It’s a quiet street. “Shoes off, please, or there are booties at the door.” We can’t leave a trace as we traipse through: archeologists in a ruin, projecting civilization into empty rooms. “It’s currently unoccupied,” says the listing agent, as a dozen people squeeze around her. The owners are abroad, have been for years, keeping the house like you keep the box your toaster came in. You could keep plenty of boxes here. “Lots of storage,” says the listing agent.
Another man was brushing his teeth in the Kmart bathroom. His toothpaste was not travel-sized. “You caught me,” he said. He had body spray and baby wipes, and now and then, he showers at the beach or one of those 24-hour gyms. The shelters aren’t worth trying most days: supply and demand.
“We’ve had a lot of interest,” says the listing agent to the couple currently accosting her. The wife wears athleisure and a delicate necklace twisted anxiously around a finger. The husband carries their tranquilized dog like a football. They nod slavishly: it’s no surprise that there’s interest. The neighborhood. The schools. And what a beautiful kitchen: so much character in the Spanish-tiled backsplash and the butcher-block countertops; sure, it’s a trend, but a trend with character.
The couple seems to think they must sell the listing agent on the place, forgetting they’re speaking to the author of the Zillow description whose dreamy purple prose had them gazing starry-eyed at their apartment’s popcorn ceiling, imagining summer evenings with wine and cheese on the back patio, in 20 years, after their future kids have moved out. Now, the wife slips up, mid-rave about the claw-footed bathtub in “our” master bath—“I’m getting ahead of myself! We’re just so excited.”
The listing agent smiles patiently. “Oh, everyone seems to love this place. One gentleman tried to write me a check on the spot!” There’s a desperate pause, and then the husband asks about the central AC, marveling at its very existence. They have her ear, and this is all they can do.
The man in the Kmart bathroom had a lot of advice. You scramble every day, shoving fingertips in cracks as the world works to dislodge you. You want to believe it matters, every struggle, every small mercy. You want to believe it makes you wise. “People don’t realize how little they really need,” he said. Early in his homelessness, he traded his laptop for a backpack and hiking boots. Eventually, he’ll buy a tent, but for now, he sleeps in his car. “You too?” I nodded. A car gets you odd jobs and keeps you warm at night. A change of scenery, a chance to call it an adventure. But one day, your luck will run out, or your insurance. And when they take it away, you can’t let it break you.
“A lot of people,” he said, while we shared a cigarette—bad habit, priorities change—“they get attached. We live in a culture of possession. I’ve seen men fight over damp cardboard and plastic chairs. It’s junk, all of it. You just make sure your socks are dry. The rest, you leave behind.”
Not everyone likes the house. One girl, barely out of college, complains loudly about everything. The bedrooms are tiny, the bathrooms old-fashioned. There’s so little natural light that a vampire must have designed it. All this on FaceTime with her dad, who’s somewhere on the other side of the country and buying her a house because he can, because he believes in her, because the interest rate is low. She exclaims in theatrical disgust over a crooked window. “So much work to make this place liveable.”
The house will receive nearly thirty offers in the next week, most over the asking price.
Libraries are free, warm, and full of entertainment. Just be careful not to draw attention. They’re just waiting to kick you out of coffee shops and parks, off sidewalks. They would prefer not to see you or remember you exist.
Over a food bank tin of sardines, he told me which Dunkin Donuts dumpsters don’t have locks. Sikh temples will feed you, as will churches, if you’re the sort they tolerate. And if you keep clean, more doors open for you: on weekends, entire houses. “It passes the time, and many of them have snacks.”
The listing agent finally acknowledges me. “Are you looking to move soon, sir?”
We’re in the kitchen, by a fridge big enough to misplace a week’s worth of groceries. On the counter is a charcuterie board with salami spread like poker chips and cubes of unpronounceable cheeses on toothpicks. I tell her that yes, ideally, I would occupy a house as soon as possible.
My eyes betray me. “Please, help yourself! No one seems to be hungry. Or maybe they’re shy.”
I thank her and take some cheese. When she looks away, I fill my pockets.
And I drift out, pulling the booties off at the door. There’s a man measuring the width of the front path. It’s possible no one here will ever enter this house again.
I can see my car down the block, banged-up and overstuffed with plastic bags of clothes, with everything in the world that’s mine. And from their shiny sedan, the couple from earlier can see it too. Their voices carry. “I guess every neighborhood’s going to shit.”
Jyotsna Suresh is a New Jersey native who’s been writing stories ever since she could hold a pencil. After studying film at NYU, she moved to Los Angeles to start a career in television. Nowadays, Jyotsna can be found working on her screenplays at her local bookstore cafe.