Followed

[4:33 A.M.] O: ok im comin thru

I put on my headphones and went out to our tenth-floor balcony. Just a few blocks away was Toronto’s towering downtown—a deluxe crystal growth all the colors of credit cards—but the street below me was rough shit, an acned wasteland strewn with used needles, haunted by 3-D shadows and dumpster lurkers that scattered before the headlights of police patrols. There was even a dark humanish shape lying on the grass beside our driveway.

But no O. Why was she taking so long?

It was strange: when she got home, chances were we’d continue our grievous fight from before she left, she’d cry silently and I’d claw my skull, then we’d sleep back to back and avoid each other in the morning… but as I scanned the street, all I thought about was holding her and kissing her sweet head and rejoicing just because she was alive.

I texted her. It went unread.

Suddenly my music seemed stifling. I was reaching up to my headphones when someone grabbed my arm and wrenched me to one side. My heart leapt into my brain and exploded, this is it, I’m dead, and I swung around to face my executioner.

It was O. Still hauling on my arm.

“Come on! Come on!”

I resisted. Even tried to pull her down.

“Jesus FUCKIN Christ O, what’s wrong with you??”

“Come on! There’s no time!”

Then I saw she’d left our entrance door wide open, and I relented and hurried out with her.

About ten doors down, blocking the entire hallway, was one of the largest men I’d ever seen. His body looked inflated, bulging up against his hoodie and baggy jeans, while his head was tiny, a dark boil riding the massive ripple of his chest. His massive arms hung limply at his sides.

He was just far enough that I couldn’t make out his face.

O raised my hand high like I’d just K.O.ed someone.

“This is my HUSBAND, OKAY???”

I looked at her in disbelief. This dude could have crumpled me with one hand.

He didn’t answer. Not a twitch. Just the arms hanging like butchered pigs, and the bottomless stare out of a face I couldn’t see.

I hustled O inside, bolted the door and put my eye to the viewer: nothing… nothing… nothing.

O was in the kitchen drinking tapwater, long-legged in a ruffled short skirt, two big eyes visible over the cup. It had been a while since she’d looked like a priceless treasure to me. I took the glass out of her hands and embraced her tightly.

“He was in the elevator. On the ground floor. Just standing inside with the door closed.”

I drew back.

“And you got on anyway?!”

“I was so tired… I just got on and pressed our floor number. He didn’t press anything.”

“Oh my god.”

“He was looking at me the whole way up. Not saying anything, not smiling, just staring, staring… So I said, ‘Look, I have a husband, and he’s expecting me RIGHT NOW, okay?’ …No response. His face didn’t change. We reached our floor, he got off after me, I ran to you.”

“And what’d you think I was gonna do? He’s like three times my size!”

“I…”

“When you left the door open, you gave him his chance. If he’d come in… What were you thinking?”

She crossed her arms and looked at the floor.

“Never mind, I’m glad you’re okay,” I said, though I could feel our closeness already dissipating. I’d blown it again. I was unsheathing our ten-inch meat knife. “I’m going to check whether he’s there.”

In the viewer’s fish-eye I saw only the neighbor’s door and bare walls. I stealthily unbolted our door and eased it open.

He was in front of me, lying on his side on the carpet, supporting his shrunken head with one craggy hand and gazing up at me, his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling out sideways. He looked like he’d been violently lobomotized.

I waggled the knife at him and tried to say something menacing. No words came; I squeaked, then slammed the door.

He knocked.

“We’re c-c-calling the police!”

The doorknob wriggled.

“WE’RE CALLING THE POLICE!”

And he finally spoke.

It was like hearing a well speak, a toneless bass wind groaning up a long stone throat.

“Ooooookaaaaay,” he said.

When the cops arrived he was crosslegged by the elevators. Without getting up he began ponderously arguing with them. One came over smiling and asked to speak to us in our apartment.

“I arrested this guy last week. Broke into the home of a Chinese woman. Not a young one, we’re talking maybe… sixty. He found her in bed, but just… stood there. Looking at her. Watching her call us. Didn’t do or say squat. Then we come… and he goes along peacefully, no problemo. In the car, I ask him what he was doing there. What he wanted. He said… God told him to rape Asian women.”

O and I exchanged looks. She shifted over to lean against me.

The cop took details, shook my hand, patted O’s shoulder, and left. Clutching the butcher knife, I roved the apartment, checking the street, the viewer, the lock.

“I feel bad for him,” O said.

I chuckled and kept pacing until she asked me to stop and be with her. I found a safe place by our bedside to stash the knife, then we wrapped ourselves around each other and lay there quivering, with nothing to say. It was starting to get light.

Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.