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The Color of Fake Pickles

by Alexis Zanghi

Every day for the last month, Alfred Alston has woken seven minutes earlier than he would like.  He turns off the alarm that belongs to Anne Sofer, and pulls the sheet back over her head.  Anne kicks in her sleep, so that by the hour Alfred awakes at least his right shoulder hangs off the side of the bed.  He gets out of bed by sliding on to the floor, face down into the day.           

Alfred is very tall, and used to sleep diagonally before Anne came to share the bed. 

Alfred checks the first trap he has set.  He picks it up by sliding his hand under the bed and behind the milk crate that doubles as their nightstand.  Before even setting his two feet on the ground, he has caught one.

Now he raises himself so that his buttocks rest on the side of the bed.  It is summer, and it is so hot it sometimes wakes Anne.  It is the kind of oppressive heat that makes their lungs heavy in their chests, so that they can feel tissue sticking against ribcage.  It is like this even in the early morning.  They did use an air conditioner for a short time but it malfunctioned, creating an odor that was a synthetic approximation of the inside of a pickle jar.  Alfred removed the air conditioner, but their room still smells like fake pickles. 

His head rests between his shoulders as the sweat begins to crest above his collarbone.  Two fans blow against him from either direction.  He breathes in the air as it moves past him.  His lungs stick against his ribcage, and he wonders exactly which chemical compounds could have created such a persistent odor.

Outside the room Anne shares with Alfred is a long and narrow hallway.  The building was a tenement at one point, and the walls tilt towards one another at aggressive angles like in a cartoon with never-ending doorways.  He passes their roommate’s door.  She is a summer student studying a dead language at a local university – Sanskrit, Alfred thinks – and every night she uses rice dishes to bastardize various foreign cuisines.  The rest of their apartment smells like the ghosts of so many curries and stir fries. 

Alfred crawls down the hallway towards the bathroom.  Behind half-empty shampoo bottles is the second one.  It is empty.  He flushes the contents of the first trap down the toilet, and brushes his teeth.

The sun has now come to their side of the building.  He hopes the heat will not wake Anne.

Alfred kneels on the scuffed linoleum and presses his head against it for a moment.  It is the last cool surface in their apartment.  He checks the third trap, behind the toilet, in between the garbage can and the plunger.  He finds another, and flushes it.

Now, he crawls the dozen or so feet from their bathroom to the kitchen.   The floorboards of the kitchen are jagged and splinter against his knees.  He checks the trap beside the fridge. 

And there it is.

Anne has left another pizza box in the murky half inch that lies between the refrigerator and the wall in every apartment in this city.  Alfred is relieved because this means Anne has not found the traps, but instead laid another lure. 

Alfred’s hands push hard against the floorboards, and he raises himself on to his knees.  He stretches, flinging his arms back and his chest forward into the sunlight that has filtered through the thin film of grease on their kitchen window.  The sun heats his hairless chest and he arches his back, closing his eyes and tilting his head back towards the floorboards, so that his forehead is parallel to the ceiling.  He stays this way for a minute before dragging one knee up so that his foot presses upon the floorboards, then the next foot, one-two.  For the first time in the day, Alfred Alston is standing.

Alfred needs to clean the window.  He needs to mop the floor.  He needs to throw out that pizza box.

He needs to put on his dress shoes and walk out on to the hot crowded street, where his lungs can join the others that stick against the million ribcages of this city. 

Anne awakes and rolls on to her back before she even opens her eyes.  Alfred has already left.  She does not make eye contact with Alfred very much anymore, but chooses an obscure and remote corner of the ceiling to stare at while she speaks to him.  She notices that he sometimes turns to follow the direction of her eyes, but he only finds coffee shop chalkboards, or rusty ceiling tiles, or brilliant Nordic light fixtures.  She does not know what to say when she sees him doing this; only that her lungs breathe “stop”.  Now she stares at the water stain above the bed she shares with Alfred Alston.  It grows larger every day, and every sunrise she finds more paint peels away to accommodate this growth.

On his lunch break, Alfred goes to see the lady with a grin that is at once permanent and terrifying. She cranes her neck so that her face invades Alfred’s own.  Her chin is especially prominent and pointed.  She offers cats for adoption.  There are so many.  Alfred wonders if one would be enough to solve his problem.

Alfred picks a cat.  It is an overweight tabby, larger than the dogs in their building.  Alfred wonders how it stayed so fat in the pound.  It is missing half an ear.  It looks like it could eat a tin can.  It probably has.

Alfred cannot think of a name for the cat. 

He carries the cat in its cardboard box back to his office.  It meows in the elevator.  There is a woman in the elevator, who spits out the last of her lunch and stares at the box.  Her ass is the ass of another woman, a woman not nearly as tall but twice as wide.  Alfred has met her once but sees her often, and her expression is always sour but her skin is like milk.  He decides not to worry whether the cat will bother others. 

Alfred never stays late at the office, and he has been told this will limit his opportunities.  But every day, he walks out of the office at exactly five o’clock, his dress shoes clipping against the marled carpet.  He sometimes slips in his eagerness.  He cannot bear being stationary.  He takes the stairs down the twenty-two flights to the street.  The cat makes an angry gurgling sound as it tries to retain equilibrium in its box.

For the two blocks between his office building and the subway station, Alfred says “excuse me” to the stream of people that must divide around him.  He walks with his face forward and his body sideways.  The cat’s gurgling increases as its box knocks against kneecaps and briefcases and the tops of children’s heads, one-two.  Alfred says “excuse me” to his surroundings until he has forced himself to the front of the queue for the first available subway car, but it is rush hour and there are so many others.  Many cars go by.  More sweat comes.  The cat continues to gurgle.  Every nerve screams at him to get on the next train.

Alfred finally gets onto a train.  He cannot find a seat, and stands in the middle of the car.  He presses one hand against the ceiling but it has no traction and it slides about with sweat.  He uses his other hand to clamp the cat against the top of his head.  The cat hisses and scratches at the bottom of its box.  The box rocks back and forth atop Alfred’s head, one-two. He is terrified that the box and its contents will go flying forward into this car of people and he will have to apologize again. He wraps his arm around the box even tighter, so that it reaches from one side of his head to the other.  He hopes the cat does not piss on him.

Alfred needs to get off this train.  He needs to take this cat off the top of his head.  He needs to stop his nerves from screaming. 

He needs to say “excuse me” to everyone in this car, then step into the sunlight again and say it to everyone on his block until he finally reaches his building. 

Alfred climbs the six flights to the apartment he shares with Anne and the visiting student of Sanskrit who has made so many curries and brought so many guests.  The cat has clawed at its box so many times that it tears out the bottom before Alfred can release it.  It gurgles and hisses as it falls the two feet from Alfred’s arm to the kitchen floor.  It raises itself up and cocks its ear and a half high, but it does not move.

Alfred drops to his knees beside the cat and begins to crawl again.  The pizza box now holds two, and the floorboards splinter into his crepe dress pants as he shuffles to the toilet on his knees.  He checks the bathroom traps, and there are still more.  He wants the cat to follow him but it lays on the floor instead, assessing its surroundings like a woman determining her affection for a newfound perfume.  It watches Alfred recede down the narrow hallway.

Alfred needs to see what is behind the nightstand.  He needs to clean the dishes.  He needs to make dinner for himself and now the cat, too.

Anne needs to come home.

Alfred Alston makes up the bed by pulling the sheet on top of it and squeezing at the pillows, one-two.  He lies in bed and stares at the water stain on the ceiling he shares with Anne Sofer.  He lies lengthwise on the bed now like it is a stretcher, his arms and hands stiff against his sides.  The air from the two fans does not meet his skin so he cannot feel them ease the heat, but he wants to believe they work.  He closes his eyes, breathes in the chemical air, and waits for the sound of Anne.

Every night for the last three weeks, Anne Sofer has arrived home late at night with a corrugated cardboard pizza box in her hand, its contents in her mouth, and the smell of vodka tonics on her clothes.  She wears a pair of chartreuse suede slingbacks, the color of fake pickles if they existed.  They are a half-size too small because she bought them at a sample sale in Chinatown. She takes them off by stepping out of them, one-two.  When she has had too many vodka tonics, she lifts each leg up and shakes it back and forth until her foot is freed.  Her feet fall firmly on the floor without any effort or fear of what they may find there.

 Alfred Alston loves the way Anne Sofer takes these shoes off.  He does not want it to change.

 Alfred’s eyes open when Anne’s feet meet the floor at the other end of the hallway.  He hears her shout the word “orange!” and knows the cat has a name now.  He feels the determined, arrhythmic vibrations of her stumbling feet and knows she is drunk.

But the vibrations stop halfway down the hallway.  The fans stop pushing air above Alfred.  The water stain recedes into darkness.  The smells of curries and chemicals and cat urine remain. 

Outside the window Alfred Alston shares with Anne Sofer and an incontinent cat named Orange, a branch burns and bright sparks leap away from electrical wires.  Alfred opens the window, and shouts at the man who tends to the branch from inside a crane.  The crane does not look like it belongs to anything; it is not the crane of an electric company, nor is it the crane of a fire department.  The man wears a gold hard hat too large for his head and it covers his eyes so that Alfred can only see the tops of his cheeks, which are wide and smiling and weathered.  A melanoma marks the right one. 

Alfred looks past the man to see that all the lights on his street are out.  All the people to whom he apologized today – their air conditioners are silent, their windows are dark.  But beyond his street, he can see the lights remain on.  Alfred wishes that he could move Anne just one block, just for tonight.

The man in the gold hard hat shouts at Alfred, but he has an accent – Southern, Alfred thinks – and Alfred cannot understand what he is saying.  The man repeats himself, and Alfred pretends to know what he is saying.

 Alfred needs the lights to go back on again.  He needs to bring Anne back from the hallway.  He needs to put Anne to bed.

 He needs to know how Anne keeps her shoes clean when he can feel the dirt filming on his skin with every second.  

 Alfred slides from the bed to the floor again and crawls to meet Anne.  He finds her feet first.  He pauses, and strokes the arch of one.  She asks him what the fuck he is doing.  He doesn’t know how to answer, and inhales sharply.  He grabs her ankles, bends his body in half at the waist, and begins to push himself up onto the balls of his feet.  Anne used to form her body into this position when they still had sex. 

 Anne falls.  Her buttocks hit the floor.  Her knees bang against Alfred’s head, one-two. 

 Alfred can hear the man in the gold hard hat knocking on his window, one-two. 

 The fans, and the lights, and the whirring of other’s air conditioners all re-join the smells of curries and pickles and cat piss.  Orange remains in the same spot on the kitchen floor.  Anne’s shoes remain clean.   But Alfred’s traps are not empty anymore, and Anne lies on the floor at eye level with them. 

 All night, Anne Sofer will watch these traps fill with the legs, antennae, and exoskeletons of so many of the city’s residents.  She will not avert her eyes.

 Alfred Alston will unfold himself across his bed diagonally.  His hairless chest will arch with each breath.  He will listen to the many feet as they scurry, and know that there is no more he can hide.

 

Alexis Zanghi is the coordinating editor for the Dirty Pond.  Her favorite lunch cart is the arepa cart on Cedar Street.

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