I stepped. I hesitated. Maybe I expected to find the old man’s X-ray imprint spread out there on his empty cot. His place, like the canary lady’s upstairs, looked like late in the day of a garage sale, for a nickel or a dime, everything had been stolen away.
There wasn’t even a toothbrush on the floor, or soap, or a washrag. The old man must have bathed in the sea once a day, brushed his teeth with seaweed each noon, washed his only shirt in the salt tide and lain beside it on the dunes while it dried, if and when the sun came out.
I moved forward like a deep sea diver. When you know someone is dead, his abandoned air holds back every motion you make, even your breathing.
I had guessed wrong.
For there his name was, on the wall. I almost fell, leaning down to squint.
Over and over, his name was repeated, scrabbled on the plaster on the far side of his cot. Over and over, as if fearful of senility or oblivion, terrified at waking some dawn to find himself nameless, over and over he had scratched with a nicotine-stained fingernail.
William. And then Willie. And then Will. And beneath the three, Bill.
And then, again, again, again.
Smith. Smith. Smith. Smith.
And under that, William Smith.
And, Smith, W.
His multiplication table swam in and out of focus as I stared, for it was all the nights I ever dreaded to see somewhere up ahead in the dark ages of my future. Me, in 1999, alone, and my fingernail making mice-sound graffiti on plaster. . . .
“My God,” I whispered. “Wait!”
The cot squealed like a cat touched in its sleep. I put my full weight down and probed with my fingerprints over the plaster. There were more words there. A message, a hint, a clue?
I remembered some boyhood magic where you had pals write quotes on pads and then tear off the quotes. But you took the pads out of the room and rubbed a soft pencil across the hidden indentations left on the blank pages and brought forth the words.
Now, I did just that. I found and rubbed the flat lead of my pencil gently across the wall surface. The nail scratches illusioned themselves forth, here a mouth, there an eye; shapes, forms, bits of an old man’s half-dreams:
Four a.m. and no sleep.
And below that, a ghostly plea:
Please, God, sleep!
And a dawn despair:
But then, at last, something that snapped my knees as I crouched lower. For here were these words:
He’s standing in the hall again.
But that was me, I thought, outside the old woman’s room five minutes ago, upstairs. That was me, outside this empty room, a moment ago. And . . .
Last night. In the dark rain, on the train. And the great railcar bucking the curves and groaning its wooden slats and shivering its tarnished brass as someone unseen swayed in the aisle behind me and mourned the funeral train’s passage.
He’s standing in the hall again.
He stood in the aisle on the train.
No, no. Too much!
It was no crime, was it, to stand in a train aisle moaning, or stand here in the hall, simply looking at a door and letting an old man know of your being there just with your silence?
Yes, but what if one night whoever it was came into the room?
And brought his lonely business with him?
I looked at the graffiti, as faint and faded as the canaries-for-sale sign in the window outside. I backed off, pulling away from that terrible sentence of loneliness and despair.
Outside in the hall, I stood feeling the air, trying to guess if another man had stood here again and again in the last month, with the bones showing behind his face.
I wanted to whirl and shout upstairs to rattle the empty birdcages, “If that man comes back, sweet Jesus! Call me!”
How? I saw an empty telephone stand nearby and a stack of Yellow Pages from 1933 under it.
Yell from your window, then!
But who would hear the sound of her voice like an old key turned in a rusted lock?
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