There is a man living under my house. He moved in a week ago. At first I thought it was a raccoon making a nest for itself with the leaves from the big maple out back. The leaves had all fallen from the tree, and I had raked them into piles in the yard. I’m not much of a yard-work man, but I had needed the diversion. I’ll go ahead and tell you, my girlfriend left me.
Melissa left me not long after I quit my job at Danza’s where I was a line cook. I shouldn’t have quit. It was a good job. I made decent enough money. Enough to buy this lousy clapboard shotgun shack. And I had full benefits. But the GM had it in for me and constantly rode my ass until, finally, I came out of the kitchen and punched him in the face in the middle of service. Melissa made it through most of my drunk that followed. But she finally gave up after day eight, and ran off with Danza’s brother, the sommelier.
Sitting in front of the T.V, watching a show on sport fishing, a sport I have very little interest in and so have the opportunity to let my mind wander, I think of Melissa in the Bahamas. She sent me a postcard. It got here a few days ago. She said she was sorry things worked out the way they did but that she still had feelings for me and thought about me. When I read the postcard, I wondered how much she thought about me while having sunscreen rubbed on her back by Danza’s brother. How much did she think of me while she was reclining on the beach sipping her piña colada blended up by the shirtless Adonis who works behind the bar? I’ve never been to the Bahamas, but I can imagine how it is.
We used to drive out to Gulfport to visit her mama. We went in the hottest time of the year. She loved the heat, so we waited until August and drove out there, hurricanes hanging out in the Gulf of Mexico, the air heavy with portent.
Melissa liked to wear those skimpy blouses, the ones with the straps thin as spaghetti. She put her feet on the dashboard. Sometimes she painted her toenails. There is still a pink heart on the dash where she painted it with her nail polish. The sun came in through her window, and her skin was so fair that every five minutes she moved her spaghetti-thin straps a little on her shoulder and there would be a spaghetti-thin pale line.
For refreshments Melissa filled an Igloo ice chest with lemonade and a bag of ice. Then she poured a bottle or two of vodka into the batch and we drove real slow down the county roads drinking our lemonade and sweating, watching the hurricanes darken the horizon. “Don’t you love me,” Melissa said just this last summer. It wasn’t a question. She knew the answer. So did I, and we both thought my love for her was enough to keep everything OK. I guess it was for a while. We pulled down a dirt road that ran through drained swamp. Spanish moss hung from the trees but it was no cooler away from the sun. We climbed into the backseat and our naked bodies were slippery against each other from sweat. Back on the road we turned up the radio.
On our trips: we’d be drunk by the time we got to Gulfport, and her mama would fix us grub and help us finish off the cooler of lemonade, and we’d sit out on the porch burning citronella candles, listening to her mama tell stories about working in the dance halls during the Second World War. Melissa and I spent some good times together. She’s been gone a month now. I miss her. I do.
When occasional grunts and snorts of exertion came up through the floorboards, I decided that a dog, not a raccoon was crawling around down there. I ignored it for a while. But one night when I heard a loud thump followed by a string of profanity I could no longer deny that a man, not an animal, had moved into the crawlspace beneath my house,. I imagined a dwarfish troglodyte with eyes like a mole.
Unseasonable freezes had settled in across the south and the south-east, and there were particularly cold freezes in New Orleans this year; so a man had to be innovative if he wanted to stay warm. After I got over the initial shock, I wasn’t disturbed by the fact that a man was living beneath my floorboards. I was flattered that he had chosen my shabby shotgun shack here on Magazine Street. There were, by far, more grandiose houses he could have nested beneath. We all know the eloquence with which some of the manors in New Orleans were built. But those are the ones with the fences and signs warning of expensive security systems. Perhaps he could sense my loneliness and loss. My house, occupied by two until Melissa left, must now exude an aura of solitary destitution: my lonely shotgun shack on Magazine Street. And he probably saw me raking the leaves, that distant look in my eyes—an unmistakable look of loss. The leaves would have appealed to him, piled in pillowy softness in my yard.
The swear words that came up through my floorboards were the only words I have heard the man speak. That was the only time I have heard his voice. Now, some mornings I bring him coffee and at night I cook enough for two. The cold snap here is not as bad as out east. But still, the weather forecasters warn you to watch for frozen pipes. This makes me think about the man in the crawlspace. I think of the pipes freezing and cracking and leaking into his nest of leaves. I imagine the plumber climbing under there worried about spiders and finding a man in a bed of leaves. What would the plumber do? Would he take the man’s ear in his pliers and yank him out like a bad tooth from the dark maw of the crawlspace under my house? Would he charge me extra for this service? Or would he turn in fear and flee, fixing me with accusing eyes as if I were keeping a captive under my house?
The man under my house wouldn’t answer me the first time I walked around the side of the house with a cup of coffee, peered into the dark hole at the entrance of the crawlspace and called out, “Hello?” Except for the cleared leaves and smooth ground at the entrance to the crawlspace, there was no sign of anyone. I wondered if he had figured out I knew he was down and there and got scared, had sneaked under another house with less inquisitive inhabitants. I left the coffee at the entrance, a thin, gray charmed cobra of steam rising into the still, winter, morning air.
When I got home I could see the coffee cup from the driveway. It was sitting exactly where I had left. When I went to retrieve it I found that the cup had been drained to the dregs and that a red maple leaf had been placed under it. I had picked up pork chops on the way home. I made one extra and placed it on a plate. I also put some applesauce on the plate with a baked potato that I buttered copiously and put a dollop of sour cream on top. I peppered the chop and potato, and wrapped a fork and knife in a napkin. I made a point of walking with heavy steps so that he could hear me coming and would not be startled by my approach. I wasn’t even sure if he was still under there but I left the plate and silverware in the dark opening to the belly of my house like an offering to a god from a religion long extinct.
After a fisherman pulls a prize bass out of the water, the show cuts to commercial. As I get up from my chair to go to the fridge for a beer, I wonder what the man under my house has learned about me from my footsteps. I wonder if he can tell my emotions or my thoughts from my footsteps. I wonder how often he leaves or if he ever leaves. I can’t smell him so he must defecate somewhere else. But I rarely hear him moving. He is very quiet. Once, late at night, I thought I could hear him snoring. I wonder if he has any holes through which he can watch me from the other side of my floor, and if he can see me when I masturbate. I doubt, though, that he would be very concerned with what I was doing. I’m sure he must have worries all his own. But he might want to watch me prepare his food to make sure I don’t poison him like a rat that has gotten into the floorboards. By now, though, he should know that I don’t mind his presence. In fact, I would miss him if he should suddenly disappear.
When I’ve had enough with the bass fishing, I turn off the T.V with the remote and sit in my chair and look at the glowing screen. I walk across the room. The reason I walk is to reassure him that I am here, but I am only reassuring myself. My house is not large. There is not much floor space to cover, but I walk around the living room then down the small hall through the dining room where once stood Melissa’s dining room table that had belonged to her great grandmother. Now there are only four indentations in the carpet where the legs were. I walk into the kitchen and stand there under the light with nothing to do.
My brother came in from Algiers the other day. He brought his sons with him, ages four and seven. He used to bring his kids by to try to inspire Melissa and me. He wanted us to have kids so that they could run around and play in the park together. I think he was a little sad when he came by, knowing that I was probably past the point of meeting a woman who I might raise a family with. My brother’s a good guy, but he wouldn’t understand the man under my house. He would think it was a large rat and call an exterminator. And my brother’s children with their children’s curiosity made me nervous. Adam, the youngest, was wearing a Darth Vader mask running around my yard hitting the ground with his light saber shouting, “The Force, The Force.” I felt protective of the man under my house, and for an instant I felt as if I would go to very extreme lengths to protect him. I imagined pushing the bodies through his opening so that he could bury them under there and make sure no one found them. My brother said: “Jack, you alright? You must really miss her.”
“Yes,” I said, “I miss her terribly. I got a postcard. She’s in the Bahamas.”
“Oh,” said my brother, uncomfortable now. “Is she doing well?”
“How could you not do well in the Bahamas?” I asked.
Standing in the kitchen I look out at the darkening sky. There are no more leaves on the maple. They have, to the last hanger-on, fallen from the bare limbs. As the sky moves from the last pearl of the day into inky night, the phone rings. It is Melissa. I am holding the receiver against my ear and her voice seems very close. I can hear waves in the background crashing onto the white sand of the shore.
“How are you, Jack?” She asks.
“Never better,” I say.
“I miss you. I don’t like the Bahamas.” I don’t say anything. “I don’t like it here. I guess I’m trying to say I want to come home to you.”
“You can’t do that,” I say.
“What?” She is surprised.
“There’s no room for you here now.”
“Someone else is already living with you?” I can hear her switching the phone to the other ear, not sure she heard correctly.
“Yes,” I say.
“Who is it?”
“You wouldn’t know him.”
“Jack, you’re living with a man?”
“Yes,” I say, “he’s living under the house.”
“Jack,” says Melissa “you sound strange. Listen, I want to come home.”
“No,” I say, “don’t come here.” I hang up the phone before she has a chance to say more.
I don’t move. I stand very still, listening. I can hear his heart beating. It is coming from the drain of the kitchen sink. A car’s headlights slice across the kitchen window, and for a moment, I am looking at two bright points of light. I walk over to the sink and place my ear close to the drain, my head turned sideways. His heartbeat is louder now. The whole house seems to be vibrating with it. I like it like this, and I think I will stay like this for a while.