The Night the Movers Came – Anita Felicelli
A strange man and woman and boy are moving into the condo on the other side of the court. All day, three or four burly and tattooed movers have hauled leather couches and an armoire and glass tables and plush overstuffed armchairs through a narrow front door painted dusty rose, a door fixed with a brass-plated knocker like all the other doors in the complex. The movers are yapping—loud enough for me to hear them, but not so loud I can understand—and they are all moving in slow motion, their limbs oozing in and out of that door, the movers and the family, as if I’d pushed a button and changed their speeds. Even though they move like they have all the time in the world, they do not take a moment to wipe their shoes before crossing the wooden bumper at the threshold. I imagine their big feet tracking dirt through the living room, big muddy footprints up the stairs and into the master bedroom, the mirror image of my own bedroom where I am waiting for my husband and baby son to return.
Every night, same drama. I force the spearmint toothpaste from a dwindling supply, squirt it onto my toothbrush and run it across my teeth in a back and forth, relentless metronome. First the front two teeth—get them bright and shiny—then the left side of my mouth, then the right. Spit a mouthful of froth into the pink porcelain sink and realize again that the sink needs cleaning. Tomorrow, I think. Tomorrow. I brush some more because a few seconds of tingling is not enough. They don’t feel clean enough. They don’t look bright enough. Froth, spit. In the mirror, I bare my teeth and run a finger over my canines. After years of black tea baths, my teeth are neither bright nor white, and I think to myself, I should do something about that even if Malcolm doesn’t mind. Maybe tomorrow.
Most people use a cup, but I cup water in my hands and bring it to my mouth and swish it around in my mouth before spitting it out. The dogs are barking and whining in the backyard—or is it in a nearby backyard? Perhaps, they’ve cornered another rat or a raccoon, I’m not sure how many they’ve cornered over the years. I run the water for a minute, and scrub my face with peach exfoliator from the drugstore, watching dead skin cells flake off my face. I splash my face. The sink needs to be cleaned.
The autumn wind howls dry and ominous, a wind shot through with yellow-brown deciduous leaves and bonfire smoke and prickly sweet gum seeds, a wind that intimates wolves, an aromatic wind that presses against the windows as if to warn me something tragic has happened and I don’t know it yet. I trudge down the hall to close the bedroom window. I don’t bother to flick on the light switch, I just want to guard myself against that wretched howl, which is so lonely and dark it echoes in my bones.
Last week a young man was tied to his chair in a home invasion robbery. Down the block, another little court off Loma Linda. He described the robbers as PacMen moving swiftly and quietly through the rooms and gobbling his possessions. It is a terrible week to move into our neighborhood. We used to be a lemonade-and-cookies place, a leave-your-door-unlocked place. Toddlers drawing seascapes with chalk and riding shiny red tricycles. Perhaps it can be that again, I tell myself, now that another little boy has finally moved in across the street. He and my son can race up and down the court or play basketball. As long as one of us is out there, watching them, nothing will happen with the robbers.
As I set my toothbrush down next to the sink, I try to picture what the robbers looked like, but the young man down the street did not have a strong description to share with me. He is one of those wealthy tech entrepreneurs, I think, but then again there are so many of them moving into the neighborhood these days, maybe I am just assuming and my assumption is wrong.
It is not as if I have anything of value to be robbed.
Inside the bedroom, against the wall, a black and white movie flickers and hums like an old-school film projector. Tick-tick-tick, so goes the reel unwinding. A white tooth travels up an angular black channel like PacMan, or perhaps more like the dots PacMan eats. The tooth is wandering through a floor plan, eating the furniture and not eating the furniture, rattling against the sides of the channel.
The quiver is what gets me. I want to straighten that tooth, put it in its proper place. It is challenging me: you feel stable? you feel stable? you shouldn’t feel stable. I run a finger against my canines and wonder if I’m right that they’ve gotten longer and sharper.
I could watch the movie all night. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, though, I worry that this is a hallucination—maybe going off my medication has triggered psychosis. There was nothing manic about the way I brushed my teeth though. Nothing sped up or slowed down, but there were the neighbors oozing in and out of doors, slowly like ice cream drips or wax melting. If Malcolm were home he could measure my speed tooth brushing, and perhaps even my speed while thinking, by which I really mean the speed of my talking, of course.
I look at the clock on the nightstand. I have moved the nightstand closer to the door as a kind of barricade, in case the robbers come for me. The wispy second hand ticks around in a circle, and I count the ticks to see if they seem fast or slow. I count out loud, but I realize suddenly that the ticks are so noisy, my teeth are rattling. Also, there is nothing to measure the ticks against because I am thinking only about the numbers, instead of thinking my own thoughts, and therefore I am thinking at the pace of the clock, and so who’s to say if that clock is speeding me up or slowing me down?
That tooth is still moving up the wall, through that floor plan, and it seems that even though the tooth keeps eating furniture and technically it should be gone, there is always more furniture for the tooth to eat. I wonder where the movie coming from, where the source is. I yank the down comforter aside and search under the bed for the projector. Nothing there, nothing there. I can hear my dogs whining. Damn dogs! It sounds like there’s a pack of them. They are always scaring the baby.
I scan the baseboard of the wall opposite the film, and the windows of the neighboring houses and the street. I search inside a cubby on an adjacent wall. No projector. No wires. No listening devices. Nothing, nada, zip. The tooth is now blinking on the stucco wall, like a cursor on a screen. It blinks and blinks, and there is nothing to show for all that except the floor plan, all those empty rooms. I don’t know what the significance of that floor plan is, what could the filmmaker have been thinking?
Downstairs there are footsteps, firm ones that creak against the floorboards. My dogs should bark and run inside at the sound of them, rushing the intruders the way they rush guests, but judging from the whining, they are still walking around the backyard. I shove the nightstand out of the way, open the bedroom door, and peer over the white rail of the landing down to the hardwood floors below. Two moving men are carrying the couch out of my living room, down the hall past the staircase, and slipping it through the front door. “You don’t need to take that,” I call down to them. But they don’t seem to hear me. I run back to the bedroom window. The moving men are carrying my furniture across the street and into the neighbor’s condo. They take it across the court, disappear into the other house and then return to take the armchairs and tables.
I search for my shoes and clothes, but they are missing, so I run downstairs barefoot, wearing only my robe. I make a mental inventory of what’s missing downstairs, and then check the backyard for the dogs, thinking that they might be locked out. In the backyard, a long, aggressive passionflower vine is curling through the glossy leaves of the lemon tree, strangling it. Strung along it like musical notes are weird flowers with baroque purple centers and skinny creamy petals. Hundreds of the lemons are bloated and overripe, and they have fallen to the ground, splatted against the concrete patio, and gone to mold. I should have picked the lemons earlier I suppose.
I have a vague recollection of making limoncello, grating the peel, covering the dining room table with mountains of tiny curls of sunshine. I think that same summer I was pickling lemons, preserving lemons, making lemon chiffon pies and lemon bars, squeezing lemon into salt to make bath salts, and Malcolm eventually lost his temper about the mess I made in the kitchen, the heady fragrance of the lemons filling our condo and my hands all bloody from the thorns on the passionflower vine and stinging with the lemon juice in my wounds.
I open the sliding glass door, and call for the dogs, but they are gone. I don’t know what’s making that sound of barking, which I can still hear, still the same distance away. I can smell dog shit and urine. My nostrils are filled with the foul smell, but I don’t see anything on the patio or in the pale gold weeds where the garden used to be. There is a clothesline strung from one end of the yard to the other. I don’t remember putting it up, but there’s so much I don’t remember, deep cavities in my memory. I really should tidy up the patio and garden. Malcolm will be so upset that I let the plot go like that. I slide the door shut and hurry through the living room. I see a moving man hefting a chair above his head and plodding through the front door into the smoky dusk. I run after him, shouting wait, wait! The black asphalt is cool and smooth beneath my feet.
A neighbor in a pink sweater who I don’t recognize approaches me, grabs my by the arm before I can reach the moving man. He disappears into the other condo. I turn, ready to yell at the neighbor. She is a small Asian woman with hair cropped short and black hornbill glasses. I’ve never seen her before, but she seems to think she knows me. “How are you today, Mrs. Kaya? Everything all right?”
“Of course everything’s all right,” I say. I pull my dressing gown tight around my stomach and draw myself up.
“I haven’t seen you in a couple of weeks. How are you keeping busy in there?” She gestures at my home.
I smile to be polite. This woman is very forward, but she probably doesn’t intend me any harm. “Oh you know, taking care of the dogs, watching my reality programs, waiting for Malcolm and the baby to get back from their trip. Speaking of my dogs, I think they might have escaped the backyard or slipped out the front door without my realizing it. You haven’t seen them wandering around have you?”
The woman looks taken aback, and then her face twists a little as if she’s pained by my words. She says slowly, perhaps a little condescendingly, “Your son hasn’t visited in a long while. Do you need me to call him and have him come by?”
Who does she think she is?
“Malcolm will bring my son home with him. He took the car seat,” I say. I tap my foot impatiently against the ground. All my neighbors’ cars are in their driveways, but it disturbs me slightly, that I don’t recognize these cars. Are all my neighbors new? “I guess I need to call the humane society, or is it the animal shelter you call when your dogs run away?”
She nods vigorously. “I’m sure he will, but just to make sure, let me give your son a call…”
I sigh. “Have you met the new neighbors yet?”
The woman looks puzzled. “No. Nobody’s moved into our court for years.”
Fed up with the woman’s total lack of knowledge about anything worth knowing, I decide to go back inside. I will come out later, when I’m sure she’s gone back into her own condo where she belongs. “Then you’re of no use to me.” I pivot and stalk back into the house.
Back inside the hallway, I notice that more of the furniture is gone. The movers must have slipped in without me seeing them. The milled cherry foyer table is missing, the taupe couch is gone, and all the framed miniature paintings on the wall have inconveniently disappeared. Some of my kitchenware seems to be missing, too. Those petty robbers have even taken my husband’s plastic basketball hoop that has been installed for years on the far end of the living room, adjacent to the picture window that faces onto the lemon tree. And then I notice that the window is bare—they have removed the linen drapes with their pattern of white roses on ecru, and the mantelpiece over the fireplace is barren of all the usual gewgaws, the souvenirs from our vacations and wedding photos.
I start to feel frantic. I decide to check upstairs.
The baby’s room looks forlorn without the crib. What kind of robbers are these! They have taken a crib, even though the boy across the way is no longer a baby and should be sleeping in his own bed. I realize that my teeth are badly in need of brushing again.
I walk into our master bedroom, and pull out my toothbrush. I start brushing and I am still brushing when I hear the telephone ring on the nightstand. I set the toothbrush down and with my mouth still full of white spearmint foam, I greet the person on the other end of the line.
“Mom, is that you?” the voice says.
“Who is this?” I ask, after swallowing the foam.
I can hear someone sigh on the other end. “It’s your son, Mom.”
“What? My son hasn’t even said his first words yet,” I say, trying to remain pleasant. “Who is this? This isn’t funny.”
“Mom,” he says louder. I can sense a keening desperation in this person’s voice, but I don’t know how to help him. “It’s me. It’s fucking me.”
I hear the shur-shur of footsteps moving around downstairs again. “Listen, can’t really talk right now,” I say.
The man on the other end says “What? Stay put, I’m coming.”
“That’s really not necessary, sir,” I say. I hang up as three movers in short-sleeved shirts and jeans silently climb up the stairs, stepping up to the landing in a row. They march into my room and I back up. Up close, they look vaguely familiar, all the contours of their faces like some dream you’ve dreamed before and forgotten as the morning light hits your face. They don’t seem to notice the movie on the wall at all. Two of them take the mattress and the other takes a nightstand. They take the furniture downstairs, bumping against the stucco. “Careful, careful,” I call after them.
As they walk across the court to the other condo, I see that the small boy is riding his shiny red tricycle around the court in the dark. It is my son’s tricycle. I recognize the reflectors on it. I open my window and call down to the boy. “Are your parents inside?” He doesn’t even look up. He is riding around under the streetlamp, making figure 8s. A few minutes later, I hear the movers as they clunk back up the stairs in their big boots. I turn to see them picking up the bedframe.
I scream at them, “Can’t you see the tooth on the wall?” They ignore me. I look down from my window and watch them enter the other house. The boy and his tricycle are gone. I miss my son and my husband with a strange and total longing. I suppose they haven’t been gone that long, but I can’t for the life of me remember where I put the phone number of my husband’s hotel to call and check in on him. Perhaps it was in the nightstand that the movers took across the way.
From the window I look across to the other condo where the family has just moved in. The lights downstairs are on, and the lower level of the condo glows softly as if a flashlight is being shone through wax paper in the windows. The husband, wife and toddler son are standing together in the kitchen near a small breakfast table eating fast food—my breakfast table, I notice with a start of recognition. I do not begrudge them any of the furniture they have stolen. They are just starting out. I remember when we moved in just a few years ago, how young we were and how happy. In the background is a fort of brown boxes, presumably filled with kitchenware. The toddler is running back and forth, just like my son used to do. I watch for a little while. In a few days Malcolm will be home with my son, and we will walk over to see the new boy across the way, and we will lift the brass-plated knocker on the door and tap it three times. We will chalk seascapes on the asphalt and time tricycle races.
On the opposite wall, the movie keeps running. That tooth continues bumping through the maze. I am mesmerized. What a dogged little tooth to keep going in the face of all those corners, no endpoint in sight. I sit down on the stained beige carpet in my empty room, cross my legs, and watch, and watch.