by Miles Klee and Madeline Gobbo
The man under the bed held his breath. The opening wasn’t wide enough for a body, but it looked like an escape. The man hadn’t heard the alarm in time to make his. The wobbly electric sobs made him want to call his mother. He would be late for their appointment, but he’d never intended to go.
The man had been in this house once before, in his daytime life, as a tree trimmer. The oak’s bum limb drooped too close to the roof. The tree trimmer bore his Silky pole saw, the 21-footer. The couple invited him in for a glass of water. He was certain they were swingers, but the wife only wanted to know about the tree. She talked like it was a person. “How is she? Do you think she’ll recover?”
It took a while to find the angle. He had to be sure the limb fell cleanly. The pole saw skived, forward and back. The tree trimmer saw into the bedroom. The woman was there, talking on the phone. She wore a flimsy T-shirt and black underwear high on her hips. Her husband was downstairs, so she wasn’t talking to him.
The tree trimmer thought about it long after the job was finished. He thought about it now, as the branch stump brightened red then blue.
The cop in the driveway was no such thing, but a minimally compensated employee of the security firm whose alarm had tripped, and she was standing at the curb, wondering where the real cops were. She had a Taser and pepper spray.
Part of the tree had been amputated.
Most of the job was drive-bys, which, along with the badge-shaped lawn ad for CastleGuard, were thought to create an air that warded off intruders. When an intruder was undeterred, she called the cops, who combed the house. She gave them access if the owners were away—this being often the case. Average break-ins are less about burgling than control. Intruders move the furniture, finish a bottle of orange juice. Some use the toilet and don’t flush. Some don’t make it to the bathroom.
Sometimes she used the clients’ bathrooms. CastleGuard expected her to patrol several communities, for eight hours, and never need to relieve herself. The company must’ve known that she and coworkers went where they could, just as they knew she’d run afoul of this current problem: While not permitted to enter a home without police, she was liable for theft or damage. Therefore, she could wait for the cops, risking a definitive breach, or begin to trespass herself.
A vigilante figure, like. With no support if things went south.
And she did have to shit. The hell.
“Private security!” she bellowed in the foyer, already collecting a headache from the aqueous, whiny alarm. She thrust her Taser into the blackness of the kitchen, then turned on a light. Nobody. The fridge was full of cold cuts, and she peeled turkey slices out of a bag, wondering how old they were.
The creak that she feared went overhead. Sound of a large, dumb man. Oh, how good to be trapped in a place with one of those. He’d kill her in a fit of apology. The moment had come to text her son, to tell him she was dead. What might Sean be doing at present? He wasn’t asleep, she had the sense.
“If it’s him upstairs, I’ll cut his feet off,” she said aloud.
The footsteps found a pause.
The man under the bed had a mother who told stories. She told him miniature people lived in their house. They were smaller than pencil erasers, but very beautiful. They stole things and bit if threatened. One tiny girl had fallen in love with him, his mother said, and she perched on his pillow every night, watching. Stamps went missing from his collection, then plastic dinosaurs, candies, shells, his treasures. He cried to his mother, asked her to make the girl give back his things. No, she said, we have so much. Keep her or kill her, but don’t make her wait. She’d hand him a bit of wax in the shape of a girl. He’d close his fist around her. Sometimes he put her in his breast pocket. Sometimes he pulled off her head.
His mother aged and forgot her miniature people. Even when he fed her every line, she couldn’t tell the ending right. The wax wouldn’t soften. It never felt like flesh.
The tree man was no longer under the bed. He paced, having decided to bluff his way out. He heard the cop open and shut the refrigerator. A female voice. Cops were greedy, but they didn’t go for a snack before securing the premises. This was an amateur. Probably she didn’t have a gun. The man had a gun in his waistband. He couldn’t bring himself to see how it worked or if it was loaded. He’d stashed his pole saw behind the sofa downstairs. It felt wrong to bring it to the bedroom.
The tree man was less interesting than his crime. He could not explain his attachments even to himself. They accumulated in his brain like a tower of jumping beans. Sometimes his asshole became a mouth that talked and told him what to do. He listened.
The tree man refused to be caught this way. He took off his sneakers and hid them in the closet. He pulled the husband’s pima shirt over his own. He mussed his hair and slapped one cheek red.
The man did not look in the mirror. While he was inside a home, he only checked his reflection in the microwave’s dark glass.
The woman downstairs jumped three feet high at some gargling from her walkie-talkie.
“We’re on the wrong street,” a cop voice said. “I think.”
“Can you find the right one? Over.”
God damn it, she mouthed.
“10-4,” the cop replied. The cop with him was laughing. “Over and out.”
Imagine what it took to believe that guys like these would want to help. White America looked forward to cops in tanks, but cops were actually just suits: they buried or twisted any complaint to shield their rotten company. She was proud that Sean had twice been rejected from the academy, the second time by a curt email.
Your background is disqualifying.
She dipped into a sunken den. The antique coffee table held a giant lavender glass eyeball. Not bad. Its cold but sleepy stare put her in mind of a Tarot card. A recessed bar with stainless features included a rack of dark red wines; almost all were Côtes du Rhône. She uncorked one and poured a taste.
“Excellent,” she declared, and filled her copper cup. Then she sat down on the sectional couch and waited for him.
“Excuse me,” he said, shuffling in from a probable study, an office where receipts and legal papers mountained up. She understood that living in this kind of home—or keeping it as a satellite, a place that hibernates itself because there’s no one to rest inside—takes a genuine criminal skill. This man was a mess, though not out of step with her theory. He reeled as from catastrophe, a gambler in final debt to the mob.
“I’d do these walls again,” she told him, “Pale blue.”
He blinked. “You must be… sorry to drag you here. My wife switched the keypad combo.”
“You can always call and verify your identity, sir. They unlock any entrance remotely.”
“Right! Right,” he stammered, noticing her wine too late. A rich person would’ve screamed at that.
“Well, if there’s nothing else, Mr.,” she pretended to scan for his name in her phone. It didn’t work—he panicked.
“I have a gun,” he said. “I’m armed.”
“I’m really happy for you,” she said.
The tree trimmer sat beside the private security woman, gun in hand. Not aiming anywhere, but holding it where she could see. She was familiar the way all middle-aged women are familiar. Like someone’s mother. The man didn’t think he looked like anybody’s father. His mother was about to die. He took the bottle and poured wine down his throat. The woman watched him.
“It’s your house,” she said.
“You know it isn’t,” he said.
“Did pretty well for yourself. Your mother must be proud.”
Was his mother proud of him? He’d never heard her use that word. And there was nothing really for her to be proud of. It wasn’t his house. These weren’t his clothes. The woman beside him on the couch wasn’t his wife. His not-wife took the bottle from his hand and refilled her cup. She put her feet up on the coffee table. She was wearing work shoes with a thick sole, and rose-patterned socks.
“Can’t say I know what it feels like,” the woman said. “My Sean’s a nasty shit. Sells hot phones out the back of a truck. Maybe you know him.”
The man shook his head.
“Cops will be here eventually,” she said, gulping the second glass and pouring a third. She kicked off her shoes. One tumbled off the edge of the coffee table. “If they can pull their heads out their curly-tailed asses. If I were you, I’d run for it.”
The man didn’t believe the cops were coming. He was barefoot. He tucked the gun in his waistband. Went to the bar and made himself a drink, a splash of all three cognacs displayed in lighted boxes.
“What did you want?” she asked. There was real curiosity in her voice. The man hadn’t been listened to in so long he went mute, gazing into the beverage. That was alright. The woman had plenty to say. “You steal jewelry? Break a window? Don’t lie. You didn’t wait to be invited. The worst kind of vampire comes without invitation. And landlords. You a landlord?”
“No,” said the man. He sat down beside her again, closer this time. In her electric yellow vest, she fingered the trigger of her pepper spray.
“Trick question. The wealthy don’t have landlords. Makes me sick to see in a house like this. All the comfort in the world. All cold to the touch. Books look like they’ve never been opened. Eerie. They hire people, stagers. You see what they did to the tree outside?”
“I did that,” he said. “I trim trees. I don’t have a mother.”
They met again, and another time. Until it was a ritual. She picked a house and tripped the alarm by forcing the back door, then “responded” to the disturbance, letting herself in around front. Rather than call the police, she called the tree man. They didn’t know each other’s names; she told him the clients’ names, and they adopted these. Susan and Patrick. Allison, Michael.
Inside, they tried on clothes, appraised the decor and amenities, helped themselves to food or drink. One home, they played hours of darts. Next door, in the basement, was a jungle of leather sex equipment. Several bedrooms had proof of affairs, which they got in the habit of covering up. They reorganized kitchen cupboards and cleaned junk out of attics. The clients missed the very basics of how to live, and teams of housekeepers, landscapers, weren’t enough to set them right. Someone else was needed. Someone with a sense of place.
In June, they hung art in a barren guest room, prints of flowers and old city maps they’d found boxed up under a bed.
“Rosie-blossom,” he said. That night she was Rosalind.
“Yes, Teddy?” she said. Nobody was called Theodore.
“Might we retire to the patio?”
Rosie thought, We never go outside.
“I’m nervous,” she said. “You’ll say something corny about the moon.”
“I intend to,” Teddy said.
But there was no view of the moon back there, only a dirty handful of stars, and the silhouettes of trees he said would have to be removed.
Madeline Gobbo is a writer, illustrator, and bookseller living in Los Angeles with Miles Klee, a columnist at MEL magazine and the author of Ivyland and True False. Their collaborative fiction has been published in Territory, Joyland, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Wigleaf, Arcturus and Funhouse.