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The Waking
by Felicia C. Sullivan


METROPOLITAN DESK
Metro Briefing, NYT Emily Jacobs | Manhattan : LES: Man Found Dead In Window
A 300-pound man was found dead on Monday afternoon, lodged partway through the bedroom window of his first-floor apartment, said the police. The man, Dwight Heinrich, 37, was trying to crawl out of his window, the police said. Detective Capt. Mark Kantz said Mr. Heinrich may have suffocated when he got stuck.

~

     Dwight sits on the sofa watching the kitchen from the hour when the table is a breakfast table to the hour when it is a supper table. He has taken a woman, rents her by the hour. For the past six months, the woman peels garlic cloves, dices pearl onions and hums Patsy Cline. She arrives at 4:15 and leaves at seven, placing four hot plates for him on the windowsill. Mondays it is mutton and green peas, the garlic roasted potatoes are sequestered to the edge of the plate. Vegetables must not touch meat, starches and breads must not be near liquid of any form. These are Dwight’s instructions and the woman follows them. For those few hours each day, he hawks her, watches her every movement. A hint of her black cherry perfume binds to the threads of the hand towels she uses and it sinks deep into the carpet in which she walks. Her scent is everywhere. He notices that she is a woman obsessed with her hands, using layers of thick band-aids to cover the smallest of paper cuts. When she uses the bathroom, Dwight leans against the door and hears the scrip-scrape of the nail file and the buffer’s gristles as she shapes and smoothes her nails. In her purse, she carries dozens of travel sized moisturizers. Lotions that smell of carrot and honeydew. Plum perfumed pomades. He loves the scent she brings in and the fact that it lingers a little longer when she leaves.
     Fridays, he has the feast of kings, roasted New Zealand rabbit and exotic vegetables from pricey gourmet stores: poblano peppers, jicama and dragon tongue beans. Dwight likes the purple speckled beans that taste faintly of saline and when he eats it, he feels more like a man. He lets the words dragon tongue roll in his mouth and linger. Always peach ice-cream with rainbow sprinkles for dessert.
     Now one would imagine a wide-screen television in Dwight’s home, cans of cheap beer, perhaps. Glossy magazines of naked women fondling household appliances. None one of these things interest Dwight, he is fond of poetry. A quatrain, iambic hexameters, sestinas – the arrangement of words marvels him. Thousands of books crowd the bookshelves, floors and the two bathrooms of his large apartment. Dwight has all that one should read but he is obsessed with the Minnesingers – thirteenth century German poets who often wagered their lives on their courtly love lyrics. The poet who lost one of the many battles would first have their hands and feet bound with chicken wire. Chin resting on a butcher’s block, the winner would cut out the loser’s tongue and gift it to his family wrapped in a scroll.
     Dwight firmly believes that people talk entirely too much.
     He applauds Keats’s bold enjambments in the sonnets and odes and feels pity for the poor poet who was never the social equal of Byron and Shelley. At night, Dwight has dreams of the lascivious Byron and the patrician Shelley waving their degrees from Eton Oxford and Cambridge . Dwight imagines the two poets mocking the genius, imitating his Cockney accent. They taunt poor Keats who crouches over translations of the Greek masters and myths. They say, we know this tongue, we can read the original. And it is always then that Dwight remembers prep school and more than anything, he has always wished he could have stomped down the halls of a public high school, slamming metal lockers and complaining on the lunch line about the mystery meat.
     At Andover, Dwight was a plump boy who never fit into his uniform; his shirt was always wrinkled and stained with ketchup or juice. He took Latin, Humanities, and English classes on the classics and the modernists and he kept careful notes in his wide-ruled notebook. But he never fit in. Dwight couldn’t understand it – there was Danny Clare who had him by thirty pounds and he was adored by everyone, even dated a few girls from the sister school and even Charlie Fink, who never brushed his teeth and waxed political, talking about how blacks in this country were wrongfully viewed as second class citizens. Still, Charlie and Danny were invited to parties where the fathers drank Laphroaig scotch and the mothers held court in the parlor in homes that had a patina of history, a reserved aristocracy, and a quieter age. Dwight’s father was in the forefront of Modernist architecture; he designed flat-roofed houses with sheer walls with no window architraves or raised lintels, no pediments, casings, cornices, and most of all no color. Like the Ford car, Dwight’s father would only build white houses. So his father had made this money and could afford to send Dwight to this privileged school and the kids looked down on him. Heartbroken, he escaped to the library. Packs of cheese doodles and ginger snaps, he climbed the steep stairs of the library that resembled a Gothic cathedral. Inside, he always gasped at the thousands of rows of beautiful, rich books with worn spines and heavy yellowed pages. It was here that Dwight sought refuge. He called this library home.

     Recently, he has asked the woman to join him for dinner. He is comforted by her breathing, that for a little while longer there is another sound other than his own. Dwight watches her eat his favorite dishes, cutting the chicken into miniscule bites, always hiding the chicken and beef under the blanket of greens. She chews on asparagus spears and inhales all of the pasta dishes. Dwight learns that she majored in philosophy at Fordham, studied Descartes, Voltaire, Kierkegaard and Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne’s Essays fascinated her. Man is quite insane. He wouldn’t know how to create a maggot, and he creates Gods by the dozen.
     Through all of these dinners, Dwight spoke a handful of times. Once he asked, “You don’t believe in God?”
      “If there was a god, you think I would be doing this?” she deadpanned and returned to her food.
      “I suppose not,” Dwight replied.
     When the woman asked Dwight to tell her about his family and his home, he started to describe the library at Andover , the smell of its waxed floors and mahogany bookcases. He told her about the tulip shaped lamps that resembled the old oil ones. Fondly, he remembered his evenings with Miss Beetle, who sat at the circulation desk and hoarded Pope, Baudelaire, John Clare and Keats like savory lime sweets. She’d doled out the small books to Dwight and said, “It seems like you could use a friend.” She’d gifted him pomegranates in the autumn and apples from the orchards of Pleasant Pond in the winter. Munching on plump grapes, Ms. Beetle held Coleridge close and said, “Samuel’s an old friend.”
     When he told the woman all of this, she drew back, confused. “I meant your home, the house you grew up in,” she said.
     Dwight said, “But that was my home.”
     The woman left it alone.
     As the weeks passed, she never questioned why Dwight rarely spoke; she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess that’s your way.” And the woman continued to cook and they continued to eat.

     Now she stands before him in his living room and asks, “Do you need anything else?”
      “No,” he says, and then reconsiders. “Please don’t chew gum in the house. And the platform shoes, they must go, I’m afraid. They damage the wood. I can’t bare scratches in the wood. And the horrible sound they make…” Pressing his hands to his ears, he stills the vibration his voice has made. This is the longest string of words he’s uttered in weeks. His stomach spills over his trousers. Patting it, he says, “Sssh,” as if quieting a small child.
     The woman’s sticky hair that formed a canopy over her head droops.
     When the woman opens her mouth to say, Fine, Dwight turns on the vacuum cleaner. “Don’t speak, please.”

~

     The woman is late. By twelve minutes. This irritates Dwight – the fact that the woman is careless with time when he has specifically told the service that the woman must always be on time. At the corner of his block, he shuffles in place, uneasy in his own shoes. The leather is stiff and the narrowness of the loafer pinches his feet. Because one foot is a size larger than another, his shoes are custom made. He can’t bear to walk into a crowded shop and explain that he needs two pairs of the same shoe, that one foot is a size twelve and the other, ten. Department stores make him cringe with lithe young mothers wheeling their children about in Burberry strollers in the autumn plaids, the blaring fluorescent lights, chipper women spraying cologne in his face and the dozens of signs that read, SALE ! 50% BUY NOW! LIMITED TIME ONLY! He can’t manage all the pressure, the endless options. Who invented the midnight sale? Dwight prefers catalogues with pages of mute men. Now, online shopping has eliminated the need to deal with pesky customer service representatives who try to sell him polish for his new shoes. Easing his foot out of one loafer, he looks left, then right, waiting for the woman to come. Where is she? He wonders whether she has forgotten her daily appointment, he has never conceived of her life outside the confines of his octagon apartment. He wants to call the service, see if everything is okay, but he doesn’t want to hear a representative say, Well, she’s only fifteen minutes late, she’ll be there soon. Dwight doesn’t want to appear anxious, frightened, although he now finds himself consulting his stopwatch every minute on the minute.
     He sees the woman down the street. In heels too high, she teeters on the sidewalk, the wibble-wobble of her plump thighs quivering with each step. Cloaked in a black turtleneck sweater and a thin wool skirt, her ivory complexion looks frail, paper thin as if the slightest breeze would lift her skin up and away, leaving her with skeleton. She doesn’t see Dwight, her head is bent over her purse and she’s searching for something. Finally, she withdraws a long stemmed cigarette holder from her purse, the kind that was fashionable in the forties, and after lighting a cigarette, she stops and puffs desperately. She appears to need this moment, this tiny fire burning paper, these thick inhalations of nicotine. She wraps both arms around her, cradling herself as ashes tumble to the concrete. Dwight hides behind a Jeep parked next to a mulberry tree. Although she stands in the middle of the street, if he walked towards her, Dwight would feel somewhat cruel, having interrupted her private space. So he crouches and watches her instead and he wonders which of the two actions is less cruel.
     When she finishes her cigarette, the woman unearths a pair of Chinese slippers out of her bag and with one foot, then another; she replaces the leather heels with the satin. Her pace quickens and she strides past Dwight, heading for his building.
     Exactly eight minutes later, he stands behind her while she rings his doorbell. He stares at her milk skin and wants to bite her. With the pad of his finger, Dwight taps her on the shoulder and she jolts back in surprise.
      “I didn’t hear you walk up,” she says, leveling her voice. “You scared me to death.”
     Dwight shrugs and opens the door.
      “You’re late,” he says, eyes fixated on the carpet as they walk to his door.
      “My daughter,” she begins and Dwight can see her wince, as if this is the last thing she wants to tell him. Then she tells him that it started with a cough. She gave her daughter some syrup with a touch of whiskey and read her Dr. Seuss. Holly woke in the middle of the night, splotchy, drenched in her own sweat and she had vomited all over her comforter. She had spit up blood. The woman took Holly to Beth Israel on Kings Highway and waited in the emergency room for five hours before a woman in white shoes flipped through her paperwork. Sighing, the aide asked, “Name of insurance provider.”
     Meanwhile, Holly was shaking in a plastic chair watching re-runs of All in The Family. Soaked in her pajamas, the little girl walked over to her mother and tugged at her sweatpants, “Edith has cancer, mommy,” she said. Next to her, a woman clutched her stomach. “Ayudame,” she shouted, “Quiero ver luces.” The volume on the aide’s easy listening station grew louder.
      “She’s with my mother now,” the woman says, picking lint off her sweater. “It was just a fever. Five hundred dollars for a doctor to tell my child to take Tylenol.” And the woman continues to tell him unkind things. A year after she was to leave her husband for committing adultery, she gave birth to her first child, a son. The child came out with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, his skin, a metallic blue. For months, the woman lay in her bed, mute, with a cool towel on her neck. Her husband held vigil; he filled the rooms with red poppies and violets, brought hot soup and noodles in white cartons but she continued to lay still. Finally, he left.
      “I won’t trouble you with the rest,” she says. “So I guess you can see how scared I am. Every cough, every sneeze – I don’t know.”
     The woman pauses in Dwight’s living room, putting a hand to her mouth, as if she has said too much, has let too many words escape. Dwight looks down at her shoes, deep violet with embroidered dragons. The way the lights hits the silk, it looks too vulgar, too bright and Dwight wants to take them off, offer her fuzzy socks. Instead he reaches up on his shelf and pulls down a book of Whitman’s poems and tears a page from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. With a pen, he circles the line, It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, and hands the page to the woman. He smiles, satisfied.
     Confused, she shakes her head and gathers her things. “This was a mistake.”
      “No,” Dwight begins. He tries to explain that the poem will make her see that she isn’t alone – there are hundreds of books here written by his silent sad friends. Drunkards, absinthe and cocaine addicts, dwarves and the ugliest of men are made beautiful by their words. But the woman doesn’t understand.
      “What is so tragic about your life? You have a home that you inherited and you never will have to worry about money or food. Tell me,” she repeats, “what’s so tragic about your life?”
     Dwight mutters something under his breath and when the woman says, “What? I can’t hear you”, he turns away and stares at the bookcases that tower over him.
      “I give you my story and you give me a poem,” the woman says and closes the door behind her.
     Dwight doesn’t understand. This has all gone terribly, terribly wrong. The woman reads Montaigne; she’s obsessed with all the right philosophers. Of all people, she should understand the soothing comforts of the words of dead men. Moving towards the door, Dwight suddenly feels apoplexy, crippled, unable to move one foot in front of the other. Who would cook his rabbit rare? Sauté his sprouts? No more dinners, no more fractioned conversations. He would have to start over, get used to the smell of someone else’s skin. And all those endless tasks – the finding of the woman, the mutual getting used to, showing her the dishes are here, the towels are there and the please don’t speak unless spoken to – was impossible to bear. Dwight must stop the woman from leaving.
     Charging towards the window, he grunts and huffs to open the window and when his face turns a shade of turnip, he realizes the window is locked. He lifts the extraordinarily heavy glass and it only raises half-way. He squeezes himself through and he can only get so far through when he shouts, Phoebe! This is the first time Dwight has ever uttered the woman’s name but he yells it repeatedly as if the two syllables are completely familiar. Phoebe turns and looks at him and shakes her head. She keeps walking. Dwight keeps shouting and he feels the weight of the pane bear down on his back and his chest presses into the metal slat at the window’s base. Breathless, he continues to shout the woman’s name.



About the author:
Felicia C. Sullivan is a New York based writer attending Columbia University's MFA program. Her work has been published in
Post Road Magazine, Carve Magazine, The Oklahoma Review, and The Adirondack Review, among many other publications. Work is forthcoming in Drunken Boat, Bold Type, and Word Riot. She is the Founder & EIC of an online literary journal, Small Spiral Notebook. A self-professed yoga junkie and culinary goddess, she loves French pastries and wearing down the jackets of her favorite novels. Felicia is a co-curator of the non-fiction series at KGB Bar in NYC and she can be reached at felsull@hotmail.com



© 2011 Word Riot

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