The sun draped itself over the left armrest of the couch at dawn, while Zella sat waiting for the typewriter’s tapping to commence next door. Even though she’d tossed and turned all night in the summer heat, she still found herself rising early, expectant. The bakers had been up for hours, their yeasty doughs had risen and swollen, while the mechanics and train drivers had not yet started shouting across the street to each other. The drunks still slumbered in the alleys, splayed on dry newspapers amongst sour, reeking garbage cans. Zella knew from experience that the tapping of the typewriter always began before the first golden fingers of sunrise touched her brown skin.
John had whisked the children away to his parents’ house after their latest fight. She’d cried, pleaded, shouted, while he’d remained impassive, as always. Without small bodies demanding her time and energy, her free hours were languid and unnerving. Too much time to think. The mysterious rhythm of the keys clacking next door kept her company. He’d told her, during the one terse conversation they’d had since, that the children would return in three weeks. Zella called them every night before dinner, but despite this tethering feature of her day, she had a strange sense of being in another realm, as if removed from time.
The typewriter’s keys began to tap. She listened, trying to decode the staccato rhythm.
The sun continued to rise, the purple darkness shifting into shades of orange and blush as she listened to the tapping, now like a quickening heartbeat, or a Morse code; a dull Y, maybe a sharp T? She transcribed for lawyers, and the clatter of keys had always belonged to the realm of her tiny, oppressive office. She had liked to write as a girl. Where had her old stories gone? Tales of romantic, gothic figures. Old pages, wrapped in her grandmother’s kitchen towel. She searched and searched the apartment but could not find them. The place was a mess; closets piled with knickknacks and unsorted boxes.
While searching, she found a small box of old family photographs. In one photo, two women sat outside a cabin house, next to her great uncle Thomas. Their thick hair looped into updos, their black skin shining a luminescent grey, their skirts blowing around their ankles. The folds of their skirts undulated, rising, caught in motion. Like they were moving still. Her uncle’s wool coat bristled; when she raised her fingers to the picture, she could almost feel the roughness. Grabbing a pen and paper, she tried to write something about the scene but stalled, unsure how to start . There was a pause in the tapping, as her neighbor contemplated the next sentence. How long had this neighbor lived next door? Her days had been frenetic, her attention fractured by little hands grabbing at her nightgown, meals to cook, floors to clean, a brooding husband. She pinned the photograph, along with several others, to the living room wall. John would notice the holes in the floral wallpaper, but for now the space was all hers. The photographs were inspiration. She could write again.
The sun had fully risen. She’d be late for work. Peeling her cotton blouse away from her sweaty chest, she dragged a trash bag down the hall on her way out. Tap, tap. She stopped in front of the neighbor’s apartment door. Faster clicks, perhaps a flight of inspiration. The slide back to a new line, the fresh, sweet relief of pressing your face against a cool window in summer, cheek pressed against cold, wet glass. The flash of a camera, freezing the moment. The line from one of her old stories occurred to her. The hallway’s floorboards creaked below her feet, and the tapping suddenly stopped. Shoes clicked across a floor. Zella hurried forward, but the neighbor was already opening the door. The neighbor had maroon lips, plump cheeks like burnished brass, and wide eyes.
The trash bag started slipping through her sweaty fingers.
“7A?” Her coarse, thick hair was in two French braids, pinned together at the nape of her neck. She wore a black, silk robe.
Zella nodded, her tongue heavy.
“I’m Sadie. You’re very quiet, you know. I wasn’t sure if anyone was even living in the place anymore. I thought you were a ghost.”
“Not a ghost. Just Zella.”
Sadie wagged her finger as if trying to remember something else, then smiled. “Sorry if I’ve been a bit noisy.” She shut her door, a musky floral scent lingering in the air.
• • • •
After this first encounter, Zella saw the neighbor everywhere. She’d smell her particular mix of sharp spice and lavender before Sadie emerged in one of several A-line dresses, and the same shining brogue heels. Zella was always frumpy and sweating whenever they would meet in the hall. The summer heat continued to rise, pressing in all sides, ceiling fans hardly breaking up the humid stillness. One evening, when she couldn’t find her worn, thin shift, she sat naked on the couch. The clock’s tick scratched at the silence. One of the old photographs was beginning to curl at the edges. Still, she didn’t put them away. She liked observing the haunting scenes, especially the one of Uncle Thomas and his mysterious ladies on the grassy hill. But their story eluded her; the few lines she wrote sputtered on the page. The tapping of the typewriter began even earlier the next morning, heard somewhere between waking and sleeping. Unyielding clicks falling over one another, not soft, not quite loud, but resonant.
II. Paper Table
She enjoyed the space, enjoyed being able to turn onto the cool side of the bed. A car backfired on the street; a man shouted. As she fell asleep, her mind was briefly overcome with a fantasy of standing before the neighbor’s door, sliding a key into the keyhole, and entering the neighbor’s apartment, running her fingers along black, velvet walls. Zella dreamt she was one of the two women in the photograph; the cameraman was hidden under a rippling white sheet. The other woman was Sadie, in a white lace nightgown. Zella’s children did cartwheels in the distance.
The next day, after work, Zella was waiting for the elevator, its metal cage clattering somewhere on the higher floors, when her neighbor burst through the glass doors into the lobby. Their eyes met, and Zella suddenly found herself occupied in arranging the papers in her arms. She had drunk gin with her officemate at work and she was lightheaded. Sadie’s shoes clicked across the cracked black and white tiles.
“What are you writing?” she blurted out.
Sadie stepped past Zella into the now open elevator. “I can show you.”
• • • •
They sat in Sadie’s kitchen, the last rays of sunlight reflecting off the scratched silver knobs of the stove. The walls were not covered in velvet. It was a sparse space, painted in dark maroon and with little furniture. The kitchen walls were covered in an odd, fading wallpaper, green vines with pointed leaves. Sadie’s scent hung in the air, floral and powdery and something a little sharp.
Zella tapped her nails against the ceramic cup. She’d forgotten to drink her tea.
Sadie leaned back, her wooden chair creaking. She bared her teeth, as if testing the strength of her own bite. “Lemonade, ice, with vodka. It’s perfect. No, that’s not the problem with the character.”
“My aunt used to drink everything with rosewater.” Zella closed her eyes for a moment. “Her lips were soft whenever she kissed us, and her breath smelled like candy.”
“You have an interesting way of describing things.” Sadie raised an eyebrow.
“Thank you. I’ve liked hearing you type.”
“Have you been listening in?”
Zella’s cheeks warmed. “Hard not to. I always wanted to write more. Never found the time.”
“Time . . . yes, time does slip by. But you must have the time now? Without the children around.”
Startled, she realized Sadie meant her children. A bubbling guilt rose in her belly, as if she had been found out. “How long have you lived here?”
“For a while.” Her neighbor looked away, out the window. “I used to hear them screaming through the walls.” She chuckled, kneading between the taut muscle of her neck and shoulder.
“They’re back in three weeks.”
“Three weeks could be a lifetime. Or nothing. Time moves funny in this kind of heat.”
“You write all day. Like you’re possessed—” Zella cleared her throat, “—of course I mean, possessed with an inspiration I admire. I was looking at old photographs, trying to spur something.” If she could only distill whatever possessed Sadie into an essence, and drink it. Perhaps bitter, like a vermouth.
“Mining old memories?” Sadie wiped her brow with a napkin. Her nails were red, glossy. Her lips were full and covered in a red lipstick that stuck to her cup.
Zella tried to remember what they were talking about. “I don’t remember those relatives, not really.”
Sadie met her gaze. “I’m always mining. Looking for a way in. But it isn’t working with this novel.” Biting her lip, Sadie tilted her head. “I liked your ideas.”
Blinking, Zella realized just how dark it had gotten in the kitchen. The sun had set; the city lights half-illuminated their faces. In the shadows, Sadie and the chair and the cabinets and the shadows blurred together at the edges.
“I hadn’t realized the time.” Sadie sipped her tea as she slowly rose to flick the switch. The harsh light burned Zella’s eyes. Standing, she bumped the table and spilled her tea, mumbling apologies on her way out.
III. Ribbon Spool
At home, Zella tread softly across the wooden floor. Ear pressed to the peeling wallpaper behind the large boxset TV, she listened, wondering if her neighbor was just on the other side of the wall. It was a Thursday night, the jangling music and cries from club-goers rocketing up from the street. She wondered what time in the morning the typing would begin. She lay on the couch, falling asleep on the scratchy linen as she waited.
The next day, Zella woke up late and sweaty. Her heart raced from a dream she could not remember, the morning sun already flooding her apartment. Sadie was already hitting her keys in a steady rhythm. On her way out, she forced herself to pass Sadie’s apartment without stopping.
It was late when Zella returned home. She entered her apartment, shedding her purse and shirt on the floor, then heard a light knock on her door. Zella wiped her face before yanking the door open.
Sadie stood in her black silk nightgown. Her eyes were wide. She had no lipstick on. “I’ve started something new. I wanted to show you. You were the inspiration.”
Zella’s pulse thrummed as she nodded. Walking behind Sadie to her apartment, she inhaled her floral spice, watching the hem of her nightgown swish. Inside, the apartment was lit by a few burning candles. Today, it smelled of burnt bacon, coffee, hovering over the ever-present lavender. Sadie waved her to the burgundy sofa. Her typewriter waited on the coffee table, holding the latest page. She sat next to Sadie and pulled the page from the spool .
The weather that day was surprisingly temperate, an afternoon blessed with a pleasant warmth we were not used to in these midwestern settlements. The breeze was terrible for photography. My equipment was delicate. I was still not used to taking photographs outdoors, having worked in my studio for years now. But I had gone on the road, a tour of the country, taking business where I found it. In these great plains, the distances between towns, between people, was vast. People often jumped at the chance for my services. They had never seen my instruments, felt that great flash of the camera. She hadn’t either. I focused on her, ignoring the older woman who scowled at me. I was growing a bit flustered as the young woman tilted outwards, her eye fixed on me, not the camera’s lens, as I tried to hold up the camera’s parts in the gusty wind. She asked me many questions about the camera’s mechanisms as I arranged everything. Her hair, tied in a bun on top of her head, shifted in the wind like an overgrown flower. She continued to stare at me. I fumbled with the lens, the cover, clicking through the settings. The clouds parted. The light reflected on her cheekbones, her rounded chin. I realized her coat shimmered oddly; it was made of velvet, an extravagance I had never seen outside high society ladies. Could I capture her? Arranging the camera’s settings again, I twisted the dials this way and that, peering through the lens. My subject’s lips parted. The clouds shifted now, darker. Someone’s children cried in the background of the scene—
Her head spun. “How did you know about the photograph?”
“How do you mean?” Sadie pressed her lips together.
“It’s just . . . it’s like you’ve seen their faces.” A warm flush ran down Zella’s chest. “It’s very engaging.”
Sadie ripped the page from her hands. “It needs work.”
Zella resisted the urge to take the page.
“I’m not sure where it’s leading. But I’ll figure it out.” Sadie turned to Zella, furrowing her brow.
The silence was only interrupted by the rumble of the pipes in the walls, and Zella’s strained, wheezing breath. Sadie’s skin glistened in the candlelight, her lips a pulsing mauve as she moistened them with the tip of her tongue. “Want to stay for a drink?”
One of the candles went out, smoky vanilla trailing through the air. Scrambling to her feet, Zella headed for the door. “I need to call the children. They’ll be waiting.”
Back in her apartment, Zella turned on the lights and stared at the photo on the wall. The older woman was gone, as was her uncle. Two smudges careened in the distant, grey hills, perhaps children, or dogs. No, this must be a different photo. She searched for her mother’s box of photographs but could not find it. Had she misplaced it? Perhaps John had taken more than she thought with him. It was fine; she didn’t need the clutter. She liked the emptiness. Drinking a glass of sherry, the drink tart on her tongue, she lay back on the couch. Head spinning, she picked up her pen from the table, ripped a page from her notebook, and wrote a single line. Soon, the sun would set. The camera was ready. She would not blink. She never could think of what to write next.
Tonight, the heat was still and dry. It wavered in through the windows, along with the scent of diesel and chatter of the crowds. No tapping yet, no sharp click, click, click. Lying in bed, she heard nothing through the plaster, only the thump of her own heartbeat in her ears. She gripped the sheets, which felt like velvet beneath her fingers, every brush of cloth tingling up her arm and down her spine. Hands wandering. Gibbous eyes, staring.
When her bedside phone rang, she lurched out of her half-sleeping state and knocked the glass of remaining sherry to the floor as she fumbled for the trembling receiver. She cursed as the glass shattered on the linoleum. The phone continued to wail. Kicking aside the shards with her slipper, Zella picked up the phone. It was her husband. Her family would return in three days. Without responding, as her children cried “Momma” in the background and her husband repeated her name, she quickly hung up the phone. The walls throbbed closer.
She lay down and tried to sleep. The city lights reflected at odd angles into her room. Rolling over, her heart raced as she saw a face in the shadows, but it was only her own face, reflected and warped by the convex side of her make-up mirror on the dresser. Her limbs twisted in soft, damp sheets.
She was walking in a field, wearing long skirts, in the rain. A small house was ahead of her. Knocking on the door, the air shook with a thunderous click, click, click.
Zella swayed on her feet. She was standing in her hallway, before the neighbor’s door. It swung open. Sadie waited in a dark red shift, her skin fresh and smooth. A light current carried the smell of fresh grass, lilacs, the faint smell of burnt chemicals. Zella moved forward, her body light. Then Sadie’s hands were on either side of her face, pulling her in, kissing her. Sadie’s lips were cool, as smooth as velvet. The door closed behind her. They kissed again, tingles running along Zella’s neck, down her body. They floated to the bedroom. The walls rippled, soft and nearly black in the candlelight.
V. Carriage Return Lever
Afterwards, Zella lay on Sadie’s bed. Sadie ran a finger along her cheek and whispered that she would be back. She waited, lying very still. Even as she became aware of the edges of things, the thirst in her throat, the fatigue behind her eyes, she also felt as if she was hovering in between reality and a dream state. When the typewriter commenced, its rhythm pulsed through her nerves. Sadie ran back a few minutes later, giving her a new page to read by candlelight .
The children’s cries disappeared over the horizon. We were alone. My subject had once read of the camera’s mechanism. She understood the elements of combustion, the way she would be filtered through the lens. This was my objective. To take some part of her. We needed to move inside, into the small house on the other side of the hill. It was raining but the work was not finished. There was a challenge here. Her gaze shifted, even when I told her to remain still. How could I capture that vivid expression? She wished to be captured, to be distilled. To escape through my camera. Sitting in one corner of the room, I lit a lantern and shone it onto her face. I watched her for some time, then set up my machinery and held my breath as I clicked.
“Can you see it?” Sadie’s breath was hot in her ear.
Sadie tapped her fingers along Zella’s wrist. There was a mirror she had never seen before on the other side of the room. Squinting, she saw herself reflected in it, a dark linen dress consuming her.
“The gaze can go both ways.”
“What can I see?”
“I’ve done my work. Now do yours. Sit down in front of my typewriter.”
VI. Carriage Release Lever
The sunlight started to layer itself on the room’s surfaces, a translucent hum filling Zella’s apartment. She did not move from the couch as the sunlight filled the room, overwhelming her with its shine. The smell of sweet bread wafted in from the corner bakery. Zella tapped her fingers on her thighs, spelling out the relentless words in tune with the typewriter next door. The clamor of little feet pounded down the hall, stomping and thudding like a small herd. Familiar, shrill voices echoed behind the entrance door. A key scratched as it slid into the hole. She continued her tapping, faster now. A piece of paper lay next to her, the typed ink still drying. Soon, the sun would rise. The camera was ready. She would not blink.
Spread the word!