Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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4369 words
SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016


by Walter Cummins

Although it was one large basement room, dank, with minimal light, Maury felt pleased to find a place so close to a subway stop, and as a bonus he would share a small yard with the apartment above. It wasn’t till after he signed the sublet papers that he asked the wife of the couple why they were moving. A tall, young woman with coarse black hair and deep black eyes, she looked at him as if he should have known. “My husband sold his novel. With the advance we bought a co-op.” Seated in a corner, the husband—soft-faced and pudgy—was staring down at a tabletop. He’d barely said a word during the whole transaction. Maury couldn’t imagine that man writing a book.

As he stood in the doorway on his way out, he thought to ask the wife, “What are the neighbors like?”

“They’re all celebrities,” she said, and Maury couldn’t tell whether she was serious or mocking him. Her face didn’t give a sign. But why would celebrities be living in tiny apartments in what had once been a single home, the façade covered in dull grey shingles, the interior walls lined with spider cracks?

For a moment he suspected she knew about what he did, then realized that was impossible. And he couldn’t tell anyone, had signed a nondisclosure agreement that would leave him liable to be sued and blacklisted if he revealed he turned out songs for Fabrice, the one-time underwear model with a muscled chest and mane of blond curls who was supposed to write his own music. Whenever Maury heard “Whirling Wheels” on a radio or watched Fabrice’s slithering performance on music videos, he wanted to shout, “That’s me! I wrote it!” Of course, he couldn’t. Fabrice barely noticed Maury. What they paid him probably wouldn’t cover Fabrice’s collection of silk shirts. Now that the man had won a Grammy, Maury heard Fabrice’s name everywhere. He couldn’t order at Starbucks without having it spoken by someone in the line behind him. He gritted teeth and thought, That’s me!


The first neighbor to introduce himself to Maury was Teddy Keane from the apartment above. They met when Maury, newly moved in, mounted the slate steps up to the yard, open boxes still stacked in the middle of his floor. There was Teddy with his German shepherd, Tiger, who hunkered and emitted a rumble of growls. Teddy reached out with a strong handshake; a man in his forties, he was dressed in a pressed blue shirt and creased chinos on a Saturday morning, his haircut clearly expensive, his face glowing with aftershave. Unshaven Maury picked at an egg stain on his sweatshirt, feeling slovenly in his presence. Teddy invited him to a building brunch the next day, Sunday. “You’ll get to meet everyone. And don’t bring anything. My treat.”

Maury realized the yard had no flowers or shrubs, just patches of crab grass and mismatched plastic folding chairs.

Still, Maury spent a half hour selecting a bottle of wine and another deciding what to wear, even changing his pants at the last minute. By the time he stepped into the yard, the others were there, people he had passed on the street to the subway, nodded to in the building’s cramped entranceway, coming in and out, checking the mail.

The young woman Maury tried not to stare at was Dina. The sweep of her hair, the bones of her face fascinated him. She greeted him with a faint smile, then turned to Teddy with an openmouthed laugh as he handed her a Bloody Mary. Her teeth were perfect. Beside her sat Jill, round-faced, a bit plump, wearing garish slacks that might have looked good on another woman. Jill’s response was much more eager as she stood to clutch Maury’s hand. Clumsy, insecure. Just as he was, but he tried to avoid people like himself.

Against the wall of railroad ties at the back of the yard stood a couple, Eugene, taut and tense, with a mat of dark hair that hugged his scalp like moss, and his wife, Val, a tiny woman who looked unhappy and might be in early pregnancy. They gave quick waves but did not move when Teddy announced Maury’s name.

“Do you like it here?” Jill asked him, wide-eyed, as if his answer were important.

“It’s great.” He said what was expected of him. “Better now that I’m meeting all of you.”

Dina displayed teeth again. “Lucky man.”

Before Maury could think of a response, Eugene began to sing, his voice a rich tenor, and broke into a dance step that made Maury think Bob Fosse. He recognized the song as one from the score of a light-hearted musical, The Fabulists, that had been playing in a series of small theaters for decades.

“He’s in the cast now,” Jill whispered.

“Name one song-and-dance man who hasn’t been,” Dina said, her voice low but penetrating, and Maury saw Val shoot her a look. Dina returned a glowing smile. She signaled Maury to lean toward her. “Her husband has a thing for me.”

“Oh, Dina! Stop it.” Jill stepped away to the table where Teddy was spreading a pink mix on crackers and stroked Tiger’s head. The dog sat rigid as he accepted her attention.

“Jill has a thing for me too,” Dina said, and quickly added, even though Maury hadn’t reacted, “But not like that. She wants to be me.”

“What about Eugene?”

“He wants to do me.”

Maury couldn’t help laughing. He brought a hand to his mouth, hoping no one had seen.

When Eugene finished his number with a leap and twirl, the others applauded, Jill most loudly, though not Val, who said something that made Eugene mime an expression of horror. “Back to the rehearsal hall,” he called out as if it were a joke.

When they all were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs, Maury asked if anyone had read the novel by the man who had lived in his apartment. They gave him surprised looks. “What novel?” Eugene said.

“He got a big advance.”

Teddy looked surprised. “So that’s what he was doing shut in day and night. He never came outside, and she spent hours at some job.”

“I assumed he was autistic,” Dina said, then looked at her watch and rose from the chair. “Speaking of jobs.”

When she left the group, the others seemed to take that as a sign to drift back into the building, Eugene announcing that he’d better get to the theater, as if performing were a burden. Maury felt guilty that he was pleased to see him gone.


A few days later, when they met in the market on the corner, Teddy invited Maury up for a drink. As Teddy unlocked the door, Maury could hear Tiger’s tail thumping, his loud whimpers. “Good boy,” Teddy kept saying, and when Maury followed him in, “Look who’s here.” The dog turned with a snarl and went back to licking Teddy’s hand.

Teddy’s apartment looked as if it belonged in another building—the floors glistening with a high polish, the sofa and chairs a rich leather, the walls a pristine cream, decorated with framed photos of pleasure boats, a large matted blueprint hanging over the bed in the other room.

“Mine,” Teddy said as he watched Maury’s eyes move from boat to boat.

“You own them?”

Teddy crossed the room and put a hand on one frame. “Just this one. The others I designed. That’s my profession. I fell in love with sailing when I was a boy and never stopped.”

“But you live in the city.”

“Our offices are here. I have a place on the water that I get to as much as I can. But busy as I’ve been, that’s not nearly as often as I’d like.”

“So this apartment,” Maury gestured at the rooms, “is not your real home.”

“It’s convenient, and I hardly spend any weekends here. Our brunch was an exception.”

Maury pictured Teddy in spotless white trousers, standing beside a billowing sail, tan and manly as he glided across a sun-glistening sea.

Teddy poured a drink, then named each boat on his wall, and Maury knew that had been the purpose of the invitation. Teddy never asked him about his work.


Though he spent his days in an office building shared with other songwriters, Maury found he was more productive evenings in whatever apartment he lived in at the time, a keyboard in his lap, headphones delivering the sounds so that he wouldn’t disturb anyone trying to sleep. But this night, even though expensive Boses covered his ears, the constant thuds of heavy drumming broke through. He couldn’t concentrate on the tune he was trying to capture, frustrated at its elusiveness.

He took off the headphones and listened for the source of the noise. Overhead from Teddy’s apartment he heard Tiger bark twice, then stop. Maury stepped out to the hallway, following the loudness up the wooden stairway to the street-level apartments. It was coming from the one in front. He stopped at the door, ready to knock, preparing what he would say. He pressed his hand against a wooden panel and felt the vibrations from the speakers. Then he saw the business card fixed to a molding with a purple pushpin—Dina van Peale, with an email address and a cell phone number. At the bottom of the card in pencil he made out “& Jill.” He hadn’t known they shared an apartment, couldn’t even imagine it.

When he did knock, he pictured Dina opening the door, the challenge of her lovely face, the words that would mock his complaint, the way he would have to force himself to be annoyed. But it was Jill who answered, looking tousled, as if he had awakened her, her hair in curlers, her body wrapped in a floor-length fleece robe.

She knew at once why he was there, crying out, “I’m so sorry,” as she hurried across the wood floor in fuzzy slippers to silence the volume. “I didn’t realize anyone else was home.”

“Do you really like that stuff?” he asked her.

She shook her head. “Dina does.”

“So why listen?”

“I’m trying to figure out why she does.”

“Why anyone does may be an unsolvable mystery. But thanks for turning it down.”

When Maury turned to leave, she touched his arm. “Would you like to come in?”

Though he wanted to get back to his tune, her need for company embarrassed him. “Sure. Why not?”

He sat in an easy chair, feeling the threadbare upholstery on the armrests under his fingers. She faced him from the sofa. The furniture in the room looked a mixture of thrift shop and Ikea. Through the half open door to the bedroom he could see a pile of cardboard boxes.

“I didn’t know you and Dina were roommates,” he said.

“It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I’m subletting. As of three months ago, and she still hasn’t moved out.” She pointed toward the bedroom. “That’s all my stuff.”

“Can’t you make her leave?”

“She’s not around much. Besides, her life is fascinating. I love listening to her tell about it.”

“Fascinating how?”

“All the famous people she meets in her work.”

“Which is?”

“I’m never quite sure. Something at one of the networks. She greets VIPs at airports, books their hotel rooms, Even takes them to dinner. Actors, politicians, executives, musicians.”

Maury imagined Dina riding in a limousine with Fabrice, his unbuttoned shirt exposing a hairy chest, his hand rubbing her thigh. He quickly shut out the image. “And what do you do?”

“Oh, nothing special. I work at City Hall. Arranging things.”

“So you meet bigwigs too.”

Her laugh was forced, sad. “Hardly. My office is so far in the back, the only people I ever see are messengers.”

“But you’re young.”

“Not as young as you think.”

“But not as old as me.” He found himself sneaking looks at the door, waiting for footsteps on the stairway, signs of Dina’s return.

“What about you?”

“My work? The music business.”

Her eyes widened. “Songs? Do you write songs?”

He had an urge to say yes, but just shook his head. “It’s like you. Nothing special.”

“But I bet you get to see stars.”

He shrugged. “Now and then.”

“What about Fabrice? Do you know Fabrice?”

“I wouldn’t say know.” Maury saw himself in a studio with the man, surrounded by producers and agents and musicians, his songs—“Whirling Wheels”—being played on a keyboard, Fabrice disdainful, unless his producer signaled approval.

“He’s gorgeous. What’s he like?”

“Fine. Great to work with, people tell me,” Maury said, though everyone in the business called him an arrogant shit. Maury knew it was time to get out of there.

Maury came in from the darkness the next evening and set his grocery bags in the entranceway, about to descend to his apartment when he heard a woman shrieking. He rushed up the stairway and, without knocking, pushed open the door to Dina and Jill’s apartment. Jill stood on the sofa, hugging arms around her middle and emitting the sounds. But when he saw Dina leaning against a windowsill and laughing, he stopped in bewilderment.

“What’s going on?”

“A monster,” Dina said.

“Monster what?”

“Water beetle.”

Now he saw the creature dart across a throw rug and under a radiator. It must have been five inches long, larger than those he’d discovered crawling over his bedspread.

“I’ve named him Gregor,” Dina said, “but Jill doesn’t seem to want a pet.”

Maury reached out to touch Jill’s shoulder and felt her trembling. “It’s just a bug. Harmless.”

“Everything in this building is harmless.” Dina brought her wrist to her mouth and yawned, deliberately he was certain. He realized she was wearing silk pajamas, the glow of the streetlight shining through, revealing the shape of her breasts, the curves of her legs. When she stretched, he saw a shadow of pubic hair. Jill looked ridiculous in comparison, balled in the fleece robe.

Maury turned away and fixed his gaze on the radiator, waiting for the beetle to reappear, unsure what he should do if it did.

“Kill it! Kill it!” Jill urged.

Dina sat on the rug just a few feet from the radiator, legs crossed, leaning forward. “Gregor, Gregor,” she crooned. She leaned back, her hands locked behind her head, flaunting herself. “Where are you, Gregor?”

When the edge of a black shell peeked out, Maury reached in his pocket for a handkerchief, ready to squat and scoop it up. But, before he could move, Jill leaped from the sofa, seized a magazine on the coffee table, and slammed it down. She missed.

Jill dropped the magazine and shuddered. The bug paused at the end of the rug. Maury knew he had to be the one. He closed his eyes and stepped hard with the heel of a shoe, hearing a sharp crunch. Jill was weeping. When he looked, he saw a dark fluid seeping from the crushed shell. He knelt and picked it up in his handkerchief. In the kitchen he found a plastic garbage bag and shoved the cloth deep inside.

“That,” Dina said, “was a living being.”

To Maury’s surprise, she stood and reached out to pat the top of his head. “Our hero.”

He could feel his face burning as he backed toward the open door. Behind him footsteps tromped on the stairs to the floor above. He thought he saw the shape of Eugene.

In the entranceway, his grocery bags had been knocked over, an egg carton flapped open on a stream of yellow yoke.


The next evening Maury found a note in his mailbox. “Our hero deserves a drink. 8 PM.” He wanted to think Dina had written it but wasn’t sure.

She was the one who called, “Come in,” when he tapped at the door.

“Jill,” she said, “the least you can do is pour.”

Jill was blushing, trying to smile. “I feel like such a fool. Bugs terrify me.” She stepped into the kitchen and brought back three glasses, passing them around before she returned to the sofa. Maury settled back into the easy chair, deciding to talk to Dina, an excuse to look at her.

“Jill tells me you shepherd famous people.”

She flashed teeth. “Actually, I’m a high-priced call girl.”

“Oh, you!” Jill said.

Maury almost asked, “How much?” and then thought better of it. “Sometimes what we do makes us all feel like that.”

“Like what?”


“And who do you service?” Dina seemed interested.

“People who don’t really matter.” He couldn’t say Fabrice. “Not like you.”

“You have no idea how tedious the rich and famous can be.” She launched into a monologue Maury sensed was a rehearsed routine, how this silver-haired senator was close to senile, how that CEO kept losing his wallet, how the model turned actress kept picking at her forearms until they bled, the flatulence of a heartthrob, the rancid breath of a femme fatale. Maury didn’t believe her disdain, certain she had made up most of what she was telling them, at the same time really pleased by her association with such important people. He hoped it was her need, a vulnerability that made her more attractive.

Jill interrupted. “Maury knows Fabrice.”

As he started to protest, insist that he had never said so, Dina sneered, “That arrogant shit,” and he couldn’t help laughing, then worried that she would reveal it to someone who mattered, quickly added. “He’s OK.”

“Have you ever had to ride in a cab with him?” Dina asked.

“I’d kill for that.” Jill hugged arms around herself.

“Then we’d share gropings.” Dina gave Maury a glance as if they shared a secret. Then, even though he had only been there a short time, she looked at her watch, the jeweled band sparkling under the ceiling light. “Past my bedtime.” She walked into the other room and closed the door behind her.

Maury realized that Jill slept on the sofa. He wanted to be gone too but knew he had to stay with Jill for another drink. To make conversation, he asked if she had ever seen Eugene in The Fabulists.

She lit up. “Twice. The second time I went with people from work.”

“Was he that good?”

“I wanted them to understand we lived in the same building, that I actually knew someone important.”

“And what does Dina say?”

“Oh, Dina. Don’t believe all the nasty things she says.”

“I thought she didn’t like him.”

“It’s hard to tell with Dina.”


Maury was rewarded by an afternoon off when his latest song was accepted with a nod from Fabrice’s producer. Fabrice himself had sat slumped in a corner, staring intently at the floor. Maury had no idea what to do with the unexpected time and so went home. When he came into the front hall, he saw Eugene sitting on the step across from the door to Dina and Jill’s apartment. He thought the man looked dazed.

“Is everything OK?” he called.

Eugene started at the sound, stood up, and gave what Maury first thought was a broad smile, then realized his teeth were clenched. “You’re not supposed to be home.”

Maury shrugged. “I live here.”

Eugene moved as if to climb to his apartment but quickly turned and descended to the hallway, hovering toward Maury, backing him against a wall, stopping just inches away, the top of his head no higher than Maury’s nose, his neck muscles throbbing. Maury expected to smell booze on the man’s breath, then realized his eyes were red and glazed, the pupils wide, just like Fabrice’s in the studio. Expecting to be punched, Maury cringed, ready to shield his head with his arms.

But all Eugene did was hiss, “Don’t even think about it.”

“About what?”


“Dina? Why would Dina want me?”

“Right. She needs somebody with talent.”


Eugene stepped back, forcing the grin again.

“What about Val?”

“We’ll just have to see about that.” Eugene bounded up the steps.

Maury stared at the empty staircase when the man was gone, imagining him climbing up into the attic and disappearing through the roof.


Maury stayed past midnight the next day for a recording session with a new group being humored by the label because one of the guitarists was Fabrice’s friend. They did write their own songs, but Maury had to repair and arrange, try to make them sound halfway decent. He wouldn’t be credited, as usual, and this time wanted no part of it. The producer told him to take a cab home and voucher it.

Assuming all the others were asleep, he tried to be especially quiet coming in from the sidewalk so late, turning the key in the front door, pushing it back slowly to silence the creaking hinges. Inside, the only illumination came from the dim bulb in the dusty fixture at the top of the stairwell. About to tiptoe down to his apartment, he noticed shapes on the second landing, one clearly Dina even in shadow, and someone shorter beside her, a man. Eugene. They were whispering, the sounds from Eugene a soft murmur, hers more like Tiger’s snarls.

Maury told himself he should just walk away, but he stood rooted, wanting to know. Eugene lurched forward, one hand on her breast it looked to Maury, the other trying to pull her against him. Then Dina seemed to seize his face in both her hands and grind a fierce kiss against his lips. Maury couldn’t tell if it were passion or fury. In the silence of the night, Eugene’s groan resounded with unnatural loudness. From the floor above, where Eugene and Val had their apartment, a door slammed.


Jill must have been calling his name, rattling the doorknob for several minutes before Maury slipped off his headphones. He was working on an arrangement Fabrice’s producer didn’t like. “What’s wrong?” he yelled back, assuming another water beetle.

“Eugene! He’s on television.”

“When?” It was a quarter past midnight, and Maury wanted a shower.

“Now. We’re all watching on Teddy’s plasma.”

No time to wash or even brush his teeth or put on a decent shirt. “All” were just Teddy and Dina and Jill. The show, he realized at once, was Rich Drake’s Late Night, Drake sitting on a stool in narrow jeans and a beige turtleneck, his Botoxed face in close-up, his mane of white hair tossed to punctuate the end of each joke, the audience not laughing, just applauding the punch lines. What happened, Jill explained, was that Eugene had gotten a call from his manager two hours before. There was a sudden opening. Fabrice’s plane had been diverted in a sudden windstorm. Maury swallowed, wondering what his life would be like if it had crashed.

Teddy was in the kitchen mixing ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Jill hunched forward in a leather chair. Dina sat on the thick rug, one arm spread across a cushion of the sofa behind her. Maury didn’t recall the large screen hanging over an ornate Chinese cabinet. Perhaps Teddy stored it when not viewing. He felt someone was missing, then said aloud, “Val.”

“She can’t bring herself to watch,” Jill explained. “Too nervous.”

“I’m recording it for them,” Teddy said.

Two guests were already on the set, a quarterback who looked familiar to Maury and the latest fad actress in purple shorts and high heels. She swung her stool toward the quarterback and tapped his arm with a mock punch as if he had just said something hilarious. “Hey,” Rich Drake said, “you could ruin his season.” The audience roared, and the actress swiveled in the opposite direction and gave him the same tap. Drake clutched himself with mock pain. Then a commercial came on—a group of men in a gym, laughing at urinary incontinence.

Teddy passed around drinks, and Maury sipped vodka. Drake was saying something about a special guest. The band played a few bars from The Fabulists, and Eugene pranced onto the set, flailing arms, twisting into the same dance steps he had done in the yard.

Maury sensed the annoyance behind Drake’s smiling handshake. “Thanks for filling in on such short notice, Eugene.”

“Hey, Rich, you going to let me sing?”

“Wish we had your arrangement,” Drake said as if he were telling a joke.

“What about a cappella?” Eugene feigned a lunge for Drake’s lapel mike. But the man wrapped his arms about Eugene and pushed him toward a stool. Cymbals crashed. When the camera closed in on Eugene, Maury recognized the eyes and held his breath.

“My man!” Eugene slammed the quarterback’s shoulder with a real punch. Some in the audience groaned. The quarterback swung back, hard, but Eugene skipped away in a taunting gesture, then looked at the actress with an exaggerated leer as if he would climb into her lap. For an instant, Maury thought he was going to lick her face.

“What the hell are you on?” She strained her mouth into a grin.

“You, baby. You.” He planted a wet kiss on her cheek.

Rich Drake waved a dismissive hand. “Looks as if another guest is caught up in a windstorm.” Another commercial broke in, midsentence.

“Good God.” Teddy shook his head. Jill was near weeping. “What an asshole.” Dina seemed really angry.

Maury caught Teddy’s signal to her, just a quick rise of an eyebrow, and he knew, looking away to the photo of Teddy’s boat, imagining Dina in a bikini, standing against the mast in brilliant sunlight.

“It’s over,” Teddy said.

“What is?” Jill blotted her eyes with a tissue.

“Eugene’s career,” Dina said. “We’ll never hear about him again.” She squashed her thumb into a cushion.

When Maury turned to the screen again, Eugene was gone, the stool empty. The band broke into “Whirling Wheels.” They made it sound good, much more melody than Fabrice’s version, the way Maury intended when he wrote the tune. He wondered if anyone was really listening, if anyone noticed when he slipped out to return to the basement.

“...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