Read an Excerpt
Two bright circles of light moved through the mists, drawing closer to the porch where Sarah sat. The truck wheezed and halted. Shivering in the damp morning air, Sarah rose and walked to the railing. Two men climbed out of the cab and wandered around to the back of the truck. One of them glanced at her before lighting his cigarette; the fog swallowed the smoke.
Sarah turned and went inside. The hallway was also damp. She stumbled on a piece of loose red carpeting, and reached for the banister to her right, steadying herself. As she entered her apartment and closed the door, she heard Gerard's movements in the kitchen.
Water was boiling on the Franklin stove. She said, "The new neighbor's moving in." Gerard grunted as he picked up the kettle of hot water and moved toward the bathroom. She followed him and watched him pour some into the sink.
"Want a bath?" he asked. "I think there's enough left."
She shrugged. "Sure." He poured the rest of the water into the tub, put the kettle on the floor, and shed his robe. He sponged himself off by the sink. Sarah ran cold water into the tub as she undressed. Her teeth chattered. "On days like this, I wish I'd gone to California with my parents."
"At least we have water."
"But they have the weather. I think the new neighbor's moving in," she said again. Feet were stomping up the stairs outside. She climbed into the tub and turned off the water.
"Did you see him?"
"I don't think so. There were two men with a truck, but they looked like movers."
"Movers!" Gerard toweled off his stocky body. "If he has that kind of money, why's he moving here?" He put on his robe and left the bathroom. Sarahwashed quickly, remembering baths with water up to her neck.
By the time she finished, she was shivering once more. She dressed and found Gerard in the bedroom, looking out the tall front window that faced the porch. A small blue car had pulled up in front of the truck. A tail man in a trench coat was talking to one of the movers.
"That must be him," Gerard muttered.
Sarah nudged him. "You'll be late."
Gerard closed the heavy burgundy curtains. "If someone like that's moving here, we're in trouble. It means the rents might go up. Or else it means things are worse than we think." He began to get dressed, sniffing and snorting as he did so, and she wondered if he was coming down with a cold. He put on his coat and left, mumbling something that might have been good-bye.
Sarah wandered into the living room. She always looked forward to sleeping late on her day off, yet her insomnia usually had her up before dawn. The day would be free for worrying while she went over her budget yet again and waited on lines at the post office and the grocery store. She would be exhausted by evening, and would go to work tomorrow drained. The sheets needed washing, and it was her turn to do them. She thought of scrubbing them in the tub and hanging them on the line, and felt tired already. Adding figures in her head, she tried to see if she could squeeze enough from her funds to go to the laundromat.
She went to the door and listened. The stairs creaked under the feet of the movers. She opened the door and stepped back, startled. The new neighbor was standing there, his back to her. He turned.
"Hello!" He beamed and thrust out a hand. His hair was dark and his teeth white, his nose a bit too large for his fine features. She took the hand and gave it as firm a shake as she could manage. "Is this your flat? I'm your neighbor, then. I just rented the flat on the third floor." The movers disappeared up the curving staircase with a red velvet love seat. "I'm Raf Courn."
"Sarah Jaynes. I live here with Gerard Litvinov. Maybe you saw him on the way out." He continued to grip her hand. At last she detached herself. "Raf Courn. That's an odd name."
"I'm an odd fellow." He chuckled, as if finding that amusing. She tried to smile. "I hope we'll be friends."
"I'm sure we will," she said, not sure at all. "Don't you think you ought to go up there?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The movers. They might put things in the wrong place." She paused. "We don't usually get anyone who can afford movers."
"Oh. Well, well, what could I do? I have to have someone do it, I certainly couldn't manage by myself. I suppose I must go and supervise. We must have dinner together sometime, you and your husband and I."
"He's not my husband."
"You and your inamorato, then. I'm so pleased to have met you." She watched him bound up the stairs in strides, his pale coat lifting around him as he leaped.
"He's definitely strange," she told Gerard that night as they ate their vegetable soup. "He wants to have dinner with us sometime."
"If he gives us a free meal, I don't care how strange he is."
"Kathy saw him, too. He told her the same thing. He may end up feeding the building."
"What's he do?"
"I don't know."
Gerard finished his soup. Sarah washed the dishes with more hot water from the kettle, hurrying to finish before the electricity was shut off. Gerard got out an old cigar box and began to sort coupons.
Sarah leaned over his shoulder. "How many?"
"We're almost there. I called up Mr. Epstein this afternoon. He says Kathy gave him her gas vouchers. With ours too, he can trade for the solar panels and have them installed before winter." Gerard owned an old Toyota which he never drove, but owning it meant he got coupons for gasoline, and they could be traded for other things. "He'll up the rents for the other tenants afterward, and give Kathy and us a break. Or--"
"Or we can pay a bit more than we're paying, but have an option. Epstein said he'd draw it up right away, if we want. As long as we pay our rent on time, we'll be fine, and at the end of four years, we'll own the apartment. We won't have to worry about eviction."
"We can't," she said. "We'll need the extra money."
"Come on, Sarah. We'll have security. I think it's a good idea. Mr. Epstein's being very fair about it. He says in the end he'll do better with the panels, because he can charge everyone else more rent. Besides, he needs me here to do all that plumbing for him. Look, I'll be able to use my gas coupons on the black market now, so we should be able to get by."
"And what happens if we decide to move out? It'll be just as if we never owned it, and we won't have had the extra money in the meantime."
Gerard reached up and drew her around until she was facing him. He held her arms. "Face it, Sarah, we aren't going to move. Where would we go?" She tried to pull away, but he held on to her.
"Things might get better."
"They won't. They can't. At least think about it before you decide. You know I can't do anything, the apartment's in your name."
He released her and she sat down across from him. It was only temporary; that was what she had told herself. She would get a better job and be able to leave this rundown building and seedy neighborhood. The government would try a new policy, or a scientist would make a discovery that would change everything, or the weather would improve. She could stand anything, if she thought there would be an end to it. But she was lucky to have the job she had; there would not be a better one. She could not afford to move. She could not even have kept this apartment without Gerard. Her own salary could pay only for a room.
She looked at Gerard. His pale broad face was set in a frown as he closed his box of coupons and vouchers. She tried not to let her resentment show in her face. Why didn't he do something? Didn't he want anything better?
Gazing at the floor, she poked at a crack in the faded linoleum with her foot. She suddenly wanted to cry, but that would only make Gerard uncomfortable and angry.
"Maybe you're right, Gerry. I'll think about it." She was kidding herself again, she knew, thinking that something might happen before she had to decide.