Fiction: Christine Hennessey
There was a man living in her walls. Fiona hadn’t seen or spoken to him, though late at night when he emerged from behind the plaster she could hear the sounds he made, the grease sizzling in the frying pan, the methodic thud of knife against cutting board. The scents that slipped under her bedroom door made her mouth water, reminded her of childhood—onions and garlic, cabbage and beef. Sometimes she grew bold enough to whisper to him, inviting him upstairs, asking him to reveal himself. He never did, and by the time the sky was lightening, the birds beginning their awful trill, she was asleep again, turning fitfully on her starched white sheets. Each morning, it was all there. Kugel with egg noodles, the pan still warm. A pot of cholent simmering on the stovetop, the beans and potatoes tender, the beef fragrant. A tiny apple cake, studded with fruit, so light and spongy that when she pressed her finger into its moist surface it sprang back, begging her to take a bite.
She began going to bed as soon as the sun sank below the horizon. While she waited for the man to appear, she often thought of Maury’s funeral. Those last weeks came to her in pieces, like waking in the middle of a dream. It had been a beautiful morning, unseasonably warm. Fiona wore black. So did Elijah, her son, and his wife, Claudia. They drove from the synagogue to the cemetery, a long line of cars behind them, like a snake that roiled along the highway, churning through the gates and curving around the stone markers dotting the green hills. She remembered how Elijah held her arm as they walked across the grass but, when they reached that dark slash in the earth, he let go and she held his arm instead.
There had been so much to do in the day between Maury’s death and his funeral that Elijah and Claudia left the baby with a sitter and stayed in the guest room, to help Fiona take care of the arrangements. They brought covered dishes and cleaning supplies, draped old shawls over the mirrors. Claudia bent over the stove, scrubbing last week’s dinner from the range, while Elijah paced behind her, deep lines etched in his brow, his short hair disheveled. Fiona sat in the living room, her hands folded in her lap, staring at the blank television screen. Maury had lingered so long in the in-between that at times she feared he would hold on forever. The fact that he was gone, really gone, was a shock and a relief.
After the funeral, mourners were invited back to the house to sit shiva. Claudia set out trays of bagels, cream cheese and lox, coffee and water. Fiona nibbled at a sesame bagel while she listened to Maury’s friends reminisce. The tears from the grave had dried—now they laughed as they remembered Maury, the tricks he liked to play, alluding to the way his mood swung, the tiny dramas that formed his years.
“Once he convinced me he’d won the lottery. Had a ticket with the winning numbers and everything. Took me a week to realize he’d bought it the day after.”
“That’s nothing. You remember my bachelor party, in ’74? Thanks to Maury, I almost spent my wedding night in jail!” Raucous laughter filled the living room, cigarette smoke lingered in the air. Elijah must have noticed the pained look on Fiona’s face, assumed she was thinking of Maury instead of the ash falling on her pristine carpet. He put a hand on her arm, squeezed her shoulder.
“I miss him, too,” Elijah said, his eyes shining. Fiona wrapped her fingers around his hand.
Maury’s friends and coworkers, his cousins and comrades, were at last beginning to leave. Claudia cleared the table and took out the trash while people were still milling around, and this helped move them out the door.
“How are you feeling?” Elijah asked Fiona, sitting beside her on the couch, a fourth bagel on his plate. He had always been an emotional eater.
“Does that wife of yours ever stop moving?” Fiona replied instead, watching as Claudia wiped crumbs from the counter, emptied the trash bin for the third time.
“That’s how she deals with things,” Elijah said. “Order from chaos, taking control. She has a book about it.”
Fiona didn’t ask if the book was meant to validate Claudia’s behavior or fix it. She was happy to know that he accepted this about Claudia, that he was not one of those men who forced their wives into boxes easily understood, approved. When Elijah was growing up, Fiona worried the scales would tip toward maleness. Parents, she felt, should hope their child exhibited the best of both sexes. Maury, on the other hand, seemed to discourage anything in their son that might have come from her, always telling Elijah to put that book down and go outside, leaving the room when Elijah cried at the end of a movie. After Elijah earned his PhD, Maury made sure to clarify to their friends that he was a doctor of books, not bodies, as if some moral fiber deep in his being couldn’t bear to allow Elijah even a modicum of misplaced admiration. Now, standing in the kitchen with her moon-faced son, Fiona considered telling Elijah this, wondered if the truth would temper his grief. In the end, she decided to let Elijah keep the Maury he’d known and loved. Death didn’t change life; it only ended it.
Elijah remained for seven days, the full shiva, while Claudia came and went, caring for the baby who was staying with her parents. On the last day the rabbi arrived with two hard-boiled eggs, placing them in Fiona and Elijah’s palms. They left the house for the first time since the funeral and walked slowly around the block, a brief journey that signified rebirth. As they approached the house Fiona raised the egg to her mouth and bit it clean in half, shocked at how bright the yolk was, how unapologetically yellow.
“Don’t stay here tonight,” Elijah said, after the rabbi had gone home. “It’s not good to be alone.”
“Nonsense,” Fiona replied. “Where would I go?”
“Come to our house. There’s a pull-out sofa in Natalie’s room—we can bring her into our bed for the night. Claudia will make breakfast in the morning. Please.”
“I’m staying here,” Fiona said. “It’s where I belong.”
“Okay,” Elijah said, and she detected a note of relief.
That night, after Elijah had gone home, Fiona went upstairs and lay, fully dressed, on her bed. It had been her bed for months, ever since Maury got sick. When he first moved downstairs, Fiona stayed on her side, curled into a ball. As the weeks passed she began to spread out, limbs inching slowly across the sheets. By the time he was gone, and on that night in particular, her arms and legs were splayed across the whole mattress, the quilt bunched at her feet, the nighttime breeze whispering through the cracked bedroom window.
At first she didn’t know why she was awake. She blinked in the darkness, waited for the familiar shapes of the dresser, the bedposts, to emerge. The moon was up, a bright orb peeking through the slats of the blinds, casting a pale gold shadow across the floorboards. Then she heard the soft suction of the refrigerator door opening and closing. The hiss of the gas burner turning on. Eggs cracking into a bowl. Someone was in the kitchen, she realized. Someone was making a meal.
Fiona was, of course, terrified. Her mouth filled with a metallic taste, her stomach grew cold and heavy, sweat poured from her skin. It was as if she’d swallowed a jar full of tacks, as if moving, even a little, would risk puncture from a thousand small angles. She thought about calling for help, but who would hear her? Maury was dead and Elijah had gone home. She thought about calling the police, but what if she was dreaming? What if they police came, and the kitchen was empty, and they carted her away instead, locked her up in a white room, fed her porridge and weak tea for the rest of her life? After an hour, maybe two, the sounds ceased and the house was quiet again. Fiona began to relax, her muscles slowly unfurling. It must have been a dream, she thought, her imagination. As dawn approached, she finally fell asleep.
In the morning she went downstairs to the kitchen. The dish drainer was full of freshly scrubbed pans. The counter was spotless. And there, on the kitchen table, sat the soup pot. She lifted its domed lid gingerly, afraid at what might lie beneath, relieved when it was finally revealed. A plate of poached eggs, a small bowl of hollandaise sauce, roasted potatoes crisped just the way she liked them, and two thick slices of rye bread. She placed the bread in the toaster, watched the coils turn red. When the toast popped she withdrew the slices, spread them with jam, then sat down at the kitchen table.
Even after she ate every bite, she was still hungry. She felt as if she hadn’t eaten in years.
Since that first night the man had returned again and again, filling her countertops with meticulous meals, though “returned” wasn’t quite the right word. You couldn’t return to a place unless you left it, and the man didn’t leave. Fiona imagined him sleeping between the support beams and the drywall, nestled in a bed of bright pink insulation, his head resting against the studs, coming out only at night to stir and sauté, season and scramble. She longed to rap her knuckles against the wall, listen for that once-hollow spot, but she didn’t dare. The man needed his rest.
All day Fiona wondered about the life of the man who lived parallel to her, in a midnight dimension a small skip to the right. Where had he learned to cook all her favorite things, and how did he know she liked her cabbage slightly underdone, her knish with the corners burnt? Was he hiding from a family of his own, a wife and children, aging parents? Or did he simply enjoy her kitchen, these walls, strong and solid? Fiona had lived in the house for forty years, knew every nook and cranny. The fact that it could still hold secrets was oddly delightful. She walked through the halls, running her hand along doorknobs and windowpanes with new appreciation.
She wanted to tell Elijah what was happening, but she knew he would think she was crazy, making things up for attention. She’d think the same about any other old woman who told such a story. But facts were facts, and who could deny the stews and soups, the cakes and breads, that waited for Fiona each morning? As weeks passed Fiona ate and ate, felt herself gaining back the weight she’d lost when Maury was sick. She looked better than she had in years, and this in turn made her feel guilty, as if Maury would rise up at any moment and ask what on earth she was doing.
Maury. She thought about him almost as often as she thought about the man, mostly in the late afternoons when the sun was low and heavy, shadows lengthening in the yard. She had been nineteen, traveling from the suburbs of Long Island into New York City, where she worked as a waitress in a twenty-four hour diner. She could have easily worked in a diner closer to home, but Fiona liked the city, the train ride, all the different people spilling out of Penn Station. She liked being a part, however small, of something so alive.
And then one morning she met Maury on the train. He was a few years older, dark and handsome, loud and boisterous. He made Fiona laugh. One day she watched as he played a trick on the conductor, acted as if he thought he was on a train to England instead of Penn Station. The conductor tried to explain the way the world worked, tracks and oceans, distance and space. By the time the conductor realized Maury was joking, he was red-faced, exhausted, his conductor’s cap slipping down over his eyebrows. He never checked Maury’s ticket again—or Fiona’s, because from that day forward she sat beside him. She never had to pay for the train again.
In the end, it was a boring story. Instead of New York City they settled in Bellhaven, a small village on the south shore of Long Island, not in the Hamptons but close enough that Fiona could pretend some of that glitz rubbed off on them, a dusty sparkle on the best days. Instead of brownstones and Broadway, Fiona planted roses in the front yard and watched Maury mow the lawn each Saturday afternoon. And then came Elijah, wailing beneath a blue cap, tiny fingers curling into empty fists, as if searching for something he’d once held and already lost. Fiona remembered bringing him into the house for the first time, the way his eyes widened as if he recognized the place, as if he were not arriving, but returning.
They’d planned to have more children. Even as she and Maury adjusted to parenthood, struggling through sleepless nights and new demands, they dreamt of Elijah’s brothers, his sisters. They’d bought their house—a two story Colonial, built in 1923, with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sprawling backyard in the heart of Bellhaven—believing they’d fill it to the brim. When Fiona rocked her son to sleep at night and stared into his squashed cabbage face, she felt solid. She didn’t know she’d never be that happy again.
When Elijah was a few months old, he began to faint whenever he became excited or distressed. Crying jags would leave him inert. Fiona told herself the boy was just sensitive, that he was destined to be an artist, but Maury was nervous. “It’s not right,” he said. “The boy is weak, or sick, or something. Make an appointment.”
A few days later, she stood in a small green room while a doctor ran her son through a series of tests. One second he was examining an X-ray of Elijah’s pale chest, and the next they were in the ER and Fiona’s son—her tiny boy, her sweet king—was hooked up to all sorts of machines. Maury rushed to the hospital, yelled at the doctors, while Fiona cried and cried.
Elijah had a condition. A duct within his heart that should have closed after birth hadn’t; blood that should have flowed through his body was instead going to his lungs. This lack of blood had caused his fainting spells, the blue pallor that brushed his skin after his eyes fluttered open again. “If left untreated,” the doctor said, “this condition can cause heart failure, infection. We can correct it with a surgical procedure, and then your son will be fine.”
There were arguments after, once Elijah was home and before they’d even unwrapped the bandages around his tiny chest, a broken birdcage of bones and skin. “It’s not hereditary,” Maury said over and over. “There’s no reason to think this will happen again. And anyway, the doctor said he’ll be fine. There’s no reason to change our plans now.”
But Fiona was finished. Elijah was enough. In a way, he was already too much.
After Maury’s funeral Elijah stopped by once a week, to bring Fiona groceries, mow the lawn, and—Fiona assumed—make sure the house was still standing. Much to Fiona’s chagrin, he never knocked, just strolled right through the front door as if he owned the place.
“There was a sale on potatoes,” Elijah said one afternoon, placing a paper sack on the kitchen table. Fiona could see them peeking out of the brown paper, round and red-skinned. She wondered what the man would make—latkes, most likely, with onion and oil, flour and egg. She could already taste the crispy edges, the savory flavors.
“Mom, are you even listening to me?”
“Of course,” Fiona said, licking her lips. “What were you saying?”
“I’m worried about you.” Elijah sat at the table while Fiona filled the kettle with water, took two cups down from the cabinet. Last week, the man had used her Mickey Mouse mug three days in a row, a relic from a family vacation nearly twenty years ago. Since then, she made sure to leave it on the shelf, clean, in case he’d grown attached.
“I keep telling you,” Fiona said, “I’m fine.”
“It’s just that ever since Dad died, you’ve been alone in this house. You don’t go out, you don’t see friends. Dorothy said she hasn’t heard from you in two weeks, and Mrs. Fritz says you haven’t been to the synagogue since the funeral.”
“I’ll go back to the synagogue. I just need some time—it’s still too soon.” She felt guilty using Maury as an excuse, but not too guilty. “And Dorothy is nothing but a gossip. She loves to stir up trouble. As a matter of fact, I called her just last week to let her know her choice for book club was terrible. That’s probably why she can’t remember the conversation—she blocks out everything she doesn’t want to hear.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so,” Fiona said firmly, placing a cup of tea in front of Elijah. She had never been good at lying, wished she could tell Elijah the truth. She didn’t need the synagogue, didn’t need Dorothy or book club, because she wasn’t lonely. But if Elijah found out about the man, he’d cast him out instantly. Fiona couldn’t take that risk. She knew it was a strange situation, unorthodox, even dangerous. There was so much she didn’t know about the man, but wasn’t that part of his charm? She didn’t need to talk to him or tend to his needs. He gave and gave and the only thing he asked of Fiona in return was a tiny bit of space, a part of her house she wasn’t even using. It was the ideal romance.
She spooned a small amount of sugar into her tea, stirred it slowly so the crystals dissolved, the spoon making a pleasant clinking sound against the cup.
“There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about,” Elijah said.
“Oh?” Her spoon halted in the middle of its rotation. Elijah cleared his throat, shifted in his seat. He acted just like Maury when he was nervous, fidgety, blinking twice as much as necessary. Fiona remembered the first time Maury had seemed anything but poised and in complete control—it was the afternoon forty-three years ago on the Ronkonkoma platform, the trains rushing by on either side, when he bent to one knee and asked her to marry him. His brow had been sweaty, his face strained, and he’d seemed so vulnerable that Fiona couldn’t help but say yes.
“This is a huge house for one person,” Elijah said. “There are rooms I’ve never seen you go in, doors you haven’t opened in years. It must be a lot of work to clean, a lot of money to heat and cool.”
“I don’t mind,” Fiona said. “And anyway, I don’t really have a choice. This is my home.”
“What if you did have a choice?” Elijah reached into his jacket, withdrew a brochure, shiny and stiff. He placed it on the table and Fiona picked it up gingerly with two fingers, as if it might bite her.
“I think you’d like this place, Mom,” Elijah said, finally spooning sugar into this cup of tea, as if he needed to keep his hands busy. “It’s got some beautiful units, all the amenities you could dream of, plus activities every afternoon. You could make some friends, have a community. It would be good for you.”
Fiona returned the brochure to the table and leaned back in her chair. As she moved, her elbow caught the edge of her saucer, sent her tea tumbling to the ground. She jumped at the scream of the porcelain shattering against the tile, wondered if the crash had roused the man from his sleep.
“Jeez, Mom,” Elijah said. “Don’t get up. You’ll cut yourself.”
She sat still while he moved around her, sweeping the broken porcelain into a small pile while still talking about the new complex he’d seen advertised in the paper. It wasn’t a nursing home or assisted living. It was simply, Elijah claimed, a place to let life slow down, where a person could enjoy their twilight years in comfort.
“That’s sweet of you,” Fiona said when Elijah finally paused to take a breath. “But really, I’m not interested. I’m not that old, I can take care of myself. And besides, I’m happy here.”
Elijah sighed, pushed the porcelain into the dustpan, then tipped it into the trash bin. Even after he put away the broom he remained standing, staring at the floor where the saucer had shattered. “It’s not just about you,” he finally said.
“Then who is it about?”
He looked at Fiona, and Fiona knew.
“Oh,” she said.
“Claudia wants more kids, and our house is already too small as it is. You have to admit it makes sense—this house is huge, with a big yard, in a quiet neighborhood. Even the school district is great.”
“I know,” Fiona said. “That’s why your father and I chose this house. We wanted a big family.”
“It’s not too late.” He sat down, reached across the table and laid his hand on hers. “And you don’t have to move—I just thought you might want to—I know how much you like your space. There’s more than enough room here for all of us to live together. You’d hardly even notice us.” He withdrew his hand, held it awkwardly at his side, and stared at Fiona as if waiting for her to say something.
Fiona pictured Claudia’s face, small and pretty. When Elijah married her, Fiona had approved. She admired Claudia’s work ethic, the way her house was always tidy, the weight Elijah gained after the wedding, proof, Fiona thought, that Claudia was taking good care of her boy. And the baby came so soon, and she was healthy, too—they had her tested immediately, and her heart was fine, strong and loud, a relief, even though the condition hadn’t affected Elijah once he left the dark woods of childhood. Fiona had no complaints about Claudia, but that was before her daughter-in-law tried to push Fiona out of her own house.
Even if Fiona stayed, moved into one of the guest rooms, it wouldn’t be the same. The children would cry at all hours of the night, waking the man in the walls and forcing him to stay hidden, even though it was his turn to roam the halls and rooms, to stir pots of stew at the stove and set Fiona’s breakfast out on the table. A big house for a big family. Fiona had dreamed of this once, but those dreams were long gone, replaced by something mysterious and new. She could not let Elijah have the house. She could not leave the man. Her heartbeat quickened, a flock of wild birds trapped in a cage.
“I’ll think about it,” she finally said. Across the kitchen table, her son smiled.
After Elijah left, Fiona remained at the kitchen table for hours, until the room was dark and the moon was out. She didn’t move, barely breathed. The man will be here soon, she thought. The man will come and then I will tell him what’s happened and he’ll know what to do. It became a prayer, a mantra. Eventually, it lulled Fiona to sleep.
Sometime later she jerked her head up, suddenly awake. At first the house was quiet, pitch black. She could barely make out the edge of the counter, the table in front of her. She heard a strange sound in the hallway, not the slow and deliberate movements she’d come to expect, but a shuffling, tinged with desperation, as if the man had gotten lost on his nightly walk, as if the walls had receded and left him exposed.
“It’s okay,” Fiona whispered, her voice high and unfamiliar. The shuffling stopped when she spoke so she repeated herself. “It’s okay,” she said. “I won’t let them come.” The shuffling started up again, but now it was slower, moving away from the kitchen, toward the center of the house. After a few minutes the house was quiet again, cloaked in silence, as if Fiona had always been alone.
The next morning decided she needed some air. She pulled on her gardening pants, carried a pair of clippers into the yard. She made a slow circle around the house, pushing through bramble, trimming branches that got in her way. She felt as if she were on an expedition, one of the safaris Maury promised to take her on but never did. For a while, she saw nothing out of the ordinary, just the usual bramble of bushes and shrubs. Then, on the north side of the house, something caught her eye. She bent to one knee for a closer look.
It was a board, painted nearly the same color as the house, a dusty blue. It wasn’t hammered into place, merely propped against the foundation. She pulled it back, peered behind it, saw a black, narrow tunnel, empty and cavernous. The crawl space, Fiona thought. Of course.
She put the board back in place, stood and brushed the dirt from her knees. Then she went back inside the house, left the clippers on the back porch, and sat at the kitchen table, suddenly exhausted.
For all the months Fiona had lived with the man, she hadn’t spent much time considering how he’d gotten into the walls. Until moments ago, she’d assumed he’d always been there, that he had awakened from some deep slumber only after Maury was gone, as if he’d been waiting all these years for her alone. In Fiona’s mind the house had become a body, the walls transformed into veins. The man flowed through them, fluid and vibrant, carrying life to those places that had been dormant for so long.
Fiona pushed back her chair and walked down the hall, past the living room, the powder room, Maury’s study, until she reached the most northern edge of the house, the room that had once been Elijah’s nursery. She never thought about what was beneath it, what dark possibilities lurked while her son slumbered, his heart open and vulnerable.
Fiona stood in front of the window, the light blue curtains undulating in the breeze, her feet planted solidly on the planks that covered the crawl space. She could feel heat radiating through the layers of the floor, a faint pulsing. She stayed there for an hour, until her legs ached and buckled and she had to sit down. But each day she returned to the spot, and each day she stood there a little longer. In this way, she prepared herself.
The following week, Elijah did not stop by. It was if he recognized that he’d crossed a line and was giving Fiona space, but she knew it was only a matter of time. She pictured her son pacing in his cramped kitchen while Claudia stood at the sink, washing bottles for the baby. In another room the baby would begin to cry and Claudia would ask him to check on her. Fiona pictured Elijah picking the baby up, holding her against his chest.
What did he feel in that moment? Did the scent of her—fresh and new, earthy like a sweet potato plucked from a sun-warmed garden—make him breathe a little deeper? When he held her close to his face, did he kiss the wisps of hair on her soft head? Fiona wondered who the baby would grow up to be. She hoped that the baby would turn out better than she and Maury, better than Elijah and Claudia. That was how life should work—each generation able to hold a little more happiness in their hands than the one that came before it.
In the end, Fiona decided to leave a letter. She went into the study, opened the dusty drawers of Maury’s desk, withdrew a heavy pen and a single sheet of his nicest stationary, then returned to the table to write. When she finished she folded the letter into careful quarters, running her fingers along each edge for a perfect crease before sliding it into an envelope and sealing the whole thing shut. She wrote Elijah’s name on the front in script, slanted and precise. She knew it would matter, that any sloppiness would be held against her. She wanted everyone—Elijah, Claudia, the baby—to understand. There could be no questions, no second-guessing. Fiona knew what she was doing.
She left the letter on the kitchen table, propped against a vase full of roses she’d picked earlier that day. She remembered planting them years ago, pruning them each spring so they grew thick and healthy. She touched their petals, the soft edges slipping through her fingers. She was afraid, though she had no reason to be. She thought about Claudia, waiting for Fiona to leave. Then she took a deep breath and thought about the strength she’d been building, the man in the walls who was waiting for her to come.
Fiona left the letter, left the roses, left the kitchen. She went outside though the backdoor, so the neighbors wouldn’t see her. For once, she was grateful for the tall fences that Maury installed, the ones that cut them off from the rest of the neighborhood. She paused at the north edge of the house, then got on her hands and knees, ran her hands along the foundation until she found the camouflaged board, then pried it away from the house.
It wasn’t easy to crawl into the space, but after some wriggling and pushing, Fiona managed to get inside. She pulled the board behind her, closing herself beneath the house. It was dark and dank, smelled earthy. Wet. She sat still for a few moments, trying to orient herself. She remembered that she was under the back bedroom, the place where she once rocked Elijah to sleep. She thought about Maury, the slash of earth into which they had delivered him. She shivered, she was shaking. She shook her head, shifted to her hands and knees, and started crawling, searching for the nest between two walls, the pocket in the heart of the home where she was sure the man waited for her.
Christine Hennessey lives and writes in coastal North Carolina, where she shares a home with nineteen chickens, one giant dog, and a husband. She earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and currently works as the social media and content specialist at a software company. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, Flyway, Necessary Fiction, The Boiler, Bodega, Heavy Feather Review, storySouth, and LIT, among others, and she has received fellowships to Aspen Summer Words and the Vermont Studio Center. Her novel-in-progress, HIVE BODY, was a semi-finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. She is currently at work on a second novel about a one hit wonder and a short story collection about Long Island. She is represented by Peter Steinberg of Foundry Literary + Media.
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