by Efrem Sigel
My wife thinks the neighbor down the hall is a prostitute. Her
evidence is slim: another neighbor told her that a workman retiling
her kitchen was propositioned by the woman. Also my wife once
saw her saying goodbye to a man leaving her apartment.

“What do you mean, ‘propositioned?’” I asked her.

“He says she came on to him.”

Maybe she did, but does that make her a prostitute?

We live in a corner apartment on the fourteenth floor of a high-rise
(it’s actually the thirteenth floor but you don’t put the number
thirteen in a New York elevator). The woman my wife thinks is a
prostitute moved in five months ago. Her apartment is in the
middle of the hall, next to the little room where we put our garbage.

My wife is the head buyer for a chain of apparel stores. She sizes
up people quickly. Once she makes up her mind it’s pretty hard to
change it.

Since the magazine eliminated my job I’ve been doing a lot of
baking—apple pies, peach cobbler, banana bread. My wife refuses
to have even a taste; she watches her weight the way she peruses
the bids from the suppliers at work. When I do leave the
apartment, it’s often to deliver a pie to our daughters. Eliana, who’s
studying acting, lives in Brooklyn while Shoshana is up near
Columbia, a fine arts major working as a paralegal.

Baking is a messy business, and keeping the counters clean and
the trash pail from overflowing means a lot of trips to the garbage
room. I like the ritual of dropping my bag of garbage down the
chute, putting newspapers and bottles in the recycling bins and
then coming back to our neat apartment. On these trips I never
hear any noise from the apartment of the woman my wife thinks is
a prostitute, and certainly not the kind of noise you'd expect to
hear if she was entertaining men all day.

Sometimes I meet her coming out of the garbage room, dressed in
something white and flimsy, a nightgown-looking thing. She wears
an embarrassed half-smile, as if to say, oh, I’m sorry, I really
shouldn’t be walking around in this flimsy thing, even if it’s only
three steps from my apartment to the garbage room.

A few weeks ago we introduced ourselves.

“I’m Jack,” I said.

“I’m Catherine.” Her voice was faint but pleasant, and her smile
seemed a little more real when she was looking at me. She’s an
Asian woman in her late thirties. Slim, with pale white arms poking
out from her white, flimsy nightgown-type garment. She glides
rather than walks. She wears very little makeup, another reason I
think my wife is wrong about her being a prostitute. I did catch a
whiff of perfume, however.

In summer, to catch the cross-breeze, she props her door open by
placing something on the floor between the edge of the door and
the jamb: a book of stories by Kafka.

One day I saw her open the door and step out over Kafka’s stories.

“Kafka,” I said. “Do you teach literature?”

“I do interior design.”

Like half the women in New York, it seems. Catherine’s smile, now
rueful, only confirmed that there isn’t enough work for them all. She
also paints—oils, acrylic—but when I asked about the subjects of
her paintings she said you can’t describe a painting, you have to
experience it.

“Me? These days I write family histories,” I said when she turned
the question back to me.

I gave her a brief sketch of my career at the magazine. They used
to fly me to trouble spots around the world and I’d stay anywhere
from a week to three months. I was a demon for work; I could go
forty-eight hours and file thousands of words of copy without sleep.
They laid me off two years ago; business was poor and getting
worse. I looked for a year and a half and couldn’t find anything.

About this time I started taping my mother’s reminiscences about
all the oddball characters in her family. One of her brothers had
gone to prison for embezzlement. An uncle had been in vaudeville
and had tap-danced with Eddie Cantor. Her father who had a long
beard and wore a black coat, had delivered huge seltzer bottles
from a horse-drawn wagon, carrying them on his back up four or five
flights of stairs, though not on Saturday because he was religious.

I wrote up my family history and when a friend read it she asked if
I could do one for her family.

“I’ll pay,” she insisted.

Word got around. Soon I had six more family history jobs and my
tiny digital voice recorder was overloaded with stories about this
one’s Grandpa Ira and that one’s Aunt Bess. Between the family
histories, my baking and the reading, the days in the apartment fill
themselves up. Mostly I alternate between the Russians—Chekhov,
Turgenev, Tolstoy—and mysteries. And some Kafka, too.

My wife keeps asking, “When are you going to get back into
magazine work?” Doesn't she know that the internet killed
advertising in all the print magazines, and it's never coming back?

My wife makes a good salary, and after eighteen years with the
magazine I got a decent severance. So far we’ve been okay for
money. I guess she appreciates that I keep the apartment clean
and get an occasional check for doing a family history, but there’s
not a lot to our marriage these days.

Now and then I catch a glimpse inside Catherine's apartment when
we say hello as she is opening or closing the door. It seems very
spare, uncluttered. In the cross breeze I can see billowing curtains
that are white and flimsy, like this thing she wears that isn’t a
nightgown but something close to a nightgown.

Efrem Sigel's stories and essays are in the Antioch Review, the
Journal, Xavier Review, The MacGuffin, Nimrod, Pleiades, Quercus
Review, the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere, and have won several
prizes. His second novel, The Disappearance, was published in
2009 (The Permanent Press) and his third novel is forthcoming. He
lives in New York City, where he teaches writing and supervises
volunteers working with education nonprofits.