My wife hears sounds all the time now; scratchy noises, thingies, as she calls them. I tell her I’ve listened, I’ve stood on the landing each night below her bedroom door. It’s an old house, pipes knock, floorboards creek. Outside of that, I don’t hear anything unusual.
Irina says I must hear them, she isn’t making this up. The sounds are there. They’ve been there for weeks now. She’s even accused me of making them myself. She thinks I get up in the attic and rattle things around. I tell her I haven’t been up there in years. My knees are bad. I’m old. I’m past the point of practical jokes or anything malicious. I tell her this on a regular basis.
“You do sometink!” she yells.
Irina’s ready to accuse anybody now — me, my kids, even the neighbors. Neither of my children live in the city anymore. The closest one — my son, Jason — is up in Orangeville with his family. We haven’t talked since before my wedding. It’s been over a year now. If he was anywhere near the house, I think I’d know.
Sometimes Irina comes downstairs with her hair messed and her eyes wild and blue. She’s still beautiful in her own way. I do what I can to comfort her, but she doesn’t trust me anymore. Even before I get out of bed in the morning, she’s there at my door, telling me my house should be destroyed.
“That’s all is good for!” she yells.
Then she’s off again, rummaging through the closets.
All I can do is make coffee and keep things tidy as best I can. These used to be Irina’s jobs, but now she doesn’t even get the mail.
Each morning, I stand on the porch, watching my grass grow in thickets. Everything has a look of destitution. The mail arrives and I wave to the postman as he leaves. Then I see Irina there at the window, staring at me through the parted drapes.
My sons stopped calling after I married Irina. Jason and Tom said I let her take over. I allowed her to run my life. I know this is true. I’ve let my house go, I’ve ignored my family and friends. What can I do? Irina is the woman I married.
“You’re a grandfather, for God’s sake,” Jason used to say to me. “Think of that. Think of your family. Think of us.”
I told Jason I think about them all the time. I remember the Sundays we’d get together out back on the lawn, him and the kids. Now the yard looks like a vacant lot. Irina used to admire the property. She had worked for the home care agency back then. She had bathed me every Tuesday and Friday. Now she says she can’t help me in and out of the tub anymore. Things need fixing, the caulking is cracked, the showerhead is broken. Everything is falling apart.
I tell her I’ll get them fixed.
“You fix, huh?” she asks. “What you pay with?”
Things are tight right now. I tell her I’ll cash some bonds, maybe take out a home improvement loan. She shakes her head, saying I’m a good for nothing. I know things aren’t what she expected. But we have to learn to love again.
“Come back in my room, Irina,” I say.
Irina’s moved to Jason’s and Tom’s bedroom. She says I’m an old man with old man’s problems. I don’t come to bed until two in the morning.
“You tink I wait up for you?” she says, pushing my hands away. ““Naw, you!” she says. “Go, go,” she says, “Go away, old man.”
A single hair is caught in the corner of her mouth. I try to brush it away and she smacks my hand. “Naw, naw,” she says. She goes upstairs again, shuffling through the closets in my boys’ old room. Nothing is left up on the walls anymore. Anything Irina could carry, she had put down in the basement.
It’s junk as far as she’s concerned.
From the moment she wakes up, she’s shifting things around, doing laundry, ironing her clothes. We have a dryer, but it’s on the fritz. That’s one of the things she complains about. “Good dryer, huh?” she says. “It’s no good. It don’t work.” She says she wishes she was back living with her relatives. “At least I sleep there,” she says. “No sleep here.”
She told her relatives about the house, about me and the noises. They’re on the phone all the time. I pick up the odd word in her language, the tone of voice, the way she clicks her tongue. Then she stands in front of my chair with her hands on her hips. She’s a strong woman. She used to lift me out of the tub, dry me, put on my clothes. I look at her now. I want to touch Irina’s skin. “Naw, you,” she used to say to me in bed. “You love Irina, huh? You want Irina, ya?”
Now she slaps my hands when I try to touch her.
“Naw, naw,” she says. He face shines. When I try again, she makes a fist. I tuck in my shoulders, ready for anything. “Gawd,” she says. Her hands flop and she walks away. “Little man, you.”
Down to the basement she goes, her slippers clicking against her heels. The washing machine starts. At least that’s working. She washes her dresses and irons them while they’re still damp. Then they go on hangers. They dangle from the clothesline all pressed and starched. I stand on the stairs when she’s gone to bed. I see all her clothes hanging there. I smell detergent everywhere.
A man comes on Thursdays. He arrives in an old Chevy, waiting in the driveway, smoking a cigarette. I hear Irina upstairs, hangers rattling, drawers slamming. She comes down in a pink dress. It’s too tight now, but standing there, her eyes dark with eye shadow, she’s beautiful again. She has these bluest almond eyes. But they’re also the meanest I’ve ever seen.
I watch her put things in her purse and make last adjustments.
“Irina?” I say. “Don’t go.”
She takes out a Kleenex and gums her lips. I stand between her and the door.
“Move, you,” she says. “Move, move, move.”
“Go watch TV. Go, go.”
The man is looking at us. He smirks and throws his cigarette on the lawn. Wisps of smoke rise. He opens the passenger door and Irina gets in, swinging her legs like a teenager. I don’t know where he takes her. When she comes home, she looks at me in my chair and shakes her head. Her eyes form in narrow slits.
“What do I do with you?” she asks.
The home care people still come around once a month. Irina thinks it’s a conspiracy. She’d been a trained nurse, one of their own, until she had quit. She gets on the phone and yells, “I take care of him now. I take care fine.” They tell her they still have to make their report. “Stupid,” she says. She slams down the phone and looks at me. “You tell them Irina no good? You say sometink?” She goes upstairs, runs the taps, then calls to me from the landing. “Come here, you,” she says. “I wash you now.”
I limp towards the stairs.
“Now,” she says. “Come, come, come.”
Standing at the sink, she scrubs me with a washcloth. Her arms go up and down until my skin is red. Then she towels me off and pulls fresh underwear up my skinny legs. She sees a bulge in my underwear.
“Big man, huh?” she says. “Gawd.”
When I try to touch her, she slaps me.
“Naw, you. Go downstairs. Go, go, go!”
I wait for Irina in the living room, listening to her go through my closets, trying to find my good sweater. She makes me wear it when the healthcare people come. After they go, she puts it away again.
I sit in my chair and look out the window. Car lights go by. Years ago, my wife would have been standing at the kitchen door, expecting one of the kids to arrive. Now it’s healthcare workers, or that punk in the old Chevy.
An aneurysm had killed my wife. I can’t tell you the exact date. Dates mean nothing to me now. I miss birthdays and anniversaries. After my wife had died, I’d wandered around the house. One day, I’d tripped and torn the cartilage in my knee. It got progressively worse until I needed somebody. Irina showed up from the agency.
I thought I’d found my saving grace.
“Come to Irina,” she used to say when she’d bathe me.
My arms would go around her neck, almost desperate. Now she avoids me every chance she gets. “Go away,” she says. “Go away, little man.” She pushes me away hard. I’m sure she doesn’t push away that punk in the old Chevy.
I see him put his arm across the seat as they drive away. I never know when she’ll be back. After she’s gone, I climb the stairs to her room and get under the covers. They smell of lavender and orange. I found one of her toys between the mattresses the other day. I want to say to her, “We didn’t need toys, Irina. We had each other.”
Our wedding had taken place in the back yard; a small gathering, mostly Irina’s family and friends. There were gifts and food; they were packed up afterwards. Everything was wrapped in tissue paper and put on the top shelf of her closet.
We don’t talk about it anymore. All we talk about now are the noises in the attic. Irina accuses me every chance she gets. Then she flops on the couch with a dishcloth over her face. I sit down next to her, but she pushes me away. “Leave Irina alone,” she says.
“It’s an old house, Irina,” I say. “It could be anything. Maybe you hear squirrels. They get in under the soffits sometimes. Or maybe raccoons.”
She pulls the dish cloth away. She squints like she doesn’t believe me. Then she gets off the couch and picks up the phone. She’s calling a member of the family. Then she puts down the receiver again and comes back to the couch smiling. “My boys come tomorrow,” she says. “We see.”
The old Chevy comes first, then a small rusty compact. They park on the street; the punk gets out and leads the other men around the side of the house. Irina’s on the back porch with her floral dress rising in the breeze. From the kitchen window, I can see her point to the roof. Cigarettes are smoked while the men talk and nod. Then one of them gets a ladder from my garage. He climbs on the roof. Footsteps crunch on the shingles overhead. Something metal scrapes in the chimney.
The punk sees me in the window and grins.
More scraping sounds. Dust falls in the grate.
Then there’s a crash in the living room. The fire screen falls over. Footsteps come running up from the back porch, then they’re in the kitchen, going through in their heavy boots. A chair falls over and I hear scurrying sounds. Something smashes against the floor. Irina yells, “Get him, get him.” Another smash and then Irina laughs. “Good, good,” she says. “Go, go, take him outside.”
I stand there in the kitchen with my fists balled up. Coming into the living room, I find footprints in the dust, a chair on its side. I look out the window. The men are getting in their cars. The punk stands holding a garbage bag. He sees me, holds it up, then throws it in his trunk.
Irina waves to them from the driveway. Then she comes inside, fanning her neck. “My boys do good job, huh?” she says, going upstairs. “I sleep now,” she says. “Finally,I sleep.”
I’m watching the ten o’clock news. Irina hasn’t come down all evening. During the commercial, I get up and stand at the bottom of the stairs. Irina’s door is closed. I pick up the phone. “Trebamo cekati, moj milo,” Irina is saying in a soft voice.
There’s a large carving knife by the sink. I take it and limp down the basement stairs, finding the metal loop that holds the clothesline. I cut the line and watch Irina’s laundry fall on the floor. Then I see the cans of paint over on my work bench. I pry the top off one with a rusty screwdriver and pour the paint over her clothes.
I limp up to the kitchen and turn on the coffeemaker. Irina appears in her dressing gown. I give her a big grin.
“Why you smile?” she says. “What so funny?”
She sees the light on in the basement. Her eyes narrow. She starts down the steps slowly. Then she’s running, thump, thump, thump. I hear her scream. Then she’s coming up the stairs again, heels pounding.
I sit down at the kitchen table. I keep my shoulders high, my head low. I wait for Irina to appear. It’s a beautiful wait.