The Reluctant Maenad
by Juli Kearns

From 2017. This is an excerpt from a new thing I began working on then stepped back from to pursue another idea. It has been sitting on my computer and I decided to leave it, at least for the time being, as a short story.

She who is our reluctant subject of inquiry is still covered in blood from the night before, a vision of gore that will, to the jaded disappointment of all, turn out to be far less thrilling and awful than that poor child (setting: deep maze of suburban tawny-grass cul-de-sacs lorded over by the all-you-can-eat-buffet anti-architecture of cut-and-paste McMansions) who at 10:05 yesterday morning found his father’s "unloaded" "just for protection" handgun hidden in a shoe-box in the master bedroom walk-in closet and innocently blew the head off his also preschool sister. He had followed her into the closet where her pixy fingers gleeful located, in another shoe-box, mommy’s favorite pink pumps (rhinestone studded heels), stuck tiny feet into their great singular toes so to play dress-up princess in these and the lavender and candy-apple red, netted-tulle froth of a Disney couture tutu gifted by Granny Nonnie on said child’s fourth birthday only two days before, head crowned with a sparkling, Austrian Swarovski crystal-encrusted tiara knowingly located in mommy’s jewelry drawer ("Every woman should have a tiara" is a phrase that will not be heard in that home ever again). The assailant was just playing at being, being only two years of age. A ballerina pirouetting on diamond pointe had been the picture the girl held in her head when she entered the closet and though she didn’t know in which box they would be the shoes were as easily found as the tiara, for she had a sixth sense for pink, plus the natural habitation of pink shoes are pink boxes, this one stacked upon numerous others that smelled of special, expensive animal leather (mysterious creatures shed their skins for shoes, not too dissimilar from snakes but a little more like gentle sheeps curating wool), their distinct shoe-box shapes a promise of contents nested in crinkly clouds of tissue paper. He’d had no picture in his head and had found a lifetime of misery. These personable, touching details would not make the news, nor that the appearance of traumatized two-year-old Donnie was so consequently, irredeemably, psychologically loathsome to his very appropriately tranquilized mother that he was sent to stay that terrible night then the week then two weeks with Gramsie and Grampie (father’s side) with whom he would live for the next year, then three, though they also hadn’t the wherewithal or time to cope with the tragic figure who would from then on be only a reminder of their dead granddaughter. For these reasons he was tended almost exclusively by a (thankfully) compassionate au pair quickly hired from Sweden, followed by as equally loving a nanny straight from "When I’m feeling sad I simply remember my favorite things" Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Salzburg, Austria. (He will never recover from the "Why didn’t you shoot yourself?!" accusations that are waiting in the wings for when he magically transforms into an acne-infested nihilist upon reaching defiant, desultory, desperate adolescence, but in his thirties will finally accept he wasn’t to blame and was also a victim.) The amount of blood involved with she who is our inopportune subject doesn’t begin to compete with what exploded from Andre anonymous who, at a 10 p.m. stop for a burned-out headlamp, was misidentified as reaching for a gun (nonexistent) and was dead at 10:04 p.m. The blood shed was nothing compared to the 3:00 a.m. shoot out on Avenue Z that no one will ever hear about (street drugs, who cares, no one’s innocent when it comes to street drugs, not even the two wounded passerby’s as they lived, after all, in the neighborhood, and what were they doing out at 3:00 a.m. anyway), or the unfortunate woman whose ex-husband (three days divorced) will defy a restraining order and shoot her at the clothing shop at the mall where she is employed as a clerk, also her manager (played hero, got in the way), before turning the gun on himself. Many were horrified by the news of a dairy trucker whose behemoth of a vehicle mashed two unfortunates during that morning’s rush hour, but even more disturbing for all was the ensuing deadlock of traffic as police and ambulances and insurance investigators came and went and the debris was then cleared from the interstate, miles upon hours of disgruntlement over why one damn lane out of a southbound six couldn’t be open, god-fucking-damn-it, "It’s tragic but I’ve got my own life to live." Which was true. Even today’s unwilling subject of interest, despite being a vampire, is terrified by the arteries-of-death interstates and also hates traffic jams. She is terrified, too, of bombs, of fire of most any kind, yet for the past twenty-four hours she has been fortifying herself with the courage of the hopeless, her mind dead set on making a Molotov cocktail with which to blow herself up. If she could just get around the fear of volatile gasoline.

Now we should stop, take a breather, but the story insists upon speeding its merry away on what will likely be a downhill course (a veritable waterfall of green grass scent saturates, verdancy ablaze with sunny buttery yellow dandelions, a visual that may make the trip easier) and, in the grander starry scheme of meaningless, gut-wrenching, terrorizing chaos (insert colorful nebulae exploding in planetarium sugar-candy shock-and-awe rainbow shades) versus the bizarre happenstance of gut-wrenching, terrorizing mechanistic physical laws (wigged Newton appears and drops a blood-red candy apple in the midst of all those stars), has ultimately so little to do with her that she may as well be written out of it now, except that her minor perspective is the one to which we are bound as an introduction to this and that stage of action upon which she has no substantial impact. Things just are. Battling cosmic tides, a paddle and boat can carry the refugee away from disaster but they may never find a receptive harbor and thus give up, for aimless drifting, the mental and muscular strain of hopeful rowing. As far as many can tell, they’re not the captains of even their own rafts, though popular self-determinism would tell them otherwise.

If one is given a sandwich one will only eat for that day, but if one is given hunger then one will learn to steal.

Frankly, this is not the story I want to write.

She had envisioned herself walking home from the convenience store slash gas station next the liquor store five blocks up the road, bright red petrol can in hand, but a road block to the fantasy and its accomplishment in fact presented itself in that she had difficulty understanding gas in plastic containers. Forgetting that the vodka bottle she envisioned in a paper bag in her other hand contained also a highly volatile liquid, in her mind combustible gas belonged in a safe metal tank where one couldn’t see it, such as in the metal gas tanks in cars. Like the battered and graffiti-laced Dodge van (a Caravan for your inner gypsy) parked on the street that threaded all the impasses of her refugee oasis rental complex together.

The only way to get over a fear is to confront it head on. So it is said. And because of the seeming intelligent simplicity of dealing with googly eyed nightmare ghouls by courageously braving the dark and annihilating one’s monsters with light sabers of truth radiated by one’s internal Apollonian sun, it has become conventional wisdom and the prescription for all ills. With this in mind, her objective was to conquer forever her fear of flame, face absolutely the futile fear of death, escape life.

She had pictured herself stuffing a t-shirt in the opening to the van’s fuel tank, lighting up the shirt, then resting against the side to wait and discover what her brain would settle upon to contemplate in her remaining seconds. Hopefully not the second-too-late "No! What have I done? This isn’t what I want after all!" recapitulation reportedly experienced by bridge jumpers who survived to speak from the other side of a done deed. By all natural rights her capacity to know the consequences, if the lit wick applied to a fuel source went as planned, should there end, because beyond the ensuing explosion was the black blank of painlessness she desired, and the explosive rupture that would toss her into that void was as unknowable as the void itself. She might experience the initial concussive B of the b-l-a-s-t, her senses near simultaneously overwhelmed then obliterated. So she presumed. But human nature’s vainest of skills is to picture what happens after one has left a room.

From several feet away her mind’s eye watched the burning. She felt briefly ecstatic, liberated from prison, her cares washed away by flame, the car a pyre floating on the dark asphalt of the Ganges. The fire was a protest against the violence of life. Despair incarnate. If life was god, it was a protest against god.

Plain old self-hatred. That, too.

She was violently distressed.

If you perform an image search for petrol cans online you’ll shortly come across stock photos of "beautiful woman drinking gas from a gasoline petrol can container". 16 photos is all that it takes to graduate from gas cans to a blond woman in a blue sheath cocktail dress and black six-inch heels standing beneath such a can, mouth eagerly open and waiting.

She had then imagined the fire viewed from the air, and found it far less impressive than when enjoyed in close proximity. Its fevered self-assurance was earnest, but, as with everything, the strength of the conflagration’s protest was relative. And, relatively, the scene was even pitiful. Shift but a few feet and it disappeared, swamped by its surroundings, trees and buildings. She glimpsed herself running down the street, her clothes aflame, miserably conscious in spite of her efforts, alive and bearing responsibility for what was probably not a very good idea, not obliterated, not successfully fumigated and infinitely carefree.

Whatever good will she’d built up with her neighbors would be torched. That was at about three in the morning. Now it is nine a.m. and our subject is still nearly as drunk (an oversight that demands to be rectified), still covered in blood from the night before, but whether or not it’s so much as to be repugnant or disgusting is, truth be told, going to be a matter of perspective. Where she is is where she has been these previous few pages, waiting for us to get a good long look at her, marvel and shake our heads. At three she had been seated on the empty floor of her empty living room staring at the explosion that played vividly in her imagination, wherever it’s movie screen was in her brain. To get from there to here meant a trip had been made to the second floor of the apartment after a visit to the kitchen. She’d been busy. Now she is lying upside down in a heap on ancient linoleum (yellowed white with green and blue and tan flecks, a trace chemical complex perfume of wax) her body wedged between the front door and the stairs down which she’s fallen. Incongruously, in her hand is a cup of tea on a saucer, the contents of which she had somehow managed not to spill, not a drop. Partly incongruous because she never drinks tea and with difficulty does she remember why she brewed it. Herbal tea. Sweet green chromium green with a hint of dandelion-yellow applish scent of chamomile. Soothing to the nerves, she’s read many times (on the description printed on the tea box), and though it has never quieted her own she had been up for trying it one last time, hoping it would quell the flames of the Molotov cocktail that still burned in her imagination as a possible out. That erratic bid for peace of mind was lost in the slapstick wretchedness of her tumble and the thirty or so minutes she has lain on the floor indulging in the radical poetry that is the wrecked, chaotic puzzle of her limbs—which she could move, she wasn’t paralyzed, her neck wasn’t broken, her skeleton was intact, hers had been an elegant tumble of which a young Buster Keaton would have been proud, or such was the sad Band-Aid she applied.

Was it so wrong to want a few talents.

She’d had her taste of how anonymous indignity was usually the weight of one’s last struggling breath, and distinction at the expense of dignity wasn’t so far removed, but with the latter at least one could enjoy some congratulatory salve while becoming used to the trauma inherent in the polarized audiences that formed the objectively realized life—bemusement and disdain. When one is contemplating the benefits as versus the handicaps of partaking in a Molotov cocktail there’s nothing like the disdaining conspiracy of a pratfall (and the body’s instinctive reflexive save) to humiliate a soul’s desire for the repentant grace that is tragedy. Lord have mercy christ have mercy lord have mercy answered by the exultant Gloria of angels depended not so much on a belief in deity as a universal trust in the sanctity of grief, sorrows not besought, not self-inflicted like the medieval flagellants who hoped to appease a vampiric god and repel the plague with the bloodletting pricks of their scourges, misery that redeemed the lowest of scorned beggars lying on their greasy, smelly cardboard street beds so they too would be gainfully illuminated in the misty light of redefinition and made whole again, their reductive existences no longer cautionary signs and reminders that the jury be thankful for whatever their lucky charms and any and all blessings preserved them from falling so low as that. There but for the grace of god. Go you, not as I, whom such grace hath spurned?

What does she look like? At the moment? Compassion is costly. There are those who find tragedy amusing and if such a one saw her now they might only find her silly and laugh. If she was loved or even liked by anyone they would instead, viewing her upside down, crumpled against the door, be terrified by a fall like this. "Don’t move!" they would say, fearing her neck might be broken. They would panic, afraid of the always-unforeseen moment when everything changes. They would be angry because of their fear. Compassion is costly, so in self-defense it is often cruel. "Why did you fall?" they would think, exasperated with her complicity in the unforeseen moment when everything changes. They might even say aloud, "Why did you fall? Why? Why can’t you be more careful!" How dare you destroy a tractable, if dull, complacency by calling dreadful fate to the door through an unguarded misstep? What good are our prophylactic crosses and strings of garlic against your damning negligence if you won’t cooperate? Your heedlessness has uncovered our hiding place so we are no longer overlooked by the unnamable! We must pack our tired bags and flee into the night.

Blood streaks the wall alongside the stairs, but not from her nose.

Unharmed, but her nervous system shocked, her body doesn’t think to move. She lies still, only her eyes wandering in their sockets, her limbs content to stay fixed in the position where they settled.

Her gaze briefly glances on the offending staircase then, rather than argue, returns to the ceiling.

On the other side of the wall, a ringing phone resonates the neighboring apartment. An almost violent intrusion, the tone abrades. Then stops.

The stairs are old wood, narrow and worn down, too easy to slip on, she’s taken shorter tumbles before and had berated herself to be more cautious. She has wondered why the steps are so narrow in depth. Were people that much smaller in the 1940s, when these apartments were built? Had they such tiny feet and narrow frames that the rooms felt roomier and the staircase larger? Did the world feel correspondingly greater to the Greatest Generation Ever Bar None No Matter That Their World Mass Murdered Millions And Materialized Apocalyptic Super Bombs? Were the skies bigger, bluer? Were the oceans broader? If Orson Welles slipped through a wormhole, out of The Third Man and into her apartment, appearing on her staircase now, as he looked down on her in glowering shock would his tall, broad hulk appear a third smaller? Or would he appear as normal, only receding in view as she gazed at him from the present into the past from which he was emerging, half trapped in the middle nineteenth century in mind and spirit, a product and part of that time. He is fleeing is all that he knows, is still running for his diabolical life as he thunders, frantic, down the stairs and past her to disappear through the living room into the adjoining dining area, perhaps from there into the kitchen. A ridiculous imagining that arises from her only being partly there.

"I’m still here," she says aloud, for sake of hearing her own voice. That it still is.

From this perspective, lying at the bottom of stairs, see how they appear broad at the base and narrow with ominous petulance as they ascend to the dim second floor landing and the bathroom, the square light of that bathroom’s window gleaming silvery in the dark at the apex. A flight down steps is a convenient device to finish off a foe, good guy or bad, and no one the wiser when intentional misadventure is involved, but she has survived our gentle nudge that sent her wheeling down head over heels.

Did I already say she is a vampire? What is corporeal can suffer physical injury, so physical vampires are, of course, susceptible to such just like any other physical being. And yes I already did say she was a vampire, but I thought I might say it again so that you don’t feel cheated out of vampire content and complain, "I was misled into believing this would be about a vampire. When I buy philosophy I don’t want to imagine a plot and scenery. When I select a murder mystery movie to watch I don’t want a political documentary. When I buy a book that is purported to be about a vampire, I expect a vampire."

Dark sweet blood dribbles down from her nose into her mouth. Rather than staunch the stream, she lets it flow.

She’s covered in dried blood.

No, not exactly covered but it is all over her shirt. The light oak stairs are spotted with blood.

"Oh, please, please, please help me," she is thinking. If such exist, may a passing benevolent spirit hear and come to her aid. "I can’t do this anymore. I don’t have the strength." But isn’t this every person’s voice? At one time or another. Daily for some. By no means is she the exception. What is your fear? What is mine? By what method do you elude and forget, put such anxieties to sleep, trick or wrestle damning angels back into the cracks in the ceilings, the walls, between the wood slats of the floor, lure them into their closet, lock the door, beg entrance into the benevolence of Eden’s harmonious kingdom where the lion sleeps with the lamb, the future takes care of itself, and nothing ever again shall harm, nothing shall hurt, nothing shall destroy one’s peace, the peace of one’s family, of one’s friends, of one’s neighbors, of the world. Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof. Say but the word and my soul will be healed. What is the word? What is the remedy?

Now we should stop because there’s no hope of this turning out well, and what’s the point of progressing only deeper into defeat.

Ear at the floor, she listens for past presences, the workmen who built the apartment departing, first inhabitants crossing the threshold. "How did they manage to live? What kept them walking into the future? I’m so fucking afraid, how does my heart keep on beating?" Big band music played through her pillow the other night. Now she hears footsteps returning home from film noir movies in which day is only a lighter shade of night. On Olympic-sized cinema screens, shadows stalked streets and homes, a warning of the hidden, born of guilt haunting people with conscience and by the evil that people without conscience pursue in delight. A world of fear boils up out of the elements, the universe’s building blocks rearranging themselves in terrifying combinations. In her small bedroom rest stacks of books on the Holocaust, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The atrocities committed had once shocked her. How innocent, how naïve, how absurd and unforgivably childish when the pages of history are a flood of blood, of war, of murder, of sadistic cruelties and sacrifice, of always ever more ingenious methods of annihilating human flesh and spirit. Almost nothing surprises her now. Even peace is an insult of wasps ever massing and remassing in furious clouds, vengeance pursued every moment for sake of a relentless rage that finds identity in cultic hates that refuse and despise appeasement.

She’s horrified every second by the level of violence that saturates the ozone. She’s horrified by life. But the state of horror in which she abides is absent the privilege of the ability to be shocked, instead perpetually resident with the brutalities of mundane, icy dread that is as common as breath.

She remembers having been in the bathroom, staring into the mirror of the old medicine cabinet, the reflective silver of which was only gently flecked away at the borders, a dark margin of error within its white metal casing, a few blind spots above and under a decorative, fine line of white scroll-work at the top of the glass, to either side of a rose mandala, twin reciprocal arabesques with scorpion tails. And then? There had been blood in the bathroom. There was. On the mirror. In the sink there had been blood. On the tile of the walls and the white shower curtain that was grayed with mildew and thus needs replacing anyway. It was a nice bathroom, really, if she’d had anyone to tell she would have assured them of this, as if it mattered, someone else’s point of pride co-opted as her own (the manager, the prior tenants who had taken care of the property, those who had constructed a proper bathroom instead of building a cardboard and cheap plastic piece of shit that would fall apart in five years), which was what people tended to do, enjoyed doing, was one of the most natural habits of humans, whether by conquering, purchasing, or benignly claiming as part of a communal body or one’s personal store of ephemeral goods, by sometimes the most meager of associations, but usually sticking one’s possessive flag in better, more enviable stuff. Even lives. "This is my city and this my neighborhood and this is my street." "I knew a woman whose mother was an acquaintance of." By proximity to specialness are we dusted with charisma and gain prestige.

Appropriate skeleton key front door, graffitied walls, only partially heated, she once lived in the second floor of a decaying wood-gray, two-story duplex, over a retired taxi driver who had ferried Louis Armstrong from a gig (the mammoth brick hulk of a city auditorium occupied a city block, seats filled with sweaty wrestling fans on Wednesdays, perfumed gospel devotees on Sundays) to his home (not where he was then living, where she was no longer living, for this was many but a number of unspecified years before) and cooked a meal for him during days of American apartheid when other white taxi drivers disdained chauffeuring black people and a hungry Louis was unable to find a restaurant to serve him. Black people had been clean enough to chauffeur but not to be chauffeured, clean enough to drive but their body chemistry changed when occupying a passenger’s seat, their oils would soil the upholstery, saturate the fabric with their color and make the car unfit for whites. Clean enough to cook food for whites but not dine with whites, not with those hands that were dusky on one side and pink on the other. Clean enough to launder and iron and care for a white person’s clothes and bedding, but if a white person were to ever put on a black person’s clothing, ancient as Medea’s revenge upon Jason, it would poison their skin, clothes could only be handed down from a white person to black. "I’m a good cook. I used to want to be a chef. The best meal I ever cooked in my life was for Louis Armstrong." "Tell me about it." What did you cook? "Jambalaya, asparagus, and a beautiful chateaubriand because he wanted steak. For desert, Bananas Foster. It was a pleasure to watch him eat." That was this quiet, thin, white man’s centerpiece volume on the bookshelf of his life, and it was for him a big story if a slim one with few details. The story had filled the impoverished tidiness of his dim apartment’s living room inhabited by an old folding coffee table and a single folding chair, its twin set flat against the wall, as physically empty as our subject’s. Simply told—that he had the fortune to feed the jazz great trumpeter—the story was spare in order to make room for the discreet fullness of emotion with which it was related, vowels polished and consonants posed for the honor of the telling, spare because packed between every meaningful word were volumes of history of slavery and segregation.

She’d tried to picture what kind of home he would have lived in when he was younger, where he had cooked for Louis Armstrong and had decades before him still to be traversed, but her imagination stalled so all she’d been able to envision was a single sunny doorway in a white wall that gave way to a bright yellow kitchen that had fresh appliances but was otherwise starkly unadorned, as if it was with age that his choice for a place to contain him and his future and past had faded to a ghostly obscurity fashioned of shadows. But she couldn’t picture Louis Armstrong in that lemony kitchen eating his meal. Nor could she picture Mr. Gordon possessing a real dining table in a dining room. She could only imagine Louis in an expanded version of the kitchen of the then apartment in which the folding card table, transported by imagination from the living room, could just fit, a bare incandescent bulb dangling from a long chain above, in the perhaps 15 square feet she’d mentally added to the room. There sat Louis, black night outside the windows, eating his once real steak in a kitchen that only partly existed, in a place where he never was, and had been dining there in the glare of the bulb for forty years, since she’d first heard the story. She imagined Louis dining slowly, steak knife carving meticulous bites, as if he had all the time in the world. The musician ate off bone china, sipped water from fine crystal, blotted his mouth with a linen napkin, but it didn’t occur to her that this place setting was out of sync with the drab surroundings as the sparkle and gleam were portable elements that the trumpeter carried everywhere with him on the road, like the golden flash of his horn. Behind him stood Mr. Lyle Gordon, as she knew him then, of straight and dignified spine but old and gray (because she couldn’t imagine him young) with his plate of fostered bananas, waiting patiently, attentively forever to serve desert.

He’d had companions. A banana yellow tabby cat with faint rust stripes he called Satchmo. Satchmo was as docile an animal as had ever existed without being anesthetized and never left his lap when he was seated. His 9 inch black-and-white television that she would hear soft through the floor at night, the flickering blues she would see through the front window that had no blind but was always dark as he only used his living room for dining at his folding table by the peripheral, yellow light of his kitchen and spent the remainder of his time on a fastidiously made daybed in the bedroom beyond. His radio was a companion as well, which he would sometimes play at the same time as the television, the television’s sound turned down but the phosphorescent screen kept live for the society and landscapes within its frame. He didn’t always need their voices, just the faces, the places. He had no photos displayed, not in ancient frames handed down through the generations, nor cheap frames from the dime store, not taped to the wall. If he had such in his wallet, cut down to a focused square of face, paper worn to tender cloth, he’d never shown them to her. He had never spoken of his birth family, his youth, his lovers, whether or not he’d ever married or had children. He never spoke of his religious beliefs, little to nothing about politics, didn’t speak about what he watched on the television except to mention, in passing, the occasional news broadcast about a disaster halfway around the world. "Terrible, that hurricane. Catastrophic damage. At least there was no major loss of life. We can hope they escape a cholera epidemic, or typhoid fever." Or, "Terrible, that earthquake. The news anchor asked that we pray for them." Pause to pet his purring cat. "My trust is in science. Science has done some good things for us." Pause again. "Science cured polio. Maybe, in the future, science will be able to accurately project earthquakes. But as long as there’s poverty, people will still die." Pause, then, "Science has made its mistakes, too, like Japan." Pause as a pair of World War II veterans from a halfway home a block down walked slowly by, the one who always shook from head to toe, wearing a brown cap and brown corduroy coat, holding the steadier arm of the other, both with unfocused eyes, neither one ever smiling, neither looking left nor right. "What science did to Japan was horrible. The bombings of all those innocent people profoundly affected me." She might one day write about him, how he had been a clean man with few possessions but for his television and the daily paper. His sensibility suggested to her, in his minimalism, a kinship with that of a Buddhist ascetic. She might one day write about how every morning he swept his rooms and the front porch and when he swept he spoke about the weather. Otherwise, almost all his words were about jazz. The day she moved out from above the first taxi driver she’d ever personally known, a faint but invigorating snow had been falling through the dry cold. He had never asked her any questions about her own life, but the day before she moved he said he was sorry to see her go as she was the perfect upstairs neighbor. Quiet. He’d felt safe and secure within the umbrella of her silence. "You must promise to return and visit," he’d said, to which she’d lied and said, "I will." He would sit out on the porch twice a day, sipping beer from a brown bottle, smoking cigarettes, watching the traffic as it came and went on the broad median-split avenue that was heavily shaded with trees, so much green soaking the air with its chlorophyll scent in the summer, so many bare branches in the winter when she moved. If he wasn’t on the porch at his regular time then he wouldn’t make an appearance because he wasn’t feeling well, was resting in his bedroom. After several months he had admitted these illnesses were because he’d sometimes drunk too much the previous night. "However, a couple of times recently I’ve felt unusually weak and unable to tolerate light. Maybe having too much to drink is affecting me this way now, but if I commit to complete bed rest in near total darkness for three days I feel fine again, even better and stronger than usual," he had said. When she came upon him on the porch they would always briefly talk about the weather cool warm rainy sunny muggy and he would always ask her if she’d like a beer or a glass of wine. His voice and manner, measured, slow, became more so with his occasional inebriation that would cocoon him in contemplation, his mood less naturally introverted than somber, and he would only nod in greeting when she appeared, not unfriendly but simply no longer present, gazing far away, scarcely aware even of his cat. She would wonder what were the thoughts that had emerged from the depths to waylay him on those afternoons and if they were of the people and places and times of which he never spoke. As with the home in which he’d fed Louis Armstrong, she couldn’t imagine those people, places, and times. She would try, but no pictures came to mind for he gave no clues. He was not so mysterious as he was a convivial but concerted blank. She considered the possibility that, opposite what his temperament led one to suppose, his hidden life had been one in which he committed monstrous cruelties, which was why she was unable to imagine a single thing about it, as the facts of that horrible life didn’t match his face and demeanor as presented to her. Or maybe he had only been an innocuous but compulsive gambler who lost all his money, which was why he was in that dilapidated house living such a spare life. Hadn’t he once mentioned he used to enjoy cards? Or maybe he had only ever been a quiet after-hours drunk who had invested the spare moments of his life in alcohol before waking to the realization that what he didn’t have was all the return there would ever be. After which denouement he picked up another beer as no harm could be done that hadn’t already transpired.

Maybe he had experienced a tragedy so great that it ripped through his life like a flood and wiped all there had been clean away but for Louis Armstrong and his jazz. Either there was nothing to know, which was its own mystery, the why of that, or he didn’t want her to know. She understood the not wanting another to know, but was sometimes unsettled that she was unable to intuit a single possible story about his past.

"I think I have bedbugs," he said one day. "I’ve always kept a clean apartment and I don’t know where they might be coming from. I’ve searched all around and found no evidence of them. None. I recently bought a new shirt at the Salvation Army and perhaps they are from that. Are you having any problems?"

"I don’t have any idea what a bedbug looks like, but I’m not having any problems," she’d said, speaking the truth.

"It may be I don’t have bedbugs. I’ve never had them before. My cat seems to be unaffected."

"It’s good your cat’s unaffected."

"Though I haven’t found any bugs, I may go ahead and throw out my mattress and get a new one. But if they’re not in my mattress, and I’ve not seen them, throwing out my mattress won’t help matters. It may be that I don’t have bedbugs. I could use a new mattress anyway so I’m not concerned about that. I put my shirt in a bag in the bathroom and fumigated it. I’ll leave it in that bag for a couple of weeks and see what happens."

The shadows in the house had turned navy blue. The weather was getting cold again. The sky was gray. She had already been thinking about the possibility of another apartment, though she enjoyed the views of the rooftops and the broad avenue from her second floor windows. His shirt tied up in a bag in his bathroom made her uneasy. She was as good as already gone but he didn’t know it.

Not long after, she climbed the porch stairs to find him in his rocker reading a vampire novel. "I like a good vampire story," he’d said. Forty-eight hours later she moved out and into a bungalow duplex she didn’t like as much but was a generation newer, better insulated, and would be more comfortable that winter. It was easier in those days to find a new apartment on short notice, and landlords didn’t pry as much into one’s business as they would come to do later, at least not with the places she rented. If not absentee landlords in fact, they were in spirit, only interested in punctually receiving their rent and not in property maintenance, their real estate often inherited and in already sad disrepair.

By proximity to his specialness via the meal of a lifetime was she dusted with the remarkable being of Louis Armstrong and his trumpet. That was the only story she had about the retired taxi driver and in the end she was satisfied with that history. She liked that she had lived over a man to whom this story was so important. She thought it unlikely Louis Armstrong would have remembered the dinner for very long. He’d had too many meals in too many different cities and towns and met too many people. It was obvious that the retired taxi driver hadn’t expected Louis Armstrong to remember the meal and so there was no reason to feel sad about this for his sake.

Why would she promise to visit him when she never planned to do so? And did she feel guilty about the lie?

A light snow had fallen the day she moved. Improbable, small crystals that lasted only as long as the few trips it took to transfer her few belongings down the stairs to a small, rented trailer. Companionable flakes that didn’t amass, disappearing before even meeting the ground. And the old man on the first floor never exited to feel their brief, frozen chill, or say goodbye. His screen door remained shut throughout. Dark. Mute.

He was solitary. He was too good-tempered (so she imagined in her story of him) to grow ancient and feeble alone and die alone but he never had visitors and as far as she was aware he never went out to visit anyone. He seemed too good-tempered to be forgotten but he had no friends. She would have been able to hear if his phone rang and no bell ever clamored for his attention.

She had liked him so she had promised to visit. What was she supposed to say? "Sorry, Mr. Gordon. No, I won’t be visiting you." After she moved, because she had moved, he moved as well, uncomfortable with living now under anyone else. He bought a small house that had a kitchen and bath in the rear and one room in the front that served both as sitting room and bedroom. He ran into her one day at a convenience store (they were both purchasing gas and cigarettes) and she had expected him to scold her for not visiting. But he offered no reproach. Instead, beaming with a degree of excited pleasure she’d never observed from him before, he’d told her, "I moved after you moved out. You were such a good neighbor, I got too used to the quiet and calm. I’m uncomfortable living under anyone else now, they make me too nervous. I had saved up some money for a rainy day and I thought now was that day, so I took the plunge and am now a homeowner. It’s a little house but it suits my minimal needs. You must come by for a housewarming. Don’t eat beforehand. I will cook you dinner." That he had money hidden away was news to her. The manner in which he lived was not due a complete absence of funds other than social security, but extreme frugality in anticipation of a yet-to-be-conceived desire or need. He’d harbored the possibility of a dream. Or a nightmare. She said yes, of course, she must see it, they made a date right then, and she fulfilled that promise. They drank beer in his tiny place that was smaller than any home she could have previously imagined. In the single front room his daybed and dresser and his television on its little cart, and his folding table and chairs fit perfectly, if cramped, the new arrangement a little disorienting to her as she was so used to him in the old apartment which may have had fragile bones but had a wealth of space with its large rooms and high ceilings. The story was that his new upstairs neighbors had frightened him. She was alarmed that he would describe himself as frightened as he had never previously spoken of fear. "But more than that, they were unkind. You were always so kind," he said. "What is wrong with people? Why are they unkind? But you, you were always so kind." He played one jazz record after another on an old oak stereo console she had seen in his apartment but which he had never used, relying on his radio instead. "Finally got it repaired. It’s nice to have my own music again," he said. She waited for the promised dinner but food never materialized and as the evening wore on she realized none would. She had thought about bringing cheese and crackers for an appetizer and became sorry she hadn’t. He smiled and smiled, playing his records, not talking, and he wasn’t bothered by the absence of conversation, he was content to listen and drink. One hour became two and she felt guest-bound to the daybed by politeness and his resolve. Two hours crossed the threshold into three. Occasionally, he would ask her if she was ready for another beer, disappear into the kitchen, and return with two bottles, until she said she wanted no more then he continued to go to the kitchen for beer for himself.

After a yearlong nonjudgmental acquaintance, she wasn’t there to be critical.

The music the needle resurrected from the grooves of the old vinyl platters was absent of depth, the notes thin and dry as his flesh. Not much more than skeletal remains, the noise physically pained her. Finally, hungry, as soon as she was assured she had become no more than one amongst other shadows populating the room and individually irrelevant she said she had to go. He had, bleary with beer, more unguarded, inebriated, and thus vulnerable, than she’d ever seen him before, exacted from her a promise that she would visit again. "You must come again soon." He was, she realized, not rising from his chair because he was too drunk to stand and taking care not to openly betray the fact. "You will come again soon. Any time you like, come and visit. Life is going to be good for me here." Losing track of his words, he repeated himself several times. Twice it seemed he fell briefly asleep as they made their farewells. She had lied again, saying, "Yes, I’ll be by to visit." She had said she would be by soon. He had been pleased, he had smiled, and that was the last she had seen of him.

He was now dead and buried. Certainly, many years had passed since he had died.

Don’t get stuck there. The taxi driver washing, waxing and polishing his VW beetle every Saturday morning. The taxi driver feeding his loudly purring cat, out of his hand, brown pebbly x’s of kibble. Trust me, the taxi driver is not important. More like an accident that can’t be erased. Not everything and everyone is important. She would have forgotten the Louis Armstrong story years before if it hadn’t been his choice that it be the big story in the book of his life. He was gone but the story of Louis and his steak lived on, for now.

He had probably told others about Louis Armstrong’s meal, hadn’t he? She had wondered how many and who. She’d wondered how many remembered still (how had he chosen who to tell) and how many were also now dead who hadn’t told anyone else, or who might have passed the story along to others who were unlikely to remember as they had never met Mr. Gordon, a not unintelligent man who had, for some reason, only one story on his shelf or one story that he had cared to share. But don’t get stuck there and impart an exaggerated sense of importance to Mr. Gordon who will be forgotten just as she will be forgotten just as most of us all will be forgotten and all our stories as well. A few receive recognition, a few less receive honor and glory, a few less have recognition or honor and glory survive after their death. The best most can manage is the satisfaction of a little significance among one’s peers while alive, and if not that then in the home among one’s family, and if not that then what’s left is an intensely personal and subjective biography, the heart of which (pulsing or petrifying) perishes upon death, memorial unsung, personal effects abandoned to become uncoordinated clues that beg no detective, a few insubstantial memories of one’s existence already buried by absent survivors, the digital zeros and ones of government records the most damning evidence that one was born, walked the earth, and died. A photograph with no names will make its way to a flea market where it will be purchased for a few dollars and thus eventually will Mr. Gordon live on the internet, waxing his VW at the curb before his last home, a background presence in a neighbor’s Polaroid that will become prized by strangers for the awkwardness of a middle-aged female in a green dress leaning over to pick up a small dog, skirt caught in the back of her pantyhose, betraying her ample buttocks.

One of the panes in the window of the bathroom of the apartment above the taxi driver had been broken out when she moved in and would never be fixed. She had never asked for a repair, that’s not how things were done. The unprotected wood floor had been rotting with water damage. She had never asked for a repair, that’s not how things were done and she had wanted no one poking around her apartment and her life. There was no shower in the old, freestanding porcelain tub. No tile protected the eroding plaster walls. But it turned out to be better than some bathrooms in other places she would rent over the years. Bathrooms took a lot of abuse and if not constructed well they crumbled.

An insignificant story.

If she’d had her own Renfield, gobbling the life-force of fruit flies like Altoid candies, then she’d have had someone to tell, but the telling would have been as good as talking to the void, so she chose instead to talk to voids, the centers of rooms in which nothing happened but air and dust and light and dark and where anything could possibly occur as nothing was in the way of it, but advantage was never taken of this opportunity. She had been there a year now. The apartment, though old, had been decently maintained. When the manager, nice guy, really nice, had shown her the apartment, before she’d leased it, he’d pointed this out with some pride, how nicely it had been maintained. Original small ceramic tiles on the bathroom floor in perfect condition. Original salmon-pink ceramic tiles on the bathroom wall, also in perfect condition, were bordered at the top with slabs of black ceramic tile, and had even the remarkable pride in craftsmanship of a black and white Greek key pattern inset an inch below that black shore which gave way to an Aegean sea of blue enamel paint on the upper portions of the walls and the ceiling, which was her own creative addition though she didn’t like to involve herself, because she had moved a lot, she was used to moving. No sooner did one become attached and make a home then one was forced to leave. She had no complaints about the apartment. It had no roaches. There was no mold or mildew. The water pressure was good. The toilet never stopped up.

Oh, fuck, she hoped not the manager. All that blood. But no body? The neighbors, many of them refugees who didn’t speak English, had a philosophy of leaving well-enough alone, as did she, which meant she was well-enough to them and whatever notice they took of her they kept to themselves and in their own language so she would never have a clue. Good people. They had nothing at all to do with her but she counted them as good people by the way they left her alone and kept their small rear (white wood partially enclosed) and front porches reasonably tidy and the way the teenage boys passed after-school hours playing games of football on the common of brown grass and earth, single-hoop basketball on a small court by the Dempsey Dumpsters, rode skateboards, and paid no attention to her. The walls were thin and the teenage boy in the apartment on the right practiced on his drum kit every day for an hour. Wherever were the teenage girls to match up with the teenage boys she didn’t know and then one day when she was going to do wash and dry at the apartment complex’s laundromat she saw they had their own cul-de-sac and there was yet another cul-de-sac where some teens tried mixing it up.

However, the teen boys, she could tell, thought she was odd, the way they looked or didn’t look at her. And this was worrisome.

She had never returned to Mr. Gordon’s home because he might not have even known it but he wanted something from her that she hadn’t the power to give.

She never complained about the loud drumming, others would have and demanded a switch be made to digital practice pads and headphones, but she imagined she was listening to a future Gene Kruppa, kept silent, and hoped every practice session and her lack of complaint was a deposit in the bank of good will, to be drawn upon on nights like the former and days like today.

If we mount the stairs and enter the bathroom, however, all that will occupy our attention will be the blood. Not copious amounts, not buckets of blood, but more than enough to disturb. The smears and driblets and droplets of blood make absurd the efforts to persuade, "Despite all, this is a nice bathroom."

Whatever was the "all".

That there wasn’t a body was confusing but reassuring for there shouldn’t be a body and there were no police at the door.

No telling what her neighbors had heard through the walls.

Maybe nothing.

Don’t get stuck here, where there will be no resolution. Sometimes the fortuneteller looks at the lines in the palm of a hand and can’t see the past, sometimes they look at the cards spread out on the table and can’t see the future, and sometimes one can’t see the present when walking in the midst of it.

Serious consideration had been paid to the Molotov cocktail.

One supposes it didn’t matter that she was under the delusion Molotov cocktails were a Russian invention, when instead the Finns dreamed them up.