The dull metal shoehorn all but sang with tension, hammered under the door to keep out the intruder, to spite her key. I wasn’t going to have the place rented out from under me, damn it. I’d lived there three years, on the shaded side of an old house divided into two apartments. I was happy with living there, if not always happy. The woman on the other side of the wall was a dear friend. Some nights I could hear her having sex. Other nights she could hear me crying. At the back of the house we’d pass each other bowls of soup, her bathroom window an arm’s length from my porch.
We loved our landlords, an elderly couple who’d once lived in the house and raised their kids there. Health issues forced them to hand over all of their rentals to a property manager, alas, and unwisely they chose a despot whose last name was Swindle. My occasional lateness with rent, previously understood as part of the grad student reality during summer months, was not tolerated by Swindle and she refused to renew my lease. It mattered not that I’d claimed the space emotionally, infused the rooms with my own creativity. It mattered not that my friend on the other side of the wall, with her sterling credit, offered to cosign my lease. Swindle was going to rent the apartment out from under me.
I did not make it easy for Swindle but sooner rather than later she got in to show the apartment and, inevitably, I had to move. Tagging along with my friend, I ended up moving from the Midwest out to the East where I was stranded for ten years. Only recently did I manage to move back to the Midwest, prompting me to reflect on my moves, on moving—and moving full circle, at that. Place to place felt like moving, I suppose, from Midwestern college town to Eastern college town to Eastern city and back to another Midwestern college town, now referred to as micro-urban. Space to space mattered more to me, and shelf to box to shelf again is no journey; it’s jagged anticipation and the freefall of transit.
Looking back I see how, even when I actually wanted out, and knew moving was best, I cleaved to a space. I was every nail I’d nailed in the walls. I understood the ceiling looking straight up from the floor. I photographed the window views, interior details by the cluster, the most delicate shadows with a wide-open aperture, even the dust hanging in familiar angles of light. No matter how methodical my preparation for a move, I ruptured myself abject. Looking back, I can also see how passive I was to moving. I moved with or thanks to someone else. I was being moved not moving, not moving on or moving ahead in that life story kind of way. I experienced contingent mobility with no sense of agency.
I’d only seen photos of the house my friend rented for us in Massachusetts, a mammoth green two-story built in 1900. It was affordable because it sat on the cusp of an interstate at the edge of town. From our front porch we could’ve spat into the open windows of passing cars. The shabby backyard, hemmed in by bush and fence, cringed in the shade of towering fir trees. Our landlady’s notion of landscaping was Frankensteinian and neighbors resented her composting, deeming her a kook while cheering me on at my rake. Her neurotic energy could be felt inside as well, in choppy paint strokes. Or how she squirrelled away the castoffs of previous tenants. I transformed the high-pitched attic, aestheticizing clutter into curiosity cabinet and arranging ratty chairs into reading room. But what to do with the hood from a Volkswagen car?
All winter the cold bit into the house so readily that we wore coats over robes over long johns. Our kitchen stayed warm enough, warmer still with the oven on. It was a strange room, the wallpaper pattern juxtaposing green bouquets and quotes from a 1918 book on gardening by Louise Beebe Wilder. A trough-like sink constituted its own room to the side, to the side of which my bedroom recoiled platonically, my door opening only to cats. I masked the uncharacteristic drop ceiling in my room with plain brown postal paper, salvaged an impeccably rusted headboard, and repurposed old casement windows as a room divider. During my three years there, at a desk I’d taken from the basement of a previous rental, I wrote a memoir and a poetry collection—neither of which ever got published. Aside from teaching poetry workshops, a rewarding but merely part-time position at a local college, my sole accomplishment in Massachusetts was the interior space I maintained at home.
As I failed at finding a real job in town, at meeting new people, I “succeeded” at keeping house. This was even truer, perhaps, after my friend moved on and I took in not one housemate but three to five. I graduated to House Mother, which means I communicated with the landlady on behalf of everyone else and, unbeknownst to them, paid less rent. The ego inside my low self-esteem stood tall and so, when it came to the house, I felt superior to my housemates and to the landlady too. No one understood the house as I did. Its faults, its quirks and nooks, its chilly turns, corresponded to my own. I did not articulate my conviction, even to myself, nor did I truly believe it. The conviction guided me, nonetheless, as my dream of having the house to myself collided with my horror of fulltime employment in some office or shop.
What else—according to catastrophic thinking—but kill myself and—according to gasping romanticism—belong forever to a house like my hero Eleanor Vance in The Haunting of Hill House? I could stretch out and die on the two-ton futon that our landlady got for a steal somewhere and had nowhere else to store so why not keep it underneath me and my cats every night? My black cat is named after Shirley Jackson. The tortoiseshell cat after Jane Marple.
Instead of suicide, I committed something almost as bad for my health: moving to a city. I’d never been a city person but presumed an adjunct position at one of the most respected arts colleges on the East Coast would look good on my CV, inching me toward greater control over my life. Mobility remained beyond me, I’m afraid, without a driver’s license to rent a moving van. Even after selling off a heaping third of my belongings in yard sales, my life’s weight (artworks, vintage dishes, zealously collected books, music, and movies, file cabinets brimming with research and teaching, and nostalgia’s trunks) staked me to the floor.
It seemed unmanageable until I met a bear-sized man who drove trucks for a living—hazmat trucks, but still. I came home one hot afternoon to find him sitting in the kitchen, across the table from my skinny blonde housemate who worked as a stripper at a gay club. I assumed they’d just come downstairs after having sex. Acting less uptight than I am made for my first mistake. Wanting to seem unfazed, I dove into talking about the least sexual thing possible: my relocation. Hazmat Bear told me he’d driven moving trucks before and he’d drive mine for me if I couldn’t find anyone else. Was I unsure or just in denial about a sexual undercurrent to his offer?
Hazmat Bear was so tall and broad that my housemate compared lying on top of him to stretching out on a couch. He’d stop by the house to see my housemate and our acquaintanceship evolved like an undeclared game, my stoic mock-oblivion never quite trumping his sexual innuendo and hints at quid pro quo. All that mattered to me, ultimately, was getting from Point A to Point B. Just how far would I go to get where I am going?
After giving him the $500 to reserve the U-Haul, I saw him only once—at a park down the street, standing beside his hazmat truck and cruising a dog-walker. Our conversation pivoted on his penis size; as he held up his forefingers to suggest its length, all I could picture was a fisherman’s mythical catch. The day of the move, we texted early on but then he never showed, nor did he reply to my anxious voicemails. I’d shifted half my boxes out to the yard in anticipation and then carried them all back inside as the sun set that evening.
My “Point A to Point B” mantra turned feverish over the next week and, with the help of generous friends, my household and I finally arrived at Point B predawn, three hours before the start of my first department meeting. As much as I loved teaching art students, I hated the city—even more than I suspected I would. Over ninety percent of my eight years there were spent in the basement apartment of a row house built in 1880, another residence I’d not seen first-hand prior to arriving. One of the generous friends mentioned above rented the apartment on my behalf and, indeed, funded my entire move.
Cave-like best describes the apartment. Its one window, slatted with a crank and too small for both cats at the same time, looked obliquely out onto the street. As did the door, at the bottom of four cement steps. Entering, you stepped down two more steps into the large-ish living room that also served as bedroom, dining room, office, and Joseph Cornell box. The walls, like the nonfunctioning fireplace, were a cement-based faux stone known as “formstone,” popular across the city some fifty years ago. The falseness of the walls was the most authentic thing about the apartment, really, doubly charming as an exterior surface used inside, painted white.
A hardwood floor warped its way back into the kitchen, small with ugly cabinets. In a corner stood the most alarming door I’d ever seen, a glass door spray-painted a mottled white and declaring in black-stenciled letters: “FIRE EXIT — IN CASE OF FIRE BREAK GLASS.” Along the bottom of the glass, in narrower letters: “ILLEGAL TO OBSTRUCT.” Beyond this door was the Basement Rear apartment. Various tenants lived there over the years, tenants I heard—sometimes mumbling and other times far too clearly—yet never met face to face. We knew each other only through the vague anxiety of some promised FIRE.
After several long years, my basement apartment was not burning but rotting under my feet. The floor in the living room seemed sound enough, despite being able to see through cracks into the subbasement below. In the bathroom, however, the floor after a major leak had become so rotten that the toilet rocked back and forth. Not just a little. Countless times sitting down—oh so carefully—did I envision my death, sopping head over heels with underwear at my ankles in subbasement rubble. My landlord told me it would take over a month to repair, that the entire bathroom would have to be torn out just to get to the toilet. Anyway, he insisted, the floor underneath the toilet had been steel-reinforced. I didn’t quite believe him. After all, the bathroom’s vent fan was only for show, or so a former tenant told me; it blew the shower steam and my dead skin cells no further than behind the wall.
The longer I stayed in that basement apartment, the more its deluge and decay represented my life. My kitchen sink dripped from the tap and leaked from the drain, a bucket in the cabinet under the sink quivering to be emptied. The drain outside the front door functioned so poorly that, during storms, I had no choice but to stand there with a broom to keep the drain free of debris while also sweeping back rainwater from the door itself. If I did not, the water quickly collected at the bottom of the steps, then poured under my door and down those two more steps; then through the cracks in the hardwood floor, down to the rat-happy subbasement where it spurred on mold that my landlord resented me for, running an industrial-sized fan for weeks thereafter and leaving a bright light on to glimmer up through my floor cracks each night.
Getting out of the city and back to the Midwest, specifically to a Midwestern college town, was incredibly hard for a penniless neurotic who hated to leave his apartment. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, I wasn’t so alone—at least in the economic sense. Titled “Young Americans: Yearning for the Suburbs, Stuck in the City,” Joe Penski’s article focuses not on my age range but twentysomethings. “One reason this group is staying in cities might be that they can’t afford to leave,” he claims, addressing how “millennials often don’t have enough money saved up to consider buying a house somewhere else—let alone covering the moving costs to get there.” I guess it’s pathetic that, at 43, I related keenly. Plus I had no driver’s license. Why bother since I couldn’t afford a car? I was an adjunct instructor, my degree in Poetry, dysthymic and profoundly single, nothing to be bequeathed to me.
Again I relied on generous friends to help me relocate—or rather I should say “Relocube,” something I’d not heard of before. It’s an increasingly common practice, though, to move via a pod or cube that is dropped off and picked up by a freight company. Mine was an eight foot by seven foot metal box that fit like a sore thumb in a single parking space outside my building. For several years I’d been abandoning nostalgia, rethinking knickknacks, purging furniture, methodically shedding media, hoarding only bubble wrap, and still I filled a forklifted cube. Moving it cost a thousand dollars.
My friend who helped me arrive eight years earlier also helped me depart, paying for the cube and driving me and my cats halfway across the country. My getaway, yet again, was not so clean. I’d been avoiding my landlord, you see. I was free to move, having not been asked to sign a lease since year one, but I just couldn’t face him. Packing the cube by dark of night proved wise, not to mention slightly cooler.
The morning my friend and her partner picked me up, to leave for good, I failed my checklist in only one way: forgetting my laptop. I’d laid it down to better hoist the cat-carriers. We’d not gotten far beyond my neighborhood yet upon return, from a block away, I recognized my landlord’s car parked outside the building, the landlord himself scratching his head at my locked-tight cube that was not due to be picked up until the next day. The perfectly bad timing stung me deep in my psyche. I begged my friend to stop, to pull over, to forgive me for being such a nuisance, pointing at the landlord as he turned to climb up the steps to enter the building. The Basement Front apartment’s door was underneath those steps, typical of row houses.
My heart beat raggedly as I sprinted down the street. I slipped my key into the lock and turned it as always but this time, of all times, the door would not open. I tried again, resolutely, but no use. Panicked, I thumped my hip against the door and it came off its bottom hinge! The frame, rotting like everything else in the apartment, had given me trouble during the countless ins-and-outs required to pack the cube. Now the door stood neither closed nor opened yet stuck. So I had to break down my own door. The rest of the way, that is. And I did.
I grabbed my laptop and stopped cold for one last look at where I’d lived eight years. Then I crept out like a thief. Hopping into the backseat I said to my friend and her partner, “That rotten hinge—had to break the door down.” They looked back at me, confused, and so I pointed as we crept past my building. The door held on barely at the top hinge, the bottom of the door kicked in and a top corner pointing out to the street. Hints of the cave-like darkness inside heightened the white of the wrecked door. They gasped at what seemed a crime scene and then their gasps erupted into laughter as we sped off. I laughed too, just not so easily.
As we headed toward the Midwest, I recognized the wideness of sky for the first time in years. How could I ever feel grateful enough to have such good friends? One friend getting me away, another friend taking me in. This time I’m a boarder in a longtime friend’s brick two-story, built in 1940 and formerly owned by a gay bachelor who taught Paper Arts and Book Printing at the local university. My friend welcomed me by giving me a musty copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince that he printed and she found in the attic. The house calls to mind a village mystery. Bank boxes containing my mysteries have remained in storage, unmysteriously, as with photo albums, framed art, batter bowls, an antique chair. I’ll never own my own house. Nor will I ever be a minimalist. For some life with their little or a lot is buoyancy; for others, they are always the third little pig. But for me and many like me, space to space I must settle for unsettled, tensely compressed and dreading the next move.
I thought back to my life before moving East, in the little house with my dear friend on the other side of the wall. It was a bungalow-style house built in 1930, its clapboards in need of a new coat of white paint. My front door was a side door, halfway down an overgrown path and in the shadow of a two-story neighbor. In summer I kept my biggest fan in the window that looked out onto the front yard. At night I tilted it to blow against the ceiling where I slept in a loft-bed. There was no ladder so I positioned a wooden stool on a two-drawer dresser and became adept at climbing up and down. I painted the loft’s beams a so-called “Battlefield Green,” arranging a sitting parlor underneath. The living room breathed the same air as the bedroom, separated by doors that used to be there. The kitchen’s higher ceilings allowed for looming windows at the sink and tall cabinets with bead-board doors. I boasted yard sale Wedgwood then, the illusion of a full set. The dinkiest bathroom imaginable was lodged between the kitchen and a back-of-the-house “mudroom.” In this mudroom laid a trapdoor and wooden steps, requiring the footing of a mountain goat, down to a basement piled high with old coal. The backdoor itself was merely a storm door, secured with a contraption not of my design (there when I moved in) that involved rope, a galvanized turnbuckle, and a bell.
This contraption meant the property agent from Swindle could not enter the backdoor and, as described earlier, I’d jammed a shoehorn under the front door. The second time a property agent came to show the apartment, however, I was not prepared. I was napping, actually, and heard a car pull up, then another. From my loft-bed, behind the drape, I peeked out the top part of the front window and saw a property agent and some earmuffed college kid. And the handyman’s truck. They were here to get in no matter what. Scampering down—for the first time ever—I stumbled and, in the absolute quiet of a house under siege, crashed to the floor so hard that not even my hands out could stop me. I smacked into the floorboards face-first.
I sprang upright, blood gushing from my nose, and then moved slow like in a dream as I heard voices outside. The agent must have assumed the front door would again not open for her and they all headed toward the back of the house. They’d get in here, one way or another, and see me like this: tears in my eyes, covered with my own blood. I stuffed my nose with tissue, got a towel to wipe the floor. As voices hovered at the backdoor, tools clanking, I took myself to a closet and hid. It was hot, crouching under the hems of my coats, my face throbbing. I clinched the doorknob with one hand and clinched that hand with my other hand, bracing a thumb solidly against the frame.
The voices were inside now. In the kitchen. In my bedroom.
I tried not to breathe.
Heard the agent say, “There’d be more light in here if the curtain was pulled back.”
The potential renter liked the loft, asked about painting the walls.
Then I felt it: a twisting of the knob—an attempt, anyway, at twisting the knob: one way, the other.
“What’s this door?” the renter asked.
“I think it’s a closet like that one.” The sound of that closet door being opened relieved me, but I held tight. The agent tried the knob once more, saying, “We just took over this property. We’ve had some problems with the locks.”
They left, if slowly, out the back. I don’t think I moved for five minutes. When I did, I didn’t feel like the rooms were mine anymore. Not that they ever were, of course.
I dialed my friend, whom I knew was home.
“Are you home?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, telling her how I had fallen and hit my nose but they got in so I hid in the closet.
“Oh baby,” she said. “I’d say come over here but they’re still out front, signing papers.”
I told her I was going to sneak out the back and get away.
She asked, “Can I meet you out by the garage?”
I washed up as quickly as I could, grabbed a raincoat and a winter scarf to hide my face. The backdoor stood shut but limp and I hurried through it into the snow-patched yard where a dead possum, revealed by the thaw, bared a fang. Behind the garage I met my friend, in her egg-blue coat and house-slippers. She hugged me, carefully, and we took off down the alley.
“So where shall we go?” she asked.
A. Loudermilk's prose has been published in River Teeth, PopMatters, the Journal of International Women’s Studies, and the Writer's Chronicle. He has published two books of poetry, with poems in Tin House, Salamander, Fogged Clarity, Smartish Pace, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. He’s taught creative writing and literature at Hampshire College and Maryland Institute College of Arts. A. Loudermilk was a contributor to Volume 8 of Packington Review.