(story originally penned in 11/2/2000)
For the entire morning and most of the afternoon, he had convinced himself that he might be a murderer. The vague impressions from the dream of the previous night lingered about him like an unshakably bad smell off a menacing stranger. One by one he counted off each of his doubtful apparitions that he had meticulously sifted from the obscurity of self. Had he truly fallen without warning upon some anonymous unsuspecting young female victim who had arrived at his door one day? Had he stripped her cold body of its clothing and despoiled her both by his proximity and touch, yet had the forethought to refrain from any intimate form of coitus that might lead to eventual detection through the tracing of bodily fluids? Had she been stashed away, wrapped in a rug within some recess of his house? It had taken most of the day to assort these troubled impressions from the previous night still stubbornly secured within his waking mind to tentatively affirm the possibility of this collection of unsettling pronouncements. He could not recall with certain clarity if incidents such as these resided within the inventory of memories that chronicled his waking existence or if they bore even a remote similarity to those inferred by this horrific scenario. Yet, these feelings seemed so insidiously cloying and hauntingly intense that he felt recalcitrant to conclude this process of raking his own muck. He was encouraged by his twisted sensibilities to follow these impressions wherever they might lead.
The simple thought that he might have unexpectedly broke into such an unsuspected and overwhelming violent rage tormented him. It tore at the notion of his sanity. It led him to believe that any sense of identity he had previously felt he possessed was but a false dodge enacted in perversity to camouflage of something fundamentally sordid and evil. He re-scanned his conscious landscape of almost fifty years furiously searching for lurid anecdotes that might substantiate or disprove this premise. Each incident was noted. Every time he might have kicked his dog or sunk into some form of depraved behavior was mentally logged and then haphazardly fit together in turn like the few pieces an incomplete picture puzzle. More seemed to elude him than would come into irrefutable focus.
He thought he could recall with some reasonable certainty his being home alone without the presence of his parents as part of one scenario. Since he had lived with them for only brief infrequent periods in the intervening years since his departure for college, thirty years previous, it seemed appropriate to confine the episode to a period of time within his childhood. It seemed in his mind that the victim was both familiar to him and yet unaccustomed to his neighborhood. The silence surrounding this presumed event had attested to a sense of insularity by virtue of her probably being an totally unanticipated visitor. He was sure that no one else had participated with him in this deed. It was a totally mad and spontaneous act perhaps occasioned by his perpetual indulgence of topics dark and forbidden. He felt that if he had indeed committed this act, it was as a purely impulsive expression based on the release of some deep-seated animal bloodlust that came as much a surprise to him as to his luckless victim. Unhappily, its very contemplation stirred him deeply in a sexual manner. Whether he believed in the veracity of this interminable deed as deeply forgotten fact or as the absorption of a previously viewed cinematic fiction he found grossly appalled by the seemingly inescapable authority it wielded over his psyche.
Was she a little girl, this faceless one that he had either choked or strangled in the stygian depths of his former family home’s basement lair? Or was she some pretty young hapless victim that he had bludgeoned noiselessly out of sight of the world’s attention in some forgettable rural bungalow. Both possibilities seemed too close to his elusive recollection. Like old perfume, the factual basis for these delusions remained close but ethereal. He couldn’t believe himself capable of such a terrible thing given the peaceful somewhat reticent tendencies of his intervening life. But these impressions persisted in too many plausible combinations, the sum total of which was too poignant to ignore. The one thing he could not determine with any sense of clarity was where he had left the body? It lurked somewhere near by. Perhaps it had turned skeletal within the corner of a dusty crawl space or was neatly cemented in the back of the basement? Then again, it might be double bagged in twist ties at the back of some bi-level foundation lost at the end of an earthen maze under one of his old apartments. Once more yet again, he mined those fragmentary images flickering sporadically upon the inside of his eyelids.
The dream that had launched this unwanted inner quest had awakened him the previous night at about two-thirty A.M. He could clearly recall that he had grabbed a large kitchen knife and held it aloft in a mock threat of savagery. The stance had been posed for the benefit of his aged mother’s. She unexpectedly threw him aback with the suggestion that she was fully aware of his past crimes. There he stood frozen in mid-motion, transfixed by that utterance. The nagging possibility of an undeniably heinous deed discovered by her in his past instantly defrosted his theatrical composure. This was just a dream, only a particularly bad one. He lay awake upon his back inert for a long time his face covered by a pillow. On a subsequent transit through the darkness to the toilet he juggled this turmoil in his mind. Could it be so? Could he have perpetrated an act so terribly foul that his conscious mind had lost the ability to sustain its memory? The long-term exposure to the cinematic cliches of Hollywood had provided his unconscious with ample examples of dark deeds in melodramas in which the protagonist had been subjected to equally implausible nightmares. Of course in the movies the worst case scenarios were always bound to prevail. The ramifications of such an unthinkable act both thrilled and frightened him. The more he analyzed it in his head, the more it seemed perfectly possible even probable that some deeply seated latent sense of animal cruelty had welled up with a deadly lightning quickness as hinted by the flickering shadows upon the wall of his mind seemed to belie. He was in over his head.
His rational mind was determined to seek out more conventional tacks by which to steer itself. He had been exposed to an incredible amount of disturbing imagery both in his adolescence and later adulthood. The apparently endless cornucopia of sadistic smut that he had encountered on the Internet over the last several years could well have confused his recollections of actual events with digitally recreated ones plucked from cyberspace. He had always maintained a penchant for things bizarre and macabre. His routine thoughts alone could have easily shocked the sensibilities of most normal people at any given time in his adult life. The fundamental nature of his personality had been permanently affected by a mongrel state of underlying sadomasochism brought on by the continual instability of a well-intentioned but geographically haphazard upbringing. His role as the perennial ‘newest kid on the block’ had left him perpetually vulnerable to constant attack by local bullies and other miscreants bent on hazing. It had, by early puberty, led to his early retreat to the safety of the dark sanctuary of the family home’s basement where he sought refuge from the continual threat of more unanticipated abuse. Alone in this bleak environment of perpetual twilight he enacted untold numbers of self-imposed sadistic rites of passage that were intended to induce him to befriend his fears while at the same time overcome his thinly veiled sense of shame. Yet he knew for all of the trauma that he had suffered at the hands of others, he never sought to involve other players in these offbeat tribal ceremonies. He came to rely upon only himself.
So what was this? How did it go again?… A female victim; perhaps a distant cousin, a lesser neighborhood friend, or some misdirected child?”
“A cautious hasty orgiastic rite; her clothes removed and some timid probing of her cold inert nakedness?”
“The body discarded; rolled up within a rug, left in a niche, still undiscovered to his awareness up to this very day.”
“Souvenirs; some taken? or nothing left behind?”
“Where did those clothes go; haphazardly thrust into the bottom of a garbage can in a distant alley, or just carefully incinerated?”
It sounded like any number of plot elements from the genre of a particularly disturbing movie. He mentally recited a number of suitable film titles that he could easily recall. He then once again counted off the blurry possibilities of his own sickening recollections once again like fingers and toes to check to see if all still remained essentially unchanged. He realized that he could only run around and around in these ceaseless mental circles asking time and again, “ Was this all really true or had his mind become irrevocably demented?”
It was over two decades before, so he recalled, that his most legendary girlfriend of that era had forced her sickly kitten upon him as a parting gift. No lover of cats to begin with, he hated the fact of its needy demanding presence in his life. Its persistence aggravated him to the point of his occasionally descending into bouts of unexpected irrational behavior. The cat had seemed bound for extinction before it ever reached his grasp, having nearly been garroted by accident within a makeshift barrier devised by his girlfriend to contain it over the weekend in a back bedroom. He just speeded up the process of its final demise one horrible afternoon when after having endured hours of its ceaseless whining, he plunged it into the numbing cold of a refrigerator freezer for a significant time. And then, in an even more spontaneously callous act, yanked it roughly from the total frigid darkness only to immediately toss it in one movement across the kitchen through the open bathroom door to impact soundly into the old Victorian metal tub. The instantaneous sight of its galvanic death throes came like a hammer blow between his eyes. Though some unspeakable impulse had sought to make it suffer, its subsequent and unforeseen death at his hand was totally unexpected. A great chilling pall of guilt and shame overcame him as its spastic movements subsided. He felt an unearthly stillness and experienced a terrifying loathing in his reluctance to advance near to the vicinity of its death. After mindlessly pacing back and forth at a safe distance, he overcame his panicky feelings enough to nudge its corpse onto the cheap cloth bathroom rug on which it had bled slightly and then wrapped it up careful enough so as not to touch it directly. His murder’s mind pulsed back and forth as to how to conceal himself from the all too likely suspicion of others. It was almost as if the surrounding neighborhood had now grown large probing eyes bent on spying upon him and his dreadful role as murderer in this horrid deed. He reviewed the cat’s plight at his hand from his mind’s eye, its terror and the unfairness of its innocent life betrayed. He was sickened by the presence of himself. From this point on in his life he would never be the same person. Where before he was one who might be perpetually assured of his inalienable right to undeniable innocence, this new odorous stigma promised a hellish realm of perpetual guilt. There would be no way to disclose this terrible thing to another without being enduringly condemned. He fabricated a suitable cover story to mitigate the tenacious presence of his grief and explain the absence of the cat for the benefit of his girlfriend’s emotional satisfaction. Somehow, deep down, he knew that she didn’t buy his explanation anymore than he could.
Looking back, it seemed significant that he had for a prolonged duration fallen into an emotional deep sleep for a good part of the last portion of his almost fifty years. The cocksure sarcastic manner that had been his characteristic trademark had eventually dissipated with the onset of increasingly bad eyesight along with other numerous ever mounting infirmities. He felt only a sense of vulnerability when about in the outside world and responded to its dangers by more and more bolting himself into the secure sterility of his small suburban apartment. Though he loathed the resultant diminishment of experience, at least it gave him a reliable barrier against the mounting threats outside. His perception of self had also significantly changed during that previous several years. Where once he had favored attaching his life to the notion of travels to far away exotic destinations, he now could only conceive of anchoring his expectations to only those activities which were locally based and within a few square blocks of his apartment. The stories of adventurous characters gleaned from all those many Hollywood tales that he had been bombarded with since youth were all now inconceivable to him. When his mind attempted to analyze the principal differences between his own increasing immobility versus their infinitive command for fearless advancement, he could understand their success in terms of something so basic as the type of geography in which it was set. The ultimate solution to his life in these terms seemed to be in his one day simply taking an unanticipated walk in a random linear direction and not stopping until he was irrevocably too far from home to return.
He had not work for some three months or more now. The economy had once again dipped toward recession without warning leaving a dearth of idle workers too cheaply available in his specialty. His money was just about played out and he still remained a month behind on the rent and with no friends left to call at that. The rare opportunity of a scheduled job interview had presented itself in the form of a four o-clock appointment that afternoon. It was in a more affluent corner of the city close by the lake. As with the contemporaneously fickle nature of employment in this new millennium, he would not know for sure if he would have reliable secured gainful employment until the assignment was almost completed. The first step of course was to determine what they needed done and if they thought he looked like he could do it. He left two hours early for the transit train that would in two connections carry him to that portion of the city. His subliminal mumbling was detected by an occasional strangers as he walked past them sitting upon their stoops. It seemed to him, by his perception of what appeared to be distant shocked expressions, that they took his whispered quandary as some admission of guilt. It was impossible for him to determine, in this agitated state, if his unconscious whispers had in reality been more like shouts. The train’s distant approach at the next station over from his challenged his physical ability to make the platform before the train did. He plodded heavily up the viaduct toward the gate fumbling for his pass. His pathetic painful hobble was barely adequate to deliver him down the stairs and rapidly along the long stretch of track level corridor up more stairs subsequently to the point of embarkation in time to rendezvous with the arriving train. His rough lungs heaved unceremoniously. Their dull ache seemed a solemn precursor to the heart problems that he inwardly knew were developing within the enlarged cavity of his chest which in turn was heavily weighted down by the recent specter of a rising fatty prominence girding his abdomen. As the doors folded open he stumbled to a forward facing seat. A sort of heedless spiritual grace permeated his perching form as he was carried forth stop by stop like some aged paint scratched temple effigy approaching an undisclosed far away location where yet another hackneyed ceremony would take place. He gazed exhaustedly forth through his spotty bifocals directly in the direction of all the classes of people that came and went by his seat. The intensity of his gaze on each seemed to bestow a freely offered gift of uncommon empathy toward each of these other equally wretched humans who were also locked tight within the confines of their respectively unthankful roles. They, as much as he, were condemned to the cultural modicum designating that their tiny insubstantial lives should be fraught primarily with daily worry and inner suffering. He was most terribly not alone as he was once wont to have believed when he was in that state of former youthful grandeur living amidst the insulation of his generation’s own dogma filled illusions.
He limped off the train from his first stop and hobbled along to the stairs then zigzagging down into a bleak transfer tunnel equally absorbed in the fleeting reactions of others as he had been on the first train. The passing commuters seemed bent upon walking straight into him as much as by him. He floated further down the stairs and through the protracted length of the orbicularly arched tunnel, his head turning like a ship’s gun turret, training its attention on odd details above him upon the roof’s apex as his feet simultaneously maintained a steady and measured forward stride. The vertical stairs at the end were navigated with the same customarily painful effort that he, as always, squelched. He entered on a consecutively narrow lane along the edge of the dismally dreary oil blackened platform that was inhabited by erratic rows of phantom strangers. Somewhere over his shoulder on the other side of the stairs an unseen street entertainer’s radio blared out a once popular now obscure ethnic melody in out of kilter time to the scrape of awkwardly shuffling feet. The accompanying distant commotion in its propinquity seemed for the benefit of someone else to look at and not him. He continued on, not turning around, to eventually take his place by a steel column scores of feet away then resting his body weight equally in an even footed stance. The odd expression on his face must have still been engaged in the portrayal of that lingering sense of melancholy previously felt on the first train for a middle age woman standing a few feet away seemed compelled to engage him in eye contact. He stared defiantly ahead into the emptiness of the unread billboards across the tracks. Another train finally arrived an eternity later and once more he was fully prepared to choose the tenuous safety of another fleeting anonymous reality over the presently less comfortable one. He made straight for the opening accordion door to his left and found that, in his enthusiasm to escape the matronly interloper’s stare, he had landed amidst the uneasy calm of a two-man CTA transit authority dog patrol. The accompanying German shepherds looked smallish and almost starved to death. He stared with his painted grin at the miserable cowering beasts. Their ‘masters’ were dressed in ridiculously voluminous costumes of cheap black cotton, nightsticks and handcuffs that at best declared them maladroit ‘rent-a-cops’. The patently coarse occupants of these unstylish deportments appeared to be of the very same sort of bad element that the transit authority was attempting to dissuade from riding their trains in the first place. It seemed, by the fact of their obvious presence, that the current official CTA policy was to give these security jobs to the least likely candidates in order to ensure that these other miserable mistreated animals at the other end of the leash did not bite anyone. There was no small irony as to which ‘animals‘ were, in truth, more the object of this corporate concern. Three stops came up and he swiftly detrained into the turbulence of yet another anonymous crowd.
The long chain of humanity in front of him assiduously advanced in halting steps upon the partially refurbished granite stairs, still months more to be under construction. Eventually he was near enough to the surface to catch a glimpse of the waning light of the afternoon. A cool blue vertical sky once more brought him back to a semblance of his presence being part of the surrounding reality. He had returned to the living once more from that numbing transitional underworld back into a waking state of a reality previously experienced at the beginning of the first part of the year when he had worked on a nearby boulevard for almost a month and a half. There was at least an hour or more left in which he had to walk the five blocks to the vicinity of this forthcoming appointment. “Better to wait this one out in closer proximity rather than risk letting the time get away from here”, he mused. His brisk pace once again defied the pain in his ankle so as not to be easily targeted by any approaching vehicles that defied him to cross ahead of them in the crosswalk. He purposefully paced around old subway grates and hopped over the slurry of odiferous watery sewage that trailed across the sidewalk from beneath haphazardly closed stainless steel overhead gates. The hot breath of a high rise’s sidewalk vent howled its putrid assault at his senses. Finally, at the end of his most usually traveled universe, a small newly groomed triangular park of less than an eighth of an acre announced that he was now within a mere three blocks of his final destination. The area just adjacent to the other side of this park had changed many times over since his first youthful explorations some thirty years previous. Most of the buildings had been fully gutted or replaced by more upscale and modernized luxury equivalents. In his mind, he still clearly saw their former phantom edifices. He recited each of the forgotten names of the former establishments they once housed under his breath as he passed each station. It was almost as if he was walking down some magical lane that existed only as a nugatory bridge between both the phantom and waking worlds. The figure he cut seemed overtly somnambulant to the other affluently dressed pedestrians who walked opposite and circuitously around him in order to avoid his steadfast progress. This state of mind presented seemed a sorry rite of passage for those ascribed to its unwelcome categories of old age, loneliness and ever growing infirmity.
The different window displays advertising the adjoining expensive boutiques deteriorated into stark insubstantiality as his passing gaze focused briefly upon each of them in turn. One by one he counted them off as he turned the corner to find his destination now just at the other end of the block toward the lake. The only measurable significance about the respective businesses located on that street was that they each of them seemed newly remodeled or recently newly constructed. He thought he could pinpoint the former location of the audio store he had worked at fresh out of college so many decades past. It was the one that he had been let go from just months before robbers tied up four of the night staff and shot them all to death. His mind was not up to the task of recollection in that level of detail anymore. He passed by the temporary entrance to a recently gutted storefront under construction. A pink granite clad corner skyscraper tower was just ahead beyond the alley. The mirrored window elements that were vertically incised into its first two stories were still as brightly polished as they had been that day sixteen years before when he had photographed a former model’s unexpected tears reflected in them. His destination now reached and confirmed, he figured that he had the better part of an hour to kill and decided to make for the lake just across the boulevard’s end and beyond the meander of the lakefront highway.
The path under the highway first inclined down into a lengthy expanse of tunnel monolithically decorated in sterile white enamel paint. It gradually angled up in to opposite directions on the other side of the highway eventually leading to stairs that ascended upward to twin exits along a long winding ribbon of concrete causeway that snaked along beneath some of the cities’ more celebrated addresses on the edge of the lake. A homeless looking black man sized him up as he took a few final stiff steps up the stairs and out and around the last railing as the final ramp then disappeared. His senses were instantly invigorated by the raw coolness of lake air. He felt unexpectedly revived. The watery horizon stretched out on either side of him and forward into an infinitive horizon. High above on the surrounding concrete cliffs a small figure prepared for a spider-like descent to wash a vertical stack of windows of twenty stories below. He stood silent with his neck craned in careful consideration at the distant worker’s ministrations. This point where the human jungle broke into the water’s edge seemed safe from the possibility of emotional disruption. Each of the thousands of gaunt skyscraper eyes stared blankly back at him without betraying any evidence of life in their windows. Gradually without conscious awareness he began to consider his life-long predicament bereft of that customary feeling of annoying surveillance so reminiscent of that ant society teaming busily behind him.
He remembered that he had come here to this very amphitheater many times over the years as a young man bringing his unquenchable enthusiasm and sense of boundless expectation for a kind of indefinable promise of success to serve up as offerings to that era’s indifferent events. That vital essential quality of life which had been long ago been burned and leached out of him, had in those former times, been partly spilled out here. His hard won knowledge of his youthful folly to harbor longings for such places played across these tumbling thoughts. There was no attainment to be had here for outsiders. They could be counted upon to agreeably give their attentions and then be swiftly conducted with a glance to the sidelines where, with their short comings, they might be briefly tolerated as lucky spectators to under whelming displays of overt muscle bound jocks courting the myriads of well connected perfectly tanned Venus’s that narcissistically lay-in-state during the season’s warmer months. With Winter’ approach, only the waves and the incessant passing highway traffic now broke the lake bound silence here. The more he considered it, he was naught but a another insignificant cog just like they were. The importance of those times as in these was conveyed not by the singular acts of any given individual but by the mutual acknowledgement through the assuming of masks provided by society to mark them by their easily identifiable roles.
There was nothing more to look forward to now at age forty-nine any more than there had been back then at twenty. He alone was the fundamental source of his own pain and pleasure and the genuine assessment of their ultimate cumulative effect. To the rest of the world it would never compute the same way. He had for too long been buried alive beneath himself. The scar tissue of too many bad reactions to uncountable disappointments suffered in his offbeat wandering life now girded him like a brittle iron cauldron. The only unfettered view afforded from behind that dirty concrete cordon of alpha-aggressive architecture just over his left shoulder was within a narrowly focused telescope infrequently pointed vertically toward the distant sky. Mute hungry daily existence without possibility of relief described both his and the outlooks of other hapless fellow citizens each lost in that angry hive. He was neither guilty nor innocent, blessed or dammed. He was no more a killer than he was the corpse. He had no recognizable name or appearance to condemn him or recommend him. He was no longer the heinous perpetrator but neither was he the pitiable victim. From this point on, the only thing that he needed to be concerned with was that he was just simply, still… alive.