“Body Language,” a novel-in-progress
Chapter 1: Reading the Final Word
The alcove’s hall was almost dark. I waited there—impatient, so reluctantly at work—for the woman inside to answer my knocks. Sounds spiraled up the staircase of the old apartment house like surf in a conch: a ringing phone, a thudding door, the distant scudding of a cough . . . the metal whisk of a spoon against a pot. Inside still, though, there was no response.
Move it, I thought, anxious for supper and angry at the boss whose call had sent me walking those four flights up. I’d fix them up, I’d rent them out; I’d lose my writing’s rare momentum, the most elegant riffs aborted mid-sentence, to answer all his tenants’ calls—out of sheer pity, I’d even muster a laugh to cover the gaps in his threadbare jokes. (Seriously, folks.) But this was going too far: calling me at night, drawing me away, up and away, from the music of my evening and the comfort of my wife (my very pregnant wife); this stretched the boundaries of the job, his drafting me to play some low-rent, blue-collar version of the Law. The Dun in Denim, I dubbed myself then, knocking harder on the door with misdirected venom. But knowing who I was, I also knew then the narrow limits of my compliance, what I would and wouldn’t do—whose side in this dispute I really was on. Move it, Mary Margaret. Just give me an excuse, and I’ll gladly play along.
From far below, the first or second floor, I could hear a slow song seep into the hall. A mood without a story, it floated up the stairwell, an insinuating sadness whose appeal I could feel but whose actual lyrics I couldn’t quite fathom. Plugging one ear against the distraction, I flattened the other flush against her door. (Come on. . .) Not a word could be heard, though. Not a hint of a stirring on the inside floors. (Come on! No matter how pathetic I’ll gladly pass it on. . .) But my promise of an alliance, telepathically sent, only beckoned more silence: a further flaunting of the Law.
Silently I cursed, tried a final futile knock and then, bowing to the form of my informal job, announced who I was in a singsong voice. One count, two. . . I hated this part, the power I wielded but didn’t want—the super’s right to intrude, day or night without asking, into their unsuspecting rooms. Private myself, I balked at this part, but deputized now and given strict instructions, I didn’t have a choice. And so it came to pass that the hand that had, in the hour just past, reared back in shock from a fetal kick—the message was not the greeting lightly tapped that I’d expected, not ‘shy’ or ‘haunting,’ but the sharp demand of a being trapped: a sucker-punch of will and wanting—and so it came to pass that that same hired hand, weary from the day’s long hours and warily reminded of its recent failure to maintain composure, selected and then slipped the correctly numbered key into the lock.
(Father, I thought, as if citing the right term might authorize me to reaudition for the part.) Steadying the key, I turned its brass blade inside the oiled slot. (Next time, I was sure, however hard the kick—next time, I promised, my hand wouldn’t flinch. . .) I heard the dead bolt drop. Relaxing my grip, I helplessly watched as, like a ship leaving dock without its captain, the door sprang back. With my arm outstretched, I stared, rapt, as it pulsed and then stopped, exposing a gap about a half-a-foot, the width of a book, as if the dorm room in some Catholic school where shy lovers clutched conforming to the rules of revelation as recently revised by the Dean of Student Housing—a ‘liberated’ nun. At first, the inner silence seemed unchanged. I hadn’t yet detected the moment’s subtle aural textures, its subliminal grain. I hadn’t yet seen the hidden host of living things waiting in the wings for their moment to emerge.
Softly, as if a nervous benediction, the mere murmur of hope without conviction, I called out the tenant’s name, rehearsing as I waited her own soft reply (lilting, Irish): an explanation for her silence which in fact never came. It was only then, lightly pushing on the door as I cautiously leaned in, that I first began to sense the almost viscous surge of stench emerging from within. (The odor strangely, I recollected later, was that of musty sweaters in the closets of the old, but so condensed, so intense that it vivified forever the meaning of ‘recoil’). And suddenly I knew without stepping in why, for all those thirty days and nights, Miss Sullivan had failed to pay her rent.
I didn’t move, wouldn’t breathe through my nose, refusing to pronounce the found word in my mind. Like an inept symbol, Gothic cartoon, a single fly buzzed out, staggered more than flew, as if reeling from the excess contained inside. In the dim and oily glow of a forty watt bulb bought to help stretch a government check to her electric bills, I numbly made a note of the cheaply printed saints, the plastic-framed popes and Virgins Mary, all the sunny blonde stares (everywhere, it seemed) of the Christian savior: a kind of holy hall of fame, row after row, which like stained-glass tattoos on the skin of the room sanctified the walls’ fading floral paper.
A coil of beads, a hard prayer for each need, lay curled atop a table. Beneath it, I saw a plated silver cross, a crumpled dollar bill, riotous layers of roughly opened mail—nothing, it later proved, from a hand that she knew. Just flyers for sales and bulk-rate pleas from missions of mercy, so many orphanage priests and Carmelite nurses, each offering special prayers against disease and despair to those who would ease the plight of the needy. “Dear Sister,” they’d begin beneath the doe-sized stares of dark-skinned children (help us! feed us!), “Dear Sister in Christ” . . . Seventy-five and she’d been no one’s bride except for Jesus. A lifetime, she must have waited for this tryst, the penetration of the mysterious; and now I, like some Junior dorm advisor—a minion of the prim pretending to be righteous—had burst in on her like this to catch her in the act of her violation.
One count, two . . . Still I didn’t move. Like a burnished copper thorn, the key still protruded from the flank of the door, my hand still half-extended but closing now, defensive, as if shying once again from the baby’s bony form. In the silent empty alcove on the threshold of her entry, I waited, kept on waiting, like an outposted sentry alarmed by a noise on the darkened periphery, for my own reponse. Retreat. Advance. Any definite command. Something apropos to say: a who-goes-there? A cry, or a curse, or a purse-lipped prayer.
Next door, signaled very softly by the almost intimate squeaking of shoeless feet on the hardwood floor, I heard another tenant stir, his slow pacing tracing the faint script of a suggestion across my mind’s blank board. Here, at last, was a place to turn. Inside, there’d be a phone—the fastest route to help. Inside, too, someone to wait with after the call. An ally. A friend. An ear to receive, like the mouth a rancid swig, the tabu word. Someone with whom to share and then dilute the meaning of the news. To pass it back and forth time after time until, as with a ritual parade of reluctant goodbyes, the words became rote, the feeling remote: more long-distance flowers ordered by phone, more ‘sentiments’ cloned into greeting card rhymes. I’d done my duty, after all, answered the call. I had come there, I had found her. I would even try to mourn her. But it was someone else’s job—a cop, a coroner, someone better paid than I—to touch her, to come close, to ‘dispose’ of the body. It was someone else’s sorry mission to see her where she fell and so carry home that night, banked like an ember in the powdery ashes of abstract memory, a portrait for the smell, a Kodak color slide ‘more vivid than life.’ He, and not I, could lay awake at night, projecting that image onto the brow of his sleeping wife. He, and not I, could relive the discovery over and over while waiting, pillow-propped, for dawn to arrive . . .
The faint footsteps had ceased—they were waiting, it seemed, waiting for me. But even then I didn’t turn, didn’t step, didn’t heed my own words. Instead, I swayed there, seemed to hover like a flame between two tapers, drawn back from escape toward Miss Sullivan’s doorway by what seems, even now, an appalling urge.
It wasn’t duty that called me, not bravado nor grief. Not some subtle form of pride but a dry and unrelenting burning inside—a primitive, centerless, ravenous itch. A craving beyond naming so witless and deep and immune to all fear (my species’ own lemming-call to the sea) that even I, body-shy and a prude about pain, was tempted by it. Even the man who, afraid of the train of thought they’d unloose, refused to read his wife’s childbirth books, who already dreamed of the ‘complications’ they’d reveal: the ruptured veins, the dislocated hips, those tiny hairless heads with their grape-stained lips . . . Throttled at birth. (Could irony get any worse than this: babies killed by the cords that had nourished them?) Even he, the cowardly prefather, wanted to draw close; wanted to see her, to see it, to read the final word—to know at last all there was to know.
As though a sun-starved rose, I leaned toward the light, I pushed on the door. . . .
(The start to Chapter 1: Reading the Final Word)