December 2010

How and Who and What and Why

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The policeman is across the dinner table making notes. He chews his mustache between questions. The hairs bristle wetly. “One thing I notice is you’re white,” he says. “Do you think that’s important?”

“What?” I say. I reach across the table, take the pen from his hand, which is difficult to do in cuffs. The blunt end is nibbled and cracked. “Don’t write that down.”

“It’s only something I noticed,” says the policeman. “I’m just making a note of it.”

“Well,” I say, “Don’t.” I give the pen back.

The policeman apologizes. He rubs his whole face in one slow, stutter motion, leaving a streak of red skin the width of his palm. “I was just saying,” he says.

I remember to be kind. I reach for his shoulder, which is also awkward in cuffs. For a moment he lets me hold it. Then he shrugs me off. His ears have gone red too. It stings to disappoint me. “Go on,” I say. “It’s fine.”

The windows are all closed, the blinds and drapes as well, the lights off except for the one hanging over our heads. In the living room, separated from the kitchen only by the difference between linoleum faux-tile, there are no decorations, apart from a novelty phone that looks like a revolver, a vast DVD collection stacked on the carpet (heavy on crime television and noir), and several dozen photographs of me in my natural environs. In the photographs I am someone else, other, more beautiful. In the now I am myself.

*

He started watching me, he says, six months ago. It was winter. I was walking for the bus stop. I wore an orange parka, which made me stand out. I was easy to follow. I saw a wallet fallen on the ground. It was real leather. He could tell from the way it glowed as I brushed off the slush, like an alligator coming up out on a riverbank. There might have been a lot of money inside. Neither of us knows. He says I didn’t check inside. For my part, I don’t remember either way. He says I tapped the nearest man on his shoulder. I asked him was this his wallet. He looked very startled. I said, “I think you dropped it.”

He took it from my hand. He said, “Yes, this is mine.” We shared a moment. The man had a bushy mustache and thick, dark eyebrows. He was bald. What was left of his hair was bejeweled with slowly melting snow. He looked as if he had been, a moment before, extremely unhappy, and was now undecided about how he should feel. He took the wallet. Our gloved hands touched. They did not, presumably, feel anything of each other, except the fact of a cool, distant pressure. He put the wallet back in his pocket. He thanked me. He turned his back on me, and we continued walking in the same direction, his body three and then five feet in front of mine, hunched inside his charcoal overcoat as if to shield him from my kindness. With some effort, he made the gap between us grow. We were headed to the same bus stop. When I arrived, several minutes after him, he did not look at me. He had returned to his sadness. I deferred to his silence.

This is according to the policeman. I don’t remember any of it. Not the wallet, not its owner.

The thing that impressed the policeman most, the thing that made him follow me, was I didn’t check to see if it was really his wallet. I never even seemed to question it. He might have been anyone. The policeman followed the bus as far as he could on his bike. He lost me.

*

The policeman sees I’m looking at his mess. The pizza boxes on the floor. There are also soda cans, some empty, some tipped onto their sides and spattered over tile. Two-liter bottles piled. Candy wrappers and Chinese takeout cartons. Spent jug of chocolate milk. Something somewhere in the apartment’s rotting. Even when I try I cannot hear his fridge run.

“Sorry for all this,” he says. He doesn’t mean any of the things he should be sorry about. “I meant to clean up before.” He gathers garbage under one arm. “I guess you keep your place spotless.”

“Pretty clean I guess.”

He struggles, kneeling on the floor, to retrieve and open a Hefty bag with one hand while the other’s full of trash. “I’m sorry,” he says again. Loose items tumble out around him. His uniform gets smeared and scuzzed. He asks me, “Do you think cleanliness is important?”

“I guess it is,” I say. “I can’t relax in a dirty room.”

“Clean environment makes a clean mind?” asks the policeman. “Idle hands the devil’s playground? Garbage in, garbage out?” He picks up remainders, drops them in the bag, ties it off, though mostly empty.

“Could be,” I say.

Now the walls are really bugging me. He can see me looking at them. He can see how the stains make me feel. His face goes red again. His ears struggle to find new homes on his head as the muscles and bones beneath grind. “I’m not washing my goddamn walls for you,” he says. “Just so you can be comfortable.”

“I never asked you to,” I say.

“You’re supposed to be nice.”

“I’m trying to be nice.”

He gets a soda from the fridge and plops it down in front of me. “Then shut the fuck up.”

I struggle to open the soda for myself. The cuffs keep sliding down my wrists and onto my hands. The can is room temperature. The policeman watches me try. He says, “You know you’re a guest in my home.” He says, “Maybe I misjudged you.”

I keep working on my can.

The policeman says he’s sorry. He pops the tab. It fizzes over a little. He wipes the sweet bubbles away with his finger and nudges it toward me. He says he’s sorry. Go on, he says. “Tell me all your secrets.”

*

He says he saw me hold the door once for one hundred consecutive people. I was on my way into the library. I was still wearing my orange parka though the weather was warming. He was in a patrol car across the street. For a second he thought I saw him so he ducked out of sight. If I saw him then I don’t remember. When he came back up out of hiding I was holding the door for some people leaving a well-attended lecture. It was a trickle at first, and I could have gone inside out of the relative cold without being rude, but I didn’t. I was patient and polite without drawing attention. When people thanked me I nodded. I waved them on through. Then there were more leaving. It was a rush. A child wiped something from his nose on my coat in passing. I pretended not to notice. A couple argued loudly about the lecture. They were shouting at each other. It was over evolution. He said it was too goddamn depressing. She argued for the majesty of emergent properties. He asked her what in fuck that even meant when he was talking about God. She said that was emergent, too. I let them pass. When there was no one else I went inside, removing my parka.

He followed me inside. That is, he followed me inside if we allow the premise of my going to the library, a trip I don’t remember. He found me on the second floor among the novels. I was reading The Rise of Silas Lapham, if the policeman is to be believed. This is, he says, the story of a man who becomes very rich selling paint. It is a classic of American realism. I appeared deeply moved. My parka was folded under my seat.

*

“Are books necessary?” asks the policeman. He means morally.

I tell him they are not necessary. He writes it down.

“Is there certain music you listen to?”

I tell him I like jazz. He looks skeptical; he writes it down.

He asks about my diet. I tell him I mostly eat the usual junk. (Ham sandwiches, instant mashed potatoes, macaroni cheese, protein bars, M&Ms, microwave meals. Fridays happy hour sushi.) To drink the soda requires lifting both my hands to my face in addition to the can. I am hoping that if I continue to do this with sufficient ostentatious awkwardness he will undo the cuffs.

He asks about exercise. I tell him I walk everywhere, but that I don’t go out often. He says he knows. He says he wishes he could have my body. He gestures at his body. It is a hard, blocky thing, marbled heavily with fat. It is a tall body. His face’s features all seem to be pushed forward, as if crowding his nose. The mustache is perhaps designed to mitigate the effect. I have been looking too long: his eyes drift down to the table. Crossed arms.

I ask him what he’ll do with all this information.

He asks me have I heard of Guantánamo bay. He says, “I’ve got a theory.” He tells me about torture. I dimly remember reading what he’s saying. He has a very practical outlook, he says. Torture hasn’t worked. “The inverse might, though. What if we could make better people by manipulating their environment, their routines? What if we could make them more like you?”

I ask him isn’t that what prisons do.

*

I was coming out of the grocery store with all my shopping. I started to unload my cart. A man approached me in the dark. I could see his clothes were really filthy. They were some kind of coverall, blue beneath the muck. He was very recently shaved, his beard and his head, probably with an electric in some gas station restroom. Probably he’d left a heap of hair in the sink like a new pet for the staff. He asked me could I help him please. I asked him what he needed. He said it was money.

“How much?” I asked.

He said three hundred dollars. This was, coincidentally, the most an ATM would give me in one day. I asked him what he needed three hundred dollars for. Meanwhile he was beginning to unload my cart into my car. I looked annoyed, possibly because he was putting things in the wrong order or stacking them too roughly, the policeman speculates. I asked him why he needed thee hundred dollars.

He said that if he had three hundred more dollars he could pay the rent and then his family would have somewhere to sleep tonight. He told me he could do work around my home or repair my car to pay me back. He said, “I’m real handy.”

I said okay, but I would give him the money for free. I told him to follow me to the ATM. He walked behind me. I left my food sitting in the car, though there was ice cream and milk as well as other things could spoil sitting in the trunk. I took the money out. I gave it to the stranger. He said, “God bless you.” I reached out my hand and waited for him to take it. He said, “No thanks. I’m not fit to touch.”

He walked away, and left me there alone, and I went back to my car.

This is all according to the policeman. In this case I do remember the event, but different. As I recall I felt I was being threatened by the stranger, though I cannot recall his showing a weapon or otherwise making a threat. It may have been something in his voice, or the grease that ringed his eyes. I did take him to the ATM but that was not my idea. I didn’t have three hundred dollars for a stranger. Never have.

I did see the policeman this time, and I saw that he was watching me across the street. This was at the ATM. I kept waiting for him to do something. He averted his eyes whenever I looked. He was tossing things on the ground: small plastic bags filled with white powder, switchblades, pill bottles, counterfeit cash, a handgun, syringes. I decided I was being tested.

*

When I ask the policeman what he was doing that night he asks me do I read the news. He says it is the latest trend in law enforcement. You throw dangerous, illegal, and fascinating materials on the ground. You go and hide and wait. When someone bends to pick something up, you arrest the person, who has now become a perpetrator, or you shoot them, depending on the item’s criminality. “Innovation,” he says, “is essential.”

I ask him is that legal.

He tells me not to tell him how to do his job.

He asks me, “What’s your morning routine?”

“I’m not sure,” I say.

“Breakfast?”

“Pop-tarts.”

“Shower?”

“Always.”

“Do you listen to the radio at all?” he asks me.

I ask him what difference it makes if I listen to the radio sometimes. He says he’ll be the judge of that. “No,” I say. “I don’t listen to the radio at all. In fact I hate it.”

He says, “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me, then.” He says, “I listen a lot. Especially oldies.”

He says, “Next best thing to time travel.”

He says, “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me.”

For a moment he stops taking notes, twists hair at the back of his neck between his fingers till the hair comes out.

*

I saw him more often thereafter. He was sometimes in his car, sometimes on foot, sometimes circling my block on his bike. His uniform was black some days and others it was blue. He rose in the ranks, I think, or in any case accrued new silver pins for his pockets, cuffs, and collar. I wanted several times to invite him into my apartment and take his hat. I would hang it on my much-neglected hat rack and ask him what was wrong. I could see he was worried. Most of the time though I was afraid of him, and I was tempted, stupidly, to call the cops. I could see he was mean and small. He adjusted the waistband of his pants too often. He always had to retie his shoes. I don’t know why that bothered me. One day he pushed a kid down on the pavement. The kid had touched his car and maybe he looked like trouble, but he wasn’t. He just sat there on the pavement and stared at the policeman through the spread of his scraped, bleeding knees.

I never saw the policeman’s camera. I did, however, feel observed. I began to watch myself for symptoms of criminality. I stopped littering. I decided to be more careful about what I did and saw online. I stopped burning mix CD’s for friends, stopped stealing mp3s, stopped listening to the ones I’d already stolen. Deleted them from my computer. Began to regard my friends with suspicion. Perhaps he thought I was part of a drug ring, perhaps someone I knew really was. Maybe I was somehow their mule. I watched my bag more closely at the gym. I studied their faces for sin. They studied me, too, and I wondered if he was also watching them, or if they had their own police to keep them straight.

The night before he came for me I broke contact with my brother. This was like saying goodbye to a girl. We did it at a bar to keep things professional. I bought the first pitcher and then he let me buy the second. The policeman was watching from a table in the corner, hat occupying the space beside him but otherwise in uniform, which I do not think is permitted in a bar. Or perhaps it’s just nobody does it. I was glad and nervous to have him there because I thought my brother might want to fight me, or I might want to fight him.

After the second pitcher was drunk and we had talked through all our shared interests (DC comics, especially Green Lantern, the Sox, the stock market neither of us had a stake in) it came to the point.

I said, “I don’t think I want to see you anymore.”

My brother looks a lot like me. When when he gets emotional he looks like I do when I practice emotions in the mirror. Just now he looked like me pretending to feel stricken.

“Forever?” he said.

“For a while.” I tried and failed to get a little more out of my glass. It was only a thin layer of foam at the bottom. “Maybe two, three decades.”

“We’ll be old men,” he said.

I told him that’s what I was counting on.

He said he valued me as a brother and a friend. He looked like me pretending to be near tears. He asked me what he did.

“Don’t play stupid,” I said. Our father was dead. We disagreed about our father.

“You should have spoken at the funeral,” he said. “If we’re not going to see each other anymore then I’m just going to say it.”

“You already said it,” I told him. I wanted badly to touch his hand, so I didn’t.

“I know I did but then I stopped, but now I’m just going to say it if we aren’t going to see each other anymore, I’ll say you should have spoken at the funeral, and you don’t deserve his money.”

“He should have given it to you?”

“He should have given it to me.”

“I’m the one he hit,” I said. “I deserved it.”

“It was one time,” says my brother, and now he looks like me pretending to be outraged. “You rode that for all it was worth, though, didn’t you? And in the end he gave you everything, because you convinced him you deserved everything, and you gave him nothing back, and you gave nothing up.”

“Well,” I said. “I guess I’m a shit, then.”

He said, “I’ll drink to that.” But there was nothing in his cup and he didn’t get up. I saw that he meant for me to buy another pitcher. I saw that he was trying to spend my inheritance, that he meant to drink it. I got the pitcher anyway. When he said he wanted shots I bought us good tequila. My brother tried to ask me why I would be this way to him, why I would do this, why I wouldn’t see him anymore, but I was paying for everything so I didn’t see why I should have to talk as well. The policeman drank more when we drank more, but he never seemed to feel it. Like it disappeared inside him. He kept shifting in his seat as if it itched him.

When we were done and I had settled the tab I followed my brother out to the parking lot. He was done trying to talk to me, which was how I wanted it. His back was turned on me. I touched it like I wanted to return his wallet. He turned around with a face like the face I make in the mirror when I pretend I am going to explode.

I wrapped my arms around him. It was like a hug if a hug were nothing to do with love. If it were only a way of making a person stand in one place, trapped, for as long as you wanted him there, then that’s what I did. He put his chin on my shoulder, which required lifting his eyes from the ground, because I am taller. His heels left the ground.

I watched him go.

The next day the policeman came for me as I was leaving my apartment. He had his handcuffs out and open. I almost ran. He asked for my hands. I gave them to him, I asked him what was wrong. He said, “You’re the best person I’ve ever known.” The way he said it was reverent but also resentful. He loved me and he hated me for it. He touched my face. I said I thought that was inappropriate. He said I was right. I asked him was he going to read me my rights. He said I was under arrest, and I had the right to stay that way, and to talk with him. He loaded me up in the car – the backseat, like a criminal – and took me home to his apartment.

On the way he told me what he’d seen me do, about these and other things. How kind I was, how generous, how full of human fellow feeling. It sounded like another person, one I didn’t recognize. I told him I was stupid and ugly inside. I told him what I did to my brother even though he saw it. I told him he had me all wrong.

He told me how much he admired me. How he was determined to make the world look more like me.

His praises were punctuated, though, by screaming – obscenities hurled at other drivers, at people he saw on the street whose look he didn’t like, at his car itself. He kept the windows shut and so they couldn’t hear him, but I did, and I knew that whatever kind of man I was the policeman was not kind.

*

I ask him when he’s going to let me go, or at least undo the cuffs. He says soon enough. He asks me do I want another soda. I tell him no but then I regret it; I’m thirsty.

He says, “Tell me about your childhood.”

I lie about my childhood because I don’t want him to think being hit will make little boys grow up into kind men, though sometimes I believe this myself.

He says, “Tell me about work.”

I tell him my job requires no vital energies, no creativity, no intelligence at all. He writes it down.

He says, “Are you religious?”

I tell him I know and like several deeply religious people.

He asks me do I manage money well. I tell him I am pretty good with money.

He says, “I’m terrible with money.” He says, “That’s the trouble with living on takeout, and with living alone. You spend so much money just eating, and then you spend the rest trying to feel less alone.” He says I make him feel less alone. He does not ask me if I like him too, probably because he knows I don’t.

In his apartment the walls are white, though stained with condiments and pencil lead. There are clots of something in the carpet, which is twisted into knots and knobs by the filth. There are no dishes in the sink, but the garbage and the counters are loaded up with paper plates. There are picture frames filled with unappealing people on the fridge, the end tables, and so on. These people are I guess his family. They peel potatoes. They hold hands. This home is an ugly home. His body is an ugly body. Does he feel the way I feel inside his home and body.

“I am an ugly, awful man,” he says, “and there are reasons. There are always reasons for everything and everyone, and how they are, and where. That’s the first thing cons will teach you. It’s not their fault. There are reasons. So why should it be mine? How can I fix me? How can I make my heart a good, warm thing? How can I be healthy again? How can I love, and be loved?”

He waits for my answer, chewed-to-shit pen poised over the notepad, eyes fixed on the table, humble as a slanted rock resembling a downcast face.

*

When he brought me up to his apartment, the first thing he did was show me his photos. He had hung them up on the living room walls behind his television set, between the windows, and so on. Some of them were normal sizes. Some of them were blown up very large. It was me in the photos. It was not a me I recognized.

There I was handing the wallet to the stranger. My face was soft. It was just as the policeman described it.

“No,” I said, “this isn’t me. I am a scum.” And I meant it. And I am a scum.

There I was holding the library door as a hundred people filed out. There I was, inside, orange parka folded up beneath my chair, reading The Rise of Silas Lapham, which I do not remember.

And other things I have not said here.

There I was giving the stranger my $300. I looked glad to do it. There I was reaching out to shake his hand. I looked like I look in the mirror, pretending to be good and brave and true.

“No,” I said, “he made me do that. And I never tried to give my hand.”

“No,” I said, “I am a shit.” And I meant it, and I am a shit. The photos don’t prove otherwise. I don’t know what they prove. They are up there on his wall, and I am down here, and we are separate things. I tried to explain but he wouldn’t hear me.

He said, “Please, tell me how you are you.” He was sweating. I could smell it. I wanted to tell him he made me think of a cat box.

There I was in the parking lot with my brother, his heels lifted from the pavement, his head tilted up to hook his chin over my shoulder. I had assumed he was crying or angry or ill. I had assumed his heart was broken. There, in the picture, he looked relieved. I could not see my face in the picture, only my back, hard and miserable as I remember. I could see my brother’s face, and he looked like I feel when I am happy, when I’m at peace, when I know I’ve done good.

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