He Hadn’t Left His Apartment in Three Weeks
He was worried someone was following him. I thought: he’s getting old. I hadn’t seen him in years. He told me he was getting anonymous letters in the mail. I could tell how different he was, how afraid and paranoid he’d become. That’s what I witnessed when I arrived at his apartment: a man humiliated with himself, a disgrace, with shame eating away at him. It was something worse than I had expected. It was something very sad. He was limping and walking with a cane from falling on the ice a few days earlier. He told me he was lonely and sad. He hadn’t left his apartment in three weeks. We drank brandy from glasses and stared at the TV.
We Watched Ourselves from Many Years Ago
He showed me a videotape of my sister and me when we were little, pretending to be newscasters. My sister and I, sharing a table, the kitchen table, talking about the news of the day, news of the world, airplane crashes and wildfires sweeping the western plains, people dying, animal rescues, ice sculptures, poisonous rattlesnakes, killer bees. I watched the younger version of myself reading from a piece of notebook paper. I observed my seriousness, our youthfulness, our expressions as we read from fictional news stories. The picture was poor quality, copied from an old VCR tape with bad tracking.
Why had he kept this videotape for so many years?
Our Condemned Building
He knew we liked his apartment. We were poor and there were always rats in our building. I lived on the same street where derelicts slept in boxes. They lit fires in trash cans and stared at me as I walked past them. Our apartment was upstairs from an old picture-framing shop, where my father worked four days a week framing lithographs and photographs before he lost the job and went unemployed. Our landlord, an old Puerto Rican guy named Andrés who walked with a limp and talked through black teeth, laughed at me when I asked him about the bugs in the apartment. Andrés made racial slurs when he fixed the bathroom sink.
I remember trying to catch crawdads in a creek with a boy who lived in the apartment upstairs. Sometimes we could hear noises from his apartment that sounded like a wrench hitting something metal. We heard their footsteps on the ceiling when we tried to sleep. The boy once pulled his shirt up and showed me a horrible scar spread across his stomach where hot grease had spilled on him.
I remember the sound the pipes made when you turned on the water in the tub. My sister said it sounded like me when I was crying.
I remember the tiny apartment where my mother sat in front of the TV, smoking cigarette after cigarette. The whole room filled with blue smoke.
I remember sitting in the principal’s office at school, being sent home for head lice. The boy sitting next to me kept touching my head. He said my hair felt like the inside of a dog’s ear.
He Kept Marionettes
His apartment was nicer than anywhere I lived. His place was filled with books of fairy tales and Norse myths, collections of devils and emperors, children’s stories. There was an old hardbound copy of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. A history of mythological beasts. A history of fictional places. A collection of marionettes. Manipulating the strings he made them take a bow. They danced across the floor.
“You used to love these,” he said, lighting a match. He put the match in his mouth.
He Killed His Dog
His old dog, a Doberman, once attacked him in his sleep. “Fucking dog went batcrazy,” he told me. He loved to tell that story, how he’d managed to grab a baseball bat and started beating the dog with it.
He told me the whole process took twenty minutes. Twenty minutes before the dog stopped moving.
I Left but Returned
I left for a while and went for a walk. He didn’t try to stop me even though the night was freezing. Outside the air was heavy and dead. Sleet, cold wind. Rank smells, empty streets, narrow alleys, and shadows. The guy working at the liquor store had a cat with him. The cat was silent, sleeking around my legs. A man watching me whispered something to the woman with him. I picked up the cat and let it curl against my chest. The couple watched me but I ignored them. I bought a bottle of Popov vodka and headed back to his loft.
Many Years Ago He Was Burned
He needed to confide in me. Someone was following him. Many years ago, he told me, someone had burned him. A terrible thing to do to a child.
“I was a child when it happened,” he said. “It’s not important exactly how or why this happened, only that it did happen many years ago.”
He unbuttoned his pants, bleary eyed, drunk. When I think back on it, the silence came out of the smoky air like a wounded animal. His flesh was cryptic at the stomach and down to the groin. I saw the burned flesh. A putrescence of clotted skin. A mutilation. The gelatinous area of burned flesh was stretched and discolored. A disfigurement. It took what felt like a long time for the horror of the situation to diminish, and when he stood I found myself standing as well.
“It’s not what you think,” he said. “It’s not what you think.”
I stared at his mouth. The night was freezing outside. We heard sleet hitting the window.
“It’s not what you think,” he kept saying.