The Mission Rooms
By Jennifer Blake
Records, records, up to the ceiling, records all around and on top of me. They’re my children and they will smother me, what if the Big One comes and they all topple down? Daddy, save us. At least they will need me, Joel doesn’t need me and so must not want me. Tired of me doing nothing, playing that one show and then none, the only one and to no one, no one listened. There was so much art and was any of it mine?
Music and children thumped upstairs and shook the dangling ceiling light so it tap-danced. Traitor. Daniel played music and the lamp never danced. How dare those people above him vibrate his walls with their bodies? Their vibrations touched him, vibrations from their clammy bodies reaching down and across the building to search through him.
There had been so much noise on the walls that night, some of it art, the rest of it awful. Joel’s paintings were strung along the brick walls. Daniel had seen each one born but along the brick wall on display they were proud and aloof, not giving him the time of day. Daniel wanted to sink into each one. They were Joel’s, his, he made them, his brain and heart, smeared on the wall, privately Joel’s. Paint me. How can I be part of it? He couldn’t respond with his piano. He could only repeat the work of others. The notes fell in a different sequence and the pedal punctuated different points but it was the work of others. He couldn’t answer Joel with his own bright shapes, with something to admire, to watch others admire about him. He had nothing for Joel to envy, Joel was jealous of no one. There were no new eyes locking onto Daniel’s; Joel needn’t swallow Daniel’s music to keep it from the prying world. Daniel was fading and Joel could barely hear him. There was so much art, and the artists took it back to their breasts and hid it when Daniel passed. Art didn’t want him. Joel didn’t need him.
Mariachi from upstairs and Daniel’s records pulsed through Alex’s walls and she found it interesting how they interrupted her heartbeat. She listened for her heart and it retreated mutely, not certain where to go next. Take my hand, heart. We’re all we have. We’ll lie on this bed right against this window that touches the street, where anything can happen. I can’t believe I sleep right by the street. Metaphorically, and actually, so close to being on the street. Oh God, just one feather landing on the scale – she and Daniel and Joel spreading their weight on the quicksand and if anyone took a sick day or got bad tips they would be swallowed. Now Alex felt her heart. Every time she thought about money. I hate it hate it HATE IT SO MUCH, so much, but I need it, I have to keep going. Being dragged through life in chains.
She sat up in her bed and pried the blinds apart to make a tiny aperture in the corner. If anyone looked in, would they see her eye? Her eyes were small and she had an inordinate number of acquaintances who possessed large, wide, captivating eyes, an inordinate number for a girl with such small eyes.
It was night and her light was on, so she would be visible in the window. She drew back further so that it was necessary to read the picture outside through the blinds line by line. When she moved her head down, there was streetlight glow. She moved it up, and through the aperture she caught the line of the street like an astronomer moving from the moon to something black and disorienting, and felt like she was falling.
Satellites crossed her view. Boys? Young men? Neither quite fit the entities who slunk along the sidewalk, with hands shoved into the pockets of pants that displayed every lack of bulge. Boys and young men dabbled in each other’s purview in this city so that neither they nor the onlooker knew quite what they were looking at. The all had in common black sock hats and wallet chains, as though they’d gotten dressed together before hitting the town. Can I borrow your sock hat? Sure, can I borrow that shirt with the New Wave band we’ve never heard of? Sure. Now let’s all go to a fancy bar and pretend to be miserable. Their eyes leant forward to convey that they belonged in the neighborhood and weren’t born yesterday but at a warily brisk pace that betrayed their panic. Alex watched them until they left her frame and became all laughs and headlights.
Alex stayed secure in her gatehouse, reigning her slum, praying for those who ventured through and out, long since having discarded the notion for herself. She sighed, the long-suffering queen. She had to be at work at five AM. It was now a quarter past ten the PM before. She found she was more cheerful at work when delirious with sleep deprivation, so she had at least another two hours with which to consider the world.
Something growled and ripped through the floor, the sonic bray of an injured dragon. It reached Alex as just another percussion in Daniel’s music, and it reached Daniel as just another violation from upstairs. It was in fact Joel’s contribution to the voice of the walls. His credenza was out of place amongst his new paintings, the lines were off, the gravity was wrong.
The credenza was a pity purchase but Joel loved it like an ugly dog whose odd lines represented God’s experiment. Putrid yellow and green enamel mermaids; wood—light ash; compartments soaked in stale cigar. As he pulled its bulk across the hardwood floor, the woods gnashed and screamed. Joel relaxed for a moment, face-down on the credenza’s surface, and let his ribcage melt into the wood. Always bends and wilts like a sad flower, Daniel had said to him. Have you a fat fairy sat on your head? Joel possessed only enough biology to communicate movement. No wasted skin, and everything long – his toe to his finger one line on the right, the same making another line on the left, and a graceful head with a sharp face through the center.
How many conversations and fights and decisions must have been had and made in here. Joel’s room was technically the dining room in the 1920s apartment. He turned his head so his right cheek felt the freezing surface of the enamel mermaid and caught sight of the built-in bookshelf on the next wall. Or, it just occurred to him, china shelf. Pantry? Jars of pickled onions and preserved fruits and peppers, like he’d seen in estate houses during his summer art program in England. Decades had taken a couple inches of brine from the tops of the jars, but the vegetables remained, browned like newspaper and shedding small particles that made muck at the jar bottoms. Joel was always in awe of the onions that had been grown and picked in an entirely different way, and which probably had a genetic makeup that has long since been lost in the onion of late. I am a brined onion from 1910. Nothing modern in me. Perhaps people look at me in awe, perhaps I’m sepia-toned.
The latest painting was composed of four square canvasses. It was, all together, a grinning chimera. The southeastern canvas contained only the monster’s clawed hand, which held in its palm the moon. The piece was dense with hard color, bright, with each hue adjacent to its wavelength antonym so the whole business seemed to shift. You’re too incongruous, even for me, Joel said to the credenza. You’ve got to go. I’m taking the monster over the mermaid.
Joel sadly realized it was the opposite choice he’d made when he chose Daniel. Mermaids are flighty and want nothing more than to take you under with them. Joel wanted so to believe Daniel didn’t desire that he drown, but simply assumed everyone could live while submerged. Joel loved that joy in Daniel. Myopic ebullience, like Peter Pan. But why can’t you come with me? We can fly, can’t we? Joel planted his feet on the ground, guilty, terrified, resolute. Is it always either fairy dust or drudgery? Daniel implored. Couldn’t there be a life in tempered starlight?
The credenza was maneuvered to the wall that divided the apartment air into Joel’s on one side and Daniel’s on the other. It was not a smooth landing—the corner of the floor was warped.
Daniel started and dropped the record he’d chosen from the top shelf. Joel knocking? No, Joel fussing. Joel has never knocked on a wall, or a door, he floats through walls and under doors and materializes, a sprite, his shoulders must actually be furled wings. Blades, blades, sharpening until he cuts through the wall and into me. He hasn’t been in my room in a week. How is he happy in a deli? Those hands on meat, all day. Is it that the hands make such beauty that they must be punished? Extremes. He lives in extremes. From this over here to that. An alien perhaps in a human suit, tasting the world.
He should knock on Alex’s door and get outside into the air. Maybe he could catch her in the middle of a tryst. She always had a boy in there. Alex is lovely, loverly. Isn’t it difficult for us pretty people, he had once sighed to her. She had crossed her eyes and shoved her finger into her right nostril.
He stayed put, paralyzed by the options of life. Take to the night and wake at noon. Mornings were for panicking people, swishing and cramming. He winced when people panicked at him. He couldn’t stand panicking, tense veins and wrinkly mouths and hard eyes, this insistence upon unhappiness. But am I happy now? Melancholy and her sycophants joined in a circle round his floor-bound mattress and sang with tinny voices through pointy teeth.
The image sent him shooting up onto his knees. He shoved the blind of the window above him upward and looked hard out of the glass to be sure he wasn’t surrounded. Beige wood planks filled his eyes, as though his window were boarded up, and he felt trapped until he pulled his eyes inward and the dimensions popped out again. His view was of the tiny vent space between apartments, a little ledge, the opposite wall, and a narrow two-story plunge. He plugged his nose and pretended to dive down through the window, through the hole. He would look up from the bottom, like a well, and long for the tiny point of the sun. Tiny point of sun? Could that be a song? He spun round to his piano and slammed the keys.
Daniels’ muddy piano made Alex suddenly restless. She needed fresh air for her ears.
She’d been fitfully napping, vanishing under headphones to consume alternately shameful pop music and obscure classical voice, and staring out the window since she returned from work at three PM. Too weary to shower, she still reeked of coffee grime. A clean, pressed man with solid shoulders and a smile that knew all the solutions had yelled at her about a bagel that morning.
Alex had the room in the apartment that she liked to imagine had been the sitting-room, since it had a (non-functioning and now bricked up and strictly decorative) fireplace. It had more likely been, unromantically, always a bedroom. She’d never actually thought about it until now – where would the chimney have gone? She would have to remember to look for it the next time she went outside.
Turn, pull up, arch toward, pull down – the secret to opening the warped door in the crooked frame without scraping the floor or drawing an explosive crack of wood. As it was, the opening of any door in the place sent a whisper of pressure release through every room that all could sense in a tiny pulse of their own doors and a mild loss of equilibrium.
Alex slid down the hallway past Daniel’s door to her left, then the shower room, then the toilet room, which she supposed was technically a water-closet. Joel’s curtain was closed. This was the only formidable obstacle she faced in the tiny, lively place. To get to the kitchen, one needed to pass through Joel’s space. He was home so rarely that it didn’t much come up – but now she gritted her teeth and announced, “Knock, knock.”
Alex swung her hips to the left to avoid the credenza and said “Oh! Your piece!” It wasn’t in the spot she’d learned to avoid in the last couple days.
She found Joel considering it alongside its new wall, his hands on his hips. Was he a flamingo? No, more of an egret.
“It wasn’t happy over there.”
“I guess it didn’t like competing with your moon-creature.” Alex looked carefully up at the monster. Joel’s paintings all have this…distortion. A caught-in-a-windstorm insult, taken by surprise, an impersonal cyclone smearing their faces just enough out of proportion to breed a bit of disappointment in the viewer who was craving something that couldn’t easily be done. But still they lived, beseeching you from the wall. Alex admired how prolific he was. Notebooks, sketch books, walls and coasters spewing words that made pictures and pictures that made worlds. One’s envy of the collection was not excited by any unique or trained skill, but by the exclusivity of the new reality created. Alex looked back at Joel from his wall of paintings and didn’t immediately perceive a difference.
“Moon-creature – I like that….” Such a working girl, Alex. Independent. San Francisco was bursting with them and they were each composed mostly of flighty, shrill fear, shirted in insincere jubilation with a shade of overwrought flower-child. Joel knew that Alex penetrated that diseased shell that coated her surroundings with keen regard and found it all terribly funny. Joel could catch her eye across the madness and laugh. The unspoken joke shared between them was that of the state of the whole universe.
Joel watched her as she passed into the kitchen. She tended to beat her curly hair straight with tools that sent a slight singe into the air in the mornings, but there was always a missed bump or a frame of irritated strands awakened by the morning fog. Everything on her was just so slightly deconstructed, as though she’d begun to decorate herself on the outside, but had gotten distracted and her brain had left her body for other endeavors.
The boys are both home but locked in their rooms. God, how uncomfortable. Alex searched for her almonds in the cabinet. Taking on the goal of eating cleanly provided for her an excuse within an excuse. Everyone in her neighborhood and most in her city were jumping onto the organic-local-whole-food horse (well if this or that wasn’t whole and a food, then what had she been eating all this time?). Doing the same not only helped her meld into the fabric of the zeitgeist so that she could someday speak wistfully of her days in the “slow food” revolution; additionally, she could justify that the time it was taking to focus on her health was better spent than it would be by picking up her cello again. It stood in the corner of her closet, dusty to the point of stickiness. She had been competent—talented? But she’d forgotten – and now she was so, so tired. Two jobs and the rest of the time spent in ways to forget them.
The roommates shared a flowerbox of a backyard balcony with the people in the next flat, but she’d never seen a sign of them. Joel had claimed their half with one of his pieces used as a platform for another piece used as an ashtray for their frequent guests, only distinguished from your everyday squatters by confessions of intellectual aspirations blown out languidly with their smoke.
Joel had brought a cat home one night, a soft ball of fright and need, colored mystical blue-grey. Joel proclaimed him to be Crumpet. Alex had adored the animal and fancied the two of them particular friends until Joel hosted a beast of a cocktail party and the animal had taken to Alex’s bed, as far away from the kitchen and the balcony as he could get, horrified. Crumpet had wet through everything that Alex was interested in sleeping on or in. She had started shutting the door and chucking him off her lap.
This memory tore at her heart a bit as she gazed from the flowerbox into the world. Maybe she should apologize.
The balcony, or landing, or incompetent extension of the floorboards beyond the intended dimensions of the kitchen, whatever it was, made Alex wonder if she was just one cell in a panel of identical balconies with one person in each, staring wistfully as she was, each taking a deep breath to prep for the first note in a spontaneous musical.
Meatballs? Something was wafting from the restaurant whose backside their flowerbox balcony faced, and it must be the remains of the day’s sauce slowly dying in the pot. It was hard to reconcile the tiny relic of any old lady who owned the place with the angular red and black communist pop art hung in a line on otherwise neon-white walls. Who could eat meatballs in that situation? The skeletal proprietress had promised the residents of their apartment building that she would furnish dinner for them all sometime, her treat. The offer had been made months ago. Alex cringed at the memory of this platitude between new acquaintances, the promise to connect that both parties knew would never manifest, a social grace covertly rooted in sadism that Alex thought should be stricken from human expectation. It did far more harm than saying nothing at all.
There was a fundamental flaw in Alex’s thinking, she knew. Why do I assume there won’t be any follow-up? Certainly, she could take it upon herself. When she’d first gotten to San Francisco, she’d begun consciously exuding hostility, once she found out what the bus was like. Something right below her ribcage flipped as it occurred to her that maybe she had forgotten to stop once she had gotten off the bus.
Sirens. In every angle of her shadowy radius something was happening that would change or end a life, and the dust left would settle into cursory blurbs in the newspaper. Alex used those reports as bookmarks for her own fortune. Where had she been at approximately quarter-past-eleven on Friday night when a twenty-three-year-old male was found with gunshot wounds on the corner of 24th and Tennessee? She’d been eating almonds on her flowerbox balcony. She’d escaped again. It had been that time for the twenty-three-year-old male. He certainly hadn’t seen it coming. If her moment was next, she certainly wasn’t seeing it coming.
Daniel ripped open his bedroom door and played through it. The chords progressed through the hallway and around the kitchen table. His hands were built for this. Not for Joel, not for nothing, but for this.
The cacophony ceased and Alex realized she could once again hear birds.
Alex’s almonds went over the balcony. “Jesus on a stick,” she said, “where did you come from?”
“Don’t speak to me of Christ and sticks,” he enunciated haughtily. “I am a servant of the waves and clouds and twinkling—“
“I cooked chicken in your pan last night.”
“WHAT?” Daniel was a vegan dancing perilously on the ledge of a raw diet. “I told you—”
Daniel jumped in front of her and narrowed his eyes. “Listen!” He sprinted back into the house. Alex looked after him quizzically. The piano timidly trickled out onto the balcony.
Alex strained forward to hear the tinny plinking. Daniel was like a lion who reared up, unhinged his jaws, and belched out a peep. He returned, breathless, wide-eyed.
“What’s that, Liberace?”
“No, you twit, it’s me, it’s all me.”
“Oh – have you been composing in there? That’s great.”
“No. Composing is boring. I’m bleeding.” Good lord—Alex took in her unhinged roommate—most people are so boring. You can see the air around Daniel change color with his mood.
“Well, if you have the kind of talent that lets you just pump out art out of nowhere, then you’re the luckiest man alive.”
Daniel took a step back and lowered his chin. Taking a compliment was like accepting the egg of an endangered animal. It was the burden of new responsibility toward the giver and toward the entity of the sentiment. If he didn’t receive it correctly, he’d be slipping on the yolk of the last dodo, and everyone would hate him. “Do you think I’m talented…?” he asked in falsetto, batting his lashes. Humor was the best way to deflect a kindness.
“I guess I’d be tooting my own horn—get it, music joke—because I can play a cello—though I haven’t really lately, who knows if I still can—but it’s pretty hard to do what we do, isn’t it? I define talent as being in a minority, I guess.” Was that right? Did that make any sense? So, the skeletal proprietress of the neighboring restaurant was talented because she was one of few specimens possessing both visibly slouching compression stockings and a delicate understanding of deconstructed communist propaganda as art? Alex vowed to think through her newly realized convictions before she spouted them off. “So, yes, I do think you’re talented. How about that?”
“How do I use it?” His mouth was purple with suspense; his eyes leaked out of his head.
“So, those who can’t, tell other people how?”
“I’m serious. How do I make this in to something? I’ve been slaving away for THE MAN in these revolting cafes, and so have you, serving up puke to pathetic people who just drag themselves around and don’t LIVE. No one has ever understood me, or hell, anything. And I thought San Francisco would be the place of all places that would get it, you know?”
Alex shook off the fantasy of jumping off the balcony to escape this emotional confrontation. She figured she may need someone to blow up at someday and Daniel may be the nearest one at the time. The accusatory finger of her mind pointed through the kitchen door and paused at Joel’s walls and floor and surfaces that were choking with art, good and bad, so long as it existed, then floated down the hall, into her room, and alighted on her cello. The finger plucked a string, pointedly pizzicato, the cello raising a reproachful eyebrow. The vibration shook the drops of guilt concentrated in her heart to the surface and they pulsed through her arteries. Do you know what it means to be alive? Breathe, send air to where the blood is waiting, and it carries oxygen on the backs of its cells, runs with all it has and knows, which is dedication to you. Drops the oxygen and cycles back for more. Breathlessly, because they’ve starved for a millisecond, bone and string and lever and pleasure, moles and nails, hair and pain take the oxygen and turn, make and remake constantly, tear down and turn over in chaos and what must be a roaring racket up close. To make me again. Why do I not feel all of that? Why do I not move when I’m not moving? All of that happening and I’ve never said thank you.
Her cello still rang. She struggled to see Daniel.
“It has to be the most important thing. Everything else has to be food. All your experiences, the people who like you, the person you love, you have to secretly feed them to your music. It has to be the most important thing. You can just take life and be happy I guess, but if you want to make something, you need to take from somewhere else.” She threw a surviving almond off the balcony. Wheeee.
Now that she was uncorked, she spilled. “I suppose I’m telling you to stop being so lazy. The trick to doing things is to do them.”
Daniel spoke quietly. “Joel came up to me after my gig at his art show, while I was on stage.”
The stage had been the waxed wooden floor of a corner of the gallery. One exhibit had cancelled and the event organizers, faced with an empty wall, were presented the choice of a rejected entry of canvasses chunky with flung used condoms (a young local up-and-comer) or a makeshift stage for a piano interlude. Daniel had been offered the space for two hundred and fifteen dollars. The owners had thrown in a drink ticket. Joel had lent him one hundred.
“I was sweaty and all jazzed, man, people were grooving– and anyway everyone in there was a fetus and had no clue what I was playing anyway. So Joel comes up to me after I finished and said I can’t. That he couldn’t, I mean.”
Alex was impatient because she’d heard this before. From Joel. But she had to reverse and remember all the receptive faces she’d made when the news was fresh, one and one-half weeks ago. Remember them and alter them according to the following possible emissions from Daniel: whimsy, fury, suicide, petulance.
“He said I like myself. That he liked himself, I mean. I mean, what did he mean? He’s in love with himself? Is he celibate now? Are you celibate if you love yourself, or no? He said, I like myself and you’ve made me start to dislike parts of myself. I remember every single word.”
Joel’s account: I can’t keep taking care of you.
“I said, what, did I embarrass you? That all I needed was this one opening onto the scene, that now I can talk to the owners, and they can refer me to other places. That I can get gigs without him, you know, and he didn’t need to see me play, if it embarrassed him and all.”
He leaned at Alex and spoke with mortality. “He meant that it made him sad to watch me. I know it. And he was losing himself. That too.”
Joel’s account: I’m losing myself with him.
The roommates saw the point at which their three knowledges met and made sense. They breathed and smiled in relief: Joel was satisfied with the resting place of the mermaid and leaned over it to breathe it in; Daniel writhed with the loss; Alex grieved for them. What was beyond this meeting place was something they didn’t yet know, and whether this ignorance was for the best was a different matter. It was that Joel was genuinely out of love with Daniel, out of that thing that both parties thought, when it began, would not necessarily hold forever, but would at least become perpetual motion in one another, virile enough to be called upon again someday. Daniel mucked himself in this idea, rolled in it and smeared it in his hair, cozy and warm in the safety of uncertainty. Maybe not? Maybe?
Joel wasn’t inclined to dismiss possibilities and hardly knew what to expect from himself most of the time. He knew that his love for Daniel could open a cautious eye and emerge, fully functioning and less childlike, again; because of this he couldn’t tell Daniel that his love was obsolete. The mermaid felt the waves of finality beating through the wall between their rooms, the last imprint on each other as they’d like to be remembered, and the resigned, tight smiles of farewell they unconsciously gave one another. At the level of white light and perfect quiet, they were done. The more superficial levels would be harder.
“What is it, Crumpet?” Daniel cooed into the kitchen. “Is it your gout?”
Alex had a (rather useless, she thought, unless being commanded by a serial killer fond of psychological mayhem to shut her eyes and pick her loved ones out of a circle of people singing together or else they’d all die) talent for recognizing voices. “That’s not Crumpet.”
“Have you ever heard him make a sound? He hasn’t, once.”
“He has, twice. That’s not him.” Another indignant squeal.
An animal issue could usually distract Alex from a human one. She usually regarded human issues as animal, anyway, but other animals were nicer. She leaned over the flowerbox balcony but could see nothing through the blanket of the security light.
Three successive meows. “It’s panicking. We should find it.”
“It sounds like it’s inside. I tell you, it’s that stupid Crumpet.”
Alex wandered slowly into the apartment, stalking the sound. Joel peered out of his room. “What is that noise? Have you seen Crumpet lately? It doesn’t sound like him….”
Alex turned an eye to Daniel. “Aren’t you a musician? Where’s your ear?”
The roommates peered under every cushion (which weren’t many) and each of Joel’s pieces (which were many), including their drawers (though, the two roommates convinced it was Crumpet were dubious of the chubby cat’s dimensions being compliant with those of the drawers).
“There’s no experience in that meow.” Joel stood straight in the terminal posture of decision. “It’s not Crumpet – but it’s in here.”
“It’s in the walls, maybe.” Alex placed her palms against Daniel’s closed door. “Daniel, are you hoarding kittens? I wouldn’t put it past you.”
“Yes – for roasting.”
Alex sent an impulse to her arm to open Daniel’s door but the wall held her back by the wrists. What’s the matter with you? the wall asked. Have some respect.
“Daniel, it’s in your room.” Maaaah! “Would you mind if we checked?”
Daniel sniffled and asked for a password.
“Dead cat,” said Alex. Daniel opened the door.
The room dripped wearily, in contrast with the subito dynamics of its owner. The room was at its wit’s end. Stacks of records cackled, spit, shot up, and otherwise squatted in the calm cube that had simply found that it existed one day.
Maah. Maah. Maaaah!
“It knows we’re here! We’re coming, keep meowing, don’t give up!” Alex crossed the wooden floor and contorted over the head of Daniel’s frameless mattress to peer out of the window. She saw only her reflection and, shaking her head to recalibrate, shimmied her gaze through her own chest. She threw open the window with the violence needed to release it from the frame to which it had been painted stuck.
Cold and fresh and reviving. Alex breathed and nearly forgot the cat. The cat reminded her. Alex looked at the sound, and it was orange and huddled on the ledge of the vent space, horrified.
The creature needed someone, and in light of this, leaning out of a two-story window didn’t seem nearly as stupid as it might usually have.
Joel and Daniel saw the rear of Alex as she walked on her hands out of the window and onto the ledge. Joel seized her ankles. “I’ve got you! Go get him!”
Alex considered her several past encounters with terrified cats. They became very sharp when vexed. Vexed. She thought that was the perfect word for cats in general. She expected the kitten to eviscerate her with impressive aplomb for such a small thing, or to launch itself out of her reach, death at such a young age being preferable to human whim.
The kitten fit in one hand. It shrank itself around her palm. Alex could have fanned her fingers open and the cat would have remained.
“He’s in!” The room sucked them back in. The roommates regarded the kitten and were warmed by looking at it. It pinned itself to Alex’s sweater. Each claw that Alex removed, the kitten replaced. The front right paw was removed, then the back one sunk in, and on and on. They danced like this for a minute while Joel and Daniel softly prodded its back and ears.
“So – there’s a kitten.”
Responsibility fogged them in and they stood and frowned. Now what?
“Now what?” Alex asked.
“If Crumpet notices him, they’ll fight,” Joel mused.
“More probably he’d run away,” Alex corrected. “Crumpet is a chicken shit.”
“Let’s put him in the bathtub.” Daniel stared the kitten in the eye, trying to reach him telepathically. “He needs to think. That’s where I go when I need to think.”
“Sure. I don’t think he’s old enough to have any stereotypical comic-strip cat phobias of bathtubs.”
He paced in the tub. Less agitated, but aware that his life was now new. He wanted the soft sweater again. The curving surfaces of the tub caught every speck of light so the kitten felt he was being orbited. He chased the bowl of the tub. The humans cackled. Crumpet was forgotten, and he felt it where he hid, in a place of which the roommates had no inkling. Crumpet shrugged, trotted down the back stairs of the flower box balcony, and made his way forth.
“We have to find out where he came from.” Daniel, firm and exasperated as a lioness, reduced the kitten to obedient folds of fur by grasping him by his upper back and looking him in the eyes. Joel focused into the scene. Dominance and nurture were forces that Daniel absorbed from people until they found they had none left when they pulled the trigger one day. These virtues (which they were, in context) existed in Daniel, but were kept in a glass box to be seen and not used, until now, when he unleashed them on a kitten. Joel didn’t process the observation as a personal affront. Daniel could only be contrary – he could give the kitten these things because the kitten had none.
“I’ll take him around the building, at least.” Alex held out her hands and Daniel glared and squeezed the kitten. He handed the bundle over with a pout.
“Farewell, Furlingame!” Daniel threw his hands in the air. “The light of Bast is in you!”
“The light of Bast is in you,” Alex and Joel repeated at the kitten.
The floors absorbed the moment and built it into the specter the next occupants would feel without knowing why or what. The structure was becoming fossilized, organics replaced with notions and glances and sobs behind doors and bonds formed through repeated nonchalance. For the sake of the kitten, Alex spoke to strangers and knocked on apartment doors. When she found the kitten’s new guardian, she smiled in tandem with the girl, looking her in the eye. Maybe now, cross the bridge, say something! The door closed.
On occasion, Daniel peered out from behind himself and made others laugh, with or at, or made them recoil, but he made, not in the manner he wanted for himself, but still, he made.
Joel was the last to leave the apartment, eventually, after life came for the others. The apartment remained just another organ in the city system. Joel smelled the damp air cooling the old wood through the window once more and closed the front door cheerfully. He walked through the beating aorta and was willingly lost in the weary, pounding heart.
Jennifer Blake was raised in Los Angeles but grew up in San Francisco. Her work is inspired by human idiosyncrasies and the belief that cities are characters with souls. With a graduate degree in anthropology from San Francisco State University, she has spent much of her career as an archaeologist, but words are her first obsession. She now resides in the magical Eastern Sierras.