……….The phone rings in the middle of the night. My wife answers from her side of the bed. The baby, who’s been sleeping between us, wakes up and clamps onto her breast while she talks. “It’s Maritza,” she tells me. “She wants you to come over. She’s frightened, she’s hearing a noise like someone chipping away at the foundation of her house. Her husband’s out of town. She wants you to check out the situation.” I don’t want to go but my wife’s look that tells me I have to—that if she were in a similar situation, she’s sure Maritza’s husband would come and protect her.
……….“Why not call the police?” I ask.
……….“She doesn’t trust the police, especially in her neighborhood,” my wife says. “She wants you, she’s scared.”
……….Suddenly, concern over an annoying chipping noise has escalated to a state of emergency with the possibility of bodily harm and crime. I’m still reluctant—Maritza and I never really clicked and I have a hard time carrying on the simplest conversation with her because she’s always changing the terms. When I ask her about the size of one of her paintings, she tells me about the brush strokes or the viscosity of the paint. When I ask about a model’s name, she rails at the high cost of stretchers. Or how hard it is to find the right kind of rabbit-skin glue. To complicate matters, I ran into her last week. It was under the el tracks, late afternoon, and she was about to enter a Salvation Army store when she spotted me talking to a prostitute who was waving her fist at me and sticking her finger into my face, yelling and cursing. I was only trying to hire her to model, but it must have looked like she was my dealer. Or that I was some John who refused to fork over ten bucks for a blowjob in the lobby of the abandoned movie theater. Maritza only smiled at me and disappeared into the store. I’m hoping that if she mentions this encounter to my wife, the whole scenario will be so confused and contradictory that it will seem meaningless to her. My wife, who also values clarity and precision. Thus, I can count on my own quasi-legal defense—to squirm out of my wife’s potential cross-examination, because Maritza’s story will raise too much reasonable doubt. I am sure that going over to Maritza’s at three in the morning really relates to our recent chance meeting under the el tracks.
……….It turns out that Maritza’s request has nothing to do with yesterday’s encounter. When I arrive, she’s sitting on her couch turning back to look out the window—anxiously awaiting my arrival—and nursing her son. Both breasts are exposed and they are large and full and floppy at the same time. Her nipples gleam from the streetlights outside and they are dark brown, earth-colored, thick as cigars—which is the image that comes to my mind. Not cigars but something I recall from childhood TV commercials, tiparellos. “Cigars, cigarettes, tiparellos?” the woman with the sultry voice peddled. It was an ad that quickened butterflies in my stomach, when I was only six or seven–a queasy captivating feeling. Even as I look at Maritza, right in front of me, I hear that blond, sultry voice inviting me to partake in something mysterious and well beyond my ken. I ask her what’s going on.
……….“Can’t you hear it”, she says, It’s a knocking, no more like a chipping.”
……….The funny thing is that I do hear it. “Yes,” I tell her.” It’s a muffled rhythmic sound, steady as a heartbeat. I can’t determine if it’s mechanical or human or a combination—though Maritza insists it’s human, someone trying to destroy her house, working systematically to dismantle the foundation. I have no idea what it is, but I offer up a whole array of options, none convincing—city sewer workers, plumbing elements rubbing against brick or stone.
……….“I think that we first need to figure out if it’s mechanical or human,” I say. “Remember the movie, The Count of Monte Cristo—I mean the old one.”
……….“Huh,” she says. I forget sometimes that Maritza has a limited understanding of American popular culture and if often befuddled by it. Even though she grew up in New Jersey, went to grade school and high school in Bayonne, she was born in Peru and somehow never learned what most Americans came to know automatically. I first became aware of this the night we first met—at a bar near the university where we, including my wife, were in graduate school. After ordering a beer, she took out the spinach salad she’d bought at a food truck and my wife, who was a little tipsy after her second beer, sang the Popeye song: “I’m strong to the finish, cause I eats my spinach, I’m Popeye the sailor man.” I guess she was thought my wife was singing about her father, who she called “Papi,” and responded with, “No way, he hates spinach, he hates salad period.”
……….“Anyway,” I continue, hoping to decrease her anxiety. “This guy’s in a prison cell and he hears a tapping noise. So he has to figure out if it’s just a random sound or if there’s someone in the next cell doing it. He taps back trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s like he’s saying, look, I’m here too. And so both of them quickly determine that it’s not a rat trying to gnaw through the bricks. Even more important that it’s not some random noise. They’re both communicating and it’s though this basic level of communication they avoid despair. It’s the beginning of hope for them.”
……….“What are you saying?” Maritza says. “Now it’s rats! I’m fucking scared and you’re lost in some feel-good movie crap.”
……….She’s right. I consider tapping back, but I know it will only upset her more. “Look,” I say, “Nothing bad is going to happen. I’ll stay as long as it takes. But I’m sure it’s just pipes or loose shingles or something like that.”
……….I can tell that she wants to believe me but can’t. She shifts her son from one breast to the other and I can see that breast throbbing, as though all her fear has become focused there. Finally, the baby falls asleep and Maritza commands me to sit next to her. I comply, not so unwillingly—by now I’m completely exhausted and she looks warm and inviting, her baby’s head drooping to her lap. I seat myself next to her and my elbow gently brushes against her breast. She falls asleep, her head dropping sharply to my shoulder.
© Leonard Kress
Leonard Kress has published fiction and poetry in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review and other publications. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex, Thirteens, and Walk Like Bo Diddley. Living in the Candy Store and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz are both scheduled for 2018. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio and edits creative non-fiction for Artful Dodge.