised. I rooted in the cabinet below the sink until I found the hammer behind the cans of old paint. Old Mrs O appeared on the stoop. Then a couple weeks later I got a call from Tanya. I held my stomach. My last name is all I have left from him that anyone can see.’
‘That they can see?’
‘Only the name and this house,’ she said. I took two steps into the room. ‘Don’t leave me alone again.’
 
*
 
The police told me I’d have to stay somewhere else for a while. This sounded like an old man, and a rather cranky one at that. We talked about the usual things: our feelings about men, our feelings about women, our feelings about our shitty jobs and annoying parents. The climate was spiraling out of control. This one was filled all the way to the top with lumpen bags. Now it was silent and still, like it had been replaced with a plastic replica in the middle of the night. Mrs O flew down the street. ‘Harold.’
 
*
 
As soon as I saw Mrs O disappear down the street with her pushcart, I crept downstairs. I would have hoped the whole situation would work itself out without me. Like voice control?’
Mrs O was silent for a minute. If I did see something, why hadn’t I reported it? I found the listing online. ‘Nonsense. My boyfriend, Charlie, had dumped me to work on his novel – ‘I need more time to myself, to work on my novel’ is how he’d phrased it – and then been poisoned by black mold in his apartment. Wires and cords flowed out of Harold, like thin snakes, and slithered around to different machines. While Tanya mixed mimosas, I took the frittata out of the oven. But Mrs O explained she’d been a computer engineer. I grabbed them. I imagined setting a small table by the windows and sipping my coffee, awash in the morning light. ‘I bet his dick was all moldy too,’ Anya said. Then I remembered what an asshole he’d been and how I was doing better on my own. If I’m being honest with myself, I think if I’d been left to my own devices I would have just packed up my things and moved away in the middle of the night. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ I said. When did I first notice a strange smell? the intercom said when I walked up the steps. I might have screamed myself. Right.’
Mrs O was a strange one. I’d planned to meet Tanya and Anya for a hurricane party, but I ended up in bed with the flu. I started up meditation and yoga again. The sounds from the radiator would wake me up in the middle of the night. ‘Harold! ‘It’s too untidy in here to invite you in, but I’ll have it back in a jiffy.’
About two hours later I heard a knock. I took a photo and posted it on my Instagram feed. Your rent is a godsend.’
I spaced the sausages on the grill in equal intervals. I checked the news sites and the public records. I couldn’t quite see into her apartment, but I could see a smart watch on her hand. What is it? I knew I should call the police, but I was drawn further inside. We’re calling in special units.’
I gathered what I could into my backpack while they watched me and asked questions. I expect people to be a pain, but a machine should do its job.’
‘People and machines aren’t so different,’ she said. The only things I could see in my black room were the smart-house electronics blinking. The only one who would win out was the bank. Harold was allergic, don’t you know?’
I did not know, but I said, ‘Ah. ‘Dulcet tones.’
 
*
 
I finally downloaded one of those dating apps. It was old, with gray hair and splotchy skin. ‘I want responsive appliances and a bathroom that knows how to fill the tub to exactly the right temperature, with not too many bath salts. She wore a navy windbreaker and her gray hair was held up by a headband. I figured you could use a treat.’ She handed me a blueberry scone on a napkin. ‘You got the voice system working,’ I said, surprised. ‘Please call me Mrs,’ she said. ‘You’ll be okay,’ she said, softly. I’d taken a health class in college and remembered anything below sixty was abnormal. You didn’t lose the umbrella did you? The eyes and the top of his head were gone. The machines were white and clean. I knew instantly that this was Harold. Truth was, I hadn’t wanted to. Cough, clunk, cough, clunk. ‘I know it’s not hip with you young folk, but I miss my husband. ‘Look at all you’ve done with this house! It felt good to laugh and get it all out. And every week, Mrs O made improvements on the house. I did some googling and, well, I can’t find any report of a bicyclist with his name getting killed near the park.’
‘Senile? Meditation, yoga, regular exercise, crystals on my desk, no coffee or caffeinated tea after one p.m., you name it. She was propped against the wall, mumbling and pulling on her white hair. She reached out a hand and grabbed mine. ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be old and alone,’ she said, pointing out how to adjust the gas. How do you think that up?’
I ate a few bites and soon realized the food wasn’t agreeing with me. It made me feel happy and useful. I couldn’t believe how little of myself was in the house. ‘He biked every day and ate nothing but vegetables. The last few years had done a number on me – not just Charlie and the mold, but shitty underpaid jobs with overeager bosses, my father’s sudden cancer, four apartment moves in three years – and I was desperate for a good one.