The Smart One - By Jennifer Close


From inside her apartment, Claire could hear the neighbor kids in the hall. They were running from one end to the other, the way they sometimes did, kicking a ball or playing tag, or just running for running’s sake. They had their dog with them too, a big, sad golden retriever named Ditka, who always looked confused, like he couldn’t understand why or how he’d ended up living in an apartment in New York.

Claire muted the TV and listened to see if the kids were going to stay out there for a while, or if they were just waiting for their parents to take them somewhere. She hoped it was the second option. It was Saturday morning, which meant they had hours ahead of them. Having them out there made her feel trapped in her own apartment. Just because she was sitting on the couch in sweatpants and had no plans to leave didn’t make the feeling go away. She could sense their presence on the other side of the wall, so close to her. She could see the shadow of Ditka’s nose as he sniffed at the bottom of the door. They were invading her space, what little of it she had. And it was interfering with her plan to be a hermit for the whole three-day weekend, something she was getting better and better at.

Last week, she was crossing Broadway and a man crossing the other way looked her in the eyes, pointed to her face, and said, “I want to fuck you.” On the street, she’d blushed and walked away quickly. But when she got home she realized two things: The first was that the comment had pleased her. Claire was pretty, but it hadn’t always been that way. She was the kind of girl who grew into her looks, who suffered through an awkward stage of braces, unfortunate haircuts, and overalls in her teen years. Now, when men called out to her, “Hey, Princess. Looking good, beautiful,” she was grateful. She would duck her head and pretend to be embarrassed or insulted, but if they called out, “Smile, pretty girl,” she always obliged.

The second thing she realized was that the man on the street was the first person to talk directly to her in almost three days. She didn’t know whether to be impressed with herself or very disturbed. She chose a mix of the two.

THE KIDS IN THE HALLWAY were getting louder, and Claire turned up the volume on the TV, hoping that their parents would come out soon and tell them to come inside or at least quiet down. The kids’ names were Maddie and Jack, and they were somewhere in the nine-to-eleven age range. Jack was older, and starting to get that shoulder hunch that preteen boys get, like the whole world was so embarrassing, he couldn’t even stand up straight. Maddie was the kind of kid who believed adults found her adorable, shouting out things like “Purple is a mix of red and blue” in the elevator for Claire’s benefit and then smiling and looking down at her shoes, as if she were shy. They both had dirty-blond hair and buckteeth, and Maddie would find out soon enough that she wasn’t adorable or charming, so Claire always smiled at her.

She and Doug used to call them the Hamburger Helpers, because every night the smell of ground beef and onions came wafting out of their apartment. Sometimes Claire wanted to call the kids into her place to give them something to eat, anything that wasn’t meat and onions in a pan. It used to be a running joke—whenever they’d smell the ground beef cooking, Doug would say, “Is it tacos for dinner?” and Claire would answer, “Nope, just some good old-fashioned Beefy Mac.”

Together, she and Doug talked endlessly about the family. They wondered what possessed the Hamburger Helpers to raise a family in an average New York City apartment. Every Sunday they watched as the dad took the subway with Maddie and Jack to Fairway, watched the three of them return carrying loads of groceries, struggle onto the elevator, and go up to their apartment. Wouldn’t they have been better off in the suburbs? Wouldn’t things have been easier?

Claire and Doug laughed when Jack failed his spelling test and they heard the fight through the wall, heard Jack say, “Fuck spelling,” to his parents. They agreed that it was only going to get worse over at the Hamburger Helpers’ as Maddie and Jack