by Shane Joaquin Jimenez
The man in the fur coat paused in the electric blue of the porch light.
He sniffed the air, as if trying to read some presence in the atmosphere and the ice particles. A blinding wind came shrieking from the city, flaring his coat behind him. The fringe brushed against the two trashcans, skittering the nearest lid into the snow. The man in the fur coat cursed and hunkered down to pick up the lid. But when he had righted himself and the wind had died, he stood very still and looked across the dark yard, to where I stood in my solus rex in the shadows of his greenhouse.
The man very carefully set the trash bag in the snow. Then he very slowly chose a large rock from the ground. He walked along the perimeter of his backyard with very exaggerated steps, laying heel down before crunching toes into the garden snow. The night oxygen converted into poisonous, clear nitrogen in my lungs. I picked up a rock, too.
The man flashed a flashlight on me.
“Mi elkore pardonpetas!” he shouted, dropping his rock into the snow. When I didn’t say anything, he pointed a finger at me.
“Mi pensis vin estis ŝtelisto kato,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “I don’t understand you.”
The man cocked his head at me, the ears of his fur trapper’s hat flopping stupidly. In the uneasy light, I could see the thick salt-and-pepper beard covering his face, his large brown eyes, and nothing else. I hid the rock hand behind my back.
“I can speak English,” he said. “I said that I am afraid I startled you.”
“It’s alright,” I said. “I guess we’re both guilty.”
“But I did not mean to scare you. I thought you were a… vervloekt… how do you say. A thief cat. A raccoon.”
The damn wind came again, inflating the man’s coat. He only wore sweatpants and an old thermal shirt under it.
“This fucking wind,” he said, hugging the folds of his coat around him. I wanted to do the same with my threadbare peacoat, but couldn’t because of the rock in my hand.
“He has been eating my wife’s vegetables,” the man said after awhile. “The raccoon. He has been breaking into the greenhouse and eating all of her vegetables. I promised to murder the beast.”
“I am not a raccoon,” I said.
“You are not the raccoon,” he verified.
The man wedged his hands into his coat and under his armpits and looked off past the line of his wooden fence.
“You are not the raccoon,” he decided, looking back on me, “but the question remains: who are you?”
I looked away, as the man had before, gazing past the fence to the lights of the city burning on the horizon and promising warmth and love and a million plaintive regrets.
“I’m just a guy in your yard,” I eventually said. “But I wasn’t stealing your vegetables.”
“It is very cold out. You should come inside and share a glass of brandy with me. My wife cannot drink anymore, you see, and there is nothing sadder than drinking alone.”
I looked down at the duct-taped ruins of my shoes, wiggling my toes inside them. They had lost all feeling.
“Sure,” I said.
I followed him to the house. Halfway across the yard, he turned around and held out his hand, saying, “Where have my manners gone? My name is Leopold.”
I looked at his hand for a few moments, then finally took it.
“Finn,” I said.
He turned his back to me and I dropped the rock in the snow.
Inside the dark kitchen we kicked off our boots. The house was bathwater warm and I was glad to be inside it. The ceiling belled over us, close to our heads, oak-beamed like the inner chamber of a pirate ship. Leopold motioned for me to follow him down an unlit hall, then down a honeycomb of further hallways, until we eventually came to a sort of study, lit very dimly by a fireplace in one far corner.
“Please,” Leopold said. “Sit.”
He motioned to two leather chairs in the center of the room. I chose the closest one and sank into it like it was quicksand. Leopold added a quantity of wood to the fire, stoking the flames with a mottled poker. The room smelled like Christmas Eve. As the flames bloomed and illuminated the room, I looked about the space. Mahogany bookcases spanned the walls, filled with dark leatherbound books. Framed black-and-white portraits filled the walls above the bookcases. Nothing looked younger than a hundred years old.
Leopold took off his trapper’s hat and rubbed the gray stubble on his head.
“There,” he said. “That’s better.”
He shuffled over to a glass-case cabinet and retrieved a honey-colored bottle. He chose two tumblers and filled them nearly to the brim. He stoppered the bottle, handed me a drink, and sat down.
“I like your house,” I said.
“Thank you, Finn. The credit, I’m afraid, is all due to my wife. She has put a lot of work into this home.” He winked. “This room though, is all mine.”
I thought that was an incredibly sad sentiment, but only asked, “Where is your wife?”
“She is sleeping, although she very well may join us later. In these final days of her pregnancy, her sleep is fitful just.”
“I don’t know what I would do if I was going to be a father,” I said into my glass. Then looked up and said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by that.”
“No need to apologize. Of course I’ve had the same thoughts. Worse even. I suppose every man, when confronted with paternal obligations, is plagued with these thoughts. It must be our nature. However, I must admit that it all seems so much worse now, somehow heightened, considering the current state of the world.”
“If I had any sense, I’d go south,” I said. “Maybe even head west, back across the ocean.”
“And what would you do there?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Then why would you go there?”
“Because it’s elsewhere.”
“Once,” he said, “I ran away from my life, towards something I thought I wanted.
But when I had that I ran too. The only thing I learned was to stop running.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know anything.”
“I am curious though. If salvation is to be found in some terra nova, someplace out there way past the horizon…why are you still here?”
“Because I can’t stop the expansion of the universe,” I said.
“You speak in riddles,” Leopold said distastefully. He held his glass up to the firelight and thought for a while. “I myself wandered the continent once, back when I was young. It was a difficult time for me. I was unbelievably penniless. I thought that the love I had to give was not worth the money it was printed on. It was comforting to wander, to be out of place, isolated, not able to understand anything that was said or asked of me. Yet now…”
“You seem like you are doing well for yourself.”
“It’s strange how one’s life plays out. Once I was alone. Miserable. Now I have a family. A home. I think of the young man I once was and I feel incredible sympathy and fondness for that man, but I can no longer see his face. Where his face should be there is only a shadow, a certain dimness. He is a ghost to me.”
“How do you stop that?” I asked. “How do you not become a ghost to yourself?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Every moment is a decision. And those decisions are doorways within a labyrinth. Each door leads one deeper and deeper into what becomes, eventually, a life.”
“So life is disappearing?”
Leopold chuckled. “We all disappear eventually.”
“What is that?”
“But what does it mean?”
I drank half of my drink in one swallow and looked off at Leopold’s books, suddenly feeling very sad.
“Live unknown,” I translated.
“Live unknown,” he repeated to himself. “When I was your age, I would have thought that a very ugly sentiment. The youth movements of my day had tremendous battles, philosophical street riots. We were overcome with dreams. We thought there would be a new day, a new world for young men such as yourself. If I had heard you say live unknown then, I would have called you a nihilist to your face. Now…”
“A man can change nothing in this world,” I said. “So what’s the point in intending to transform anything? I don’t trust movements. The only freedom to be had is at the margins, where you have to carve it out with your fingernails.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Don’t you miss anything at all?”
I watched the firelight flicker across the surface of my drink like wild horses driving into the Aegean, and I said to him, “I don’t miss anything.”
“That’s a very American answer.”
“What do you know about America?”
“I took a steamer ship to New York City once,” he said. “I saw the statue in the harbor, the sword she held above her head.”
“I don’t miss that place,” I said.
“Then let me ask you again. What do you miss?”
“Miss is the wrong word.”
“Tell me the correct one.”
“Desiderium,” I said. “It means a yearning, specifically for a thing one once had but has no longer.”
“And what do you no longer have?”
“So it’s a girl. Who was she?”
I looked off into a corner of the room and suddenly felt like laughing, but didn’t because I feared how it would come out.
“She was a different person depending on the time of day,” I eventually said.
“They are that way,” he said, raising his glass. “To girls.”
“To girls,” I said, clinking drinks with him.
After we drank, he looked into his glass and said, “Desideridum. To yearn for something one no longer has. Like whiskey.”
He studied me, then set his empty glass on the floor.
“You set a boy on a path,” he said. “And the boy thinks the path is the world. But his path is not the only path. There are many paths to be walked, so many paths that they spiral out like the branches of a tree, that they overlay one another like parallel universes. This is not the only world. There are worlds of only pain. Or cruelty. Regret. Friendship. Love. It is, my friend, only a matter of perspective.”
“Death is not perspective,” I repeated.
“What is it then?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” I said. “When I was a boy, my father took me to the funeral of some distant uncle in New Orleans. My father had a falling out with this uncle many years before I was born, due to some obscure thing neither could admit was trivial. But my father still felt some kind of filial duty to attend the man’s burial. Have you ever seen a funeral in New Orleans?”
“Do they not just bury the dead?”
I took a final sip of whiskey, the ice kissing my lips.
“No, they don’t,” I said. “This dead man, my dead uncle, was a jazz trumpeter and they held a parade for him from the funeral home. We were followed by a big brass band, trumpets and trombones and saxophones and drums. All the musicians were dressed like train conductors in old time photos, with those hats and white gloves. They started off playing some spiritual tune, but the more we walked the faster and more upbeat it all got. Every time I looked back, they got crazier and crazier, jumping around, dancing, throwing parasols around, all playing to their own inner tune, but tied together somehow. That night I had a dream that I had died and a New Orleans funeral was being held for me. Yet, somehow, I was in the band too, playing a little toy ukulele. It was spring and there was wisteria in the air. A man in a tuxedo and tophat followed behind me on a black carriage drawn by a white horse. And when I looked back at him, he held out a dark red flower to me, and I knew that flower was death. But I also knew that it would not matter if I touched the flower, because I was already dead and I would not die any more, I was already in a world determined by funerals.”
The logs crackled in the fireplace. We looked down at our socks.
Creaking sounds came from right outside the doorway, from stairs that I had not previously noticed. A very beautiful, very pregnant girl entered the room in a white nightgown, her long blonde tied in a French braid down her back.
Both Leopold and I stood up.
“Sweetheart,” Leopold said.
“I thought I heard you speaking with someone,” she said. “I wanted to say hello.”
Leopold turned to me.
“Finn, this is my wife, Esmeralda.” He winked at me and said, “She is from Iceland.”
“I knew a woman from Iceland once,” I said.
“I hope you treated her nice,” she said.
“I tried to, Esmeralda. But in the end, I don’t think I treated her very nice at all.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Finn.”
Esmeralda’s nightgown ballooned out at the stomach and covered her feet so that as she moved about the room it appeared that she was floating above the ground.
“Why don’t you sit down,” she said to me. She turned to Leopold and said, “You too.”
We did as we were told.
“I was just having this dream,” she said. “Only, it was more like a dream inside of a dream.”
She smiled to herself.
“There was this little boy,” she explained. “A very strange little boy. The two of us were sitting under a tree having a conversation, or at least trying to because the little boy kept hiccupping and interrupting me. He was very excited because he only had three dreams left.”
“What does that mean?” Leopold asked.
“I didn’t know what he meant either. When I asked, the boy sighed, like it was all so obvious. He explained it like this: at the end of every dream the dreamer visits the dream castle in their mind. There, they put their dream into its own unique drawer, where it stays forever. But the castle is not an infinite castle. Within the dream castle, there are only a certain amount of drawers. And, the boy proudly said, he had dreamed so many dreams that in his dream castle there were only three empty dream drawers left, and once the boy filled them the castle would be complete, and he would then dream day and night, night and day, forever and ever.”
Esmeralda was near Leopold by now. She leaned down to kiss him on the cheek and then the lips.
“I really just wanted to say hello,” she said. “I should go back to sleep now.”
She glided across the carpet to where I was sunk into my chair.
“Icelandic kisses,” she whispered in my ear, then kissed me lightly on the cheek.
The kiss traveled along the free nerve endings of my cheek, waking up a diamond-shaped diameter of thermoreceptors. Then the kiss traveled through my muscle tissue into my spine, up into my pariental lobe, then all-overish down my body.
Then she was gone.
Leopold and I were left with our silence and the dying fireplace.
“I should be off to bed myself,” he said.
“I’ll be going,” I said.
“Don’t be absurd.”
Before I could object, he had found a pillow and an armload of blankets, arranging them for me on the floor. I tried declining his offer, but he wouldn’t hear anything of it. However, after I laid down under the blankets, Leopold stopped at the lightswitch, looked at me very curiously, and asked, “What were you doing in my garden?”
“Stealing your vegetables, of course.”
He smiled. Just a little one. Then he turned off the lights.
I laid in the darkness and watched the snowfall slowly shadow itself on the ceiling. Above my head was the portrait of a man who was the spitting image of Leopold, although younger than Leopold, and dead in his frame for at least a hundred years. I waited an hour before I refolded the blankets, stacking them neatly in one corner of the room. In the morning, Leopold would wake up and find them there. Perhaps he would wonder about me. Not for an incredible amount of time, but perhaps just for a little while, wondering why I had left, where I had gone.
Perhaps he would think of me the same way I thought about Emma. How, from time to time, I would imagine her lying about on certain Sunday mornings, somewhere, eating chocolates and madeleines, listening to analogue tape reels, letting something strange and weird stir to life inside her heart.
Before I left, I went to Leopold’s bookcase and pulled a book at random off the shelf. It was an antiquated pocket dictionary. I opened it at random and found a word.
A person who wanders alone.
Image credit: Alexandra Brovco on Flickr