2 – Zero From Space

The next morning, Eric gone, the gray sky seems oblivious to skyscrapers and rush hours.  Anja follows heads bobbing along on the sidewalks, and within each, she muses, a little theater rages.  Each head takes itself as absolute, even in self-contempt, even when parroting commercial slogans and signs.  Every story seems absolute from the inside, tying a forgotten birth to a likely slow death.  It’s not pretty how we arrive and certainly not pretty how we leave!  In between, the story, both ultimate reality and utter sham, remains concealed to the sky.  And beneath my gaze!  Anja observes, arching her eyebrows.  No celestial grandpa to shake a snowy beard over my virtues or crimes.  No hovering angels to fan me with love.  We’re small indeed from the sky, Anja sniffs, as hidden as the other side of birth, and death.  Tiny from the air.   Zero from space!  Are there convincing heads above us in airplanes and, on rare occasion, spacecraft?  Anja doubts aliens would spy on our ordinary galaxy, solar system, planet, this smoky city — crowded with twenty million pinheads at any given moment in mortal time.  That’s why Anja loves heights.  If nothing coheres and no one cares — may as well be on top — looking down.

Not just resisting vertigo.  Nor having the nerve not to slip nor commit suicide, but in letting history, her past, go down, dissolve down the memory hole, draining her consciousness with all regret, and anticipation.

Anja eases inside her wooden O, just short of touching the circumference, dwelling in a great cedar barrel which smells like a log cabin.  Maybe she’s Nature Girl?  Maybe Anja’s the Abe Lincoln of Cities?  She’s in someone else’s water system.  Wrong in space.  She could be in their bathroom or toilet bowls too.  She’s the Athena of aerial solitude, the imp goddess, the gargoyle of highwire nihilism.  Anja needs to feel she’s above everyone because she feels so low.  The lowdown. Shame will not weigh on Anja because she is invisible to everything base or ignoble, or so she thinks.

“Then why do I feel so high?” Isn’t she taking chances to admit that absence … “Am I not above my enemies who put me down?”

And Eric?  He can climb, gasp, aspire — for her.  And since it turns her on to no end remembering his gently muscled body, and his blindfolded eyes, she could make love to the moon all by herself, the earth in eclipse.  Will he do it again?  Must she beg?   She will make him do it!

Look at that girl down there!  Looks like Gabi!  Strawberry hair.  Head cocked slightly to the left, flops her feet as if each step were an afterthought, a fling at life: small, compact, but everyone appears so from a height.  Altitude flattens everyone like an accordion.  It’s not true!  No.  But, man, why not get down and shadow her? Even if she is an imitation Gabi it would be interesting to examine her lookalike.  Perhaps?  No.  Yes! Shadow her.  Grab Gabi!  If it’s Gabi — I must see her!  If not, I will shadow her double.Double her shadow!

Anja clambers down the steps just as Eric is running up them, “Anja, what you doing?”  Anja plunges past him, heedless of her noisy footfalls on the steel plated stairwell.  Eric glances after her, hears her blast open the front door, and shouts, “What’s going on?”

Anja flies on, following this Gabi stand-in, or is it walk-on?  Gabi Deux rounds the corner.  Anja hangs back, striding, then sprints.  Just across 2nd Ave., a door in a commercial building shuts in her face.  The Gabi girl becomes a ghost.  Anja rattles the door.  Damn door is locked!  A security guard with a pencil-thin mustache lurches from behind his desk, a thermos and a Daily News to glower at Anja.  Was it Gabi?  Anja shrinks away as the guard folds his arms, defending his plate glass domain.

Anja retreats to her building.  Now this damn door is locked.  Not only is she exiled from her past, from Gabi, but from her tower! My tower!  If she rattles the door, forces the lock, breaks the glass, she’ll draw moles, enemies, spies, maybe even the super!  Cops! An old bum scratches his crotch, caging her in with his stare. Several workmen in blue denim with red steel tool boxes tap feet, checking the time near the door.  Is there no privacy in this city?  What was Eric’s sublet number?  7B or C?  She always plans her entries when she needs to do errands by following in tenants who keep a regular schedule, revolving them so as not to draw suspicion.  Anja peers up to calculate just what apartment coincides with her pavement view.  Four apartments to every floor except the first.  Why these workmen?  Then she sees herself from her old perch and detests her pavement struggle and feels her knees buckling.  Is she spying on herself?  She peers to a subway grate and shivers, despite heat rising from the asphalt.  She pretends no one sees her.   Should she ring both bells — 7B and C?  Vertigo vibrates Anja’s toes, sinking nausea churns her stomach.  She feels motion-sick, dizzy with self-consciousness.  After she panhandles on Wall Street she follows in the post lady, impersonating a tenant, adopting the name Elizabeth Kaltherz — bless her heart — the post lady’s that is — who faithfully delivers mail near eleven — except Sunday — when Anja hides all day.  But Kaltherz is a tenant on the seventh floor.  Why didn’t it occur to her?  Could it be the same apartment, the same tenant, from whom Eric sublets his shoebox?  What if the post lady’s putting her on?  Doesn’t she resemble her father, spying on a postlady?  Assuming a second name?  What if the postlady is really someone else?  The super in drag?  No, this is crazy!  I am going mad!  Plots and intrigue multiply with imagined eyes on Anja.  She sees a bum ogling her with his hand down his pants, though he has merely pocketed them.  She’s frozen by his gaze as she faints.  Anja lies with all her fragility exposed, all hardness, posturing and hauteur gone, limp on the sidewalk, before the supposed bum who is really the taciturn Arab cleaner who owns a shop two doors down waiting on his wife and for a load of wash to dry.

Upstairs, Eric, waiting for Anja to return to her rooftop perch, watches her faint, then bounds down fourteen floors while a crowd gathers, drawn by another’s misfortune at which they can express pity while feasting their eyes.  Eric jumps the last stairs to the final landing, bursts through the door to the street, shoving aside a teenage boy staring at a lovely waif with a wonderful figure prostrate on the pavement, and squeezes between the workmen who are just waving down a cop.

Eric scoops Anja up into his arms, declaiming, “She’s my girlfriend.  She’s, a, diabetic … I’ll take care of her.  Really, it’s O.K.  Please, go home.  Give way!”

Cradling her in his arms, brushing past the workmen, teenager and dry cleaner, pumping his thighs to lift her upstairs, Eric allows himself one glance at her face and another person lay helpless against his chest. A misty dependence transforms her pout lips and roughed up hair, cold sweat beads on her brow, which, with her tender skin and sorrowful half-frown, suggests regression — as if Anja skipped the decade between her childhood and early twenties.  It undermines his footing and he nearly trips.  He feels like a charlatan.  When he pulled her back from the ledge, shopped for food, wine, knelt in her tank — which now seems like a padded cell — enduring her hard, near pathologic superiority, perhaps he secretly desired a seductive maniac, a lost child.  Sex was a ruse to catch her madness, so he could do as he pleased, go wild.  His id was nodding, “Yea, go! Take a vacation!  Rob the cradle!”  He experiences a rush of guilt, an “aha” which revokes his heroism. The sterile Midwestern moralist yearns to annul what he knows, to disguise his predatory lust with altruism, with kindness.  Yet he must also suppress this to reach his floor.

After he deposits Anja on the sofa, she regains her persona before she can find her breath.  As her color slowly revives, a fit of pique screws up her mouth.  Eric waits uncomfortably for her complaints and hauteur to resurface:

“Where am I?”

“Safe, Anja … home.”

“I am not! Mein Gott!”

“I meant you are safe.”

“Ya, ya.  Mein kopf … ugh, Englisch … feel like … sandbag.”

“Just breathe.”

“Eric, you might feel like a big hero now, but I beg you, let me be.”

“No hero. Just breathe.”  Eric combs a damp strand of hair from her eye with his fingers, reflecting, with some malice,  “You can blame me later.”

“Where am I?” Anja sighs, while Eric massages blood back into her thighs.

“No questions now.”  Eric lays her head gently on a pillow, rises, then extracts a bottle of water from the fridge.  “Here, drink.”

Anja obeys, he lifts her head.  When she finishes, he dabs her forehead with a cold water-soaked washcloth, returns and finds her glaring up at him suspiciously.  “Where is Gabi?”

“Gabi?”

“Gabi.”

“Listen, Anja, there’s something I must tell you.”

“No bad news.  Not now.”

“I will take care of everything.  Just ease back and breathe, rest.  But I think I have to tell you or you’ll blame me later.”

“You have to?”

“The men, the workers downstairs?  Did you notice them?”

“Oh, those beasts with toolboxes and bad mustaches.”

“I heard they are here to fix your watertower.”

“What?”  Anja rises from her sofa, anxious, still dizzy.

“They’ll be on the roof soon.”

“My stuff!  What have you done?”

“Nothing!”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

“You want me to collect your stuff?”

“Of course, if I cannot!”

Eric runs from the room and hears the workmen already inside the building enduring the complaints of a grouchy tenant, one of two men jammed inside a studio apartment who worship electronic noise.  Eric then has to pass three more ornery tenants emerging from their apartments, hoping that he can reach the roof without arousing suspicion, climb the tower and collect Anja’s stuff, return and deliver it back to Anja.  When he meets the group, he hears a tenant, Elmore, condemning the management for taking a month to repair the tower. He and his roommate live crammed together without a pressurized shower or tap water.

“The management cares for nothing but their profit!  They never fixed the elevator.  Do you know what it’s like to go a month without water pressure?  We have to let the tap drip for an hour into a bucket just to wash the dishes.  Two for a shower.  It’s water torture! See, it’s not even clean!”  Elmore’s roommate, standing shyly behind the open door, slips out a jam jar full of brown water, “Not even clean!  We’ve a dozen like this to prove to the housing authority why we haven’t paid rent.”

“You’re not paying rent?”  Eric asks.

“No one has, not for six months!”

“Not even Elizabeth?  I’m subletting from her.”

“We know.  Of course not!  She started the rent strike when the elevator broke.”

“Oh.”  Eric had not time to process that his rent money was financing Elizabeth’s vacation.

The four workmen, meanwhile, are staring at their boots, shoulders slumped and wearing strained expressions, as Eric squeezes through. Their patience impresses him for they are hired by the management and not responsible for its neglect.  Elmore and the five just below him on the stairs are merely delaying the repairmen from fixing their water pressure.  Eric wonders if the situation might pass from frustrated ventings to violence, when Elmore, in high dungeon, begins accusing the repairmen of helping to drive out tenants so that the landlords can further raise the rent.

“Have you ever tried to call them?”  Eric calls down, as he slinks up the stairs above them, “They’re always hiding behind answering machines!”

“Yes, answering machines!”  Elmore echoes with a flash of gratitude and launches into a widening condemnation of the Housing Board, Wall Street, then Capitalism itself.

On the roof, Eric wastes no time damning his fear of heights racing up the tower stairs, uses Anja’s rope with a bounce against the tank’s walls, he lands, gathers all her possessions which she has mercifully kept honed to naught: a few socks, underwear, her passport (which he is dying to examine), three books, two candles, a soft porn magazine for women in Dutch (!), a notebook, condoms and binoculars, rolls them into her blanket, undoes the sailor’s double knot which secures her rope to the inside of the tower, collects dandelions from the float, straps the rope around the blanket, ties it to his waist, and clambers up out of the tank.  Then he spots a dead brown rat with its legs and buckteeth facing upward lying on its back at the bottom where Anja’s blanket once covered the inflow pipe.

Eric swings around and hears the heavy repairmen’s boots escaping Elmore’s tirade as they spot him halfway down the watertower with a rope wrapping a fat blanket to his waist.  Spellbound by the audacity of a man violating the watertank which was theirs and the management’s province alone, they assume that they have caught the saboteur who necessitated their fixing it.  Eric’s guilty face and wobbling legs confirm their suspicion.  Instantly the repair men, without time to call the police, brace for a fight with the culprit who might resist any attempt to stop or have him arrested.  They lower their toolboxes and spread their feet slightly apart.  Eric glances back up and realizes that he did not lower the hatch, further endangering whatever alibi he could concoct, then chooses to walk calmly to the men and play the injured party, reminding himself that feigned victimization is the best defense in democratic (litigious) America.  The repairmen do not let down their guard.

“I was just inspecting the work you should have completed two weeks ago.”

“Sure you were.

“I support what Elmore said below.  And I just wanted to see for myself.”

“How we know you didn’t cause this?”  The repairman to his right lifts his chin to indicate the tower behind Eric’s back.

“Are you a … a …  ?”  One to his left  sputters then gives up.

The first asks, “Yeah, how we know you didn’t poison the water?”

“What water?”

“After we fix and fill it!”

“Aren’t you going to clean it first?  How is it possible?”

“By climbing back up after we’re done!” the second thunders.

“Look, I knew you were on the stairwell.  I passed you going up!  I’ve nothing to hide.  I know you could see me.”

This seems true.  Yet the workmen are not convinced,  “Stay here, Willie, you go and look.  What’s in that blanket of yours?”

“Nothing.”  This is the question Eric fears most.  He jogged up with nothing in his arms and returned with a blanket full of Anja’s belongings tied to his waist.

“Willie, check the tank.”

Willie fearlessly scales the ladder and though far heavier than Anja, does so nimbly.  He peeps in, then circles around and disappears.

“Open the blanket!”

“Are you a cop?”

“No, you ….”  This raises the third repairmen’s ire but the second intervenes.

“Sylvester!  Calm down.  Let’s not lose the job.”

“Look!” Willie calls from the top of the tower, holding the rat by its tail like evidence in an aerial courtroom.  He swings it around a few times and flings it down not far from Eric’s feet.

“You must discover rats in water tanks all the time.” Eric nudges it with his shoe.

“No, no we don’t,”  The one as yet mute repairmen observes.  The four of them and Eric are all considering the brown rat when they hear, behind them, a steely feminine voice:

“My rat!” Anja stands erect, still pale and feverish, with her fists clenched at her side like an Egyptian statue, anger slightly raising the veins on her neck. The men recognize her from the street but remain mystified how she is now connected to a rat on the roof.  Eric walks to her, attempts to unclench her fists and coaxes Anja to quit the rooftop and allow the repairmen to the fix the tower.

Anja pushes by them, lifts the rat by the tail from the roof, strokes its nose with affection, then rushes downstairs, leaving Eric to follow her and the repairmen to chalk the incident up to a bizarre, bad tempered girl with a pet rat.

Yet, as they relax, Elmore and two of the five other tenants rush up to the roof on a protest mission, bumping Eric against the doorway, then Elmore, off balance, trips against the workman named Sylvester.  Sylvester lands nastily on his back on a pile of two-by-fours, twists his ankle and seizes up with pain, holding a tendon in his knee.

“What have you done?” The workman named Willie shouts.

“My knee!  Feels like its torn!  Oh Christ!”  Sylvester moans.

“Just lay back!”  Willie advises him. “Everyone get off the roof, now!  Now!”

“It was my cleanup Tuesday, there’s no way … “

“Cool out Sylvester, we’ll get Slavko to do it.”

“He’s an asshole!”

“Sure he is.  So what.  I’ll help you fill out the workman’s comp form.”

“We should sue those goddamned tenants.”

“Forget it, it’s beneath us.”