Have you ever wanted to just knit another person? Me too.
For me, it all started with knitting a sheep (á la bla bla), which then veered slightly when I changed my mind to a teddy bear, which then took a sharp left when I changed my mind again and, given that imitation is the sincerest (and most inappropriate) form of flattery, decided to just straight up knit my nephew.
And the result: a surprisingly adorable brown version of my nephew (nephaww) that, in a couple decades, some poor soul will accidentally stumble upon while scrolling the internet (b/c masculiknity is forever) and show Kota (who I can only hope will still have as many cankle folds as he does chins) and his then-boyfriend (a gay uncle can dream) and be like, “da fuq?” (pls let this still be a thing in the future)
Okay, I will be the first to admit that little Kota-chan is not the most photogenic subject. I tried putting him all over the apartment (not pictured: kota on ikea plates, kota riding doorknob, kota w/ totoro and soot sprites) but the effect was the same: a well-toasted pillsbury doughboy smiling creepily over his tiny realm of household wares. His one redeeming quality, however, is the sheer amount of poly-fil I spent on him (enough to stuff a frickin couch cushion), giving him maximum plush for nighttime hugs and, quite unexpectedly, a thigh gap for days.
I’m currently working on writing him up as a pattern and, depending on how much uninterrupted late night call room knitting I get in the NICU (YES KAREN I KNOW CHECK HIS SUGARS AGAIN IN AN HOUR), I’ll also be making a she for my he, an Eve for my Adam, if you will (as seen in the garden of tweeden, from the book of genestitch). So look out for a new pattern download on Ravelry, and, in the meantime, check out my other patterns available that have received such rave reviews as: “I love this hat, and I hate it…” and “It took me about a year to finish this silly thing.”
Segue: I knit a scarf! A little confidence booster after my first iteration of Kota-chan came out looking like a penis (scrota-chan).
Adapted from purlsoho’s Jasmine scarf, I haven’t knit a long scarf in forever, but I tried to throw in a little intarsia and pattern variation to glam up this gift for my sister, who, despite owning every scarf I’ve made since the summer of ’04, opted for yet another one instead of the Ally-chan doll I offered to make her. Rude.
The past few months have been marked by some pretty devastating events at the hospital (the cafeteria’s mongolian grill was closed for like, half of december), and as I continue to work on my writing–to find a voice (mine, preferably) and play with imagination–I’ve pushed myself to be bolder, to write as if no one will read what I write and then share what I write so that everyone will read what I write.
What follows is lengthy (you’re gonna have to pause netflix for this) and, hopefully, scary. Well, if not scary, then maybe creepy. And if not creepy, than maybe just downright weird, deserving of a head scratch and a solid, timeless, “da fuq?”
I remember Wednesday morning—the morning I first found Harlow’s ad—with perfect clarity, like the final, unshakeable stills of a dream. Except this was very much the opposite: that morning, in my kitchen, my last lucid memory, and everything afterwards dream-like and peripheral. Somewhere not quite here. Somewhere else.
Wednesday morning is the cliff, falling farther and farther from view as I wait to land.
Standing in my kitchen. The newspaper on the table. Waiting to land.
The ad was brief yet professional. Mysterious to say the least. In all capital letters it relayed a sense of urgency, though the lack of detail suggested that it may have been submitted on accident, an unfinished draft placed in the wrong pile and sent to the printers a day too soon.
SCARS FOR SALE
1506 CLEMENTINE STREET
(ABOVE MISS MORRELL’S HAT SHOP)
ALL TRANSACTIONS FINAL
I read it again, slower, carefully, looking for something more. An unformatted byline. Something written in subscript, maybe.
The toaster spat out a charred brick of bread.
I read it a few more times while spreading lemon curd on my toast. It was still searing—I don’t have a patient bone in my body—and my fingertips burned.
‘Scarves’? I thought, perhaps spotting a simple typo, but I knew that wasn’t right. This hardly read like a clothing advertisement. And besides, this was, presumably, a reputable newspaper, so not only would a glaring typo have to elude an entire payroll of editors, but even a tiny corner as small as this (it couldn’t have been larger than a playing card) must have come at a considerable cost, and who would waste precious square inches on such a haphazard sales pitch?
And all that for scarves?
The lemon curd did little to mask the bitter taste of burnt crust. Annie always hated the way I burned my toast. She was convinced I’d get some disfiguring cancer one day because of it.
“What will it be today?” she used to ask. She didn’t even bother hiding her disgust. “Lung cancer? Colon cancer? Mesothelioma?” She didn’t know what that last one was, but she’d heard it so many times from those class action lawsuit commercials on daytime television she knew it had to be something horrible. I’d take a huge bite and roll my eyes in mock-ecstasy. “Or maybe tongue cancer, with all that black filth rolling around in there.”
It was a game of chicken and I always lost, one time spewing pieces of half-chewed bread everywhere in a burst of laughter. And Annie’s chin, tilted up. Her mark of victory.
“You are ridiculous.” And she leaned so close I could see the rugged landscape in her eyes, crags and cliffs submerged in two pools of canary yellow. Then, as she took a fleck of toast stuck to my lip and popped it into her mouth: “This stuff will kill you one day.”
My taste buds revolted and I was eating cardboard. I swallowed what I could and threw the rest in the trash. I threw away the jar of lemon curd, too.
Maybe lunch will go better, I thought. I have to start eating eventually.
I turned back to the paper—pulled back, more like, the seed of intrigue already having sprouted and leaved—and read, again, that curious little advertisement. I flipped it over, inspected the back—just a few lines of a scathing movie review—and held it up to the light. I scratched the page to make sure nothing was buried beneath a speck of food or dirt or splotch of spilled, dried ink.
But, again, nothing. It was maddening.
Six lines, so out of place.
Of course, it was out of place for a more obvious reason, something I didn’t realize until my eleventh, twelfth pass, when I set the paper down and saw that I wasn’t in the classifieds, reading between calls for bilingual au pairs and graveyard shift temps with minimal (or, at the very least, unimpressive) criminal histories. It would’ve made more sense there, though it’d likely be no less peculiar. No, instead, I found it at the very bottom of the obituaries, beneath the last death of the day (Dolores Pennington: beloved sister and deaconess, survived by her wheaten terrier, Marcus), and, somehow, that made this sans serif non sequitur that much more ominous.
All transactions final.
Almost like a threat.
Or maybe a promise.
This stuff will kill you one day.
My stomach somersaulted, sick of being empty.
I took a pair of scissors from the drawer beneath the microwave and cut carefully, suspending the ad with a magnet against my refrigerator door. I stared at it one last time, so long that the letters broke down into crop circles of pointillism.
Out of place, yes, but, also, just a slip of paper.
My mind located the box of matches beneath the bathroom sink.
A threat of my own.
Lunch did not go better, said the Chinese takeout pooling sadly in my kitchen sink. I didn’t even make it to the bathroom. Half-digested braised pork like sopped up bits of sponge taunted me and swirled in pools of soy sauce and fish oil. Some had gone up my nose, leaving a ghost of a sneeze behind my eyes. I ran the faucet and flicked on the garbage disposal, watching my failed attempt vanish into a more willing orifice, swallowed up greedily by a dozen whirling blades. I folded the soggy take-out box—there was still some left, and maybe I’d try again for dinner—and put it back in the refrigerator. And as it closed:
1506 Clementine Street
I knew where Clementine Street was. There was a bakery on Clementine and Argyle where Annie and I used to buy chocolate fedoras whenever we went to her parents for dinner. From what I could recall, it was a quiet, pretty street. Mostly skinny three flat condos with brick facades and tiny square garden plots. The rare brick and mortar. Tall trees with leaves that turned orange and gold in the fall.
Was there a hat shop, too?
I sat down at my desk in front of three weeks of paperwork that formed a precarious pile. I sifted through the papers: patient charts and pharmaceutical inserts and a flutter of old, dried up Post-its falling through the loose sheets and onto the floor. The numbers and words were in a language only faintly familiar. Sorting through it all seemed like an impossible task, but I picked up a page anyway and started reading about a thirteen-year-old girl with—
In front of me was the open doorway to the kitchen. The sun was coming in through the window above the kitchen sink, and it caught the dust slow dancing in the air. I followed the beam of light. My mind was made. I didn’t need a lot, hardly anything, really. Just something, one thing to reassure me that what would happen next would be at the very least understandable if not reasonable. Blame the universe or daylight savings or the motes of dust suspended in light like tiny plankton at the bottom of the ocean being pushed and pulled by warm currents, but at just this hour, the sunlight was almost finished being a bright white and had just a tinge of red, streaming into my kitchen and settling like a warm hand on my refrigerator door, casting the small newspaper clipping on my refrigerator in the middle of its fiery glow.
1506 Clementine Street.
About a fifteen-minute walk, I estimated.
It was chilly outside. Typical for early November. The leaves that hadn’t fallen yet were a beautiful burnt red, flames frozen in time and dangling from their branches, the ones on the ground amalgamated into a sickly brown amoebic mass that oozed beneath my feet. I turned onto Federal Avenue and skipped around the puddles that collected in the depressions of the freeway underpass before turning again onto Argyle Street. In just over ten minutes I reached Valentina’s, and by force of habit I paused at the display window, visually digesting the pastel macarons and chocolate éclairs and a generously powdered tiramisu. The baklava stood separate on a tiered stand, impossibly flaky and bathing in honey. Annie loved baklava.
My big toe throbbed from kicking the bakery wall.
I passed Valentina’s and turned onto Clementine Street, reassured that it was much like how I imagined—unexciting but homey, warm and attractive, with tall gingkoes sifting shards of light onto the cobbled street below. The sidewalk was uneven, panels of cracked cement jutting up in a way that was quaint and lovely. Not a few steps down Clementine and the rush of cars and footsteps faded away, replaced by just a high wind making its way between the tree branches.
There was, indeed, a hat shop on Clementine Street. A razor-thin building painted a soft peach with an off-white trim. The store looked empty. The plain, darkened storefront window was collecting dust and obscured by drawn pale muslin curtains. There was a small door next to the window that came up to my shoulder, and on the doorknob hung a small wooden sign that read: Miss Morrell’s Hat Shop. And below, in hurried black marker: back soon.
I peeked between the muslin and spied a row of felted trilbies sitting on vague, white impressions of heads, and I questioned whether the owner of such an inconspicuous shop could afford to step away in the middle of the afternoon. But, with a lick of cold finding its way beneath my coat, I quickly returned to the task at hand. Somewhere between my apartment and here, the tiny slip of paper had become a piece of lead in my pocket.
I looked up at what I assumed was a second story and saw a single window cracked open, drawn with similar muslin curtains. There didn’t seem to be any other door into the building other than the front entrance to Miss Morrell’s Hat Shop. I tried the knob; it didn’t budge.
Off to the right was a low gate, which seemed to lead to the neighboring building—a modern Romanesque home with a plastic swing set out front painted with wet leaves—but as I pulled open the rusted latch, I found that it actually led to an alleyway between the two buildings. The alley was narrow and seemed to get narrower the farther I went, forcing me into a sideways shuffle until it turned the corner and opened up to a small set of stairs and a plain, unvarnished, wooden door at the back of the building. There was no buzzer or sign, no instructions for entry or phone number to call, so, after looking left then right—was this trespassing?—and then up the tall backside of the building, I tested the knob.
Once inside, I climbed a steep set of stairs, and at the top, there was a small landing with another door, similar to the one I had just entered—spartan and unfinished, just a pale wood with a brass knob. There wasn’t even a keyhole. I gave a few timid knocks followed by a couple more decisive ones after getting no response. With still no answer, and at this point somewhat frustrated by the lack of personnel on the premises as a whole, I twisted the knob, wholly unsurprised at how easily it complied.
The first thing I noticed was the smell, squirrely and indecisive. At one moment floral and sweet, the next sour and rank, like a stew of simmering garbage. The room itself was almost entirely bare—just a broad table between two wooden stools. A narrow window on the left hand wall (the one I had seen from the street below) let in a gentle breeze and a quiet shushing of leaves. The curtains were drawn, so the light in the room was warm and orange, provided by the single bulb overhead that poked out from the low stucco ceiling like a pimple. On the right hand wall was a doorframe, drawn with a chintzy drape of blooming dahlias.
What caught my attention most, however, was the long shelf that bisected the back wall. It was crowded, lined with all sorts of intimidating instruments. There were knives of various types: switchblades, daggers, cleavers, sabers. There was even a shiv—a broken piece of glass held to the head of a Colgate toothbrush by a thick brown rubber band. There were objects I didn’t recognize: something like brass knuckles that appeared to have been repurposed as a branding iron, a coiled piece of metal that ended in a devilish point—like a dentist’s tool under a magnifying glass. Some looked like art, others antiques. Most were metal, steel or iron, maybe. Many were gleaming as if recently polished and cleaned meticulously, while a few had rusted and warped the shelf, apparently neglected for some time.
I took a step forward and the floorboards announced my arrival.
“Yes, yes, yes, come in!” said a voice, preoccupied in the unseen back room. The dahlia drapes ruffled and then pulled away to reveal a tiny hallway, out of which emerged a man in a dark blue bathrobe. “Just freshening up a bit. Yes, please, have a seat.”
He was old—at least seventy, if I had to guess—and balding, with just two thin clumps of bright white hair combed deftly behind his ears. He had dark, tanned skin that was lined with wrinkles, his face rippling like a pond when he spoke or smiled. He looked like someone of incredible wealth, with the type of sun-kissed skin acquired from years of exotic travel. His face was neat, obviously well cared for, and his eyebrows and mustache were trimmed and, like his hair, uniformly shock white.
The man limped to the table, masking a wince, and took a careful seat on the far stool. With a delicate, manicured hand, he gestured for me to take the other.
“Um, I’m sorry,” I said, hesitant by the doorway. “I think I might have the wrong address.” The man seemed harmless enough, but the hairs on my neck stood like wire. Maybe it was the bear trap behind him that looked much too small for a bear. With its black gaping jaws, it looked more suitable for someone my size, or someone much younger. Maybe it was the bear trap behind him that looked recently cleaned, recently used.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” the man replied. His voice was deep and rich. Operatic, lilting. A singer’s voice. He reached into the large, plush pocket of his bathrobe and pulled out a box of cigarettes and a book of matches. “Please, have a seat,” he said again. “You’re making me nervous.” He lit a cigarette and released a long, steady stream of smoke that seemed to last forever.
I couldn’t place it, but there was something curious about him, something frightening but attractive in his insistence. A moth, powerless against the glow of burning kerosene. I thought some more, mentally picking out my weapon of choice if things took a turn for the worst (the hatchet with the solid, wooden grip on the far corner, I decided), and then, with a deep breath, stepped farther into the room.
“The door, please.”
“Close the door, if you don’t mind,” the man said, tapping his cigarette on the side of the table. “Gets awfully drafty in here.”
Second, third, fourth thoughts. A thousand scenarios played simultaneously in my head. I pictured leaving: turning around and running down the stairs and through the alleyway and bolt locking my front door behind me, but the image vanished immediately. The closer I got to this room, every footstep towards its center, the harder it was to pull away from it. There was an inescapable gravity here, and I was this man’s spinning moon. Without a word, without even looking back, I closed the door, feeling the sure catch and click in my hand, and took the seat at the table.
“Were you expecting me?” I asked.
“Hmm?” From the same robe pocket he pulled out a small notebook and a pen.
“You sounded like you were expecting someone,” I said. “I didn’t call beforehand. Actually, I don’t think you left a phone number on—”
The man held up a silencing hand while he blew a cloud of smoke up toward the single light bulb above us. Loitering, the smoke thickened the light.
“After so many years you get a sense for a certain sort of people,” he said, turning to a clean sheet on his notepad. I nodded, unsure what exactly I was agreeing with.
“So,” he said with sudden focus, “what will it be?” He hardly blinked, I noticed, and his eyes were two different shades of blue: one pale like cake icing, the other dark and blackish, like the last bit of light that reaches the bottom of the sea.
I stared at him, lost.
“Is there anything you had in mind? The opportunities are,” he nodded back to the shelf behind him, “extensive. I’m sure we can find the right one for you.”
Fifth, sixth, seventh thoughts. Lapping waves of regret.
“Oh, no, I don’t want—”
“Oh, if you insist—Mrs. Tanner!” the man said loudly, slightly annoyed. I almost slipped from my stool. At first I thought he was calling for someone in the next room, a secretary, perhaps, but when no one joined us, I realized that he was talking to me.
“Excuse me?” I asked again, increasingly confident that this man was at best demented and at worst psychotic. I imagined a nervous orderly, panicked and searching somewhere out on the streets, tasked with bringing this man back to whatever facility he had strayed from.
“Mrs. Tanner,” he said, softer this time, his voice still thick like tar. “Actually it’s Miss Tanner. Funny how we do that to old people, right, as if they only come in pairs, his and hers, like salt and pepper shakers.” He gave me a grin, revealing a messy row of cracked, yellow teeth. I’m not sure how many teeth a person is supposed to have, but he seemed to have far too many.
“I’m sorry. You must have me confused with someone else.” I said, rising from my stool. “I’m not sure who Mrs. Tanner is. I just saw your ad—”
“Miss Tanner—see, you do it too!—Now, right, Miss Tanner was born in Gary, Indiana,” the man continued. He seemed determined to tell me about this woman, his eyes unwavering from mine, beating down my confusion, my skepticism. His cigarette burned away between his fingers leaving behind a tail of ash. With his gaze, he sat me back down.
“Her parents owned and operated a small auto repair shop just off the interstate,” he went on. “Her father, Dale, worked the cars, and her mother worked the register, got people to buy new windshield wipers and premium oil, those sorts of things. Rita was a larger woman. She wore those big, coke bottle glasses. People loved Rita. Dale was okay, personable enough and did good work, but Rita, she had that charm, made you feel like home even if you were going a hundred miles the wrong direction. She brought in all the business, you can imagine. People tend to trust larger women. They’re reassuring, I suppose, those soft, pillowy, mother-types.” He stopped to drag on his cigarette. He gave me a small smile, showing his teeth that crowded together like protesters at a picket line. Everything else about him was so refined, but when he opened his mouth, with all those teeth, he turned carnal and predatory.
“Now, Miss Tanner—Charlotte, I should say—lived just three houses down from Tommy Darroway, the pastor’s son. The Tanners were church people themselves, so their families were close, and Charlotte and Tommy grew up together. They were inseparable, best friends, and everyone thought it was just the sweetest thing, especially their parents. Dale gave the two of them walkie-talkies for the kids’ tenth birthday and taught them radio lingo that he picked up from the truckers who came through the shop. And Rita and Bonnie, they put them to work as much as possible on lazy summer days, so instead of pajamas all day watching cartoons, they were pulling weeds and folding bed sheets—miserable doing house chores but, more importantly and what their mother cooed about over tall glasses of iced tea, suffering adorably together. And on Sundays, while they snuck cuss words into hymns and tiny wadded up bits of church programs down the dresses of old ladies sitting in the pew in front of them, even Tommy Sr., from all the way up on his pulpit, passed a blind eye over the two, denouncing sin with prejudice but finding exception, a rare softness, for this deviant display of childhood romance.
“Their families along with a third, childless young couple, had dinner together at the Darroway’s every Friday night for Bible Study, and afterwards, while the adults drew Scrabble tiles and swapped small town gossip, Tommy and Charlotte were upstairs, wearing blankets as capes and wielding flashlights in the dark pretending that light was fire. Tommy tried on his father’s suits and Charlotte his mother’s pearls. They cut holes in newspapers the size of bowling balls and played spies and assassins. Their play was wild—amnestic, delirious, and temperamental—always revolving around two villains battling both each other and the world, because neither even wanted to be the hero.”
The man licked his lips, which sent a trail of ice down my spine. He was like the smell in this room, I realized, elusive and perplexing, everything he was saying comprehensible, and yet somehow always just outside my grasp.
“Tommy and Charlotte were in love before either knew what love was, let alone what being in love meant. They slipped from friends to sweethearts so seamlessly that, even at their wedding, no one could point out exactly when it happened, when nothing turned into something. For a love as public and obvious as theirs, they still had their secrets; they had enough to isolate themselves from the world, to keep the world at arm’s distance and guessing.
“They went to college together, naturally—he planned to study engineering, she accounting—and were engaged before their first set of exams. They moved into a cubby-sized studio apartment, and after the wedding, an evening as intimate as their weekly Friday night dinners, Charlotte spent her first microeconomics lecture at home, studying the tectonic principles dictating the long crack that spanned three tiles (two black, one white) on their bathroom floor. Hugging the toilet bowl, she expelled everything inside of her, every one of her mother’s slow cooker recipes and every late night Sonic slushy sitting shotgun in Tommy’s pea green pick-up, every vital organ and haunting regret and lofty, glamorous dream she held for the future. Everything came pouring out of her except for James, newly multicellular and the size of a jelly bean. The name, of course, like everything else between Charlotte and Tommy, had been decided years in advance. They knew it when it happened, though the moment passed as easily as every other moment they had together: Friday night, James, ever small, but the size of a peach, now, his name whispered within impenetrable quilted walls of a fort held up by barstools; the name, over and over again, illuminated in Charlotte’s lap by a dying light; and Tommy, holding his breath, trying to keep the flashlight as still as possible, set just above her shoulder.”
The man took a long pull at his quickly dying cigarette. He looked at me expectantly.
“What did you say your name was?” he asked.
I hadn’t mentioned it earlier, but I told him, and he jotted it down in his notebook. Something about the way he talked, his cadence, made him irresistible.
“You can call me Harlow,” he said.
“Harlow,” I repeated, feeling the second syllable curl in a ball inside my mouth. It was part of his spell. It must’ve been, because somehow, knowing his name, saying it myself, drew me in deeper. “What happened to James?”
“Aerospace engineer. Like his father.” Harlow dropped the remains of his cigarette onto the floor and pulverized it with a bare heel. He pulled another from the box and lit it. “He was like Tommy in so many ways. Bet you can guess which way he went after the divorce.”
“God damn Tom Collins,” Harlow said, sucking hard on the cigarette. It was like that was his oxygen, the way he sucked it down into nothing and savored the smoke in his lungs. “Not the drink, of course, the mailman, though I’m sure he’s used to the jokes.” He winked at me, closing his dark eye. “Anyway, it was just once, but sometimes that’s enough. Twenty years of marriage seems impenetrable until you realize that it’s twenty years of todays, one after the other, happening every minute of every day. Can you imagine keeping a house in order for twenty years? All the broken china and rickety furniture; you can’t fix everything, right, so you just hope there’s enough stuff to burn through. And in twenty years, just imagine what builds up in those forgotten corners, cobwebs and unpaired socks, the vermin you get sneaking in through the floorboards.” Another smile. Another wink. His teeth so sharp I could feel them nipping at my chest. “Of course, I don’t know really know why—Charlotte sure had no idea, she just saw Tom Collins ring her doorbell and give her a smile that was new and different and, most importantly, there and hers, so she invited him in for coffee and, well…”
Harlow paused and looked up at the light bulb, the smoke like cotton candy in the warm, orange glow.
“Well?” I asked, chasing him some more, trying to pin down a shadow.
“I mean, of course she told Tommy right away,” Harlow continued, shifting his gaze back to me. “Charlotte was never one for secrets, always a good church girl—well, not that good, apparently—but she was already in tears when he came home that night and confessed the whole thing before he even had a chance to take off his coat. And Tommy, being the good church boy that he was, well, he hit her and she flew clear across the living room. She fell so long and so hard that he was out the door with his suitcase before she even hit the floor. She turned that cheek and, boy, did he know what to do with it, right.”
Harlow began to write steadily in his notepad. I couldn’t make out what he was writing, but I knew it was about me. Everything he was seeing and taking in about me, my silence, my racing heart, my creeping fear that this tale was broad and turning but making its way slowly around me.
“James was away at school, but when he found out he never went back. Tommy moved to California and James followed him, not even bothering to clean out his room. He just left everything as it was, and poor Charlotte didn’t have the heart to do anything about it. Anyone inside that house would’ve thought the boy had died, that’s how untouched everything was. Like a house of cards, I swear Charlotte held her breath every time she passed that room. It was like she was scared, afraid to set off all the anger that took up residence in his room.” He blew out a thick stream of smoke in my direction and held out the box of cigarettes.
“No thanks,” I managed to cough out.
“Suit yourself,” he said, taking another long pull.
“Now, Charlotte tried her best, but that house was just too damn big and full of too many bad memories for her to stay very long. Rita and Dale tried to get her to move back home with them, but they didn’t understand. They had no clue what had happened.” Harlow slipped back and forth into a wet cough. Bits of phlegm clung to his lips, which he licked away and swallowed. “You know the best part? When they asked her what went wrong, what happened to that perfect couple from Downey Street who had never been more than three houses apart, you know what she said?”
I shook my head. Harlow coughed, spraying spit everywhere.
Harlow broke into a nasty fit of laughter. “That’s what she said! ‘Drinking problem’! Because of Tom Collins!” Harlow turned and gave a loud, explosive cough. I thought he was going to die right then and there, blow an aneurysm or spit out a black emphysematous lung. But he eventually sat back up, tears in his eyes and a wide smile on his face, showing me that hyena-grin with dagger teeth, each one actively dying in his mouth.
“Ha! That part always gets me,” he said, a final wave of laughter bubbling through him. “Tom Collins, ha!”
“That’s horrible,” I said. Harlow waved me away.
“Anyway, Charlotte’s parents couldn’t get her to stay. She packed her bags and took the first flight out. She didn’t care where she went, just any place else, any place she knew she’d never run into an old acquaintance or one of Tommy’s old friends again.” Harlow gestured toward the window, “That’s how she ended up here.”
The light behind the muslin curtains was a deep, glowing ember. All of a sudden I wasn’t sure how long I had been sitting here, on this stool across from this man, learning the life story of one Miss Charlotte Tanner. I felt trapped, though nothing physically was tying me down. I didn’t dare turn around, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if the door was gone and I found myself surrounded by four solid walls and a window and the tail end of a dying red sun. Part of me almost expected, even, had I pulled apart the curtains and looked out the window, to see Tommy Darroway himself, watching me, reading me, holding me shakily in the beam of his quickly dying flashlight.
“She tried her best, Charlotte sure did,” Harlow continued, “but some people, they’re just destined for sadness. You can’t blame her; she was doing all the right things. She got an apartment uptown and a job as a secretary at a small law firm. She joined a book club and went salsa dancing, though she hated both. She tried everything: happy hours and singles nights and every last one of her co-workers’ birthday and retirement parties. She did everything she could to reach out, but no one was interested. It was like everyone already had enough. Everyone had families with potlucks to go to, parents to care for and children to dote on, lovers and spouses to share secrets and beds with. And Charlotte, poor Charlotte, she just arrived too late.
“She stopped trying, eventually, tired of painstaking small talk and people making bad excuses to leave and get back to their lives. Trying just hurt too much, so she gave up. She stopped going by ‘Charlotte’, too. After all, she was pushing fifty and, well we already talked about this, but they’re just grandmothers or old spinsters by default, so why bother correcting everyone who called her ‘Mrs. Tanner’, right. So she stopped trying and, instead, started visiting the park by her apartment, picking out an empty bench to sit on and watch dog-walkers and joggers pass by, filling that gaping hole inside of her with lukewarm peace and quiet.”
He tapped the bottom of the box. Another cigarette. Another match.
“It was her parents’ death that really did it. Heart attacks, the both of them. Two weeks apart. Rita was a long time coming, she was a big woman, and the walk to the morning paper was about as much exercise as she ever got in a day. Dale, though, now that was a surprise, because he was thin as a rail his whole life. But he was devastated when Rita died. Her death just wrecked him, killed him, literally. The doctors even said so, wrote it in ink and signed it. Death by heartbreak.
“Anyway, after they died, Charlotte really had no one. Parents, husband, a son. All gone. She even tried reaching Tom Collins, but he was gone. What would he want her for? Besides, like everyone else, he already had a family of his own. Figures, right.”
Tap tap tap. More ash on the floor.
“It came to a point where she started going through the personal ads in the paper. You know what I’m talking about. They’re disgusting, right. Pathetic, too. Full of porn-addled creeps too ashamed to grab some flesh in the light of day. She was reading them, with all their fetishes and not-so-subtle winks and nods, seriously considering them, if you can believe it, when she found me, came across my ad, the same one you read this morning.”
Harlow paused to look at me. Longer this time, looking into me. He bowled through those last words just as he had all the others, but he knew what he said, knew what I heard. The room seemed to shrink, everything getting closer, everything looking at me, like when characters turn to face the camera and you realize how close they are and that you’re together now because they’re not there anymore but here, watching you in your living room from just a few inches behind the glass.
Harlow was here now, I realized, and he was getting closer.
“What did you do to her?” I asked, my throat suddenly dry, my voice weak.
“Do to her?” Harlow put a hand against his chest, dramatically offended. “I didn’t do anything to her. I helped her, gave the sad old bitch exactly what she wanted.”
Harlow laid his left hand on the table and showed me his palm, or what was left of it, because sitting in the middle of his hand was a large, circular scar. It looked recently mutilated, like a thousand-foot view of a nuclear disaster, a small round area of confused flesh and haphazard blood vessels. And, in the very center, like a bull’s eye, a clear spot of pink.
“One of my finer works, I have to admit,” Harlow said. “I mean, to the untrained eye, I’m sure it just looks like a bad burn.” Harlow offered his palm out to me and, instinctively, I brought my face closer to inspect it. And then I knew where the flowery, putrid scent was coming from. “But this is art,” he continued, beaming. “The way I get the skin to pucker and stretch like this. People don’t know what it takes, interrupted healing and secondary cutting and a touch of electrocautery. Yes, I think she’ll be very pleased with this.”
“You did this for her?” I asked.
“Of course I did!” Harlow said, massaging the scar with his other hand. “You see, poor Ms. Tanner had no one—and I mean no one—she lost everybody, and even after she tried everything she still had no one, walking around like a ghost, the world’s acquaintance. At first she wanted another lover, another Tommy Darroway to step in and sweep her off her feet and fill her life with secrets and children, but when that didn’t happen she just wanted friends, people to play cards or gossip with, or someone just to share a fucking meal with. But when that didn’t happen, she just wanted to be seen. She drove herself crazy looking for someone to confirm her existence, to prove she was more than just an extra in the movie playing inside of everyone else’s heads, and with this,” again, he flung his hand into my face, the gnarled skin with its small central clearing that, somehow, looked larger than it did before, “with this, now people can’t ignore her. Because it’s revolting enough to snap people awake and force them to look at her, to feel and look at this, to register her as a living, breathing person that shares this god damn earth with them. This is a soul you can touch and hate. Shaking hands with this is like putting your hand on the fucking stovetop, you can’t help but pull your hand back and look down and ask yourself what exactly you just touched. And that’s exactly what she does now. She doesn’t sit there anymore, at the park. She stands by the track, shaking as many hands as she can, watching their faces for that sudden flash of disgust, of recognition. This, this is what she wants!”
Harlow pushed deeper into his palm. I thought he was massaging it, rubbing away the pain—because it did look painful—but as I watched him I realized he was rubbing away the scar, that tiny central clearing becoming larger and larger so the scar was now ring-shaped, like a halo.
“Are you—” I started.
“They say it doesn’t do anything, but I’m convinced,” he said, calming down in an instant. “My little secret.” He winked at me again. A flash of cold blue.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Harlow went on. “And we used to do it the other way, but that was a big mistake. We should’ve known, really, because even the saddest, most desperate clients have a change of heart once the knives come out. And then we had to start using restraints and gags for the screams—oh the screams, they were horrible.” Harlow brought a hand to his temple, and for a moment, I thought I could hear the screams, too, the ones released in this very room, trapped between these walls like Harlow and me and the smoke of a million cigarettes.
“And it didn’t even work. That’s the worst part. The experience was so traumatic the scar took on its own meaning, became a sort of twisted badge of survival. But this way, this way, the scar is slow and painless, and then one day you look down and, there it is, perfect and hideous and yours.”
Harlow was massaging his palm so vigorously I thought he was going to push straight through to the other side.
“But, why?” I asked, disgust slipping into my inflection.
“Why?” Harlow asked back, sharply. “Why don’t you tell me? You’re sitting where Miss Tanner sat. I assume that’s for a reason.”
“Why don’t you tell me about Annie.”
The next breath took place inside a bucket of ice water.
“You knew Annie?”
“‘Knew’? Oh, now, that’s plain rude. Don’t be so pessimistic.”
“Please,” Harlow became suddenly mean and impatient. “Enough of this song and dance. Bullshit is tiresome, so the sooner you tell me what happened, the sooner we can move on to what you really want. Now, tell me about Annie.”
“How do you know what happened to her?” Questions piling on questions in my head.
“The how is hardly relevant. All you should know is that this works much better when you tell me in your own words.” Harlow turned the page of his notebook. His pen was a blur.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“Your payment,” he said plainly. “Now tell me about her.”
“I, I don’t know where to start,” I said, blushing, all of a sudden embarrassed. Adam realizing his nakedness before Eve.
“Well, let’s start with when,” Harlow said, now with the warmth of a fireplace. “When did you find out?”
“No, that’s now how this works,” Harlow said, angry now, scorching. He was like a dice with a million different sides. “When did you find out?”
“August, the second, no, third week,” I said. “Wednesday.” It was all there in front of me, the untouched corner of my mind, everything exactly the same, right where I left it. “Three ten in the afternoon. We had gone to Dr. Shier the day before because Annie was getting these terrible stomachaches, and she just looked so sick and we didn’t know why, so they did some tests and told us they’d call with the results.”
“And what did they say?” Kind again.
“Lymphoma,” I corrected, feeling the word curl in my mouth, like “Harlow”, round sounds wrapping around me.
“Yes, yes.” Harlow writing faster, nodding to himself. He paused and looked up at me, and then in a voice that wasn’t entirely his own: “This stuff will kill you one day.”
A flash of anger dipped in fear. Harlow knew me—all of me—but hearing those words from his mouth felt like he had taken something from me, ripped it from my mind violently. I thought back to that afternoon, every detail perfectly reproducible, and wondered, honestly, if there wasn’t another person seated at our kitchen table that afternoon, if, somehow, we had both ignored the old man smoking in the corner, observing us with steady two-blue eyes.
“Who are you?” I asked, realizing that his name meant nothing, afraid of all the things I didn’t know about him. “And how—”
“What did you tell her?” Harlow asked, ignoring me. He was in control, no matter how sickly sweet his voice, and I was powerless to stop him. “What did you say when you found out?” He looked at me knowing what I was going to say would hurt, would be excruciating. Glee danced like a flame in his eyes.
“I said, ‘It’s okay, we’ll get through this.’” It came out as stupid now as it did then, but saying it again, here, felt like being eaten alive.
“Together!” Harlow said, slapping a hand on the table. “‘We’ll get through this together’! I said stop the bullshit, right.”
I nodded. I don’t remember when I started crying.
“And then what did you do?”
“She was sitting at the table, and I was by the counter, on the phone.” Mindlessly, each piece snapping in place. “So I went to her, still holding the phone in my hand, just a dial tone at the other end, and I knelt down, so we were eye to eye.” The start of a slow, wide smile, getting larger and larger, impossibly larger. “She was in shock, I was sure, because her eyes were blank, but she was crying. It seemed purely physiologic, the ways tears just fell from emptiness, just a signal from her brain to let go. But I wiped them with my sleeve anyway and swept the hair from her face.” My own tears blurred my vision, and the room fell away temporarily, washed away in a smear of color, everything except two spots of blue, one cold, one deep. I blinked and felt warm drops stain my cheeks. “And then I said, ‘I’m here, Annie.’ I said her name and she looked right through me but I knew she could hear me so I gripped her hands and said it again and again. ‘I’m here, Annie,’ I said. ‘I’m here. I’m here. I’m here. Always.’”
“And then?” he asked, in a low growl.
“And then,” I said. This was my payment. My irreversible transaction. A promise kept. And Harlow knew it, too, because this was all a ruse, an orchestrated dance between him and every single one of my fears, slowly pulling me apart. “And then,” the next words, clawing the walls of my throat, refusing to come out. “And then,” my voice, trembling now. My brain on the verge of collapsing in a spectacular implosion. Salt from my tears stung my tongue and puckered my cheek. “And then,” a deep breath, “I left.”
Harlow howled and roared like a ten car pile-up. He fell from his stool and landed on the ground in a loud thud.
“I packed a bag in the middle of the night and just left,” I said. There was no stopping me now. The building could’ve toppled over and in the rubble you’d find my lips, cracked and dusty but flapping wildly, shouting my confession. “I changed my passwords, my banking, everything; I started a new job. I got a new place, started paying things in cash so I couldn’t be found.” Harlow righted his stool and sat back down, wiping his eyes. “I just couldn’t do it. I loved her and she was in so much pain, I just couldn’t—”
“No!” Harlow yelled, immediately in a rage. “Don’t put this on her. She didn’t ask for a death sentence. This is on you.” Tears flooding from my eyes, now, sobs shaking me like a rattle. I nodded my head, agreeing with everything and everyone. Harlow went on: “You left because that’s what you wanted to do, plain and simple. And you check the obituaries every day, now, a routine as reliable as your morning coffee or brushing your fucking teeth, and you’re looking—no, hoping—” More vigorous nodding. Harlow was scooping my innards out in large, clawing handfuls. “Hoping you see her name. You just can’t wait to see her dead.” I was nodding so much I felt like snapping my neck off and handing my head to Harlow so he could put it on his shelf of torture and it would just nod and nod forever. “Because when she’s gone, finally, finally, you get to go back to your life. She’s a black cloud hovering over you, a chapter you just can’t wait to end, and her death would be your shiny new beginning. And every morning when you reach the bottom of the page and you don’t find her name, it’s not relief you feel, it’s anger, isn’t that right? You’re mad at her, for not dying soon enough, for holding your future hostage under the weight of her painful, pathetic, tragic life.”
I turned my head just soon enough for the vomit to hit the floor—a puddle of spittle and green, acidic liquid. It hurt so much coming up I expected it to burn a hole through the floorboards. Harlow released a long sigh, coming down from a roller coaster of an orgasm. He was silent, and for a moment all I could hear was my own gasping. Quick, staccato breaths.
“And now you need something from me, isn’t that right?” he asked, purring like a kitten. I looked up at him, hiccupping now that I was drained of tears and bile. “You want the same thing Charlotte Turner did,” he said, more definitively this time. “You want a soul people can touch and hate. You want fire.”
Scarves, I thought to myself. I almost smiled. He’s right; bullshit is awfully tiresome.
Harlow stood from his stool and turned around to the long shelf behind him. He held his hands out above the instruments like a pianist before setting out on a concerto, taking his time and flexing his fingers before picking up a short, broad blade of silver. The blade was straight on one end, swooped and shark finned on the other. He limped toward the curtained doorway, and with one last tremor of sobs, I got up and followed him.
Harlow pushed aside the flowery drape leading to the narrow hallway, and, on closer inspection, I realized it was actually just a small closet, shallow and boxy, with a large, ornate mirror hung on the wall reflecting the room behind me. It was a flawless mirror, free of smudges or dust, set in a bronze frame decorated on all sides with carefully sculpted cherubs and fanged imps as well as a host of grotesque, winged creatures, each with a bouquet of arms and legs. They all had gems for eyes, each one a different color—ruby and sapphire, crystal and amethyst, topaz and an empty, endless opal.
I stood behind Harlow, just behind his right shoulder, and met his gaze in the mirror’s reflection. Somehow his eyes seemed more piercing coming from the mirror, the difference between the two blues growing wider, like two separate stares coming from two separate Harlows.
Harlow tapped the tip of the blade on his chin.
“I’m thinking the chest,” he said in a diplomatic tone. “Nothing obvious or too showy. This needs to be intimate, but also dramatic, like an over-the-top inside joke.” He slipped off his robe and stood naked in front of me. The stench of rotting roses was overwhelming.
He was covered entirely in scars. Some straight and shallow, the result of a bad papercut or quick slip of the knife, others curled, elaborate, raised like a snake winding beneath the skin. Some looked almost ritualistic in nature, carefully designed and executed. They were all in various stages of healing, a few still bleeding, swollen and painful-looking. A patch of dark gauze was taped to his left thigh with a thin trickle of blood tracing down his calf. A large scar on his stomach resembling a gunshot wound had keloided into a swollen, taut bulb that hung from him like a small baby’s head. His penis was almost unrecognizable, multiple short scars pulling the skin to the left and then right and then left again. The head was almost entirely gone. Sawed off, it seemed.
“Business is booming,” Harlow said, catching my gaze through the mirror. And then, seeing me eye his contorted penis, “Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think you need anything like that. No, for you, I was thinking something around here.” He waved the tip of the blade around the left side of his chest. “The heart? No, that’s too on the nose.” He brought the blade to his sternum. “Something midline, perhaps? A cut right down the middle, splitting you in two. Evisceration is such a beautiful word, isn’t it?” He pressed the tip of the blade to his chest and a small bead of blood emerged. I gasped, afraid he was going to plunge the entire knife into his chest and kill the both of us. But he stopped, looking at me in the mirror, once again showing off his hideous, unkempt teeth.
I stood there, motionless, my feet glued to the floor, looking at this naked, horrible creature holding a knife to his chest. My chest. He was waiting for me, of course, for my permission to mutilate the small portion of his body that remained unmarred (though who knows how many scars had been there before). A voice in my head told me to run. This was madness. This was torture. Another voice in my head was laughing. A deeper voice. A singer’s voice. I tried remembering where the door was behind me but all of a sudden it seemed miles away. This room, this closet, this mirror seemed to be my entire world. And in it, just Harlow and me. And Annie, somewhere, maybe.
“Well?” he asked. His eyes had gone soft.
A lump in my throat, the words again clawing to my insides, holding on for dear life, afraid of what they might do, out and free in that thick, smoky air.
The smell of burnt toast forced my nose into a crinkle. I spread some margarine on it and took a small bite, breathing through my mouth to avoid burning my tongue. The sweetness of the margarine hit my tongue and my mouth watered. I could taste the clumps of garlic baked into the sourdough loaf, a hint of spice warming the back of my throat. I chewed a few times, the loud crunch filling the universe between my ears, and then swallowed. It echoed in my stomach like a rock tossed into a deep and gaping well.
I took another bite. Larger this time. I was starving.
And then another bite.
My desk was buried in papers still. The pile had grown considerably, with bills and take-out menus and carpet cleaner coupons now added to it. Outside it was no longer snowing and a fine layer of white frosted the streets. The tree branches sprinkled with snow looked like hefty lines of cocaine. From the closet I got my boots and jacket.
I took a deep breath, letting the winter cold chill my lungs. Ever since sitting in that smoky upper room, I’ve come to appreciate this more: expansive, clean, life-giving breaths. As I walked down the street, flashes of Harlow came back to me. The orange light, the blue eyes, the yellow teeth that seemed to look at me with a gaze of their own. It lasted only a moment, fortunately. For the first few days it was unbearable and constant, like an unending nightmare, living it over and over again. I didn’t know if I’d survive. But now it comes in spurts, always when I’m awake, never when I’m asleep. Some days I’ll blink and I’m in that room again, with Harlow looking at me from across the table, and I’ll blink again and I’m still there, and then I panic, overtaken by the dread of being trapped for eternity, just me and Harlow, that rabid scribbling in his notebook. But those are just the bad days, and they are getting less frequent as time goes on. I hope one day they’ll go away for good, but a part of me knows that’ll never happen, that no matter how much time passes he’ll always be there, be here, sitting in the room we share, with no door and one window, in a deep dark corner I try so hard to ignore.
And then there’s that laugh.
Sometimes, the voice in my head is his and not mine.
Sometimes, it’s almost comforting.
I found myself at Valentina’s. I walked in and the stuffy heat hit me instantly, my entire body prickling in sweat. I stomped the snow from my boots and took off my muffler before walking up to the counter. I ordered a piece of baklava, handing the man behind the counter a crinkled five dollar bill.
“When was yours?” the man asked as he handed me my change. I gave him a quizzical look. The man gestured at my neck. I looked down and saw a bruised purple bump peeking out from the neckline of my sweater.
It’s my little secret
“Heart attack, right?” the man continued, handing me a small plate of baklava. “Had a triple bypass myself about a decade ago. They had to crack my ribs wide open. Left a nasty scar straight down my chest.” He pulled down the neck of his shirt and revealed a linear scar tracing down his sternum. “Yours looks pretty bad, though,” he said, nodding at me. I peeked down my shirt and noticed a similar scar, like a worm made of several different peoples’ flesh sitting on my chest. “Some people are like that; I heard the doctors talk about it,” the man went on. “Poor healers, I think that’s what they’re called.”
I gave the man a polite smile and took my plate. Next to the register was the Sunday paper, bursting with coupon inserts and colorful comics.
Among other things.
“You want one?” the man asked, seeing me eye the paper. “It’s seventy five cents.”
I scanned the headlines: an oil spill off the Atlantic; new images of Jupiter’s moons; updates on the California wildfires continuing below the fold.
The scar rubbed against my sweater, sending a crazy itch up my neck. I stuck a hand in my shirt and scratched the scar. It was numb, like waking up with your arm still asleep. My nails felt like the blunt end of a pencil against my chest.
There was a line forming behind me. A woman with a dog in her purse tapped her foot impatiently on the tiled floor.
I fished inside my pocket for quarters.
I could really use a smoke right now.