Softly, I told Chris I knew he and Laura had fought, that Laura was at my place and wanted her friend to come get her. He nodded, and I realized he had lockjaw. But then, to my surprise, he pried his lips open, and squeaked: “Tell her to give me my car keys back.” Relieved to find him so agreeable, I said okay.
I could have spared myself a lot of trouble by calling the cops. But if the cops did come and arrested the both of them, what would happen? No doubt Laura would hustle her way into some comparable living arrangement. But Chris was the opposite of a hustler — he held a government job. One of his previous molls told me he sorted parcels in his sleep, mumbling, “Priority…overnight express.” Judging by his age, he was nearing the point where he could retire on a pension, and contriving to strip him of it all seemed like a hell of a hard-hearted thing for any neighbor to do.
As soon as I turned from Chris’ doorjamb, I saw Laura, racing back up the walkway from the parking lot, where a car stood idling. “That was my friend,” she said when she saw me. “He’ll be back in an hour. I just need to stay here till then.”
I told her Chris wanted his car keys. She snorted. “His car keys? Please, honey, his car’s rusted, and his car key is attached to all his other keys. I’ll be damned if I trust him to let me back in with all my stuff still in there.” I was just wondering how her friend had known to come if she hadn’t called when she hissed, “Oh, Chris, take that back inside! Can’t you let it go for just a few hours?”
Turning, I saw Chris carry a cardboard box out of his unit and set it on the surrounding gravel. Keeping her voice low, Laura went on hectoring him. “What is wrong with you, anyway? Just cut it out and go back inside. Grow up! Do you have to be such a big baby?”
But hauling boxes was Chris’ métier. In a grim, expert silence, he marched back into his house, emerged carrying another box of the same size, and set it alongside the first. He brought out a third, and then a fourth, which he lay, respectively, atop the first and second. Next, he carried forth a stack of interlocking plastic organizers and placed them neatly against the first two boxes. I wondered whether he was planning a tower.
Laura sounded ready to cry. “My friend doesn’t have room. I’ve got a storage unit but it doesn’t open till seven. Chris knows it. He’s just doing this to fuck with me.”
My cartoon image of Laura shattered. She was more than a cunning gypsy, a merry succubus bouncing from one crash pad to another encumbered by nothing but the clothes on her back and the drugs in her purse. In her stuff, I saw, for the first time, her substantiality. Its sheer volume, which was making Chris’ stacking efforts look increasingly like a game of live-action Tetris, proved she’d once led — and, perhaps, still aspired to lead — a settled life. Succubi may own blow dryers, but not coffee makers.
By what grace what happened next, happened next, is anyone’s guess. At first, I went scurrying from Laura to Chris and back again, carrying niggling demand and counter-demand — car key to one, house keys to another, safe harbor for Laura’s stuff until seven. Then Chris asked me if I would keep the urn at my place. Recognizing it as one of those experiences most writers only dream of, I eagerly agreed. But then I noticed Chris had moved to my side.
I pointed to him and to Laura. “You two love birds need to talk.”
“We’re not love birds,” Laura sniffed. But they did talk, moving gradually from my landing to Chris’. After a few minutes, each of them took a box and they went inside, together.
In the Gospel, Lazarus is a beggar. His worst offenses are his poverty and the fact of his being covered with sores. Maybe Chris and Laura aren’t like him. Maybe they’re more like the two thieves, or a pair of Mary Magdalens. If I’d been in the business of rebuking — which I maybe ought to have been — I’m sure that’s exactly how they’d have looked to me.
But they came to me — first Laura, then Chris — as beggars. As far as I was able to surmise, they were begging for relief from the strain of using one another. But they were using each other to create a faint, flickering shadow of a home. Forget the perfect and the good — these two were barely in a position to strive for the tolerable.
For the moment, they seem to have found it. These past few days, it’s been quiet over there. I overheard Chris promise the maintenance guys he’d pay for a new window. Tonight, whatever else he and Laura do, they’ll be providing company for the ashes of a dead child.
And, rightly or wrongly, for my own small, grudging part in helping them maintain their fragile domestic equilibrium, I feel like a rich man — though I hope not Lord Longford.