dedicated to John Corbin
The new tenant tips his head to the side and looks just above or below a person’s eye during conversation. Regular building occupants, including the husband and wife team, Giles and Cleo, residing across the hall from him, perceive this as cold provocation, or at least as unsettling. “A damp trickle runs down my spine when I share an exchange with him,” whispers Giles to fellow tenants, huddled in line at the mail center. It is a piercing, frigid winter. Several residents nod heads in agreement.
“I get a nasty, icy trickle from him too, and now it has given me this cold,” rasps Cleo, between coughs. She intentionally drops and scatters an entire bag of walnuts in the drafty hallway, giving her an excuse to spend a quarter of an hour on hands and knees, retrieving each kernel, periodically pressing her ear to the new arrival’s thin plywood door. She hears nothing, and contracts a cold the next morning.
There is one more thing, perhaps a more important thing: this newcomer pays zero attention to curfew, and Cleo and Giles secretly hope he will get caught and seriously punished.
The couple learns his patterns. He gets one consistent late afternoon visitor. At least they think that he might have one. Given this run of freezing weather, the visitor, like everyone in this region, dresses in layers of scarves and coats, making it impossible to guess at an age, figure or gender. This guest, or a guest, arrives daily in the late afternoon. The two stay inside until they walk out together in the early evening. The tenant always returns home alone, late, way past curfew, sometimes with bags.
“Look,” whispers Giles one morning, padding around in his terry cloth cape, standing at the window. Cleo joins him, takes in a sharp, congested breath, whispers, “I have never seen them out this early.” The neighbor and companion march down the snow-packed sidewalk, hauling a large bag between them. “A regular couple of Santa Clauses,” she continues. “Except for the weight factor. And you only ever see these two wear black.” Over lightly buttered toast and black tea, they discuss what might be inside of the sack. Clothes for the Donation Bin at the street corner, precious objects, perhaps stolen, tools, toys, food, maybe even body parts. It is a very large sack. The couple waits all day for their newest neighbor to return but he does not return. “This is the latest he has been out ever.” Giles says, folding and unfolding his damp, thick, fingers. Any building resident not inside within one hour after sunset must endure two days of lockdown. It is a building bylaw. “If he is late again tonight we report him,” says Giles, clapping his palms together decisively.
It is evening. The couple, having eaten nothing since the morning toast, are faint from lack of nourishment. It is just past curfew and too late to go to the shops. Giles finds a large potato in the cupboard. He also finds a chunk of ginger root. He roasts the potato, it is massive, and makes tea from the final chunk of ginger root, adding a bit of brandy. Cleo’s coughing is really out of control. Arranging their meals on separate trays, they settle down in front of the window overlooking the street. Towering surveillance lamps illuminate the streets of the city on this moonless night. Birds circle around an area just in front of the building. It is not clear to the couple what the birds circle, except a patch of sidewalk. They recount to each other the time they first see the neighbor’s fingers ungloved: spidery, bone thin, decked out in large, shiny, metallic rings. They eat, drink and watch the birds circle and circle above a patch of sidewalk. Then it happens: they (the new resident, his companion) arrive. The two figures no longer carry the sack, but each holds and sips from a large, white bowl. They stand at the corner, appearing to talk. Standing and talking, as if they can. Standing and talking as if there are no bylaws, no curfews no lockdowns.
Steam from the bowls travels upward, forming billowy clouds in the biting air. Both figures wear, as usual, jet-black. Surveillance lamps illuminate their every move. After awhile they shake hands. The companion sets down a bowl on the sidewalk, stands still, beneath the circling birds. Instantaneously that figure explodes into smoke, as if set on fire. Cleo and Giles rise from their chairs but do not drop their meal trays. When the smoke disappears there is something in its place. A tree. A large tree, not quite as tall as the surveillance lamps, with multiple branches. Cleo and Giles have not seen this tree before, it has been awhile since they have seen any tree. They live on a treeless street, in a treeless city. The couple watches the new neighbor knock on the tree’s trunk, lean down, retrieve his companion’s bowl. He turns and walks toward their building. Looking up, he catches Giles and Cleo’s eyes, raises an arm, waves, flashes a wide smile, large teeth, his gaze holding theirs directly.