Eiko Alexander, “Dwelling Counts”

Micky was breathing just fine. Nothing was stuck in her lungs, nothing blocking the ducts or whatever was in there. To prove it she sucked in a mouthful of air. It went down but seemed sluggish. Sticky.

She tried to concentrate on something else. From the edge of the couch she watched Phil clean the kitchen. Phil’s head ducked down to put a pot in the dishwasher, an expensive new pot that should be washed by hand. He was humming. He dropped a knife and it clanged against the tiles and he laughed like something was funny. He brought her a coffee and she said, “Sorry,” and he said, “For what?” He didn’t notice the way she was sitting, didn’t notice both her feet on the couch so that she was arranged like a dog on its haunches. He went into the bathroom and the water went on.

She saw her fingers reaching into the coffee, painting themselves across the white couch.

He came back smelling like cologne. He kissed the top of her head, said, “See you, Mickaroni.” He took her mug away. He gathered up the bags of garbage and recycling and compost and went down the stairs.

She took a breath of sticky air.

She would get up now. The first thing she would do was shower because it had been a few days. She would make another coffee and heat up some oats and go upstairs to her desk. She would drink her coffee and eat her oats and open the windows and do her work with the skyline of the city as her backdrop. She would finish all the things that were overdue. Today would be better. She would make dinner. In the afternoon she would knock off early and head to the store and enjoy the way the man in the market looked at her. She would think how lucky she was. Just look at yourself, she would say.

She was staring at the espresso machine when she heard it.

From way down on the street, someone was knocking. The old house had been converted by slicing the thing in half instead of across, creating four skinny floors. At night, in bed, way up high on the top floor, she worried about someone breaking in. Phil had tried to put in an alarm system but he wasn’t good at those things. Couldn’t fix the doorbell either.

After four rounds the knocking stopped. This time had been louder than yesterday. Like yesterday, she did not consider going to the door.

It had been a while since she had gone outside.

She wasn’t an agoraphobic, though. Micky would have loved to be one, to have an actual condition. She would attach it like a badge, use it to turn down dinner parties, coffees with girlfriends, job interviews. She wouldn’t have to explain. Everyone would understand.

She filled the chamber with coffee and twisted the handle. This was the tricky part that usually took her a few tries. “So there,” she said, when the handle latched on the first go. She flipped the switch.

At first she thought nothing had happened, because the cups weren’t filling. Until she noticed that her hand was wet. That it was burning. Boiling water was shooting out of the steam wand. It kept coming as she fumbled with the switches, turned them on and off, finally realized she had to close the knob itself.

Water was everywhere: a loaf of bread, a basket of apples, Phil’s new paperback.

The meat of her right hand was scalded, the skin already puckering.

She wiped her left hand on her t-shirt, took a bottle of vodka out of the freezer and climbed the stairs to the guest room.

Much later, she woke up in the closet. That morning she had dragged out storage bins and ski boots and an old typewriter, folding herself into the only place where she could get air. Now it seemed threatening. Like she had been locked in. Like Phil had come home and found her in there and put a lock on the door. She reached out her foot and it didn’t move and for a moment she thought that was what he had done. When the door opened, she registered her disappointment.

She climbed on to the bed. Her cat Dover came in and sneezed before jumping up, snuffling around the comforter and resting his head a few inches from hers. To get away from him she rolled over, onto her burnt hand and the ache was like a razor that went from her hand to her right ear and Dover stuck his wet nose against her shoulder and she picked him up and flung him off the bed.

She lay on her back, her hand in the air. She would make a terrible mother. Look how she was with the cat. She had to use the bathroom but if she got up Dover would think it was morning and cry until he was fed and then for an hour after he ate because he was still hungry. As well as being sickly, he was awfully fat. Sometimes Micky couldn’t stand the yowling anymore and let him eat out of the kibble bag. Even if it did mean he might get diabetes.

Micky was thirty-eight. Probably too old to have kids anyway.

She emptied the vodka and felt her eyes close.

The sun was in the room. Phil stuck his head in the door and asked if she wanted a coffee. Didn’t look at the vodka bottle or the closet. She told him to leave her alone. He left, came back with a coffee and suggested she eat something. She gave him the finger.

Giving him the finger felt good.

There were scissors in the basket next to the bed. She wasn’t into cutting herself, but she could cut other things. She ripped a long line into the duvet. Dover came in and she told him she loved him. He stuck his head inside the duvet and came out with a head full of feathers. Micky laughed. She liked the idea of Phil seeing feathers everywhere. She cut and cut until the thing was in shreds, and then she went after the pillows. The bed was a wonderland of goose and chicken feathers. Her glasses were off and the feathers looked like snowflakes except some were brown. She laughed and it sounded like the toddler boy who lived next door. They could not afford another duvet. If guests stayed, they would have to use musty old sleeping bags. Welcome to our home and sorry about the mold. She tossed feathers in the air. She would like to scissor the walls, starting at the back of the room and dragging the blade until she got to the door, in nice even lines until it looked like wallpaper, but then they would have to pay for the walls to be fixed and that would cost a lot more than a new set of bedding.

Micky was too reasonable a person to be manic-depressive.

Phil brought in a plate and a piece of toast.

What Micky wanted most in the world was for Phil to drive her to the hospital so people could take care of her. In the hospital she wouldn’t have to wash her hair, or put on makeup, or find something to wear every day. In the hospital she would be just another sick person. People would call her Dear and give her pills.

She looked at Phil.

A while later, he yelled goodbye from the floor below.

And then she was up, and when she put her glasses on all the lines and edges cut right into her but somehow she didn’t mind. She threw the remains of the duvet into the air. She went downstairs to make a coffee and got it right on the first try.

When the knocking came again, Micky was at her desk, too fidgety to do any work. She thought about who might be at the door. No one she knew would just show up, and not for three days in a row. A delivery man would have left a notice, and there had been nothing yesterday when Phil brought in the mail. A long-lost sibling, maybe. An old boyfriend, still in love. The police. Micky had always thought it would be exciting to be charged with a crime she didn’t know she had committed. Would the police call first?

It stopped and she thought the person had gone. It started again. She put on a sweater and went out on the patio. She leaned over the railing and twisted her neck. The door was a long way down. She could see a strong-looking shoulder in a brown sleeve. Puffy red hair. The person was a man, judging by the size. She couldn’t recall any red-haired ex-boyfriends. If he looked up, she would be startled and fall over the railing and splatter on the sidewalk. Wearing Phil’s boxer shorts. Phil would find her and mutter, “My poor little agoraphobic,” if she were an agoraphobic. Or, “My poor little Mickastick,” and if on some post-life plane Micky still had awareness, she would be annoyed that he was using nicknames even after she was dead.

The man disappeared. She didn’t see him go down the street. He didn’t appear to have gone anywhere.

Sometimes Phil forgot to put on the deadbolt.

If the man had simply come in or picked the lock (it wouldn’t be hard; it was an old lock), he would now be coming up the stairs. He had knocked all those times at the same time of day because he wanted to be sure no one was home. Micky didn’t want to search all those rooms down there like the last time she suspected someone was inside (no one was then, but once there had been, long ago in another house), so she crept one floor down to the kitchen. Keeping an eye on the stairs, she got out her biggest knife. She went to the top of the stairs to wait until there turned out to be no one, or the person came after her. If she was attacked, and lived, it would make a good story. She sat down and tried to stop her hands shaking. Dover lay beside her and put his head against her thigh.

She was tired. Wrecking the duvet had used up a lot of energy. Her right hand was useless and she didn’t know if she could stab with her left.

“Mick.”

Her weight was on her bad hand. She opened her eyes and saw Phil’s feet. The knife was gone. Phil was doing some sort of dance with the cat in his arms.

“He doesn’t like that,” she said.

“Chow Mein. Hot and sour soup. Dry ginger beef, and pineapple fried rice. Hot dang!”

“What?”

“Chinese! Well, I think so. Or is that place Mongolian?”

She sat up. “Was the door locked?”

“Hear that, Dover? Egg rolls!”

“When you got home. Why didn’t you wake me up?”

Phil held the cat to his face, raised one paw, waved it at her and said in what was supposed to be Dover’s voice, “Mommy sleepy!”

He went into the kitchen. Began getting out plates and cutlery. Asked if she wanted to eat in front of the television or at the table. Micky got out the ice tray and rested her hand on it. Phil did not notice.

On the counter was an envelope; opened, presumably, by Phil.

“Oh yeah,” said Phil. “Someone dropped that off. You have to fill those out, you know. I think it’s illegal not to send one in.”

It was an overdue notice to complete the census form.

The first question asked for the number of people in the house. The person completing the form was instructed, “Before you answer Question 1, count the people living in the house, apartment or mobile home using our guidelines. Count all people, including babies, who live and sleep here most of the time.”

To go through them, one by one. As if there were situations in which you would need to count. Homes so full of family members and relatives and comers and goers that it would be possible to lose track. Homes that busy, that chaotic, that safe.

Micky looked at Phil. He was dumping noodles onto plates. He did not ask for her help.

She put the ice tray back in the freezer. Between yesterday and today he had bought ice cream. Two new tubs where the vodka bottle had been.

He said, “Plus if you don’t send one in, no one will know you exist.”

Micky got out a pencil. She picked up her plate and the form and went up the stairs, to the guest room.

Eiko Alexander is a user experience designer in Toronto, where she lives with her husband. Her writing explores characters in turmoil, particularly those struggling with mental illness. Eiko recently completed a novel and has been published in Pachinko! Magazine.

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