excerpt from Smashing yams

2007. The Pacer.             

            At night, I hear pacing up and down the length of the apartment. I swear I’m not going crazy. Maybe I am going crazy. No, I’m not, I’m not crazy. Something or someone is pacing. That’s the sound of footsteps.

            I hold my eyes closed tight, afraid to look, afraid to catch a glimpse of the mangled wisps of the zombielike pacer—the ghost of the long-dead unhappy battered woman, drug addict, tortured teen, schizophrenic molester pacing night after night in this very space. The sound of the sink, and now the pacer is washing dishes. The pacing, those heavy footsteps, then the sound of the sink and dish-washing.

            I lay perfectly still, eyes sealed shut. Pins and needles and palpable fear as I imagine all the histories, all the stories, all the inevitabilities that would get you trapped in a place as awful as this for a lifetime, pacing and washing dishes. This is hell. Now I know hell exists. And maybe I’m dead, maybe I’m the pacer pacing back and forth, pacing and smoking and trying to itch the infestation away. 

            I can’t take it. I jump up, fueled by a surge of adrenaline, banging around in the dark, feeling at the space on the wall for the light switch. Ah-ha! Nothing.

            Maybe I am going crazy.

            I decide to stay awake ‘til dawn. There is sanity in the light. Until then I will let myself be crazy and I will write.

            I search for a cigarette, smoking out the crack in the window, as a pigeon sitting in shit, stares at me, disappointed, cocking his head: “Look at what you’ve become.”

            I watch the Oritz Funeral Home sign flicker below and write a short story about death as release. Everything I write these days is that dark sort of death as the happy-ending type of thing.

            The Canadian’s apartment is on the south side of Williamsburg, a six-story walk-up, a few blocks away from the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge, with an obstructed view of Manhattan in the distance and the Oritz Funeral Home lit brightly by a flickering neon sign. The apartment is six floors up—a rent-controlled $975, which is insane for Brooklyn this close to a train. Everything is old, as if it has come with the rent control when he first got the place. A life-size mural painted by the graffiti artist UFO runs across one wall and adds an artistic flair that superficially hides the age-worn dirt and dank and the infestation you find if you look a little closer. Shoddily built shelving and storage containers hold parts of old cameras, projectors, old TVs, VCRs, and random parts he thinks might come in handy someday. It gives the space the feeling of a mad scientist’s laboratory. Mice scurry along the floors, in walls, roaches crowd the bathroom, the kitchen, hide in the corners and crevasses. The couch has bedbugs, but we won’t figure that out for a couple more months, when we finally realize what all the itching is about.

            The energy of this space perfectly mirrors my internal world—dark, brooding, trapped by a stench that smells like death, with a funeral home for a view that is a constant reminder of the end that awaits us all. But dawn is coming and I have to see people today. Cracked out, bloodshot eyes. Maybe I will nap. But everything itches. I won’t nap, fuck it. 

            I see my friends less and less now. I’ve always felt separate somehow, but the distance now between me and everyone else seems untraversable. I am angry, angrier every day, projecting that anger onto everything around me. My grief is all-consuming, and has only amplified my self-focus. My pain. My anger. My loss. I can’t see anything beyond me, how I have been cheated, robbed of my happiness. I am becoming a time bomb—no, a sprinkler system going off in timed spurts. I lash out at my friends, going about their days as if the world hasn’t changed. As if marriage or work or boyfriends or outfits or haircuts or apartments or any of it means anything. Unable to see what I see. I have instantly aged, a shell of the person I used to be, and they are reflections of all I have lost.

            At least there is my brother. He gets it. Not Mom, not my friends, not the Canadian. My brother, even though we rarely talk about it. It is what we share, a bond now thicker than blood.

            We take turns standing sentry over Mom, spending weeks in the big, lonely house, sitting with her, trying to keep her mind off the crushing reality—a life spent waiting, planning, sacrificing and saving with the expectation of comfort in retirement or at the very least, a retirement. A life spent tethered to dependents, children and old people, planning for a future that did not come, expecting at the very least the freedom to run around the house naked, and at best to travel the world, happy and carefree like the good looking old couples you see in Cialis ads . . .

            Now she sleeps and chain smokes and never eats and is turning whiter, greyer, crinklier, smaller, is wasting away. Every moment I’m not there I feel guilty, but I can’t be there all the time. There’s this economy and whatever’s happening with collapsing housing market and mom’s debt and my brother’s bills, the weight of responsibility I feel to step in, to at least be able to provide for myself and my brother because the consequences of death have unraveled our old family dynamic, the safety net we thought we had, and I’m worried about him. He has a different temperament than me. I know I can handle it, drown quietly. Maybe he can’t.

            I pick up the phone and dial. He is still in Lubbock, still living with the girlfriend, just beyond the periphery of my every day. He answers sounding clear today, not muddled or nonsensical like he is much of the time. Like I am right now, high and sleep deprived, but there is nothing to say. We are alone with our pain, anesthetized. Words seem meaningless anyway. All emotion, all feeling is numb, numb when it’s not crushing and the quiet marks that he feels it too. The quiet sits on my chest, buries me into the ground. I want to take the quiet out of his life, take it all onto me.

            “Are you okay?” He breaks the silence.

            “Not really. I feel crazy.”

            “Yea. Me too.”

            “I gotta go to Jen’s wedding thing.”

            “That’ll be fun.

            “Not really.”

            “Yeah. I know.”

            I float down the long white hallway of the transfer from the L to the 2/3 at 14th. It’s muggy, hot. I stop in front of the violinist, wondering if you have to have a permit to play down here in this little roped-off area. Not many people play here, and when they do it’s always this little roped-off area, not like at the big transfer stations. People are sweaty and irritated, streaming by, salmon swimming upstream.  It’s too hot to be underground. And I am high, in a daze, watching people swim to the synchronized beat of my tunes. I love it when this happens. A little high, the song on my device, and the synchronization with the commute. I’m aware of the heat as I search for faces I think get me, the sad faces I feel a connection to. That person gets it. That person doesn’t. As if I have been initiated into a secret society, Those Who Get It. I have pulled back the veil and discovered Oz, only to realize . . . it. And there are no words, and no one to tell, just this knowing. And I’m not sure what bothers me more, seeing through the charade or that we are alone with this knowledge. The only guarantee in life is death, you just don’t get it until you do.