Thirteen House groans and creaks, shifting her bones, old ship in a storm. Not that Amelia’s ever been on a ship in a storm. Not that Amelia’s ever been on anything bigger than a rowboat. Well, the Staten Island Ferry that one time, but that hardly seems to count.
“Wind’s picking up out there,” Steve says.
Amelia jams the chisel into the join where the stair tread and the riser meet and hits it with her hammer. The old wood gives a sigh, a puff of dust. She levers it up and Gerrit is there beside her with the crowbar to pry it out, the hundred-year-old nails giving the tread up easy.
“Wood rot,” he says, which is no surprise. She smells it every time she walks up the stairs; she feels it, the telltale bounce beneath her feet—signs of wood that wants to give way.
They work from the top stair down, tossing the loosed treads to Steve. He’s got the sawhorses set up in the vestibule below; he’s got the orbital saw. He numbers the old treads with a grease pencil, measures them, cuts new ones from salvaged lumber.
Anne comes through the front door, bringing a cold blast of air and the smell of rain. Her rumpled work clothes make her look old, tired. A kiss to Steve’s cheek and she squints up the staircase. “Those risers need to go, too.” And she’s right, Amelia knows. That’s the thing. Push or pull at any one part of the building and there’ll be six other things that want attention. And it’s not just the first flight of stairs that needs replacing—it’s all the stairs, from street level to the fifth floor.
“Not enough lumber,” Amelia says. Because it’s about compromise. It’s about doing what they can, when they can.
“Ah,” Anne says. “Well, there you have it.”
Steve says, “We’ll make it work.” He seems careful with Anne these days.
Anne climbs the ladder they’ve raised to the second floor, throws a leg over the banister, her skirt riding up, thick thighs in pantyhose. Steve looks away, out the door, and they hear her feet on the stairs, up to the fourth floor to her and Steve’s place. A door opens and closes.
“So we’ll do as many flights as we can—treads and risers both—with the wood we’ve got. Then we’ll head out tonight and get some more, finish the job tomorrow,” he says.
“Just like that,” Gerrit says.
“We’ll find more.” Steve switches the saw back on, the insistent hum of it kicking up sawdust as he goes hard against the wood. Amelia waits for him to look up at her, but he keeps his head down, his jaw set.
“Godverdomme,” Gerrit mutters, digging into the next tread harder than necessary.
“Grumpy old bastard,” she whispers, and he grins.
Soon enough she and Gerrit have the treads and risers all pulled off, the naked frame of the staircase rising up sad and open. It’s like revealing the secrets of the house, uncovering some century-old shame, this undressing that they do. They are like doctors over a patient’s body; not judging, just seeing with clear eyes, fixing what can be fixed. She feels bad for the old girl. It seems they’ll never reach the point where everything’s done that needs doing. Moving from one repair to another, even after all these years.
Steve measures and cuts the last stair and riser. He and Gerrit take up their hammers, working together in that easy wordless way of theirs, the staircase coming back together just like that.
Gerrit leans into the worn couch, watching the girls cook dinner in the community-room kitchen. The community room takes up the street-side half of the unfinished basement: cast-off chairs and a musty couch, a board-and-cinder-block bookcase, an open kitchen with a hulking old fridge and scarred counters. Amelia and Kim and Suzie are at the stove, stirring pots and chopping vegetables. Kim ladles up a spoonful of something and offers it to Amelia for a taste.
He and Steve and Amelia finished three flights of stairs today, treads and risers, just like Anne wanted. They’d been hoarding the wood for months. They brought it home piece by piece, board by board, until they had enough to replace the treads on all five flights. Today Steve wanted to please his wife, but now it falls to Gerrit to go out into the rain with him to try to find enough lumber to finish the job. For all Steve’s talk, there’s no guarantee they’ll find so much as a single board. This is Manhattan. It’s not like they can go outside and cut down trees. Not like they can drive to a hardware store and lay a credit card down, either.
They’ve got the Velvet Underground playing. “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’.” It’s Amelia’s favorite song. He reaches over and turns it up and she favors him with a small, sweet smile.
Gideon hands Gerrit a beer and drops down next to him, the couch sighing with the weight. “Long day?” Gideon says.
“You wouldn’t happen to have twelve two-by-fours to spare?” Gideon lives next door in Cat House. The two squats share tools and materials all the time, and Gerrit knows as well as Gideon they don’t have that much lumber to spare. Twelve boards is a wealth of wood.
Gideon just laughs.
Rain beats against the metal hatch doors that lie flush with the sidewalk. Inside it’s warm and smells of curry and garlic. Gerrit has a beer in his hand; there’s music playing and the high sweet chatter of the girls over by the stove. Steve comes down the basement stairs and past the kitchen. Amelia pulls at his wrist, leaning toward him to whisper into his ear. She's probably trying to get him to eat before he goes out. She's always pushing food on people, always worried they aren't eating enough. Echoes, no doubt, of her own hungry days. He feels that old familiar affection for her rise up, the waif she'd been when she first came to Thirteen House.
Gerrit doesn’t want to leave this to go on a futile search for lumber, but here comes Steve now, red-faced and blustering across the community room toward Gerrit. He supposes there is something heroic about being the ones to head out into a storm to hunt for what’s needed, and Steve rarely asks for much. Of course Gerrit is going.
“Let’s go,” Steve says. “I borrowed Jeremy’s van. Ben’s coming, too. He’s bringing the van around front now.”
“Don’t you want to eat first?”
He glances at the girls. “Anne and I ate already.”
“It’s early to be heading out.”
“Rain like this? No one’s gonna be watching to see who’s climbing into any dumpsters. We’re good.”
Gerrit walks into the kitchen and kisses the back of Amelia’s neck, goose bumps rising along her bare forearms as she ducks away with a smile. He follows Steve up the stairs, easing into his coat, and out into the rain to search for wood.
Amelia warms her hands on her bowl of curried lentils, leaning against the counter where Kim sits kicking her legs. The lentils smell good, earthy and familiar. She swirls her spoon in the bowl, watching the curry seep into the rice. She loves these Wednesday night dinners when they open up the community room and make food for anyone who's hungry. “We should cook together like this every night,” she says. “I don't know why we don't."
It’s been quiet so far tonight, though. A couple of crusty punks came by a little while ago, ate their food, and left. Some guys stopped in on their way to trying to get beds for the night at the Bowery Mission. Now it’s just Kim and Gideon from Cat House, and Amelia and Suzie and Marlowe the only ones from Thirteen House. Well, and Gerrit was here and Steve came in for a minute, but he didn’t stay to eat. He usually does.
She’d grabbed Steve’s hand, hoping to lead him out of sight, behind the kitchen wall into the storage area, the dark corner back by the tool cabinet. She’d wanted a kiss, or a touch, some acknowledgement. Anything. He shook off her hand. He moved right past her.
Tonight she wants the room to be full to overflowing. She wants there to be enough noise to drown out all the shit going on in her head. She wants to hear laughter; she wants the music blasting. She wants it so crowded people have no choice but to touch each other, even the ones they don’t know.
She knows people have their own lives, their own things to do. It’s a squat, not a commune. But still, some Wednesdays it seems they’re all down there together, everyone from Thirteen House and everyone from Cat House, squatters from Maus Haus and Utopia, kids from the park, and a steady stream of the homeless. In summer they all spill out onto the sidewalk like a party. Those nights are the best. Those nights she could believe lentils and rice are the best damn thing she ever ate.
“You think Anne’ll come down?" Amelia says. "Maybe I should take a bowl up to her."
"She knows we're here," Suzie says.
There’s a fear rising in Amelia, something she’s been swallowing down for days. She doesn’t want to speak it, saying it giving it a power, making it true. She leans against Kim’s legs and Kim pets her hair while she talks to Suzie and has no idea of all the things Amelia isn’t saying. My period is late, she would say. And Kim and
Suzie would smile and say, Well that’s no big thing. It’ll come. But maybe it won’t. And even so, that’s only a part of it.
Denise comes down the stairs and into the kitchen, rain in her hair, rain on her glasses. She puts her arms around Suzie’s waist and kisses her softly.
Suzie rubs her cheek against Denise’s shoulder. “Are you hungry?” she asks, even as she’s already turning to the stove to spoon out the lentils. She presses a bowl into Denise’s hands and stands close and watches her eat. They speak quietly about their day, leaning in to each other, the rest of the room fallen away.
The envy rising in Amelia is ugly and tired. She walks over to the couch, sinks down next to Gideon, and takes a long pull off his beer. She nestles in under his arm and closes her eyes. The voices and the music, Gideon’s warmth. She lets herself drift.
The wipers drag greasy smears across the windshield. The Con Ed clock tower could be a church spire; the Empire State building, lit up all green and gold, could be Oz. Steve swings the van onto Fourteenth Street, heading west. He spotted a dumpster on Fourteenth and Third yesterday—a gut renovation of an old tenement. Five stories’ worth of wood gotta come out of that place. There’s bound to be enough.
“Look at that fucking rain,” Ben says. He leans in from the backseat, his face hanging between Gerrit and Steve.
Steve loves a good hard rain at night. It’s like the whole damn city gets washed clean. The people are hidden away and it’s quiet, quiet. The cars glide along, their taillights stretched out behind them, staining the streets red. They are anonymous and remote, unconcerned animals. It’s people you’ve got to watch out for and the rain flushes them away.
“Rain is good,” Gerrit says. “Fewer witnesses.”
Steve says, “I’m not expecting any trouble where we’re headed.”
He’s hoping to get this done quickly so they can get back home. Anne was quiet all through dinner, quiet as he left. “I’m going to get that wood now,” he’d said to her. “We’ll replace the risers. You’re right about those risers.”
“Don’t forget you’ve got first watch tonight,” she’d said.
“That’s all you’ve got to say?” He’d tried to say it with a smile. He’d tried to pull her in for a kiss but she’d moved past him, gone into the bathroom, the shower