8 – The Room

Eric awakes with Jakob leaning over him.  At first tossing and turning, troubled by nightmares, by images of Anja, Eric then fell into a dead sleep until Jakob startles him awake with a firm hand on his shoulder. “It’s Jakob.” Eric initially has no idea who he is, that same sensation Anja always cultivated, that delicious, “Where am I?”  But Jakob waits for his eyes to focus. “Have any water?” Eric asks, the flashlight at Jakob’s side shining mercifully down at the mud.  “Here.” Jakob says, as Eric props himself, then drinks, then notices two shovels and plastic bags in Jacob’s hand, and an open duffel bag with a water bottle, a few rolls and a thermos near his feet.  “Coffee?” Jakob asks, offering him the thermos from which Eric sips. “Cigarette?” Eric asks. “Don’t smoke,” Jakob replies, standing away, letting Eric retrieve a soggy, bent pack from his trouser pocket.  Eric extracts a crushed cigarette, still cuffed, awkwardly lights it, dazzled by the small flame of his match while Jakob waits impassively, then nods, “You should get to work.”  Eric stiffly stands up, and cracks his knuckles with some difficulty given the cuffs, and his neck, as he does every morning.

As they walk slowly, Eric begins to doubt the time spent away from Anja, and feels a simple phone call essential to save her the fear that he is dead. Fumbling in his pockets for a quarter, skeptical about the point of digging for clues in a dank tunnel, Eric grows impatient and Jakob, sensing it, damns him.  If Eric loves Anja why not take the time to confirm the identity of her attacker?  Why help a kid who questions the trouble of solving the crime which ruined his girlfriend’s life? Then Jakob recalls his lapse of judgment on a fateful night a year ago after he heard Anja’s scream, how he half-heartedly put to the council the need to investigate, and how he obeyed their lousy, cautionary veto, while Anja fell.

“How far is it?” Eric asks, sipping the coffee and wondering why use a thermos when its contents are cold.

“About three hundred yards,” Jakob replies, and shines the flashlight near Eric’s feet as they straddle an upended rail.

“Shouldn’t I call Anja? I mean, I could dig and spend days for nothing.”

“Yeah, but if there is something … wouldn’t you want to return with it?” Jakob asks, still reflecting on the night when he shrank from intervening. “Eric, there’s something I must tell you.  It’s not pretty.”

“It doesn’t have to be.  Go ahead.”

“I could have intervened in Anja’s rape.”  Eric stops.  Jakob stops too, cuts the flashlight, speaking in utter darkness. “We heard a faint cry, as loud as if we were to scream back at our camp now.  I wanted to go see, the others said no.  I let them.  Anja came by not an hour beforehand …  He was here, somewhere in this amphitheater …   Anja, she would come and go, she had a fine sense of direction.  She brought us supplies from the streets, little things, a cucumber, lettuce, a candy bar for Ginny.  We let her.”

“He waited, noted her restless, now as I see it, dangerous — comings and goings — we’re much more careful now.  Never saw Anja again. Not never again.  We snooped around, over there.  I, we, put two and two together, the cry for help, a scream, came from this place, over here.  Since then I roped it off and light candles and incense in memory of Anja’s friendship — or our neglect.”

“So you’re doing this as much for yourself as for me.  Well, I accept that.  I was worried you were doing me a favor.”

“Anja recognized me unconsciously.  Only her mind confused me — perhaps ‘cause she cried out and I didn’t answer — with her attacker.  Fact is, I saw her on the street!  I knew it was Anja.  I ran ’cause I knew I had something to answer for.  I am, more or less, as you seen, the leader of this group.  I could have convinced them.  Wait, we just about to pass the graves of others we knew, look, walk over here, let me shine the flashlight …  See?”

Eric focuses on the oval of light, then a pile of withered flowers and a mound with a makeshift cross with a name painted on it.

“An adoptee. Remember the people in the shadows, who you ate with?”

“Yes.”

“Adoptees.  This one ran right into the path of a train.  Buried there, Ruben, crazy, lame Ruben.  A man for all his problems.”

They resume walking, then come to a place where Jakob touches a rope.  Eric reflects that this was the place where Anja became “Watertower Girl.”  A stale air hangs heavily, like a room in which no one has stepped for a century.  He can feel the space looming to their side, though Jakob says nothing and shines his flashlight to the mud, lowering his head.  Jakob hands Eric a shovel, has Eric hand him his matches and lights the candles in a ring, then they both stoop under the rope Jakob strung two years ago, as a memorial to demarcate the space as a crime scene.

“What am I looking for?” Eric whispers.

“It gets messy in the dark,” Jakob says, after a pause. “Things get left behind.  Watch where, and how you step.  Use your shovel lightly to loosen objects which sank with the humidity and the water which leaches down here, especially after it snow or rain in the upper world.”

“This could take days.”  Eric glances down.

“I’ll wait,”  Jakob says flatly.

After a few fruitless hours, combing the edges of the small chamber and finding only turn-of-the-century wire fragments, decayed candy wrappers, rusted nails and bolts, after digging up rat’s and red ant nests, enduring fecal stench when overturning a mound or inspecting a scrap which turns out to be nothing but old newspaper, Eric, exasperated, gives up digging and rests on his haunches.

“What do you mean, adoptees?”

“They was dumped from insane asylums.  Schizophrenics.  Ruben was schizophrenic.  Justin feeds them herbs to quiet them.  The herbs are strong stuff.  Sedatives.  At first there was just two guys, Ruben and a former stockbroker, Eddie, who stuck together, and we took care of them.  We found others, they found us.  We respect they can get violent, mostly against themselves, but no one else wants them.  We, who live down here, take up the slack of the state and Federal government up there who see the needy, in this case, the insane, as freeloaders.”

“Do they always sit back from the table?”

“It’s a precaution we take.  Several are talented, and have education.  They don’t look so bad either.  Ruben was funny looking.”

“How do you feed yourselves?”

“Find everything we need in dumpsters.  Sometimes we work.  Even Ginny.”

“Do the schizophrenics collect any money?”

“Sometimes they get checks.  We see they open bank accounts or else it goes to responsible — I didn’t say caring — relatives.  Sometime we help them buy clothes or medicine with their money. We never spend their money on ourselves.  But, their checks run out.  We slid off the screen too.  We might as well not exist.  Which is fine with me.  Like the feeling, actually.”

“Anja spoke the same way.  Listen, shouldn’t I try to reach her?  I could draw some money out of the bank, return with supplies.  I will not give you away.  And your reasons for doing this are absolutely sound.”

“O.K.,  let’s go.”  Eric doesn’t suspect such a quick response, nor Jakob’s trust in showing him back to the street.  He undoes the cuffs, finally, and it takes but twenty minutes, winding through tunnels, then onto the tracks, until they climb nonchalantly onto a platform.  They surface uptown.  Jakob agrees to meet Eric four hours later at a streetcorner coffee shop.  Eric walks back downtown, hiking through Central Park, midtown and Chelsea, damning the pocketless shorts he wore to the Open Mike.  Finally he passes by Danny’s, who is not home, then faces his own apartment building without keys.  He rings his bell downstairs and gets no response, waits for an hour until someone lets him in, bounds the stairs, and stands before his own room, knocks, knocks again harder, gives it a bang, but gets no response.  Little does he know, Anja is just left the insult line, and already shacked up with Gabi.  He goes to a nearby deli, borrows a pen and some paper, and writes a note which he slips beneath his door, which Anja never will see.  Without money, after hanging around the front of his building, peering up, watching the workers finish fixing Anja’s watertower, Eric returns to the coffee shop on time and keeps his appointment with Jakob.

Jakob spots Eric’s lack of supplies, says nothing, pays the seventy-five cents for his coffee to go and they slip into the subway, follow the same route, to the spot where Eric had been working.  He drops down on his hands and knees and begins exploring the mud in the wall corners.  After two hours they walk back and sit down again for a meal of beans and rice.

Ginny’s is holding forth on how lovely, kind and energetic Anja was, until she is quieted by her elders and they eat in silence.  Eric, still aware of the gallery, expecting an outbreak of bizarre behavior, meditates on Justin and Lauren — the skeptics that night when Jakob wanted to help Anja. He retraces Anja’s life before the tower, and begins to cherish when he could laugh and verbally joust with her, when, in short, he took his happiness for granted.  Finally Ginny, beside herself with curiosity, meeting a handsome young man who also admires Anja, blurts out, “Eric, don’t you want to be back with Anja?  How can you stand it?”

“Ginny!  Quiet!” Lauren gently reproves her.

“I’m not sure I can, Ginny.”

“Did you make love to her?”

“Ginny, not another word!” Lauren shouts.

“No, it’s O.K. Lauren. Yes I did, Ginny, but it’s not something to discuss.”

“Kiss and tell?”

“That’s right.  No one should ever betray love secrets.”

“But I read about them all the time!”

“In the tabloids.”

“Yes, Ginny reads the TV guide and we have no TV,” Justin snorts.

“You’re better off without one, Ginny.”

“No I’m not!  My whole life is abnormal.  I’m growing up weird.

“You’re not missing a thing on TV, Ginny.  Why kill time?  It’s ignoble.  That’s what Anja said to me.”

“She did?”

“Anja reads books instead.  She said to me once, ‘If I want a trashy experience I just walk around the corner.’”

“I dropped out of grade school! My father’s I don’t know where and my mother’s a fucking crack-head!”

“Ginny, watch your tongue!” Lauren shouts, this time ready to smack her.

“I have no parents!  It’s not fair!  It’s not fair!” Ginny protests, then, from the shadows, the unseen ex-inmates from upstate asylums join her, echoing Ginny’s “It’s not fair!” over and over, rising in volume, until Jakob blares a disciplinary light at their faces.  For an instant, Eric is able to examine the veiled-by-darkness witnesses — and they appear absolutely normal.  They could be a town or city school board members or local spectators at a football or basketball game.  No evidence of malnutrition, or any conventional or real symptoms, and only slightly unkempt, though very pale — they could be his parent’s bowling or bridge team, just dropped out from ‘burbs, into the underworld.

Everyone waits rather than harass or provoke them.  Given that they were booted out on the street by the state, by embarrassed family, red-shifted into this outer ring by their nervous systems, the house of their psychés divided, they have earned no roof, and so the “It’s not fair” mantra, in fact, seems perfectly rational.  Everyone listens, and listening seems to calm them.

Jakob, who had been standing, finally answers Ginny in these terms:

“Ginny, we found a preacher.  We will have a ceremony, you all are invited, and we will sign a marriage certificate, then yet another paper making us your parents.  I arranged it today waiting for Eric.”

“What?”  Ginny looks bewildered.

Lauren will explain it to you while I’m gone.  Think it over, Ginny.”  Jakob says, a shade embarrassed, then picks up the shovels and hands it to Eric. “Eric’s got some work to do.” And they walk back to the antechamber with the sounds of Ginny talking to Lauren fading behind them.

“You in love with Lauren?” Eric asks, just to begin conversation again.

“Yes. But it’s been hard to have privacy down here and look after things,” Jakob replies.  Eric, turning dirt over slightly, continues a slowly tightening circle towards the center of the antechamber, determined to find some evidence to confirm the identity and perhaps convict the man who attacked Anja.

Just before midnight, surface-time, Eric walks out to the streets again, but still cannot find Anja.  There is no light in his room.  Danny is out.  And there’s no way for him to know that Anja is floating on a mattress in the newly fixed tower.  Returning, Eric, even more discouraged, is able to sleep yet another night, and to wake the next morning, and return to the search, when he finally notices an object in the mud.  It looks relatively new given the odd assortment of ancient scraps he had been unearthing.  He steps back and has Jakob shine a light on what looks like a blue paper folder.

“Don’t touch it without gloves!  Eric, here.  It’s damp and could tear.  Do you know what it looks like?”

“Yes, I do.  I’ve got one myself,” Eric smiles.  Exhausted and impatient after two days spent combing the mud, neither of them dare yet call it a passport, digging a delicate trough around it, brushing away muck, both see the blue with gold letters of a United States (and not a green, German) passport but it could be anyone’s and could very well rip from the dank humidity in the stale air and mud.  Slowly, like archeologists uncovering an Egyptian or a Greek scroll, they exhume it with gloved fingertips and hold it to the light, open it gradually, and there is the crooked smile of a thin-lipped American with a slender nose, black mustache and goatee.  He doesn’t look like a criminal but not particularly like an honest man either.

“Doesn’t look much like me, does it!” Jakob chides Eric.

“No, not at all … ” Eric whispers, fascinated by the face and relieved by the windfall which he held in his gloved hand. “We’ve got the dates he entered the country from France.  Paris … “  Eric rolls back his memory of what Anja has said to him and he remembers her saying she answered an add for English conversation in Paris and got a knife to her throat, by a skinny guy …

“I have a nip of whiskey we can enjoy around the fire,” Jakob says, as if to celebrate.

“What are we going to do with this?  I mean, how convincing is this — removed from the crime scene?  By me?”

“Do I look like a cop?” Jakob asks.

“I wish we had a camera.”

“Well, we don’t.  You must promise not to bring the cops down here.”

“I promise.  I’m coming back here after a break.”

“O.K., but I’m not.  I’m getting married this evening.  Will you attend?”

“Well, yes.”

Walking back, drinking together from plastic cups, Eric muses, “I guess this is your bachelor party.  What do you think about marriage?”

“I love the until death does us part, part!”

“I guess Couteau didn’t.”

Jakob snorts, “Every humiliator has been humiliated.  He masks it, his cowardice, as violence.  They’re all miserable fucks, who want to spread their pain.”

“Should I show this to Anja?  Maybe he’s still after her?”

“Yes, and if you have some money, hire a private investigator, who has good police connections.  With the proviso … “

“That no cops are sent down here.”

“Right.”

“Why do you think Ginny took Anja so much to heart?”

“Anja is, or was, a great human being.  You should marry her, as I will soon marry Lauren.”

“Anja would say it something like … Marriage is for those who cannot trust themselves to keep loving each other without signing a paper … “

“You have her accent down.  You know what that means?”

“What?”

“You’re in love.”

After more coffee, Eric goes back to the room by himself to think about how they have been estranged three days and four nights.  Almost as long as they were together. Was it madness? For hours he considers her misjudgments, her cruel pole vaulter kick in his face, her stormy suicide attempt, scamming his keys, ripping out his phone, demanding him to shop, to serve her after he saved her life, her blindfolding him and he kneeling in her tank.  He recalls battling her arrogance and cynicism, her pathology of literal superiority, then her misidentifying her former friend, Jakob, as her attacker, and his spending a day chained to a pole.  Yet he keeps returning to her need for a home in the sky, her radiant singing, athletic beauty, and the style she gave to her character, to how she acted and thought with defiant pride, to how beautiful it felt to make love and to love her. Then he stops, and retrieves the torn end of a blue piece of cloth with a spot of dried blood on it.  Eric extracts the cloth carefully from the mud with gloved fingers and damns himself for not being a detective, for there’s no way for him to chemically test for identification. Yet he knows that it is no coincidence he found it near where he unearthed the passport.  He touches the cloth as if a part of Anja’s shredded past and cries out “goddamn you!” to her assailant, the wise guy on the passport.  Sealing it in the plastic bag, it seems like the remains of Anja’s childhood and adolescence, of the girl who loved to skip, who longed to travel, who needed an honest father and a mother at home, of the enthusiast Jakob and Ginny knew before he could — the Anja lost to him, and to herself.  He wishes he could retrospectively appear in her past and protect her, and in mad self-reproach he swings in the air, then strangles, then takes an imaginary rock and smashes her assailant’s skull to pulp, twisting the knife back into the heart which longs to wreck the world.

“What do you have there?” Jakob asks, having broken from the last marriage preparations, wearing a navy blue suit, white shirt, black cravat and polished shoes. “Get up off your knees, Eric. You have the proof.  You’re job is finished.” Jacob gently helps Eric to his feet and steadies him. “Watch that trestle, good.  Will you stand with me?”

“If it doesn’t offend the others.”

“It will not offend them.  Put on a better face Eric, and think, if you can, of our love as a future for Ginny, our love in this darkness …  before you leave us.”

“You have it, Jakob.  I promise.”

A bewildered priest, who apparently agreed out of Christian solidarity but didn‘t bargain on how dark and devastated the valley of the shadow could be, waits as the gallery forms the outer ring, appearing in their best clothes.   As novitiate to this tiny kingdom, the priest holds his sacred book with shaky hand as Justin, the best man, watches him with gentle irony, dressed in what looks like an undertaker’s black suit with matching cufflinks and a new haircut.  Another man whom Eric never met wears an odd, powder blue suit and gray pants which flare at the bottom, vintage seventies, but Ginny is dressed up as bridesmaid and future daughter in a lovely ironed apricot dress, smiling, trying her best to stifle her youthful hyperactivity.  Lauren wears a genuine bride’s dress with a short train which two women from the gallery hold up so as not to drag in the mud.

The priest says his piece, while Lauren and Jacob ponder each other, and candles flicker on the walls, casting gigantic silhouettes.  Eric stands back and to the right of Ginny who stands just behind Lauren, until the “I do’s,” and then a borrowed ring is presented by Jakob to Lauren. Since few have seen much beyond fond respect between the two, even though they have all been sleeping in one camp for years, Ginny cannot help from giggling when they kiss.  Acknowledging the two had secretly loved each other without touching for so long, Justin yells, with a laugh, “All right already!”  And every one flings finely torn-up newspaper into the air for confetti and Justin uncorks three bottles of cheap champagne from a bucket, pours it into cups, and they all toast the bride and groom.

“Where you going on your honeymoon?” Justin teases them.

“To the top of the world, ma!” Jakob laughs, putting on a James Cagney accent.

“Rikers Island!”  Lauren laughs, referring to the prison.

“Why not Jones Beach?” Justin suggests practically.

“No, the Bahamaaaaaaaasss!!” Ginny chants.

“Better not give her much of that champagne!” Justin warns, then pulls a towel off a hidden tape player, presses the button and everyone begins to dance, Eric looks down at his cup, fills it up once more, and walks over to Jakob, who sets down his drink and says,  “I know.”

“You don’t mind, do you?”

“No.  Turn down the music!  Everyone.  Eric, has to leave.  We drink to his health, and to Anja.”

They all toast him with cups. Eric kisses Lauren, shakes Justin and Jakob’s hand, then Ginny runs up to him, and before he can politely take her hand, she jumps up into his arms, and pleads, “Tell Anja I saw her on her watertower last New Year’s Eve.  Tell her she dances beautifully and never to forget me again.”

“I will.  Good-bye, everyone.  I know the way by now.”  Eric puts down his cup, and jogs slowly through the tunnels back to the streets, to sunlight.

inside, unable to respond to anything, lost in her own unconscious, and that Elizabeth is about to surprise her with a visit within the hour and confiscate his keys from Anja so that neither of them can get back in.