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Matt Marinovich

 

You Know How Much I Love You

He once spent the whole night in the kitchen waiting for me. But I had taken precautions, as usual. I kept a Mason jar under my bed, which I unscrewed with great care, so as not to make a sound. Pissing in it was not as easy. I felt for sure he must have heard me. I could picture him, twisting some hairs on his scraggly beard, poring over that earnest manifesto he never seemed to finish. And then, in the morning, I opened the door, fully prepared to race across the room with my head down, offering a mumbled good morning on my way to the front door.

But Williamís been gone for days. My nonsensical, neo-hippie, vegetarian, communist, bony, soup-making roommate is lost somewhere on the eastern seaboard. In a short note, he wrote that he couldnít pin down how long he would be away, owing to the Ďtask at hand,í which he did not elaborate on. He did write that he would have a lot to say to me when he got back and was taking a notepad along with him, which he would fill with minute and important observations. It was simply signed ĎYours, William.í The handwriting was founding-father cursive, and looked as if it should have been drafted on parchment. His own name was vined with unnecessary swirls and curlicues, as if he had signed his own declaration of independence.

Three months ago, when I moved into this apartment, I had no intentions of going into seclusion. William seemed normal enough at first. I had him pegged for your average Cambridge hippie. A bleeding heart whoíd pour maple syrup on rice cakes and hand paint signs for obscure political rallies. He was a cashier at the Co-op supermarket. He looked like a really nervous Jesus Christ.

My first night there, he suggested we go for a walk to get ice cream at a convenience store. I work two jobs and one of them is scooping ice cream at a quaint ice cream parlor in Harvard Square. I wear a paper hat, just like the old days, and say Ďenjoyí endlessly. Everyone says please and thank you and old ladies look at me too kindly. The Tommy Dorsey swells and the windows fog up, and the blind man, who always eats a quart of cookies and cream, jerks the leash of his guide dog every two minutes, sensing it might be on the verge of a neglectful sleep.

But I havenít been completely honest with you. Less than a year ago, I was a prisoner. I still canít associate the word with my own face. Three years at Walpole penitentiary. What did I do? I ran over this Hispanic woman in East Boston. I was drunk. I hit and run. What the hell was an old lady doing in the middle of the street at two in the morning? Well, I read all about it in the papers. She was bringing a thermos of coffee to her son, who worked at the Kayem Frankfurter plant. She walked two miles every night to bring this poor fuck his goddamn coffee so he wouldnít go to sleep while he was grinding some horseís ass. She didnít even have a green card. There wasnít a soul for miles around. Just me, doing about fifty, listening to some DJ named Billy Bouchee tell me I knew how much he loved me. I remember that distinctly. He was thanking me for being me, and then he said it was time to turn out my light and hit the hay, and then he told me how much he loved me. That was the exact moment she bounced off the hood of my Monte Carlo.

But I still went for ice cream with William. He kept a strange pace with me, matching every step of mine.

"So, this is the way you walk," he said. I hitched my step a little, just to throw him off. But he continued to mimic me exactly. I gave him a nasty look.

"Sorry," he said. "I like getting inside peopleís heads."

He took a right when we got to Prospect and I followed him.

"I thought we were getting ice cream," I said.

William seemed to walk more up than forwards, as if he were doing some tantric exercise for the balls of his feet. When we passed 22 Prospect, he stopped.

"You hear that?" he asked me.

I listened closely. Picking out sounds from sounds. Wondering what he wanted me to hear. Ws it the guitar being played in someoneís upstairs bedroom? The voice of Tom Brokaw on the evening news?

"Yeah," I said, taking a step or two, trying to lure him forward again.

"Sheís raking again," he said.

I inventoried all the sounds again, but I couldnít come up with the sounds of raking.

I was about to tell him this when he left me there and walked into the driveway of 22 Prospect and vanished. I stayed put. I heard voices coming from where he had gone. I heard a womanís nervous laugh. I heard Williamís voice too, but I couldnít make out what he was saying. It seemed there was a good deal of silence in the conversation. And I wondered if he knew the woman he was speaking to. I backed away slowly and walked back to the apartment.

A half-hour later, I heard the front door being unlocked. I heard footsteps near my door. I could picture his hand raised, his gaunt face. The pressure behind his eyebrows, thinking about whether he should knock.

"I spoke to her," he said from behind the door.

"Oh," I said. "Good. Weíll talk about it tomorrow."

"Iím making some soup," he said.

"Tired," I said into my pillow.

And then, very distinctly, I heard the sound of his fingernail scratching at my door. I wondered if would do this until I came out of the room. The scratching stopped, then started again.

"Just getting this sticker off for you," he said.

An hour later, when I was sure he had retreated, I locked my door and tried to sleep. I didn't smile at my customers the next day, and they didnít smile at me. Our arrangement, it turned out, was extremely fragile. An angry looking lady in a black shawl asked me why the mint chocolate chip was so green. She looked at me intensely as I tried to explain and a hush came over the other customers. Even the blind manís dog looked at me. When I finished trying to elaborate on the harmlessness of food coloring, she snatched her two dollars off the counter and said that people like me were all the same.

That evening, I walked up the creaky stairs to the apartment and wondered what that amazing smell was. It was like someone had condensed my entire childhood into a bouillon cube and then boiled it to perfection. I almost wept on the staircase. When I opened the door, I saw William hunched over a kettle, mumbling into the steam that peeled the plaster on the ceiling. The entire apartment seemed to be sweating.

I tried walking to my room but I couldnít help myself. I took a seat at the kitchen table and asked him how things were going.

"You have to stay on top of a soup like this," he said. "You leave for a second and it takes the spirit out of it."

He wiped some snot off his nose with his arm and smiled at me.

"Donít cry," he said. "Itís only soup."

I felt the corner of my eye and there was a tear. Pure exhaustion. Or the humidity of the apartment. Evaporating onions.

He ladled some soup for me and I sat down at the table. He joined me there and watched me eat. He watched me so carefully I began to think the stuff might be laced. I watched him right back and waited for him to break into a hideous smile. But he didnít. He just sat there, wiping his nose with the back of his arm.

"You can lift the bowl to your lips," he said.

If that was all he wanted for his effort, why not? I lifted up the bowl and poured the rest into my mouth, concerned that I couldnít see him for a moment. Soup dribbled out of my mouth. It soaked my collar. I put down the bowl.

"We never got that ice cream," he said.

I patted my stomach playfully.

"Canít even think about eating ice cream now," I said.

An hour later I was shivering in front of 22 Prospect. William was in the backyard again, talking to the invisible woman he didnít even know. I didnít hear any raking. I didnít hear her laugh nervously. I walked a ways down the driveway, just so I could hear them better. There was a floodlight on the garage and it made the brown grass even uglier. Who would be raking up a yard in the middle of winter? I could make out a Volkswagen in the darkness of the garage. The hubs were nearly rusted off and the windshield was cracked. I walked up a little bit more. I could see the woman now, and I could hear Williamís voice. She was holding a rake and wearing a pale blue sweatshirt and I could see her breath against the light. She wasnít bad looking, but she had one of those perms I always confuse with a lack of intelligence. And brand new jeans. I never get along with people who wear brand new jeans. She turned to me and said "Hi," very softly, as if she had been expecting me as well.

William was standing in front of her, shifting from side to side to keep warm. They were hardly saying anything.

"Well here we go," she said hoarsely to me. "I guess itís a regular party now."

She wasnít smiling. And she didnít touch my hand when I introduced myself. She casually leaned her chin on the rake.

"You come here to take your brother home?" she said.

"Heís not my brother," I said.

"We were talking," William said. He looked at her sharply.

"Weíre through talking, psycho," the woman said. "If you donít get out of my yard, Iím calling the police."

William looked at me sadly, as if I were the only one who could understand.

"Sheís disappearing," he said.

The woman looked at William like heíd fallen off Mars. Not exactly like that. More like a wino who kept stumbling through her bushes, honing in on some particular dogwhistle craziness.

"Iím not disappearing anywhere, honey. Youíre the one whoís going to disappear unless you vacate this yard. You taking him with you?í

"Yes," I said. I grabbed William by his bony arm, and he was shivering. I didnít know from fear or the cold.

As I guided him past her, he turned and faced her one more time.

"She wasnít a nigger," he said.

I pulled him away before he could do more damage. I could feel her glaring at him as we left. Here I was, holding some maniacís arm who just happened to be my roommate. My ropes to reality were getting snapped up fast.

"It happened at Sallyís House of Beauty," he said to me. "Thatís what she called the cashier."

I kept my hand around his arm and wondered what on earth William was doing at Sallyís Beauty Salon.

"What were you doing at Sallyís House of Beauty?" I said.

"Thereís been trouble there before," he said. "Friction between customers and the help."

"So you just hang out thereÖwaiting?"

"Beauty shops have a lot of unnatural tension. People are super-aware of their ethnic origins because theyíre looking for race identity products."

He told me how he followed this woman home. She was carrying a large plastic bag filled with old sweaters. He watched her buy an M&M cookie and eat it furtively, as if she were under video surveillance. He followed her through the office park and watched her take all the sweaters out of the plastic bag and put them back in. He got on the 53 bus with her and got off when she reached her stop.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because you have to be unusual. You have to be unusual to communicate with people who are disappearing."

We were standing at the front of the house now. The woman was watching us. I could tell she was frightened, wondering how this man found her.

William broke away from me and took a few steps toward her.

"I forgive you," he said. "And I love you very much."

I froze. Billy Boucheeís voice came to me again. A lifeless grandmother with a thermos was falling through the sky. Sailing through the universe so she could hit me again. I never said a word to her. She doesnít even know my name.

I wondered how many yards he had invaded, how many bigots he had followed home.

The woman dropped her rake and ran up the front steps of her house. It was like something had snapped.

"Sheís going to call the police," he said calmly. "And when they come, you and I are going to tell them the whole story."

He was so sure of himself. He even took a seat on her front steps. He patted the wood, urging me to sit next to him.

"Youíre trespassing," I hissed.

"Physically," he said.

I walked away from 22 Prospect. Two blocks away I started to jog. My roommate in prison, he always told me, if you have to run, do it slowly, like youíre just out for some exercise, and smile at all the nice people coming home from work. He said itís the people who really take off who get caught.

When I got home, I locked my door. An hour later, I heard him come into the apartment. I listened for his steps. I knew he was standing right outside my door again.

"I know what you did," he said.

I didnít answer. There was no reason to confess. But I wanted to know how he found out. If he rifled through my desk. If he found one of my own letters.

I waited for him to say something else, but he didnít. I heard a clatter of pots and pans. I heard him open and close the icebox door. I must have fallen asleep then, because the next thing I remember is the smell. I woke up and smelled the soup he was cooking and remembered my dream. Iíd almost run out of gas and then Iíd found a diner in the shadow of a huge bridge. I walked in and slipped into a booth. A gaunt man at the next table winked at me and lifted a spoon to his mouth. He blew on his soup and sucked it in like a fix. The waitress flicked a greasy strand of hair behind her ear and asked me if I wanted it in a bowl or a cup. There wasnít even a choice.

Williamís been gone now for almost a month. Every day, I come home from work dreading the smell of lovingly cooked soup. And when I inhale the regular old hallway fumes, the smell of Friday fish or the fresh paint from that apartment downstairs, or whatever it is that day, I knock the wall for more good luck.

I donít lock my bedroom door at night anymore, although I set a chair down in front of the door. If he comes in, Iíll hear a nice bump and have plenty of time to respond.

Iíve stowed the soup kettle behind the other pans. At night, I will myself to sleep, thinking of how many guilty people there are in America and how William will go to each of them, as if he were connecting black dots, until he is thousands of miles away.

But there are times, I admit this, when his absence startles me. It is the sadness of this, and this only: there must be a lot of disappearing people if a self-deluded prophet canít find his way homeóeven to reclaim his own belongings. His leather bound album of photographs still lies square in the middle of his bed. His family itemized in countless photographs. You should see the one of his father and mother standing naked together at some kibbutz. Or his sister hand painting a VW van. And many of William too. But the one I like, heís wearing a necklace of white seashells, grinning at us from the muck of the Jersey shore, and behind his back, the rest of us sinners wade into the pale sea.

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