We’d been divorced for almost six years when my ex-wife called and asked if I’d like to live in the bottom apartment of her duplex. I had been moving from place to place, exhausting welcome after welcome, until I’d wound up at my parents’ house, but even they had had enough of me. Sure, they told me, David had died, and they doubted I would ever get over it, but skulking around their house day in and day out was no cure for grief.
I’d heard Eadie had bought the duplex somewhere in Jersey not long after our divorce. I fluctuated between imagining her as a mess like me or as very put-together: a responsible landlord who fixed the plumbing, maintained a garden out back, and cooked herself elaborate meals each night, wafting the smell of sauce toward her nose and sighing with pleasure. Maybe she went to movies on her own. Maybe she was even dating again.
“I haven’t rented it once,” she said. “I barely leave my apartment, except for groceries. I had intentions of renting out the downstairs, but there’s water damage and probably ants or cockroaches.” I heard her tug on her headphones, untangling them from her hair. “Or both.” She huffed a breath into the microphone. “What I mean is: Paul, would you like to move into the apartment?”
She said I didn’t have to pay rent, that I could come and go as I pleased, we could see each other or not. I told her yes and laughed before quickly clearing my throat.
“What?” she asked.
“I guess you’re my landlord now,” I said.
My mother came to my room as I packed and asked, “You sure about this?” I told her no. When my father came in ten minutes later and asked me the same thing, I said yes. I’d just like to be with somebody in the same boat, I thought of saying to both of them, but I knew it would only give them another chance to object.
Eadie stood at her front door in a teal sweatshirt zipped up halfway, the same one she’d worn often around our old house. I was on the street with the few things I’d brought, trying to judge whether I could carry both duffel bags across the front yard in one trip. She had her hands in her sweatshirt pockets, and I could see the ridges of her knuckles through the fabric, like she was gripping something in each hand: a tissue, a gum wrapper, a receipt — something she could grab, worry with, let go, grab again. When she was pregnant with David, she would sit on the couch with her feet on the ottoman and settle her hands over her belly until she fell asleep. Her hands would slowly slide down the curve of her stomach and back to the couch. I had loved watching this.
“Do you need help?” she asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Didn’t bring much.” She looked the same, maybe a few less freckles on her cheeks, and her strawberry-blond hair seemed a little darker, peppered here and there with gray. I had lost more hair, which I’m sure she noticed.
“I guess your parents are gone already?” she said. “I thought maybe I’d get to see them.”
“They went to find a gas station,” I told her.
“But I’ll see them?”
“They’re heading straight back from there,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her how nervous they seemed at the prospect of seeing her again. “They were too worried about traffic on the way home to stick around,” I lied.
“Bummer,” she said, and seemed like she meant it. She looked up and down the street and shimmied her knees like she was cold, though the day was warm. “Oh,” she said. “I forgot to hug you.” She walked closer and pulled her hands from her pockets — empty. I set the bags down, and she wrapped her arms around my neck. I rubbed her back between her shoulder blades with the palm of my hand.
“Hi,” she said.
Unpacking didn’t take long. Mostly just putting away clothes and a few dishes, books, photos. Over the years of living with friends or my parents, I’d left more and more of my things behind until all I owned was just a car’s worth. Life was more efficient that way. Quick getaways weren’t too quick if you needed to pack a U-Haul.
The place wasn’t so bad. Eadie had a few pieces of furniture down there already: a bed, a dresser, a couch, a stool — just enough so you didn’t have to sit on the carpet in the middle of an empty room. The glue holding the wood paneling to the walls had begun to petrify, causing the panels to splinter and bubble. The rug was a nondescript beige creeping toward brown. I could tell Eadie had vacuumed before I got there from the river-like patterns cut across the floor. I surveyed the place and thought I could maybe rip down the paneling, pull up the carpet, sand away whatever moldy remnants lived under both, and toss a lick of white paint on everything to brighten the place up, but that seemed like a lot of work to invest in a situation that had an enormous question mark hanging over it.
In the bathroom I saw the cheap photo of the Brooklyn Bridge that I had bought for Eadie the night we met. We were both at a gallery opening in Chelsea, drinking free beer and not understanding the art. We got to talking and made each other laugh. She said she had to pee; would I mind waiting for her? “Hours, days, months, years,” I declared, a little drunk. She later confessed that this line had forced the thought upon her: I’m going to wind up marrying this jackass. We left together, strolling like flirty kids to Madison Square Park, where I bought the photograph for her from a street vendor. “See?” I’d told her. “I can buy you art, darlin’. I’m most definitely worth a second date.”
Now hanging above the toilet, the picture had a yellow post-it note stuck to the glass: “Hours, days, months, years. Welcome home.”
I soon realized I could hear everything she did upstairs: the patter of her feet moving from the kitchen to the bedroom to the bathroom. A week after moving in, I heard the sound of her mother’s heels against the hardwood floor and a conversation about how she could not, would not condone this living arrangement; how this was a decidedly dreadful idea. Eadie did not bother defending us.
Her mother had been a big supporter of our divorce. A small remedy, she’d told us, for couples who had lost a child. “It’s not because I don’t like you, Paul,” she’d said, sitting at the kitchen table in our old home. “But imagine you two sharing a taut string tied to each of your backs.” She took a sip of her tea. “Now imagine the relief of cutting that string and no longer feeling that tension.” She put the palms of her hands together as if in prayer, then began moving them farther and farther apart, wiggling her fingers as if dissolving the string. She reached for her tea again. “David was our grandchild, too, you know,” she said. “Everybody’s still very upset.”
We’d decided to give therapy and support groups a try, but therapy turned us into animals, barking refrains of guilt toward each other: How could you not be watching him? Why did you decide to go to the bathroom right then? It was your idea to go to the pool that day, not mine. Support groups were no help, either. Sitting around empty school cafeterias, drinking shitty coffee, pretending to listen to other parents’ sob stories — it all made me strangely competitive, as if the others’ sorrows and losses could in no way stack up to mine.
Eadie and I separated. Then, while discussing other matters with our lawyer, we asked each other if we should just sign some papers, make this official already. Neither of us had an answer, so we looked to our parents to make the decision for us. My mother told me, “Couples fight. Give each other time. Let yourselves get good at backing down.” My father told me that marriage should never feel like a hundred-year war. Who knows what gems of advice her mother had to offer, but when I called Eadie and asked, “Yea or nay?” she just sighed and said, “Yea.” I can’t lie: I was relieved — not because we were to be divorced, but because a decision had finally been made.
After I heard her mother leave, I went up to Eadie’s apartment and knocked before letting myself in. Her place was clean and sterile in a way I’d never known her to be. Everything matched — the trim of the table and chairs, the coffee table, the couches — but all in a rushed, cheap-looking way, as if she had walked into a furniture store and just bought the model room. She had the money from the settlement after David died — we both did — but I guess she felt the same way I did about spending it.
She was sitting at her kitchen counter drinking a cup of coffee. “Getting settled in?” she asked.
“I heard your mother stop by,” I said. “Was this maybe a mistake?”
“That’s not fair,” Eadie said. “You hearing me and me not hearing you.” Her face suddenly lifted like she had the perfect idea. She stood and walked to her guest bedroom. I followed. There was a desk in there and not much else. She opened the room’s only closet, stuffed with boxes and plastic-covered dresses she’d probably never wear again, and she pulled a box from a stack. Written in thick black marker on its side was DAVID’S THINGS. She rifled through it before pulling out our old baby monitor. “Intercom,” she said. “Sort of.”
“Why do you still have that?”
“You leave the monitor on in your place, and I’ll hear if you’re home or not.” She turned on the handset, and the red light flashed for a second before fading.
“Needs batteries,” I said.
“Do you have any money on you?”
I reached for my wallet and could not help but think of our last week with David. He had lost three of his baby teeth: an incisor on Monday, one of his canines on Wednesday, and another incisor that Thursday. Eadie and I had given him a dollar per tooth and joked that he’d better be careful or he would bankrupt the tooth fairy. David had laughed at this, showing the gaps between his teeth, and said he planned on using his fortune to buy a Chipwich from the pool’s ice-cream stand that weekend. I’d later retrieved these three wet dollars from the still-damp bathing suit a nurse had returned to us.
“No,” I said to Eadie. “Nothing on me.”
We received a settlement from the pool and then won a lengthy lawsuit against the American Red Cross for inadequate lifeguard testing. Watching a fifteen-year-old lifeguard pound our son’s chest in the wrong place, hearing the boy’s ribs crack, had made us merciless. We split the funds in our divorce and could each live comfortably for a while without working. Neither of us ever really acknowledged our bank accounts.
“I’ll just use the card,” she said, reaching for her pocketbook. She found her keys and looked up at me like she was waiting for me to leave.
“Mind if I come?” I asked.
“No, I don’t mind,” she said. “But I’m driving.”
The streets were busy with after-school traffic. I stayed in the car while she went inside the A&P. In the parking lot a mother held open a jacket, waiting for her little girl to feed her arms into the sleeves. We’d buried David in a seersucker suit we’d bought him for Easter. When we delivered the suit to the funeral home, the undertaker, an older man with white hair and a large nose, said, “How lovely. Your boy will look so handsome.” This gesture, which was nothing but kind, triggered a memory of helping David pick out an outfit for his first day of school, and I began sobbing, calling the old man an asshole for absolutely no reason. He understood and found us a quiet place to stay in the funeral home’s reception area while he slit that suit up the back and fitted our boy’s stiff, naked arms into the sleeves, combed his hair, and added color back to his face.
Eadie returned to the car and tossed me the plastic grocery bag. Inside were more batteries than we’d ever need and a package of Werther’s Originals. “There was a card minimum,” she said. “You still like those old-man candies, right?”
“Like?” I said. “Love, darlin’. Still love these old-man candies.” I ripped open the bag, and a few fell to the floor. As I picked them up, I realized I had called her darlin’. “Take a different way home.”
“ ‘Please’?” she said.
“Please. Show me around.”
“I still don’t really know my way around here, to be honest with you,” she told me. She took a few turns down side streets, where we passed larger and larger houses until we pulled onto a two-lane highway along the Hudson River. The street was lined with maple trees, and we could see what I guessed was Yonkers across the way. We probably could have seen the city if we’d been heading in the opposite direction. The roadside was a mess, covered with litter. I heard the pop of an empty water bottle under the tires. “Where are we?” I asked.
“Damned if I know,” Eadie said.
A blue sign beside the road read, 9 WEST: ADOPT-A-HIGHWAY PROGRAM. There was a number to call at the Department of Public Works. The numbers and letters were graying decals that curled up from the metal sign. I mentally repeated the phone number to myself over and over. When we came to an intersection, Eadie leaned forward in her seat to read the street sign and said, “Ah, yes. Now I know where we are.”
At home I asked Eadie if I could use her phone, and she pointed to her bedroom as she began trying to open a pack of batteries. Her bedroom was as clean as the rest of her apartment, but her bed was unkempt in a childish way, the comforter flopped over at one corner like the dog-eared page of a book, so she could slip back under the covers whenever she felt the need. She probably did small chores around her apartment and then rewarded herself with naps. I did the same.
The phone was charging on the nightstand next to a picture of David in his puffy blue snowsuit, his little face peeking out from his hood, pink from the cold but still smiling. The frame was decorated with plastic jewels and painted macaroni — an art project he’d made in school for Mother’s Day. I sat on her bed and called the number I had memorized. Someone picked up and coughed a few times before saying, “Yeah, DPW, this is Walt.”
“Yes, hello,” I said. “I’m calling about the Adopt-a-Highway sign on 9 West?”
“Is it down?”
“No, no,” I said. “Adopting the highway: How does one do that?”
“Why are you whispering? And it’s expensive,” he said.
“Money’s not an issue.”
I could hear Eadie in her kitchen, saying, “Just great.” She’d finally ripped open the plastic pack of batteries, and they’d all fallen to the floor.
“What business or charity are you with? Workers? Probation program? Juvies?”
“Just me,” I said.
“You sure?” he asked. “It’s an eleven-mile stretch of curvy, dirty road.” He made a joke about how it reminded him of his ex-wife, then told me that, if I was serious, I’d need to come on Monday to fill out all the paperwork.
When I returned to the kitchen, Eadie handed me the monitor and said, “Speak.”
“Hello?” I heard my voice from the handset on the counter.
“Still works,” she said. “Just leave it wherever in your apartment. If that’s OK?”
“I guess,” I said.
“What happened to coming and going as I please?”
“Jesus, Paul,” she said, “if you don’t want me to hear you, just turn the damn thing off.” She walked past me to her bedroom, then turned and said, “I thought it could be nice.”
“OK,” I said. I wasn’t living too dangerously for her to eavesdrop on me once in a while.
I could hear her ruffling the sheets to her bed, probably getting into it. “I mean,” she said, “if you didn’t want the thing in your apartment, why the hell did you come with me to get batteries?”
“I said, ‘OK.’ As in OK, I will turn the fucking monitor on, and you will hear me. OK?”
“Fine,” she said.
I started to head back to my apartment.
“And this isn’t a mistake,” she called out to me. “Please, let’s not make it one.”
I think she said that last part to herself.
We didn’t see each other all weekend. On Sunday I walked to the nearest gas station for some food, beer, and the paper, and upon returning I saw that her car was gone. I positioned myself at the kitchen table to spy out the front window while I skimmed reviews of books I would never read. I cracked open a beer and surveyed the brick path to our shared door, then reached for the beer without looking and tipped it over, splashing the baby monitor, which sat dormant on the counter. I wiped away the beer and turned the monitor on to see if it still worked. The light in the corner blazed red.
Looking back out the window, I saw Eadie approaching across the yard, grocery bags in tow. She saw me, too, and tried to wave but could only wiggle the fingers holding all the plastic bags. I held up my beer in what I hoped she’d recognize as an invitation, but I was too late; she was already trudging up to her apartment. I could hear her entering the kitchen above, plopping the bags down, and opening her fridge to put everything away. I burped and, out of habit, said, “Excuse me,” to the empty room. Eadie stopped moving above me. She’d heard me over the monitor.
I stared at the red light for a moment before saying, “Hey, Eadie? Maybe your monitor isn’t on, but what are you doing tomorrow?” I paused as if waiting for her to respond, even though the monitor only worked one way. “I hope you’re not doing anything. I need a ride to the DPW, wherever the hell that is. I’m going to sponsor that highway we were on the other day. The dirty one? This sounds so ridiculous, but I’m going to pick up trash and branches, that sort of thing. There’s probably roadkill, too. God, I hadn’t thought of that.” I waited for a moment, crossing my legs one way, then the other. “What I mean is,” I said, “if you don’t have any plans, maybe you’d like to come? I’d like you to come. I understand if you can’t. Or if you don’t want to. I guess you can find me tomorrow if you heard this, and if you didn’t hear any of this, I’ll just take a taxi. This is stupid. I’m turning this stupid thing off now.”
Eadie knocked on my door at 11 AM the next morning and asked, “Ready?”
Walt, the man I’d spoken with, gave us two sharpened garbage pokers, two heavy-duty garbage sacks, and two bright-orange mesh vests. The garage where he worked was musty, but the door was open, and we stood just far enough out to be bathed in warm sunlight. He had a terrible-smelling cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth. The thing didn’t even look lit, like he was just chewing on it as he told us, “Any second you are on that road, those vests are on your backs. This isn’t ‘Walt’s Friendly Rule.’ This is the law, understand?” We nodded and put them on. He went off to look for a map while Eadie and I waited.
She put on the vest over her baggy overalls, the ones I’d always liked seeing her wear on apartment-painting days. Our whole past life together could be read off the denim: at her knee, a splash of burgundy from that ugly accent wall in our first Queens apartment; at her hip, flecks of the nursery’s gender-neutral Big Bird yellow; at her ribs, a splotch of David’s bedroom blue, from our last home together.
“Look at us,” Eadie said, her torso swimming in the ill-fitting vest.
“Inmates,” I replied, and we laughed a little.
“If my mother finds out you made me join a chain gang, then we’ll really be in trouble.”
Walt called us into his office, where he had a map laid out on his already crowded desk. Mugs, locks, tools, and other objects under the paper made the map look contoured, the terrain mountainous. He pressed his finger to an intersection not far from the blue Hudson. “I’ll drop you off here. You just walk east toward the city and stop at the junction of 9 and the Esplanade. Fancy development. I’ll pick you up there at, say, five?” We looked to each other and shrugged before telling him that sounded about right. “Good, throw your shit in the back of the truck and hop in the front,” he said. “Somebody’s got to sit bitch though.”
We walked across the parking lot to a mustard-colored pickup, and I opened the door for Eadie. “Oh, come on now, guy. Be a gentleman,” Walt said, easing into the driver’s seat and slamming his door. “Give your wife the window seat.” He put the remaining stump of his cigar in the truck’s ashtray.
“She’s not my wife,” I said as I climbed in first.
“What is this, then?” he asked. “Some kind of new-agey date?” He started the engine and pulled out of the DPW, lowering both windows and resting his elbow out his.
“We’re divorced, actually,” Eadie said, whipping wisps of hair away from her face. Despite it all, I still found her lovely to look at.
“You’re shitting me,” Walt said.
“Nope, ask him,” she said.
“Truth?” Walt said.
I raised my hands and gave a helpless shrug. “Truth.”
“Kids?” he asked.
“Not anymore,” Eadie said. Something about the way she said it seemed practiced to me, friendly even, and not at all tinged with sadness.
“Right,” Walt said. “They hit a certain age, and I guess it’s unfair to call them ‘kids.’ ”
I opened my mouth to correct him, but Eadie grabbed my knee and squeezed it. She shook her head and mouthed, Don’t.
“My girl’s seventeen,” Walt continued. “Prom this weekend.”
“Prom,” Eadie said. “Keep your eyes on that date of hers.”
“Like a hawk,” he said. We sat at a red light, and he tapped his finger against the steering wheel. We could overhear a muffled conversation between other DPW workers on the walkie-talkie clipped to his belt.
“What’s her name?” I asked. The light turned green, and the truck lurched forward.
“Abby,” he said. “Yours?”
“David,” I replied.
“Just the one?”
“Just the one,” we said in unison.
We finally came to an intersection where the road ended and the highway began. There was a strip of woods on the opposite side of the highway and then a drop down to the river beyond. From this elevation I could see Yonkers through the trees as if a map were laid out on the other side of the river: each street, train track, tree — everything clear, though miles away.
Walt pulled over to the shoulder and killed the engine. “Here’s your stop,” he said.
“Now what?” I asked.
“You need binoculars, Magoo?” He extended his arm and presented the road to us. “There’s trash everywhere. And trash don’t come to you; you come to trash.”
We got out and grabbed our bags and pokers from the truck bed. Eadie put a hand to her forehead to shade her eyes. “Should’ve brought sunglasses,” she said.
“What happens if we fill up these bags?” I asked, flapping mine open only to watch it billow like an enormous sail.
Walt relit his cigar and let out a big puff of smoke. “If you’ve filled them, then you’ve done enough work for the day.” Something on his walkie-talkie caught his attention, and he pulled it from his belt and gave a quick “On my way.” He started the truck’s engine. “Duty calls,” he said. He did a U-turn onto the highway. “And, I swear to Christ,” he yelled to us, “I don’t care if it reaches 112 degrees out here and they start melting to your backs, don’t take those fucking vests off!”
Eadie and I watched him drive off. She put her hands to her hair, smoothed it back, and grabbed a tie from her wrist to wrap it into a ponytail. “Well?” she said.
I looked to the ground. There was a blue coffee cup at my feet. I tried to poke it, but it buckled without puncturing.
“Just pick it up,” she said.
“What the hell do we have pokers for, then?” I said. “I want to impale something.”
“Then impale it.”
I wrapped both hands around the poker and brought it down hard. I heard the sharpened point break through and strike the pavement. I held up the poker with the cup stabbed on the end and shook it at Eadie, as if to ask how she ever could have doubted me.
“There’s the spirit,” she said. She poked a fast-food wrapper crumpled into a ball. “That does feel good.”
We continued this way for a while, our heads bowed to the earth, scanning for anything that shouldn’t be there, putting it all into the bags, which grew heavier as we walked. At one point Eadie looked to the opposite shoulder and said, “Shit, we’ve only been doing one side.”
“I can go over there,” I offered.
“But what about the ground we’ve already covered. Will you go back and start over?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“No,” she said quickly. “Please. You think I want to be alone out here? We’ll just work that side next time.”
“Next time,” I repeated. She was enjoying herself. This could become, maybe even already was, a good thing. “Good plan,” I said. After a while I began, “So.”
Eadie wiped sweat from her forehead, leaving a small streak of dirt above her eyebrows. “I know you want to get angry with me about not telling him,” she said, “but to be honest, Paul, I don’t really give a shit how you feel.”
“Maybe I feel like we just shouldn’t lie about it, is all.”
“Do you tell everybody who asks?” She bent over to pick up a pizza box covered with wet leaves.
“How can I not?”
“Because it’s easier,” she said, fitting the box into her bag.
I poked at a calendar that was beginning to turn to pulp. Why anyone would toss a calendar out their car window was beyond me. “Fine,” I said and turned away from her.
“Don’t say ‘fine’ when you really want to tell me to fuck off. I hate it when you do that.”
“Fine,” I said and turned to face her again. “Fuck off.”
“Well, fuck off right back,” she said. “Why did you even move into my place? Just to keep our old Anger Olympics torch lit? Oh, let’s keep passing it to each other year after year forever!” She pretended to hand her poker to me in place of this imaginary torch. Just then a minivan passed us going faster than any car should have. A loud rush of dead leaves lifted and fell in the car’s wake, and we were left with a sudden quiet.
“I fight with you in my head all the time,” I finally said. “I think of what I might say, and then what you might say back, and then what I could say back to that so that I could win. Fights about nothing, too: about what cereal to buy.” I walked past her. “Why did you come here with me?”
“Oh, you jackass,” she said. “Can’t you see we have the same reason?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You and me, we’re both whoosh,” she said, opening a hand toward the Hudson as if releasing some small bird that had been caged between her fingers. “Gone.”
“In the same boat,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “The same boat.”
“Can we ever be happy like that?”
“At best,” she said, “we’ll always be kept a few inches from happiness — which, for people like us, I don’t think is too fucking much to ask for. You missed a Doritos bag, by the way.”
The bag must have been there for years, its plastic bleached out, the letters of the logo scratched away. I poked the ancient thing, put it in my bag, and noticed an overgrown footpath off the shoulder. I walked down it, Eadie following after me, until we came to a dilapidated bench overlooking the river. She sat down, setting her poker and bag beside her. I sat next to her. We rested for a bit, watching a few boats in the distance, a train across the river glinting as it blazed away from the city. I could hear birds and the whir of cars nearby.
“Should I feel guilty?” I asked her.
“For what?” she asked.
“For being happy to fight with you again — happier than I’ve been not talking to you for the past however many years?”
“Jesus,” she said. “What good is feeling good if you’re only going to feel bad about it?” She kicked something half covered in the dirt, and a puff of dust rose and fell. Then she realized the thing she’d kicked was a used condom, and she grabbed my arm. She laughed at herself, and I laughed, too. She kept her hand around my elbow while we gave ourselves a nice, long break.
We work by the roadside most days now. Some days we talk; other days we start at opposite ends and meet in the middle. Some nights we grab a drink with Walt and the other guys from the DPW. There’s a bar in town that has karaoke nights. Eadie and I never sing, but everybody always urges us to. Some joke and call us “the divorcées,” but Walt, after picking us up on our first day, said we looked like a convict Hansel and Gretel following our trail of trash, and that name stuck, too.
Sometimes at the bar Eadie rides her hand up my thigh and we leave a little early. She keeps her bedroom windows open, and when it’s cold, I can feel goose bumps rise on her skin. She bites her bottom lip or puts her hand flat against her brow, covering her eyes when I’m first inside her, and says, “Never another.”
“Never,” I tell her.
The window lets in a breeze, and I realize I’m sweating. Then I hear the monitor. Left on in my apartment downstairs, it echoes everything back to us. A car passes on the street, and we hear its echo from the monitor. I like hearing this old sound again. There was nothing like that — having a partner in this life, having a son, him crying from his room down the hall and then settling back to sleep, my wife telling me he’s OK, keep going.