The Houses on Birch Street: No. 4 Birch Street

By G.L. Aster

No alarm will ever sound at No. 4. Instead, the young woman residing there will rely on her body’s internal clock to awaken her at the correct time every morning, the system working much more often than it fails. She will typically get up around 8 o’clock every morning, and only bother to brush her teeth and get dressed before exiting her house and beginning the walk to the main city. With her she will bring the essentials: a cloth grocery bag to avoid the 5 cent per plastic bag fee, and a pair of extra-large headphones. A small brown dog dragging a pudgy middle–aged man and his teenage son will cross her path, but she won’t stop for conversation, only give a brief greeting, not being overly sociable. The headphones will help with this, as if either the man or his son attempt to speak to her further, she will use them as her excuse for ignoring the two. Once she reaches the city, the young woman will head to the local grocery store, and fill her cloth bag with an assortment of organic produce and dairy products. However, as she selects her purchases, she will also secretly fill her pockets and purse whatever she can sneak off the shelf without the cashier noticing: a small tin of saffron, a bottle of olive oil, a box of marzipan… After filling both her bag and her jacket to capacity, the woman will proceed to the checkout and pay for the items in the grocery bag. She will make two more stops before heading back towards Birch Street, a local designer outlet, and a drugstore. At the outlet, she will pretend to browse the racks for a few minutes, then disappear into the fitting room. Having hid the number of items she brought in with her, she will cut loose the tags on one of the shirts she chose and put it on underneath the one she will already have been wearing. With a regretful look on her face she will return the other, randomly selected clothes to a saleswoman and exit the store. She will spend far less time at the drugstore, only taking the time to slip some cosmetics into the sleeves of her coat, then leave again.

By the time she arrives back on Birch Street, it will be at least 9 o’clock, and the only other stop she will make before returning home will be to drop off a carton of milk and a Gala apple on the porch of a nearby house. This arrangement has been in place for long enough that the young woman is confident she will be repaid eventually, and not will knock on the door to demand immediate reimbursement.

Safely back inside her house, she will unpack all her purchased and non–purchased goods, putting the produce and dairy into the fridge, and all the shoplifted items from the grocery store, except for the marzipan, into a large cupboard. The cupboard will already be packed with things taken from other stores, containing everything from cheap socks to a sterling silver jewelry set. Adding her latest takings will give the young woman a tremendous feeling of euphoria, one she will have been waiting for all day. The cosmetics she will place in her bathroom, and the shirt she will toss on her bed. Her cellphone will ring just as she is finishing, and for the next hour or so she will talk with a friend, a young man from two cities over. They will not discuss anything in particular; just talk about life in general until the young man will say that he has to go to work. The two will hang up their phones, and the woman will return to her room. She may sit on her bed and read, or watch television on her laptop, occasionally glancing out at the sky and willing the sun to set faster. However, this won’t stop her from retrieving a folding chair from her hall closet at 1:30 and setting it up on her lawn. She will change into a pair of shorts and a tank top and set a large pair of sunglasses on her nose before stretching out on the chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun.

Eventually, it will have cooled off enough that she will retreat back into her house, normally around 4 o’clock. Feeling hungry, she will eat the marzipan before setting up her computer to display an online work–out video. The work–out will take exactly half an hour, but by the end the young woman will be exhausted and shaking, as her physical condition is on the poor side. She will take a long shower and throw her exercise clothes into the washing machine, then proceed to browse the internet on her laptop until about 6:30, at which time she will call up a nearby Chinese restaurant and order sweet and sour pork, chow mein, and shrimp wontons. Afterwards she will change into her newly acquired shirt and spend a few minutes applying some light makeup. A knock at the front door will call her downstairs, where she will collect for the takeout and bring it into the kitchen. A thin young man with a photo of a red–haired girl on his keychain will be waiting for her, a box of macaroons on the table before him. Together they will lower all the blinds, then embrace. She will produce a bottle wine and the Chinese take–out, and they will share these along with the macaroons, laughing over their fortune cookies.

After a couple hours the young man will leave, again via the back door, and the young woman will straighten her disheveled hair and wipe away her smudged lipstick before clearing away the remains of their dinner. By this time the sun will have set, and she will climb back up the stairs, then ascend a ladder to a small platform built on the roof bearing a covered telescope. She will remove this cover, and spend any number of hours gazing at the sky, staying out as late as 3 o’clock if she sees fit. Eventually, fatigue will get the better of her, and she will descend back into her bedroom, throw off her clothes, and collapse into bed.

–G.L. Aster