So here I was. Listening to the rain go down against the window. When I was little I used to bring my index finger up against the window and touch a rain drop touching the other side of the glass. I’d keep with it until it slid all the way down. Then, the phone rang. I just looked at it for a bit. Two or three rings I waited. And then I got a little scared of the noise and picked it up.
“Michael?” It was a girl’s voice, or a woman.
“Hi. Who’s this?”
There was a small pause, then, “it’s Alexis.”
“Oh. How are you?”
“I’m good. What are you up to?”
“Watching TV.” The truth was, I didn’t even have a television. I was a little worried who Alexis was. She started getting into how in the morning she woke up and still had my number, so I guessed I met her last night. What did I do last night? I uncrossed my Indian squat on the chair and put one leg against a wall to lean back a little.
“So anyway, I figured I’d give you a call so we could hang or do something.”
An odd thought occurred to me while watching the rain. It wasn’t just hitting my window. It was hitting the whole building, and it was hitting wherever Alexis was too. I leaned a little to look straight up through the window and saw a big darkness up there. The thing about the darkness was when you look at first, you first think “I can’t see up into the sky, it’s too dark,” and then you realize that’s just the color of the sky. I looked around my room. It was pretty dark. I don’t like it too dark, but I had only one light bulb left. When you’ve only got one light bulb left, you try to save it for when you need it. I looked around a little harder in the dark and thought I saw something move. I know, nothing moved. But you know how it looks like they sometimes move. I realized nobody was saying anything.
“Where are you right now?” I said.
“I just got out of the shower.”
“I mean where do you live? Is it far?”
“I dunno… where do you live?”
“Manual Boulevard, up near Hunter.”
“Dolestown,” I said.
“Oh! I’m from Dolestown too.”
“We could hang out tonight if you want.” I kept watching the rain, trying to remember what she looked like.
“In the rain? And do what?”
“There’s a diner open. We could get some coffee. Are you busy?”
“No, it’s just the rain.”
“I can drive you.”
“Ok, well. Let me give you my address.”
“Hold on a sec.”
I turned around and looked at the dark in my room. I got up and walked over to where I remembered the wall was, then traced my hand along it. I traced it slowly with my fingernail. I wasn’t really touching the wall, just in case and all. My fingernail made a drawing sound along it, looking for the light switch. Somewhere the light bulb was in the middle of the room. I tried my hardest to look at my finger. Then I closed one eye, one more step, I got to it. I grabbed it with my thumb and popped on the light. I didn’t mind looking around the room. Small room, small apartment. I got a hold of some paper, went to the desk and found a pencil. I got back to the phone, looked around the room again.
“I’m sorry, there’s no paper at all here.”
“Oh, it’s ok. I went and dried my hair actually.” I hoped her hair was beautiful. I couldn’t remember for the life of me. I got her number, said thanks, said goodbye, put the phone down. I couldn’t see out of the window now because of the light in the room.
I mind as well tell you right now that I’m a little scared of the dark. Not too scared but sometimes it gets to me, like tonight. Really, you can’t be too scared if you’re going to live with only one light bulb.
I got back to the wall and looked at the door. Then I decided to open the door first, and looked out in the hallway. Green peeling paint everywhere. I opened my door all the way, got back to the light, shut it off and got to the door and shut it closed. Then I just walked down the hallway with my shoes on.
Then I got this strange idea. Like the air behind me was being breathed. So I walked on a bit, got to the stairway, and looked back. Nothing. I got the chills
when I was little. My brother used to dress up in a trench-coat and come over to me sleeping, rattle me up like he was a robber. I’d never get any homework or sleep done when I was little because of it. He was a real asshole. While I looked back down the hallway, the breathing got louder. And then I heard something real strange. It was a bang, down the hallway, like a train wreck. I stumbled down a few steps and then through the walls there was a huge pounding, an insane rumble. Just at that second I’d forgotten about my umbrella. I had to go back. The pounding was horrible. I leapt down a number of stairs and made the rest quite fast as well. You wouldn’t believe it.
I got to my car, I pushed my hair back. I really needed a haircut, it got in my eyes. I started it and drove around my apartment, watching it breathe, and then watching the pavement and street breathe. I looked up into my window. The light was on. I kept looking for a while, then got a terrible feeling, hit the gas, looked at the paper in my wallet and made my way to Alexis.
I padded the accelerator, stopped at a red light, popped in the cigarette heater next to the dashboard, and thought about college. I sort of failed out of college. I wasn’t a big fan of it. I went to most of my classes and then I suddenly stopped. That’s how things happen. They creep up on you. You think you’ve got a good hold of how things are supposed to go down and something in you screws it up big time. Usually what screws up what’s in you, is something outside of you. Like putting on the same shoes after a month of doing it every day. Or a thunderstorm. You could be standing in line one day and realize you haven’t taken a shower in two days, and really smell, and then you get scared you smell to everyone else, and then you get the hell out of the line. The light went green. I felt like shit and the cigarette lighter popped out hot. I don’t smoke, if you’re thinking I do.
While I was driving along I thought what would be a real great idea to do, was get out of the car, and let the rain hit me. Like Singing in the Rain. That one scene made the whole movie worth it. Worth all the black and white, all the phony acting. Just to watch some jackass screw his suit up in the rain. I stopped, but instead of getting out I turned on the light in the car, pulled out the paper in my pocket, and re-read Alexis’ address. Then I suddenly got depressed. And then worried. It kind of happened like this: I read the paper from my pocket, then looked down and found the wheel, almost got to it and then wondered how pretty she was, wondered why I left college, wondered how the hell I was going to pay for coffee, wondered about my brother, why the hell I was so scared about everything. Hell even as I was wondering all those things I was wondering if something was in the back seat. Just waiting for me to look long enough back there so he could move up and snatch me. I looked at the paper again. Nothing was behind me. If something was back there, it was a murderer, a man with a knife or a gun, and he would have gotten to me by now. Absolutely nothing was back there. Then, I got out of the car and let the rain hit me.
From there I glanced into the back seat with the light still on in the car: nothing but my shit. Who has a midlife crisis when they’re 23? I wasn’t having a crisis anyway. It was the nerves. I think I always get the nerves after a hangover. I must have met her last night at the bar. There was a bar between both our houses and I met her there, I’m sure. But she sounded young, damn. Actually, the college I went to wasn’t far. I bet she went there. I met her at the bar and charmed her somehow and then she calls me. That means we didn’t fuck, I laughed. Well it wasn’t happening tonight. I got in the car, changed gears, ran up to the next light, waited, got the green, and got to her apartment. I got up
and rang and then the door shuddered like the walls did. The whole building roared. I don’t know why. I wish I had a gun right then. The door pounded and I jumped back, fell off the stairs, and I fell on my back. Loud loud loud, I looked down the streets and it looked fine down there. What kind of door was this? Why are the walls breathing? A voice came from the door. It was a female’s voice, hot:
“Who is it?”
“Mike, hey. 316”
It buzzed. I rushed up the stairs for the handle. Could you image the embarrassment if I didn’t get the door on the first buzz? It turned in. I walked through the door, the stairs were right in front of me. One of the lights up there was busted. I thought about not going up. The rain hit a glass window at the top of the second floor. I saw an elevator and pushed the button. The door opened. I went in there and hit the button and the machine climbed. Now that I think about it, I’ve been in the building before. It’s relatively close to the campus, so I’m sure that she’s from there. She… I thought, then I thought shit. The floor came up. I’d just forgotten her name. The doors opened. I walked
around. What’s the point. So many doors. People sleeping under the rain. The walls standing around, wide awake. Trying to scare me. The lighting wasn’t so bad, to tell you the truth. Sometimes you can walk into a room or down a hall or early in the morning and look around and just because of the light, you’re doing good. You can find the good shadows under leafs, around clever places in architecture. Not too bright, and the light being very pretty. You could just stand there and look out a window at 4:30pm and admire the clouds or the way a rainbow is made in a puddle of oil. It’s when light is too bright or too dark that things aren’t right. When it’s too bright, it’s not too bad. When a room shines too much it gets hot and curious. Why the hell is there too much light in there? Who needs that? But when it’s dark, that’s the worst. Shadows. It’s like taking that elevator underground. And the light is at the top. You go blind too high, so you go down, and pick a floor in the middle and it’s good. But then you keep going down. Maybe the elevator broke. It sparks out and drops down. The shadows that were beautiful are now on top of you. Even the corners that seemed delicate with their shadows are something different. It keeps dropping down, keeps getting darker on you. Eventually you’re so far down and it’s so dark you can’t see in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an elevator or not. You could be in the biggest dark room alive then and you wouldn’t know it. You just stare in front of you like the shadows are something you never seen before. Until, you know. Until it finally
happens, but this time the hall was great. 316. Three knocks, a little wait, and I could hear something. Then the lock shifted, and the door opened. I looked at her stomach at first, then her face. She had some pimples, and a graceless sweater on and you could tell she had a gut. I thought about what my face looked like and decided a smile was better.
“Come on in,” she walked away inside and I saw her ugly ass. I followed it. I got in and looked around the room as she went into a side room. Girls are always doing that. I mean inviting you in when you come to get them. It’s not like I really mind. But I don’t care what their places look like. Usually you walk into a girl’s place and you could swear at the first glance all you see are things from their last boyfriend’s, and then you look again, and it’s only half the things. Then she tells you it was more than one boyfriend. You know how it is. And her place looked like more than one person lived there. Maybe two or three.
“Where are your roommates?”
“They went. Stacy had to get money from her parents and Meagan is at her boyfriend’s.”
“Cool,” then I said, “are you ready?” I probably should have said something more affectionate or something, but to tell you the truth when a girl opens her door and invites you in the first time, and she’s not the prettiest thing in the world, and you don’t even remember her, or remember her name, you’re not exactly thinking of what to say next.
“Yeah, got my purse.” A purse, I thought. Then I saw it. A stupid purse. I went out the door first, waited for her to lock it, tried to picture her ass in a good way, and couldn’t do it. We took the elevator back down. Then I got a thought in the elevator. How many basements are there? Into the car. I thought of something to say.
“So you go to Dolestown?”
“3 years, I told you last night.”
“Sorry, I didn’t remember, that‘s right. I went to Dolestown too.”
“Did you graduate?”
“Did you like it?”
“Then why are you still here?”
“It’s cheap I guess.”
Another red light. She pushed in the cigarette heater. I hate smoking. I knew she was going to smoke when it came out of the heater. She was going to stink up the whole car. But there was nothing I could do. I could tell her to open a window, I thought. But that’s rude. Rude enough. I already stared at her gut and frowned. If you’re going to take a female for coffee and she’s pissed off, believe me, you’d rather sit in a smoking stink hole. I just couldn’t say it.
And then she lit it. “Want a drag?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“No, but you can. I don’t mind.”
I’d sooner jump out the window then smell it. Instead I increased my grip on the wheel, stared down the storming road. Black ahead, then yellow lines, then black ahead, then white… then black again.
“Hey! Are you ok?”
“Oh, my fault.”
“You almost hit that car! Are you ok?” She was talking about a parked one. The streets were too damned narrow.
“Yeah, yeah. So what’s your major?”
“What can you do with that?”
“I dunno. I think I want to be a DJ.”
We went on about music for a bit then and soon shut up. Up ahead about five yards a pair of large white eyes ran through the car. I squeezed the wheel. The diner came up. Might as well go in. Through the rain. Conversation started again, as I opened the door and let her have it.
“Thank you. It’s been a while since a boy opened a door for me.”
“Yeah,” I flinched. I found a seat. She got in the one adjacent “Coffee right?”
“Yeah, I think I’m going to get something to eat with it.”
It wasn’t really conversation but it’s about as close as it gets, horrible women and men alike. I’m not much of a talker, to tell you the truth. She must not be picky about her men. Well, she’s got that problem. The waitress came up. Always an older woman.
“Bring a pot, please,” I said looking at her hands, not wanting to see that old face.
“Is that all?”
“Can I get a hamburger too?” The girl said.
“Do you want fries?”
What was her name? I don’t know if I wanted to know. No conversation for a bit again. I looked towards the bathroom. A bad light went around its cracks. I didn’t have to go, but I sort of dared myself to give it a shot. Go in there, dare the bad light to try something. Then I caught the waitress off the corner of my eye, smoking a cigarette over near the cook, looking at the clock. There was no way you were allowed to smoke in here, but she did it anyway. There were all sorts of lines over her face, with dumb blue eyes, and that cigarette and smoke moving between her lips. Then suddenly, even though I was doing a good job of being quiet and not caring, I felt I should say something, or else an unseen but suddenly felt force would crash down on me.
“Do you like dogs?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” She said. “I’ve got a dog at home. Sparky.”
“Isn’t that name a little cliché?”
“I dunno, but he’s really cute.”
“I used to have a dog,” I said. She looked interested so I went on with it for a bit. “His name was Buddy. Big dog, used to poop a lot. I got him from the pound when he was a year old. I wanted something younger but they were going to kill him soon if someone didn’t buy.”
“That was nice of you.”
“Yeah, he used to poop all over though. I should have called him Shithead.”
“Haha! You couldn’t train him for the yard?”
“Oh I tried, it never worked. He used to be sneaky. He hated going out in the yard so he’d wait until I wasn’t looking and put one on the kitchen floor!”
“Oh god!” She sort of laughed again. Then her burger and the coffee pot came. I poured a deep black one.
“So anyway, yeah. The dog shat all over. Then one day he just stopped eating. I had to get him put to sleep.”
“It's a shame that most dogs die like that.”
I agreed. “You’d think that if they could talk, they’d tell you ‘hey buddy, don’t fuckin’ kill me, I’d rather decide to stop breathing myself’”.
“Uh huh,” she took a bite of the hamburger. “We should start a petition.”
I drank the coffee, looked at the clock. 3:43am or something. The minute hand looked like it had trouble deciding weather to go forward or back. Then out the window. Across the street was a small street that went down into a couple rows of homes. Along the front was a pawn shop. Nothing special or unusual for miles. Just dark neighborhoods.
“So what’s Sparky like?” I asked her.
“He’s a small dog. My mom bought him when I was away last semester. He used to poop everywhere too. Now he just sheds and chews on everything. To tell you the truth I think I’d rather have a cat. I hear they’re smarter, but my little brother hates cats.” She took another bite of her burger, “He’s a typical little kid. He just wants a dog because he thinks it’s the guy thing. Like it's somehow more noble to eat your shit. My mom and dad always do what he wants. I hope the dog bites him.”
“I used to not like cats,” I said, “for the same reason. I grew out of it though. My aunt had a cat, Gonzo was her name, it was the coolest cat ever.”
I looked back down at my coffee and decided on some sugar and crème. I always have sugar and crème, but I thought I’d like to try black. The black was too much. A lot of people say it’s too strong, but that’s not really it. I can down it no problem. Strong is hot sauce. Black is empty flavor with a hint of pigshit.
She finished her burger and we just sat there. I couldn’t think of anything normal to say, and I didn’t feel like leaving yet. I wanted the coffee to kick in before I tried driving. And what else would I do? Take her back to the room, go to mine? The night was no thing to hurry through, no matter how much you think you want it over. It’s better to play what cards you have, than fold and go back to the room. I looked out the window again, the rain let up. I asked her:
“What do you think the meaning of life is?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Don’t you think that’s a little cliché?” What sort of answer was I looking for anyway?
“Well what do you want to do before you die? When you’re on your deathbed, what do you want to be satisfied about?”
“I guess I’d like some children.”
“Why not? Children are good. Then you feel like you’re passing something on.”
“I guess. It sounds fake though. Children aren’t you, you know?” I didn’t know what I wanted to say, I just had a feeling. Think about it. Here you are, going around through life and trying to do all these things, and every now and then you stop dead, like someone just hit you in the gut, all because you thought of the question. Maybe the meaning of life isn’t even the question. You just can’t help yourself from asking. I tried
“Well do you really know that children are going to do it for you?” She looked around the side of her coffee cup, some of it sliding down the side, even though it was half empty. “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to get there, feeling like you wasted so much time, and never got around to doing what it’ll be that will make death bearable?”
“I guess not,” she said. “If I knew what it was I’d probably be doing it right now. It’s ok, though. I’ll probably end up in heaven or close enough.”
“You believe in god, then?”
“Yeah, My family is Lutheran.”
“Oh. Yeah, I’m atheist.”
“I bet it‘s a lot harder for you because of it.”
“Sometimes. I used to be Catholic. I just thought it was fake.”
I was fine with it. It was a deep conversation, anyway. As far as they go. The first in a while for me, and I remembered why I didn’t have them. You can’t go very far with another human, as far as conversation goes. You get to a certain point and something happens, a big fork in the road or something, and you can’t get any further. You always argue that one of you has got to be right, but what a can of worms you’d be opening to try and come up with whom it was. The truth is, when you talk to another person, it’s all just a bunch of silly question marks. The conversation was over. And by now I didn’t feel like going back to dogs and cats.
“Are you ready?”
“Yeah, let me go to the bathroom though. I’ll meet you outside.”
She went towards that door. The sign said “Men/Women”. She pushed the door open, a flash of unwanted ass, and she was gone into it. I got the check, paid it, and walked out.
For a moment I wanted to jump into my car and be off without her. Fuck her, for whatever reason there was. But I just leaned against it and looked up. The stars looked like dead broken hearts smoking cigarettes. That’s about as much sense as there was. I calmed down a little. Why did I get worked up? It was either the Lutheran in her or the ass on her. I heard a clang and looked down that street I saw through the window. Some bum was rattling through it with cans. Buddy, I thought, that’s me in a few years. This is all it took: miss one more day of work. Buy a bottle of booze I can’t pay for. Anything. Then wham, on the street, cans and dark alleys and everything. A guy on the opposite side of the street, still a silhouette
moved his way up to me. He had something in his hands that looked like an unlit cigar. Moved right across the street and picked his pace up. I looked in for the girl. The bathroom swallowed her up. Here he came, right up to me. It was a switchblade.
“What do you have for me?” He said.
“An ugly girlfriend.”
“You give me your fucking wallet or I’ll lick the blood in your fucking throat!”
Then I caught his eyes. His one eye thrashed up and down at me. Just the pupil, glazed over, changing colors. White then purple black yellow. His fingers were claws. He didn’t even have a switchblade. It was a voodoo doll, wooden with my name of it. He sneezed on me, something grew out his pants, split down the seems and dice spilled out and rattled. I jumped.
“Give me your fucking money! Or you‘re dead!” I seized my wallet, threw it on the ground. He lifted it and puffed off the other side of the street, jumped up the side of a house, and became a silhouette again. I caught the bum’s eyes on me. What the hell was he looking at? The girl came out.
“Ready,” she said. I wanted to hit her, for whatever reason I had. Instead, I got around to the other side of the car, unlocked it, got in, then unlocked her side. Not opening it for her first didn’t phase her. Maybes she was used to it by now. She better be.
“Hey,” I said while starting the machine up. “Do you want to go back now or go somewhere else?”
“I don’t care. Where else is there?”
“We could just drive around.”
So we drove around. I was confused. Was it a ghost? She talked for a bit but I was silent. Then she stopped. I needed to drive somewhere. I was confused. Was I going insane? No wallet, scared out of my mind, and maybe everything else wrong, I decided to drive up to the end of the city, up a hill on the road. The road actually never stopped. It shot up, and dipped down into another long road that fell into a highway, and the highway went on into another city. I got to the top of the first high hill there, pulled the wheel to the left, let the machine turn around and stopped the damn thing. Then I got out, and looked up. The stars smoked. Then it came, as I looked into that dark, while she opened her own door, it came suddenly. Good. Where is the good? Where is all the good? I can‘t find it. What the fuck is there? I almost cried. She asked me then:
“Do you look at the stars much?”
“No. Never. Not really.”
“I do most nights, but it doesn’t really mean anything."
“What do you mean?”
“They’re just gas. Lots of people look at the stars like it means something.”
"Well why do you look?"
"I dunno, they can be pretty.My mom used to tell me if you pray to them your dreams can come true. But I don't think God works that way."
Oh, I said. It confused me a little. I looked longer. She asked me what my favorite gum was, then didn’t say anything else. She had an ugly face, I thought, looking at the stars.
I got to feeling weird then, decided that was it. I mean, I used to think ‘IT’ was all of it, but really, ‘IT’ was just the end of being bored of a particular thing. Right when things are going to change, it hits. If it never hits then you’re always going to look at the world the same forever. I just didn’t care for the night anymore, I think.
“Are you ready?” I asked her. Yeah, she said. I got back in the car, so did she. I hit the gear, got it going, back down the hill.
I took her to the front of her apartment, dropped her off right there. She gave me a look and the look said I don’t think you remember my name, then quickly: “Michael you smoked last night,” and vanished in the breathing doors. I took off, pulled a U-turn and got my car going back to my place. It pulled up.
The light was still on. I’m gonna be honest with you. I was scared. And by scared I meant I couldn’t feel my legs walking. Walking up. Centuries of horror, a stairway up. I got to my floor. The walls were fine, green. I got to the door, opened it. Dark inside. I tried not to look. I know, the light to the right of the door inside, approximately 3 meters. I moved inside. Heels, toes, I dashed, got it, flicked it up. I looked into the center of the room. Nothing. The room was still dark, the light blew out, it wasn‘t coming back. The door was still open from where I left it. It was too hard to get to the hallway. I was scared, I tell you. No light or anything. You know how it is. You look in the room, the center of it, no light on, and it’s dark. So goddamn dark, then, maybe it was me, but something was around where the light usually was. What do I do? What do I do?