Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 114 in 2007.
A car alarm is going on and off…ON and off…ON and off— an urgency broken by pauses of dead silence.
He’s plugged himself with wads of cotton to drown out traffic, conversations, cases of mistaken identity, false friends. He goes to the window. If it had snowed things would be different, a cloak of invisibility leaving only a resonant light.
It’s unseasonably warm so one must go outside. Or clean up the dead armies. For a long time they’ve been lying very still, rotting in their brown armor, trapped in poisonous motels, or floating in glasses where they dove to their doom in grey water trying to quench their thirst.
Sheets. For months he wakes up overcome by the odd smell of his own sweat in a cold basement where clothing is peeled off on the bed, underwear removed under the sheets, lost among the bedding.
Someone always reminds him that order makes things work. But he doesn’t live in a world of things so it doesn’t matter if nothing works. He lives in an it-ness—an All Encompassing Nothing…Whatever—as far as he’s concerned, It isn’t easy and It’s certainly not interesting, and if he goes outside he’ll only find more reasons to stay inside. Going out degrades everything he knows to be correct. Even so, sometimes he does it just to crash into walls that weren’t there the last time he went out. So he can get pissed off about it.
He had a Gym teacher once —a real wise guy—who gave pep talks before high school basketball games, saying that nothing was impossible except trying to lick your own elbow.
The taste of what you cannot reach waiting to be conquered.
Halloween is just around the corner.
He’s been trying to lick his elbow, only stops to eat, sleep and relieve himself, goes to the mailbox once a month to collect his disability check, in winter sits in the bathroom with an electric heater and the door closed, a small hot plate where he boils eggs and cans of food with the tops removed, a TV on a shelf above where he sleeps on a board that drops down over the tub.
Sometimes he has visitors perched on the sink and toilet, the conversation always the same and brief. They come to look, mostly talking among themselves, and if they talk to him it’s just before they leave, standing at the door, inching their way out in little backward steps, hoping he’ll get the point that the conversation is over, but he keeps it going as long as he can, enjoying the discomfort on their faces, shuffling their feet, hands in pockets fiddling with loose change or keys, or whatever bits of crap they keep in there, plucking random thoughts from the stew of his past, anything, like how he once named a cat after his third grade teacher then ate it.
They always look at him with disgust and say "Write, don’t call," before leaving.
“Don’t let the door slam,” he shouts back.
Same thing every time. Like an echo.
He would rather they didn’t come. They interrupt his concentration, smoke cigars and talk, as if he’s not there, about things that don’t concern him at all, how much they hate laundromats, useless chatter, irrelevant to their filthy lives, living as they do, keeping warm on top of subway gratings, in basements, back rooms or so-called residential hotels, and who could afford a laundromat anyway, as far as laundromats go? who ever has more than four quarters at one time without spending it on gum or egg sandwiches?
His tongue lashes the air. Thinking about gum and egg sandwiches it seems to reach a little closer than it did in August, and here it is October 22nd, curled up against the loofah studying the wallpaper, hairless fairies riding bare-breasted on Chihuahuas across an Arabian desert.
He gets up and turns on the TV, puts on a pot of water and slides an egg in, watches the news, the egg bobbing against the sides of the pot. The woman on TV describes how the body collapses into itself in sleep and recommends stretching exercises. He checks the mirror and decides he’s shrunk since the night before, touching his nose with his tongue. Two years ago he cloistered himself for this one purpose alone, devoting himself to its familiar pain, attending to his body’s basic functions. He became a lapsed human being the way some become defrocked priests, calm in the knowledge that there is no punishment for transgression, composed a rhythm from his days and nights that loosened ties with any animal needs or considerations beyond keeping the body alive.
And what does he have to show for it? He can flick a fly off his nose.
In Easter he can move back into the front room. He sits in damp observing halves of people herding past his window, attending to his task, thousands of feet, blind elbows, naked, with the sleeves raised or unsleeved, or poking holes in pullovers. He concentrates, reaches even further, still not far enough, is pure, stability and agitation, binary, a man in a baseball cap pushes a toy poodle in a wheelchair past the window, reaching further in microspaces, suddenly all breaks free inside with a drying note at the bottom of the throat, the man in the baseball cap balanced at the edge of life behind closed eyes.
He opens his eyes. The man in the baseball cap is gone. In his place a taxi discharges a woman talking on her cell phone, fumbling in her bag for the fare, she extends one leg toward the sidewalk, a cream-colored high-heeled shoe, and he remembers that he once preferred small-calves to muscular ones. But this is not worth mentioning, a great relief to him who hasn’t had an erection in six years, who used to have them all the time when that was all that mattered, arms and tongues for other things, when he suffered something less ceremonial than he does now, the five inch drama played out between his throat and elbow in the florescent theater of the bathroom. He feels nothing as the woman walks toward his building, tries to be discreet, craning his neck.
The various planes of his existence are indistinguishable from one another, the coffee table, for instance, appears higher than the couch on one side where towers of books crowd into an urban skyline, but lower than the floor on the other where stacks of record albums support a collection of cooking utensils, manicure implements and office supplies. The birdcage at the other end once housed a bird, but that was before he took it from the trash, a crust of droppings mixed with birdseed on the bottom, evidence of the absent bird which had no significance for him, he just liked the empty cage and took it.
She is sitting in his room with her purse on the table near the edge to avoid putting it on top of the towers of books which are close to knocking the birdcage onto the floor.
Her bag matches her shoes, the shade of beige that some call ecru, nude beige stockings, a calf, a soft curve at the back of a leg, a tender baby cow she scratches with long beige nails, a silken hiss, and he feels them along his elbow, but decides to wait for that.
She smiles and her dimples hurt like the indistinct color of her eyes, her youth and her voice almost non-existent like static through a mistuned radio speaking some unidentifiable language of which he understands not one word, but comprehends everything, saying she’s done with waiting and he should ask for what he wants.
He sends her for meat, telling her to take the shortest route along the pier. There will be butchered carcasses he says. Ignore the homeless men roasting offal, clustered around empty steel drums discharging fire.
He knows them, their tired faces, and will arrange a formal introduction some other time but for now make a wide arc when walking past. They’ll try to engage you in conversation because you’re a woman, well dressed, well fed, and they’re none of these. They’ll want to know where you’re going, don’t tell them, don’t let them catch you off guard when they ask if there will be a little left for them. You must walk fast, even if they offer some of what they’re cooking, no matter how much it makes your mouth water, never look them in the eye, never let them know you’re there for meat or that you know him.
She does as she’s told slipping past them with her beige stockings. Her tiny calves contract and expand as she walks and they turn to look.