The Neighbor

keys

Heartbreak isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it creeps into a life, a story, little by little, until you realize it’s always been there. This weekend, Jimin Han brings us two neighbors standing beside that line, only they don’t know which side they are on. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor

♦◊♦

I can smell Mrs. Orvor, musty basement and wet leaves, as I open my door. She lives in the 3C apartment, one floor below mine. She says, I’ve lost my keys. She looks into my living room as if to glimpse someone behind me. No one should be there. Her eyes are light gray with milk yellow in the corners. Mrs. Orvor says after her husband died she stopped keeping track of how old she is. She has long white whiskers on her chin.  Sparse. Three.

I say, How awful. Did you go out today at all?

She clutches her handbag under her arm. A red leather bag with a single long handle she doesn’t use. It’s got lots of zippered pockets and snaps. The keys could be safely tucked into any one of those pouches.

I lost them, she says. I know it.

Mrs. Orvor never asks for help. She also never calls me by my name, Jeanie, though she often refers to my husband, Daejung, as Dave. I grab my keys off the counter and motion for her to back up. We head for the elevator. I don’t know if she can handle the stairs, and from fourth to third they’re extra steep.

She says, It’ll be good to have a baby in the building. Where Marty and I lived, we had lots of children. Our Sammy had lots of children to play with. No one cares about their neighbors in this place. So how are you doing? How’re you feeling?

I ignore her question. No one really wants to know how a pregnant woman feels. This is not going to take all of my time. I reach across her and call the doors open. We step inside and that’s when she does it—touches my stomach before I can step back. I tell myself to be nice. Smooth away my flinch with my hand. And my conditioning comes to play. I ignore my feelings. I put them away.

Her door is ajar. Last week the fire department came because Mrs. Orvor burned fish and set off the smoke detectors in the halls. All she had to do was open her windows and take a pan off the range. Instead she banged on everyone’s door, the fish left on the stove. I called 911 from her apartment, standing in the smoke while Mrs. Orvor continued announcing her problem to the building.

 ♦◊♦

There’s almost nothing in her apartment. No toaster on the counter. No kitchen table. No chairs. No salt and pepper shakers. Just a bed in the corner with a red pilling spread, fringe border. No dresser. No curtains. We pass the bathroom with one towel hanging on a rack. No toothbrush. One bar of soap.

weekend fictionIn the hallway by the kitchenette, I see something new. Startling abundance. Robin egg blue bowls on the floor with apples arranged in a pyramid in them. Pears turned beautifully inward on a white plate. Oranges bright in a little hill. They remind me of my mother’s New Year’s table. But here on the floor, the fruit looks like an invitation to something other than a celebration. I’m thinking an invitation to something else. Mice, maybe rats. Certainly ants.

There’s still a stench of fish. Dust covers everything except, when I bend, the fruit. Mrs. Orvor says, It’s a shame you have no mother to help you. Men are useless. Dave, my dear, will be useless. You Koreans must know that better than anyone else.

I say, Where do you usually leave your keys?

She says, My mother did everything for me when I had Sammy, but then I was much younger than you. Why did you wait so long?

I open the frig. Inside is a roll of paper towels on the center shelf and several packets of ketchup in the door.

Mrs. Orvor says, I did have the keys when I left this morning. I came back, opened the door, put my bag there. She points to the stovetop. The keys probably fell through the coils.

Let me look. I wait for her to give me space.

Don’t break my stove, she warns.

The tone of her voice isn’t friendly, but maybe I’m tired. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. This is what Daejung said. You’ve lived too long by yourself, Jeannie.

The stove is electric like mine. The little saucers with holes in the middle that are supposed to be beneath the coils are missing. Mrs. Orvor’s keys could have fallen into the space beneath. I can go back to my life upstairs. I have a deadline to meet for a piece I’m writing on homeless shelters in Queens.

Stupid girl.

I stop reaching, my fingers hardly able to fit under the coil. Excuse me?  My face feels hot.

They can’t be under there. I mean, they’re keys, dear, she says.

I know she called me stupid. I feel stupid. I’m here with this woman looking for her keys again. I take a step back. It started a year ago when we moved in, and in the last three months it’s gone from every now and then to once a week. I’m a sensitive idiot. I miss my little half a house in Queens.

Mrs. Orvor’s voice changes. She says, I mean, if you think it’s under there then go right ahead.

I return to the coil. Removing the coil would help me immensely. Last week she’d said she’d dropped her keys near the garbage and I’d found them behind the garbage.

The coil is plugged into a two prong outlet to the side of the hole. If I can pull it directly out, just about out. If I can just twist it a bit to the left.

She says. I was telling my friends the other day how glad I am that you and Dave moved in upstairs. Of course, they’re wondering why I spend time with you but I told them they shouldn’t sound so jealous. A few years younger and I could be just like you, having another baby, just like you. I told them the three of us, you and me and Dave are quite close.

Dave again and again Dave. Daejung didn’t care, when I’d asked him how he could he let someone call him by the wrong name. You never correct her, I said. Not even once.

Can you make a spare key for them because then—

Never, she says.

Never?

I’d get robbed. I’m sure of it.

Who? Them?

Who knows.

They’re your friends—

Even so. No, I think Dave will have to help me. Call him.

With that extra twist, instead of coming out, I pull too hard and the coil twists, sticking up like a broken bone. I’m no closer to finding her keys. I try the coil next to it. If I wiggle it back and forth first.

What have you done? Mrs. Orvor shouts. I let go of the electric coil and back off.

You’ve broken it, she shouts even louder.

Dae moved out last week. A mutual decision. A baby wasn’t going to change how we felt about each other.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Orvor. But it’s not broken. Warren, he’s the super, remember? Warren can fix it.

I told you to leave that stove alone, but you deliberately broke it, she says, back in her speaking voice. She told me once that she had been a prosecutor. I can see her drawing on her experience.

Look, I could try the other one. Your keys could be still down there.

How will I cook my dinner now? she says.

I point to the other burners. She falls on her stove as if the appliance is some wounded animal, some part of her, as she wraps one arm around herself, the other arm still stretched out on the white painted metal of the stove top with its naked coils.

I’m breathing heavily now. My arms ache. In the hallway, I slide my back against the wall to the floor, closest to the bowl of oranges. I can smell their rinds. The pyramid is so perfect. I take the top one, lift it like a cake cover, and beneath it, at the bottom of that bowl, is silver. I look in.

 

photo Flickr/otocon_85

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About Jimin Han

Jimin Han lives outside New York City with her husband and children. Her work can be found on NPR’s “Weekend America,” The Rumpus.net, Koreanamericanstory.org, eChook’s memoir app. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College's Writing Institute. Twitter: @jiminhanwriter

Comments

  1. Wow, this was a moving story. So full of emotion.

  2. Thanks so much for commenting, Melissa. I really appreciate it.

  3. jacqueline goldstein says:

    Yes, so much emotion, and so much restraint. So much held back. A wonderfully gradual reveal of each character.

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