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F-Man by Colette Sartor

 

Colette Sartor’s award-winning work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including FiveChaptersKenyon Review Online, the Chicago TribunePrairie SchoonerHarvard Review, Colorado Review, Press 53 Open Awards Anthology, and Short Stories from Printers Row. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and very large German Shepherd and is working on a short story collection and a novel.

Top 10 Finalist - 2015 Million Writers Award

 

That voice. Gravelly, loud, insistent. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” yelled over and over outside Mila’s building, six-thirty sharp, mornings and evenings. God knew who it was, maybe one of the homeless guys who slept in storefronts up on Pico and searched the dumpsters of shabby, Spanish-style multiplexes like hers. His hair was probably scraggly, his palms grimy, with long, crooked lifelines that helped him survive the streets of a city as sprawling and anonymous as Los Angeles. Maybe Mila’s own lifelines would lend her the same resilience, more even, assuming Peter didn’t find her. Although she wasn’t really worried. He would never hurt her, not physically. Even the accident that had sent her into hiding had been her fault, not his.

Pillows couldn’t block out the shouting, not even earplugs. In her old life she would have praised a student for projecting his voice with such conviction. One particularly loud morning she kicked off her covers and sat up. A revelation to no longer feel sore. Only some stiffness in her neck remained from the car crash over a month ago. That and the rough hideousness of her voice. She got up to dress. Around the corner was a 24-hour café with seats in back, far from the windows—one reason she’d rented this apartment last month, along with its hardwood floors and first floor location near the building’s rear exit to the alley where she kept her car for a quick escape, just in case.

When she stepped into the hallway, Rune, the building manager, stood in the opposite doorway. Rune stretched and smiled at Mila. “He woke you up too, huh, Mary?” she said.

Mary Gordon, not Mila Gennaro, was the name on Mila’s lease. Rune didn’t believe in credit or reference checks. She went on gut, she said. She kept her door open whenever she was home, sometimes late into the night, to encourage tenants to stop by. The other tenants ignored Mila whenever she hurried by with her face averted. According to the doctor, she should be “engaging in regular vocal activities,” but she still avoided speaking whenever possible. She hated the way she sounded. Besides, why make friends? She might need to move at a moment’s notice. But Rune, with her rust-colored hair and round, plain plate of a face that belied her fluty speaking voice—a coloratura, maybe, or a flowing lyric—possessed a determined cheer that was difficult to avoid.

Mila locked her door. “He seemed louder today,” she said. Her voice sounded scratchy, low. Awful.

Rune yawned and retied her bathrobe. “It’s just Harvey. He lives a few buildings down. He dresses like he’s homeless, but he’s just strange.”

Rune’s little boy stepped out from behind her. He had his mother’s rust-colored hair, but his large eyes were fringed with extravagant lashes, and his skin looked milky and flawless in the hallway’s dim lights. He held a docile kitten face-forward in his arms, its back legs dangling.

His mother stroked his head. “Fender found a kitten in the alley by your parking spot. ‘Paw-Paw’ he named her, all by himself.”

Fender held out the kitten for Mila to pet.

Rune startled, her chin jerking. “Look at that. Usually he’s so shy.”

“Allergies. I shouldn’t touch,” Mila lied.

The child stared at her. She’d never heard him speak. Sometimes she wondered what he sounded like, whether his voice was high and sweet like his mother’s, or grating like the shouter’s, or something else altogether. Still, his silence was appealing. She craved silence lately. Before, she had spent her days inundated by sound—the swoop of her students’ vocalizing, Peter’s blaring baritone lecturing, lecturing, lecturing, as they ate breakfast or dinner, dressed for work, undressed for bed, or, on bad days (there were a lot, near the end), yelling, berating, belittling. Silence had been a luxury. Now, she lolled in it, found herself protective of it.

Her cell phone rang. She pulled it from her jacket pocket. The caller ID was blocked. Not even her parents had this number, though she’d gotten it using their New Jersey address, so it wouldn’t have her current area code. But Peter could be resourceful, especially if he thought he’d been robbed of the last word.

Mila forced herself to smile at Rune. “Has anyone been asking about me?”

“Nobody.”

“If someone does, could you say I don’t live here?”

Rune considered her, then nodded. “Tenants deserve privacy.”

“Thanks.” Mila waved at Fender. “Cute cat.” She trotted down the hallway, out of the building.

.  .  .

Her hair was different—a pixie-short chestnut cap instead of her long, tawny mane—and she dressed in baggy shirts and nondescript jeans, tinted-lensed glasses shielding her blue eyes. She made a point of slouching and walking slowly, not clipping along at her usual impatient pace, posture impeccably straight and ready to support her voice, project it to the rafters. But if anyone who knew her really looked, she was still herself. Except for the voice. That was different. Completely, irreparably different.

Of course the call was from Peter. She listened to his message at the café. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said, as if no time had passed, as if she hadn’t moved out last month while he was away overnight with the debate team. He taught history at the same New Jersey Catholic school where she’d taught music. They’d met there, had planned to marry in the chapel.

Maybe he was here already. It would be just like him to take time off and track her down. “After all I’ve been through,” she could imagine him telling their principal, a grandmotherly type who would embrace whatever sob story Peter concocted to explain Mila’s sudden resignation and disappearance. She listened to his message again. He could find her if he tried. This must be what women felt like after escaping men who beat them daily—relief tempered by constant anxiety. But that wasn’t her and Peter. She wasn’t afraid of him, not really. The accident had just woken her up. It had taken something away but given her something too: the realization that she should start over. She was barely thirty. It wasn’t too late. He would leave her alone eventually, once he understood. Once she made him understand. She should call him back, convince him that she needed to cut herself off from him to move on.

No. Convincing him wasn’t her job anymore.

Days of picking up the phone, dialing, hanging up. Finally, she let herself call back. One call. Just one.

“I can’t find the Cuisinart,” he said without waiting for her hello. Her new number was probably already paired with her picture on his cell. “You used it last, right? Where’d you put it?”

“Try the pantry behind the soda.”

Like that, she was answering to him again.

There was rustling in the background, as if he was searching shelves. “I’m making pizzelle for the Fall Festival,” he said. “It’s easier with the Cuisinart. Which is supposed to go back in the same place every time.” Creeping in, the lecturing tone that usually arrested her with its authority. He had twelve years on her, he reminded her often, twelve years of knowing more about how life worked. Like you know anything, like you know how to do anything. “I’m sure I’ll find it,” he said, brighter, friendlier, as if he sensed her clenching. “But I’m used to you helping.”

“You’re a good cook. You can do it alone.”

“I’d rather do it with you.”

The silence stretched out, demanding to be filled. Soon he’d say something: This is your solution? To hide like a baby? or maybe I never thought you’d be such a quitter. She picked at a tear in her Goodwill couch. Her own words bubbled up: I’m sorry,forgive me. I’ll come home. But he was counting on her guilt. “I’m hanging up now,” she said.

“Don’t. Not yet. You sound great, like yourself. Maybe I can visit wherever you are. Or you could stop all this bullshit and come home.”

Outside, the yelling started in the distance, approaching rapidly. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” She walked to the living room window, but the street was barely visible beyond the neighboring building. The strength in that voice, the certainty. Her hoarseness was permanent. Tiny hairline fractures in her larynx had healed improperly. She had waited to see a doctor a few days, which proved to be too many. She was fine, she kept telling herself. Just a little accident. She’d rear-ended someone while arguing with Peter and the steering wheel had caught her in the throat.

“Fuck you! Fuck you!” Louder, more insistent.

“Mila, what’s going on? Is someone threatening you? I knew it. You’re in trouble—”

“You’re wrong. I don’t sound anything like myself,” she said and hung up.

.  .  .

Sometimes the urge to sing still hit, usually in the shower, hot water cascading over her, blocking out thought and sound. She always stopped herself before she got past a low hum.

She needed something to do. The disability checks plus her savings would sustain her while she figured out how to earn money. Teaching wasn’t an option. It was too taxing to stand in front of an auditorium talking in a loud, over-enunciated voice so that even the rowdiest kids paid attention. In choral singing, blend and focus mattered more than natural ability, she told her students. They would excel if they worked hard and followed her instructions. Sometimes she turned sideways to demonstrate how to fill the lungs, even the lowest regions, even the tips above the clavicles, how she could puff out her abdomen to double its size, then slowly release the air to create a steady stream of notes. Singing, like anything else, was about constant striving, to strengthen, to deepen, to make each tone more pure and lucid. She was demanding, a perfectionist, but she got results. Over the years, her choirs had won championship after championship. She was useless now, without a voice.

Her fault. Hers alone.

The library around the corner was looking for volunteers. Her teaching background would help, the head librarian said when she accepted Mila’s application. The kids who hung around after school occasionally needed managing. Mila found shelving books relaxing, shushing children a refreshing change. She hardly ever had to talk.

Except to Fender. Whenever she stepped out of her apartment, there he was, standing in his doorway, hiding beneath the stairs, in the vestibule by her mailbox. The kitten was always hanging from his arms. Fender never spoke, even when she said hello and gave what felt like a big, fake smile. He and the cat just stared, as if they were waiting for her to slip up and reveal her secret.

She nearly tripped over him one day while taking out the trash. It was early, before F-Man’s morning round. Fender was crouched down, peering under her door when she opened it. She shrieked, then clutched her throat. The cat sat nearby, its tail swishing.

“You startled me,” she said. Across the hall, the open door revealed Fender and Rune’s cluttered living room. Where was Rune anyway? “Are you spying on me?” Mila asked Fender.

He sat and leaned against the wall. Beside him, the kitten yawned and stretched out its spindly front legs. Mila had never seen it out of the boy’s grasp. The orange starburst shape on its chest was matted from where Fender’s arms rubbed. The boy gathered it into his lap, the cat once again a fluid, boneless mass. Mila held up the garbage bag like a shield.

“Let’s find your mom,” she said.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”

Close, like he was out front waiting for her. She jerked around toward the sound. The cat shot out of Fender’s lap and through Mila’s partly open door.

“Dammit,” she yelled. She stepped inside and looked around. The cat had disappeared.

.  .  .

She and Rune searched the apartment twice.

“Where could it be?” asked Mila. She stood in the hallway by the empty linen closet, surrounded by towels and sheets.

Rune walked in from the kitchen. “She disappears sometimes, for a little breather from Fender.”

They went into the living room where Fender sat by the coffee table drawing in a notebook. He didn’t look up when Rune settled beside him.

“Baby, Paw-Paw’s still hiding and it’s time for daycare.” He kept drawing. Rune held out her hand. “We’ll find her later. Let’s go.”

She tried to pull him up. He let out a guttural moan, then started kicking and crying, his small, perfect face twisted with rage. Mila sat, startled into helplessness, while Rune grabbed him in a bear hug—“Fender, breathe!” she commanded—and whispered in his ear until he relaxed. She sank to the couch with him. Damp-faced, he leaned against her and pointed at his drawing, a surprisingly detailed cat with a starburst on its chest. Rune whispered again, then stood.

“Can we talk?” she asked Mila, who nodded and followed her into the kitchen. “The thing is,” Rune said, “fighting him out of here without Paw-Paw will make me even later. You’re off today, right? Can you watch him?”

“Why doesn’t he talk yet? He’s what, four?”

“Five. And he talks a little, to me. He talked more before his dad left last year. When he’s ready, he’ll talk again.” She looked tired, and young, younger than Mila.

“Look, I don’t think—”

“Please, Mary. He really likes you. He’ll be okay as long as he knows Paw-Paw’s here. It’s just a few hours. I can’t miss this shift. We need the extra money. There’s this great school for kids like him, but it costs.”

Mila looked past Rune into the living room, where Fender sat on the couch with his eyes fixed on her. Like he was making a wish, or hoping for something. Peter would tell her to say no. Strangers’ problems weren’t hers to fix. Fix yourself, he’d say. You’ve got enough shit of your own.

“Fine,” she said. “He can stay.”

.  .  .

Rune was gone longer than a few hours. When she called to say another waitress was sick and she’d volunteered to cover the shift, Mila let Fender examine her pantry, where he picked boxed macaroni and cheese for lunch and dinner. They ate at the coffee table, then drew pictures and played cards—Crazy Eights, Go Fish, War—using simple pantomimes. After dinner he stretched out on the couch to watch cartoons, his head on her lap. A quiet, restful day. When Rune’s knock woke Mila, he stayed asleep. The kitten curled in a purring ball against his stomach. It gave Mila a pang to realize they both would be going home.

.  .  .

They fell into a rhythm: After F-Man’s morning round, Rune would send over Fender and Paw-Paw with doughnuts and milk. Mila would watch them until Rune returned from the gym or grocery store. While she was gone, Mila, Fender, and Paw-Paw would sit on the couch, Mila perusing the news on her iPad, Fender with a ragged stash of comics inherited from his dad. “The only other thing the guy left was one of his old guitars,” Rune said. “That was a shocker. He loved those things more than he loved us. At least I got a hundred bucks for it.”

After Rune collected Fender and the kitten, Mila would walk to the café to drink coffee and read until her library shift. Then, a few hours reshelving books or manning the checkout counter, referring questions to the real librarians. Evenings, Fender would sometimes reappear with Paw-Paw, followed by Rune. “You’re a lifesaver. I forgot what it’s like to have a break,” she’d say as she hurried out. Mila didn’t mind. She knew she and Fender would sit side by side engaged in their own silent tasks. Even F-Man’s chants were almost soothing, part of the fabric of this new, peaceful existence that was devoid of calculation or thought.

Often, though, during a lull at the library, or after Fender had gone for the day, Mila found herself wondering whether he could be drawn out, whether his voice could be made to soar. One afternoon, she sat Fender by the speakers housing her iPod. “What do you think of this,” she said and played a recording of herself singing “Little Green” from Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. The song suited Mila’s old voice, a nimble, bright lyric with particular agility in the upper register. Peter loved when she sang. She’d be famous if only she’d try, he insisted. He kept pushing her to tackle Manhattan. Still, whenever she performed at local clubs, he always sat up front, the first to cheer. Afterward, he would whisper so only she could hear, “That voice is like a miracle.”

Fender sat motionless until the end, then looked at her with eyebrows raised and mouth pursed as if to say, “So?”

“That was me. I used to sing,” she said.

.  .  .

Peter started calling most evenings around six. The first few times, she let him go to voice mail. “Checking that you’re okay,” went the message, or some equally mild variation. She could change her number, but he’d just find that one too. Better to convince him to stop. Better, at least, to try.

“I talked to a lawyer,” he announced when she broke down and answered. “He thinks we should sue the manufacturer for your air bag failing.”

“Suing won’t solve anything.”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course we’ll sue.” His most blaring baritone. “You’ve got to make people pay for their screw-ups. You let them off too easily.” He paused. She pictured him raking back his bristly dark hair, his shoulders tense as he paced their sunroom with his long stride, figuring out how to convince her that she was the one who needed to prove herself, like always. “We’ll talk more once you’re home.” Quieter, more mellow. “Oh, and the Hansons invited us for dinner. Soon, I told them. They asked for your chess pie, but I said you’d surprise us.”

“I’m not making chess pie. And the Hansons are your friends, not mine.”

“Well, there’s custard or banana cream, or whatever you want, just something good that they’ll remember. I’m making suggestions, not telling you what to do. I’m trying.”

He couldn’t see the problem. He never would. He would keep hearing what he wanted to hear, viewing her through the prism of his own demanding standards. She checked her watch. Almost time for F-Man, her alarm clock, her talisman, her reminder of this new life without Peter. “Listen to me. I won’t be there for dinner or anything else. I’m not coming back.”

The words were out. In response, silence. No bullying, no rush to prove her wrong. She picked at the couch tear, letting the silence extend, wrap its peacefulness around her.

“If I could change everything, I would,” he said. “I would give you your voice back. I’m sorry, Mila. Desperately.” And he did sound sorry, his rich, dark voice clotted with sorrow. He had never even said the words in seven years together, and now here he was apologizing for something that was her fault. Dear God, her fault. If he had kept talking, maybe he would have pointed out that all the blame was hers, as if she needed reminding, and she would have hung up. But he let another silence linger until she felt herself yielding and saying, “I’m sorry too,” until she found herself staying on the phone, even after F-Man started shouting.

.  .  .

Fender turned out to have an ethereal, fluty singing voice, along with perfect pitch. She discovered this one day when she was playing him a Gregorian chant. She had taken to playing him music whenever he visited, recordings of her various competition choirs, of adult choirs, pop musicians, world music lullabies. Sometimes, he would hum a little while he drew, but it wasn’t until the Gregorian chant that he sang along quietly. He sat cross-legged at the coffee table coloring, Paw-Paw curled in his lap. No words, just vocalizations, each note matched to the recording. Mila sat on the couch behind him and pretended to keep reading, though her heart pounded.

When the music stopped, she tapped his shoulder. “That was beautiful,” she said when he looked at her. “You sing beautifully.”

He cocked his head, almost as if he didn’t understand, then smiled before he went back to coloring.

She started leaving out her electric keyboard when he came over, then noodling around, playing scales, waiting until he cautiously sat on the bench with her. At first, she just played while he hummed along, until one day he stopped and pointed at her. “Me?” she said and shook her head. “I can’t anymore.” He nodded and tapped out some notes on the keyboard, humming as he went. She hesitated, then said, “You’ve got to breathe correctly to really sing.” She stood and inhaled from her diaphragm. Awful. It would sound awful. But he stood beside her, filled his lungs like she had. She sang a short, raspy arpeggio. Her throat felt tight, her face hot. Fender sang it back, then herded her to the keyboard and put her hands on the keys. “More?” she asked. He nodded vigorously. “Really?”

He tilted his head and waited.

More. More.

Every day she taught him simple vocalizing exercises that didn’t require much use of her own voice with its catches and dead spots. She blew raspberries to make him laugh, then made a game of showing him how to buzz his lips while singing scales. When she discovered he could roll r’s like a champion, she taught him how to do that while singing as well. He resisted anything that involved recognizable words, though. So far, words seemed beyond him. But when he sang, he let Paw-Paw go, stood straight and tall beside the keyboard while she played, his feet planted firmly apart as if he knew intrinsically that singing required the support of his entire little body, each muscle focused on sending his voice surging through the air.

.  .  .

“Do you ever miss me?” Peter asked one night. F-Man’s round had long since passed. It had barely registered for Mila. Peter hadn’t even made his usual joke about how she really knew how to pick a neighborhood. She was alone. She had started turning Fender away on the evenings Peter called (Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and random Sundays, to keep her guessing). Rune had looked stricken the first night Mila couldn’t watch Fender. “But he’s used to spending time with you,” she had said. “Change is tough for him.” Mila had apologized before hurrying inside, shame fluttering her stomach. Talking to Peter felt like a betrayal of Fender, Rune, of Mary Gordon. But Peter was trying, maybe enough to dispel the need for Mary Gordon entirely.

“You must miss me by now,” he said on the phone, his voice the low, teasing rumble that he used during good times; that she could trust. “It’s been almost three months.”

“Of course I miss you, it’s just that—”

“What, sweetheart?” The promise, the expansive tenderness. Sweetheart, lover, voice of my soul.

“I’m different,” she said. “I want a different life, where I get to make some decisions.”

“I can let you do that. Give me a chance.”

She pictured him sitting on their bed with its comforter they had picked out together. The soothing purplish blue with thin dark stripes that he kept assuring her wasn’t too masculine, that it reflected both their tastes. Which it sort of did. She had chosen something similar for herself in Los Angeles, the comforter on which she now lay. But maybe that was just conditioning. Years of yielding to him made it difficult for her to tease out her own likes and dislikes.

“I don’t know, Peter. Maybe.”

She waited for his voice, its embracive warmth.

“We both know you need me,” he said.

Her fault. Hers. She climbed under the comforter and listened as he listed the things they would do once she came to her senses.

.  .  .

Slow down. Test his sincerity. She left a voicemail (“Let me call you when I’m ready”), then made herself set the phone to vibrate. On a calendar, she checked off the days: one, two, three, four. He didn’t call, not once.

Maybe it was over. Maybe he was releasing her. Careful what you wish for, idiot. She grabbed the phone once or twice but never did more than dial.

There was more time for Fender again. Rune started bringing him over instead of letting him come alone. Her smile was more guarded.

“You’re sure he’s not too much, Mary?” she asked once, gripping Fender’s shoulder. He wriggled away and ran inside to plunk on the keyboard. She stuffed her hands in her back pockets and watched. “He’s getting really attached,” she said before leaving.

I’m just a babysitter, Mila should have reassured her, but she was too eager to start. The music was what mattered, drawing this child out through the music.

Each day, his voice sounded fuller, stronger. Each day, he projected farther into the room, extending his range until he could vocalize through two full octaves. “I’ll bet your mom would love to hear you sing,” she said to him after three weeks. Three weeks, phone call free. Three weeks of blessed silence except for this supple, young, wordless voice.

“What do you think, Fender?” she said. “Do you want to sing for your mom?”

He stood up tall and nodded.

That evening when Rune arrived, Mila positioned herself at the keyboard. “Fender has something to share.”

Rune looked surprised when he handed her the kitten and stood beside Mila. He sang a simple chant they had practiced many times. Mila kept glancing over at Rune, who sat on the couch with her fingers dug into Paw-Paw’s fur. When he finished, Rune jumped up clapping. The cat thudded mewing to the floor and skittered off down the hall.

“That was great, baby,” Rune said. “I haven’t heard you sing in ages.”

Fender let her hug him before chasing after Paw-Paw. Rune turned to Mila. “You’re amazing.”

“It’s all him. Community centers have cheap kid music classes, but he’s so talented, you could find someone to teach him privately for almost nothing.”

“Oh. I thought—” Rune shoved her hands in her pockets. “You’re so good with him. He won’t even look at most people. Can’t you keep teaching him?”

Staying, teaching this child, making a life here. She could. The phone calls had stopped, maybe forever. But what if Peter hadn’t given up, what if he was respecting her wishes and waiting for her to call? She could become Mila Gennaro again—a stronger, better version of herself.

“I may not be here much longer,” she said. “But the way Fender sings, it’s a gift. It’s how he communicates. You’ve got to pursue it for his sake.”

“So you’re leaving.” Rune pushed back her hair, drew a breath. “You know, Fender sang with his dad sometimes. His dad would play the guitar; they’d harmonize. Fender glowed, he loved it so much. But that guy lived for his music. He couldn’t handle anything else, especially Fender being, well, different. Me, I’m tone deaf. I never understood the fuss. I just know my kid needs someone who’ll stick around.” She stood, blank-faced, then flashed her customary smile. “It would mean a lot, if you kept teaching him. Think about it, okay?” She walked to the front door and called, “Fender, bedtime.”

Fender sprinted into the room carrying the cat and followed Rune out, leaving Mila alone at her keyboard.

.  .  .

A few nights later. It was late, so late. She didn’t even remember answering. Someone was yelling at her. Peter.

“How could you do this to me? Over something that was your fucking fault.”

She pressed the phone to her ear, her body hunched around itself. The dark room came into focus. Her fault. Yes.

The night of the accident she had been trying to hurt him, to jerk the car and make his head snap back, something small but startling that would shut him up for once. They were arguing about the mail. She always left it in the kitchen; he wanted it in the office. “Who cares where I put the goddamn mail?” she yelled, surprising them both. He started yelling again, louder than her, he was always louder, the familiar litany of why she was wrong, everything she’d ever done wrong, until finally he punched the dashboard. “You never listen, you stupid cunt!” That ugly word. No more. No. She slammed the brakes, skidded into the car ahead. Blinding pain. She couldn’t speak, swallow. Beside her, he wiped his bloody nose. “Look what you did,” he said with something like wonder. Then, he’d gotten out, smiling and apologetic, to talk to the other driver.

On the phone, there was a crash, then muttered cursing. “I came by the choir room a few times afterward,” he said, “and listened to you lead rehearsals. You sounded fine. But once I knocked, you let yourself get all scratchy, like you wanted to make me feel bad for something you caused.”

That reckless, angry act. She couldn’t change it; she had to let it go. But he would use it to define her, to justify everything he did as saving her from herself. Look what you did. Look what you fucking did.

Another crash. “Don’t you dare blame me, you dumb bitch, you dumbass, stupid—”

“Stop it!” she said loudly enough to shut him up. “Stop calling me.” By the time she hung up, he was yelling again.

.  .  .

Rune started keeping Fender home. At first Mila thought he was sick, but when she knocked on the door after a few days, Rune said, “We thought Fender shouldn’t come over so much, since you’re moving and all.”

“Nothing’s definite,” Mila said and peered past Rune to where Fender sat inside on the couch holding the kitten. He glanced at Mila, then scowled down at Paw-Paw. “Fender, don’t you want to sing anymore?”

He kept scowling and petting the cat.

Rune stepped into the hallway and pulled the door shut behind her. She gave Mila her most determined smile. “If you decide to stay, I’ll send him right over for a lesson.”

Mila put away her keyboard, the speakers, and the iPod. At the library, she didn’t shush the after-school crowd’s whispers, which rose to a loud buzz that the reference librarian had to silence. Mila didn’t care. The quiet was uncomfortable now. Any noise seemed preferable.

She especially welcomed F-Man’s shouts. She had managed a few glimpses. He was tall and emaciated with curly, graying hair mashed under a baseball cap. Whatever the weather, he wore a heavy parka and stained dress slacks that he held bunched above his waist. He lived two buildings down in a boxy complex with carports under the front apartments. Mila saw him leaving a downstairs unit one morning when she was out getting coffee. She rarely slept more than a few hours lately. To talk to someone, to look directly at a person, to look directly at this person, this foul-mouthed, odd, aggressive stranger. Say fuck you to my face, she’d tell him. Say it’s my fault. I dare you.

When he walked by her muttering, she stopped and held out her hand. “I’m Mila, your neighbor,” she said.

He glanced at her hand, then the ground, then took her fingertips gingerly, as if afraid to catch something. He smiled, revealing strong, yellowed teeth. “Harvey, I’m Harvey. Going to the center today. How about you?”

“The library later. Now, just home.”

He adjusted his pants, glanced up. “Gonna be nice today. You think? A nice day.”

“Probably.”

“Nice. Yeah. Nice. Glad to meet you, Mila.” He ducked his head, took few steps, stopped. “Thanks for saying hi,” he said into the air and continued on his way, muttering.

.  .  .

The next morning, Rune caught her as she was leaving for the library. “It’s probably nothing,” Rune said, worrying her uniform collar, “but some guy was nosing around yesterday.”

Mila’s heart beat triplets against her ribs. “Did he leave a name?”

Rune shook her head. “But he showed me a picture. Didn’t look familiar, I told him. I think he believed me. Is he the one you’re avoiding?”

Breathe. Deep, steady breaths. “Maybe,” she said.

Rune watched her. “Even if it was him, that’s what restraining orders are for.”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Not really. Either you live your life or you let yourself be chased.” She tugged her collar again, not looking at Mila. “Fender would love it if you stuck around.”

Mila took off her glasses and polished the fake lenses. “Maybe I will,” she lied.

She’d reached the vestibule when she heard Rune call, “I guess I was right about you.” Behind her, Rune stood in the same spot.

“Right about what?” Mila asked.

Rune walked closer. Her mouth was a grim line. She looked ready to cry. “You’ve got no staying power.” Arms crossed she trudged back down the hallway.

.  .  .

That afternoon Mila found another apartment miles away downtown in an anonymous-looking high rise with security cameras and a keycard parking lot. She forwarded her mail through two different P.O. boxes and had her disability checks sent to a check-cashing place in Echo Park. Peter would have to work hard to find her again.

Moving day, Fender came outside as she finished packing the car in the alley behind the building. His arms hung at his sides, kitten-less. He was crying. She knelt and hugged him. It took him a while to hug her back. Keep singing, she wanted to say, but she sensed someone nearby. Rune stood watching from the rear exit. Mila rose, found the electric keyboard in her car. “For Fender,” she said, pulling it out.

Rune waved her away. “It’ll just get dusty.”

Fender’s quiet sobs shook him. He walked over and clutched his mother’s legs.

“I wish I didn’t have to go,” Mila said.

Rune stroked Fender’s hair. “Paw-Paw ran away. Maybe it’s better. Fender starts school soon and the cat would’ve been all alone.” She patted Mila’s shoulder. “Sorry I have to keep your security deposit. You were one of my nicest tenants.”

She walked back inside, tugging Fender along with her.

When Mila checked her mailbox in the vestibule one last time, she heard Harvey making his evening round. She stepped outside and peered down the street, trying to see him. Walking toward his building she passed a furry heap by the curb. It was Paw-Paw, splayed on her side, unmoving. Hit by a car or maybe attacked by a dog. Mila crouched down and smoothed the matted starburst. The body was already stiff. This animal. It wasn’t hers. Time to leave all this behind, to start over somewhere she couldn’t be found. Still. She sat on the curb, felt tears dripping down her chin when she propped it on her hand. The cat purring in a corner, Fender’s voice soaring around her, enveloping her in possibilities. That had felt new and right, like something to strive for. She would sit here awhile longer, keeping guard. Then get a garbage bag from the car, bring the body to a vet for cremation. She could keep the ashes, or send them to Fender. Or even bring them to him in person. Someday. When she was herself again.

“Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,” Harvey chanted, somewhere close.

“Fuck you!” she shouted, still seated on the curb. Raspy, harsh, but strong, tinged with bright remnants. She stood, breathed from her diaphragm. “Fuck you!” she shouted. “Fuck you!”