The following is the first chapter of DON'T STEP INTO MY OFFICE, a[n unpublished] novel:
In a Dream
On my twenty-sixth birthday, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wanted to look at the musical instruments, but they were being repaired.
It felt made up, and yet it was true. My phone confirmed it. Someone had come through a few months earlier and struck many priceless relics with a hammer. The assailant wasn’t caught. An article published on Halloween said they were still trying to determine a motive.
It was the sixth day of the third week of December, but I understood. A person had wanted to damage the instruments.
I scanned through some photos of fortepianos. It really was too bad. I didn’t know how to play instruments, and I wasn’t particularly fond of music. I’d only wanted to look. And I became nauseated and tired.
It was cold outside, so I thought I might like that. I went to the bathroom and took pictures of myself in the mirror.
In my tote bag, I found a weed edible wrapped in a neat square of aluminum foil. I undid the square. Cooked peanut butter and little flecks of a sativa-dominant hybrid had bled from and puddled around two Ritz crackers.
Salt twinkled under fluorescence. I squinted.
When the sandwich was gone, the remaining peanut butter formed an austere crown. It smelled fecund, cracked and rippled like the earth. I felt my entire body sigh. I brought the foil to my face and licked it, eyes rolled up, watching myself in the mirror.
In the park, I watched a bird with its wing. It buried its beak, straightened up, and put its wing over its face.
I was, like, snickering, hunching my coat up with my shoulders around my mouth to insulate me, dying a little. Then the bird flew away, and there was nothing to look at but trees and pavement and people.
I could go to the church next to the Guggenheim. I could go to the bathroom in there and see what that was about.
I breathed a bit. I sat on a bench. I stood and walked around the reservoir. In the distance, I sensed marble and banisters and cocaine.
A woman, jogging, fell over on the dirt path. She caused such a mess, it appeared eggs had fallen out of her pockets. I looked away.
―Shit, someone wailed. ―I want shit.
But I felt happy. I was stoned. It was my birthday, and the world was scattered with long windows I couldn’t see through. Plastic batted against glass. The sun set. Everything was a little smoke-damaged.
My phone said I was an hour and a half subway ride from home. I rode thirty minutes south and stood outside a bar I used to like and blew on my fists.
I cupped my hands on a window, away from where the bouncer was flicking matches at the ground. Inside, I could see three of my friends. Their names were Alexander, Matthew, and Miriam, and I didn’t want to see any of them.
I walked around the corner and bought a coconut water for six dollars. A bridge, and everything that went along with it, howled over me. I wanted to cry.
But people made efforts all the time, I supposed, and the least I could do was whatever.
I chugged coconut water, and burped, fingering the lymph nodes that ran along the right side of my neck. Like the bouncer, who wished me a happy birthday when I showed her my ID, they were tender.
The bar was crowded for a weeknight. Lights were purple and green, and I stepped in something viscous. I slid my shoes around the tiled floor. Before seeking out my friends, I careened to the bathroom.
―I’m good, someone said.
I stood behind her in line and stared at the floor.
―I’m good, she said again.
I looked up.
―Good, I said.
―Um… Hold on, she said.
I looked at my phone. It was seven o’clock. I hadn’t eaten anything but the edible since the previous evening.
I touched my lower abdomen. I’d developed a firm, wandering lump. It often settled there. It was worse when I ate, and when I didn’t eat. I pushed it toward my ribcage, hearing the low squeal of gas inside me, and the lump seemed to temporarily dissolve.
―Hey, the person said.
―Are you gay?
We looked at each other. She had an X adhered to the center of her forehead, made from two pieces of electrical tape. She was wearing a fishnet shirt beneath a different-colored fishnet shirt beneath an ambiguous punk band t-shirt. I felt blood shift near my pelvis.
There was a wall clock next to us, and two bathrooms occupied.
―I’m a little gay, I said.
And before she could respond, both doors opened, revealing behind them a couple each. They squeezed by, reeking of warmth, and the girl stormed off into the farther of the wash closets.
In my own cell, I think I may have passed out. I didn’t recall sitting on the toilet, or not being able to see what I was doing. I heard an impatient knocking sound and jostling on the chain lock.
My vision returned in fractals.
I remembered how hungry I was. I did what I had to do and got out of there.
The bar served macaroni and oysters, but it was officially not oyster season, and as for anything else on the menu, it wouldn’t do either.
I scanned the room. Near the window where I’d seen my friends were three people, none of them Miriam, Alexander, or Matthew. I moved closer to make sure. But they were just people drinking Schaefer, and I could respect that.
sup, I texted Miriam.
I stood around the bar deciding if I should order something. My forehead throbbed with noxious sound. Music descended on the room wraithlike. I peeked outside to see who was smoking.
sup, I texted Matthew.
I checked my email to confirm I had invited them, but my phone said I couldn’t look at my email because I was already using too much of my storage for other things.
I deleted an app that helped me make memes and an app that sold my personal information to corporations. I was going to delete an app that helped me give money to businesses when my phone died.
I didn’t want to text Alexander anyway. He probably would’ve responded with a non sequitur that was meant to impose some kind of dominance over me, because I wasn’t worth a straight answer, because I was such a weak, vacant person.
I ordered a Schaefer and a can of Clamato and mixed them in a pint glass. In the back of the bar was a pool table, as well as a girl passed out on the floor and two guys having some difficulty removing her bra from under her button-down.
I crouched, placing my drink on the floor in front of me, and backed all the way out to the street. I continued walking backwards, around the corner, and down the stairs to the subway.
It had been forty-one days since the election. And there were thirty-one left before Inauguration Day.
These were nasty numbers, prime ones. I did not relish them. Instead, I sat, jiggling my leg compulsively for the train.
My twenty-seventh year would be the one my favorite clothes succumbed to time. I fondled a hole in the armpit of my sweater. This was a special sweater, maybe. And I’d been wearing most of what I owned for a decade.
I dozed, and the train came. I sat across an angry-looking blond man in a suit. He was throwing back his head, laughing, wrenching his neck to look behind him at the window and dark messes of tunnel.
I wore earbuds. The cord extended to my phone, which had died, and with my eyes closed, I listened to the man’s damp cackle. His throat chattered like a cat’s. I blinked. My vision focused and unfocused.
I blinked more.
He had moved, and was now sitting adjacent me, though on another bleacher, separated by an aisle and sliding doors. He turned his head again, and light fled into the streaked windows.
The man stood up, got off at the stop, walked to the next car over, got in, and as the train started moving again, came through the doors marked Riding or moving between cars is prohibited.
We made eye-contact.
He opened his mouth, but I couldn’t understand if he was saying anything. He sat down next to me, leaned in, and gnashed his teeth.
I took an earbud out.
―What, I said.
He laughed until he was crying and slid away, massaging his temples with his fingertips as if I’d employed magnificent comic timing. He cradled his ribcage.
―Chill out, I said.
―Okay, he said. ―I’m…
He wiped his eyes.
―I’m almost done, he said. ―I’m sorry.
He got off at the next stop and changed cars.
Sometime after that I fell asleep for real. I was awoken by an MTA employee at the end of the line. My phone said, 9:30.
For a moment, I worried the blond man would be waiting for me on the platform, but it was mostly empty. I stretched and touched my toes. I accidentally nodded at a couple of cops loitering by the bathroom. They nodded back like we were cool, and a lady rolled a shopping cart down a flight of stairs.
My back hurt. From being eccentric all week, I thought. I’d been being very eccentric. I was on Christmas break, which was just a small part of the semi-permanent break I was taking from work, life, women, whatever.
I didn’t like stuff. I had five thousand dollars in my bank account, and I was going to not work until I didn’t have that money anymore. Then, if a particular production company for doing fashion shoots hadn’t folded, I was going to ask my former boss if I could return to it and work as the person who rented, transported, delivered, and inventoried camera and lighting equipment.
The plan was airtight, in that, if I didn’t get the job, I’d find another one, or I wouldn’t, and life would proceed from there.
Outside, the wind blew off my hat. It was a beanie with the letter H on it, and I ran back to retrieve it. I walked to the beach.
The sky shined black and dotted with various kinds of clouds. Streetlights muddied the narrower features. And every now and then, the soft roar of an airplane sparked overhead.
I stood there, enjoying it.
I’d moved to the beach two months earlier, because my friend Tom, who’d lived at the beach, was moving upstate to have a child with his second wife. I hadn’t give it much consideration. I hadn’t liked having roommates. Tom’s apartment couldn’t accommodate roommates, and I could afford it, so I’d taken it.
I watched a raccoon roll a trashcan across the sand. I watched roller coasters do nothing in the ashen glow.
Something was burning. Birthdays are all right, I thought. But I wanted everything to be different.
My mother had labored three calendar dates, among the shortest of the year, with barely one sunrise to kindle her. And still, she’d managed to guide me through those smallest breaks of darkness.
Ostensibly, I figured, I existed.
Birthnights seldom got their due.
And for those of us delivered amid the flickering shrieks of the witching hour, I thought. This Bud’s for you.
I didn’t have any beer, though, so I toasted this new lease on life by spitting at the ocean.
I was famished.
A second happened when I thought I might be sick. I grabbed the railing along the boardwalk to steady me.
I needed to see the water, the jetties, the icy gleam of minerals. I darted into shadows. I climbed an inky rock, enticed by the sound of bay water. Moss and algae came away and settled beneath my nails. A barnacle tore the butt of my jeans.
―I’m smart, I said.
The clouds parted, and the moon showed its waning gibbous. It had been a week since full illumination, and my mania was depleting in tandem.
I extracted a pale glob of mucus from my sinus and imagined the following several days, curled in on myself. Glints across screens. Streams of Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava. Flecks of indica-dominant hybrid. I owned more than six heavy blankets. Maybe I’d sleep right through to the new year.
And this glad vision diminished my hunger, but not enough.
I had popcorn and coffee at home. I was ready to surrender. I slid down the rock and let the barnacles express themselves.
The streetlights were like buoys, where the water lacked them. And I dragged my boots in their direction.
I was halfway to the boardwalk when I heard the scream.
―Oh fucking god, it said.
Shadows twisted down the shoreline, toward my building.
―Just stop, it said.
But did it scream it? I was stoned, and this type of thing takes moments to react to. And moments are precious.
Then, the sounds became atypical. I couldn’t distinguish them from animal, machine, or music. I found myself running in their direction.
I saw glitter in my eyes. Yes, I was out of shape, and the action was a hundred or so yards from me when it started. By the time I approached, it was over. Just the slamming of a sharp or blunt object in a downward repetition. A flash of recognition, and a slavering.
The object and its wielder were gone so swiftly. In glaring obfuscation. Refracted by light.
My head pounded in my mouth and stomach, breathing in the cold. It was then I realized how cold it was. I was finally cold enough.
Standing over the body required something else. Something, in hindsight, that my repertoire may have lacked.
At first I didn’t understand it was a person. In the moonlight it looked like a pile of old potatoes. Eyes venting everywhere.
There was blood on its face. Its arms looked like its face. It had been badly beaten, and gashes were swelling in the frozen air. They were clotting, black and gray and green and brown and black.
The mouth sputtered. It might have been sputtering a while.
―Are you okay, I said.
The mouth made bubbles of liquid and sound. The eyes were swollen shut. The eyelids had yellow liquid on them. One of the ears was severely enlarged. The nose was sideways, pulped into the face. The stomach twitched. Here the person was still losing blood, and quite a lot actually.
―What’s your name, I said.
The sounds were bad.
―Should I call the cops?
It sort of coughed.
―How many fingers am I holding up?
Convulsions of some type continued.
―I’m going to call the cops, I said.
My hand went in my pocket. It dropped my phone in the sand and picked it up and punched buttons. I clawed at the screen.
I tried to turn my phone on for a while before I remembered it had died at the bar. I tried to turn it on for a while after that too.
―Fucking A, I said.
The body was, like, dying.
―Are you going to be okay, I said.
―Arrjgghhuuuluu, it replied.
―Um, I said.
I started to cry.
―Um, I said again.
I said um a few more ways.
I looked at the lights on the boardwalk. Nothing happened. A plane sparked over us.
―What should I do, I asked.
―Bsssdduhh, it said.
The dduhh part came out quicker than I expected. The wheels of expiration were in motion.
―Oh god, what’s your name, I said.
I kicked the sand. I jumped a couple times.
―Fucking goddamn it, I cried.
I ran toward the boardwalk. Then I ran back to the body.
―How do I make sure you don’t die?
It was quiet.
I don’t remember a lot between then and getting home except that I kept dropping my keys.
I know it would’ve been about an eight minute walk, which means, running, I could’ve done it in three. But I can’t remember if I ran or not.
There were three gutters on the block between the beach and my apartment. At some point, I was on my knees, vomiting into one. My keys fell out of my jacket pocket and balanced on the grate.
I thought about how lucky I was. I picked them up and dropped them on the grate and they balanced again. I picked them up and dropped them under a parked car. I picked them up and dropped them in a puddle.
With snot running down my chin, weeping, I allowed myself to entertain the possibility that this key situation would go on forever. I dropped them a lot of times outside the door to the courtyard surrounding my building.
There was a Christmas tree that one of the residents had decorated, and feral cats huddled under it, eyes flashing. I never looked behind me.
Three lunges later, and I was inside, instinctively checking my mailbox. There, I discovered some greeting cards, as well as the power to change my mind about what had happened entirely.
I wriggled up the flight of stairs. I let myself in, removed my boots, got undressed, and lay on the rug in front of the radiator.
The apartment consisted of three rooms: the one I was in, the bathroom, and the kitchen.
There were books on the shelves and tchotchkes on the books and a few boxes I hadn’t bothered unpacking. There was dust on everything. I kept a small, portable radio in the kitchen. And I could see all of this, everything I owned in the world, from where I lay.
I rolled onto my back. Above the front door hung a gold plaque, which I’d discovered mostly buried in sand the week prior.
I’d been taking a walk, not so unlike the one from which I’d lately returned, when its gilded corner caught my eye. It had shimmered in the dying sunlight. It had winked at me.
And I’d seized the opportunity, delivered it directly and pounded a nail through the flimsy metal and crown molding.
It was about the size of a standard envelope, the kind of nameplate you might find affixed to an adjunct professor’s cubicle. But instead of a title or denomination, it read simply, MY OFFICE.
I admired the sign. It dangled halcyon above my domain. But I hadn’t yet decided if I owned it.
My cat, Turmeric, strutted in from the kitchen and moved against my supine body, alternating soft, cloying purrs and mews of hunger.
―Hello yellow, I said.
Turmeric made noises.
―Your name is yellow, I said, petting her.
I smelled vomit in my nose and on my face, and on the damp clothes beside me.
―I’m a stinky boy, I said. ―Aren’t I stinky, huh?
Turmeric didn’t understand, so far as I could tell. I hoped the tone of my voice would ease her pangs so I didn’t have to stand up. I looked at the clock by my bed. It was ten-fifteen. Almost two hours left to celebrate.
―I say, I said.
―I say, I said, changing my voice to an exaggerated version of what I hoped might pass for a Cockney accent.
―I say, I say.
Turmeric replied with a pathetic whine.
―Well, chap, I do say, well right.
I patted her on the head until she turned and nibbled my hand.
―Oy now! What would you say for a paddling on the fanny, you bloody ingrate?
Turmeric sauntered off.
―That’s better. Me back’s all a-crank, in’it? I hurt me back from th’caliber of eccentricities incurred as per result of an ’eretofore unexamined life of th’art fellow…
I lay on my stomach and put my face in the rug.
―In’it, I said into the rug.
When my back was all stretched, I did some yoga poses into a penultimate, agreeable sitting position.
I stood up. I touched the lymph nodes on the right side of my neck. They’d swollen further, which wasn’t ideal.
I went to the kitchen and put a large pat of wet food in Turmeric’s bowl. I poured myself a glass of kombucha from the carafe in the fridge, and filled another glass with water, psyllium husk, Emergen-c, and emptied an echinacea with goldenseal root capsule on top of it. I mixed this up, chugged it, then brought the kombucha to the tub and drew a hot bath.
I washed my face and brushed my teeth. I picked the vomit out of my nostrils with a tissue.
I needed to think.
If I plugged in my phone, there’d be a lot more options. While it stayed dead, I could only do so much.
I lit a candle and flicked off the overhead light. I propped the glass of kombucha on the rim of the tub and slithered in, submerged to my neck.
What should I do, I thought. First, I analyzed how stoned I might be. I’d eaten the edible before sunset, probably around four o’clock.
―Okay, I said.
It was nearly eleven, so I was probably not all that stoned anymore. I felt my lower abdomen. The lump was there, but not so prominent as before. I leaned further back, and pushed it toward my ribcage. I farted, and some bubbles rose to the surface.
How much time had passed, then, since the murder?
I interrupted my thought with another thought: If that’s even what it really even was!
Maybe what I’d witnessed had not been murder at all, I thought. Maybe it was a simple case of desecrating a dead body! Maybe the slavering figure had not even killed it! Maybe it had found it! Maybe the person had already done that stuff to him or her or themself! Or maybe it wasn’t a person at all! But a trick! A dummy! Maybe I’d hallucinated the entire thing! I’d been being eccentric, you know?
Or, like, so I entertained taking the dummy route. Because why not? It could’ve been a dummy with a tape recorder. Or special effects, the remnants of a low-budget horror flick. Maybe the product of a well done snuff take. An imitation. An intimation! A trap! Maybe some sicko had been gunning to entrap a person like me into thinking they’d happened upon some vestige of genuine viscera! Some true crime grizzly violence! Maybe it was part of a social experiment! Maybe I’d been chosen! Pursued! Documented! The whole experience! My reaction recorded, transposed to only a sliver of data! My lived experience, my vulnerable status, my utter, traumatic beguilement only piecework in an unprecedented and inconceivably convoluted investigation! A classified, subversive government surveillance program! A dissertation on the nature of gore itself! My unwinding fate may have been but a brick laid in the bona fide metropolis of terror! Maybe I was the dummy! Maybe I was being filmed! Still! Right now!
―Hah, I said. ―Haha!
But okay… But, so, okay. But even if that was going too far. What if it wasn’t a murder. What if the body had been taken from a cemetery or a morgue? What if it was the product of your garden-variety beach suicide? And the slavering figure was, like, only some pervert who’d wanted to take a stab at an already dead or dying body? Wouldn’t I just be adding to the perplexity by reporting it? Would I really be making stuff more lucid for the cops, who I already hated on principle, by delivering them my interpretation of an event I’d hardly witnessed in the first place? Witnessed while under the influence of an illegal substance to boot? And if this were the case of some deviant indulging his or her or their own kinks with an already deceased vessel, did I even really care? Wasn’t I, self-proclaimed eccentric, like, as debauched in my own tastes and fancies as anyone else? More or less? And, given the pretense of the question, then, should it really fall on my shoulders? This burden of passing judgment? Had the world ever been fair or simple?
Really, I asked myself. Did I care?
I ran my fingers through the bath water. I took a sip of kombucha.
And hadn’t I acknowledged how much I hated cops, I thought. On principle even? So why, therefore, should they thus be rewarded with privy to information I could scarcely account for to begin with? In fact, as logic followed, should they not be exactly the last people privy to it, considering there was, like, precisely, um, nothing they could do, short of inciting hysteria and squandering tax dollars? How many cases like this even ran the risk of eventual classification within the sphere of quote-unquote repeat offensives anyhow? Wasn’t it more than likely the result of a hotblooded disagreement between two people who’d known and, probably, at least at one point, loved each other? Was the inevitable guilt of the perpetrator who’d spend the rest of his or her or their conscious life borne down by the weight of such transgression not enough? Unless, of course, the perpetrator were a psychopath and ergo free of guilt. At any rate, was it as if the supposed murder would retroactively find itself prevented by way of a handful of NYPD personnel knowing about it?
―No, I said.
And wasn’t it nice to have landed upon an answerable question?
So even if it were a murder. And really, I had no way to know. No way to know at all, really. Then what was done was done. Wasn’t it?
It would’ve been totally inconvenient to go about involving myself. I’d involved myself enough already.
And I felt very smart and good.
I drained the tub, had a quick rinse under the shower, stepped into long underwear and wool socks and plugged in my phone. I brought the greeting cards to my bed, where Turmeric was balled up waiting for me.
I opened one from my grandmother, written by my aunt who took care of her, and a fifty dollar bill fell on the blankets. I opened another from my parents, who’d called ten hours earlier, while I was walking through the Met, wallowing in the Cezannes, and whose call I’d blithely ignored. I opened a card from New York University, where I’d spent four enchanting years in matriculation. They hoped I’d find it in my heart to make a donation this holiday season.
Then I fell into an ancient, sarcophagal sleep.
I was so hungry. Someone was knocking at the door, and I hadn’t eaten anything other than weed and peanut butter and two Ritz crackers in more than forty hours.
The lump sizzled. It fermented inside of me. I was dreaming of an enormous matte black magazine with legs and that you could walk through. It kept arching its back. You needed a bunch of people to flip a page, but I was too demure to ask for help.
My phone said, 12:02, and I folded blankets off me one at a time.
―Just a second, I heard myself declare.
Declare was the only word for this, and Turmeric was digging in her litter box in the bathroom. I shuffled across the room such that neither foot left the ground. I tripped the lever on the aluminum box enclosing the peephole.
Through the fisheye lens, I saw two cops in heavy blue coats and ear muffs. One was turned to the other.
He said, ―Banana fritter.
The other pretended not to hear. He stared into the door. I wondered if the lever system was ascertainable on his end. I wanted a banana.
I turned the deadbolt and swung the door about an inch, where it caught on the chain lock.
―Sorry, I said.
I closed the door, undid the chain, and opened it again.
―Sorry, I said again.
―Mr. Fishkind, the one who hadn’t said banana fritter said.
He said it as a question.
―Yeah, I said.
―Mr. David Fishkind?
―That’s right, I said. ―What’s up?
―May we come inside?
The banana fritter one was being quiet. He took his phone out and started scrolling.
―Um… Sorry, like, but can I ask why?
―Well, to be frank, sir, we’ve got some sensitive business we’d like to discuss with you… And we’d prefer to discuss it with discretion.
―Uh, I said.
I looked behind me. The pile of damp vomit clothes was under the antique loveseat. A pillow in the shape of a swan was on top of the antique loveseat.
―Well, actually… If it’s all right with you, I’d rather talk in the hallway, if that’s okay…
Neither said anything.
―Unless, like… Unless you guys have the right to come into my apartment without me inviting you in.
―We don’t, the banana fritter one said.
―Terrific, I said. ―Can you hold on a second?
The door closed. I went momentarily blind. I held on to something wooden. I waited to pass out or not.
I was having thoughts. There are kinds of thoughts anyone might have in this situation. Some of them became mine.
And I pulled a pair of jeans over my long underwear. I put on a down jacket and my beanie with the letter H on it.
I felt bad, remembering my father. The hat was because of him. I shuffled into a pair of flip-flops, grabbed my keys, and stepped into the hallway, where the fritter cop was showing the other cop his phone.
―Gourmet, he said.
―Sorry, I said.
―Mr. Fishkind, the non-fritter cop asked again.
―Yeah that’s right.
―I’m Detective Powell, he said. ―Homicide division.
He offered his hand, and I shook it.
―This is Detective Winston, he said.
Winston shook my hand with the one he was holding the phone in. I wanted to throw up.
―Hi, I said.
―You’re not in trouble, Powell said.
Pow, I thought.
―Oh, I said. ―Well, good.
―Everything okay, he asked.
―Sorry, I said. ―Sorry, like… I don’t know.
―You nervous, Winston asked.
Win, I thought.
―I think, like, anyone would be, I said.
―Not if you haven’t done anything wrong, he said.
―Actually, I said. ―I feel, like, because of the sociopolitical us-versus-them climate that’s been established over the past several decades, beginning with the expansion of a more militarized and ubiquitous visibility since the Giuliani administration and erection of the Department of Homeland Security, it’s fairly normal for people to feel uneasy around, uh, like…
―Not if you haven’t done anything wrong, Winston said.
―I don’t know, I said.
―You on anything, Mr. Fish?
―Listen, Powell said. ―I don’t care if you’re riding a crack moose. We’re here because…
He breathed and rubbed his forehead theatrically.
―Can we see some ID, Winston said.
―What, I laughed.
―You don’t have to show us ID, Powell said.
―How do we know this is even Fishkind?
―He’s in his apartment. He said he is. That’s not what we’re here…
―ID, Winston said. ―Let’s see the ID, pal.
―Mr. Fishkind, Powell said.
―It’s okay, I said.
I was wheezing a little.
―No, like, if it makes it easier, I don’t care. Hold on, will you guys hang tight out here?
I didn’t wait for an answer and unlocked the door.
Turmeric wanted to put her head in the hallway. I had to use my shin to guide her yen elsewhere. I had to be careful to look like I wasn’t abusing her, maybe.
The door clicked, and stuff felt different. The hall was gray and green. My apartment was painted a very faint off-white, such that when the sun was out, and it was, the entire place burned gold.
I got on my knees and pulled yesterday’s jeans from under the loveseat. The loveseat’s legs had animal paws for feet.
I reached into my back pocket, retrieved my wallet, removed my driver’s license, left the wallet on the floor, and coughed, transporting a wad of mucus from my throat to my mouth.
The lump floated around my lower abdomen, communicating its existence. There wasn’t time to push it anywhere else.
My entire body twitched, handing the cops my ID.
And a beat happened where it didn’t seem like they knew the protocol of who should preside over this. Then, Powell took it, and he did something with it with his phone. He handed it to Winston, who did the same thing. Winston handed it back to Powell, who handed it back to me.
―Thank you, Winston said.
―No problem, I said.
He seemed embarrassed.
―Sorry it took me so long to get it, I said.
Neither of them replied. They were on their phones, typing, scrolling. I tried to take mine out to check my email, but my phone was inside my apartment. Someone in one of the other units was listening to classical music.
―All right, Powell said. ―Thank you, Mr. Fishkind.
―Happy birthday, Winston said.
―Oh, I smiled. ―Thanks.
―What kind of a name is that, anyway?
My eyebrows started working of their own volition.
―Just… A… Normal one.
―Are you sure you wouldn’t feel more comfortable talking inside your apartment, Powell asked.
―Uh… Yeah, I said. ―I think this is fine.
―Because, he trailed off. ―Discretion…
―It’s okay, I said. ―I’m discrete.
―Okay, so, we’re here to investigate a murder, he said.
I tried to sense if my face had crumpled.
―Are you familiar with a Lauren Smith?
―Uh, I said. ―I don’t think so?
―She’s your downstairs neighbor, Winston said.
―Oh, I said.
―She was, Powell said.
―Damn, I said. ―I’m… No… I don’t know… I mean I don’t know her very well. I don’t know her by name…
A pigeon landed on the ledge of the hallway window. It bobbed back and forth. I wanted it to be wearing sunglasses.
―There are, like, eight apartments in this building, so like… I don’t really know my neighbors… Unless…
Powell retrieved a small, professionally done headshot of a generic-looking girl. I sort of recognized her, though I probably wouldn’t have under better circumstances.
―This is her, he said.
―Okay, I said.
―This isn’t her only apartment.
―She appears to have maintained a lease at at least one other address.
―This is more of her, like, getaway place. It would seem… Most of the apartment has been converted to an art studio.
―Damn, I said. ―That’s cool. I didn’t know there was anyone making art in this building.
―Are you an artist, Winston asked.
―What do you do for a living?
―Well, technically I’m unemployed right now.
Both cops typed on their phones.
―But my first novel manuscript is being considered by an important agent…
―A literary agent.
Powell showed me the photo again.
―Have you at all, in any way, been acquainted with this woman?
I took a moment before answering. I thought about the words, repeated them in my head. Acquainted gave me the most trouble.
―I do recognize her, I said. ―But only from living here.
―How long have you lived here, Powell said.
―About two months.
―Your license has this address listed as your primary residence.
―Yeah, I said. ―I, like, took care of that as soon as I could.
―We appreciate it, Powell said. ―Makes our job easier.
―Have you, in those two months, had any one-on-one encounters with the victim?
―Um, I said.
Winston was looking at his phone. He plugged a pair of earbuds in, and put one of the buds to his temple.
―I don’t think so.
They didn’t say anything.
―I guess, like, I don’t know. Nothing really. She didn’t live directly below me. The guy who lives directly below me told me to stop clomping around so much, like, a month after I moved in… So I know him better.
―Who is he, Winston asked.
―He’s, like… I don’t know his name. He lives directly below me.
―Thank you, Winston said.
―Have you witnessed anything you might consider out of the ordinary, Powell said.
I pretended to think.
―No, I wouldn’t say so.
―Any strange noises? People arguing, throwing things? Leaving at weird hours? Stuff like that.
―I really don’t know, I said. ―I try to keep to myself. I don’t, like, like to involve myself in other people’s… Stuff.
―Noted, Winston said.
―Well, okay, Powell said. ―Is there anything else you’d like us to know? Anything at all you think might help us better understand what happened or lead us in the direction of who may be responsible for this?
―What exactly did happen?
―That’s on a strictly need-to-know basis, Powell replied.
―Do, I… Need to know?
―It does not appear that you do.
―Is there, like, a, like… Killer on the loose?
―Why would you ask that, Winston said.
―Um, I said. ―Out of… Concern… For myself?
―These things are usually pretty isolated, Powell said. ―Almost exclusively.
―Was, she, like… Was she killed in this building?
―Now, Winston interrupted Powell before he could respond. ―Don’t you think you would’ve been a little more aware of the situation had that been the case?
―I don’t know, I said. ―I guess it depends.
―Depends on if you were on anything?
―What, I stammered. ―I feel weird.
―Everyone feels weird all the time, Winston muttered.
―I agree, I said.
I looked at the ground. I was maybe technically starving by then, burning calories my body could not afford, staying alive.
―Here, Powell said.
He handed me a piece of paper.
―Here, Winston said.
He handed me an identical piece of paper. Both cards had Powell’s name and information on them. I didn’t want to say anything.
―Thanks, I said.
―Give me a call if you think of anything, Powell said. ―Anything at all you think might be relevant or helpful… Would be relevant and helpful.
―Thanks, I said. ―I’ll do that.
―Have a wonderful day, Mr. Fish, Winston said. ―And happy Chanukah.
He showed a flurry of squat, bisque teeth, and put a Yankees hat over his ear muffs. They went down the stairs in silence, not stopping at anyone else’s apartment. I listened for the downstairs door’s click.
How rapt a body can get in anticipating sound. This one proved to be as sharp and underwhelming as that of a stranger in a restaurant choking up a hunk of meat.
I stood in front of my apartment, propping the door with my flip-flop. I stuck my arm around the door and pawed blindly for the aluminum box. I wanted to see if an outside observer could ascertain the peephole lever system.
I tripped it. The shade pulled up against an ache of hissing metal. Light flashed into the lens.
Clearly, anyone paying attention would have no problem at all. This demonstrated a distinct flaw in the very nature of a peephole.
What was the world even for, I thought.
The word rebounded about my echo chamber as I disrobed, step-by-step, through the four it took me to get back into bed.