Pushed from its hidden end, a sofa drifted into the parking lot under my window. The pushes became feeble thrusts and then short convulsions, until, with a final spasm, the couch nudged one of the abandoned supermarket carts by the trash containers and came to a rest. It looked almost new. My apartment was barely furnished. Silence. I rushed down.
As I was getting the sofa out of the elevator, sweating and mumbling curses to myself, I met the tired eyes of a big Viking-looking man in felt slippers, a sweat suit, and a wool hat fitted in an upright yet loose Phrygian style, with a break à la Smurf.
“Sorry I didn’t give you a hand,” he murmured.
“Oh, thanks, I’ve got it.”
The sound of a washer came through the elevator shaft.
“I hurt my elbow,” he said.
“I’m sorry. Thanks, though.”
He didn’t respond, but his eyes, fixed on me, indicated the conversation was not over.
“Otherwise,” he finally said, nodding at the sofa.
“Oh don’t worry. I’m good. Thanks.”
I struggled back toward my apartment while the Viking shuffled toward the stairs.
I hadn’t touched a dollar bill in over a week. All I had was a nearly maxed-out credit card I used as sparingly as possible. Back in Brooklyn, the restaurant I worked for had gone under, and being in the country with an expired student visa, I found it hard to get another job. Rent became unaffordable. Increasingly distant friends put me up until an acquaintance from film school lent me an apartment she had inherited in Selkirk, a hamlet in upstate New York. It had been on the market for years. She said I could stay there until things started to look up. Work on my script. Regroup.
I moved into the second floor of the Ticonderoga, one of Selkirk’s few apartment buildings. The parking lot under my window was for the most part carless, but there were always a few shopping carts of unknown provenance (the closest supermarket was miles away). The apartment was walking distance to the few places one could walk to—Dunkin’ Donuts, deli, diner.
Lucy worked the day shift at Augie’s, the only diner in town. Her bob haircut, thin yet somehow full lips, and assertive eyebrows reminded me of a silent-film star. Between orders, she seldom looked up from her voluminous novels—Joseph and His Brothers, The Birth of Ovid, The Man without Qualities. When it was slow, she would go out to smoke, holding a big book open with one hand.
I ordered a garden omelet. Two tables away, a man in blue overalls who looked like Henry VIII was having onion rings. We were the only two customers in the unusually hushed restaurant. Augie, a large old man permanently moored to the cash register, was reading the Times Union. Every crunch, rustle, and gulp was audible. Lucy put down The Birth of Ovid and brought over my omelet. The silence demanded, in its woolly voice, to remain unbroken. And yet, for some reason, after days of hesitation, I chose this quiet moment to finally speak to Lucy. I still hadn’t figured out what to say when she set the food on my table.
“Is there a movie theater?” I asked.
Augie didn’t even look up from his paper, but Henry VIII stopped chewing.
“I mean, in Selkirk. Is there a movie theater here?”
“At the Crossgates Mall.”
“Oh, the mall. The Crossgates. Is it walking distance?”
“Is there anything else? Some other? Some. Independent films or something?”
“The Spectrum, in Albany.”
“The Spectrum? In Albany?”
“It’s pretty good.”
“Oh, I’ll look it up. I don’t drive, though.”
“There’s a bus.”
“A bus? I’ll look it up.”
Onion-ring eating resumed in the background.
I put my peppermint tea down on the windowsill. The Viking stood in the parking lot, feet shoulder-width apart, arms akimbo, eyebrows arched, forehead furrowed, lips parted, staring at the trash bins. He wore the same sweat suit and his wool hat in its typical funnel-shaped, sack-like fit. Very slowly, he brought his left shoulder down and rotated his trunk. He came back to center and stretched the other side. Pause. His back expanded with a deep breath. Then he rotated to the left and repeated the modest twist in the opposite direction. Pause. He dipped down, touching the tips of his slippers. Center. Pause. And a small backward arch. Corseted by pain, his movements had the stiff grace of a minuet.
Selkirk’s modest public library had all of Lucy’s big novels. I checked them out together with a big novel of my own. I went with Kristin Lavransdatter, even though the back cover announced that Sigrid Undset (whom I had never heard of) had been awarded the Nobel Prize—I would have preferred something more obscure.
Once back home, I skimmed the introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter. Rankings were established, Proust and Joyce were mentioned, and the unmerited marginality of the prefaced book was denounced. In the parking lot, someone was moving the supermarket carts around. Something about montage, the mirror stage, and the sonata form. My eyes glided over the pages without ever touching the words. I skipped ahead and plunged into the first chapter. The white sofa was truly comfortable. Lineages, marriages, endless Somethingsøns and Whateverdatters. I dozed off. When I woke up, confused and irritated, it was lunchtime.
Augie’s was quite crowded. Lucy was reading The Man without Qualities. The Viking was sitting at the table in front of my usual spot with his legs fully outstretched. Despite my contortions, my table tapped the back of his chair as I squeezed in. He turned around, flustered. I apologized. He frowned, nodded, and made some space.
I opened Kristin Lavransdatter to a random page. Out of the corner of my eye, while resting my forehead on my hand as if deeply submerged in the book, I saw Lucy approach with ice water. I pretended to be startled when she left the glass on my table.
“Garden omelet?” she asked.
I closed the book, drumming my fingers on the cover, right under the title, as though considering other options.
“Would you like a menu?”
“No, thanks. The omelet’s great. Thanks.”
She rushed off to pick up a check.
The Viking pushed his table forward and, slowly, like a gigantic sea creature emerging from the depths, got up. He stood there for a while and then, always slowly, turned to me.
“How are you?” He was almost screaming, but calmly.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“YEAH? YOU’RE FINE? WELL, I’M JUST OKAY.” Now he positively yelled, although in a composed way, with a half smile that resisted interpretation.
Everyone stared at us. He turned around, put on his wool hat, and shuffled away.
I decided to go to the movies. I didn’t really care what was playing; I just wanted the sense of relief when the lights fade out and the world dissolves, the slight confusion when they are turned back up and it reassembles itself.
Once on the bus, I stood there, facing the driver. I hadn’t considered the issue of the fare.
“How much is it?”
“Do you take credit cards?”
He looked at me.
“Just. Crossgates Mall?”
I lingered for a few seconds, hoping a passenger would come to the rescue, and got off.
Determined to get to the theater, I started the crossing of Selkirk. Initially, I had thought there was something quaint and interesting about its general state of disrepair. Now I felt embarrassed by those frivolous first impressions. Almost all the houses had rusty drainpipes, rotting woodwork, and missing windowpanes. Many had yellowing handwritten for sale signs. Here and there, small groups of idle men and women in the otherwise empty streets smoked, talked, and waited.
Sooner or later, all the streets dead-ended at a chain-link fence, beyond which was the highway. Unable to find a way around, I climbed over, resolved to walk along the freeway up to the Crossgates exit. A few hundred feet down, the shoulder narrowed and ended. The draft of a semitrailer almost sucked me into the road. I walked back, making myself two-dimensional against the fence.
The diner was empty. Lucy saw me walk in but returned to her novel, which was odd—despite her cool contempt, she never kept customers waiting. Eventually, she stood up and laid the book on the counter, always reading. She started moving (it was rather a prelude to movement) to my table, leaving her right fingertips on the counter and arching her body in my direction, her head turned the opposite way, toward the book. She was finishing the last page. Once done, she picked up a menu and headed my way. I looked down at my book, feeling ignoble with that big, stupid prop.
After taking my order, Lucy returned to her post. It was strange to see her just sitting there, without a book in her hands. This was probably the best opportunity that would ever come up. I had finished the first part of Kristin Lavransdatter and prepared a few provocative remarks.
She brought my garden omelet.
“If you’re done with your book, you may borrow mine.” I sounded as if I were on speakerphone.
“But you’re still reading it.”
“I don’t think so. I finished the first part but couldn’t get into it.”
“You’re offering me a book you didn’t like?”
“Well, I didn’t mean. I’m just saying. Maybe you.”
“Why didn’t you like it?”
“Well, it was.” I paused, pretending to look for the right words. “It’s a Catholic bodice ripper.”
I had come up with that line the night before and was proud of it. She thought about it for a moment.
“I think bodice rippers in general are Catholic,” she finally said. “Aren’t they all about a world where love is everything but the flesh is sinful?”
She turned around and went back to the counter.
I played with my omelet. She nodded laterally at Augie, signaling the door, and went out for a cigarette.
I expected my knees to wobble when I got up, but I followed her out with a surprisingly firm step.
“I’m sorry,” I said, holding up the book. “I didn’t mean to. You know. I meant.”
“No, I know. But I kind of liked that book.”
“You’ve read it?”
“Ages ago. You’re right, it’s a bit kitschy, but it can also be beautiful—at least as far as I can remember.” She had a way of smoking that made me want to smoke. “Have you been to the movies yet?”
“No. I’m dying to. But without a car it’s.” I shrugged.
“I’m driving out to Albany with some friends tomorrow. Le Samouraï is playing at the Spectrum. Would you like to come?”
“Here, at seven.”
I tried to distract myself but kept jumping from one thing to the next (TV, Musil, toast, TV, tea, TV, nap, shower, apple, Mann, TV), and the brevity of each distraction (channel flipping, half sleeping, page skipping, snack nibbling) had the paradoxical effect of dilating time. Toward the end of the day, I decided to get provisions, in the unlikely case the evening brought us back to my apartment.
The Viking was standing by the mailboxes, as always in his sweat suit and gray wool liberty cap. He squinted, smiled, nodded, and asked me how it was going. I said it was going okay and asked back. He was okay. I told him I would see him later. He said he would see me later. I left. He stayed.
Ever since the scene at the diner, I had feared running into him and hoped our little talk would make things better. Remembering his remark about his hurt elbow the day I was unloading the couch from the elevator and putting that together with his constant stretching and subaquatically slow movements, I figured that maybe he had been in some bad accident. His mood swings could be related to painkillers. On the other hand, he could have been the troubled son (how old was he? twenty-four? thirty-eight?) of distant parents who had marooned him in Selkirk. The apprehension I had always felt about him was turning into compassion.
I bought beer, almonds, chocolate, condoms, and, extravagantly, a pack of large mineral water bottles. As I walked back home, the handles on the pack started to come loose. When I got out of the elevator, one handle came off, ripping the pack open. The water bottles rolled down the hall. I picked up two of them, walked down to my door, propped it open with the beer, and went back to fetch the remaining bottles. As I looked up after getting the last one, I saw the Viking standing at my door, peering into my apartment. I said hello, walking briskly in his direction. He neither replied nor turned.
“Where did you get that couch?” he asked, still looking into my living room and blocking the entrance.
“The white one.”
“I got it. I got it from downstairs, from the bins.”
“That was my couch.”
“Oh god. I’m sorry. I. It was by the bins. I thought it had been thrown away.”
“I did throw it away. And you took it?”
“No. Yes. I’m sorry. Please let me carry it to your apartment.”
“I don’t want it.”
He was still blocking my door.
“But you saw me, remember?” I asked. “You saw me coming out of the elevator with it. You told me about your elbow.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I’m just saying that you. I mean. I barely sat on it. Let me take it to your place. Please.”
“Forget it.” He tiredly turned around and left.
I waved as I approached Lucy, regretting the excessive gesture but unable to stop my hand.
“Bad news,” she said. “Richard and Philip just canceled.”
“They’re building a glass house somewhere around Kinderhook.”
“A glass house.”
“A Philip Johnson kind of thing. Anyhow. Problems with the contractor.”
“Bummer.” I sometimes feel ventriloquized when I use slang.
I looked down, searching my pockets, hoping to produce something interesting I could show her.
I pictured the walk back home to the Ticonderoga, the Viking lurking in the hallways, the view of the supermarket carts. Hoping to have learned something from our conversation the day before, I simply asked her whether she would like to get coffee. She gave me one of her serious smiles and accepted.
“I have something to confess,” I said as we walked into the Dunkin’ Donuts. “I don’t like doughnuts. They look like cheap toys.”
She looked at me, bewildered, and laughed through the somewhat stern nostalgia that often hardened her features. It was, in fact, the first time I had seen her laugh. I felt heroic.
I asked her about her long books; she asked me about my favorite movies. She said she was torn between writing and farming; I said I was in Selkirk working on a screenplay. She told me about her childhood holidays in Lake George; I told her about the road trips with my parents along the Uruguayan coast. She revealed she had a criminal record for possession; I revealed I was in the country without papers. She described a bad burn on her left side from a camping accident; I described my monstrous bunions.
“So why do you live here?” I asked after a lull.
“What do you mean? I was born here.”
“Yes, I know, but I mean why do you stay here? Why don’t you move to New York or someplace else, a city?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know. It seems to me that you’re too much for this place.”
“You shouldn’t say that,” she murmured. “That’s why this town is dying.”
I tried to come up with something witty but could only spin the cold coffee remaining in my cup, suddenly overcome by guilt, thinking of the choices I had made.
“Another round?” I asked.
“I should go.”
“Yes, yes.” The vortex in my cup spun in the other direction. “Would you mind if I called you? I mean. Later? In the week?”
“Of course. Let me get your number, too.” She took out her phone.
“Actually. My. I don’t have a phone.”
I hoped not explaining this would somehow make it seem interesting.
“All right,” Lucy said after a pause. “Do you have a pen?”
“Hold on, let me get one.”
The unmistakable figure of the Viking, slouching in the shadows in his baggy gym clothes and soft conical hat, drew, in one unsteady line, the contour of a giant meringue. He stood still in the middle of the hallway, facing the wall. He didn’t notice me. After bending over with difficulty, he took off his left slipper, smelled it, threw it on the floor, and slid his foot back in. Immobility overtook him once again. There was a contradiction between his frozen state and the general melting appearance of his outline in the semidarkness. He bent over and, once more, took off his left slipper, smelled it, threw it on the floor, put it back on, and shuffled soundlessly toward his door. The movement of his legs was invisible within his loose sweatpants. A gliding glob.
A friendly librarian requested from another branch a copy of the Jean-Pierre Melville movie Lucy and I had missed. After picking it up, I took a quick shower and left for the diner with the DVD and a six-pack. I got there just as Lucy was leaving for the day.
“What are you doing here?”
I had forgotten how much she intimidated me.
“Well, I came.” I held up the DVD. “Would? Since we couldn’t go to the movies, I thought.”
She lit a cigarette and scratched the inner corner of her eye with her pinkie while arching her eyebrows.
“You own this movie?”
“Library. I thought you were looking forward to it. And who knows when it’ll play again. So.”
I didn’t know what to make of her slightly sour smile.
“Oh, and beer,” I said, holding up the bag. “Maybe you can’t. But I thought.”
“Yes, it would be fun. I don’t own a DVD player, though.”
“I do. There was one of those old TV/DVD combos in the apartment.” I pointed to my right. “I’m just a few blocks away.”
She tapped her cigarette although the glowing tip was perfectly groomed.
“Let me make a quick call.”
She walked a few steps, had a brief, inaudible conversation while rubbing invisible lint off her skirt, and came back.
“Okay, let’s go.”
As the Ticonderoga came into sight, I had an access of terror: Lucy’s books, the ones I had checked out from the library, were on the windowsill, right in front of the door. The only books in the entire apartment. I tried to find an excuse to call the whole thing off.
A few minutes later we were standing at my door.
“Before we go in, I have something to tell you.”
“I. Have.” Suddenly the confession seemed so silly.
“A hoarding problem?”
“Everything should be fine then,” she said, with a smile that, for the first time, I recognized as precisely that—a smile, without adjectives.
“Well, you’ll see for yourself,” I said, opening the door.
Her eyes met the books. She walked to the windowsill and leafed through one of them. I remained by the door.
“Did you read them?”
“Well, not really.”
“Why did you get them?”
“You were reading them. I thought that maybe if I read them.”
“Come here,” she said.
I walked over to her. She put her hand on my cheek. Orange and tobacco. Still resting her palm on my face, she stroked my temple with her thumb. When her eyes had measured the space between us, she kissed me.
“You were studying?” Her lips hovered over mine. “For me?”
“I. Didn’t do very well.”
We both laughed silently and kissed again. She held me tighter. I had forgotten that I could be touched. I laid my head on her shoulder and felt the warm undulation of her ribs under my hand.
In the parking lot, the supermarket carts crashing against one another sounded like apes rattling their cages.
She led me in the direction of the white sofa, but I nodded toward the bedroom.
Lying in bed, I looked into her eyes, trying to anchor the moment to reality, but she refused to look back, which made me feel inadequately intense. Something stared at us from a corner. At some point, unknowingly, I had put it there.
I didn’t know how to proceed. Taking off my clothes first could imply that I was in a hurry, but remaining dressed after taking off hers seemed like a display of power. I lifted her shirt and kissed her belly, which I considered intimate and respectful in equal measure. I found myself panting, without knowing why. I moved up and pushed against her thigh, as if driven by an irrepressible impulse. I undressed us both hastily. Lucy interrupted my inept efforts, pinned me down gently, shushing me, and lay by my side.
“Your feet are not monstrous,” she said, combing my hair with her fingers.
I remembered her burn and inspected it with my fingers. It was a wrinkly, soft streak running from the end of her rib cage to her left hip. I stretched over her and kissed the scar. After resting my head on her chest for a while, I renewed my awkward attempts. Lucy shushed me again, made me lie on my back, and caressed my cheek.
“Hey, let’s have a beer and watch the movie,” she said and kissed me on the forehead before leaving for the kitchen.
The staring presence was ashamed of me but proud of itself.
I was looking out the window. In the darkening parking lot, the carts gave off an exhausted pewter glow. Farther back, a sycamore insisted against dusk. Night took over, reducing the carts to geometric ruins. Someone was rearranging the bags in a recycling bin.
Why hadn’t I thought of collecting cans before? There was a junkyard a mile or so away that surely would pay at least a fraction of the deposit value. In cash. That was the way out of Selkirk: a few hundred cans would be enough for a round-trip to the movies.
Down in the parking lot, I found a cart whose front wheels didn’t convulse, steered it out of the lot, and proceeded, rattling and clanging, into the night.
In the middle of each block, a single streetlamp radiated a disk of jaundiced light that faded out before reaching the intersections or the curb. The recycling bins almost always sat discreetly outside the amber circumference. No pedestrians. A lonely pickup truck roared by, leaving a wake of Doppler-distorted music. After making sure there was nobody around, I sorted through the trash as quietly as possible. I was surprised both at the number of cans consumed in Selkirk and at how good people were about cleaning their recyclables. To make room in the cart, soon I had to start compressing the cans with a decisive stomp to the size of an English muffin.
Most windows flickered with the silver-blue indecision and the sudden magnesium blasts of television sets. After crushing a particularly loud pint-size can, however, I looked up to find one window solidly lit with a soft white light. The woman peering out from behind the curtains seemed to become rigid with a flash of recognition. Was that Lucy? I took a step back into the shadows; the room went black.
Mortified by the mere possibility of having been spotted by Lucy, I decided I had enough cans. Instead of pushing the cart, I dragged it behind me, holding a front corner. Somehow this made me feel better.
Behind the treetops, the mountains reverberated in the horizon. I had bags attached to the sides of the cart, like the ballast hanging off the gondola of a dilapidated hot-air balloon. Hauling my cargo with my arm outstretched behind me, I turned a corner. Someone tugged the cart away from me. I looked back and found a slim figure, scarfed and cloaked in a long parka, its face invisible in the cavern of the hood.
“What do you think you’re doing?” It was a woman.
“Where did you get the wheels?”
“Excuse me?” she mocked me. “The cart. The cart. The cart. Where did you get the cart?”
“From a parking lot. I wasn’t going to keep it or anything. I just.”
“I just,” she repeated, mimicking me again.
I couldn’t see her mouth.
“It’s mine,” the parka said, going back to her own voice. “It’s ours. We own these carts. We own what’s in them. And I own this route.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to. I won’t keep it. I just need it tonight. Only.”
“No, ding-dong, no. Do you want me to call the others? I can call the others.”
“Who? What do you mean?”
“Want to find out?”
“Look. I’ll split the money with you. I’ll do all the work. Let’s count the cans.” I gestured toward the load.
“Oh, come on,” I said, slightly pulling the cart forward.
Out of the hollow hood came four loud whistles.
“You’ve got a couple of minutes, if you leave the cart and take off now,” she said. “But if you do something crazy, if you punch me and run away with the cans, they’ll hear you, they’ll chase you, and they’ll take you down.”
I backed away from the cart, looked around, and listened for an approaching legion of cart-pushing attackers. Nothing.
“Just you wait,” she said.
I took another step back from the cart, turned around, and walked away.
The bell rang. I turned the TV down, even though it couldn’t be heard from the street, and waited. Another ring. It couldn’t be anyone I wanted to see. I stood up, staring into the muted TV. One last, short buzz. After pacing around the apartment for about ten minutes, I went down.
There was a slip of paper with my name attached to the intercom. I rushed to the door, took the note, and hurried back inside, unfolding it as I walked back down the dark corridor.
Going to Albany with Richard and Philip. The Woman in the Dunes playing at the Spectrum. Leaving at 7 from diner. Hope you can make it.
After receiving Lucy’s note, I limited my excursions around Selkirk to a strict minimum. Except for sporadic and hurried walks to the deli, I seldom left the apartment. When I needed some air, I strolled around the Ticonderoga.
Each floor had its own atmosphere, even though they all looked the same—mortadella-like granite tiles, vanilla walls, salmon trims, mint doors. For no discernible reason, there were floors I considered more attractive than others. Perhaps it was because they smelled different—third, wet down; fourth, roast chicken and Axe; fifth, a progression from potpourri to latex.
Sometimes I just lingered on any given floor, listening to the fluorescent lights and distant TVs, until the sound of the elevator or an opening door made me leave. The laundry room, the mailboxes, and the parking lot were the most public places I ventured to, always during off-hours. I walked slowly, trying to extend my tours for as long as possible, pausing here and there, inspecting a paint-chipped wall, reading coupons from a remote Price Chopper, or pretending to sort my mail.
One morning, clanging and hammering came from the opposite end of my floor. Someone was moving. The trips between the apartment and the elevator stopped around noon. I peered down the corridor and saw a barricade of boxes and disassembled furniture around the Viking’s door. I walked stealthily to his apartment and listened. He was on the phone. All he said, over and over again, after pauses, was either “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know.” I heard some shuffling. His voice was now close to the door, as if he were trying to speak through it. As if he were speaking to me. He said (and I could hear his breath under his voice), “I don’t care.” As quietly as I could, I hurried back to my apartment. Half an hour later, I peeked out again. The Viking’s furniture was gone.
I walked to the window and looked down at the gridded disorder of the shopping carts in the parking lot. My legs felt stiff. I leaned forward, dipped down, and touched the tips of my sneakers with my fingers. There was dry chewing gum caked on the left sole. My hamstrings sent a tremor down to my knees; my temples felt bloated with blood. I got up slowly and arched back, light-headed.