Chapter Seven: A Writer Stabs Blindly in the Darkness (by Nathaniel Popkin)

At what point do you realize you’ve gone too far? I suppose it’s possible you get a tickling somewhere and that’s the sign. And some people feel the tickling, either right before or right after crossing the line. Some people know when to say when. By tickling I mean a feeling that triggers recognition and then action, or, on the other hand, paralysis. My first experience with this, I was eleven, playing with boys named Adam and Michael. It was summer. At seven, after dinner, we’d go to a construction site. First, it was just a place to hang out. Then we started stealing lumber. Some two-by-fours. Long, heavy joists. Pieces of plywood we carried up the street like bodies we had to conceal. We dumped everything in the woods behind Adam’s house. In those days the builders still used hand tools. We stole them too. Little by little, we said, so that no one would notice. And so what if someone did?

            One night in August steps had just been installed and we were on the second floor throwing scraps of wood out the window opening. Mike was straddling the window ledge, one leg dangling over. I didn’t feel any tickling. Adam was always the type to say we’d better be careful. He was always the one to say he had to go home. But that night he was the one who kept finding more stuff to chuck out the window, right onto the street that wasn’t yet a street. We didn’t see the pickup truck before it found itself under a piece of metal pipe. Maybe we didn’t see it at all, only heard the clank of the pipe against the roof of the truck. We’d heard the guy who was building the house had been coming around at night. I guess he thought he would catch the thief. But that didn’t deter us. Probably had the opposite effect.

            The builder jammed his breaks. Adam and I hauled down the pine stairs and leapt out the back sliding door opening. The creek still ran below then, but somehow we managed to avoid getting our feet wet. Or were we barefoot? I always have the sense that I ran barefoot through the woods. The second we started down the stairs, Mike jumped. It was instantaneous; both things happened at once. Adam didn’t hear or didn’t realize. He was scared. But I heard and for a second I was paralyzed. I was stuck to the plywood floor, as if in the kind of dream where you’re trying to get somewhere and can’t, because your legs have no use. Then it passed and I ran down the stairs and I forgot about Mike.

            In the woods we huddled inside the hut we’d built with the stolen lumber. We waited for Mike. We told ourselves he wasn’t dead. We imagined the builder like a monster loose in the woods. Should we go back, find Mike? Absolutely not, I said. We have to wait it out. We’ve gone too far, Adam said. He might be dead. It wasn’t a high jump, I said. Even then, did I realize we’d gone too far?

            Distance is anyway a troubling concept. That’s why I left the Bellevue. I thought I could hide in plain sight. That’s not exactly true. I thought no one would find me in Philadelphia. I didn’t know it had busy hotels. How could I know? I haven’t left Park Slope in years. I’ve been to my publisher’s office in Manhattan and a Christmas party at the New Yorker, but that was two years ago and I didn’t get invited last year. My ex-girlfriend Amanda and I went to the Cloisters in April. She begged to go. The subway ride was so long the whole time I thought to myself I should be at home working. I can’t afford this kind of time. I was already behind on the manuscript and I had magazine editors all over the big rock waiting for essays. The train stopped between stations and the lights flickered. Amanda kept looking at me as if I should have known she was pregnant, but I kept staring at the emergency instructions. I was sounding out the Portuguese at the bottom of the sign. I refused to look at Amanda. What did she want me to see?

            If you’ve gone too far, can you ever get back? You probably think you know what I’m referring to. Well, it certainly seems like you’ve gone too far, you say. Trust me I can hear your accusing little voice. You sound like that twerp Adam. Whatever happened to Adam? Seven bodies in sixty-four pages, yes, yes, I hear you. It’s as if this is one of those dreadful novels written by committee. Everyone thinks she has to supply a body. If you fail to bring your own it’s like showing up at a party without a gift for the host.

            Well, thank you. I’m honored. I had to leave the Bellevue. Actually I stuck it out there for 27 days. That was my advance. I had promised a novel of authenticity. That’s what they paid for. But there were certain problems with the Bellevue, which I need not describe. One day I noticed three or four cops in the lobby. One of them could have been the twin of that overgrown zucchini Olive Norvell.

            I slipped into the elevator and for a split second I thought of Amanda. She was a pharmacist. Or rather, a pharmacist in training. For the first few months of our relationship, I was thrilled by this. It had been a long time since I had dated someone who wasn’t a writer or a performance artist or a human rights activist. It was refreshing to talk about nothing important. Then it really got fun when Amanda started experimenting. It was part of her education. She understood that implicitly when I suggested it. It was her responsibility to try things. I was a willing subject. She was nervous at first, but then it’s a pharmacist’s rite to sift through the medicine closet. Shake up the pill bottles.

            We’d meet at school after all the other students had left. She was a diligent student, always wanting to learn more. I told her I was thinking of writing a novel that opened with the murder of a student. Strangling? she asked. I don’t know why she said strangling. I smiled at her and kissed her. No, poison, I said. We made love under the lab table.

            Did Olive and the other cops see me? I didn’t think so. I smiled to myself in the elevator. They would only see you, old boy, if you wanted them to see you. I closed my laptop and put my four shirts in my bag. No, I couldn’t go now. I’d have to wait. I opened the laptop and searched for places to stay. I meditated on distance—the distance between my mind and the printed page, between truth and fiction. The Bellevue was clearly claustrophobic. I needed perspective. I needed to see things more clearly. This charming little hamlet would give me the distance, I had thought. But now everyone’s hot onion breath was all over me, like the fog swallowing the Brooklyn Bridge. Only I wasn’t disappearing. I was becoming all too obvious.

            The Gables, where I retreated, is a giant old house in decadent West Philadelphia. The house is atrociously Victorian, dark and somber as a casket. Light has been vanquished. The walls are red or they are striped or paneled. The chairs are flowered. The breakfast is standard cereal and muffins. The tea is weak.

            There is a bench in the garden that I avoid. I don’t swing in the swing. I don’t pet the dog. I asked to see all the rooms. The one in the turret was bright and open feeling—the only room in the house to breathe. The walls were blue. A good place to have an afternoon affair. The owners didn’t ask why I needed the room or how long I expected to stay. I didn’t say one way or the other. I only asked them to let me know when they planned to clean. I didn’t want surprises.

            I went out when it became dark. I walked a few blocks to a food truck that specialized in hemp burgers—I don’t touch meat—and I sat on the steps of an old church and considered a forty foot tall London Plane Tree. Its branches swayed like the arms of a dead man walking.

            That night the key didn’t work and I had to ring the buzzer. I felt my life had reached an abyss, I explained to the man who opened the door. He was one of the owners. I look around and I don’t even know what I’m seeing, I told the man. He offered me tea. His face was pale and waxen. Don’t you want any tea? he asked again. Are the birds loud in the morning? I asked. I don’t know why I said this. Do you need anything in the room? Distance, I said, and silence. Nothing I said made any sense. On the mantel someone had arranged pumpkins and fake sunflowers. There were plastic orange leaves taped to the surface of the mantel. It wasn’t as mawkish as it sounds.

            The man persisted in his hospitality. Though to be precise his voice was strained. He’d seen all kinds of unfortunates. I sank into a velvet chair and tried to justify my odd behavior. Perhaps it was the hemp burger. A writer stabs blindly in the darkness, I said, you never know what you might hit. It could get bloody! said my kind host. There are casualties, I responded. No more than the writer himself, I suppose, he said. Now he gave off an air of genuine compassion, as if he was reading my mind. You write for the ages, he said. No, no, I replied, I write for today. Books aren’t different than songs, but mine is a mystery, and so it’s a question. Who killed the butler? he said, that kind of question? Who killed the innkeeper, I said point blank, and smiled. And then I knew he was going to ask what I thought about the cheesesteak killings. I responded cheerfully: I don’t eat meat, so I can’t really say.

            Oh, neither do we. But we do serve bacon on Sundays, he said. You might make an exception for that? No, never, I responded. Not unless it’s fake. Well, do you think there’s more than one killer? You mean, is there a copycat or is this a coordinated attack? Yes, there might be copycats. People aren’t so creative, you know. Killers are, I think, I said.

            He said they would send up scones and tea during the day while I was working. Please knock, I said, that’s all I ask.

            From the window of my delightful room, hovering as it was like a church tower over the little houses of the village, I felt the necessary distance. I opened my window to the bird sonnet. In autumn the birds fall from the trees like tears and melt into the ground.

            The leaves on the trees were dark green still, despite the calendar. I had to remind myself this wasn’t New York. I stuck my head out the window as if to confirm the finding. Not even certain far precincts of Brooklyn have such an air decay and dissolution. The leaves seemed to swallow everything. My nest was on the highest branch of the tallest tree, which made me feel at ease.

            During the day, with the drapery pulled and the window open, I tried to absorb the essence of the place. I typed and I listened. Only once in the first few days was I interrupted. There was a knock at my door. Someone is here to see you, said the voice of the man with the pale and pasty face, whose name I still can’t remember. I’m sorry, I’m busy, I replied. She seems insistent, he said. I slammed my laptop closed.

            It was my cousin Katrina, the overachiever. The woman is very serious. And worse than that, her posture is straight as the needle of a syringe. At the little tip she lets out her proclamations. I’d avoided her these last few weeks and now here she’d plunged herself into my room. The sunlight had hit the far wall, illuminating a row of decorative plates. How did you find me here? I asked her. Don’t be silly, she said. Her class had just let out at the University of the Sciences, a couple blocks away. I hadn’t realized she taught there too. The pharmacy school? Isn’t that right? She stared at me with a look of wicked incredulity. I stared back. That’s all you can do with Katrina.

            She asked to stay. She had papers to grade, she said. Being an adjunct she had no office. I smiled. What in our childhood had made Katrina so angry?

            Her appearance comforted me and I returned to my work and I thought that the distance had come full circle and I took notice of it like someone else in the room. Katrina sat rigidly in the blue plush chair. It’s heavenly here, I wrote, as the sunlight skipped across the bony knuckles of her hand.

            I waited until the yellow light came on in the room across the street and then I left to find my dinner. There are enough dark and empty streets in this half-formed place to fill a crime novel. I stuck to the cool skin of the bricks and the backsides of the trees. I walked through far and forgotten neighborhoods listening to the sounds of gruff, overly seasoned voices and the screech of bike tires. Somewhere, I smelled cilantro and lime. Somewhere else, deep shaking laughter. In another place, I descended into a cloud of marijuana smoke, and a few feet away the puff of the sewer inlet. That sour smell I’ll never banish from my mind.

            The next night the moon was high in the sky and I stayed in. I opened my window. Something drew my foot up and over the ledge and I perched there, in the same position as Mike so many years ago. Sometime later two police cars pulled up. Chelsea and Olive got out of the lead car. Chelsea walked with such confidence I couldn’t stand it. They disappeared under the roof of the porch. I tried to listen for voices, but I couldn’t hear through the distance. The porch roof was ten feet below. The branch of a cherry tree quivered in front of me. I had tossed all my junk onto the page and now I was paralyzed, not with fear but indecision. I wanted to see Chelsea, just to gaze at her. I could walk down the stairs. I could jump onto the porch roof. I could hide in the bathroom. Chelsea come find me. But I did nothing. I never moved. After ten minutes, Chelsea and Olive returned to their car. I got down and went back to my desk and pretended to write. Then came the knock and the voice of compassion. Just so you know, we’re very protective of our guests here, said the voice. I’m very sorry if I’ve interrupted your work.