Cora Lewis

Rented Rooms



The young news producer said she’d accompany the anchor to the novelty cake shop before the office birthday party.

In addition to family-friendly wares, the place sold cookies of frosting penises and sheet-cakes of naked women -- specialties for bachelorettes and stags. (This was the 1980’s.) A little sleazy, seedy-in-a-fun-way.

The anchor had ordered one of these cakes for his co-anchor, the producer realized, as he paid. She thought it was a gas.

Between the store and the trip back to the control room, the anchor asked if the producer would mind if they stopped at his apartment, so he could freshen up. She agreed. In his sparsely furnished rooms, she picked up bland family photos, drank the offered wine. When she heard him call her name, she walked down the hall.

There he stood, the voice of eyewitness news, with his droopy breasts and love handles. Steam from the shower surrounded his backlit outline, a towel in front of his waist he let drop.

“Join me,” he said, extending an arm, sweat on his upper lip and brow.

“No, thank you, no, thank you so much,” she called out, laughing and gasping, making for the door. She still went to the party, ate a gumdrop nipple off the cake.


My mother likes to tell that story, about her early industry experience.

*

At our synchronized lunch hour, on a bench near the park, I tell Leon I’ve secured the latest in our revolving-door series of roommates, through a Facebook group for “creatives.”

“She’s a poet,” I say, wolfing a bowl of greens and grains. “Amy Sue.”

“What does she do for money,” he says, unwrapping a burrito.

“E-commerce support. She’s got a Madonna headset, desktop monitor, odd hours.”

“Jury’s out on Amy Sue.”

*

When we dispose of our tinfoil takeout remains, Leon walks me back to my office, closer than his to our spot.

“Report faithfully,” he says at the door, inside the door-sized space of escaping air, as I hold open the heavy glass.

“Be good,” I tell him. “Try hard.”

*

Leon’s been working the past year as an appellate lawyer, a job requiring little client-facing work, which has been frustrating him. He misses law school summers — happy months spent interviewing flesh-and-blood people, prepping witnesses for stands.

*

The weekend Amy Sue moves in, I clock a wine-stain birthmark on her right cheek. An easy laugh reveals crowded teeth.

A wintry Sunday afternoon, I buzz this stranger into the apartment and come down to lend a hand. Together, we carry up a shelf’s worth of books, a desk, the parts of a bedframe and its slats. Amy Sue stretches an accordian of postcards from the window and hangs a bough of eucalyptus upside down above her doorway.

Then it’s evening, and we get deli sandwiches and a six-pack from the bodega. With a quiet, polite apology, Amy Sue takes her brown-bag dinner to her room, grease darkening the bag. Then she moves to close her door.

“If I don’t put down ten lines a day, I’ll stop completely,” she says by way of explanation.

“Ten lines,” I say. “Not even a sonnet.”

“A sonnet’s no small thing.”

*

In the morning, Amy Sue’s at the kitchen table as I’m readying for work. She’s made coffee with cardamom in the grounds (the spice from my spice cabinet), asks about the neighborhood. Her feet are inside slippers, her body a well-worn robe. As I leave, she tells me she always changes before her shift begins.

*

Now it’s Monday evening and we’re tired. I’m on the couch, laptop humming. I close my final tabs and Amy Sue removes her headset, hours logged. I pour us two mason jars of a boxed red.

“Gainful employment,” I say.

“The hands that crush the grapes never touch those that drink the wine,” says Amy Sue, like she’s said it before.

“Long day,” I agree.

*

Lately, Leon’s been conducting a fling with a commercial director. This week, he invites me for pastries at his flame’s spacious place. Over coffee and bear claws, we discuss our fields.

“The most important line in anything I direct is the budget line,” the ad-man tells me, his tone inscrutable. There’s copper thread in his linen placemats, silver in the napkins.

I mention Amy Sue’s ten-lines-a-day.

“You know what they say about her kind,” says the director.

“What’s that?”

“There’s no money in poetry and no poetry in money.”

“I bet you sell a lot of sneakers,” I say.

Leon smiles into his danish.

*

Evenings, Amy Sue writes in the bathtub with candles going — geranium, nasturtium. Returning from a flea market one day, she covers a lampshade with a patterned scarf, softening the light.

*

“I have something to tell you,” she’s saying now, at our table as night falls. “I’m not ready to tell anyone else yet, so please keep it to yourself, okay?”

I’m making dinner.

“I can do that,” I lie.

“Thank you.”

She takes a breath and fixes her gaze.

“I’ve suspected this for a while, but I’ve been getting more and more confirmation lately. I’m medium.”

Unable to process this with the gravity with which it seems intended, I focus on fluffing the couscous.

“Hold that thought,” I say.

I transfer the red lentil stew to our bowls with helpings of starch.

“What do you mean, ‘medium?’” I say. “As in ‘middling?’ ‘Five out of ten?’”

“As in I can predict the future. And read minds. ESP.”

I add spoonfuls of yogurt, squeeze limes, serve us both and sit down.

“You’re a medium,” I say, looking into her open, guileless face, and tucking in.

“People say it different ways,” she says. “But yes.”

“I thought mediums spoke to the dead for the living,” I say.

“We do that too.”

*

The next day, when I recount this to Leon at lunch, he says, “Shouldn’t she have known you were going to ask that? Had a retort ready?”

“She hasn’t put a wrong foot yet.”

*

This morning I know the speed of the winds in Houston and the direction California winds are driving the fires.

From my New York desk, I monitor flames and whorl, tuning in to pressers. Here, too, now, drops splatter the panes that form the newsroom walls, separating it from sky and clouds 12 stories up.


“it’s ‘which way the wind is blowing’ made literal,” I text Amy Sue of this week’s work.

“my human weathervane,” she replies.


In another window, on my screen, I reverse-image-search a photo of a shark in flooded streets, a shoe submerged in melting driveway asphalt, to determine whether they’re products of the most recent catastrophes or prior ones. I categorize old fakes, new fakes, old news and new. Then I add the details to the appropriate post:


“Everything We Know About [Hurricane Name] / [Wildfire Name]”

and

“A Running List of Hoaxes And Scams Tied To [Hurricane Name] / [Wildfire Name].”


At noon, I break for lunch.

*

Now Amy Sue and I are climbing the walls of the apartment, in her phrase. It’s her graveyard shift, and she’s reciting new work, between consumer complaints about late orders, shoe sizes and bunions. Her legs are propped on the couch armrest, hair piled atop her head in a clip. Surreal recitations -- abstract, mind-bending -- blurring with the salesgirl talk.

Together, sleepily, we consider which poems a man-on-the-street might have memorized. We come up with the National Anthem and the Lord’s Prayer. I say what I know of the Mourner’s Kaddish. She tries a Hail Mary and falls short.

*

Some days later, on deadline, typing furiously, I realize Amy Sue has silently replaced the empty beer beside me with a full, unopened one from the fridge. When I shut my laptop, take off my glasses, and rub my eyes, she sits in the chair across from me with one of her own. She tells me I remind her of a favorite teacher, who wore thick frames like mine.

“Mrs. Andrews. She always used to say, on Fridays, ‘Remember, kids, don’t drink and drive. You’ll spill your beer.’”

I smile through a swig.

“She died this year.”

Sitting back with the brew, tasting the watery malt, I ask Amy Sue if she’s spoken with anyone from beyond the grave lately, or seen the future. She says things have been murky, but that she’s been thinking about journalism.

“As an occupation?”

“They’re the filament,” she says. “The intervening substance.”

“There’s a lot of static,” I say.

“Sure.”

“And I’m more receptive to certain signals than others.”

“Right.”

“And I run hot.”

“No,” she says. “No, I think we both know you’re a cool customer.”

*

I’m working late the next week, pinning down a story on a CEO who’s harassed his employees for decades. I keep track of each worker’s claims —which are confirmed by co-workers, which backed by documentation. This means reading sources’ texts and emails, forwarded with their consent.

I cross-check details on nude photos left in the shared copier machine, comments made at closed-door meetings, unwanted touching at a holiday party.

One afternoon, I list every allegation in a master doc, and send it to the man himself. The narrative’s been copy-edited, bullet-proofed by legal, vetted by PR. We just need his comment to pub.

The CEO replies with haste, saying he denies “most of the allegations,” and my editor sees my face as I read the statement, plug it into the draft.

“‘Most’ leaves a lot of daylight,” he says. “‘Most’ is cake.”

*