She looks out on the ruins of her rooftop garden, remembering it as it was: her late husband, immaculate, whiskey tumbler in hand, stands beneath the grape-covered pergola hung with Chinese lanterns, schmoozing, cutting deals with hedge fund investors and CEOs; beside her favorite Asian Pear tree, their daughter, tall, blond, precociously elegant, flirts with the handsome Yale-bound neighbor boy; their son, dark, unfathomable, skulks alongside the jasmine covered wall, uncomfortable in his blazer and tie, wishing he were anywhere else. She blinks and they are gone: in their place lay broken pots filled with parched stubble, splintered lounge furniture, cracked Italian tiles covered in sunburnt husks—her water shut off months ago.
She sets her teacup down, the tartness of the cinnamon wanting, the aroma weak, the tea leaves in their third or fourth steeping. She studies her chaffed hands and bare fingers, the imported creams and oils that once lined her bathroom shelves untouchable on her austere budget, her rings and other jewelry sold for a pittance. “Austerity.” She whispers the word, and her mouth turns up in a bitter smile—she’d always presumed it was meant for other people, never her kind.
She crosses her pale legs and considers what she will do today. Read, she imagines, as she does each day—it passes the time, allows her to forget—until the words swim across the page and she realizes she has understood nothing for some time. Then she will close the book and gaze out again on her garden. It was her refuge, a place to feel the sun on her shoulders, dirty her hands, be lost in a moment of potting or pruning. Much of their family and social life took place amongst the dogwood and ivy, marigold and wisteria she’d planted and nurtured: birthdays and anniversaries; celebrations of her husband’s deals and bonuses; that final Independence Day barbeque, the four of them arm-in-arm admiring fireworks above the Manhattan skyline. Inside her apartment it is different, her memories darker, more complex: sparring with her husband over his drinking, his infidelities; he countering with complaints of her profligate spending, her remoteness, their deft jabs escalating to verbal roundhouse rights and lefts. It’s been nearly a year since he jumped (was pushed?) from the firm’s top floor, one of hundreds in his profession to do so at the time. The “Wall Street Lemmings” the media dubbed them
Lunch today will be peanut butter on crackers; perhaps a little broth. Then a nap; she sleeps often. It keeps at bay the memories she can’t control: her sixteen-year-old daughter, whom she has not seen or heard from since, announcing on Thanksgiving Day that she was leaving with the greasy-haired, tattooed youth milling about their vestibule. Her son, picked up five months ago on some vague charge of participating in a demonstration, obstructing justice, before vanishing into the labyrinthine penal system.
At night her sleep is fitful; home invasions are not uncommon. Helicopters crisscross the evening sky like fireflies, awakening her with the sounds of their rotary blades, their sweeping searchlights. Sirens wail from the streets below; shouts and gunshots fill the intervals.
The President has assured the nation that all of this is temporary, that law, order, and prosperity will soon return, but first every citizen must sacrifice, stay calm, do as they are told. She wants to believe this, but at times doubts his words, and then worries her thoughts are unpatriotic.
In the morning, Jesús, her co-op’s former doorman, will bring her food and water. She is fast running out of money, a bag of groceries now costing as much as the first-class flights she once took to Paris, London, or Barcelona. Jesús has hinted at other ways she might pay. She is still young and attractive—a currency untouched by the ravages of hyperinflation.
Suddenly she is sleepy; the tablets she took earlier having effect. She dozes.
The afternoon air chilly on her skin, she soon awakens. She opens her eyes, reaches for a sweatshirt. She pulls the opening over her head, shakes her hair free. Standing, she walks to the far end of her garden. She leans over the garden wall and gazes down on the shuttered boutiques and cafés; a few pedestrians scurry along the sidewalks like roaches; tinted-windowed cars crawl past blasting out throbbing baselines, menacing lyrics—her Upper East Side street no longer part of a network of blue-blooded arteries knitting moneyed zip codes together, but a testament to the cessation of a way of life and her own helplessness. She stands at the precipice looking down, the wind blowing cool and dry through her hair, her hands gripping the rail along the wall. How easy it would be, she thinks. Over in seconds.
Lost in thought, a faint riffle of voices—or is it pigeons? … rats?—reaches her on the breeze and breaks the spell; she releases her hold, and once again time moves forward. On the far side of the garden, something green and leafy catches her attention. Startled, she ventures over to investigate. As she draws closer, she sees that it is only a weed. Canada thistle, she thinks. She sighs, strides into the apartment and a moment later comes out with a half-full bottle of water. She unscrews the cap and pours the precious contents onto the prickly growth, watches the sunbaked earth suck it in.
Born in Oakland, E.K. Allaire now lives outside Barcelona, Spain. His short stories have been published in Passages North, The MacGuffin, Big Muddy, and selected as a finalist in the Third Coast Fiction Contest.