The Piss that Misses the Pot (Even Our Bodies are Disembodied) – Joshua Rodriguez
October 1, 2020
It feels like he doesn’t hear me—even when I text him and even when I call him. Even when I send him an email barbed with incredulous dismay and aggravation. Even when I ring his doorbell. Even when I send him a letter, for Christ’s sake. Like an animal resorting to obsolete and vestigial appendages to survive. And it makes me wonder what’s wrong with me—it’s honestly offensive. Silence is its own breed of invective. All I’m asking him to do is his job—though I guess even that’s often asking too much. It’s like being held hostage. The longer he ices me, the more I feel like I need him. If this isn’t Stockholm Syndrome, I don’t know what is. It wasn’t bad at first—but eventually comfort degenerates. The tender touch of a mother turns out to be the coaxing ruse of a predator—there’s something sick and twisted about sustainability in this world of crooks and thieves. Unsustainability is the only true self-sustaining entity. Whenever he does answer his phone, there’s no disquisition—it’s like holding a seashell to my ear. There’s just a reproachful silence on his end, and me rambling garrulously, making no clear—no cogent—points. I might as well be putting missives in a bottle and letting the tide carry them out to a far off shore. The point is Mr. Braun has me by the balls and he knows it.
Claire does, too. I can tell by how she looks at me. It’s clear as day. But I have to admit—there’s something about this intractable and uncontrollable thing—this thing completely outside of my sphere of determination—that I derive a vast amount of relief from. Like, it’s incurable—terminal, even—and since there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I ought to do. I just accept it and move on. That’s how most things are; that’s how most things should be. We’re just driftwood caught in an ebbing and flowing current. That’s all anyone can amount to. And, when Claire isn’t home, all I do is smoke pot and drink beer. Not apply for jobs—which I definitely need to do—because, as of right now, things are looking grim to say the least. The factory shut down, though that wasn’t entirely unexpected. All I manage to do with my time is get high and circumambulate around the coffee table, and when Claire gets home, I act like I’m not high and that I’ve been somewhat productive. I even lie about reaching out to Mr. Braun to resolve this seemingly insoluble problem—though the word lie is a tad strong. Like it so often is, the reality is a hybrid of truths and lies—their bastard love children that seem to populate this earth.
And, of course, there’s this other thing I do, which colonizes and occupies vast majorities of my days. This other thing I try not to think about and try to pretend I don’t do—that is, of course, until Claire returns and finds me in a debased heap of debauched and ignominious pleasure—it’s the latest ramshackle sanctuary I’ve constructed for myself—the latest encampment I’ve established. Because I roam through pleasures like a nomad—decamping as soon as resources are depleted or conditions become unendurable. And, honestly, this other thing is just the tip of an iceberg I’m hoping this radiator will melt like some kind of radiator therapy. I’m probably the only motherfucker hoping for some icecaps to recede and diffuse. I don’t like lying. Lying makes me feel like a true degenerate—it makes me feel like a scumbag. With good reason—I’m not trying to absolve myself—I’m not trying to redeem myself. I’m just saying. There are reasons I feel the need to lie—I’ve tabulated them fastidiously in my episodes of baked self-flagellation—I’ve combed through and enumerated them—itemized them. All I ever do is lie to myself about my compulsion to lie. The reasons are:
- I’m not exactly the most solvent—even when I was gainfully employed, I wasn’t the breadwinner. Though that was never an issue for us. The point is if Claire knew I was smoking the pot she was now the sole proprietor of, it wouldn’t end well. It’s clearly some gradient of larceny—the severity is unclear, but the transgression is certain. It’s entirely reasonable for her to be annoyed. It would almost be unreasonable for her to express any other emotion, and I would probably be concerned if she found out and was OK with it. But don’t get it twisted: I don’t want that at all. So I do what I have to do to get by.
- I’m not applying for jobs. Claire thinks I am, and she’s been nothing but supportive. Even when she comes home and I’m in the same outfit I was in when she left. Even when I’m unbathed and I can tell by her penetrating eyes that she’s detecting something off, she doesn’t say anything. She asks how the job search is going, and I offer a shrug and an ambiguous, ‘It’s going,’ and leave it at that. She usually accepts this because, well, why wouldn’t she? It’s not like she’s handing out unemployment—well, I guess she is in a way—and needs evidence of my search. She knows how hard it is. She’s struggled for what she’s accomplished. She knows it’s not easy to transform into who you want to be.
- I haven’t really been consistent in my efforts to reach Mr. Braun—I’ve woven elaborate tales about phone calls and texts and how evasive he is, but the reality is I reach out to him about once a week, and if he doesn’t answer his phone, or if he doesn’t respond to my texts—if he leaves me on read—I acquiesce and resolve to try again next week. And here’s an emerging pattern: between my perfunctory efforts to reach Mr. Braun and my perfunctory job search—between this other thing I do and the pot and beers I consume at such an inclement rate that it might be indicative of a problem I’d rather not address at this juncture—there’s simply not enough time—there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to truly commit to harassing him. Maybe harassing isn’t an accurate descriptor. It’s as much harassment as reaching out to customer support is. But I can’t help feel like I’m imposing. That’s probably just my Midwest upbringing. The salt of the earth is torture to the earthworms. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
- And, lastly, the reason I can’t be honest is that this heat—this broken radiator—is starting to affect her and her work. It’s taking a physical toll on both of us, but the difference is she can’t luxuriate the next day. She can’t drink herself to sleep because her hangovers are concussive and she has to be in tip-top shape—she has to perform at an optimal level that’s slowly starting to slip. She doesn’t have the benefit of sneaking in naps throughout the day when the radiator relents. Not like me. I can’t appraise myself honestly and sincerely right now—anything short of total accountability, self-loathing, self-resentment, and the initiation of some radical change would be insufficient. Disingenuous at best. And I’m not exactly in a position to renovate my entire life—reconstitute and repurpose myself. So, in a way, you could say I’m prioritizing my debased desires over her general contentment. But it’s self-preservation. And that’s probably about as honest as I’ve been about things since God knows when.
And now I’m leaving the apartment—I took a shower and got dressed and everything. Staying in that apartment is too much—I feel like a corpse ballooning up in the desert heat. Outside, there’s a breeze—all reports, whether from apps, the Internet, or radio, declare it’s the coolest summer on record, and we can’t even enjoy this reprieve—this minor consolation for what’s been a year replete with tumult and tribulation. Even when we open the windows, what cool air manages to infiltrate is routed and ousted like an inept incursion—like America orchestrating war on Vietnam, or more recently, Iraq. That’s what it feels like and all I can do is go for a walk for some respite—some refuge. I light a cigarette. Claire doesn’t like it when I smoke in the apartment, but it’s irreclaimable—the stench of stale cigarette smoke is practically essential to the integrity of the building now. I’ve pretty much squandered our deposit. But, honestly, I didn’t mean to do that. I fill up a coffee thermos with beer, and I smoke a bowl of pot. None of which was, of course, purchased by me.
“Hey, Claire,” I call her on her lunch break—it’s for my own sanity. Kind of like a barometer for how she’s feeling and what I should anticipate. How I should greet her when she comes home—how desultory the apartment can be because messes drive her up our blemished, bare, white walls. “How’s work going?”
“Shitty,” she says flatly. This doesn’t bode well. She sounds exhausted—I can practically hear her rubbing the hollows of her eyes in her voice.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“We need to get that fucking radiator fixed. You said you would call Mr. Braun and get it sorted last night. You promised.”
“I promised…?” my voice trails off.
“Or were you too loaded to remember? I can tell, you know—I was on the can and you got all weird and squeamish because I’m on my period and you saw my pad. It’s a natural bodily function, y’know? I don’t complain when you blow up the bathroom after a night of drinking and leave streaks—which has become every morning.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yes, of course I remember. I wasn’t loaded. Honest.”
“Well, you said that you would call him. Did you call him?”
“Nothing,” I lie. “He didn’t answer. He’s not responding to texts or anything.”
“Jesus Fuckin’ Christ, Sam! You have to figure this out. I can’t keep running on a few hours of sleep because of that radiator. It’s the only thing I’m asking you to do. Can you please just figure this out?”
“Yeah,” I say, “I can. I’m sorry.”
“Are you stoned?”
“No,” my heart starts racing because I’ve been high since she left that morning—since I poured my first cup of coffee. “I’m not.”
“No,” I say. This is also untrue. I feign offense. “I’m not high or drunk.”
“You sound off.”
“Maybe I’m not the one who’s off.”
I feel bad for trying to manipulate her like this—for trying to capitalize on her exhaustion and frangible state—but it’s my only recourse. And, besides, she’s not fooled. She’s too smart for that. Much smarter than me. It’d be inane—asinine—to imagine I’ve pulled one over on her. Instead, we utter curt goodbyes and surcease the call. I return to my beer and light a cigarette. I leave the pot and pipe on the coffee table like a sacrifice on an altar, and I walk out. I decide to go to the grocery store. Maybe I can shoplift some food—maybe I have a few bucks left in my bank account and can get a cheap bite to eat. It’s kind of a rush to see if your card gets accepted or declined—like playing the slots. Except there’s no chance for you to ever truly win. I just need to get out of this fucking apartment. It feels refreshing outside, and I almost feel good, all things considered. But then my stoned and paranoid brain starts gnawing at itself—eating itself—like they say your body does if you go too long without a meal. Because I left the pot and the pipe out on the table. I forgot to put it away.
What an amateur mistake. Out in plain sight. I start worrying Mr. Braun is going to come over to check our radiator while I’m out—or maybe he’ll send in one of the workers doing renovations on the apartment to check. And maybe the worker will see the pot and call Mr. Braun, who will consequently call the cops, and Claire and I will both be fucked. People at her company get fired for this kind of thing—they say it’s a bad look—the optics are detrimental to their organization. I try and appease myself—I remind myself Mr. Braun hasn’t been around to look at the radiator in a month—that he’s not even returning my calls or responding to my texts—he’s disinterested—disengaged. He doesn’t really give a shit one way or the other. Either way we’re under contract. Either way he’s gonna get his rent. But then my brain starts contorting itself in ways only weed enables it to—it twists and bends in unnatural torsions—like what happened with my balls when I was younger. I had to get surgery because they were winding themselves up like a towel you snap someone with in a locker room—I guess it was my ass they were lashing. And this isn’t the only time my genitals turned on me—there is, after all, this other thing I won’t get into.
I start thinking, What if someone breaks in to rob our apartment? What if it’s a scrupulous thief? The kinda thief that’s only doing it to feed their family like those hypothetical scenarios people impose to gauge your morality—where you land on their arbitrary dichotomy of right and wrong. But they only really amount to determining what desperation will pull out of you—if you’re a survivor or not. Morals and ethics are often secondary to survival—in fact, they’re often just accessories to your personal demise. In my humble opinion, anyway. I start worrying a thief will break in and see the pot and suddenly be struck by a kind of obligation—a civil duty—to call the cops and explain compunctiously how they’ve changed their ways and there’s a degenerate residing in this apartment who smokes pot. A true fucking cretin. That they should come and arrest him. Handle the situation. And this is enough to make me reverse course—to pivot a full one-eighty degrees and walk back home. I light a cigarette to take the edge off and kill the beer in my thermos.
When I return, the apartment is undisturbed. It feels like reentering an inhospitable atmosphere. I sigh with relief and elect to just hang out at the apartment—it feels like a victory. I smoke a bowl of pot and have another beer. Libations—a celebration. I light a cigarette and sit down at my computer—this other thing seizes me—apprehends me—and before I know it, the whole day’s slipped away. It feels like I go unconscious and then reawaken hours later. When you return home—staring at me in disbelief. This must be the corroboration of your worst suspicions. I’m naked and sweaty. And then you retreat into our room—into the epicenter of this blistering heat—and I don’t really know what to do. All I can do is hope—sit in a supplicant pitiful heap in a pool of my sweat and other fluids—this will be reconciled this evening. So I’m begging you—please—for the love of God—don’t take this other thing to heart.
I’m begging you—please—please—please
please—please—please—please—don’t make this a whole thing. I never wanted things to end up like this—this isn’t, like, the preferred resolution. It’s just the way things happened. I didn’t expect you to be home so soon, and you didn’t expect to traverse the wastelands of your life only to be delivered to this foreign arid tundra we inhabit—and you definitely didn’t expect to come home to find it in pieces on the floor. Nuts and bolts and the grate that sits atop the thing. The grate where we put our umbrella until it melted and was grafted on. The residue’s still on it. I could tell when you came in that you wanted answers and you should have seen your face—honest. It’s adorable how earnest you are. How you think there are actually answers out there. You had your car keys in your hand. You’d just returned from work and stood there—staring at me going to town on myself—treating my body like it was a cadaver and I was a necrophiliac conducting an autopsy on it—poking and prodding out of morbid curiosity and feeling like a high-school athlete who actually accomplished winning a Super Bowl. Living the fuckin’ dream. Now, I’d imagine you were disturbed by a few things upon entering:
- Firstly, I was glistening and naked at my desk—a truly stomach churning sight—smoking cigarettes and sipping room temperature beer, which means it felt like it’d been simmering on a stovetop. I was perusing through porn and basically poking and prodding my cock like I was trying to sustain its life with a defibrillator and shocking it every time it lost tumescence and slackened. It’s like time: as soon as it starts slipping, you immobilize it and incapacitate it any way you can. You suspend it however you’re able—even if it’s with a noose. Killing time assumes a whole new meaning with habits like mine. It’s funny how we’re so attached to time but it always abandons us. You weren’t opposed to porn until you started dating me. You’re the walking antithesis of a prude—you even take pride in that fact. But to me, porn isn’t just porn. To me, porn is something else I try to fill and pave over this bottomless hole with. Because the booze and the pot haven’t worked—though that doesn’t mean I still don’t try—I’m not a quitter, after all. I can spend all day sifting through virtual libraries to find my perfect debauched match. Though it invariably ends in the same shame—people are always switching lanes when this highway leads us all to the same fucking place.
- Secondly, you probably noticed the radiator was, in fact, not fixed—isn’t fixed. It’s the opposite of fixed—it’s disassembled and in pieces on the floor. But that pervasive heat persists. And maybe I could lie to you and say it was irreparable—that the landlord came back with the fatalistic diagnosis that it is, in fact, inoperable—but I operate by my own maxim: only lie to people dumber than you. Because it’s easier to remember and maintain simplified lies. Lies require maintenance—fastidious care like trying to grow plants in an inhospitable environment. And—though I’d never concede this to your face—you’re exponentially smarter than me. So I didn’t say anything. I just pretended you weren’t there and I wasn’t doing anything indecent, and you went into the room. Maybe it was an indelicate way of handling the situation, but there weren’t any alternatives (that would have resulted in ecstasy, no less). So I stand by that decision. It was a means to an end—and every end is, invariably, just a bridge to that final surcease—that ultimate end. Endings are just connective tissue to further endings. They’re all exits onto the same highway—tributaries to an immeasurable fathomless body of water.
- Lastly—you probably realize at this juncture I wasn’t looking for a job like I’d promised. Like I’ve been saying for the last few months. Now, it’s important to distinguish—differentiate—this from a lie. Because it wasn’t a lie. I said it with conviction because I believed I would follow through. That I wouldn’t flake on the commitment. Abscond of it. But here we are—I haven’t sent my CV out in weeks. I haven’t even looked at job postings. Though I don’t know how much good that’d do. I’m not exactly the most competitive or competent candidate. That’s not me trying to cultivate pity. That’s me honestly appraising myself. Besides, looking for a job just accentuates my ineptitude and inadequacy. I’d rather avoid confronting that while I can, thank you very much. That’s all evidenced in other ways—and even their indirect iteration is hard stomach.
The night before, you were sitting in the bathroom after you got home, taking a piss. You were tired and it was hot in our apartment—it was actually uncharacteristically cool outside for the summer, but we couldn’t appreciate or enjoy it. The radiator kept turning on and off. On and off. Autonomously—like it’d been possessed. It didn’t seem like a big deal when it started. When it was winter and the heat was a welcome reprieve. Now it’s the opposite—the tender touch of a mother can transmute into overbearing and oppressive attention with the snap of a finger. You can spoil paradise just by hanging around. And I’ve heard about this indigenous tribe that has 60 different words to say snow, and I think we’re not dissimilar—because we have innumerable different ways to talk about pleasure. And I think the biggest tragedy and most damaging con is how we’ve been convinced that pleasure and happiness are synonymous. And now it’s summer and the radiator keeps turning on and off, and we wake up in the middle of the night soaked in sweat. I wake up in the middle of the night after tying one off, exhausted and hung over. I can’t go back to sleep. So I just go to my computer and start watching porn—I can spend hours—even a day—doing this other thing. Time is immaterial to almost everything—there’s something about immutability that renders things afterthoughts—underlying static. Because why cogitate something out of your control? That’s my defense—this radiator is out of my control. It’s just one of those things like death and mortality and all that bullshit some people obsess over.
Anyway—the night before—you called me into the bathroom. I saw your pad cradled in your panties and pants around your ankles. It was red and I averted my eyes—it made me uncomfortable. But I gotta admit—I respect the hell out of a move like that. That’s a power move—asserting your dominance. As for me—the only time I assert any dominance I delude myself into believing I have is the piss that misses the pot. That splatters on the tiles. The piss that pisses you off—the source of unending contention. That’s my little remonstration—that’s the only power move I manage to pull off. You were asking me about my job prospects—but not in a rude way—not in a condescending way—because there’s nothing condescending about you. We’re polar opposites in that way—but I think I’m just overcompensating when I assume that tone. You genuinely want to abet my search. And then the conversation meandered to the issue of the radiator. This thorn in our side—you couldn’t conceal your aggravation.
“Listen—Sam,” you said, “we need to get this radiator fixed. This is getting unacceptable. I can’t fucking sleep and it’s affecting my work. My brain’s short-circuiting—I can feel the fucking smoke coming out of my ears. It feels like I have bugs and glitches in my conscious. You said you’d take care of it since you’re staying home. What’s up with that? That’s the only thing I’ve asked of you.”
“I’m working on it,” I said. “I texted Mr. Braun,” which was not a categorical untruth, you see. Because I did text Mr. Braun. But that was a month ago or more, and when he came over and I explained our predicament, he wasn’t much help. Because, like I said, the radiator turns on and off. It has a perverse kind of self-determination—it has more freewill than me. When he came over to inspect the thing with the foreman of the outfit renovating our apartment building, it had turned off. Like it knew. Like a refugee in hiding, avoiding detection. And I tried to convey what’s happening—but that was to no avail. Mr. Braun said he couldn’t do anything unless it was on when he arrived—he asked why we waited so long to inform him if this, in fact, started during winter—his voice was imbued with suspicion I couldn’t help taking umbrage with. Like I was trying to pull one over on him. My wounded voice didn’t help matters—it just made me exponentially more pathetic. The foreman glanced at the demarcated knob and saw it on the snowflake setting. He said the snowflake setting on the radiator actually means it emits low volume heat. So go figure—the snowflake equates to warmth. Maybe hell’s finally frozen over. I guess empirical—incontrovertible—unimpeachable—truth is just a myth we inoculate ourselves with against this world of contagious and fatal untruths.
“What did Mr. Braun say when you texted him?” She asked. “Is he coming over to look at it again? This is unacceptable—we shouldn’t just have to coexist with this. It’s not a shitty roommate we need to tolerate in order to make rent.”
“He didn’t say anything new—anything at all, really. He said he can’t do anything until he witnesses it turning on by itself. It’s stipulated in our contract. He says it’s a measure that protects him from pouring money into nonexistent problems. Filling a hole that doesn’t need to be filled and instead turning it into a landfill.”
“That’s not what he said.”
“OK, I’m paraphrasing.”
“Can you please, please, please promise me you’ll take care of it tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I promise. But it’s a little offensive you think I’m just sitting around with my thumb up my ass all day.” If only you knew my hands were too preoccupied each and every day to spare a thumb.
“Whatever,” I could tell you were—understandably—annoyed at me and my ineffectuality. I haven’t worked in a long time. The factory shut down and I don’t really have any skills. And I can tell you’ve started looking at me different now—since my ambition has been siphoned out. Since it started leaking out like a perforated air mattress that gradually and imperceptibly deflates and you don’t notice until you wake up the next morning achy and unrested. Since it’s gone flat and warm like this beer I’m nursing at my desk. I’m sweating—practically naked—a pool is collecting like an artificial lake on the desk’s chipped and scabrous veneer. Perspiration sluices down my face in beaded rivulets. I wipe it with the back of my already drenched hand, but it just smears it. It doesn’t do any good. I think I’m going delirious. But I know what you’re thinking—I’ve watched it congeal behind your eyes. I’ve observed it the last couple of weeks. How I used to work so much—but suddenly my taut capacity for work has slackened. I used to feel days were best spent when the work that needed to be done outstripped the available hours—don’t get me started on time—and Jesus fuckin’ Christ, it feels like I’m a suppository stuffed up the swampy and unwiped asshole of some degenerate God—it’s that uncomfortable with this goddamn radiator on its slow cook setting—but now, somehow, there’s too much day and work’s vacated the premises—evacuated it like someone pulled a fire alarm. Days are hotels during off-seasons. Each hour’s untenanted. Each day feels like an apartment or house you just moved out of—when you stand in the center and marvel at how big it is without all that furniture.
I think this is paramount to understand before begrudging me: life has, thus far, proved to be intractable. Hell—even a household appliance has more control than I do. So I did what I had to. It’s retribution—vindication. I don’t even have a toolbox—just a wrench I stole from the construction workers renovating our apartment building. But you won’t understand—you’re inconsolable in our room right now. You darted into it in a wounded vector and closed the door. And maybe the porn wouldn’t be a big deal if we were having sex. But it’s not like I can transfer the knowledge from ephemeral, ethereal, and artificial cyberspace into the bedroom. It’d be like someone who watches one video tutorial by Gordon Ramsay on how to boil pasta, and goes to a dinner party and inserts themselves in the kitchen—interpolates themselves—and offers their two cents, saying things like It’s absolutely essential to make sure the pasta’s well seasoned as they add salt and oil indiscriminately into a pot of boiling water. Someone would probably remark to the man or woman who accompanied them that they must be really into cooking, huh? To which they would respond: They’ve never cooked a day in their life. That’s what it’d be like. And I’ve made peace with that because it’s better than war.
But even after I dismantled the radiator, it failed to change the complexion of our humble apartment. Everything’s the same. And there’s still heat emanating from all around us. Encompassing us. Besieging us. And now when we talk, it’s like you’re not even there. It’s like I’m not even there—my mind is orbiting around the next decrepit porn I’m gonna find. The next ignoble video I’ll scavenge like a pathetic modern iteration of a hunter-gatherer. When we’re around each other it’s like even our bodies are disembodied. I can barely walk anymore the heat’s so overwhelming and my hangovers are so bad. My extremities—my appendages—feel like boiled pasta noodles trying to support a vehicle. I think there’s no inoculation to some things—I think the only immunity for most things is the cold embrace of death—and that doesn’t sound half bad right now. It almost sounds refreshing. And when I try to appeal to Mr. Braun, nothing comes of it. I feel like an inept ambassador.
And now all I can do is drink some more beer. Smoke a few cigarettes. And see what PornHub has to offer. There’s no other reprieve—at least from my purview—and goddammit it’s hot in here. All I can hope to do is disengage—but there’s something sinister that pervades everything. That purloins all choices and options. And I don’t know what it is—so I’ll toast to finding that out. Hopefully soon—hopefully before it’s too late—though I have this sneaking and floating suspicion I passed that point long ago. I think I finally know what it means to be orphaned by whatever higher power is supposed to preside over this life. I think I finally understand what it means to feel doomed. And, let me tell you something, it don’t feel half-bad. At least it’s something to distract me from this unremitting and unrelenting heat that refuses to relinquish me. I guess I wouldn’t have it any other way—because every other alternative is nothing short of torture. At least this way I get my kicks and rocks off. I’d rather be doomed than bored.
It’s so hot in this fucking apartment it feels like hell itself took up residence here—like we let it crash on the couch a few weeks ago, and the original arrangement was it’d get its shit together and be out of our hair in a week—but now we’re kicking ourselves because these situations all have the same outcome. Because we really should’ve known better, but who ever truly does? There’s been no real change as of right now, but Goddammit—you figured it out. And, soon enough, if everything goes according to plan, we’ll be redeemed in our own way. We’ll serve it with an eviction notice and that’ll be that. It cost you a day of sick leave, but it was worth it for me, at least to see you work your magic. And now you’re back at work and you asked me to keep you updated—you’re voice was replete with an anticipation that bordered foolishly on hope. You asked me to let you know how our ruse plays out. Because that’s all it is—and, if I’m being honest, you taught me a whole hell of a lot. And I’m supremely grateful. You made my (supposed) exhaustive search for a solution look addled with DMV echelon inefficiency. There were some issues we had to surmount and details we had to iron out when you stayed home. But you did it. It’s damn near venerable how you did it and I’m starting to realize I don’t appreciate you nearly as much as I should.
A few days after you walked in on me treating my body like my own personal arcade—mashing buttons and jerking joysticks—you seemed to have moved passed it. Like it wasn’t worth obsessing over or begrudging me for—all this petty and inconsequential bullshit we get hung up on often feels like gallows we suspend ourselves by. What I’m trying to say is you were icing me for a while—there were a few days of silence and stillness like we were rendered cave paintings and an inescapable flash flood of tension before you released it all through that emergency valve you reserve for yourself—that valve you keep out of my reach like medicine kept away from children because you know I won’t use it responsibly. Eventually you thawed a little, and I’d like to think sentiment played some part in that, but I’d imagine it was this radiator from hell—this corporeal manifestation of Satan—the only thing that’s ever made me start believing in some higher power, because there must be some balance here—the malevolence has to be offset by some kind of benevolence, but maybe that’s not the case. Because judging by the state of the world, it seems the only governing force is that of a despot arbitrarily pulling strings. Imbalance is just as plausible as balance even though people like to pretend that’s not the case. But, anyway, I’d like to think you simply forgave me and decided it wasn’t worth carrying on with our pathetic interpretation of Cold War relations, but I’m not keeping my fingers crossed on that front. Simply put: that was yet another ice cap I was happy to see melt.
Anyway—after a few days of communication drought, and with no supportive rain dance, you broke in a deluge. And I don’t really care what the reason was—I just care that it happened—I was just happy it was over. That morning, I was at my desk. Because staying in that room was intolerable on account of the conflated pressure of the heat from the radiator and our protracted argument—this palpable discontentment that refused to disperse and instead hung in the air like smothering humidity. Like a strata of emissions hanging over a city. I was smoking a cigarette and having coffee I’d enhanced with some bourbon I found—I’d forgotten about it completely. And, since you subscribe to light liquor with evangelical piety, it was safe to assume it was mine. Earlier that morning, when you were still asleep, I smoked a bowl of pot. I think imbibing is the only communion we have left. Eventually, you emerged and I could tell you were looking at me. I could feel it. Like when people say they can feel the presence of some apparition or specter. My computer screen displayed a blank white word document, and I thanked God I was operating with some discretion—because I was browsing porn pages on my phone. I’d been at it for hours—I’d been messaging women I wasn’t even attracted to. It’s this cycle I always fall into—like guerilla traps I set for myself. After I get my rocks off—after we exchange pictures—I block them, even though they expect to meet—even though we make vague and tentative arrangements and promises. And I feel like an asshole. Because I don’t want to fuck them. It’s just an extension of this other thing. I closed out of the tab and locked my phone in a fluid motion. This wasn’t my first rodeo—I have procedures in place—redundancy measures. I swiveled around in my desk chair. I’d never seen you look so exhausted and haggard. It was imprinted on your face. Carved like naïve initials etched into a tree trunk.
“Morning,” was all I could say. “Want coffee or something? I made a pot.”
After seeing you, I knew I must look rough, too. We don’t really have mirrors in this apartment. Well, we do—but they’re not hung up. They only come up to my waist. To get a good view of myself, I have to hold it up or sit down or squat, which accentuates my gut. No matter what it’s not a comprehensive—and definitely not a complimentary—assessment. The angles are never exactly what I want them to be—though I’m not even sure those angles exist for myself anymore. Not like some people I see on my feed who have apparent guardian angles they can fall back and rely on. So I often go days without looking in the mirror. And—let me tell you right now—that shit shows. I’m unshaved—unkempt. Decrepit. It’s nothing short of magnanimous that you’ve stuck around for as long as you have—your patience is preternatural. I don’t even recognize myself when I do see my own reflection. I used to subscribe to this bullshit pseudo-intellectual notion that if we didn’t have mirrors, we’d be exponentially happier. But it’s unbearably evident it doesn’t make a difference—because we’re reflected in far more resonant and accurate ways than mirrors are capable of depicting. It’s all around us. We’re reflected in our browser history and those closest to us and the conditions we inhabit—and that’s all worse than an expanding waistline and receding hairline could ever depict. In my estimation, anyway. It’s a whole menagerie of misery once you take a closer look.
“I just called in sick,” you said to me. You’re voice was flat and flimsy—fragile. Like each word was on the precipice of shattering. It almost sounded like you were talking in your sleep. “I can’t do it today. I feel horrible. I haven’t slept in weeks. That radiator’s back on. If I go in to work, I might snap—I might have a meltdown. I could lose my job. I’m feeling that unstable. It won’t take much at all—I’d never realized the detriment of sleep deprivation. But now I get it. I’ll never take sleep for granted again.”
“Maybe a day off will do you some good,” I said. “You deserve it.”
“That’s not why I called in sick,” you said. “I didn’t call in sick just to rest.”
“Why’d you call in sick then?”
“We’re gonna figure this out today—I can’t rely on you anymore to handle this. And, you know, I’m not saying that to be mean or rude. I’m just saying that because, in my experience, the only way to get things done the way you want them to be done and at the rate you want them to be done is to do them yourself. Does that make sense? I feel like I don’t make sense anymore. I’m staying home to finally get to the bottom of this.”
“That makes sense.”
“But first thing’s first: can we get high? I really wanna get high. I haven’t gotten high in so long because I’ve been so tired lately. It’s, like, the last thing I want to do when I feel the way I do. When I get home, I just wanna lay down and try to recoup whatever rest I lost. Lay in bed and stare at the ceiling. I need to take the edge off somehow now. I can’t take it anymore.”
“Yeah,” I said, though I was already catapulted into a different stratosphere. “I’ll pack a bowl. Go lay on the couch.”
You nodded and walked somnambulantly to the couch—I packed a bowl while you reposed. I was finally feeling the whiskey, and I lit a cigarette. I was ecstatic that we were over it. But even when I was talking to you, my mind wandered back to that other thing. Like a puppy adopted a few houses down the street from its mother who’s constantly howling and barking and whining in a bellow like a foghorn—telegraphing its loss, mourning the disappearance of its baby. Like a puppy who, after hearing its mom, keeps escaping to go back home—a puppy desperate for the comfort and security of maternal care and attention, putting itself in harm’s way to escape. Climbing over a fence or out a window or surreptitiously darting out a cracked door, into the middle of the street, completely unaware of the car barreling toward it and unable to react fast enough. That’s the kind of wandering my mind does. Because it always returns to this other thing. I don’t know if that makes sense—it probably doesn’t. I brought you the pipe. You were lying with your eyes closed—you looked cadaverous. It was almost like a dry run of your wake. I know, I know—that’s morbid. But I don’t know any other way to be.
“I’m gonna call him myself,” you said after your first hit. “I’m gonna call Mr. Braun today and straighten this out. I just need a minute. Are you drunk? I can smell it.”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
After a distended silence, you did what you said you would—you called Mr. Braun. And you were relentless. You did what I didn’t have the balls to do—you didn’t settle for anything less than what you wanted. And eventually, he capitulated. You got him to agree to come the following day—today—and I just kinda marveled at your efficacy. Your ability. I mean, maybe my being enraptured was a byproduct of the pot. But that’s just semantics. You’re hard where I’m soft, strong where I’m weak. You forced him to gesticulate and now we’re actually making progress—I couldn’t even achieve half this much in the months we’ve been dealing with this shit-show. And, craziest of all, after you hung up the phone you didn’t even give me an I-told-you-so look. You took another hit of the pipe and closed your eyes. I lit a cigarette and leaned back in my desk chair. I went into the kitchen and meted out some more whiskey into my coffee cup as clandestinely as I could—I don’t think you noticed, but I also don’t think you cared much either. I think passions attenuate over time—they erode with life itself. Especially if left unattended and neglected. We had more pertinent matters at hand anyway. After the silence settled like dust on a windowsill, you stirred.
“Sam,” you said, “now we have to discuss our plan. Because he can’t come again and have it not work. That would undermine everything—it might never get fixed. We’ll either have to relocate or learn to live off fumes. And both seem like fucking hell.”
“Yeah—we need to ensure it’s on when he comes.”
“And what do you propose we do?”
“What’s been the issue every time he comes? Let’s try and brainstorm.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s a dick—that’s the issue.”
“That’s part of it—but that’s what we’re planning for—it’s an uncontrollable variable. We need to plan to circumnavigate that. Do you get the difference?”
“So why hasn’t it been fixed yet? I haven’t been here when he’s come to inspect the thing, and you’re accounts of his visits aren’t exactly detailed. You just say he came and was a dick and left.”
“I give pertinent details,” I said. “Concise. Maybe you don’t listen.”
“The issue’s that it’s never on when he comes. It’s like it knows. Like it’s avoiding a diagnosis. Like it’s happy with life imprisonment—an immobilized life—if it circumvents a death sentence, you know?”
“Can we please just talk about this like normal people?”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling my pride smart. “I guess we can.”
“So we just need to ensure it’s on when he comes, right?”
“I guess. But how can we do that? It operates on its own accord.”
“What if we turned it on before he arrives—and then when he rings to come in, we turn it down to zero before we admit him. So he goes over and sees it on the zero setting and feels it emitting heat at full tilt.”
“That’s not a bad idea—it’s almost ingenious.”
“I can’t believe I had to use a whole day of sick leave for this.”
“Whatever—so we have a plan now. I’ll turn it on about an hour before he comes, and everything should be set up. We’ll finally fuck him like he’s been fucking us.”
“At least someone’s getting fucked around here.”
I didn’t say anything. We smoked some more pot, and I polished off the whiskey. I made a run for cigarettes and I picked us up dinner on the way back. You gave me just enough money like I was a kid running an errand for their parents. You even gave me some beer money. The rest of the evening was nondescript—it was a liquefied haze—molted, like the steel integrity of each day was melted by the scalding heat of the radiator and poured into an amorphous mold. And, now, here I am. Waiting for Mr. Braun to show up. The heater’s turned up to five—the maximum setting. It’s all a carefully orchestrated maneuver. And I’m doing this other thing in the meantime, feeling like I’m gonna pass out from the heat, which is a preferable alternative to contemplating the limitless latitudes of operation this fucking household appliance has while I’m sitting here immured in my own decrepitude. But at least I have time to myself today—at least I don’t have to jerk off in an alley behind a dumpster, using my shitty data to stream lagging porn, like yesterday on my way to procure smokes, or in the bathroom of the place I got us dinner. I don’t need much of a refractory period interspersed between. I wonder what Mr. Braun is gonna say or do, but a part of me doesn’t care. Because I’m predisposed—indisposed—whichever is more fucking apt under these deplorable circumstances. I’m disposed—I’m trash. That’s the point I’m making I guess.
There’s something about waiting right now—this unabated anticipation surging through me. Mr. Braun will be here soon enough, and I don’t know how it’s going to go. I was confident before—I was almost arrogant in my self-assuredness that he’d come and feel the heater on and everything would be rectified. That we’d be redeemed. But I don’t know anymore. Now I’m not so sure. It’s hot and I’m sweating—you’d think I’d be desiccated by now what with all the various fluids I’ve secreted, between sweat and others I won’t detail out of common decency. Because I still have that, you know? Common decency—even though it’s a hindrance more often than an asset. I smoke a cigarette and have a beer because, now that Claire and I are on cordial terms—no matter how tentative that may be—she decided on a whim of magnanimity to replenish the fridge with a case. She gave me some cash the night before to make a run. She told me to get whatever I’m in the mood for because she’s never been particularly finicky. I smoked a bowl of pot a few hours ago, but I’ve aired the out apartment since. The pot’s on the table—just in case I need a little something extra. I’ve lit candles—though candles only do so much. The foundation of our depravity is inextricable.
Mr. Braun will be here soon and I don’t know if I can face Claire if things don’t go as well as we planned. It’s hot in here—it’s like this apartment retains all the heat of this entire fucking world—like it’s all relegated to us and we’ve just been rendered a dump for it. A landfill for its malice and malaise and general discontentment. Some sick kind of surrogate. Like an evangelical atheist—an atheist who’s damn near militant—chosen to carry conceive the Christ’s second coming. I turned on the radiator an hour ago. Everything’s as it should be. I’m staring at my phone—at my computer—different thresholds to the same thing. This bottomless cavernous shaft—this thing—I’m ok plummeting into as long as there’s a distraction—a screen and some filters to warp my aperture. So I don’t even realize what’s happening while it transpires. At best we’re mice in a lab, and at worst we’re canaries in a mineshaft. Though it’s hard to determine which is better and which is worst, and the difference may be splitting hairs. I’m still a little high. The beer’s helping. I stand in front of the opened fridge and let the cool air encase me. I pace the floor of the apartment. Thinking about Mr. Braun, but mostly of this other thing. The videos and chats. I think of everything I can’t wait to return to—unperturbed. Once this shit’s resolved. Once we’ve put Mr. Braun in his place. I check my phone and see texts from Claire. She asks if he’s shown up yet. She just wants me to keep her in the loop, something I’m piss poor at because, in my experience, the loop only ends up being a noose. Maybe this is what she’s talking about—maybe I am too morbid for my own good. I tell her he hasn’t shown up yet. I tell her I’ll let her know as soon as he has.
I know she doesn’t need anymore stress—between work and this and our estranged relationship and the image of me in that desk chair hunched over and glistening like fool’s gold—there’s not enough time in the day for her to allocate adequate energy and attention to each problem. But then I wonder what will actually change—like, best-case scenario, we get this radiator fixed. Best-case scenario, everything goes according to plan—and there’s really no excuse for it not to since she left copious notes and directives for me to follow to ensure I don’t drop the ball, though I suspect without her here, Mr. Braun will understand the leverage he has over a pathetic mope like me—but if everything goes smoothly and surpasses my expectations—exceeds our wildest hopes—then we’ll still be the same people in the same relationship with the same problems. Normal isn’t necessarily better. I wonder how much better things will actually get. And maybe I secretly don’t want improvement—progress. Because when shit’s in a nosedive, at least we have these excuses to lean on. Most people would kill for these kinds of excuses to exonerate themselves.
“Sam, Sam—wake up,” she shook me this morning after she was dressed. Right before she was leaving. She sounded reformed. Restored. Like she was finally at least moderately well rested. “Listen—I need you to wake up so we can talk real quick. This is important—imperative. C’mon.”
I groaned because, well, I was tired. Hung over and nauseous. I felt like death incarnate—maybe not that good. Because even that would be preferable. I was laying on the couch. I don’t even remember the latter phase of the previous night—whatever presaged me ending up here. “What?” I mumbled, rubbing my eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Just give me your attention for a few minutes.”
“OK,” I yawned. My eyes strained open like the lids were leaden. Her thin and long face was incandescent from the film of sweat refracting light.
“Mr. Braun is coming today and you need to be on your shit. I left some instructions. I wrote them last night after you passed out. Just read those instructions and everything will be fine—adhere to them. Don’t deviate. He might try and intimidate you. He might try and bully you. Don’t let him. You got that? Dig your fucking heels in.”
“Don’t forget to turn on the radiator an hour before he comes—and don’t forget to turn it off. Who knows what’ll happen if he comes and it’s turned on.”
“And please—please—please—please don’t smoke pot before he comes. We have enough problems. Who knows what he’ll do if he smells pot in our apartment. That’s a-whole-nother can of worms I wanna avoid.”
“Let me know how it goes—keep me updated.”
“Also, I put the radiator back together—I placed the grate back on top and reinserted the screws and bolts and even mounted it. It was pretty easy. I think it looked worst than it was. It’s just a little dinged up is all, but he probably won’t even notice a difference. Just don’t let him start fucking with it—if it falls apart, so do we.”
“Well, I’m going to work now. Bye.”
There was no kiss goodbye or the usually requisite I love you. She left and I went back to sleep, and I woke up a few hours later, smoked a bowl, had some beer, and retreated back into this other thing. And, now, Mr. Braun should be here any minute. Time practically evaporates in this heat—like ladles of water in a sauna. I light a cigarette and my trepid body trembles. I’m nervous and I don’t know why. It’s hot. I feel dehydrated and delirious. The room feels like a furnace I’m living in. And then I hear it—the doorbell ringing. It’s Mr. Braun. I stumble into the room clumsily. Knocking things over. One second! I holler. I turn off the radiator and touch it. But goddammit—I can’t believe it. It’s off—the steel is cold to the touch. But how does it feel so stiflingly blistering in this fucking apartment if the radiator didn’t even turn on? How is this possible? This thing must be an insurgent sent directly from hell. I don’t know what to do, and then I hear the doorbell ring again. So I turn it off and decide I can try to appeal to him—I mean, shit. It went so well last time, right? Whatever—what other choice do I really have? I light a cigarette and walk toward the door. Wait—wait. I’m coming! I yell. I should feel reinvigorated—reborn—because this is what we’ve been preparing for. But this just feels like the second coming of my personal demise. Like my death didn’t stick last time. Even death can be a botched job.
I open the door. “Hi, Mr. Braun,” I say. “Thanks for coming.”
He scrutinizes me with narrowed eyes.
“Come on in,” I say. “Please.”
He walks into the apartment and looks around—he appraises it with palpable disgust. I’d feel insulted—but it’d be like knowingly serving burnt and rancid food and wondering why your dinner guests aren’t touching what’s on their plate. He walks straight into the room wordlessly. The way he walks—the way he conducts himself and avoids contact with anything—is reminiscent of someone picking up soaking wet garbage that spilled out of a trash bag. It’s the same kind of disgusted delicate care. Maybe I should have asked if he wanted something to drink—coffee or whatever. Even beer. Maybe it would’ve helped my case. I want to offer something—like tell him we’re serious about the radiator. Even if it’s not on right now, we need it fixed. That we’re dying in here—that this is cruel and unusual and should be illegal—that this is veritable torture. But my tongue is tied. I light a cigarette and finish my beer. He reaches out and touches the radiator. In an instant his demeanor shifts—he exudes an unadulterated anger. I see it in how his body tenses up with annoyance. He breathes heavily.
“Listen,” I say. “This is actually—”
“Shut the fuck up! I’m sick of this shit!” Mr. Braun explodes—I wasn’t anticipating this eruption. I retreat and cower into the recesses of myself. “Stop fucking with me! Stop jerking me around! I don’t have time for this! Every day, it’s something with you and your fucking girlfriend, and every day I have to fucking deal with you guys. It’s like having foster kids—kids you never wanted. Defective and broken and predisposed. I don’t need this shit. You guys need to leave me the fuck alone and grow up! This isn’t my problem! I’m not fucking around!”
He’s turned to me and there’s a vein bulging on his baldhead—in the upper right section. It writhes—undulates just underneath the skin. His eyes are wild and unpredictable. I don’t know what to do—I wish Claire were here. She wouldn’t take this—she’d give it back to this motherfucker and then some. She’d put him in his fucking place. But me? What the fuck am I gonna do? What the fuck can I do? I just absorb it. I’m a lightning rod for shame and that’s all I’ll ever be—I conduct it and let it surge through me. I assimilate it within myself. It’s the only thing I do with any semblance of proficiency. I try to formulate some last appeal—because if I think this is bad, then what the fuck will Claire do when she finds out? She’s twice as scary as this motherfucker when she gets angry—it seems like she balloons and expands up three or four times her normal size. What the fuck will I do if she leaves my ass? I’ll be out on the streets. He turns around and walks out of the room. His feet stomp on the ground. He’s big and imposing and I never realized it until now.
“Listen, Mr. Braun,” I follow and plead behind him—even my eyes are supplicant—my words land prostrated at his feet, “please—don’t go. We’re not fucking with you. I promise. This is actually happening. We’re not lying about this issue. This is real and something we need fixed. This is actually—”
“What’s that?” He stops abruptly and interrupts me.
“What?” I ask it and it still sounds like I’m beseeching him. Like I got stuck in that gear—like I got stuck on that setting even though I tried to turn it off.
“That,” he points to the coffee table. I look and see the pipe and pot out on display—like it was a fixture in our apartment. Furniture. A decoration. Like it was supposed to be a conversation starter.
“Shit,” I say. “Nothing—I don’t know. That’s tobacco, man. It’s this new kind of tobacco everyone’s smoking, and it just looks—”
“I’m not an idiot. You think I’m stupid? You’re a real piece of work. You’re asking for leniency and treating me like I’m a moron. It’s unbelievable. I know what that is, you low life. That’s pot. That’s a pipe. You’re getting high in this apartment. You guys need to find a new place to live, and you’d better smoke that shit in the next fifteen minutes. Because I’m calling the cops.”
“What? No, listen—it’s not what you think.”
“What is it, then?”
“Shit,” my heart’s racing. This isn’t how it was supposed to go. “I told you. It’s tobacco. Why would I lie to you?”
“The same reason anyone does anything.”
I think about this—I wasn’t expecting him to provoke any real thought. Then he pulls out his phone and takes a picture of it. “This is for evidence—this is all the proof I need to give you guys the boot. You have two weeks to find a new place.”
“No, wait—Mr. Braun, please. I can explain.”
But he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t respond. He turns around again to walk out. And I don’t know what to do. He’s not listening—I’m imploring him to listen, but nothing’s working. He’s impenetrable. And then I see the wrench beside the pot. And I don’t know what possesses me, but I pick it up. He still won’t listen. He doesn’t stop. So I swing it—just to stun him. To get him to not leave so I can make my case. I just want to stall him. I don’t know—I’ve never been great under duress. Even job interviews feel like interrogations to me. The wrench hits him in the skull with a sick dry crack. And it works—he stops. But then he collapses. I don’t know what to do. I start panicking, and then he starts writhing and groaning. I realize in this moment that if he leaves now, I’m a goner. I’ll go to jail. My whole life will be over. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place—like last night in the alley when I was jacking off between a dumpster and brick wall. So I hit him again for good measure. I close our front door. I sit at my desk and stare at his lifeless body. I don’t know what to do. I feel sick and my body’s shaking. And then this other thing resurges. And it’s at least a distraction—sedation while I barrel in. I feel like a canary or lab rat or whatever the fuck else I could ever hope to be.
If you were looking through my window, you’d probably see Mr. Braun laying supine on the floor, still and lifeless, like he was anticipating some medical procedure. Like he was sedated by some anesthetic. You’d probably see me pacing the length of my apartment indefatigably, the cold steel wrench caked with dried blood hanging limply and pendulously from my hand—you’d see me pacing around the coffee table and my hands rubbing my neck, rubbing my temples, rubbing each other, and if your eyes were good enough, you’d probably see my mouth moving as I talk to myself in a furtive and frantic daze. If your ears were preternaturally attuned—or maybe if you were good at reading lips—you’d probably know I’m saying, “I could just leave it out there—I could just leave the wrench out with the workers, and then leave Mr. Braun out there with it, and no one would know I did it. They would think it was a dispute between him and the construction workers—which couldn’t have been a congenial relationship. If he treated us this badly—and we’re paying him—imagine how badly he treats people he’s paying. Maybe he had it coming—he had to have had it coming, right? He did it to himself. This must have been inevitable. It must have.” You’d likely see me stop pacing only to take a hit of pot, light a cigarette, get a beer, and then resume pacing, incandescent beneath the hanging bare bulb on account of the sweat I’m perpetually drenched in these days.
If you were looking through my window, you’d probably see me do this other thing, sitting down and hunched over at my computer and losing myself for an hour or two or more in those libraries that, at this juncture, parallel the vaunted and oft-mythologized Library of Alexandria. To me, anyway. And I’d even make an argument these libraries are better. Because these libraries are fucking fireproof. These libraries are eternal. They aren’t tinder to fuel a flame—they’re the conflagration itself. But, regardless, I think it’s important to nip this in the bud. To provide some kind of disclaimer here: it’s not the dead body or the act of killing itself that got me going. I’m not some total deviant—some sick and twisted psychopath. This isn’t, like, some serial killer origin story—like I got a taste of it and never felt so aroused and the thirst to kill was insatiable and unquenchable any other way, and my trajectory was implacable and this was just the beginning of a sequence of murders I’d inevitably perpetrate. Well, I guess that’s partly right. I can’t really argue against that. I just did it because I didn’t know what else to do. When my thoughts and feelings start getting, er, unmanageable—this other thing helps me regulate them in some fucked up way. They attenuate and squelch them. They help in a way that substances have, so far, proved unable to. Though that doesn’t mean they don’t serve an ancillary purpose in that effort. It’s just kind of a contingency plan—something I resort to when I feel like my options are running out.
If you were looking through my window, you’d probably see me break down a handful of times—like really break down. Collapse in a pitiful, sniveling heap, unable to wipe the tears fast enough like in those cartoons where people try to plug up the holes on a breaking dam to no avail. You’d see me hit myself in my head with the balls of my palms and you’d see my face flush red and maybe you’d even feel a little sympathy—though that probably depends on how long you’ve been watching. Because, two hours prior, if you happened to tune in, you would have seen me swinging a wrench and hitting Mr. Braun in the head—and then stooping down to continue to beat what little life hadn’t been extirpated by that first devastating blow. Jesus—if you could only hear it. The sick sound of the wrench colliding with Mr. Braun’s skull won’t stop replaying in my head. The point is, if you didn’t see that, then maybe you’d feel sorry for me. Maybe you’d pity me. There’s no greater indictment than context—either its absence or its presence. And—if you were looking through my window—observing me like I was some kind of unaware exhibit—then I’d have to say, I get it. It’s like Claire used to say to me back when we still had conversations—back when we could still stomach talking to one another at length and still made the effort to maintain some kind of connectivity, “These days, you either invite the world in, or it kicks down your door—either way, it’s getting in.” If you were looking through my window, you’d get a candid glimpse at things. But not the carefully cultivated and curated type of candid glimpse most people afford you on Social Media feeds. A crude and uncouth kind of candid. More like Adam and Eve buck-ass naked in the Garden of Eden and comprehending self-consciousness for the first time. That kind of candid. Not Adam and Eve with the leaves covering them to establish some façade of decency—but Adam and Eve taking shits in front of each other and using those same leaves to wipe their asses. It’s that kind of candid I’m talking about.
If you were looking through my window, you might even catch me doing the same thing sometimes—because it’s hard not to. Because across the street there’s an old man who lives alone. When Claire’s asleep, it feels like he’s the only other person who’s sharing the world with me. He stays up into the early morning watching TV, the blue and pallid light flashing and covering him—suffusing across the room—subsuming whatever’s left of him. I see him step out onto his balcony to smoke cigarettes. He’s always alone. I’ve never met him, and he’s never met me, but at the same time, we’ve known each other our whole lives. I sometimes look over just to ensure the TV’s still flashing—because if the TV’s still flashing, he’s still alive. And I haven’t checked in a while, but I’d imagine it’s still on—each and every night—like light telegraphed from a distant star that’s possibly already extinguished. Like smoke from a dying fire. It’s his beacon. One week later, we’ll find out he’s dead. That his TV was turned on for a whole month before his power was cut because he hadn’t paid his bills. They’ll find his stiff body reposing in his recliner like he’s an ashen encasement following the eruption in Pompeii, remote in hand and foot rest extended. Luxuriating in perpetuity. The stench will be so bad his immediate neighbors will be forced to move—it’ll permeate their contiguous walls. Though, oddly enough, they didn’t even really notice before it was brought to their attention. Only then did it become intolerable—something they couldn’t ever reconcile with. But this isn’t something anyone could have known by just looking in their window. That pervasive and imperceptible (through glass panes) stench—that stench like death’s personal insurgent.
If you were looking through my window, you’d probably see me cover up Mr. Braun with a sheet because seeing the fucking body isn’t doing me any favors. You’d see me drag him into the bathroom and maybe even see me put him in the tub. You’d see me light a cigarette and rub my hands on my pants like I just did the dishes, and then realize I didn’t just do the dishes, and consequently take off all my clothes and put them in the tub with Mr. Braun. You’d maybe see a pile in the tub of clothes and sheets and bulky knick-knacks you might even assume we were planning on taking to a Goodwill—that landfill with price tags. If you were looking through my window, you’d see me standing in nothing but my briefs, and you might even snicker at the impossible dimensions of my pale body. The protruding gut and skinny legs. The shapely arms and muscular back. The junk in my trunk that I go to great lengths to conceal. The patches of hair on my shoulders that thickens like it was refuge for the retreating hair from my scalp. My body—this conglomerate of shame. You’d see me pack another bowl and take a few hits. You’d see me open another beer. You’d see my entire body coruscating—glistening beneath the light like a shard of glass on Texas pavement in the dead of summer. You’d see me start scrubbing the floor and trying to get out any residue of Mr. Braun’s cadaver laying there just an hour before. You’d see me work with the emphatic fervor of a man possessed—apprehended—by something primeval.
And—fuck—I have no idea what I’m doing. I can barely clean the bathroom, let alone get bloodstains out of the floorboards and eradicate all evidence. “Goddammit, Sam,” my old supervisor used to say to me at the factory. “You can make crumbs out of a glass of water, can’t you? I don’t know how Claire puts up with it. You’re a messy son of a bitch, you know that? One of these days, it’s gonna bite you in the ass. Believe you me. And I’m just gonna laugh when it happens.” But I tried not to take it to heart when he said it because what the fuck did he know. Besides, he was just breaking my balls. But now? I’m starting to suspect he may have been on to something. And, if you were looking through my window, you’d likely see Claire coming home out of your periphery. You’d see her pull up in front of the apartment building first. You’d see her climb out of her car, looking exhausted—skin sallow and eyes like a distended infinite sign—and you’d see her dredge her keys out of her purse and open the door. About five minutes later, if you were looking through my window, you’d see Claire open the front door of our apartment. You’d see her shoulders sink as soon as she feels the immutable heat. You’d see her look at me, aghast, in my underwear, probably at the streaks down the back. Probably wondering if I’ve finally lost it. Scrubbing the floor and murmuring to myself, cigarette pinched between my lips and my nth beer beside me. You’d see me stand up and try to explain as she grows irascible—truculent—as she stands disconsolately. You’d see me saying what happened—maybe you could hear it. The, “Listen—I couldn’t get it fixed. Mr. Braun was being a real prick. Nothing worked out like we wanted. The heater didn’t turn on, for Christ’s sake. That pretty much precluded it. I had it on for an hour before he showed up, and the thing was ice cold. He didn’t wanna hear anything—he lost it. There was honestly nothing I could do.”
“I thought you were going to keep me updated? Why didn’t you let me know—I could have helped,” you’d probably hear Claire saying. And I’d just try to encourage her to move past it as quickly as possible and say something like, “Listen, Claire—that’s in the past now. I did something bad. We have a bigger problem and I don’t know what to do. You need to listen for a second and try and maintain your composure. We need to work together. You can’t freak out—that won’t help anything.” And then you’d see me tell her, and she’d run into the room seized by convulsions—by hysterics. Because it is, admittedly, a bombshell. And if you’d been watching us for a while now, you’d think this was just the natural progression of things—that this is just how we interact. Maybe you’d think I came clean about that other thing. If you’ve been looking through our window for a while, you’d see the truth and not the lie we project out there. And you’d see Claire come back out slowly after staying locked in our room for an hour, drenched in sweat, but appeased. Almost placid. Looking like she was ready to make some moves. Like God himself called on her to make some sacrifices. Though, after acquainting myself with this notion of a higher power, I have to say—there’s something perverse and pathological about God’s M.O. Like, he gets off on the authority and power he has over people. Like he calls on people to plunder their lives—to forfeit damn near everything—while he’s on the other line, hard as a rock and trying to abate the climax a little longer, begging us to call him Daddy.
You know—killing Mr. Braun wasn’t exactly a premeditated thing. Jesus, I can barely believe that really happened. It doesn’t seem like it did. I didn’t, like, consider all the different consequences and the overall impact it would have. And when the police finally got involved—because, you know, it was inevitable they’d get involved. Despite how I’d convinced myself otherwise. I actually thought I’d get away with it—I deluded myself into genuinely and sincerely believing I was capable of outsmarting them. We kept Mr. Braun in our tub for a few days, and the heat intensified, and I just drank beer and smoked pot and chain-smoked cigarettes in such a rapid succession I’d sometimes have to take a few minute break just to get some air. Like I was diving or something. I’d walk down out onto the street, and it would just make things worst. But it was all because, deep down and subconsciously, I knew what was coming. I knew what was imminent. And I wasn’t ready to face the music. And, I guess some people would say I’m still not. But there’s something about getting caught—all of the sudden, you don’t have anything else to worry about. It’s almost a relief in some perverse way.
And the heat didn’t get better—I don’t know what I expected. Even Claire was befuddled when I admitted I was surprised. “What the fuck did you expect to happen?” She asked me with wild eyes. “You expected him to die and then all of our problems to go away? You realize the only influence he had was not helping us get the heater repaired, and now we can’t even do that on our own because if we invite a repairman, they’ll definitely smell him, and they might see Mr. Braun’s dead body in our tub. And, besides, who the fuck are they gonna bill? They’re gonna bill Mr. Braun. Because we’re definitely not paying for any of those repairs—on principle, I still refuse to—and what happens when Mr. Braun doesn’t pay? What happens when he doesn’t answer the phone and they try to call him to see what’s up? Well—it’s no secret. Maybe that’s how this shit starts. Lawyers and police get involved, and before we know it, they’ve discovered his cadaver in our fucking bathtub.” This was one conversation of many—and, while what you said may have variegated, the point was the same. Killing him didn’t do anything but reify this torture. It just crystalized these conditions we’re stuck in.
And, somehow, even Claire admitted it felt like the heat was worsening. Like it found a new gear. Or maybe like it was trying to teach us a lesson—maybe this was retribution. Who knows? All I know is that, after a while, the ungodly stench from the body was unbearable. Each passing day, the putrefactive stench seemed to get one gradient worst. Each day is another added degree of death. Claire would text me from work—she’d ask if there was anything going on. She’d ask if the police were still asking questions or if anyone came around acting suspicious. Everywhere she looked, she saw someone coming to get her—someone trailing her. Between cars and people, it felt like the entire fucking city was on her ass. And, I have to admit, after a while, I couldn’t help feel the same way. There may be some correlation between my increased pot intake and my skyrocketing paranoia, but that’s mostly unfounded. Unsubstantiated. I just know that I could feel it all happen before it happened at all. All I know is that while Claire was at work, I was home. I was lighting candles and trying my best to conceal the stench. Smoking copious amounts of pot throughout the day and drinking beer. Cigarettes were a given. I did my best to reassure Claire everything was fine—but I couldn’t even convince myself, so I know Claire was, more or less, unconvinced. But at least she stopped asking about job prospects—that’s the only silver lining here.
“We need to get rid of that body somehow,” she said to me after she came out of the room. After she saw the dead body for the first time—after I broke it to her as delicately as I could conceivably do. Though, I suppose that’s debatable. My piecemeal recollection of that evening—even my memory of the weeks following it are fractured and fragmented at best—is all I have, and so I told her what I did and that he got what was coming to him. I conveniently omitted that he saw the pot left out on the table and was going to call the police—going to evict us. Even though it’s the sole precipitating factor. Because we need to be unified—we needed solidarity. That would just be, er, divisive. I guess none of that was the best way to handle the situation, though I’d argue that there wasn’t any good way to navigate this tumult and maelstrom. But, regardless, she was insistent, “We need to get this body out of our apartment. There must be some record of him coming here to check the radiator. He seems like the kind of guy to keep extensive and fastidious documentation. Tabulating every business move. He must have at least talked about us to someone—people must know about our contentious relationship. We’ll be prime suspects—as soon as police step foot in here, they’ll smell the body. What’ll we fucking do? Jesus, Sam—you think he has a family? I never thought about that before.”
“A family?” I asked—but my mind was tethered to this other thing like a neglected dog kept in a too-small backyard, chained to a tree its whole life.
“Yeah,” she said. “I mean—if he has a family, then Jesus Christ, they’ll definitely come looking for him within the next few days. And his wife probably knows about us—he’s probably complained. If he has a family, that could fuck us royally.”
“I suppose it could,” I said, suddenly realizing I might have killed someone with a wife and kid who relied on him—it compounded the crime somehow. “We should get rid of his phone—maybe we can send a text message to someone from his phone and say he’s going to do something somewhere, throw the scent off our trail. Maybe if they think he’s taking a little holiday, they’ll search wherever it is we say he’s going.”
“That’s not a bad idea.”
“I was bound to have a not-bad idea eventually.”
She reached into his pocket and retrieved his phone. “It’s locked,” she said. “Fuck—how are we supposed to know the password?”
“Well, it should have face recognition—and we do have his face, as fucked up as it sounds to say it like that.”
“That’s straight-up disturbing,” she said. “I’m not touching him—I’m not touching a dead body. I can’t touch a corpse.”
Her voice was getting frantic. “I’ll do the honors,” I said, trying to placate her, and it worked—though it had a converse effect on me. I took the phone and yanked the head, positioning it in front of the camera. We unlocked it and sent a message to the person who he seemed to text the most—his mother—saying he was going to take some time off to recharge. His mother responded almost immediately, saying she thought it was a wonderful idea because she knows how hard he works. So there was that—no family was evidenced on the phone, so it was safe to assume that he didn’t have a family who’d really miss him. Aside from his mommy. Which was, in a sick way, a relief. Claire drove that night a few hours out of town—we randomly selected a body of water that was far but not too far to be inconceivable for a spontaneous getaway—and she wiped down the phone and threw it in a lake. She said we should drop the body off a bridge. That we should dispose of it. But the prospect of carrying it downstairs, loading it into the car, and then unloading it off a bridge invoked sheer panic in me. It would be so easy to get caught. I could tell Claire wanted to be proactive—that this was obnoxious for her. I told her we could go during that weekend. In the evening. This was as close to a compromise as we’d come to, and I think she knew it. And I think she was secretly happy she didn’t have to make another trip hours out only to turn around and get a few hours of already insubstantial sleep in the heat. I think it was a win-win in some sick way.
“Say, Claire,” I said eventually that night, as we were laying down and trying to fall asleep, though that was futile for me because my mind just orbited what I’d done—it was the sun anchoring that galaxy in place. “You know what I’ve been thinking? I’ve been considering a solution to this that you might find, uh, interesting.”
“I think that we could maybe put the body out there—like somewhere where the workers go. We could even put the wrench out there, wipe our prints off, and then eventually someone will find it and call the police, and they’d probably assume it was one of the workers. Imagine how he treated them if he treated us so bad.”
“True,” she said. “We were paying him and he was an asshole. Imagine if he was the one paying us. Jesus Christ—it sounds like hell.”
“You want to frame them?”
“We’re not framing them. Circumstance is framing them. We’re not, like, selecting a worker who we don’t like. We’re letting the chips fall where they may. We’re just moving the body, and that’s it.”
“I don’t know,” Claire said as she dozed off. “That sounds kinda fucked.”
But I could tell that the thought of it was relieving—that the mere thought of transferring accountability was the only thing enabling her to go to sleep. Of displacing blame and circumnavigating tragedy. “Yeah,” I said. “It is fucked. It was just an idea I had right after everything went down. But we should handle this ourselves, I guess. It’s the right thing to do.”
Within that week, the police would arrive at our apartment. The air was now saturated with a swampy death—stratified death—this kind of tactile decay in the air that clings to you. I smoked cigarettes and directed unending currents of beer and liquor down my gullet, and I smoked pot while there was still pot to smoke. All of this to say: the smell didn’t bother me much because I wasn’t exactly aware of much during this time. Though Claire would wake up in the middle of the night with dry heaves. The body in the bathroom made the bathroom impossible to use, so we started shitting and pissing in buckets like feral animals. A few days later, I got a call from Claire that was alarming to say the least. And, if I’m being honest, I was too distracted by this other thing. The porn and the texts. This alternate reality I inhabited—like I could decamp from this one and take up residence there. Like a vacation home. It was hard enough to sleep with just the heat, but now the pervasive stench of death wouldn’t relinquish us. So it was practically impossible. She was becoming more erratic in her sleepless mania—the dissatisfaction and disillusionment were usurping all other faculties—destabilizing her entire temperament. I could see it happen—the disaffection fermented into something more potent. And when she called me, I knew what this precluded—I could envisage it all.
“Sam,” she said, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’m starting to lose it. I can feel myself lose it. Like that time that kid tried to pickpocket me and I could just tell, so I swatted his hand away and you scared him off. I told him I’d fuck his mother if he ever tried that again. I can feel it. But this time I can’t fucking swat the hand. This time I just have to let it happen. This time I have grab it by the wrist and sever the thing. It’s funny—we’re so enamored with this world that we’re incapable of holding onto it.”
“Wait, wait wait,” I said. “Calm down. What are you talking about?”
“This job,” she said. “I’m gonna snap.”
“You can’t snap now—we kinda need to keep a low profile.”
“That’s easy for you to say from our apartment, probably in the middle of jerking off and getting blackout drunk. But I haven’t slept in God knows how long and everything is sending me up the walls.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry. But we need the money right now. And we need to have some stability. If you snap, it might raise eyebrows. This is the last thing we need to have happen. At least until we’ve figured shit out.”
“What do we need the money for?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do I have to spell it out for you?” She asked. “Our landlord has hung it up, as it were. And now we don’t even really have someone to pay our rent to. You understand?”
“Claire,” I said, “don’t talk so recklessly. Jesus Christ—lower your voice. Are any coworkers around? What if someone hears you? We could be in some deep shit.”
“Who cares,” she said. “We’re in deep enough already. What’s six more feet?”
She hung up the phone and when she came home that evening I learned two things: that she attacked her superior. She threw scalding coffee on him. She was a shadow of who she used to be. And I learned no one was around when she was speaking to me. Which was something like a relief. But she was fired, and I still harbor a sneaking suspicion that she only told me a portion of the story. Because the police knew more about the episode than I fucking did. Which was offensive somehow. But who am I to get mad at half-truths? It came out that Mr. Braun’s mother was apparently worried about her son, and apparently he’d divulged every unsavory facet of his relationship with us tenants to her. She was infatuated with soap operas, so she ate his dramatized recounts up. She called the police and told them everything, they tracked the last known location of his phone before he seemingly dematerialized, and things started adding up. It didn’t take long for the police to deduce what had happened. And now? Shit. I don’t know. I’m sitting in my cell and trying to learn to appreciate the small things. Like how it’s not so hot in here. There aren’t even windows. Like how, in here, the world outside doesn’t even seem like it really exists. And there’s some solace to be found in that fact.
Though there’s still this other thing.
But maybe that’s some things just have to die with you.
There’s no alternative solution.