A Carapace for this Irredeemably Querulous Nature

I step out of the office and into the hall for an hors d’oeurve taste of corridor’d freedom, industrial-carpeted and fluorescent, tans and grays and whitishes with a texture at once abrasive and numbing, unsatisfying like a tease of a snack on a toothpick that’s been sitting out too long but is better than no food a’tall, and head to the men’s room.

He’s in there again, turning from a urinal and zipping up, and my heart does that sinking thing because I don’t know everything but I know what’s coming, and I want to rush over and clap my hand over his stupid mouth before either of us can make the human people word sounds, maybe just choke him out and be done with it, then drag the body to the back corner stall, whistling elfish and cheerful while I wash my hands and walk out like nothing happened because nothing did, just a little murder.

But I’m already speaking, before the anticipation and the thought form an action, homicidal or otherwise, and a single Howyuhdoin slips out of a mouth I thought was under my control. WELL THANKS HOW ARE YOU, his voice booms, clear and commercial, a parody of our unfortunate ability to locute, all enunciation and no heart like the words are big wooden blocks he’s arranged with infantile pride in some inchoate effort at communication, and I’m furious at the futility of being soft-spoken and hard-thought in a world full of empty-headed broadcasters so I kick his stupid fucking blocks all over the place and say I’m good.

My only wish is to evaporate so I stand there and hold rabbit-style still watching him without breathing in case that’s how that happens, thinking there’s strength in non-doing, weakness sometimes in action. It does not—quite. He looks at me quizzically and I wonder if he knows how to spell that, with all those z’s and l’s and such, because I always thought it had just one “z” the way “kat” only has one “t.” He probably does, because no one but a good speller could SPEAK IN SUCH NICE WORD BLOCKS and no one but a broadcaster could manage to look quizzically at another being without even a shred of a hint of curiosity, only an otherer’s sense of abnormality sensed and I’m at least placated for a moment, standing there motionless, staring, blinkless, my mouth slightly open, physiognomy frozen. I’ve got him cornered as a kat, door behind me, man against man.

But he breaks the spell and steps up to the sink and begins to roll up his cuffs. I abscond to a stall where I sit on the latrine to use it as a perch from which to watch him through the crack in the stall door. He talks into the mirror as he washes his hands and inspects his visage, talks about sports or the weather or politics or something, something immediate and mundane and I flush the toilet over the little deluge of nihility cascading from his facial orifice, imagining his words getting sucked down the drain.

Have you considered therapy, I ask, cutting him off. Honestly, for a year I was completely mental. The cost, the trouble of finding a decent therapist. What a nightmare.

Yeah, he says with utter dispassion.

Yeah, this is a nightmare, I think, contemplating the décor—all beige-brown, but almost warm-seeming, like someone who cares but has no taste. I stand, lift my trousers, zip and button them, fasten my belt, flip the latch, and open the door. He’s drying his hands with those sandpaper towels, facing the room’s far wall, the back of his dress shirt wrinkled and crinkled from all day in a desk chair with no breatheabilityness.

Oh, excuse me. You were talking. That’s what I say.

Oh, you’re fine, he says, without turning around.

You’re fine is something people say when other people apologize but it sounds less like acceptance and more like giving someone permission to exist, I think. Anyway, I said I was good, not fine.

Have you ever read Foucault’s History of Madness, I ask him in italics.

Foo-calt, he inquires?

Yes, Foo-calt, I say. It’s all in there.

What is?

Everything, all of it. You should pick it up sometime. But just open it, and be sure to do so in public, so people know you’re smart. Otherwise there’s no point.

He smiles, and I see him smiling because he’s facing me now and I’m facing him and it’s just like it was a few moments before, before I dashed into the stall for cover from a threat that didn’t seem to have the first clue that it was threating. He’s facing me but he’s not looking at me, still, again. Well, he’s looking at me but it’s as if he’s not seeing anything and I think of something Dany Laferrière said in an interview about being homeless—because he was once—about being looked straight through like it’s something people have always seen, with compassion, perhaps, but without the slightest surprise or recognition. I suppose it’s all in how we experience, how we choose.

Still smiling, he says alright, sounds good, and makes a move to walk past me and leave as if some manner of routine continuance would reestablish normalcy and what do I do but smash it all to bits by initiating the people-passing dance and stepping in the same direction.

Excuse me, he says. Shifting to the other side.

You’re fine, I say, sliding myself in front of him again. Right, left, right. I swear a brain circuit shorts and tiny puffs of smoke emit from his ears. He looks me in the eye, uncomfortable, perplexed, futilely soliciting an explanation like a dog when you take its toy away and hide it behind your back. It knows it’s there, somewhere, but isn’t too sure what you’ve done with it.

Ah, you see me now, don’t you, you fucker. But I don’t say that; I just look back, returning the perplexity, thinking yes, I see, this is the way to be visible.

fiction, photography


Chris R-0246 Image by Christine Renney

The noise coming from above has changed. I’m not sure how to describe the difference but it is louder, all the walking and talking, even the water rushing in the pipes sounds more urgent, more focused. And I don’t like it.
They arrived, an eruption of activity, and I suffered throughout the redecorating. All the hammering and the drilling and the scraping. The work is now complete and the noise is less frequent but when it comes it is in bursts, more eruptions. It seems that they are always in a hurry; forever readying for somewhere or something else.

I can hear their television but I doubt that they are sitting and watching. The music, when it comes through the ceiling, is a dense and muddy block. I suppose that in a club it would make sense but not here and, despite the volume, I can still hear them moving around but they aren’t dancing and they aren’t listening.

I have a key. My former neighbours pressed it on me, ‘in case of emergency,’ they said. I didn’t want to take it, didn’t want to be a part of anything minor or major that they might consider an emergency. ‘It’s just in case we lock ourselves out,’ she said, sensing my reluctance, ‘or if anyone needs to get in whilst we are away.’ ‘Of course,’ I had said, ‘of course I’ll take it.’
I had forgotten the key. It languishes in a drawer, alongside nuts and bolts, nails and screws, all the bits and pieces that one day might prove useful. Rummaging through, I fish it out. I hold it up to the light, reacquainting myself with it and I add it to my keychain although I am unsure why.
Having it is enough. It dangles from the ignition as I drive. Each time I unlock the door to my flat it jangles alongside the others on the chain and for a while it is enough.

I hear their door slam up on the landing. Their clatter and their chatter on the stairs and they are gone and it is quiet. But I am agitated and although they aren’t at home my anxiety doesn’t subside. When they switch the noise off it doesn’t go away and I can’t settle, not tonight.
I have the key in my hand again. I have removed it from the key-ring, separated it from the others so that I can hold it. I consider damaging it, rendering it useless, unusable but how? I could take a hammer to it I suppose, force a nail punch into the grooves or place it in a vice and squeeze until it is misshapen and won’t fit. But I don’t have a vice, I don’t even have a hammer. I could of course take the key out onto the pavement and drop it down the nearest drain or I could simply return it.

I had been required, the key had been needed. I had let someone in, a workman and there had also been a delivery. I remember two men carrying something up the stairs. A fridge freezer or a washing machine, and I watched as they struggled with it along the narrow hallway and disappeared into the kitchen.
I had waited out here on the landing, shuffling in the cold without a coat, and when the men had done what they needed to do, retrieving the key I had pulled the door to.

I haven’t been inside, I haven’t as much as stepped across the threshold but I have used this key before, I have unlocked the door before and so why shouldn’t I do so again? Who will know?
I almost slip on the veneered and shiny floor and my footsteps echo. I move slowly and try to stifle the clatter of my feet but I can’t, not up here, and of course it doesn’t matter. There isn’t any need for stealth. I am alone.
I move more quickly, now stamping and stomping loudly. I switch on the lights and, letting the flat glare, I take it in. All is uniform and strangely fresh. There is a fragrance in the air and, breathing deeply, I am reminded of an office. It is sparse – minimalist and modern, not built for comfort. It isn’t any wonder that the young couple can’t settle but they will of course move on. Perhaps together, perhaps not, but both of them will enjoy more, will have bigger and better. This is just a beginning.
I resist the urge to rifle through their belongings, to mess with the scatter cushions. And in the kitchen I sit on a high stool at the glass counter and wait.


fiction, life

Predestination Uncertain

Dream one. At a crowded beach on a warm, sunny day, big puffy white clouds in the sky that eventually overtook the sun, leaving its warmth behind but dimming the glare and gleam. With a few people, trying to decide if we should wait for the sun to return or be on our way. Cars were parked in a grass lot nearby, packed in. It was breezy and bustling, and felt like the kind of day when something might happen, relaxed but unsettled. I got up and left without a word.

Dream two, three days later. The sea again, but another beach, another time, in fact. Wider, broader, longer, slower. More space, more sand, more sky, more horizon, less severe and far fewer people. The sea was calm, blue, and shimmering and the hot sun poured down as if fixed in the sky high above and slightly out over the sea as if it had nowhere else to be. “It will sit there, right there in that spot all day,” I thought, “and nothing will change.”

I approached the shadowed side of a dark brick building, low with a gently slanting roof and a wide central corridor with iron gates open wide and fastened back against the brick. The kind of seaside building with bathrooms and lockers and vending machines. I approached the entry, the far end of the corridor framing the ocean like a painting, and found an information desk set back in a dark recess of the inner wall to my left. From the obscurity behind the desk emerged the dark, wrinkled face of an old man like an eel from its hiding place. I asked him a question and his response was kind and measured, something about where to swim. I wanted to get in the water but felt uncertain. In calm, unhurried tones, he told me where to go and I thanked him. He receded into his cave, shoulders, face, and, finally, eyes, and I continued through the corridor toward the sunlit beach, made a right, and set out along the dunes.

After a short trudge through soft, hot sand that burned the tops of my feet as they sank in, I came upon the end of a small, narrow inlet, so shallow and still that the water was transparent, about thirty yards from the waves’ innermost reaches. The inlet was not completely cut off from the tide, and the far-out waves caused occasional ripples on the pool’s surface. There was no one nearby, but I could see people out in the water, some walking through the flat, wet sand by the wavebreaks with children, some alone, some farther inland laying on towels or reclining in beach chairs. The sun radiated. The lightly roiling sea glistened and no one had a face. All was illumination, nearly blinding illumination.

I was carrying something, a bag or a box of some sort, and I set it down near the small pool, keeping it close. Then I stepped into the shallow water, only about thigh deep, and lay myself down, supine, trying to submerge all but my face in that tiny bit of water like it was a bathtub. Floating like that, I used my hands against the bottom to walk myself down the inlet a bit, out toward the sea and the waves, but the channel became too shallow and narrow for me to proceed any further. I could taste the salt water on my lips and noticed that I had forgotten what the ocean tasted like, it had been so long.

I drifted back to shimmering pool where I’d left my burden and got out, dripping. I walked back up the beach toward the brick building, hugging the grassy dunes. A faceless man ambling in the opposite direction asked me if it was nice in a tongue that I recognized but did not feel was my own. I nodded an affirmative, assuming he meant the water, and continued on my way.

Later, I found myself high up in a large building on the shore, standing before a wall of windows and gazing out at the spectacular oceanside panorama, down past the brick building, past the snaking dunes, into forever. A voice said “See? It’s coming,” and pulled me from my trance. The voice became a man standing beside me, pointing up the coast to my left at a mass of gray-black clouds bearing down on us, slowly, deliberately billowing and bulging and churning and consuming the luminescence all around. “Just in time,” I thought, as if the word were etched across the darkness, “good thing I didn’t go out any farther.”

fiction, photography


Chris R-0957 Image by Christine Renney

It struck Thomas as odd that he wasn’t repelled by his newest neighbour, who was very eccentric and extremely loud, the type of person Thomas had always gone out of his way to avoid. Strangely, he found himself drawn to the man and didn’t mind getting caught out on their communal landing or on the hard standing in front of the main entrance doors.
Thomas would happily stand alongside this man and talk, although he wasn’t required to do much of that. All he really needed to do was listen and nod along, getting the occasional word in whenever he could and often he would laugh because his neighbour was funny. Thomas had decided it wasn’t so much what the man said but how he said it. He had a gift for language, a way with words. It was as if he were reciting dialogue written by a talented playwright. And his outlook was slightly slanted and a little anarchic and Thomas enjoyed listening to him and looked forward to their encounters.

His wife had always found time for people like this man, the loners and misfits, the one who stood apart from the crowd. She had been more than polite, taking the time to talk and engage with them. Time and again, Thomas had found himself trapped alongside her, uncomfortable and mute. He had started to wonder if she wasn’t becoming a little eccentric herself and was readying to join their ranks. He realised now that he wouldn’t have minded if she had, that he would in fact have embraced it. And here he was, once again, standing with his newest neighbour, listening and laughing.

Thomas decided it was time to move this relationship, their friendship, to the next level. Half turning, and motioning toward the door to his flat he said, ‘Why don’t we go inside and I’ll get us some tea and we can make ourselves more comfortable.’
Turning again he realised that his neighbour had stopped talking and that, amazingly, he was lost for words.
‘Oh, ah,’ the neighbour spluttered, ‘that’s very kind of you but I’m far too busy. I have things I need to do.’
He was backing away and delving into his pocket for his key. Reaching his own door he looked back.
‘Thank you but no,’ he called, ‘perhaps another time.’


The Man (With the Hat)

This is the first quarter of a short story I more or less sort of finally finished the other day when I didn’t go to work because work has been wearing me out and I needed writing time. I don’t yet know what to call it, hence the parenthetical indecision in the title.

Of course she’s sweet about it, handing mister plump and dumpy the grey newsboy cap he’d dropped a moment ago from the upper level of the train car and waddled down the narrow twist of too-shallow steps to retrieve, draped in his mauve trenchcoat with the vague, shapeless presumption of slacks falling over scuffed and dismal black dress shoes as featureless as Joe Christmas’s brogans, nebulous man on a mission and I hate him like some kind of pudgy past self crowding pushing into now, this flashbacked possible impossible me. Oh impossible me.

I see him all the time, all the fucking time, waiting on the open-air platform in that hat and coat and featureless fucking material and dress brogans for the 5:15 back to the city, doughy and pale and red-nosed, looking like a pile of burdens, like burdensomeness itself, standing with that leaned-back posture of too much belly and too little backbone, sucking on a vaporizer and emitting wispy aroma clouds that smell suspiciously of air freshener. Every day, every fucking day, sipping in regular intervals from tall cans of cheap beer held firmly by sausage fingers with unsuitably elongated, almond-shaped tips and his thin, dark red lips, almost bruised plum purple and shaded by a narrow, bushy gray-brown Hitleresque mustache, reach out to grasp the rim of his beer cans like giraffe lips tempted by acacia. I wonder where he lives, what he does for a living, how he behaves in his natural habitat and what they feed him. It bothers me deeply that we ride the same train to anywhere, ever.

He carries a thermal lunchbox, a plastic bag of backup tallboys, and a shoulder-strapped kind of briefcase or satchel or something, surely full of papers, business papers, I presume. Or maybe it’s empty and just lugged around for legitimacy, his self-awareness in a handbag. Everything is kind of, almost, sort of, or something; he’s a big mound of imprecision and indefiniteness, and I can’t help thinking he’d be useless in an emergency or devoured in the wild. It’s strange, you know, strange how strange is so often a thing I say, of all people me, strange how we develop something as strong as hatred for a complete stranger brought into our orbit by nothing more than dumb circumstance and the faculty of sight. We fall in love this way, I guess, but that’s almost stranger, stranger.

It’s dark when the train arrives, early evening.

fiction, photography


Chris R-0868 Image by Mark Renney

Despite the lack of evidence, Carter was utterly convinced he was missing a body part, that he had lost something, a piece of himself. He couldn’t stop checking and wherever he might be he would hold his hands up in front of his face and count off the fingers. Or was it a bit of his ear or part of his nose? Or was there a hole in his forehead or in his side or was it a toe? No matter that he always rediscovered he was complete, that nothing had gone astray, he didn’t feel reassured. But he had no scars nor wounds. All of him was in its place and working properly.
Carter decided that if he could pinpoint exactly when and where it had happened he would be able to move beyond it and stop obsessing. He had been suffering from this strange affliction for no more than three months and so the time frame was at least narrow. He was a creature of habit and lead a routine existence, his movements confined. Even so, retracing each and every step he had taken during that time would be difficult.
Carter took the same route to work each day. He walked the same pavements and rode on the same bus. He frequented the same café and pub close to the office and a newsagents nearer to home. He shopped at the same supermarket on Saturday mornings.
He realised that he could have dropped ‘it’ anywhere, whatever ‘it’ was. One of his fingers perhaps or a thumb or an eye. He could, of course, have lost it at the office, and someone else had picked it up and taken it or mistaken it for rubbish and thrown it away. But Carter sensed that it hadn’t happened like this. Not at the office, nor at home nor even on the bus. No, he had lost it out on the street whilst walking en route to elsewhere. In transit as it were. And he had lost it in the way one might lose a wallet or a watch or a single ten pound note. The chances of finding it now were almost non-existent though Carter didn’t need to find it but simply to remember.

Carter quickly understood that his world was small and although he had believed it would be difficult re-tracing his footsteps and remembering what he had done and where he had been it had proved depressingly easy. As he moved through the familiar streets, searching again and again, he became more and more aware of how intricate the City was and how dense.
He rifled through the waste bins and sifted through the detritus and debris gathered at the curb side and in the gaps between the buildings. He scoured along all but forgotten pathways and cut-throughs. At first these ran parallel with his old routes but gradually he was pulled further and further from his little patch of the City and he was exploring parts that were completely alien. He realised also that anything lost would remain lost but he wasn’t able to stop looking, not quite yet.

fiction, photography


Chris R-0080 Image by Christine Renney

As the man walks he is reassured by the line of traffic on his right, by its constancy. He doesn’t look directly at it but instead focuses on the road ahead and it is a blur and harmless, a childish scrawl of smudged crayon.
The man has become fascinated by the things he finds alongside the road – fast food cartons and cans of course but also other discarded items. Perhaps objects would be a better description, even artefacts. Most are useless and many are unrecognisable; pieces, puzzles in hard plastic and now not-so shiny metal.
Carrion. This is how the man refers to the debris. In his head it is always the carrion, because the birds, the crows, swoop down and peck at it. But it isn’t.
Up ahead the man spots a blown out tyre and he steps from the grass bank onto the hard shoulder. The tyre is shredded and ripped but otherwise complete. He kicks at it. At least he knows what this is and where it came from.