Hot as fuck out here, Jesus. Like walking into a mouth.
The girl climbs up from the subway station and the humidity sucks the air out of her lungs. She self-consciously pulls her jean shorts down where they ride up at the thighs. A habit that began when she walked home from school at 12 years old, down 135th Street, and felt eyes for the first time. And not in a friendly way like when the old Filipino lady at the dry cleaners would crinkle hers up and smile, front teeth buckling inward. This was different. The sexual forcefield that keeps us in contract with other people is generally agreed upon, but this man gave off an energy, a pressure, she could feel all over. Legs burning with the effort of trying to run away, ego burning with the effort of stopping her legs, and hands pulling her skirt down all the while.
But she doesn’t remember these details anymore, not consciously anyway, because the truth was that nothing happened. He whistled and grinned, tipped his hardhat, then made a joke about tipping hardhats. She told herself the attention made her feel good and that he was harmless, probably somebody’s uncle—hers was no different.
And that was the story she stuck with all these years. But the body holds. We swallow our embarrassments and coddle them in our bellies until they change the way we move through the world, and so it is that today, in the middle of an abandoned city, thick with fright, she pulls her shorts down the second her foot hits the pavement. Just in case.
Nobody is on the streets. Nobody. For the first time in her life, Manhattan welcomes her. The girl feels in silent communion with the city, as if they share a secret. The glass and brick seem softer somehow, and there are birds again. It is unusually bright for June and the 10-a.m. sun blasts the tops of the parked cars. She turns down a residential street where the old Harlem brownstones cradle the heat, their wide steps fanning over the sidewalk. She takes a look around to ensure she’s alone, then struts towards the middle of the road and down like it’s a music video. Why not? No one around to judge. She throws her arms out wide and takes up as much space as possible, stretches her lungs as big as they’ll go, the ecstasy of exhaling, a momentary purge of the senses.
Fuck it, today belongs to her, it’s been decided.
In the months since it happened, she has learned to give to herself again. The ordeal left her glass-thin, sorrow high in her throat, and for a while there, it seemed she would be doomed to her ancestry and wind up chronically overwhelmed. The amount of effort it took to just leave the apartment until recently was staggering, and it wasn’t the fear of another bombing, like it was for so many New Yorkers. Yes, she lost her mother and her brother in the events. A fact she still can’t face directly, lest it blind her. A fact she’s saving for later, in the quiet aftermath of this global parade of panic, when she can sweep and hose the ticker tape and re-find ground. No, it wasn’t the fear of dying. It was the fear of being looked at. Of being compartmentalized by strangers into whatever they deemed her to be. She didn’t know them, she knew, and so it shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. Their glances felt like pinches.
She was born in the Bronx, she knew about people, but never before had walking down the street felt so antagonizing. Inhaling everyone’s exhales … it’s not possible to stay precious in a city. It’s like scuttling through a gun range; all eyes rubber bullets, actively averting each other, trying not to provoke or offend or invite. But she refused to not live and there were baby steps as there always are; she made it to the mailroom, then to the bodega on the corner, and now down the catwalk of empty East Harlem.
She swings onto East 116th, passes the halal deli and barbershop, and ducks into the senior center. It’s a long, low, brick building, jammed between a defunct nail-supply store and House Mary of Nazareth Church. The church saddens her. It’s no bigger than the nail supply, with chipped army-green paint slapped over the whole thing, doorknob included, and a bright-blue, canvas banner announcing itself. Nothing inherently holy or grand or even pleasant about it. But it’s God’s house nonetheless, she reminds herself, even if it takes reminding.
The lobby of the center is crowded—not objectively, but certainly for the times and certainly for her. About ten or twelve people, mostly young, queue up in front of the check-in desk. The girl leans back against the cool wall and breathes, the high of her commute dissipating quickly. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Maintain control.
A wide lady in a peach Wal-Mart T-shirt sits behind the desk with her clipboard, surely the boss. Her body doesn’t move but her energy is frenetic. She barks out numbers and orders to the teenage boy in a ponytail bustling from kitchen to truck and back again. Directly to the side of the boss, pointed only at her, a metal standing fan violently whirs, cranked up to eleven, rocking and nearly tipping on its base. Selfish, the girl thinks.
The space looks how it should; soft yellow brick walls, a low, porous ceiling holding back all the asbestos, and speckled-gray floor tiles spotted with gum marks. It feels regular and safe, like an elementary school or a church basement. She looks at the other volunteers and mimics how they stand.
When it’s her turn, the girl approaches the desk and states her name. She is handed a printout of seventeen names and addresses, and how many meals each house is to receive. The boss delivers her spiel:
“Asterisks mean kosher. Don’t mess that up or we’ll hear about it. Knock as hard as you can and announce yourself loudly—a lot of ‘em are pretty deaf. When you’re sure they’ve heard you, leave the food and go. No hand-to-hand contact allowed anymore, we don’t want them getting sick. If they don’t answer, call us, and we’ll send someone to check in. Off you go.”
The ponytail kid hangs a full, black cooler bag off her shoulder, “Citymeals on Wheels” emblazoned on the side, and directs her back to the white-hot sidewalk. She looks at the paper. All seventeen live in public housing projects. Off I go.
Today is Ted Dickerson’s 84th birthday. Or his 4,534,119,982,103rd birthday if you count his other lives, which he, of course, does. Either way, he’s determined to make it his last.
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD,” his son screams through the other end of the receiver.
“I’m old, Jerry, not deaf. How’s the job?”
He lets the boy ramble on about the firm and the accounts and the politics and so many things he, in all his lives, had never had the time for. But he is grateful for the noise and the company, and it pulls him out of himself for a while so he can survey his space at a distance.
The cramped apartment is full, but not dirty. It’s a one-bedroom he’s lived in since the eighties, when Julie died and Jerry went to college. He always liked it. It’s south-facing with high ceilings and best of all, cheap. What a wonderful place to hole up and die.
A massive, dark bookcase spans the back wall of the living room. Buckling with books, yellowing stacks of paper, and the odd talisman from some bygone empire Ted had managed to squirrel away and discover in his next life. It was a little game he liked to play with himself, finding items he’d hidden all over the world. He’d squeeze his eyes shut and read the tattoos of light—never gone, not really—and try to remember. Always trying to remember.
Ted Dickerson wasn’t always Ted Dickerson, of course not. He’s an elemental being—born of the earth when it was still cooling. A mishmash of energy and carbon and dark matter; a mistake that has stuck around for eons. Púca, to the Irish; Obake to the Japanese; Loup-Garou to the Trinidadians—every corner of the earth has a name for him. Nowadays he’d be called a Shapeshifter, Ted supposes, although maybe only by Hollywood and tween smut novels. Ted prefers Being. It’s the least lonely word he could find. But no matter the name, the lore is true and there was a time when he was a wolf, a frog, a jellyfish, and everything else nature has ever come up with. The Beings’ last iteration is human. Always. It’s the most frustrating circumstance of all; a limitless mind in such fragile casing. A final test of will and patience after a near-infinity of play. After this, he returns to the earth for eternity. He can rest. But if he fails—if he loses control of his emotions and is seen as a Being, he begins anew. Back to binary.
“Alan and I are going away for the weekend. The Poconos. With his mom not doing well and everything, we need a reset.”
His only son, once the bringer of all their noise and excitement, the turbine of their lives, is now, dare he think it, boring. A boy who, in first grade, pulled the fire alarm two days in a row. A boy who rigged his own pellet gun and cried when he shot a robin. A boy who could have been an inventor or a criminal. Now, Jerry is ruddy and balding and round with no interests to speak of, and Ted wonders if people only have a limited supply of cool. If so, Jerry blew his load at eleven.
Ted didn’t father him biologically. That would have been impossible. He was Julie’s son from a previous whatever—Ted didn’t ask when they first met, and she loved that about him. It was purely because he didn’t care and kind of forgot, but she didn’t know that or maybe didn’t want to, and so Julie told everyone she knew that he was a gentleman. He couldn’t bring himself to ask after that. After a certain amount of time, everything just is, and the why stops mattering. Regardless, there he was, many millennia old, a father for the first time. Jerry had Ted’s heart, and Ted raised him as his own. The enormity of the love he felt frightened him, and he marveled at how much it hurt. Humans often speak of the pain of grief, but never of bliss.
Fat fruit flies circle in the galley kitchen where the trash piles high on the mica. Interesting that the fly was Ted’s first form, and now, here at the end of the line, they’ve come to keep him company. But maybe it’s not interesting at all. Maybe it’s a matter of course.
In the beginning, Ted was in near-constant pain. When you’re that young and new to Being, your emotions wildly vacillate. Fear and anger are the default. Human children scream, cry, and giggle on a whim, and Beings are no different. Ted spent about twenty human years, eons for an insect, twitching and morphing out of his form and back again, until he gained the patience to calm himself and behave within bounds.
The air is thick and sweet from so many prepackaged meals left to rot. Just hasn’t had the appetite. The human equivalent of crawling off behind the bushes to die, he supposes. Six months ago, when the world decided to bomb itself, most everybody retreated inside. But Ted hasn’t left the apartment in a year and a half. Although his soul is other, he is trapped by the physical limitations of being human, and at 84, his knees, back, hands, and cock are all but useless. As a result, he receives help from the city and Jerry’s bank account. Elderly Homebound Services. How fucking rude is that? He was there when Man walked out of the sea and now he’s bound to three clinical words and 700 square feet.
“Dad? You there?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m here.”
“What are you thinking about?”
He looks to the flies again and how they kamikaze the refuse and suddenly feels nauseated. Ted was thinking about his nose, but he couldn’t rightly say that, else the Elderly Homebound Service people come and put him in a padded room. He was thinking about citrus in Valencia and Ottoman spices. The smell of sweat in Burundi and the dry-nose tickle of Mongolia. Instead he says:
“Remember when your mother and I took you to Hershey Park? They gave you a chocolate bar when we got off the tram, a full-size one, and it was still warm in the package. That was the happiest I ever saw anybody.”
This was true. So true, in fact, that it caught Ted Dickerson off guard and almost reset him back 4.5 billion years. He felt his heart burn and jump up a rung, and all of the families in that peaceful Pennsylvania Dutch town almost witnessed a man turn into an animal. A grotesque process—Beings contort and twist, bleed and scream, ooze bile and sulfur and smoke, and if all that wasn’t enough, in Ted’s case, his sweet little boy who was the happiest person in the whole world in that moment, would have to watch. From that day forward, Ted never let himself feel. It was too risky.
“I don’t remember.”
Just like that.
Ted feels his heart flip, and he slams his eyes shut. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Maintain control. Lately, he’s been spending his days trying not to cry. Humans take all their Sundays with them; no other animal has the power of reminiscence. The one thing Ted could never have anticipated is how heavy it all sits towards the end. If you close your eyes, sadness and gratitude feel the same.
But Ted will be damned if love, of all things, will turn him into a monster. Although, as far as he can tell of humanity, love is often the only thing that can. Maintain control.
And then, just like that:
“Listen Dad, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I don’t want to ambush you on your birthday, but we’ve been thinking…”
Here it comes.
“Wouldn’t you like to be somewhere with other people?”
“A nursing home.”
“No! Assisted living, at most.”
“Don’t you get lonely up there by yourself?”
“What if you fall and can’t get to the phone? Or have a fuckin’ stroke or something? We worry about you, that’s all. Any time an unknown number pops up on the phone, I think it’s one of your neighbors calling to tell me you’re dead. Just think about it, OK? And if you can’t do it for you, then do it for me.”
Breathe, Ted. It’s only a conversation. We’ll be gone before then, don’t worry.
The front door buzzes.
She shares the elevator with a lady she can only assume is a hooker. Nobody that confident in pants that tight at 11 o’clock on a Wednesday is going to the office, she knows that much.
The lady snaps her gum and looks directly at the girl. She adjusts her cooler bag on her shoulder and glances up. Their eyes meet. The girl looks away quickly, heart backfiring one loud bang. She hopes the lady can’t smell the fragility on her, but of course she can, she’s made a career of it. The elevator dings, and the hooker pushes herself off the wall, arms still folded. The girl allows herself a thin string of exhale, careful to keep it silent.
“You’re doin’ a good thing, baby. Bless you.”
The elevator enwombs her alone again and she feels like crying. When’s the next time someone will call her baby? All the people that should are already gone.
Number fourteen lights up on the board, and the doors open with a sigh. An empty dime bag and Whopper Jr. wrapper lie at her feet. She steps out, orients herself, and heads left. The light is sickly in here, like it doesn’t want to see. Like it’s embarrassed by the job.
As she walks, she checks the sheet again. Ted Dickerson, 14G—no asterisk. She rifles through the cooler bag and pulls out two hot meals; a salmon, carrot, and potato number (all three, just a little too white) and beef bourguignon. She also grabs a snack bag, a Rite-Aid plastic one, with two apples, a clementine, a PB&J, and a carton of milk. Amazing how we lean into the cyclicality of life. Children age and go back again.
Halfway down the hall, at the patina-green number plate, 14G, she rings the doorbell.
“Meals on Wheels!”
She leans in and listens, hears some murmuring and the beep of a phone. The relief of a chair cushion and the scrape of a walker. Satisfied, she moves to drop the food on the doormat. Stops. Leaving food on the floor seems so inhumane. The man behind this door could be a veteran or a grandpa or a thief or an asshole, but he’s most definitely a human being who’s seen the wars and lost his mom, too, and deserves respect. Bad enough he relies on volunteers to survive.
Bad enough he has me.
But rules are rules, and she is in no position to act freely. Anyway, she doesn’t want to get him sick, that’s true. She can hang on that. But the real truth is: it’s easier this way. It’s easier to follow along and place blame on an institution—so fucked up, how could they?—than to own inaction.
She feels the familiar crush of her chest, the knowledge that she’s about to disappoint heavy in her blood. She puts the food on the floor like she’s supposed to, already disgusted by her weakness, already looking back on this moment as another sin underfoot, more litter to sift through later. Choosing propriety over kindness, imagine that.
She walks back to the elevator and pushes the button, keeping an ear out for 14G. The door finally opens. Christ, that was a long time. He must really struggle. She turns her head to watch.
From her vantage, deep down the barrel of the hallway, she can only see his hand at first. The fingers are long and waxy, the skin thin and spotted with dark. They tremble as they reach down, painfully slow, and she can hear Ted Dickerson, 14G, groaning with effort. Her legs are rooted. The familiar tug between running and playing it cool. The hand is almost to the food and it makes a feeble attempt at swatting the containers inside so he can solve this problem in private. Perhaps he’s embarrassed by the spectacle as much as her.
The girl lets the tears come freely now, fuck whoever may be watching, she is ashamed and needs to be punished. But even that’s a lie, she knows it as she thinks it. It’s that furious, stupid high of self-pity that she’s chasing, always, and maybe by crying in the hallway of a hardened building, someone will see her and embrace her and call her baby.
She can hear him cursing and growing angry. Still as stone, she watches helplessly as the angle of his arm changes. He must be on his knees. Her eyes drift up and away from the hand, still making its pathetic attempts, and she catches a glimpse of something up near the door number.
She would scream if she could.
Ice cores its way through her. Her brain fires wildly, grasping at logic, scouring its drawers for some scrap of an explanation. She can’t think, can’t remember. Can’t remember the word for what she saw, can’t remember who she is, the only thing she knows is fear—
Impossibly high. At least five-feet from the top of his shoulder. The elevator dings a million miles away, she can barely process what it is, eyes stuck wide and boring into that 14G, wishing both to see it again and unsee it, go back to this morning, to the music video on the street, to the lady with the fan. She rips her eyes away and rushes towards the elevator. Before she steps in, she allows herself one last look. One last look, she knows, that will change the way she feels about this day. If she looks back and sees nothing, she can live without incident. She can curl herself around the truth, like she’s done all her life, and, years from now, when time has done its business, this will be a simple ghost story.
The girl looks back.
In many junior high school curriculums, dissecting a cow’s eye is the first lab study of sixth grade. Maybe to get the kids used to dead stuff and formaldehyde, maybe to break them of childhood, maybe a little of both. While they might whine and fake-gag, most all of them participate. The girl sat in the hall. She took one look at the eye and tears sprang to hers and she flushed and ran out. She didn’t expect it to be so huge. It was like a golf ball in her small hand, with the black and silvery pupil taking up the whole front. The eye was harder than she imagined, and had a disturbing, stringy optic nerve tailing out the back. But the thing that unnerved her the most was how it looked at her. Like it was afraid. Like it held the memory of its death. Like it could see now the scalpel and the gloves and the greedy little faces.
And it’s exactly how Ted Dickerson’s eye looked as it met the girl’s.
As the elevator gently closed and began its slow descent, she could hear a roar coming from the 14th floor. It was a polyphonic moan that ended like a tea whistle. It was the worst thing she’d ever heard.
The walkway out of the complex was covered in cherry blossom petals and she moved on auto-pilot. There were still no coherent thoughts in her head. Only when she reached the gate could she think about the man. But not really. Just another thing to look away from, a problem for later.
She would never know that before she reached the gate, somewhere on her walk on the cherry blossoms, Ted Dickerson was gone. Instead, in his yellowed, galley kitchen, where the midday sun made the dust dance, a fruit fly twitched pitifully on the windowsill.