Tunnels – Eric Cecil

The men there were all silent and gray and it was only men: mostly jobless drunks and vagrants, some of them shivering in women’s coats. A few pushed food around on plates so they could at least appear to eat. It was that or freeze outside. And now that winter had arrived, they held flatware in doubled fists. They poked at those plates on smeared and crumbed trays under the sulfurous and stingy lights of the diner.

Ted Stone and I were holding cups of coffee. He’d been speaking for a long while, but I wasn’t listening. I was staring at the walls. The walls were all hung with mirrors. They’d hung the mirrors to make the diner look larger, but they only seemed to shrink it. They only seemed to multiply the number of patrons inside. Where there were four or five men in the diner, there appeared to be at least a dozen in the mirrors. I counted about fifteen now.

And then I looked at Ted Stone. There was only one of him. He continued talking. As I happened to look at him, he said, Let’s start at the beginning.

OK, I said. Then I told him what I’d told him before: I woke with a start. I grabbed the baseball bat propped between my bookshelf and bed and walked slowly to the front door of my apartment. The commotion was unreal at that hour. It was 3:30 a.m. There was a man screaming in the hallway.

And in the hallway, he asked, what was the man screaming?

I said, the noise in the hallway was nonsense at first — the type of grunting and hollering typical of a drunk that had found his way into an unlocked building, maybe looking for a warm place to sleep it off that night. But then the stranger’s hollering increased in volume and tempo. And then the stranger began to pound and kick at the door.

I looked through the peephole. I was careful to avoid the recoil of the door as it shook against his blows. But I saw nothing. Just vague and dark shapes, shadows moving swiftly beyond my sight and ducking past the lens as the door rattled on its frame.

I walked into the kitchen. I picked up the phone and dialed the police. The operator told me they were on their way. I hung up the phone. The door continued to dance. The man continued to scream. The screams grew louder. Then louder simian still. And then the force and frequency of the pounding and kicking increased, the chain ringing with each strike, and the man outside — who I still could not see through the peephole — did something peculiar. He called me by name.

And you didn’t recognize the voice, said Ted Stone.

I told him I didn’t.

He buttered his white toast. A man in a white smock dragged a full bag of garbage through the dining area and into the cold. No one looked at him. Ted Stone asked me what happened when the police came.

I explained to him, as he already knew, that I heard the police ask the man if he lived in the building. And without waiting for the man to respond, and without opening the door, I yelled to the policeman that he did not. He did not live in the building.

But you weren’t sure, said Ted Stone.

I told him I was sure.

Well, he said, if I you don’t know who it was, there’s no way of knowing if he lives in the building.

I made sure to ask the other tenants about it, I said. And none of them had even heard any noise.

So we can be sure that it was from someone outside the building, Ted Stone said, and then I stopped listening again. I stopped listening and stared at a man sitting by himself in the corner. The man was staring, too, but dead ahead, looking deeply into the mirror hung on the wall before him, on the wall directly to my left. He was as thin and cragged as the rest of the men in that diner, but he’d ceased pretending to eat. His food lay largely untouched before him. His hands were flat white fans on either side of his plate, his knuckles and fingers cracked and peeling and showing red at seams, the hands corded into a rough white shirt gone gray at the buttons, browned at cuff and collar. His hair was colorless and thinning and greased back behind oversized ears and a tan trenchcoat hung off the chair behind him, skirting the floor. He looked like he might’ve had a job at one point, but I guessed his new job was looking for another, and I guessed further that business was bad. Business was bad all over. He would have nothing to look forward to tomorrow. Just another day of looking. Just another fruitless trip on that commuter rail from the next county over. Another day under those railway lamps, just as ugly and jaundiced as the lights in the diner, his packed passenger car of that rust-shot train bounding and shaking through rock, soot and sand, burrowing at untold speeds beneath sky and earth and water for any number of reasons that didn’t seem to matter anymore. Inside the train he would casually shift the ass of his threadbare pants onto a blue plastic seat rimed with depot sweat, the car itself thick with human odor and fetid greasestink from any number of filthy restaurants at the main station, the mid-city terminal, hot and bothered by exhaust and thrumming with large fans, an ugly tumescent redbrick organ pulling and pushing hundreds of forlorn like him in and out of the city from smaller towns and outlying farmlands in other counties that didn’t know what to do with their men who were too stupid to work with their heads and too weak or lazy to work with their hands.

Ted Stone gestured at his own head with his hands now to make a point. I leaned in and interrupted him.

That man, I nodded, is looking into his tunnel.

His tunnel? asked Ted Stone. His eyes moved beyond my shoulder and into a mirror behind me.

Yes, I said.

I don’t understand, he said.

Then the man in the white smock returned, dragging another garbage bag behind him. He paused and looked at me. If you’re done eatin’, he said, pay your tab and get out.

So I did.