8A – Fire and Water

The same morning Gabi has no need to wake up Anja.  She’s smoking Gabi’s cigarettes and brewing coffee by six.  She takes a match to the tabloid, touching it to the page and letting the frozen surprise on her face curl up with the photo, and washes it with its phony story down the sink.  She sheers off her hair as Gabi advised and burns that too, waiting for the shrinking curlicues to swirl clockwise down the drain.  Anja climbs the stairs, surveys dawn from the rooftop, stretches, ponders evasion and escapes plans, and mourns her absent Eric.  Finally Anja wakes Gabi with a coffee and croissant, and they carefully disguise themselves with scarves and sunglasses and stroll incognito to the office.  Anja will solo the phones while Gabi spends the morning trying to recover her security deposit and forfeiting her first month’s rent.  Why should Gabi, Anja reasons, leave her apartment at all?  Surely if Anja loses Eric she will need a friend, but how selfish and costly to Gabi.  Fifteen hundred bucks!  When Gabi returns, Anja will persuade her not to leave and lose her money.  The insult line slowly picks up, invading Anja’s thoughts, and between exhausting negativities, Anja tries to pry open the office files to keep her mind from eternally returning to Eric.

Meanwhile Gabi shuttles between her boss’s apartment and their penthouse.  She cabs to the landlord’s office, explains her dilemma, pleads, then returns to the insult office with her security deposit.  She yanks open the files, inquires about flights, trains, discovers how to run off two checks, forges her boss’s signature, hurries to the bank then back to the penthouse, consuming the whole day in logistics.

After Jakob’s marriage ceremony, Eric climbs from the subway into daylight, his plastic evidence bag pocketed, squinting, trudging from Little Italy north to the Village and straight to Danny’s apartment.  He stops, waiting to hear Danny’s guitar feedback experiments from the street, enjoying the air and sun caressing his face.  Eric knocks, waits, but no sound emerges.  No Danny either.  Eric knocks again, beats, kicks the door, forces open the lock and edges in.  Everything is still.  The same moldy frying pan, transistors, tools, peeling poster, torn wallpaper, sheet music, corn flake box, and TV; the same moldy laundry, books and yellow parakeet, but everything is repositioned. The parakeet droops quietly in his rusty cage.  Eric then realizes that the guitars, amps and keyboards are missing.  It smells faintly like burnt rubber.  He walks to the desk where the keyboard once rested, lifts and reads a summons.  There’s another slip, a receipt for the payment of a bond for forty thousand dollars.  Where did Danny find forty thousand dollars?  Tapped a relative, Eric reflects, heart sinking.  Turning to the kitchen, Eric stops and spots the corner of a boot, suspended some two feet off the tile floor.  He inches slowly to the kitchen with a nauseous presentiment dogging his every step, then finally Eric lifts his head.

From a black guitar chord strapped around his neck, Danny is hanging above the floor.  Either to spare whoever discovers him the horror of seeing his rigid face, or as a final act of irony, he’s wearing his spare duck mask.  The other is burnt to ashes in his sink.  Eric forces himself to retrieve the chair Danny kicked away, stands on it beside him and, while propping his body, pulls away the chord deeply etched into Danny’s neck.  Painfully stepping down from the chair with Danny in his arms, he drags him into the front room, fitfully kicks aside liquor bottles cluttering the floor and sofa, then eases Danny down.  Eric peels the mask from Danny’s face, and looks furtively into his fixed eyes before closing the lids.  Eric swings the now stiff legs fully onto the couch, stands, then drops to his knees and kisses Danny’s hand.

Eric listens and recalls the feedback Danny often made, which resembled the cry of a wounded sparrow.  After this, Eric breathes deliberately, beginning to feel sick.  He forces himself to rise to his feet, retrieves his balance, then spots a sealed envelope lying on top of the red cedar guitar case; his name is written on it in Danny’s handwriting.  Inside is an open cassette player, beside a note, which simply reads, “Play me.”   Eric glances back at Danny on the couch before inserting the tape into the open cassette player and hears Danny’s voice: “Eric, I hope that you didn’t get hurt in the tunnel and you can listen to this tape, cause I made it for you.   I first want to say I’m sorry I did this.  But you know, you shouldn’t feel bad.  You’ve been the best friend, perhaps the only true friend, I ever had.  And any happiness I ever knew outside music was because of you.  Remember I told you I was busted twice before and just got a fine and probation?  This time they found coke as well as weed and I was definitely go’n to jail for serious time.   I have a rich uncle, can you believe it, who posted my bail, I hope he can get it back now …  Eric, I knew doing this was wrong but I just never could take a regular job without people putting me down, just like they did in high school.  Since I was born, really.  If you notice some of my instruments gone I sold them on St. Marks and I put the money into a check which I mailed to you.  If you find Anja get back your mailbox key and you can spend it as you please.  But listen, Anja was here just before I got busted and she wouldn’t accept my help.  Then I saw her, can you believe it, the very night I was busted — saw her through the window right when the cops were here.  She looked O.K. but if you check the front room table there’s an article about her in the paper.  It’s on the table in the kitchen.   I’m sure she hates it  and me, if she’s seen it.  I don’t know what happened to you in the tunnel, man, but I guess we all ended up in trouble.  But, on my part, you know, this was long coming, and I feel it’s a good thing.  God, I hope, forgives me, but I just didn’t much like the face he gave me.  I wasn’t too wild about the world he made either. You know not one girl ever voluntarily made love to me?  Prostitutes don’t count — do they?  Who counts?  Not me.  I left your Guild in its case and now I’m going to record all my best music to you on it as a tribute to your talent to listen, then sign off.   Hope you like it.   Oh, by-the-way, there’s a beer in the fridge.”

“Thanks, Danny!”  Eric shouts, then discovers a phone number at the bottom of the letter to call.  He dials, reaching an answering machine, which sounds like Danny’s businessman brother’s voice. Eric states flatly, “Please come immediately to your brother’s apartment.  This is an emergency.  Call your parents.  Do this now.”  He hangs up.

Eric collects the three labeled digital cassettes he finds in a marked envelope, and the Daily Star and bursts out of Danny’s apartment in a daze.  Stumbling to his own apartment, Eric unfolds the paper but cannot read the article on Anja, nor even focus his eyes properly.  He discovers he is grinding his teeth, stops, and lights his last crushed cigarettes to wait.  Luckily Elmore appears, who lets Eric in, and tries to engage him in small talk but Eric cannot hear him.  He bangs on his own apartment door, cries for Anja, ear to the door, swears, then runs upstairs past the penthouse where Gabi is just leaving, almost runs into her, then opens the door to the roof.  As he steps on the tarpaper, gasping, glad the landlord did not bolt the door shut, he sidesteps the junk leftover from the watertower repair, stares at the tower and the blue sky.  He sits down precariously on the ledge, blankly dangling his feet over, protecting the envelope with Danny’s recordings in it.

Only a half block away, Anja is drumming her fingers on her desk, stuck in an office answering insult-line clients, despairing of Eric’s absence, the tabloid article, and Gabi’s frenetic coming and goings.  The phone rings.

“Hello?” a middle-aged voice anxiously pipes up.

“Asshole?”

“Yes!  Call me an asshole!”

“You already are one or you would never call.”

“Listen, I’m paying for this.  Start insulting me!  Be creative.”

“If you need insults then I should praise you.  But, to tell the truth, you’re not worth the lie.  Lies decay my soul.  It lowers me to be cruel.  And what’s creative about insults?”

“Interesting.  Develop it.”

“Shut up.  An insult is a way to join a scoundrel’s despair.  You’re lonely in the mud but why should I join you?  I’m letting you waste your money.  That’s enough.”

“Then why do I feel dissatisfied?”

“Perhaps I frustrate your greed.  Extend the time we speak and I’ll let you rip yourself off.”

“I bailed out my ugly nephew.  I’m not greedy.  His face was enough to stop a truck. This is not much fun.”

“So?  It’s an insult line.”

“Days ago, you went wild!  I loved your German accent.  You told me to buy an air filtration system to funnel away the fumes of my self-cremation, so you’d not vomit if I stayed another minute on earth.”

“You still here?”

“I lived to hear you again.”

“Dog food czar, right? Don’t kill yourself.  Give your money to the poor.”

“You’re nowhere near as nasty as you were.”

“O.K. Let’s reverse roles. Well, not completely.  Suppose you sent your lover after someone, though you’re not sure now that the man after whom you sent your lover was once your attacker.  Suppose you sent your boyfriend chasing this man, into Hell, and lost him. What would you do?”

“I’d get a hard on.”

“Drop dead!”

“Now I’m getting my money’s worth!”

“What is your, or any money, worth?”

“You tell me.  You’re taking it.  I’m spending it.”

“You are the same: the liar and the masochist …  wait, I have a call on another line.  Fuck off and stay on.  Yes.  Gabi?”

“He’s back!  My boyfriend!  My, our boss!”

“Where are you now?”

“Just left his apartment.  I’ve been shuttling between his and our places.  I  got back the security deposit, cashed my check, but you must get out of there.  I  saw him on the street.  He didn’t see me.  I’ve left him, you know. He came back an hour earlier than I estimated.  Do you have my lease there? I can’t find it.”

“Wait.  Uh, yes, it’s here.”

“Oh, thank god!  Don’t leave it there!”

“Agreed, I’ll finish up here and meet you.  Try to beat him to the office.” Anja switches back to her phone caller.  “Where was I?”

“We are all the same.  Liars and masochists  …”

“Yes, you are the same.  Revenging your empty souls through lies, violence, you wreck the world so no one can … “  Suddenly the word “same” begins to circle upward — she can see it as an object of a vision — she watches it surface like a sunken ship lifted by cables and, again, Anja stares through Eric’s window days before, accepting the memory, but now consciously.  She hangs up and kills the volume on the phones, “The same.”  Anja repeats to herself, as the memory rips the veil of her vertical mania, reaches air, and as she reels it up, hair starting on her neck, the idiocy of the split, which she chose not to see, between what she experiences and what she remembers, utterly dissolves  She recognizes too she had always doubted the identity of Eric’s mole, even as she chased him, and breaks down, “Oh, my god!” She crouches, whispers, “The face … screaming at me on the Seine … knife glittering in that dark tunnel, same … revolving head … You idiot! He’s here, in New York!”

But a new round of self-reproach would constitute a second blindness, she could stand on this rooftop and give yourself the finger, or blame fate or destiny or the evils of the human race, and destroy her judgment again.  “No, you will not repeat, no fucking repetitions!”

She ignores the muted phone lights, gripping the desk.  Did not Gabi describe that she met her boss through an ad in a Paris magazine for English conversation exchange?  Why didn’t she connect the dots?  The same, indeed! They both fell for the same scam!  The attraction to both Paris and New York draws girls, and boys, like them, from all over the world.  Did not the vampire who stalks Paris to prey on foreign girls say he came from New York?  They answered the same ad!  We were completely naive!  We knew nothing of the new world, nothing of ourselves.  Meanwhile, Gabi leaves a muted message, “He’s on his way over, Anja!  He’s on the street! Get out of there!”

Still dangling his feet from the roof, Eric watches the late afternoon sun mellow behind Soho, reaches to the cassette player and pushes the play button to hear Danny’s play his own red cedar guitar, jangling, soaring.  As he listens, New York vanishes and he imagines meeting Anja and Danny, far away.  They will hike a mountain, rest on a wood chip path in a pine forest, swim in a wilderness river.  They will board a wooden raft while Anja’s hair grows and she will sleep with him every night.  Danny strums his guitar, his tempo matching wave beats, answering the wind’s breath through the forest, his tone-colors the green of myriad leaves, red as pine needles, blue as deep water.  No.  Eric, you no longer need a fictional woman on a raft; you love Anja.  But you could be out of danger and with Anja and Danny both alive.  No subway, no watertower nor rooftops to leap from, but a new world to leap to. They could bump into each other walking from one side of the raft to another, buy booze, eat, listen to Danny’s music.  He re-envisions Anja’s island-dream when he lifts the newspaper and studies the tabloid picture.  He considers the look of surprise.  Anja looks beautiful, anyway.  Eric remembers the bicycle shop just down the block from Danny’s apartment in the background, then kisses her face on the page.  If Anja saw the article she could take her life.  Anonymity is Anja’s only God.  If Anja felt she killed Eric, she would take her life too.  Suddenly all his reveries evaporate.  He switches off the tape.  Was it not just more than a week since they met and he pulled her from this ledge?  Without Eric coaxing her to an open mike, they’d be together right now.  He shoved her before the public.  That’s when it began.  That sent Anja over the top.  Over the edge.

Back in the office, Anja hears a key rattle, hears the door open then slam shut.  Must be Gabi.  Without turning her back, Anja exclaims: “I broke through, Gabi. The guy who attacked me …  Gabi?”  Gabi does not answer.  “Gabi?”  Another person is in the room.  A thin-lipped man appears, walking toward her, slender nose, black mustache, goatee, very sunken eyes. He’s definitely real.  He walks smoothly on thin legs, then shouts, “Who are you?” Anja freezes.  He’s negotiating the semi-circle to the front of her desk.  Blood runs from Anja’s head.  She feels frozen, faint.  He doesn’t yet recognize Anja, but she recognizes him.  He’s fuming about arriving back at his apartment and finding that Gabi left him then finding a stranger in his office, in Gabi’s chair.  He’s furious but controlling it, “I said, who the fuck are you?”

“Gabi’s temporary replacement.”

“Where is she?”

Anja hesitantly stands up and carefully leaves him only her profile to see, fidgeting, lifting the sunglasses out of her hair.  She must be careful not to let him know she’s going to run for the door.  If she can.  Anja is at a loss what to say.

“Where is Gabi? I’m not going to ask again!”

“Gabi left you … ” Anja feels like a rag doll, fear pulsing her veins.

“I fucking know that bitch!  Where is she now?  If you don’t talk right now I’m going to call the cops.”

“Cops?  Do you pay taxes?” Anja asks, voice faltering, will resolute.

“Fuck you.“  He begins to reach inside his pocket for a knife.

“You can forget your knife.”  Couteau looks up astonished and realizes that he has seen Anja before. “She has a new place,”  Anja moves slowly back.  “Maybe she left a message on the machines?  I just turned them off ten minutes ago.”

“Turn off the machines?”  As he steps forward to the desk, Anja bursts for the door.  He pulls out his knife but he must round the desk, and she is sprinting,  and it allows her just enough time to open the door and slam it in his face.   She passes the elevator and jumps down the stairwell.  She can hear him shouting, “I know you!  I know you!” Half way down the stairs, however, he slams the door and returns to the office.  Anja bursts through the door and onto 2nd Ave, hauls around the corner, darting through rush hour traffic, and kicks the door following Elizabeth in, locks it, then knocks past her as she tries to stop her on the stairwell.  Anja sprints up the fifteen flights, fumbles with the keys, opens the penthouse door and slams that door too.

On the roof, Eric peers down, squints, then spots Anja’s jumpsuit on the pavement.  He stares at the rubble in the alley and believes he sees her lying there.  “She did it,” he whispers, “She did it!” His only impulse is that he wasted time.  The zero hour came and he’s late.  She beat him to it.  Why not in the subway?   Or why couldn’t she wait to make it a twosome?  Danny did the same. “A threesome?”  He hyperventilates, swaying, then imagines strands of her sandy hair flowing like strings of a guitar he’d never hear again, splayed out on the filthy cement.  They both did it.  Both she and Danny. “No, oh Jesus!” he shouts. “I did it!”  Eric wonders what worm of misery burrowed its way at birth into his ear.  How it would be possible to live, to walk down a street again?  He could try not to drink himself to death.  Or jump.  Join them, Eric!  Why bother aging?  What a coward! You bastard!  He gives himself the finger.  Death waits.  Why was he shy?  His energy was a death wish.  If he ended up an architect’s go-for he would duplicate boxes for restaurant chains, assist in building obscene prefab monuments to greed, to death.  Eric alive, carrying two dead friends’ pictures in his wallet!  He would slave for the bottom line, and save for retirement while two corpses would greet him every night as he opened his door.  Now, isn’t that the bottom line?  Why survive your best friend swinging from a rope?  Your lover dead at the bottom of an alley?  Why age into a monster and wear an oatmeal face of despair?  Stagger around mumbling from a toothless mouth drugged in an insane asylum or be dumped into the gallery of shadows, placidly munching Justin’s soporific herbs?  At least they would know.  I could still be famous, rich, heroic! Eric mocks himself, acidly: tower like the famous dead, a tower of Babylonian hypocrisy!  Speak nonsense in tongues!

I wasted time solving a crime I redoubled by my absence.  What was my big discovery?  When we met, she wanted to die.  I kept her a week.  I just gave her more reason for jumping.  What work his parents wasted in raising me!  I was destined, like Anja, like everyone, to fall.  To revolve down the drain, sink, drop, drown.  Anja showed me the way.  Why stop up the drain?  Why become conscious, then wonder all one’s life when death will drag you down?  THAT was Anja’s message.  Anja’s message ‘from on high’ is on the pavement.  Look! Need evidence!  A newspaper article?  She showed me the way to limbo.   To end it before it ends you. To go, to sprint, to kick. Like the Stoics.  Like Jesus.  Like Socrates!  Why provoke execution?  Rig a public suicide?  But to be wise, that’s what I would have liked.  Stupid, isn’t it?  To be wise is to go before one is feeble.  Right?  Before consciousness is scraped from flesh. To go before midnight and not on show or on the sly!  To choose.  Defy!  Skip the vacation of fools — who love, worship and die, by chance.  Anja made love to me and now the tunnel where I faced my fear explodes with her light!  Anja, you saw life as a tower defying death, you took responsibility.  I take your hand and defy darkness.  I love this choice.  I love you!

No!  Burn the tower down!  Anja is the tower.  She transcends the low, the shrewd.  Burn it.  Burn it like a candle.  Like a pyre!  Say to the New York of dust, noise, instant money, a beautiful girl lived homeless above you.  How dare you, New York, overblown sham of promise and careerism. Capital of Liars!  Not to kowtow to Anja, and so to life.  Watch her spirit ignite your kitschy sky!   Anja, my Athena, radiant offspring who arrived after your Statue of Liberty turned its back, we will light a beacon to join your rival sunset.  Your Times Square.  You’re show of shows, New York — you shitpile of self-interested fame and money-grubbers, could you see Anja’s honesty?  Well, watch this, I’ll show you!

I will strap her, then myself, to the tower, and present our flames and our bodies to the night.  Let twilight touch the sky, mottled cloud of blue shadow reflect in uptown glass, I will show New York and its herd a beacon, a skytop tomb!  May fire stations bring wailing sirens — and firemen in rubber suits clambering stairs to save them.  As if I wanna be saved! Saved from what?

Eric gathers leftover wood from the carpenter’s repair of the watertower, grabs a hammer and nails and begins to join planks together.  He builds a rough ladder then cross-braces it to form rungs and to allow him to balance and suspend his own weight at the top.  Crossing several planks to the fortified legs, he hurriedly builds a platform wedging it three quarters from the peak.  He scavenges duck tape, wraps it around the circumference and creates a strange basket, filling in gaps so that it can hold paper, shavings, bags, tool handles, and two bodies, then hammers even more planks to steady the whole.  He nearly falls down the stairs to the basement, upends garbage cans then loads up on newspaper, magazines, boxes, then finds the piéce de resistance, two gallon cans of turpentine.  He pauses, divided about whether to carry Anja’s body up with him now, reproaches himself, drops to his knees beside the laundry machine, cursing himself as a coward, not capable of facing her broken body, decides, at last, that it is too morbid, throws up, tries his best to clean it up, then runs back up the stairs to the roof.

He adds the miscellaneous new flammables to the platform so the heat will burst quickly, soaks newspaper with turpentine, streams it down the legs, then, almost hoping he’ll fall, climbs the watertower itself, to the very top, drops to his stomach and pours turpentine down the sides of the tank, overlooking Manhattan once last time.  He then swivels around, places his feet back on the ladder, climbs to the roof, tests the odd structure for balance, then, with a ferocious burst of energy, hoists the contraption up, beneath and against, the watertower.   He finally collapses on the roof, numb with exhaustion. Would Anja have seen her tower aflame!  Would Anja be able to honor her skytop tomb!

“This is wrong.” Eric suddenly curses himself and cannot destroy anything or one but himself.  Why endanger firemen? Why burn a building?  Was it anyone’s fault but my own?  He rises and walks to then balances on the rooftop ledge, gazes down at his beloved in an alley, prays, though never particularly religious.  He decides to cleanly join Anja and jump.  As he crouches to leap, however, he feels his collar yank tight with two determined hands pulling it and him up and back in an arc like a crane.

He’s already on his back on the roof, on top of the chest of a panting woman, trembling with maniacal resolve, when he realizes that the bone of her skull has just thumped against tarry cement, and he feels a pumping heart beneath his back and hot breath on his neck, and a too strong whiff of perfume.  She’s no Überfraulein but she sure wrecked my suicide.  He rolls away from her and catches the image of frightened blonde, whites of her blue eyes rolling like a dying animal’s — then incessantly returning his to see if he will recognize her.

“Anja?” Eric whispers.

“I thought I’d never see you again!”

“But Anja, you’re … down there!”

“That’s my jumpsuit!  We’re even now, aren’t we?”

“Anja?”

“I threw my jumpsuit away.  Eric, how could I kill myself and undo your own work?  How could I kill myself after you saved me?  It would have been criminal of me to ruin your life twice.  And it would have been criminal of you to ruin mine!”

“That’s what Jakob said.  Kiss me!”

“Jakob?  Dpo  I know someone named Jakob?”

“You did, the man I chased.” Eric breathes, rising to his elbows.

“I am sorry, Eric.  To you.  To him.”

“Forget sorry now.  Anja, just hold me!”  A minute passes as they close their eyes to New York, to death, to suicide.

“Listen, I figured everything out.”

“I love you.”

“Eric, listen, let’s make sense now, there’s a guy after Gabi and me.  Just in case.  Come, let’s go to the other side and watch for him. What is this?” Anja looks up at the wild pyre-contraption which Eric just madly constructed.

“Oh.  It was for you.”

“Me?”

“I, uh, thought to burn down the watertower.”

“Have you gone mad?”

“Yes.”

“You’re still shaking!”

“Yes, yes … I am.  Anja, Danny took his own life.  And I, thought, you took yours.”

“What?”

“Oh yes, Anja, I am or was mad.  But what I say is true.”

“You’re not mad, Eric.  You’re not mad anymore,”  she says, stroking his hair.  “But Danny!”

“It is horrible!  I keep seeing his eyes … “

Eric explains the scene inside Danny’s apartment, the note, his reasons, and Anja tries to absorb it.  They decide to avert new catastrophe by standing at the opposite ledge, and keeping their wits keen.  They cannot see their man, however, only the same street scene which Anja memorized from the watertower.  Anja turns around and examines Eric’s attempts to make a pyre of her tower.

“Why did you make such a strange contraption?  My, you did a thorough job.  But what would happen to the tower?  It’s holding tons of water now.”

“It is?”

“What did you think all this stuff was about?”

“I didn’t care.”

“What is that plastic bag?”

“It’s what I found, below.  You didn’t even ask me what happened.”

“What’s in the bag?”

“Evidence.  Couteau’s  A piece of your clothing.”

“You mean, underwear?”

“Anja, please.  I know it’s hard but we have proof now.  It’s the same guy.  Look, his passport.”

“I know — but it’s too late.”

“How do you know?”

“Wait.  How did you get this?”

“The man you chased, Jakob, you associated him with your attacker.  You blamed him for not coming to your rescue, I guess.”

“Anja the Idiot.”

“Forget it.  I attended the wedding of Jakob and Lauren.  Do their names ring a bell?”

“Faintly.”

“Ginny says hello.”

“Ginny, yes I believe I remember a little girl.

“She says she saw you one New Year’s Eve — you danced for her on the watertower.”

“That’s true!  But it wasn’t this one.  You … need a shower.”

“Yes.”

“Listen, give me your arm!  My man, Eric!  There’s a lot going on right now.   I can’t clear my mind.  Why don’t you take a shower in my place?”

“Now?”

“Yes, in my place because Elizabeth took the keys.”

“Your place?”

“Yes, mine and Gabi’s.  I found Gabi.  I live with Gabi.  Here, take these.  I’m staying to keep watch.  One flight down.  What is this cassette deck doing here?”

“It’s Danny’s tapes he left me.  He also sent met me a letter.”

“Here, give me his tapes. It looks like Couteau’s not showing, why should he?  You see Eric, we’re getting out of here.  We’re going to travel.  So my love, freshen up.  Get ready.  Take a short shower and come back quickly.”

“Who’s chasing you?”

“I thought Couteau.  But there’s no way for him to know we’re here.”

“What?  Are you sure? I can kill him!”

“It’s not your job to rectify my past.  We tried that before.”

“You’re right.  Let’s convict.”

“Stop!  I can’t think straight.  We protect ourselves for now.  Get cleaned and ready. Go.”

“Am I going to need my passport?”  Eric smiles after he kisses Anja again.

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll need to call Elizabeth.”

“No need, she’s downstairs.  I saw her coming in.  Get your passport.  Change clothes.”

“What is all this about?”

“I’ll tell you soon.  Go.”

As cars stop and start, as pedestrians wait or walk, as the lights turn red or green, as minutes come and go, the normality and snail pace of the street seems like an insult to Anja.  How can life blandly drag on with Danny dead? How can they contentedly go their way with Couteau on the street or in his office doing business?  And why should they not celebrate and dance, now she’s found Eric again?  But there are too many people in this world to care for one’s own story, unless it is reworked into a lie.  Or a commodity.  How fair was I to Danny?  How better am I than them?  Gabi is not showing — she must have a reason.  Did Gabi simply run for it, again?  Why not?  It’s her boyfriend and her money.  Then the thought dawns on Anja which first made her insist that Eric shower.  Couteau did not chase Anja right away but returned to the office.  Anja then remembers that she left Gabi’s lease there.  The lease lists their address.  Couteau can locate them any time he pleases now.  He could enter this very building, hide in the basement or crouch on the landing, even stalk the penthouse, break in! Suddenly the revolving neck, the two-faced head of her mnemonic autism, the “we are the same” acoustic image of Anja’s dream incarnates his image and she envisions him in the building.  “He’s already in the building!” she breathes frantically, bracing herself against the tower’s legs, and remains that way for some time.

Finally Anja sniffs a chary aroma, like that of burning boards.  She squints down from her rooftop perch and spots smoke drifting from their penthouse window.  Eric is in the shower by now!  Couteau could use the noise, steam and isolation of the shower to break the lock and set the apartment ablaze!  Anja then turns and looks right in his face.  Dick Couteau is smiling from ear to ear, switchblade drawn.

“Well, bitch, I win!”

Anja cannot speak.

“Cat caught your tongue?  What a wonderful world this is when I can fuck two German cunts and revenge their disobedience, both, in the same day.”

“You got Gabi?”

“Gabi’s on the way.  You know that.  Your boyfriend’s dying in Gabi’s place, frying right now.  The cops will think he killed you then set your love-nest on fire.  Got caught inside.”

“How do you expect to leave this building with the top floor on fire?”

“Through the front door.  Perhaps I’ll leap and the firemen with save me?  I’ll be on the news explaining how you set the fire.  You’ll be dead and I’ll be a celebrity.   Look, now I have my old passport back, and the evidence, which I didn’t even know you left behind.  Ah, your soiled panties!  Your boyfriend, took the trouble to find them for me – look! What a nice guy!  These are your panties aren’t they?” Couteau holds up the plastic bag in which Eric placed them both. “I also read the Daily Star.”

“You can read?”

“Funny.  You shouldn’t have denied me in Paris.  Look what  disappointing me in Paris got you.  I’ve raped you, fucked your friend.  She’s real good, by-the-way.  Real soft inside.  You mistook that nigger for me and sent your sissy after him.  I’m mean, how stupid! Your boyfriend went down  and actually retrieved me the evidence and  delivered my passport!  And now he’s go’n burn to death — for what?  You?  Because you refused me. I’m not a guy anyone should deny.  Don’t you see?”

“Dick Knife.”

“That’s my name don’t lick it silly!”

“Fuck you!”

“Too late!  Now I put you down.  I’m your fate.”

“You have one of your own?  You wouldn’t have to force or get revenge if you lived your own life.  You’re a coward with a knife.  You couldn’t even beat up a girl without it.”

“Nice try.”

“I could kick your ass without your knife.  Weakling.”

” I’m not going to take that bait, bitch.”

“If you’re not weak why you carry a knife?”

“Shut up or I slit you ear to ear.”

“But you’re nothing without youcouteau, Dick.  And you can’t get any real women without it.  You’re a loser, a dimwit wise-ass sissy.”

“And you’re my bitch.”

“Not without your knife.  You’re a bitch with a knife.”

“So let’s start cutting!”

“Of course, with your knife!”

Couteau lunges with his knife at Anja as she leaps sideways, then tackles him and forces his face to the roof, her elbow pinning his head.  She’s his equal in strength but he’s wired, determined and rising, despite her full pressure.  She rears up, runs for the tower and scales the stairwell like a cat.  He scrambles after her up but grows paralyzed half way up.  He’s overlooking the whole of New York with nothing to break his fall.  Vertigo and nausea grip him.  He pauses, clinging for his life on the ladder, fears he made a mistake and shaking, pockets his knife.  He peers up in a cold sweat, swears, then begins to inch back down.   As Anja raises the hatch and closes it behind her, diving into the full tank, Couteau spots Eric’s rickety pyre contraption and realizes he smelt gas or turpentine when fighting Anja on the roof and notices it all stacked up explicitly to burn.  He edges down carefully, smells the smoke from the penthouse, whips out his lighter, stoops, examines the turpentine stains on the third plank and the bizarre basket precariously holding newspapers, magazines and wood shavings to the bottom of the tower, and lights it.  Flames burst then snake right up the planks and erupt with a roar at the top.  With luck the fire will eat into the tower itself.  Couteau laughs aloud.  What a windfall!  Who set up this beautiful, unlikely plan for me?  Someone else’s fingerprints are on the whole operation!  They’re probably Anja’s!  I mean, she was here when I arrived.  If there’s anything left in the end for the cops to investigate, I’m clear.  What a day!  Goddamn I’m clever!  He dances and smiles.  Where’s the hot dog and barbie grill?  He looks down and the penthouse fire will soon be noticed from the street, so will the tower’s.  I should escape downstairs now, but it’s so eerie, so lucky!  How it’s all come together!  My luck is king.  Revenge.  The world, my fool. “Yeee-ha! I am so great!”  He sings, exults, “I, the knife, am GOD!  Oh-ho!  And ALLLLLLL BITCHES ARE MINE!”  And dances a skinny man’s jig.

Anja smells the smoke billowing up.  It twists and spreads a gauze of fumes.  She peers at her tormentor, twenty feet below her, dancing; while she’s inhaling smoke.  Jagged edges of darting flame climb the tower which appears like an addled rocketship ready to explode on a rooftop launching pad.  I’ll boil like a lobster!  She treads water away from the ladder.  It feels cooler beneath her tank.  Heat bakes the cedar walls and rises from the floor.  Oh.  She will not boil to death!  So it’s true: evil not the good nor kind nor poor in spirit, inherit the earth.  The evil ride the boomerang of envy, it always returns.  The good, the normal sag, grow fat, as light dies in their bewildered eyes.  Criminals feed off revenge.  They have the heat.  The energy.  And what of me?  Danny?  Eric?  His pyre-contraption shakes unsteadily on the tank’s far side.  Maybe I can shake the tower!  Ugh!  Oh, this is awful!   It will soon collapse but it’s done its job.  It lifted me to my end.  How long will it take for the whole East Village to see?  Oh, this will make Anja famous!  She will cook like a potato to the delight of the peasants. Tomorrow, her corpse will front the Daily Star.  She’ll make it!  She sinks into the warming water and laughs bitterly, salt from her tears dissolving into tons of fresh water.  So father killed himself!  Good for you Daddy! So Moma married a Wessie landlord — you made it momma! Her rapist stalked her to New York, fucked her best friend!  Danny is dead.  She mistook an innocent man for her enemy and now her only love, Eric, is frying downstairs.  Oh, Anja made it!  You did a good job!  Wasn’t that just brilliant sending Eric back down there?  For a shower no less!  What is life but a drowning, when private tyrants delight in the flames we set?  When rats dance at our funeral?  At the auto de fé of our illusions?

Heat and smoke dry the tower as flames lick its base.  Soaked from years of standing water, however, it still holds on steel stilts.  Fire scorches its exterior wood.  The water warms inside.  From the street, the gathering crowd can see nothing on the roof but the top floor billowing black smoke, and flames shooting from its open windows.  In the deepening twilight, across New York, as the tower begins to accept the flame, it seems to reveal something horrific and lovely, sending an instinctual shock wave through the jaded populace.  Craving disaster, lusting for historic ugliness and death, for an event, a show, their curiosity feeds into wonder.  Awe.  It looks like an illusion.  Anja opening her hatch, looks like an illusion.  So does the fury of the fire.  And on a watertower!  They pinch themselves watching a real building go up in flames, but are fascinated at the weird contraption, and the watertower burning.  Like an Olympic torch!  Indeed, as the tower seems almost human in shape the penthouse fire pales, like the ephemeral shadow under which we crawl when we evade danger, or the closet in which we hide when we avoid rent, or the mirror we shun in self-hatred, or the excuses we give after we fail, all lies, invented ambiguities, frustrations and false hopes, seem briefly to glow with a vengeance in the air, to ignite in the sky, to be crushed by its light.  As Anja’s tower burns, petty crime, microscopic sin, the crawling mendacity of millions who struggle or simply endure, who aspire but always fall, vaporizes, cremates.  Like Arjuna on the field of battle being revealed the universe by Krishna in one kaleidoscopic rush, the fire is a city’s looking glass.  For those who glance up to the scorched building and her tower, it evokes a lamp, a beacon, a mirage, but also an essence, as gasoline is essence in French, of what life is as mere spectacle — when the kaleidoscope of events, the incept flame of novelty, burn out, bow, and disappears, before morality and time.

Anja is ready to die, but she’s not resigned.  Not yet.  What is worse, to boil to death within the tower or face a coward’s knife?

Couteau grins, the wiring of his self-loathing lit up like a Christmas tree. Since his private paradise is another’s hell, this is as close as he’s ever been to seeing it writ large, as a show.  He too is seeing his fate fester and burn.   The fun in raping Anja, beating Gabi, burning Eric, of jumping rent, robbing apartments, bilking investors, cutting throats — nothing has ever satisfied him like this …  It looks, from the rooftop, like a thousand Fourth of Julys, Bastille Days, and Chinese New Years, all rolled into one.  He must enjoy it longer.  All his humiliations and crimes, all his past, are burning up.  Every enemy, and they are legion, are frying.  He will be clean.  His responsibility, erased.  And he’s beginning again, on top, and will not tear himself from watching his triumph. It’s a witch-burning, my first birthday party, my beginning as a celebration of power over obsession and fear: evanescent, colorful, and wild.

It is stunning from the street, as well, for the crowd.  Duel flames, black and orange, with violet smoke billows from the windows and the roof.  The rooms inside are flashing.  And the watertower, Eric’s wooden contraption looking bizarrely crippled, with one of its legs crumbling like a rotten crutch.  It’s hypnotic.  Then, look, ah!, the hatch at the top is opening! There’s a head! A woman!  She’s pointing her finger at the rooftop. Sirens wail like banshees.  The engines of fire trucks roar, horns snort.  Now, there’s a man knocking out the remaining windows from the top apartment, crying someone’s name.  He’s crying, “Anja”!  Who’s Anja?  Look, there’s the back of a man on the roof, holding something in his hand.  It’s a knife! He disappears again.  The fire is devouring the watertower.  Trucks are arriving, watch it,  The horns are deafening.  They’re trapped in a traffic jam. “Move out of the way!”,“It’s watertower girl!”  The reporter, Leaux shouts, while the homeless wheel their shopping carts closer for a glimpse. Taxi drivers abandon their cabs in the street leaving their doors open, someone with a gigantic boombox plays an amateurish song at deafening volume, “It’s the Watertower Girl song!  Play it louder! She’s dying!  Wow!”

On the roof, Couteau swings around.  “What?  Is that my patsy?”

Eric appears speechless, livid, reading Couteau with his radar.

“You’re supposed to die downstairs!”

Couteau swings as Eric drops to a knee and glimpses a blade sweep by his eye.  Eric rises and punches Couteau in the sternum.  Couteau buckles, sways.  Eric swings hard at his jaw and Couteau is down.  Eric kicks him in the head with his boot, steps on his knife, takes a kick back in his leg, and now Eric falls.  They both rise to their feet and Eric finds himself still facing Couteau, damned if he will be deprived of his revenge for a life Eric cannot understand.  Eric takes up a hammer and they slowly turn around a barrel in slow motion.  Eric, from everything he’s experienced with Jakob in the subway, with Anja, just now in the penthouse, and knowing Anja might soon burn up with the watertower, should be glowering with revenge but his soul is not used to it, and Couteau, a veteran of many violent skirmishes, can feel it.  Couteau still carries his namesake knife.  Meanwhile, Anja, determined to escape from the tower, hears water churning, feels the float gurgle.  The inflow pipe opens, rushing: the fire department has plugged into the standpipe near the building stairwell to battle the penthouse fire, using the water in her tower to quench the penthouse fire, using it exactly as it ought to be used, when it works.  She opens her hatch, can barely see for smoke, rips off a sleeve, tears that in two, wraps it around her mouth, then slips quickly down the hot steel ladder, rolls when she hits the roof, finds her feet, and runs for the pole she stashed on the little hut over the stairwell, then holds it out.  Couteau spots her, with his head oddly cocked and Eric slams the hammer down on his knife-bearing hand.  Couteau screams tinnily and now must face Eric without a weapon.  Eric drops the hammer and strikes him and nearly lifts the scrawny Couteau off his feet. Groggy, Couteau changes expressions — an unreal smile eclipses his ironic face. His eyes smolder as a second, much smaller Couteau surfaces.  The inner dwarf breaks through his sham pride and it’s a disturbing sight: an adolescent suffering his umpteenth humiliation, cowers there in psychosis.  A lifetime of cruelty, sadism and revenge, deflates into primal terror.  For a moment, Eric stops despite himself, fascinated. “Don’t stop!” Anja shouts. Watching the uncanny conversion, Eric glances to Anja, then all three turn around.  Elizabeth, with Leaux, the reporter, have made it to the roof.  Elizabeth steadies her gun on Couteau, not four feet from him.

“Who are you?” Couteau asks, dumbfounded by the sudden appearance.   ”Elizabeth, you fool!” Eric breathes.

“I, I’m your worst nightmare,”  Elizabeth boasts, yet it’s a transparent act. There’s nothing intimidating in her voice.  She scrambled to the roof as if onto a stage then, remarkably, everything is real.  Her hand trembles, even Leaux notices it and sweats, evidently wishing to prop up the gun, or take it from her, but he too is mortally afraid, and trembling, as they all watch a trickle of piss pool under his left shoe.  Couteau laughs.  Leaux, melting under pressure, jumps away while Eric’s pyre-platform construction cracks then implodes amid a cloud of sparks and flying embers, showering from the roof to the street below.  They can hear the crowd roar then scatter below, giddy, horrified, as the debris smashes fifteen floors down to the streets and alley.  The sirens echo as if up a canyon and now there are four people standing on the roof, motionless, listening, dumbstruck, the watertower now fully aflame on its own.

“Anja, do it!” A voice screams from another rooftop just above them.  It’s Gabi, a diminutive figure, determined and on her feet, her oval face with strawberry tresses clashing with her lowered eyes and clenched jaw.

“Everything here is under control!”  Anja yells to Gabi.

“Hell it is!” Couteau laughs, hideously, then grabs the gun from Elizabeth’s hand, shooting her in the stomach.  As she buckles and falls to the roof, the reporter tries to escape to the now smoking stairwell and Couteau shoots him too, in the back.  In an odd moment of recognition, he nods triumphantly to Anja and Eric that the situation is simplifying.  He’s holding the gun.  He’s back being Couteau.

From the street, after the trampling which followed the collapse of Eric’s pyre, a mob is chanting Anja’s song, playing it over ad nauseum, a frenzied anthem mixed with shouts, screams, whistles.  The shots, which passed for muffled firecrackers on the ground, dwarfed by the cacophony of sirens and screams, are nothing compared to the roar evoked by the tower when it sways, then crumbles, then a steel stilt snaps as its support plates expand from the heat.

The tower, engulfed, shoots red and yellow against the cobalt blue of the starless city sky.  A point of fire knits the horizon of commercial and apartment roofs into a small pyramid and not one light across Manhattan rivals it.   Not the Brooklyn Bridge, not the faux stage-set columns of the General Electric, the Art Deco of the Chrysler, the now purple-lit colossus of the Empire State, the refrigerator grill of the Metlife — not all the nouveau glitter and neon of Times Square, with all the street, head and brakelights thrown in, equal its radiance; fragile, mortal, as time seems to stop and begin with the tower, as its flame peaks, and it sways, then falls.

Among ominous wood-cracking retorts, Eric tackles Couteau, reaches for, grabs, then flings the gun across the roof to the alley.  He forces Couteau down and mercilessly beats his head and, as Couteau swoons, from the other rooftop, Gabi watches the watertower, just as the ground spectators and fire department, whose men are now running up the stairs, are doing. “It’s  falling!” Gabi screams.   Anja sees she’s right, then looks to Eric.

“Just do it.  I’ll follow!” Eric shouts back.

“Not without you!”

“Now!” Eric yells.

“It’s your only chance!” Gabi screams.

Anja takes up the pole, strides back towards the opposite ledge, sprints, plants it, takes off, lifts her feet above her head, and above the alley, rolls, her feet horizontal just above the ledge, lets go of the pole, and lands just over the opposite ledge on her stomach, the wind knocked out of her.  Gabi stares down at Anja horrified, frantically wringing her hands.  While Anja is gasping for breath, Eric backs to the far edge of his roof, then bellows to Gabi,  “Get the pole ready!”

“What?” Gabi cries.

“I’ll do it!” Anja gasps, scrambling to her feet.

“Ready?  On my mark, get set, go!” Eric shouts, to himself.  He sprints and jumps, and as the tower bursts with flying, splintering boards, as tons of water rushes, cascading down, showering, flooding the roof, tossing the bleeding corpses of Elizabeth and Leaux, with the groaning body of Dick Couteau off the roof to the street and alley below, Eric raises his arms and catches the ledge as his fingers clench and vertigo saps his plunging strength.  Anja hooks his belt with her pole and yanks him by the pants up over the ledge.  As the onlookers below watch and the cops and fire department scramble to the roof, they hurry down the opposite building’s fire escape, into the alley, and into a subway station, squeezing into the first train for Grand Central Station.