I had placed the medium-sized cardboard box with my father’s belongings on the floor in a clearing near my door. It was next to my shoes and a small container of poison pellets that the building manager had asked all the tenants to keep in their apartments. Living in San Francisco for almost ten years, I had grown accustomed to seeing the occasional mouse, but I had seen several in just the few months since moving into the old Victorian building in the Western Addition. The building manager blamed it on the construction of luxury apartments across the street.
Lourdes, my father’s home nurse, had been insistent that I take the box. “I can’t keep these, Marco,” she said holding the brown package before me. “The items in here,” she lifted it slightly, “should stay with you.”
My father didn’t have many belongings. Most were donated or thrown out, upon his request, when my mother died a few years earlier and my father moved into a modest, one-bedroom apartment, still in Fairfield and not far from Travis Air Force Base. When I took the box from Lourdes, I felt the same as I did when the uniformed Air Force officer placed the folded American flag in my hands at my father’s funeral. It was not sorrow or even guilt but a lack of feeling, a kind of numbness. Throughout the burial Lourdes stood beside me. With one hand she held the flag and with the other dabbed tears from her eyes and cheeks with a tissue.
That had been a month earlier. From across the room on my futon I could see that a thin layer of dust had felted the top of the box, its tape seal unbroken. Although I passed it multiple times a day, it had receded among the items that lined the base of my studio walls – weathered shoes, stacks of tattered paperbacks, a threadbare messenger bag. It was only the day before that I had noticed the box again.
The previous night, I had arrived late from my office in the East Bay. As I turned onto the second floor landing, I saw a man emptying a black, plastic garbage bag down the trash chute. At first, I could only see the back of him. The man’s head was shiny and bald. His shoulders, perhaps once full and broad, were hunched, as though deflated. When the man turned, I saw that he was white, maybe in his seventies. He had a gray handlebar mustache and wore thin wiry glasses. His right leg moved behind his left with a slight drag. The man looked up and saw me standing in the hall. He acknowledged me with a quick nod of his head before entering the apartment next to mine. I nodded back, or at least I think I did.
I knew that I had a new neighbor. The Saturday before I had been eating my morning bowl of Cheerios at the kitchen table when, through the paper-thin walls, I recognized the building manager’s voice joined by a new, deeper, more gruff one. But that night on the landing, as I watched the man’s slumped shoulders and tilted gait, I pictured a U.S. Air Force baseball cap atop his head. I imagined a tremor in his right hand. I saw a man – once vibrant, macho, do-it-yourself – worn down, spent, perhaps not by Parkinson’s, maybe just by time.
The sound of my neighbor’s voice shook my attention from the box. I pushed myself up off the futon and tiptoed toward my kitchen wall. He seemed to be on the phone. “It’s fine,” the man said. “Yes, plenty of room.” The man’s voice would be clear and then fade, as if he was pacing toward the wall and then away. “We’ve talked about this, Annie. I’m fine,” the man said. Annie? I wondered. Maybe it was the man’s daughter.
I had rarely spoken with my father over the phone. Well, I had more toward the end, but that was in part Lourdes’s doing. Sometimes she would call me, say “Hello,” and then “Here’s your father,” passing the phone to him. My father would answer, almost as surprised as me. We would talk for a few minutes, ask how each other were doing. The silences would soon lengthen between our responses, and then we would hang up.
The next night, as I was frying up a quick batch of Spam and eggs on the stove top, I heard the mumbles of my neighbor’s voice through the wall. I caught only fragments, “I’m fine” then “Annie.” Again, around the same time the following night when I was putting my dishes away in the cabinet, more murmurs and fragments, “Like I said-” then “Annie, everything’s okay.” This continued each evening.
A weeknight about two weeks later, I entered my studio and set my briefcase down, alongside the box on the floor. I had placed my right hand on the adjoining wall for balance as I slipped off my dress shoes when I heard my neighbor’s voice. I remember because I could feel the vibrations of his grumbling in my right palm and fingers and caught myself wondering, George and Annie already? I’m late.
I had started calling my neighbor George. I still didn’t know the man’s name. He hadn’t said it, and there were no names on the mailboxes in the building lobby. But the name Annie reminded me of the movie Father of the Bride with Steve Martin, one of my mother’s favorites when I was growing up. Sometimes on Saturday evenings, if my mother didn’t work the night shift at the hospital, she would make a bowl of microwaveable popcorn, and we’d sit on the couch, my father in the back room, and watch it on VHS. In the movie, the father’s name was George, the daughter’s Annie. So the name stuck.
That next day I sat at my work cubicle. I was counting the number of bolded messages in my email inbox that I would have to answer before the end of the day, and I thought about George and his life before he moved in. I imagined George being born and raised in the city. That was where he had met his wife. I named her Nina. George and Nina raised their only child, Annie, in an older neighborhood like near Balboa Park or State. George used to work for the city, something hands-on, maybe in construction or repair, the Department of Public Works. Three months ago Nina passed away after a long battle with breast cancer, after forty years of marriage.
Forty years was how long my parents had been married. “Boy was she a firecracker,” my father would recall the times I would make the trek to Fairfield. “The local Filipino women around Clark Air Base loved us American men,” he would say, sitting up as straight as he could in his faux leather chair, as if summoning a past more virile self. “The local men were light in the loafers, if you know what I mean.” Once, at this point in the story, I caught Lourdes, also Filipino, rolling her eyes as she passed through the room. “But your mother,” my father would pause as though for dramatic effect, “she was mean to every American serviceman who came to her family’s store. I asked her out every day for a month until she caved.”
That evening I was able to leave work on time. As I prepared my dinner, I listened to George move around in his kitchen – the clinking of silverware in a drawer, a chair leg screeching on the kitchen floor, the snap of a microwave door opening and shutting – and then the mutterings of George’s TV, likely the news. Later I was washing my dishes when I heard George again, his voice elevated, “I know what’s in my best interest.” I shut off the faucet and set the half-washed plate at the base of the sink. “You keep saying that, but-,” George’s voice faded and then returned. I dried my hands on a dishcloth. “Fine,” George said. “Don’t listen to me. What do I know?” This was followed by silence. I found myself standing near the wall, the dishcloth still in my hands. I heard the faint drone of George’s TV, the creaking of floorboards, and then a door close.
As I lay in bed that night, I recalled my last phone conversation with my father. I had been describing the studio, which I had recently moved into, when my father interrupted. “Now that it’s over, Marco,” he said, “I’ll be honest. I never had a good feeling about him.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Your friend,” my father said.
“Jay? He was my boyfriend, Dad. We lived together for two years.”
“Your mother and I just always felt-”
“Don’t bring Mom into this.”
I held the phone away from my face, out of earshot. I knew where it was going to go next. How he was just worried about me. How he was concerned about my future. I also knew how he never seemed to like any of my “friends.” Had not asked to meet them. At least Mom tried, met Jay twice. I told my father I had to go. He said “Okay,” and I hung up. I remember my phone rang two more times soon after. I didn’t answer.
The next day I left work at five o’clock sharp, skipping an office happy hour social in order to hurry back to my apartment. As I packed my suitcase for a week-long conference, I listened for George’s call with Annie. Every once in a while I would hear what sounded like a voice from next door and would stop mid-pack with a dress shirt or a sock in hand only to realize that the sound came from another apartment. At one point I opened my studio’s lone window to let in some fresh air. My room had become stuffy, almost muggy, from the late summer heat that afternoon. I stood still by the window listening and hoping maybe George’s window too was open, but I only heard the clatter of dishes from the kitchen of an apartment in the adjacent building. Later that evening there was some creaking of floorboards next door and the whistle of a kettle but no call.
In the middle of the night I awoke to a loud bang from George’s apartment as if something fell over, like a wooden chair, followed by a soft but heavy thud and a muffled “Shit.” I lay on my outstretched futon frozen so that the rustle of my covers or the stirring of my head against the pillow would not disrupt the silence. I heard what sounded like a gasp for air and another, becoming more like sobs. Then silence again. I continued to lay still. Should I check on him, I thought, maybe knock on his door? After what must have been minutes, I kicked off my covers, but when I reached the edge of my bed, the creaking returned and then a door shut.
When I got up early that morning to make my flight, it was black outside my window and quiet. On the way out I stopped for a moment in the hall in front of George’s door with my wheeled suitcase in tow, wondering if I could hear him or maybe if he could hear me, and continued toward the stairs.
The conference was like every work conference I had been to before. Workshops and session after session of speakers informing us about emerging developments in the field, the impact of changing policies. Dinners and meet-and-greets that would leave my calves stiff from hours of standing and my cheeks sore from hours of smiling. But each night when I would get back late to my hotel room, I would find myself checking the clock and noting, three hours ahead of the West coast, that George would be finishing his dinner about that time, settling to watch the seven o’clock news, and then maybe, hopefully, talking with Annie.
The final night of the conference, when I checked the clock in my hotel room, I imagined my father – also a man of routine – the Friday morning that he likely passed away. He awoke before dawn, no later, walked directly to the kitchen in his pajamas, his steps reduced to shuffles, and turned on the coffeemaker, which would likely have been prepared the previous night. He then assembled his breakfast, probably a toasted bagel, pre-chopped fruit from a plastic container in the refrigerator, and since it was Friday, as Lourdes told me, two links of sausage. Then my father carefully poured the hot coffee into the no-spill cup that Lourdes had bought him and that he had started using only after dropping and breaking all of his mugs. He finally sat at the kitchen table and began to eat.
My father, Lourdes explained, had encouraged her to take that Friday and weekend off to spend with her son who was visiting from out of town. Parkinson’s, I later learned, can affect a person’s ability to swallow. When Lourdes found my father that Monday morning, he was on his side on the kitchen floor near the base of the table, his sausage only half-eaten on his plate.
I sat at my kitchen table and leaned my head toward the wall over my dinner of fried rice, made of leftovers from the night before. I could feel the wet warmth of the rice’s steam against my neck and chin as I listened closely for the murmurs of the news from George’s apartment. I had not heard the clanging of George rummaging through kitchen drawers or the click of the latch as he shut his microwave door. I had not heard sounds the previous night either when I got back from the conference. No whistle of a kettle nor creaks of the floorboards, no call with Annie.
That evening I lay awake for what seemed like hours, my covers off. My undershirt was stuck to my back. I had opened my window, but the air was as hot outside as within. Every once in a while I would hear steps on the stairs out in the hall, a door close, and brief snippets of chatter as other tenants arrived home late. The sounds only intensified the silence from George’s apartment.
I awoke the next morning to a bright, harsh light beaming through my window. I had slept through my alarm. I scurried out of bed, grabbed the first matching dress shirt and pants I could find in my closet, and got ready for work. Once dressed I picked up my briefcase and headed out into the hall. As I passed George’s apartment, I paused. I cocked my left ear placing it within an inch of his door. That was when I smelled the odor. It was like rotting meat. I jerked away and then leaned in again. It was as if the odor was stronger the second time. I started knocking on George’s door. “George?” I asked. “George?” I repeated, louder. I looked up and down the empty hall. I dropped my briefcase on the floor and dialed the building manager on my phone. I got his voice mail. My temples were pulsing. My phone trembled in my hand.
I dashed down the hall, rapping my knuckles against the door of each apartment on my floor. No one answered. My knocking became pounding by the time I reached the last apartment. I could still smell the stench, could almost taste it, as if it had entered my nose and mouth and lined my insides. I wondered about Lourdes and if it smelled when she entered my father’s apartment that Monday morning, if she still could smell it. I was back at George’s door. My face was burning, my collar now damp. I took out my phone again. As I started to dial 9-1-1, I heard the building manager.
“What’s going on here?” he demanded. Brow furrowed, he walked toward me with quick, short steps. His white undershirt had a ring of sweat from shoulder to shoulder.
“I called you,” I panted, out of breath.
“I was downstairs helping with repairs in a room. I heard banging. It sounded like someone was running-”
“It’s George,” I said, jutting my left hand toward the apartment.
“George? Who’s George?” he asked, looking at me and then the door. “You mean Russ?”
I paused. “The smell.” I thrust my hand closer to the door.
The building manager stepped closer. His nose crinkled and mouth grimaced registering the odor. He hurriedly reached into his pant pocket and pulled out a ring of keys. Down the hall a woman peeked her head out of her apartment door then pulled it back in. The building manager located the key and opened the door.
The apartment was barren, no furniture, no curtains, nothing on the wooden floor except a large mouse, more like a rat, on its side a few feet from the door. Its dark brown coat was matted and its grayish-pink feet curled inwards. Its mouth was agape and its teeth sharp and yellowed.
“There’s the culprit,” the building manager said, gesturing with his chin toward the decaying mouse. “Found another on the floor below last week. This one’s ripe, though.” He covered his nose with his hand.
“It’s empty,” I said.
“Yeah. Russ moved out a few days ago,” the manager said. “His daughter came. She’s some kind of lawyer. Got him out of his lease. The landlord was pretty upset.” He ran his right hand through his thinning hair. “It was quick. He didn’t have much.”
I turned to face him. The manager’s eyes widened.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I could feel the wet on my cheeks. My face was still warm. I nodded and stepped backward slowly. The building manager watched me. Once I was fully outside the door, he looked back into the apartment. I picked up my briefcase and stumbled toward my studio.
“I’ll get something to clean this up,” said the manager as I entered my apartment.
I plopped down on the futon, my briefcase falling to the floor. I closed my eyes. A tingly sensation moved through my arms and legs. My breathing was heavy but slowing. I could still feel a slight tremor in my hands, now resting on my thighs. I reopened my eyes onto the box across the room. It was in the same spot it had been in for several weeks, passed but untouched. I stood up and walked to my desk. I removed a pocket knife from a drawer. I picked up the box and set it in the middle of my studio floor. I knelt down and leaned over it. The knife cut a clean line through the box’s tape, like a surgeon’s scalpel breaking skin.
Just inside the box at the top was the folded American flag from my father’s funeral. Below that was my father’s Air Force baseball cap and a small red velvet case. Inside the case were my parents’ matching wedding bands, the silver time-worn but polished. But at the base of the box were two photos pressed together. The first was a head-shot of my mother, maybe in her late twenties, not long after she came to the States. She is turned slightly to her right, smiling, in black horn-rimmed glasses. It was the picture that was framed next to the guest book at her memorial service.
Stuck to its back was a photo from my father’s most recent birthday. It was at the Chinese restaurant in the strip mall not far from my father’s apartment. He used to go there with my mother every Friday. I didn’t remember a photo being taken. It must’ve been Lourdes. She had convinced me to come join them before I headed back to the city. I’m sitting at a table next to my father, who is in his cap and a blue and green button-up Hawaiian shirt. He has his arm on the back of my chair. I’m distracted, looking at something off to the left, but my father is staring into the camera, a hint of a smirk under his gray-white mustache. I remember that night because at one point Lourdes told a joke. I’ve forgotten what it was about, but it made us laugh. And our waitress, who I hadn’t seen before, said my father and I looked alike, which no one ever said. I always reminded people of my mother. “The eyes,” the waitress said, “when you smile.”
Matthew Andrews was born and raised in Sacramento, California. He is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley and the University of Michigan and is an incoming M.F.A. student in creative writing at Eastern Washington University. His fiction also has appeared in Amarillo Bay and Forum Magazine.