Molly Andrea-Ryan is a poet and prose writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has recently appeared in Pithead Chapel, Barren Magazine, and elsewhere.
Joyce sat down on the stoop that led to a quiet side street to finish the last pages of a novel. She came outside to read on the days when she had no errands to run or social calls to make. It gave her the same sense of satisfaction as having left the apartment with purpose.
She was nearly to the concluding paragraphs when the shadow of a woman fell gracelessly across her knees. Joyce stuck an index finger beneath the word she’d just read and looked up. The woman was squinting down at her, holding her flattened hand like a visor across her brow bone. Joyce waited for the woman to explain herself.
“Hello,” the woman said. “You live here?” She gestured at the ten-story Art Deco apartment building looming over Joyce’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Joyce said before thinking better of it.
“I used to live here,” the woman said. “A long time ago. Almost twenty years ago now. I’m Theresa.”
“Oh,” Joyce said.
“Do they still put up Christmas trees in December? In the lobby?”
“Yeah, they always knew how to make the place look good. I loved my apartment here. It was on the eleventh floor.”
“There are only ten floors,” Joyce said.
“That’s what I meant. The tenth. I loved my apartment. So big and stylish, not like the ones they make now. My apartment now is like a shoebox. Small, white. It only takes me twenty-three steps to get from one end to the other, and you can see I’m not a tall woman. I would have stayed here forever but the rent got too high. One year they raised it and then they didn’t stop. They raised it every year and I couldn’t afford it anymore. How much is your rent?”
Joyce frowned. She was not well-versed in dodging inappropriate questions because she had little experience in being asked them. “It’s a little over thirteen-hundred,” she said, and Theresa whistled.
“You live with someone?” she asked.
“That’s how you can afford a place like that,” Theresa said and laughed. Her laugh was coarse, like it was run through a pepper grinder rather than a human throat. “I loved my apartment but I couldn’t pay no thirteen-hundred a month. I moved a few blocks away, it’s not far, but it’s different. My apartment now is like a shoebox.”
The women lingered in uncomfortable silence. Joyce looked down at her book and sighed before dog-earring the page and shutting it on her lap. Theresa tugged the claw-shaped hair clip from the back of her head. She pulled her thick grey hair into a chokehold before replacing the clip.
“Yeah, it’s nice they still do the Christmas trees,” Theresa said, and clicked her tongue. “I got dumped in front of one of those trees one year. That was a sorry sight. All those lights—they always got the white lights, classy, not like those multicolored ones everyone uses now—and the bells and baubles and red ribbon and the little statues of Mary and Joseph. And me in the middle of it all, getting dumped.”
Joyce felt herself soften. “That’s awful,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Theresa said, shrugging. “He wasn’t the one, anyway.”
“Did you find the one?”
“No,” Theresa said and laughed her pepper grinder laugh. “I’m single as a wolf. He did call me, though, not too long ago.”
“The man who dumped you?”
“The very same. He said he wanted to reconnect. We agreed to meet up and get coffee downtown. There’s a coffee place that lets you smoke cigars inside. I said to him, ‘You still smoke cigars?’ and he said, ‘I sure do.’ So we met up and we got to talking and he said he missed me and that he was sorry for the whole thing. I told him I couldn’t say in perfect honesty that I missed him, too. He said, ‘That’s probably for the best. I’m married.’ Can you believe that?”
Joyce shook her head no.
“Calling me up after all these years like he wanted to start something and then turning around to say, ‘I’m married.’ What a dud. But I did love my apartment here.”
The women lapsed into another round of silence.
Finally, Joyce asked, “Why did he do it?”
“Dump you in front of the Christmas tree.”
“Oh, that?” Theresa said. “I made that up.”
Joyce startled. “You made what up?”
“The boyfriend, the dumping.”
Joyce stared at Theresa and Theresa stared up at the sky. She yanked her hair high up on her head so that her hair clip sat cockeyed on her crown.
“Why would you make all of that up?” Joyce asked. “That’s really...an odd thing to do.”
“Why not? It’s a good story, innit? Besides, I didn’t make all of it up,” Theresa said. “I did live here. I loved my apartment. Not like the one I live in now, let me tell you.”
Joyce stood up, clutching her book in one hand and fishing her keys from her coat pocket with the other.
“Like a shoebox. Twenty-three steps it takes me, from one side to the other.”
“Yes,” Joyce said. “So I’ve heard. I should go, I have a...I have to make dinner.”
“At noon?” Theresa asked.
Joyce cringed. “Yes,” she said slowly. “It’s a complicated recipe.”
Joyce walked up the narrow pathway between the stoop and the door to the apartment building. She hesitated a moment, listening for footsteps, worried that Theresa would try to follow her inside. “After all,” Joyce thought, “she probably feels entitled to the place.” She chanced a glance over her shoulder to find Theresa leaning with one foot on the stoop and the other on the sidewalk, looking up at the tenth floor. She pointed and Joyce looked.
“That’s the one,” Theresa said. “My old apartment. Wonder how much it costs now?”
Joyce said nothing. She put the key in the lock and turned it quickly, heaving the heavy door open.
“Okay, then,” Theresa called. “See you later.”
That Christmas, when management put up the trees and the wreaths and the lights, Joyce caught herself imagining a younger Theresa: hair loose on her shoulders, a red velvet dress cutting just above the knee. Unlocking the front door, followed inside by a young man. Reaching the Christmas tree and stopping, turning on her heel and grinning at the young man, taking his hands, trying to catch his eye, frowning when he stares down at the floor. They speak—Joyce did not bother to fill in the dialogue, she knew the gist—and when the man leaves, Theresa stands for minutes that stretch like hours in the glow of the lights, arms hanging empty at her sides and tears like silver beads slipping down her cheeks.
Joyce reminded herself again and again that the story was a lie, but still, she couldn’t escape the allure. When her cousin came to town for Christmas Eve dinner, Joyce heard herself saying, “See the Christmas tree? Yes, it is beautiful. I saw a woman get broken up with in front of that tree. Can you believe it? All these lights, and her just standing there in the glow. Crying, yes she was crying. Isn’t it awful?”
“When did that happen?” her husband asked.
“Oh, years ago, John” Joyce said, waving an absent hand. “You weren’t here. You were at work.”
“I’ve never heard that story before,” her husband said.
“I only just remembered it,” Joyce mumbled. “The oven is on, let’s get moving.”
Joyce was stepping out of a movie and into the late afternoon sunlight the next time she saw Theresa. She had that dreamy feeling that always followed her out of the darkened theater, like she was a character floating through her own unreality, when Theresa shuffled past her. Her hair was still pulled into a mousy knot and gripped in the teeth of a claw-shaped clip, this one a deep emerald green that matched the fabric of her dress and the laces on her little tennis shoes. She seemed to float, too, in a clunky sort of way, and Joyce had the vague feeling that the two were dual protagonists in the same film.
“Theresa,” Joyce said, startled by her own voice.
Theresa turned and squinted at Joyce’s face. “Yes?” she asked. “Who are you? Do I know you?”
“Yes. No. I never formally introduced myself, but we’ve spoken. I’m Joyce. I live in your old building, we spoke about the rent and the, ah, Christmas trees.” Joyce felt herself shrink under the harsh glow of not being remembered.
“Oh sure, sure,” Theresa said, shuffling in close to Joyce so the fabric of their sleeves kissed. “Joyce, is it? Sure, sure. I remember. You’re paying thirteen-hundred up there. Not me, I had to leave.”
“Right,” Joyce said. “Would you...would you like to have coffee with me?”
“I don’t see why not,” Theresa shrugged.
Joyce flushed as she pointed across the street, shepherding Theresa into a small coffee shop with pink walls that reminded Joyce of stomach aches. They ordered cups of plain coffee with milk and sugar and Joyce shooed away Theresa’s dollar bills as she handed the barista her debit card. They picked a table near the window and Joyce sipped her coffee through quivering lips as Theresa spoke.
“I sure do miss that building,” Theresa said, crinkling her nose at the thick smell rising from her pink cup.
“I can imagine,” Joyce said. “It’s wonderful.” She paused, unsure of how to ask for what she wanted. “Do you have any other...stories? From your time there?”
“Oh sure, sure,” Theresa said. “Sure.” She took a gulp of coffee and let out a deep sigh. “They ever tell you about the kid who fell out of the window?”
Joyce’s eyes widened. She shook her head no.
“Well, let’s see, it had to have been sometime in the 90s. He was some kind of student, I think. Pre-med? Anyway, him and his buddies had gone up on the roof and they were drinking like their little lives depended on it. They made it off the roof in one piece, but there’s a big window at the bottom of the stairs there, right where the tenth floor starts—you ever seen it?—and the kid thought it would be a good idea to open the window and lean out.”
“Oh, god,” Joyce whispered.
“Yeah, ‘oh, god,’ is right,” Theresa said, letting out a low whistle. “He went down, just fell right out. All the way down to the street.”
“And did he…”
“Oh, he died, alright. And then he never left.” Theresa crossed an ankle over her knee and leaned back in her chair, giving Joyce a challenging look.
“You mean he’s...he haunts the place?”
“Sure does,” Theresa said. “Little signs of him, you know. Footsteps on the roof when no one’s up there. The window wide open when it was nailed shut—they nailed it after he fell, of course. I even saw him once, coming down from the roof. Went straight for the window and then just—poof—disappeared. I got the feeling he was trying to leave, you know, for good. Like if he could just get out that window one more time, he’d be out of here forever.”
“Wow,” Joyce said. She was certain Theresa was lying again, not because she didn’t believe in ghosts but because of the way she would start and stop like she was stitching together the pieces as they appeared to her for the first time. Before she told her mother the story later, over the phone, she made sure to rehearse it in her head, to fill in the gaps so there were no follow-up questions. In her version, the boy was certainly a pre-med student and he only had one year left before going on to an elite school up north. He was feeling overwhelmed the night he fell, had suddenly felt the pressing need to get some fresh air. The window beckoned to him as if the building had its own plans for him all along. And when Joyce saw him—in her version, she’d seen his ghostly figure with her own eyes—he spoke to her.
“It must end,” he said to Joyce.
“I’m so sorry,” Joyce said back. Of course, she’d shed a tear when he pried open the impossibly shut window. She’d wept when he leaned his body forward over the ledge until a remembered sense of gravity overtook him and sucked him out into the open air. She’d run to the window to see if his vacuous frame would hit the ground, only to discover that the window was, of course, nailed shut.
Her mother, a firm believer in the restless afterlife, was thoroughly impressed. She suggested that Joyce contact a ghost hunter, and Joyce had declined, saying she wanted to leave the boy alone, to give him as much peace as was possible in his circumstances.
When Joyce attended the biannual meeting of local music hall board members, she waited patiently for discussion of upcoming symphonies and traveling musical theater troupes to cease before bringing up a story of her own creation. The ghost story she preferred to tell in the privacy of her own home to avoid the mockery or doubt of non-believers. The breakup story, while moving, paled in terms of sensationalism. The story she chose now to tell was of a robbery that took place in the gas station across the street from her apartment.
“The suspect,” she said, placing a hand over her heart, “had a gun. He forced the man behind the register to give him everything, everything, and when he ran out of the store, he ran straight for my building.”
“Did he get inside?” a woman named Marcine asked. Joyce did not care for Marcine on a normal day, but her combination of nosiness and gullibility was well-suited to the occasion and Joyce appreciated her probing.
“Yes,” Joyce said. “He got inside and took off down the hall, only to find himself lost within minutes. It’s a labyrinth down there, you see. A few apartments, but mostly hallways that lead to maintenance offices, storage units, that sort of thing. One of the offices connects to a tunnel that’s built at an angle, you see, so it goes underground, right under the street. It’s dark and full of stagnant water and insects and lord knows what else. Even the maintenance men don’t use it anymore. They’re not even sure if it’s still structurally sound.”
“Did he end up in another building?” asked a man Joyce had never spoken to directly.
“No,” Joyce said, shaking her head. “By the time he got into the tunnel, the police had arrived. There was a chase, and the man shot blindly behind him.” Joyce paused, considering her options. She picked an ending she’d never thought of before. “The bullet,” she said, “ricocheted off one side of the hall and hit the robber square in the chest. He died.”
“When did you say this happened?” asked another man, Roger, whom Joyce had always found intimidating.
“Not terribly long ago,” Joyce said. “Just a few weeks ago.”
“Seems strange,” Roger said, rising from his seat and taking a few steps toward Joyce. She felt as though he were a detective, gearing up to interrogate her, to expose her. He walked to a table at the far end of the room and picked up a pastry. “I don’t think I saw anything about it in the paper.”
“Oh,” Joyce said, her lips beginning to tremble. A thin sheen of sweat bloomed in her armpits. “You know how these things are. Small time robbery, accidental death. They don’t report on all of those little stories.”
“An almost-shootout seems to warrant at least a mention,” Roger said around flaky bites of pastry. “But then, I’m not a reporter. What do I know?” He laughed as if he’d surprised himself with a clever joke, and others laughed with him.
With each story she succeeded in telling, Joyce’s lies became more and more compulsive. She lied to her husband about what was out of stock at the supermarket. She lied to her hairdresser about the kinds of tea she loved and hated. She lied to servers at restaurants about where she’d spent her afternoons. With each lie, she felt a little more sick, a little more twisted, a little more startled by her own misbehavior. Theresa’s voice, It’s a good story, innit? would return to her, come to her defense, only she wasn’t telling stories anymore. She was just lying for the sake of a lie the way she drank a fourth glass of wine when three would have been enough.
One afternoon, she called John’s office to remind him that they needed to schedule an appointment with their leasing office. They had decided to move into a bigger unit, one with a better layout and a better view. His receptionist answered and told Joyce in her birdlike voice that John was in a meeting.
“It’s about his mother,” Joyce responded, the words falling from her lips before she could catch them.
“Oh, my goodness,” the receptionist said. “I’ll get him straight away.”
“No, wait,” Joyce stammered, but the hold music was already chirping on the other end. She hung up before her husband picked up.
After Joyce let the phone go to the answering machine three times in a row, John stopped calling. Twenty minutes later, he burst through the front door, sweaty and red-faced.
“Why did you hang up? Why didn’t you answer? What’s wrong with my mother?” he asked, the questions tumbling out as if he were trying to ask them all at the exact same time.
“Your mother?” Joyce asked nervously. “I was only calling to remind you of the leasing office appointment. When your receptionist said you were in a meeting, I hung up. I went out in the garden, so I didn’t hear you calling.” She was speaking too fast to sound believable, and John’s face told her as much.
“She said that you said there was something wrong with my mother,” he said slowly.
“Why would I say that? There’s nothing wrong with your mother. At least, as far as I know.”
John stared at Joyce and Joyce stared at her nail beds. Just when she was preparing to mention her dire need for a manicure, John said, “You’ve been behaving strangely,” firm, as if he’d been wanting to say it for weeks.
“I don’t know what you mean, John,” Joyce said. She arranged her face into a pout.
“You just...aren’t acting like yourself,” John said. “Babbling all the time. Like a schoolgirl. Telling everyone strange stories, telling…” He trailed off, the word lies hanging dangerously in the air.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Joyce sniffed.
“I ran into Roger at the club two nights ago,” John said. “He mentioned something about a robbery and a shootout. I was extremely embarrassed to hear, after I told him I had no idea what he was talking about, that you told him that.”
Joyce began to cry. She ran her hands through her hair and down her face. The room spun around her and she leaned back against the kitchen counter. John approached her slowly, placing a hand on her shoulder. She pushed her forehead against his chest and he brushed the back of her hair with a flattened palm, tender but hesitant.
“You’re right, John,” Joyce said between gulping breaths. “I have been acting strangely. I don’t know what’s come over me. I just keep telling these stories and these fibs and it’s like I can’t stop.”
She continued to cry, purging each lie to John like they were sitting in a confessional booth. Once she was finished recounting each one, she promised she would stop. John hugged her, bewildered, and picked up the phone to call the leasing office. Joyce felt clean and raw. She floated into the living room and sat down on the couch with her book.
A week later and Joyce had not told a single lie. She was walking into the supermarket when she saw Theresa, dress wrinkled and one tennis shoe untied, leaning against the deli counter. Joyce’s heart thrilled as she walked closer, scanning rows of dried pasta as she tried to hone in on Theresa’s voice. “I won’t speak to her,” she thought. “I’ll just listen.”
Theresa talked for a few minutes about the price of meat and the price of cheese, the hormones in meat and the preservatives in cheese, before saying, “I grew up on a dairy farm.”
Joyce felt a tingling in the back of her skull.
“Did you?” the man behind the counter asked.
“Yup,” Theresa said. “We had a bit of livestock, too. I used to name every cow that was born on that farm, and my daddy always told me not to. He said I wasn’t supposed to get attached, they weren’t cats and dogs, they were food. My favorite cow was named Daisy. She was a runt but I’m telling you, she was smarter than any cow I’ve ever met before or since. She seemed to sense that her time was coming to an end, so you know what she did?”
“What?” the man asked.
“She escaped. Broke right out of the barn one night and must have been running real fast because she cleared our fence, barbed wire and all. Not even a hair or a drop of blood on any of those barbs.”
The man said nothing, so Theresa continued. “I saw her again, just one time. It must have been five years later and I had just gotten my driver’s license, so I was taking out the truck, and I got a good ten miles from the farm and drove down into the valley and there she was, munching on grass like she had the best life in the world.”
Joyce sensed from the man’s silence that he had lost interest in what Theresa was saying and moved quickly to the other side of the store before Theresa turned around. She replayed Theresa’s farm story over in her head, smiling. It was a little far-fetched, a little too pastoral, but she enjoyed it nonetheless, enjoyed Theresa’s daringness to tell it with a straight face.
She found herself envying Theresa and her untethered conversations, pitying her own connectedness and the way that her words could so easily follow her home. She couldn’t help wanting to trade places with Theresa, if only for a day.
Joyce drove home with images of car crashes and firefighters rescuing stray cats from the tops of trees dancing through her mind. She played out the possibility of blowing a tire on the highway and skidding into the guardrail, how the adrenaline would course through her limbs, how her hands would shake when she told John about it from a payphone in the emergency room. She passed a construction site and thought of picket signs and chanting, the workers fed up with their lot in life.
John’s car was in the driveway when she arrived at home. He came out to help her unload the groceries from the trunk, kissing her on the cheek and asking, “How was your day?”
“Oh,” Joyce responded, hoisting a paper bag onto her hip like a child. “Just the usual. Although I did see the strangest thing on my way home.”