up there-but I do. If you have to conduct your business in the middle of the night, show some consideration for your neighbors and don’t do it out in the hall. If you don’t shut up and get the hell out of here, I’m calling the cops.”

I stared at him coldly. “I run a crack house upstairs. This is my supplier. You could be arrested for complicity if you’re found hanging around out here when the police arrive.”

Elena giggled, but said, “Don’t be rude to him, Victoria- you never know when you may want a boy with fabulous eyes like that to do something for you.” She added to the banker, “Don’t worry, sweetie, I’m just coming in. We’ll let you get your beauty sleep.”

Behind the closed door to one-south a dog began to bark. I ground my teeth some more and hustled Elena inside, snatching her duffel bag from her when she began wobbling under its weight.

The banker watched us through narrowed eyes. When Elena lurched against him he made a face of pure horror and retreated hastily to his apartment, fumbling with the lock. I tried moving Elena upstairs, but she wanted to stop and talk about the banker, demanding to know why I hadn’t asked him to carry her bag.

“It would have been a perfect way for you two to get acquainted, make things up a little.”

I was close to screaming with frustration when the door to one-south opened. Mr. Contreras came out, a staggering sight in a crimson dressing gown. The golden retriever I share with him straining against her collar, but when she saw me her low-throated growls changed to whimpers of excitement.

“Oh, it’s you, doll,” the old man said with relief. “The princess here woke me up and then I heard all the noise and thought, Oh my God, the worst is happening, someone’s breaking in in the middle of the night. You oughta be more considerate, doll-it’s hard for people who have to work to get up in the middle of the night like this.”

“Yes, it is,” I agreed brightly. “And contrary to public opinion, I am one of those working people. And believe me, I had no more desire to get out of bed at three A.M. than you did.”

Elena put on her warmest smile and stuck out her hand to Mr. Contreras like Princess Diana greeting a soldier. “Elena Warshawski,” she said. “Charmed to meet you. This little girl is my niece, and she’s the prettiest, sweetest niece anybody could hope for.”

Mr. Contreras shook her hand, blinking at her like an owl with a flashlight in its face. “Pleased to meet you,” he said automatically if unenthusiastically. “Look, doll, you oughta get this lady-your aunt, you say?-you oughta get her up to bed. She ain’t doing too great.”

The sour yeast smell had swept over him too. “Yep, that’s just what I’ll do. Come on, Elena, Let’s get upstairs. Beddy-bye time.”

Mr. Contreras headed back to his apartment. The dog was annoyed-if we were all having a party she wanted to join in.

“That wasn’t very polite of him,” Elena sniffed as Mr. Contreras’s door closed behind us. “Didn’t even tell me his own name when I went out of my way to introduce myself.”

She grumbled all the way up the stairs. I didn’t say anything, just kept a hand in the small of her back to propel her in the right direction, urging her on when she tried to stop for a breather at the second-floor landing.

Back in my apartment she wanted to ooh and aah over all my possessions. I ignored her and moved the coffee table so I could pull the bed out of the couch. I made it up and showed her where the bathroom was.

“Now listen, Elena. You are not staying here more that one night. Don’t even think I’m going to waffle on this because I won’t.”

“Sure, baby, sure. What happened to your ma’s piano? You sell it or something to buy this sweet little grand?”

“No,” I said shortly. My mother’s piano had been destroyed in the fire that gutted my own apartment three years earlier. “And don’t think you can make me forget what I’m saying by raving over the piano. I’m going back to bed. You can sleep or not as you please, but in the morning you’re going someplace else.”

“Oh, don’t look so ugly, Vicki. Victoria, I mean. It’ll ruin your complexion if you frown like that. And where else am I supposed to turn in the middle of the night if not to my own flesh and blood?”

“Knock it off,” I said wearily. “I’m too tired for it.”

I shut the hall door without saying good night. I didn’t bother to warn her not to rummage around for my liquor-if she wanted it badly enough, she’d find it, then apologize to me a hundred times the next day for breaking her promise not to drink it.

I lay in bed unable to sleep, feeling the pressure of Elena’s presence from the next room. I could hear her scrabbling around for a while, then the hum of the TV turned conscientiously to low volume. I cursed my uncle Peter for moving to Kansas City and wished I’d had the foresight to hightail it to Quebec or Seattle or some other place equally remote from Chicago, Around five, as the birds began their predawn twittering, I finally dropped into an uneasy sleep.


The Lower Depths

The doorbell jerked me awake again at eight. I pulled my sweatshirt and shorts back on and stumbled into the living room. Nobody answered my query through the intercom. When I looked out the living-room window at the street, I could see the banker heading toward Diversey, his shoulders bobbing smugly. I flicked my thumb at his back.

Elena had slept through the episode, including my loud calls through the intercom. For a moment I felt possessed by the banker’s angry impulse-I wanted to wake her and make her as uncomfortable as I was.

I stared down at her in disgust. She was lying on her back, mouth open, ragged snores jerking out as she inhaled, puffy short breaths as she exhaled. Her face was flushed. The broken veins on her nose stood out clearly. In the morning light I could see that the violet nightgown was long overdue for the laundry. The sight was appalling. But it was also unbearably pathetic. No one should be exposed to an outsider’s view while she’s sleeping, let alone someone as vulnerable as my aunt.

With a shudder I moved hastily to the back of the apartment. Unfortunately her pathos couldn’t quell my anger at having her with me. Thanks to her, my head felt as though someone had dumped a load of gravel in it. Even worse, I was making a presentation to a potential client tomorrow. I wanted to finish my charts and get them turned into transparencies. Instead, it looked as though I’d be spending the day hunting for housing. Depending on how long that took, I could end up paying as much as quadruple overtime for the transparencies.

I sat on the dining-room floor and did some breathing exercises, trying to ease my knotted stomach. Finally I managed to relax enough to do my prerun stretches.

Not wanting to see Elena’s flushed face again, I went down the back way, picking up Peppy outside Mr. Contreras’s kitchen door. The old man stuck his head out and called to me as I closed the gate; I pretended not to hear him. I wasn’t able to be similarly deaf when I got back-he was waiting for me, sitting on the back stairs with the Sun-Times, checking out his day’s picks for Hawthorne. I tried leaving the dog and escaping up the stairs but he grabbed my hand.

“Hang on a second there, cookie. Who was that lady you was letting in last night?” Mr. Contreras is a retired machinist, a widower with a married daughter whom he doesn’t particularly like. During the three years we’ve been living in the same building he’s attached himself to my life like an adoptive uncle-or maybe a barnacle.

I jerked my hand free. “My aunt. My father’s younger sister. She has a penchant for old men with good retirement benefits, so make sure you have all your clothes on if she stops by to chat this afternoon.”

That kind of comment always makes him huffy. I’m sure he heard-and said-plenty worse on the floor in his machinist days-but he can’t take even oblique references to sex from me. He turns red and gets as close to being angry as someone with his relentlessly cheerful disposition can manage.

“There’s no need to talk dirty to me,” he snapped. “I’m just concerned. And I gotta say, cookie, you shouldn’t let people come see you at all hours like that. Least, if you do, you shouldn’t keep them down in the hall talking loud enough to wake every soul in the building.”

I felt like wrenching one of the loose slats from the stairwell railing and beating him with it. “I didn’t invite her,” I shrieked. “I didn’t know she was coming. I didn’t want her here. I didn’t want to wake up at three in the

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