The Houses on Birch Street: No. 3 Birch Street

By G.L. Aster

The first thing to stir in No. 3 will be a pair of feet. The feet will belong to a thin, balding man with a nose shaped rather like an upside–down rhinoceros horn. Being troubled with foot problems all his life, even the few hours he allows himself to sleep every night will cause the muscles in his feet to cramp up, forcibly awakening him at half–past six every morning. Wasting no time, the thin man will rise from his bed, and spend a few minutes vigorously stretching and flexing his feet, to rid himself of the chronic stiffness. In a bed three feet and a night–table away, his wife will also stir, a diminutive woman possessing the hair color of a woman half her age. She too will exit her bed, and descend the stairs to the kitchen, where she will place a kettle on an old–fashioned gas stove. Upstairs, the man will have selected a three piece suit from a closet of seemingly identical suits, and will dress in a militaristically precise manner, smoothing out every last wrinkle and flicking away every speck of lint. In the time it takes the kettle to boil he will have rolled on a pair of grey socks to exactly three inches above the ankle, donned his suit and knotted a tie around his neck, the full Windsor knot taking him only seconds to complete.

The small woman will have filled a French–press with boiling water and coffee grounds, and have this waiting alongside a small china teacup, sitting on a saucer alongside a digestive biscuit. As soon as the man descends the stairs, she will depress the rod at the top of the French–press, and fill his cup with thick, aromatic coffee. He will join her at the kitchen table to eat his ascetic breakfast, while she peruses a book on ornithology. The consumption of coffee and biscuit will take no longer than two minutes, and so supplemented the thin man will rise from the table to head over to the front door. His wife will fetch his briefcase and shoes from the hall closet, and he will don the shoes, though not taking the briefcase until already on the front porch. Occasionally the woman will straighten his tie, and after a brief, but affectionate goodbye the man will venture to the street corner to await the arrival of his colleague. The small woman will likely have returned to bed, her husband’s early mornings not part of her preferred lifestyle.

Regardless of the weather, the thin man will wait on the street corner until another man comes to join him. They will engage in conversation, mostly about their work, both men being accountants at the same bank. Usually the thin man will have more successful news to share, while the other one will bemoan his losses though a cloud of cigarette smoke. With each puff of smoke emitted his way, the thin man will edge farther and farther away, possessing a care for his lungs that the smoking man doesn’t seem to. Oblivious to the thin man’s discomfort, the second man will continue to smoke until his clothes have picked up the pungent smell of burnt tobacco, and his shoes are liberally dusted with ash, though both things will go unnoticed by him. At this point the thin man will casually suggest that they continue on to work, and together they will begin the walk that will bring them to their bus stop. The entire commute, bus ride and all, will take no more than half an hour, and by 8:45 the thin man will be pressing the button for the eleventh floor at the elevator in the office building in which he works. He takes the elevator ride in silence, enjoying the soft classical music that emanates from the speakers overhead. The smoking man will not get off the elevator with him, and so alone the thin man will exit the elevator, and walk down the carpeted hall towards his office door. Once safely inside with the door firmly closed behind him, the thin man will remove his outer coat, set his briefcase on the desk beside him and retrieve the laptop within. For the next several hours he will carefully comb through files and bills belonging to clients of the smoking man, regularly making small adjustments. By noon, he will have composed a large number of emails regretfully informing the smoking man’s clients that many of their investments were less successful than they might have hoped, and that a good deal of the money they had placed into his colleague’s care had been mysteriously misappropriated. Meanwhile, said misappropriated funds will have vanished into a separate account, one inaccessible to everyone, except for the thin man. He will then split this not insubstantial amount of money two ways: half will be divided up between his clients, and half will make its way to his personal chequing account. This subterfuge complete, he will direct his attention to more standard work, and check over rudimentary financial statements and tax returns.

Back on Birch Street, the small woman will arise from bed around the same time the thin man finishes relieving his colleague’s clients of their money. She will don a set of worn gardening clothes, and proceed to venture outside and rake her sidewalk and lawn, gathering the fallen oak leaves. This completed, she will bring the leaves to a compost heap in the backyard, where they will join a sludge of slowly decomposing vegetable peelings and yard trimmings. The woman will use this muck to fertilizer her planter boxes, once it degrades enough.

Though she will not have a sit–down meal, the small woman will usually nibble on a small cucumber sandwich by way of lunch while she again picks up her bird book, this time with a pair of binoculars in hand. Just as her husband exits his office to meet with the smoking man for coffee, close to 2 o’clock, she will sit herself by the front window to watch the birds that flock to the small birdhouse hanging from the oak tree. Study of the birds will take precedence of consumption of the cucumber sandwich, so often it will take nearly an hour before she finally finishes it. The thin man will spend his time listening to his colleague complain bitterly over his poor luck with investments, and offer small words of sympathy in exchange. He will only have ordered an Americano from the small coffee shop in his building, while the smoking man will purchase a sandwich with his. By 3 o’clock both husband and wife will be done with their respective lunches and the thin man will return to his office. The small woman will keep watching the birds, an expression of contentment on her face, but at some point in the afternoon a fat ginger cat will slink into the front yard, and her expression will change to one of disgust. She will squeeze her binoculars tightly as the cat gets closer and closer to the tree, and when it finally climbs up the trunk to perch by the birdhouse she will throw the binoculars down onto her chair and storm out the back door to the small gardening shed, taking several small saucers with her. There, she will fill the saucers with antifreeze, and place them around the backyard. By the time she gets back to her front window the ginger cat will usually have caught a prize and be busy devouring it. Unable to watch, the small woman will retreat to her room and turn on the television. While the thin man finishes up his work and repacks his briefcase, the woman will watch the daily 6 o’clock reruns of a black and white crime show, even though she has already seen each episode at least twice before.

At 6:15 the thin man will exit his office building, along with the smoking man. They will arrive back at Birch Street at 6:45, and the thin man will return to No. 3 to find the small woman asleep in front of the television. Her show having ended, she will have had no interest in the subsequent program and not have bothered to stay awake. The thin man will wake her, and she will descend to the kitchen to prepare dinner. It will be ready by 7:30, some slices of cold meat next to reheated vegetables from the night before. As they eat their meal, the man and woman will discuss their ill–gained income, and toast the thin man’s ingenuity at having come up with the scheme in the first place.

They will have finished their meal before 8 o’clock, neither of them being heavy eaters, and as the thin man heads back upstairs to wash up for the night, the small woman will load their ancient dishwasher with the dinnerware. Before returning upstairs, she will check on the saucers in the backyard, and wear a satisfied expression as she sees that they have all been licked clean. She will then join her husband upstairs, and start hanging his suit up, finishing around the time he exits the washroom. He will be wearing flannel pajamas, and spend another few minutes stretching his feet before he retires for the evening. He will not need to set an alarm, his feet more than sufficing. The small woman enter the bathroom, and apply peroxide to her greying roots before starting the rest of her evening routine. By the time she finishes washing up, the peroxide will have done its work and she will give her hair a quick rinse, not wanting the chemicals to damage her pillows and sheets. The thin man will already be asleep when she leaves the bathroom, and she will quietly slip around the room, turning all the lights off, the last thing she will do before sliding under the covers to sleep.