The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
If I tell you something, will you listen? Will you not leave and will you listen?
I’ve listened before.
But will you listen now?
I said I’d listen.
It’s another story, Barry.
Another story story.
I said fine.
It was when I was living in Spokane. I hadn’t been there long. Two weeks maybe. I met this guy in a coffee place.
Right. Same as always. I liked the book he was reading. We talked about who knows what and I liked him. I let him take me home and I fucked him. I was new to the place and it was dreary, but I liked the hills and the way the trees grew up out of the sidewalks sideways. Another week with him and I broke my lease and moved into his apartment on the first floor of a little frame house in what people called the even shittier part of Rupert Heights. Because I liked him and it meant saving on rent. My job was decent. I taught art to the second grade at a Montessori school. Liberal, but they only went so far. The pay sucked. His name was Edward. He worked in a B Dalton in a mall and lived off money his grandfather left him. He was maybe 24. He said he wanted to go back to school and finish at some point. He had a clarinet in his closet he never played. We lived on a little hump in the street and there was good light in the morning and I set up a darkroom in the bathroom. He didn’t mind that I blacked out the window. For five, six months, I was happy. He was quiet. He could just sit, you know? What I’ve never been able to train myself to do. Just sit for hours, not bored, not anything. Thinking, I guess. And I thought, I’m smart. I finally made a decent decision in my life and my work is coming along and this Edward with his calmness—Don’t laugh at me—He listened to me. I’d tell him everything. About my mother driving all over the lawn and then into the front door, the whole time screaming that we were all foreigners to her, that she didn’t know a single soul in our house, that it wasn’t even her house. All that shit you’ve had to hear. And he’d endure. He never asked questions. His upper lip sometimes quivered, that’s all. And you can’t know how after talking to myself for so long what it was like to just have this person watch me and listen. I shot him. The pictures are probably still in a box somewhere. And I listened to his stories about his grandfather who worked in a mill, who moved up there from St. Louis to help build the Coulee Dam. You want me to say that I loved him? As much as I am capable, yes. Yes, and I knew almost nothing about him except that he liked to be alone, that he didn’t have many friends except for a couple of guys he sometimes played chess with at the coffee place. Another two or three from the bookstore. He said when he was through reading all the books he wanted to finish, he’d drive to Seattle and meet some more people. At night we rented old Bruce Dern movies. He had very timid eyes. He looked away from you when you looked directly at him; he looked away when you kissed him. Fucking him was good and gentle and when we were through he’d stand by the window wrapped in the top sheet and tell me about his grandfather’s prize tomatoes. How his grandpa Charlie once took his fattest, spoogiest tomato to the same guy who bronzed baby shoes and said, immortalize this why don’t you? He never mentioned his parents except once to say they lived in Houston. Another time though he told me about this mother who left her kid in the bookstore. The kid was four or five and she wasn’t abandoning him or anything, she must have just forgotten she was with him and wandered out of the store without him. The kind of thing every mother probably does once in her life and has nightmares about forever—but Edward said that what made him remember was that the kid didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t cry. Just kept flapping through a car picture book until the mother came back five minutes later, hysterically shrieking apologies to the kid, to Edward, to everyone standing around. He said the kid didn’t seem like he even heard her. That night I gripped Edward hard. So yes Barry I loved. From the gut, I loved, and it didn’t matter, none of it mattered.
Because one day your Edward, your beautiful Edward of the silence, was gone gone gone. And all my dreams were shattered and Edward really turned out to be a tool.
I asked if you were going to listen.
I’m listening. We’ve just been here before. Different guy, different city—
Right, so he left. I wasn’t there a year. It was December. You’re right on top of this Barry. But because it was his place and he had to come back eventually, I stayed. I promised myself when he comes back, I’ll move out. That I would tell him, Look, we had something for a while and hey it didn’t work out. No hard feelings. So I’m too much for you. You want somebody quieter. Something else, whatever. I understand. Here’s your key and the past rent due. So long, I told myself I’d tell him, So long. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to being left. Like meeting yourself again. It’s not all that lonely. A week went by. No cryptic letter saying it was a great ride but I’m confused. I’m gay. I’m Buddhist. I’m Jehovah. I’m scared of love because this one time I got hurt so bad. Look your feet stink and I can’t take it anymore … Nothing. Zero. I started looking in the paper and calling around for studio apartments. I went over to the bookstore and the manager said Edward hadn’t shown up and hadn’t called in. And he was sorry because he liked him and the customers liked him. Edward was the anchor of the sales team, the guy said. A real future in book selling. I asked at the coffee shop and the people said they hadn’t seen him around. Edward’s friend with the scarf, the chess mullah he called himself, said maybe I needed some patience, that maybe I just needed to wait him out for a while. When I said I was thinking of going to the police and filing a report or something, this asshole with the scarf just looks at me like I’m hysterical and says who I am to say anybody’s missing. Missing from where? So another week went by and then another. I did go to the police and they said they’d open a file and call me if anything came up. Meanwhile, I started going out more. To clubs with some other teachers from work. I even dated a social studies teacher a few times, guy with a mile long forehead. When the first of the month came around, I didn’t pay any rent because I didn’t know who to pay it to—I’d given my checks to Edward and he’d sent them to the landlord. I figured I’d wait until someone called or came around asking. Of course I went through his stuff. Nothing in his papers except some receipts and Visa bills. No family pictures except a bunch of his grandfather leaning against a Buick. He didn’t get along with his parents. Who gets along with his parents? So he had no cards from his mother and nobody ever called him. I thought maybe he threw the cards out or that they didn’t know where he was living. Unlike me he didn’t feel the need to blab his history to every guy and his brother so—
What’d he look like?
He was tall. One of those tall guys who doesn’t know what to do with his height. The kind of guy that lanks around and apologizes for having to stoop through doorways except that Edward never apologized, he only sort of waved his hands in front of him like he was trying to physically erase your memory of his bumbling—because that’s what he wanted above all else—to not be thought of. But his size got in the way and you couldn’t miss him no matter how much faded brown he wore.
So big shy gentle Edward roams. Gone two three weeks. Rent need not be paid. Sounds like a good deal.
There was a blind guy who lived upstairs.
You’re making this shit up.
Not totally, he said, but mostly blind. His name was Mr. Ludner. He was easy to forget about up there. He was so quiet, but some nights Edward would go up there when I was working in the bathroom and sit with him. Mr. Ludner sold televisions at Sears for something like 50 years and he’d lost his sight gradually until one morning—this is what he told Edward—he woke up and he couldn’t shake out of the blur of his dream. He said it must have come from all those years of watching 50 Zeniths at the same time. Sometimes—this was the only time you ever heard a peep out of him—he played Mozart arias and tried to sing along in what he thought must have sounded like Italian. He lived on a small pension and disability. Sears gave him a washer drier when he retired, which he said was funny since he’d worked in home electronics. And those arias coming from upstairs, it was like living somewhere beautiful. You didn’t need to do anything. You didn’t even have to wait. Mostly you’d just forget about it and then there it was. That music. You should have heard him up there alone, singing alone.
You know how I am.
The guy’s missing. You’re talking about fucking washer driers.
Right, because for you this would be easy, because for you saying anything is easy.
Like I said, I was going out with friends more. Finding a life in the hills of Spokane. It’s not a bad city really. You’re either from there or you’ve fled there. People who’ve failed in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle—now they grace the crumbling sidewalks of a city that’s always dying but never pronounced dead, but its home and people are proud—
He had such gentle fingers. He’d start at my head and run his hand down the length of my body and stop at the bottom of my feet and then just kneel on the floor and stare. And he’d talk to the bottoms of my feet. Draw little maps. The Cour D’ Alene River. The old Pacific and Northern Railroad line. The filthy bottoms of my feet, Barry. And I hardly knew him, but I let him look at me in that cold bedroom with one window that only shut on an angle. We plugged the gap with stray socks but it never did any good. That room was so cold. We never had enough blankets. We slept with piles of laundry on us. Dirty laundry and it didn’t matter because it was so fucking cold—
This isn’t right. I have to sit here and listen to this crap?
And he didn’t just talk to Mr. Ludner. Sometimes they played chess too. And Edward put a bandana over his eyes and played blindfolded to make the teams fair. They played chess in the dark in Mr. Ludner’s little kitchen. So three weeks after Edward left, I finally asked Mr. Ludner if he had any idea. I hadn’t wanted to bother him before, upset him. I was standing at the bottom of the landing and he was coming slowly down the stairs, his long thin cane in front of him, tapping the stairs. Mr. Ludner? Edward’s gone, I said. He’s been gone almost a month. The man kept heading towards me down the stairs. When he reached the bottom, he looked at me. Normally he didn’t face you when he talked—he talked to you in profile—but that morning he faced me and he said, Yes, that must be true. Three weeks at least. Mr. Ludner straightened his tie. Even though he was retired, he always wore a tie when he left the house. I told him Edward’s lost his job and no one knows where he is and he’s got no family. All I know is that he had a grandfather who died and I’m here in his apartment and I haven’t paid any rent. Mr. Ludner laughed when I said that about the rent. Why my dear, I don’t pay any rent either. And he laughed again and said, you don’t know do you? Interesting young man Edward. Modest to the teeth. He owns this building, my dear. Passed down to him from the very grandfather you mentioned. And he’s a good man to let me spend my retirement peanuts on things other than rent. Like fresh fruit, for example. I’m of the opinion that fresh fruit—But I paid Edward rent, I said. I wrote him checks for my half and he sent it to the landlord. Well, he must have mailed the check to himself, Mr. Ludner said, which would have saved on stamps. Of course I found out later he never deposited any of my checks. You know how I am about my checkbook. I wouldn’t have noticed in a thousand years that money wasn’t gone.
All right, Stace, now I just want to know.
So this shocked me a little, that he actually owned the house and never said anything, but then I figured he was probably embarrassed. I mean who at 24 actually owns a house? And it was like him not to call attention to himself, but still it was—
Just tell it.
Right, cutting to the chase now Barry. One night towards the middle of January, Mr. Ludner was playing Mozart when the power went out. It was minus who knows what the fuck with the wind chill. Coldest night of the year and we’ve got no lights. I opened the inside door and called up to Mr. Ludner, asked him where the fuse box was, and he shouted over the music that it was in the basement. There was no way down there from inside the apartment. I asked Edward about it once and he said there was nothing down there but mice and rusting bike parts. I crept around the apartment and found a flashlight in the utility drawer. Then I called up to Mr. Ludner and asked him if he had a key. No key necessary, he says, the basement door’s always open.
Wait! Say no more! I’ve cracked the case. You went round back and there was old Edward, Mr. Bohemian Spokane, down in the cellar with his head blown off.
He used a hefty bag and rubber bands.
Not come on.
Stace, I was kidding.
The autopsy said he used a garbage bag and rubber bands. And the coroner said it must have taken superhuman will to suffocate yourself like that. You want to know, Barry? He wrapped himself in plastic because he didn’t want us to smell him. And we didn’t, because of the plastic and because of the cold; and Mr. Ludner said it was because he wanted to die in his grandfather’s house, the house his grandfather left him, but that he also wanted us to go on living there because he was a good man. Mr. Ludner said Edward was a good man. And he dressed himself up in plastic bags and then put another plastic bag around his neck and did it, and near his body were these big black bugs that live straight through winter, the kind that sort of hop backwards, and he was wearing his shoes and his whole body was wrapped in plastic like his very own mummy costume and he didn’t leave a note. But let me back it up, Barry. Let me take it step by step. I went around back to the basement door and down the wooden stairs. I found the fuse box on the far right wall where Mr. Ludner said it would be and flicked the switch. I heard Mr. Ludner shout out the window—hurrah—because his Mozart came back on. Then I found a string for the light and pulled. Not much there. Like Edward had said. Some cardboard boxes. A pair of old ski poles. A bike tire. Stack of waterlogged phone books. And then right beside the furnace, I saw a mattress with some books on it. A dirty yellow pillow. On the floor was a pair of his running shorts. And a bag of Cheetos. Edward thought it was funny that he still loved Cheetos. The crunchy ones, not the puffy. And I thought my god he lives down here. But for some reason I wasn’t really freaked out. I just whispered, Edward? Edward? Jesus Edward why are you living down here when you’ve got a nice apartment upstairs? I’ll move out and you can have your place back but for god sakes don’t live down here. And I’m talking to the walls of the basement like he can hear me, like he’s hiding in the dark corners and watching me. Isn’t that nuts?
I love you. You’ve got to know I love you, honey, I—
So I walk around whispering to him, thinking he’s either hiding or he’ll be back soon and I’ll wait for him and tell him, Look, I’ll leave. I’ll find a new place—I can be out of here in an hour, two hours max, you don’t have to—
Shhhhhhhhh. It’s all right. Enough.
Lumped against the far wall like an old sack of leaves. And you want to know what my first thought was? Totally ridiculous. That it was a bag of clothes somebody had meant to drop off at the Goodwill and never got around to it. I thought maybe I’d rummage through and find a good pair of Levis. Least Edward could do was leave me a good pair of Levis before I went my merry way. Then I stepped closer and it couldn’t have been more obvious what it was. And I started to smell him even though he was half frozen. But it’s strange. I wanted to touch him. I wasn’t terrified and I didn’t scream when I felt the squish of decay. Like this was all very fucking normal. Like this was the way some people lived and died and this was the way other people found out about it. Like I wasn’t surprised. And I knew—without knowing why or how—that he’d done this to himself. Edward in late morning, on the stoop. Edward sitting on the sidewalk with a long piece of grass in his mouth. Edward, naked, kneeling. Edward in a wool hat with a tassel. Edward holding a bronze tomato, early evening. Edward eating cereal with a fork. Edward wrapped in plastic bags and rubber bands. And I’m still calm and I just walk right out of there and go up to Mr. Ludner’s and knock on his door and go into the dark of his apartment with his Mozart and tell him Edward’s dead in the basement. I’m pretty sure Edward’s dead in the basement. And he stood up, said quietly, Would you wait a moment? Would you sit down and wait a moment? Then he picked up his cane by the door and went down the stairs. Tap, tap, tap, down the stairs slowly. I listened to him, listened to each step. And Mr. Ludner found him down there, somehow, and ripped the bag open and felt his face, Edward’s decomposing face. Then he left him and came back up the stairs. He called to me from the bottom of the landing. Looks like our boy didn’t want to trouble us. Then Mr. Ludner gagged. I sat there in the dark with that music on the stereo and listened to the old man wretch. The coroner said it’d been at least ten days.
He was living down there, Barry, reading, and when he couldn’t even do that anymore—
Don’t touch me.
I said don’t touch me.
She’s Not Here
First it was a paint contractor. Then it was her chiropractor. Then it was the assistant to the head tennis pro. Her husband confronted the tennis pro at the club, his two kids on either side of him. People were there, they watched it. They listened to what he said, pretended they didn’t. While it was happening they even told themselves they wouldn’t repeat it. There was something so raw about it. You’re not supposed to watch things like this. Like seeing a bloody raccoon by the side of the road. Do you stop and sniff? You move on. It’s not there. The wreckage that’s among us, that piles up. An indignant husband shouting things at a tennis pro at the club with people watching. A couple having lemonade, waiting for their court time. People playing doubles on the next court. They pretend to keep playing as if this isn’t happening. The tennis pro standing there holding his racket like a shield. His student, a 14-year-old who hates tennis, bounces a ball and waits for it to be over. Things like this shouldn’t take so long. Husbands shouldn’t, with their children beside them, shout too long at tennis pros. Moments like this should end so people pretending they aren’t watching, pretending they’re not hearing this, can breathe again. The husband wore a visor pulled down just above his eyes. You couldn’t see his eyes or even his mouth shouting. He held his daughter in one hand, his son in the other. The tennis pro wore a headband, but not on his head; he wore it around his neck. He gaped at the husband, tried not to look at the kids. He teaches the son, whose backhand’s improving. She, of course, wasn’t there. Tired these last few years, always sunglasses and always in a rush to where, to what, to who, even her friends aren’t always certain. If it isn’t one, it’s another. Why rush? It isn’t as if they won’t wait for her. Who wouldn’t wait for her? Maybe this is the point, that you have to be busy with love. It’s got to be urgent or else it isn’t anything. In college she loved a tattoo artist, but her mother didn’t approve. She came home. She married the man who now shouts at the tennis pro. She’s not here but she’s here. The tennis pro feels her down to his feet. The husband shouts more. No one’s breathed yet.
—Peter Orner is the 2002–03 winner of the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His story collection, Esther Stories, was a New York Times Notable Book, a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway Award and the winner of the Samuel Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction. His work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize Anthology and has appeared in a number of publications including the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review. Orner currently lives in San Fransisco. His new novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, will be published by Little, Brown in 2006.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.