The following excerpt from The Distance From Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell is used by permission of the University of New Orleans Press, 2020.
The Distance From Four Points – excerpt
There was only one voicemail. One single, unpromising voicemail in response to the ad Robin had placed for the empty apartment. A woman, who said, “Calling ’bout the listing,” and gave a phone number. No one answered when Robin returned the call, but she left a message inviting the woman to visit the property at four that afternoon.
Unsure if anyone would show up, Robin arrived early to turn on the lights and wipe the new countertops. She waited anxiously by the front window. It didn’t matter who came—as long as they left a first month’s rent behind. She would not ask any questions. She needed this woman, whoever she was, to say yes.
A beat-up Camry pulled to a stop in front of the duplex. Robin smoothed her hair, plucked a piece of brown leaf from the carpet. She stood and looked out the window once more.
“Oh my God,” she said. The voice on the message had been so ordinary, a local woman making apartment-hunting calls. But it wasn’t just any local woman coming up the walk. It was Cindy Sweeney, more than twenty years a stranger.
Cindy was on the porch, preparing to knock. She wore makeup that was too dark for her complexion. She had long, fried hair. Hair that would be just as sticky and stiff as it’d been all those years ago if Robin were to touch it. She was big—tall, big breasts, big bones—and she filled the space around her in a way that seemed to dare Robin to tell her to step aside. Cornered, Robin froze. She wanted to deadbolt the door and run out the back, but she couldn’t. Winter was a bad time to hunt for tenants, and the possibility of 1118 ½ sitting empty until spring was very real. Robin did what she had to. When Cindy knocked, Robin opened the door.
There was a flash of surprise and immediate recognition. “Robin fucking Nowak,” Cindy said.
“Right. Ray Besher. Your moneybags husband. Heard about that.”
She said it without thinking, the words rousing challenge, even triumph. You think you know me? You don’t know anything.
Cindy squinted, appraising. “That why you’re back in Four Points?”
“You think I’d be here if I had a choice?”
Cindy dismissed the question with no more than a loud exhalation. “So this place is yours.”
“I’m getting some things in order before going back to Mount Rynda.”
“You too good for us?”
Robin was freezing by the open door. “You still want to look around?”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
Neither woman spoke as Robin led Cindy through the living room and into the kitchen. With new carpet, tiles, and counters, both downstairs rooms were nicer than most Four Points rentals, but Cindy made no comment. Upstairs, the two small bedrooms were in worse shape: stained beige shag carpet, crooked window blinds, bare bulbs. With three strides, they were in the bathroom at the end of the hall. Discolored bathtub, no shower. An old white porcelain sink over exposed plumbing.
“This place is a shithole,” Cindy announced.
Back downstairs, they stood under the harsh overhead in the living room.
“It’ll be me and Amber moving in here,” Cindy said. “Keep to ourselves, pretty much. You won’t have a problem with us.”
“My daughter. Thirteen. Eighth grade at Sacred Heart.”
For weeks, Robin’s daughter, Haley, had suffered at school from a girl named Amber’s cruelty. Of course Haley’s tormenter was Cindy Sweeney’s daughter. Robin almost laughed out loud.
“I really don’t think—”
Cindy cut her off. “I’ll be straight with you,” she said. She draped her long ponytail over a shoulder and twisted the ends around her fingers. “I’m in a bad situation, okay? Trying to get out and start over. I don’t have a lot of choices here. You as my landlord? That’s bullshit. Fuck it. Fuck you too. This is what it is.”
“Someone else came by already,” Robin said. She smelled cigarette smoke when Cindy scoffed. “And you’re a smoker. It’s a nonsmoking property.”
For a long moment, Cindy looked at her, and Robin looked back. Mascara-clumped lashes, pockmarked cheeks, the skin across her collarbone wrinkled and limp, old before its time. The yinzes, the ain’ts, the fucks. If Robin closed her eyes, she’d see sixteen-year-old Cindy, the coin-flip side of this woman standing in the living room. Against all odds, she needed something from Cindy Sweeney: her money, what little there was, and her assurance that, under her watch, nothing calamitous would happen to this apartment. There were other people, surely. If Robin waited long enough, she’d find someone else. But she couldn’t wait.
Cindy rustled through her purse. “Here’s the first month,” she said. “Four hundred. You want to count it?” She extended a secondhand envelope from a credit card bill, the jagged flap resealed with a piece of scotch tape. Robin shoved it into her pocket.
“There’s a nun next door.”
“She won’t bother me.”
“She’ll know who’s coming and going.”
“I don’t want her to be—uncomfortable.”
Cindy took one step closer to Robin. “I work at Walmart,” she said. “Got it? That’s what I do. I work the fucking register. Sometimes I work all fucking night because we’re open twenty-four fucking hours. You want my nametag? A pay stub? My timesheet for the shifts I pull while you’re sleeping like a goddamn princess?”
“I just had to say something.”
“You just had to say something. Bet you’ve been waiting to say something for a long fucking time.”
A moment passed. Robin asked quietly, “Do you know who lives in that house now?” Every memory she had of Cindy was wrapped in that basement. That hulking specter on Whistlestop Road.
“Hell no,” Cindy said. “You should drive by now you’re back.” She turned to the door. “We’re the same, you and me,” she said over her shoulder. “I’m a ‘team member’ at Walmart, you’re a fucking slumlord. A fucking slumlady. Don’t worry about the nun. Nuns love people like us. They have to love the sinners the most.”
The door was too hollow and cheap to properly slam.
* * *
It was fully dark at 4:30 p.m. when Robin left Nettle Street. Even though Haley was waiting at home, Robin skipped the turn that led to their rental and wound toward the river, to the house on Whistlestop Road she used to share with Cindy Sweeney and Cindy’s mother, Rochelle. She turned onto the street as though under a spell.
Past two boxy, unkempt houses and a prefab ranch with a collapsing side deck stood the house she sought, the last on the left. Three stories of dirty red brick, two windows sloppily boarded on the second floor, the attic windows missing entirely. A large, bowed picture window, a hole shot through the right-hand pane, overlooked a wraparound porch littered with broken bricks, cracked cement, and pieces of old wooden railings. The second-floor bedroom windows looked down onto train tracks. A turret bulged along the house’s right side. In the fall, the turret window revealed a sea of red and gold, the tracks and the Youghiogheny River winding through in ribbons of bronze and onyx. On the front door fluttered a white notice: CONDEMNED.
Robin saw herself: sixteen, climbing out of her beat-up white Mazda, indigo-black hair loose to her waist, slouching up to the porch where Rochelle would push open the screen door and say, “Cindy’s in the basement. Go on down.” Twenty-seven years ago. As clear as yesterday.
Robin remembered too well what went on in that basement. But she wasn’t willing to revisit what had happened in one of the rooms upstairs, the room where her infant son had slept. Memories of the sex work—when they arrived, unbidden—nauseated her. Thoughts of Trevor stopped her breathing.
Wind gusted. A shingle from the roof cartwheeled to the ground. She tasted blood. She’d bitten through the skin behind her lower lip. It hurt, but she kept the broken bulb of chewed skin between her teeth.
As she started the car and moved her hands to the steering wheel, her left elbow hit the lock button, firing a quick loud crack. The noise roused dogs in the house across the yard. Two tall black Dobermans threw themselves at the fence, jumping and barking, straining against the strips of blue tarp woven through the chain link.
A light flickered in the kitchen window of the old house, weak as a candle flame. Nothing but a nervous illusion—the reflection of a star. Robin K-turned the car and left the house behind.
A week later, at two in the morning, Sister Eileen called about a commotion at 1118 ½.
“I think you better come,” she said. “I don’t want to call the police.”
There was no way to know how long she would have to be gone. Robin shook Haley gently.
“Haley. Haley, wake up.”
She wrapped a coat around Haley’s shoulders as they headed to the car. By the time they got to Nettle Street, Haley was more alert.
“What happened?” she said.
“Not sure. Sister Eileen called.”
They were silent as they made the turn, the heater blasting.
Robin pulled to the curb. “Stay here. I’ll find out what’s going on.”
Haley curled in her seat, trying to sleep again. Robin got out of the car and locked the doors. The lights were on throughout the duplex, clearly showing that the downstairs windows on Cindy’s side had been broken. Robin heard another splinter and crash from the back of the house, and Cindy’s shouting from inside.
“Fucker! Get the fuck out of here, you asshole!”
A scrawny man in jeans and a tank top ran around to the front, a belt in one hand and a beer in the other. When he saw Robin, he hurled the can at the front of the house, jumped into a pickup, and squealed away. For a long moment, Robin heard nothing but the fizzing puddle of beer on the porch. Then Cindy Sweeney yelled, “Fuuuuuccccckkkk!”
Robin knocked on the door, nodded at Cindy when she answered wearing purple plaid boxers and a t-shirt. The living room was a jumble of piled furniture and boxes shoved against the wall. On the couch was Amber, wearing a Hello Kitty bathrobe, her arms around her knees. The living room and kitchen, where Robin had laid new carpet and tile, were full of broken glass.
“Watch yourself,” she said, nodding at Cindy’s bare feet. “What happened?”
“Finally got my stuff,” Cindy said. “Then Clyde came over and smashed the windows. Like I told you—a bad situation. Shit.”
She didn’t blame, didn’t cry, didn’t apologize or excuse. Because of this, Robin didn’t feel angry. She didn’t point out the hundreds of dollars she’d have to spend on new windowpanes, new paint. She didn’t howl that these unforeseen expenses were destroying her hope of fixing up her other apartments as soon as possible.
All she said was, “I have some duct tape in my car. You and Amber unpack those boxes. We’ll cover the windows with the cardboard. You’ll freeze tonight otherwise.”
Outside, Sister Eileen was sopping up the beer with paper towels, a plain cotton bathrobe over an ankle-length nightgown and sneakers.
“Sister Eileen,” Robin said. “I’m so sorry about this.”
Sister Eileen rose. “Can I do anything inside?”
“You’ve done enough.”
“I want to help.”
Robin sighed and said, “Alright. Let me get my daughter.” When she looked at the car, Haley was awake and gazing back. Robin retrieved the duct tape, and together they walked inside.
Robin and Cindy fitted flattened cardboard boxes jigsaw-style over the windows, and Amber and Haley pressed long strips of duct tape along the edges, cutting the tape with a pair of dull kitchen scissors. Both girls were in their pajamas and robes, with tangled ponytails and tired faces, as though this were a sleepover. Sister Eileen swept the broken glass and vacuumed the floors again and again.
The house was cold when they finished, smelling of damp cardboard. It was almost four in the morning.
“Shouldn’t we call the police?” Sister Eileen asked.
Cindy shook her head. “It’ll make it worse.”
“I saw him take off his belt—his pants nearly fell down,” Sister Eileen said. “Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, is he?”
“I should’ve known,” Cindy said. “Two fucking years. Story of my life.”
“God has a plan,” Sister Eileen began.
“Even in this. Especially in this.” Sister Eileen bowed her head as she walked to the door.
Once the nun was gone, Cindy ushered Amber to bed. When she came back downstairs, she seemed defeated, nothing at all like Cindy.
“I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “Shit like this is why you didn’t want me here, and you’re thinking you got proved right. Same old fuck-up Cindy Sweeney. You’re wrong, but fuck that. We can be out by next week.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Robin said. “This wasn’t your fault.”
“It’s my fucking mistake. Like always.”
“We’ll figure out the windows, somehow.”
“Somehow.” Without anything else to offer, Robin turned to leave.
“Amber’s taking this hard.”
From behind her, Haley said, “I won’t talk about it at school. Amber doesn’t have to worry.”
They didn’t speak on the dark ride home. Robin wanted to touch Haley’s cheek but instead kept her hands on the wheel. Robin felt a kind of peace, a kind of thankfulness. All those months of searching and now, here, grace.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name, won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Mid-Atlantic Fiction. Her second novel, The Distance from Four Points, comes out May 28, 2020. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Music by Catlofe