One day in the alley outside my apartment there was a party. Four women and one man were drinking from a brown bag. I watched them from my writing table, through my fingers like a mask. Earlier I had been watching them through my scarf fringe, and before that I watched them without anything between us. I imagined them as some kind of family.
They had begun at ten o’clock in the morning and it was now two o’clock in the afternoon. Each stood in their original morning spot. The women formed a half moon around the man, who leaned against the wall of the rooming house across from my building. The man was tall, unusually tall, and his hair was longer in the front than the back and dangled into the emptiness of their half moon. The women were shorter, even the two very tall women, and larger on the top than on the bottom, with barrel chests and narrow hips and skinny legs. They all had dark straight hair and they all wore jeans and colorful shirts.
One of the short women was round as a ball. She wore a tight lime- green shirt that sculpted her fat into sections, her legs sticking out in a way that made her look like a panda-shaped balloon. She rarely spoke but she opened and closed her mouth in silent laughs as she leaned back into the alley. Another woman wore a bright fuchsia T-shirt and across her broad back spread a painted toucan. The toucan was saying something, its bill wide open in speech, but I couldn’t read the words. The woman next to her had draped a piece of fabric or a blanket over her head and shoulders; every once in a while, as she spoke, her hands flew out and the blanket slipped and she readjusted it.
At one o’clock the man left, but he returned at two o’clock with a large bag of Cheetos.
The hands of the blanketed woman were noteworthy, long and muscular. I began waiting for her hands to appear, and when they did, I leaned forward and thought about how she had obtained them. Michelle also had had re- markable hands. I’d watch her rifle through a drawer, her long fingers like antennae. It was difficult for me to believe that her hands were dead.
That day, the apartment felt like a sanctuary. The sofa and the table kept me company. I felt them doing something like breathing; certainly they had a relationship with the air. The sofa looked very friendly in the artificial light. It said something but I didn’t know what, a tight sound. The carpet, which was gray and often morose, did not seem morose that day, though I would not call it cheery.
I walked into the kitchen and found on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator half of a stuffed squash and a thick piece of cornbread. I had cooked the squash and baked the cornbread a few days earlier–but, I had forgotten that, and so for a moment it felt as if someone had come into the apartment while I was at work, and had cooked a meal, and left it for me. Or as if the apartment itself were taking care of me.
I sat on the sofa and ate the squash and bread. The party was still going on–maybe they were having a reunion. They had found each other again, here in this city, in my alley.
Once, the voices flared up, as if an argument was about to start, a fight. But a minute later they all started laughing, a lot of laughing in different tones and cadences. Some words I could understand: high not, you know and electrical something.
I watched them on and off into the evening, leaning against the window-pane. Just before the sun dropped under the horizon and the alley went dark, I noticed something new. There was an arm-length space between the round woman and the woman with the extra-ordinary hands. They seemed to be leaving a gap between them, wide enough for another man, or a fifth woman, to stand in.
I stared into the gap until my eyes tired in the dark. But she never came. I got into bed, and, without warning, they stopped talking. Maybe they had run out of things to say. There was a beat of silence, the first that day. And then the five of them began to hum, in tune, and in harmony, the man’s voice higher than the women’s.
I didn’t fall asleep. I drew the covers over my face the way I liked them, so that I could feel the sheet flutter with my breathing and so the heat from my lungs fell back over my skin.
- A Fifth Woman - August 2, 2013