Seeker of Bones by Nikki Levine
Her name is Jessie or Bessie and nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to talk about how Jessie or Bessie hasn’t been holding court upon her stoop, stogie at her lips, demanding we pay tolls for using her bus stop. Nobody wants to talk about silence, unfamiliar after countless bus-stop mornings made awkward by her hollering. Nobody wants to talk about it, so instead we prop open our windows, box-fans shining streetward as if we’re thwarting ghosts. We’re thwarting each other. This is how it’s been all of July. Sometimes a chin rises in the air, a neighborly chin-up, but no more than that. We slip into our apartments and lock ourselves inside. Slam broom handles against ceilings when we want quiet, turn up the bass when husbands scream at wives. We step on cracks and we pray for our mothers. Jessie or Bessie is, or was, somebody’s mother. Somebody’s grandmother. She may just be resting inside, waiting for sons or daughters to bring bakers’ dozens and picture-framed grandkids. Waiting for the cops to bust down her door and drag her out. She may be weeks gone, deep in earth. I don’t know and nobody knows. Jessie or Bessie is dead or not dead and nobody on Roosevelt Avenue gives a shit.
I swim through humid fog to the bus stop, slip onto the bench with commuters hiding behind open newspapers. I have no newspaper of my own so my eyes dart between The Daily News and The Post. I sip milky coffee from a paper cup that says “We Are Happy To Serve You.” I make myself small. Morning sun lifts over Roosevelt Avenue, casting light into foot-wide vermin alleys tucked between brownstones. Four years with Jessie or Bessie’s morning vitriol has made this silence explosive.
The man reading The Daily News folds the paper onto his lap. “It’ll be good for the neighborhood,” he says. He is wearing a shirt that says “Your Workout Is My Warm-up.” My eyes spin inward but nobody’s looking. Another man’s head, pony-tailed, appears over the Post. The head says, “My firm bought the building.”
What building? I look toward Jessie’s or Bessie’s brownstone, the bar-windowed walk-up I’ve never entered. The old woman has demanded I come inside to play a game that’s like Scrabble but isn’t Scrabble. And I’ve made so many excuses: leaking lungs, dying plants, agita, cigar allergy. It’s her manner, the insults that fly from her lips, how she calls me sucia. It’s the window-dwelling novenas the color of bruises. It’s the otherworldly shadows that dance in their glow. The way she uses her smallest nail to probe the depths of her nose. It’s the cigar. Once she needed help scraping gum from her banister’s underside. “Fucking kids,” she’d said. Her face was wet. I shrugged and shifted to the street’s other side. My eyes fall on Jessie’s or Bessie’s front door, where a yellow sheet of paper is taped.
NOTICE TO VACATE
I stop at the bodega on my way home. I choose two scented candles, short and red, with stickers on their bottoms that say “Fruit.” I hold the candles to my nostrils as I walk by Jessie’s or Bessie’s. It’s been a month and her absence makes the porch look huge. I slow my pace and look past smoky window glass. The novenas, which have held space on her sill for as long as I’ve lived on Roosevelt, are gone.
In my apartment I light both of my new candles with one match. I imagine the old woman in her apartment, Jessie or Bessie. I see her dead. I smell her dead. Old meat, wet meat, baptized in grenadine. I sit with my candles and I let her rot.
Jessie or Bessie had other friends, neighbors, other women who smoked stogies and laughed from their guts. Women for whom she’d pile pancit high on paper plates and say, “For you, my love.” The women slurped noodles and glared at me as I waited for the bus alone. That’s before the strangers. I moved to Roosevelt four years ago. Jessie’s or Bessie’s friends moved away during my third year; their apartments were quickly claimed by our new neighbors. “Do you see what you’ve started?” Jessie or Bessie would seethe from her porch as I passed, steeping in cigar smoke.
Fruit is cloying and I yank the window open, breathing the alley’s lean breath. I need to stop thinking about this, this woman whose name I hardly know. I toy with my phone, lose a game, lose another. The sky heathers to gray and I wonder where she’ll go. What she’s doing. If she’s alive. A month is a long time. A long time for someone to not talk to their grandmother or mother or sister or great-aunt or cousin so maybe Jessie or Bessie is not that woman to anyone.
I slide concealer across the grapes ripening beneath my eyes, strap on shoes that click, and clop down the shared stairwell. I swing the front door outward and am surprised to see the two men from this morning, obstructing my path to Jessie’s or Bessie’s. “Excuse me,” I say. Neither moves.
“No man, they’re not just any pickles. They’re artisanal nano-pickles,” says Ponytail.
“And it’s a sure thing?” asks T-shirt. His teeth snap into an unidentifiable orange pickled mass.
“Nothing’s a sure thing. But to be the first nano-picklers on the West Side, that’s something.” Ponytail flashes a thick blue glass jar wearing a silver label. In large block letters, the label reads “PICKLES ON ROOSEVELT.” A line drawing of a corner-lot brownstone occupies the rest of the sticker. It’s Jessie’s or Bessie’s house.
“These are actually pretty good.” T-shirt’s mouth fumbles through thick orange brine. “Crunchy as fuck.”
“Excuse me,” I say again, louder. The men remain still, as if my voice does nothing. I squeeze past their pickled bullshit. I say, “Are you two talking about the house down the street? What happened to that old woman?”
“Nothing goes better with a pickle,” Ponytail explains, “than a good nano-brew.” Despite our proximity, neither of them see me; they don’t hear me. Their teeth crash against their pickles so loudly I raise my hand to my own mouth to feel for teeth to be sure they are there.
Jessie’s or Bessie’s door is still sun-warm, blue as the flame’s hottest silver. I slap my fist against it. A utility box hums and the box-fans of Roosevelt Avenue whir in unison. I press the door open and ask, “Hello?” A suited man walks briskly down Roosevelt and looks up at me standing on the porch. His eyes fall upon the eviction notice and his smile is vapid. I push my weight against the door; it falls open. She must be here. Floating dust does its best to repel me but I push. The inside air is thick; it hangs over the furniture like drapes—opaque, velour, blanketing bookcases that sit atop other bookcases, against every wall. Instead of books the shelves hold bones. Tibiae, fibulae, penny jars of teeth. The skeleton of a cat. Three skulls from three raccoons. Hooves and feathers, antlers. My fingers tremble and I squint through the murk. I call “Hello” again. In the farthest reach of the living room I spot a plastic-coated floral-print sofa, holding the form of Jessie or Bessie, house-coated, stogie darkening the corner of her down-turned mouth.
I walk toward her. “I came to play that game.”
She’d invited me so I am here. It’s been a month and she is bones that jut through silver skin. A breeze from the window sucks shut the door. I breathe through my mouth as to not offend. “There’s a notice on your door,” I say.
“Leave it.”Jessie’s or Bessie’s cigar bobs against her lower lip. “Don’t touch it. Don’t touch anything else.”
“I don’t understand,” I say, because I don’t. I’ve touched nothing.
The old woman exhales a puff of smoke that fills my pores. “You evict an old woman and you don’t understand.” Her words are quiet, guarded.
“I’m here to help,” I start to say, but the old woman breaks my words with a laughing howl that shakes surrounding cities.
“You walk in here like it’s your own. Tell me, do you feel welcome here? In Jojo’s apartment?”
My stomach does this thing and I think about the bones. How many of these are human bones? Who the fuck is Jojo? I don’t even like games. I back toward the door and the old woman’s eyes widen so far that her left eyeball bulges past the skin line. Jessie or Bessie spits onto the floor, massages the saliva into the rug with the bare ball of her foot, her purged eye locked to mine. “Jojo is my uncle. And the apartment you live in, with your computers and your naked walls, that’s Jojo’s apartment. Thirty-eight years, little girl. It was Tío Jojo’s, ’til the landlord raised the note so high that Jojo’s check wouldn’t be enough—”
“The apartment was empty when I moved in.”
“—now he’s in a home in Newark.” Her words grow louder. “He calls me in the night when dreams throw him awake. Jojo tells me his nightmares while you sleep in his bedroom, dreaming his dreams.”
We look at each other for a long time. I want to say this isn’t my fault, that I moved here four years ago because I could no longer afford Manhattan. That it’s those who moved to Roosevelt Avenue after me who first took the apartments of her friends. It’s those people, the strangers, who are now taking hers. I want to say these things to Jessie or Bessie, but her melting face tells me that I’ve got it wrong.
Instead, I ask if she is hungry. She is somebody’s grandmother.
She is hungry, she says. She says she wants to feel it in her teeth. “Don’t cook like you’re cooking for yourself,” she says. “Texture,” she says. “Crunch,” she says. “I have teeth,” she says. I think of pickles, the pickles from public transport, those men. And I want to make things right, so I root through her kitchen, and I find no pickles. With what I find, I make stew: hunks of antelope flesh found in the fridge, floating in carrot paste broth. Undercooked rice. I’m not cooking like I’m cooking for myself. Brown bubbles spit and spatter on the stove and I am a sponge, soaking up the scent of it all. “What, did you get lost in there?” Jessie or Bessie hollers from the sofa, her face dripping wax. How does she see me?
Stew’s done and I help her eat. I pull her head back and pour stew into her mouth, her open face. Shards in slop slide down her throat and her top teeth clack against bottoms. She is somebody’s grandmother. But the texture is off; the crunch is absent. “You’re not very good,” she says to the stew. “You’re not very good,” she says to me. I am sweating and I’m not very good.
She wants beans now, Jessie or Bessie. A mason jar filled with dried white beans and pantry moths sits on the top shelf of her grain closet. I drive a spoon into it and she tells me again that she is hungry. “Just bring it to me,” she says. She is hungry, and I wonder if she has been this way all of July. Tooth shards, larvae, and moth wings hail to the floor between bites, landing in puddles of blood and drool and I watch for all of the times I’ve turned my head. A smile erupts across her face, red teeth shining through tunnels in her lips. The couch-coils spring a sigh of relief, a blister deflated.
“Maybe I can file a petition,” I say. Jessie’s or Bessie’s smile retreats.
“You are nobody’s savior, girl.” It stings. Jessie or Bessie pulls the curtain from the window and aims her nose outside, “Look at this, it’s too far gone.” Dozens of young men, nude in broad daylight, drunk, singing an unrecognizable song. I open the door and watch this parade from the doorway, yellow eviction note flapping above my head. One of the nude men sees me watching, raises a red cup in the air, screaming, “Woo!”
“That’s sick,” I say of the men. “I hate them. I hate them like you do.” I close the door.
“Don’t you see,” begins Jessie or Bessie, “that your face on this street brought them here? They saw your white face and your nice clothes and they said, ‘I belong here.’ Now they belong here.”
Her words are boulders hurled full-force. I thought I belonged here as much as anyone did. I thought that and I also never felt as though I belonged here. Not four years ago, not now. Not with these people who don’t see me. Jessie or Bessie has seen me for four years. I’ve not seen her at all. I didn’t see this woman, Jessie or Bessie, as a woman, an elder, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, until I, too, became invisible. Until she showed me her blood. Her teeth, her guts. Her bones.
“The neighbors are happy,” I say. “They say your house will be a pickle restaurant.” Jessie’s or Bessie’s face is empty.
“You asked how you could help. You can help by making sure that never happens.”
I pull the game that’s like Scrabble but isn’t Scrabble from a dusty shelf, placing it on the table before her. But she hasn’t packed her things, and there are so many things. I tell Jessie or Bessie, “Let me pack some of these decorations,” and before she is able to protest, I rush to a bookshelf and reach for a cat skeleton. Jessie or Bessie’s mouth opens slowly, a slow No. The skeleton flutters from the top; bones, joints, a flurry of teeth. Jessie or Bessie awards me a pity-laugh that says she’s not angry. “Not so bright, are you.”
I clean up the cat; I sweep bones. “Not a cat,” Jessie or Bessie says, “a bobcat.” Her name is Priscilla. She was a she and now she’s half dust. “Don’t forget Priscilla’s sacrum,” Jessie or Bessie says from the couch as I push powdered bobcat bones into a dustpan. I take the sacrum to Jessie or Bessie, slipping it between her lips. Teeth clash with vertebrae. Her eyes lock to mine and her jaw hops and half-smiles. This is how she is until the last of Priscilla’s spine tears down her throat. This is how she’s been all of July.
“Where did you get all of these bones?” I ask.
“I’m an animal scientist. Was. And I’ve done a little collecting on the side.” She sends a troubling wink.
There are candles on the table and they are short and green and the stickers on their bottoms say “Vegetable.” I light them both with one match and say to Jessie or Bessie, “Everyone on the block, we know who you are. But I don’t know their names. They don’t know mine.”
The woman in front of me, I know her name, that it ends with Essie. She wears a bib of blood and chipped bone and I never wanted to come to her house.
“Not my problem,” she says.
We stand at the bus stop in morning sun, me and Ponytail. His hair is wet and undone. I ask, “What do you think happens to the people you evict?”
“Hey man,” says a voice behind me. T-shirt. His t-shirt says “No I Will Not Fix Your Computer.” The two press their shoulders into one another. “Hey, I’m talking to you!” I stand in the valley between them. I feel their heat and they feel nothing. We board the bus. We are beige on beige on beige. I am frozen, even in July.
I take a nap after work and when I rise, the sun is long dead. I want to bring Jessie or Bessie a gift. I want us to play our game. I want to show her my brightness. I want her to see me.
I flatten my ribcage and slide into a vermin alley. Wet bricks scrape my knees as I gather a meal of bones. Chicken bones, rat bones, unknown bones. I roll them all into my shirt. I bring them home and toss them on the grill, with scallions. They fit into Tupperware and I’d feared they wouldn’t.
Roosevelt Avenue is dark and there is only me and bones. I climb Jessie’s or Bessie’s stairs and find no eviction notice on the door. Did the county change its mind? Have artisan pickles lost their edge?
“—essie?” I mumble past the first letter. I am guilty. And for that guilt I receive nothing in return. I push the door open into a room of peeling wallpaper where Jessie’s or Bessie’s bone-shelves once rested. The stove I cooked stew on, it’s gone like everything else. Like the bones, like the couch, like Jessie or Bessie.
I sit on the floor. I chew on a bone and it’s gross and I put it back into the Tupperware. I have no answer and so I leave. I take the Tupperware with me and sit on her porch seat. The butt of a stogie lays in a crevice between wood slats and I light it, breathing it in. From here I can see every other window on Roosevelt. Big empty lofts, big empty walls. No children, no elders. The strangers only come home to sleep in their featherbeds. To make purchases and pull their hair into ponytails. They don’t come home to talk. They don’t come home to live. This is a neighborhood of ghosts.
Make sure it doesn’t happen, Jessie’s or Bessie’s words echo in my head.
A pile of newspapers, read by Ponytail, read by T-shirt, even by me, flap in the breeze at the bus stop below. Stogie at my lip, I rush down and grab as many papers as I can carry, bring them back to the empty brownstone once occupied by Jessie or Bessie. Paper to flame, I watch the smoke rise.