Stories

A Face in Every Window

Allen. Visiting Allen. Once Allen suggested it, there was no way for me to avoid it that wouldn’t have caused bad feelings, hurt, guilt, wounded friendship.

I was not completely behind the idea, obviously. I liked Allen, or more accurately I was always interested by Allen, not by what he said so much as by what he was.

I had worked with Allen in the city. We worked briefly for the same semi-criminal boss, at a “financial services” company back in the nineties boom. The job required a cross between stockbroker, telephone solicitor, and scam artist. We did our best, because the job was what it was, and there we were, but it was a strain. The intensely crappy and difficult situation bonded us together in a way, though; in the way two wildly disparate substances might fuse under intense heat and pressure. We had gotten along, surprised and amused that we could even stand each other, enjoying the novelty.

After that job ended we kept in touch, occasionally drank together, gone on a couple bike rides, a desultory but enjoyable low-key friendship. When he left we didn’t lose contact, called each other, sent the occasional letter. I’m not good at that kind of thing, but for some reason I kept up with Allen.

Allen left New York to move back in with his mother, to care for her in her final illness. That final illness had lasted now for five years. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for him.

His phone call, coming when it did, seemed to fit. I was just on the point of leaving New York myself; my life since Allen left had spun into a numb meaningless backeddy; my relationships evaporated, my finances vanished, no reason but habit to keep on getting up every day. I’m not sure how all this came about. But when I couldn’t avoid or rationalize it any more, I decided to leave New York. Leaving nothing at all behind is not that difficult a choice. Friends in Denver and the remote possibility of a job seemed reason enough to get out of Dodge.

And Allen. He had some time off work, he said, and why don’t I stop by a few days on my way west? Well, a few days with Allen would be, might be, enjoyable, interesting, would in any case put a kind of seal of finality on my whole east coast experience.

It was too late to change my mind, anyway.

* * *

I left the city after 1 p.m., much later than I wanted to, and got stuck the Verrazano then Jersey traffic for nearly an hour. For the whole drive I would have the sensation of falling behind, falling further behind with every mile I traveled.

The flat tire happened, luckily, just as I was getting off the interstate to buy gas. After I limped into a station, changed the tire, gassed up, and had something to eat, it was almost dark. Days are short in December.

I had barely made it to the middle of Pennsylvania.

It was a barren part of the state, north and west of Scranton, smelling of coal gas and refineries, though I never saw any. The landscape seemed nearly empty, in fact, though maybe lightless towns and factories were huddled out of sight against the low hills that tracked the highway.

There was hardly any traffic. I felt as if I were driving through some abandoned, post-apocalyptic landscape, chased by hot swirling winds, gas clouds, radioactivity, trying to achieve escape velocity. If I opened the window my hands froze and the wind boomed in. Worse, my tires on the road made that lonesome American highway sound, until I couldn’t stand it. But when I closed the windows the silence grew like pressure until I felt my head would explode. The radio was more annoyance than distraction, and my CDs were all in some Salvation Army giveaway bin back in the city. There was nothing to do but grind my teeth and drive.

Finally, after some backtracking and nearly getting lost in a snarl of secondary roads, I drove into the dreary little industrial town where Allen had grown up  and where he was now living again. It seemed like every other obsolete small American city, a red-brick Victorian downtown abandoned and boarded up as malls sucked off all the trade and relocating industries made even the malls a dubious proposition. Neighborhoods of squat, early 20th-century wooden houses eventually gave way to block after block of newer homes, fifties ranchettes and boxy seventies townhouses. These eventually petered out into long stretches of strip malls and gas stations and parking lots, weedy vacant lots and half-dug foundations between them.

The directions Allen gave me over the phone took me right through the city and up into the low hills surrounding it. There the roads curved unnecessarily and were lined with tiny, cheap little houses, in no particular style, put up in the fifties and early sixties, packed in together on scanty lots. There was barely room for a lawnmower to pass between them.

I took out the sweaty piece of torn-off notepad I had written Allen’s directions on, in soft pencil, and tried to squint his street name into focus. My writing had become a meaningless smear. Only the house number was still legible.

I couldn’t see the house numbers from the street, at least not in any of the obvious places, so I parked and got out to take a closer look.

* * *

Somehow I had missed the numbers stenciled on the curb--I supposed they were the street addresses. Allen’s house should have been up the street. I left the car where it was and hiked uphill.

The houses in this neighborhood had tiny neat front yards,with just room enough for a single small tree, a birdbath, or a mirror ball and some whitewashed stones. Everything was neat and dreary, leached of possibility, so small in every sense it made your head squeak. Or so I thought at the time.

It was full dark now, but the streetlights let down cones of yellow light, and each little house had a light burning, either over the door or on a “colonial” lamppost in the little front yard.

I could see someone standing in the picture window of one of the houses--each house had a big picture window, a glass rectangle the size of a pool table, in exactly the same place--peering out at me. I hoped a scruffy stranger loping up the block wouldn’t alarm anybody. I didn’t want to ruin Allen’s reputation in the neighborhood.

There was someone looking out of the next window in the row, too. It looked like a woman, an older woman; I could only make out her face, but it was clear enough in the light from the post lamp that I could read her expression, her forlorn, hopeless expression. It gave me a chill.

There was someone in the next window too, and now I began to feel uncomfortable. I waved, I hoped reassuringly. There was no response from the figure in the window, no movement.

When I saw the face waiting at the next window down the block I stopped in my tracks. Peeking over my shoulder, I saw the faces at the windows behind me, still staring out, immobile. I looked across the street, and every window in every house that I could see had its staring face.

They weren’t looking at me. Curiously, I felt invisible. They were just looking.

Up ahead the street curved under its streetlights and came to an end in a cul de sac. I could tell from the succession of the numbers that Allen’s house couldn’t be on this block, that I had somehow gotten on the wrong street. Or I had written the number down wrong, added or subtracted a digit, created an address that didn’t exist.

Just to be sure I walked right to the end, around the little circle of pavement--the street name changed to “court” here--and back down toward my car.

Every house I walked past had its watching face.

It was quiet up there on the hillside. The traffic noise of the city was far away, a distant muttering. In this neighborhood there was no sound, no movement, only the watching faces and the yellow cones of light from the streetlights. I shoved my hands in my pockets and slouched back to my car.

* * *

Allen opened the door and stood there, grinning at me.

“So. You made it.”

Allen’s crimped black hair had always tended to bozo out over his ears. The hair style, and his thick black hornrims, gave him a mad-bomber, crazed geek look that had an anti-style force I had admired for its intransigence. Now his hair was cut back hard to the sides off his head. I half expected to see dried blood and scabs there.

“Are you going to let me in?”

“Sorry, guy.” He swung open the screen door.

We stood there grinning at each other. I was surprised at how glad I was to see him again.

Allen made a weird little sideways motion of his head, almost a twitch. It broke the spell.

“Well, come in, don’t just stand there. You want something? Beer, Coffee?”

“Coffee sounds good.”

I followed him through the dimly lit house into the kitchen. Everything in the kitchen was white--at least, it had been. Now it was all stained by years of cooking smoke to a dirty ivory, like nicotine-stained teeth.

The kitchen was actually clean, though, clean and scrubbed like a hospital, and like a hospital smelling of strong disinfectant, with a distant odor of rot and shit and urine worming through it.

Allen poured me a cup of coffee, pulled out a tiny white enamelled chair for me, and one for himself, reversing it and folding his arms over the back, tilting it up toward the table.

“It is good to see you again, man. How is it with you? Why’d you leave New York?”

I sipped the coffee, considering how to answer.

“New York left me, I think. Things just seemed to be running out for me there. I decided it was time to cut my losses.”

Allen stared at me happily, the overhead light glinting in his glasses.

“So why Denver?” he asked. “Lined up a job out there?”

I shook my head. “I have friends there, and a possible gig.” He was looking at me as if he couldn’t believe I was there. Or maybe he couldn’t believe that anyone would just up and leave New York if they didn’t have to. “My life is just running on fumes now, Allen. Anything has got to be better.”

He let the chair legs down with a bang and stood up in the same movement, going over to the sink and pouring out his coffee, cold and untouched. Then he stood there at the sink, his back to me, for a long beat.

“Shit, brother, I wish to Jesus I was going with you,” he said.

* * *

We talked, continously, for an hour. It was obvious that Allen didn’t have anyone to talk to. A little stiff and shy with each other at first, soon we got on to the boiler room, our outrageously criminal boss--who would have bought anything from that guy, much less stocks? We laughed ourselves out of our chairs remembering. Things went more easily after that.

I tried to tell him about my odd experience up the hill, but I couldn’t seem to get the eerie quality across to him.

“Yeah, that’s a bad spot, up there,” he said.

I picked up on this; maybe an explanation lurked under his bland phrase.

“What’s up there? Something weird?” I prompted, maybe saying too much, leading him. But he wouldn’t be led.

“Nah. Man, are you serious? That is the least weird place on the planet.” Disgustedly he slapped down the instruction manual for some medical device he had been leafing through. “I just meant, it’s confusing up there, all those curvy, dead-end streets. Bad to get lost in. People all the time are getting lost. They come by here, ring my bell, ask me where the hell they are. I could tell them a lot. But I don’t, I just point them in the direction of downtown, the freeway, so they can get the hell out of here. I wish I could.”

“Why don’t you?” I asked him, but I knew what he’d say.

He didn’t say anything, at first, looking at something halfway to the floor in front of him, shaking his head.

“Nah, you know, it’s my mother. She’s so, she needs me to take care of her. We can’t afford, put her in a home, Medicare’d take the house, and the house is all we got. All I got.” Allen looked around the sad little house, amazed that after all these years it was all he had ended up with. “Besides, she’s better with me here. It cheers her up, gives her something to live for. But you know, not me.”

I didn’t understand him.

“Not you what?”

He didn’t answer directly.

“Sometimes I wish,” he started, choked off, then hurled himself into his secret wishing  “Sometimes I just wish she would die, you know? I mean, is that terrible? She has no life, she’s in pain a lot of the time, she hardly knows where she is anymore. And I wish she would just get it over with, and I could get on with my life.”

We both sat there, contemplating his life. The kitchen we were sitting in gave directly onto the dining room, which was really just a small niche off of it. You could see the living room beyond it. The rooms in the front of the house were dark, with several layers of curtains in all the windows, heavy with dust. Everything was rounded off, fuzzy with wear and age, and swollen with a dampness that you knew would never go away.

The wall to wall carpet smelled of dog; I knew Allen didn’t have a dog.

“You should get a dog,” I suggested.

He shook his head. “I hate fucking dogs. They smell, they slobber, they shit everywhere. Why should I get a dog?”

* * *

Eventually, inevitably, the talk came around to people we used to know in the city.

“What ever happened to Riva, man? You still seeing her?”

I was waiting for this, hoping to evade it, knowing I couldn’t, short of lying.

“Riva’s dead, Allen,” I told him.

His eyes bugged out.

“Riva? No! What happened?”

“She killed herself,” I heard myself say. I realized Allen was the first person I had ever said this to. I had wondered if I’d be able to get it out.

“Fuck,” Allen said, wonderingly. “I can’t believe it.” He looked at me, and questions, ugly questions began to chase themselves across his face. Or so it seemed to me.

“We weren’t together anymore. When it happened,” I told him. “We split up.”

“Was that her idea?”

I shook my head. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” I said. “She had become too dependent. You know? You know how she was. I felt she was taking something out of me, more all the time, becoming needier the more I gave her. It was like being vampirized.”

Allen stared off into the past, remembering Riva.

“Like you were her life support,” he said, then, appalled, “Christ, I’m sorry, man, I didn’t mean . . .”

“I know,” I said, and I did, I knew exactly what he meant. But I said, “I know what you mean. But I am not a walking IV stand. I had to make a break. Before she sucked everything out of me. That’s how it felt, anyway.”

* * *

So now I could admit to myself the real reason I resisted coming to see Allen. He knew me when, back before my life began to delaminate. He knew me as the person I thought of myself as, his idea of me was what my own had been. Or so I had always assumed. But now he would see the new, wrung-out, guilt-ridden, worthless self I had devolved to. And seeing him see that would be hard, so hard.

But in fact it wasn’t so bad. It was almost bearable. It almost felt like acceptance. And that made the idea of starting over a little more possible.

And, too, maybe, Allen was my past life. I knew he would judge me, blame me, for everything that had happened, even if he didn’t want to, even if a part of him didn’t really believe it. And I think I wanted just that, that judgment. To beat myself up with. To punish myself.

And maybe I thought that punishment would bring absolution, redemption. You do the crime, you do the time. I wanted to pay my debt to society. I just wanted to get it over with.

* * *

After a while his mother woke up, and we could hear her through the closed door, hear her harsh breathing and moaning coming over the intercom speaker on the kitchen counter.

Allen jumped up.

“Time for her meds,” he said, and disappeared into the bedroom.

In the brief flash of the opening and closing door I saw his mother lying in her bed, white hair over impossibly white face, her open mouth a black hole as she struggled to breath, pink and blue and clear tubes running into her.

When he came back to the table we were quiet, not speaking. There was nothing I could say, nothing he wanted to say. We sat in our various levels of discomfort and unhappiness. Death sat at that table with us, and we were afraid to say something embarrassing, trivial, hurtful, dumb.

The monitor on the counter delivered his mother’s harsh labored breathing into the room, a background music for everything we didn’t say.

After  a while not talking seemed worse than any stupid thing I might come out with.

“You do this all by yourself?” I asked him. “No help?”

“Someone comes in,” he said. “A nurse. once a day, just a couple hours. That’s all we can afford. But it gives me a break, and my mom gets some real care, instead of my half-assed fumbling.”

As we stumbled back into some kind of piecemeal conversation, I realized, or admitted to myself, that I had always looked down on Allen, just a little, and that that had been an important reason for our friendship. For me; I don’t think Allen understood this, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have agreed. I had used Allen, or what I imagined Allen to be, as a prop for my own ego. I had always sort of understood this, but just let it ride.

I knew, finally admitted that Allen had fascinated me as a broken, imperfect version of myself. Or so I had felt, arrogant self-absorbed fuck that I was then. Now I was broken too. Had we come to resemble each other? Or was he, after all, better and stronger than I would ever be? 

Allen and I stared at each other and talked, each looking across the table for answers to a different set of questions.

* * *

I got up early the next day, stiff and aching from a hard lumpy mattress--I had slept in the “den,” a little room at the end of the house filled with dusty broken TVs and stereos, boxes of old books and magazines, Allen’s high-school record collection. I leafed through the mouldy album jackets, admiring his taste in early punk rock, wondering how he had found these records in the middle of Pennsylvania.

Allen was already up when I stumbled into the kitchen. He poured me a coffee, and sat at the kitchen table, looking at me eagerly.

“Good to have you here, man.”

I nodded, half asleep still.

“How long you think you’ll stay?”

There was need in his voice, an embarrassingly obvious emotion. I tried to drown myself in my coffee cup, then shrugged.

“Couple days. I’m easy; no schedule, really.”

Last night’s conversation hung in the air of the little kitchen like cooking odors, like smoke from an accident on the stove.

* * *

Later we went out to do some grocery shopping. Allen let me drive.

“No, not that one,” he said, when I started to turn into the parking lot of the local supermarket.

Allen looked a little embarrassed.

“I go to the one across town. It’s the same store, same prices, everything. It’s just farther away.”

He narrowed his eyes at me to see if I understood.

“It takes longer.”

* * *

Allen’s head swiveled around as I drove by the end of his street.

“You missed the turn.”

I nodded. “I want to look over the houses up the hill there in broad daylight.”

He didn’t ask why, but disgust and disbelief pulled at him, I could see.

“There’s nothing up there but houses,” he said. “It’s a dead end.”

In daylight there were no faces visible in the big picture windows. Some had curtains behind them, or pulled-down shades. Others were bare, letting shafts of sunlight angle into small, scantily furnished living rooms. I got a quick glimpse of a framed photo on top of a TV set, the backs of overstuffed chairs, a framed American flag.

Halfway down the street a man was wrestling a big trash can down his driveway toward the curb. I pulled up and rolled down my window.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, “Excuse me. Sorry to bother you.” I told him my name, said that I was thinking of buying a house in the neighborhood. I could feel the seat quiver as Allen suppressed some response to this.

“What is it like, around here?” I asked him.

He looked at me suspiciously.

“Same as every place else, I guess,” he said. “It’s quiet.”

“Can you tell me what it’s like to live here?”

He shrugged. “Mister, I don’t know what you want me to say. It’s okay, it’s a good neighborhood. I like it here.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“Six years.” He straightened up from the car window.

“Well, nice talking to you. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“The faces,” I put in quickly, “what about the faces? What can you tell me about them? What are they looking for?”

The man looked at me sideways as he rolled his trash to the street. His eyes were hating me. Then he turned around without a wave or smile and walked back to his house.

“Well, that was ridiculous,” Allen said as we drove off. “Did you really think he would tell you something, even if there was anything to tell?”

I shrugged. “Why not? If everyone can see them.”

“Only you, buddy,” Allen grinned. “Only you.”

“You’ve never seen them? You’ve lived here all your life and you have no idea what I’m talking about?”

Allen grinned, said nothing.

“You have seen them, I can tell.”

“You’re crazy. You’re still one crazy fucker. You haven’t changed,” Allen said.

I wondered if he were right. and if that was the problem.

* * *

Just as we were getting out of the car back at his house, Allen paused, a hand on the car door, and looked over at me.

“There is something about that neighborhood. But if I tell you, you have to promise not to make too much of it, and go all twilight zone on me.”

“I promise nothing.” I walked around the car and shoved one of the grocery bags I was carrying into his arms. “What is it?”

“I just remembered it,” he said. “Every man in those houses was killed in the same accident, almost 50 years ago. The whole neighborhood. Wiped out.”

“What kind of accident?”

“Mining. Cave-in: the mine collapsed. Two hundred men killed. It happened before I was born, but it’s a local legend. The biggest thing that ever happened here, the mining disaster of 1957.”

I thought about this.

“All the casualties from that one neighborhood?”

“No. Scattered around, I guess, I don’t know. But I remember my mother telling me that every single family up the hill there lost a man.”

“What kind of mine was it?”

“Coal mine.” His eyes flashed over to me. “Don’t you know that? This is Pennsylvania, coal mining country.”

“I thought that was, like, West Virginia, Kentucky.”

“Here too. Boy, you New Yorkers, you just don’t pay attention.”

* * *

Back in the house I put groceries on shelves while Allen got dinner ready, his mother’s first. The plastic monitor on the kitchen counter broadcast his mother’s breathing and eating behind ours. When she was awake, Allen wasn’t entirely there, always listening, alert, watchful. She wasn’t awake much, though. She slept most of the time, thanks to the powerful medication, Allen explained, and it was much better that way.

Allen got up to go and clear his mother’s dinner tray. As he got to the door of her room he paused, and turned back to me.

“You want to meet her? I think you should,” he said. “She’d like that.” I guess he could read my reluctance, though I tried to stifle it. “You don’t have to say anything, just sit there. Just say hello. Right after dinner is usually her best time.”

I got up, swallowing my squeamishness. It was the least I could do, after all, as a guest in her house.

Allen’s mother was angled up so that she could eat. The bed, a motorized adjustable hospital type, was the newest piece of furniture in the house. Tubes stuck in her arms; there was a clear plastic mask hanging to one side of her face, tubes leading to what looked like an oxygen bottle.

I sat in a little uncomfortable chair by the bedside. Allen stood behind me.

“Mom, this is my friend Peter,” he said, talking a little loud and clear. “He’s visiting us for a couple days.”

I smiled, weakly. “Hello Mrs. Soravec.” She looked at me, her eyes sunk deep in her head, the flesh dark around them, like pools of ink. But her mouth quirked in a little smile.

“Don’t try to talk, mom,” Allen said in a lower, urgent voice. But her mouth moved, and finally she said, in a little gasping voice,

“Pleased. to meet. you. Peter.” Then she smiled a little more, and her eyes in their pools of dark flesh narrowed, almost twinkled. I was overcome by the effort this took, the bravery of trying to speak at all, but managed to get some politenesses out that didn’t sound too idiotic. They were sincere, at least.

She smiled again, and closed her eyes. Allen leaned over and replaced the oxygen mask.

“We’re going to go now, mom,” Allen said, “but I’ll be back later.”

His mother smiled again, her eyes closed. But when I said,

“Goodbye, Mrs. Soravec. A pleasure to meet you,”

her eyes opened again, over the clear plastic mask, and she looked right at me. The force of her personality was in those eyes, coming up through the fog of drugs and pain. 

* * *

We sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and talking quietly. Our words seemed to have an unusual amount of silence around them, pressing in, deforming them.

Our talk trailed off. After a few minutes of the silence buzzing in our ears, Allen slapped his kneecaps and stood up.

“Well, I’m going to bed. You can stay up if you want.”

I did stay up. I sat in the den, reading old magazines until the sense of someone else’s life, another set of memories and pains, began to claw at me. I had worked myself into a low-level anxiety attack, stomach curdled from too much coffeemaker coffee, jumpy, sweaty, unable to even think of sleep.

Besides, I knew what I needed to do.

A door led from the den to a small screened porch. I let myself out, worrying a little about leaving the doors unlocked, but reassuring myself that this wasn’t New York City, and anyway nothing would happen in the short time I would be gone. Then I hiked up the street toward the neighborhood up the hill.

* * *

The street up the hill was quiet, quieter even than where Allen lived. The soft night was packed down around the houses, soaking up any sound.

The houses were not in any sense interesting. Not quaint, I mean. They were about fifty years old, just a little older than I am, little one-story houses built in the fifties, all about the same shape and size. The lots were tiny, too, barely big enough to hold the small houses and six-by-twenty lawns in front.

Even for suburban tract houses they were small. Still, small hopes, not asking for much. Domestic comfort reduced to its very basics. The yellow cones of the streetlights, the dark night, cooked everything down to a kind of cartoon simplicity.

But there they were. The faces. In the cartoon light I could see that in the middle of each window a face stared out. I realized now that there was no one standing behind the windows. Only the faces were there, as if photographed into the glass. I had seen something like this in a Italian cemetery, pictures of the deceased inset on every gravestone. But here every face was a woman's face, some young, some middle-aged or elderly, all bitten with anxiety, waiting, apprehension, staring out into the night.

Yet the faces didn’t really look like photographs. They had dimension, and detail. Above all they had a presence, a reality that began to seem greater than my own.

I could feel the tension, the expectation. The little street was filled with it. everything, every streetlight, every mirror globe, every statue of the Virgin Mary in its niche, was waiting.

Waiting.

I walked up the street, trying to be as quiet as I could, feeling the solemnity and respect you feel in a church or a graveyard. There wasn’t a single house on that street without its watching face.

I noticed, too, that the front doors were open, wide open, as if waiting for someone to enter. Had they been like that when I first got there? I couldn’t be sure, But there they were, gaping open, like sleeping mouths. The houses were dark inside, revealing nothing.

I moved into the middle of the street, as you might do in a bad neighborhood, to keep away from dark doorways. I didn’t feel threatened or frightened, but definitely an intruder, someone who had not been invited to the party.

Now I saw the garage doors open silently, sliding up, tilting back out of sight. Front doors, side doors, the gates in the chain-link fences swung open. The houses under the dark sky and the simple graphics of the streetlights were like flowers opening their petals to the sun in time-lapse photography.

The houses themselves had become vessels of waiting and longing, yearning open to the night. I felt an ache, a strained, straining hope and worry. Waiting and wanting. Needing to be over.

Suddenly a figure appeared. I sucked in my breath, startled. A black hunched-over form scuttled out of the open garage door across the street. I couldn’t see any detail of face or clothing, just a black shapeless shadow. The shadow slid along the sidewalk, moving down the hill out of sight, scuttling like an insect on a garden plant.

Something about the way the figure moved made it seem like a violation, like someone in a stadium crowd who had climbed the fence and run onto the field of play. Some instinct made me look down at myself. All I saw was black formlessness, shadow. I was the same, a shadow. The form I had seen across the street was a living man, one of the daylight residents of the houses. Now like myself he was of less consequence, less reality, than the pain and wanting of the waiting homes, the staring faces. We the living were the ghosts; we haunted that neighborhood of pain.

* * *

I let myself back in Allen’s house through the den and stumbled into the kitchen. I was hoping to find a whiskey bottle back in a cupboard, a beer at least. The waiting faces had taken it out of me. The monitor on the counter was quiet. I popped open cabinets, rooted around, and came up with a half full bottle of Johnny Walker Black.

A light was on in the front room, and I walked out there, expecting to see Allen, meaning to apologize for waking him up. But it wasn’t Allen.

Sitting in the big easy chair was Allen’s mother. At least, I knew, somehow, that it was her. I recognized her by the eyes. But her face and body were young, alive, beautiful. She was wearing a yellow silk dress with a sort of yoke collar--I don’t know how to talk about women’s clothes--that came down long in front, puffed out short sleeves, something you’d see on swing dancers from the forties, in old photos of women dancing with soldiers during the war. The yellow dress was bright and alive; it lit up the shabby little room like a searchlight. Her hair--her dark hair-- was done up in flip curls on the side of her head. She was knockdown gorgeous.

I shouldn’t be seeing this, I thought. This should be for Allen. I don’t have the right to see this.

She was smoking and looking right at me; the smoke drifted up through the lamplight, and I could smell it, strong and sharp, could almost identify the brand.

“Come in,” she said to me. “Come in and take a seat.”

* * *

I sat and looked across the little room at her. She looked as real and solid as anything I’d ever seen. Her dark eyes probed at me until I had to look away.

“Is it . . . all over now?” I asked, wondering if that was a subject she was permitted to talk about.

She shook her head, glancing at the door of her bedroom. “No, not yet. My body is back in there, lying there like a big vegetable. The connection--to me--is loose now, real loose, so I can be here like this.” She stopped talking and looked right at me for a long pause. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye.

“This is how I really am,” she said, after a while. “Like this.”

* * *

It was a tough conversation to carry. I couldn’t think of anything to say, and if I had wouldn’t have had the courage to say it. But she had things she wanted to get out in the open.

“You know, you should take Allen with you, when you go,” she said, stubbing out her cigarette.

“He won’t leave you.”

She stared at the cigarette butt, still sending up a thin plume of smoke.

“I know. I worry about him. All this death isn’t good for him. I’m afraid it will kill something inside him, and he won’t ever be able to leave.”

I thought the same thing, but said nothing.

She stared across at me again, a level, measuring look. I think even under more ordinary circumstances she would have terrified me. As it was I could barely breath.

“You’re not much like Allen, are you?” she said after a while.

“I’m not so sure of that. Maybe we’re more alike than it appears.”

She shook her head. “Oh, no. Not you.”

* * *

There were a thousand things I felt I should have asked her. Come on, I told myself, this is your big chance, ask the big questions, get the ultimate mysteries unveiled, learn the secrets of the beyond. But I couldn’t think of those questions now.

“What do you know about the faces?” I blurted out finally. “The faces up the hill, the faces in the windows?”

“I’ve known about them all my life,” she told me.

“They’re really there then?”

“They’re as real as you or me.” Then she smiled, a rueful sad smile. “I don’t know any more than you do, you know. I don’t have any special knowledge. I’m just like you.”

Just like me, I thought; I doubted it.

“Alive,” she said.

* * *

We sat there together in the humming dark. Time was different. I felt that if I stood up and walked out the door, it would be 1950, I wouldn’t be born yet, and the world would have a different meaning, a different consequence.

I sat there, unable to get up or speak, sneaking little looks at her when I had the nerve.

After a while she opened the book that lay in her lap and began to read. I tried to remember if I had noticed the book when I first came in, or whether it had suddenly appeared there. My mind could have it both ways.

I looked at her covertly as she read, her curled hair hanging down on both sides of her face, the curled bangs above her eyes, her feet in white wedgie type sandals, primly together, the book on her knees. I could see Allen in her, in the dark curly hair, the slightly squared-off forehead, the pale skin. But Allen was, well, a little funny-looking. She was beautiful.

She raised her head and smiled at me, as if she had been tracking my thought. Then she was standing, without transition, the book in her hand, still smiling at me.

She went over to the bookcase and put the book back in the empty space waiting for it, paused, dramatically, with her hand still in the act, as if frozen in thought, then turned to look back at me.

“I think it would be a good idea if you left now,” she told me. “Not this minute. But in the morning.”

I nodded in agreement; I wasn’t about to argue with her.

Then she had gone from the room in a way I can almost remember, almost reconstruct--not a vanishing or walking through the wall, or anything like that, not a dramatic sudden disappearance, but a gradual shifting of the room and of my perception, like moving stage scenery made of ideas and emotions, until she was no longer there.

* * *

I woke up with Allen shaking me.

“Come on, man, get up. It’s getting late.”

I blinked upright, looking around. Evidently I had fallen asleep in the La-Z-Boy.

Allen was watching me. When he saw I was awake enough to understand him, he said,

“Look, don’t think I’m a prick for saying this, but if you smoke, take it outside, okay?” He nodded toward a big cut glass ashtray where a single cigarette butt was stubbed out in a thin dusting of ash.

“It’s not that I care, you know?” he said. “But it bothers my mother.”

* * *

When I’d splashed water on my face and got as ready for the day as I could, I went into the kitchen where Allen was washing the dishes, bent over the sink.

“Look, Allen, man,” I said, “I gotta leave. Today. Hit the road. Get back on my journey.”

He looked up from the soapsuds, the fluorescent light on the ceiling glinting off the lenses  of his hornrims.

“What’s the big hurry? Can’t you stay a couple more days?”

I shook my head, thinking of that last look. “No, man, I want to leave this morning. I’m sorry.”

Allen walked over, wiping the soapy water from his hands with a dishtowel.

“So you’re going now?” He was wry, sardonic. The undertone of accusation was clear enough.  “Already? Seems like you just got here.”

“Yeah, but I have to get on the road,” I said lamely.

“In a big hurry to go nowhere.”

I shrugged. “That’s always been me.”

I knew he had never expected me to stay; I also knew he wanted me to, that he was hurt, and resentful, and envious. And scared.

I was scared too. I was terrified.

“You have to come see me, Allen. In Denver,” I told him. “When you can.”

He smiled a twisted little Allen smile. “Sure, dude. I’ll write you.”

* * *

I shoved my dirty laundry in my gym bag, wishing I’d taken the time to wash it. Then I was ready to go.

As I walked out through the living room, I ran my eye along the books on the bookshelf. One was sticking out a little from the others; I hooked it out. Forever Amber, a novel from the forties. I hadn’t been able to quite make out the title the night before, but I recognized the cover art.

Allen was standing by the door, holding it open like a doorman.

“A pleasure, my friend, as always.” His voice had lost the little undertone of resentment it had earlier. But it still rang false, playacting covering all the conflicted things I knew he was feeling.

I could hear the sickroom monitor on the kitchen counter squawk and buzz with some kind of interference or static. Allen’s head twisted involuntarily toward the sound, then back to me. He stuck out his hand.

“Vaya con dios,” he told me as we shook.

Allen closed the door before I got down to the front gate.

She was waiting in the car, smoking a cigarette. She was wearing the yellow dress, still, or again, or forever. The cigarette smoke rolled against the window, breaking like a wave.

I jumped in, slammed the door. I couldn’t look right at her, but I was aware of her presence on several levels I don’t remember knowing about before.

“Where to?” I asked.

She looked slowly over at me, exhaled a roll of smoke.

“You’re the driver.”

“Okay,” I said, pulling away from the curb. “Next stop, Denver, Colorado.”

We didn’t speak as we drove out of town. She didn’t look back once. The faces watched us go. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there, on their hillside, looking out, waiting.

After a while she said,

“This won’t last, you know.”

I nodded. “I know,” I said. “I know that.”

 

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Current Release

Tiny Little Troubles

Tiny Little Troubles, by Marc Lecard

Hard Cover: 352 pages
ISBN-10: 0312360223
ISBN-13: 978-0312360221
List Price: $24.95

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The fast-paced crime story of an eccentric thug chasing after a piece of nano-technology and the scientist that created it.