Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Vigilant

I had carried Rose through my bedroom door because I was being a gentleman, because there’s something funny about chivalry and I am a funny guy. The people from the party downstairs thrum, their life buzzing through the floorboards and up into the limp shag carpet beneath my feet, my friends and my brother and the strange people from down the street—

I yank my Superman cape out from under the door, locking it so we can’t be interrupted. I set Rose down on my bed, and she, giggling, almost spills her drink. Rose, short for Rosealba, a De la Rosa—and usually a light drinker, so I’ve heard—stretches out, and I get a glimpse of her black hair underneath the blonde wig. The wig is coarse, reminding me of doll’s hair, of the twine around bails of hay in the barn back home, of Alice in Wonderland proper. Alice in Wonderland De la Rosa. It’s Halloween, and my brother Georgie believes tonight I will be getting lucky.

I love your paintings, she says.

I love you, I say.

She giggles again, and this time actually spills her drink, streaks of alcoholic apple cider seeping down the side of the mattress and dripping down onto the tufts of shag carpet. She called them paintings, but they’re posters, portraits of sleeping women by Matisse; I put them on the walls when I moved in at the start of the semester. This claustrophobic room feels like an ancient cubby, a once and future home to a hundred other undergrads, and since there are only so many ways to arrange a desk and a twin bed into seventy-five square feet of space sometimes it’s hard for me not to imagine that what I do in this room has been done before. Alice in Wonderland would likely be a first.

Hey, Clark Kent. She tugs at the red felt S on my chest. –Tell me a story.

‘Call me Ishmael,’ I say, setting the rickety desk chair down next to the bed and sitting on it backwards. ‘Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the worldand here Alice in Wonderland slaps me on the shoulder, spilling her drink again. The old desk chair wobbles under my weight, and the bedroom door groans as some passing phantom or dominatrix bumps into it on their way down the hall.

No, she says. –A real story. Something that tells me about you.

That’s priveledged information, I say. You can’t give away too much information about yourself, kill the mystery. But Rose turns away, looks at the Matisses, and I think to myself maybe I’ve been teasing too much. My brother says I always tease too much. Rose sighs, and I notice the way her frame fills out the blue dress, something found at Goodwill for five dollars, and the white dress apron covering her front gently heaving up and down with each breath, my eyes drawn down to the sash that wraps around the waist like a knot waiting to be untied.

I saw a dead person once, she says.

Like, in a funeral home? I say.

No, she says. I’ve never even been to a funeral.

Someone turns on the stereo downstairs, and the pulse of the bass causes the room’s window to shudder. Rose rolls away from the Matisses, now laying flat on her back, facing up at the ceiling, balancing her red plastic cup on her midsection above the sash. She closes her eyes before speaking again.

I lived alone with my mother in New York

Wait, I say. –Are you really telling a dead guy story?

Rose De la Rosa, the Alice in Wonderland with dark eyes, shoots me a look. Marcy used to give me that look, the reflexive are you a jerk or an idiot look, but that look came to an end because you can’t give your exes the look through phone calls and e-mails. I smile. Rose would be my first since Marcy.

Yes, Alice in Wonderland says. –A ‘dead guy story.’

The look is replaced by some kind of nervous smile, a Mona Lisa thing, lips knotted up halfway with pleasure and condescension. Her eyes flit back and forth, because we’re too close together to see all of each other’s face at once. I take the cup of cider from her hands and drink.

I lived with my mom in New York City when I was little, Rose says. The bass downstairs gets louder. –She had just divorced for the second time, this was the summer when I was twelve or so. Well…maybe fifteen. Give or take. Anyway, I wasn’t working and I was really bored most of the time, right? There was this old piano player upstairs that I decided to start taking lessons from—

Somewhere downstairs, the sound of a glass shatters in between songs, and I’m wondering what mother would giver her daughter the name Rosealba De la Rosa, thinking of the disambiguation ‘Rose Rosa.’

That didn’t sound good, Rose Rosa says. Anyway, I bugged the upstairs neighbor about getting piano lessons, right, because I used to play a lot as a kid when my dad was still around. I had been really good. I convince the guy to teach me. He’s this old invalid type, or at least just lazy-old, and all I have to do is buy him groceries and clean up a little and I get free lessons. Well—turns out—he thinks I have some kind of talent, he gets really excited and starts working me a lot, thinking if I really work hard I could have a future. Well, about this time I find out the guy’s been composing music for years. Not famous, or anything, never published. Just writing music for the hell of it, yeah? He has me play this really great sonata he’s been working on… god, I was so nervous I was shaking. This old guy, some World War Two veteran, is writing this really sad, god, this really pretty music. Melody was just wrenching, angry and—god, I can’t even talk. Look at me, it makes me shake just thinking about it.

Rose holds up her fingers to demonstrate the fact, looking pretty intensely at the nails and knuckles above her Alice in Wonderland palms; I don’t see the shaking, I’m looking at her eyes, watching her observe herself. With the tremors of the stereo, and the footfalls in the hall on its hardwood floor, there’s a weird kineticism about the room, the vibrations making the desk and the window and the walls speak in a stereophonic hum.

Your turn, Rose says. She takes the cup from my hands. I see her following the outlines of my legs and the legs of the chair with her eyes, and I wonder if she notices the movements of the room. She drinks.

Wait a minute, I say. You said there was a dead guy.

Rose’s eyes stop eyeing my Superman costume, and I think I almost literally see them glaze over. She looks down into the cup.

I didn’t tell my mom I was taking lessons. I was doing it behind her back. I don’t even remember why. We didn’t get along so well back then. When she found out, she made me stop, and cussed out the old piano player for being a lecher. Rose takes a long pause. The music stops. The room lurches to a halt. That’s what she said. ‘Lecher.’ So, while before we had been able to hear him playing piano through the ceiling, all of it stops after Mom made me quit. No music, scales, no sonata, nothing. He just stops playing. Finally one night I heard him play again, the sonata, when all of the windows were open. Beautiful.

Her hands shake again. I take the cup from her fingers. Our skin accidentally brushes together.

Next morning, I’m doing dishes, and I hear shouts outside, she says. I go over to the window. Right as I look down, I see someone throw a bedsheet over the pavement, over a pool of blood. And then I knew it had to be him. I never had a doubt. All I remember is looking down, just seeing the pale square over the maroon circle, outline of a figure—this sounds gruesome, I mean, god, but instead of thinking how I could have seen him falling to the ground from through our window, I was caught up in the way all the lines and the hues of red and white, just were, just sitting there on the beige of the concrete, curving this way and bending that—and here she just looks at me, lost expression—I don’t know what to say, how to say it. Just some shapes and colors, over the sound of car horns and shouts and sirens.

I spill the drink on the carpet this time, the cider splashing down my fingers as I put it to my lips. I keep thinking about how Marcy never talked like this, how she never thought like that, it was like I couldn’t even conceive a woman who existed in a way other than Marcy did. I look at the Matisses, glowing under the light of the single bulb hanging from the ceiling.

I’ve got one, I say. Rose doesn’t turn to look. She’s also staring at the sleeping nudes on Superman’s wall, her beaked nose pointed at the ten-by-fourteen of the curvaceous brunette whose hips seem to disappear into the blue crosshatched background painted around her.

Go ahead, Rose says distantly. I lean back and the booze goes to my head, the force of gravity coming from six directions at once. I stop to catch my breath before starting, waiting for the center of gravity to return.

I grew up in Douglas County, Kansas, with Georgie and my dad—Georgie was my brother—and I was also a single-parent kid. Mom, I don’t think she was really cut out for farm life. There were no hard feelings between her and Dad. Basically shook their hands, and said it’s been real. Me and Georgie, Mom being gone didn’t bother us much. We only seemed to see her at night anyway, we’d be playing outside all day or working. The benefit to her leaving was that we’d get to take trips on the weekends up to Kansas City. That was like going to the capital of the world for us, Douglas County being a little—um—quieter..

I hear my brother’s voice downstairs above the crowd, over the boombox, and it seems like maybe Georgie’s telling people to go—but I hear people moving down the halls again, knocking on the door, trying the locked knob, and the faceless giggles move on down the hall like phantoms. I wondered what their costumes were. Halloween was always my favorite holiday. I go on.

So we go to K.C. for the fourth of July, a big deal to us. No fireworks at home and all. We got to stay in Mom’s apartment while she worked at the hospital during the day, not getting off for the holiday on account of being valuable or whatnot. We were expressly told not to leave the apartment unless the building was on fire. Well, being boys and all, we imagined ourselves a fire, and found a reason to wander around outside a bit on the street.

My brother yells even louder now. More footfalls.

The city was a little alien to us. Never seemed to really exist until we were looking right at it, like being something so big we couldn’t understand it except as being something outside of ourselves.

Alice in Wonderland’s hand finds my knee while I talk. Her fingers, hand, are small. Her eyes are still.

We kept wandering around the alleys of Mom’s building, being afraid to wander too far. But, again, being boys and all, we couldn’t help ourselves but to dare each other how far we’d go. Down the alley, across the street, touch the building across the street, go in that alley, so forth. Finally Georgie dared me to touch the back side of the big grey building. I’m scared, but I can’t show it; he’s my big brother. I go. I crossed the street—look both ways—and start going down the alley between the big grey building and the brown one next to it. I was scared out of my mind, I kept imagining a big man was going to jump out and grab me, do all sorts of unimaginable things, kill me… but the more I walked the more I realized that the alleyway was completely still. I mean, like, there wasn’t the slightest movement—no bugs, rats, wind blowing papers, whatever. I get more confident as I go along, I feel invincible. Everything freezes on my approach.

Rose closes her eyes. It occurs to me that she might be really listening, that she could be seeing everything I’m telling.

I reach the backside of the building, and I’m feeling so good, I start poking around. The dumpster is full of trash. There are cigarette butts on the ground. I put one in my mouth. I come across a pile of cardboard and newspapers, nudge it, looking for something I could take back to Georgie and play with. But when I kick at the pile my foot hits something solid, so I pull away the panels of cardboard. It was a woman. White, pale white, not breathing. Bloated. Naked. I froze, I couldn’t help but just stare at her. She was propped up on her side, arm slung over her front. She didn’t look that old; but then again, the more I see her in my head, the more ageless she gets. Dead. Her hips curve down past her privates, she was just all curves, being crushed by gravity. I never looked at her face. I was caught up in her just…being.

Flashes of blue and red lights spasm across the ceiling, from through the window, cutting across the Matisse figures at rest. The stereo silences downstairs, the footsteps in the hall and up and down the stairs quicken—somewhere in one of the other bedrooms, someone is having sex, we can hear them—and downstairs, Georgie’s voice rings out, calling for silence. The Alice in Wonderland puts her hand in mine and I feel the sweat coming off of her fingers.

What did you do? Alice asks.

I ran like hell, I say. Back down the alley, back towards Georgie. By the time I saw him when I ran back, he shouted that he was bored. He wanted to go back upstairs and eat. And I realized I was hungry. We went back upstairs to Mom’s apartment and made sandwiches. We watched baseball on TV. Mom came home, and that night we saw the greatest fireworks I ever remember seeing.

Did you not tell anyone? she asks.

No, I say. –Not once.

An authoritative voice downstairs tells people to leave, the voice belonging to the red and blue flashing lights. The baritone echoes through every nook of the house, seeking out the phantoms that pass outside my door, the people hiding in Georgie’s bedroom, the lovemakers; everyone falls quiet, trying to hide. My faux-blonde reaches up for the lightbulb’s drawstring. We are pitched into the dark, but the figurines of the Matisses still find a way to stay illuminated, hips and limbs of figures at rest, hovering supernaturally in the darkness. The baritone shouts again. They are looking for the residents. My ears tell me Georgie is trying to cover for me. He sounds exasperated. He is a bad liar.

Someone outside tries the knob, and jerks it violently before sliding down the hall.

Come on, the girl whispers. She tugs at my cape, I slide into bed. The dead woman’s hips crawl into my imagination. Heavy steps sound at the landing, coming up the stairs, the goblins and phantasms jitter at the approach. Alice pulls the blankets over us, and I shudder. And when I shudder, she shudders, the whole room shudders. She’s so warm, vibrant, frenetic—and then, at moment of quiet, I wonder why she’s never been to a funeral, having seen the pianist die; then I wonder if her costume is the least of her disguise. I kiss her.

Her hand slides around my shoulder as the heavy steps stop at the top of the stairs outside. We can be looked for, but I don’t think we will be found; vowing to keep the demons away, these sleepy portraits will sooner find us breathless on this All Hallow’s Eve, we cadavers on a flight of fancy.