Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3715 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

The Roof

by Becky Fine-Firesheets

Elena stacked the dirty plates on the kitchen table. Pain shot through her arthritic fingers. She gasped then focused on the sounds of her grandchildren playing in the hallway until the throbbing subsided. She loved their high-pitched squeals, the horse-like stomping of their energetic feet. The noises brought her back to the old cottage in Santa Isabel, the dusty, Peruvian village she’d raised her own children in. The five of them would scream and shout while they played made-up games in the backyard. When Jose got home from the coffee farm, the tips of his fingers dyed forever black from the soil, he’d set his metal lunch pail on the ground and join in. These games often turned into arguments and tears, and poor Jose was never good with tears. Elena inevitably intervened.

“¡Este tranquilo!” she would yell out the window. “Y recuerde, cosecha lo que siembra.” The children would grumble then fall back into friendship as quickly as they had fallen out of it.

It was surprising to Elena how well she remembered moments like this. She could sometimes even smell Jose’s earthy, sour-tinged scent floating on the air. Yet, despite the familiarity of her memories, they all felt far away, like they’d happened in the ancient times of a children’s story.

Elena dutifully set the dishes in the sink and began running the tap water. The apartment came with an automatic dishwasher but she was accustomed to using her hands. Besides, the dishwasher left powdered soap on the cups and she didn’t want the children drinking that; who knew what kinds of chemicals they’d gulp down without even noticing.

As the water ran, Elena glanced around the kitchen, judging how much work she had ahead of her. To her left, pieces of garlic and onion were scattered across an eggshell countertop barely as large as a desk. An economy-sized stove and oven were squeezed in between the counter and wall, grease splashed across the stovetop. Two dirty skillets and a large pot rested on its burners. To her right, an abused refrigerator covered in fingerprints roared its pain. Behind her, the round plastic table, hidden underneath a bright cloth she had sewn, took up most of the room. A splash of orange hot sauce and a handful of crumbs blended with the patterns she’d embroidered. As the centerpiece, a bouquet of daisies bloomed happily inside a Mason jar. Dingy, lacy curtains blew out from the tiny window above it. Elena made a mental note to wash the curtains and scrub the fridge, but not tonight. She was already tired.

One of Maria’s boys shrieked loudly in the hallway, followed by the stern voice of his mother. Elena smiled. She still thought of Maria as her baby but she was now middle-aged with a husband and four children of her own. They all lived together, crammed into a narrow, railroad apartment, but Elena liked the closeness. The girls, now five and six, shared a room with her. On nights when her arthritis attacked her spine so fiercely it kept her awake, she found peace in their breathy snores, the smell of their strawberry shampoo, the odd shapes their bodies made underneath the quilts she had knitted for them from alpaca wool.

She didn’t expect to but she actually enjoyed living in America. Lung cancer had claimed Jose, a rampant cigar smoker, over two years ago now. His death had crushed Elena. She’d spent three months in bed remembering, crying, and hoping to die so she could join him in heaven. When Maria insisted that Elena move with them, she flatly refused. But the more she thought about living alone with her pain, the more it seemed necessary to leave. Life after Jose... in America. She figured it best to leave the cottage he still haunted behind her.

The move took a much greater toll on Elena than it did on the others, however. She was old and her cough had grown much worse. They’d been here almost a year and she’d seen no more of America than the blocks to the right and left of their high rise. Plus, she still couldn’t speak any English except for “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Yes,” “No, thank you.”

Sweat dripped from the sides of her face into the dishwater. She pulled her apron up and wiped her skin. The apartment was stuffy but she didn’t mind. The sun was much hotter at home. She scrubbed the dishes, wiping off remnants of the chicken, plantains, beans and rice she had made for dinner. Elena made every meal for everyone, every day. Even when Maria insisted on cooking, Elena would stand behind her and watch. It was Elena’s duty to cook and clean. Had always been and would always be.

But when she started coughing mid-wash, she knew she needed a break. Fresh air always did her lungs good. She walked to the tiny window beside the table and tied back the curtains. Two cars and a delivery truck were stopped at the intersection ten stories below. A thin, young man looked at his cell phone as he crossed the street. A woman, holding her toddler on her hip, passed him without looking up.

No one here says hello to one another, Elena thought. No one even nods.


Riley was bored. The day was scorching hot and her tiny apartment that once seemed so charming now seemed like a room in hell. She took a swig of her Modelo but even it was too warm, despite the fact it just came from the fridge.

She fluttered her lips as she sighed. She missed Matt. They’d been living together for only two months but dating for almost a year. A week apart felt painfully long.

He’s coming back soon, Riley thought. But damn this week feels like forever. She needed a distraction, some form of entertainment. And preferably a way out of her roasting apartment.

She propped her bare feet on the kitchen table and flexed her toes. Her cut-off jeans couldn’t get any shorter. Her striped tank top, bunched up and tied in an eighties-style knot underneath her chest, couldn’t get any skimpier. She took another sip then rested the bottle on her stomach, a six-pack from past Pilates classes hidden underneath a roll of beer and French fries. Condensation dripped down the bottle, blending with the sweat beads glistening on her skin. She drank some more. She usually enjoyed Modelo but right now, it wasn’t as cold or as refreshing as she wanted. She set the beer on the table, lazily swung her feet to the linoleum floor and crossed to the fridge. She reached past the assortment of tofu, juices and outdated condiments to the thermostat in the back and twisted it to the coldest setting.

“Keep it up, pal,” Riley said, patting the front of its door as it swung closed. She crossed her arms, satisfied, but the sensation passed only seconds later. She was still bored. And hot.

She plopped back down on her chair, a wooden one Matt recently rescued from the dumpster behind their building. It was rickety but not yet trash worthy. Riley thought too many people were obsessed with buying new things, and therefore too quick to get rid of old things. She prided herself on the fact that she and Matt had furnished most of their apartment from the curb. When she cleaned off a “new” lamp or side table, she was filled with a sense of setting things right in the world, of balancing some cosmic scale for a moment. This made her feel powerful.

She scanned the tabletop, covered with a plastic green “party cloth” from the dollar store down the street. Earlier that morning, she’d slid a yellow tulip into an empty hot-sauce bottle and placed it as the centerpiece. The tulip now drooped heavily forward, its wilted head only an inch from collapsing. A plate crusted with last night’s marinara sauce, the latest copy of The Northeast Performer, a few coins and the beer bottle cap were scattered around the makeshift vase. Riley picked up the cap and flipped it high into the air, watched it tumble back down and land in her palm. After 27 tosses, she fumbled. The cap rolled on its side and smacked the opposite wall, landing with its shiny, branded face staring up at her.

“You little asshole,” she muttered. She crossed the kitchen and bent over to grab it. As she straightened up, a shiny, silver doorknob caught her attention. She’d forgotten all about that door. It opened to a back staircase that led to the apartments below them. Their landlord told them not to use it, so they’d set a wooden hutch in front of it. But now, Riley was curious. They lived on the fourth floor, the highest apartment in the building. It was possible the staircase led to the roof. She couldn’t believe they hadn’t investigated it earlier.

Riley shoved the hutch away from the door and turned the knob. The smell of mold overwhelmed her. She scrunched up her nose. Milk crates filled with broken knick-knacks and pieces of furniture cluttered the landing, all of it covered in a layer of dust. Cobwebs stretched from her door to the ceiling. To her right, a staircase led downstairs. Beyond that, a set of six or seven steps that led to a door. A slither of sunlight burst out from the space beneath it. Riley’s heart jumped. She stepped over and around the junk, knocking cobwebs away with her fingers, then ran up the squeaky stairs. She eagerly turned the knob but it opened only an inch. Near the top of the door, a padlock was closed over a latch screwed into the frame. She jiggled the lock. No luck. Then she noticed three tiny screws connecting the hinges of the door itself to the frame. She had a screwdriver in the closet downstairs. Could it really be that easy?

Either way, Riley had a beer, albeit warm, to finish first.


Elena took a deep breath. She stared at the groomed trees placed every few feet along the sidewalk beneath her. One of the perks of the apartment, their landlord had said, was the beautiful tree-lined block. Elena chuckled. These trees were absurd compared to the grandiose ones back home. She did have hope for them, though. She liked the way their thick roots busted out of the little squares they were given, how the concrete cracked apart, yielded so easily to their demands. Maybe one day they’d reclaim the whole city.

An impatient driver honked his horn the moment the light turned green. Elena jumped. The noise was something she’d never get used to. She coughed again then returned to her sink. Running the washcloth over the crusty plates made her feel important. She felt she was helping, like her children and grandchildren needed her here.


Riley stood up from her chair in the kitchen, head dizzy and buzzed from having downed a second beer. She clapped her hands together then walked to the closet. The shelves were scattered with light bulbs, garbage bags, an unused drill, a broken espresso machine. She picked up a piece of it, revealing a layer of dried, sticky powder. I should clean this someday, she thought as she set it back down.

She rummaged for a little while then finally spotted her red-handled screwdriver behind the machine. She excitedly grabbed it and ran back up to the door.

“Lefty loosey, righty tighty,” she whispered as she stuck the screwdriver into the first screw. She twisted but it wouldn’t budge. She twisted again, grunting, but still no movement.

“Dammit!” she exclaimed. She took a deep breath then tried again. This time, it loosened. After a few more spins, the screw popped out and clanged onto the top stair. She stuck the tool into the next screw. This one slid out with ease.

“That’s it,” she said. “Let’s hope your other friends are as nice as you.”


Elena coughed so intensely she had to stop scrubbing the plate. She held it in one hand, the cloth in the other, while she continued to hack.

“Dios mio,” she whispered. She let both items slip into the soapy water and walked back to the window. The sun shone brightly, reflecting off oil patches on the pavement beneath her. She coughed once more then closed her eyes and breathed slowly, letting her mind slip into memory.

Jose’s rough hand grabbing hers, leading her toward the ocean water. The taste of salt on her lips. Her stomach rolling. The seagulls crying above them. His lopsided smile.


Riley twisted the sweaty handle in a circle and finally undid the last screw of the last hinge. She dropped her tools to the stairs and shoved the door away from her. It fell forward, dangling from the padlock still connected to its frame. A black tar roof, scattered with bits of gravel and a few wind-blown leaves, greeted Riley. She stepped out and squealed; the heat was simultaneously painful and wonderful. She wanted to lie down, let it soak deep into her skin. But then she remembered her tan lines from the weekend’s beach trip in a one-piece. The last thing she needed was another awkward line from her tank top and shorts. Her bikini was only a flight of stairs away.

Riley ran down and quickly changed. She grabbed a towel and hurried back up, slightly tipsy still and very excited that the afternoon sun was all hers.


Elena could feel his breath on her cheek. His arms squeezing her waist. The cold water nipped their toes and she squealed. A deep laugh rumbled through him.

“Eres mí señorita hermosa. Te quiero.” The lines of his face were becoming clearer and clearer when suddenly, a door on a rooftop across the street burst open. A girl, tall and slender with long, chestnut hair pulled into a ponytail, stepped from the doorway onto the roof. She hopped back inside, the door dangling oddly from its frame.

The girl soon reappeared, clad in a string bikini. Elena smiled. The girl spread a towel onto the roof and lay down. Elena leaned her elbows onto the windowsill, relaxing her chin in her hands. She drifted again, back into the world of her own summer days swimming with Jose, tanning in the sun, feeling like life would never end.

Another cough rose up in her chest. Elena turned away from the window and hacked. When she looked out again, the girl, now sitting up, stretched her arms above her head and reached behind her neck. Her bathing suit top fell forward, revealing round, spry breasts. Elena twitched, straightened up, looked behind her. The kitchen was still empty. She could hear a basketball game blasting from the TV in the living room, the bathwater running in their little bathroom. She felt another cough forming in her lungs. Fresh air was helpful. She turned back around and leaned through the window.

I remember those days, she thought, feeling her own breasts sagging deeply into the underwire of her bra.


The sun beat down aggressively onto Riley. She loved it. She stretched her arms up and looked around at the neighboring rooftops. No one else was out. Across the street, a large apartment complex rose up at least ten stories. Riley squinted her eyes and scanned the windows. As far as she could tell, they were all covered with blinds or curtains. Her tan lines were truly horrible. And if no one could see her, she may as well tan topless. She reached around and untied the strings. She felt her boobs bounce slightly when the knot came loose, but that didn’t bother her. She lay back on the towel, reveling in the sun on her bare chest. She wanted to feel it everywhere. Riley quickly stuck her thumbs into her bikini bottoms and tugged them down to her knees. A loud honk rang from the streets. She abruptly stopped.

I am on the roof, she repeated in her head. And I do need to work on these lines. Riley pulled her bikini all the way down and over her feet.


Butterflies fluttered through Elena’s stomach. To see this girl, naked on a rooftop! It was inappropriate. And it was even more inappropriate to watch. Elena had raised her children to respect each other’s space; she believed strongly in privacy. But for some reason, she couldn’t move.


Riley had been tanning for only a few minutes when she pointedly remembered how much she missed her boyfriend.

God, she thought. Just a week and I’m needing sex so much. To think that before we met, I’d gone two years without getting any!

The more she thought about his curly hair, the dark beard on his face, his long fingers, the more she wanted to touch him, kiss him, feel him on top of her.

This is pathetic, she thought. He’s coming back in a couple of days. And either way, I’m outside.

She leaned up onto her elbows and glanced again at the buildings around her. The other rooftops were still empty and she didn’t see anyone hanging out of any windows. She lay back down and relaxed her shoulders, envisioning Matt’s chest with the funny patch of hair. She placed her hand on her stomach. It felt nothing like his palm. She imagined his bristly lips against her mouth, his tongue brushing across hers. She pushed her hand farther down until she reached her hair. She closed her eyes, heard his ridiculous whispers about her being the “most beautiful.” She slid two fingers inside herself. Her breath shot into her throat. She pressed them in and out, glided them up and around herself then back inside. She grabbed one of her breasts with her other hand, felt her nipples harden. The more she touched herself, the more vividly she could picture his face hovering above her.

The grating brakes of a city bus squealed from the intersection. Riley twitched and pulled her fingers out. I shouldn’t do this, she thought. She threw her palm against the sun-baked tar.

But all she could think about was him. She heard the bus pull away from its stop, followed by the sounds of cars barreling down the street. A strong tingling sensation shot up from between her legs.

I’m masturbating outside, she thought. She had to continue.


Elena gasped then released a vulgar cough. Should she continue watching? This girl was now moving her hands between her legs, shaking her body all around. Elena knew what was happening; she wasn’t stupid. Such a thing was not ladylike. Especially on a roof, in public!

But she wasn’t ready to return to the sink. Elena breathed in and out, watched this girl grab her own breasts. She was simultaneously appalled and, for the first time since Jose’s death, excited. She thought of his hands caressing her back, grabbing her flanks. She felt the weight of his body on top of hers as he slid himself inside. He always started out slow, methodically. Then he’d lose himself and thrust so hard she could feel it in her stomach.

A burn spread from between Elena’s legs up into her chest. She watched as the girl threw her hand against the roof and continued to watch as the girl stood up a few minutes later, wrapped the towel around her beautiful, naked body, and walked back through the door.


Wow, Riley thought. I can’t believe I just did that. Jesus Christ, he has to come home.

Happy and embarrassed, she stood, wrapped her towel around herself and ran back inside. She walked through the kitchen to her room, leaving the roof door open, the screwdriver and discarded screws and hinges scattered on the stairs. She lay down on their bed, ditching the towel to the floor. She loved the way clean sheets felt against her skin. She picked up her cell phone from the nightstand and scrolled through her contacts, tapped his name with her finger and listened to the ring, imagining how lush his voice would sound.


Elena coughed heavily, a few times in a row. She felt odd. This girl had just touched herself and Elena had watched it. A cough wracked her body, shook her shoulders. She turned from the window and faced the kitchen. The table was still covered in crumbs. The remaining dishes and utensils were still dirty, waiting for her in the soapy water. She shook her head back and forth, trying to shake away Jose’s broad forehead, his hazel eyes. Such long, soft lashes he had. She could hear him whispering, “Soy toda la tuya.” He said that to her every time. She would roll her eyes and reply through a stifled giggle, “Eres un romantico desesperado.” “No, no, es la verdad!” he would argue.

Jose’s voice was interrupted by a playful scream from the hallway. Elena jerked. She pulled the blind down over the window and walked back to the sink. She picked up a plate with one wrinkled hand, the rag with the other. She pushed the rag up and down until the crusted rice flaked off into the water. Then she set the plate in the drying rack behind all the rest.

Elena scrubbed until every dish was clean. Then she dried each one with a cloth and stacked them neatly on their rightful shelves. When the table was spotless and the sink shiny, Elena threw her rag onto the counter top and smiled. She walked into the living room where her son-in-law sat in the recliner, staring at the screen. She listened for a moment but couldn’t make sense of any of it. She walked past him to the open front door and leaned against its frame. The boys were playing some kind of game she didn’t recognize. One of them looked up and waved. Elena waved back.

Dear God, she said silently as she watched them, I need Jose. A voice echoed inside her. “Jose, Jose, Jose...” Was it mocking her, she wondered. Foolish old woman.



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Becky Fine-Firesheets

recently graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA program, having earned her undergraduate degree from Tufts University. Her work has been published in The Boston Phoenix, Portal del Sol, The Northeast Performer, and others.

She teaches reading and writing at Kingsborough Community College, plays tenor sax and piano, and sings/soliloquizes in a free rock band, The Brooklyn Players Reading Society. She also runs a concert series, Readin’ N Rhythm, that combines music, literature, comedy and visual art at matinee performances held every few months in Manhattan.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury