I am the manager. That’s why Diane called me when she needed help. I live in the apartment closest to the front door of the building, and there’s a wooden sign that hangs just below my peep-hole that reads “manager” in big, block letters.
When I hung up the phone I went right up to Diane’s door. I had been sitting in my place, just sitting there on the couch looking out the window on the south of the building. It wasn’t raining, but I was hoping that it would start soon. I was dreaming of the wet people that would be outside, running and searching for a place to take cover. I could dream like that sometimes, sitting on the couch and just dreaming. That’s when she called.
She lived on the second floor of the building, had a plain straw doormat that sat on the carpeted floor just outside her place. Woven into it was a scene with some puppies. Whatever in the world that doormat was up to is something that I can’t tell you. I just tried not to stand on it while I knocked.
“Come in already,” she said from inside.
I hesitated for a moment and then tried to open the door.
“It’s locked,” I said back.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “It’s not, just try it again.”
So I tried it again. I pushed harder on the door this time. It wasn’t locked after all. I walked in, closing the door behind me. I stood there breathing hard right in front of that front door. I couldn’t see Diane anywhere. She was a ghost in there. And for a few seconds I felt relieved to know that that’s what she was.
“Hey,” she said from somewhere inside. “Come here. Come on.”
In our building there are counters in the apartments that separate the kitchen from the living room. The counters don’t stand very tall. She was on her hands and knees behind it. That’s why I couldn’t see her.
I came up behind her and coughed without meaning to. She was picking up glass pieces from something that must’ve fallen from the countertop just above her.
“Hey,” she said again.
“I’m here,” I said, startling her.
She looked around her shoulder and then nodded. Then she went back to picking up the pieces and piling them together in one space.
“Okay,” she said.
I waited, but she didn’t say anything else right away. So I just stood there looking. I started by watching the back of her head, with her red hair all around. Then I started looking around her apartment. It was so bare. In the kitchen there were dishes that were piling up on top of newspapers. Empty wine bottles lined one of the countertops. I didn’t really know anything about Diane, except that she lived somewhere above me. Sometimes she and I would cross paths in the hallways, or by the front door if I was wiping smudges from the glass. She had glorious red hair and the hands that a statue would have, with long fingers and short nails. She usually wore sandals or went barefoot in the halls. Her apartment taught me nothing more about her than what I already had seen.
“Come here,” she said while I was looking slowly.
I walked around her so that I could see her face.
“Take your sandals off,” she said. “Please.”
I took them off.
“Put them by the door if you want,” she said.
“Oh,” I said, and did.
I waited by the door again, without knowing the reason. I looked down at my feet. There they were.
“Come here,” she said.
So I did. I knelt down to face her. She looked at my feet for a second, so I did too. Then she looked back at the floor in front of her.
“I broke this statue,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “It was a statue?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I got it when I was in Mexico the last time. I’m not sure what happened.”
I looked at her hands as she spoke. They were the greatest hands. Then she made a noise and brought her fingers to her mouth. I kept staring at her. She looked back at me eventually.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, are you okay?”
She got up and walked around the counter to the kitchen sink, then started running water over her finger. She came back to me, to where I was still kneeling.
“Can you look at this?” she said. “Tell me if it’s fine.”There was blood running down her finger still. I could see it, like a sunset coming down on her hands, there was deep color everywhere. She got closer and closer and nudged up against me, holding her hand out in front of us both. It was there in front of the two of us, a spectacle. I could feel her hair brush up against my shoulder. Then she moved away a little. I moved too. I could feel dust or crumbs sticking to the skin underneath my feet.
I wanted to tell her that her hand was fine, but I wasn’t sure how. It was fine and white, I was sure. I started to feel dizzy with more than just the shock of the blood. It was dizziness but all reversed, like I was coming together instead of coming apart.
“Why did you call me?” I said.
“Tell me I’m fine,” she said.
I waited for a second.
“You’re fine,” I said.
She smiled and looked back at her finger. God, there was that blood.
“I should wrap this up,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Get me a band-aid from the bathroom closet,” she said.
“Sure,” I said.
I got up and walked to the bathroom. It was yellow and looking rotten, like someone hadn’t been in there in a really long time. In the closet I couldn’t find any band-aids. I told her so.
“They’re in there,” she said. “Just look.”
“Or check the mirror above the sink,” she said.
I found the box and pulled it out of the cabinet behind the mirror. While I was getting a single band-aid from the box I caught sight of her bathtub. In the drain was a clog of hair, red like a cardinal would be red. Sometimes around the building, near the mailboxes or just on the carpet in the halls, you would find strands of this hair. She just had so much of it all the time. I would be cleaning and then I’d find it. It’s not as hard to spot as you would think.
I studied the hair in the tub for a second. It looked redder than usual, probably because it was so damp. Then I walked back to give Diane her band-aid. She put it on and smiled.
“I called you to help me put the air-conditioner back into the hole in the wall,” she said. “Can you do that?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I can’t do it, and I don’t have someone to help me.”
“You live alone?” I said. “Well I can do it.”
“Do you?” she said.
“What?” I said.
“Sure,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“I’m going to have a cigarette,” she said. “Do you mind? I’ll be right back.”
“Don’t smoke in here,” I said. “I mean, please don’t. We like to live in here.”
Then she left. I started to put the big white machine into the empty space in her wall, just below the window. It was sitting under a card-table that was across the room. And I started by carrying it over to the window. It was heavier than I remembered the machines being. I mean, it was really, really heavy. Then as I was taking the cover off of the conditioner’s space, I thought again of the hair. I looked back at the front door and then back to the window. Her window faces north, I thought. I thought, I didn’t ever realize that she lived on the other side of the building.
With the cover off I could feel fresh air come into the room and blow against my skin. It made me feel sick and happy and then just sick and tired. In the air is something that does that.
And then I did it. I went into the bathroom and left the machine on the floor. I knelt down by the drain in the bathtub and ringed a big finger around the rim. I got the hair, still wet and grimy with that kind of greasy scum that you get in tubs. I pulled it up and looked at it. I imagined that it was a piece of her flesh, from the finger that she had just cut open. Of course it wasn’t, but it didn’t matter.
I walked back out into the living room and looked at the window. It was a dirty window. I should go, I thought. I can go and come back, I thought.
But while turning toward the front door, I heard footsteps down the hall. I panicked, thinking it was Diane, so I turned and ran into her bedroom. I found very little in the bedroom, just a bed and a lamp. There was a window in there too, though, just like in my bedroom, and I had dreams of breaking it with my shoulder and jumping like a hero into the alleyway below. I had dreams of climbing the nearest tree and looking around the town like I was needed. I had dreams that there were people down there walking past the tree and walking past my building and talking about me and what I do every day. They all had questions that only I could answer. And they would have to come inside.
I wanted to keep dreaming for the rest of the day. There was no time for that now, though, so I turned again and looked at her closet. It was a walk-in closet. I had one too. I knew how the closet worked. I knew just what to do with it. I opened the door and slid inside.
I still had the hair in my hand. I don’t know why I did. It was too late for any of that now anyway. I put my hand into my pocket, felt the wetness and grime of the hair on my hands and keys. It was seeping through the fabric of my clothes.
And then Diane came back inside. I heard her slip off her shoes and shut the door. I waited for her to lock the door. She eventually did. I heard her walk into the living room, pause, and then tap her nails on the countertop. She sighed. Then the sounds of scraping glass pieces from the floor, and then the drop of a sack into a trash bag.
Before I could help myself, I coughed again without meaning to. All of those sounds had got to me. They reminded me of changing channels on a television. Then I could hear Diane shuffle across the floor and come into the room. She did the whole thing slowly, though, like the kind of slow that meant she knew what she was doing.
I had closed the closet door in the hopes that I would be buried. At that moment I wanted to be buried forever. She didn’t make a whole lot of noise then, so I waited.
“Is someone in here?” she said, like she was a bird singing to a child. “Is someone hiding in here?”
I wanted to answer her but knew that I couldn’t.
“Someone,” she said. “Yes, someone.”
And then light filled up around me as she opened the door. Before she could say anything I told her that I had her hair. She didn’t look confused by any of it. Like a dog I pulled the goop of hair from my pocket and shoved it out to her.
She just looked down at her hand and picked a bit at the wound she’d got just a few minutes earlier. She smelled like smoke and like human. I never thought that those would smell the same, but they did just then.
Without saying anything she gestured toward me.
“Can I come into the closet?” she said.
I hesitated, still holding the hair out to her.
“Can I put the cover back over the hole in the wall?” I asked.
She left and then she was back. She pushed aside all of the hangers with all of the clothes. I stepped back to give her more room, and I thought about dreaming by the window, looking outside at the people, pressing my hand against the glass and wanting to fall through into another silly world, the one where I’m on the north side of the building. She closed the closet door and it was dark. When it’s dark like that I can imagine that I’m back at my apartment or back at home or back at an old job that I used to have cutting meats in a deli or north, south, east, or west. I could imagine that I was away or here in Diane’s apartment, sitting in the closet. I could do all of those things. I picked one and assumed that I was westward bound. That’s the beauty of dark. It’s full of possibility, where the signs on your door don’t matter, despite everything.
After she was inside and nestled in, she spoke. The sound was just something else.
“Come here,” she said.
I scooted closer to her. I could feel some part of her brushing against my foot.
“Tell me something,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Tell me something,” she said. “Just something. You’re in my closet.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, sure.”
“Great,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say, and I coughed before finding something. Then I coughed again. In the dark I thought about how her hands must’ve looked when she was a child, before the work of being alive. I imagined they were bright and pale and smooth. I thought about them running through her hair. I thought about her letting it grow long and get dirty so she could wash her hair in a river somewhere. I imagined her hands holding water. I wanted to give her the hair, but didn’t.
“I have dreams,” I said finally.
“Tell me about them,” she said.