Eban Greggs had scarcely ever been out of his one bedroom apartment which stood on the corner of Linden and Hoffmen Streets overlooking the cemetery. A woman named Galetta who lived downstairs from him did his shopping and dropped his clothing, mainly pajamas, off at the cleaners and picked them up again for him once a week. She was a big black woman with enormous breasts. She had three children that lived in her apartment with her, one of them was her brother’s son. Her very elderly and partially deaf auntie lived in the same two bedroom apartment with her. Eban had never been down to Galetta’s apartment. He had never met the deaf old auntie, or Galetta’s boy, Dillan or her youngest child, a girl called Ester, but he heard often about them all. Once or twice, the brother’s son, Josef, had come up and knocked on the door and said,
“My Auntie says I should come see if you want anything special. We’re going to Tanforan.”
Tanforan was the big mall nestled in the adjacent community of South San Francisco. Eban would thank him and say no, he was fine. When he needed something particular, he ordered it online and it was delivered to his doorstep by the postman who wore a huge yellow cowboy hat to accompany his big gray cookie duster. From time to time, the landlord came and fixed a leaky faucet, and once in a while Eban had to go down to the garage and get into his 1991 Toyota corolla and drive to San Francisco and meet with his publisher. These were all of the people that Eban personally knew.
He began work in the afternoons and could hear when Galleta’s children returned home from school. He worked through the night and the quiet hours when everyone slept and then he tapped not only into his own subconscious but into theirs, borrowing their dreams to fill his pages. It seemed to him that when the world slept it was prone to opening its secret soul to him, and often he opened his window and looked past the bars at the white moon and the lights glittering like jewels set in the city beyond and listened deeply to the cool quiet night.
With his ear, specially trained in these nightly exercises, he could almost hear the dreaming murmur of the 11 people that inhabited his building, and then reaching further, the 1672 people residing in addresses along Linden, and then the 6688 that lived in the neighborhood around him on Villa, Sylvan, Lisbon, and Abbott, and so on, slowly reaching outward with the tentacles of his mind until some dreamer’s fears and desires burst open to him like a split pomegranate at last revealing the many secret crimson chambers that were guarded in the waking hours. Then he would return to the artificial glow of his liquid crystal monitor and his fingers would rattle desperately over the keys to keep up with the story’s unfolding.
In the watercolor wash of dark gray just before the sun rose behind the San Bruno Mountains and lightened the fog drenched world to a white wash, he would hear the sound of the shower running in the unit next door, and then foot steps throughout the building and the opening and closing of three different front doors, and engines starting in the cars in the garage, and the creak and clang of the iron garage gate, and at last the pounding of the feet of Galetta’s little mob as they ran down the flight of stairs beneath him on their way out to school. He would then close the blinds tight and crawl into bed.
In the summer, it was a challenge for Eban to work as he was accustomed to because the children, not just Galleta’s but all the children that lived in the neighborhood, were home from school. The days were noisier and the nights were shorter and plagued with loud music, laughter, and screaming. People slept less during the summer and the window of time during which Eban could dip into their dreams and skim out stories was narrower.
One evening at around 7:00 Eban was startled by a terrible uproar coming from the apartment below him. He could hear Galleta’s rich voice which usually boomed with authority as she scolded her children, or trembled with laughter while she loudly repeated some gossip to Auntie. Now it was rising to a high and panicked pitch, the likes of which he had never heard coming from her before. He stopped and listened and could hear that voice joined by the others of the household, all calling,
They traveled from the garage to the apartment to the garage again and then out into the street. Then he heard Galleta’s heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs and abruptly she began rapping on his door. Alarmed and bewildered Eban hurried and cast it open to find her there with a tear streaked face and heaving bosom, ringing her hands.
“My baby! I can’t find my Esther. She was riding her bike in the garage and she’s gone. The boys left the gate open and went across the street and left her alone and she’s gone. I told them! I told them not do that and they did it again and now she’s gone!”
She was sobbing now, and Eban, in his pajamas and slippers, impulsively pressed by her to get out the door and down the stairs.
“Call the police!” he called over his shoulder as he thundered down the stairs, the first flight, then the second where he saw the frail old auntie trembling in the doorway and out of the garage where he noted the little pink and white bike lay on its side and into the street where a small mob of neighborhood kids had gathered with Galetta’s boys.
“I saw her walking that way!” said a round faced little Mexican boy pointing towards the cemetery and down Hoffman.
Eban ran that way, his heart racing. He reached out into the world as he did at the window at night searching for the little murmur that to him was Esther. He turned down Villa and stopped at the corner apartment. He then walked to the next one, a blue rectangular building, and pushed on the front gate. By chance it had not been properly closed and yielded to him so that he found himself passing the gold mailboxes in the wall and mounting the first flight of stairs. Eban hesitated, knocked on the door, and doubted himself. After a moment a lean white woman in a baggy T-shirt opened the door, two little girls clinging to her and peering around her legs at him.
He knew instantly he was wrong, that they could not help him, but he said,
“My neighbor’s little girl is missing. A little black girl.”
“Oh my God!” the woman gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. “From where? Which building?”
“658 Linden. If you see her…” he trailed off trying to hold onto the murmur. The woman was nodding. He disengaged abruptly, walked swiftly down the hall to the next door and this time, when he reached out with his hand out to knock, he grabbed the doorknob instead, a mad thing to do, and turned it and opened the door.
There she was, sitting on an old couch patterned with flowers the color of rust, drinking coke out of a glass with red roses painted upon it in lines of three. In an avocado colored easy chair, a little old Filipino man sat sinking into the cushions. The top of his head was bald and encircled by a ring of soft thin white and gray hair.
“Esther?” Eban asked.
The child smiled and said,
“How did you know my name?”
“I’m your neighbor Eban Gregg. Your mother’s looking for you. She’s very upset.”
“She’s real mad?” Esther asked.
“She’s scared.” Eban told her.
“I’m okay.” She said, “This is Mr. Juan. He forgets things.” She set her glass on a coaster on the table and standing up, skipped over to the old man.
“He has this bracelet, see?” she said, fingering a silver bracelet on the old man’s wrist. “Auntie has one but she doesn’t wear it. It has his name and address on it, like a puppy.” She giggled. The old man nodded at her and smiled and nodded and smiled rather absently at Eban.
“He was lost and he was crying so I helped him.” Esther said
“Who was crying?” the old man asked coming out of his reverie. He seemed genuinely curious.
“You were!” Esther exclaimed.
“Oh, well.” the old man smiled and shrugged and sunk back into his cushions.
“I better take you back to your mother.” Eban said
“Okay.” Esther said. “Bye Mr. Juan.”
“Bye, Bye.” He smiled and shut his eyes.
Esther came and took Eban’s hand, surprising him. It felt awkward and frightened him a little, like being close to a small exotic animal such as a squirrel or a chinchilla.
They passed over the threshold and Eban closed the door behind them.
“How come you’re wearing your pajamas?” she asked.