“The Boy Upstairs,” by Joshua Ferris


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She was often tempted to be done. She was tempted, but she would never do it. She had principles, and she had pleasures, too, sources of dumb joy. She had her husband and her dog. She had her books. True, books were also a source of anguish, as was her husband. But, on the whole, there was more upside than downside to books and husbands. She taught two classes a semester, and in her spare time made sense of her thoughts in papers submitted to journals of philosophy. She despaired over her low acceptance rate. The adjuncting gig was necessary but paid next to nothing. With her husband, she owned a small clapboard house with green shutters and a decaying front porch where sat a pair of teal Adirondack chairs made of plastic. They had no children.

She was tempted, but never would. To her, the temptation was not a sign of despair but a sane acknowledgment of the world we live in, and sane acknowledgment was its own source of comfort. She would carry on. She would put gas in the car. She would park and feed the meter. When she couldn’t find any coins under the floor mats to feed the meter, she would go from shop to shop with her dollar bill, asking the clerks to make change. Life was made up of these little hassles—and of big tragedies, too, incalculable cruelties, things that no right-thinking person should abide.

She was not a stoic, and far from a saint. She was willful and morally pliable, her thoughts and actions half unknown to her even now, at forty. That was no excuse for bad behavior, but it was an explanation, and she was more interested in clarity than in forgiveness. Under the right circumstances she was capable of anything, as are we all. She had no respect for the small-minded comfort thinkers who believed in the essential and immutable self, the one that would never war or pillage or eat another human being because it had been born a Christian in Buffalo. Let’s not be naïve, she liked to say. That was her favorite phrase. Let’s not be naïve.

She had eight credit cards. She could remember applying for maybe two of them. They all had different interest rates and payment due dates and fee schedules, and one day it occurred to her that she could quit her adjuncting job and dedicate herself entirely to managing the payment of her monthly debt. And managing her debt was child’s play compared with keeping her house clean. The minute she folded the laundry, which was like one of the twelve labors of Hercules, another slag heap of dirty clothes appeared in the bathroom hamper. Overnight it appeared, and here she would think of a second mythical figure, Sisyphus, and of Camus, her hero. She could never find a fucking stamp when she needed one.

Her weight, her hormones, her minor addictions to sex and alcohol and marijuana, her brain’s requirement that her body assume the pose for twenty minutes and go as quiet as possible, her desire to punch men’s faces when they pissed her off—any one of these things might get the better of her. Was she in grave peril, or was she just a modern girl? She suspected that people were more or less the same everywhere, and she wasn’t likely to be the only one hostage to a dark and dangerous mind. Still, her fringier thoughts distressed her, because even dickheads were probably suffering, and the prospect of going to jail struck fear in her heart.

She knew she was difficult. She tried to ease up. She remembered herself as someone different, happier, more innocent. As a little seventh-grade Socrates, she had asked her social-studies teacher to define the concept of cynicism, and the reply she got back was so much unreal abstraction, so much adult gobbledygook, that she felt sure she never had to worry about it. Now those abstractions determined her moods, her mornings, the running commentary in her head. It was dreadful. She looked in vain for a way out.

Why, if tempted, would she never? Squeamishness. Inertia. Some curiosity. Only a few bold souls will walk out on even the most deplorable production before the curtain closes. Sometimes it’s worth sticking around just to see who might flub a line. She loved two things more than anything else in the world: socks and milkshakes. The one kept your feet warm and the other warmed your heart. These were trite adages, bumper-sticker slogans, but if she didn’t indulge in one or two such things she would lose all connection to other people, forget her sympathies, and be done with love. And so: socks and milkshakes. But she didn’t need any more socks, and God knows she didn’t need another milkshake, so she decided to buy the socks for Chad and to make him the milkshake.

She bought the socks—the first pair clocked with lollipops and the second with pinecones—at a favorite boutique in uptown Kingston, then swung around the roundabout to the ShopRite along the strip to gather the ingredients for a milkshake, which she would top with whipped cream and leave as a surprise in the fridge. She had just paid for her groceries when she got a text from her friend Andy.

Andy was currently in Antarctica, where, until very recently, it had been impossible to continue his research on the depauperate floras of the subantarctic islands into the winter months of May and June, because of whiteouts and lunacy, but, conditions having irrevocably changed, he would be at it this year until the first of July. He was, she gathered, something like ten thousand miles away in a near-permanent night—why was he texting?

It read, “Can we talk? Somebody needs to tell you.”

Her stomach dropped. When it lurched back into place, it was knotted with dread.


She turned. The pale checkout girl with jet-black hair was holding one of her eight credit cards in the air.

“Thank you,” she said—she would have left it behind otherwise—and taking the card in hand she walked out with her groceries in a daze.

What was it, what rumor had Andy got wind of? What was out there, finally? Her mind raced. Was it something not even her husband knew about? How badly would it embarrass her? Would it finish off her so-called career? Andy had written, from so alarmingly far away as Antarctica, to say: Somebody needs to tell you. He didn’t want her to hear the details of her ruin from anyone else.

Her fears were unfounded. Andy reached her by satellite phone at four dollars a minute and quickly revealed that his bad news had no direct bearing on her. But the news itself was deeply distressing.

“I think Nicky hanged himself,” Andy said.

“Nicky?” she said.

“Anna’s son.”

“Anna’s son? Anna’s son is eleven.”

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