by Jeffrey Yang
Issue: Elysium (Spring 2012)
Streetlights hung over the street like tired arms, bathing the asphalt in yellow light. Gray buildings cast dim shadows across the narrow sidewalk.
A man hurried down the street, clutching the pockets of his coat. His long shadow swayed with each step. His footsteps were indistinguishable from the rain. He splashed down the line of buildings, until, panting, he reached Complex 407. Huddling under the dripping overhang, he extended a bony hand and knocked on the door.
“Go away,” a voice wheezed from inside.
“It’s me,” the man said.
The door opened. The man blinked at the darkness inside.
“Got the goods?” the man asked.
Henry dropped a plastic bag into his hand. The man pulled out ten filthy bills.
“Party tonight?” Henry asked, folding the bills into his pocket.
The man nodded.
“Make it a good one.” Henry closed the door, shutting out the yellow glare from the streetlights. He reclined in a chair, staring up into the pitch black ceiling.
“You can almost see the stars,” he whispered to himself.
Then he realized why he had kept the lights off for the past month, why he kept the blinds closed, why he spent every waking hour in the hole of his apartment room.
It was not the light he feared, but what the light would show. In the darkness it could not be seen, but he knew precisely where it lay and every moment of that knowledge burned. That moment the only part of the world that existed was the space under the mattress he was lying on. But he forced himself back to the room, the pitch black reality.
Laying his head on the pillow, he closed his eyes, but could not banish the thought of what was lying just a few inches below. He struggled for such a long time against the thought that he did not realize when he drifted away to the soft pattering of rain around him.
His surroundings were bathed in a harsh light. It illuminated the entire room, jutting forcefully into his eyes, shining most intensely on the bed. Henry wanted to scream, to throw himself onto the bed to cover it from the light that made it seem naked, exposed. But he broke into a cold sweat when he realized that the light was not pointing to the bed. It was coming from it.
“You seem lonely,” a voice behind him said.
“You again?” Henry turned around.
It stood on the bed, its tail swishing back and forth, smiling. Its smile always drove Henry mad. It gave him the feeling that it had what he wanted, and knew it too.
“Of course,” it said, without breaking the wide smile on its face. “I couldn’t leave you alone, seeing you suffer like this.”
“Well you better learn how to leave me alone.” The light bounced off the white walls, surrounding him, encasing him. “Why do you have to be so curious?”
Its smile widened, cutting into the sides of its face. “I am a cat, after all.”
“What do you want from me?”
Like a wound, the smile gouged deeper into the gray fur, gums like raw flesh, yellow teeth a sign of an infection. “Why bombard me with such pointless questions?”
Henry leaned against a wall, trying to pretend that the light meant nothing to him.
The cat leaped onto the floor. “Why hide from it, Henry?” it asked, its tail still swishing, its maddening smile etched on its face. “Why hide from the light, like a primitive, subterranean creature, frightened of your own shadow, when you can rise up and bask in its glory?”
Henry moaned, clutching his shoulder with sweating palms. The cat’s smile grew wider, rending deeper and deeper into his face until it seemed it would split in half.
“I can see it in your eyes,” the cat said. “You hope that if you wait long enough, you’ll wake up, just like Alice. But there is no escape. When you wake up in your room, no matter how safe you feel, it will still be with you, waiting…” Gray fur faded into white walls, and the cat was gone. But its cursed smile was still etched in Henry’s mind like a red hot brand.
“Even when you wake up,” the cat’s disembodied voice said, “you are still in wonderland.” The light from Henry’s bed went out, leaving him in darkness.
Soft streams of light struggled to squeeze through the blinds, expiring before they could reach the floor. Henry got up, turned on his dingy computer, and made the bed while it booted up, neatly folding the filthy sheets.
He sat down on his chair and put his hands on the keyboard. And then he remembered that he hadn’t made the bed in many years, that he hadn’t written a single word since that time. Henry slowly rose from his chair, walking up to the wall. He wished that he could be like it. Blank, dead, perfect.
He saw bright cars streaming down the road through the tiny slits of the closed blinds, saw a man walking briskly down the street, realizing that he had once walked like that.
The tears were a current, streaming down his face.
Memories fell, like tears, into his mind. His blue notebook, filled with crooked, ripped pages, filled with words, his words, the words that he had seen and felt and touched. He remembered the shining white pages of his first manuscript, the denial letters from the publishers, the soft light of the sun he had since forgotten.
But when the eyes ran dry by the afternoon, the hunger began. Not for food, for he could no longer keep anything down. Hunger for what lay under his mattress. But he forced himself to stop, to remember the words of GrandDaddy Wilson. When he took the job, starving for cash in his pocket, he had asked the GrandDaddy, the chief, whether or not any of his dealers did what they sold.
The GrandDaddy chuckled. In his calm yet powerful voice, he told Henry, “Always that question, eh? Always that question.” Henry waited while the GrandDaddy took a long drag.
Exhaling, the GrandDaddy shot pale smoke over Henry’s head. “People tend to think I worry about the stock that’s lost if my dealers get hooked. But it’s not that at all. Not that at all.”
He took another drag.
“I have so many joints running from here to the coast, so why should I care if a few pounds get lost to dealers here and there?”
He looked at Henry with his solemn gray eyes.
“Listen, Henry. Don’t ever tell this to your buyers, but that stuff’s terrible for you. One hit and you feel real good and you take another. And another. Eventually the only thing you’ll think about is the next hit, and then you stop dealing. Now you see what happens if everyone stops dealing, don’t you? There’s no rule about it. Shoot up on a bit if it’s really been one of those days. But keep in mind that if you fall tumbling for that stuff, you will lose your job.”
Night had begun to fall, and with it came the business. The first one arrived, a toothless man with glazed eyes, who had probably lost sight of everything but the next hit a long time ago. Then another. And more. Henry hated them. They didn’t care if they lived or died; their only worry was whether they would still have some left when they came out of their high. He hated them because he envied them, envied the indifference with which they threw their lives away. And he hated himself for envying them.
But when the last buyer had left and the streets went quiet, Henry realized that he would rather have them knocking on his door. Alone, the itch of temptation exploded into a searing pain.
He sat down against the wall opposite his bed, willing himself to stay still, but the blood inside him screamed for more, until he couldn’t stand it. Striding over to the bed, he threw the mattress off, spilling the folded sheets over the floor, and reached for a plastic bag. He couldn’t remember much after that, only the sound of a razor chipping on a wooden table, again and again.
And now he was free, soaring through the air, lying against his bed in his apartment room. The cat emerged from his chest as it always did, swimming through the air like a seal, smiling, but its smile could no longer hurt him. In an exalted rush he threw open the switch on his computer, and with the cat at his side, dictating, he spun out a miracle of words, his hands typing furiously, and with each word he knew that he was unraveling the nature of existence, discovering why the sun rises in the east. A bright light slowly encompassed his vision, and he was flying, free, toward the sun, until it became so bright that his vision grew pitch black.
Henry did not realize he was awake or that his eyes were open, until he noticed bright lights dancing in the ceiling. He sat up from the bed. A sharp ringing pain in his ears made him blink, and the lights disappeared.
With a shaking finger he turned on his computer. Nothing.
Henry rose from his desk. He turned the doorknob and left the room.
The pale light of an overcast sky cast faint shadows against the wet asphalt. Few were out at that hour, and the occasional automobile whispered by. But all Henry saw were the dead lampposts passing him by, one at a time. He had no destination in mind, but found himself stopping in front of a peeling green door. Above it hung a blank sign. He walked through the tiny bar to the counter, stepping over white tiles stained with grime and spilled drinks.
“A glass of water,” he told the bartender. The bartender opened the door to a back room and let Henry in. A single lamp lit the room, placed on a desk in the center. Henry sat in a chair in front of the desk.
“Henry,” GrandDaddy Wilson’s grave voice resonated throughout the room. “How are you?”
“I can’t perform this job anymore. I resign.” Henry’s voice drifted into the dark corners of the room. Another point of light appeared in the room, an ember at the end of the Grandaddy’s cigarette.
“I see.” The GrandDaddy offered no other reply.
“I just can’t take it anymore!” He screamed into the silence. “You don’t know how it feels, living every day, living with what you can’t touch but you just have to touch, every hour of your goddamn life!”
“I don’t know what it feels like?” the GrandDaddy mused slowly. “What makes you think that? I’ve never touched the stuff?” He burst out into wild laughter, shocking Henry into silence.
“Oh I know what it feels like, I know, don’t get me wrong there Henry. I know, just as sure as I know I have every one of you dealers in my pocket. Why do you think I let you snort it anyway, huh? It’s a trap. One hit and you’re as good as mine. You think I’ve never had people like you, yapping their ears off about how they can’t do it? Well, guess what—they come running right back to me like whipped dogs, with their tails between their legs.
“You think you’re special because you had that novel thing going on? Do you think anyone would read that trash? Look at you now. You think you mean anything more to me than the other hopeless crackhead of a dealer because you come running up to me with a sob story about how you can’t write anymore?”
Henry stared at the spirals of smoke curling upwards.
“Get out of my sight,” GrandDaddy Wilson spat.
Henry saw the rusty door, then bright light refracted through his tears. He kept walking until he felt pavement under his feet and heard the cars rushing by. Only when he dried his eyes did his surroundings return to him—the clouded sky, the gray building that he leaned against.
The GrandDaddy was right. He was always right. The cat was right too. It was hopeless, all from the start. He would never be able to wake up from his nightmare. His eyes traced the path of a red leaf, spinning across the air, blown on by a current that controlled its every movement, dictated its path, tumbling helplessly across the ground. If only it could stop, resist the force that dominated it.
Why couldn’t he?
It was fall again. Years had gone by. And though he had endured through every single day, he had never lived a moment. Where was he now? Watching the leaves fluttering around like the empty pages of his blue notebook, pages that should have been filled. The cat was right. He couldn’t sit waiting for the dream to end. He had to climb out of the rabbit hole.
He began walking, each step with purpose, confidence. He remembered the dark, smoke filled room. It must have been even worse for the GrandDaddy than it had been for him. Waiting every day in that dark room, seeing nothing but the hopeless faces that came, seeking help, yet each believing that he was beyond help—Henry knew now that the GrandDaddy was trying to make him realize his plight, his own way of crying out at the hopelessness around him. The GrandDaddy was trying to help him.
He strode up the stairs into his home, walking like those he saw on the street carrying briefcases, walking like how he had years ago. The pale sun still shone through the blinds, but Henry found himself stricken with exhaustion, the exhaustion from a day’s honest work. Falling on his bed, he let his surroundings drift away with the faint beginnings of a smile on his face.
Henry stood in the room, facing the glaring light that emanated from his bed. He blinked, and the cat appeared, the same smile etched on its face. But Henry smiled along with it.
The cat saw his smile. “You know, don’t you?” it asked.
“Yes.” Henry pointed at the bed. “There’s no light to be found there.”
“And where would you find the light?”
“Anywhere but here.”
The cat disappeared, and with it the light from his bed. The harsh light drained out of the room, leaving nothing but the soft light that slipped in through the blinds. Henry opened them, threw on a coat and reached for the door when he felt a faint feeling in the back of his mind, some lost feeling from long ago. He slipped a faded blue notebook into his coat pocket before he left the room.
He stood in front of a grand building. A sign in front of it read St. Russel’s Drug Rehabilitation Center. He took in the soft scent of the air after a rain, the skies blue, the leaves rustling in the wind. He thought of all days that had gone by, the days that had been wasted, and found himself filled with a wistfulness that left him feeling emptier than ever.
But holes could be filled.