I lived at 414 Church Street, but if you crossed westward, over the busy 101st Avenue, you would find Church Avenue. It had the same address numbers and the same zip code as my street, but instead of the bustling apartment complexes, the Avenue, as Eloise and I called it, consisted of old houses. Church Street was outlined with wide and busy sidewalks, where residents walked their dogs and jogged past each other. Yet in the four years we lived on our street we never saw a resident of Church Avenue. It was so unusual that Eloise and I were constantly on the lookout. I even tried involving our neighbors, but whenever I worked the topic into conversation the reaction was the same: mild fascination quickly followed by dissolution of interest. They were so preoccupied with their own lives they didn’t have time for my improbable intrigue.
“They must be all old people. Look at how old the houses are,” I said to Eloise one Sunday, on our way to the supermarket.
“What if the houses are just empty?” she countered.
“No home is just empty,” I said.
As a routine we often invented communities that lived on the Avenue, and we would tell their stories to each other, filling in complicated histories. There was our summer of ’87, when they ostracized the widow who lived at 421 because, though police never found conclusive evidence, she murdered her husband after discovering his affair with the single mother in 414.
“That’s the house with the woman whose son was born disabled. She drowned the boy after her husband threatened to leave her,” Eloise commented, fanning herself with envelopes one summer afternoon as we sat languorous in our lawn chairs, trying to hold still in the heat.
“Sure, yeah, you can tell from the way their begonias try too hard to fit in with the other plants.”
It was a rule I came up with that each story must be supported with factual observations. The begonias were a clue, as were the rusty mailbox, the chipped garden gnome, the overgrown blackberry bushes. Everything in sight on Church Avenue provided source material from which truth could spring into narrative.
Meanwhile, we had been living in the same one-bedroom apartment the past four years: a bedroom just big enough for our queen-size mattress, two windows looking out over 101st, and a bathroom floor that creaked whenever anyone stepped there. We wanted to buy a house one day, but after I lost my job and Eloise had to take a pay cut in order to keep hers, our dreams of home ownership fizzled.
When the air outside began its crispy descent into fall, and the green leaves on the bitter cherry trees outside our front door paled, I began to watch the Avenue more intently. Sometimes I sat at my window and looked at those houses for hours. At first, I was just zoning out. Then, I found myself looking for clues Eloise and I may have missed. Soon, the importance of finding these visual signs transitioned from being mere fodder for elaborate fantasy to a genuine pursuit of truth about these residents. I talked about the Avenue every day and reported to Eloise while she changed her clothes in front of our bedroom mirror, replacing her low-cut blouse and tight- fitting skirt with one of my torn Giants jerseys. She listened to me, but I could tell it wasn’t as important to her that we find proof life existed in those houses.
“Okay, so then I saw a landscaper leaving a business card at 418,” I told her. This was the house we decided belonged to an alcoholic writer who shunned society.
“What if it wasn’t a landscaper, but his son, coming home to make amends?” Eloise said.
“Well, he was driving a landscaping truck, and that house has some pretty overgrown shrubs. I mean, I guess it could be that his son wants to rebuild his father from the outside in, but that seems too literary,” I said.
“No, it’s more likely his son left because his father couldn’t be rebuilt. Probably just a landscaper. The real son would have given up once he realized the man was completely satisfied with the lonely life he built around resentment and inactivity.”
“But the guy is an artist. He like, harvests emotional bounties for the common good. Maybe he only got dissatisfied with his life because he kept holding the world to an honorable standard but the system kept beating him down. Yeah, then he drinks to dull the pain of being disappointed,” I said.
“Honorable standard? That’s such BS. The guy is a narcissist: just wallowing in his own entitlement. He drinks and stays at home because he’s a coward,” she said.
“But he’s an artist.”
“He only tells himself that to justify not getting out of bed. He’s closed. He spends his time alone. He never leaves the house. His plot of the world is uncared for: overgrown and deteriorating and ugly because he just gave up. There’s no rationalizing any of that. I’m sorry, but he’s selfish. No one’s house exists by itself. Can you imagine what his neighbors think of him? There he is, navel-gazing in front of a typewriter or whatever, feeling sorry for himself. Meanwhile, he’s actually lowering the value of property for every house on that block. God, they must hate him. I know I would.”
“You’d hate him?”
I cracked open a can of beer from the fridge and offered it to Eloise. She shook her head, walked to the bathroom, and slammed the door. I stood alone in the kitchen. Outside, a car alarm went off, probably parked too close to 101st.
The bathroom floor creaked, and creaked again.
* * *
In the winter, shortly after my unemployment benefits ran out, I took to maintaining a written log of my Avenue observations. Eloise left her phone with me. If she needed to talk she called from her work phone. The half hour between the time she called to say she was leaving her office and the time she walked through our front door required a practical application of faith rare in our current state of technology.
Those days, I taped my charts around the living room. I even framed the more interesting weeks, using glued-together chopsticks for borders. My favorite, October 10, twelve-fifteen, I kept above the window. That was the week I saw the arrival of children to 408, implying the presence of a grandparent. The children ran from their mother’s car to the house and knocked repeatedly at the door, chirping like little birds. The moment stood out because that week had been particularly rough. I was feeling as though my life and all my activities were meaningless. I took longer waking up in the mornings. I had no daily joy. Even food seemed mere fuel for idling in a futile existence. Then, those children arrived and suddenly I lived in the presence of hope again. Those charts and logs may not mean much to anyone else, but for me, connecting the visible universe to a living truth of existence, even if that living truth was shut into an old house on the Avenue, was inordinately meaningful. Unfortunately, that chart also marked the day my pastime became a private affair. After telling Eloise about the children, her response was immediate and unforgiving.
“They were probably prospective buyers. That’s not proof of life. If anything, it supports my theory that these houses are empty shells. Have you seriously considered the possibility of rampant foreclosure? Houses stopped being homes when the market crashed, Issac. They’re all just evidence of lost money, now.”
She was tired and hungry and the skin on her cheeks had broken out again. The week prior, her company admitted it was not going to restore her old wage but, as a sort of compensation, she would be allowed to work an extra day each week to make up part of the difference in income. So she worked six days each week and slept the entire seventh.
* * *
On a Friday evening, around sunset, I spotted a blonde woman coming out of 414, wrapped in an unbuttoned coat, wearing baggy sweatpants. She carried a full plastic bag to the bin on the side of the house. She dumped the bag, slapped her hands together, and returned inside. Everything I had been working for suddenly paid off. Over the next week I focused solely on 414 to the exclusion of every other house. I studied the way the roof slanted in sections. I analyzed the choice of exterior paint and surmised the psychology of the painter. I rigorously examined the line of shrubs in the front yard. The project was all-consuming. I forgot to eat lunch, then I swore off lunch. I stayed up late, after Eloise turned in, just to watch a little longer.
Then, one Thursday night, midwinter, I made a disturbing discovery. Eloise came home late and decided to go to sleep early so, disappointed, I spent a few more moments contemplating the Avenue. The street was motionless, as it had been lately. Using my binoculars, I counted off each visible window. The upstairs window was black, as usual; the downstairs window on the side of the house was still obscured by dark curtains; but the front window caught my eye with a faint flash of color. I focused, trying to hold the binoculars steady by propping up on my elbows. Straining, I could see an orange flicker, pulsing irregularly. It took my mind a moment to adjust.
I was watching the tiny glow of a cigarette, and behind the glow, a figure stood half in front of the curtain, facing my direction. The glow pulsed and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. The figure was watching me.
As soon as I understood what I was seeing I realized the lights in my apartment were all turned on. My heart exploded with beats. I scrambled to hit every light switch in the room as fast as I could, knowing how much an admission of guilt my actions were to anyone watching. When I mustered the courage to look again, she was gone. Despite my obsession with the houses on this block, it became obvious there was a line I was too afraid to cross. It didn’t matter so long as Eloise and I discussed characters in a make-believe universe; there was never any danger of making actual contact. However, as my needs changed, I was more interested in finding real, underlying truths about real people. The reason I hadn’t simply knocked on these doors was because I was afraid, not of what I might find, but of involving myself in the conclusion. I would have as many questions to answer as I had to ask. My new awareness was devastating.
The next morning, Eloise left the house upset and late. She reached back and adjusted her heel before hurrying out the door without saying good-bye. I planned to carry out my plan that afternoon. I hadn’t left the house in months, but now I was ready to make closer observations of the Avenue. The first walk went quickly. I was nervous. I felt like a thief casing out his next job.
I walked briskly, taking on the anxiety in my neck and shoulders. Air blew cold against my face, and I shuddered. My clothing was all wrong. I exhaled thick puffs of smoke. My fingers ached. The first two houses revealed nothing new from this closer angle, but I was walking fast and trying not to look obvious. When I reached 414 I couldn’t help myself. I slowed to a near halt and gawked at the front window. These houses were my daily idols of worship from afar and yet, there I was, their cold, unworthy pilgrim. The curtain in the front window flipped and I panicked. It was all I could do not to sprint home.
Eloise called later to say she was staying late at the office and not to wait up. After she hung up I felt an enormous amount of guilt for not telling her about 414. Near sundown, I couldn’t sit still. I just had to make another trip. This time I planned to synchronize my outing with the exact time I spotted the woman taking out her trash. I pulled on two pairs of socks, my heavy coat, and a pair of my thickest trousers. I checked my watch, lifted my hood over my wool cap, and headed out the door like an astronaut embarking on a frozen and silent planet.
My timing was precise. The moment I stepped in front of 414 was the definite moment I had seen the woman before. It was unnerving when nothing actually happened. I convinced myself so thoroughly of an encounter that I could hardly accept the uneventful reality. I walked slowly. I hesitated. I measured each step past the house. Wind pitched into my face, causing my nose to ache. The only available light came from a single streetlamp, which cast a long shadow of myself hulking in front of me as I traveled. But why would anything happen, I thought. Just because the timing coincided perfectly with the past didn’t mean it had any bearing on the future. The world, I concluded, was too erratic to allow itself to be predicted despite all record keeping.
I walked on, aimlessly. Church Avenue, like all avenues and streets and ways and roads that Friday night, was cold and dark and empty. The only sounds came from the wind through the surrounding trees and hedges. I ambled back the way I came.
“Excuse me,” a soft voice called out.
I was so absorbed in my thoughts I nearly ignored the call. Standing in the doorway of 414, the blonde woman waved to me.
“You’re from the neighborhood, right?” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She held a cigarette low by her side and leaned into the doorframe. I took several steps toward her and could see she was around my age. Her eyes peered at me over dark, inverted triangles. She blew smoke up and away.
“I’m Esther,” she said, extending her free hand. “Issac. Yeah, I live just up the Avenue.”
“Look, Issac, I wouldn’t normally ask, but I’ve seen you around and it’s fucking cold out there. Would you mind putting this bag into my trash bin? I can’t deal right now.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Kind of embarrassing now that I actually asked. Ideas sound better in my head. Anyway, thanks.”
“I’m already out here, anyway.”
“So, do you, uh, want a cup of tea or something? Unless you’re busy. I feel bad making you my errand boy.”
She handed me a half-empty plastic bag and said she’d leave the door unlocked so I could come in after. Her house was surprisingly warm and quiet.
“You can just hang your coat,” she called from another room. There was an acrid, stuffy smell throughout the house, coupled with the stale odor of cigarette ash. I wandered out of the anteroom into her living room, cluttered with stacks of books on astrology and celebrity magazines. The wood-burning stove in the corner radiated heat and its coals emitted a deep, orange glow. When she entered, Esther brought a tray of crackers and two mugs. It was when I first noticed the smell of alcohol on her breath. Her hair was tucked into a bandana and she wore loose-fitting clothes. She lit two of the candles arranged on the coffee table between us.
“Happy Friday,” she said. “What do you do all day, anyway?”
“I look for work, mostly,” I said.
“Me too. Thankfully, we have bread, right? Do you mind?” she motioned to a pack of cigarettes.
“No, go ahead. I mean, it’s your house.”
“Thanks. Eat a cracker.” She inhaled and loosed a long plume of smoke. “Actually, it’s my father’s house. But who knows where he is, so I guess, until further notice, it is my house. It’s my house,” she repeated, a little sad. “Let’s not talk about our conditions, Issac. What about our futures? I am very interested in the future.”
“You mean like ambitions?” I asked, politely.
“No, I mean like tomorrow. Today is so boring and predictable, you get me? I read a lot. I have charts and graphs that plot the way the gravitational pull of the moon affects things on Earth. You know about tides?” she said.
“I know a little, I guess.”
“Well, it’s no different in our bodies. Most of the human body is water, and the moon is small potatoes. The planets beyond the moon have serious mass. How is it any different?”
“I don’t know.”
“It isn’t. The only difference is the scale of tides. Forget oceans; shifting planets affect the tides of our soul…because they’re so distant. Do you get it? The distance is what matters.”
“Is that astrology?” I said.
“Yes! What sign are you?”
“I’m not sure. It changes.”
“What do you mean? When were you born?”
“Oh, oh. I get it. Yeah. Hey, do you want some wine? You’re on the cusp. You straddle two different modes of influence.”
“Don’t we have tea here?”
“No, these are my only glasses. Anyway, wine’s fun in mugs. Good for the throat in this weather too.” She lifted her chin and stroked the underside of her neck.
“Sure,” I said.
She took both mugs and shouted from the kitchen.
“I wish I could give you a real reading, with rising moons and suns and stuff. Aries and Pisces! So that makes sense. I think you’re more of a ram, though.”
“Why?” I said.
She handed me a mug full of wine.
“Thankfully, we have wine. Am I right or am I right?” she said.
I winced after the first sip. It was unexpectedly sweet and strong. Vapors fled my nose and my eyes teared.
“I know, right?” she said. “Well, you just feel like an Aries. You have that aura about you.”
“I never pay attention to any of that.”
“That’s okay. I really think most people shouldn’t. In fact, I think it only works because most people don’t know anything about it. No one can involve themselves and screw things up. Anyway, that’s what I think, but nobody agrees with me. Look at me, in this big house, all alone. It seems like…”
She drifted for a while, casting down at the floor from the corner of her eyes. Then, snapping to, she looked at me again. A floorboard creaked overhead.
“I used to have a child,” she said. “What happened?” I whispered.
“Well, now I can predict the future. I knew you were going to come past my house. I felt it in the way Mercury shifted within me. Aries, right? Huh. It all falls into place.”
“Okay, so if you can predict the future, what’s going to happen next?” I felt drunk.
She smiled, leaned forward, and reached out for my hands. I set my mug on the coffee table and surrendered my palms. She took several deep breaths, looked me in the eye, and ran her index finger down the center of my right palm. The contact made my spine shiver. A smudge of lipstick veered outside the contour of her lower lip.
“In a few minutes, you’re going to stand up and leave,” she said. “We will never speak again because you’ll think I am a crazy woman, and because I am one.”
“I don’t think that,” I protested. She shushed me.
“The future. It’s about shifting tides.”
She leaned back, allowing me to retract my hands. My phone rang and it was Eloise. I moved to the anteroom before answering. “Were you asleep?” she said.
“No, what is it?” I said.
“I’m coming home now.”
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you too,” I said.
I thought of my anxiety before and about Eloise, her palms face up in another man’s hands. I imagined myself at home. She would be there in a half hour. I needed to be there when she arrived. It began to snow as I hurried back to my apartment. First, a few white flakes, then all at once textures cascaded over everything. The sky and the avenue were measured by my footsteps in the slow movement of snow through space and time. I took down my charts and graphs. I shaved and showered. I made the bed. I filled a kettle and set it to boil on the stove. I did the dishes. I swept the floor. I carried out the trash, and lived in the practical faith of her arrival.