[Image Credit: “Head” by Patrick Hardziej]
During our first night in the new house, I woke to see the elderly man who had been watching us sleep. I saw the weathered flaps of skin that obscured his face’s worn features. I saw his battered cranium and his watery half-moon eyes. I listened to dry breaths chuff through his nostrils like inpatients shuffling through nursing home walls.
I watched him leave. He groped along the wall, as unfamiliar to the bedroom’s topography as ourselves.
For the next ten minutes, I stared at the ceiling’s textures. I listened to Holly’s snoring by my side. Finally, I slipped downstairs to get a glass of water and clear my head.
My mind was disorderly. For example, instead of taking action against the intruder, I was wholly occupied by an offense that occurred over thirty years before, when I was a fifth grader walking home from school under a cold, pearly sky. On that day, a seventh grader named Ken Gold—a boy I recognized from school but with whom I’d had no previous interactions—materialized from nowhere and put me in a headlock.
I dropped my books. I flailed my limbs like an injured bird. Ken Gold pushed me to the ground. I scrambled to my feet and, with all my strength, I slapped him across the cheek.
Ken Gold smiled.
“You hit me as hard as you could,” he said, “and you didn’t even knock my glasses crooked.”
Ken Gold whistled the theme from The Andy Griffith Show as he disappeared around the corner. Meanwhile, I cradled my arm against my chest, my hand throbbing from the painful impact of the blow.
And then, thirty years later, on our first night in the new house, when I was surprised by a knock on our front door; my imagination was so haunted by Ken Gold that I half-expected to find him standing on our new front porch.
I found our new neighbor Randy instead.
This was not my first encounter with Randy. The previous evening, as I struggled to cut the twine that held our new mattress to the roof of Holly’s car, Randy sauntered up to inform me that he lived in the house directly across from ours. As I heaved my weight against the mattress to prevent it from toppling into the street, Randy asked about our family’s income. As I lugged the mattress up the walkway, he wanted to know whether Holly and I had children, and, when I confessed to having none, he inquired as to why.
And here, again, was Randy, standing on our threshold at four-thirty in the morning, wearing tattered camouflage cargo-shorts and a tie-dye T-shirt.
“I’m having a party today,” he said. “If it gets too loud, let me know to my face instead of calling the cops.”
“It’s four-thirty in the morning,” I said.
Randy made a hissing sound and went home.
I closed the door and sat on the stairs, debating whether to return to the bedroom or to simply start my day.
It had only been twelve hours since Holly and I were standing in the parking lot of the furniture store. I’d spent a half-hour trying to secure our new mattress to the roof of Holly’s Subaru. The work was not going well; the world felt cluttered, loud, and blindingly bright. It was at this, the worst of all moments, when Holly decided to place her hand on my upper arm.
I was offended by how carefully she had placed it there. What could she possibly have to be so careful about?
“Maybe…” she said.
“Maybe what,” I shot back, more sharply than I had intended.
A salesman stepped outside the store to take a call. He noticed my futile efforts, strode gallantly over, and had the mattress rigged and road-ready in less than one minute.
And now, there I was, with the mattress securely in place in the upstairs bedroom, and with me was standing behind my front door, watching Randy lug cases of Coors Light into his home in preparation for his party.
That night, while trying and failing to fall back asleep, I indulged in violent fantasies involving the salesman from the furniture store.
The next morning, while Holly still slept, I pulled out of our new driveway, steering carefully around a handful of Randy’s guests who were loitering in the road. For their safety’s sake, I honked considerately as I passed.
I chose to ignore their crude response.
It was the first day of the semester, and when I got to campus I was surprised at the arrangement of my classroom. There were lab stations with stainless steel sinks and ripple-nosed Bunsen burners, such as one might see in any laboratory classroom. However, there was also new, expensive-looking white carpet (such as one should never see in an undergraduate science lab), choral music playing from hidden speakers, and a mess of tangled wires hanging from the ceiling. And at the front of the room, directly behind the instructor’s lecturer, there was an emergency shower that was roughly half the size of an airplane lavatory.
I opened the shower’s door and stepped inside. By then, my students had arrived and were waiting for class to start. Meanwhile, my shoulder and knee had entered the shower at unheard-of angles, wedging my body and making it impossible to move.
I craned my neck towards my students. “Good morning class,” I said. They stared at their phones. I strained for my briefcase, which contained all copies of my syllabi, but it was out of reach, so I improvised a brief introduction to noble gases, whose outer shells have little tendency to participate in reactions, except when under extreme conditions. When I said “Any questions?” my students pocketed their phones and noisily worked their backpacks. Their zippers made loud, exasperated groans.
With class concluded, I could finally concentrate on extracting myself from the shower. I succeeded, but only after tearing a shoelace and activating the faucet with a stray elbow, thereby drenching half my body.
After emailing the department secretary to cancel my remaining classes for the day, I went home to change into dry clothes and do some work around the house.
Not that there was work to be done. The entire purpose of our buying a new house was to have property that didn’t need fixing. To own something that hadn’t degraded from negligence and inevitable decay. Simply put, we wanted to live in rooms where nobody had died.
Our new home was in cluster of residences that had been recently built on a narrow, rocky cliff.
The newness of this place was a stark departure from our former home—a sagging one-bedroom with a dark, skunky, sputtering heart. A place where labia-like mushrooms grew from ever-expanding cracks in the walls. Where foul-smelling fluids oozed from the faucets during heavy rains. Where creatures that we politely referred to as “squirrels” thrashed in the walls.
Our old house was a nexus of overlapping infestations. When we lived there, we were always inhaling fruit flies. One night, a milk snake dropped from a broken light fixture onto the coffee table. It writhed in a bowl of stale potato chips while we screamed. During a blizzard, eleven stray cats appeared in our basement, as if teleported there. They were gravely ill, and Holly and I used brooms and tennis rackets to harass them up the stairs and out into the bitter, violent cold.
And it was in this churning cloud of uninvited life that Holly and I tried for more than a decade to conceive a child. We failed. Once we were able to admit that, we set our sights on this new house with these new jobs in this new place. Holly was ready for this change. For me, however, it was the same as dying.
I arrived home from campus and parked the car on the driveway. I noticed that, despite it being nine-thirty in the morning, Randy’s front-lawn was crowded with revelers.
I watched a woman angrily slap a bottle from a man’s hand. Two men got into a shoving match. A man punched a tree trunk in an uneven, dreary rhythm.
I made my way toward our front door. Randy called my name. He was shirtless, and he was standing at the bow of a speedboat hitched to a pickup. I waved and said “Good morning, Randy” and Randy along with his guests erupted into laughter.
I tapped the security code and went inside, heading upstairs for dry clothes.
After changing, I visited each bathroom, where faucets sputtered air before gushing water. I pulled protective plastic sheeting from the windows. In the living room, I crawled alongside the wall and ran my fingers along the nearly imperceptible gap between the baseboard and the floor. Bringing my fingers close to my eyes, I admired the fine white dust that had escaped the nozzles of the contractor’s wet-dry vacuums.
One good thing about this new house was that there was now no chance of stumbling upon a shoe box full of love-letters, certainly long unopened but nonetheless lovingly preserved, written to Holly by the man she was engaged to more than a decade before she first met me, which is to say that there was no chance that Holly would arrive home from a doctor’s appointment and lock herself in the bathroom to weep while I sat on the couch a few feet away, blindly thumbing a three-month old New Yorker and thinking savage thoughts.
I found myself standing in our empty garage. I decided to explore our new neighborhood.
I wanted to avoid interactions with Randy’s guests, so, instead of the using the sidewalks, I crept behind the houses, staying close to the outer rims of my neighbors’ backyards, near the cliff’s edge. The cliff’s sides were covered with a white, finely powdered substance—the same dust I’d found in our house when exploring the gap between the baseboard and the floor. I peered over the edge. At the bottom, there was no water, or scraggly precipice, or even clouds. Rather, the cliff terminated in a blur that marked the outer range of my vision. The sight was a contradiction, profound in its unreality. It both existed and didn’t exist at the same time. It was terrifyingly alien and utterly familiar, like a fleeting memory of existence in the womb.
The weather changed. The wind raised columns of white powder. I felt like a mouse in the shadow of a hawk, and I desperately wanted to be back in our new home, where my footsteps echoed against bare walls, where I could run my palms over the cold quartz surface of our counters, and then curl into a small shape and pretend to sleep in our empty bedroom, alone on our new bed.
I tripped over a partially installed sprinkler system, landing on my teeth. I got to my feet and continued running I turned the corner of our house and headed to the door.
On my driveway, a large group of heavy-gutted, stubble-jawed party guests filmed me on their phones.
“Hey. You’re the professor, right?” said one guest.
“A school teacher!” said another.
A hot wind reached out and struck me down. I floundered in the mud and garbage. I rolled to avoid getting trampled. I could not tell if the arms that reached toward me were offering help or trying to hurt me.
I released a long, jagged, pitiful screech.
The crowd parted. I stumbled to my feet and through my front door.
I found Holly in the living room. She was biting her fingernails and drumming a rolled-up magazine against her thigh.
“You’re home,” I said.
“I’ve always been home,” she said.
Outside, the thrum of the party encircled the house like a storm.
“Why didn’t I see you earlier?” I asked. “When I came home from teaching. When I changed clothes? Why didn’t I realize you were home?”
“You walked right past me,” she said. “We made eye-contact. Before you left, I was leaning against the door to the garage. You shoved me out of the way.”
“I’m tired,” I said.
Outside, the party surged.
Inside, Holly took one slow step in my direction.
Outside, Randy’s guests stomped on our cars’ hoods and roofs. They ripped our wipers from their sockets. They smashed our windshields.
Inside, I crumbled into Holly’s arms. She guided me to the ground and held me.
On a cold March day, when we’d just started dating, Holly and I went for a jog. I was distracted by the motions of Holly’s ponytail—with each stride it bounced into the air and then descended in slow motion, reminding me of some rare, vital fluid that would freeze, melt, and then freeze again.
Our jog was interrupted by an elderly man who tripped on the curb and struck his head against the pavement. He landed with a protracted, infant-like squeal and then twitched there, covered in dirty snow. He looked like a fledgling sparrow pushed too early from its nest.
I patted my pocketless running shorts as if they might miraculously produce a phone. I pretended to be fascinated by the patterns of bare branches in the trees. Meanwhile, Holly unhesitatingly swooped to the man side. She used the edge of her shirt to wipe blood from his eyes. She scooped up his frail body and cradled him close, as if he was her own child.
I’m embarrassed to admit that, while witnessing this, I only felt an irrational, overwhelming jealousy.
Even after all those years, as Holly held my head in her lap and stroked my brow in our new house, I looked up and searched her face for evidence of the kind of affection she shared with that stranger on that cold March day.
When I did not find it there, I could not help but feel betrayed.
Randy’s guests crashed against our house in waves, beating the doors and windows, scaling the walls, and pounding on the roof.
I opened the door. Randy stood on our front stoop.
I smashed his jaw. Randy stumbled backwards and then fell. I leaped onto his chest.
I am ashamed to admit that I was ready to kill that man.
I closed my eyes. The party went silent. I turned my gaze inward. I discovered a dark, clean, new place.
I opened my eyes. A mindless grin floated above Randy’s bloody chin. I surveyed the crowd that now pressed close around me and saw hundreds of identical grins. There were Randy’s party guests, and there were my bored students, and the swarthy salesman from the furniture store, and Holly’s former fiancée, and there was Ken Gold, his glasses perfectly undisturbed. At the front of the crowd, standing over me, his thin lips curved into a bland, tired smile, was the elderly man who had been watching us sleep, his head still damaged from his fall into the icy street more than a decade before. He held our child in his arms—a warm, wet thing just born, skin as purple as a bruise, dark eyes half open, limp head lolling towards me, a cynical grin stamped onto its tiny face.
I climbed to my feet and faced this endless, impossible crowd.
Now I knew the truth.
There was nothing I could do to harm these people, or to prevent them from harming me. I could not impact them in any way.
I backed toward the open door of our new house. With each step, the crowd inched closer.
I imagined that Holly was still standing behind me. I imagined that she was waiting for me to fall into her arms, where she would comfort me again.
As if there were no limit to the number of such falls a person could have.
As if someone could fall continuously, and for the remainder of their life. As if that’s what happiness was, and as if happiness was something I deserved.
Carl Fuerst is a writing teacher who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. His stories have appeared in F(r)iction, Underground Voices, Flapperhouse, and more. Additionally, he is head editor of The Breakroom Stories, an audio journal that specializes in strange tales.