About a month before I ran out of money and had to move in with Ines (this was years before we were married) I made a half-assed attempt one night to break into her neighbor's house.
I was with Fergal who was dressed like an undertaker because his nephew had died and he'd just come back from the funeral. We were in Foley's when the idea came over us like a fever. I knew I was on the verge of eviction. Carl, my housemate, hadn't come home for three weeks, and maybe he'd secretly moved out. Fergal was living in a campervan behind his sister's house and the situation was intolerable with the neighborhood savages throwing bricks on the roof at night, and now the death of his nephew. He needed a room, he said. A place to read and write and draw. He was an illustrator (though other than ink-stained fingertips I'd never seen any evidence of this claim). If we could just get inside that derelict house next door to Ines, if we could somehow jimmy the back door open, we could squat the place. We could run a cable over from Ines's kitchen for electricity, black out the front windows with blankets and tarps like they did during the blitz. We could create our own kingdom inside that broken-down shithole. Unshackled from the burden of rent, our troubles would be over. We gulped down our beers and stalked out of the bar.
The next morning it was hard tracing the line of reasoning. In the light of day, even one as dim as this smudgy midwinter afternoon, most of the connections were burnt through. Why had we assumed that the house was derelict? All the houses around there looked derelict, of course, because the people who lived in them were old, abandoned, penniless. They were like ghosts. You never saw them, but they were there. Tongues of yellow smoke curled out of their chimney pots, getting tangled in the tiny trees that grew on their roofs. This was how people with no money kept warm in winter. They burnt their own trash with a few charcoal briquettes. And now I'd tried forcing my way into the home of one of these unfortunates. I was some sort of marauder. Christ, what next? I stared at my face in the mirror. Here it was then, another ridiculous burden to carry around in my mind for the rest of my life, another lurid stupidity to contend with. I was a criminal now, a juvenile delinquent fast approaching 30. I trudged across town in the rain, my hood yanked low so no one could read my shame.
I rang the doorbell. In the way of most old city-center houses in Ireland the door opened directly onto the street and the neighbor's door was only a few feet away. "It would be just my fate," I muttered, unsure of what I was complaining about. The words had slipped out on their own like something left over from the night before. I had visions of the police arriving to arrest me, the neighbor finger-pointing from his doorway. The police wouldn't care about the state of my finances or how I'd believed that the house was empty. These were factors which did not come into play when you broke the law. No, your shockingly vast stupidity was held up for examination, divorced from all other facets of your life - for example, the people who still loved you anyway.
I rang the doorbell again. You could hear the bell ringing in there. Sometimes Ines broke open the doorbell box and jammed the mechanism with a matchstick because people were always ringing, sometimes late into the night, and she got tired of it. But now I could hear someone's feet scuffing down the hallway. I thought my heart might pound right out of my chest. I wasn't used to owning up to nightmares of this caliber.
Ines opened the door half-way and said, "Yes?" I could see half her face, a spill of tangled hair, one eye.
In a thoroughly mournful voice, I said, "It's me."
She flung the door open.
"I thought you was the police!"
"Sorry about," I made a vague cringing gesture, "about going next door last night, bothering your neighbor and all that."
"No! You stupid! If I was not already in the envelope I would probably jump over the wall with you." She called her bed "the envelope." It was a literal translation from Spanish. While she was in the envelope, Fergal and I had jumped over the wall separating the back yards and tried prying her neighbor's door open. Then the neighbor stepped out of the dark and told us to go away.
Ines wasn't angry. Suddenly I was happy again. In those days I could forget things quickly. It was as if the night before had never taken place. But it had.
"Your English is very good today," I said.
"I had this conversation one hour ago."
I followed her down the hall, relieved that she wasn't angry. But why was she expecting the police?
The usual gang of unemployables were arranged around the kitchen, drinking cups of tea, using up Ines's milk and sugar. Fergal was poised at the counter, gripping a teacup, still wearing his funeral clothes. He grinned at me, an odd mirthless revelation of pickety teeth. He was very tall, and the teacup looked too small for his hands. His long bony fingers crouched under it like a spider. Maki was sprawled on the sofa in the other room, snoring loudly, his mandolin leaning in a corner like a prosthetic limb, or maybe a part of his mind, waiting there for him to wake up. Some guy I didn't know was on hands and knees under the table, groping at the carpet.
"What's he doing?" I asked.
"Dropped a piece of hash down there last month," said Fergal. "Been at it for an hour."
"Jesus, you people are turning into junkies over here!"
Out the back window I saw a middle-aged bald man who worked in the hairdresser's a few doors down snipping the hair of a Finnish girl whose long blonde locks were combed down her back, wet and straight. She looked like Alice in Wonderland in her short frilly dress. One of Ines's bath towels was draped over her shoulders. She was sitting in one of Ines's kitchen chairs.
"That bald fella's cutting hair," offered Fergal, following my gaze. "Five quid a pop."
I looked out the window at the man cutting hair.
"I reckon he's drunk," he said.
"He's cutting people's hair?" It seemed incredible.
"Yes," said Fergal. He held his cup of tea under his chin, looking just like an undertaker.
"Who's that yelling?"
"There's some loony tune up on the wall," said the guy under the table. "He thinks he's William Burroughs."
Ines had gone out the back door to the little cement cubicle that functioned as a back yard and was shouting up at someone who was out of view. Five feet behind her, the barber was cutting the Finnish girl's hair, but they might as well have been in a separate dimension. If Fergal hadn't already acknowledged them, I might have wondered if my mind had started hallucinating. I felt like it had anyway.
I heard the barber say, "They treat me like a turd over there. An underling, a flunky, a fuckwit, a sop. But guess what, honey! I'm the goose that laid the golden egg!"
"That's awful," said the Finnish girl. "Why don't you quit?"
"Oh, I couldn't do that."
"Here, look at this," said Fergal.
He passed me a long serrated kitchen knife.
"What about it?" I said, holding the wicked implement in my hand.
"The neighbor brought it over this morning. Says he found it in his doorway, wedged between the door and the jamb."
I looked at the knife. I hated knives and couldn't look at one without imagining blood, my own blood outside my body, especially one like this which was designed for rending flesh. In stories, people were always smiling like a knife, or "his face was like a knife," but now I had a knife in my hand, and I knew I would write a story someday in which "the knife smiled like a man." Its little metal teeth grinned up at me from my hand. It was a bloodthirsty grin, murderous and diabolical. I'd never encountered it before. I would have remembered.
I wondered about Fergal.
"So, what did he say when he gave it to you?" I asked, fearful.
"He said, I think this belongs to you folks, and he handed it over, all jolly-cheeked smiles. He didn't seem put-out by it at all."
"He lives over there with his mother," said the guy under the table. "They're both out of their fucking minds."
"I thought he seemed all right," said Fergal. "Bit of a cool customer, perhaps, but not deranged or anything. He looked like Philip Pullman."
"Who?" said one of the unemployables.
"No, he's not all right, not all right at all," said the voice under the table, but he didn't elaborate. He went on searching the carpet for his imaginary piece of hash.
Maki moaned and coughed in the other room, a terrible inchoate mess of sound burbling in his throat, on the verge of coalescing into something evil in the room.
"Did he mention the police?"
"I'm telling you, man. He was friendly. Shluffed the whole affair off. Thought it was funny."
"Crazy," said the voice under the table.
"Listen, I'm dead certain, if you wanted to do it, we could go over there right now, this very minute, and have a chat and a cup of tea with him."
"And his mother."
"I think I'll pass," I said.
Suddenly Ines screamed a web of Spanish words up at the sky. I didn't understand it, but it sounded amazingly violent.
Someone I could not see was hollering at Ines from above. "Who is that?" I said. I put down the knife - my fingers tingling a little, as if they had absorbed some of its weird carnal energies - and went outside.
Yes, there was someone on the wall. It was Marky. He was straddling the top of the wall, raving and growling at Ines. His T-shirt hung from his neck in tatters, and one of his nipples was bleeding like he'd tried to claw it off.
His ice-blue eyes focused on my face, locking me in like a pair of death-hands, and he stretched his neck out toward me and howled in an amazing display of animalistic insanity. He howled and barked like a werewolf on the wall.
The barber and the Finnish girl went on with their hair-cutting as if none of this were taking place, safe in a dimension of their own.
"How'd he get up there?" I said.
"He jump," said Ines, pronouncing it yump.
I looked up at him again. "All the way up there?"
"Is fucking an animal!" She hadn't quite mastered swearing in English, but the blind force of the dirty word trumped the rules of grammar.
Marky was about fifteen feet up. The wall stretched from the back of Ines's kitchen to a building that seemed to loom out of nowhere, a big slab of rock jutting out of the ground, creating the back wall of Ines's cement yard, or garden as they say here - though I couldn't imagine anything less like a garden than this.
"But what happened? Why'd he jump up there?"
"He crazy," she said, twirling her finger around her ear in the universal cartoon symbol for crazy.
"Pills?" Marky was known to swallow, on occasion, large quantities of dubious pills.
My head throbbed at the mention of the word.
"This is crazy," I said.
"It is," said Ines.
"I mean, this is really fucking nuts."
"That mean crazy?"
She squinted like she didn't believe me.
"Ah, maybe it's American usage or something. I don't know."
Here I was, giving an English lesson.
"We say that here, too," mumbled one of the unemployables, a local, who had followed me out the door.
"Nuts," said Ines, smiling, obviously imagining actual nuts - walnuts, peanuts, macadamia nuts - and wondering about their connection with craziness and a man on a wall.
I looked at the barber. He was saying, "some kind of manservant, a paid lackey, a slave in shackles and chains. But, listen honey, I tell you, I'm the goose that laid the golden egg!"
"What is this goose you are talking about?" said the Finnish girl.
"It's me!" he said. "That's what I've been trying to tell you."
"You are a goose? That's silly. You're a silly goose."
Snip, snip, snip.
"Maybe if we all just go away and leave him up there?" I suggested.
"No, no, no. He climb on the roof. From there he get everywhere." She pointed at the other roofs. It was true. They were all connected. If he got on the roof he'd go on the warpath, wreak havoc up and down the street, get his picture taken by tourists visiting the ruined 13th century abbey just a few buildings away (none of us had been there except Fergal who sometimes jumped the fence at night and walked around) and finally he would be arrested - which seemed to me like a logical and almost welcome outcome to the whole ordeal.
Now two men wearing identical paisley ties were pelting him with balls of crumpled paper from a window in the other building. Marky hissed and slashed his fingernails, gnashing his teeth like a monster in a movie.
"This is a fucking law office!" shouted one of the men, tossing another paperball. The other took careful aim and beamed Marky directly between the eyes.
More hissing and gnashing.
"My friend is nuts," said Ines.
Just then Maki sauntered out from the kitchen with one of the unemployables trailing behind him. A fiddle was already at his neck, bow poised, but before he managed even a single note Ines hollered at him, waving her arms in the air like someone scaring a large cackling bird out of her garden. Grumbling and crouching, the fiddle over his head as if to ward off lightning strikes from God, Maki retreated to the kitchen, the speechless unemployable in his wake.
"Have you tried tempting him down with more booze?" I said.
"Who the fuck are you people!" shouted one of the men in the window.
It was a legitimate question, but there was no answer, at least not one you could shout up to an incensed lawyer dangling from a third storey window. Almost everybody in the house was from a different country. Some were drunk. From up there we must have looked like a bunch of outcasts from Wonderland. Which, glancing around, is pretty much what it looked like from the ground. The Finnish girl was Alice. She had the hair, anyway. Or maybe it was me. I was feeling more than a little unusual.
Fergal appeared in the doorway in his funeral clothes.
"Found it!" yelled the guy under the table.
"I dropped a little piece down for him," whispered Fergal. "Couldn't bear watching any longer."
Ines was trying to appease the lawyers in the window who were threatening now to call the police. As she spoke to them, she looked very small and still, as if her body were tightening with explosive energy. I half-expected her to scale the wall suddenly like a giant spider and slam the window shut on their ties.
At the mention of the police, however, the situation took on a grave new dimension for me. My visa had lapsed a year earlier. I thought of the knife in the neighbor's door and decided I'd better be going.
"People are trying to work!" shouted one of the lawyers. "Real people!"
"Know what that word means?" shouted the other. "Work?"
Yes, that was a word we all knew, even the ones who barely spoke English.
As I was headed down the hallway for the front door, I heard the barber call out, "Right! Who needs a haircut? You two boys in the window need haircuts? Get down here. Sit in my chair. However you want it, I know how to do it. It's a fiver a head. Some might call that robbery, some might call it a steal - but, hey, everyone who sits in my chair gets a complimentary kiss on the mouth!"
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Kevin Spaide. All rights reserved.