by Malcolm Culleton


He asked her to promise she’d be his. Told her they’d always be happy together. Then, Willow changed the station.

“Hey,” I said, “I like that song.”

“Stan, he drowns her in the river.”

“I know that. So?”

“So that’s violence against women.”

“Oh geez, Wil—it’s an old song, not some media fad that turns teenagers into psychopaths. That’s just the kind of stuff that happened back then.”

“And still does,” my wife responded, so I retreated for now. I redoubled my focus on the asphalt in front of us, watched the center line unfurling and the exhaust pipes of trailer trucks puffing, and just kept driving, enjoying the sphincteral view.

“Did I upset you?” Willow asked.

“Not at all,” I lied. “You pick the music.”

A minute later the silence between us mellowed into warm horns, upticking reverb, vapid choruses of sha-na-nas,and doobie-dos. Motown hits—swelled up and safe-sounding, just like Willow’s romanticized notion of living in the city.

Within a month, she’ll also be sorry that we’ve moved. I deserve some kind of world’s-best-husband award for going along with this. We’d been happy, after all, in our three-bedroom suburban house on Hayseed Drive. Should’ve just been relaxing, loving life, now that the kids had grown up and moved out. Yet here we were, moving sight-unseen into some dingy downtown apartment building just so Willow could start what she called a “dream job” at some ultra-liberal art foundation whose mission was something like “to lift up the creative expression of nonbinary voices.” Whatever that means.

It was an hour’s drive to the city, with nothing to look at but gray sky, crimped green hills, and tractor-trailers. I’ve always respected that about the interstate—how it takes you from one place to another without bothering to show you anything interesting. As if it knows that you never really wanted to leave.

The song changed. Michael Jackson.

“Now this guy,” I said, “this guy was a pervert.”

Willow sighed.

“It was complicated, Stan.”

“Was it? What’s so ‘complicated’ about messing around with little children?”

“I don’t want to talk about this,” she responded. I squinted at the road, knowing I’d won this time. I wasn’t about to change the song, though.

I’m not like that.

We passed more and more signs for the city, then the tree line broke. Subdivisions crowded the interstate, separated by razor-strips of loblolly forest. The highway rose, crossed some train tracks, and descended towards rows and rows of peeling clapboard houses.

My new neighbors—great.

At least we’d still have our nice furniture. It was scheduled to be all laid out for us upon arrival at the apartment. I’d forwarded the floor plan the realtor had sent us to the movers, along with detailed instructions.

Skyscrapers emerged, and I swirled off the highway, dutifully following my GPS from one to another trash-strewn street. We passed boarded-up storefronts, chain-linked parking lots, and brick walls blazed with graffiti. How could Willow possibly think all this is glamorous? She was basically gawking with admiration.

We eventually arrived at our block, which was, of course, the worst of all of them. It was sooty, wide-shouldered, and strewn with shopping carts, old mattresses, and other telltale signs of the homeless.

“We’re about to live in a historic building,” Willow said. “It used to be a hotel, based on an ancient Roman bathhouse.” She hummed a little and leaned her head against my shoulder.

“Ancient Romans,” I said. “The very models of moral purity.”

She pulled back.

“Jesus, Stan. I really wish you’d let it rest.”

We got out of the car and I stared up at our supposedly historic monstrosity of an apartment building: four stories, wider than tall. A rust-colored block of granite. It looked like there was water damage, maybe, around the foundation. Great.

Willow reached into her handbag and produced a brochure she’d taken from the realtor’s office, then handed it to me. Welcome to Residences at the Ohio. She’d scrawled the front door’s keycode across its glossy surface. She also pulled out her phone, and her face slackened as she checked her messages.

“Oh no,” she said, “I totally forgot. I actually have to go into the office—like, right now.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. It’s my welcome luncheon. Should only take an hour or so, I think. But you’ll have to go up there alone.” She reached out, held my hand, and gave it a fast squeeze—her way of apologizing, though only for not helping carry our bags inside. Realistically, that was something I would’ve done on my own anyway.

I squeezed back, though I didn’t want to. Then I pulled our two heavy duffel bags—as much as I could carry—from the trunk. I lugged them to the entrance and punched in the keycode.

The door rattled, like breath, and opened. I was inside, alone.

Some bathhouse. The lobby was dimly lit. Its paint was peeling; its walls were scabbed with exposed brick. A hallway stretched backward into darkness, lined on either side by drab, olive-green doors. I heard another breathy rattle, echoing from far down the hallway. Someone else, probably, opening another door. It all seemed unfair: even though I’d put our kids through college, and I’d paid for Willow’s night classes with my salary, here I was, lugging our baggage through this creepy fucking building, alone.

Ours was apartment 4B—upstairs apparently. I climbed the stairwell to my right and found it easily, its number announced in peeling decals on an ugly slab of door. The urchinlike welcome mat prickled against my knuckles as I reached beneath it to extract the key. I clanked it into the slot and twisted hard on the doorknob. The door swung open.

Inside was completely dark. Did this stupid bathhouse come with even a single window? I set down the bags and groped around for a light switch, eventually finding one above a marble countertop in what must’ve been the kitchen. I flicked it on. Jaundiced light drifted down from the ceiling.

I saw a huge, high-ceilinged room, its bare brick walls punctuated by doorways. A splintered wooden table. A floral print armchair. An ugly cubist rug.

None of this furniture is ours.

“Those cut-rate fuckers!” I yelled to the ceiling. Had the movers delivered to the wrong unit? Or just made off with our nice stuff, replacing it with this thrift store shit?

I dragged one of the duffel bags towards the kitchen area—at least that looks decent—and hoisted it onto the counter. I unloaded our last few groceries, pots, and pans, cursing myself for apparently not knowing better than to hire some thinly-reviewed company from the city. Had I purchased moving insurance? If not—what type of lawyer do I have to call?

“Excuse me,” a voice behind me said.

Not Willow’s.

I wrenched around and saw a woman. She was standing behind the ugly splintered table: bronze-cheeked, curly-haired, and middle-aged, with impeccable posture. Her hands were folded casually over an acorn-colored briefcase.

“Excuse me…. What the hell are you doing in my house?”

“Performing an intake,” she replied. “I’m your therapist. From the city.”

“My what now?”

“Your city-assigned therapist, to whom you’re entitled under CO 5776, the New Neighbors Program.”

“I don’t want a goddamned therapist,” I told her.

“That’s not my problem. You could file a grievance, I guess, but you can’t just cancel me.”

“Who are you, the gas company?”

Her face crimped into a smile.

“You don’t like the city, do you? Why not? You can go to bluegrass shows every night. There’s lots of old-time music being played here.”

“The fuck—are you making fun of me?”

“No, no. I’m not. I love old songs, too. Especially ones about drownings. According to your intake form, your interests include murder ballads. Maybe we can start unpacking there.”

“No,” I said. “I’m not telling you shit about how I feel.”

“Your loss, then. Clause 7 of the aforementioned act requires us to perform psychological triage on all incoming residents. Your taxes at work…though since you just moved here, technically other people’s.”

“Psychoanalyze my wife, then. She’s the one who’s into that kind of thing.”

“Conflict of interest. Also, not necessary. Willow opted out, instead signing on with one of our public-private partners through the Alternative Solutions program.”

“What the fuck?”

“I know you’re upset,” the therapist said, “and I also know that none of this is your furniture.” She released her right arm from the briefcase, and swept it gently around the apartment. “Do you think that could be contributing to your frustration?”

“Gee, why don’t you tell me?”

She smiled again, then tapped her fingers on the table. “Sit.”

“I’m not falling for that.”

“Fine, whatever. I’m not paid well enough to force you. Did you enjoy the drive, at least?”

“Look, I don’t know if Willow put you up to this or what, but I don’t believe you’re actually from the city. Also, I don’t need any therapy. I’ve never been anything but faithful to my wife and family.”

“Way to go,” she replied. “In your home, you’ll happy be.”

I watched the woman closely. She was definitely real—tapping her fingers and grinning. Then I heard footfalls, in a gait that sounded like Willow’s, climbing the stairs to the apartment.

She burst in frantically.

“Stan!” she cried, then noticed the therapist. “Oh.”

She squinted and flattened her eyebrows.

“I’m glad you’re doing a therapy session, Stan, but do you have to do it here? Plans changed at the office, and my new coworkers are coming over here for lunch.”

“What?” I started—”Hold on a second—”

We can find another room,” the therapist said quickly. “Let’s go for a little walk.” She drifted to the room’s far corner. Turned and faced me. Pushed open one of the mysterious doors embedded in the brick.

“Wil, are you serious? What the hell’s going on?”

“Just go have your session,” said Willow. She leaned forward and kissed me. “The girls and I will be here when you get back.”

What else could I do? I followed. Pushed the door easily. It breathed open.

I was in a different part of the building, I realized. This time, no stairwell. Instead, I was standing midway across a dim-lit wooden balcony—below me, it seemed, was a void. I curled my neck in both directions: the walkway extended, in each, for about twenty yards before hitting a corner and receding in shadow. But where is the therapist? There was suddenly no trace of her—only doorways lining the balcony, all of them drab and clumsy and olive-painted like mine. Were they all apartments? I crept right, averting my eyes from the railing. My footsteps howled.

I passed three closed doors. The fourth was propped open. Inside, I discovered an empty room. A single blinds-drawn window streaked its grey wall-to-wall carpet with slivers of daylight. In the corner, behind a conference table, was a hump of leather.

My hump of leather. My fucking ottoman.

I wasn’t seeing things; that was definitely my ottoman, the one I’d purchased for my family. It had the telltale scuff marks on its heels, left by the poorly disciplined Doberman pinscher whose presence I’d briefly tolerated back when Willow had decided to foster a dog.

I’ll get this back, at least. I squatted in front of it, ringed my fingers under its edges, and pulled up. It wouldn’t budge.

I tried again, harder—nothing. As if the ten-pound footrest suddenly weighed a ton. Then a cordless office phone rang in the room’s far corner.

I knew exactly who it was.

“Is this some kind of joke?” I asked.

“I don’t joke,” said the therapist. “This is just how we do things. Clause 7(c), for your reference. Follow me further down the hallway? Try the next room.”

I slammed down the receiver. The next room, also unlocked, was identical to the one I’d just visited. Instead of the ottoman, though, it contained two of Willow’s lamps and our four-post, ebony-lacquered king-sized bed.

“What the fuck is going on?” I asked this room’s phone.

“Hmm, pissy male anger. Boring.”

“Why wouldn’t I be angry?” I asked. “I never liked the city in the first place, let alone being stuck in this weird flea-sack of a building. Meanwhile, someone—probably you—has been fucking with all my stuff. My wife has her new friends over, right now, and they’re probably all talking behind my back about how bottled-up or evasive or whatever I am.”

“Oh, now he talks.”

“Fuck that attitude. Aren’t you supposed to be supportive or something?”

“Look, if you had my job, maybe you could tell me how to do it. But you don’t, so don’t bother. Just know this: we’ll go down to the river, and in the end, you’ll be happy. For now, though, keep checking rooms.”

In the next room was our sofa. In the next, my desk. Then came our dining table, coffee table, and matching Amish nightstands. All in identical, starchy-carpeted conference rooms, all completely unmovable. Soon I’d lost track of how many doors I’d opened. Then, the therapist stopped calling.

A square has four corners, but at some point, during my progression down the balcony, I realized I’d turned at least five or six. What shape is this building? My bearings were off; I had no idea. There seemed only to be the hallway and whatever it presented directly ahead of me, which was always just the next identical room.

Until eventually it wasn’t. Instead, it was a heavy, gray door marked FIRE EXIT. The door was propped open. Revealing, behind it, a well-lit stairwell. No stairs coiling up. Only down. 

The walls of the staircase were exposed cinderblock. Its light buzzed with sickly fluorescence. It stank like a subway, completely devoid of those fisheye mirrors. Is someone waiting to mug me on the next landing?

The stairs were in sets of twelve—I was counting. I descended five, six, seven sets, my footsteps ringing behind me. Hadn’t I been on the fourth floor when I started? By now, I must’ve been deep underground. At the eighth landing, I reached the bottom: a huge room with high stone ceilings, buttered in yellow light. I glanced around it in all directions. No muggers, no therapist.

What I saw, instead, were piles and piles of old furniture. Scratched-up end tables. Ugly lamps. Broken appliances, dirt-caked tchotchkes, spring-stripped sofas, and art deco armchairs. Way more crap than Willow would be able to drag home from thrift stores in her entire lifetime.

We’ll go down to the river, the therapist had said, and in the end, you’ll be happy. What had that meant? Was this the river in question: a sprawling junk room full of worthless crap?

You’ll be happy, though. And she’d also said to keep on looking.

So I turned to the nearest pile and started digging through small stuff: pots and pans, toasters, plastic utensils, colanders. Stacks of jigsaw puzzles and board games. Spiral-bound cookbooks. Cheap oil paintings of Parisian gardens, dressed-up children, or boats on the water. All of it was moveable; nothing anchored to anything else, or the floor. I flung open the wardrobes, unfolded the bedframes, rifled through faded desks and bureaus. Twisted every handle, pulled out every drawer, stared down every stain and blemish. I remembered each time one of our kids had spilled or broken something, each time Willow had brought home some old, junky item to prove that we could live simply and later forgotten about it, leaving me to haul it down to the basement. Is that where I am, instead? Not the river, but the one big basement, where all things unloved and forgotten go?

I felt exoskeletal, divorced from my actions as I kept digging, digging, delving and upturning, muttering over and over that I never put my foot down, never put my foot down, preparing to explain to the therapist, whenever I’d find her, that the one thing I’ve feared most, through all of this, has been breaking Willow’s heart.

Suddenly, I saw my wife somewhere, through a tiny window: miniature Willow, seated many stories above me, having lunch in what seemed like a diorama of our new apartment with two miniature city women and a miniature therapist. What are they discussing up there? Feelings? Social responsibility in music? Nonbinary art? I suddenly longed to be with them, to have just one thing to contribute: a treasure that was heart-shaped, fist-sized—something that, like a folk song, could be rehashed and recycled, could be changed, adjusted, and modified to ensure that it bends, always, towards a place of love.

I shoved the big items aside, turned back to the small ones, and started collecting: clock radios, coffee grinders, yellowed pillows, a framed Christmas photo of someone else’s family. I scraped everything possible into my arms, not bothering to appraise any of it. What would be the point? The stuff I wanted was up there, in the boardrooms. The stuff down here was free, though. And the stuff up there was not.

Arms full, I waddled towards the staircase. I stumbled; electric plugs bounced behind me, dice spilled out from a board game, and clanked across the floor. My hips buckled, my forearms strained, but I knew I could always shift my weight, always make the adjustment, always keep going.

As I mounted the steps, I heard a distant, raspy, whisper: We’ll go down to the river. Then, I heard water dripping. Then trickling. Then murmuring. Then sluicing into the steady static of a stream. I lurched up the staircase, tried to run, but my load impeded me. Then the lights went out—the steps behind me were erased, one by one, under an advancing tide of water. I pushed forwards again, in desperation, but then stumbled and fell backward. Water slapped against my ankles, soaked through my trousers, surged over my chest, shoulders, and head. My treasures, released, floated off, and scattered.

To where am I floating, for this happiness?

I knew the answer, though, without asking. I am rushing towards the Ohio, the end of a song. I am the one who’s been pushed in.


Malcolm Culleton is a dog, baseball, and train enthusiast who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He has worked as a copywriter, community organizer, folk singer and college essay coach since graduating from Columbia University in New York, where he studied fiction and American history. He currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA and is an MFA student at Chatham University.

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