Done for a short story class in spring 2009. Flawed, but potentially something someone could publish, or at least enjoy, maybe.
I met him on the stairs. I didn’t see him at first over the mound of fetid socks and sweat-stained T-shirts in my arms against my chin and chest. I hadn’t washed any of it in weeks and was planning how to open the lid of the washer without dropping anything – I might try the elbow, even the foot if necessary, if flexibility permitted – when I struck against him with my right leg.
“Sorry,” I said, muffled through the stack of filth.
He said nothing and I saw why when I turned to the left and found a body, legs splayed, head caved in. I would have recanted my statement then, since he was the landlord, and I felt no more regret then than I did just after putting him there, which was none, which was not necessarily something I would share.
“After all, he must have fallen down the stairs on accident, and I certainly didn’t see anything until I came home and took some laundry down to the facilities in the basement.”
“Are you familiar with submission guidelines, you know, for magazines, like stories?” said the guy opposite me at the desk. The room was filled with desks like these, though I appeared to be the only person with someone else. It was late in the afternoon; things must have slowed down. No one was uniformed, but then on a lot of TV shows nobody is either.
“I don’t follow,” I said.
“The scenario, it’s just funny, they all have these lists of do’s and don’t’s, and one of ’em’s this cliché where the main character lives alone and depressed in a dumpy apartment, you know, like the poor starving guy who’s writing it, him and six hundred other guys that month.” He stopped for a large swig of tea out of the paper cup in his left hand, gesturing toward me with it as he gulped. “That, and then the murder, the cheapest of all dramatic devices, the big overused mystery of who did it and why and how terrible or grimly necessary it was. You just couldn’t ask for a more contrived setup.”
“I’m not a writer.”
“I never had the patience for it.”
He smiled at his cup of tea and took another sip. He was one of those guys who exhale in relief after a drink, as if being filmed for an advertisement. “One of my lifelong hobbies. It lets me create my own world, get out parts of me I can’t always show, make order out of things.”
I didn’t see where he was going, but went along. “I’m more the type to get away from myself and visit other worlds, somewhere beyond my own mind.” There was a lull. “I haven’t heard of many cops who write.”
“Too true. I can’t share my interests with a lot of the other guys. A lot of meatheads here, you know.” He laughed from the gut, and as he looked into my eyes I laughed as well, sharing the sweet intoxication of mirth. From someone else I would have doubted the sincerity – the comedy was exaggerated – but he had one of those infectious wheezing bellows squeals.
“So your landlord,” he said as the fit wore down, rubbing his chin with an aw-shucks grin as his laughter diminished with the force of his exhalations, “you had an argument, about late rent or crappy appliances or what have you, he’d been riding you or cheating you for a while, times are hard, spirits low, so you snap, you duck into your closet and surprise him with a baseball bat, maybe a tire iron or a crowbar, right across the face.” His thumb and forefinger had stopped upon his clean-shaven jowly jaw. His eyes, a little more intense, now, than joyful, fixated on mine. His voice had lost all good-humored overtones.
“I’ve seen enough procedurals and detective films to know that trick,” I said, with a hollow grin of violation. “No, like I said, I came home, piled up some clothes and went down to the laundry room. I found him on the stairs, so I guess he fell down and busted his head open.”
“The first thing you said to me was you ‘met’ him on the stairs, if you remember. It’s in your statement.”
“The first thing you asked was when I first met him.”
“Yeah, and that’s kind of strange, isn’t it? Never meeting your landlord?”
“Yeah, it is, but that’s how it worked. The couple in the largest room, or one of them, was his son or maybe brother, I don’t know, and he took all the money and talked over problems, or rules, with all the tenants. He was never in town, the landlord, and maybe he lived somewhere else, way up north or something, so nobody ever dealt with him except the relative.”
“So you never see him, and never have seen him, yet when you do see him for the first time you somehow know who he is.”
“Well, I -”
“So really you have seen him, enough to recognize him, but you want to hide that because you do know him, know him well enough to have a kind of vendetta that ends with his death.”
“No, you don’t -”
“It makes so much sense to me.” He smirked as he cut me off, and jotted onto the little brown napkin he had brought with his now-empty cup. He muttered the echoes of the story he’d told.
“They all told me he was the landlord. I showed the body to the guy who takes my rent, his brother, and he told me,” I said, flushed and flustered. “He was speechless for a while, just staring down, turning away and massaging his cheeks, looking back at the body, then away again, until he finally said, ‘It’s Godfrey,’ and that’s the name of the landlord.”
The man just smiled, and chuckled softly. To this laugh no access was granted. I watched him scribble a few more notes and then pocket the napkin. He stood up, patting his holster, and glanced just to my side, giving a little nod. I didn’t have time to turn my head before I heard a little whoosh and blacked out.
I’m walking down a flight of stairs. It’s me, but I’m watching myself from behind, from a distance, so I’m really both of us, walking and just watching. And the me walking down the stairs isn’t really me – the body is taller and thinner, the hair straighter and lighter, the black blazer and khaki pants not mine, the gait more shuffling – but I am him, and I can see what he sees. The stairs, I know, are the ones that go down to the laundry room, even though they are much broader than usual. The hallway at the bottom is more cavernous, its ceiling twice as high as normal. There’s a carpet now, too, mahogany with a white floral pattern overlain.
Something is filling me with unspeakable dread. There’s a pinch in my stomach, a drip in my armpits, a dryness in my throat – as the walker or the watcher, I don’t know which. It’s well-lighted, my view is clear, and the laundry room door is always locked, so there’s nothing I can think to be afraid of, but I’m terrified.
On the walls are mounted for display a rusted array of piping segments, each unique joint with its own plaque and metal hook supports. I look them over, admiring their craftsmanship and gritty weatheredness, wondering who took the time to acquire such a rare exhibit. I figure that it’s meant to bring attention to what brings us water and takes away our filth and shit, the vital functions we don’t ever think about. I am glad that someone found art in this.
The piece that strikes me the most is a thick and elongated S-bend section, something torn from some industrial sink, and I pick it up, feeling that it will come in handy – maybe it will help me learn engineering, I think, which is something I’ve wanted to study for a while. It gives me a little strength, and now despite the dread I am fully set on entering the laundry room.
The door is halfway down the hallway, rotting and paint-peeling, interrupting the bedecked walls on the left. I pull out an enormous ring of keys, but can’t think of which is the right one. I try one that breaks apart when I miss the keyhole. The next goes snugly in but won’t turn. Another won’t go in at all. I fumble through the set, flustered, my nervous sweat slickening my grip, and I keep seeing the same keys or key designs, and I can’t remember which ones I’ve tried. I get more frantic and rifle faster, but my moistened fingertips lose their hold and the entire ring falls to the floor and through the gap between the wall and the floor where I always lose dropped pennies and now keys.
The obvious thing to do now is use the pipe, and without a second thought I swing at the door with it. The door smashes into shards as if dynamited and I step through into utter blackness, no strip of light from the hallway, and, turning around, there is no hallway. A sonorous choir of washers on their final spin and dryers that must have shoes in them floods the dark room with pounding, rattling, humming and shaking. Sweat runs down to my elbows and a deep chill grabs my chest.
I make for the wall opposite the door, where I know to be a light switch. My trembling hand gropes for the spot, searching, searching until it strikes the switchplate and moves up to the jutting centerpiece. I flip it.
And inches from my face in the light is an opaque black veil covering the head of a figure with a crowbar raised above in its white-gloved right hand, framed by a quaking sea of laundromatic appliances, and every hair follicle I possess explodes outward, porcupinish, with my heart. I think to swing my pipe, but I can’t move, I can only watch as the crowbar rushes down to my head and connects, and my skull screams with shooting pain as the lights go out again. The pipe is wrenched from my hands. I try to scramble away but the figure knows exactly where I am and the blows land unceasingly, bypassing my feeble arm-flailing attempts at protection, my black vision of nothingness tinting red with every bursting of pain, and there’s nothing I can do. My life drains out of me – I can feel it evaporating – until I am dead. The crowbar rings and clatters, dropped upon the floor.
It must be the observer me who is able to reach a hand out to my corpse’s face. I touch the top of my head and slowly slide my hand downward. As I reach the frontal region of my skull I feel an indentation that very quickly becomes the beginning of a gaping pit from the peak of my forehead to the bottom of what must have been my eye socket, where now I feel no eye at all, just mangled bone and moist blood, or maybe that’s the vitreous humour, there and along my jaw, my cheeks, both sides of my face, caved in everywhere, I have gone out a deformity, a ghost rubbing the crowbarred contours of my cranium.
I lay there clenching the throbbing back of my head, remembering that those clubs are called “nightsticks,” squinting in the bright fluorescent light and squinting the hatred of premature waking to any light at all. I was in a bed, a comfortable one with a down comforter and thick fluffy pillows, which made little sense.
The room was spartan yet tastefully decorated: well-kept wallpaper, a clean woven rug upon a hardwood floor, a stately oaken desk and chair in one corner. Kitty-corner to the bed was the door, a tall metallic monstrosity airtight with the wall. No windows, only fluorescence fed through a few scattered ceiling panels to saturate the space. This was not my room.
Upon the desk lay neatly a small pile of papers, which I gladly gave the full attention I had flaming upon the back of my head. I threw off the covers, seeing myself clad in flannel orange pajamas, and strode over to my target. The bold title, maybe ten times the size of the rest of the words on the first page, read “RELEASE FORM.”
“I, the undersigned,” I read, “do hereby authorize the release of my -” and the door opened behind me. Yesterday’s questioner was back. He offered no outsretched arm toward the exit but closed it behind him.
“So you’ve gone over the release?” he said.
“I just looked at it now. I don’t understand the accusations and knockout if I’m leaving the next day. And this room? Is this is a joke?”
He smiled. “Why don’t you take the form over to the bed and have a seat,” he said. I didn’t want to do what he said, but he stared me into it. I didn’t want to make things awkward.
“Read the first sentence,” he said.
“‘I, the undersigned,'” I muttered, “‘do hereby authorize the release of my image, speech, actions and persona for documentation, reproduction, distribution or for any other purpose deemed fit by the contractors.'” I looked up at the cop; he had seated himself in the desk chair. “What?”
“We were talking about this before,” he said, still smiling, friendly. I started to hate him for it.
“I don’t remember talking about this. I don’t even know what this is talking about.”
Comfortably, the image of nonchalance, with a right hand resting on a thigh, the left hand turned upward and raised just above the groin, leaning back and to the left, he said, “Look, if you’ve ever gone to a performance where they’re taking video footage, or called a customer service hotline, they tell you you might be recorded. This is the same thing.”
“So this is about surveillance footage? You have to ask people about that? I guess I’d never thought -”
“No, of course not. This isn’t about that. This is something special, and I think you’re going to like it.” He leaned towards me now, upping the frequency of his hand gestures, bushy eyebrows diverging slowly until a quick return at the climax of each thought.
“The book market’s all about non-fiction these days, either non-fiction memoirs about troubling pasts with inspirational success stories or crime novels, horror novels with brutal murder and mystery for a lone detective with his own problems. People get upset when non-fiction’s bullshit, even though it’s all bullshit, so you have to use vague bullshit.
“But that’s beside the point, because there’s almost no book market anyway, novels are dying like short stories now, nobody has time for them. People need something else.”
I tried to hold on to the point about surveillance, which felt important to mull over, but he steamrolled the thought.
“They need something real but compelling. The reality shows were popular for a while, but people found out they were empty, so they took the same premises and made them fictional, gave them mysterious plots, and people came back and ate it up.”
“Better acting, higher quality film,” I offered, irritated.
“Exactly. More like artwork, less like home videos. People in home videos and people making them are too aware of what they’re doing, they all know it’s a charade and so we do, but people on high-quality film can keep it a secret and so we do. People don’t understand acting; it’s not about making lively characters, it’s about making believe that they aren’t just characters and aren’t pretending. That’s what we need.”
My back was to the bed’s headboard, my throbbing skull thrown back and my eyes closed, my left hand trying to massage away the pain. “So…”
“So look, like I told you, I’m a writer, and I’ve got this new project -”
“For which you have to lock me up after clubbing me in the head, without evidence?” I watched him frown. “Here’s your authenticity, I guess. Is this expression of outrage at wrongful imprisonment real enough, or should I call you a fascist and try to rush you?”
“Wrongful?” he asked quietly, tapping his fingers together in a steeple shape. “What do you think rightful imprisonment would be?”
“You think when we find out somebody’s dead, that what really matters to anyone is catching the specific person who did it?” he continued. “Nobody watching or reading the news, following the story, ever really knows who did it, they don’t see the deed, they take what’s given and they accept it.”
“So this is a regular thing? Law is secondary to the artistic plans of its officers?”
“Think about this,” he said, leaning forward again, the excitement back. “This whole scenario, there’s so much to it. There’s more than the question of you did or didn’t kill the guy, there’s a deeper meaning. You never meet him, right, but he’s the ultimate authority figure for your home. His proxy collects all the money and sets all the rules, and without proof you take his word that he really does represent the landlord, he’s the son or whatever close relative, and that his rules really are the landlord’s.
“Then it’s announced that he’s dead, you find the body and the proxy gives it the name, the police, we accept it and hold you on suspicion of the murder of the man you never knew or met yet whom you accepted was in charge of things, and maybe you killed him yourself, we all think so, and you admitted it, maybe, it’s in the statement, but now you claim to be set up, you think this is a mistake.
“We’ve got a perfect summary of religion and power, then the Nietzschean death of God combined with a Kafkaesque institutional scapegoating of a meek and inconsequential character.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t admit anything. And I think you’re looking way too much into this. It sounds like a lot of literature-class bullshit. Nobody reads for things like that. I read all the time and not even I look for that stuff.”
“That’s the beauty of it, it has layers upon the lowest-common-denominator mystery stuff, so there’s something to appreciate on every level. Haven’t you ever had a dream where you have this enormous intensity of feeling, so intense that it feels more real somehow?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly. I had one like that recently, it felt like, but I never remember them.
He was nodding. “The plots are absurd, you can easily say they mean nothing, but they feel profound enough to deserve a profound analysis, if you’re interested. I mean, you might as well. And some, like yours, are pretty obvious – I mean, the same walking down the stairs – but then those piping segments on the walls?”
The images jolted themselves into recall. I stared with widened eyes.
“And the black veil of the attacker, maybe that means it’s you, or that it’s the landlord you’ve never seen symbolically destroying you. Of course you can’t ‘save face'” – he made the quote marks in the air – “when it’s bashed in, all your ‘devices’ taken from you.”
“How are you telling me this?” I said, an icy feeling on the back of my neck.
“Your landlord’s name is fucking Godfrey,” he said, leaning back again and laughing heartily. “You tell me you get away from yourself and visit other people’s worlds, you want to immerse yourself, no patience to write your own story. Here you are.”
“You know what my dreams are?” My head was electric, a terrible fear swept in, and with it a strong sense of dèjá vù – somehow I had expected this, knew I had always been watched, or maybe just always wanted to be.
“It’s not so hard, only a matter of recognizing patterns in brain signals and matching them with responses to certain stimuli. There’s great material there. Dream sequences always draw people in, they’re exotic and unique. We only use the technology because the rewards it reaps are so great.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, thinking to ask him a question, but realized he might still be reading me, and would already know what I wanted to ask, so I turned away and remained silent.
“See, this web of meaning is swirling everywhere, everything has such great potential for infinite transcendent truth and ecstatic revelation, we just need to capture it, find something resonant and grab it, and you’ve got the situation and the landlord with the great name, and you’ve got great dreams about it, good questions. It takes a while to find a candidate like you for this.”
Planned for, observed, selected. I didn’t bother speaking the thought; he knew it. He was in my head, and who knew how many others were in it too. No terrible secrets came to mind, I only felt betrayal about really having no secrecy at all.
“Jails and trials have always been shows, which is why it’s a joke that we called the communist ones ‘show trials,’ like fake justice is more of a show than real justice. As if bad deeds were rectified by locking away the final doer, like there aren’t millions of other influences and reasons and guilty parties behind a single crime, we all try to isolate the bad people so that we don’t feel bad about complicity in their lives and actions, every prisoner’s just another psychological projection. We say outright that it’s all about sending a message, symbolism of what we won’t stand for, and that’s all we really have.
“But I want to make something more out of this. It’s a chance to take part in a real drama, real tragedy, something so much greater than yourself. It’ll touch thousands, maybe millions. I take your story, add a few flourishes, get to know your character, record a few dreams to keep things interesting, and you just say OK, and you’ve got this room and anything you want – books, movies, foods, music, pen and paper of course. As things develop we may take you elsewhere as appropriate.”
At the mention of food I noticed an empty stomach, and whether or not he anticipated the words I said, “When do you give breakfast here?”
“Usually we bring it in after we finish the business with the release form.”
“No food unless I say yes?”
He shifted his weight from side to side, scratching his cheek. “Well, procedure is to bring the meal after our talk. We do need a video recording – just footage of me talking to you, telling you about the program, and then you signing the papers. Documentation.”
“The signer is responsible, and everyone else is off the hook. They do that everywhere.” I was stalling, though I wasn’t sure what for. This prospect did excite me. When I was young one of my grand ambitions had been to transform into the heroes of my favorite novels – I would be brave and have their adventures, challenges, friends, respect, worth. I now felt on the verge of tears. I didn’t care if my mind was an open book.
“Do you really want to go back to work, routines and social conventions to get by, the meaninglessness of passing time, seeing the same tired coworkers and relatives, coming to hate or ignore it all?”
Of course not. “You say that, but what about your routines?” I said, my voice trembling a bit.
“Oh, I’m a subject too,” he said. “I started the project with that in mind, actually. I was one of the first. There’s an ongoing story about me already. Many of them overlap like ours will.”
Something about pen and paper and something about him in control swam around discretely for a few instants, and then I thought to say, “Why you?”
“Well, the same reason it attracts you, probably, I felt like it would give my life more -”
“No, not as a subject. Why are you going to write this one?”
He crossed his legs and snort-frowned. “Well, I’m the writer that started this project. Naturally I select the characters and then dramatize them. Nobody else is really qualified.”
“So you have to do your own?”
He prolonged a blink and shook his head. “No, a subject can’t be its own author, that’s impossible. The perspective’s too narrow. In fact I’ve never even met mine. For all I know he’s a talentless hack.”
“But what if two subjects collaborate?” I said, starting to feel a tingling I didn’t understand.
“We are two subjects,” he said, furrowing his brows. “I just said that.”
“No, I know,” I said, “I don’t mean just talking, but, what if the subjects could help write the story?”
He looked at me amusedly. “But you’re not a writer, you said. And even if you were -”
“That’s just it,” I said. “I mean, I’m not a writer, I just wrote a little when I was younger, when I had to, and then I stopped and spent my time inside other stories. Now here I am, like you say, framed by greater forces for the death of an unseen God, and then captured for manipulation on top of that for the purpose of a story that I have no power over.”
He had uncrossed his legs and lost his amusement for intense attention.
“So what if,” I continued, “instead of the hapless scapegoat getting used in the end, which has been done, I hear the proposition and fight back? I don’t attack and kill my captors, I say ‘Well how about this instead?’ There’s not the expected murderous revenge or nihilistic submission, there’s a different message that resounds with an audience, basically that the reader -”
“Does have control.”
“Yeah.” We spoke slowly, staring into one another’s eyes. Not just my head tingled now but also my arms, my chest.
“So the captor-prisoner duality is transcended.”
“Right, which is every duality.”
“The authority is not an unapproachable force, he can be reasoned with, he’s one of us.” He started to sniff and quake.
“Meaning doesn’t have to be given from above. People can discover and shape it for themselves, and they can do it together.”
“The reader isn’t abandoned at the end when the story’s over, it’s like the story speaks directly to the reader, like, like…”
“You’re a part of this too, and that’s what this is all about.”
A keening, barking inhuman scream leapt from his throat like a sudden gasp for air after breaking the surface of the sea at the end of almost drowning in a deep dive. More, though less forceful, followed as his chin dropped to his chest, wracked by deeper sobs than I’d ever seen from woman or man.
I didn’t know what to do. I tried to look elsewhere in the room so as not to see him and embarrass him but there was no escaping the sounds. The only thing that felt right to do was approach him. I rose from the bed, made slowly the few steps to his seat, and put a tentative hand on his shoulder.
He jumped up and seized me with a sobbing throbbing embrace. I squeezed back after a stunned moment and then I began to share this intoxication, my ocular waterworks turning on too. The talentless hack would have quite the scene on his hands, I thought.
The door slammed open and a woman ran through into the room. “What’s going on?” she shouted, staring in confusion as we ignored her, eyes closed and dripping, arms filled with shaking warm hides. “Art,” she said, “Art, what’s going on?”
After several seconds he let go and turned, slow, sniffling and blinking, to her. “We were just going over things,” he said, wiping his eyes with his knuckles, “going over the story.”
And I’m walking down a flight of stairs, the stairs outside the station, and though I feel my feet on the steps, in my chest I feel myself flying. I have no landlord, no dirty clothes to wash, no captor, nowhere to be or go except a park in front of me that I’ve just noticed.
I walk, soaring, through throngs of focused faces above the sidewalk bound for unknown places, cross the roaring street to rows of cypress and pine trees, open green fields with a few people walking little dogs, throwing Frisbees, picnicking, lying asleep on their backs. Here the sound is calm, here the sun shines bright.
The warmth and driness permits the body to sit out here in comfort, and so I do, and I turn to a blank sheet in the notebook in my hands and pull the pen out of its spiral rings and think about – or do I think, or does something think through me – how I could describe this. I look at the vista in front of me, filling me, and then I look down, down at the wand, and I begin.