My phone chimed in my pocket in the public library and it wasn’t the student loan people, but a new number. In fact, no number. Restricted. I hesitated. The voicemail activated. I listened to the following message: “Hello, Constance, this is Ruth calling. I’m just asking you to tell the truth. Would that be so hard? To be honest for once? Do me a favor and think about it. Maybe I’ll see you at the LCA.” I didn’t know any Ruths. I’d never heard of the LCA. My greasy fingerprints reflected up at me from the screen. Wrong number, I thought, a mistake. As for telling the truth, I love the truth. Who doesn’t? My phone chimed again, this time the familiar eight hundred number, so I killed the call, dropped my phone back into my duffle coat pocket next to Dad’s breakfast sandwich. I didn’t need to hear the student loan people. I already knew their doomsday warnings by heart. Sometimes in life it’s easy to know what to do: delay, deny, ignore. Most of the time, though, it isn’t.
I tried to go back to Dad’s magazines. Each week he dog-eared the articles he wanted me to read. I began with de-extinction, then skimmed through sulfur in the sky, medicine to erase bad memories, lotion-like substance in the sea. I turned the pages and microbeads were outlawed, zero-waste initiatives were implemented, a bumper sticker against a warlord was distributed, a toy was manufactured from recycled material, an elected official apologized for genocide, a police officer skateboarded with an at-risk youth.
Dad believed that every problem was an opportunity. Back when oil spewed unstoppably into the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum set up a hotline: if you’ve got an idea how to fix this, call us. You! The layman! Dad had scrawled the hotline number on the refrigerator, underlined it twice. Just think, he said to me, who was at that time a young couch potato. You! You have the power to solve a problem of global magnitude. But soon after, the hotline was deactivated, Dad lost his real estate business, and I was forced off the couch. Now the sea was acid, continents were burning, my part-time job paid nothing, and I could neither pay off my student loans nor make my mortgage. I had zero power. Me. The layman.
We live in a dead culture, Dad said when he passed me the last of his cash so that he could legally declare bankruptcy, which for him was an opportunity for epiphany. He realized he was meant to live as what he termed a wild panther. He left my mother and moved into a tree next to the library. He built a platform. He stretched a ridge line for his tarp. He shit in the library and he drank the free coffee. He lingered among the periodicals. He communicated with me mostly via magazine. My mother, the librarian, was angry. She stayed that way. We took vows, she told me. And look what happened. Look at you, she said, looking at me. Look how you turned out. How? I asked. Confused, she said. Frankly floundering. I blame your father.
A floundering layman. A person with no power. Yet Ruth had spoken to me as if I mattered, and not in a good way. She had accused me of not being honest and she was right. I was lying. I lowered my magazine, pressed my fingers into the breakfast sandwich, felt its optimistic foil wrapper. I was lying to myself about not knowing any Ruths. In fact, I knew two.
I knew both Ruths only vaguely. One Ruth was the on-again off-again girlfriend of my tenant. Housemate. Tenant. The other Ruth was a friend of my mother’s, an elderly Quaker who attended peace vigils in front of the courthouse each week in a lightning storm if that’s what was called for. I didn’t think that either Ruth had my phone number, though of course they could get it if they wanted to. But most people didn’t want to, unless they worked for the student loan company. I pulled the sandwich from my pocket, buttoned my duffle coat, and stepped out into the polar vortex.
At Dad’s tree, I dropped the sandwich into his bucket. I gave the rope a tug. I waited for Dad to work the pulley. No response. I tugged again. Nothing. How was I supposed to know what to do? It was fucking freezing. I left the sandwich in the bucket, and I made for home. I hoped my tenant had made food that he wasn’t going to finish.
At my house, the mice were cozy. My tenant lolled on his futon, applying pliers to a mousetrap. He didn’t bother to look up. “It’s one of those new kind of traps with a tiny coffin built into it so that you don’t have to see the dead mouse,” he said. “It’s meant to be single use, but I want to see if I can make it keep trapping.” He was studying to be an engineer. He stripped a screw. I sidled to the space heater.
“What does LCA stand for?” I asked.
“LCA,” he said. “Sounds familiar. It’s on the tip of my tongue.”
“How are things with Ruth?” I asked.
“I think we might break up,” he said.
“You don’t think she’d call me, do you?” I asked.
“How would she have your number?” he asked.
“She could get it,” I said. “If she wanted to. I got this weird message. Usually no one calls me except the student loan people.”
I’d met my tenant at a potluck at the library which my mother had organized to coax neighbors to talk to each other. But between the evictions and the new construction, what was there to say? What might have bred solidarity instead bred suspicion. How can you afford to live here you piece of shit, was the unspoken first thing everyone said to each other. My mother’s idea was that if we shared food, maybe the homeowners would call the police less and maybe the non-homeowners would stop spray-painting rude words on the new condos. It was the kind of idea my dad would call bleeding heart. Plus it’s ultimately self-serving, he would say. To which my mother would answer, Coming from you? That’s rich. Everyone brought chips to the potluck, except my tenant, who brought meatloaf. We all scarfed it. My tenant didn’t get any. He ate a handful of the cricket chips I’d brought. Cricket chips, according to one of Dad’s dog-eared magazines, were a way to wean off beef, still get protein, and use up the extra crickets. My tenant told me he was looking for a place. I told him I needed help making my mortgage. You own a house? he asked. I could see he was suspicious. I told him I got it on Sheriff’s auction. Did they have to kick people out for you to move in? he asked. I didn’t know the people though, I said. He asked me what I did for work and I told him I was a secret shopper. You’re one of those people that catches shoplifters, he said. I said, It’s part time. How’s the pay? he asked. I didn’t tell him how bad it was. No offense, he said, but that sounds scummy. None taken, I said. I’d heard it before, mostly from my mother. I told him that if he moved into my house, utilities would be included. And we wouldn’t have to call you my tenant, I said. We could just call you my housemate. He ate more cricket chips while he thought that over. But I’d still be paying you rent? he asked. I said, Well it is my property so.
He left me a voicemail the next day saying that if the offer was still good, he would move his futon over. But I don’t want you to call me your housemate, he said. I don’t want to obscure the facts. I dislike euphemism. Please, he said, call me your tenant.
I listened to his voicemail several times. His voice was tinny, fuzzy at the edges, full of integrity, guarded. Who left voicemail messages anymore, anyway? No one besides the student loan company. And now Ruth.
On the futon, my tenant used the pliers to pry. “Ruth wants to control me, but she also doesn’t like me,” he said. “She’s into inspirational sayings and it angers her when I mock them.”
A spring broke loose and bounced to me. I palmed it. “Mock them how?” I asked.
“Like she’ll say, Live Simply So that Others Can Simply Live, and I’ll say, Live Richly so that Others Can Simply Live Richly.”
“Bu you don’t believe that,” I said. “Do you?”
“Definitely not,” he said. “But when I hear an inspirational saying I feel compelled to ruin it. You know what I mean?”
“No,” I said. “When I hear an inspirational saying I try as hard as I can to be inspired.”
“Maybe I need to stop dating white women,” he said.
“Ruth’s white?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? She’s white as fuck,” he said, examining the trap. “It took me a little while to figure that out. Sometimes you can tell immediately. Sometimes you have to get to know people.”
My tenant looked white to me, but he’d explained to me many times that it was more complicated. Now everyone I looked at, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, which is why I had to ask about Ruth, who also looked white to me and, it turned out, actually was white. And I wasn’t sure why I cared if Ruth was white or not. Wasn’t I supposed to not care? That’s the obsession of the architects of whiteness, my tenant said grimly after he’d moved his futon over. Phenotype-obsessed head measurers, he said. Testing with paper bags, measuring your blood, creating intricate and ever-changing classification systems, hoping to contain everyone. Just look at me, he said, look at what I look like. Look how many forces have converged to erase me. He told me he’d fought his way through a barricade of government boarding school records, foster care, adoption, early death and imprisonment until he’d found one uncle he could really talk to, the brother of his biological father, an auto mechanic who lived on the edge of the reservation, converging the twelve steps with older philosophies. When I asked him what he and his uncle did together, he told me to stop fishing around for Indian wisdom. I’m not, I said, even though honestly I would take whatever wisdom I could get. We smoke cigarettes, he said. We work on cars. We talk.
I handed him the spring. He worked to reattach it.
“Not all white women are that bad,” I said. “What about me?” It irritated me how he didn’t look at me, how he ground his teeth.
I spooned my tenant’s chili out of my tenant’s cast iron. “The thing is,” I said. “It could be your Ruth who called me, or it could be a different Ruth, but either way she knew my name. She told me I should be honest. For once. Why would she say that?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Do you lie?”
“Only about things that don’t matter,” I said. Numbers mostly. Letters. Words. How many Ruths I knew. Details. At work I’d once told my manager I’d seen someone put merchandise into their bag when actually I hadn’t seen it, not with my own eyes. But to be honest, I felt like I had. It had happened so many times before. The perfume, the lipliner, the mascara, the glittering moisturizer, all right there in that sullen adolescent’s tote bag. Sometimes I simply said what I knew my tenant wanted to hear. I pretended I knew what phenotype meant. It was hard to call someone my tenant. I wanted him to let me call him Charlie, which was his name.
“I’ll ask Ruth if she called you,” he said. “But I don’t know why she would.”
It was the anniversary of Pete Seeger’s death, so the polar vortex lifted. My tenant and I went to the peace vigil together. Or at least we went to the peace vigil at the same time. He stood a few feet away from me. I stood next to my mother who passed me a stack of mail. She held a bag of cookies, the off-brand Oreos that she handed out at library events. I reached for them but she clucked.
“Why am I still getting your student loan mail?” she asked. “Tell them to send it to you, not me.”
“They send it to me, too,” I said.
“I’m sick of receiving it,” she said.
“Then throw it away,” I said. “That’s what I do.”
“You sound like your father,” she said. “Wearing your delusions like a badge of honor.”
“Have you seen Dad recently?” I asked.
“If I have, I tried not to,” she said. “I saw that man for way too long. I saw him for years. Now I don’t have to see him anymore. Is he still leaving magazines for you?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “The magazines this morning were the same ones from last week. I tugged on the rope, but he didn’t pull up his sandwich.”
“I don’t know which is worse,” she said. “That you read his magazines, or that he depends on you for food.”
“Only breakfast sandwiches,” I said.
“Constance, you don’t even know how to feed yourself,” she said.
“It’s just that it’s got to be pretty cold up in that tree,” I said.
“Your father’s instincts towards self-preservation are unmatched,” she said. “He’s fine. Irresponsible, smug, maybe a little cold, definitely alive.” Then she saw my tenant.
“Charlie!” she said. It stung. She went over and embraced him. She held out the bag so he could take a handful of cookies. “Oh honey,” she said, holding him at arm’s length, then pulling him to her and rocking him a little. “How are you holding up?”
“You know how it is,” he said.
“If you ask me, you might be better off without her,” she said.
“Thanks, Mrs. B,” he said. She pressed the entire bag of cookies into his hands. She came back over to me and said, “Don’t look at me like that, Constance. It’s not my fault you have a hard time making friends. Charlie likes to visit me at the library, and he told me all about his issues with Ruth. Such a shame.” She lowered her voice. “But you know how white people are. Especially white women.”
“Mom, you’re white,” I said.
“So are you,” she said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t know how white people are. Actually we have first-hand experience. Charlie. What a catch. Career-oriented, useful, political, friendly, handsome, funny, graceful, skilled, courteous, creative, healthy, generous, thoughtful, honest, I could go on.” She looked at me with distaste. Or maybe it was love. “I almost wish you could find someone like him. Or anyone. But it’s like they say, you’ve got to work on yourself before you can be with someone else. And you’ve got a lot of work to do.” I looked over to see if my tenant had heard, but the Quaker Ruth had put him to work passing around sheet music. She squeezed between my mother and me and handed us each a pamphlet, open to “I’m Going to Lay Down My Sword and Shield.” We sang. Ruth had a proud, vibrating soprano. My mother, a strong alto. My voice broke. Ruth smiled at me. She stroked my arm with her kind Quaker claw until the song ended. It felt good.
“Did you call me this week?” I asked her.
“I don’t think I have your number,” she said.
“Constance never answers her phone, anyway,” my mother said.
“Why would I answer my phone?” I asked. “So a stranger can order me to make payments with money I don’t have for a degree I don’t use?” I wasn’t delusional. I had never earned a badge of any kind. I read what Dad read but I didn’t believe what Dad believed, that I could make things happen. But I didn’t stop reading his magazines. It was the only thing we did together anymore. Even if he was in the tree and I was on the ground.
My mother flipped my sheet music to “Last Night I had the Strangest Dream.” “You know what happens if you default on your loans,” she said.
“What?” I said.
“They garnish your wages,” she said. “They take your entire tax refund. You could lose the house.”
Nearby, a guy about my age unfurled a ragged black flag. He took two pieces of twine from the pocket of his black hoodie. He attempted to suspend his flag from the low branches of a dogwood tree.
“Young man,” The Quaker Ruth called. “We’re here for peace, not for spray painting condos or whatever that flag stands for. We’re not here for anger.”
“What’s so bad about anger?” he asked. “Have you ever tried it?” He looked at me. He looked white to me, but I guess I wasn’t one hundred percent sure. “I love Pete Seeger too,” he told me. “I just don’t call him Pete, like she does.” Ruth invited him to Quaker meeting. We flipped to “If I Had a Hammer.”
“Mom,” I said. “What should I do?”
“You should make payments,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“You’re not destitute, Constance,” she said. “You own a house.”
“For now,” I said.
“How much are you charging Charlie to live in it?”
“What are you saying?” I asked. “You’re saying I should raise his rent?”
“In this economy, in this town, right now, raising Charlie’s rent would be like putting him out on the street,” my mother said.
“But if he paid more, I could pay less. Is that what you’re saying?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you what to do,” she said.
“But what if I raise the rent and Charlie leaves?” I asked. “Who else could I find to live with me?”
“In this market?” my mom said. “You’d post an ad and be turning them away in droves.”
“But maybe I’d rather live with a friend,” I said.
“A friend?” she said. “Who?”
“Charlie,” I said.
She licked her fingers and smoothed my hair, studied me with sympathy. “He doesn’t like it when you call him that,” she said. She turned back to her music. “It’s easier to charge more if you don’t have a social relationship.”
“That’s your advice?”
“Constance,” my mother said, not looking at me. “I would never advise you to raise Charlie’s rent. I would never advise you to put him out of the house. I would never advise you to post an ad and get what that crawlspace is worth so you can pay your mortgage and stop the student loan people from harassing me. I would never advise anyone to do anything ever again. Although those are all certainly things that your father, at one time, would have advised you to do.”
In my pocket, my phone chimed. I fumbled to take it out. Restricted, said the screen. My fingers sweated. I pressed to answer it once and then twice. By the time I said hello the call had ended. No one left a message.
I was raised to believe I’d one day own property. Then I believed I would never own property. Then came the Sheriff’s auction. I knew that owning real estate was for people whose father hadn’t lost his real estate business, whose mother didn’t keep her savings in a biscuit tin the location of which was a secret even from me. But I had Dad’s cash, what was left of it. I bid tentatively and the house was mine. One bedroom, two if you counted the crawlspace, a roof with a tarp over the top. I took out a mortgage to make improvements, I told the bank. I made no improvements. The foreclosed-upon family had sold most of their furniture, but they’d left empty yogurt containers, dry felt-tip markers, Lego legs, markings on the kitchen door where they’d measured the kids on their birthdays. Fingernail clippings littered the corners. I didn’t know what to do with the old issues of Ranger Rick, how to recycle them, how to burn them, they don’t burn easily, not all stacked up like that. I could have swept. I could have taken a load to the thrift store. I could have paid a bill or looked for a full-time job, but I was exhausted. With the money from the bank, I bought breakfast sandwiches, a new duffle coat, whatever I wanted to at first. I owned a house. I was not equipped for next steps.
I reclined on my tenant’s futon and opened my tenant’s computer. He leaned on the counter eating Mom’s cookies. The internet told me that LCA could mean many things, but mainly academies. Lakewood Catholic Academy, Lexington Christian Academy, Lincoln Community Academy, an alternative school where, for math class, students tapped trees and sold maple syrup from beneath easy-up tents. I searched the current rental rates in my neighborhood and was astounded to find out what a generous person I was, what a bargain my tenant was getting, how much money I, a homeowner, could be making if I followed Mom’s—Dad’s—advice. I shut down the computer. My tenant licked cookie filling. “I asked Ruth if she called you,” he said.
“And?” I asked.
“She wanted to know why I wanted to know.” He tossed a flyer onto the counter. “She told me I have to go to this presentation with her later. Apparently, it’s going to be very inspiring.”
“I can’t go tonight,” I said.
“I didn’t ask you to go,” he said.
“It’s just that I have to work,” I said.
“Ruth reminds me of you,” he said. “The two of you actually kind of look alike.”
“Charlie,” I said.
“Don’t call me that,” he said.
“What would you say if I raised the rent?” I asked.
“Are you going to do that?” he asked.
“Maybe just a little bit,” I said. Then I said out loud a number I’d just read on the internet.
“I can’t pay that,” he said.
“A lot of people would be willing to pay that,” I said.
“I’d have to drop out of school,” he said.
“A lot of people would call that amount more than fair,” I said. “Remember, utilities are included.”
He ground his teeth. He put on his parka. “Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’m going to go talk to my uncle,” he said.
“Can I have that last cookie?” I asked. He pulled his hat over his ears. He took out the garbage.
After he left, I ate the cookie slowly. I refused two student loan calls. I picked up the flyer my tenant had left on the counter, the one that Ruth had given him. Printed at the top: 5 PM. Public Library. Special Presentation. The Life Cycle Assessment.
The Life Cycle Assessment, the flyer told me, was a practical system for tracing all inputs and outputs. You begin with a product, any product. I thought of a mousetrap, a microbead, an outdated magazine, a yogurt container, an oil-coated seagull, a condo, a Lego leg, a fingernail clipping, a floundering laywoman with no future plans. Next you ask: where did the materials come from to make it? What did it take to manufacture it? Mining? Milling? Stewing? Melting down? Did you use a conveyor belt? A vat? A smokestack? Next, distribution. Did you load it onto a truck and deliver it across the nation? Did you send it around the world on a barge or a plane? How long did it take to decompose? What were its potentials? What were its lasting effects? With the Life Cycle Assessment, I read, you could start at the beginning. You could find out where something had come from, and you could find out where it was going. You could find out what to do next. You could understand why and how someone like me had come to barely own a house. You could justify what you would do to hold onto it.
When Dad lost the house I grew up in, he acted sorry for ten minutes but then he moved to blame. He tried very hard to blame my mother. You’ve never once looked at a problem, he told her, climate change for example, the housing crisis, income inequality, racism, and been inspired. Mom said, All the work I do in this community and you tell me I’m not inspired? She yelled, I’m inspired. I’m totally inspired. Dad said, That’s not what I mean. I’m not talking about social justice or whatever. I’m talking about hope. I’m a naturally hopeful person. Mom said, No, I’m a hopeful person. Dad said, No, I’m a hopeful person. Mom said, No, I am. Dad said, No, I am. I see an opportunity and I go for it. Sometimes it falls through, which is not my fault. At least I try. Mom said, That’s not hope, that’s scheming. You act like you know what to do but you haven’t got a clue. Dad said, You like it. You couldn’t do without me. Community potlucks? Peace vigils? Folk songs? You think folk songs pay for themselves? Admit it, he said. You like it when I gamble, just so long as I win.
Instead of answering, Mom turned to me. I was watching TV, coverage of the oil spill, sea birds slicked down and suffocating, repeating footage of the blast. How many gallons was 210 million gallons, I wondered, but it didn’t really matter. The screen flashed to oil-eating microbes, corexit dispersant, containment methods, hope. I didn’t have any. I ate a healthy snack and tried to stay calm. Look at her, Mom said. The two of them looked at me. I kept watching TV. She doesn’t have friends. She doesn’t date. She doesn’t have a job. She still lives at home. She doesn’t pay rent. She’s in debt. She can barely feed herself. What’s she eating? Sweet potato crackers? She has weird hair. She never takes off her coat. She reads whatever you tell her to read. She has no idea how to make adult decisions. You want her to be a speculator like you, she said. Betting on the future like it’s some kind of game. She leaned down into my face. She grabbed the remote control from my hand. She shut off the TV. Listen to me, she said. I’m talking to you. But that wasn’t true. That was a lie. She wasn’t talking to me. She was talking near me about me to my dad.
Leave her alone, Dad said. Don’t blame her. And he meant it. Whatever my mother said about him, Dad loved me. He loved me and he didn’t want to blame me. He didn’t want to blame himself either. That’s when he started to blame the culture.
The cookie was sweet in my mouth. If I had any hope at all, it was that I hoped other people had hope. I hoped that someone, anyone might know what to do. The Life Cycle Assessment. LCA. Ruth! I picked up the phone to call her, but then I remembered I didn’t have her phone number. For all I knew, she might never call me again.
I called in sick to work. I buttoned my duffle coat and I arrived at the public library early. Next to Dad’s tree, two teens stood beneath an easy-up tent, selling maple syrup. I waited in line behind the Quaker Ruth. The teens leaned on each other, lumpy, stinky, pimpled and braced.
They were girls, self-consciously wearing jeans, their arms around each other’s waists for confidence. Though I tried not to notice, one teen was Black, baby-faced and freckled but trying to look older, headphones in, cracking gum. Her white friend was acned and retainered, long no-colored hair, but she too was trying out her thing, a sweater with a sequined peach on it. I tried not to think about the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, who we might or might not be descended from. I tried to think positively, to focus on the future as Dad would do. I tried not to remember myself like those teens, what that had felt like, what, if anything, I’d become. I could still see the foil of Dad’s breakfast sandwich gleaming over the top of his bucket, untouched since this morning. The Life Cycle Assessment was the kind of thing that Dad would not have missed. It had everything: reasonable explanations, positive outcomes, reward for ingenuity. He would have scrawled the date and time on the refrigerator and underlined it twice. But it had been weeks since I’d seen him climb down from his tree, even for his morning shit. I looked up into the branches. I could see the bottom of his platform. Moss grew. There was no movement. I remembered what he underlined. I remembered what he dog- eared. I couldn’t remember his voice.
The Quaker Ruth gave the baby-faced teen a twenty-dollar bill and asked for a quart of maple syrup. The teen handed her a pint. Ruth said, “I thought this was supposed to be a math class. Someone needs to tell your teacher you don’t know the difference between a quart and a pint.”
“I’m the teacher,” the baby-faced teen said.
“What?” Ruth asked. The teen smiled, blew a bubble, retrieved a quart. She pointed at her friend, who grinned around her retainer. “I’m her teacher and she’s my teacher. We designed the class.”
“Ridiculous,” Ruth said. She went into the library, shaking her head. I stepped up.
“Did it bother you, the way that woman acted?” I asked.
She took her headphones off and looked at me. “People come here and say the wildest shit to us,” she said. “They tell us alternative school is crap like we’re the ones who came up with the idea. If they get here too late and we’re out of maple syrup, they rage. They totally freak if one of us makes the wrong change. Or like they smile but somehow that’s worse, you know?”
“It’s too much,” the sequined peach teen said.
“Agreed,” the baby-faced teen said. “But I mean, what should I do? Be angry all the time?”
“What a good question,” I said. I paid for my pint. The sequined peach teen opened the cash box and I recognized her. In big box stores, she liked to fill her bag with plastic bejeweled headbands. She had done it more than once. The last time I’d escorted her to the manager’s office, she’d been crying, all blotchy. She looked different now, handling money, in charge. I remembered the surge of power I’d felt when I apprehended her. I prepared my face into a meaningful smile to show her I was proud to have been part of her rehabilitation. But when she handed me my change, her blank face registered no recognition, as if I’d never clamped down on her scrawny shoulder.
The teens stowed the syrup, locked up the cashbox and went into the library for the presentation. More people began to arrive. I looked for my Ruth. I looked for my tenant. The ragged flag guy knocked icy mud from his boots. He leered at me. “Here to assess your life cycle?” he asked.
“What about you?” I asked. “What are you here for?”
“I’m just here for the free coffee and more of those cookies,” he said. He looked gleeful. “You’d hate a real life cycle assessment. You’re like everyone else. You just want some good news.” He went into the library.
What was I waiting for? I was going to be late for the presentation. Ruth might show up. My tenant might show up. But it was like my mom said: neither of them would want to sit with me. I turned toward the library, then stopped. A flicker. A motion. It came from Dad’s tree. I looked up, tried to catch it. The bucket with its cold breakfast sandwich swayed gently back and forth, pushed by the breeze. The late afternoon light lasered through the pine needles. On Dad’s platform, the edge of a silver tarp flapped briefly and was still. It was only a squirrel scrabbling.
It was only the wind. The last thing Dad had said to me out loud with words was: We live in a dead culture but I’ve never felt better. My one regret, he said, is that I didn’t move directly from the womb into this tree. Everything I did in between seems like a distraction from the truth.
I was one of the things that he’d done in between being born and moving into the tree, but I didn’t point that out to him. The light in his eye. The smile that turned bitter. The blue five-gallon water tank strapped to his back. By then, we were not having a two-way conversation. Still, I wanted him to keep talking. I had questions: whose culture do you mean, Dad? And: are you saying that everyone should live in a tree? Are there enough trees for that? Or is this opportunity only for you? But instead he climbed, and I carried my cricket chips into the library, and there I met my tenant for the first time.
This time, when my phone chimed, I picked it up fast. “Ruth,” I said. “Ruth. It’s me. Constance.”
“Constance,” she said.
“Ruth, I’m here. I’m at the LCA.”
“So am I,” she said. “Do you see me?” I looked through the library window. I could see my mother moving chairs, setting up the microphone, people finding their seats, the wrong Ruth, the ragged flag guy, Baby-face and Sequined-peach. The other Ruth—my Ruth—was somewhere among them.
“I thought about your message,” I said into the phone. “I’m trying to be more honest.”
“I’m over that,” she said. “At this point, I’m exhausted. I try so hard to inspire people and Charlie just wants to poke holes. At this point, I just want butts in seats.”
“I’m here,” I said. “I’m ready to be inspired. I was reading about the Life Cycle Assessment. Inputs. Outputs. I think it could help me understand how I got here. It could help me know what to do.”
“The Life Cycle Assessment is about products,” she said. “You’re not a product.” I didn’t say anything.
“You know that, right?”
“But what’s the difference?” I asked.
“Basically,” she said, “a person can be inspired by a product, but a person has more potential than a product.”
“Charlie says you and I are alike,” I said. “Do you think that’s true?”
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on with the two of you,” she said, hard, bright, perfectly friendly. I admired her clipped, pressurized consonants, her mesmerizing professional tone. Life was an eternal job interview. “And frankly I’m not interested in hearing your story. But I wanted to warn you. One woman to another. You might think you want him but you don’t.”
My tenant came around the corner of the building. I waved him over, pointed at the phone.
“Charlie is very negative,” Ruth said, her voice coming through loud enough for him to hear. He listened, frowning. “I’ve never heard anyone complain so much. He’s obsessed with problems but he doesn’t have any ideas for solving them. He’s glum. Honestly, I expected more from an engineer.”
“Oh, please,” Charlie said, then clapped his hand to his mouth.
“Charlie? Is that you?” Ruth said. “Constance, give Charlie the phone.” Charlie put his finger to his lips.
“He won’t take it,” I said. “Put me on speaker,” she said.
I held the phone between us. Charlie took a step backward.
“Charlie, you’re late again,” she said. Charlie looked at the sky. Ruth said, “You can still get in here. You can still save this relationship. The presentation just started. Listen.”
Ruth went quiet, and we heard rustling, light clapping. Then we heard a man’s voice as if he were speaking at the end of the tunnel, maybe the one with the light.
By tracing origins, you can understand potentials, the voice said. You can make things predictable. You can control the outcome.
“Charlie?” Ruth’s voice cut back in. “I love you.”
Charlie squeezed his eyes shut. I could hear his teeth grinding, and I figured Ruth could probably hear them grinding too.
“I’m coming, Babe,” Ruth said. “I’ll be right out.” She hung up. I dropped my phone into my pocket. Charlie opened his eyes.
“Charlie,” I said.
“Don’t call me that,” he said.
“You said that Ruth didn’t have my number,” I said.
“It turns out she did,” he said. “I tried to convince her I’m just your tenant, but she thinks you have power. She thinks I like you.”
“Do you think I have power?” I asked.
“Not in the way Ruth means,” he said. We both looked toward the library door. “I talked to my uncle,” Charlie said.
“What did he say?”
“He said it’s a good thing I never let you call me Charlie.”
“Anything else?” I asked.
“Stop,” he said.
“I wish someone could tell me what I should do,” I said.
“But you already know what you’re going to do,” he said.
“What am I going to do?” I asked.
“You’re going to evict me,” he said.
“I’m not going to evict you,” I said. “I’m going to raise your rent. Anyone can see that what I’m doing is reasonable. Do you know how much I could be getting for that room? It doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends.”
“Friends?” he said. “You just told me you’re evicting me.”
“Stop saying that,” I said.
“You’re a shitty housemate,” he said. “You eat all my food. You don’t do the dishes. There’s still junk everywhere from the family you kicked out. You never take out the garbage. You never fix anything. No one’s going to want to live with you.”
“You act like it’s your house, but it’s my house,” I said. “I own it. I can do what I want.”
“See?” he said. “You do have power.”
From the library, laughter. Through the window many heads nodded. I could hear the swell of the crowd’s response. Hmm. Yes. Umm. Umph. Amen. Ruth didn’t come out.
“You are so negative,” I said. “It’s not like you’ll be homeless. You could move in with Ruth. She loves you.”
“We’re breaking up,” he said.
“With your uncle, then,” I said.
“He lives in one room above the auto shop. He cooks on a hot plate. He sleeps on a fold-out couch. It’s an hour to class by bus. But yes, sure, his door is always open to me.”
“Exactly,” I said. “You can reconnect with your family. I can post an ad. Now we both know what to do.”
“Actually, I don’t,” he said.
“Stop complaining,” I said.
“My uncle said my dad was good at a lot of things,” Charlie said. “When they were small before they knew what would happen, they’d hurl themselves at chain link fences and race up and over them until their hands bled, they’d leap from train trestles into cold water, he could throw a baseball farther than any of the other kids. He had a good arm. Like me. That’s what my uncle says. He says my dad always wondered about me. But by the time I found my family, my parents were gone. I don’t know what my dad knew. I hardly know anything.”
“Don’t be mad at me, Charlie,” I said. I started to cry a little bit. “Just because I’m a homeowner. Don’t blame me.”
“Jesus,” he said. He ground his teeth and looked toward the library door again.
“Do you really think no one will want to live with me?” I asked, wiping my eyes. “My mom says I have a hard time making friends. She says my dad was the same way.”
“Was?” he asked, glancing back at me. “Is your dad dead too?”
“He’s up there,” I said, gulping and smearing snot on the sleeve of my duffle coat.
“Where?” he asked.
“He’s above us,” I said. “He’s up in that tree.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“Dad?” I called. No answer.
I drew the pint of maple syrup from my pocket. I dropped it into the bucket next to the breakfast sandwich. I gave the rope a tug. Nothing.
Inside the library, there was a whistle and then sustained applause. I recognized Mom’s yell of appreciation, leaping above the other voices, confident and sure.
I tugged again.
“Maybe he’s gone,” Charlie said. I tugged hard.
Beneath my hand, the rope twitched. The breakfast sandwich toppled. The maple syrup sloshed. The pulley creaked. My phone chimed. The library door opened. The bucket swayed.