There were bookshelves all around the place - along both sides of the hallway, blocking the radiators in the living room, blocking some of the windows too, for that matter. There was a closet in the second bedroom, or office, or whatever it was supposed to be that was now a book closet. There were some books still on the kitchen table, scattered all around on it like some slob was eating off them and then forgot to clean up. Paperback, hardback, newspaper, magazines, you name it. There was a zine in the sink that had somehow not gotten wet. This guy could read. He really had an appetite for it. There was only one lamp in the whole place that worked and that was in the corner of his living room next to the big puffy chair. The light did not travel far through the room in the night time, as if the very ether were a thick condensing blanket of cigarette smoke. And during the daytime not enough light made its way in because the apartment was on the dark side of the building in the first place, and secondly, the bookshelves did it no favors. But still the light remained activated and would burn until either the sun went supernova or the bulb burst. He was slowly forming a sort of book cave you might say. The shear weight of them must have been astonishing. Each of those hastily constructed shelfs bowed downward. They were made crudely by screwing wide pine boards between two vertical pine boards with no consideration for jointery. No datos or biscuits or mortises and tenons. He or someone simply screwed the drywall screws directly into the end grain in the weakest mode possible so that in time the screws themselves would split the boards and come through the tops of the shelving. This is exactly what was happening in several of the reference shelves and they were yeilding their loads to the chaotic weft of the earth below. Those books were simply too heavy for the cheap construction. It takes a lot of weight to bend a one by ten, even over time.
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Godfrey was taking a break from the reading to clean up a bit. The soft brown blanket glided down his legs as he stood from the living room chair and crumpled onto the wide wooden planks of the floor. As he stood the light tottered and shadows shifted as the bookshelves all leaned towards the center of the room and as he walked the joists bellied as if being unwoven from the fabric of the substructure itself, independently, as he proceeded into the hallway and into the kitchen. The green kitchen sponge was tiny and hard as a brick in his delicate hand. The water soaked in and swelled it like a piece of living tissue and he flexed it several times to get a good fresh load of water in there. He wiped the dust from the table and the bare counters and the stove. He pushed away the chairs from the table and swept the scrim dust from behind that space and he piled it in front of the table and he proceeded to sweep from all directions into the center of the space where he slowly rotated around his growing pile of dirt. He looked about for a dustpan, then a shovel, and he finally settled for the slick cover of a magazine, though he struggled and labored his breathing to reach the ground and to load it and retrieve it back to his full height. He turned his head, now searching for a waste basket, now searching his memory for it. He appeared lost and approached the sink and dumped it in and washed it down. He looked out the window above the sink and absorbed the waning light over the rags of snow at the edge of the field and the sight overwhelmed him and he had to seek out his chair again quickly, back in the living room. Short of breath he bumped into the shelves in the hallway and some of the astronomy books fell but he could not stop to correct because he had to maintain his forward momentum. Later, later. He slumped into the creaking chair and it leaned unnaturally to the side and he comprehended that it might collapse one of these days and the jolt would trigger a catastrophic failure in the organs that supported him for just a little bit longer. He felt there was not a lot of time left, but he might be able to stretch it by conserving his movement.
And soon he had to choose which books to keep by his bedside to fall into steady revolutions and which he could part with, and let drift unthinkably far into the outer reaches of his abode and by now the apartment was spotless and his condition seemed to have plateaued. The floors now shined and the sink sat clean and unused and the pure air would slowly deposit its residues on these surfaces until the house would buckle under its weight. He descended the fragile wooden staircase and the stringers felt like rope under his feet and the trim pulled slightly away from the sides and the downstairs neighbor opened her door to check and she found herself peering through little streams of dust that fell from the loosened plaster. He stepped sideways through the front door and caught his breath leaning on the ancient white column with its final layer of paint concealing the many that came before it and these layers revealed themselves in places like shallow canyons. His skin was nearly translucent from his years of concealment and he squinted harshly at the noon light. Small black children shambled by craning their necks and then stopped, licking their ice cream cones and he pretended not to see them. He constructed some goal in his mind and tried to look purposeful but the reality was that he wanted to see the outside one last time before he resigned himself to the bed forever, however long that would be. His ankles and knees started to burn just standing there looking down the final few steps to the sidewalk. He looked at the miniscule seat with several weeks’ worth of newspapers in plastic bags stacked between its legs like firewood. It would never support him and he looked up the stairs that led back up to his apartment and they seemed to stretch into a dark infinity and she was standing now in the hallway with her arms crossed and gently saying his name over and over and her door was open and his knees hurt badly and he needed to sit. She came to him and he said he needed to sit and she led him by the arm to the miniature seat and he felt like throwing up but he held it down. “It won’t hold me up,” he said as they neared. “It will break.”
“No no no,” she said, “This is strong.” She patted the seat. “It was my grandmother’s.”
“Oh I see.”
“You can sit.”
“I think I need to sit.”
“You can sit. This is strong.” She smacked it hard with the heel of her hand.
“You don’t understand. I will break it.” He slowed his speaking down. “I am very... very... heavy.”
“It’s your choice. What do you want to do?”
“I think I’m going to sit down right there.”
“Suit yourself.” And he reared up to the chair and leaned far forward and stood up and checked his positioning again before leaning deeply again and slowly easing himself down until it held him. He did not appear to relax and sweat beaded and ran down his face and he reached for his pocket but could not find it.
“Where is my Kleenex?” he asked.
“A Kleenex won’t hardly do.”
“I don’t believe I said that.” The sweat burned in his eyes and he was still trying to catch his breath. He squinted and then closed his eyes tightly and rubbed them his his finger tips.
“This is a Friso Kramer.”
“It was my Grandmother’s.”
“Thank you very much.”
“You see? I told you it would hold up. It’s seen all kinds of abuse”
“So far so good. I just need to catch my breath before I head back up there.”
She looked doubtfully up the stairs. “Do you need me to get anything for you? Do you need food or...” She glanced away suddenly.
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
“Or anything? I’m sorry.”
“These damn shorts would make anyone look fat.”
She nodded toward the dark hallway and said, “Is that your sandal?”
He lifted one foot, then the other. “Maybe.”
She handed it to him and he thanked her. Then he said, “I’m going to just sit here for a little while. Thank you very much.” And the neighbor lingered for a moment, then faded back into her apartment.
She returned a short while later and the newspapers were all folded neatly in a pile to the right of the chair and the bags were all folded carefully to the left and Godfrey appeared to be napping, the sweat drenching his shirt and forming his hair into limp black spikes. She held a glass cup of iced tea to his forehead and he started awake and the ice cubes rattled as she withdrew her hand a few inches. He looked at the glass and then at her face. He accepted it and thanked her and he drank deeply from it. She poured from a glass pitcher that she carried in her other hand and more ice cubes chunked into the glass and he drank half of that one. “I made a salad. Want some?”
“So much for my diet.”
She smiled at him. “Hold on. We can eat right out here.”
“What will your boyfriend think?”
“He’ll probably think he’s finally lost me.”
“You laugh but I’ve got some pretty good moves with the ladies.”
“Like stumbling around on their porches and almost dying. Stuff like that. It’s a pretty intricate system.”
“Oh yeah? What’s your system?”
“You spend the twenty years leading up to it by gaining about 500 pounds.”
She laughed. “You’re not that large.”
“There’s still time.”
They ate salad and he thanked her and she took the plates and the glasses inside and Godfrey closed his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest and listened to his own breathing. Cars drove slowly in the half light and they almost came to stop in front of the apartment building but he could not tell if they were staring at him or if they were waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass, such was the condition of the street when both sides were mercilessly lined with parked cars as they now were. One car lingered a long time as and eventually he opened his eyes and it was a taxi waiting in front of a house a little way down the block. A bicycle messenger glided past and the taxi driver made his fingers into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot the messenger. The messenger mimed being shot through the heart with one of Cupid’s arrows and rode with no hands long enough to clutch his heart and recover and then extend both hands longingly at the driver and tilt his head as if he were his one true love. The driver responded by holding up his middle finger and Godfrey found great pleasure in this and he laughed inwardly and soon he fell asleep. When he woke there was a small blanket draped about him and his legs were partially numb and he labored greatly to stand but had to steady himself against the doorway until the needles came and his feet tickled like they had not done since he was a child.
He sat into the one chair at his kitchen table and leaned on his elbows and rubbed his hands together hard and cleared his mind. He kept trying to let go of all the thoughts that kept intruding and after a while he realised that even this construct was itself a thought and he gave up on the whole enterprise. It was 9 pm and he leaned toward the counter and opened a drawer and pulled out a cell phone. He dialed his brother, who did not answer and nor did his father or his mother who lived separately from the father. He stood in the doorway blinking and looked at the space around his bed and judged how far he could reach and he carefully positioned one short bookshelf within that span and stocked it with classic titles that he considered tolerable on an endless loop. Homer and Melville and Joyce and such. When the phone rang he was separated from it by half of the the apartment and he had to redial to reach his mother.
“I was trying to reach you a little bit ago. I was wondering how you were getting on.”
“Well, I’m doing alright I suppose. My tomatoes are turning red.”
“The ones on your front porch?”
“Yes those and the ones out back too. They’ll be ready for the picking soon. I like to put them on my salads and whatnot. Sometimes it’s good just to eat them right off the vine if the neighbors don’t get to them first, that is. They’re about as good as animals around here.”
“That’s good. Hey listen, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it out that way this summer. My condition isn’t getting any better and I don’t think I should be travelling any time soon.”
“Oh that’s too bad. Do you have an aide yet? You were going to look into that weren’t you?”
“I’m still working on that. I’ll be fine. You’re okay, though?”
“I’m fine. Godfrey?”
“That’s good. I’ll talk to you later then.”
“Are you sure you’re okay? It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. I worry about you sometimes.”
“I’m comfortable. I’ll be fine. Maybe I can get out your way in the fall.”
“Good. I love you, son.”
And Godfrey hung up the phone and blinked in the dim lamplight. He hadn’t read anything for over an hour and he felt starved for it and he sat down in the bed and sank deeply into the covers and picked up The Odyssey and leafed through it quickly and put it down. Just a touch. Just a touch. Nobody else from his family called that night, nor did they call the next day or the next. On the third day his brother called and could only speak for a few minutes because he was almost at work. He was okay and Godfrey was okay and then Godfrey tipped The Odyssey onto the floor and its Greek hexameter seemed wasted. He cursed and leaned for the book and struggled but he could not get up without help and this marked the start of his new stationary life. He pictured himself isolated there in bed until he expired from thirst. So his thoughts turned to other things. The father would never call back as was his practice for he was unfamiliar with his new cell phone device and he barely understood how to answer a call when he could hear it ring. And that night he sweated greatly from anxiety and he feared dehydration but he also knew that his body had a genius for retaining water. At some point the next day Godfrey could reach the book and he used the opportunity to find the charger to his cell phone and relocate it to a more useful location and by the time he plugged it in and set the phone on the mattress he needed to rest and he used the phone to call the downstairs neighbor to please bring him some water.
“I had an aunt once” She said, handing him a short thick glass of tap water. “Her thyroid was all out of whack. They didn’t make the medicine back then. She didn’t know what was wrong She just didn’t know.”
“Yes, thank you, Belinda. The thyroid. Yes. The pituitary as well. Perhaps they aren’t on good speaking terms. I had my TSH checked and it’s not that. I don’t know.”
Belinda froze in her unwitting advance. She looked at the empty cup that he was now holding out to her.
He placed a call to Bill Williamsfield, who answered from the side of a pool at the Gran Melia in Puerto Rico. He was reclining in a vast chaise lounge aimed slanting at the water.There was a golf cart shaped like a Hummer parked next to him and silence all around, a feeling of privacy. “How’s it hangin’, Godfrey?”
“Same as always, I suppose.”
“That’s certainly a good sign.” Bill sipped from a hollowed out pineapple. The straw poked him in the nose but he did not notice.
“What can I do for you?”
“How is your health?”
“The cancer is in remission! So what could go wrong?”
“Is that why you called me on vacation? You know I’m going to bill you for this time, right?”
“I also wanted to check on my account.”
“I’m not at the office at the moment. I don’t have the reports with me but I can tell you things are down slightly. Probably because of the stalemate in Washington.”
“Slightly. It’s still perfectly normal. The market goes up. It goes down. Up down all the time. You have to remember you’re in it for the long haul.”
“Gotta keep your eyes on the prize, baby!” He waved his hand in front of him. “Stuff like that.”
“Fair enough I guess. Thank you very much.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Not unless you can do a gastric bypass.”
“Jesus Christ Godfrey! Take it easy on yourself, buddy.”
“I’m just joking. Bill?”
“You know what you need?”
“Bill I can barely hear you.”
“You need a vacation.”
“I think you’re in a dead spot. Move around.”
“I said you need a vacation.”
“Vacation!” And then the call was dropped. Bill wiggled his toes and settled more comfortably into his chaise lounge.
Godfrey looked at his phone and he noticed the smooth contours and the delicate buttons that could withstand probably millions of presses and depresses. His money was safe and that was good, not that he had any plans for it. He just like to check on it frequently. He considered the identity of the phone. True it has its own unique circuit board, or brain, but it is only awake when it is being used by someone else, or two people. It is a medium, and as such has no distinct identity to call its own. The phone is no more an individual than the air in his room or the cells of his body. It is all pure function. And with that he began to panic because he did not think he existed in any true sense. If anything, he was just another complex machine forced to process or contemplate whatever information it perceives. He touched the buttons of the phone and they made faint beeping sounds and he wondered if the phone thought it chose to make those sounds for any number of reasons. He picked up a book and time slowed down as the raw data neared his mind, slowing and slowing more as it approached as if able to travel only halfway there and halfway there again.