The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 18, No. 1

Reports from a Higher Roof

by Ben Hoffman

As a special online supplement to the Spring 2014 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2013 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.

There are reports of urination from a higher roof. I did not see it firsthand. Even before this, our Fourth of July rooftop party was not going well. A man is here in a Ben Franklin costume. Neither my girlfriend nor I know him—or, at least, neither of us recognizes who is behind the disguise—and he will not give a real name, unless Ben Franklin is his real name. But neither of us asks him to leave. He is not harming anyone. And we are wary of asking anyone to leave, let alone someone who may in some way be a spark: we remember past party attempts, inevitably disintegrating into Scattergories around our coffee table until two people yawn at the same time.
     “Was it intentional or incidental?” Marie asks our poor guests, two coworkers from her PR firm. This question captures so perfectly her desire to assess and catalog every offense. The apartment could be burning to cinders around us, and on the way down the fire escape she would want to know, Arsonist or space heater?
     Marie’s coworkers question how intent could matter. There has been urination.
     “Maybe it was beer,” I suggest.
     Our guests hold out their sleeves for me to smell.
     Marie and I rent a tiny apartment on the top floor of a three-story walk-up. The adjoining building is four stories, and they are having a party on their roof, too. It is better up there, and we all know it. I have caught a few friends with necks craned wistfully, though from our vantage we are granted only glimpses: a Solo cup held sloppily by a tanned hand, a beautiful head of hair, floating and billowing on this breezeless day. Grill smoke drifts and settles over us like smog. We can smell the meat. There is no meat at our party; Marie is a vegetarian. Their music overpowers ours, and is better than ours, though the songs are foreign. Between beats we hear laughter, like the squeals of ticklish teenage girls.
     I am sent to investigate.
     “Should I take the sword?” I ask Marie. When we moved to the city six months ago, her mother gave us a sword. She is a nice lady from a place in Oklahoma where there are many goats. I told Marie’s mother the city is not an actual jungle. My commute would not involve dense foliage. Now the sword hangs above our television so visitors will know how much she loves us. And it has become part of our routine check whenever we are leaving for the farmer’s market or the coffee shop: iPod? Chapstick? Sword?
     In response to my question, Marie does something subtle with her torso, to indicate a frown. It is amazing what her body can suggest. There are those wonderful women who laugh not by laughing but by shaking their entire bodies, and she is their puritanical twin. As I move to the door, Ben Franklin raises his beer toward me. He is in the vicinity of the vegetable table. He tells me today is a very important occasion.

At the other building, the downstairs door is propped open by an antique chair, and I am awed at the confidence that the chair will not be stolen. It looks identical to one Marie and I recently saw in a vintage shop. It was out of our price range, and if we want nice furniture we must wait for a nice lady in Oklahoma to die. I follow the music up the stairwell, to a top-floor apartment, whose door is also open. I pass through to find a deserted space.
     It is finer than our apartment, with high ceilings and gleaming floors and furniture that cannot be assembled in half an hour. Then, unbelievably, I see a sword on the wall—a machete—suggesting that we are doing something right, that we are at least on the proper track, and one day we could be whoever lives here. I am examining the sword and the other signs of life—an old movie poster, a photograph of a shady house where someone grew up—when a young woman emerges from the fridge. Obviously she has not been inside the refrigerator, but that is the visual effect. She is dark-haired and pale and younger than I, probably only a few years out of school. She absorbs my presence in her beautiful apartment with remarkable grace.
     “Neighbor guy! Whatcha drinking?”
     “Hello,” I say. “Do you know me?”
     “You live next door, don’t you?”
     “Yes,” I say. “Have we met?”
     “Not officially. I’ve just seen you around.”
     “Have you seen me around?”
     “Of course.”
     “Liar,” she says, and it does shame me, that I have not noticed this pretty young woman with the nose stud who apparently has been orbiting my life, noticing me: my trash runs, my smokes on the stoop. I want to take this information back to our party and rub it in Marie’s face.
     “Anyway, I’m having a party,” she says. “You’re invited, since you’re here anyway!”
     I decide to hold it against this neighbor, instead of against myself, that I have not noticed her. “Thank you,” I say. “But we are having a party, too. Also on our roof.”
     “You are? I didn’t hear any music.”
     “Well, someone at your party is aware of our party.” I explain the situation. My neighbor appears happily amazed, as if I am telling a slow-building joke and she is anticipating the punch line. Her mouth puckers open like a cute little fish’s, and she sways to the music pounding down through her ceiling. She taps her marble countertops. She listens acutely, but not to me.
     When she sees that my mouth has stopped moving, she says we can round up the usual suspects.
     “Are you suggesting that people at your party have done this before?”
     “Not this exactly, no. But let’s interrogate,” she says. She takes my hand and leads me down a hallway and up a flight of stairs to her roof, which is gigantic. Her party is loud and smells delicious. We weave through beautiful people eating skewers, drinking colorful drinks, playing games that I am too old even to recognize, games invented after I graduated college and became an adult. Her hand is still cold from the fridge.
     We find her two culprits in a corner behind a laptop, acting as DJs and dressed neatly, as if to impress someone’s mother. She speaks to them and they respond, and only I am deafened by the speakers. I move away, and eventually they follow. I want to tell them that good taste in clothes and music is not a license for social oppression, for inter-building urination. But there is no need for interrogation or chastising. They cop to it immediately. They feel bad.
     “We were aiming for George Washington,” one of them explains. His shirt is tucked in and buttoned to the very top, like a schoolboy’s.
     “We hit those girls by accident,” says the other kid. A tiny pin on his lapel reads, thumbs up to you!
     “Very patriotic,” I say. “But that is Ben Franklin.”
     “Are you sure he’s not Washington?” the young woman asks. “He looks like Washington.” She points.
     From up here our party appears sparse. Though our friends are surely conversing, making stupid small talk about the weather or work or the Yankees, they seem distant from one another, as if each is protected by an invisible bubble. Only one couple inhabits the same space.
     Ben and Marie are sequestered far from the rest, past the vegetables, behind the structure where the stairs come up, hidden where no one can see them. She has a hand on his arm, and it could be that she is guiding him from this party, like a gentle bouncer, asking him to leave. But her touch is intimate, leading him toward electricity, or the Boston Harbor, or the Liberty Bell, or whatever it was that he did. They are confusing, the founding fathers: I know that they all did great things—minus the slaves—but aside from Washington does anyone know exactly what each one’s great things were? I don’t. I don’t know anything except that Marie is smiling—from above, her smile appears relaxed, like it did when I first loved her—and her hand is still on his arm and then she leans in and kisses him and I want to hurt everyone in every way. My face must be saying this, must be revealing that the girl with Ben is my girlfriend, because my neighbor sighs. Or maybe she already knew, maybe she has walked past us bickering or holding hands on our street. She seems even paler than before, like my pain is making her sick.
     Below us Ben draws away and says something to make Marie laugh. My neighbor leads me from the roof’s edge. One of the kids puts a beer in my hand, and I drink. Because there is nothing else to say, the buttoned-up kid says, “OK, from the bifocals, I’m willing to admit that is Ben Franklin.” We have a discussion about bifocals. The guy with the thumbs up to you! pin, it turns out, is my neighbor’s little brother, and the buttoned-up kid is his friend. They are in law school, and they ask me stupid questions to make me feel better: how long have I been in the city, where have I come from. I am trying to remember when we moved here. The excitement of the city, of moving in together, of my Foreman grill becoming our Foreman grill, of our apartment that seemed cozy at first, of our roof where we could sit and watch the sunset behind Manhattan. Our first picnic in Prospect Park, when the fruit had spoiled and we joked that we could eat the hipsters. The subway trains still a novelty then, a utilitarian joke we would ride, losing our balance, laughing all the way to our destination. Now I am imagining Ben Franklin in costume on the subway, holding his hat out for money, like those kids with boom boxes and triple-jointed dance moves. I am imagining Ben and Marie rendezvousing whenever I am gone. Ben is probably very good at clandestine meetings. He has experience. Or he is someone different each time: Washington, Jefferson, even Hamilton. Marie has loved them all. But is he ever himself? And does Marie love whoever that is? I don’t know how to go back down there. I cannot even look.
     “So stay up here awhile,” my neighbor says, and I do.

The sun is dipping low, almost gone, but somehow the evening is even hotter than the day. All of Crown Heights is marinating in itself. I can see that from up here in a way I could not from down there. Every roof has a party, and I feel that I am part of a larger thing.
     But I know better. I had thought Marie would text or come looking for me, but she hasn’t, and after awhile I turn off my phone. I try to imagine our party has fallen apart without me. Then I picture everyone in our apartment playing Scattergories, and Ben and Marie are one of the teams. Ben is so good at Scattergories. And he is yawning, to let our friends know it is time to leave, to let Marie know it is time to take their party to our bedroom.
     My neighbor keeps getting me beers, and so does her brother. Her brother’s friend gets me a hot dog. I want to ask him if he washed his hands first, but instead I just eat it. Then I eat another. I lose at many games I do not understand. At some point I realize I am wearing the brother’s pin, though I do not remember this exchange.
     When the fireworks start, exploding above the city in all directions, to the south, at Coney Island, to the east, above Queens, I take solace in the fact that Marie cannot see them; down at our party everyone can see only the show above the Hudson, mostly obscured by Manhattan’s skyscrapers. My neighbor stands beside me, gorgeous in the orange light, like her face is so pale it reflects other colors around her. Her brother and his friend have brought fireworks, too, and when we set them off they spark and pop into the air. I imagine them careening down on our roof, setting our party afire, melting Ben’s glasses, burning his wig. Everyone dying—not that I want our friends to die, of course, or that I can even envision the actual reality of them dying and the aftermath. I am imagining it through my own prism, building my own hypothetical trauma to swim in—me the proud and lonely sole survivor.
     You say you would have died, too, the reporter would say. She’s a prettyish woman, her face made up to suggest gentle grief. Except you temporarily went up to another party. Why did you go there?
     You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.
     And your girlfriend, she also perished?
     Yes, I loved her very much. I still do. Though I have a new girlfriend. My neighbor.
     Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fire, though this young man tells us there was a strange impersonator at the party . . .
     I wait for flames, or screams, but I cannot hear anything down there, and above us the fireworks are still exploding and exploding. Fireworks! I ought to feel something resonant: freedom, independence, relief from tyranny. I am moving on, I am starting over, I will do better. But I am doing none of those things. I only want Marie next to me. Wrapped in the glow. Her hand rubbing my neck. Undressing in our tiny apartment, her nipples sharp as the sword above us. Am I crying?
     My neighbor holds a beer to her forehead, then to my forehead, then to her ear. “What will make you feel better?”
     I picture fighting Ben Franklin, chopping his head off with our sword. But I suspect this is not historically accurate; they did not duel with swords in the colonies, I do not think. For some reason, I tell my neighbor the truth: “Kissing you.”
     Her brother raises an eyebrow. His friend gives me a look: Welcome to a giant club, buddy.
     “Unfortunately,” says my neighbor, “that is not going to happen.” She seems pained to say it. You take the trash out so nicely, always sorting the bottles, but you have a girlfriend, and also I am too good for you, and also I would break your heart. That is what I do.
     I won’t have a girlfriend for long, I want to tell her. And you can try to break it. Just try.
     “Do you have to pee?” the buttoned-up friend suggests helpfully. “We can try again. We can aim better.”
     “Hey,” says my neighbor. “I want in.”
     “You’d fall off the roof,” her brother tells her.
     “You could jump,” his friend says to me.
     “Excuse me?”
     “Jump. Land on Ben Franklin. Take him out. Make an entrance.”
     “That sounds dangerous.”
     “Perfectly safe,” he says. “We do it plenty.”
     All those thumps on our ceiling, I’d suspected Brooklyn squirrels.
     “Do it!” they say, and I say I will. I am drunk, and it is an idea. The buttoned-up kid puts on a pump-up jam. My neighbor takes my beer. She pats me on the shoulder. “Are you ready?” she asks. I want to say yes, but the problem is I glance down. Marie is wearing Ben’s hat, and she looks like a pirate, not a revolutionary. Also, Ben’s wig appears surprisingly small, like he is a miniature replica or like I am on top of the Empire State Building. I tell my neighbor I don’t know about this. I ask if I should take a running start.
     “Pretend you’re a kid on a diving board,” she says. “You’re just starting to like girls, and I’m the hot lifeguard, and I’m giving you permission to jump. No diving. The pool is too shallow. Do not dive. Jump. Jump away.”
     “Is the pool heated?” I ask.
     “No, but the water will feel good.”
     “What color is your bathing suit?”
     “One-piece or—”
     “Stop stalling. You’re ready.” She tells me to close my eyes.
     They count down for me: Three. Two. One.
     “You can keep my pin!” says the brother.
     “This is gonna be sick!” says the buttoned-up kid.
     “Jump!” says this beautiful neighbor guarding my life. But in a few seconds she will be just another person in my past, and when I land I will be in the middle of a party that is going to hurt when it finally ends.

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