Issue 227, Winter 2018
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 Ovidand 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.”