Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2
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Strangers in Houses

Jonah walks to Loaves & Fishes in the darkness, with the California dawn a flat indigo behind the buildings. We are six strangers picked to live in a house, and they are six strangers picked to live in a house, he thinks as the light rail slips by on its track. Its windows shine like televisions, and the homeless wait by the doors. Traffic lights gleam green all the way down the street to the Capitol building, but Jonah waits for the walk signal. He hates to walk past the adult superstore with its parking lots of shadowed figures, pushing their shopping carts and speaking too loudly. Two months into his volunteer year with Catholic Charities, and Jonah is still afraid of the homeless.

Somewhere in the city, six strangers live in an undisclosed location, a house filled with cameras and microphones. Jonah’s house, too, is filled with the remnants of strangers: a chore chart for last year’s volunteers, a blue umbrella with the name Felicia painted on its handle. Jonah has never seen Dance, Party, Rock, but somewhere in the city, those other six strangers are cooler versions of himself and his housemates. He goes to bed at nine, sets his alarm for five a.m., just as those other six are heading out in fresh laundered shirts and cologne. As Jonah falls asleep, he goes through the next day’s menu, reminds himself to pick up onions from the warehouse.

A block from the dining room, and taillights gleam red by the kitchen. The nuns wait for him, and one waves, her sleeve a dark patch against the purple sky. Wherever those six are, whatever their cameras are filming, it is not these colors, not this morning.


When Alex wakes in the night with an ache in his stomach, staggers to the bathroom, and doubles over the toilet, he does not expect to wish for a witness. He holds the cold porcelain and recoils from the horror of last night’s partially digested salad, from the ache in his throat, and he wishes Soren had chosen to sleep with him instead of in her own room. He wishes illness were enough of a reason to wake her. Later, when he has stumbled to the couch and waited for the water in the pipes, the creaking floor to assure him it is safe for television, he watches an old season of Dance, Party, Rock and wishes for his own cameras, his own sound guy and light guy. He wishes he were across town in that other house, where, if he were sick, there would be someone to document it. They’ve all agreed to limit television viewing, but Alex thinks he might be dying. He watches the six strangers having a barbecue, watches them dance in the Gaslamp Quarter. He shivers under the ratty afghan and wishes the television were a two-way glass.

Leo must report to jury duty at 8:30, and he begrudges losing a half hour from his morning, begrudges Alex’s intrusion on his breakfast with his strident television. Mostly he begrudges a day lost from the housing office, the emergency shelter meeting he will miss. He makes his coffee while people from the Dance, Party, Rock house argue. A girl hides in the bathroom.

“Come out of the damn bathroom,” two boys call to her. “What the hell is your problem?”

The girl does not come out. “Let me do me,” she says. “Worry about your own fucking self.”

In his own house, the bathroom door opens, and Alex hurries past with the afghan around his shoulders.

Later, climbing the steps to the courthouse, Leo drafts a letter in his mind describing the need for additional shelter beds. He keeps thinking of that girl on the television, hiding in the bathroom. Was she hiding from her housemates? From confrontation? He passes through security and tries not to grind his teeth at how the white men are waved on while the men of color are wanded down, asked about the contents of their bags. The security guard passes a wand over his chest, under his arms, between his legs, and Leo wonders if he should have worn a suit and tie.

“Headphones are not allowed,” the receptionist tells him when he hands her his sheet. He hasn’t brought headphones, not even a cell phone, but the woman scowls at his pockets, cranes her neck to check his ears. “Most people are sent home early,” she tells him, and Leo prays for the afternoon meeting. A security camera pans the juror waiting room, and maybe the girl in the bathroom wasn’t hiding from her housemates or a fight, but from the cameras themselves, the only part of reality those shows never seem to film.


Soren wakes to televised voices and suspects even before she goes to the living room that it is somehow Alex’s fault. He does look miserable, pale and shivering, but he also looks gleeful, as if he is proud.

“I’m dying,” he says. “I called in sick.”

There’s nothing to do then but to ask if he needs anything, try not to imagine the grossness of the bathroom, hug his shoulders, kiss the top of his head. There’s nothing to do but hurry three blocks to pick up 7UP and Pepto-Bismol, arrive late to her shift at the teen center, and try and convince them that, this time, she is late for a good reason.

Alex asks for toast, and Soren waits in the kitchen, listens to Cleo and X fighting in the Dance, Party, Rock house. It’s the first season, and they’re really going at it, throwing clothes, emptying drawers. “We’re done,” they’re saying, “This is over,” and Soren wonders if they suspect they have three more seasons ahead of them to lie and cheat and throw things. Across town, they are filming another season, and perhaps Cleo and X are still fighting, hurling insults at this moment.

“You look beautiful.” Alex takes her hand, and Soren tries not to imagine the germs.

X throws Cleo’s makeup out the window. “Fat bitch,” he calls. But as Soren buttons her jacket, she tells Alex she loves him, and it feels, somehow, like a greater betrayal.


Catylin peeked at the television on her way out the door, and on Dance, Party, Rock, Thanatos and Ice were doing parkour in San Diego. She’d never seen parkour before, never seen anyone climbing up a building, finding footholds and handholds where there seemed to be none. Thanatos was fast, but it was Ice who made her pause on her way to work, how he danced up the side of a parking garage, leapt from escalator to escalator as if this were something people were built to do and only Ice was smart enough to realize it.

At school, she watches the homeless children on the playground, and some of them are so strong. They fling themselves across the monkey bars and scale the side of the slide, which is not meant for climbing. Ice is in this city, perhaps leaping hedges, climbing the Capitol building. Catylin imagines him dropping down into the playground, hanging from the gutter, running across the wall.

As she plays basketball with Andre, Catylin imagines Ice perched on the backboard, hanging upside down from the post. Malcolm and Lucy screech across the wood chips, and what would they be if they had time to practice? It makes her crazy, their nightmares at naptime, their tendency to hoard their snacks rather than eat them. Afternoons, they leave with their mothers, and she wonders if she will see them again.

Andre’s basketball swishes the net; Malcolm crows from the top of the jungle gym, and warm arms circle Catylin’s waist. Lucy smiles, as if Catylin, too, were something special.


Anjali wakes and knows, even before she goes downstairs, that she is not alone in the house. She still hasn’t gotten the hang of the graveyard shift, collapsing into bed at dawn, sometimes still replaying the night in her head when Jonah’s alarm blares in the room next to hers. Even with the shades drawn, the sunlight wakes her too early. Sometimes she senses the growing exhaustion, a looming tower above her. Her hands shake as she makes instant coffee, and she thinks of the man on the phone last night.

“Calling this number,” he’d said, almost whispered. “Calling this hotline has stopped helping.”

Her voice caught in her throat, and she’d tried to formulate, but he’d hung up, the click on the line like a bone breaking.

An early episode of Dance, Party, Rock plays on the television. Raina and Ice have sex for the first time, slipping out of their clothes in the pixelated modesty of the night-vision cameras.

“Sorry, Mom.” Raina looks at the cameras before pulling up the blankets and snuggling in.

Anjali hunts for the newspaper and wonders if she’s about to become someone who has contributed to a death. The coffee burns her tongue, the television yammers. Her eyes jitter with exhaustion as she considers the headlines, and the even rhythm of Alex’s sleep is enough to keep her from turning the first page. She’s not like Raina. She can’t become a new person with someone watching.


Jonah empties the sterilizer, stacks trays on the cart and wheels it to the dining room. The tables gleam, but he’s forgotten the flowers. He hurries to the walk-in for the carnations in their bud vases. The volunteers from Hammond and Ventnor Law Offices come every second Tuesday to make chilaquiles. A woman in high heels sizzles meat; a man in a plaid apron opens industrial-sized cans of chopped tomatoes. Someone’s daughter has come along today, a skinny girl with an arm full of ragged friendship bracelets that seem unsanitary. She helps Jonah put flowers on the tables.

“Do you guys ever play tricks on each other?” she asks, because Sister Agatha introduced him.

“One of our very own six strangers in a house,” Agatha said, hunting for a pencil. Jonah doesn’t know much about Dance, Party, Rock, but he can imagine the nuns gathered in the Sisters of Mercy house, watching an episode, then saying a prayer.

The girl turns a vase so the bloom faces outward. “Do you ever hide each other’s clothes? Throw cold water on people when they are in the shower?”

Jonah thinks of Alex, stealing food from Leo’s plate when he’s not looking. He thinks of Anjali and Catylin, giggling over one of their inside jokes.

“Sometimes,” Jonah says. They’ve placed all the flowers, but the girl will not stop. She follows him into the kitchen.

“What tricks have you played? Do you ever fight?”

“I need to pick up the tortillas.” He’s forgotten that the homeless will be lined up outside, tickets in hand, waiting for lunch to start. He feels them watching as he passes, feels his face flush. He doesn’t know them, but he can tell he is somehow a disappointment.


Alex wakes to X and Helix playing their first show in San Diego. Helix stands in the DJ booth, stares out at the club with its purple lights and jumping people. Next to her, X beams and bounces. Between sets, X rushes to the dance floor, returns late, forces Helix to mix on the fly. Alex swallows ibuprofen and huddles under the blanket. The crowd’s exuberance and applause when Helix and X finish make him want to cry.

“A better person would use this day.” His voice rasps in the empty house. Not even Anjali is home to hear him.

During the commercial, he hauls his guitar down to the living room. The strings jangle, tarnished and out of tune, but Alex twists the keys. He’s tuned three strings and is about to start the fourth, but Helix is giving X a piece of her mind. Alex watches, rests his guitar on the coffee table. Helix smolders, seething. A fight like that might be worth it, might have its benefits. If someone were that angry, Alex thinks, they’d have to be looking right at him.


Leo walks to the courtroom, where the wooden chairs shine, polished by the backsides of the unwilling. Leo is annoyed but not surprised that the defendants are black men, both with bloodshot eyes, one with dreadlocks slightly shorter than Leo’s own. The men and their lawyers cast a glance over the jurors, and Leo feels their eyes linger. The jury is a jumble of ethnicities—Filipino, Puerto Rican, Hmong—but he is the only black man.

Security cameras whir as the judge describes a homeless woman assaulted in the park, raped with a blunt object, possibly a broom handle. The court stenographer types, but she can’t record the shift Jonah notices in the jurors’ postures, the judgments made silently, instantly. Leo has just drafted a letter demanding additional winter shelter, but the defendants’ eyes linger on him, hopeful, and he imagines their stories, the alibis, the childhoods, the betrayals. The prisons are filled with men just like them, sentenced by strikes, cheated by circumstance, and Leo hates that the cameras are too close, never far enough back to capture the whole story.


Soren has to leave Tutti’s six-months-clean celebration party to call Alex. He’s still in the living room, still with the television, and of course he wants her to pick up some Gatorade. He’s also, of course, wrought with insecurity, struggling with self-doubt.

“Do you think I’m lazy?” he asks, and she hears Paige giving a toast to Tutti, sees her raise her Mountain Dew in a hand spidered by tattoos.

“Of course not.” The teenagers laugh, and Soren marvels at Tutti’s unapologetic smile. “You’re sick,” she says, feeling the ridge below her voice, the mean thread of anger a thrumming undertone.

Later, she’s touched they’ve saved her a slice of pizza, and she listens to them speculating, guessing the location of the Dance, Party, Rock house.

“It’s on L Street,” Tutti says, her dark eyes shining. “Bulldog’s seen the cameras over there.”

Soren thinks of X throwing Cleo’s shoes out of a window, thinks of Cleo crying on the dance floor at a club. If she runs into them, Soren thinks she will tell them to visit the rose garden at McKinley Park. She still hasn’t been there herself, yet, but she will tell them to go soon, before they miss the fall.


Catylin has bathroom duty after lunch, so she misses the drama, leads the girls to the classroom with Lucy and Destiny both clutching her hands. Allison, the head teacher, holds a tissue to Malcolm’s nose, tilts his head backward, warns them of blood on the floor. The other boys crouch around the table and color their math worksheets, and Catylin wonders again at the distance so quick to spring to their eyes.

“He punched him,” Allison says, nodding at Andre in the time-out chair. “On our way back from the bathroom, and he punched Malcolm, out of nowhere.” Allison leads Malcolm to the door. “I’ll take him to the nurse,” she whispers, her breath minty from an after-lunch Altoid. “We’ll have to suspend him.”

Catylin watches the girls settle in among the boys. No one speaks, and Catylin should help, should comfort them, but her mind is empty. Should she explain? Distract them? It’s Lucy, though, who makes a joke, makes Kevon giggle. Tui hums a quiet song, and Destiny smiles at her paper. Catylin watches them spring up like trampled flowers, watches them fix each other instinctively, like Ice scaling a flat wall. Her own uncertainty disappoints her. Finally, she visits Andre in the time-out corner.

“What happened?” she says, and looks into his eyes.


Anjali expects the library to be quiet on a Tuesday afternoon, but she finds the periodicals section filled with homeless people, finds shopping carts and rusty bicycles parked out front. The walls of the library are plastered with warnings about sleeping on the sofas or washing in the bathrooms. In her house, she is the only one who doesn’t work directly with the homeless. They still recognize her, though, still wave, still know which house she lives in. A man with a grizzled beard shares his newspaper, and Anjali searches the pages and wonders if she will cry, if a librarian will ask her to leave. The newspaper lists no suicides, and when she waits for a computer, her searches return only the old suicides, the quiet histories and invisible landmarks. The lights buzz, and the chairs squeak, and Anjali’s eyelids grow heavy. She sinks onto a sofa. Each day she feels herself slipping into someplace strange and inescapable.

“Sorry, Mom,” she might whisper if there were a camera to record her: dirty on a library sofa, surrounded by toothless people who know her by name.


Jonah counts up 835 lunch tickets and pencils the number on the record sheet. He mops the dining room and drains the dingy water as the volunteers from Hammond and Ventnor hang up their aprons and retrieve their purses. The girl with the friendship bracelets zips up her green hoodie and waves.

“Don’t steal anyone’s girlfriend!” she calls to him. If Jonah were a reality star, he would have a comeback, but the door to the parking lot closes, heavy and final.

Six people picked to live in a house, he thinks as he walks home. He looks forward to a shower and to checking his e-mail. Somewhere in this same city, six beautiful people know just what to say. They’re dating other beautiful people, are making money with every camera. The light rail glides past, but Jonah does not cross to the other side of the street. Instead, he passes the adult superstore, and when he smiles at the man in the black jacket, at the woman in the tube top, there is no camera to film him. There will be no record of his courteous nod, of the way his hands swing relaxed at his side, not guarding his wallet, not checking his keys.


Catylin watches the children on the playground, imagines them climbing the gutters, doing backflips off of the roof. When their parents arrive, she gathers jackets and worksheets, hunts for lost stuffed toys. Soon only Andre waits, quiet at the picnic table. Twenty minutes pass, then forty. Finally Andre’s mother appears, enormous in the doorway, the knees of her jeans battered with dust. Catylin waits with Andre as Allison speaks with his mother in the office. When they emerge, the door slams against the wall, and Andre’s mother stamps the floor. Allison’s lips tremble, and Catylin goes to her, circles her shoulders with her arms.

At home, Catylin tries to think of the bannister as a slide that could be used for parkour, tries to imagine how the hanging light could be used to do a flip over the dining room table. Instead, she sees Alex’s loneliness, sees the way he looks to the door as if wishing for a package. It’s not parkour, but instead of going upstairs, Catylin sits next to him.

“What’s going on?” she asks, and she waits for the words to spin like swallows into the air.


Soren finds Catylin and Alex on the couch, the afghan twisted around their legs, and she is struck with both intense jealousy and fierce hope. “Watch it,” she would like to say to Catylin, and also, “Oh, please, yes.”

But Catylin’s smile is guiltless. “You look like you’ve had the kind of day I’ve had,” she says, rising from the couch and touching Soren’s shoulder. “I need to call my mom, but let’s catch up later.” Then Soren and Alex are alone.

“I got the red flavor.” Soren hunts in her bag for the Gatorade.

Cleo is on the television, crying on the phone to her father.

“Thanks.” Alex shifts on the couch, moves the blanket to make room. “Sit with me. It’s almost the end of the season.”

“Are you feeling better?” Soren stalls, watching X flirting with a red-haired girl. So much time wasted, she thinks. The oranges on the tree in the yard have started to ripen.

“Lots,” Alex says, “but I miss you.”

Soren considers the battered leather couch, considers the cloudless sky and the fragrant air. This house used to be a hospice, and she thinks of those dying people, for whom the small scraps of sunlight had to be enough. On television, Cleo complains, and they are all spending time, squandering their allotment.

“Sit with me,” Alex says again.

The decision is small, two indistinguishable futures, but Soren holds the choice in her mind like something fragile.


Leo’s been honest, more than honest, on his jury forms. “I work with the homeless. I fight for them. I am biased. I am not a good choice.” Even so, he’s ushered to one waiting room after another, and he watches as the other jurors disappear, like characters in a horror movie. Soon there are only sixteen of them, watching the television in a small, stuffy room. Then Leo stands before the judge, a black woman in black robes. Leo finds himself shaking, is embarrassed by the trembling in his hands.

“I’m not a good fit for this case,” Leo repeats again. “I may know this woman. I may be biased.”

“She will remain anonymous,” the judge says, “but your concerns are ethical.”

The defendants slouch while the lawyers rifle. When he is selected for the jury, it does not surprise him.

At home, everyone eats dinner in the living room. On television, the Dance, Party, Rock house is in San Francisco. A tall guy summersaults benches in Golden Gate Park; a blonde girl plays a club in Haight-Ashbury.

“Were you chosen?” Catylin asks as Leo makes himself a plate.

When he answers, the others hesitate, unsure whether to congratulate him or apologize. Leo does not help them.


Alex wants to change the channel, to watch a cartoon or a sitcom, something make-believe and saturated with laugh tracks. The others, though, clink their silverware, and even Leo has no complaints. Across the room, Soren sits in the armchair, her running shoes kicked off, her hair dark and sweaty around her ears.

“What’s happened?” he wants to ask her.

Everyone stares at the television, but he can feel them watching him, weighing the tension in the room. Their eyes flick from him to Soren, even as they laugh at X, even as they roll their eyes at Raina’s drama queen routine.

His stomach is too queasy to eat, and his joints throb, his shoulders ache. Everyone is with him, though; everyone is watching. A commercial plays for the next season.

“More action. More drama. You won’t believe,” the announcer says, “what’s being filmed right now.”

They glance, all six of them, to the windows, to the dim sky and the dark city of anonymous people, all content to accept reality, without even fully knowing it.


Anjali takes her break just after midnight, sits on the balcony and peels a tangerine. Through the open window, she can hear Dave and Marion inside, their calm, practiced voices. She’s been told the holidays are the worst time, and the phones ring with a constant jangle that’s almost as painful as the words on the line. Anjali hurries to eat, cuts short her break. If there’s one thing she’s learned, one thing that she’ll never forget, it’s how sad the city is, full of people trying not to die.

Back at her station, she picks up the line, holds the receiver to her ear, and presses the button.

“I made it through another night,” the voice says, and Anjali feels her lips tremble.

“It’s you,” she says. “I’m so glad to hear from you.” She’s aware of the strangeness of the sentiment, aware that it makes no sense at all.

“I was on my way,” the voice says. “Last night I was really on my way.”

The line rustles with static, and Anjali digs her fingernails into her leg, strains to hear.

“I was downtown, when I saw cameras,” the voice continues. “I was two blocks from the bridge, and there were cameras.”

Anjali can see the bridge, lit up, with the dark shadow of the river flowing beneath it. How many lives has that river swallowed?

“I might be on camera,” the voice says. “I might have been there at the right time.”

“Where are you now?” Anjali remembers her training. “Are you safe?”

“Do you think I’ll be on television?” Anjali looks at the shimmering skyline, imagines the people, one for each glowing light. The man speaks, and Anjali twists the phone cord, considers all the people, wanting only to look through their windows and to know, for certain, that someone is looking back.  end  

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