Thursday, December 3, 2009

the picture

The Picture
It's dark here. The swaying of the match flame as it reaches my cigarette makes only the dimmest shadows, and the distant glow of the streetlamp from the boulevard casts but faint patches along this brick wall. A cascade of spotlights and darkness, and I'm the comedian telling jokes while the world is laughing. I take a drag and let out the smoke in soft, aimless spirals. The city is alive tonight: distant voices are shouting and some fallen leaves tumble around my feet.

I glance at my watch and think
this is the place, or
this was the place, or
this was never the place.

Either way, he's late.

I palm the note again, hastily scribbled, hoping I got the address right. I haven't been here before. He never did want to meet me anywhere; it was always someplace else. It'll be better, he said. I'm still unsure.

Crushing the remains of the cigarette beneath my shoe, I shove both hands into my overcoat pockets. There isn't much of a moon: just the thinnest crescent, waning. The labyrinth of buildings obscures the sky, but somehow I know. I'm not sure how long I wait, but eventually he arrives at the precise moment I expect him to. He has a knack for that. Even in the darkness of this alley he looks the same as he always does. Some things don't change; others, too much. It evens out.

hello, he says.
come with me.

He was never one to waste any of his own time. I follow him to a nearby fire escape, which we climb to an open third-floor window.

this is the only way we can get in, he tells me. there are guards in the lobby.

Bending, we duck through the window. The hallway is nice: a forest of light fixtures and doors, stylish carpeting. Apartments. He leads me to the elevator at the end of the corridor and presses the up button. Almost as if it had been waiting just for him, the doors ding open and we step inside. He reaches out for the 37 and the doors slide shut. The car is just as lovely as the hall, all gold railings and polished mirrors and elegant panels. We stand in silence and watch all the numbers light up in sequence as the familiar vibration beneath our feet propels us upward.

And when we reach the thirty-seventh floor, we step out into another hallway, identical to the first, but in a different time and a different place. We come to a door and he stops, gesturing for me to go ahead of him.

its unlocked, he whispers.

I wonder how he knows this, but I don't press the issue. I gently turn the knob, and the door gives way to a dark and uninviting room. Unsure, I look over my shoulder. He motions me in.

In the sullied half-light I make out the features of an ornate living space: well furnished with classy magazines strewn across the tables so as to appear haphazard but in fact deliberately stacked. Tiny hallways stretch off into other rooms. Looking around, I search for a lightswitch and flip it on. For an instant the room is bathed in a white, angelic light.

turn the lights off, he says, closing the door.
whose apartment is this? i ask, once again enveloping the room in darkness.

He doesn't say anything as he crosses the room, cautious as though he too had never been there before. On the way, something catches his eye. Sitting on a nearby table admidst a few magazines and a modest stack of papers is an old Polaroid camera. He picks it up and brings it to me.

they dont make these anymore, you know.
i know, i say.
take my picture, he says, handing it to me.
he just smiles. they dont make them anymore; maybe its the last time ill have the chance.
but its so dark in here ...

Again, he moves across the room, framing himself by the light drifting in from the window. He stands motionless as I aim the camera, press the button down, and the room erupts in a flash. I blink, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness again, and remove the photograph, which too is adjusting itself with an image slowly coming into focus. He comes back to me and takes the picture from my hand.

youre a good shot, he says, smiling and tucking the picture into his coat pocket. you always did know how to get what you want.
why are we here?
follow me.

We go down the hall to a bedroom, every bit as empty and dark as the rest of the apartment. Walking to the window, he pulls the curtains back to reveal a highrise balcony, breathtaking, with a view extending miles in each direction.

shall we step outside?

He unlocks the door, slides it open, and we exit.

have you ever seen such a gorgeous view? he asks, leaning against the waist-high railing.

I haven't: block after block of crisscrossing streets and sturdy buildings, the lights coalescing like fireflies in an electrical hierarchy. Thirty-seven stories below, a swimming pool ripples invitingly with the soft glow of underwater dome lights. In the distance, people and sounds and city. And on the balcony, just us.

never. but ... i don't get it, i confess, looking at him.
i need something.

I had figured as much.

you know i'll do anything, i say to him.
then i can trust you?
what do you need?

He doesn't even need to answer me: I can tell just by the way his somber glance meets mine that there's someone out there in that great, expansive, breathing city that he doesn't want to be there. He's chosen his target. He's found his killer. I stare out at the lights for a moment, taking in the view. I am not surprised. After everything we have been through, I doubt there is anything that could surprise me.

what kind of trouble are you in? i ask, trying to reason. maybe if you tell me, i could help--

And I know just by something in his eyes and the way he whispers that I could never say no.

who is it?

Slowly, he removes the picture from his pocket and hands it to me. For several moments we stand in silence, staring at each other: him not saying a word because he didn't have to, and me because I wasn't able to.

so this is your apar--
uh-huh, he cuts me off.
... but why?
you can keep the picture, he says, leaning over the railing again and returning his gaze to the shimmering pool more than three dozen stories below.

We stand wordless again, together but alone, looking out across the endless sea of lights.

i think i fancy a swim, he says.

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