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Saturday, September 1, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Amenities,” by Susan Taitel


Piper never could say how she found her apartment. She’d been on her way to see a room a little over her budget and further from campus than she was hoping for. Nevertheless, she couldn’t bear another year in the dorm, with its industrial lighting and slimy communal showers. The ad promised quiet housemates and a semi-private bath. The room turned out to be considerably smaller than advertised. Not to mention windowless, and, judging by the odor and stained floor, recently occupied by a chain-smoker and several incontinent dogs.

She stayed long enough to satisfy her manners, then headed back to the train. She didn’t quite remember the way and consulted her phone. When she glanced up, she discovered that if the GPS was to be believed, the concrete barrier in her path was an illusion. It felt solid enough.

She powered her phone off and on, but despite still having a signal, the app could no longer locate her. She took a left down a tree-lined side street, hoping to find a way around. She’d only gone a few steps before being overwhelmed by a roiling in her gut. Her head throbbed and her teeth clenched. It was as if every lamppost and trash can was urging her to turn around. She was halfway back to the intersection when she noticed a handwritten sign in the window of a nearby brownstone. “To Let,” it read. Piper confirmed via Google it meant ‘for rent’ and rang the bell.

An elderly woman with thinning hair and bright eyes came to the door. Mrs. Clove introduced herself and ushered Piper into an overstuffed chair, shrouded in plastic and embellished with claw marks.

“I was just sitting down to tea. Have a bite, dear.” Mrs. Clove brought Piper a steaming mug and a plate of small sandwiches with the crust cut off. The sandwiches were stale, but the tea, floral and sweet with a hint of pepper, sent a surge of warmth up her spine. Mrs. Clove beamed when Piper asked for a second cup.

She showed Piper around the upstairs unit, apologizing that it was old-fashioned. The bathroom sported a claw-foot tub with separate taps for hot and cold. Accordion-shaped radiators provided the heat, and an ironing board folded out from the wall. Piper had always wanted a foldout ironing board. There were high ceilings, picture windows, and a closet in each room. By the time they reached the built-in buffet cabinet, Piper was in love.

“And the rent?” She braced for heartbreak.

Mrs. Clove named a price two hundred dollars less than the single room.

“I couldn’t pay so little,” Piper sputtered, cursing her scruples.

“Nonsense! I don’t need the money. My grandnephew was staying up here, but he got married and moved out. It’s too quiet now. You’ll be doing me a favor.”

Piper was moved in by dinner. She spotted the first dropping the following day. By the end of the week, there was no denying it. The flat had mice.

The mice wore hats. Piper didn’t think that was normal, but she’d never had mice before.

“What kind of hats?” asked Mrs. Clove when Piper brought it to her attention.

“Little knitted hats,” Piper replied.

“Just knitted hats?”

“I think one had a matching scarf.”

“But not fedoras? Or, say, a boater?”

“No.”

“That's alright then.” Mrs. Clove poured Piper a cup of tea.

“It is?” Piper asked, taking a sip.

“Mice are to be expected in a building this old, but if they’re bothering you, I’ll send the cat in.” She stroked a gray tabby as lithe and elegant as Mrs. Clove was rotund and artless.

By the time she finished the tea, Piper was less disturbed by the hats. She’d yet to take Mrs. Clove up on the offer. The mice were kind of cute. Though occasionally, as she was drifting off to sleep, the tapping of their nails on the hardwood floor made Piper shiver.

The area was still a GPS dead-zone. A month after moving in, Piper tried to go to the movies with her friend Miguel. She offered to meet him at the theater but he insisted on picking her up. His phone took him to an IHOP three towns over. But there was a shuttle to and from the nearest train station, and from there she could get to anywhere she needed to go.

The neighborhood was charming, if a little confusing. The buildings didn’t agree with each other. Coastal village shops on stilts sat next to solid brick storefronts which sat next to cobblestone pubs. Even some of the individual buildings couldn’t commit to a single style, like the Brazilian steakhouse with Chinese lions flanking the door.

She no longer felt unwelcome on the streets. She loved certain features of her new community, like the bookstore housed in a decommissioned school bus. But other things gnawed at her, like the churro cart that with the flick of a latch unfolded into a full-service bodega. She discovered it during an emergency tampon run. It wasn’t until she got home that she remembered to wonder at the dimensions.

Strangest of all, besides the absence of a Starbucks, was the school. Mrs. Clove had pointed it out from the front window. A tall twisted spire, visible above the tree line. She called it a special school, which explained why all the students had service animals. Most had dogs or ferrets, but one boy of around eleven was accompanied everywhere he went by a tortoise.

It was raining. Water gushed through Piper’s open window. She got up to close it and noticed a group of the students in green and blue uniforms, waiting at the bus stop on the corner. Piper watched them laughing and shoving each other out of the shelter and into the downpour—except for one girl, who stood with her hands raised at her sides, palms up, catching the rain. She flicked a hand; a stream of precipitation flew upward then turned vertical. The water flowed in a curve and splashed down the neck of the boy with the tortoise.

Piper took a step back. It was the wind. Or a trick of the light. Or…

Snatching up her jacket, Piper ran for the stairs. When she reached the street, the bus had come and the students were gone. She considered going back inside but found herself walking in the direction of the spire.

Two hours later, she returned, drenched and exhausted. She’d walked in circles looking for the school. No matter how far she walked, the spire never got any closer.

Shivering, Piper opened the cupboard for a cup of noodles to warm up. A mouse stared back at her. It was bareheaded, but a monocle glinted at its eye. Piper shrieked and dropped the ramen. The mouse dove to the floor. It disappeared under the radiator, a tiny opera cape fluttering in its wake.

Piper fled. She banged frantically on Mrs. Clove’s door.

“Gracious, you’re soaked! What’s the matter, dear?”

“The mice! They’re getting bolder and—they’ve developed optometry!”

“I see. Come in, come in.” She led Piper to the sitting room and brought her a threadbare towel. “There now, dry off. You’re soaked.”

Mrs. Clove handed Piper a mug of tea. The warmth seeped into Piper’s fingers and the scent calmed her nerves. She brought it to her lips, then set the mug firmly on the coffee table.

“Mrs. Clove, what is this place?”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“What do I mean? The mice accessorize. Children manipulate the weather. The other night, I was listening to Hamilton and I swear I caught my bathtub tapping its foot.”

“It’s not supposed to do that?” Mrs. Clove frowned. “Never mind, it can be dealt with. Drink your tea.”

“No thank you.”

“For the love of chalk, just drink your tea!”

“What’s in the tea?” Piper sprang to her feet, jostling the table.

“Nothing.” Mrs. Clove tutted and wiped the sloshed tea with the soggy towel. “Nothing dangerous. Oh, I’ve made a mess of things. I should never have brought you here. But I was terribly lonely. Eponine is a dear, but you know cats, only sociable when they feel like it.”

“You brought me here?”

“Well, not you specifically, but I’m glad it was you that came. You’re an excellent tenant.” Mrs. Clove bit her lip. “I hope you’re not too cross with me. Please don’t leave. How can I make it right?”

Piper sat back down, massaging her temples. Her landlady was a witch and her apartment was infested with sentient vermin. But, to its credit, Piper had never walked in on anyone waxing their bikini zone in the common room. And the rent was so reasonable.

“One,” Piper began counting on her fingers. “No more tea.”

“But you have to drink the tea,” Mrs. Clove interrupted. “I’m not allowed to let outsiders know everything,”

“I’m not an outsider. I live here,” Piper said.

Mrs. Clove clapped her hands.

“Two. The mice have to go.”

“Of course! I’ll send Eponine right up.”

The cat dropped from its perch and padded toward the door.

“No. I’m not approving a massacre. Just find them a new home.”

“It’ll be difficult and Eponine will most likely sulk, but it can be arranged.”

The cat returned, shooting Piper an unimpressed look.

“Last, I get to study in peace. And in return, I’ll come down for a chat at least once a week. Does that work?”

Mrs. Clove agreed, and Piper went back upstairs. She dried her hair and emailed her grandmother to see if the Saturday Bridge club was still looking for a fourth. On her way to bed, she stumbled over her area rug. It hovered, somewhat disconcertingly, three to four inches off the floor.

She could deal with it in the morning.



Susan Taitel grew up in Chicago, resides in Minneapolis, and lives in stories. She attended Viable Paradise in 2016. Her fiction has appeared on mcsweeneys.net and in Gallery of Curiosities. She denies all knowledge of the Great Cheese Heist of ’14.

2 comments:

Mark Keigley said...

This has incredible voice and tone! Well done!

Unknown said...

I hope this is just the first chapter! I want to know what happens. I suppose we'll all find out when you do ...