"Thank you," Helen called after her, but it seemed that her voice was carried away too quickly by the wind for the other woman to hear. "Thank you for being nice to me," she said, more bravely. She let her hand drop and tried to collect herself. Her umbrella lay disemboweled in the traffic. It didn't matter: it seemed to have stopped raining while she was on the bus, and not before time. The puddles were heel-deep in some places, and a stream of dirty water burbled along the curb toward the storm sewer. She abandoned the umbrella and made for the nearest shop window.
The old woman had been right: there was a grey smudge off-center on her forehead, just the size of Father Patrick's right thumb. She frowned at her reflection. Was it all right to wipe off the ashes before the day was over? Helen, you're an idiot. You haven't even been to mass in the last three years, you're already in as much trouble as you can be with God. She scrubbed the dirt off with the back of her hand and straightened her coat.
She had been right to wear the sensible shoes after all. It would not do to slip now, when she had come so far. As she navigated the puddles, she pondered the various ways it might happen. Straight backwards onto the cement, hard against the external occipital crest, a black starburst in her brain. Or a turned ankle and a sideways crumple onto the street, into some car's jaws, no better than the unfortunate umbrella-- ribs driven into a lung, most likely, along with a perforated liver and a vena cava spewing blood like a hydrant into any empty spaces left within her. But those were rocky thoughts, and she wasn't having any rocky thoughts today. Today was the first new day. Today she was free.
It seemed like a very long walk to the address she had been given, and she was anxious that she had taken the wrong bus or turned herself around somehow: it would be easy to do, in this unfamiliar part of the city, with its odd angled streets and the dead ends that she kept having to backtrack out of. This was the old town, and everything was made of stone and brick, and seemed to be held together by dirt and the force of the wind. The building, when she found it, was two doors down from a liquor shop where a man in a grimy undershirt lounged on the stoop and made idle smacking noises at her as she passed. Her heart beat faster, but she gathered her coat collar closer under her chin and lengthened her step, and then there it was.
Was it looking at her with the same curiosity? Oh, that was fanciful, but why not? She felt slightly giddy with pleasure. It was a wonderful building, a magnificent building. She liked everything about it; the careful brown bricks laid neatly in solid rows, the once-white trimwork now mellowed to ivory, the seemingly random arrangement of bay windows up the face. Which one might it be? Which one of those windows might, perhaps, be her place? Even the entrance was right, double glass doors with oversized handles, heavy and silent on their hinges. The foyer was warm. She found the name and carefully, solemnly pushed the button next to it. After a few seconds, the inner door to her right clicked open. She had to stand back a moment to let someone on the other side pass through, a person in a heavy coat who muttered something she couldn't quite hear in response to her tentative "Hello." What a peculiar smell, she thought.
She took the stairs up to the third floor and found the door that matched the button and the name, and then her courage failed her and she began to tremble, standing there in the hall in a coat that was too short for this season's fashion, bereft of her umbrella, sick with hope and hopelessness.
You believe in redemption, Helen, she told herself, and lifted her hand to knock.
The door opened, and for a moment she felt so displaced that she wanted to pinch herself out of this crazy dream. The elderly woman that she'd met on the street stood before her, looked her up and down again and said, "Well, isn't that a wonder? I said to myself on the way home, Agnes, if only your Miss Helen Simms is anything like that sweet girl with the umbrella and the good manners, then you'll be off to a fine start! And here you are. I'm glad to see you've cleaned yourself up. Come in, come in, we'll have a nice hot drink and get acquainted."
The old woman opened the door wider. Helen took a deep breath and went in.
What Chris wanted to get out of right then was the apartment. No, she corrected herself, it's not just the apartment it's the entire neighbourhood; no, it's not the apartment nor just the neighbourhood, she reviewed, it's this town. She floated a finger at the lift-call button before remembering the lift wasn't working. Scratch all that, she thought, it's this wanker I married. Chris took the stairs. The same stale, gamy smell hovered in the dark stairwell, as if someone had decided to season a brace of pheasant in the warmth of the foyer.
It was Brad who'd persuaded her to take out a joint mortgage and move here. 'Prime piece of real estate,' he'd told her, tossing a peanut in the air, catching and crunching it between his perfectly capped teeth. 'Yuppie zone. Prices here gonna double in, say, five-six years.'
She should never have married an American. That relentless optimism and speedball energy, so seductive at first, was all smoke and mirrors. Underneath the moderately successful party animal she'd married was a mother-fixated, self-centred bore riddled with Catholic guilt and unhappy about a seriously spreading arse. She'd made the mistake of thinking she could fix him up. Well, she was ready to hold up her hands on that one. Two weeks ago she'd privately invited someone round to assess the value of the property. The quote was lower than what they'd paid. Emotionally, financially, she was deep in negative equity.
Out in the street it had stopped raining at last and the Swag Man was busy fixing something on the inside of his coat. They never actually saw the Swag Man move in. He just appeared one day, and had lived there quietly ever since. Chris called him the Swag Man because his coat had an unnatural weight, and when he moved she heard the clinking of metal objects hidden in its folds.
'Love,' the Swag Man said.
Chris was so startled to hear him speak she turned and stared. She and the Swag Man had never previously exchanged a single word.
'Love,' he grunted again, nodding his head at the floor.
He was indicating a woollen mitten lying on the wet steps to the door. Chris realised he was actually saying, 'Glove.' She'd dropped it when she came through the glass doors. The Swag Man picked up the glove and made to hand it to her, but something stopped him. He began stroking it as if it was a baby rabbit, before rolling the wool between a large, leathery thumb and forefinger. Then he sniffed it. His nose wrinkled. His lip curled. He pulled the glove inside out, sniffing it again, studying the material as if he found it somehow miraculous. Then he looked at Chris in astonishment.
Flustered, Chris retrieved the glove form the Swag Man and stuffed it in her pocket, marching away without a word and hailing a cab. The glove, or rather the mitten, was an unwanted gift from Agnes. The old woman had heard Chris complaining to Brad about the cold, damp weather, and about the poor circulation in her hands. A couple of days later Agnes had sprung out of her room and pressed the ghastly mittens on her. The things were hideously unfashionable, wale-knit from coarse grey wool, but Chris did find them comfortingly warm. The lining, however, was beautiful, woven from some silky hairy material she'd been unable to identify. The unique lining imparted to her fingers a curious tingling. But so warm! And she did like to keep her hands warm when going to meet her lover.
There were the days when he knew his own name; others when he did not. This was one of the latter. He shrugged the great cloth coat tighter around the shoulders, taking a comforting pleasure from the musical sounds of the implements that filled the inner pockets he did remember sewing himself.
I should have a name, he thought. For those times when I don't remember. Earlier in the morning, he'd nearly bowled over a pair of young men with glasses as he slipped around a corner near the park. Both had laughed and called him Lenny. He knew that was not his name. They yelled after him, asking where's your bunny? He didn't know. The rats had been enough of a challenge.
The people in the building. Somehow he did recall their names. Chris and Brad, Brad and Chris, the couple on the floor below his. They were not happy people and he generally tried to avoid them. But she was the woman with the soft, warm glove that felt good. Avoid don't kill. He had scratched that into the palm of his left hand with an empty ballpoint pen one night after he had started getting all confused about names and foods and happinesses. It hadn't been easy finding his present home, and he did not want to lose it. The smells were too good here. And it was safe.
I need a name. Maybe he should go upstairs and see if there was anything in the refrigerator. Call me Teddy. Call me Jeffrey. He shivered with pleasure, remembering the smell of the lining in the woman Chris's glove. Call me Ishmael.
He wished he knew what all this meant. Call me anything you like, but don't call me late for dinner. So much of the woman had already soaked into the inside of the glove.
Memory. It reminded him of the inside of another woman, a lover, another time. The smell of slow curing leather, the wet summer heat, the taste curling his tongue.
Yes, he would go back upstairs. He slowly edged around the brick corner and glanced down the block. No one hung around except for the usual man making his funny little noises in front of the liquor store on the other side of the apartment building's entrance. He hoped the man would stick around one night until 'way after midnight. Then they might have a fine discussion of heats and smells. He happily patted his side and heard metal chink.
He fumbled the key out of his pocket and hoped he'd remember how to use it when the time came. It was only for the front door. He never locked the door to his rooms upstairs. He expected no one to intrude.
He ticked off the steps on his fingers, twice around the hands, until he reached the building's glass doors. He squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn't see his reflection. Inside it was pleasurably warmer--not so hot as he would like, but getting there. Then he stopped, shocked. The key wouldn't go into the hole in the inner door. He pushed, twisted, started to panic, tried to jam the key in. Don¹t, he said inside. It will break. He stopped. Turn it over, said his voice. He did, and it worked. The key turned, the glass parted, he was almost home.
He did not hesitate on the second floor landing, though he heard voices coming from the old woman's apartment. Often he was tempted to listen outside, and sometimes to lie on his belly with his face close to the crack beneath her door. He could feel things then, and smell other things. There had been times when the old lady would shuffle over to the door and stand quietly, facing the locked wooden barrier between her and the visitor in the hall. He knew she was there because of the sounds and the shadows and the scent of the worn shoe leather.
He had trusted her not to open the door and betray the confidence of their meeting. But if she had... he thought. I don't know if I could have fixed things the way I used to. So they each held position while he drew in great, gentle, lungfuls of the fragrance of her home, all the swirling clouds of dark comfort and strength that might keep him from exploring with the tools in his coat, at least for a night or two longer.
He was glad. He really did want to keep his home. Other parts of him smiled. The other tenants should be grateful. This was probably the only building in the neighborhood that no longer registered a problem with rats. The mice were on the wane. Even the roaches had begun an exodus. Forty days and they'll be gone, he thought. He blinked. Will I?
The landing faded in the shadows below him. He wished the old woman didn't have a visitor. He loved her solitary times the most, when his ears could discern the soothing metal rhythms of her needles. Then he would lie on his belly on the bare floor of the apartment, feeling the splintery boards caress his face, and gently finger his coat.
Could she hear him then? He didn't know for sure, but he could hope. Pain soaked the sponge that was his skull and he reeled. There were more fingers on his left hand than his right, so he used them to explore the ridges beneath the patchy hair where bone had splintered and knit back in fascinating new patterns.
He shut the door of his sanctuary behind him, but didn't turn on the light. He already knew the totality of what he would see if he looked around. Dead candles littered this room.
Music, said his voice. There's no needle music from her apartment. Make your own. What possessions that lay scattered through his home had been scavenged from dumpsters and stinking alleys. An old record player with a dog's picture on it sat on a crate. He plugged it in and fumbled the switch. The needle was probably as old as the 78 on the turntable. His eyes were drawn to the whirlpool pattern glimmering in the dim light as the record revolved. The needle scratch from the speaker soothed him as he fumbled the tone arm into place.
He was glad he had found the old record albums, though he wished they were not so easy to shatter. The sound of trumpets rose around him, sharp and bitter. Sacred music, said his voice. Good. New Orleans at its best. Remember? No, of course you don't. But the food was incredible. The music, slow and powerful, surged up around him. He thought of graves up in the air.
His voice said, You should celebrate.
It was a holiday, he remembered, though for the life of him, he couldn't recall which one.
"I'm going now," she said. "I'll see you later."
Frigid bitch, and Brad's long smile as the door closed behind her: Chrissie Priss, Queen Victoria Tightass mincing off in her short skirt and ugly prizefighter mittens, as if he didn't know where she was going, as if she didn't know that he knew; oh it was all about the game, their game, their grudgematch: tag, you're it but hey, that was cool, that was all just part of the fun.
More than anything, Brad liked to have fun.
And he was having it now, wasn't he, having a lot and making his own even if she wasn't, here in this apartment he knew she hated, this town she hated even more but whose fault was that? He had never twisted her arm and anyway he liked it here, liked working hard at the gallery, KelseyJohannson, painting and sculpture, Brad you know this isn't your forte, your degree is in architecture but what the bitch never seemed to remember was that he couldn't get arrested as an architect, and if they had to live on the chump change she made they would be living on the street in the Hotel Cardboard. And anyway he liked the gallery: all day long he met new people, found new ways to make deals, make money like last week's bonanza, Mr. and Mrs. Upmarket Suburb looking to be cutting edge, well how about this stratospheric overpricing, this wonderful piece by soandso, you know he's a protégé of Damien Hirst's and never mind that that pillhead sculptor had never even heard of Damien Hirst, it was a dead bird rotting in a seethrough box and that was good enough for the Suburbs, they would never know the difference but it had made quite a difference to his private account, the one Chrissie had never seen, put him one step closer to getting right the fuck out of here.
He knew it now, could even admit it to himself: buying this place had been a mistake just like she had been a mistake, his English rose with her prematurelysagging tits, her warped attitude toward sex, all ever so lovely and natural as long as they kept to the missionary position, as long as they kept the lights out, christ she had even made noises about having a kid till he put a stop to that and never mind her mumbling and theatrics, maternal instinct forever quashed because I'm not a family man, babe, I told you that before: he had had enough family to last him a lifetime, thank Christ his mother was in Philadelphia, his sisters in TampaSt. Pete because he had known since he was seventeen that family was jail, was fetters forever and Chrissie was already more than enough with her sniffling and whining,Where are you going and When will you be back, why did they always have to clutch you? and back to what? Hours of selfpity and sulks, then ten minutes with the flannel sheets dragged up to her neck, first we do this and then we do this but try anything a little different, a little wild and watch her legs snap shut like a pair of scissors, listen to the whine start up again: with you it's always got to be dirty, why do you want it dirty, Brad? and of course she had a diagnosis all ready, it was his sick sentimental residue of Catholic guilt, he was as Catholic as a goddamned Muslim but dirty, oh baby she was right about that because dirt was sin was the slick black seed, lick of mercury bitter at the sweetest heart: anybody could roll in the hay but to see how far you could go, how dark it could get, that was the fun, didn't she know that?
And if you couldn't have fun you were dead already, dead on your feet like half the people in this building: like the motorcycle jerk, or the weirdo guy Chris called the Swag Man, or the accountant couple (although Mrs. Accountant less dead than her husband, nice tits and she always managed a smile for Brad whenever they met in the hall); or old Miss Marple there, nodding at him from her doorway, her new roommatecompanion bound on some kind of errand: knitting needles and crappy mittens, for your poor cold hands, oh lady you have no idea how cold those hands can get...especially on a day like today, rain like a faucet running on, ashgrey rain like penitence but he had nothing to be sorry for, nothing to mourn, nothing to stop him from heading downtown and "Here," with a smile for the sadfaced companion, holding the door so she could step out into the rain, catch the first draft right in the face but "My umbrella's broken," she told him, just as if he gave a shit but "April showers," with a sunny smile, it wasn't April but he didn't give a shit about that either, all he wanted now was to catch a cab, countermove in the grudge match, pilgrimage to the mercury heart: downtown Dina his game piece and counter, Dina his whore with the heart of lead, vodka martinis and a bagful of tricks and if it wasn't Dina it would be someone else, someone new because there was always someone new there, he was someone new there with an old, old need and maybe, with an inner grin, wet dark hilarity stirring in his heart, maybe I'll even run into Chrissie on the way as "I'm heading downtown," he called to Marple Junior, still dumb and damp and stranded on the curb. "Want to share a ride?"
"Which bus? Which route?" He stretched one arm out into the street and signaled without looking; a cab cut impossibly across both lanes to stop for him. How did men do that? And how did they know when you were lost, when your internal compass showed no reliable north? "Look at you, you don't even know where you are," he continued, as if that were the end of the discussion, and she blinked hard once to keep her tears behind her eyes: it was beginning to feel like it might be a rocky day after all.
She told the driver she wanted to go to Mercy Hospital, and then turned and looked at the building as the cab pulled away; golden light glowed through the glass doors, and was that Agnes standing up at the window? And there on the level above Agnes' apartment--no, their apartment, hers and Agnes'--someone else looking down on her, just an outline against the glass.
They introduced themselves, and she tried to see him without prejudice although she had already heard the stories about him and his wife and the black hole of their marriage, the public arguments in the corridor and the random acts of ill will that kept any potential meddlers at a distance. "You just watch yourself with those two, dear," Agnes had said, busily knitting away at something still too shapeless to be identified. "Have another biscuit, they won't keep." She pointed at them with a needle. "The Hapgoods have misery to spare, but you don't need theirs, you've already got plenty of your own." When Helen prickled, Agnes chuckled and patted her hand. "Now, put your back down, Helen." They had already gotten to 'Helen' and 'Agnes,' and Helen felt safe enough to unpurse her mouth and let Agnes pour her another cup of tea. "I know you've just lost your father, they don't keep secrets from me at the agency, not anymore. Grief makes people do funny things, and men like Brad Hapgood can smell weakness a mile off. You be sensible, and enough said."
Agnes stopped talking suddenly, and her needles stilled. She turned her face for a long moment toward the ceiling, and then cocked an ear toward the apartment door. "Well," she said briskly, "it's settled then. You move your things into the back bedroom whenever you like, and in the meantime I've a dressing gown and a new spare toothbrush for you to use. Now you get on to the hospital."
"Oh, I can stay a bit longer," Helen said, looking longingly at the last of the biscuits.
"No, I think it's best you go on now." It was impossible to protest: Agnes was already chivvying her into her coat, and Helen was out the door just in time to meet Brad in the hallway with Agnes' cheery "Goodbye, dear," still loud in her ears. The door had closed firm behind her, but she could have believed that Agnes was standing, still and intent, just on the other side.
As the cab rattled its way through the old town, she was still thinking about what Agnes had said about grief, and the things it made one do; and she wondered why Brad Hapgood reminded her of her father.
"So how's the body business?" Brad said abruptly. She felt herself begin to blink faster.
He laughed. "You should see your face. Agnes told us she was getting a nurse this time. Bedpans and enemas and sweaty sheets. Very glamorous."
"It's true I'm in nursing," she said as evenly as she could. "And I do like it. All those things you said are part of the job. People in my profession take care of bodies, and that means the messy parts as well as the rest. We're body experts, if you like."
"If that's true, you'll be the most popular woman in the building." She didn't like the sound of that. He laughed even harder this time, a belly-sound of pure enjoyment. "You're all right, Helen," he said, between snorts. "I can call you Helen?" It wasn't really a question, so how could she say no? "Well, at least now I know who to go to when I need some body work." He draped his hand along the back of the seat. He didn't touch her, but she could feel the heat of him right through her coat. He bent just a bit closer and smiled, showing her his white teeth and the red tip of his tongue. "You've got something on your face," he said. She fumbled a compact out of her bag and looked, and there it was. "Oh, no," she muttered, "I thought I got all this off earlier," and then she could only bite her lip and scrub at the spot with a wet finger. It was all starting to come apart: she had a dirty face and she was in a cab with a stranger who was too close and she didn't know where she was or even, and this was too frightening, she didn't even know how to get back home. Then she heard her father's voice, with the same amused whiplash that Brad Hapgood had already used on her: Your place is here with me, Helen Simms. There's nowhere else for you, girl, you hear me? And yes Papa, she had said, yes Papa. She crossed herself without thinking. Rest his soul.
"Catholic?" he asked, and nodded along with her. "Of course." That amused note, again. "Me too. Used to be."
"Confession gave me allergies. Penance is overrated."
"It's not about penance," Helen said, and was startled to hear the conviction in her voice. "It's about forgiveness. People need to be forgiven. Everybody does."
He squinted at her, and then he took his arm away and moved to his own side of the seat. He seemed about to speak, but only shook his head and looked out of the window while the cab jerked and stuttered through the traffic on the edge of downtown. Helen was grateful for the silence.
The cab dropped her at the corner across from the hospital's main entrance. He did not offer to split the fare, even though she knew that his street was only a short distance away. It didn't matter; she had her own place and she would pay her own way now. "Thank you for sharing the cab, Mr. Hapgood," she said.
"Piss off, Sister Helen," he said curtly, in such a familiar tone that she almost answered yes Papa, and then the rocky thoughts rolled in with a vengeance.
As she reached the hall, her hand wavered over the light switch. The neglected hall was in darkness but for the amber light bleeding from under Agnes's door. Why did the old lady always stay up so late? Chris took a few steps towards Agnes's door, listening. There it was again, very soft, that rhythmic tapping.
So soft it was like the first patter of rain on a window. It was, Chris supposed, the old lady's chrome knitting needles tap-tapping, conducting intimate conversation as they meshed wool. But it was seductive, and oddly hypnotic, drawing Chris into eavesdropping on a kind of whispering as the needles beat together, gentle and remorseless, stabbing and withdrawing, knit one purl one plain one, the clicking of tongues, insinuating, suggesting; remorseless and adding up to some unavoidable outcome.
A soft clinking sound at odds with the rhythm of the knitting needles broke her trance. It came from the shadows at the far end of the hallway. Chris heard herself sigh: she'd been holding her breath. She felt cold, wondered how long she'd been standing outside Agnes's door. Then the clinking sound again, and she realised that the Swag Man was standing at the distant end of the hallway, staring at her. He gripped the hem of his coat, jingling for a third time whatever metallic objects he had hidden in its folds. Chris made a dash for her door. The key trembled in her fingers, but she got the door open and slammed it behind her.
For a moment she would almost have been relieved to see Brad, but the apartment was empty. She took a shower before climbing into bed. A couple of hours later Brad woke her when he returned. As usual he undressed hurriedly in the dark, staggering slightly as he tried to step out of his trousers. Even before he slipped between the sheets the smell of cheap scent and booze was stinging her nostrils. She rolled over and showed him a cold back.
Brad sniffed. He snorted. He plumped up his pillows. He tossed and turned. Any moment now, Chris thought. 'Good round of cards?' she asked. She didn't give a damn, but she knew she ought to pretend to be pissed off.
'Mah-jong,' he grunted. 'Me and the boys have been playin' mah-jong.'
Unseen by Brad, Chris levitated a single eyebrow. She could have pointed out that the playing of mah-jong required the synaptic equipment he so patently lacked; or she could have drawn attention to the fact that his utter selfishness over the last few years had left him devoid of any male friends who might qualify for the soubriquet of the boys; or she might have simply asked which of the said boys liked to bathe in such a heady concoction of tea-rose and lavender. Instead she preferred to remain silent; but even that failed to dissuade Brad from shaping his leathery hand around her buttock. 'I've decided to give up sex,' Chris said, briskly removing his hand, 'for Lent.'
There was a puzzled silence, in which Chris regretted speaking at all. Then, 'Lent? What do you know about fucking Lent?' Brad hissed. 'You don't have a religious bone in your entire tight-assed, ice-box of a body you heathen bitch. Don't talk to me 'bout Lent you prissy, frigid-' and on and on, all couched in a hoarse stage whisper delivered half into his pillow, the familiar trajectory of abuse. Chris had heard it many times before. She simply closed her ears on it and shut her eyes, hoping for sleep to come, hearing the volley of words at the periphery of consciousness. It didn't stop, just as she knew it wouldn't. A seamless procession of poison innuendo and outright abuse, not much different to that which had borne her to sleep every evening for the last few months.
She felt herself floating away from the tirade, heard it only as a distant psychiatric muttering, or like a clicking from behind a door, like Agnes's knitting needles working away as Chris drifted in the direction of slumber but was held off from true sleep by the vile evangelism issuing from her husband's mouth; and in that slumber she was half-aware, half-dreaming, and it seemed to her that her fingers began to itch unpleasantly and her hands became hot, and as she forced herself to steal a look under the sheets she was wearing, even at this time, the gloves Agnes had knitted for her, and the gloves were pulsating with magnesium worms of light; and she knew that the fabric inside the glove had threaded itself into the lifelines and the heartlines on the palms of both hands so that flesh and wool were conjoined in the knitted hand, the living glove, until her hands flew like demented birds from under the sheets, hawking down at Brad's throat, still pulsing with worms of white light, her thumbs squeezing his windpipe, choking the flow of abuse until all she could hear was the sound of Brad rasping, wheezing and gagging for breath.
He had a name.
It had been an unexpected gift from the troubled woman with the smell-good glove, from her and the man he often overheard fighting with her. The Brad man. Not as good a name as...
The Swag Man. It had come to him as he faded from drift of shadows to the dark places beyond the sharp angles of the apartment building's corridors. He'd heard Brad say to Chris: The dummy who admires your little gift from the old lady...he looks big enough to kindle your fire. And Chris said: The Swag Man? Maybe so, darling. Size does matter to some of us.
Things got loud in the apartment then. There were cries before the door slammed open. The Swag Man stepped back into invisibility. He knew that one or the other of them would be leaving for a while.
The Swag Man smiled. He liked the sound of it. He shivered with the pleasure of at last having a name of his own. The contents of his long cloth coat chimed like the bells of the cathedral uptown. Metallic sounds of joy.
Now, said his silent voice. You have to give something up. The Swag Man pondered that, unsure of the final meaning. It's the season. Give up something you love. Something like...oh, for a little while, kill nothing. But I really hadn't been, he said to his voice. I killed nothing with fewer than four or six, or sometimes eight legs. Well, keep up the good work, boy-o. A dry chuckle. After that little altercation with the delivery van's grill, after the hospital, well, you just haven't been yourself. I'm not sure I want to be myself, the Swag Man thought. Oh, but you do. You really do, said the voice. Be patient. You'll be back to your old self. But now it's Lent.
And that was that for the conversation. The Swag Man moved gingerly, for the moment no longer pleasured by the jingling, ringing clues of just breathing.
Receiving his name had been his first big surprise. The second came even more unexpectedly as he moved in bulky silence past the door of the old woman's apartment. He glanced from the corner of his eye, stopped startled, caught in mid-step, almost losing his balance. The doorway's darkness was deeper than usual. The door was open, gaping inward, and a figure stood framed by the utter absence of light.
"You," he said foolishly.
"Me, indeed," said the old woman. She took one step farther into the hall. The dim light slightly softened the sharp blades of her cheekbones. "I thought it was about time."
"Lady." He said nothing more, could think of nothing at all to say now. He longed for the recalled anonymous times when he spied on her smells and warmth, but with the solid wooden door between them.
She slowly raised one hand, fingers slightly spread, palm toward him, skin white and wrinkled as the discards he sometimes scavenged from the dumpster behind the aquarium store. "You remind me a bit of my children."
He waited dumbly.
"They were never properly appreciated." Her smile glimmered in the half-light. "I would have better hopes for you."
Thank her, said his voice. The Swag Man did so.
The old woman sighed. "So tell me, boy, was it cold, the last time you were outside?"
He slowly shrugged. "A little. I don't know." He shook his head. "Not very."
"The later the hour, the colder it will become. I don't imagine your apartment's heating system is all that efficient."
Tell her. "It's all right," he said. "I have a blanket."
"Such bravery's overrated," she said, cocking her head painfully like an ancient bird. Her voice dropped and he leaned in closer to hear. The old woman sighed. "Boy, I have a gift for you."
He began to salivate. He could not help himself.
The old woman extended her left arm; even in the bad light, he could see that it shook. He tentatively reached out. The old woman dropped something soft and warm into his hand. His fingers convulsively closed on a material that beat the memory of any dog or mouse or hitchhiker.
"For you," she said. "You're a big boy now; this will fit your image pure ducky."
Whatever that meant. He slowly surveyed what lay in his right hand. It was a pair of hand-knit gloves, but with all the fingers sliced off just beyond the second joint. The Swag Man stared.
"You're big," said the old woman. "Big boys love gloves like these. You'll stay warm, but you'll still have all the flexibility you wish."
The Swag Man looked closer at the gloves. Each space that would cover a knuckle held an embroidered letter of some kind. He didn't recognize all of them. If they formed words, he couldn't make them out. You will, said his voice.
"I like them very much, lady. Thank you," he said again.
Her creased face broke into a grin much like the one the Swag Man suspected he wore. "Now go off and play," she said. She waved one hand. "Shoo, boy." The old woman gently but firmly shut the apartment door in his face.
He squeezed the ball of gloves with eager fingers. You've got your warm coat, said his voice. Now you've got new gloves. You have your self-possession. A dry chuckle. Now you can handle any cold, I think. Try the roof.
That made sense. He loved the roof with its open views uptown and toward the river. But it had become too cold of late for his hands. He couldn't afford to lose any more fingers. And it was boring simply to stand on the roof unable to take his hands out of the coat pockets. But now... He thought the gloves would work even without the ends of the fingers. It didn't make sense, but he knew it would all work out.
The Swag Man took the creaky stairs up to the landing above his floor, to the splintered wooden barrier that was supposed to keep people confined to the inhabited floors. He had discovered this route the first night he'd lived here. He pushed; the plywood bent, squealed a little, then gave. The Swag Man pushed past. He had to climb the flights of stairs a bit more slowly and much more carefully because of the absolute darkness and the decrepit nature of the wooden flooring.
He passed three floors on which no human lived, then reached the final flight to the door onto the roof. The citylight outside was diffused, but in comparison with the stairwell, the flat rooftop seemed to shine like a sunlit desert. The Swag Man beelined to the corner nearest the river view. He stood for a long minute with his arm draped companionably around the plaster-molded gargoyle that helped guard the building. "Look," he said to no one in particular.
In the darkness he felt something begin to burn in his hand. He shook himself free of the reverie of looking out toward the river, and glanced down. His new gloves glowed. They warmed his skin and he had not yet donned them. Go ahead, said his voice. Left hand first, then the right, he pulled the soft gloves on. The stretch yarn fit perfectly. Heat surged through his palms, beginning to defrost his wrists from the inside out.
The Swag Man stared. The knit fabric glowed all on its own; and then the light moved beyond the middle finger joints, all the way to the bare tips of his fingers. The fingers no longer felt bare. The heat burned without searing and he felt the smoldering reddish light move down into his gut.
He raised his right hand and light followed in a gradually diminished spray. The Swag Man waved at the blinking lights of an airliner high above and the spray of radiance followed. "Wow," he breathed.
It only built from there. The season was supposed to be Lent, but he felt like it was one of the Fourth of July holidays he remembered from some other time. He waved his arms and the reddish light trailed his hands. The heat felt good.
Don't do it, his voice cautioned, as the Swag Man clumsily clambered on top of one of the rectangular brick pillars that bracketed the gargoyle. Your balance isn't what it used to be! But it was good enough, he discovered.
He stood above the city and moved his hands through the air like dogfighting jet planes. He had seen those someplace. He traced crimson patterns in the frigid air, but his skin felt no cold.
"Zoom!" he said, and then made jet engine noises. The sounds of cannon fire and of missiles streaking home. The Swag Man almost leaned too far toward the river, quickly caught himself. This was fun.
And then he had the feeling he should come down. The feeling was one he could not ignore. The message was clearer as he jumped heavily down from the low brick and turned toward the stairway below. "I'm coming," he said, though he wasn't sure who he was talking to. "I'm coming hold on be patient don't do that," he mumbled in the darkness as he descended.
He was poised before the apartment door before he abruptly realized where he stood. He felt the heat sleeting through the wood. The smell-good glove woman! He wasn't sure what he was hearing, but the feeling brought back the seductive touch of memories.
The Swag Man stood before the apartment door and knew that the warm woman he liked and the cold man who hated him were both inside. He didn't know why he did what he did next, but he knew he could not help himself. Swinging the gloved hands that still seemed to leave trails of light behind them, the Swag Man raised his fists and hammered at the door. With those blows, it seemed also that his cloth coat tolled the hour, and that hour was late.
"Oh God," Chris's murmur beside him, wet mumble like stones in her mouth, little pebbles of gristle and bone. "Oh Brad, my God " and her hands away from him then, dragged away as if by his own, main force but he had not moved, had not been able to move: the crazy bitch atop him in some parody of sex, choking and squeezing away and gloves, she was wearing her prizefighter gloves, oh the bitch was certifiable, a homicidal nut and "Are you all right?" sallow now in the bedside light, hands clutching the sheets as if in parody, demure little lady swept away by her passion; she was still wearing the gloves. "I didn't mean "
To choke me? he tried to say, but his throat was sore, very sore and already swelling, who would have thought the bitch was so strong? but there were different kinds of strength, like the strength to lie silent, to hold force in reserve, to wait and to think and to plan a response so in the end he said nothing, did nothing, only lay there gazing at her, narrow eyes to watch her tremble, watch her seem to discover the gloves on her hands, reach with one to peel away the other in some burlesque of difficulty, as if they had applied themselves, like glue, like paint, she was sweating like a horse when she cried out "Oh!" as if he had struck her which was not at all a bad idea, he would have liked to put her through the wall: head first and watch that trajectory, it was a dream his mother had begun
but what had spooked the sound from her was knocking, knocking in the hallway, knocking at their door? yes, because it came again, heavier than knocking, thumpthumpthump from one of the neighbors, investigating? surely they hadn't been loud enough for the cops, more likely it was dogood Sister Helen or maybe her mother superior, onsite purveyor of fine knitwear, jesus his throat hurt now but "Go on," in a dreadful whisper; she made a little sound to hear that, too, a frightened little peep. "Go and answer it."
"I don't oh your neck," dry, eyes wide but ah, see the faint flicker of pleasure, the wee selfcongratulating wink, oh the bitch was secretly proud of herself, happy that she had almost choked him (how had she almost choked him how had she been that strong) but "Go on," again, shifting an inch beneath the blankets to get her moving, obviously he couldn't answer the door, not like this but silence when he listened, silence past the sound of the opening door, creak of the burglar chain and finally her voice, high with nerves, assuring whoever it was that they were fine, everything was fine, "Please, oh please I have to go now " as he flicked off the lamp, left her to darkness, a darkness in which they lay side by side, she sniffling now, little kickedpuppy sounds until at last she stopped, until he knew she slept but how could he sleep with this ache in his throat, it hurt to breathe, hurt more to swallow, hurt most of all to touch and probe the swelling: standing in the bathroom's bare fluorescence,shocked by the mirrored marks, each separate finger, she had pressed and pressed, did she hate him that much? Did she actually think it would work?
And a little sound then, halflaugh, halfwince, there was no point in trying to sleep, so: a shot or two of neat bourbon, Dina's martinis only a headache now and what would Dina say when she saw these marks? but that was OK, for Dina he could make them a story, a roughtrade story, Dina would like that fine. More bourbon, slow experimental swallows, the swelling seemed at last to have stopped; hunched in the tv light halfstaring at a witless movie turned low, no sense waking up more of the neighbors, he would have to make a story for them too something sympathetic, his poor wife, she was very troubled, she was a person with a lot of
but he was doing his best, trying his hardest to
(smother her in her sleep)
but "Jesus," his hiss, startled upright by a sound at the door, another knock but this one light and dainty, taptap like fingernails, like claws: and it was the old woman, Miss Marple with her knitting needles and grey yarnball, she had used the needles to knock because "It's very late," she said; brighteyed in the hall's amber shadows, highnecked robe like his mother used to wear, royal blue and monogrammed, one of the letters had fallen off. "I didn't want to wake anyone else."
Brad said nothing.
"You've had some trouble here," said the old woman, what was her name again? Agnes, right. "Your wife is a troubled woman."
Brad nodded, made a little shrug and "It's OK," gratified by his own hoarseness, the sad whisper of his voice. "She's sleeping now."
"But you can't sleep, can you? And whiskey won't help," with a little smile, she looked like one of the birds his sisters kept, what were they called? macaws? Their beaks could take off the tip of your finger, he had always hated those birds. "Tea is better, do you have any tea? no? Helen is sleeping, or I'd make you some myself...here, why don't you take this?" handing him, what? the needles? no, the fat grey ball which was not a ball at all but a scarf rolled up, short scarf severe and unfringed and "Wrap that around your neck," said Agnes; she was not smiling now. "It'll keep you warm; you need to be warm. Your wife," with a shrug, "is a cold woman; isn't that true?"
His own shrug; his own smile; and the scarf was warm, surprisingly so, and soft, soft, it had not felt soft in his hand but around his neck it was delicious as cashmere, it was comfort and joy and "Wear it for a day or so," said Agnes. "I'm sure it will help."
Slow the door closed to, slow back to the TV for a last sip of the bourbon dregs and the scarf made it easy, now, to swallow, easy because it was warm, he was warm, your wife is a cold woman and what can you do with such a cold woman but "Warm her up," he said to the TV, voice already stronger, calm with cunning and relief; you warm up that cold cold woman, and melt her cold cold heart.
She tucked the blanket snug under her shoulder and hip and closed her eyes again, and fell suddenly back into her dream.
This time the bag was unzipped slightly, and she recognized her father's grey whiskers and the sink of his jaw, even though the rest of his face was still hidden. Come keep daddy warm, he giggled horribly through the plastic, and then he began to shout I'm having a rocky thought about you, Helen, punching his fists against the plastic, and the sound was hollow and huge. She woke again, in terror, unable to breathe, unable to move, determined finally to fight: but it was only the blanket over her face. She wrestled it aside and sat up, and there was Agnes in the doorway.
"What's that noise?" Helen asked, confused. "What's happening?"
"I'm just on my way out to see. No, stay in bed," Agnes said, and for a moment her voice wasn't old at all: it was clear and rich as an ancient bell. "Go back to sleep, dear, you'll have a busy day," she said, and that didn't sound quite right, but Helen was already sinking back into a quiet deep place. When she blinked again it was morning.
She made tea and put the cozy over the pot, set up the toaster so that all Agnes had to do when she woke was push the button. She tidied the front room: Agnes' knitting was scattered around her chair in a tangle, as if a cat had been at it. Helen patiently untwisted the various yarns and balled them up again, tucked the needles securely into the grey wool that seemed to be Agnes' favorite at the moment. She took a moment to luxuriate in its feel, soft and so warm that she couldn't resist rubbing her face against it.
"Careful of that one," Agnes said from the doorway.
"I'm sorry," Helen replied, flustered and, truth to tell, a little miffed. She was only doing her job, after all. Maybe she should just--but no, those were rocky thoughts, and they reminded her too much of her dreams and the father behind them. She put the wool away; the bumpy moment passed so quickly that she wasn't entirely sure where it had come from in the first place. That was good; she would learn to set those thoughts aside. She had her whole life ahead of her, now.
Agnes was right: it was a busy day. Helen moved through her hospital rounds with purpose and a tremulous serenity. Even the ones she'd pegged as bad patients (impatients, she thought of them), even they were no more than small irritations. Leaving at the end of her shift, she found the world cool and fresh-washed.
She arrived home as dusk was mantling over the topmost floors of the building. Brad Hapgood startled her at the far end of the lobby, just as she was rounding the corner for the stairs.
"Sister Helen," he said, with an unreadable smile.
"How are you?" she answered politely, although she could see for herself that he wasn't well. He was pale and covered in a light sweat, and she wondered if the scarf he wore was too hot for him. It had the look of Agnes' grey wool gone greasy and lank.
"About the cab," he said. "I've been wanting to talk to you. How about riding up in the lift with me?"
She knew it was a mistake the moment she stepped in; the musty unused smell and the cobwebs, the groan of the door as it closed the two of them off from the corridor. He stood between her and the door, and spoke as if he were continuing a conversation. "That's not right, you see."
She didn't know what to say.
"That thing you said, about forgiveness."
He stopped and peered at her expectantly, so she gathered herself and nodded. "Yes. Needing to be forgiven."
He looked at her like a malicious child. I am in terrible trouble, she thought.
"Who forgives us?" he asked.
She gathered herself. "God."
"Wrong!" he said, and suddenly he was right in front of her, his weight forcing her back against the elevator wall. He bunched a fist and she ducked as best she could, but he wasn't aiming for her yet: his hand crashed into the wall beside her. "God doesn't give a shit about forgiveness! God wants us to suffer." He banged the wall again, and the elevator cage shook. Then he stopped and carefully straightened his scarf.
"I find I'm good at helping people to learn about suffering," he told her. "You can think of me as doing God's work." Then he put one strong hand on her throat and the other on her left breast.
She had time for one angry, despairing burst, "No, Papa!", before he stopped her breath.
Then the elevator door shuddered open and a hand in a fingerless glove hooked itself onto Brad's shoulder and pulled him off her. Brad fell on one knee against the faded wallpaper of the hall, head down, breathing harshly for a moment before he stumbled away.
She looked up at her intercessor. He was so tall, with such big hands. Strong. He looked at her with a clarity that she usually only saw in the eyes of some patients in the moment before death lifted them up and then dropped them from a terrible height. He touched her gently, guided her from the elevator and up the stairs.
On the landing of her floor, she found her blanket carefully folded. She did not consider it; there were too many things to keep balanced in her head just now, without wondering what a blanket was doing out of its accustomed place. The large man wrapped it around her shoulders and tucked the folds into her hands.
"Thank you," she said, and then sat on the top stair, suddenly too tired to go any farther. She did not think she could face Agnes just yet. She felt soiled and ashamed, and frightened of what she had said out loud for the very first time.
"I never told anyone," she whispered to the big man who had seated himself patiently beside her. He was still watching her intently, making small snuffling noises, his coat clinking gently when he shifted. She settled the blanket around her: it was so warm, and the colors were not too bright at all. They were the colors of her righteous wrath and her clarity of purpose and her enormous sin. She punished herself every day for her sin: with the hospital, the smells of bleach and rot, the crepey skin of the dying, the monstrous beds with their metal rails. She had taken to tying her father's wrists to the rails with towels in his last months, to restrain him when the delirium came on. That was what had made it possible at all; he had still been a strong man, and she had needed every advantage. "I could have used your hands," she said, still whispering. "So big. I wouldn't have needed the pillow at all."
Then she leaned against him, quiet, feeling an unexpected, hesitant peace.
"Ah," said Agnes from behind her, "I see you've found a friend, dear."
They both turned. Oh, Helen thought, look how beautiful she is. She was still Agnes, white-haired and wrinkled, one eyelid drooping slightly: but she stood straight as a spear, and muscle showed strong and tight under her skin. "Lady," the big man said, and scrambled to his feet.
"You did well, boy," she told him. "You'll be rewarded. You think about what you'd like most, and then go see if you can find it. Go on now," she added, and bundled Helen off to the apartment without a backward look. Helen allowed Agnes to settle her into a chair with her blanket still around her, and a cup of milky tea on the side table. She felt as if she'd just completed a very long journey.
"You could be like one of my own daughters," Agnes said abruptly, in the bell-voice. "I'd like that. I miss my children." Helen nodded, and Agnes smiled fondly. "I know you don't understand, dear," she said. "But you will. You will. I'll teach you to knit and to listen and to find the most interesting ways to take a hand in people's lives. I think you'll enjoy that."
Helen nodded again. "Punishment," she said softly, and showed her teeth.
"Sometimes," Agnes answered. "And sometimes redemption."
"Justice," said Helen.
Agnes laughed at that, startling Helen so much she almost spilled her tea. "Oh, no, dear," Agnes said merrily, shaking her head. "It's not about justice at all. It's about fun."
Helen thought about that: she felt as if a cold crisp wind blew through her, and the wind carried Agnes' laughter and her own lifetime's worth of sobs and the snuffling sounds her father had made that last night and the clinking of the large man's coat as he wrapped her blanket around her and the patter of the cleansing rain on the window and the clean razored sound of Agnes' needles. The wind blew her wide open. She looked at Agnes: and then Helen too began to laugh.
Chris stepped into the hall, and found her route down obstructed by the two figures leaning awkwardly together on the stairs. Incredibly, it seemed, it was the Swag Man and Agnes's new companion, pressed together like tender young lovers with no place of their own to repair to; and unknown to both of them they were being watched, by Agnes, from the shadows. Agnes instantly spotted Chris and pressed her finger to her lips before approaching the couple. Then Agnes said something to the pair, dispatching the Swag Man before briskly marching her young companion back to their apartment.
Chris was surprised to see the Swag Man, coat-tails flapping, make his way up the timber stairs. No-one lived on the upper storeys. The semi-derelict apartments above them floated in perpetual darkness. He knows something, Chris thought. Is he the key to all of this? Is he the one who is making these things happen? Though the Swag Man spooked her, she somehow trusted that he would not harm her. She decided to follow him up the creaking darkened stairs, beyond the hole punched through the plyboard barrier and into the fetid gloom of the upper floors.
The timber underfoot felt precarious. There was an odour she associated with dry rot. In the bible-blackness of the rank-smelling stairwell she missed her footing, panicked, flapped wildly in the dark. A feeble pink radiance leaking like a gas from somewhere nearby rescued her from total blindness, allowing her to pick out the rickety stair-rail and the jagged template of ascending steps. She glanced down and recognised that the dull shimmer was emanating from her hands. She held her itching hands before her eyes, but the radiance dulled, flaring again as she dropped her hands to her side. Another moment of panic as she tried to peel the light from her hands, trying to remove invisible gloves; in her exertions a tiny globe of perspiration trickled from her brow onto the palm of her hand. It sparkled and smoked on her skin, like spit on a griddle.
She reached the door onto the flat roof of the building and charged outside, filling her lungs with the chill clean air, only now realising she'd been hyperventilating. She stopped and waited, reciting the alphabet backwards in an effort to calm herself. The rooftop was slick with rain. The surface water reflected a fizzing blue neon cross erected by evangelists on an adjacent tower block. The plaster gargoyle leered out across the river, sweating nacreous light, charged electric blue from the neon cross and shell-pink from the pulsing glow of Chris's hands.
In the shadows behind her Chris heard a gentle tinkling. She turned slowly. The door from which she'd burst onto the roof stood open. She knew the Swag Man was skulking up there somewhere. There was a brief flurry of wings as a pigeon settled on the gargoyle's head, shat, and then took off again. Then another tinkling sound, distant and distorted, a hollow clonking, like the chime of goat-bells on an Aegean island; or like a demented child smashing a toy xylophone; or like an odious carillon on the lowest platform of hell.
Chris stepped slowly across the flat roof, going behind access-hatch to the stairs. There was a sigh, and a shadow passed between the mangled TV aerials and satellite dishes. She followed. Turning, she saw a dark figure poised on the extreme edge of the building, huddled like a great black leather-winged bird. He had his back to her, and was looking out across the city. As she moved silently across the greasy wet surface of the roof she heard a new rhythm, this time from inside her head. It was a furious chattering mounting in tempo as she approached the shadow figure, an intimate meshing, a knitting, like chrome needles tapping together. She felt a revival of the itching in her hands, and as she held them in front of her the pink effulgence dilated. But then another competing light, an ethereal grey worm-like glow began to generate from the figure perched on the roof edge. Or rather, this new brilliance was issuing from around his neck, where an icy grey light was coiled like a luminous serpent trailing a long, sinuous tail. As the figure turned Chris let out a tiny gasp .
'Brad!' she exclaimed.
Brad was already uncoiling the luminous scarf from around his neck, snapping it tight between his fists. 'You look cold, honey. Come here. Let me tease some warmth into you.'
It played in his poor hurting head.
"Sometimes," she had said, "killing people is simpler and easier than forgiving them."
The Swag Man had stared at her dumbly.
The old woman seemed to consider what she was about to say before speaking it. "Forgiveness is actually a form of divination, did you know that?"
"N-no." He almost stumbled over the word. "No, lady."
"Oh, yes, it is. Consider this. Killing is simple and decisive. But when you forgive, you anticipate that the other person has a purpose in continued existence upon this earth. You assume certain responsibility for their actions."
He thought about that. "I tried--" It was hard to gather his thoughts. "I always tried not to be there too much."
"You mean," she said (almost severely), "you avoided empathy. Neither did you take responsibility."
The old bag's right, said his silent voice inside. Remember that beautiful time when conscience was not a problem? No, he didn't exactly remember that time, though he thought he might have possessed a few clues the mornings he recalled the threadbare rags of his dreams.
"So many died, perished so terribly," said the old woman. "How many more were saved for the time being when you didn't look both ways before crossing that street? The careless driver of the delivery van was inconsolable, since he did not know the service he almost completed for society."
"Thank you," said the Swag Man. Don't thank her! said the voice inside. Ignore her.
The old woman seemed to draw herself up in the darkness, big enough now to be his parent. She smiled with gentle, indulgent amusement. "What else can I tell you, my boy? Forgiveness and fun both start with the same letter; otherwise there is little similarity, believe me."
He opened his mouth to say something. Shut up, said his other voice with a tone that made him cold all over. He curled his fingers protectively into fists and abruptly felt the comforting heat of his chopped-off gloves. Leave. Leave her now.
The old woman seemed to agree. She smiled wider now, her mouth growing huge, her teeth shining like rows of clinking, pointed, needles. Her tongue darted like pink yarn. "You'd better go on up, my boy. I believe you are needed."
"Who needs me?" he said, honestly puzzled, even as he turned to go.
She shooed him with hands like the wings of nervous owls. "I think we all do."
He turned away, but could still hear her voice. It sounded like she was singing now, low, maybe just to herself. "'Take good care of yourself, you belong to me.'" He knew that song--it was on one of his 78s. She stopped, paused, raised her voice to say, "Look both ways..."
It all twisted in a loop in his head as he climbed the dark, treacherous steps to the roof. He wanted the cold air there. He craved the open space, the view of the city and the river, the moon. The distance between the brick pillar where he loved to practice his balance, and the hard, filthy life of the street below.
Enjoy it. His voice sounded almost wistful. He thought that voice now seemed to be full of crackle and sputters, much like the old 78 albums he loved. If he had to leave his home, he wondered if he could at least take those treasures with him. Forget it, said the silent voice cruelly. Where you'll be, you won't be needing any damned Victrola.
He hoped he was wrong.
The Swag Man stepped out onto the roof. It was a night cathedral, with a silence that forbade even the street noise. The breath caught in his throat. He tried to move like a ghost, but he knew the soft notes of metal betrayed him.
He moved from one comforting darkness to another, careful to steal only into shadows big enough to blanket him. There weren't many. He caught himself splashing the rain puddles, watching the rippled waves spread like radar. As a boy, sometimes he'd lapped up that fresh, cool water. He hunkered to let his seven fingers trail circles.
Then his eyes were caught by the light as the characters knit over each knuckle abruptly flared up. He still couldn't read the words, but he knew the message was urgent.
Other energies flashed across his hands, or perhaps just in his mind. He knew he was no longer alone on the roof, and the feeling did not comfort. He stood and looked about, realizing that perhaps they all were here.
His voice laughed. If you don't remember them, you can't recognize them. If that's so, forgiveness isn't an issue. What are you running on about? he said. The warm woman, the cold man, the lady's sad friend, I think they're all up here.
The silent voice chuckled with savage delight. Erring is human. To forgive is to divine. I believe there are plenty of errors to rectify here. The Swag Man shivered, his long cloth coat chiming an overture.
He stared at the radiances glowing up around the rooftop, soft fire reflected in the water. Have fun, said his voice.
Now find what you'd like most. But that was another voice--the lady's.
He moved forward, bright hands swinging like comets at his sides, coat flowing back like wings. "I will," he said, and knew it no longer mattered to whom he was saying that.
The words seemed important to repeat. "I will."
The roof's grey plane was large as a prairie; it was intimate as a mattress; it was expanding and contracting as the light behind Brad's eyes changed, flattened then broadened, made of the woman before him a sketch, nimble, thin and sinuous, precarious on the roof's precarious edge, then all at once was it his eyes? or the last of the light? or some optic trick of the goddamned rain that never once in this blighted spring had ever seemed to stop? she was plump as a Botero, blank, round eyes watching as he advanced across that plane, that mattress, slippery slope beneath his feet but he was careful, he was in no hurry, he had all the time in the world.
Could she possibly think she was going to get away?
Sometimes the woman was his wife, sometimes his mother or one of his sisters; once she was even Miss Marple, could that have been so? but then where are your needles, needles like claws, like teeth, an animal's defense but there was no need for teeth or claws here, no need to defend herself from him because he was her husband, he loved her, he only wanted her to be warm as he was warm, even here in the wet and the wind, warm with the heat that came from within: like the imperative of sex, of hunger, the body's differing hungers like a chorus of the flesh but "Chris," he said, thought he said, might have said. "Chrissie, come here."
Between his fingers, the warmth of the wool: and in his mind the picture, coming truer every moment, of what things could or might be, how it would be between them once all of this was past: as it used to be, he and she close together as bodies in a bed, fingers on a hand, strands of wool stitched and locked and bound together so tightly that nothing, nothing could part them, nothing cleave one from the other, man and wife, wool and skin, fibers and fingers but was she crying, now? odd sounds, hiccups and gasps and "Are you crying?" he asked; her face was very red, her eyes looked strange but "Don't cry," he said with great tenderness, a dreadful grey tenderness, it was going to have to hurt a little but all pleasure bears the spike of pain, like birth, like death, like sex till you scream and once through and past that pain they would have forever for pleasure, forever for fun on this rooftop now small and smaller, small as the space between two hands, small as the sounds she made, wet sounds like the rain and "Chrissie," he said, still tender, the muscles in his hands knotting to fire by pain; pain for him too, she must see that, she must understand that it was for both of them he did this, for both of them that his skin itched and his fingers throbbed
(oh you miserable bitch)
and now a shadow growing, flowing from behind: the shadow, he thought, of the future, of pleasure's time to come: archangel of the future, gargoyle of the past, arriving just in time to urge fruition, to make sure what was necessary was completed and done and "I will," said the angel, its metal bones and joints a tympani to his hands, the scarf, the bluing face of his dying wife, its solemn voice a voice from Revelation intoning the litany of the saved
but "I will," again and louder from the angel who was, Brad saw, not an angel at all, was no one but the God damned Swag Man here on the roof (the roof?) of their building, arms a mile long to reach and grab and take, oh take from him what was his, what he had wanted to do since she choked him, married him, since he married her and knew that he was lost
but losing her for good, now, as he lost the grey umbilicus, the living strand that bound them tighter than a vow: losing it and "Don't," the Swag Man said, wrong speed voice like a moron, a retard, old vinyl played backwards and in his hands, big hands, the wool of the scarf was small as a ball, as if by those hands unknit, unmade, returned to the innocence of its beginnings and "No," Brad said, not loudly but with great force because now it was undone, the work unfinished, the marriage forever unmade and the bitch was getting away, away, redfaced and groaning and half to her knees in the pools and crud and detritus of the roof and now the Swag Man was before him, stolen scarf in hand, hands unnaturally large in the halfgloves that were like Chrissie's prizefighter gloves, like his own scarf, my scarf and "Give it back," Brad growled, mad voice not strictly human but it was hard to talk, to breathe, hardest of all to move but he would tear out the bastard's throat if he had to, he had to get it back because it was his, his scarf, his marriage, his vengeance
but "Don't," the Swag Man said, and without other warning hit him right in the face with a hand like a club, hit him so hard that Brad fell over backward, an unstrung, comic pratfall, head half in a puddle, one eye in drunken orbit and the Swag Man's booted foot enormous above him, rising up like a thundercloud, a mountain black and wet, furious and descending as Chrissie made sounds in the background, yips and squeaks and swallowed screams, sound of her flight as the Swag Man's coat swung and jerked, as metal struck metal struck tissue struck bone: and Brad caught by the force of the pain, not the pain itself but its incredible weight, it was something you could not know until it had happened to you, was happening, a force no flesh could bear for very long.
Until at last the force receded, replaced by a heavenly softness, the softness of, what? the scarf, oh yes, the scarf draped now across his face
as sweetly as a mother wraps her sleeping child, shielding him from the rain and the blood and the darkness of the Swag Man's smile, a smile fixed as a constellation as the wet boot rose above him one more time.
"Be good," the Swag Man said.
And in his mouth the wool was wet and salty, like blood or tears or the sweating flesh of a lover, bitter and delicious as sin upon his tongue. The Swag Man left him then; the puddles on the roof lay clear and still.
For Ellen Datlow