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[private]Dale was eating breakfast, reading the Times. About halfway down the front page, he sensed something wrong. He peered over the paper and almost choked on a swallow of coffee. Across the chipped Formica table was a second plate of sausage and eggs, a second cup of coffee going cold. Bleary-eyed, he looked at his own plate, wondering vaguely why he’d prepared breakfast for two.
“You idiot,” he said aloud in a bored tone.
He scraped the dish into the garbage, set it in the sink and sat down to finish his eggs.[/private]
“Maybe you’re getting lonely,” said Frank, packing brake shoes into a cardboard box.
Dale glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to quitting time. “Maybe,” he said, “I’m going nuts.”
Frank smiled knowingly and shook his head. “You need a woman, Dale.” He held up his left hand, pointing at his wedding ring. “A wife.”
Dale snorted. “Gimme a break. What do I want with a wife?”
Several days later, on his way up the steps to his apartment, Dale heard a woman singing. The tune was familiar, but it took him awhile to peg it: “Bye Bye Blackbird”. He moved down the dark hall, a sack of groceries cradled in one arm, absently humming along. He was outside his door before he realized the singing was coming from inside his apartment. Dale gently set the bag down on the floor.
“Pack up all your cares and woes…”
Holding his breath, he pressed his ear to the door. Yes. Definitely inside his place, the wood vibrating minutely against his cheek.
“…here I go, singing low…”
He pulled out his key ring.
“…bye bye blackbird.”
Slipped his key into the deadbolt, turned it slowly, quietly. He cranked the knob, threw his shoulder to the door and burst into the apartment.
“Where somebody waits for me—”
The singing cut short, the echo of her voice still ringing off the casement windows. Dale frantically searched every room. He leaned against the sink in the kitchen, sweating, telling himself it must have been a radio outside, maybe a television in another apartment.
“So I guess you’ve lived here a long time,” said Dale.
Dale’s landlord, Ralph Kowalski, stopped clipping the hedge. He pulled a red handkerchief out of his back pocket and mopped the sweat on his forehead, the back of his neck. Ralph was about eighty. His face resembled a crumpled lunchbag. He wore horn-rimmed glasses, one lens thick as a telescope element, the other smoked black. Ralph lived with his wife, Edna, in a small duplex out back.
“Damn near fifty years,” he said. “Useta have a pie fact’ry around the corner. It’s gone now though.”
Dale nodded. “You ever have any trouble?”
“You know. With tenants.”
Ralph peered at him with distrust, as if the very question might be an indication that Dale was planning something nefarious.
“Trouble?” he asked.
Dale shrugged. “I mean, I figure a guy like you’s seen a lot, huh?”
Ralph set his clippers down on the porch step. “Damn right.”
Dale nodded vigorously. “Yeah, I mean, I bet you’ve seen some pretty crazy shit come down around here.”
“Had some niggers bust up a bunch of windows once. It was when they was riotin’ down in Watts. Decided to do some riotin’ up here. I called the cops.”
The old man nodded. “Damn right. Threw ‘em in the can too. Nowadays, they’re scared of ‘em, but back then the cops didn’t take no shit. Beat ‘em up. Beat ‘em with sticks.”
Ralph laughed, picked up the shears and began hacking at the gardenia bushes. Dale watched him, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, wondering how to phrase the question he’d really wanted to ask, the old man becoming oblivious to his presence.
“You ever have anybody die on you?”
Ralph snapped the clippers together. After a moment’s silence, he continued his pruning.
“Not that I rec’lect,” he said without turning.
Dale caught a movement in the corner of his eye. He glanced at his apartment window, and saw her for the first time.
Perhaps twenty years old, long, dark hair, an expression of sorrow furrowing her pale brow. He realized immediately he was seeing a ghost. He felt no fear or awe, only surprise at how mundane, how natural the experience seemed. She was as real as the grass under his feet, the hot Santa Anas tugging his shirt, the children jumping double-dutch across the street.
He followed her gaze down to a point directly in front of Ralph.
At the old man’s feet lay a white gardenia, slashed and scattered across the grass, the edges of its petals already curling brown.
That night she touched him.
Dale was sitting in bed in his boxers and a t-shirt, reading the Racing Form, when he felt a small, cool hand brush his naked thigh.
He jolted out of bed, covering himself with the paper. He looked frantically around the room, then at the spot she’d touched. He rubbed it, tentatively at first, then more vigorously, as if trying to remove something foul.
Fear turned to anger.
“Who’s there?” he shouted. Then quietly, almost a whisper: “Who are you?”
Silence. Only the distant hum of the freeway.
Stumbling into the bathroom, he threw some cold water on his face and took a couple of aspirin. He started at the haggard reflection in the mirror, forcing himself to breathe slowly, normally.
A woman’s voice, very close to his ear, perhaps inside his head, said one word: “Beth.”
He felt his gorge rise. Clapped one hand over his mouth, then vomited in the sink.
“What’s wrong?” asked Frank.
Dale squeezed the receiver, considered hanging up.
“I dunno. Flu I guess. Just tell Churchill I’m gonna be out again today.”
“He’s gonna be pissed,” said Frank. “I mean, we’re already short of help and we got that big Pep Boys order goin’.”
Dale closed his eyes. “What do you want me to do? I’m leaking out of both ends.”
“Okay. Right. I was just sayin’… you know.”
“Yeah. I’ll be in soon as I’m feeling better, okay?”
The virus took a leisurely tour through his digestive tract. He spent hours on the toilet, emerging tired, legs quivering, an angry red ring on his ass, only to return minutes later. It moved up into his throat and sinuses for a day or two, then settled deep in his lungs, spurring a rasping cough that brought up pale, yellow sputum.
As his condition worsened, Beth became bolder. Sometimes she was a rustle of fabric; sometimes a whiff of perfume, sweet and musty. Once he heard her voice, far away, calling the iceman.
Then the fever came.
She was with him every night as he drifted between sleep and delirium. He heard her coo softly, a cool hand on his forehead. Even when his cough settled deep and bubbling, every breath an act of will, fever pounding and smoldering inside his head, when he knew it was no longer flu, but pneumonia, Dale refused to call a doctor, afraid that by relieving his symptoms, he would somehow banish her.
He’d been out almost a week when his supervisor called to tell him he was fired.
After that, Dale took the phone off the hook.
She told him things, hints Dale forgot as soon as he heard them. He lost himself in her whispers, her voice dark and soft with a child’s lilt. It wasn’t until the eleventh night that she revealed herself completely.
At first, Dale thought she’d gone away. The apartment was still, the air heavy. He lay in bed sweating, breathing in frantic, shallow bursts. Outside, the street was filled with Saturday night sounds: a car engine gunned, followed by laughter; a dog barking, joined by another, a third; ranchera music; distant sirens. Somewhere, a game-show host was giving away thousands of dollars in cash and fabulous merchandise.
As sunlight on water hides the trout, the noise was an intangible yet impenetrable barrier against his perception of her. Under the hustlers, the animals, the television sets, the shiny new cars and condos and golf courses existed another world, a place where a man could peel away his flesh in thick, curling slabs, step outside and breathe for the first time. A place where dead women wept.
In Dale’s closet she wept.
He rolled over, pitched himself off the bed, landing hard on the point of his hip. His sweat made the hardwood floor slippery as he dragged himself toward the closet door, struggling for breath, his body wracked by shivering spasms.
He pressed, held his breath, listened. The only sound was a rhythmic creaking. He reached up for the knob with one palsied hand. Pushing himself away from the door, he paused a moment, then threw it open.
Beth was in there.
Dale scampered back, his mouth open so wide his jaw hurt. All his constricted throat would allow was high-pitched mewling, the whistling cry of a crushed kitten. His back slammed against the side of the bed and still he pushed away, drawing himself into a tight, sweating ball. He felt a hot gushing in his shorts, smelled the wanton bitterness of his own piss.
A splash of moonlight illuminated her legs, the hem of her white cotton slip. Her chipped painted toenails dangled four inches above the floor. Blood had pooled inside her hands and feet, stretching the skin purplish red, like overripe figs. The rope around her neck crushed tissue and cartilage tight against vertebrae. The soft flesh under her jaw was bloated wineskin; her mouth a silent, shrieking hole.
Behind a cascade of limp, black hair, bulging obsidian eyes reflected sparks of moonlight.
The fabric of her slip rippled, shifted as if touched by a breeze. One side of her belly bulged, then withdrew. Dread gnawing at his bowels, Dale realized there was something inside her, something alive. He traced its frantic struggle under the satin as it kicked and squirmed, its movements becoming more insistent, purposeful.
In a moment that was forever, Dale became the tiny thing inside her, unable to breathe, clawing at slippery, yielding walls of cold flesh. No thoughts. No memories. Only pain and pain and pain. Her sin exploded into his primitive consciousness, not as a narrative, but a revelation. He pressed unformed hands to his huge head, struggled in vain to close lidless eyes in a feeble effort to keep it at bay, but still it flooded in white-hot.
Her bleeding harvest.
With a final shudder, he was delivered into darkness, left only with the knowledge of what he must do, and the terrible certainty of his own damnation.
“I brought my tools,” Ralph said.
Dale motioned for him to enter. Without a word, the old man hefted his greasy wooden toolbox and shuffled in. As they walked through the bedroom, Ralph stopped and took a long look at the clutter. The bed was stripped, soiled linen and clothing strewn in twisted piles. Although the windows were wide open, the room still reeked of sour illness.
“Heard you was sick,” Ralph said, wrinkling his nose.
Dale kicked a t-shirt under the bed. “Yeah.”
The old man nodded sagely. “Shit’s going around. The wife’s feelin’ kinda punk.”
Ralph lugged his toolbox into the bathroom. “You say the toilet don’t work?”
Dale stood at the threshold. “Won’t flush.”
“Well we’ll have it fixed in a jiffy, then.”
With a grunt, Ralph removed the lid of the tank and set it in the tub. He opened his toolbox and rummaged around, pulling out a large monkey wrench. Turning his back to Dale, he began examining the inside of the tank. “I ever tell you how I was a ship-fitter in the Navy?”
Dale silently toyed with the cord of his alarm clock. He pulled the plug from the extension cord. “She died in that closet,” he said.
“Whassat?” he asked in a shaky voice, still looking at the guts of the toilet.
“The girl. The one who lived here. She died in that closet.”
The old man didn’t reply.
“Why’d you lie to me?” asked Dale.
Ralph glanced over his shoulder. His face was ashen.
Dale pulled the extension cord from the outlet. “She was pregnant, wasn’t she?”
The old man turned away. After a moment he nodded.
Dale began wrapping the cord around his right hand, then his left, leaving a length of eight inches between his fists. “With your baby.”
Ralph’s shoulders sagged.
Dale quietly closed the distance between them. He leaned forward gently as if to kiss the old man, and then stopped, his lips almost touching Ralph’s ear.
“Say her name,” Dale whispered.
“Say her name. The one you gave her.”
A croaking sob. “Beth.”
“Your daughter. Your little girl.”
The old man nodded. A fat tear rolled down his dry cheek.
“You knew I’d come someday,” Dale whispered. “You knew I’d come for you.”
Ralph looked sideways at him with one bulging, cataract-shrouded eye. “You’re dead.”
Dale whipped his arms over Ralph’s head and yanked back the cord, planting one knee against the base of the old man’s spine. The monkey wrench clattered to the floor. Dale closed his eyes and smiled beatifically and began quietly singing.
“Pack up all your cares and woes…”