The house was on a street that ran parallel to the Metra tracks. Laila’s reluctance returned as Nabeel parked the car, without intending to, a few feet from the realtor’s sign. And it didn’t have to do with the neighbourhood. She would rather pay more and rent for a couple of more years in Lakeview or even Lincoln Park, their neighbourhoods of choice, where a house would not be possible on their incomes. Even a condo or townhouse would stretch them, unless they pushed into Humboldt Park, which Laila did not want, or went as far west as Austin Boulevard, not a favourite alternative for either of them. Living in Chicago below a certain pay-grade was half compulsion and half desperation.
Wendy, their agent, had not yet arrived. They had planned it that way, to get there early and take a look at the house without her constantly telling them they could take their time and look around all they wanted. There was no rush when in reality her demeanour told a different, far more fidgety and impatient tale.
“We’ll have some room to breathe in this one with our budget,” said Nabeel.
Laila was turned away, facing the tracks. A signal began tolling.
“Let’s at least take a look.”
“Someone left that house in tears,” said Laila. “Children cried in there. And we’re supposed to have our child while living in it.”
Nabeel got out. He left the car running with the AC on. Laila was still looking at the tracks. A slow train rumbled past. Nabeel walked up to the front door. It was locked. The keys were on their way over with Wendy. He went around to the back. The small backyard was showing the first signs of overgrowth. He walked to the centre of the yard, and looked at the house.
“Breaks your heart, doesn’t it? Knowing what made the folks leave? What they’d planned to do in there, couldn’t finish, never will? Kids, too, maybe?”
A woman stood leaning with both elbows on the fence that separated the property on the left. She wore a grey housecoat over which was draped a crimson cardigan. The temperature was already in the eighties, and climbing. But the woman showed no signs of discomfort. Her hair was long and straight, white as the one wisp of cloud that was creeping along over the house and the train tracks and Laila and their child in the car.
“But my son and his wife forced me into it. Said it was better than an old folks’ home. I disagreed. Here, I have to do everything on my own. At least over there they got people doing things for me. They refused to pay for it. Better investment, this one. They say. Guess for who?”
“When you moving in?”
“Not sure yet,” said Nabeel.
“My wife. She’s in the car.”
The woman threw a glance over her shoulder at her own house.
“I refused,” she said. “But my son and his wife forced me into it. Said it was better than an old folks’ home. I disagreed. Here, I have to do everything on my own. At least over there they got people doing things for me. They refused to pay for it. Better investment, this one. They say. Guess for who?”
“How long have you lived here?”
“What about the other properties?”
“Just me. So far. I think my son knew these homes would be foreclosed before the folks that lived in them. He’s one of those people, you know, follows things like that. Kinda breaks a mother’s heart to know her son’s sitting around, waiting for other people’s misery to benefit from. I don’t know. All you can do is raise them. You got children?”
“No,” Nabeel didn’t mention Laila’s pregnancy. They’d learned about it two weeks ago, and were waiting out the twelve-week period to break the news to family and friends.
“Well, when you do, don’t put them on the spot, and don’t set yourselves up for the skies. Let things be.”
Nabeel caught her wink and the flash of teeth before her back turned on him and she went inside through a side door.
Wendy’s car was making a crawling stop behind theirs as Nabeel made his way to the front. He saw her direct a hurried wave at the rear-view mirror for Laila. Laila didn’t notice it.
“Hi!” Wendy pushed off her seat, rocking the Prius in the process, and came at Nabeel with both hands extended.
“Sorry I’m late. I thought we said noon. Right?”
“Yes, no, you’re right. We just got here a little early.”
“Oh, good! Good, that’s great! Shall we?”
“Let me get my wife.”
“Sure, sure! Take your time. No rush. I’ll be inside whenever you’re ready.” She bounced up the walkway to the front door. Once there, she unlocked the door, pushed it open, and turned around, hands on hips, with a smile showing glinting white teeth, bloated ankles at the end of thick legs webbed with veins, with that bearing of impatient patience she couldn’t mask as genuine patience.
“You’re right,” said Nabeel. “I get it.” He touched Laila’s hand. Her finger curled lightly around his.
Nadeem Zaman is a fiction writer. He lives in the USA.