He knows the other is down on the street. If only he can make up his mind to go down, the rest might be easy. The other is there, probably in the alley between the donut shop and the blank white wall of the health club, staring out at the street where cars with rusted undersides bump over winter potholes. The other will be dressed in the old coat he always wears, brown stains around the button holes, he will have on the same hat and boots and leather gloves through which he has made himself what he is. And he will be hiding all that it most seems he is not.
If he can only make up his mind to go down. He takes his coat from the closet, looks at it and brushes off the sleeves, although there doesn't seem to be any dirt on them. He looks around the room. The room is there, as it always is, the first of too many things whose existence he can't deny. He feels its crampedness in his groin, his chest, feels the slow eventless closing that days in it have brought him. Even now he has no idea what's being closed off; maybe it's just that the street seems always farther away, or that to walk down to it would be no longer to open himself upon it. He can remember the feeling of opening, but is that enough to prove it happened? He can remember the wet air slipping under his collar, the wet streets soaking his shoes, remember that the tips of his fingers, brought to his forehead, felt like a cold slap of water, remember that he took larger steps with each block he walked, as if his body, leaning always further forward, was full of blood and certain of its going.
So he knows he must make up his mind. He must.
On the stairs it would be possible to pause, to pull shirt sleeves up through baggy coat sleeves so that neither bunches at the elbows, to adjust his hat (the gift of some long dead crazy aunt who filled her house with parakeets but only blue ones) by turning the brim on the right front side down, guilty of a certain social pretension, he knows. He would see, if he stopped there on the landing, the woman walking down from the apartment above his, her piled blond hair and sensual frown frozen, as if in plaster, by hair spray and a heavy layer of make-up that reddens her face. She passes him, neither speaking, and goes to the mailboxes at the foot of the wide stairs. He shakes his shirt sleeves free and follows her down.
"Had any trouble with the car lately?" he asks. He reaches for his mailbox key and pulls it out, warm from being in his pocket.
"No," she says, turning her face half towards him, the severity of her thick lips relaxing into what is almost, not quite, a smile. She must, he thinks, remember the incident, since it is the only thing that ever happened between them. She came to his door one day in the fall and asked if he could jump start her car, saying, with worry in her eyes, that she was already twenty minutes late for work. She was dressed in a cat outfit, for Halloween he guessed, although Halloween was nearly a week away. Thin black whiskers were painted above the make-up reddening her face, pointed black ears stuck up above her head and were held under her chin by an elastic band. Beneath her short coat she was wearing black tights. Out in the parking lot he pulled the front of his car close to hers, took her jumper cables and attached them tightly, pressing their grips first against his battery and then hers. They got in their cars. He started his engine but it died immediately. Hers, however, must have caught the smallest of sparks because it roared powerfully even as his sputtered to a stop. As he took the cables off, she laughed.
Finding no mail, he says, "Cold day out."
"Yes," she says. "The weather here is always lousy." She leaves quickly, closing the front door of the apartment building behind her. He stands staring into his empty mailbox.
Maybe, he thinks, sitting in the room, the other will be alone. But why should he be? The city is full and alive, its streets and houses and stores are full and alive, loneliness is only an impression carved out of the hard wood of a world in motion. No, the other won't be alone. He will speak smoothly, in a low voice, his hands will move with the words and insinuate themselves among his listeners, touching their backs, their arms, maybe daring to place a cold finger lightly on their cheeks. They will listen, as they always do, and they will see; words in his mouth are pictures. Not pictures of the street where they will be talking, not pictures of the city, not even pictures of some fantastic world in which the city no longer exists, but pictures that come out of the city though they are not the city, pictures that could no more exist without the city than it could without them.
He takes his coat from the closet, looks at it and brushes off the sleeves, though there doesn't seem to be any dirt on them. He looks over at his old wooden desk, on which nothing sits but a large rock whose jagged grey edges sparkle in the light from the floor lamp next to the desk. A small red line is painted on the rock. Why the rock, he wonders, why the line? They have been there since.
But he must make up his mind. He must.
As he stands on the wide front porch in front of the apartment building, the wet cold slips under his collar and seeps through his feet. In her little car, the woman who lives in the apartment above him pulls out of the driveway that leads from the parking lot behind the building. The car is the same shade of red as the line painted on the rock on his desk, something he has noticed before. There is no meaning in it. Her car turns onto the street and soon is gone.
As he stands just inside the door of his apartment, he thinks to himself, "This is how the street will look." The houses are old, ornate; his apartment is one of them. They are all divided into apartments now, all decayed; they have peeling paint, their wood is chipped, their porches have roofs which lean to one side or sag in the middle. There will be people on the street, the retired and elderly, a few businessmen, some punks dressed in black leather and wearing chains like symbols of slavery and bondage, other young people posing as artists or who have self-consciously paid no attention to their clothes. Somewhere there will be a lunatic, shouting at people or maybe just a wall, words cutting the cold air with nightmarish absence of sense. Bursts of conversation will rise above the sound of cars and below the layered silence of the sky; heard in fragments, they will make no more sense than the lunatic.
Does he stand on those steps now, or in his room? His fingertips are cold and he rushes them to his forehead. His feet won't move, as if the soles of his shoes are stuck on the rough wood porch or the rug in his apartment.
And the other, there in the alley between the donut shop and health club? His story goes on:
"About a man in his room who only dreams he has walked down to the street. Does he answer the phone when it rings? Or is he the one who picks it up and dials?
'Hello,' he says.
'Hello,' the other says.
'Can I help you?' he says.
'Can I help you?' the other says.
He pauses, turns his glance to the rock on his desk. 'But you called me,' he says.
'No. The phone rang and I picked it up.'
'My phone rang too.'
'I guess, then, it's all a mistake?'
'Yes I guess so.'
'Well. If there's nothing.'
'I don't have anything.'
The other, he thinks as he stands just inside the door of his apartment, never dreams about the bodies. He doesn't see them in the water, flesh bloated and green, pieces of it eaten. He never dreams of the room where they throw them, a high huge room in the center of a city that can't afford to know names, that deals in money and abstractions. He doesn't see the bits of hair and old teeth, doesn't see the trucks they lie in, one or two fingers still twitching. He doesn't smell the stink of burnt flesh, the rot of bowels emptied in fear. He can't see; around him are always blank white walls. He can't know that to say the word horror is already to have stepped away.
Is he there on the porch when the woman comes back to the building dressed as a cat? Maybe he would like to be. Maybe she isn't dressed as a cat.
She comes around the corner of the building, carrying a wide plastic bag that seems the perfect size to hold a dress box. Wet wind strikes his face and he rubs his hands together, noticing their clamminess. What is she wearing?
"Hello," he says, trying to look like a man who has made a decision. "Did you buy something?"
She looks at him, then at the package and grips it tightly, as though his question is an attempt to take it from her. "Yes."
"Not many good stores in this area."
"There are some."
"Yes I guess there are." The end of his sentence falls off awkwardly. Is he giving away that he has not, cannot, make a decision? "I came down for a walk."
But she has already gone past him, opened the front door and disappeared into the hallway that seems dimly lit from where he stands, outside, in the light of day. He looks farther and farther into the empty dimness but doesn't see her among the shadows on the walls.
He turns and looks out at the intersection. He imagines the whole city beyond it; building rising on building, street leading to street and to highways beyond, mile after mile of houses, so many faces pressing forward into his vision that he can feel them throbbing in his forehead. Is it any wonder that he seems to be losing the intersection, that through the press of faces he can't see the dirty windows of the donut shop or the blank white wall of the health club, the rows of apartment house windows with plants in them, even the man in the stained trenchcoat who walks down the sidewalk in front of him? All the details of the intolerable city take him away, until it seems that every moment he stands there becomes more weighed down, as if centuries of streets and houses and faces have been hung from his eyelids.
He rolls over on the couch in his room and looks at the door, which once again is closed.
They gather around the other, coming closer, pressing in, wanting to touch him, to catch the pictures flowing from his mouth. Is it possible that he, too, is made in his own story, that he is his own telling as much as the telling is him?
He says, "And all the time he remembers the walking. Is it possible to say how much that helped him know who he was? He wasn't alone then, even when no one walked with him.
"But most of the time they did. He felt them beside him, felt that electric sense that other bodies were close to his and that he could have touched their hair, or their face, merely by reaching out his hand.
"Still, it was as good to walk alone. The wet wind biting his skin to taut redness, the ripples of strength running down the muscles in his legs, the feeling that his eyes were open and that as long as he could walk he could see."
His listeners press forward, eager to hear, to move into the story. Does he feel them around him, feel their bloodshot eyes and bright ones, their hands chapped from the wind? Does he feel the man with the burned face and melted nose?
When he hears the phone ring, will he pick it up? When he picks it up will it be ringing?
Will there be nothing on the line but static? Will he lie, then, on the couch, head against the embroidered pillow, eyes looking beyond the dark rims of the window panes to the patch of twilight sky that hangs above the wall of the health club and is pierced by the point at the center of its roof?
Is there a voice on the end of the line? "But how, then, if you cannot feel what he felt as he walked, how can you know what hell he plunged into when that was taken from him? How can you feel the hard and useless edge of his anger, the chill of despair like a wet winter wind in his chest? He couldn't leap back and regain the firm ground on the edge of the chasm. He couldn't know the world like a rock in his hands and so felt himself slipping into shadows."
He raises his head from the pillow, grips the phone so tightly that his fingers bulge and turn red. "No," he shouts into the static. "It's all wrong. It was the shadows he wanted, shadows more real than any rock could ever be. It wasn't that he was no longer who he had been; that had never been possible. It was the background he had lost, the background of subtle, furious shadows. He wanted desperately to move in those shadows, to flash in slivered patterns of light. But for that he needed a hiding place, hiding places, and he could no longer see how to make even a first one."
On the phone the talking goes on. "It was solidness he wanted, life like a shining rock of truth..."
He lays his head back on the embroidered pillow. Soon the phone stops ringing. He looks at his desk. On it sits the rock, its jagged grey edges sparkling in the light from the lamp. One meaningless red stripe is painted along it.
Above him he hears her voice, silvery and thin. He hears the other voice too; a low rumble that makes him think of a car engine. Feet move along the ceiling, one pair light, the other heavy. He has heard those heavy feet before, knows whose they are; the shock, electric, moves along the walls and into his body. Should he go upstairs and knock, or call on the telephone? He knows those feet, he tells himself again. Knows them.
On the other end of the line: "Yes?"
"Can't you hear me?"
"The static's very thick. If anybody's there, you better call back another time."
It's a good thing, then, that he doesn't call. A good thing? He follows the feet creaking on the ceiling into his own bedroom. Is her bedroom directly above? Does she turn the sheets back carefully before they lie down, as if in some sort of ritual preparation? Maybe they don't pull the covers over each other, hiding their bodies; maybe without shame they reveal each curve and line. He can picture it all but can see nothing, hear nothing. He doesn't even know if he has called it all up from some dream of the city. He doesn't know whether, if he walked to the window, he would look out on a city at all.
The ceiling creaks, then moans. On the bed he rocks himself in time with the rhythm.
"And that," he says, "would be a story, though of one or many he couldn't say.
"And I would be here, leaning against the wall of the health club, and I would tell you this story. Which of us is from the story, which of us tells it? We are not each other?
"At times, at night, I hear his feet on the sidewalk as if all the sidewalks he can no longer find are echoing in my ears."
Maybe he will lay forever on this couch, his head on the embroidered pillow, his eyes looking past the dark rims of the windowpanes at the twilight sky above the white wall of the health club. Maybe he will never go down, or the other come up.
He stands and walks to his desk. He picks up the rock, cold and hard and dry in his hand. He looks at the line of red paint. He looks out the window above the desk, at the health club wall and the windows of the donut shop, at building upon building in the city beyond. He goes to the window, opens it.
He throws the rock out the window. A brief flash of red vanishes. He doesn't see how far he has thrown it, or where it lands. It makes no sound that the city cannot swallow.
The Death of a Landlord
I don't know when I first resolved to kill my landlord. For years he had tormented me, not in any way I could point out to others and so make legitimate complaint, but nonetheless he had tormented me, in everything he did and everything he didn't. Often, coming in from the cold, I would find him standing on the stairs just outside his first floor apartment, fat arms folded, fat fingers drumming on his elbows, heavy cheeks rounding out from his angry grin, sweaty hair and forehead glistening in the weak light of the hallway, and I knew, knew, that he was sure he owned me, that as long as my path continued to cross his he would flout, in his eyes, in his grin, in those heavy cheeks, the control he believed he had over me. I tried, again and again, to tell him he didn't have it. But what good could it do? He knew.
I can hear you saying I should have moved. Don't you think I wanted to? It was impossible. It would have been the same as admitting that he was right, that I was as miserably subservient as he believed—believed with each sweaty, shaking inch of his body. It was that belief I could never escape, no matter how many streets, cities or countries or worlds I put between myself and him. No. The only thing I could do was prove to him that he wasn't my superior.
He was sitting on his old blue couch, watching television, when I opened his door and stood there, a long kitchen knife in my hand. I remember every detail of the scene: the shadows of the room cut by the bluish light of the television; the musty odor of his clothes that lay strewn over the rug; the table where he propped his hairy feet; the kitchen, behind him and to my right, with its sink stacked high with dirty dishes and the beer cans he sometimes left in my kitchen too; the way he turned his face towards me so that his eyes caught the blue of the television and flung it back at me.
"I didn't hear you knock," he said, as if I would hear in the statement a command to leave.
"I didn't knock," I said.
This time, it wasn't arrogance that flashed, blue, in his hard and stupid eyes. "You can't come in here." He stood from the couch and turned his flabby body towards me.
"No," I said. He saw the knife but I held it close at my side, and calmly. I wanted him to think that, maybe, it was merely an accident that I had it. I wanted to see how much he would flatter me, and demean himself, before he found out it would make no difference.
"Have you had enough hot water lately?" His upper lip rose above the line of his teeth.
"Hot water?" I said. "Yes. Hot water."
"Why are you here then?" His mouth twitched. His eyes studied mine and didn't for a moment fall to my hands, as if he hoped that by staring me in the face he would make me forget I had the knife.
"Why am I here?" I said. "Yes." I came forward, straight forward, keeping the couch between him and me, on purpose to give him that protection, that small hope which, in the moment he saw its futility, would break his spirit more because it had existed.
He put forward a hand, palm open towards me and fingers stretched, as if to hold me back, in a way that might have been reflex. It was absurd, like a man holding out an arm to stop a truck...
He stood there in my kitchen, my kitchen, and I knew, as he leaned over the sink with his hands in the water, that I couldn't let him leave my apartment and continue with the small torments that had made my life little more than a series of moments in which I cowered, waiting for the next humiliation that he would inflict upon me as subtly as a surgeon.
"Fixing the faucet, like you asked," he said blandly, as if that's really what he was doing. His hands moved in the water, bloated monstrosities soaking up filth. Beer cans lay strewn across the kitchen counter; evidence for me to find, had I come home later.
"Yes." I looked around for something to use against him.
"I've checked the heater already; you'll have all the hot water you want. Those are the only problems you have right now, aren't they?" His hard eyes and disdainful mouth told me that he said this not as a question, but as a taunt, daring me to make the complaint he believed I was too afraid to make.
I didn't speak, but moved past him towards the counter, where a small table knife lay. The other knives had been put away; for an instant it crossed my mind that he had hidden them because he suspected me. But that was impossible, I realized immediately. He could suspect me of nothing but subservience.
With his back to me again, he turned off the water and his bloated hands reached for the faucet. A thick odor assaulted me as I came closer: the oily strands of his hair, the stench of his stained tee-shirt. Both were as acidic as his face. He didn't turn and look at me until I was only several steps away. His eyes flashed in the sun, which had edged down into the windows.
"So you're fixing the faucet," I said.
He stared, mockingly, then his look hardened into the implication that I should step back. "Just like you asked," he said.
He saw the knife in my hand, and what I meant to do became clear to him. He took his hands from the faucet and stepped back towards the counter beside the sink, where the beer cans lay. When he grabbed for one I noticed that it was full and unopened. One of his fat fingers reached under the tab and popped it, loudly. He drank from the can, then gripped it hard, like he would throw it if I came closer. But I didn't care if he threw it. I rushed towards him, angrily, and again his eyes flashed in the sun...
Every day, he was there on the stairs when I came home, my shoulders aching, my legs like iron poles attached to a rubbery body. He knew how much I wanted to get into my apartment, but still he stood on the stairs, arms folded, sweaty fat fingers tapping on his elbows, eyes daring me to walk past him and up. I went to the mailbox first; he knew I would, that I would take my time doing it, pulling the key from my pocket, putting it slowly in the keyhole, opening the box and reaching my hand inside for the mail, shutting it again and standing there, hands in my pockets, expression relaxed as if I was thinking about anything but the fact that he was there on the stairs, waiting, taunting, not even bothering to watch me. Will he move, damn him, I wondered as I stood by the empty mailbox. Will he move? And as I wondered, I knew that if he didn't move, I could no longer stand his attempt to humiliate me. Why wouldn't he even admit what he was doing? That was the worst thing; he stood there as if his reason for being on the stairs had nothing to do with me. I felt tension shoot along my forehead and jaw. I had no choice but to pass him.
"Evening," he said. His eyes and tone of voice gave away nothing. "Long day?"
I started to mouth the word "yes" but decided that I couldn't give him the satisfaction. I began to say "no" but the word thickened on my tongue. I shrugged.
He said, "Had any trouble with your hot water lately?"
"Hot water?" I said. I swallowed, and stepped up the stairs, close to and then past him. Surprisingly, there was enough room that I didn't have to touch him. The smell rising off his oily air and stained tee-shirt burned into my nose in the moment I was next to him. Then, as if time had jumped away from itself and come back differently, I was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down on him from the shadows on the landing. His face, in profile towards mine, was half caught by those shadows and half by the yellowish light from the hall below. He wasn't looking at me. Why should he have been, when he was certain who I was? But he wouldn't have been certain if I had leaped on him from the shadows of the stairs, if I took his head and broke it on the bannister.
I looked around for something to hit him with. There was nothing. But I remembered, with surprise at having forgotten it, that recently I had taken to carrying a pocket knife, to protect myself from the gangs of thugs who threaten many of the nearby blocks in the neighborhood. I reached into my coat and felt it there, hard and small and cold, like his eyes. He was still standing on the stairs, taunting me, not moving, smug in his belief that I would never strike back. I slid my feet, silently, to the edge of the top stair, I felt them lean over the edge into nothing...
In the basement, I watched him from beside the dryer, where I crouched in a space between it and the wall. The washer and dryer were quiet; the washer had stopped and I had been putting my clothes in the dryer when his footsteps sounded on the floor above and headed for the door of the basement. I'd pulled the dangling chain, turning the light off; the only light now was from the landing at the top of the stairs, enough to show in shadow the main features of the room but not the corner where I had hurried to hide. He came downstairs but didn't turn the main overhead on, as if he didn't want anyone to know he was down here. On the other side of the washer stood a wide, metal sink with two long faucets, one for cold water, one for hot. He leaned against the sink. The faucets were connected to two pipes that ran the length of the wall, both of which, in one corner of the room, could be opened or closed by a valve. He moved from the sink towards the valve. He grunted several times, breathed thickly with a slight wheeze in his throat, sighed. Above the noises of his body rose the faint squeak of the metal valve turning. I stood silently and moved past the dryer, towards him across the shadowed space. My shoes scraped against the concrete floor.
"What the...?" he jumped, turned around startled. He peered at me. "Who is that?" He grabbed the dangling light chain and pulled it, destroying the shadows.
I said, "Yes."
"Oh." He snorted. "What are you doing down here?"
"Washing my clothes."
He looked past me, towards the washer and dryer. "You know you could have turned the light on."
I said, "Yes."
"Then you wouldn't have startled me."
"Yes. Why didn't you turn the light on?"
"Just cheap, I guess. I can see well enough without it."
I looked at the valve behind him, at the two pipes running along the wall. I touched my pocket and felt the knife I always carried when I came down to the basement. The basement door, leading onto an alley behind the house, was always locked, although thugs from the street could probably have broken the door in easily. I said, "Why are you down here?"
"Just checking the pipes and the heater. There's been some trouble with the hot water, you know."
A superior smile slid across his face. He knew as well as I did what he had come down here to do, yet he went on grinning blandly, as if even then he would deny everything he had ever done to me, would say that his viciousness was all in my mind. But we both knew that he was trying, even that instant, to make me into what he already thought I was. His eyes flashed. Now, I thought to myself, it would be so easy if right now... I reached into my pocket and grabbed the knife...
He put his hand forward absurdly, palms open towards me and fingers stretched out, as if trying to hold back a truck, and I came around the edge of his couch. From the window behind him, the outlines of the town forced themselves into my picture of the room: red brick rowhouses stretching down the block, rows of parked cars, the glare of streetlights. I tried to find him again, to separate him from the moving shadows. Acrid sweat rose off his body. His face flashed blue in the light from the television. "About my hot water," I said.
"Of course," he said. His eyes told me that he knew what I intended...
Standing with his back against my kitchen sink, he raised the beer can to his lips again and took a long swallow. "I get thirsty when I'm working," he said. "Hope you don't mind. Can't say I care if you do, though." He laughed. He avoided looking at the table knife I held in my hands and gripped the can tightly, ready to throw it. He was in my kitchen, I had found him here, and if he thought that even here I would do nothing then it was his own arrogance, the arrogance that had made him believe I was no more than what he thought I was and that even now lighted his eyes, it was his own arrogance that was raising the knife towards him...
I stepped down the first stair slowly. Then the second. He didn't look up. It was as though to him I didn't exist, or if I did, it was as though I was nothing but what he made of me in each glance he turned in my direction, and what he didn't make of me each time he turned away. His oily hair caught the yellow light from the hall below. Maybe he believed that my whole life was held in the mocking glint of his indifference, that I would go away and leave him there, still in charge. I jumped...
He reached up to the low basement ceiling and pulled the cord of the light switch again, turning it off. Sudden dark rushed over everything, boxes on shelves, the white washer and dryer, the grey water pipes connected to the valve. It was as if the darkness had burst out of his eyes. I opened the knife and lunged towards him. It was those eyes that I would stab first, that I would stab out, obliterating the shadows in which he believed he had made who I was...
I pushed away from the couch, through the blue light, he sprayed me in the face with the beer and I was blinded, I could feel my hand swirling towards him, taking my kitchen back, my fingers left the banister as I jumped, lunging forward, for an instant I found nobody on the steps, in the dark of the basement I struck and struck. The water surged around me, hot water along my arms, my hands, soaking my body, I struck again and the water rushed, the water knew whose hands were real, whose eyes held any light...
And then I stood over him, looking down on what I never expected to see.
Of course I have been waiting to be arrested. Yet even the policemen who pass the building seem uninterested in the hints I have dropped. But I'm sure they are watching me, as are the tenants, who now and then taunt me by demanding that I repair the problems with their apartments. One of them, as I stood on the stairs yesterday evening in a stained tee-shirt, said I should be more careful about carrying an open pocket knife and pointed out as evidence the cuts on my arms, asking me about them. He's a young man, a new tenant who earlier that evening had paid me his rent. As he talked with me about the knife, his face was half-hidden in the shadows at the top of the stairs, reminding me of another time when he had surprised me in the dark basement while I was adjusting the water valves. And it occurred to me that I have known men like him before, who always make subtle and demeaning suggestions that imply that they know, better than you, who you are. My suspicions were confirmed when, as he stood there on the stairs--or was it as he leaned against the washer?--he asked me if I could do something about his lack of hot water.
There was a time when I was so choked by despair that I walked the streets of the city at night. For weeks I'd been unable to sleep, tormented with wondering why the hopes I'd believed in a few short years back had decayed to the point that I could imagine nothing for myself but a life of misery, loneliness and filth, a life in which I could see the world around me, but never touch it or have it know I was there. It was as if, hidden in the city like an animal in a hole it can guard only with its aching teeth, I had fallen to a place where I was no longer human. And what use being human, I wondered, looking out the one window of the basement I called my apartment, my distracted glance falling occasionally on an old college acquaintance who walked by puffed like a blowfish with pride in his own mediocrity, his red nostrils flared, silver rings shining. What use being human, when all people spoke of him as the thing a man should be?
How can I tell you all I saw on walks that took me through the endless streets of the city? The old men on the circles, playing chess until their bottles, hidden in bags, took away their interest in the game; the wealthy young couples who strutted past, jewelry clanking, in machine-like obedience to some T.V. image of their lives in which they flew off into the sunset, leaving behind thousands of dead bodies; the bleary drunks who wandered the streets like me until they found a park bench to lie on and vomit; the roving, vested and hatted men who would sell you anything you had money for; the groups of young boys who stalked the alleys, looking for a fight or an old lady to beat up and rob. What I saw escapes my words, and even if it didn't, I'm better off not talking of some of the things that forced themselves through my eyes.
One night I found myself in a bar. It was a dark, damp place, drops of water seeping through the bricks in the steady rain that had come down since nightfall. I took a seat in a corner and ordered a beer from a waitress who frowned like she wanted to kick me out. Maybe it was just my imagination. But I'd long since passed the point where I knew the difference between what I thought I saw and what was supposedly real. To me, the world was a prison of dreams, and I was condemned to look at them.
I'd been there awhile, my shirt beginning to dry, when a man eased himself into a seat at the next table, the only one besides mine hidden from the main bar by a jutting brick wall. He saw me and startled. He was a little man, nervously squirrel-like. His face was pale and covered with acne. His eyes fastened on me with a stare both spiteful and eager. He grinned briefly, then his mouth collapsed into a pucker.
"Are you waiting for me?" His fingers tapped the table.
"No," I said.
"Why are you sitting there then? Only people waiting for me sit there."
"I didn't know."
His eyes narrowed. "Now you do." He pulled out and lit a cigarette, then after a few drags said, "Maybe I can do something for you anyway?"
"Maybe," I shrugged. "What have you got?"
"Not here, you stupid bastard. Let me have a drink and we'll go."
The waitress came around the wall holding a glass, and set it on his table with an angry clatter. Her blond hair and strong build stood out against the shadowed corner where we sat.
"Don't you like me?" the little man asked her, smiling meanly. "I'm one of your best customers."
"My boss likes you, I don't have to."
"Too bad, cause I like you."
"Don't even let it cross your mind." She walked away frowning, and he shook his head.
He took his time with the drink, lighting several cigarettes. When he'd finished he nodded to me and we stood.
I followed him into the rain, falling lighter now, and through the wet streets of the city. Apartment lights glowed fuzzily from the other world they had become. I had some money, but not much, and no great interest in buying what he might have. Why did I go then?
He cut into an alley and led me past a row of garages to the back of a small apartment. There were two doors. He opened one and we went down a flight of dark stairs into a lighted hallway. Then with a key he opened another door into the light of an apartment.
A man and a woman sat on one of two couches in the large front room, which was thick with the smell of incense. The woman was wearing a silver dress, cut above the knee, that sparkled in a way that made me think of flappers. The man's face was stony and bloodless, and he sat without moving. He was obviously a junkie, his eyes gleaming with the euphoria of a recent shot.
"It's a party," the woman said. "Me and three men, oh what will I do?"
"Looks like he won't give you any trouble," the little man pointed at the man on the couch, "and I'm not staying. Here are your keys." He threw them on the floor at her feet, then turned to me. "What do you want?"
"I'd like to trip," I said. "Hard."
He reeled off a list of the possibilities, I told him which suited me.
"Forty-five bucks," he said. He walked over to a briefcase lying on a table at the back of the room and snapped it open.
It was almost all the money I had, but I couldn't turn him down. Once by accident I found myself committed in drunkenness to buying a gram of cocaine I didn't want and had no money for, and nearly had my head flattened against the sidewalk. I gave him the money. He handed me two tiny pieces of paper that I immediately put in my mouth. They dissolved on my tongue.
"I do hope you'll stay," the woman put a hand on my arm. "He never stays, and my husband might as well not even be here."
"I'll stay," I said.
"Great! Can I get you a drink?"
"All right." She stood, then stared at the little man, who appeared about to leave, briefcase in hand. "Thank you so much," she said sarcastically.
"Same time next week?"
"I guess so."
"What does he say?" The little man nodded in the direction of her husband, who sat still as a mannequin.
"Anything's fine with him," the woman said.
The little man slipped through the door.
"Now," the woman turned to me, "I'll get you that beer."
I smiled, then after she'd gone to the kitchen I stood and walked around. I needed to move; my body was tight with nerves. It was a comfortable apartment, the furniture would have to have been called expensive: leather couches and chairs, a wide glass table, silver floor lamps, framed surrealist paintings of melting clocks and fat businessmen falling from the sky. The woman's husband showed no signs of moving. I shook my head, confused; what was I doing here?
She came back holding a bottle out to me, and motioned me towards the couch that her husband wasn't sitting on. She had straight, cropped black hair that clung close to her head, and she moved to the couch with a swinging walk that looked practiced, like a prize poodle at a show.
"So where'd you meet Rick?" she asked, putting a hand behind her head, her elbow resting on the top of the couch.
"The guy who brought you here."
"He met me, more or less. I was just sitting in this bar where he must go all the time."
"Oh yeah, The Ledge. With the brick walls inside."
"Grungy place. So... would you have guessed that I went to B****?" She named a ritzy private college for girls.
"I don't see why not. You have, well, a certain breeding."
"Thank you for saying so." She put her hand on top of mine. She was pretty in a dead sort of way. "That jerk there never says nice things like that."
Her husband sat stiff and silent, gleaming eyes intent on the wall across the room.
"It was an interesting place to go to school," she went on, "I hated it. Can't imagine how I survived four years. But you know how it is; when you really hate something you can't give it up, not until you don't care anymore. And I made myself stop caring." She said it as though describing an award she'd won.
"What was the school like?" I asked. My ears were buzzing, a sure sign that things were starting.
"Awful. The girls were incredibly self-righteous. They'd been brought up to act like their families ruled the country, which was true, unfortunately. Half of them only cared about clothes, money and men, from certain places of course. The other half was ambitious about careers, didn't care who they stepped on, and were encouraged to be that way."
"I know who you're talking about. They wanted to turn into fat men with big silver rings on their fingers."
She laughed and her dress sparkled. One side of her face dripped off.
"I think it's starting," I said.
"Oh good. Won't we have a great time now?"
"So tell me about you. How'd you end up here?"
"I don't know," I said. "I'm not sure I understand how one thing leads to another. Something turns up and you have to see where it takes you, if that makes sense."
"It does." She smiled past the edges of her face. "For instance, I never thought I'd end up here, with him, especially since I was a B**** girl. I tried to kill myself once, took a lot of pills but not enough."
"My sister killed herself. Turned on the engine of her car and asphyxiated."
"I found her. It was three years ago but I still have nightmares. Her face was purple."
Her face was purple. It seemed a good time to go, and I stood up. "Where's the door?" I said.
We were in the kitchen. "Have you ever thought about it, I mean?" she said, leaning back against the refrigerator, her legs thrust forward, brushing mine. "I mean what do you think it's like to kill someone? Do you think you might enjoy it?"
"No," I said. "Where's the door?" I had a beer in my hand and set it on the formica counter. I had a beer in my hand again, and set it on the formica counter. I walked out of the kitchen.
We were in the kitchen. "What do you think," she said, putting her arm around my neck, "about killing my husband? Then we could go away."
"I don't," I said, and walked out of the kitchen.
We were in the kitchen. "What do you think?" she said. "Kill my husband."
I was outside. The rain had stopped, then it was raining. I didn't recognize the street. The long row of houses and apartments fluttered in and out of itself. I wanted to go home but didn't know where I was. Things were falling apart, quite literally breaking off.
I came to a well-lighted street. I wondered how the bars could stay open so late. Looking at my watch, I saw it wasn't even midnight. Groups of people emerged from doorways, talking and laughing, their shadows twisting; I dodged as they hurled themselves at me. I hated their contented, grinning faces, I wanted to take an eraser and rub them off. I followed some of them for blocks.
The church was large, its pillars swayed. I sat on the wet stone underneath them, watched them roll in waves against the purple sky. I wanted to roll like they did, away from myself and any knowing of it, slipping into the stars until I became a point of light that finally shriveled into oblivion. I wanted to leave the world, to be erased so no mark of me remained. I didn't want to leave the world; I held tightly to the wet stones so I wouldn't be pulled away.
I was walking down the street of bars again. I pushed my way through spinning faces, trying to get out to some place where things would stop moving, where the world would be held in the fascist instant of a photograph. The existence of things, the way they moved, that's what I hated, myself a thing in a world of things that cared about me no more than a rock, that laughed at me like a rock. The sense that I was, that's what I hated the Gods for, forever, knowing there were no Gods, no one to hate.
Some men were standing around a fire hydrant on a corner, and I ducked back into an alley. I realized I'd wandered into a neighborhood I shouldn't have, but didn't know how to get out.
"I talked to you about coming this way," one of them said from under his hat, a hand brushing dirt from his vest. "Seems to me you didn't listen."
"I listened. I just didn't hear much." The one who said this stood apart from the others, kept rubbing the palm of his hand nervously across his face.
"Maybe you need to learn how to listen," the first said. "Maybe if you didn't talk so much you'd do more of it. Maybe if you didn't have a tongue."
Light glinted; knives, flashing silver under the street lamps. The one who was outnumbered backed away, waving his switchblade loosely in his hand. The others spread out, trying to flank him, but he kept backing away to one side and they couldn't slip behind him. The one who'd threatened him leaped forward, there was a thud, a shout, a clatter. The one defending himself turned and ran; he'd dropped his knife in cutting the other, who kneeled on the sidewalk holding his arm. The remaining two chased the one who ran, and a moment later the one who kneeled stood and followed, his arm clutched tightly against his side. Their footsteps receded loudly, echoing, at last faded into silence.
I stepped towards the fire hydrant. The knife lay on the edge of a puddle that glistened under the street lamps. One of the two long blades was streaked with blood. I picked it up; my hands were soaked with blood, it poured between my fingers... no, I calmed myself, washed the blade off in the puddle. A wisp of red trailed into nothing in the black water. I closed the knife and put it in my pocket.
I walked in the direction of some lights perched on a tower in the distance; a radio station maybe. The knife hugged tight to my leg. I passed a row of store fronts, black behind metal gates. The knife grew heavier, how was that possible? I thought it would be best to dump it in a garbage can I saw standing at the head of an alley, but couldn't make myself do it. I threw it on the sidewalk, several steps further found that I hadn't, that it was still in my pocket. I could see now why I was so confused. I still believed the world was real, that it possessed some truth beyond my ability to know, lurking in a corner like a mugger ready to spring. That life was more than seen. But was it? I touched a mailbox, the wet metal cold against my fingers; how could I know that I had touched more than some sensation of my mind? Where did I end and the mailbox begin? The mailbox jumped; it was across the street. I was walking again. Each step revealed a new picture never to be repeated: a wet bag lying on the sidewalk and full of empty beer cans; the charred remains of meat on a bone; a mannequin smiling behind a glass window and holding a hand out towards me, forefinger curled to tell me to come to her. How could I say they were more than pictures, how break out of the prison of my eyes and see them for what they were, know I could hold them in my hands?
Even the streets that before had been crowded with people were nearly deserted now. Lights in the last of the bars flickered out as I passed them. Maybe I would go home.
Eyes penetrated mine and I was pushed back against a wall.
"Why don't you watch where you're going," the man grumbled, past me in a flash of silver.
I stared. It was him; the college acquaintance who always walked by my window full of fat-faced complacency. Never mind the name; it seemed possible he was several of my acquaintances. He walked slowly, his feet moving forward as though he was measuring his steps, his body swaying drunkenly, his arms reaching out as if to steady himself on the air. His silver rings shone; his red, chubby hands were huge balls of clay where precious stones were embedded.
I followed him; the sky and houses and streets traced a path I had no choice but to take. They wanted me to touch him, to cut the rings from his fingers. It was my chance to see if I could break into the world. No, that was ridiculous, it was better I leave right away. I followed him. His head dipped against his chest; it seemed like he hadn't intended to get as drunk as he was, that he didn't have control of himself. Maybe, like me, he only dreamed of a world where his hands had power and his eyes saw more than their own upside-down reflections. That's what I would ask him.
I grabbed the collar of his coat.
"What the..." He flailed at me wildly, missing my arms.
"Talk to people in the street like that, huh?" I pushed him against the wall behind us.
"Leave me alone." His red face bobbed close: tight mouth, fat shiny lips, broad red nose and cavernous nostrils stuffed with hair, small eyes twitching beneath bushy eyebrows. All these grimaced in an expression between anger and fear.
"If I could touch you," I said. "Could I touch you—I'm not asking permission."
"I have very little money. What I've got you can have."
"Anything you want, just don't stab me."
"Stab...?" I looked; the knife was in my hands. Would he, if I let him go, report me to the police as a mugger? Then I couldn't let him go. I would make the ultimate attempt to touch the picture of his body, I would erase it as surely as if I tore out my own eyes. The houses, too, leaped on his back, and I knocked him to the ground, twisting his coat around him to tangle his arms. He grunted as his head cracked the pavement. His legs kicked helplessly. Holding his collar, I yanked his face close to mine and put the knife against his neck.
He choked, his nostrils flared. Who, I wondered, trying to see him, was looking down on who? In what way were our images reflected? Did we see only flat pictures that we called the other, no depth to a life, each of us doomed never to know if the other was real, each moment of our lives merely a photograph in a series, this one an image of a murderer in the night, that one of a dead man stabbed?
"Don't..." he stammered. "Don't I know you?"
I let him go. He stumbled up, his shoes clattered away down the sidewalk. I dropped the knife and laughed, laughed.
There was a time when I was so choked by despair that I walked the streets of the city at night. How can I tell you what I saw there, what dreams of decadence and revenge kept me putting one foot in front of another until, at last, I returned to this hole where I hide, certain that no dream will ever fill my wakeful nights. Now when I go out the city looks always the same, sounds always the same, the lights glare in my eyes until I hide them again, and I can see there is no use in dreaming of murders that finally I do not commit, and thus prove myself still human in the deserted silence of the city.
No, nothing is happening to me here, and I am quite alone, and I do not, any longer, laugh at my walking dreams.