Homesteading


Martin was walking back from the liquor store at dusk, still drunk from the morning, when he saw Brianna’s baby girl crawling down the middle of the street. It was starting to snow—nothing sticking yet, just wisps of flakes like falling ash. Brianna’s baby girl wore a pink onesie that made her a smudge of color against the empty neighborhood, a finger painting begun and quickly abandoned.

He shifted the liquor store bag from his wrist to his elbow and squinted up the road, waiting for the situation to resolve itself—for Brianna to appear from somewhere and scoop her baby girl up. He tried to remember her baby girl’s name, and couldn’t.

Two months earlier, Martin had packed next to nothing, skipped a 25th birthday dinner with his parents, and driven most of the night from Illinois in a rental car. Once in Braddock, he spent half the couple grand he had on something that used to be a house, but was now a wrecked-looking box without working plumbing and half of its sea foam green paint peeled away. At the end of his first week there, Brianna saw him drinking on the porch and came over to introduce herself and her baby girl. She smiled at him and said he could use the downstairs shower at her place until he got the plumbing handled. He hadn’t taken her up on it. Braddock seemed like the kind of place you had to be born in to fit in, and he wasn’t. Still, he thought about Brianna a lot. The way she smiled. He wondered if maybe they could be friends. Once a week he took a bus to the YMCA in Pittsburgh and showered there.

All he knew about Brianna and her baby girl now was what he was able to see from the front window of his house. From there, he had a view of Brianna’s toy-strewn porch, where she frequently sat in pajama pants at three in the afternoon with the cordless phone, twisting strands of blond hair around her finger, smoking, and occasionally glancing up at her baby girl playing with handfuls of dirt in the front yard.

Tonight, there was no one on the porch, and the windows behind it were dark. Brianna’s car wasn’t in its spot out front. Martin felt like maybe he was destined to find Brianna’s baby girl. Two weeks ago, he wouldn’t have been coming back from the liquor store at this hour. He’d have waited a couple hours and gone at the start of Wanda’s shift. But he didn’t want to see Wanda again. Not after last time.

Brianna must be working, he thought. She waited tables at the Evening News, one of the only storefronts downtown without boards on the windows. He’d been down there more in the couple weeks since the incident with Wanda. He’d been less comfortable in his house; more and more, he felt an anxious whirring in his chest, one he couldn’t seem to drink dull, compelling him out into the darkened streets, the remains of town. He’d sit at the end of the bar and try to stop his leg from shaking, swallow the sensation that something awful was hidden in his life’s blind spot. Most of the time it helped. He never talked to anyone, but it was nice sitting near people and hearing what they said to each other. Brianna waited tables with about the same amount of personality as the tables themselves. Martin felt bad for her—she seemed about his age, but he caught himself thinking about her as if he were much older; she’s too young to be sleepwalking like that, too young to not be pretty anymore.

Valley. That was Brianna’s baby girl’s name. He remembered as he came up beside her in the road, glancing each way to make sure no cars were coming, and felt immediately relieved. He worried a lot about his mind going limp with disuse. Sure, he’d dropped out of school, but that was for lack of trying, not intelligence. He’d won a spelling bee in the fifth grade by spelling cataclysm. His SATs had been good.

Up close, Valley didn’t look like a baby. There was something older in her face—recognition, or disappointment, or fear. Still, she was crawling. When did kids learn to walk? He couldn’t remember.

“Hey,” he said to her, reaching down to touch the fuzzy shoulder of her onesie as lightly as he could. “I live across the street. Do you know me? My name is Martin.” He stuck his hand out for her to shake and laughed at his own joke as she started to crawl again. He watched her for a few seconds and then jogged to catch up.

“You can’t stay out here,” he told her. She looked up at him. “I’m going to pick you up now, okay?” He balanced the bag in the crook of his arm and hooked his hands under her armpits. She was light and silent, her eyes big and unblinking. Nothing moved or made a sound in the neighborhood, all the houses looking crooked on their foundations, heads tilted at him as if to say, Well, what now?


Martin had officially dropped out of school in the middle of his junior year, though by then he felt like he hadn’t been in a long time. By the middle of his freshman year he was drinking half a bottle a night and going in hungover. As a sophomore it was a bottle a night and nodding off, still drunk, in the classes he managed to make. It was chewing gum around his parents, who had their suspicions anyway, and warned him that it ran deep on both sides of the family.

They were crushed when he informed them of his decision at Sunday dinner. He felt bad because they did, but what was the point? The spring semester was a month old and he hadn’t been to class yet. His Mom had gone wordlessly upstairs and Martin watched TV in an uncomfortable silence with his Dad, wondering how long to wait before he drove back across town to his apartment.

He found a cheaper apartment and got a job selling mattresses at the mall. He drank before his shifts, drove there slowly on the back streets in a sunny fog. The money was actually pretty good; the commission was generous, and people in a mattress store aren’t usually just looking. At Sunday dinners, he told his parents that he was definitely going to go back to school when he got his head right. It’d been three years since he dropped out by this time, but there seemed to be an unspoken agreement between the three of them that at least for that one time a week they’d all choose to live in the world where that was true.

After he got fired from the mattress store, he took a job interrupting the dinners of alumni to solicit donations to the university. He joked with his parents—See? Inching back toward campus—but they’d gotten tired of the whole charade. They still loved him, they said, always would, but it was just too exhausting to watch him do nothing. When he called the alumni, he could almost taste their sneers through the phone. It felt good. He wished his parents would just hate him. Then at least the book would be closed. They could all stop thinking about it. He saw a news special called “America’s Forgotten Cities,” where a camera shot footage of Braddock out the window of a slowly moving car. The mayor came on and talked about the mills closing, the 90% population decrease, all the vacants.

His place was being sold as is, the agent stressed. The furnace was busted; all the copper wiring was gone in the upstairs; there was a funky smell, about which neither of them wanted to venture a guess. It felt like the end of the world to Martin, and that was perfect. He wanted to be as forgotten as the city was, out of reach of all the little fingers that were how he’d come to think of his hometown, digging into him and peeling him open constantly and sighing disappointed sighs at what they found. He could get on welfare here. Fix things one at a time, including himself.

It hadn’t panned out. Two months, and the house was still basically empty. He had a rocking chair by the window and a mattress on the floor in the corner of the room. He spent the welfare checks on whiskey.


The hydraulics on Brianna’s screen door were busted. It hung open and swayed, rattled when Martin knocked with his foot. No answer. He was still holding Valley under her arms, out in front of him, waiting to hand her over. Someone had to be home. He opened the screen and knocked on the front door, which also hung a quarter of the way open, a darkened room visible behind it. He moved Valley to one arm and stepped inside. The house was dark. It started gray and the longer he stood frozen just inside the door, the more new layers of gray seemed to overlay the old ones and fold back at his peripherals like a bed sheet. He waited minutes to hear something other than the sound of his own breathing before saying, “Brianna?” to the empty house.

Could she really have left Valley here alone? Martin had seen her go inside before while Valley played in the yard, not re-emerging with a fresh beer until minutes later. But still. As his eyes adjusted he could make out the contents of the front room. The walls, from his waist down, were paneled in dark-stained particle board; above that, the paint seemed to swallow the gray of the room and take on its color; a window air conditioner lay tilted beneath the window it had been removed from; a doll with dusty clothes was on her back, staring at the popcorn ceiling, the unmoving fan; a cheap card table had been pushed in the far corner and almost hidden beneath rows of empty beers that gave the room, he noticed now, a heavy, sticky, wheat smell; the outlets all had plastic baby-proofers in them. Martin set his bag down and readjusted Valley in his arm. He walked around the room touching things—running his finger down a long, light colored gash in the paneling, picking at a cigarette burn in the felt of the card table, brushing the doll off on his pants leg and handing it to Valley, who seemed uninterested. He looked out the window at a few flakes of snow melting onto the charred branches and ash in the fire pit outside. When it was warmer, Brianna had friends over pretty regularly, the same friends who dug the pit and laid the cinder blocks around it in the first place. They went all night usually, feeding the fire until it was dangerously tall. Brianna sat in a lawn chair by her friend whose roots were always showing beneath the blue-green dye in her hair. The boys stalked around the fire incessantly, shirtless, poking at it and laughing with each other. Their bodies telegraphed them—it was like you could see every bone and muscle. They were bodies made by lifting things for money, by drinking way more than they ate. Their forearms and shoulders were covered in blurry tattoos.

It occurred suddenly to Martin that he could help. He could pull that paneling and give the whole room a new coat of paint. He could put WD-40 on the squeaky screen door hinge, replace the hydraulic thing. He could babysit Valley on the nights when Brianna went to Evening News. He realized that he wanted to do those things more than he wanted to do any work on his own house. He was fine the way things were, he could manage, and Brianna would appreciate having someone to do the things she didn’t have time for. He set Valley on the floor and made a face at her. She laughed with a mouth full of small teeth. We had fun, he’d tell Brianna when she got back. Anytime you need a sitter, anytime, no don’t worry about money, it’s my pleasure.

The stairs were to his left; he picked Valley back up and took them slowly, creakily. He didn’t know how you’d fix creaky stairs, but he could try. The first room on the right was Brianna’s. He stood at the threshold of it, looking in. Clothes were draped on the bedposts, and there were two empty takeout boxes on the small table serving as a nightstand. He could see a half-empty bottle of vodka not so well hidden behind a lamp on the same table. The bed had been cleared and made. The sheets were a pale pink color and the pillows had been fluffed and arranged against the headboard carefully. Martin felt like he might cry. The bed was some last gasp of the past, he thought, some ghostly habit from her childhood carried all the way here, where it didn’t belong anymore. He wondered where Brianna’s parents were, and whether she felt the keen anxious edge, from time to time, of being a disappointment. He closed his eyes and shook his head. The feeling passed. His cellphone vibrated in his pocket. He hadn’t sent any money home for the bill since he left, but his parents were keeping it working, presumably so they could call a couple times a week to test various methods for motivating him back into the real world.

“Not the best timing,” he said when he picked up.

“How is that possible?” his mom said. “You got a job you didn’t tell anyone about?”

“Working on it.”

He pictured her in the study of the house he grew up in, looking out at the flat expanse of the backyard getting glittery with dew as night fell. He missed her; it wasn’t like he had a bad childhood or anything.

“It just seems to me like you’re running from everything because you’re scared,” his mom said.

“Yeah, maybe.” He set Valley and the liquor store bag side by side on the made bed.

“Well?”

“Well what?”

“Aren’t you ashamed?” This was their new thing. Reason hadn’t worked, and neither had pity, so they were getting tough, baiting him to answer some call of manhood.

“Not really. Sometimes it’s okay to—”

Valley interrupted him. Her face broke and fell and she started to cry, reaching a small hand for him. He took hold of one of her fingers.

“What was that?” his mom asked.

“The TV.”

“You don’t have a TV.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?” Her voice had an edge of panic to it. He knew she thought she was on the verge of some new discovery, the next something awful in a 3-year parade of them. He felt the keen edge in his throat.

“A friend of mine picked up an extra shift at work. I’m watching her kid for a couple hours.”

His mom didn’t say anything.

“Sometimes it’s okay to run, Mom. Necessary, even. I mean, if you locked eyes with a serial rapist across an empty parking garage, what would you do?”

“I’m not asking you to get raped, Martin. I’m asking you to consider finishing your Liberal Arts degree.”

“It was a metaphor. See, who needs college?”

She sighed audibly through the phone.

“We just want you to be happy.”

They were always saying that.

“I don’t seem happy? Look, I gotta go. I’ll call you soon.”

“I love you, Martin.”

“Love you, too.”

Martin looked at Valley in the crook of his arm. He felt happy enough. Eventually he’d go to the library in Pittsburgh, figure out how to start the repairs on the house. Find a job somewhere. For now, this seemed fine. He raised his eyebrows at Valley. She started to cry again.

The stairs creaked even louder when he descended. It had gotten darker out and in the new lower light he could see the edge of an unseen TV’s blue fog getting caught in the carpet like a sickness. Valley was crying and trying to catch her breath at the same time, and it sounded even louder down here. From near the TV light, something snored in response to her. Martin’s whole body went tense all at once; he swallowed hard to suppress a panicked noise blooming in his throat. He stood rail still for a noiseless minute before inching toward the source of the light.

The TV was on mute and showing an infomercial for hair loss surgery. In front of it, he could see the back of a large, old recliner, an open blue cooler beside it filled with full and empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans. He crept along the back wall of the room until he could see the front of the recliner, Uncle Jimmy slumped low in it, asleep.

Martin didn’t know if Uncle Jimmy was really Brianna’s uncle. He’d shown up a month before, just as the weather was starting to get cold. They had one last bonfire, just for him, everyone slapping him on the back, raising their drinks to him, saying “welcome home” in a way that made Martin, who was watching from his porch, think of prison. Uncle Jimmy, for his part, wasn’t as full of the restless whatever that was pent up inside Brianna and her friends. Once he was done being welcomed back by everyone, he spent most of the evening sitting near the fire, looking into it and draining beer after beer, methodically. Martin remembered thinking that night that there was something intimidating about Uncle Jimmy in a movie kind of way. His shaved head; the way he shook everyone’s hand; the mean, narrowed eyes. Now he just looked pathetic. His cheeks were sallow, his mouth hung slack, a trail of drool went quicksilver in the TV’s brief brightening. He was even scarier now, Martin realized, in a way that had nothing to do with the risk of him waking up.

Valley was still on the step where he’d left her. She’d stopped crying. In the hall closet he found a winter coat, a scarf, and mittens. He crouched in front of her and pulled each on carefully, trying to think of something calming to say, though she didn’t seem to need it anymore.

“Let’s go wait for your Mom,” he told her.

Back at home, he rinsed his glass and poured himself a drink, downed it quickly, and poured himself another, weaker one. He wasn’t going to get drunk. He just wanted to ward off the headache that was coming on. Valley sat in the middle of the floor with her doll, wiping her nose with the hem of its dress. The lamp in the corner of the room threw her shadow long across the floor and up the opposite wall. Martin could see his breath bloom and die in the emptiness in front of him.

“Not bad, right?” he asked Valley. His voice had a slight echo. “Once I sand these floors, paint, get a little furniture,” he trailed off, thinking of Wanda again, and felt claustrophobic. He grabbed the thick comforter from his mattress and dragged it and the rocking chair onto the porch. He sat Valley down on the comforter and folded the edges over her legs, drew what was left around her shoulders, and settled into the rocking chair with his drink.

“Comfortable?” he said, leaning forward to get a look at her. “Home sweet home, right?”


Wanda was in her 50s, he guessed, near the same age as his Mom, but cut her hair young and short, with bangs sweeping across her forehead. She had this skin condition that gave her big milky-white patches all over her arms and face, like an Appaloosa horse. Martin had looked up what it was called once, but couldn’t remember anymore. She seemed to work seven nights a week—always there whenever Martin came by, every couple days or so, smiling at him with a desperate energy, insistent on making small talk. The weather, the Steelers’ chances this year, the post-apocalyptic movie filming in one of the abandoned mills on the outskirts of town. Martin mumbled one-word answers and kept his eyes down for the first couple weeks. She made him uncomfortable in a way that he couldn’t quite place and couldn’t quite shake. It was like she needed something from him; didn’t care that they didn’t know each other, or that he’d only been in town two weeks.

The first time they had an honest-to-god conversation it had rained all day and he walked in out of the low fog that remained.

“How you been?” she asked when he brought the bottle to the counter, like they’d known each other for years and he’d just come home.

“Cold.”

“Yeah, it’s nasty out there, huh?”

He nodded. “Plus no heat at my place.”

“Get your landlord on that. It’ll get worse way before it gets better, this time of year.”

“Yeah. No landlord, either. I bought the place, as is.”

She didn’t know what to make of that.

“I’m fixing it up. And then it’ll be home.”

She smiled and shook her head. “More power to you.”

He took his change and left. But whenever he came back, she asked how it was going, and he lied to her. Told her he’d refinished the floors; dry walled the boot holes in the wall and repainted. Bought new light fixtures. Hung shelves in the kitchen. She said she wished she could see it; it’d be a nice change to watch something in town get nicer. Get cared for. She leaned an elbow on the counter and rested her hand on the lid of the bottle when they talked. She started to tell him more personal things. She’d moved back into the house she grew up in after her mother passed away. She said she used to talk to her on the phone for an hour each morning, before work, and that now she didn’t know what to do with the time; lately, she just watched birds coming and going on the uprooted fence in yard. She talked about a boyfriend she’d had years before who owned every season of Star Trek on VHS and tried to devise equations for gambling on football, and who had cheated on her three times.

“I swore off men after him,” she said, and added, forcing a smile, “sometimes I think they swore off me, too.” Martin sometimes felt like she was flirting with him.

When another customer came to the register he stepped aside until they were done, and then picked up their conversation again mid-sentence. He told her how peaceful it was to sit on his porch at twilight in an empty neighborhood, knees aching, the smell of fresh lacquer drifting out the open window and disappearing.

Outside of calls from home, Martin realized he hadn’t had a conversation since he’d arrived. He was surprised by how nice it felt. Over the following weeks, he caught himself thinking of Wanda during idle moments between trips to the liquor store. He liked the way that time with her felt free of context, free of who he was or what he was supposed to become, and he hoped that in turn he made Wanda feel less alone. At night, drunk, he walked blurry laps through the house, making mental note of its disrepair. He practiced the way he would talk about affixing baseboards, scraping soffits, or rewiring outlets, repeating the words until they felt real. In the morning, he’d wake with his mouth dry and a bluntness in his head, momentarily stunned to find the outlet near his mattress still lolling away from the wall, all its wires frayed and showing.

The last time he saw Wanda, he’d brought the whiskey to the counter and dug his money out of his back pocket before he noticed she was looking at him funny. He didn’t say anything; they just stood there looking at one another for half a minute.

“You drink this all yourself, don’t you?” she finally said, her eyes down. She ran her finger over the bill on the counter. “Must take all day.”

Martin dropped his eyes.

“And you aren’t really fixing up that house, either. You’re just letting it rot. I looked you up, you know. I went by to say hello.”

“I never invited you,” Martin said.

“Why did you have to lie to me? Why did you have to make me feel stupid?”

There were tears in her eyes. They made her face edgeless and distorted. Martin didn’t wait for his change. The clerk who worked afternoons was closer to his age, never wore his name tag, and barely looked at him when he paid.


Valley was crying again. Martin realized that she had been for a long time now, and he’d just stopped noticing. He finished what was left in his glass and squeezed his fingers to see how cold it was getting. Under the blanket, Valley’s arms hung out at angles in the bulky coat. Her eyes were glassy and her cheeks were moving past red toward something else. Martin covered his face with his hands and breathed as evenly as he could. His phone told him it was just before midnight; if Brianna were closing the bar, she’d be at least another three hours. He didn’t know the number to Evening News, so he called the police and told them the situation, as well as where they could find Brianna to alert her, and then he wrapped Valley as tightly as he could in the blanket and took her inside. In the kitchen, he turned all four burners on the stove up and boiled water on one of them. When she felt warm again, they stood by the front window and waited for headlights to crawl up the hill and around the corner. He poured the hot water into a mug and held it under her chin. Valley loved it—she laughed and ran her mittens back and forth through the rolling vapor, until there were little beads of moisture caught in the fibers.

The police came with their flashers on. Brianna was right behind in her beat-up Lincoln. Martin pulled Valley’s hat tight on her head and went out the door and down the porch steps, trying to smile.

Brianna seemed frazzled. In the glow of all the headlights, he could see where strands of hair had fallen out of her ponytail, and were now standing nearly on end. Her eyes looked puffy. He wondered if he should have called the police; what would happen to her, to Jimmy. There were two officers in the car; the first went right through Brianna’s front door without knocking and the second pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket and accompanied her over to where Martin was standing in his front yard.

“I’m really sorry for all the commotion,” Martin said to both of them. “Everything’s been under control. No emergencies or anything.”

Valley was squirming in his arms and reaching for Brianna. He handed her over.

“She’s a great kid,” he said to Brianna, and to Valley, “We had fun, right?”

Brianna gathered Valley up and turned her away from Martin, talking back over her shoulder at him.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” she said. “You had fun?”

Martin stepped back. He could feel the situation slipping away from him again, the way they always seemed to—people said things and peeled all the good versions of himself away so that they could call him ugly.

“Hey, listen, if it wasn’t for me she’d still be crawling through traffic, or worse, back in there with him.” He nodded over to the silent house, its door hanging open.

The officer had stepped between them. “Why don’t you just tell me what happened?” He flipped to an open page in the notebook. Behind him, Brianna was hugging Valley tight, looking horrified at something.

“He kidnapped my baby girl is what happened. Look at this: she wasn’t wearing a jacket when I left. You were in my house, weren’t you? Fucking sicko.”

“Miss,” the officer said.

“I took care of her,” Martin said. “Somebody had to.”

“Yeah, big hero. I can smell your breath from here, man.” The officer was walking her back to the other curb, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off of Martin. “Smell his breath,” she kept saying.

“You been drinking?” the cop said when he got back to Martin.

“Earlier,” he lied. “Before all this started. I wasn’t really planning on babysitting, you know?”

“Bullshit,” Brianna said. She was walking back over again. “Look me in my eyes and tell me that.”

Martin stepped toward her again, but stopped short. The other cop was bringing Jimmy out of the house. Everyone turned to look. His face was gone. Like never coming back—his eyes red, unblinking slits, even as the police lights broke across his face. He wasn’t wearing any shoes and his legs seemed to go rubber on him every few steps or so. Over the drone of the radio from the open police car, Martin could hear Jimmy’s wet, choked breathing as the cop led him by the elbow to the backseat.

The rest of what Martin told the cop was the truth. After he was done, he blew in his hands and watched the snow collect in Brianna’s yard as the cop talked to her on her porch.

Eventually, Brianna calmed down some. The cops talked together in low voices for a while, gesturing over toward Jimmy, before the one Martin had talked to called he and Brianna back over. He told them that he didn’t see any further course of action. Jimmy would be taken to the hospital to dry out, and as for the two of them, nothing illegal had happened, and it was best to move on. Martin noticed the hint of boredom in his voice, the chalking this whole thing up to the neighborhood and the people in it. And he realized that the cop couldn’t tell him apart from Brianna or Jimmy. All of them were just the people up here in the hills, rotting separately in their houses, who occasionally screamed at each other for reasons they didn’t truly understand.

Once they’d left, Martin had five drinks, one after another, and took a sixth out into the street with him. He walked down the hill in the middle of the street and listened for any sort of noise, something else alive. It was four in the morning, but every once and a while he came upon a house with its windows lit. He stopped and swayed in front of each, imagining that they were Wanda’s. Maybe she was looking out at him. He hoped so.

After he’d gone through the skeleton of downtown, he turned a corner and saw the mill. Light was everywhere: red near the tops of the smokestacks, blinking with metronome fluidity; white stretching out in cones from the overhead floodlights, the snow inside them looking frenzied; the faces of night-shifters illuminated by the orange spark of lit cigarettes and then gone just as quickly. It all seemed awful—something that was always going, whether he noticed it or not. No way to stop it now. Off to the side, an engine coughed to life. Everything was breathing, quick with anticipation, like men were being dispersed to hunt him down.  

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