We’re thrilled to share a short story by Amelia Gray, from her new collection, Gutshot. “House Heart” was published in the December 2012 issue of Tin House, and it was our Longreads Member Pick in 2013. Here’s more from Tin House assistant editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky:
“In Amelia Gray’s ‘House Heart,’ a couple entraps a young woman in their ventilation system in a game equal parts erotic and perverse. ‘We all had our individual function,’ says Gray’s narrator, ‘and hers was to be the life of the house.’ Gray’s own writing does similar eerie work in animating uncomfortable, secret, interior spaces. Something strange and dark and distinctly human moves just beneath the cool deadpan of her authorial voice. I love this story for its wryness and subtlety, but most especially for its willingness to take me where I don’t want to go.”
* * *
The home remains. Even if the house were razed, the foundation scored and broken and the pieces carried away, a spiritual outline of the home in which people cooked dinner or lay down exhausted or looked out the window at the garbage truck rumbling down the road would persist. The story of our home is the story of a city’s shift from industry. The space was once the preparation wing of a garment factory, the room in which material was cooked with chemicals to change its color and character. We found this information in a reference book. Hints to the room’s previous function can be found in the scars on the concrete where machines were once bolted and an industrial ventilation system thick like an artery across the high, open ceiling, feeding veins of air to each white-walled room. The larger warehouse has since been destroyed and replaced with stinking-new lofts, but our home remains as a testament to utility.
My partner and I have lived in this house for many years, though we see ourselves as temporary residents of the space and of the land beneath it. We believe in leaving no trace when we are gone. We bring our own containers to the grocery and our clothes dry in the sun. We are very interested in hemp products. Every object has a purpose, but with care and attention, one can find multiple purposes, a range of functions found in reuse. Once, my partner brought me an old child’s tricycle, the rubber wheels hardened with age, and I scrubbed the rust away and attached a cage to the front handles and turned it into a planter.
It was my idea to purchase the girl. I had decided that would be a fine way to pass an afternoon and my partner agreed. He called a service and asked the receptionist if their business practices included the concept of fair trade. He said it was important to him as a consumer to have a sense of the origin of the products he used. He told her he realized that it was an issue of privilege, but that the least he could do was to utilize his privilege in a way that might benefit others, even in some small way.
The girl came over the next morning. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and rang the bell twice while we took turns admiring her from the peephole. Her hair was blond and ironed straight and she was falsely tanned. She glanced at something written in a pink notebook and took a step back to look up and down the street, shading her eyes with her hand. While we watched her, my partner asked me if we could educate her on the physical dangers of using chemically bleaching products and I said No, none of that.
The girl pounded on our door with her little fist, leaning in so close that we could see her eyes, pale and clear, the sclera like water in a bowl. She looked surprised, shocked even, when my partner unlocked the door and we were both standing there, smiling at her, but she entered our home anyway and put down her notebook and her purse. She said she had just come from class and I asked her what class she was taking and she told me and I said Ah, yes. Her fingers were manicured with a pink polish. She smelled like a bowl of sugar that had been sprayed with disinfectant. She told us her name; even her name sounded processed. My partner held the girl’s shoulders and told her that he was happy she had come. She started to say something but he embraced her and she frowned and put her tanned arms across his back and said Okay, okay. We were all a little nervous.
My partner suggested that the girl change into something comfortable. We led her to the bathroom and she stripped naked before us and we anointed her with oil while she stood on the bath mat. Her muscles were tense under my hands, but I rubbed her feet and legs and back and she began to relax. There seemed to be a thin layer of glowing light just under her skin.
The oil was a jojoba blend to which I had added fresh sage and rosemary. The power in our hands inspired her to relax. I began to feel calmer as well, and was able to hear more of the conversation my partner was having with the girl. He led us all to the hallway and the air-conditioner intake duct. I gave him a screwdriver and he began to remove the duct’s grate. He handed me each small screw and I held them in a cupped palm. He was asking the girl what her goals were and she said that she would like to be a medical assistant and he said that becoming a medical assistant was very much like playing House Heart with someone you trust and she said that she didn’t understand. She stood between us with her arms crossed over her breasts, each hand holding an opposite shoulder. She shivered though it was quite warm. Her skin glistened and the oil made a small pool around her feet. I held her hips and kissed her face and tried to tell her a joke about an elevator repairman but she didn’t laugh. She asked what we were doing in the hallway and I told her that my partner and I have a game we like to play called House Heart and it’s a special game to us, very special, but we had never had a chance to share it with someone else and that was a big goal for us as a couple, and it would mean so much for us to meet that goal. She asked a few obvious questions and was taking a few hesitant steps away, but my partner was prying the grate from its spot and so I hushed the girl and patted her round bottom.
Because our home is a converted industrial space, the duct area is large enough for a crouching man to spend a few productive hours. There would be plenty of space for our small girl. When we kissed her and coaxed her in, she barely had to crouch to get inside and then stood comfortably. There was no room to sit. Her feet were bare, but I had swept out the floor’s grime many times before, and that morning had scrubbed the floor with a vinegar-soaked rag. When my partner started to replace the grate, she made a whine of protest, but we explained that it would help us complete the game, and that we would be so pleased if she would help us finally achieve our goal as a couple, a romantic goal for which she would be well compensated, and finally she was silent and the grate was replaced. I handed my partner the tiny screws quickly and in silence.
For a while, nothing happened. My partner and I stood facing the grate, holding hands. The girl was quiet as well, though after a few minutes we heard her scraping around, feeling the boundaries with her feet and hands. My partner told her that she would find another duct at her head and one at her feet. Those main arterial ducts would branch into smaller openings that would lead to different rooms. One would end up in a vent over the kitchen and another would terminate in the living room, one near the chandelier in the dining room and the other three in the bathroom, bedroom, and office. She would be able to hear us speaking to her at different points of the ductwork, thanks to the happy accidents of design that allow for echoes. In a small voice, the girl asked if we could maybe just let her out, but my partner shushed her and I fed a few dollars through the grate. The money stayed there for a moment before it vanished and we heard her folding it on the other side.
She was crying softly. My partner knocked on the grate and told her to calm herself, that she would earn five times the amount of money than if she had made love to us in a traditional way. He said there was no danger to playing House Heart, that there was a secret way out of the maze if she could find it. Her noises became more frantic as she felt along the corridor.
* * *
We heard her clamber up to the high duct, finding a place for her bare feet in the metal’s niches. I put my eye to the grate and saw her legs dangling before they vanished upward. She stopped crying after a while, the effort of movement distracting her enough to focus on her task. My partner held my hips and we did it right there in the hallway. We licked each other’s faces. We could hear the girl crawling through the vein above us, looking for a way out. At that moment, she was learning that she could crawl on her hands and knees in the main duct, and in the smaller ducts, she would have to slide on her belly, pulling herself forward blindly, arms outstretched. At the system’s narrowest points, the metal would surround and press her body from all angles.
After we were done in the hallway, my partner and I retired to the bed, where he rubbed the oil into my body. He rolled out of bed, arranged a stepladder under the vent, and stretched up to feed money through the slats, folding it so it would stay. He knocked on the grate so she would know there was some activity there. After a few minutes, the money disappeared and we heard her moving backward, her thin body shaking with adrenaline and making the metal shudder above us. I dipped my head down onto my partner’s genital, savoring the girl’s energy as I worked.
* * *
My partner left for work and I practiced with my doors. As I opened and closed the bathroom door, I wondered idly if the girl above had a boyfriend who would be worried about her. She might even be thinking of him at that moment, willing him to take to the streets, to search for her. I knew there would be no value in her fantasies.
For me, no real romantic bond materialized until I began to accept love in a more practical sense. In past relationships, my brain had been diseased with fantasy. I would imagine a shared future, one in which my partner cradled a little boy. My invasive mind settled comfortably into a corner chair, a voyeur into a manifestation. The child so resembled his father in this fantasy that I saw the two of them as a paired image representing the man at varied stages of his life. They were stages of my partner’s life in which it made no sense for me to be present. Of course, the reality of the relationship would ruin the fantasy of it, but I had ruined it from the start by act of the fantasy itself.
True happiness came when I left those dreams behind. Within each moment, I found a struggle to be fully unattached to the past or the future. I needed not only to exist at a point on a vector but also to destroy the vector and inhabit that solitary point, akin to living inside a meteor without knowledge of its movement. Obviously it took some time to gain this ability, but eventually, it was possible to disengage. The image of the fantasy growing old vanished into a haze. Daily tasks were more difficult, but with practice and attention, I couldn’t picture my partner sitting at work or driving a car. I have gotten to the point where I cannot quite describe what he looks like when he has left the room.
With thoughts of him erased from my mind, I became free to attend to my daily practice. After he leaves for work, I throw open the bedroom door and declare what a fine day it is, how the sun is glinting so kindly off available glinting things. Opening the door to the pantry, I speak of the green lawn. I hold my palm up in the bedroom closet and note that it is about to rain. In this way, I have repurposed the home and found new utility in its rooms.
* * *
The girl slept up there each night, turning over every few hours. There was no space for her to curl her legs up to her chest. In the morning, we heard her noises change as she lifted her elbows and slid on her belly. My partner rolled atop me and whispered that the girl was trusting the surfaces she was coming to know. It was very exciting for him, which made it very exciting for me.
He left for work and I opened and closed the pantry door before putting on water for tea. I could hear the girl slide above me in the kitchen. She stopped with her face above the vent. I could feel her eyes on me. She said Could you let me out of here? I told her that the world that had been created for her was out of my control. She said that wasn’t true, that if I could call an authority, everything would be solved.
I wanted to cut the duct open with a knife and plunge that knife into her heart. Instead, I pointed out that she had made all the choices that brought her to that moment, that if she had been forced to do anything in her life, it had not been in our presence and we could not be held accountable. As I spoke, a drop of liquid landed on my shoulder. I told her she would be generously compensated for her lost time. Another drip landed on the stove. She confessed that she wanted to be let out because she didn’t know where to urinate. Pee, she said. Without another word to her, I took my tea into the living room. I was annoyed at her for cheapening our transaction. She banged away for a while but lost interest after a while. A few hours passed and I cleaned the mess up from where it had landed on the kitchen floor.
From then on, the girl made waste in that portion of the duct and we couldn’t convince her otherwise, even when my partner did his best to startle her as she did it. We suspected it was her small idea of insurrection. As he pounded the duct with a broom handle, my partner shouted that she was lucky to be where she was, that the world was a terrifying place for anyone and particularly terrifying for a girl like her, and that when she toughened her softer parts and grew out some more of the hair on her body, she could come out and live with us in strength and power. She continued her daily protest. Without a word to me about it, he rigged up a tarp and bucket under the vent in the kitchen.
* * *
We were sleeping late one morning when the girl began to knock on the duct. The knocking sound grew louder and she cried out without words. My partner got out of bed and left the room for some time. When he returned he spoke to her, saying he had opened the vent over the office and left an expensive watch inside. She stopped knocking and slid away.
It was his father’s watch, I knew. His father was a company man who worked all his life to afford a house for his family. He never cared much for the size of his carbon footprint and would drive the family across the country every few months to observe the passing seasons. They watched turning leaves and local rock formations and various beaches. My partner’s father snapped a picture, then herded the family back into the car. He drank gas station coffee from Styrofoam cups and when he finished the coffee, he would bite into the cup itself, chewing it thoughtfully, usually eating the whole thing before the next destination. On one of his later birthdays, he bought himself a fine watch and enjoyed it for a few years before he died. It was one of those things that my partner had long wanted to get rid of without knowing exactly why.
A scraping noise from the far side of the house meant that the girl had found the watch. I imagined her spreading her fistfuls of cash in front of her, slipping the watch over her thin wrist and tucking the singles into its silver band.
* * *
I could hear her crawling above the bathroom while I washed my hair in the morning. She said she had heard the water running and asked if she could come down for a quick soap scrub. I responded that we use only baking soda and white vinegar to bathe and that I could make her a cup with which to wash in the duct if she liked. She declined but was polite about it. She had become more polite as the days wore on. I suspected she had created a fantasy of winning me over to her side through feminine duplicity.
While she was over the kitchen, I dragged the stepladder into the office and climbed up with a ham sandwich and a handful of radishes from the local harvest box. I said that lunch was served if she could find it and that I had opened a window so she could have a little air. I liked her, this other girl, but I would not be fooled.
* * *
The girl created a method by which she could live with relative order. A few times a day, she would crawl into the standing-room area where she had first entered the system, finding the footholds and lowering herself into the space. She could store her money and empty dishes there, or stand and stretch her legs. A scraping sound when she crawled suggested she was wearing the watch around her wrist or ankle. I discovered her routine while opening and closing the bathroom door, which stood next to the entry portal to the system. My continued practice against fantasy was making it harder to imagine what green grass would look like up close. My best image was of a sea of green like what one finds in a stagnant pond, but this image was fading along with my knowledge of ponds. The work was to convince myself that this was an improvement. The girl and I did not speak to each other most days, and after a while, I noted that the girl had quit speaking entirely. It was a welcome discovery.
My partner arrived home with groceries, and I put them away in their proper places. I fixed dinner and climbed the stepladder to serve the girl after we had eaten our share. Playing her part in the game, the girl ate quickly and then crawled to the standing-room area to store her dish. We all had our individual function and hers was to be the life inside the house, which had begun to smell like a hot scalp.
The girl started her period and a few drops of blood fell onto the floor by our bed. With that action, the ductwork veins of the house became actual veins pushing life through every room. The veins began to expand and contract and the house itself could breathe. Every room of our home was replete with veins.
I felt concerned about the girl’s silence and brought it up to my partner while he was feeding me from a bowl of cottage cheese. He spooned curds into my mouth and said it was only natural that the girl had become comfortable with her surroundings. He reminded me that I had not challenged the boundaries of my own life in many years, nor had he challenged his. Even though we all feel quite free, he remarked, every life has its surrounding wall. He wiped my chin with a napkin and kissed the napkin.
* * *
My partner phoned the girl’s employer, then held the phone to the grate over the bedroom while I was cleaning dishes in the kitchen. Over my noise, I could hear the girl say that she had decided to quit. There was a long silence in the room. At first I stopped my movement and strained to hear, and then I couldn’t avoid the silence and began to hate it. I opened a cabinet to put away the clean dishes. In the back of the cabinet, over the plates, there was a portal through which I could view a wide, dark field. There was no wind.
Later, after my partner and I made love, we lay in bed and I sang a song about loving the world you know. The song encouraged all of us to live within the boundaries that were created for us by the people who love us and care for our safety. I had learned the song long ago and remembered it well. The girl was quiet at first but then we heard her sweet voice rise with the harmony.
* * *