Wednesday, October 1, 2014

... and other human machineries

Bethany Granger was 32 years old and she came down with the mumps, which meant a month in bed. She got a weekly visit from her brother with groceries she couldn't eat and magazines she wouldn't read, but the rest of her tim was spent laying there, staring up at the ceiling and trying not to hurt. That was when she noticed the vent.

It was actually a godsend. Bethany wasn't the kind of person to have a television set and she couldn't afford a computer and what few books she owner she had already read at least twice. She had never even thought of it in the day to day fuss, but in those days of sickness when she was alone and could not sleep and the intimate, esoteric sounds and smells of the apartment building seeped into her darkened room the vent and the darkness beyond it became a companion, if only to her imagination and certain predilections.

What seeped through the vent was mostly an indecipherable melange of chatter and machinery. Something like the blue hum of twenty televisions at one time. When the cool or warm air was being pumped into the room, it was sightly louder. Some random bits of conversation could be plucked from the prattle.

What really got her was the hunger. Because of her stiff, swollen jaw, she could only slurp chickenbroth through a straw. Five times a day. There was a strawberry yogurt intermediary three times a day, but that didn't cut it. That was when she noticed the diets of her neighbors, for as they cooked, the smells traveled through the duct work and billowed out into her room. Clouds of brewing coffee. Clouds of frying eggs. Clouds of bacon and steaks and simmering greens. From Mrs. Fananda's apothecary a veritable storm system of curries and creams and spiced breads and meats. By the second week her jealousy had reached biblical proportions. She lay in her bed and her mind was filled with the colors of elaborate, mountainous meals. She breathed deep and she was intoxicated by the rich fecundity of her neighbor's kitchens. Her mind roiled with the desire. Her agitation left her cursing these faceless chefs, this faceless, obscure disease; this flat, armless bed.

There was a half-hour of respite at 7:30 when Ms. Preston watched jeopardy. She watched it every night and it was the only thing she watched. Before or after, Beth had no idea what the lady did. Thing was, Ms. Preston was deaf and had to raise the volume of her television to what must have been ear-splitting levels because it came through the vent loud and clear as if the set two floors up and three apartments over were sitting at the foot of her bed. By her estimations, she would have been a horrible contestant.

And then there was the woman whose name and apartment number Beth did not know. This woman lived alone and she lived as any young woman alone would live. And thank god for that. Beth knew she lived alone because hers was the only voice she recognized with any regularity. The others varied in timbre and tone and provocation to excitement. There were usually two or three other voices a week and not until two or three in the morning when the bars were closing and most everything in the apartment building was asleep. Beth called her Damn Girl. That was the only thing she had ever heard the mystery woman addressed as. Beth had said it a couple times herself.

Damn Girl. Thank god for you.


If you knew Bethany Granger, you knew she wasn't going to stay in bed for long. She began her recovery by drinking her tea on her front porch again in the mornings as the sun rose up over the courtyard of the apartment building. She began trips to the tea room down the street for the exercise and the fresh air and the chance to see something other than the walls of her home. She walked to the grocery store. She treated herself to a movie downtown and drank a coffee and a muffin, though the muffin she had to cram through the small space her stiff jaw allowed.

But she made sure to be home by 7:30 for Ms. Preston and Jeopardy and soon after she would eat her piddling meal when the billowing atmosphere of Ms. Fananda's kitchen subsumed her senses. It made her broth and crumbled crackers into a Bihari paradise. And late at night, when there was nothing else to do and sleep was illusive... Damn Girl.

The first time the thing happened, it was merely curious. An oddity poking through the mundane and eventless droll that had been weeks in bed and in pain and hungry. It had been something like a whisper, but not of words. Nothing that could be remotely considered words, or even a voice, but the faint sibilate of a machine off kilter. Like there was a loose screw somewhere in the machine and this was the first vibration of its future failing. And it was right up front of all the random sounds coming through the vent. Not louder, and not uncommonly tonal, but right up front of it all. She tried to decipher the sound. Mechanical? A bug skittering around? Then Mr Preston flipped on her TV set and the sound was lost and so was Bethany's attention to it.

And then there was the time she awoke at some dark, nameless hour from a dream immediately forgot that left behind a flash of red in her eyes and a fearful tightness in her chest and a ringing in her ears and a ringing without. She sat up and rubbed her chest and tried, for some delirious, masochistic reason, to remember the dream, but there was no doing. She flopped back on the bed and tried to catch her breath, to slow her pounding heart. She closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, slow in and out. She tried to let the dream flow back into her, but she was left with nothing but the ringing. The strange stereo effect of it faded in as sleep wafted away from her, like an idea that dawned slowly. The ring outside her head was dislocated. Not in her, but nowhere her senses could locate either. She crammed her little finger in her ear and wiggled to no avail. She covered one ear and then the other, but could discern no direction. When she got up to pee, she used a Q-tip and thought it had worked, but it was only because she had left the room. When she laid back down, the ringing was back. When sleep began to wash back over her and she slipped gently back into the netherworld, her last thought was, its coming from the vent.


After 33 days of convalescence, her doctor cleared her to work. The swelling in her jaw had subsided to a not-so-hideous level. The fevers were gone. Her ability to eat had returned, the stiffness subsiding to a dull, nagging ache.

She called her superintendent to let him know she would be returning to work, but his mind was made up. She hung up the phone and through it across the living room and the cord popped tight and pulled the entire jack out of the wall. She gave it a kick on her way to the kitchen for good measure.

By the end of the week she was completely healed, though it passed without much notice. She had spent most of it drunk. If you were out of work in the town where she was from, you would understand.

She had taken to shouting the answers to Ms. Preston's game show as if she were on the show herself. She only ordered in food and paid with a credit card she had stuffed in her underwear drawer for emergencies. She went to the adult store and bought the ugliest, most destructive tool she could find. She constructed an elaborate, pornographic fantasy around the early morning tirades sounding from Damn Girl's bedroom. In none of the fantasies was she the hero. In none did she get what she deserved.

If you knew Bethany Granger, you would know that this was not typical of her behavior. She was a drinker, but not to regular excess. She was a hard worker, a steady worker, and held a respect for herself above all else. To the outside world her disappearance and the months preceding it were mostly a mystery. All that could be said was that she had been out of work. When the landlord came to clean out the apartment, it would be said that she had taken to drinking. All of this was true, but it was not all of the truth. There was also the voice. And there was the music.

It took her by surprise. Even in the solitude of her bedroom, the headiness of her inebriation, it embarrassed her. It happened during a particularly close game of Jeopardy on a thursday night. She heard it during the commercial break before the final round. A voice. Its tone somehow seemed directed specifically toward her. The words were unclear, but she answered anyway.

"Oh, shut the hell up," she hissed upward toward the vent.

It had not seemed her rantings could be heard before. No one had ever said anything. Still, there was something about it. She did not question that the voice was directed at her, and so she retorted, then thought about it, and she became embarrassed. After that she became scared to speak at all. She felt exposed to the world in a place that had been a refuge from her misfortunes for months. Her bedroom had been a shelter, her anonymity, where she could belt out her woes safely and undisturbed.

That night she slept on the couch. She curled into her drunkenness beneath a flowered quilt that had been a present from her mother before her death and whispered her contempt for the person that invaded her solitude until sleep overtook her.

She awoke the next morning, or maybe a morning off into the future, for the days and weeks had blended into a vague rotation of night and day. It was dark outside. Too dark to read the clock on the wall. What she felt was a loneliness that was immediately too hard to bare. The kind of loneliness that is not just a matter of space and quiet, but a lack of warmth in places where warmth can be its only recourse. A place where warmth is quite easy to attain if it wasn't for the damned loneliness. It pulled her up off the couch and across the room and down the hall. It pulled her into her bedroom where she left the light off and went to the dresser drawer where she kept her socks and she pulled out the warted behemoth she had become accustomed to as of late. She sat on the edge of the bed and held the thing limply in her hands. It wasn't cold, but its tepid, rubber flesh felt like a corpse in her hand. A core sample of her insides. She looked down at it like it was a mangy puppy, but one whose sweetness she could see through the scabs. She looked up at the vent, her attuned ears able to pick out the faint muffle of life on the other side. She could hear a sort of music. Soft, delicate, simple tones that were no song she recognized. No song she could whole-heartedly say was music at all. She stood and she laid the thing beside her pillow and cocked her head toward the vent and the sound. It wasn't music. There was too much space in it. It wobbled in the air as if it were coming together by accident from other things and it was only a trick in the ear that made it seem of its own body.

But it was soothing none-the-less.

It laid her back into the bed. It slid her clothes off and her underthings. The cool, mechanical air brought a smile to her face. The sound settled slowly into the room, gently on top of her, within her, and from it the voice. The sweetest of words, a whisper, right up close to her, pouring over her. It pulled from her the will to move, but that music, there was no need to move. No need to think. It unloaded from the thither of the building, from its small, rusty mouth above her, down into her and swirling the purest vibration and rhythm. All over her, the warmth of flesh full of blood and breath and the need to be right against her. A closeness that was not close enough.

The next day, had she been told that it would be almost a week before she heard the voice again, she would have said that it was impossible. Such a thing could not be as fleeting as that. She waited for it, but there was only the mundane world flittering about like an ant colony siphoned into her bedroom through that gaping, wanton portal.

After two days, she was desperate. She couldn't be sure anymore that what she had experienced had not been a dream. She was subdued by the Damn Girl above her. She had a three night stent with the same person and Bethany did too. The behemoth never left the nest of her bed. Three nights and days of delirious carnality. The blithe spirit shunning food and light and words and any real consciousness. But all the while and in between, still she longed for the voice, its sweet accompaniment, to fall upon her.


"We are here," is all it said.

She was asleep, and she could not tell where it had came from, within or from without, but she knew the voice and she snapped awake. The furious instinct of her desire pulled the words out of her mouth. "We are here," and then again, "Here."

There was no reply. She waited. She mouthed the words to herself with no voice behind them. She slid herself to the edge of the bed, her head turned up into the dark recess of the vent until the system turned on and an acrid plume of warm air settled over her. With it, the jumbled chatter of a party - scattered voice and bass-heavy music and sinister laughter. Tears welled up in her eyes and she fell back onto the bed. The behemoth rolled against her shoulder with a prodigious, rubbery smack as if it were some lecherous hand coming with wet, unwanted offerings. She pushed it aside, its tawdry girth thudding to the floor.


The cold weather had grown mild, the light golden throughout the day, filtered through the bursting green leaves swinging heavy on the trees. She had not left her bed in days and her body ached because of it, every muscle resettled in the wrong place. An entire body out of form. She slid out of her feted sheets and on the weak will of gravity alone she left the room. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water from the tap. The cool liquid leeched the drought of the raw flesh of her throat. It slid into her stomach, the roiling pouch churning it round and round in search of nourishment. All it got was the metallic tinge of the pipes. Fluoride and something not unlike bleach. She vomited into the sink. Bile merely tinted the clear swill. She could not remember the last time she ate.

She could see herself in how she felt. The itch of her scalp and how her fingers couldn't move and inch through her hair. She could see the oily tangles there. She could see it sticking out all over, the dark roots being just about the only color to it. She could see the thick, irritated sheen of her skin. The pale, splotchy patches the way her acne-prone skin had always behaved were it not exfoliated often and regularly. She could smell the stains in her clothes. The greasy rings in the creases of her neck. Standing in the middle of her kitchen trying to keep down the second glass of water, she couldn't stand the sight of herself.

Bethany Granger decided right then and there that this was enough. She was not going to go crazy. She would not pass the point of no return. She took it as a moment of grace. A moment of clarity. She stripped herself bare and walked down the hall. She pulled her bedroom door shut but that wasn't enough so she opened it again and slammed it as hard as she could. She put her naked body into the shower and soaped herself down and then just stood there beneath the scalding water. It hurt, her begrimed flesh, tender and saturated with sloth and whiskey sweat. Her scalp felt like it had been laid open by the furious swiped of a hundred razorblades. She stared down into the water pooling at her feet in bubbling brown strands.

With her foot she slid the drain plug in place and she rotated the shower knob so that the water ran from the lower spout. She sat with her back to she wall in the tub and let herself be swallowed by the scalding water.

She tried to imagine what had happened to her as if she were a stranger to herself and the past months had been a story told to her, but she could come up with no worthwhile answers. She could barely even remember a thing that had happened to her. Only the voice and the music and the throbbing pain inside her. Then all was lost to the tears and the hard, gaping breath of her sobbing.

She sat on the porch and let the warm, wet air and gilded sunlight drench her scoured flesh. She drank pots of tea and cried and pounded her fists on the table and tried to rid herself of her embarrassment, but shame is a close beast with its own voice, and its heart is cold and unwavering. The only fight she had was to demand that she was not going back to what she was. She had to find a way back into her old life. She had to get back to work. Any work she could find. She had to demand that she had no choice.

The next problem was the alcohol. By early afternoon, in the middle of the produce section, the strain on her body had become too much. She was cold and getting colder. The sweat dropped from her like water from a faucet. She tried to ignore it, to power through it, but when an act as simple as pulling a tomato out of the bin was rendered impossible because of how furiously her hand was shaking, there was nothing left to do.

In the liquor store at the other end of the complex from the grocery, she tried to buy a bottle, but the shaking and the pain in her gut would not even allow her to fish her wallet out of her purse. She put the bag on the counter and asked the clerk to get it for her, but he would not. He told her she had a problem and then crossed himself and kissed his genuflecting fist. He asked her to leave the store. Politely. He used please and ma'am. The torrent of curses and anger that flooded from the small woman in front of him put a genuine fear in him. When Beth grabbed the bottle from the counter and tore out the door without paying, he did not follow.

Sitting alone at the bus stop, she took a long pull from the bottle and almost immediately felt better. Another pull and she was able to get the bus fare out of her purse.

She sat in the back of the bus. She could smell the pain and fear on her. She closed her eyes and leaned back and let the pilfered whiskey work its magic.

At home she mixed the drink with water and ice and doled it out to herself like medicine. That was, of course, until she was drunk again and then she just drank.

She laid in bed and listened to Jeopardy with Ms. Preston. Damn Girl did not bring anyone home.

The next morning she had two drinks before taking the #9 across town to the Jobs Center.

She lasted a month at the hotel before she started bringing the bottle to work with her, sneaking sips from her thermos in between pulling loads of wet sheets from the washers and heaving them into the dryers.

At night, after the game show, she lay in the quiet picking through the slight ominous chatter coming form the vent until it came to her, the music; long, lazy tones descending like stardust from the wreckage of the day. Anointed in the celestial orchestra. Then the voice, late into the night after the bottle was empty and all the neighbors had gone to sleep.

"We are here."


"We wait for you."

And Bethany, over her silent lips, naked in her bed and delicately writhing, let the wordless words slip, "I am here," and, "I am waiting for you."

All through the night into the faint purple stretch of dawn, this gentle call and response between the lost and the heavens above.

And it was such as this for a time forgot that the romance lasted. Long nights in the dark imploring that small portal into the blackened guts of her home. The singsong of their intimate suspiration, swirling to and fro in an arcane transubstantiation of time and place.

Eventually there was no amount of booze that could make the drudgery of the laundry room tolerable. No amount of money they could pay, and it was a pittance they offered. The intolerability wore on her face, in the slouch in her back, in her silence and her solitude. When her boss confronted her about it she had no response. Not even the practiced groveling we all learn at some point in the donkey-work of wage slavery. She was fired and she gave no protest.

She gave no protest when her bank account ran dry. She made other arrangements with the lady at the liquor store.

She gave no protest when her pantry was bare. Eating had become of little concern long ago.

And she gave little protest the day her landlord came to collect rent and back rent. She tried to make an arrangement with him, but he was a happily married man and wanted only money from her. In the end, despite being offended and disgusted by his tenant, he gave her thirty days.

The panic was hard and fast. The panic was a dagger right into her heart and a poison in her belly. Her spine felt like it may snap in two, wrenched by the invisible hands of this unacceptable fate.

She took two drinks and caught the bus into town to beg for her job back. Her boss told her it wasn't worth it, but still she made her promises and offers and in the end she had to be removed from the building.

She had to walk the four miles home because she didn't have money for the bus ride back. On the way she slipped into The Blue Eagle and fixed herself up in the bathroom and sat at the bar and ordered a water. Within an hour, she had three drinks bought for her. The third gentleman stayed and bought her three more. Once there was no more time for fooling around, she was suddenly too drunk to walk and the young man called her a cab and gave her the money to pay for it. She wouldn't let him come home with her, but he settled for her phone number.

In her home she was just drunk enough not to collapse in the shear fright that had been sizzling in her chest since the landlord's visit. She felt afloat somewhere in the light, and in time... a calm netherworld just before the fall. She felt her toes edging the precipice.

She stood in the middle of the room and dropped her purse to the floor and her keys. She closed her eyes and held her face upward and listened to the birds outside, the washed noise of traffic and other human machineries. Beth Granger, despite the length of her life, the pains and the joys and the abundance forgot, could feel the earth moving without her. Despite her. Her body and her life built on no consequence. In that moment, nearly crumples to the floor like a corpse who forgot she was dead, Beth Granger was as close to not existing as she felt she ever could be without not existing at all.

What came next, then, was only instinct. At least it appeared that way. She disrobed and she let down her hair and she washed away her makeup in the kitchen sink. She took limpid steps into her bedroom and fell to her knees beneath the vent and let the communion of cold mechanical air wash over her. The only thought in her mind was, "Please please please please..." and all that sadness she had not felt in her little hinterworld in the living room pushed up out of her gut into her heart and so that it would not burst and rob her of the ability to hear the voice just one last time, she let the grievous brew bubble over. The tears streamed form her eyes leaving cold, dry tracks across her face. Her breath came out strained and painful, bereft of any real timbre but the agony-drenched wail audible only to the gods. Her body trembled so fiercely it sat still, slumped against its bones.

Over and over, her silent plea: Please please please. There was no response. No voice and no music to sooth her. Please please please, and, I'm sorry, please, but only the airy, wafting could of conditioned air.

She ran the bath to a punishing degree. She lay the razor on the empty soap dish as if it were the Host. She lit no candles. She wrote no goodbyes. She only lowered herself into the steaming tub and lifted the razor and let it sit lightly between her fingers.

Her mind was void of any last moments. She assumed there would be something there. Some sort of unmasking. Some sort of revelation of the pain and of the mystery, but there was nothing. Then, in an attempt to tease out an epic final moment, she pressed the thin edge of the razor to the pale flesh of her wrist.

"Please," she whispered. "I'm sorry," and again, "Please," and then she sank the metal into her body.

The feeling was not pain, but heat. The flesh did not give as if it were simply a bag os guts and bones, but it seemed to rip and resist and lay open to reveal a greasy white underbelly with only small rosy dapples of blood. She closed her eyes and grit her teeth and pulled the razor back and this time it was a searing burst of pain. She screamed out her fright and her surprise and opened her eyes and dropped the razor into the tub. The cut was a short gash, the white underflesh gorged red and the red overflowing into the water, spreading in smokey rivulets.

"We are here."

The fear of it pulsed through her neck, up out of her chest in rhythm with the slow gush of blood from her arm.

"We are here."

Her face felt cold, but her eyes felt like they would melt out of their sockets for fear of seeing. Her ears for fear of hearing.

"We are here."

She felt like she would vomit, but vomit ice, all the warmth drained from her - pulling from her the sense that she occupied a space in the world. Pulling from her the very idea of herself. She was only the mouth of an abyss from which flowed the unnamable, spectral heat of a universe that had been caged for a time out of mind.

"We are here."

"I am here."

and again, silent over her lips, "Here."

The music was only a hum, a single tone that wavered in a slight, perfect flutter against her ear. A secret code that need not be decoded.

The tears stopped and her mouth slackened into a smile.

She pulled herself from the incongruous mire of blood and water out onto the floor. Her limbs were too weak to hold her so she pulled herself slow and with much effort across the slick tile. Over a silken gloss of blood, she eased herself down the hall.

"Were are here."

"I am here."


In the bedroom she turned herself over and pushed herself along the carpet so that her eyes could be on the portal above her.

"Were are here."

"I am here."


And the music rose, the voice almost like singing, like a praise for her strength. It ran into her and chased out the cold. It calmed the gushing thump in her chest. And under it, under the relief of fright and the resuming warmth of body and spirit, there was the ecstasy returned to enflame her. She closed her eyes to a darkness devoid of time. There was only the voice and the song and then a golden, flickering light that brought her up from it.


The dried, rusty blood coated her like an old flesh. Inside her was a slow energy begging nothing but her own will... and the voice, as delicate and gracious as it had ever been, flowing gently over the soft tones of music, whispered to her, "We are here. Come to us and never leave. We are here."

She felt as if she were being lifted. A thousand hands all over her, gently raising her, the voice and the music getting closer. Louder. "And never leave."

She stood on the bed, naked, reaching for the portal. The voice was right there on the edge of the vent, inches from her fingers. "We are here," she whispered. "We never leave."

She piled up books, towels, clothes, everything she could find until she had her hand on the vent. She prodded and clawed at its edges until the drywall began to give way. It peeled and crumbled, a white, rocky dust falling over her, sticking in the coagulated blood the coated her. Her fingers dug a jagged trench around the rusty rectangle until they could curl in around the lip of the thing. She yanked and pulled until it gave way from the ceiling and fell heavy to the floor.

She stood balancing herself on the pile on the bed, silent, staring up into the darkness, waiting for the voice to come tumbling down to her.

"We are here," it said. "Come and never leave."

It was farther away now. Not far, but deeper than it had been before. The music pushed over her, in her, into the dark void above her. The dark seemed limitless, pregnant with the sound that was now all she could feel of her own body. Bethany lifted her hand and reached into the darkness. The cool air blew over her arm, now elbow-deep into the hole she had made. She reached around, all over, but could feel nothing. The vent shaft, the various innards of the building, it just simply was not there. She puled her hand out of the void, and then, "We are here."

With both hands she grabbed the lip of the portal and, using the wall to climb, pulled herself up into the ceiling, plaster falling all around. What should have been a tight squeeze of wood and wire, aluminum ductwork and insulation, was only the darkness neither warm nor cold nor made of any space. Below her too was darkness. The passage through which she came was gone with no trace of it having ever been there. Below her feet there was not solid ground, but she was not exactly floating. There was some sort of cushion of air that gave without tumbling her over. She took a step and it was only walking, the motion of it, without any sign that she was actually moving.

The music was all around her, the voice what seemed like straight ahead. She moved her body, which became lighter and lighter, full of the rapture of her dulcet wooer. Farther and farther until she was only movement, only a gesture toward her lover, and then nothing at all.

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