Cedar Court, 2011 by M. K. Anderson
When we first read M. K. Anderson’s short story “Cedar Court, 2011,” we were all eager to immediately return to the opening and begin again. The combination of captivating tone, propulsive pacing, and realistically rendered characters, full of contradiction and flaws, drives this piece. Anderson writes with restraint and subtlety, offering brief moments of insight—a line of interiority, a quick beat of action between dialogue, the quiet white spaces—that add heightened realism and provide room for the reader to connect. The dynamics between the narrator and several of the supporting characters are both relatable and unique (see Anderson’s author’s note for a discussion on fictionalizing elements of truth and who is granted agency to tell stories). This is a lean, tightly crafted story to read and read again. —CRAFT
I picked Jeff up from the airport. We’d met online and chatted for a few months. Newly divorced, he said, about fifteen years older than me. But he was normal, and he was from somewhere else.
I’d spent hours cleaning the house in preparation for him staying a few days. I didn’t want him to know how we lived. Between the time I’d left for the airport and brought Jeff home, Mom must have crept out of her room, brought in that day’s packages, and opened them. There were boxes and wadded brown paper strewn all over the living room and two dozen glass elephants on the mantle, on the coffee table, and one shattered on the floor. Ma was nowhere to be seen.
Jeff looked shocked. I couldn’t deal with it or explain, so I just made us leave.
We drove to a motel near Turkey Run State Park. After we fucked he went to make a business call and grab us some rural-Indiana Chinese takeout. He had a wife-shaped hole in his habits and slotted me in as if I were interchangeable with any other woman-thing.
After he went to sleep, I crept into the bathroom with a book my friend Marc had recommended. It was Notes from the Underground. Marc said it and a German film, Wings of Desire—those two things were his heart on a plate. He felt like he watched the world but never got to touch it and thought I might understand. I was flattered. I hadn’t finished high school, and was self-conscious I was poorly read, but he didn’t judge. He lived in Austin. They don’t judge down there, he promised.
Back on I-69, down south again to Shipshewana, Jeff started talking about his job, his ex. I pulled out the book. He didn’t notice for thirty miles.
“Can you just put the book down?” he asked.
He asked where I’d heard of it. He knew I also talked to Marc from the same online forum where he and I had met. He knew Mark and I had books in common.
I said it was just on my list. Jeff accused me of cheating on him. I pulled my legs up to my chest, and something about that set him off. He snatched the book out of my lap and as he rolled the window down my hair whipped around my ears. The book thudded against the outside of the car. I didn’t know what he wanted from me. If he’d wanted me to cry, I would have, but I wasn’t sure so I did nothing.
“You’re a whore. You know that?”
I didn’t say anything.
“I left my wife for you.”
That I hadn’t known. He’d lied to me. Against my will, I started laughing.
“I tell you, you won’t even get what you’re willing to settle for,” I said as I finished telling Marc about it.
“Were you afraid?”
It was one of those questions of his. Uncomfortable. But I accepted it, because, I think, it felt dangerous. If I told the truth, he could really hurt me with it. I always told the truth.
None of this was negotiated. We both knew what this was.
“I thought he was going to kill me. Anyway, I guess I’m single now.”
He thought a while. “How did you like the book?”
Soon I lived in Austin, in the apartment above Marc’s. The complex, Cedar Court, was two stories tall, stone, with the staircases open to the outside and a coin laundry on each landing. It was a meticulously maintained dump.
It wasn’t Indiana and was, therefore, perfect.
Marc managed the property in exchange for a room and small stipend. My place was one room fully furnished, with a shared bathroom. Two hundred twenty-four dollars, a dollar a square foot. I could afford it fair and square. It was cramped, but I spent most of my time in Marc’s bigger apartment anyway.
Marc wasn’t much taller than me. He looked older than his mid-thirties and dressed like a little boy, shorts and striped T-shirts. He was not expressive. I liked that about him. We’d go walking, and while we did, he gave a constant narration of the buildings on the drag, the stretch of Guadalupe Street between 30th and MLK. This restaurant would not survive at that price point, he’d say, and click his tongue. That arcade had survived too long without raising its prices, so he suspected it laundered drug money. Cash business, you see.
He told me about the other tenants in a low, conspiratorial tone. Room 105 was an insurance adjuster, probably an alcoholic. Room 200, a call-center worker who rehabilitated kittens in her apartment. She thought Marc didn’t know, but he didn’t care as long as there were no fleas and the other tenants didn’t notice. I think he enjoyed knowing her secret and outing her would mean she’d just acquire another secret he didn’t know. Nobody is as opaque as they believe. What people try to hide but can’t is usually the thing most worth loving.
Once, he told me over dinner an older tenant (112) would be dead soon. Man didn’t have a family and lived on Social Security income. Marc had been setting aside money for a modest burial.
“He doesn’t know.”
“I’ve told him to go to the doctor. He won’t.”
Marc had grown up in an assisted-living home with his mother, a resident nurse. Most of his playmates pushed ninety. He’d watched every childhood friend he had die.
He was right. Marc found 112 dead four months later.
People mistook Marc for my dad. We were similarly diminutive. He was also frequently explaining things to me, which was natural because I needed explaining to. I was a good conversationalist, bright and pretty, but at various points boyfriends needed to teach me how to brush my hair, how to drive, how to get on a bus, how to handle stress in public without bursting into tears. Humiliating basics. In prior relationships this dynamic was creepy, but I needed the skills so I tolerated it. Less creepy in this one. We never had sex. The one time he ever kissed me, he stopped, then went to go brush his teeth. I asked him questions about my hygiene. He said it was fine.
I don’t know.
We went out for Chinese once. He pointed out a woman grabbing takeout. Older. Nearly fifty. He told me she was a divorcée, an author of literary fiction, with an erotica blog she thought was anonymous, but with an email address she’d also used on her Myspace page for something offhand. She was not as successful as she deserved, wounded, and lonely. She blogged that she fantasized about group sex but hadn’t tried it.
“Did she used to live in the building?”
“No,” he said.
I raised my eyebrows. I wished he wouldn’t tell me, but the unspoken deal was no secrets, not even if they sting. “Well… don’t stalk the woman.”
“It’s all available online. I’m just observant.”
I was sympathetic to this. I remember things I ought not to, am drawn to things I shouldn’t know. His all-consuming need to know was a minor sin I shared.
“Are you interested in her?”
I grimaced. “Why didn’t you ask her out when you were single?”
He looked out the window. “The fantasy’s always better than the real thing.”
I stuck with him as long as I could. We were very domestic, good companions. People are disgusted by how much I hurt, and I barely show them any of it. Marc wasn’t disgusted. He should have been.
One evening, I told him, “I want babies. I want to fall in love. You don’t love me.”
“Do you love me?” he asked.
I started crying. “Does it make a difference?”
“No,” he said.
“Right. But I think someday, in retrospect, you might.”
And here, he turned bright red and began to weep. It was the only time I saw him really moved by anything.
We fell into a new pattern. I didn’t hang out with him in his apartment all evening, but we still did dinners once a week. Wendy’s at the UT Student Union.
“They’ve fired Junior,” he said. “Did you see?”
“I saw he wasn’t working.” Junior was the fastest order taker in the world. There was a documentary about him.
Marc shook his head. “He was fired. I have my suspicions why. Anyway, I need to move. Maybe Portland. Someplace dark.”
I ignored him. He said this daily, along with I need to quit caffeine, and I think I have a heart condition, and We’re in for another recession if we don’t switch to the gold standard. Austin was changing. This was the twilight of the slacker years, the end of the youth Marc had spent managing a property and picking up small freelance software gigs, living comfortably on a pittance. Austin had been a good place to be poor but never feel used, never humiliated. It was a place where being the fastest fast-food order taker in the world made you the city’s favorite son. And now Junior was homeless. He would die not long after.
“What are you up to this week?” Marc asked.
“Work,” I said.
I worked at an assisted living place for young people with disabilities. He’d congratulated me when I got it, said he knew I was looking for some stability. But the home I worked in at the time was violent. He didn’t approve of that part.
You don’t need to hurt yourself, he’d said. He couldn’t name another option.
“That bite healing?”
I hadn’t told him about that. Must have seen me come home in my short-sleeved scrubs.
“It still hurts.”
“Hmm. Had a date?”
I sighed. Hadn’t told him that either. “Yeah.”
“Is he rich?”
I made a face at him. “Why?”
“You watch Millionaire Matchmaker.”
I flushed hot red. It was just trashy noise to make the evenings go quicker. I didn’t entertain any idea someone would save me anymore. “I’ll turn the TV down.”
“It’s at a normal volume. Is he rich?”
“I don’t know.” He was newly moved here from New York. Used to work at the U.N. Half of California had moved here, and the place was noticeably worse for it. They wanted the slacker culture, the bands, the art, but the artists themselves they could do without. What they didn’t understand was they brought where they came from with them.
Marc would hate that he was from out of town, so I volunteered, “He’s Catholic. Respectable.”
He frowned a little. “Why’s he going out with you?”
On our second date I found out Tom was, in fact, rich. I said I probably needed a new job. He asked if my parents would help me while I was out of work, just for a few months, like his parents had helped him. He was very surprised when I laughed and how hard. He offered to help me with my resume. I was charmed by that.
Tom was tall, cute enough, with an upturned nose. He hid that he was already balding by shaving his head. I had no grounds to be picky. I lifted thrashing clients all day at work and looked like a tiny battered linebacker underneath my turtleneck.
Back in New York Tom used to supervise the kids for his his church’s youth group, which was winningly wholesome. He said he was looking for wholesome to match. I wasn’t that. It’s not that I didn’t want to be, not that I wouldn’t be grateful if I’d been allowed to play that role. It’s just, that’s not what men like Tom used girls like me for.
Still, nice to pretend.
He tied up his dog, a little Australian shepherd, outside of a gelato place and after we sat down said, “I’ve had a great time. You’re a beautiful young woman.”
“Uh oh,” I said. I put my spoon down. I was young, but he was thirty—not that old. I wasn’t that beautiful either.
He showed his teeth, offended I agreed with him. He pressed on. “But I’m looking for something permanent.”
“Yeah, same. I’ve read your profile, dude.”
“It’s my faith. It’s a huge part of who I am. It’s my whole life. I wanna make sure the woman I spend my—”
“This is a little much for a second date.”
“Well, I wanted to let you down easy. I can see you’re upset.”
Annoyed, more like. What’d be the point of getting upset? It wouldn’t change anything.
“My atheism’s in my profile. Twice.”
“I hope you’re not too disappointed.”
I laughed at the presumption. “Oh, I’m devastated.”
He thought I was serious. Made a very sad teddy bear face. “Why’s that?”
“I haven’t had dick in a year and a half.”
His eyebrows crept up very far as I popped a spoon of gelato in my mouth.
His place was twenty minutes away. Mine would have to do.
“Can I park here?” Tom asked. I’d had him pull around to the back entrance. Marc lived at the front of the building. We couldn’t find parallel parking on the street, so he parked in one of the reserved spaces.
“Might get towed,” I said.
“What’s the fee?”
“Dunno. Two hundred.”
“Fuck. Okay. Fuck.” We both knew it wouldn’t take long.
He opened the back and grabbed his dog’s leash.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“I can’t leave him in here.”
I guessed not, but it was November. He coulda cracked the windows. Plus, the building had a ‘no dogs’ policy. “Does he bark?”
Bullshit, I’d heard it. “Fine.”
I climbed up the back metal stair quietly as I could, and he bounded up after me, clanging all the way. I had the strange sensation of seeing and smelling the place as if it were new to me. Decades of curries and burnt hotplate omelets had seeped into the thin carpet. At the end of the hall, a man in his fifties hung out on the stoop, shirtless, swollen round belly, with a huge bushy beard like a brown middle-aged Santa Claus. He was in 208. He was cool, always checked in on people and made sure they were eating. Marc told me he made ends meet by being a medical test subject. Had ropy scars all up and down his back from skin grafts. We’d helped look after his mom (209) while he was gone getting those scars.
He was also not very observant while smoking up, and so didn’t see us creep in.
I turned and found Tom horrified. He looked around at my apartment—just a futon, a television, a fridge, and an industrial table on which lived my hot plate and microwave.
“Is it safe here?”
I lived there. I felt uncomfortable, then angry that I was uncomfortable. Tom’s dog paced back and forth, sniffing the floor, its nails clicking loudly. I felt suddenly out of breath. Two sets of feet and those loud nails. My floor, Marc’s ceiling.
“Yeah, it’s—L-look, could you tie him up or something?”
Tom snapped out of it. He looped his dog’s leash to the futon frame and started stripping down. Very businesslike. He was naked before I’d even started. No pleasant surprises underneath his chinos. He stumbled out of his pants, sat on the edge of my bed, and made grabby hands at me like a six-foot-tall toddler reaching for his mommy.
I kissed him. It was fine. Outside my door, the door to the outside terrace slammed. Mr. 208 hollered for his mom to come look at something. Tom pulled away from the make-out session and looked over his shoulder, made nervous by an old stoner. What little interest he’d built up died down.
“Should you be doing this?” I said.
“What?” he said.
“Premarital sex? Your faith.”
He looked at me like I was nuts. “This is not a good time to ask me about that.” He pulled my shirt off.
Tom noticed the bruise on my arm, unmistakably from a bite, and, having a goal in mind, was not curious about it at all.
He was a moaner.
“Shh,” I said. The walls were thin. He didn’t listen because men don’t fucking listen.
Finally, peeved, I flipped him. Futon frame shrieked as he landed on it, all six feet and one hundred and eighty pounds of him. I was on top of him, my hand over his mouth. He gasped through my fingers. His dog craned its head over the mattress, very nervous about what we were up to.
And then he was finished. We sped through the customary lying about the quality of the sex while he pulled his underwear on, and he ran to go make sure his beemer was still where he left it. I had all the rest of my evening to shower, watch trashy TV (a fashion show; I was out of the mood for romance), eat ramen. I sat in the emptiness peculiar to Sunday evenings when one is single and alone in the world.
Three days later, I received a text at work.
Tom: I can’t stop thinking about you. I’ve never had someone take over like that.
I rolled my eyes and ignored it. The phone kept buzzing. I checked it that night.
Tom: How are you?
Tom: I said I’d look at your resume. I’ll make good on that.
Tom: Was that bite from work?
Tom: I can give you a ref too if you really need it. It’s gotta be hard. We’ll make something up.
I started tearing up. Didn’t know why. Nobody took care of me if they weren’t getting something from it, I guess.
512: You wanna get banh mi? There’s a place on the drag. I’ll bring my resume. I’ll pay.
Tom: I can just come over. Or you can come here.
512: I’d prefer to meet in public.
Tom: You know what we both want. 😉
A leaden, horrible shame landed on my chest. I looked up on my desktop how to block a number on my (dumb) phone. I was shaking, and something about my shaking tickled me.
512: Did you really just ask me that? Like, a transaction?
Tom: It’s not a transaction if we both want it.
512: But if I say no, I don’t get the reference.
Tom: Well, if we’re not friends, of course not.
512: You fuck your church friends? Who you fooling?
512: Do you think I’m some kind of middle class whore? P in V for a job ref? A handy for eight-dollar wine?
I told him some unkind truths about his anatomy before blocking the number, doing urgent laps of my apartment all the while. I finally bounded down the stairs to knock on Marc’s door. He was already hanging outside of it because he’d heard my pacing, and then my distinctively heavy foot on the stair.
I showed him the texts (minus the first one that outed me as having slept with the creep). Marc didn’t find it funny.
“I tried telling you. He had no business with you.”
I rolled my eyes. “Dating isn’t a business. Anyway, thought you’d laugh. Guess not.”
I headed back toward the door.
“That all?” he asked.
“Did I hear a dog?”
I froze at the door.
“I thought I heard a dog. A few days ago.”
I looked at him. He was as expressionless as ever. He had nothing to give me. I carefully smoothed my own expression to match his.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Are you sure?” he said. “You’re not in trouble.”
I was tired. His game, where he watched and I consented, could be one I played with someone who loved me. Not as a replacement for it.
He swallowed and looked away. His eyes reddened. “I’m sorry. My mistake.”
He fled back inside his apartment, and I went to mine and cried. That’s the last we spoke of it. Or anything. I took to mailing my rent check so I wouldn’t see him in the hall.
Cedar Court’s rent doubled. I heard from other tenants that property taxes and utilities were going up and that was why. One by one everybody moved out, and when it was my turn this guy Freddie from work offered me his couch. What we have—who gets what—it’s honest. At least I’m not in Indiana.
Cedar Court was sold and torn down for a mid-rise. The new place charges eleven hundred dollars a month for rooms the same size. I’m not sure what happened to my neighbors. I don’t know where Marc is. He would have taken care of me. I wonder if anyone will ever take care of me again.
I’m not as pretty as I used to be. I can’t keep this up. Maybe there’s someplace affordable somewhere. Maybe Denver. People love it there, it’s gotta be better there. Maybe I’ll move to Minneapolis. Maybe I’ll move to Portland.
M. K. ANDERSON is a queer writer from Austin, Texas where she lives with her husband and pet finches. Her short stories have appeared in the literary horror anthology series Nightscript and Alternating Current’s The Coil. She also writes nonfiction. Her essays on the intersection of socialism, trauma, and eugenics can be found in Protean Magazine and the Institute for Christian Socialism’s The Bias.