When It Breaks

Washington Heights

When the side of the building falls, it is a spring morning, April, not yet dawn. And there is no warning. The crack was there for a long time, all up the side, visible on every floor. Everything’s broken, all broken. You can’t worry about these things. What Sondra’s mother told her: You stop worrying. You do your homework and get to sleep and stop worrying with your childishness.

When the side of the building falls, Sondra is lying in bed. She feels it before it happens; the folding in of bricks, the dismemberment of five stories of concrete. The room is shaken – she is shaken – as if the building itself is angry at her. Well, maybe it is. All along, there have been hints she has done something wrong, that all of them have done something wrong to land here: the labor required to take baths, the heating of water on the stove; the coats and sweaters that must be worn throughout the winter, indoors, as if the cold radiator is punishing them; the skittering shapes in the shadows of the grime-caked halls, the presence of rats multiplied from fear of seeing them in full light.

When the side of the building falls, Sondra hears the shouts and wakes up: the voice of the lady in 3C like a siren, howling over and over, my god my god my god; a baby’s wails gaining volume; a man shouting orders in Spanish, his authority leaking away as each sentence dissolves into a sob. Through the a haze of dust, of pre-dawn graininess, Sondra sees the building across the courtyard, the lights in the windows that have come on, the other apartment house solid. Her mother’s hand closes around her upper arm, yanks her from the bed as if an infraction of hers has been discovered and now she’s going to get it. What the hell’s wrong with you? her mother hollers. Siobain, baby sister of recrimination, is hoisted onto her mother’s hip, blinking placidly, the satisfaction of the youngest, the good girl, the lightest. You stay with me, her mother orders. Sondra is pulled to her feet, mother’s hand digging into her skinny bicep, nylon nightgown letting loose that smell of her mother’s cologne and sweat, stale chemical flowers, fingers clamping closed on her from fear and anger, another bruise.

When the side of the building falls, the stories begin…

When the side of the building falls, they go thundering down the stairs, all of them, their feet tumbling against the concave steps. The weight of bodies echoes in her stomach; she moves automatically with the rest. They run behind her, in front of her. There is no way to stop. They leave the building in fading April gray – shoved out by mothers’ hands, carried out by brothers, or grasping a metal glint of a walker and shuffling in support hose. Night air snaps against skin. Sondra does the accounting: Mr. Montledew in an undershirt and old trousers, never before glimpsed without a hat; Luzana, and her older sister who keeps seeing things that aren’t there; even the gold-toothed boys in 1B who get too many visitors all the time, who everyone wishes would leave. Her hand is loosely twined to her mother’s. She is grateful this has not happened to her alone. Wind tamps against her nightgown. She catches sight of Luzana, but neither of them can free themselves from family. Sirens blare down 140th Street. Fire trucks slam the night. TV station vans come to the curbs, promising people in the rest of the city will find out, promising this block will not be their secret anymore.

When the side of the building falls, the stories begin:
Landlord lives in Larchmont…
Twenty-eight year old investment banker…
Hoping the real estate boom would reach Upper Manhattan…
No experience managing a building…
Four hundred and fifty-six code violations over the last two years…
A crack in the retaining wall that worsened over the winter …
Drives an MG Midget with license plates that say “gentrify”…

When the side of the building falls, they are left out on the street at first in all their shame for the world to see – in tee shirts, pajama bottoms, sweatpants, nightgowns, dirty old bathrobes. Dirty dirty dirty in the dirty dawn, even the clean getting dirty, even the freshly laundered smelling-like-soap shirt and still creased Easter dress covered with dust now, with exhaust, exhaustion from the block who’s buildings lie hunched and tilted, lopsided, lunging from a half-century of soot, rainfall, arson’s smoke. No Renaissance here, no salons where poets congregate, no jazz, no nightclub, no cunkling ice against glass, no rent parties, no gargoyles guarding the buildings anymore. The photographers take pictures of the building with its back off, the rooms open – bed, dresser, crib, tumble of sheets and blankets, laundry and ironing board, television and chair, visible from the street. Open, all open, for everyone to see.

When side of the building falls, the ambulances come, the police, the cranes.

Sondra watches a photographer crouch down, sandy hair mussed, and give her a smile that hints he’s on her side. His face is tense with admonition, eyes pleading. He doesn’t want her to acknowledge she’s being photographed, there, in her nightgown, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother has her face turned away, oblivious, while she coos to Siobain.

When the side of the building falls, the ambulances come, the police, the cranes. Sondra looks at the piles of rubble, or bricks, concrete, pipes, steel frames, mattresses, shattered shelves, bent kitchen tables. The firemen go to it. As they pass (whirl of wind, stomp of boots, smell of rubber and smoke), she hears a shout over the sirens, the desperate little cough: Not everyone made it out. A kitten, on unsteady legs, stands in the gutter, its mewling erased. A reporter speaking into a cell phone says: Surreal!

Sondra hears: Like Beirut or something. It’s surreal!

The reporter’s voice rolls and rolls as she tries to raise it over the coming ambulances, police cars, fire trucks, and she says: No, that’s not it. Wait’ll you see this. It looks like a fucking war zone.


‘When it Breaks’ is one of the stories from Linda Mannheim’s latest collection, Above Sugar Hill, which was published by Influx Press, May 2014.

Image credit: Barry Solow

Part of The Learned Pig’s Clean Unclean editorial season, March-May 2015.


The Learned Pig

Linda Mannheim

Linda Mannheim's most recent book is Above Sugar Hill (Influx Press), a stories of a one time New York City landmark that became known for its high homicide rate and heroine trade. Eimear McBride has said: “Mannheim’s restive tales of her desiccated stretch of New York provoke and abide like a slap.” Linda's novel Risk (Penguin) was short-listed for book of the year by journalist Jenny Crwys-Williams; her novella Noir was selected as a Kindle Single. Her stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and New York Stories. She lives in London.