We could hear the Mexican radio through the floor above us. Laura and I lived in a basement apartment beneath her boss’s house. Aside from our three little rooms, the rest of the house was suffering heavy renovations. Laura’s boss, a wealthy woman who made her living through an ever-expanding collection of “small” businesses, had a long list of whimsical retouches which required the all-but annihilation of the house. After I helped Laura move in, the boss walked us around, pointing her fingers like God on the Sistine ceiling. Staircases would rotate. Walls would vanish, only to reappear on another floor. The existing colors were doomed to be replaced by their distant cousins and once-removed aunts. Laura and I snuck wide-eyed glances as we followed her through the house.
The firm overseeing the construction was from L.A. The builders were mostly Mexican. Because I worked at the university radio station through the summer, I only saw them a dozen times over the course of the construction. But I heard them, and I heard the music. In the mornings, the older men chose the confined brass of more traditional music. Between the mumbling of drills and saws, thin horn-sections trickled down through the plaster, past the light fixture and tiny spiders, and into our ears as we made toast. By my lunch break, the young men turned the dial to Reggaeton and Chicano rap, the same stuff my younger cousins listened to. The beats bumped across the sliding glass door of Laura’s apartment, with the rhythm occasionally swung by a dropped hammer or two-by-four. When I’d return from work in the evening, I could hear soccer games or news radio proclaimed through the bones of the house.
This continued through the summer. The trumpets of old Jiménez numbers soaked their ways into the dry bones of the beams. Don Omar and Molotov spat beats into the fleshy plaster. The ghosts of championship cups lingered in the paint-blood. Even the contemporary country music occasionally played by the site manager could not avert the waves that had been absorbed by the basic anatomy of the house.
By September, the renovations were finished. Laura’s boss, her English partner, and their blue-eyed daughter moved in their considerable furniture and appliances (which included a walk-in refrigerator and a dry-ice cooler). After they had unpacked and settled, her boss offered to show us around the house.
There was no physical sign of any difference from the plan, but something could be felt. As we were shown the imported fish-steamer and espresso machine, I caught tones far removed from the west-coast beach house through which I was led. Most of the colors were only slightly off, and in being slightly off were more unsettling than if they had been far off. The reds were either too bloody or too pale. The white accents nauseated me. The Swedish blue (I read the paint can weeks ago) clashed with what was supposed to be an equally blue couch. The browns of the living room, however, were lovely.
We only lived there two months longer. The convulsions leading to our departure began when Laura’s boss called in the painters to retouch the living-room browns. Laura was given the key to let them in, which she then gave to me to handle while she worked at the bookstore.
They arrived in a large truck, which they parked at the far end of the driveway. I helped them carry in some cans of paint and a boom box. We made conversation. They were two brothers, from Puebla, not too far from where my grandparents were born, and had been painting in town for about eight years. We made more small talk as I let them in (they had just got back from a weekend fishing trip at a lake upstate), and I poured two glasses of water from the boss’s sink. I told them to let me know if they needed anything before I crept back down to the basement to do some reading.
While I sat reading on the couch, I heard them turn on the radio almost directly above me. Immediately afterward, the whole house lunged. In one quick motion, drawing in sharp breath, preparing to perform. I ran outside before turning to check on the painters. They were fine, just a little startled, they told me, and finished painting, forgetting to turn the radio back on or knowing better.
There was no apparent damage, so I didn’t tell Laura or her boss. The next time, we all felt it. Around midnight, a teenager came driving by, playing music through the windows of a souped-up Pontiac. In bed, Laura and I heard the bass approaching. As it grew louder, the whole house vibrated. Then, once we heard the singing, the house danced violently for a measure, syncopated with the music.
Laura and I waded through some fallen books and pried open the back door. We met our landlady and her family on the lawn in our underwear. When the fire department came, they had no explanation.
After we moved out, Laura and I went for a walk past the dancing house. She had heard that her boss, too, had moved only a few months after we did. We came to the cul-de-sac where the house sat, and looked on. The house had twisted itself in our absence. The siding swelled and retreated with human curves. The face of the house had reeled back, almost laughing or singing. Laura tapped my shoulder and pointed up. Twin windows had cracked brilliantly, revealing some of the living-room brown. Like dark pupils, the windows stared up from the face of a baby wondering who made it.