Albedo One is delighted to bring you this fine story from Laurence Klavan as our Albedo 2.0 Fiction Showcase #10 for Summer 2015. Laurence has been published in more than thirty literary magazines and a collection of his short work, “The Family Unit” and Other Fantasies, was published in 2014 by Chizine. He wrote the novels The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script (Ballantine) and is co-author with Susan Kim of the current YA series, Wasteland (Harper Collins) and the graphic novels, City of Spies and Brain Camp (First Second). He is an Edgar Award winner and a Drama Desk nominee for his theater work, including the libretto to “Bed and Sofa” (Vineyard Theater, NY; Finborough Theatre, London).
“The Urban Dweller” by Laurence Klavan
“Do you remember?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.
That didn’t stop him, of course: Italo began to regale Pearl with the story of how they‘d met, in all its detail. It was their twelfth anniversary.
“I was walking behind you,” he said. “It was on Second Avenue between Twentieth and Twenty-First. You had a recyclable grocery bag with a French bulldog’s face on it…”
“I had lost one with a Scottish Fold cat’s face on it…”
“Exactly—sorry I left that out—and the bag was piled so high that some of the food began to come out over the top…”
“As if jumping from an overcrowded rooftop to safety…”
“Right. The oranges were the bravest, the first to escape, rolling over the side and down the street…”
“Two, a couple of oranges…”
“That’s right, sorry. And for a strange second I watched them go, roll, run, their futures unknown, impossible to predict. Would they be squashed by a car or would only one be crushed, leaving the other bereft and grieving? Or would they just keep going who knew where, never to be seen again? Or end up eaten by someone? Or never be eaten at all, simply rot side by side, growing soft together, then turning black and smaller and smaller until they seeped into the cement and disappeared?” Italo blinked, as if emerging from a trance. “Anyway, I ran for them and brought them back to you, holding one in each hand, breast-high, like a sailor playing a woman and wearing a coconut bra. That’s what you said, so I knew you were saucy and I was interested. I knew I’d be one of many.”
Pearl nodded, appreciative but also a bit quizzical. “That part about the oranges possibly disintegrating together, that was new, wasn’t it?”
Italo paused. He realized that it was, and that made him self-conscious, so he didn’t say. “Was it?”
“Yes.” Pearl was very sure.
“Well, if that’s the case, I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Just a—surprise, that’s all.” She said the word as if it meant something minor but unpleasant, a stuffed mushroom hors d’oeuvre dropped on her expensive dress. Then she brushed it off, as it were, assuming it would come out in the wash. “Happy anniversary,” she said and caught herself before saying “anyway,” Italo thought.
He brought his champagne flute against hers, and the clink sounded like a bell that banished everything bad that came before, like the gong that announces a new round in a prize fight, a fresh start even if you’re bleeding or have a broken nose. That’s how Italo heard it.
Then they continued, recounting everything that had happened to them after they’d met, not moment by moment but it might have seemed that way to anyone listening from another century, before or after the human modifications were made. This time, Italo was careful not to add anything new, just to include a few incidents he left out at other times, so it wasn’t unnerving but reassuring, like running into an old friend.
Afterwards, holding hands, they went into the bedroom, maneuvered their way along the little path they had carefully carved out around their possessions, which were piled high on either and every side. Towers of papers and books and clothes and boxes and bags seemed to gaze down on them appraisingly, like the talking trees in “The Wizard of Oz,” the DVD of which (and the books and games and toys related to it from their childhoods, as well as virtually every other item from that time and the times after—and all of their belongings had been combined when they got married, of course) there, as well.
When they reached the bedroom, Italo gave his call, which sounded like a sneeze. Then he chased Pearl around the room—as best he could, in the maze-like gaps between the framed pictures, dolls, financial papers, baseball mitts and everything else stacked on the floor and brushing the ceiling light fixtures. Then Pearl let him “catch” her and they climbed onto the bed where he mounted her from behind and moved once, after which it was over, as it would have been for the vast majority of people alive.
On the bus to work the next day, Italo looked out the window with a strange feeling of restlessness retained from the night before. He assumed that everyone he saw was like him but knew there might be a few outliers, or so it was said, sprinkled among the masses like spies (or someone in that old “Waldo” game, which was somewhere in their apartment, too, maybe in the hall leading to the john). When he got off, he passed a small park and saw squirrels, one of which was digging to bury and keep a piece of pretzel. As ever, Italo fed it with whatever he had for that purpose in his pocket: this morning it was a peanut. Today, it made him feel funny—grateful but also strange and even borderline resentful, the way you would hearing an ancestor recount once again his sufferings and sacrifice that had allowed you to live (he imagined that in the twitchy little face was a quality of entitlement or smugness, as if the squirrel were thinking, “Without being given my resistance to the plague, your whole race would be dead by now”). He felt that his daily—unnecessary, guilty—feeding was a form of tribute and that annoyed him about himself. Suddenly, his hand holding the nut tensed and the squirrel sensed a threat and instead of taking the food nipped at him and ran away, tail flared, freaked out.
Italo cursed, seeing a little bubble of blood emerge from the space between his thumb and forefinger, as if the squirrel had struck oil on him. He didn’t worry about getting rabies for the rodent seemed fine (and that’s what it was, after all, a rodent, what he and most everyone else were, too, face it, part-rodent, anyway, with all their hoarding and dwelling, not of nuts or acorns but memories and things). In fact, today he was indifferent enough to his own health that he yanked a free newspaper out from its rack on the street and used it to sop up the spreading spill of blood, contamination from newsprint (or whatever it was they used these days) be damned.
That was when he saw, stained with his blood turning brown, the classified ad.
“STUDIO FOR SUBLET. RIV VIEW. PLENTY OF SPACE. UNUSUAL OPPORTUNITY. ANIMALS OKAY.”
Sprinkled among the words were expressions sometimes said to secretly identify those people not like Italo—and Pearl and the Brodys and the Patels and the Kims and everyone else they knew and socialized with and worked for. On any other day, he would have ignored it or not even noticed. But today (it had really begun last night), he felt led by drift and desire, he didn’t know why. So Italo went to the address instead of to work (let him be a little late designing houses on stilts and reinforced basements to keep away the rains).
The door opened only an inch and a small female face peered out over the chain. She was less squirrel than faun, Italo thought, younger than he with a close-cropped haircut and eyes bigger than they had any business being.
“I’m here about the ad,” he said.
“Did you read it?” she asked.
“Yes, I just said I…”
“Really read it?”
And now he knew it was true what they whispered about the words in the ad; he had just never bothered (or been itchy enough) to inquire.
“Yes,” he said, trying to give the answer meaning. Bad actor though he was, he was good enough to make her open up.
Italo entered a studio apartment, and barely that, with no kitchen, just a hot plate, and a bathroom so narrow he bet you couldn’t close the door while on the can. It was so spare it seemed to stretch into eternity like an ocean or a desert; it had two chairs, a bed, a TV and a computer, whatever you needed now. Italo could see the floor, which wasn’t clean, just scuffed parquet, but beautiful because it was visible.
He noticed the woman kept her distance but was not as far away as he would have predicted, her not being modified and so protected from what he might carry. He knew his breath could reach her as her perfume did him. (He had no nose for flowers but it was, what, roses?)
“I’m Simone,” she said.
“Italo.” He didn’t offer his hand, assuming she wouldn’t want it. She noticed his reticence and seemed amused by it. She gave a little wave to mock him, he thought.
Italo made to look around, as if actually interested in the apartment; but he simply liked luxuriating in its tiny expanse, striding like a rancher surveying all his acres in a Western film. It didn’t take him long to reach the window over a fire escape, which was overflowing with stuff from other tenants and so unusable.
“Why are you sub-letting it?” he asked, going for casualness.
Simone shrugged. “I keep on the go. If I stay in one place for too long…Anyway, I’ll have lots of time to be still.”
Italo nodded. It was true what they said about the younger generation: This girl’s parents had opted out of the program and so bred a rebel. Now she took her chances, a new one every day.
“So, are you interested?” she said.
“Yes,” he said, surprising himself how fast.
There was a pause. He began to talk about himself, to relate as much of his life as possible while standing there, to provide his “references,” which in his case could take days. Knowing this was his instinct, she put a hand at his mouth to stop him. He felt stymied, but it wasn’t bad. Her fingers absorbed whatever was on his lips and she didn’t wipe it off, so she had given him her own information without saying a word. Then he fumbled for what came next.
“Do you want security?” Italo asked.
She laughed, thinking he was communicating in code, but he wasn’t that imaginative.
“No,” she said. “Not at all.”
He began to back out, awkwardly. “I’ll come back,” he said, secretly doubting that he ever would.
“Please,” he heard her say, in the hall.
That night, Pearl saw the Band-Aid on Italo’s hand and asked how he had hurt himself. He told her the truth—at length—but stopped after the squirrel.
“You don’t have to feed them every day,” she said. “It’s like you think if you don’t, they’ll attack you. The way people used to pay ‘protection’ money to the mob. They’re not your enemy. You should appreciate what they’ve given us, even if they had no idea. I wonder why you’d think that way.”
Italo nodded, knowing that Pearl was smart, which was why it unsettled him when he couldn’t find the free newspaper any more that night. He assumed she’d thrown it out.
After they related all the events of their days—Pearl was a wine importer but Italo hardly drank beyond the occasional champagne toast—they went to bed and he dreamed that he ate only oranges.
The next day, Italo had to find the apartment by memory and, sweating, rang four bells before he found the right one. It was the first thing he had ever forgotten and, of course, he hadn’t, not really.
“So,” Simone said, when he showed up. “Are we good?”
She was standing even closer than the day before, and her place was even emptier. Most of her few belongings were now in boxes.
“Yes,” he said. “But I’ll have to give you the first month in cash.” He and Pearl had a joint checking account, but he didn’t say that.
Italo fumbled out what he had in his wallet but it wasn’t nearly enough. He stood there, stupidly, the bills in his hand like so much dust. He thought of how they would disintegrate, like people, no matter how much past they had: This was what it meant to be human, to disappear as you went, to be erased at every instant. Both he and Simone knew this but only she lived as if it were true. It made her seem insane, but was that so bad?
“It costs a lot more than that,” she said, amused at him again.
“I know.” He was helpless to explain.
“It’s all right,” she shrugged. “You can pay by the day. It’ll be different for you.”
It was no longer an actual transaction: Had it ever been? She did all the advancing, for Italo still felt awkward—worse, petrified—about what he could expose her to. Yet she seemed to submerge herself completely in his touch and kiss, everywhere his threat dwelled. On the boundless floor, she showed him what it was like to see someone’s face when you loved them, and Italo thought her expressions were like stars in the sky, shining, flickering, falling. She taught him, too, how to hold off for more than a minute before you ended it (it took three times). When they were—finally—finished, amazed and appalled at himself, he said,
“I’ve never mated when it wasn’t spring,” except, of course, he remembered, for his anniversary.
Italo paid half the rent for the month and Simone decided not to move just yet. She kept her boxes packed and their small number was touching to him; they held only cups and plates and towels, that type of thing. After love-making on the floor or in her little bed stripped of sheets, he would blurt out an incident from his past hoarded in himself, he couldn’t help it—how, for instance, his brother had once dislocated Italo’s knee by falling on it during a fight and then punched the bone back in place, which was true—and then he’d catch himself, seeing her stare off.
“What about you?” he’d say, feeling self-conscious and wanting her to join him, as one enlists another in a cult, kind of.
“I forget.” She kissed his mouth, rubbing her lips all over them to get all there was, good and bad. “What’s your name again? Just kidding.”
Though he knew she was only being nihilistic, as young people were, this hurt Italo’s feelings. Could he have been just anyone? Did she in fact do this all the time, move to find new men—and women? When he asked, she wouldn’t answer, because, she said, it had already happened. So he might never know.
Italo would come home late and act—he thought—the same as ever. But one night he noticed Pearl had one more wine than usual and didn’t ask his help to place the plastic liquor store bag atop a pile, nearly flying off the stepstool to the floor.
In the second week, daring to show up after staying late at work, tracing with his tongue the area between her right breast and back, Italo found that Simone had a swelling in her underarm. He said nothing but glanced up, met her eyes, and she nodded.
“It might be nothing,” he said, uneasily. “Or anything.”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
“There’s no…” He groped for what he wanted to say. “We don’t know if it’s me.”
“Almost everyone is still a carrier. But don’t worry, I’m not blaming you.”
Was that what he was worried about? That would be rodent-ish, in a whole other way. Italo leaned against the wall behind her bed, the cold concrete searing his bare back. It was one thing for her to be a lunatic, which she must have been, why else would she have done—always been doing—this? But how could he have been so crazy?
“It’s human,” she said. “What’s going to happen. And it won’t be today. Which is almost over, anyway.” She pointed out her small window, at the setting sun.
“That may be human,” he said, almost hysterical. “But it’s also human to…” And now he began to cry, making the squeaking or squirting sound that little animals make, squirrels which he felt were trapped inside him now, chasing around his chest as their immunities coursed through and bolstered his bloodstream: He had bawled when he was born but not since then.
There was no way to treat plague, of course: If drugs had still worked, no one would have had to start the program in the first place. Simone would have refused care, anyway. Italo knew that this was what she had wanted, all along.
She believed that every day was an entire life. Soon her bumps grew black (that was one day); then the black got blacker (another). Fingers that Italo had caressed and kissed fell off in his hand. He wrapped one in a page of the free newspaper but knew he’d have to put it in a freezer to preserve it, and at home it was impossible. So, where? At work. There, in the shared fridge, he taped a sign on the bag, saying, “Mine.”
As she became delirious, Simone mentioned the only thing that might have been a memory.
“We used to have a tree outside my window when I was a child,” she whispered, hoarsely, looking off as if seeing it again.
“What kind?” he asked.
“An orange tree,” she said, and so he knew that it was true.
After it was all over, he left her body tenderly arranged in her bed and called an ambulance to pick her up. Then he left the apartment.
That night, before Pearl came home, Italo drank more than usual—more than he ever had, actually, making sure that it was from one of Pearl’s best bottles, though he knew it wasn’t her fault. Deranged, stewed, he squeezed his way in and out of the retained objects of their lives, elbowing some, pushing others, making it so they fell and covered the paths like snow sinking from trees. Then he sat in his usual chair, old shoes and toys based on television shows and a college yearbook beneath him. Rain began outside and he didn’t know how hard it would fall, you never did (and the homes he built wouldn’t help, not forever; they too would one day be wrecked).
After awhile—he had no idea how long—the door opened and Pearl walked in. She stopped and stared at the chaos he had caused.
“What happened?” she asked, in a small voice.
“I don’t know,” he said, after a longish pause. “It all just collapsed.”
She did not ask anything else; she simply put down her umbrella and hung up her raincoat. Stepping more carefully than usual, she made her way to the kitchen and got her nightly glass of wine from the bottle he had left almost empty. Then she returned and sat opposite, in a chair from which she removed one of her old baby bibs. Pearl began to recount her day, minute by minute, then dwelled on tales of times and events before that.
Italo listened or heard her making sounds. When it came his turn to talk, he kept his mouth shut, out of respect for her. But that could not last forever. The recent events of his life were now piled high on top of all the others in his mind and one day he knew would come crashing from his mouth.