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Sunday, March 7, 2004
By Paul Ford
Marta's landlord was always checking on something. He wore expensive white shirts, pressed slacks, and sneakers. The shirts he should wear, she thought, are thick and rough, not this combed cotton. She was afraid that he would make physical demands. For a long time she thought about moving, taking her suitcases and kitten and leaving for some other part of the city. She lived on the second floor of a three-floor building.
Every few months Mr. Nweski would insist on being let in to spray the corners with insecticide. He would have to check the sink. Once he listened to the walls with a stethescope. He stared at her chest as if he was making emotional contact, as if her nipples were eyes.
During the second year she became tired the feelings he brought with him. She thought of killing Mr. Nrewski, of pouring acid into his face, strangling him with piano wire, beating him with an aluminum baseball bat, splitting open the skull beneath his coiffed hair. She knocked bookcases onto him, and kicked him in the testicles, and pushed his face onto the electric coils of the stove, and when he stood back up again the burns were like the tattoos of a tribal chieftan, a bizarre spiral of red, raised skin. And then she covered him with spiders.
One Saturday morning he appeared with a stud finder. They are remodeling the apartment next door, he said—and when he entered, he found a man making an omelette, and Marta in a T-shirt and loose-fitting shorts.
“He found a stud,” she said to the omelette-making man, after Mr. Nrewski left.
The kitten grew into a sullen black cat with white paws. The omelette-making man went away. Marta gained 12 pounds, and turned 27. Now she told her friends about Mr. Nweski, and all of them laughed. She half-anticipated his visits, the pathetic droop of his eyelids.
On the second of a month, Mr. Nweski knocked on the door and asked for her rent check. She shook her head down at him, and told him to check the box. He went through the pile of envelopes in his hand and was very sorry. He asked after the apartment.
“Yes. It's a nice place, and all of my guests appreciate it as well.”
“But now I have to get ready for my boyfriend to come over,” she said.
He stood there, half in the door, so that he had to jump into the hallway when she began to close it. She peeked through the peekhole and saw him biting his lower lip. She wondered if he would wait in front of the building to see who rang the buzzer. This made her feel guilty, but she hoped also that he would spend an hour spying, and realize that she had lied to him to get him to leave.
He knocked again two months later, and she was about to ask him to wait until she changed, but she was in good spirits and answered in a bathrobe, her smooth legs poking out of the bottom, unbound breasts hanging firm and free. He held up a new red fire extinguisher.
“Hello,” she said, singing the word.
“Mr. Nrewski, wait here,” she said, and she left the door a crack open. She went to a dresser and pulled out a pair of underwear, light pink, synthetic, clean.
She returned and took the fire extinguisher.
“For safety,” he said, looking down, now, at her bare toes. They were coated in orange lacquer, now cracked.
“I have something for you,” she said, handing him the underwear. “But I am on the phone.”
He looked at the cloth in his hands, and she closed the door. A minute later he knocked, and then knocked again. But she did not answer.
On the second of the next two months, she was out. Once with friends, and the next working late.
On the third month she heard the knock, and went to the peekhole, and there he was, the size of his nose doubled by the fisheye. He had seen, she knew, the sudden eclipse of her presence through that tiny portal, and for a moment she looked at him, and he looked at where he thought she was, behind the door. It made her jump. But she did not open the door. He knocked again, faintly, almost scratching, and she watched him bend down, his purpose unknown. Then she turned from the door, letting light shine once more through the portal, and heard his footfalls receding, and the creak of the banister as he pressed it, then his light step, in his sneakers, down the stairs.
When he was gone she opened the door, and there was a large brown envelope, sealed, with no name on it. She opened it and found the underwear, still smelling of fabric softener, and no note. Outside his car started, the wheels biting into the loose gravel that silted at the curb.