For A While The Apartment Stood Empty
Is it the nineties? Darius couldn’t have said. He drifted to the city by way of several others he’d been compelled to leave, having worn out his welcome. Earlier that year a famous rock star had blown his brains out with a shotgun. Strange days. Darius wakes to find himself lying on the subway tracks, in the path of an oncoming uptown local.
It’s the horn which rouses him, its wail the wail of a terrible beast on the verge of extinction. Darius scuttles backwards on his hands, feeling something snap. After shivering and weeping overnight in a jail cell, cradling his swollen wrist as if it were an infant, Darius walks out into daylight a new man.
* * *
Darius has been a new man now for six days longer than his tenure at the coffee bar. At the end of every shift he drops a bean into a go-cup kept on a stockroom shelf: when the cup is full, he plans to grind its contents and, using one of those chrome French gadgets for the seated customers, savor a celebratory pot with a cigarette. Until then, he will try not to impede his bloodstream from continuing day-by-day to purge itself of toxins.
This place requires Darius to wear an apron, to remember just how each rich person takes her house blend, and to call every dog by its name. Apparently out West people were paying upwards of two dollars for coffee handed to them by someone who gave a shit, and the owners—a May-December gay couple from the Golden State—have imported the idea back East to see if it might take hold.
There are concessions to his dignity: in addition to the apron, there is a polo shirt and a golf cap under which Darius is required to keep his stray curls—small price to pay, he discovers, for all the food he can eat and the deep slush of change the tip jar yields. A bank account is out of the question (as he has no address), so he trades the coins for bills and keeps the cumulative total as slim as possible, demoniationally, in an envelope against his belly. Singles he keeps in his front pocket.
He finally understands what those recovery freaks meant: you had to make yourself from scratch.
* * *
This isn’t the first time in Darius’ quarter century that he’s been remade.
When he was fifteen, his father died in an auto accident. The phrase itself held a certain comfort: auto accident—its alliterative balance just opaque enough to shield the mind’s eye from the steaming, bloody truth: that his father, with the courage of nine happy hour vodka tonics, at a rate of eighty-six miles per hour and an impact velocity of forty-seven feet per second, had slammed himself into a concrete off-ramp divider, leaving Darius to man his mother and two-year-old brother.
Some years later he learned that his father was in fact not dead, that he had merely fled to Apilachicola with the local pharmacist’s assistant. When he confronted his mother about it, she said, “Well it should have been true, the lousy bastard.”
“What about the service? And all the flowers? Aunt Hedda sang ‘Oh Shepard of the Sheep!’”
“We were plenty pissed off at the time.”
The pocket of household silence his father had left was filled with the noise of his baby brother, deafening his mother to the dark new music Darius began listening to.
He enjoyed an exhilarating semester-long plunge from academic grace, at the bottom of which came the resounding thud of academic failure.
Summer school introduced Darius to a seedier crowd, and it was here that he developed his taste for the roulette game of pills—and the occasional bathroom stall encounter that found him on his knees with a cold belt buckle icing his forehead and a cock in his mouth. He bleached his hair and began wearing a trench coat and scuffed boots pulled off an unconscious man at the bus depot on a dare. While looking for cash in his mother’s dresser, he came across his father’s dog tags and began wearing them saftypinned through his earlobe. He brought his new summer acquaintances around the house and stomped around in his boots and ear jewelry with just enough bravado to scare his mother into seeking some outside help.
She told him they were going camping, just the two of them, to reconnect. Aunt Hedda came early in the morning to look after his little brother while he and his mother warmed up the car. In retrospect it did seem strange that they had packed so few belongings and that they were headed towards the highway, away from the State Park.
His mother brought the car to a stop at the end of a dirt path, middle of nowhere. The air was crisp, buzzing with wilderness. They were greeted by an oafish man who introduced himself as Eagle Bear. He escorted Darius into a trailer where he was made to sign documents. He was told to remove the contents of his pockets, his dog-tag earrings, his boots, and the rest of his clothing.
Darius refused. He demanded to speak to his mother. She would straighten this out. But, when he went outside the car was gone. This fact, along with a sudden gust of wind, struck Darius like a slap. A stream trickled somewhere close by.
What the hell was going on?
The road up ahead disappeared into a full curtain of woods and through it, other family sedans came rolling up, trailing clouds of dust, letting out kids who looked as bewildered as he felt.
* * *
Darius takes his time strolling the neighborhood after his double shift at the coffee bar, and comes out along the highway. He crosses over, wanders the splintery piers overlooking Hoboken, and settles against a dock tie in time for a sunset nap. When he wakes, the transvestite prostitutes are out strutting their stuff: this is his cue.
Darius used to think rentals were a waste of money—wasn’t there always some place to crash? True, the couches of his acquaintances were somewhat unreliable, and their availability ran in direct proportion to whether he had enough cash for what they were selling. But it had been good for riding out the duration of a high. There used to be any number of ways of getting through a night, in the old days. It had been easy. If he arrived late enough amid the beery dishrag stink at the Mars Bar, he might find a girl by herself, drowsing over a glass of pink ice. If he caught her before her head hit the bar, he might lead her by the elbow up to her place. Though he had to watch out for boyfriends.
These days his options are more limited, as the old places and acquaintances pose a serious threat to the new recovery. He steals sleep wherever it presents itself—church pew, subway car, bathroom stall. Shelters are out of the question. On his first and only excursion into one, he was forced under pressure of knife at his throat’s soft belly to fellatiate a wild-eyed Hispanic. Thing was, had the man simply asked nicely. Not that the streets are any safer. He’s seen all sorts of horrors on the street—a man kicked awake by a trio of teenagers and then beaten back into unconsciousness, a man pissed on, a man doused in lighter fluid and partially ignited. Though, to be fair, this was the same man, on the same occasion. And come to think of it, Darius knew him—only a week earlier, he’d denied owing Darius five dollars! The lowlife had it coming.
He browsed pages of real estate listings, yet every call seemed to direct him to the same three brokerages; and these places wanted fifteen percent of a year’s rent for the pleasure of the landlord’s acquaintance. Who’d ever heard of that? He checked the lampposts for flyers, the bulletin boards in supermarkets by the bagboys. He pounded the pavement. He talked to supers. He talked to tenants and landlords. He looked up when walking down a block for signs in the windows of vacant apartments. He gave out the cafe’s number to each person that he met, but no one ever called.
There were hostels around Times Square that rented by the night. Occasionally, he would peel off a few damp bills from his envelope for a key, but the backpacking Europeans were all too eager to share their crumbly dirtweed, even when he said no. No, for Christ’s sake! Besides, at noon the place was no longer his, and this above all is what Darius wants: a place of his own.
Miraculously, the fellow barista who opened weekdays was gay-bashed. To Darius’ knowledge, the kid wasn’t gay, but no matter—he was giving up his place, moving back to wherever, and Darius would be taking over his shifts. He was entrusted with the register till and given keys to the storefront gate.
Darius returns to the café and lets himself in. He has become by now familiar enough with the owners’ domestic routine to know they would be safely tucked away in their Charles Street co-op no later than ten.
Once Darius is inside, he pulls the gate down and sets the locks on the cool tile floor. The windows are sweating, sign of a cold night.
He draws water from the tap in the slop sink and cups several mouthfuls, running his wet hands through his hair. He looks in the mirror and rubs his cheeks. He is beginning to exhibit the weatherbeaten skin of the homeless from these weeks of spongebathing with pink dispenser soap.
Removing his shoes—which more than anything else here seems the greatest transgression—he lies down on the padded banquette, folding his sweatshirt under his head for a pillow. He has exactly five hours before bagel delivery.
* * *
The gate rattles Darius from his half-sleep.
He skitters around the counter, crouched low, before he knows he is awake. His head echoes with the last words of a dream conversation and his cheek is numb with sleep.
Someone calls, “Hello?” An impish, girlish voice.
Darius waits through a silence. His muscles tense as though they are doing the work of keeping still each object in the room. The hairs on his skin tell him that whoever is there is frozen in a similar pose as he, and with each passing second it becomes clearer that the question’s inflection isn’t whether anyone is there, but rather why the person who is there is hiding.
Darius peeks through the opening between the display case and the cash register.
“You could have told me it was you,” Darius says, standing.
“And miss the chance to see you hop like a monkey?”
“Don’t you sleep?”
“Just the thing I came to talk to you about. Pack your things, friend, I got something for you.”
* * *
Brat camp taught Darius the art of self-reliance. It also taught him the art of masturbating quietly. He was made to endure nights shoulder-to-shoulder with the others in a tent that slept fourteen. In nine weeks, he had learned to improvise tinder from dry moss, make sweet tea from pine needles and cloudberries, and tell the difference between the fleshy, edible boletus and its lethal cousin, the death cap. He fished with a net constructed from sapling branches and vines, and found north with a sewing needle in a held handful of water. He discovered a complement of handholds and toeholds to get across the occasional stubby peak encountered in any given day’s hike.
They were woken at sunrise every morning and given exactly five minutes to dress and pack for the day. If they exceeded their limit, they were made to unpack, roll out their sleeping bags, and try again. Their daily treks took them through valleys, over hills and through hard rain and sleet and snow. They sat around a fire at night and read angry, mournful letters from their parents on exactly what their bad behavior was doing to this family!
After a week they were given earth names. Darius was dubbed Deer Olive. On his second day he’d come across something on the path and picked it up.
Are these like wild olives? he asked.
The guide said that unless the deer that shat out the pellet he was holding had eaten one the day prior, then no, they were not olives.
This proved redundant, as young Deer Olive, having already taken a bite and spit it out, intuited a similar conclusion for himself.
Deer Olive conjured the right facial expressions during his sessions with Eagle Bear, the camp’s certified social worker. Deer Olive was told he was clever, and that clever was a problem. They worried he wasn’t making the necessary internal change. Whereas most of the others would break down during their fireside Consequence Letters, Deer Olive would read his impassively, skillfully navigating his interview with Eagle Bear afterwards—an interview designed to force a crisis of feeling. Deer Olive had had no crisis of feeling.
He did, however, have Doon.
* * *
Simon is fearless. He claims to be sixteen though Darius would be surprised if the boy were older than twelve. His parents had been a terrible story some years back, and to see Simon is to know this about him. He burns with his tragedy, from within. He is like one of those people who have no sense of touch, Darius thinks, who don’t know they’ve been burned until they smell their flesh cooking on the stove’s coils. Simon isn’t suicidal; he just doesn’t seem to know any better. Darius can’t say the same for himself. What’s saved Darius from death so far has been a good sense of timing and a healthy dose of cowardice. Needles frighten him, and so do the darker alleys that Simon disappears down with a patron.
The first time Simon came into the coffee bar, broad daylight, he filled a backpack with fancy juices from the display case and simply walked out. Darius made chase. He cornered Simon halfway down the block and, forcing him to give back the drinks, sent the boy on his way with a flat ten from his waistband envelope, which Simon took as if it were money owed. Simon re-shouldered his empty backpack and slipped off into the deli on the corner, no doubt to try the stunt again.
Since that day, Darius has gone about Simon with the rehabilitated’s duty for the un-rehabilitated, cultivating his return to the coffee bar as if he were a stray cat. He bagged the boy day-old muffins when his coworkers weren’t looking and whatever drinks he wanted. It seemed to be working
“It’s October,” Darius says, “and you’re walking around like it’s the fucking Fourth of July.” Simon has on a t-shirt printed with the image of a tuxedo and a tight pair of threadbare corduroys. “Where are your shoes?”
“I traded them.”
Darius sits Simon down and rummages through the lowboy for orange juice. Simon is telling Darius about a tenement on the Lower East Side. It had been a city-owned halfway house when Simon came to stay with his aunt several years back, but City Housing auctioned it off to the cigar-chomping, do-it-yourself owner of the tile company next door. The apartments received a fresh coat, Spanish stone in the bathroom, black marble in the kitchen, and went up to market value, a shocking figure with which Darius has recently become familiar.
There is a thunk from outside and the gate shivers. “Bagels,” Darius says, peering through the slats. He goes to the door and waits for the sound of a truck pulling away, then lugs in the large paper duffel. “So what does any of this have to do with me?”
“It gets better,” Simon says. It seemed that the cigars had taken their toll on the old man, who was, reportedly, undergoing a vicious bout of chemotherapy. He had stopped doing for himself and, having nobody else to do for him, was leaving the rent checks uncashed in a pile with the unpaid hospital bills: they can figure it all out when I’m dead, the old man was rumored to have said.
Some tenants got bold, having heard the news, and stopped paying rent altogether, and a few apartments, including the one Simon once stayed in with his aunt, have been standing empty for the better part of a year. Simon squatted there sometimes when an overnight client didn’t work out.
“It’s perfect for you,” Simon says. “It’s a steady place with no strings. By the time it falls through you’ll have saved enough for some place legit.”
Darius set down a grande go cup of juice for the boy and a selection of bagels, still hot from the bag, along with cheese and marinated vegetables. “You need to take better care of yourself,” he told Simon.
“Don’t worry, I do okay.”
“You should have parental figures looking after you.”
“Ones that don’t make you fondle them.”
“It’s not so bad, believe me. I’ve got a good thing with the couple I’m staying at’s now. Two old dudes. Their place is huge and their bar is stocked. You should come over, they’re hardly ever there and I got the run of the place. Just every once in a while they want me to watch them roll around in bed and pretend to get off. Sweet deal, huh?”
“If they’d throw in a pair of shoes.”
* * *
Doon was quiet and went all but unnoticed by Deer Olive, until the dream. He was clinging for dear life to a tree at the edge of a cliff. He could hear the others far below splashing through a shallow creek. The tree he was holding became soft in his hands. He groped, trying to keep from falling and found that the tree had become the body of a girl. Her hair tickled his eyelashes and the soft wind of her voice at his ear made him shiver. She whispered something that he instantly forgot but which filled his heart with joy, and when he looked into her eyes, he saw that it was the shy girl, Doon. She was naked, and her body was warm against his own naked body. They caressed each other in a mounting passion until he woke blindly in the middle of the night, his erection damp and painful in his hand. The following morning Deer Olive regarded Doon anew from across the campfire. With her parka and her knit ski cap, she was like a movie star trying to go unrecognized. Doon had become beautiful, and literally overnight!
On the trail, his other senses seemed to wake as well. The woods came alive—the fluttering buzz of aphids, the faraway crackle of nesting birds. Butterflies caught the breeze like fallen leaves; falling leaves danced like butterflies. A break in the trees revealed a cream-blue sky and the boomerang flash of hawks. And, inasmuch as his awareness of Doon had coincided with his awareness of these things, it seemed to Deer Olive that they were wonders of her making. The dream imparted to her the power of a forest goddess, or perhaps it merely allowed Deer Olive a glimpse of a power already there.
Hours were spent in secret watch of Doon, how her eyelids trembled when embarrassed or how she hugged herself when smiling. Doon was flatchested, knobby joints and scrapes up and down her long legs that Deer Olive just wanted to reach out and finger. Her lips were full and red, especially so after a meal and when she would lick her lips. Lick her lips. He imagined what it would be like to suckle on that pink fullness, to trace it with his tongue. When it became hot, Doon would strip out of her fleece sweatshirt and Deer Olive could make out the two maddening points poking up behind her undershirt, and it would be more than he could bear.
Then one day Doon caught him watching, and started watching back. They smiled shyly at each other when their eyes would meet.
Private conversations were prohibited, so they made breathless work of the slightest banalities. Did you hear what time Eagle Bear said we were stopping for lunch, he might ask, face suddenly flush.
I’m not sure, she would respond, a little desperately.
Their fingers might brush in a group pass-off, causing him an ejaculatory shiver.
The established order in the tent had them sleeping several bags apart; though one night, Deer Olive conspired to set his up next to Doon’s. A councilor stood guard over them, but when the lanterns went out—and if they were quiet enough—anything was possible.
Snake Charmer’s fish farts are giving me nightmares, he told Owl Hands on his right. Doon, who was rolling out her sleeping bag, refused to meet Deer Olive’s eye.
There was a brief interval after lights out when the wilderness rushed in with a roar, the silence and utter black suddenly amplifying the faintest windy rustle of nylon. Deer Olive was sent on a headlong plummet through space; he reached out and, just like that, his hand found Doon’s.
If it had ended there, with that touch, Deer Olive could have entered the celibate life of a clergyman blessed with as rich an erotic experience as he could ever have wanted. In his hand, Doon’s hand was as hot and restless as his own. Her breath warmed his cheek, and her hair was heavy with the musk of dry leaves and woodsmoke. They tested their lips out on each other, careful not to make a sound.
Someone sighed and they froze—then resumed.
They found a rhythm. Deer Olive’s swoon was intensified by the darkness, and it felt as though he were on the verge of passing out.
It went on like that for hours. From their open mouths, from the wet of their shared saliva bloomed the rich musk of sex, a smell that grew stronger as they felt their way through the quiet unzipping and unbuttoning of clothing.
Oh Doon, he whispered. Oh Doon.
* * *
Darius vowed to write, but when he returned to his small suburb, his summer school friends were waiting and, with the vapors of a well-packed bong out the open window went thoughts of brat camp, and of Doon.
Darius received letters from Doon, and each one Darius performed for his friends in a robust Scottish brogue, though at night Darius felt a deep, chest-burning guilt. When he was alone in bed, he rubbed the NYC postmark with his thumb’s pad and brought the envelope to his nose. He tried reading the letter in earnest but couldn’t bring himself to get past the salutary, Dearest Deer Olive of My Life.
Over the next several years, during moments of despair, when looking for that one decision he’d made that had brought forth so much shittiness, it was to Doon’s unanswered letters that he turned, and turned again. If he had only written out what was in his heart!
His love for Doon, without Doon there to prune it, grew unchecked. When he was asleep he dreamed her, and when awake, he daydreamed her. He memorized her face: the lips, the stunned dark eyes, the scar that divided her left brow. She became a kind of alter ego, an imaginary friend.
And here he was, seven years later, traveling to the city to find her. Wasn’t this what coming here was all about? The vagabondary, the spontaneous bus tickets, the petty addictions, the melodramatic abstinence, it was all just a long road Doonward. She flowered into a majestic, shadow-casting force, a cruel goddess who left his prayers unanswered. Every piece of foul luck along the way was a disguised instance of revenge exacted by Doon. He lived in fear and awe and pursuit of the goddess Doon.
* * *
Access to the squat is the simple matter Simon said it would be. The rusty last rung of a fire escape ladder is reachable from a boost off a storefront ledge. His bad wrist throbs from the effort.
It begins to rain.
The courtyard, formed by the back ends of four enclosing tenements, is a graveyard of toilet bowls. The white rectangular lids lay cracked nearby like ruins. From up on the fire escape this tableaux seems like the aftermath of a bull’s run through a china shop. The rainwater collecting in the bowls fills the airshaft with the plunk-plunking music of puddles.
Darius makes a visor of his hands, muddy and stinking of rust from the ladder, and peers through the apartment window.
There is someone inside, or more precisely, two someones. A man is standing in the middle of the empty apartment, looking at the ceiling. He wears the coveralls of a superintendent, breast pocket stitched with a name he can’t make out. The man is bearlike, and rests one of his paws on the head of a woman who is kneeling before him.
Darius ducks below the ledge; then, after a count of five brings his nose up to the cold glass again.
The woman is naked and her long hair covers her face as she nods at the opening of the man’s pants. Her nakedness is stark, the nakedness of hospital patient. She performs her work with determination, as though training towards some greater goal.
The man grabs the top of her head and, frowning, murmurs a foreign word that sounds through the window opening like yet, yet, yet.
The woman leans back and spits. She is flatchested and her thin, knobby body bears the shadowy smudges of bruises. She whips her hair back, picking at the strands that cling to her face.
* * *
The weekend is an unrelenting downpour. The owners of the coffee bar are taking inventory, so Darius finds shelter on the Coney Island local; he can clock two-and-a-half hours of sleep on its route, the longest in the system. So this is what he’d reduced Doon to: a whore. Well, his mission is clear now, at least. He would have to rescue her.
He is jolted awake at Stillwell Avenue. He draws his jacket over his head against the rain and sprints across the street to the opposite platform. When morning comes in through the subway car’s scratched windows, it is rose-gray. The afternoon is darker.
Simon is not to be found in the usual spots, so Darius waits out the hours before sunset at a Ukranian diner on Second. An odd collection of artist-like derelicts drowse at the far end of the counter. The toothless man next to Darius slurps at a bowl of borscht and considers an open spiral notebook, illegibly ascrawl. What would he say to Doon when they were finally face to face? How would he begin? He might have to fight for her honor. He pictures punching the superintendent in the face. The man seemed quite large, and the blow would probably hurt Darius’ fist. He now imagines hefting a toilet lid from the courtyard and splitting open the superintendent’s head.
The rain has stopped and the air has that lift of ozone and earth which makes Darius think of brat camp. Funny, for all he has gained, and all things natural he associates with the place and with Doon, he is left with a distaste for nature itself—a thing to be beaten back, to be gotten through. He mocked those kids on the street with their clipboards and green windbreakers. Club those baby seals, every last one! For all he cared, they could bulldoze Alaska and put in an endless strip of twenty-four hour convenience.
He climbs the fire escape and kneels at the window.
It appears to be empty. Darius bumps at the frame with the heel of his good hand, inching it open enough to slip through.
Simon is right. It’s a decent squat, in spite of the foot traffic. There are four rooms, if one counted the kitchen and the bathroom. Major appliances are hypothetical—stove cold, light switches dead, spigots sputtering liquid rust. The other windows in the apartment face narrow airshafts which echo with cooing pigeons; the raw pigment of their shit cakes the sills. Rotted takeout scraps and paper bags litter the corners. Empty vials crunch underfoot. It is a robust filth, one that comes only from real abandon. It is a filth that holds a peculiar beauty, though; not in the arrangement of objects or the objects themselves, but in the guiding hand of time that has done the arranging. Darius is reminded of those monastic Chinese sculptures twenty generations in the making—at the free museum uptown (another place Simon has shown him) stands a roomful of these odd, pocked structures—whereby a boulder was dropped in the river and turned every hundred years or so by some acolyte, until the river’s course carved its shape across the stone surface. Over the course of months, the transient residents in their collaborative effort to continue to exist, like the transient waters of the river, have made this place.
A beastly stink wafts out from the bathroom. Darius tips open the door. The glow through the half window over the shower reveals the source. A lidless, seatless toilet stands brimming with the foulings of what look like months of use. Darius gags. Dangling above the bowl from a mirrored cabinet are several tree-shaped air fresheners. They rotate in the breeze like holiday ornaments. On the mirror is scrawled, I’m a fuckup in a cartoon speech bubble, curved point aiming at his mouth.
There is a rattle at the front door, a key in the lock, and then a slam. Darius tucks himself into a shadow.
A woman’s voice: “Oh you bastard. You promised!” Darius cranes his head and sees Doon alone, talking to the closed front door. She clops around the apartment, then goes back to the door and double-locks it. She digs through her purse and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “Shit!” She crumples the pack and tosses it into a corner. “I’m an idiot,” she says. “It’s my own fucking fault for trusting.” The seven intervening years have thinned her out, if that were even possible, and elongated her face. When he had known her, her hair had been a severe boycut that she kept under a ski cap. Today her hair is a long chestnut rope, frayed end swinging as she paces the room.
Darius steps out into the open. “Doon,” he says.
“It’s me,” Darius says, then feels the sting of having to clarify: “Deer Olive.” He moves closer, into her piece of halflight. “I’ve been,” he says, “God. I’ve been looking for you!”
She clutches her purse and backs away. “Who the fuck!”
He goes on. “I should have written. When I got back home things were so weird. Mom acted like I had been, I don’t know, in some asylum. I’m not explaining myself.” How could she not remember him? “And it wasn’t like I had to go out looking for trouble. It was right there in Fincher’s pipe. All I had to do was take a hit. That’s not an excuse. Oh! Can’t I just take it all back? You’ve been with me this whole time, Doon. Does that make me some kind of stalker? I don’t care. I’m not afraid anymore. I’ve walked through the fire to get to you. And now I’m here, a new man. I’m clean, Doon. And I don’t know what you’re into, but I don’t care. We can work this out, together. Just say okay.”
“Okay,” she says.
Then she says, “Who’s Doon?”
There is a pounding on the door and a man’s voice: You take my keys, you bitch!
“Who’s Doon,” Darius says, trying to fathom what she is asking exactly.
The air shimmers with her question.
He stares at her until her question does the work of transforming her features. The change is subtle. The scar that divided her eyebrow is gone; her eyes are blue now and somewhat closer together; her lips no longer full.
The door booms again. I know you are there! You make me break this lock!
“You better not!” She presses her face up to the doorframe’s crack. “I’ve got someone in here with me, you no good commie prick, and I’ve told him all about your shit!”
She turns back to Darius. “You’re Hakim,” she says, “my agent,” and hands him a paperweight-heavy thing out of her purse that takes him some blinking at to realize is a gun.
It is cool and dense and heavy in his palm and though Darius has never held a gun, his fingers close around it with all the familiarity of a doorhandle to a childhood closet.
“You said you wanted to help me, right?”
“Who are you?” he asks.
“What do you want me to do, Grace?”
“I’m not a whore. And I don’t like being lied to. Fair is fair.”
“Okay,” he says, though he isn’t entirely sure what he is saying okay to.
The woman who isn’t Doon swings open the door mid-bang, and the super charges in.
Darius finds himself staring at the back of the super’s bald head. He adjusts his grip on the gun, wrapping his fingers around the barrel, the heft of it like a mallet. Okay. He takes a deep breath and swings out.
In his shoulder he feels the crack of metal on bone. The super pitches forward onto his knees.
Darius kicks the super between the shoulder blades and scrambles down on top of him. This all feels part of some ancient choreography spelled out in Darius’ bones.
The woman is screaming something—to the super or to Darius, he isn’t sure; he’s gone deaf to every sound but the sound of his own grunting.
“Listen to me,” Darius says, leaning in close to the super’s ear. The man exudes a beer and raw onion smell. “Are you listening?”
He grapples with the super. He yanks at his shoulder until the super struggles over onto his back.
Darius keeps him straddled.
The super’s teeth glisten red and his lips are quivering with the words to something that is beyond Darius’ understanding.
“Shut up. Just. Shut up.” He presses the barrel point into the super’s eye.
The super farts loudly and shifts his position beneath Darius.
“I just want you to listen to me, okay?” Darius can feel his finger testing the spring of the trigger. The hum of energy his body is suddenly feeling gives everything a mirage-like ripple that makes his eyes well up. He wipes at them. “This is no whore here. This is a lady. You’ll treat her with respect.”
“I’m not a whore.” Grace has stopped screaming and is now standing above Darius, arms folded.
The super turns his head and gags, then coughs a spray of blood in Darius’ face. “Okay. What you say.”
“And she doesn’t like being lied to.”
“Fair is fair,” she says.
“What you want. I give you anything you want.”
“Oh, no,” Grace says. “Don’t give me that shit. You got a gun pointed in your face, you’ll say anything now.”
“You bitch!” the super spits.
“Hey. You calm down.” Darius’ wrist—his elbow, his entire arm—still tingles with the blow he struck. “What is it you want, Grace?”
“I want what he promised me! Do you think I enjoyed fucking you? Do you think I did it for my health? You’re damn right you’re going to give me what I want. Your wife is upstairs nursing your baby boy, for Christ’s sake!”
“I say! I give what it is you want!”
“What do you want?”
“Very little. Just this key. And for you to tell the asshole this apartment’s taken like you promised. Then you can go back to your happy family upstairs, and when you pass me or this man, you’ll treat us with the respect you’d give to any other paying tenant.”
The super nods and then, shoulders shaking, begins to sob. He puts his enormous hands to his face. “Ohh!” he bellows. It’s like the beginning of a song: “Ohhh!”
Grace goes into the kitchen.
Darius helps the super to his feet and brings him a folding chair as a kind of peace offer.
The super sits.
“I’m sorry,” Darius says. “I don’t know what came over me. I’m not a violent person.”
Grace comes back in with paper deli napkins, which she presses gingerly to the super’s head.
“I should call police,” he says. “Crazy bitch. You leading on me. I don’t want be afraid for my family.”
“Look,” Darius says, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. It was just a misunderstanding. The thing isn’t even loaded!” He waves it with a shrug, having no idea if this is true.
“Hakim here just got a little overzealous,” she says, “isn’t that right, Hakim?”
The super winces. “Who are you?”
“I’m her agent,” Darius says. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, okay?”
Grace goes back into the kitchen and comes back with a glass of cloudy brown water, which the super drinks down. “By the way,” she says, “do you think you could do something about the pipes?”
“And the power,” Darius says. “We could use some light in here.”
* * *
After they show the super to the door, Grace says, “Have a smoke?”
It is clear now that this is not Doon. She is younger, certainly, the same age as Doon when he knew her seven years ago. And although their images match, their voices tell a different story. Doon’s words had eeked out of her, high in her throat, as if what she were saying were taking a tremendous amount of personal courage. She spoke with her head down, looking up at him only occasionally. Grace, on the other hand, has the no-nonsense eye contact of a CEO and speaks with the confidence of a child born to well-adjusted parents. She is shorter than Doon, too. Darius can see this now that he is standing next to her. She is of a height that, were they to embrace, her head would fit perfectly against the heart side of his chest.
Looking around, Darius finds a half-smoked cigarette from the edge of a paint can and hands it to Grace. It has gotten colder and the chill through the open window sets his body into a faint tremble.
Strangely, learning this woman isn’t Doon does little for the tenderness he feels for her, or the notion that he has finally found someone long lost. If anything, her strangeness has galvanized these feelings with his sense of purpose. This is not a case of mistaken identity, no mere wrong turn in a life full of wrong turns: Darius has finally found his place.
Grace rolls the cigarette between her fingers, dislodging some of the tobacco from the burnt tip. She then sets a crystal the size of a fish tank pebble inside and twists it closed like a party favor.
“Light,” she says.
“What is that? Crack?” His jaw picks up his body’s tremble and his teeth begin to clack.
“Don’t be stupid,” she says. She lights the tip and inhales. The thing blazes and crackles with all the enthusiasm of a yuletide hearth. She hands it to Darius.
The smoke has an odd chemical sting that burns his eyes. “No thanks,” he says, but the refusal, he already knows, is a pose. What hope did he have of refusing when faced with the chance of learning God’s deepest secret? He tries to think of his coffee beans in their cup on the stockroom shelf, of his savings tucked in his waistband, of each hard-earned day of his recovery; but these things seem suddenly old. It is the way, in a shoe store, the shoes you walk in with seem suddenly old. He remembers his dream, in brat camp. Doon: the tree that became a girl. He hugged her for dear life and she whispered in his ear and his heart was filled.
“The first thing we need to do,” Grace is saying, “is get some serious locks on those windows. Maybe some curtains. Have any cash?”
He pulls out the envelope and counts. “Eight hundred and forty-five dollars,” he says, and hands it over. He takes the cigarette in return and, putting the hot tip to his lips, extinguishes it with a glob of spit.
“Hey!” Grace shouts.
“Do you want to give yourself third degree burns?” Darius locates among the floor debris a blackened (but unbroken) glass pipe and goes about loading it with what’s left of the hot pebble. He wipes off the pipe’s mouth end, then lights the other. It’s pure acid vapor in the lungs, which isn’t the unpleasant experience he was expecting.
His mind puckers, and then goes slack.
He fell into a dream wherein he was living his life. The people he passed on the street regarded him with a deep suspicion. Weeks passed. At work, the customers looked afraid.
In a waking slumber he pulled the go-cup down from the stockroom and, running the beans through the grinder, brewed himself a French-pressed pot. He sat on the counter and lit a cigarette. The owner came up from the basement and asked Darius just what the hell he thought he was doing.
Darius didn’t know if he was gripped with love or addiction, but it amounted to the same thing: he was cured of the habit of eating, and of thinking. He discovered that he was cured of the habit of bathing, too, because when he ran into Simon again, Simon wrinkled his nose and spat.
Man, Simon said. What’s your problem?
I’m in love.
You’re on a bender—look at yourself! The kid was an angel.
She’s all I can wrap my mind around these days, Darius said, and when I do, I need to get high.
Simon brought Darius to a public library bathroom and held the door while Darius cleaned himself up. Darius had no choice but to flush his underwear. He hand-washed his jeans and t-shirt and put them back on wet, under an old sports jacket.
When Darius finally wakes, Grace has him locked in a closet and is feeding him through a hole punched in the closet door.
It’s a broth. Some years have passed.
His hand is the size of a foot, and this leads him to wonder if he isn’t the one who punched the hole in the door. Dried blood is caked into the crevices of his knuckles.
Steam rises off the bowl and settles as a dew onto his cheeks and forehead.
“Grace,” he says.
“I’m leaving,” her thin lips say through the hole, “and I’m taking Nick with me.”
Darius’ eyeballs are throbbing in time to the pounding in his head. “Nick?”
“Our son, you fucking idiot.”