The Boiler

Sarah Terez Roseblum


If your name is Jane, chances are you woke up lonely. The name is to blame. It’s gotta be. The problem can’t be where you live, because at this point, you’ve lived so many places that before heading home you think, not just, did you take the F train or the Q, but wait, are you leaving behind a car? Did you park before eight and snag the early-in discount? Exchange nods with the attendant at the Figueroa Street entrance? Beneath the Picado banner, he warms his palms above a black and white television set as if by a fire.

And which car did he wave you through to park, way up on the garage-top lot overlooking silver/blue buildings, cardboard box homesteads, and once, a jaunty coyote, slipping between jammed up cars? The Volvo? The Kia? Neither are vehicles you’ve owned, but both you’ve driven. The Kia belonged to the Actor. The Volvo to the Secretary. Despite rheumatoid arthritis, and a lifetime in Columbia, Missouri, she remained optimistic, till her son was killed in some peripheral war.

At home, you try several keys before the right one fits your lock. You never asked for one, not one key. You never ask for anything but cash upfront, still people hand over their belongings. Just like they tell you their stories, just like they let you into their souls. Getting in, you are disappointed to find, is easy; it’s getting out that’s hard.

On your counter, scrubbed clean this morning, you set the cold, metal mess of them, then detach the Newspaper Editor’s from the group. Personalized, doused in Mariners colors: silver, green and navy blue. She handed it over after your second meeting, whereas the men tend to bide their time. When they offer theirs over, they pretend it’s an afterthought. “Might as well use this.” Same way they’d address a secretary or personal assistant, an underling stopping by to water the plants.

The Editor’s condo overlooked the space needle.

“I like to imagine I live in a treehouse,” she told you. A pair of chihuahuas danced around her feet.

The showers you insist on are for your own benefit, but you’ve found the transaction soothes both the germaphobes and those whose self-concept demands they imagine you at ease in their homes. In the Editor’s bathroom, you rinsed off quickly, but she wanted you to luxuriate. She’d turned on the heated tiles and provided a glass of water, slice of cucumber floating on top. To appease her, you left the shower running and went through her medicine cabinet. You’ve still never met anyone else who stores her toothpaste tube in its cardboard packaging. Hers stood on end next to a dropper of contact solution and a bottle of Klonopin, which, no, you didn’t touch, because that’s not your style.

When you emerged, she’d set takeout on a weathered table in front of the wood-burning fireplace.

“Afterward,” she said, “I can rub your feet.”

She pulled back the flaps of three brown paper cartons, revealing warm biscuits, date jam and goat cheese, roast chicken resting on delicate greens.

Later, she sighed beneath you. You’d have predicted she’d force your face into the pillow, but her submission made a deeper sort of sense. Her chandelier made none whatsoever. Liquid and pink. Afterward, you stared at it as she stroked your hair.

“I hate it.” She followed your eye. “It belonged to my ex wife. It’s one of two things she didn’t keep.”

When you told her you loved it, she shook her head. “You would.” Her voice was affectionate. Familiar. She’d only known you three days. You didn’t ask about the second thing, though your curiosity thrummed low like arousal. Tolerance, you’d learned was preferable to the sting of an unfulfilled request. Besides, she wouldn’t have brought it up if she weren’t poised to tell.

“I could make you french toast in the morning,” she offered as you stood to leave. “Won’t you be cold?” She and the dogs trailed you to the door.

You told her forty degrees and weeping rain was nothing compared to a Chicago winter.

“Is that where you’re from?” She didn’t wait for your answer, rather placed the key lightly in your palm. She’d have given you anything, probably. In your short time together, she gave you: three flats of blueberries, an ipod shuffle, a package of creamy card-stock which read: “I don’t mean to sound slutty, but please use me however you want. Sincerely, Grammar.” Also grappling hooks, either because she loved metaphor or mountain climbing, hard to tell.

“This was hers too,” she said, of the key.
In your own apartment, you’ve strung yellow/white Christmas bulbs around the front window. In the last one, you hung glowing jalapenos, the apartment before that, purple lanterns like envelopes of light. You like it dim. No weepy reason, like you can’t abide your own face in the mirror. Your eyes have just always been sensitive. Growing up in Pasadena, your mom told you sunglasses were for movie stars and you’d probably break them, so you scrawled blue magic marker across a sheet of saran wrap and stretched it across your eyes.

“You’re sweating like a pro-wrestler,” your mother’s doctor/boyfriend told you. “They wrap themselves in plastic to make weight.”

“Go take it off.” Your mother’s hair fell in waves down her back and the doctor sat behind her on the couch, brushing it, like they were best friends at a sleepover rather than two consenting adults.

Beneath the twinkling lights, you don’t eat over the sink, but you don’t set a neat place at the red table either. Here’s just another way you’re someone in between. This apartment has a fat window ledge, not quite a seat, but wide enough for your bony ass, so you spread a paper towel on it, then tuck your knees to your chin. You eat tortilla chips or apple sauce or cocktail mushrooms. Lately you’ve been on a radish kick, but only if you’re in for the night. When you were just getting started, before you had rules about showers and a cancellation policy, you went with a client to Poquito Más. He’d taken hours to come and you were starving, so while you waited for your burrito, you collected piles of radishes from the salsa bar and chewed them hard and fast. He’d been the sort who paid for a whole evening, wanting his dick in your mouth but also your hand in his. Across the table, he recoiled when you burped quietly; a month later, he still handed over his key.

So did the Actor, a curly-haired giant who looked like an immigrant, maybe because of his fish-hook nose. This was in graduate school when you thought you were a playwright. Loose with information back then, you drank just enough to confide in one or two classmates, so the Actor knew how you brought in extra cash. At a friend’s party, you made the mistake of finding him charming. Not just the parts he meant you to, but what those parts hid. Outside he lit your cigarette then noticed your hands, pink with cold.

“Here.” Pulling black gloves from his coat pocket, he shook them out, held the opening of one to his lips. “Let me just blow some ennui into this glove,” he said.

One of your mother’s boyfriends was a mathematician. Each time he took the two of you to dinner he refused to calculate the bill.

“You do it.” He’d slide the check and his credit card toward your mother. “I’m off the clock,” he’d say.

You’re like that with sex. In your personal life, you don’t have much, even in school, when you really just dabbled, one or two a month, to supplement your stipend. Before that your client numbers skewed higher, because what else was there to do in Pasadena, really? The Rose Bowl only came once a year. When you do have sex, the off-the-clock variety, it’s after you’ve known someone for months not weeks. You made an exception for the Actor. Because of the thing with your gum.

You were at his place, watching a Sondheim play that had aired on PBS in the ‘90s. One classmate still had a VHS tape and brought her player and another kept shrilling, “Johanna Gleason, dolls, she’s the real deal.”

A surprisingly solicitous host for a guy without curtains, the Actor distributed red wine and cold beer. You didn’t realize he’d watched you scan the room for a garbage can until he held out his hand for your gum. You waited. He beckoned, so you placed the gum lightly in his open palm.

You stopped him when he first leaned to kiss you, and asked how he felt about your job.

“I’m not put off,” the Actor said. “I’m only in awe.”

After that neither of you mentioned it outside of sex, when he’d come up with questions. Once: “So you like going down on women?” Another time, “What’s the most you’ve ever been paid?” You talked about his sexual past too, okay? His first time with some lesser member of the homecoming court. Afterward she’d opened the closet in their hotel room and released three laughing football players into the hall. His last girlfriend, the teaching major. She’d called him a naughty little boy.

“I couldn’t even look at her after that,” he said. “Condescension and dirty talk are not the same thing.”

You got a job at Kinkos, which meant more hours for less money, and frankly more abuse, less respect. But it was worth it because of the dry skin on the actor’s elbows, the way he perspired in his sleep and the span of his thick-knuckled hands. Another great thing about him, about all actors, really: their ability to transform their countenance without seeming to try. When the Actor casually quoted a professor, you saw her flare momentarily beneath his skin. It was like having your own personal water park, or a Slavic trained seal.

On the morning you awoke early and took a shower before heading to class, the Actor’s single towel was in the wash and you found only hand soap, so you made do. You were drying off with your sleep shirt when he skidded naked into the bathroom, eyes slitted against the light, hair standing seven feet above his head.

“My god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t leave you a towel.” He offered to run to the laundry room, accessible only via icy outside stairs. “You’re just so resourceful,” he said when you told him not to bother. You were already clean and poised to leave.

At night you’d wake to find him propped up, watching you. Open on his lap, the computer tinted his ruddy cheeks blue. “It’s a good thing alcoholism doesn’t run in my family,” he said once, “because sometimes all I can think of is my next beer.”

Wasn’t his mother an alcoholic? Careful not to lecture, you murmured the question into his heavy arm.

“She can go months and months without drinking,” he said. “It’s only a few, maybe ten times a year some restaurant owner calls me to come pick her up.”

After a performance once, you drove with him to one currency exchange after another. None would cash the thousand dollar check he’d earned for a commercial, not without calling the business that issued it, which they couldn’t after five p.m. His features seemed to turn darker, more exotic with each refusal, until finally he looked like a murderous Soviet spy. You knew not to suggest he simply deposit the check at his bank and wait for it to clear. His account had been overdrawn for weeks—he made no secret about this—and the payment would only get sucked up by fees. Instead, you touched his cheek then turned on the radio. Sang along to something lightly top forty until he rewarded you by smiling and squeezing your hand.

When he started following you around with the dustpan you thought maybe he was joking. By then, you’d begun to think of his dingy garden apartment as your own.

“Can you not leave crumbs on the sofa?” He’d ask. “If you have to drink coffee while you put on makeup, can you at least not drip in the sink?”

What’s a sink for if not dripping, you wondered. He still held you to his chest when he slept, but sleeping seemed like all he did. Depression, you figured. You knew he was prone. A few times he roused himself to head out for an audition, order in Mexican or spray down his keyboard with cleanser after you’d borrowed his laptop to type up a paper while he drowsed.

Finally, you confronted him. You said he felt unreachable, critical. Was he upset about money? You’d been to the cash exchange place countless times by then.

“I wasn’t quite ready to call it,” he said, “but one thing I owe you is honesty. I guess I’ve stopped feeling excited about you.”

You stared at the Beethoven bust set on its faux marble pedestal, a prop from some production his freshman year.

“And I’m sort of concerned about your hygiene,” he added. “A person needs more than hand soap to get really clean.”

The next day, you called, wanting the expensive moisturizer you’d left on a shelf in his medicine cabinet and the soft grey sweater you kept in your own special drawer.

“I’ve got an audition,” he said, “but I can leave my extra key under the mat. Just make sure you put it back when you’re through.”

In a fourth grade essay, you described yourself as a “sleepless insomniac” and your teacher wrote “redundant” in red. So then you thought redundant was a synonym for sleepless, until once when you were showing off for your mother’s boyfriend, the dentist or the linguist, he disabused you of that too. Disabused, not abused. Christ. Your insomnia wasn’t your mother’s fault. Not the fault of the long line of boyfriends making use of her bedroom just a thin wall away. She liked intelligent men who couldn’t quite believe someone so blond had chosen them, not when they’d slunk dateless into their own senior proms. In adulthood, the mens’ anger had gone subterranean; now wealthy or at least salt-and-pepper-distinguished, they thrilled at their newfound power to humiliate and refuse.

You’d lie in bed listening to sex sounds or clinking glassware or sometimes your mother weeping quietly into the phone. Staring at the glowing constellations stuck to your ceiling, you imagined tying one end of a rope to yourself, then getting in a car and driving straight across the US. A special kind of rope, invulnerable, no matter how many holsteins it snared. No matter how many semis strained against it or river barges it caught on, it would remain too strong to snap.

One night you overheard your mother talking about the computer programmer who did stand-up on weekends, how he liked to take her straight out to dinner after sex, liked people seeing her hair a blond nest of messy, cheekbones blackened with mascara, liked people knowing how deep he’d plunged his cock down her throat.

“Which is fine,” your mother said into the phone, “which is no big deal, really, there are so many worse things a man could do.”

That night you stared at the constellations till they blurred and imagined the rope around your waist and you making it all the way to Rhode Island, the other end still looped around the mailbox at the base of your drive.

Rice crackers tonight, and when you’ve finished, you shed your tight skirt and suit jacket. You’ve draped your white eyelet dress over the chair you bought at a swap meet in Missouri. Upholstered in slippery white brocade, the feet curved wooden claws. From outside, you hear horns and laughter and brooms on cement, but all you see through the window is a billboard.

Being taken for granted?” it asks. “Imagine how God feels.

This apartment isn’t like the Editor’s, overlooking budding tree limbs and distant sky.
You throw on a jean jacket and lock your door, choosing the right key on the first try. What you miss about the Figuroa parking attendant is his daily recognition, but New Yorkers don’t need cars, and cabs come quickly when you wear your white eyelet dress.

At the corner, you drop the envelope containing the Editor’s key into a rare mailbox. Most have gone the way of phone booths. It might be the last remaining one for miles.

You only drove the Secretary’s car once, the day her optimism caved like a tent with a broken pole. She took pills, too many, though maybe she just lost count. She was always in pain from arthritis she’d first noticed, she told you, in college when the boy she liked pointed out the twist in her left ring finger, how her knuckles swelled like his grandmother’s. Before that, she’d always thought she was normal, but now she knew better, thanks to the boy.

After she took her pills, she managed to drive herself to the hospital, but once her stomach had been pumped, they called you.

“Greg was still listed as my emergency contact,” she said when you arrived by bus, your hair—long then—swept into a kerchief, your grey shirt ringed with sweat. She sat slumped in a chair, the skin on her face pleated, her usually pink cheeks grey. “I told them he was dead. When they asked who to call, yours was the only number I could remember. I was always too paranoid to program it into my phone.”

“My sister, my best friend, my neighbor, I couldn’t think how to reach any of them.”

As she talked, you led her through the automatic doors that slid open like a mouth exhaling summer’s hot breath.

“But that’s the world we live in, isn’t it? The people you know best become names on a screen. The things they used to tell you over coffee reduced to black and white bursts.”

In the passenger seat she rested her forehead against the window.

“Not to mention those fucking emoji. My sister’s a lunatic for those.”

You adjusted her mirrors, and pulled onto the frontage road. “I’m glad I was here.”
You almost weren’t, but you didn’t tell her. And by that evening you were once again on your way out of town.

Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s debut novel, Herself When She’s Missing, was called “poetic and heartrending” by Booklist. She writes for publications and sites including Salon, The Chicago Sun Times, XOJane,, Curve Magazine and Pop Matters. Her fiction has appeared in literary magazines such as kill author and Underground Voices, and she was a 2011 recipient of Carve Magazine’s Esoteric Fiction Award and the 2015 1st runner up for Midwestern Gothic’s Lake Prize as well as a finalist for Washington Square Review’s 2016 Flash Fiction Award. In addition, she was shortlisted for Zoetrope All Story’s 2016 Short Fiction Contest, receiving an honorable mention. In 2014, she founded the Truth or Lie Live Lit Series. Sarah teaches Creative Writing at Story Studio, and The University of Chicago Graham school.