It was a typical, two-story frame house, the kind of colonial one saw all across the Corn Hill section of Utica, a small white house with a green roof, green shutters, a green door, a wide front porch with a swing and a couple of white rocking chairs and a view onto the street, the goings-on of the neighborhood. When Max imagined, as he occasionally did, what it might be like to have a family of his own, he saw them in such a house, on such a porch, in such a swing. Leading up to it was a walkway of gray paved stones lined by hedges. The hedges were expertly trimmed, never overgrown, curving gently into the front yard in which Irene and Abe had long-ago planted a peach tree that now towered almost to the second story windows and dropped its soft fruit onto the porch every July. The fruit never rotted there or went to waste. Irene swept it up into her apron, ushered it into her kitchen with its white counter tops scoured daily, covered in matching canister sets, its drawers full of egg whiskers and potatoes mashers, a cozy breakfast nook in the corner and coffee percolating besides the stove. It was a house with everything a man could want or ask for, a house with not just the basics a person needed to survive —heat, plumbing, a roof to block out the elements— but all the small comforts that made it a place that drew a person in, invited him back. Max looked up at the Auer home, at the sun hammering at the windows, the peach tree swaying lightly in the breeze, the white nubs of a dogwood overhanging the porch like little bells. And on the porch, the person who brought it all into being, a beautiful brunette planting flowers in a window box. Abe Auer had come to this country with nothing; now he had all this. Yet still he worried. Max stood a moment, dizzy in the drinkable summer air, trying to make the disjointed ends meet, and then he remembered why he’d come, that it wasn’t his job to solve all the human mysteries of the world. He stepped forward, waved hello to Irene Auer.
“How goes it there, Irene? Lovely flowers.”
“Yes, aren’t they? Like little gems. At least that’s how they seem after our winter. By the time June comes around I’ve forgotten anything can grow. I found these at the market hidden under a bushel of onions. All the others got swept up the moment they were put out. What do you think? I’m trying to draw the eye away from the state of our shutters. This wood here seems to be allergic to paint. It doesn’t even look like wood anymore. You think the red ones in front or the yellow?”
He’d known her for as long as he’d known her husband, and every time he saw her he was gripped by the same question that had formed in his mind the first time they met: Why? Why had a woman like this joined with a man like Abe? Why had Abe pursued her and why had she succumbed to his pursuit? She was as smartly dressed as he was slovenly, as meticulous in her words and home and overall demeanor as he was careless. It surely must have been some sort of mutual self-punishment that had brought the two together, which Max supposed wasn’t so hard to fathom. Yet each time he saw her, now, for instance, wearing a neat blue dress, her hair tied back with a wisp of a scarf, her lips pulled tight while she arranged the potted flowers in the window boxes with the care of a curator in a gallery, it struck him anew.
The sun formed drops across the petals and over her arms. “I’m partial to yellow, myself,” he said, taking off his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow. She nodded as though he’d said something terribly astute. “Well, don’t just stand there. Come up.”
He climbed the steps and briefly took her hands in his. Her hands were soft, her smile knowing.
“A nice surprise, Max. It’s not Tuesday, is it? I thought Bezique was Tuesday. It keeps changing.”
“It is Tuesday. I was hoping to have a word with Miss Beidler.”
“Ah, our elusive guest.”
“Is she so elusive?”
Irene came farther onto the porch, glanced up at what he took to be the guest room’s window. “Miss Beidler,” she said softly, “is sleeping. Miss Beidler is often sleeping.”
“Yes, I know. A bit peculiar. It seems she sleeps all day. Never at night. I put a tray of food beside her door, and she must open it at some point because an hour later it’s empty. But other than that, I haven’t see her. Yesterday she woke around that time, came out of her room, went into town for a few hours to visit the library. Then she joined us for dinner and regaled us with more of her stories of the stage, which I must admit are enchanting. She laughed at comments no one else found funny, pecked at her food, guzzled her wine, and then after dinner she left abruptly and stayed out the remainder of the night.”
“A night owl,” Max said.
“Is that what they call it?”
“It’s quite likely she’s thrown off by her ordeal. Insomnia’s not so uncommon, really. I’ve had a bit myself.”
She was smiling, not at him but at the flowers in their pots, lifting them our of the soil, dark and damp as coffee grounds, untangling the roots.
“And what do you do, Max, when you have your insomnia?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Read, mostly. I read a lot at night. Sometimes I listen to the radio. Sometimes I get up and make myself a sandwich.”
“Do you ever leave your house and walk around town all night in your pajamas?”
He looked up at the the guest room window, opaque in the afternoon light. “I suppose I don’t.”
“I’m sure she has her reasons.” Irene began to say something else, then stopped.
“We all do,” Max offered.
Irene tilted her head to the side slightly. She pressed her lips together in what might have been a smile but could have also been something else, something far more disconcerting.
“How long do you think Miss Beidler will be staying here? I’d been meaning to ask you. Not that I mind having her, of course. But it occurred to me that we never really discussed what happens next, where she’ll go, how long she’ll be with us. Will she stay in Utica? Move to a city? It seems there must be more work for an actress in the city, more opportunities. And other immigrants. Not to mention the arts. We haven’t got much to offer her in that regard. Abe and I went to see that traveling production of Oklahoma. The lead actress couldn’t carry a tune. I kept wanting to get up and offer her a glass of water. It was like listening to an animal die.”
“You and Abe go to the theater a lot?” Max asked.
“Every seven years whether we want to or not. You know Abe. He prefers to take his entertainment alone in his armchair. Crowds make him nervous. And people, generally. But he does enjoy your Tuesday Bezique. How about you, Max? Do you get out much these days?”
“I went to Saratoga the other week.”
“Oh, that doesn’t count. How are you going to meet a nice girl at the horse races?”
Max then remembered an exchange from the night before with the synagogue’s secretary. The girl was thirty, a thin brunette who could type at lightning speed and balance budget ledgers in her head. She’d been breezy and pleasant when they’d first met and he’d pegged her as an amiable spinster, the sort with no real desire for a conventional domestic life. But a few weeks into her employment it became clear to him that she was, in fact, the other sort of spinster, the heartbreaking kind. She came into his office, closed the door behind her, then turned, offering up a tense smile. “Do you like the clarinet, Rabbi Hoffman?”
“Artie Shaw is playing at the Colonial Theatre next Thursday. My brother got me some tickets, and I was thinking maybe…”
There must have been something painful-looking in his expression.
“But you probably have better things to do…”
He gestured to the office. “I’m still behind. I feel a little under water, that’s all.”
She nodded slowly. “I just thought I’d ask.”
Irene was still looking at Max, waiting for him to answer. “So how long did you say she’ll be staying?” she asked. “Honestly, I wouldn’t care if it weren’t for Judith’s wedding. Girls these days make such a to-do. When Abe and I got married all I wanted was a glass of champagne and a one-way ticket out of my mother’s home. Judith, on the other hand, wants to be carried across town on a chariot. It’s a lot to pull off.”
Max glanced up at the window again, saw a brief flickering of color, a curtain drawn. “Not more than a couple months, I’d guess. Long enough to let her get her bearings. I’d expect to hear more from the agency in New York soon. My assumption is she’ll head back that way, that a woman of her disposition would be more at home in the big city. And the synagogue’s Hadassah is putting together a fund for her.”
Irene nodded, not hiding her relief. She brushed the soil from her hands onto her apron, made a last adjustment to the flowers. “Summer,” she said. “You know, on a day like this, I have no complaints. How could anyone be unhappy on such a day?”
“It would take some doing.”
A breeze rustled the elm trees and the wisps of hair poking out from her scarf. She reached out and took his hands. “It’s good to see you, Max. You should come to dinner again soon.”
“I will. I promise. In the meantime, would you tell Miss Beidler I came by? I’d love to talk with her and see how I might help her acclimate once she’s settled in a little.”
“I’ll tell her, Max. You’re good to come.”
He returned the next day, and again, Ana Beidler was sleeping. When he called again the day after that, this time later in the afternoon, an hour before dinner, a time when no one was asleep, only alcoholics and the truly deranged, and if she was sleeping he would insist on waking her up to see if she fell into either category. She wasn’t asleep, though neither was she home. Irene informed him and then a moment later, he was being commanded to sit down at the table and two lamb chops were being placed before him, though he hadn’t planned on staying.
“Really, I can’t,” he tried, but it was useless.
“You want rice or potatoes or a little of both,” Irene said. Then, before he could answer, “Take a little of both. I made enough for our phantom houseguest.”
“Maybe she really is a phantom,” Judith said, sitting down across from him, placing a bowl of peas on the table, “a Yiddish ghost holed up in our guest room.”
“What sort of a joke is that to make?”said Abe. “Girls your age in Europe aren’t worrying about their weddings.”
“Calm down,” Judith said, turning over her shoulder to her mother. “How do you stand being married to a man who takes everything so seriously?”
“Practice. Years of practice.”
“You see what I live with?” Abe said to Max. “The attacks on my character. Tell us what you think, Rabbi. What does the Torah say about cracking jokes about ghosts when the paper has an article every week about more Jews murdered?”
Max held up his hands, “I try not to take sides in domestic disagreements.”
“He’s polite,” Abe said. “He knows I’m right.”
Irene sat down at last. “I set aside a plate for our ghost,” she said, looking at Abe.
They fell into silence as they began to eat. Halfway through the meal Irene paused, blotted at her mouth with a napkin. “We should talk about this seriously. I’ve gotten at least eight calls in the last few days from people wanting to come by and welcome her to town, invite her to dinner. Sarah called from Hadassah and Edith from the JCC. Several others. We hear you have a Yiddish actress refugee living in your house, they say. Can we meet her? I don’t know what to tell them.”
“How do they know she’s an actress?” Abe asked.
“Is it a secret?” said Irene. “Was I not supposed to mention it?”
“I don’t see any harm,” said Max. “It’s not as though you’re spreading gossip.”
“What gossip would I have to spread? I’ve hardly seen the woman. She hides in her room by day and traipses across town by night. We’ve barely exchanged ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ much less had a proper conversation. That’s the point. People are calling and I don’t know what to tell them.”
Abe looked from Max to Irene. “Why don’t you tell them the woman is a human being, not a carnival attraction. Her misfortune does not exist for their entertainment. They’ll meet her when they meet her.”
“They’ll meet her when they meet her,” Irene echoed. “As though you own the key to the city. These are our neighbors, Abe. They don’t mean any harm. They know she’s here and they want to welcome the woman, to make her feel at home. What’s wrong with that?”
“She’s not at home, that’s what. She was chased out of her home at gunpoint, remember? Her home no longer exists. She’s a refugee in a strange town, a strange country, speaking a strange language.”
“I thought her English was quite good,” offered Judith.
“And if I were a stranger here,” Irene said, “I’d want to be welcomed. I’d want to meet people, make connections. Wouldn’t you, Max?”
Max held up his hands, gave Irene a drowning look.
“But you’re not a stranger here,” said Abe. “And you never have been. Nu.”
“I’m still a person. I can imagine what it’s like to feel frightened and alone.”
“You can imagine feeling that way as yourself, not as a refugee. People are different.”
“No one’s claiming they’re not. All I’m asking is whether or not at some point in the not-so-far-off future, it’s fair to expect the woman to be a little less reclusive, a little less mysterious, a little more…
“American?” Abe offered.
“I was going to say gracious,” said Irene. “It would be nice to have an actual conversation with her, to find out what her plans are, where she’d like to settle.”
“Lots of things would be nice. A good cigar. A nightly foot rub. But I don’t expect them.”
“I’m not asking the woman to rub my feet. I’m wondering if she might wave hello to the neighbors, say a word to the people who come to meet her. Doesn’t she owe us that small courtesy?”
Abe picked up his fork, opened his mouth, then closed it and put the fork down. “I’m sorry, but I disagree. The woman doesn’t owe us anything,” he said. “For all we know, she’s escaped a living hell, endured suffering none of us have experienced. She’s our guest now, but she doesn’t owe us or anyone else a window into that world. The view belongs to her alone.”
No one spoke after that. They finished the meal in a solemn silence that Max took to mean the discussion was closed. He assumed this would be the pattern, Abe defending the woman, Irene demanding information. It was a surprise to him then that after coffee and dessert, Abe approached him as he was leaving the house, walked beside him in the early darkness until they reached the end of the drive. “Listen,” he said. “I need you to tell me the number of weeks she’ll be here, and I need the number to be small.”
He stopped walking. “Is it that bad, Abe? I thought…”
“I try to make the best of situations. But the truth is Irene is right. And we’ve been bickering as a result. You see how it is. Do I need more evenings like this? And believe me, you haven’t heard the worst of it. I haven’t told you everything about our guest.”
“There’s more than the insomnia?”
“Much more,” Abe said. There was her slovenliness, muddy-soled shoes abandoned under the coffee table in the parlor; pins and barrettes, which Abe could only guess had liberated themselves from her heavy tresses, appearing in the carpet; her feminine garments washed out in the bathtub and never reclaimed, a cold and somewhat disconcerting surprise for the next person inclined to bathe. There were the entrances (tipsy) and exits (unexpected). She rose mid-course during a meal that had taken up the better part of Irene’s day in preparation, and wandered forlornly onto the back porch as though she had unpleasant business that needed attending out there. One evening, she’d had her dinner at the oyster bar by the rail station instead and not returned until the bottom of the morning, announcing her arrival in a thick and clumsy mumbled Yiddish. She treated their house not so much as a home but a cheap hotel she’d mistakenly been booked into, and Abe was beginning to wonder if perhaps there had been a mistake, if she was somehow under the impression that this was not a private residence opened to her out of his family’s generosity, but an inn of sorts, a way-station, a temporary bed until proper lodgings could be secured.
“I don’t think there’s been any mistake,” Max said. “I think I just need to talk to the woman.”
“I’d appreciate it.” Irene and Judith’s voices drifted toward them from the kitchen window. They were arguing again, about what, Max couldn’t say. The sentiment came off more clearly than the words. “You understand. Irene’s heart is big but her kitchen’s small.”
“I understand,” Max said.
KIM BROOKS’ first novel, The Houseguest, is now available from Counterpoint Press. Her memoir, Small Animals: A Memoir of Parenthood and Fear, will be published in 2017 by Flatiron Books/ Macmillan. Her stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Five Chapters and other journals and her essays have appeared in Salon, New York Magazine, and Buzzfeed. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.
Adapted from The Houseguest, by Kim Brooks, Copyright © 2016 by Kim Brooks. With the permission of the publisher, Counterpoint Press.