The Boiler

Danny Judge

A SMALL TOWN PASTORAL 

I.

The walkthrough went well until I mentioned my son, at which point her demeanor changed radically. I didn’t know what The Insurance Woman knew: she wasn’t allowed to deny an applicant solely because they have a child. She feigned disappointment, like I’d just given her the bad news. She affected sympathy and explained she didn’t rent to folks with kids, that her tenants were older and preferred silence. She tried to coach me into making the decision for her. It worked. I believed her act. I’m sorry you don’t want the place, she said, but, of course, your son is more important. The thing is—for a minute—I really believed I was telling her no. Well, she added, if anything changes . . .

Wait. What could change?

Downstairs, she told me she couldn’t include her “no kids” rule in her classified listings. She seemed to think we’d suddenly become confidants, like she sized me up and thought, in spite of our differences, that I would “get it.” Two small-towners like us.

II.

When I first queried about the apartment, she asked me to tell her about myself. I told her: twenty-nine, in college on the G.I. Bill, separating amicably (more or less) from my wife of five years, looking for a quiet place close to campus. I left nothing out—not intentionally. I had no reason to guess she was fishing, and that only by neglecting to mention my son did I even receive a response—I just sent her what I thought best expressed my ability to pay the rent and keep the place clean. “You sound perfect,” she’d written.

Apparently, things changed.

That night I told my wife: I’d looked it up. The Insurance Woman broke the law and considered me oblivious—or worse: acquiescent.

“Seriously,” she said, incredulous. “Your civil rights. Because you didn’t get the apartment you wanted.”

“What’s that look? How is this ridiculous?”

But maybe it was.

“Never mind,” I said.

We were holding it together for the holidays. I told her about The Insurance Woman, and that’s when she knew I was looking, that I’d pursued a serious prospect, and that it was all really real. She didn’t flinch.

I betrayed no warmth either, no tinge of capitulation. That’s not the way a marriage ends: with one party breaking ranks. These things go down with both captains aboard, standing stiff-necked and resolute.

III.

The next morning I walked past her place, a red-brick building with wide, paneled windows. The Insurance Woman’s name was plastered on the window. The university was a short walk from her door. I still loved the location. I walked a lot these days.

In August, I’d been in an accident. Caused an accident, was more like it. I failed to yield at a left turn and was broadsided. All my fault. An old man died. Internal bleeding. My son was asleep in his car seat. He wasn’t hurt, but it was a less than ideal way to wake up from a nap. I’d been sleeping very little and wasn’t as alert as I should have been. My wife was undergoing chemo in week-long stretches. Molar pregnancy. Cancerous. A baby never develops: the cells don’t do what they should—they simply multiply, attacking vital organs. It spread to her lungs. No beginning, but there could damn well be an end, if she didn’t start treatment. I was dropping my son off for the night at my mother’s when we wrecked. I made it back to the hospital, albeit a little later than I’d anticipated.

Every night spent in that hospital, we spent in unspoken fear of what would happen when the cancer was gone, when the hospital was a memory, when we were left again to our own devices. When she recovered, we had to face the fact that we were unable and/or unwilling to continue. The accident—my accidental murder and my pernicious guilt—stress, money, resentment, cancer, the baby, the non-baby.

The baby never existed, medically speaking. But we still had the shared memory of the ultrasound, of trying to interpret the mounting unease the mood of the ultrasound technician, the long moments of oppressive silence where there should have been a heartbeat, pitch black where there should have been life. Finally, flustered, flushed: “I just don’t see a baby,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

They pulled my license after the accident. Now I walked. And I needed a place to live (maybe to hide). Cue The Insurance Woman. Just another thing, nothing symbolic about it. I had a decision to make.

I paused in front of the window. Not open yet. I walked on.

The Insurance Woman came along at a time in my life when I was vulnerable, sleepless, and perpetually tired. She came along and swept me aside. She was a small town deity, and she had the right.

I walked to school, resilient one moment, resigned the next.

IV.

I sent another email. I told her I thought there’d been a misunderstanding. I expressed my concern about the legality of what I was told. I made concessions. My son was quiet; no one would know he was there. I tried to solve it rationally, implying only that I suspected she’d skirted the law. I made no mention of taking action. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. But if I did file a complaint, I would need a record of attempted resolution. Most of all, I just wanted her to be decent. I wanted to settle it like adults.

I finished class in the afternoon. No answer. No answer that night. My wife cooked. We sat in a queer suspended animation, fractured yet playing house for the holidays. Corned beef. Cartoons. A bedtime story.

The next morning, still no answer. I seesawed.

Fight it.

Get over it.

Nail her.

Not worth it.

The principle of the thing.

The absurdity of the thing.

The hopelessness of the thing.

What she did was the legal equivalent of turning away an applicant based on race, but was it the common sense equivalent? At once, it was both a principle strong enough to stand on, as well as a ridiculous form of childlike petulance.

The smiling, small town invincibility of The Insurance Woman ate at me. She wasn’t life—she wasn’t cancer, death, or tragedy . . . she was human. Yet she called the shots, dictating my fortunes with the inanimate impunity of a social condition.

She wasn’t a car accident, she wasn’t cancer, she wasn’t a rotting marriage.

Yet, somehow, she was all those things, or at least the one thing that I thought maybe I could beat—the one thing human enough to be beat.

V.

By lunch I decided to try again. Her secretary answered my call.

“Oh, okay. Just a moment. I think I hear her back there.” A moment passed. Another. “She’s actually in a meeting. Can I have her call you back?”

She didn’t call.

That night, my wife sighed: “What if you get the place? She’ll kick you out the first chance she gets.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point?”

Our three-year-old son interrupted. “I tooted!” Cartoons on television, pasta on the stove. Snow outside. Christmas was coming. I needed to hang our lights on the house but couldn’t bring myself to do it this year. My wife and I had sex later that night. We’d been doing that a lot since we’d agreed to separate. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why.

VI.

The next morning. Friday. I sent a final email. I just wanted her to quit it. I wanted her to know that progress was bigger than her pride—no matter how many neighbors she knew or to which town council members she sold indemnities. There was something else: I wanted to find out if that was even true.

I told her I’ll be filing a report Monday morning. That I still hoped it was all a big misunderstanding. I told her again how quiet my son would be. That “all I want is to reach a mutually beneficial conclusion without taking it further than it needs to go.”

She called while I was in class. Her voicemail was terse:

“Hi there, I received your threatening email, and I just wanted to touch base. Just so you know, I can’t rent the apartment to you for insurance reasons. (This was new) Those stairs, the liability . . . I can’t take on the liability, you know, of a child going up and down those. Aaand, (her voice rising in pitch, that nasally, I’m just saying . . . tone) just so you know . . . you didn’t tell me about your son when I asked you to tell me about yourself. That’s fraudulent, so . . . you should have told me, and we could have avoided this whole thing, so. . . . Anyway, I’d encourage you to just drop this. This isn’t best for a small town situation, you know. . . . So. Just move on. Okay? Just let it go. Thank you.”

I stared at my phone as if it were playing a trick on me. Did she really just leave a recorded message accusing me of fraud for not giving her the information she needed to discriminate against me? For whatever reason, that settled it.

I decided to let it go.

She was oblivious. The severity of the thing escaped her. She’d given me everything I needed to bring suit against her. Gift-wrapped it and dropped it in my voicemail. But she didn’t understand the principle behind it. Her “small-town situation” was one of embalmed ignorance, entitlement, of insulation from accusations of discrimination. How could she possibly discriminate? She knew everyone. She was the small town.

That’s why I dropped it. The Insurance Woman was the town. I just lived in it.

Later, my wife listened to the message, frowned, but remained tactically noncommittal. “Huh.”

I didn’t bring it up again. We’d had a hell of a year, and I’d lost the only fight I ever had a say in. At least I saw the punch coming.

VII.

A month later we settled in a corner booth at La Casa, this Mexican restaurant in town with phenomenal queso dip. It was four-thirty, and the place was dead. The bartender, a tall Hispanic man in a black collared shirt with a spiky, Wolverine-style haircut, emerged from behind the bar to take our orders. We ordered drinks and the queso. It’s four bucks a bowl, and it’s worth every cent.

I scanned the menu. I’d seen it all before and always ordered the same thing. My wife closed hers. Her go-to was the chimichangas. She had on her ring finger a brand new, five-year anniversary band—a Christmas present. An expensive one.

I looked for something new, knowing I’d find nothing, and there she was. An ad on the bottom of the second page. The Insurance Woman. I’d never noticed her. She’d been hiding in plain sight. Now I could see her plainly.

“Jesus. That’s her.” I pointed. My wife looked at me, then down at the menu. She frowned.

“Who?”

I laughed. “The one who left that message. The one who wouldn’t rent me the place because I had a kid.”

That’s her?” The Insurance Woman, fifty or so, smiling her taut-skinned smile beneath her dry, over-bleached hair.

“Yup. Figures. Told you she’s everywhere in this town. Can’t even order a burrito without seeing her.”

My wife shook her head. “What a bitch.”

We ordered, reminding the bartender about the queso. He took the menus—and The Insurance Woman—with him.

Ten minutes passed. Someone from the kitchen brought our food. Our glasses were empty. No queso. No service.

“Where’s the bartender?” she asked.

“Up at the bar, playing on his phone.”

We waited. We didn’t complain. It was odd, the way we waited, somehow content with the injustice of having been forgotten.

__________________________________________

Danny Judge’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in many literary journals, including Litro Magazine, Portland Review, AZURE, Twisted Vine, and Lunch Ticket. He is the founding Editor of The Indianola Review, a quarterly print journal, and lives in Iowa with his wife and son.