Archive | September, 2010

Memory Box

26 Sep

Her name is Risa. She turned seven in February, which was three months ago. She knows it was three months ago because that’s when her father John died, and because she hears her mother say it all the time when chatting to one of her many friends, “It’s been three months since the bastard died,” or, “You’d think after three months . . .”

Risa doesn’t know what anyone thinks after three months. She hasn’t asked. She knows what she thinks, and she keeps it to herself, having learned that secrets are among the few things in life of true value.

She lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Nineteenth Street, five floors above a pet shop whose owner hates animals. Her mother, Irene, tells people who’ll never see their apartment that it’s a townhouse, though Risa has heard it referred to as a tenement. (She asked Irene once if this is what it was, to which Irene replied: “They don’t make tenements anymore. Besides, poor people live in tenements, do we look like poor people to you?” Risa wondered afterward what the difference was between a tenement, which they didn’t live in, and a “dump,” which Irene called their home in her more sour moods.)

There is no elevator in the building. For Risa it’s a case of not missing what she’s never had. And despite the occasional rape in the stairwell, she enjoys climbing a good set of stairs. She also thinks they make for better neighborhoods, as everyone runs into each other going up two, three, four flights of stairs. It’s hard not to be nice when you’re winded, or at least too busy working on the next breath to be hostile. This is something Risa has noticed; she notices things – gestures and sayings and facial expressions – and puts them on file in her memory box, a sort of recipe index for human behaviors. Someday she may need one of them, a smile in a tight situation or a cliché to keep a conversation going, and she’ll have it.

She wishes people would stay put more. She and her mother and her father, who died three months ago, have lived in the same apartment for four years. That’s a long time. Risa doesn’t remember much before it, flashes and snippets of dialogue, the time when her grandmother’s hair caught fire when the plastic lighter she used for her cigarettes exploded, but to recall in any great detail, no, not much until they moved here. Not even where they lived before. Somewhere in New Jersey. New-ark, which is not New York by any means. There was a small front yard, she remembers that, but there’d been some conflict with the neighbor over poisoned cats and she wasn’t allowed to play outside. (Her father was afraid of the neighbor, a fat man who seldom shaved and who drank malt liquor for breakfast; he might offer Risa a piece of candy or a milkshake laced with strychnine, and by the time they got her to the emergency room it would be too late.)

So all in all Risa felt stable in their home on Nineteenth Street. It was the departure of her friends and acquaintances that disturbed her. She’d just get to know someone, say, in the apartment off the third floor landing, and a few months later the apartment would be empty. Oscar, the super, would be working on a light fixture or throwing on a new coat of cheap white paint. Risa would notice on her way out one day and poke her head in.

“Where’d Mrs. Rodriquez go?” she’d say, not to mention Mrs. Rodriguez’s retarded teenage son and the dog she kept against the rules.

“Gone,” Oscar would say, and shrug, his back to her.

She never got any more explanation than that. Occasionally there were rumors, but nothing solid. People just went; and Risa imagined herself taking a cross-town bus someday to a building she’d never seen before in the east thirties, walking through the front door and discovering with a sense of shock and satiated curiosity where everyone had gone.

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