Skip lay in bed, naked from the waist up. His desire was to sleep. But, intending some months ago to paint his bedroom, he had removed all the window coverings. It was around 8:51pm in the early summer, not quite dark, and what drooping light there was left in the day kept him awake. He wondered if the neighbors across the way could see him, and if they cared that he was shirtless. Their shades were always closed, but Skip was convinced that they peered out from gently lifted corners to observe him frequently. Although he felt repellent without a shirt on, this was actually a welcome scenario bordering on fantasy for Skip. What if they, unlike he, were pleased with what they saw? Sometimes Skip would even linger near the dresser, pretending to check the weather or email on his phone, indulging these voyeurs across the courtyard.
9:04 and still light. And now Skip was losing his resolve to sleep. He sat upright in bed and scanned the floor of the dimming room. Clothes all fading to the same dusky shade of grey lay, limbs contorted, about the place. Leaving his legs on the bed and supporting his weight against the ground with his arms, in some bastardized fashion of downward dog, Skip began feeling around for a shirt. Something with long sleeves. The days were warming now that it was late June, but a chill still seeped into the valley each night. Short sleeves, blue jeans, too thick. Soon Skip was extended well away from the bed in his quest for a shirt, his upper body upside-down, legs nearly parallel to the ground, and his feet trying to hold him on the bed like an action hero hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Skip relished what the the spies across the way must think about this half-naked calisthenic spectacle taking place at twilight. Probably porno exercises, or something untoward like that.
Out of options within reach of the bed, Skip lowered his knee and crawled about until he found a knit shirt with the right weight to insulate his arms against what he imagined the air outside to feel like. He pulled the shirt over his head, laid on his back, and held out his arms. Probably blue-grey. Or perhaps green flecked with earth. Twilight was ending. Skip couldn't tell, and it didn't matter for a trip to the grocery store anyway.
He wanted a pumpkin to carve. Skip hadn't carved a pumpkin on Halloween or otherwise in at least five years. But tonight he wanted to cut very basic geometry into a pumpkin, making a classic Jack O'Lantern that he would light with a candle and set out front on his orange-tiled step. He would roast the fruit's seeds with plenty of salt and a little cayenne, and nibble on them while he carefully sculpted a face from the hollow shell. In his long-sleeve shirt, which the entryway light revealed as blue after all, Skip locked the door and headed to his purchase his raw material.
Past the front door of his conflicted admirers, out the complex's gate, east four blocks and over half a mile, Skip walked with self-congratulatory anticipation through the parting glass panels of Parker Puddin's Foodopolis. Bright, uneven light seemed to change the temperature at the threshold and welcome him to the great bounty of consumables. Skip headed down the paper products aisle, as this was the surest and most direct route to produce. Single rolls, double rolls of double-ply, triple soft triple rolls in six, eight, sixteen, or thirty-two count. How could one possibly decide correctly on toilet tissue from this wealth of options? And then again, how could one go wrong! The only thing to do was to try them all, to see which type, style, and brand of tissue best balanced comfort with effectiveness in wiping away residual shit fom one's ass. It was no different with paper towels. Well, somewhat different. Yes. If there was no difference, then one might use the less expensive product to wipe one's ass and one's countertop. Yet these are clearly unique tasks and surfaces, requiring entirely specialized tools. Thankfully, a handful of manufacturers who understand this have developed a variety of paper towel types that address the nuance of spilt liquid: dimpled paper, absorbent pockets, angular and curved patterns (a difference still open to scientific and scholarly debate). And all available with various aesthetic options, such as baby animals, or images of Americana to comfort one’s guests with a sense of timeless stability. A psychological antidote to the terror of having spilled a drink in another person’s home. Or for the stoic pragmatist, who advertises confidence through lack of decoration, no print at all.
Skip moved past all of these – and the facial tissues, the wet wipes, the innovations in paper-based dusting technology, all of it – without turning his head. He had come to Parker Puddin’s for a pumpkin. He did not presently care about how he would clean up the mess he intended to make on the kitchen floor. That would be a future trip to the Foodopolis.
The first items he encountered were the apples. Skip stood next to the large square bin of Braeburns and surveyed the area for gourds. Leafy greens, long root vegetables with bushy tops, multi-colored citrus balls, berries and more berries. And there, sticking up over the rolling hills of avocados, there was the hard-shelled flag he was looking for: the butternut squash. Skip approached, expecting to see the bottom of the tall pale surface tucked into a sea of deep green, bulbous yellow, and, of course, orange. Instead: more washed-out brown. More butternut squash. After scoping out the rest of the section, Skip inquired with a Puddin’ Pal, who informed him that all types of produce available were on the shelves for the consumer’s convenience. Skip thanked the Pal and meandered back to stare at the butternut squash. Maybe Gardner’s across town had pumpkins. Maybe. But that would require exact bus fare, and he didn’t like the way Gardner’s clerks always asked him how his day was going even if it happened to be 10:38 at night. Perhaps he should just put his plan aside until a more proper season bore the appropriate fruit. Perhaps he was tired enough to go to sleep now.
After twenty minutes of indecision, Skip picked out an eight-pound squash with a sticker that noted Chile as its origination point. He would proceed. He would cut out the insides from the bottom and design a small face for the lower third. So what if his Jack O’Lantern’s forehead was extra tall and long? Who would complain? And if someone did, Skip would invent a story about pumpkins in October, but butternut squash in June. With his Chilean squash, a baggie holding a pinch of cayenne, and a six-pack of single roll double-ply toilet paper, Skip checked out and went home to carve.
Perhaps my presence gives her mono. She falls asleep whenever I come over. Or narcolepsy? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it’s not an excuse, since she keeps calling me over to visit and appears pleased to see me each time I arrive. And she never asks me to leave, as she stretches out on the couch and drifts off, still with that gradual glassy smile on her face. It hasn’t always been like this, though it’s been this way for a while now.
It used to be that I would come over and we’d devise all manner of miniature adventures. We’d paint seascapes with watercolors on the smoke-colored walls. Or move all lamps and lighting instruments into a single room to see how bright we could make it. Once we lit small fires with gum wrappers and whatnot in the fireplace to see if the chimney’s passage really stretched into the sky, or if it had been bricked up. The fireplace itself was just so clean we couldn’t believe it had ever been used. Mostly, though, we would lay on the ground with headphones on, the two cords running through a jury-rigged contraption that let us listen to the same music. Staring up at the ceiling we listened to Thickfreakness, Polly, Tango Habanera, Elenore, Great Indoors, Galileo, the ravings of Antonin Artaud trying desperately and once and for all to have done with the judgment of god. For hours at a time we would slide from track through track to track. Everything temporal and spatial beyond song released us. Storms outside our hearts became irrelevant. We never fell in love. And she never fell asleep.
Now she greets me with a hug, and the remnants of projects unfinished and unstarted both. Cigarette cartons and handicapped dress forms and sheets of butcher paper partially filled with partial figurations. And then she suggests what we might do with green bottles of white glue and circuit boards, as she lifts a stock of discs in my direction so that I can pick out dozens of pieces for tonight’s hodgepodge medley. The music that will arrive much sooner than it does in her mind. I say very little, knowing that soon and quickly she will find repose on the sofa. And as her sentences break up into remote islands of words, my breathing grows deep with resistance to the crack I feel forming beneath my sternum, caving into my stomach at gorgeous exuberance receding.
Silence succeeds sound. I put my headphones on. I put hers on. I rest my head nearby hers and press play. My eyes wide open, hers effortlessly shut, we dream together for the next several hours. Then I begin the long, ragged walk home.
Something is vibrating deep within these walls. I thought it was the window panes for a while. But it’s deeper than that. I hear it downstairs. Maybe it’s in the floor. Or a floor, between the two levels. I can’t quite locate it in a way that I can say what it is that’s vibrating. But it most definitely has to do with the water pipes. Pipes run all over through these old buildings, having been installed and re-installed, and routed and re-routed according to changing needs over decades. Every structural adjustment invites the possibility of degrading stability. Attachments fail, conduits angle, and air is introduced where only water should be. Crooked and imperfect pipes are rumbling deep within these walls. Or perhaps it’s a fan with a shaky blade, spinning around unattended in an adjoining living space. I think the neighbors have a washing machine. It could be the spin cycle that I’m hearing. Especially if they have a great heap of laundry that needs doing. It also sounds like a faint version of the automated garage door we had when I was young, opening each night as my mother returned from work. Garage doors line the lower floors of this building, and people are coming in and out all the time.
Whatever it is…wherever it is…it’s starting to drive me to distraction. I tried to watch a movie tonight, hoping that my hearing and attention would be absorbed by something else. I turned the television volume all the way up, and still I could hear that soft whirring. The neighbors pounded on the door, and when I finally heard them rapping and opened up they kindly asked me to turn down the sound. I said of course. I’m sorry for the trouble. I asked them, since they were already over, if they could come inside and listen with me. They did so, but denied hearing anything. I don’t know if they were being honest or just wanted to escape the awkward situation. They didn’t really stand still enough to hear it, like I asked them to. And one frumpy woman kept breathing, which makes the gentle jack-hammering impossible to hear. But I need someone else to hear it. It’s a light bass-ey sound. Like a muted helicopter rotor. Somewhere in the core of this building it shivers, conducted by these beams and boards, through the air and into my ear. I need to try and sleep for a while now. Tomorrow I’ll call over some friends and see if they can come over and listen.
I don’t know London very well. Not the authentic city, at least. I’ve been to the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. I’ve stood next to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and that sort of thing. And of course the great opera house near the Harbour Bridge. Of course that! But I’m not familiar with places in the city where people actually live, and I wanted to find out what they’re like. So yesterday, having my whole afternoon free, I chose a quaint London neighborhood to stroll through.
Albert Street is in the center of the city’s northeast quadrant. It is a long, haphazardly configured row of small shops and eateries. Avenues stretching away from this main drag are lined with homes. These houses are unremarkable, and so I didn’t spend much time away from the commercial spine of this district. Trees line the sidewalk along Albert Street, each one growing up and out of a small unpaved square embroidered with bright red brick. It’s so impressive, the care taken by the area residents with little details like this. Somebody must have spent entire days deciding on, locating, and learning how to set these bricks. You’d never find anything like that in the United States of America. We’re all too pragmatic.
But anyway. The most lovely store window I saw that day was that of a shop called Soleil (‘sun’ for those who live near Albert Street and speak the native language). An orange-petalled yellow-hearted flower made of papier-mâché took up nearly the entire window. Radiating away from it were crinkly orange streamers. It sounds simple, but really it was the most elegant and unpretentious window display I think I have ever seen. I was across the street, so I didn’t go into Soleil. But I must imagine that they sell weathered gold candlesticks and small rustic furniture pieces, and just generally everything that a home full of white linens – probably like those in the adjoining neighborhood – would need.
Taking in rich surroundings provokes the appetite. “Though the eyes eat, the stomach may not be fed,” I think the saying goes. The first place I considered was in a multi-level building that looked like an Escher creation with three intersecting levels. His childhood home being not far from here, it is conceivable, though nobody told me this, that the architect of this building was inspired in design by the 18th-century artist’s work. The exterior was covered by brown shake, and the upper level of the boxy building had a balcony that added to the overall structure’s complexity. A man stood alone on the balcony in a short-sleeve floral shirt and straw fedora. He looked out into the distance, over the other buildings, seeming to contemplate the rolling hills and forested land just a mile of so off. “BRE-AK-FAST” was scrawled in chalk across three contiguous blackboards hung from the overhang. As charming and full of repose as this place seemed, I didn’t have a taste for breakfast and so kept walking.
I’m thankful I didn’t stop! I would have missed out on the splendid Bone 7. This is a true locals bar. The walls are orange and blue, and the tables of simple Scandinavian design. People in fashionable attire line the bar, some waiting to order a drink while others chat with drinks already in their hands. All are dressed in that at-ease yet young professional manner required for positions in philanthropy, or advancing responsible business practices across borders and oceans. The tavern’s owners must be true lovers of their picturesque little town in the valley, since the aperitif menu includes a cocktail called The Stockholm. Which reminds me! I passed a man on the street wearing a blue sweatshirt with white lettering that read ‘Stockholm’. It’s not only the bar’s owners who love their city, it seems.
I sat at one of the two-tone tables inside, but through a doorframe I could see a fenced area out back. Bamboo reeds shot up parallel to the fence-line, shading two rows of wood benches. Exposed beams supported a translucent roof. A giant patinated Christmas ornament-looking sculpture hung off the segment of fence that I could see. The metalwork housed a light, the beams from which shone determinedly through round gaps in the bottom hemisphere. I could smell the no-nonsense ocean between slats in the fence, and I envisioned the clay red cliffs standing parallel with the shoreline that lay just beyond.
I had a catfish sandwich, fries, and an Old German, after which I spent the rest of my afternoon walking it off up and down Albert Street. The sky opened up and rained down on me for most of the afternoon. But isn’t that to be expected in the heart of dreary old London?
Little doubt that I am under siege. Yes. There can be no doubt about it at all. Several small ants are wandering around on my front step just outside the door. Not dozens. Definitely not hundreds. There is no line back to some dark and miniature cavern. Just a few black, segmented bodies crawling in random directions. Making ostensibly unmotivated turns, like spies when their target catches a glimpse of them on the street. Bursting briefly with just a little too much artificial effort. Trying for a split second to blend back into the world that they set themselves apart from while waiting. But these ants are not spies. They are scouts.
When I am in my kitchen, thirty feet away but behind two walls and the door, these scouts know it and set up their bulbous physiques like homing beacons. In the kitchen, not that far away, I cook. Sometimes I bake, which inevitably calls for sugar. To make zucchini bread, say. Or basil lime cookies. It is possible to make some of these delicacies without sugar, I suppose. But then I would probably let them sit on the counter, waiting for the first signs of mold so that I could discard them in the garbage. So. Sugar.
Working with sugar never goes as well as one hopes it will. That is to say: perfectly. The transfer from the sugar container to the measuring cup – level, mind you, since baking is a more exact science than cooking generally – and into the mixing bowl is fraught with all manner of obstacles. During the mixing, too, it is probable that the electric mixer or the wooden spoon will throw particles away from the bowl. More! Once absorbed into the milk or egg matter or butter, the sugar becomes undetectable as a discreet substance. And when the inescapable happens…when fate takes hold of the pouring or blending process…when gravity and momentum and trajectories all conspire against the well-intentioned amateur chef…at that moment sugar, solid or liquified, lands on a surface which it was never intended to be on. At that moment – and it cannot be doubted – little black scouts thirty or so feet away all recalibrate their bodies so as to line up facing a common endpoint. I’m fairly certain they raise their posterior thirds up to help.
As quickly as I can in those moments, I swipe up the sugar with a wet sponge and thoroughly dry the area (the sponge must be rinsed and the paper towel placed in a lidded receptacle if the contamination is to be contained and the residual sweetness fully removed from the air). So far I have been swift enough. The scouts don’t seem to have made much headway. But I suspect they are learning, and that eventually this siege will become a full-blown attack. Perhaps I would do better to reckon with the mold.
A man felt that he was approaching the halfway point of his life. Or maybe it had already snuck past. Whichever way, beginnings had grown more difficult. That was the main thing he noticed. Because of his evident age, people assumed that he had all the society he needed. A career plan must be unfolding, not to be disrupted. New connections were therefore business-like. Professional handshakes rather than lingering looks. Knowledge on both sides rather than clever oddity. His unwillingness to settle for less than a fulfilling existence now just left him unsettled, and with few options. He was supposed to have built something lasting already.
One middle of the night, on his way back to bed after waking for a glass of water, the man opened the lid of his laptop to check his email. He found a single unopened message, titled simply ‘Photo’. His friend had been rummaging through files on an old hard drive and come across a black and white photo of the man, taken when he was in his early twenties. It was a headshot that had been used for publicity in a theatre program once upon a time. Because of the black turtleneck, greased hair, dark contrast, and dark room in which the man was sitting, the young, smiling face glowed. The image took up almost the entire screen. The man stared into the lively eyes of this former version of himself. Taut skin, barely blemished. Hair. Absolute conviction that destiny would kindly open door after door.
The man closed the laptop and walked up the stairs to bed. The arms of the ceiling fan rotated ceaselessly above him. He followed a single blade with his eyes until he felt them strain somewhere in the back. Then he blinked quickly to reset his vision and tried again. And again. After maybe a dozen attempts, his eyes suddenly stopped tracking, leaving the blades to cut repeatedly through his fixed, limp gaze. He couldn’t feel like this. Not now. He had a rare job interview the next day. He needed his rest. And his spirit. But what once had been, and what now wasn’t, kept him awake. When he finally fell asleep it was just before first light.
His eyes fluttered open not long after. The fan was still spinning above him, but it seemed faster in the daylight. He sat up and stared at the floor with that sickly feeling in the back of his jaw. A stirring emptiness in his stomach. Another day without energy. Without enthusiasm. He stood up and felt the emptiness shift around his belly. He showered and dressed, and made his way to the kitchen to force some food into that uncomfortable space at his center. He chewed and swallowed mouthfuls of cereal. Inertia blanketed him. He wondered how he would get through this day without a nap. He thought about his young self in the photo, and a time when sleep seemed less relevant. The man stopped chewing.
Several minutes of stillness later and he put down his spoon and pushed the bowl away. He stood, walked into the next room, and opened his laptop. The smiling face had lost none of its hopeful shine overnight and was still happily taking up the whole screen. The man printed the photo and retrieved the copy. He rummaged through drawers until he found some string, the ends of which he affixed with tape to points along the vertical edges of the portrait. Then he punched the smallest holes possible in his former self’s eyes and pulled the page over his face like a visor. He made small adjustments as he bounced off walls on his way to the bathroom. In the mirror, the young man looked back at the man looking back at himself. He smiled, which he was already doing. Then the man shouldered his bag, grabbed his car keys, and headed out the door to his interview.