Something’s different in the alley.
Something missing. Something new.
Emma peers out the window. Her eyes puzzle pattern from the pavement.
It’s a mutation in the character of the concrete. A discoloration, a stain—perhaps no more than the disappearance of shadow, a trick of the early light affecting the area next to the garbage cans.
Her hand squeezes the sill and her knuckles cast a weird green light.
Yesterday’s stain was her stain. Today it’s gone from liquid to gas to God knows. The future becomes past before it’s present.
Her breath comes short and bumps the ribs of her throat.
There’s no fear in the attic. No clamor. No rancor. No hollow smile of a tin can heart.
Emma’s flat on her back on the plywood. She inhales the comforting dry rot of solitude.
It’s hot and still. Sweat slicks her shirt against the crevices under her breasts. The heat wets wherever flesh presses against flesh. Above her, in the glare of the swaying 40 watt, hundred-year-old dust slips on beams of light.
She pushes a hair out of her eyes and notices that her hands are black with soot and red with blood.
Each door makes its own music.
The latch. The frame. The vibration of the wood as it slams.
But the noise of this door is different.
"Emma," it shouts and shakes with rage.
She backs away and twists the handle.
Her fingers dig at a crack in the mortar. The sand and lime fall away in dry piles. She blows at the residue and it rises in air, caught in a momentary vortex. But still the brick won’t come out of its slot. She chops again with her nails at the scraps of mortar that hold it in place. Her fingertips are sore and abraded but she girds herself for one more effort. With an awkward lunge, she half rips the nail off her index finger. But she emerges from this ordeal with the prize: one brick, mottled and weathered, telling its story to her hand.
Outside the door is another door and behind that another. From hallway to vestibule to elevator. Closet to mailbox to telephone booth. Bathroom to treasure chest to garbage chute.
She opens this door and the stain creeps in.
It has a gray beard and a hooded sweatshirt and it carries a paper bag. Creation out of nothing. The stain made flesh.
You, you, you, you, you, she says.
The stain continues its advance.
She fumbles in the silverware drawer and flings a knife at the advancing figure.
The white plastic utensil—these days, that’s all the drawer contains—bounces off the beard and falls harmlessly to the floor.
The stain shows teeth.
Again Emma feels her chest.
"I got coffee," the stain says, and pulls back the hood to reveal a face that spells comfort. It’s Hugo who might be Julio.
To get to the attic she must have climbed the ladder. But this is impossible—for Emma knows that she moves with exaggerated care. She steps high to avoid tripping over the welcome mat. She holds tight to banisters so as not to fall down. She can hardly lie down without worrying about what it will take to sit up again.
And yet here she is, up a ladder and through a heavy hatch.
She doesn’t know how she got here, but she is not alarmed. Perhaps someone carried her. And perhaps that is how she will get down.
Hugo who might be Julio hands her the steaming cup and she smells his hand near her face—an awful anxious animal odor.
She eyes the coffee with suspicion. Where are the people who taste the food first? Where are the servants who pre-taste for poisons?
Hugo who might be Julio pulls out a second cup for himself. He takes a sip and does not fall down dead, so Emma motions.
He shakes his head.
"Don’t be a dirty bastard," she says.
He exchanges cups and she is content.
There are many ways to tear down a house. You can smash it to the ground with a large machine. You can dynamite it so it falls on itself. You can hire men with pickaxes to drop it floor by floor. Emma has a different approach. She dismantles it slowly, consciously, lovingly, removing a brick a day. A brick, she knows, is an extremely private item.
She howls when he mentions it.
It’s sunny this morning, Hugo who might be Julio says.
Howls and looks at him, eyes ragged.
It’s a nice day. Apple weather. If we wait too long, it’ll be winter and you won’t be able to go out for six months.
She howls more and heaves the coffee at him. It stains the stain but doesn’t dissuade him.
Hugo who might be Julio comes over and peels her fingers from the table one-by-one. She notices that his knuckles are wrinkled and bloodless, too, that his skin is as dry and ugly as her own.
She baptizes the brick in warm, soapy water. She rubs it firmly with a washcloth, rinses it, then dries it with a chamois.
Here it reveals its history. The oil of hands. The funnel of time. Hands that shaped and formed and carried and baked, that stacked and hauled and handed and laid. A wall is a product born of sweat.
In the washing and drying Emma comes to know who built the building (she builds it with them) and who carried the brick (she hefts it with them) and who pulled the ropes that hauled it up to third-story height (she throws her weight on the cables.) She sees them squatting on the scaffolding taking lunch. She sees them handle their sandwiches with hands bloody from rope burn.
The mason snaps his line and all the bricks are suddenly equal. Behind him, the plasterer waits, bags of horsehair ready to bind the plaster to the lath. She coughs as he lights a rough cigarette and tells a dirty joke.
The grit of a century washes into her sink as the hostile wall gives up its secrets.
Hugo who might be Julio gets her to the vestibule.
He guides her as an experienced dancer might move his partner—with no visible force, but privately willing her forward, and she feasts off his energy.
Yet, she also resists. With each step, Emma is smaller and more bent over. She has gone from being a vital woman to a hunchback. And the howl is back, this time hidden as a whine.
The final door is a trap door.
It’s midnight and Emma vacuums her armpits.
One moment she’s cleaning the couch and plumping plush pillows. The next, she’s got the wand near her underarms, and feels the backward-rushing wind.
The brick is drying in the dish drain. She has added her labor to its storehouse of fact, making it the cornerstone of a new construction, an unbuilt building yet to be.
The house is quiet. The walls have stopped groaning. The lights are out and through the window, the moon is gloating. Emma raises the hose. Gently, she applies the nozzle to the side of her neck. The vacuum motor races as she gives herself a machine hickey.
Emma squints in the shade. The light is too much for her uneven eyes. She doesn’t want to see.
Hugo who might be Julio has her in sweats and sneakers—the easiest clothes for him to slip onto her heavy frame.
She walks stiff-legged and stone-faced.
In the park, some kids are practicing their skateboard maneuvers.
One of them attempts to jump a railing and loses his board. It scoots down to Emma, who suddenly raises her foot and stops it.
The kid gives her a thumbs up.
So Hugo who might be Julio assists Emma in putting her foot on the board. Usually he finds her to be dead weight, but she is suddenly light, almost like paper. First, she only keeps one foot on the board, and she drags the other as he pulls her forward. Then, with some coaxing, she takes the second foot off the ground. Hugo who might be Julio takes her hands and suddenly she’s rolling forward on ball bearing feet, heading south by southwest across the concrete. She feels the city shake and roll.
When she looks up she realizes that she knows this old man who is pulling her along.
Herman, she says, and giggles at the sudden wash of feeling for the man she’s known for 52 years.
As soon as they’re there, the feeling recedes. She steps off the board, which the kid accepts back wordlessly.
They walk arm-in-arm, but she’s no longer quite sure. And after a few steps, he’s Hugo who might be Julio again. By the time they get home she is more stooped than ever.
The brick is much lighter than she expected. It comes out of the wall so easily, almost like magic. A house is held together by so little.
She raises the brick to her lips and kisses the dirty clay, leaving a thin ring of moisture on the brick and a thick O of dust on her lips. She tastes the dust tentatively with her tongue. Bitter. Gritty. Sad. Upsetting. And totally unhygienic.
Before she finishes the day, there’s another ritual. She looks out the window and notices that all is right with the world: the stain has returned to the alley.
She breathes out, leans her forehead against the plate glass, and falls asleep standing.