I stood frozen. I was afraid more terrible things were waiting just behind me. When I opened my apartment door, would black canal waters flood out?
“Jump!” and Elmo Crumley slammed his door.
His car was just two dots of red light going away in a fresh downpour that beat my eyelids shut.
I glanced across the street at the gas station phone booth which I used as my office to call editors who never phoned back. I rummaged my pockets for change, thinking, I’ll call Mexico City, wake Peg, reverse the charges, tell her about the cage, the man, and, Christ, scare her to death!
Listen to the detective, I thought.
I was shaking so violently now that I couldn’t get the damn key in the lock.
Rain followed me inside.
Inside, waiting for me was . . .
An empty twenty-by-twenty studio apartment with a body-damaged sofa, a bookcase with fourteen books in it and lots of waiting space, an easy chair bought on the cheap from Goodwill Industries, a Sears, Roebuck unpainted pinewood desk with an unoiled 1934 Underwood Standard typewriter on it, as big as a player piano and as loud as wooden clogs on a carpetless floor.
In the typewriter was an anticipatory sheet of paper. In a wood box on one side was my collected literary output, all in one stack. There were copies of Dime Detective, Detective Tales, and Black Mask, each of which had paid me thirty or forty dollars per story. On the other side was another wooden box, waiting to be filled with manuscript. In it was a single page of a book that refused to begin.
With my name under that. And the date, July 1, 1949.
Which was three months ago.
I shivered, stripped down, toweled myself off, got into a bathrobe, and came back to stand staring at my desk.
I touched the typewriter, wondering if it was a lost friend or a man or a mean mistress.
Somewhere back a few weeks it had made noises vaguely resembling the Muse. Now, more often than not, I sat at the damned machine as if someone had cut my hands off at the wrists. Three or four times a day I sat here and was victimized by literary heaves. Nothing came. Or if it did, it wound up on the floor in hairballs I swept up every night. I was going through that long desert known as Dry Spell, Arizona.
It had a lot to do with Peg so far away among all those catacomb mummies in Mexico, and my being lonely, and no sun in Venice for the three months, only mist and then fog and then rain and then fog and mist again. I wound myself up in cold cotton batting each midnight, and rolled out all fungus at dawn. My pillow was moist every morning, but I didn’t know what I had dreamed to salt it that way.
I looked out the window at that telephone, which I listened for all day every day, which never rang offering to bank my splendid novel if I could finish it last year.
I saw my fingers moving on the typewriter keys, fumbling. I thought they looked like the hands of the dead stranger in the cage, dangled out in the water moving like sea anemones, or like the hands, unseen, of the man behind me tonight on the train.
Both men gestured.
Slowly, slowly, I sat down.
Something thumped within my chest like someone bumping into the bars of an abandoned cage.
Someone breathed on my neck. . . .
I had to make both of them go away. I had to do something to quiet them so I could sleep.
A sound came out of my throat as if I were about to be sick. But I didn’t throw up.
Instead, my fingers began to type, x-ing out the UNTITLED NOVEL until it was gone.
Then I went down a space and saw these words begin to jolt out on the paper:
DEATH and then IS A and then LONELY and then, at last, BUSINESS.
I grimaced wildly at the title, gasped, and didn’t stop typing for an hour, until I got the storm-lightning train rolled away in the rain and let the lion cage fill with black sea water which poured forth and set the dead man free. . . .
Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80 81 82 83 84 85 86 87 88 89 90 91 92 93 94 95 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 103 104 105 106