Walking is less a mode of transportation than a pastime. Past empty storefronts, past empty people, in a direction that doesn’t matter; toward home, or at least toward a warm hole in a cold building. The significance of the signs and posters and billboards lost on him, words floating undeciphered past his uncaring ears, Larry trudged down the cement sidewalk. He was wading in a thick soup, walking blind. The heat from the ground rose through his shoes, into his feet. He didn’t really notice.
The crowd on the sidewalk opened, parting around him. Maybe they could sense that this was not a person who wanted to be close to anything, anyone. Maybe it was the smell. Larry had a clear view of the surrounding cracks and canyons etched into the otherwise smooth path paralleling the street. Other people on the same path could see only neighboring shoulders and bobbing heads.
A left turn led him onto a less crowded piece of sidewalk, and a little closer to his destination. He neared the record store across the street from his building. He stopped in front of the facade, a few feet from the door. A young man, more of an old boy, ran into Larry, surprised by his sudden stop. Larry turned, looked at the boy, tried a smile. Smiles had never fit on that craggy surface. The boy grimaced in disgust, “Fuckin’ homo,” dodging around him and into the store. Larry turned back to the storefront, gazed through the dusty window at the people pawing plastic inside.
Empty people, so desperate for a message that they’re willing to pay for one, and to hell with what it says. They’re so devoid of content, lacking in direction or purpose that they have to buy it. Why? Who needs a message? Not me, that’s who. Hidden purpose printed on a plastic disc, circular thoughts borrowed from other circular thoughts, spiraling out to the end. What happens when they hit the end? Play it again! Idiots. Can’t think for themselves. Work, steal, and beg, to surrender the product for shrink-wrapped revelations.
Larry remembered that he was smiling, stopped. Remembered that he wasn’t walking, started. It was only half a block to the entrance to his building from the record store. He walked slowly, examining the macadam, searching for inconsistencies, for bugs to flatten, for spots of gum to step around. A few feet from the lobby door of his building he saw a bum sleeping against the stairs leading up to the entrance. The man was old, his white and gray and yellow beard hairs searching downward to his bare chest. The man’s greasy head had turned red in the now-horizontal rays of the sun that shot down the street from the waterfront. An empty glass bottle encased in a molded paper bag lay by the man’s feet, giving evidence to the source of the pool of vomit nearby.
Larry looked down at the man, and a small measure of tension drained from his face as he examined the decaying lump of humanity in front of him. His eyes searched down the man’s body like a mother admiring a child. Larry’s tightly pressed lips began to relax, but just as color began to fill them, the boy from the record store jostled him from behind. He kept on going without noticing, and Larry’s face screwed into a grimace as he spun away from the homeless man.
Blindly up the stairs, through the front door, into the elevator. Larry’s mind was once again empty. He saw the dull green of the carpet in the hallways and elevator. The green gradually spread across his vision, becoming the only thing he saw. His hands and feet and legs receded from his consciousness, and the green was all there was. After a while, he couldn’t tell how long, the green faded to a translucent pea colored screen through which he could see his living room. He discovered he was sitting on the couch. In front of him was what used to be a television. Now it was a planter, a pot of dead sticks inside. He had smashed out the tube of the television some time ago after deciding that it never showed anything worth seeing. He put some purple flowers in there instead, and promptly forgot to water them. He found the dead sticks more beautiful anyway. They made more sense than the flowers did.
The violets were a struggle against nature, pushing and pulling and shoving dirt around. Stupid plants. They didn’t know that they didn’t have a chance. Those sticks, they have the idea. That’s nature. People don’t know nature. That’s nature. Naturally dead sticks, sitting naturally still, not changing, not changing anything else.
He turned his head, the green still fading, flickering in and out like a busted TV, toward the kitchen. Getting up, he muttered, “Hey puss ol’ cat ol’ puss. Gotta eat. Cat’s gotta eat too, man.” He pulled out a box of cat food from a cabinet under the kitchen sink. Turning, the box upended, he aimed the stream of falling kibbles at a pile on the floor. The cat’s bowl was unseen under a giant cone of 9-shaped bits of liver- and fish-flavored food. The pile was old-dead-grey on bottom, transitioning gradually to fresh-tasty-brown-green at about mid-shin. After adding a little to the top of the pile, Larry replaced the cat food box, and turned to the cat. “What’s up puss? You should eat more; you’re getting a little thin there.”
The cat’s deflated, sunken eyes stared at the ceiling, at nothing in particular. They hadn’t blinked in months. Its back legs splayed on top of the microwave, where it had liked to sleep, its front paws curled forever over the front of the machine, which was just as dead. Larry thought the cat looked happier than it had in years.
He stared at his cat for a little while longer, contemplated its beauty, and then looked at the pile of food at the floor. He shrugged, returned to the couch. The couch was where Larry spent most of his time these days. The rest of the apartment didn’t really matter. All it was for was sleeping, and the couch worked as well as the bed. Even better, the couch was closer to the door. He hadn’t seen his bed in weeks.
After a few minutes or an hour, the phone rang. The windows were black. There was no noise coming from outside. He answered the phone.
A nasal voice answered from two streets over, a million miles away, “Hello, Mr. Lawrence?”
“I think so.”
It was some woman from the bank, asking questions about things Larry didn’t really care about. She wanted to know if he knew about a large withdrawal from his account.
“No, but that’s okay. Cat’s gotta eat too.”
“Excuse me?” The nasal voice sounded uncomfortable.
Larry said a little louder, “I said, ‘Cat’s gotta eat too.’ It’s all right, Mrs. Banklady. I don’t have a problem with it if you don’t. So, that’s okay then. You can go home to your house and go to sleep and do what people do, now, I suppose. Good night then.”
“Mr. Lawrence, this transaction is for two hundred thousand dollars, don’t you thi-“ She was cut off. Larry smiled. Somebody was going to have a good time with all that money. He hoped distantly that whoever got the money enjoyed it, found some reason for it, understood it. The smile he was smiling suddenly felt greasy, false, bizarre. It didn’t fit. He let it slide off. A feeling of self-conscious settled over him, as if everybody was looking at him, judging him. Nobody was there to see him. He felt their eyes on him. Everything faded quickly to green.
He fell asleep after a while. He dreamed of green and black swirling, pulsing. Animals that changed shape obscenely, amorphous beings of purple and green, dead sticks. Everything was dead sticks; it just didn’t know it yet. His dreams were of perverted nature, and Larry writhed in frustration at his inability to stop the movement in them. Nothing would bend to his will. His futility bore down on him, made him try harder. The harder he tried, the more unnatural everything became. Things grew, spread, and died, but not before causing more chaos, spawning new growth, perverting Larry’s natural sleep with parodies of life.
Larry’s teeth ground together, hard. The cracks and fine lines in them spoke of previous nights of similar abuse. Sweat percolated through his skin, rolled down a coat of grease that had formed on his forehead, pooled in his eyes, on his lips, on his shirt. He had fallen asleep in his clothing, a ludicrous parody of an Armani suit, the lap of his pants stained, the once-white shirt now a fabulous urine-yellow. His gray tie wasn’t so much a tie, but a napkin attached to his neck, smeared with evidence of the past week’s meals. Here, witness the mustardy remnants of a mustard sandwich. There, the grainy remains of a cream-of-wheat banquet dinner. He was missing one lapel, and the other was festooned with buttons and stickers he had collected from various places. He didn’t know what any of them said because he had never bothered to read them. The missing lapel had been surgically removed with a steak knife when a nosebleed had stained it. He hadn’t been able to stand being that dirty. He was left with a jagged flap hanging on his right side, complementing the garden of plastic and tin on the left.
His eyes popped open as he was jerked awake by the sound of somebody opening his apartment door. The couch was next to the door, along the same wall. Larry’s head rested on the arm farther from the door. He watched as the doorknob rattled, rattled, made a slight popping sound, rattled once again, and finally was silent as the door swung stealthily open. A blade of light from the hallway sliced Larry’s face in half, one side black, one side yellow-green. A dark, backlit figure crept into the apartment, swung slowly, and closed the door behind.
Larry said “Hi.”
The figure spun around to face Larry in the now-dark apartment. Two arms stretched out in front, meeting at the ends, holding something pointed at Larry. It was a gun. It was shaking, the tip twitching erratically with the movements of the arms it sprouted from. “O-Okay now. You just shut up and don’t move. I’m ‘a turn on this light. You move, I’ll fuckin’ shoot you, okay? Okay?” The figure’s voice, now betraying him as a man, somehow managed to be that of a 30 year old pubescent boy, its deep tone schizophrenically jolting to a squeak, then back down again.
Larry said “Okay. Switch is right there,” and gestured pointlessly in the dim light filtering in from the street. The light popped on. Larry raised his hand to his forehead and gave a little salute to the man standing before him. “Howya doing?”
“L-listen, just shut up. Where is your money and shit man?” The voice was a little sturdier. The man’s eyes weren’t. They were wild, wide-open. He was obviously terrified. The gun he was holding was a rusted and ancient .45 revolver. Larry didn’t know anything about guns, but the barrel looked huge, so he figured it was a .45, and it was a revolver because it had a revolving thing in the back.
“You’re lucky you got in here. There’s a big electric lock on the main doors. How’d you get by it?” Larry was genuinely curious. He had often forgotten the passcode for the door, and had just waited until another resident of the building had come, and followed them in.He realized that this was probably how the intruder had gotten in. “Oh, I know. Never mind. Say, you look hungry. You want something to eat? I’ve got cat food.”
“SHUT UP! GIVE ME YOUR MONEY! Whatever else you got too! Come on!”
Larry frowned. It suited him. “I haven’t got any money here. I don’t even have anything worth giving you. You can look around though. Take what you want. Oh! I have a really nice toilet brush! I bought it last week, when I plugged up the toilet. I couldn’t find any plungers at the grocery store, but I found a brush, and what the hey, it works just as well, you know? So I just bought that. But I didn’t have to use it. When I came home, the toilet flushed just fine! You never can tell when you’re dealing with poo. So yeah, you can have that.”
“I’m not fucking around here, man. If you don’t hurry up I’m going to shoot your stupid ass.” The man was growing a little more confident, but was obviously confused by Larry’s calm demeanor.
“Oh, hey, I believe you. But look around here. Do you really think there’s much here worth taking? I had four thousand dollars here a couple days ago, but then I paid the rent with it. You just missed out.”
The intruder looked around, really seeing the place for the first time. There were food wrappers all over the floor. The rugs and tile floor were stained and dirty. He saw the cat, the pile of 9-Lives. Then he saw Larry. Larry was filthy. “What the hell is wrong with you man? Are you fucking nuts? This place costs you four thousand dollars a month and you live like a fucking bum?”
Larry decided to be amiable. “Say, what’s your name? And you really do look hungry. I have some pretty decent food in the fridge. Lots of mustard.”
“Look, asshole, this isn’t funny. You gotta have somethi-“ The phone rang, cutting him off. The only phone in the apartment was right next to the couch, on a little table by the door. The man looked at the phone briefly, saw the caller-ID. It said ‘Brownstone Security.’ The apartment complex was called Brownstone Manner. It wasn’t a manner. It was hollow cubes separated by a couple feet of concrete and rebar, soundproofed for your noisemaking pleasure. “What’s Brownstone Security?”
“Oh, that’s the building security guy. Big fat bastard down in the basement. He probably saw you come in on the camera. If I don’t answer, he has to come up here. I’d better tell them everything’s okay.”
The phone rang twice more before the man said “Okay, listen, okay, you just pick up the phone and say everything is cool. If you say one fucking thing about me, I’ll shoot you. Okay? Just say it’s cool. Okay?”
Larry responded petulantly, “I said I would already.” Larry sat up on the couch, picked up the phone, said, “Hi…No, everything is okay up here. Yeah. Oh, I will. No, he sounds dangerous, coming in here without entering a passcode. Wow, he was wearing black you say? How dare he. Okay. Bye now,” and put the phone down.
The intruder looked relieved. Some of the twitch had gone out of the gun. It was more still. Larry liked that. “Say, why don’t you have a seat? That recliner over there? It’s a La-Z-Boy. It’s real comfortable. What’s your name again?”
Confusion spread over the intruder’s face as he realized that this man was not acting as one who is being robbed probably should. His eyebrows separated a little as the tension and anger leaked out of his head, replaced by curiosity and uncertainty. He moved toward the chair, facing Larry the whole time, keeping the hand cannon aimed squarely at his eyes. “I’m Ray.” His eyes widened. “Now, that ain’t my real name! No! Let’s just say it is, so you can talk to me. Okay?”
Larry nodded. “Are you hungry then? You don’t look so good.”
“I’m fine. Okay?” The phone rang again. Ray stood up quickly, almost jumped. The gun started its dance again, the tip pointing in circles around Larry’s head, chest, and the wall behind him. “Look at the ID. Is that the security people again? Is it?”
Larry leaned forward. The phone was obscured by a thin sheet of pea-green that was now covering everything. He squinted to read the phone. “No, it’s my neighbor. She hasn’t spoken to me in months. I guess she’s worried about you. I mean, because of you. Security always scares everyone when they do things like that. Hey, why don’t you shoot the phone? Does that thing work?” He wagged his finger at the gun, excited by his idea.
Ray yelled “What, you want me to make a shitload of noise so people come running in here? I don’t think so, man. Don’t even think about answering the phone.”
Larry was quiet for a minute. “Look, the walls in this place are soundproof. You could fire a cannon in here and nobody would hear it. Watch.” Larry proceeded to belt out a string of gibberish at the top of his lungs. He continued on for a few seconds, Ray getting increasingly agitated, shouting for him to shut up as Larry broke into the score of HMS Pinafore, arms dramatically splayed. Larry was quiet, and looked hurt at Ray’s anger.
“What the fuck is wrong with you man, you want me to shoot your stupid ass?”
“No, no. I want you to shoot the phone. It’s always talking, always trying to make me move. It’s trying to get attention. The stupid thing doesn’t serve a purpose. It’s loud. It doesn’t have a reason. It wakes me up! What right does it have? What right? Just shoot it.
“Look, nobody is here, and I just screamed my head off. See? Nobody can hear it. Just shoot the phone. It will be spectacular. It will be so great. Take the life out of it, take the struggle out. The thing is just wrong. Why should it do anything? It’s not even alive. Just shoot it. It’ll be a lot-“ The gun shot was incredibly loud, but nobody else in the building heard it. The phone exploded, along with the veneer of the table it was on. “Wow, I guess it does work.”
Ray’s face was plastered with surprise and speckled with phone bits. Larry was watching the fire, green and yellow, that only he could see, leaping from the remains of the phone, straining for the ceiling. Ray was watching Larry’s face. Shifting, twitching, eyes wandering disconnected from each other, Larry’s face was like a plastic doll in a microwave. It slowed, stopped. Larry turned to Ray. “So, you want something to eat? I think there’s some Chinese in there.”
Ray was sweating, and looked exhausted. He lowered his gun for the first time, absently pointing it at Larry’s groin. “Yeah, uh, yeah. Okay. You get it, huh? Put it on the table.” When Larry got up and walked into the kitchen, one foot in a brown sock, one in a loafer, Ray pulled off his black coat, taking care to keep the gun pointed in Larry’s general direction. He had on a dark gray t-shirt underneath. His arms were stick-thin and sallow, ribboned with red highways racing up his arms toward exits invisible above the edges of his sleeves.
Larry got out some cardboard containers, placed them on the table, and turned to Ray. He spotted the marks on Ray’s inner elbows. “Hey, looks like you’ve been sleeping with your friend and mine, Mr. Brownstone. How is that stuff anyway? I’ve been meaning to give it a try.”
“What, you think that’s fucking funny?” Ray blurted. “You think I’m a fucking joke? Fuck you man. Back the fuck up,” his words punctuated by jumps and violent thrusts of the gun barrel.
Larry looked genuinely shocked. “I was just trying to be friendly, Ray. I mean, my head is pretty empty sometimes. I really wanted to know if drugs and stuff maybe could fill it back up? See, things get really green sometimes. I mean, now, they’re just a little green. So’s the problem. Which I forget is what. It’s like a window…” trailing off.
Ray did not respond to Larry’s babbling, and sat down tenuously at the little table in the kitchen. He tried eating the food with one hand, decided that it wasn’t going to work, and looked at Larry, who was still standing by the fridge. “Okay, I’m going to put this gun down. You’re going to stay there.” He put the gun on the table, and attacked the food in front of him... He shoved handfuls of rice into his mouth, barely chewing. He obviously hadn’t eaten in a while. Larry sat down in a chair, and stared at the gun.
Larry was admiring the gun, the rusty patina of decay on the surface and the hole from which violence leading to stillness could erupt. As he stared, the gun began to change, its shape shifting and becoming uncertain. Fury clouded Larry’s senses as he flew to his feet, knocking his char away.
Ray’s head jerked up, dropping rice on the table. “What the fuck? I told you to stay over there!” Larry was hulking over the table, slack jawed and staring at the gun, eyelids drooping. He didn’t respond, didn’t blink. He only stood there, his head tilted. He began to make a quiet, high pitched keening sound from the back of his throat.
Ray took the gun and put it in his lap. Larry continued to stare at the same spot. Ray finished his rice, and proceeded to pound down the contents of the rest of the cardboard buffet. After a while he had emptied all the containers. He looked up at Larry, who seemed to be asleep standing up, with rice and brown sauce smeared across his mug.
Larry was examining a little black scorched spot where the gun had been on the table, directly in the center of the slit visible between his eyelids. A thin strand of green smoke rose from it. Larry began to shake involuntarily, his clothes flapping stiffly against him.
“What the hell…” Ray stood from his chair and backed up, moving through the kitchen into the living room. He eventually dropped down on the couch in the living room, still facing into the kitchen. Larry’s shaking slowed, stopped. He still seemed to be sleeping. Ray noticed a sour, dusty, old library smell rising up from the couch. He got up and moved to the recliner.
Ray sat in the chair, warily facing Larry, a look of concentration on his face. Minutes passed, and he did not move. His eyelids slid over his vision, popped back up, twitched and shimmied, and finally settled Ray into sleep. The gun slid lower as Ray’s grip loosened, and dropped onto the floor next to the recliner with barely a sound on the thick carpet. Larry didn’t stir as Ray began to snore.
Some time later, Larry shifted in place, and then began to move. He went to the living room and stared at Ray, his arms limp at his sides, his head craned forward and down. He saw Ray from a year ago. Strong, smart, useful, alive. Now Ray was almost a jumble of dead sticks. He had no purpose. Larry saw why Ray was dying. He had realized that there wasn’t any point in doing anything else. The only sensible thing was to die; that was the only adventure open to him. Anything else was masturbation. Larry sympathized. He looked down and saw the top corner of a pamphlet with the words “Stairway to Ho-, Drug Rehabilitation Cente-,” with half the words obscured by Ray’s pocket. Larry realized that Ray knew he was dying, and he understood that Ray didn’t want to die. He was trying to get into rehab.
Larry’s face twisted into a scowl.
What fucking right does he have? He can’t just stop dying. He understands! Why would he try if he understands? Why won’t he die? People like this…he gets it…he does the only sensible thing…then he backslides. Backslider. He’s a coward. He saw what was coming, the last adventure. The final frontier. He got scared. Pansy. Scaredy cat. He’s no better than anyone else. He’s going to fix himself. He’s going to get healthy again, go against nature, bring chaos. He’s going to keep moving. He’s going to be like the morons across the street, look for a message that isn’t there. This is stupid! Why would he? He’s almost there!
Larry’s face was a furious red. He bent over and picked up the gun. His anger flowed down into his hand, clenching it. He pointed the gun at Ray’s head. For the first time that evening, the barrel was steady. The noise was deafening. Nobody else heard it. Larry stopped scowling and looked relieved as the sharp tang of burned Cordite and the heavy smell of fresh excrement mingled in his nostrils.
Larry went back to the couch and sat down. He tossed the gun on the floor. He sighed contentedly at his apartment.
He decided to watch some TV. There was a wonderful show on. It was all green clouds floating perfectly still against a purple background. He stared in fascination, and he smiled. It was beautiful.