That day he awoke in the fifth-floor walk-up he still wasn’t used to. The coffee he made was enough of a treat that he didn’t mind getting out of bed, and his legs felt younger than the rest of him, carrying him down all those stairs and back up more stairs to the train. When the sun flicked in the swiftly moving windows, he noticed he didn’t hate his job much this time. It felt reasonable to be going there. Getting through it would be a simple way to earn the time he would have in the evening and the dinner he would eat then.
The work had come to suit him; it was full of sadness. Photos of people with diseases, homelessness in horrible small towns and poverty and terrible problems, being helped by people who were smiling. The eternal strangeness; it never got old or made any more sense: people made most of these problems, and worse, often on purpose; and yet people wanted to help you with them. Sometimes the same person was both people. Cheating customers and giving to charity. Beating your kids and giving teddy bears to other kids in a cancer ward. It never ended.
He was used to the pangs of sadness. They flowed in a river of softer sadness, and it had all been quite steady for some time. It felt smooth enough. He flowed through. Sadness had become like a lubricating fluid in his joints, except it was in his brain. The brain grease was his element. The hard thing to get used to was the feeling of admiration: his amazement for the smiling old people with nothing left of future or mystery, who still wanted to help. Smiling humans who weren’t trying to get anything. Hands out with stuff in them already, giving, not begging, not grabbing. It couldn’t be the same species. They looked so happy to help. They did what they could. It was an aberration so strange it was almost a betrayal of the social contract. Why had it taken him so long to be interested in that? He was glad he had this job. It had been a long time coming. Most people would think it was stupid. Sun came in these windows too.
He was content. He was warm. He was safe, though the snow began to fall outside, shading the sun like a white lace curtain touched with grey years of dust. He had it all, there was a warmth in his belly like morphine. And then in moments he was stabbed by the distance from his dead selves, his past selves, for example the one who for years had gone about and on the train wearing a plastic watch he’d forgotten about till that moment; the selves in particular who had been in love. And then there was the self of the moment when she revealed herself and it was ghastly: he was the only real person there, she was a vampire with a face of raw skinless red meat. All the warmth in that world had been drawn from him alone, had been drawn from his precious small stock for the vampire, and those years were gone and dead and stolen and he kept seeing flashes of the blood drying on the awful naked muscle of the parasite’s heart.
He felt a bump of cheer at the sight of some flowers his boss had left on his desk. She was a nice lady. He felt she was very much like him. She was also married. She also had a terrible disease. It wouldn’t be long before she died, and he would probably get a promotion.
All those eager friendly faces.
He gave a miserable sigh which, toward the end, took on the note on which these thoughts had all begun again: a more gently melancholy longing, a song in his head
“we still dance on whirling stages in my Busby Berkley dreams”
and the sigh withered slowly like an unwatered flower at the end of someone else’s wedding reception.
He would go home alone again, he thought; some days this thought was so bitter he could taste the acid and it was almost amusing, he was like a person in a show; but other days he was looking forward to whatever book he had planned to read that he reckoned he would almost resent somebody messaging his online dating persona in search of a free dinner. Or so he told himself.
He looked at another photo of smiling faces and felt a pinch in his chest, like a spectral coronary. Surely most of them were at least as physically ugly as he was. And surely all that charitable activity was in compensation for untold sins. So why did they have forty years of anniversaries and gifts when he had nothing but a nice old terrier who was on his last legs but still too lively for that tiny damned walk-up? Unlucky and/or evil and I don’t know what to do and how did I waste all this time without ever remembering the first lessons I learned?
The fluid sadness continued to float him easily through the day, waiting to do whatever he wanted—which was to collapse like an old balloon, the rubber seeming to thicken as they leaked the air away. They leaked the air away from him, all of them did. The paranoia clung to him like fourteen billion feathery hands.
He had to buy bread on the way home, to make his dumb sandwich for lunch the next day. An idea struck him just as he was about to get to the cash register and then the home stretch; he backtracked to the meat section.
“This will cheer us up,” he thought, and he imagined the look the dog would have on his face when he realized the fresh meat was going to his bowl! He smiled his human smile. He caught a glimpse of it in a freezer door. What an ugly man he must be to deserve this fate. Yep. He went for the cheap beef, then changed his tack again and went for the medium kind of beef. No use giving him filet mignon, but he could definitely tell the difference between medium and an insult. He’s a good dog. All that good fur. That goodness made a tear suddenly strike and escape down his cheek. He wiped it away in embarrassment. He had a wave of being very strange to himself and almost had to sit down on a stack of beer cases. None of those mes who were in love were real. They were all mad. They couldn’t see the blood on her teeth. I’m just chemicals. Chemicals are just force fields. Everything is exactly as bizarre as I have always suspected.
. . . what the hell, I’ll get the best beef there is. Who else do I have to spend my money on?
Now that thought was the kind that therapist he went to that one month, the worst month, had said you had to slap the lid down on. Stinkin’ thinkin’. He did what the therapist had said: He snapped his fingers and inside his head he yelled STOP! He yelled at the thought and snapped his fingers again. The thought of the vampire face came back and he had to snap even more. She won. I was the person and she was the virus, she got me. How clever. How clever. Snapsnapsnapsnapsnapsnap. He looked at the meat again and thought of the dog: Yup, old boy, this will cheer us up for sure. We cannot cry. Good fur. Dogs can smile. I’d better get home, he misses me.
He tried not to think about the old dog’s bad breath. Fresh meat really did that aspect of things no favors.
Home at last. The people on the train had smelled so overpoweringly bad, almost as though they considered their anuses virtuous; the smelliest one had grinned. When your own flesh becomes a foreign substance. “Home at last,” he said out loud, and put down his briefcase. It was cold in the house. He hung his heavy coat on the hook he had finally bought and screwed into the closet door. It was handy. “The old boy must be sleeping,” he said out loud, looking around for the dog. He took the meat cheerfully to the kitchen, where he kept the dog bowls, and he was hit by the full wave of cold air.
The door to the back stairs had been splintered and knocked off the hinges. Hacked wedges of the thick wood trailed out onto the porch at the top of the outdoor stairs. The landlady had nailed a metal grate over the window in the door, in protest against the increasingly surly and entitled “youth” of the neighborhood, but the grate had been circumvented, run around like the Maginot Line, a joke, like everything.
He ran back into the other room and sure enough, the computer was gone, like a scar in his wallet.
Ah, it’s a small scar, he thought, to cover up the surging anger. Those damn hippie neighbors must have left the courtyard door open again for that homeless fuck they’ve made their pet. Ah, well, I need a new one, the damn thing was . . . the damn thing was . . .
Then he heard the silence.
He leapt over the broken door to the porch at the top of the outdoor stairs. The terrier dog had tried to escape.
His vision shivered; the air filled with waves of hatred, connecting everything, vampires, the great web of life. The good little body. All that good fur was so cold.