For the Things in the Cracks are Always Watching | Lorna Dickson Keach
Today, the woman in apartment number four brings lemon bars to the neighbors. She has decided that she can’t go on any longer without knowing what happened in our building.
As she walks across the courtyard, she looks up at us, but she doesn’t see us inside. She can only see the boarded up windows and the words written on them in black spray paint: Dangerous, keep out! Prohibido el acceso!
Her hair is pale yellow. Her husband calls her Claire.
Her husband, whom she calls Geoffrey, follows her out to the courtyard on his way to somewhere. He tries to take a lemon bar, but she pulls the plate away.
“I’m being neighborly,” she says.
“You’re meddling,” he says.
“Sharing is never meddling. I’ve got food for information.”
“What information can you possibly hope to find? It’s just a run-down building,” he says.
“There must be more to it,” Claire says. “You’ve seen what people leave over there.”
He says nothing to that.
They are like this often, briefly meeting on their way to somewhere else. He wears a dress shirt and tennis shoes. Today is not a workday but still, he’s about to go somewhere work-like. We can tell by the messenger bag around his shoulder. Its very big, and it looks heavy. Claire has no bag, so she doesn’t plan on leaving. She has thin sandals on her feet. The delicate straps are made of a material that glimmers in the sun.
After Geoffrey’s kisses her goodbye, Claire moves her sandaled feet over to apartment number five, where Elisa lives. There, she knocks lightly and waits at the door.
When Elisa answers, Claire says, “Good morning! Hope I’m not interrupting.”
Elisa stands in the doorway with her broom in one hand. Little Noel peers around her knees. Later on, Elisa will use her broom to sweep the concrete outside her apartment because that is what she does every day. We think she is trying to sweep away ghosts.
Elisa has a very large smile for Claire. She invites Claire to come inside, come inside. When Claire and Geoffrey first moved in, it was Elisa who brought over sweet bread rolls to welcome them to the neighborhood. Elisa is where Claire got the idea of bringing neighbors food because, in her old neighborhood, no one did that.
Claire does not to go inside.
“I just wanted to bring you these,” Claire says. “Do…tus hijos like…ah…” she thinks for a minute. “¿Cómo se dice lemon?”
“Limón.” Elisa laughs. “Si, si. They eat. Limón amarillo, yes? Les encanta.”
When Claire asks about the boarded up building, Elisa shakes her head.
“Dead birds,” Elisa says. “So many—everywhere, sus cadáveres everywhere, here, there…” she points to the concrete between the buildings, the sidewalks that leads from the alley to the courtyard. “The people there before, I don’t know. They fight all the time, yell and scream Eran malvados—how do you say malvados?” Claire thinks for some time. She is not as good at this kind of trade as Elisa is. She makes a guess. “…Loud?” she tries.
“Ah, si. Loud.” Elisa accepts this.
Below, Noel tugs on Elisa’s pantleg and whispers something we can’t hear. His eyes are big and dark. Elisa shushes him, smacks him lightly on the shoulder. He argues with her for a moment. They talk very quickly before Noel is convinced to go inside, go away and take Claire’s plate of sweets inside, go, hombrecito.
After Noel has padded barefoot back into the apartment, Elisa tells Claire, “Ya que decía, many dead birds. But the landlord closed up, no more. Now they live there. Los inquilinos no deseados.” Elisa points to the building, and Claire looks.
There are pigeons on the roof. Many pigeons: over forty at least. Some of them peer over the edge of the building, watching, while others strut about or sleep with their heads tucked up inside their wings. We know they’re there because we can hear the scratching of their feet against the ceiling, their cooing through the air ducts. Every now and then, a pigeon hops over the ledge and spreads its wings. As it glides to the ground, it sheds gray feathers that float down slowly behind it.
Claire stares at the birds. She feeds them sometimes, when the maintenance men aren’t around. She gives the birds bread that’s about to go moldy, or corn chips that have become too stale.
Elisa again tries to get her to come inside, for coffee and rolls.
“Oh, I’d love to, but I have work to do,” Claire says.
Claire tells Elisa, “Maybe sometime soon?”
“Okay.” Elisa says.
Claire walks back across the courtyard to number four. She goes inside and does not come out again for some time. Maybe she is baking more lemon bars; maybe she doesn’t want to offend Elisa by being spotted outside after refusing coffee. Her curtain is drawn and all we can see is white cotton and pale yellow lace.
For some time, the courtyard is quiet.
This place is good to watch. It is a good neighborhood. The buildings are pretty: squarish and white, made of stucco. There are two apartments in each building. The stucco is cracked in many places, especially the foundation, and each building has big windows that probably should be replaced. The glass in the windows is thin and old. It breaks easily.
Outside, wild yucca plants and olive trees grow in the courtyard. The neighborhood kids play soccer here. Young men work on their cars and drive past slowly, playing music loud enough to rattle the windows. Mothers dry their children’s shirts on the porch and mop the sidewalk with soap. At night, college kids smoke on their porches and talk loudly. In the spring, a woman and her son walk through, selling roasted corn on the cob out of a cooler they push around in a shopping cart. For no extra charge, she will cover the corn in mayonnaise and chile powder. The kids buy corn from her and tamarindo ice cream from the old man who drives the ice cream truck. The maintenance men drive golf carts. The buildings are old, and far from the main office, so the maintenance men are always around; they move back and forth all day, sweating in blue work shirts, as busy as ants.
On mild nights, people keep their doors open. When it rains, the courtyard floods, but it doesn’t rain very often. Most of the time, it’s warm.
We think you’ll like it here.
The next time Claire goes out, she brings lemon bars to the old man in number six, but he says he can’t have them because he’s diabetic. He does not attempt to cushion her feelings in explaining this.
“I eat that,” he says, “and I’ll die.”
Claire apologizes and pulls the plate to her chest, cradling it. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” A little line appears between her eyebrows.
The old man waves his hand. On each finger he wears heavy rings of silver and lapis lazuli. In his window, everyone can see the stacks of boxes and lamps and books he has heaped up in a mess behind the drapes. When he leaves to check his mail, he will talk to whomever he meets on the way, but he always tells them he’s moving out east soon. His daughter is moving him to her house in New Jersey. Soon he will be gone, he says. Soon, very soon.
Today, when she asks him about our building, all he says is terrible.
“Terrible, terrible.” Then he shuts his door.
While Claire is left standing with her plate of lemon bars, Darnell calls out from across the courtyard. “Bring those on over here!” he yells. “I’ll take them off your hands!”
Claire smiles and brings them over. She looks relieved.
Darnell sits on a cooler outside his apartment door, where he sits often, waving and smiling at people. Today, Darnell has a white towel thrown over his shoulder and no shirt on. His big belly rolls over the top of his pants.
“These won’t kill you, will they?” asks Claire.
“Sure they will,” Darnell says.
Darnell eats a lemon bar when Claire hands him the plate. He compliments her baking skills with a full mouth. She does not bother to lie to him and say she made too many, because maybe it’s hard to lie to someone who likes lemon bars so much.
Claire says she’s trying to find out what happened in the boarded up building. “Do you know?” He eats one more before he answers.
After chewing, he tells Claire, “Those kids who lived there before, they were always screaming and yelling, breaking shit. Probably made a hole bigger than the slumlord wants to fix.”
At this, Claire looks troubled.
“It’s a bad deal,” Darnell says. “Whenever you got an empty building like that, things move in. You know, rats, pigeons, crack heads.” He shakes his head, “It’s a bad deal.”
Claire thinks about this for some time, then she catches herself in silence. She thanks him and says she had better go. Claire leaves Darnell still shaking his head over her plate of lemon bars, and he tells her to come back by whenever.
Don’t feel bad about what Darnell says. He’s never really seen us.
You should not feel bad. This is a nice neighborhood.
Claire gets another plate of lemon bars from her apartment. This time, the plate is old ceramic, yellowed, with cracks racing through it like fine spider thread. Painted around the edge is a gold line with little flowers, and the flowers dangle from the line like Christmas lights or jewelry charms.
She brings such a nice plate to Martín and Maria.
Claire knocks on their door, apartment eight, and Maria answers the door. Maria wears sandals of heavy leather today, with straps that bind her ankles in an elegant weave. Martín and Maria feed the pigeons, too. Usually they give them rice cooked in salty broth and pieces of steamed cornmeal. Sometimes, the birds wait for hours outside their door.
Maria smiles when he sees Claire. “What a nice surprise,” she says. “How are you? How’s Geoffrey?”
“Oh, he’s good. Thank you for asking.” Claire smiles warmly. “How are you both? Did you get your car fixed?”
“I’m afraid not. It’s the transmission, a lost cause. But the walk to the bus stop is good for me—keeps me in shape.” Grinning, Maria pats her belly, which is not small, but still it is smaller than Darnell’s. She laughs while patting, so Claire can laugh without risk of offending her.
“I hear you,” Claire says. “I lost a whole pound and a half when we lost the car.”
“Oh, a whole pound and a half? We should write a book.”
“We should! We could call it The Poverty Diet, but I’m sure that title’s taken…”
Maria’s smile tightens when Claire says this, but her smile does not go away. We’re not sure Claire notices.
“Speaking of diets,” Maria says, “What do you have there, on such a beautiful plate?”
“Oh! Yes, these. I was baking all morning and I…” but Claire stops. Her lips pinch together suddenly, like there’s something sour in her mouth.
Then, she sighs. “It’s a bribe,” Claire says.
“Oh?” asks Maria. “If you’re trying to get my recipe for tamales, I will never talk. But I’m happy to make them for you and Geoffrey, if you like.”
“Oh, we love your tamales,” Claire says. “But I wouldn’t dare try to steal your secret. I’m actually here because…well, I’ve been going a little crazy wondering why the landlord closed up that building.” She looks over her shoulder and points to us, to the boards on the windows. “I mean, is it going to fall down? Is it condemned?”
“That place next door?”
“Do you know what happened there?” Claire then leans in closely and whispers, “Did someone die?”
“Oh, I’m sure not,” Maria says. “They had a cat that liked to terrorize the pigeons, but otherwise, they were just kids, I think.”
“Were they gang bangers?”
“No! Where did you get that?” But then Maria thinks about it for a moment. “At least, I’m sure they weren’t. They all had expensive cars. I think they were going to the university.”
“Did they trash the building?”
Maria shrugs. “I suppose they did. The night before the landlord boarded it up, there was a lot of yelling and crashing coming from the place. They didn’t throw parties, but they always kept us up at odd hours with their fights—so loud, like cats and dogs.”
Claire nods and listens.
Maria says, “After that night, nobody ever saw them again. Didn’t take a thing with them, and the next day, the landlord boarded the place up. It took him about two hours. A few days later, I was talking to one of the maintenance men who helped the landlord close it up. Every window in the place was broken, he said. Every last one.”
Claire looks over her shoulder again. We don’t know what she sees.
Maria says, “By the time the landlord got there to put up the boards, they had moved in…” She stops herself, laughs suddenly. “I mean, the birds. The building was just teeming with birds.”
For a moment, it is silent. Both Claire and Maria look across the courtyard to our building. There is a look on Claire’s face, but we cannot tell what it means.
“Hmmm,” Claire mutters.
“Do you feel better?” Maria asks.
She turns back to her. Claire’s eyes seem sad, but she smiles anyway.
“Yes,” Claire says, “But I have these insidious lemon bars that are absolutely going to ruin my diet.”
“Oh, that is a problem,” Maria grins. “Let me help you with that.”
After promising to bring back the plate, Maria tells Claire goodbye and shuts the door. Now empty-handed, Claire walks alone into the middle of the courtyard. She stops and looks up at our building again, using her hand to shade her eyes from the sun.
She stares at the boards for a long time.
We are surprised when she starts to walk toward us.
Claire walks straight up to the building. She doesn’t bother to look around or sneak, or check if anyone is watching. We are unaccustomed to this. Usually, when we are looked at, it is sidelong glares or quick glances, disgusted nods, and only those interested in sneaking in—like you—look close enough to see in fine detail. You may not have died here, but you found yourself here anyway. You are like the pigeons, like us: we must find a place that the living leave empty. We must sneak in.
But Claire walks up.
The neighbors all watch from their windows. Elisa and the old man with the books, Darnell and Maria. The glare on the glass makes it look like their faces are pale, intangible. They only stare.
Claire comes up to the biggest boarded-up window, the one that says Prohibido!
Claire examines the boards, and she finds a corner with a loose plank. It is a thin board, pressed plywood, so there are many cracks. The crack Claire finds is big. (We are excited. We press our eyes to the crack.) Claire is clawing at the crack, we see the tip of her finger and her nail, which is painted bright pink, and she is clawing and the pink paint is chipping off. (Venga a ver, we whisper, you, too. Come see.) The board gives. It cracks loudly. She has made a small hole. We are excited. We press our eyes to the hole and we see Claire’s face come close.
We can see every eyelash, every pale freckle. Her eye is robin’s egg blue. Her eye darts around, searching the dark. It takes a moment for her sight to adjust.
Then her pupil shrinks. She sees.
Come here, we whisper.
Claire gasps sharply. She jerks away from the hole, almost stumbling.
We watch Claire walk quickly back across the courtyard. She nearly runs. She does not look back. Do not feel bad about this. She goes into her apartment and slams the door, but we shouldn’t feel bad.
The courtyard is quiet for some time.
Today is Saturday, the day they leave things on the porch, under the window. We have seen it before, but now it is much clearer because of the hole Claire made in the boards. We can see more.
The neighbors leave food for us on a paper lace napkin. There is one sweet roll, one ear of corn, one small tamale. There is also a white candle. It is the size of a finger and held up in its own melted wax. We have seen the candles before. We don’t know what they mean.
When the candle is lit, we make sure to blow the flame out. If the flames catch the napkin, or the dry wood boards, the whole building may go up. And this is a good place. We don’t want to see it catch fire. It’s nice that the neighbors leave things for us.
Today, we can see one new thing: a pale lemon bar on a small ceramic plate. This is exciting. We look at it. We can look at it for short time before the pigeons snatch it up. Think of how soft the crust must be, how sweet the filling must taste.
Lorna Dickson Keach is a recent UNLV graduate with a degree in English.