Wednesday night with a bowl of cereal, an empty chair, and a twitching violet light. The seal on the fridge won’t shut and a crack of cold white cuts into the cool purple hue splashed sickly across this very flat flat. Orville is over by the bathroom mirror with a calcium-crust view into the kitchen, keeping an eye on his guest with no eyes, the rent collector.
The rent collector. Orville draws hot hair-gel hock from an unshaven throat and spits into the sink. On a hook by the door, a bell rings in a coat pocket and Orville drops his toothbrush. The rent collector slumps forward, rolling chin down the hill of his hot-split stomach. How he’s folded. The chair neath his snap-bent ankle cracks and Orville grabs for the shower curtain as the rent collector sloshes onto the floor. His dough face slides toward the bathroom door.
Orville rips the curtain down and its support bar breaks wall plaster, rings on ceramic tub, and teeters on the tile before coming to a slow roll halt. The dough face.
The rent collector wouldn’t come again. Orville made sure of it.
He swished and spit into the sink. The curtain hung ugly from its bar. He trained his eye in the backwards reflection of the crusted silver and saw nothing, then turned and walked on flat feet to the cereal staring from the table. Lukewarm. Orville caught the crack in the fridge, kicking it shut and saving a half-emptied can from its spoil.
Orville never sat spread out. He collected himself. His hands would return to pockets. His wife didn’t exist. No one knew him and everyone looked the same. The little notebook in his breast pocket had a few numbers written down and a receipt from the pet store, where he’d purchased a scratch pad three and some weeks ago on credit from the Ballinsgrod Bank.
Thursday mornings were the worst for back pain, or so he thought, and so it was likely to be true for some rule of psychology had him induce a stinging upper spine unto himself. He really tried to enjoy his walk to work, but there were never any people in Gunther’s Gathering, the park that lay stretch across the most of the jaunt.
There was one morning Orville stepped across the small footbridge at the centre and saw a very human smudge in the trees twenty meters off. Chalk it up to bad eyesight.
The park felt soggy this time of year. Dull swaths of what one might call green and a healthy amount of pocked pavement wound around pats of mud. It’s hard to find on the map due to its insignificant size against the larger town, yet it took forever to traverse due to its serpentine stepway.
Orville was over halfway through when he heard a bell ring. His phone hadn’t gone off and he felt self-pity for that phantom feeling of someone who’d reached out with something significant to say.
Across the way and before the next bend, a bench sat slanted an angle away from Orville and on it sat someone wrapped in a dark shawl and whose front could not be seen. It was still, save a flap of cloth feeling the bench across a stream of low wind. Nothing else moved. Nothing else would dare to. Orville could not recall ever seeing a soul in this park. He was a good distance away, and knew they wouldn’t have heard him walking, for he walked with care. It was not easy to get a glimpse, and Orville was intensely curious at who would choose to spend their morning leisure in such a soggy, forlorn patch of geography.
At the office, colleagues trickled in nodding and drifting and floated to seats with gazes as precise at screens as an archer sans bow, javelin throwing focus into the bright, hard, opaque windows just fingers away.
The usual sputter til three in the afternoon. Orville sat tapping, trying to recall the events of the morning. He scratched at his neck hard, filling the patches between hair with itch-blood inkblots on pale dry skin. The calendar on his desk was usually useless, except for today. He picked up a highlighter and stamped a thick dot over the present date. He didn’t release it, and ink began to thicken and drool out of the pen down the little square form.
The lights hurt Orville’s eyes. He slammed away on keys, typing out the dissonant notes of a dull spreadsheet. The figure filled his mind. The black cloth, it engorged Orville’s thoughts. His imagination swivelled between seductive depictions of its feminine face and fearsome paintings of spread skin on bone structure. An hour’s lunch break melted into minute and minute and minute of lost scrawling, pencil scrape on spare page, trying to grip the faint turn of a cheek on that cold bench toward his faraway figure just hours ago.
His peer peeked over and questioned the bit of scrap, asking if Orville was an artist type. Orville shrugged off, sensing a smidge of jest in his voice. The day sprung on til the end of it when fudge shoes found their ways to the two exits at either end of the expansive room. Orville wrestled a fist into heavy eyes, planting purple rings and cleared his throat, gathered his coat, and made his own way to leave.
A bell rings in his coat pocket. He pats the pocket, acknowledging cosmic disturbance, and wrinkles his nose in response. They could wait.
The clock-watch ritual. All flats in Orville’s building have much the same layout, as flat layouts in flat buildings normally do. But Orville’s next-door Nixons needed different long before he’d moved in. They have a closet deep-set that had to be hacked into the wall and plastered up imperfectly to house all their perfect pictures. They are poor art collectors. Won’t call themselves as much.
Some sad day late October last year, Orville knocked on their funny door to find out about the power outage that had knocked out his television set and funked up the tiny meat freezer underneath his Hungarian half-lamp. They’d chatted briefly before a mutual realisation they hadn’t before met, and exchanged some small talk on professions and preferences and the history of local things and nonsense before Orville left and cursed himself for not inquiring about the power which had turned back on teasingly in his absence.
Those naughty neighbours. They ran the night market down the street some ways, a rank old spot a spit away from the bus station and with a facade mistakable for a morgue. Orville had learned during last year’s short encounter that the closet space was indeed a closet space and that it held a stockpile of paintings the so-and-so’s thought might make auction one day should their auteurs strike big. And so all the chip-bag money and sponsorship of local drunkards and dive men went not to waste, but buying into the hopes of sunken artistic souls who’d smeared colour onto cheap squares to be squared away where the colour would no longer be seen.
Leg up on the kitchen table in tight faded underpants and fisting a finger-sized hole in handle of heavy hunky coffee mug, Orville sat squiggling uncomfortably in a fight to match his splintered spine to the grooves of the bony chair back behind him. The pistons of his skeletal snake slunk back, forcing two chair feet up in front of him and a quick dizzy sense of near shit-scare floor-bound falling equalised by the hit of his head into the wall, stopping the chair from further friction on the floor.
He remembered the collectors’ corridor when the bang from his head rang more than it should have, sending small waves into a spat of must-be nails opposite the plaster, shaking thin-wire hung frames and setting at least one loose to slide crooked in its place.
All flats in Orville’s building have much the same layout, except Orville’s, what was criminally smaller for its intruding closet corner. He wasn’t even sure it shaved any off the rent.
The coffee crept across his undershirt and seeped downstream his belly into the underpants. Orville welcomed a wave of warmth below, be it only a drip, for lack of lustful encounters left him dry. He closed his eyes, then opened them toward the clock whose over-voltage hummed in a strange persistence, a parallel pattern of pulses. Orville sensed the clock’s internal communication somehow when the minute would flick into the next in place of a second counter.
The twenty-three-fifty-nine swelled and popped to zeroes across, the fresh face of another minuscule millennium to take place over the next twenty-three and fifty-nine units of time. Then the zeroes stayed longer than welcome.
Coffee and cream. Late for Friday’s fun weekly overview. Orville phones to a desk mate and fills in some blanks with what happened and why’s and when’s and that he’d appear after lunch and slurp the chart. He clicked the phone off and face-downed it on the table.
Orville’s organ is dry-stuck, tip to cloth, and tears with a shift of the waist. Spine pops upright on the chair he’d fallen asleep on. He’d seen the shawl again in his mind’s nightly mush and must’ve trickled among the storytelling.
The mug is halfway across the floor. Puzzling for the handle’s stop chock, wedging it against nothing near the waste bin. Orville peels off his pants and puts them somewhere neatly, waiting for the shower water to sprinkle, willing for it to be a little less chilly. He points the nozzle toward his chest and takes a breath as it sprays his hairy canvas with ice pellets. Toothbrush has a little speck in between the bristles matching more specks by the base of the toilet. Orville strokes his skin with a cloth and stretches his cheeks down in the silver mirror.
Nothing feels good today, except the pang of sugar splitting buds on his tongue as he scoops rainbow crunch to his crust lips and swallows. Shoes tied and tie crinkled, coat snapped and keys sheathed in pocket, Orville twacks shut the door in a scripted bit of daily catharsis before twisting the lock and turning to the stairs.
Down in the streets, a dove coos out of sight and clouds shine their maniacal mud light over everything in exhausting evenness. The park entrance reads its rusty morning mantra to the community, or just to Orville, he’s not sure.
“Greet gaily the day at Gunther’s Gathering!”
Gunther’s Gathering was revealed to society in 1923 by town officials, paying homage to Wilhelm Gunther, the son a wealthy pig shepherd, or pig magnate of sorts, who’d innovated after Sinclair’s revelations and rectified the dirty meat business. He’d often held informal meetings on this patch of land, lending to its later commemoration funded by the local packing industry. Orville was made of some percentage of their meats and kept his freezer stuffed with a supply, should his levels run low.
The sign’s alliteration added to the mind-fog misting around Orville’s brain pipes. He didn’t care for words.
Steps forth and forth and forth from centre to midway through the park. Orville had forgotten about the figure until the peripheral perk of that very bench gave him the same sort of chill as from the shower that morning. He focused his retinas, causing split pain in the side of his skull, and rubbed the back of his neck with his other hand on his stomach.
Absolutely nothing was there. The usual nothings scattered about the park startled Orville because he’d wholly expected to encounter that difference again. And why should he have. It was a blip on the calendar the day before. But today he was late.
Of course! He’d have to arrive at his usual time if he hoped for a glance at his mental muse, the black cloth blur. While he had the chance, being late anyway, Orville picked up the pace toward the bench and bent down to examine it. It was a bench.
Sod. Orville bent into the sod, examining around the bench. Normal as it was, there was some air about it that felt intensely uneasy. An open and empty can of olives sat sullenly in the corner of the bench, breathing in stale air. Its jagged flap fluttered about the occasional breeze. Orville sat on the opposite end and ran his fingers along the splintered wood at the edges where lacquer was not.
Across the way, down the winding path and dipping just into a tall, burly bush went a swath of bitten black cloth. Orville gripped the bench tight and his eyes widened until pupils expanded beyond the horizons of his iris. There it was.
He began pursuit, though quietly so as not to alert it. The cloth swished around each bend ahead and swam through traffic. It was leading Orville home. He burst through the door of his flat, knowing it could not have gone further. Just as he entered, he saw it there in plain sight.
It calmly loomed, tall and leaning forward toward the kitchen counter, with a slender hand draped in loose grey-looking skin. The skin wound in bunches around disproportionate knuckles and stretched finally toward jagged, black bruised nails. Its feet could not be seen under heaps of thin semi-opaque rugs ringing the figure’s torso and falling completely to the floor.
The entire room was heavy. Humid. Orville stared for a second in what felt like solidified time. He could near make out a crack-slit, sinking and tortured-silly face reflecting off the dented sheen of the toaster oven before spoiled-egg eyes slid to meet his stare. The figure fell forward completely, sinking into the wall nearest Orville’s dinner chair, into the collectors’ closet. Went somehow straightaways through its wall plaster leaving nothing behind. Almost nothing.
Where it had stood seconds before remained the gangplank cabinet gaping open to a spilt slime-drip from a frayed metal olive canister.
Orville’s phone buzzed in his pocket.
Stanley sat next to underwear-clad Orville patting his back. He’d tried calling the whole day, wondering where Orville was, before he gave up and left the queue at Ballinsgrod’s for Orville’s place.
The two men sat looking at nothing, honey-stuck hands glazed with the memory of sweet buns gone stale during an hour’s commute. They’d discussed nothing. Stanley could not diagnose the situation, but felt Orville had been up to something quite startling as he’d greeted him in the nude with a handshake cold as arctic depths and a brow splashed in sweat. Stanley only knew Orville from a past job they’d worked together, more manual labor, where they’d gotten close enough to comfort each other in spats of loneliness. Orville’s was one of few phone numbers stored in Stanley’s mobile, and he assumed the same was true inversely.
Orville collected himself over some time and Stanley helped him into a pair of tight trousers. He went on about olives without any context. That he needed olives, a lot of olives, the kind in a can perhaps, but perhaps not. Stanley knew no other excitement and played along. He took cash from Orville who could not bring himself to drag across the market aisles, for he was afraid of spooking anyone who might whiff his inner fear via whatever gland is responsible for producing liquid fright. Stan promised to be back in an instant and begged for Orville to stay put and lock the door once he left.
Orville did lock the door, then immediately squeezed himself out of the sausage pants and cupped his warm manhood in a cold palm on the couch. His other palm kept a single olive that came from the bottom of that blasted can like an oyster chomp-sealing a precious pearl. He dozed.
Orville’s mind went first to a cafe dressed in feathers. A woman with an electric blue dress piled whipped cream endlessly atop a spoon and it spiralled into the mouth of a tiger standing on its hind legs. He turned out the window to a couple on a floating bench hanging upside down over a bowl of cotton balls. Ants trailed out of the bowl and parachuted into a hole in the ground, ground made of glass. The ants landed on drum skin, pattering like rain into a microphone tied onto a stick attached to a tree whose branches bent over in a subservient bow and whose leaves were tiny gramophones blowing sound in smoke rings. Below the tree sat a kitten licking its tail, who got up and swayed toward a cartoonish toolshed, leaving paused holographs of itself with every other paw-step. The toolshed groaned and perpetually melted under a sun dripping orange over the roof tiles that burned in gobs of sweet napalm. Round female forms piled in the one drawn-open window, overlapping themselves in their roundness, enveloping flesh in thick slaps like paddles lapping water. Orville felt himself engorge below in the least erotic way possible, as if all the blood had drained from the rest of him and into a snaking paint swath what was jiving in jittered movements in dizzying elongation across the glossy false-earth in skyrocketing and slow-swirl dances, led along by the mushroomed top toward the calling shed. The shed door bowed out until its wood snapped and scratched floundering breast-bags the size of elephant ears. One pricked by a splinter deflated and unfurled its curled tongue-thing in a carpet. Orville was led along by whatever pole had been leading him, in this instance more literally. The overhead sun flickered out and exchanged with a soulless moon as the highest and lowest octaves on some ethereal piano banged out some note simultaneously. It became darker than the ocean floor except for a single moonbeam on the toolshed entrance, where two spoiled-egg eyes could be seen, searing Orville’s own.
Orville spat open his eyes and sat encased in sweat, staring up at the face in his own room, a whisper-length away. It locked its stare with his, stamping the moment with unnerving arrest. Orville’s phone that had been buzzing kept buzzing in a timeless monotone choir of white noise. The lights in the flat felt theatrically dim, enshrining Orville and the face in intimate vignette. Flared nostrils echoed wide and narrow in a lull that was the only reminder of the moment’s unsure persistence.
Orville’s hands were empty of olive and prick.
Bangs at the door cracked Orville’s eyes awake. He felt stuffed full of emptiness, and his head like a bruised apple who’d fallen from the tree and picked up dirt down a rain rut. Stanley could be heard shouting.
Orville picked up a shoe beside the couch and threw it with the might of a housefly against the wooden slab, sending the far-sounding voice into silence. He dragged himself against gravity and pitched forth to the doorknob, twisting open to shock Stanley with his stark appearance, a shock which lasted not a second before the rent collector’s body collapsed like a concrete domino atop Orville.
His skin looked like powdered wheat flour with flecks of blood in clumps and as the two figures wrestled on the floor, the apparition fooshed away in a patch on the woodwork drenched in the window’s dose of daylight.
Stanley stood in the doorwell sporting a crumpled face fraught with confusion. He helped Orville to the couch and slapped a pillow across his bare lap.
The two men lavished in stale sun and mumbled little until Stanley offered some lazily urgent remark, shook hands, and left without thinking to close the door. A Kilingston Foodstuffs sack waited on the table, weighted with cans of green Italian salt grape.
A chair in the centre of the room. Other apartment items pushed entirely to the sides, crammed in interesting stack shapes. A madman’s tableau or a hoarder’s boarders, the speechless monologue of items whats worth was measured by their level of crushedness. A pillbox balanced on a glass vase supported by a plastic-wrapped bunch of boxes of matches teetering into a mixed-clothing abyss erupting from a liquid-logged TV box shoved against vacuum cleaner tube replacements twisting round leg-thick linoleum rolls glazed in dust and stick-tack whose adhesive attracted eternally one single ant abdomen, it seemed, or some other poppy seed thing smushed into a section of it.
The olive can lays lonely on the chair. A Ilyich-lamp dangles above it. The can’s open. The can’s ready. It’s room temperature. The label wrapped around its metal ribs a billboard. Pitted.
Orville sits behind it, covered in a sheet, smiling to himself. The clock flashes irregularly. The cloak twitches the way still things do when they’re still alive. Orville waits. The clock flashes. The blinds are bunched tight, sealing out natural light. The only sun now sits stuck in orbit centred in a ransacked room. The clock flashes. A few nicking noises perk Orville’s ears and shake the sheet. He pees in a bucket between his legs and kicks it softly under his seat. The clock flashes. The clock flashes. The lightbulb bursts.
Glass showers the room and the inch-worm filament fizzles into red glow then folds into black, suctioned by fresh abyss. Orville jolts, stiffs his neck, and grips his own muscles from the inside, returning the shivering sheet to certain stillness. His eyes adjust through slits in the cloth. Hair stands on his toe knuckles, flexing against their own fear rejected by the nervous system highway officers shutting down Orville’s inherent fear. A toe taps fear back into the floorboard. Ground circuit.
The neighbourly arthouse nook goes bump. Pump-wide pupils swish toward it. Out from the wall, pushing like through syrup, it climbs, separating itself with even stature, forcing itself effortlessly from mortar boundary. It glides in that small universe, forgoing set snack left sad on wood stool, steering straight for Orville. The cloth sags on his forehead, sending eye slits south, blocking vision.
Orville cracks his sick spine up and pries the sheet from his stone body to catch his olive lore liquid-splitting into the wall from whence it came. It went slow this time. Hips first. Almost drowning sideways, bent back by wanting to stay. Orville reached out to touch. To feel it. In the abyss of his own four-wall world, his palm came to meet the drywall. He pounded it. Eyes seared. He pounded again.
This time, his fist made no sound. It went straight through the wall, save some mystic friction. Like punching melted wax. His balled hand struck a mellowed hardness that welcomed entry upon inertia. His head followed, and soon after, Orville was entirely through.
Portraits lay like beach bonfire wood scraps, strewn across the narrow hall in drudge-hauls of rectangle dreadnaught dock-flop treasure trash heaps. Heads poked around corners of heads and poses penetrated piles upon piles of gridlocked gold leaf frames scraped by time.
Orville felt light. He felt himself, flushing skin against the tough terrain of lathe-licked timber landscape portrait perimeter. His tongue tingled, eyes dew-drop frigid. He got up, but not up, hunched somewhat like a gargoyle in perpetual watch. His neck snapped, whipped up toward the trickle of cloth slithering from the door crease into a moonlit room. The Nixons.
Orville went along, trampling over frames. He opened the door to find a fairly frantic bedroom, more decorated but somehow much more empty than his own. In the corner, a bed. Old duvet rumpled atop two warm humming lumps. The figure hunched over one of them at the edge of the bed, near a ninety-degree snap crease in its torso. Its hair hung in stray wires and curled down onto the bed, tenting the face it studied in a thin wisp. Orville trailed over to it, and, without thinking at all, walked directly into the figure. Orville stood outlined in some strange shadow of his stimulus, then craned himself forward in perfect sync. He stared into the wrinkled lids of the sleeping someone below him, breathing in as they breathed out.
A small disturbance aroused the sleeper, unsheathing cloudy half-conscious eyes. For a moment, iris discs turned together magnetically. Then Orville noticed. They were focused not on him. The way one looks out a window glass and sees not the window but what lies beyond. The night flickered. The sleeper rolled about until losing its slumber and shuffled out of bed. They clacked slippers across the floor, feeling in the dark for a cabinet handle, working it open and fishing with the other hand for a night nibble. Orville swirled his gaze around to follow when his feet plummeted patiently into the woodwork. Up to his nose. And finally, the perpendicular pate of his scalp.