It was one of those houses that you pass every day, and you never see anything move. The curtains were drawn, and on the verandah was a potted agave, brown at the tips but refusing to die. A vine had taken over the garden, and was stretching its shiny tendrils through the balusters.
Gina was doing market research on weekends and in between classes. She stepped on to the verandah and rang the bell. There was no sound, but the door swung open. It was gloomy inside. A man’s voice called ‘come in’.
Gina peered inside, then the voice called again. ‘I’m in here.’
The voice came from a room off the end of the hall. Gina heard the crackle of a TV. When she stepped into the hall the door closed behind her.
‘What is it? You selling something?’
‘I’m doing a household survey,’ said Gina. ‘For the council.’ As she approached the room she felt the cellphone in her pocket. She had the number of the survey company on speed dial. When she reached the doorway she saw a man in a wheelchair. She guessed he was under forty. He was wearing the sort of baggy track pants disabled people wear, and trainers with Velcro straps. His hands rested on the tray in front of him. His fingers were curled into half fists, white at the knuckles, with the fingers splayed. The TV was on the History Channel.
The man prodded a remote control to turn the volume down. ‘The council, eh?’ said the man. ‘I’ve got a few things I’d like to say to the council.’
Gina stood in the doorway, not sure of how far into the room she should come, or even if she should have come this far. A nurse was sitting on a settee, reading a magazine. She glanced at Gina, then back at her magazine.
‘Take a seat,’ the man said, nodding towards to a vinyl-covered chair.
‘I’m from Spectrum Market Research,’ said Gina, hoping it would start to feel like a normal interview. She walked closer to the man and showed her badge.
‘Hello Gina,’ said the man. ‘I’m Andrew.’ He lifted a clawed hand towards her, just off the table. His face tensed with the effort. It took Gina a moment to realize she was meant to take the hand in hers. When she did, it felt like a collection of bones. There was no easy way to shake it.
‘Nice to meet you,’ Gina said. She stepped back a little.
‘So what’s the survey about?’ Andrew asked.
‘It’s about kerbside collections. You know, glass, paper, aluminium, that sort of thing.’
‘Ask away,’ said Andrew.
‘It takes ten minutes,’ said Gina. ‘Is that ok?’ She opened her folder.
‘Yeah, that’s ok, ask away,’ said Andrew.
‘The first question is: “Are you the householder?” You don’t have to own the house,’ she added, ‘I mean, if you’re renting . . .’
‘I own the house,’ Andrew interrupted. ‘Next question?’
Gina went through the three pages of questions. Who puts out the recycling? Who makes the purchasing decisions? Do you ever put plastic or glass out with the general rubbish?
Andrew fired the answers back without pause, and without saying ‘it depends’ or ‘I suppose that’s me’. The interview was over in five minutes, and Gina was saying thank you when Andrew said, ‘Get me a drink.’ Gina looked around, and Andrew nodded towards the kitchen.
The nurse put her newspaper down and seemed about to say something when Andrew snapped, ‘You might as well go now.’
Turning back to Gina he said, ‘In the fridge. There’s some L&P.’
When Gina returned with a glass and the bottle the nurse was buttoning her coat and walking towards the door. Gina heard the door open and then click shut.
‘The caregivers,’ said Andrew. ‘They don’t like me to drink too much. Means they have to empty my bag.’
Gina filled the glass.
‘Hold it in front of me then tip when I get my mouth there,’ he said. ‘Not too much or I’ll choke and you’ll wear it.’
Andrew’s lips were dry. Gina held the drink, tipping as she was asked. Andrew shook his head when he’d had enough. His first breath sent a spray of droplets over his tray, then he breathed deeply and said ‘thanks.’
‘You’re welcome,’ said Gina. She felt like a hotel receptionist who was paid to be nice to everyone.
‘Put the bottle back in the fridge,’ said Andrew. ‘Leave the glass on the bench.’
When Gina returned to the room she noticed the flicker of the TV had died. As she went to pick up her bag, Andrew said, ‘Read me something.’
‘I should be going,’ said Gina.
‘Read me something first,’ said Andrew.
Gina looked around the room. There were a few books on a shelf, mainly medical texts, and a magazine on a side table. ‘This?’ she said, picking up the magazine.
‘Something interesting,’ said Andrew.
‘On the shelf. Raymond Carver.’
Gina scanned the books and saw a slim paperback with Carver’s name on the spine. She slid it out, and held it in front of her. The cover showed a rough painting of a bar, with a car parked outside, and the title, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Gina held the book up for Andrew to see.
‘Yes,’ said Andrew. ‘Page 23.’
Gina opened the book. The story on page 23 was ‘Are You a Doctor?’ Gina settled into the chair and held the book in front of her. Andrew closed his eyes. His shoulders slumped a little, and he took a deep breath. Gina thought the skin on his knuckles had more colour, and perhaps the fingers had uncoiled a little.
Gina began to read. In slippers, pajamas and robe he hurried out of the study when the telephone began to ring. She found the story odd, but entrancing. How did Clara Holt get Arnold Breit’s number? And what loneliness prompted Arnold to go out late at night to visit her? The story held a sense that something would happen, or perhaps it already had and all that was left was to endure the consequences. It was about connections between people, how they could just happen, how you might start a conversation and not know how to end it. When she finished the story Andrew kept his eyes closed.
‘Well. I should be going,’ Gina said.
‘I was going to be a doctor,’ said Andrew.
‘A doctor?’ said Gina. ‘Oh.’
‘I was going to be a doctor.’
‘Oh,’ said Gina.
Andrew looked directly at Gina. ‘You can’t be a doctor with a C5 fracture,’ he said.
‘You had an accident?’
‘Skiing,’ said Andrew. ‘One minute you’re making plans, the next minute everyone’s making them for you.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Gina. She stood to leave, then found herself studying the cover illustration of the book.
‘Touch my hand,’ said Andrew. His voice had softened a little, and he was looking away. He held his hand out, the way he had when Gina first arrived. Gina closed the book and returned it to the shelf. She stood for a moment facing Andrew but he didn’t return her gaze. Finally she walked towards him. She took his hand and squeezed softly.
Neither of them spoke until Gina said, ‘I really need to go.’
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ asked Andrew.
‘You shouldn’t ask,’ replied Gina, and she felt hot suddenly.
‘You’re right,’ said Andrew. ‘I shouldn’t. But do you?’
‘I really have to go,’ said Gina.
‘You need me to open the door,’ said Andrew. He indicated the keyboard in front of him. ‘I operate the door from here. It’s a security thing.’
Gina felt the cellphone in her pocket.
‘Oh, I guess that’s important,’ she said.
Andrew tapped at the keyboard and Gina heard the front door opening.
‘All electronic,’ he said. ‘Insurance paid for that. Electronically operated house, security cameras, the lot.’
‘I guess that’s something,’ said Gina.
‘I guess it is,’ said Andrew. ‘Funny thing is, when I was a student I couldn’t afford a computer. Come back and read me something else some time,’ he said.
‘I might,’ said Gina, then she added, ‘I work a lot, and then there’s exams and things.’
‘Yeah,’ said Andrew. ‘There’s always something, eh?’
‘Yeah, there is,’ said Gina.