By Dez Walker
Everything in his beautiful brutal face had been broken and bruised. This is how George found him, his face covered in blood and snot, and weeping through swollen eyes. He lay in the alley behind George’s rooms, nearly invisible behind the greasy cans and barrels. George remembered everything about that day; the damp fetid smell, the strange cool out here in the shadows, how his heart lurched violently at the sight of the man, and then how calm he felt, how strong. He rolled the man over, he saw the startling state of his face. He lifted him, and the man looked back through glazed ruined eyes. But he understood what George was trying to do. So he sat up as best he could and then he turned white, under the blood lace stain, and he retched into the corner against the wall. But he got himself up, with George’s help, and he leaned heavily on George, never asking where they were going. Never saying a word.
Up in his rooms, George brought the man to his bed, and the man collapsed there. He crumpled onto the blankets. He closed his eyes, he sighed.
He smeared George’s pillow with blood and with the tears that leaked from his eyes, but George didn’t mind. He didn’t mind at all. He knew he should clean this man’s face, and he did the best he could with an old damp rag and the man’s own tears. He could see the face, at least. And what a face it was. Like nothing he had ever seen before. Like nothing he would ever see again.
George sat all the long afternoon watching this man who lay in his bed, and wondering. The man never spoke at all. He eyes stayed closed and his head turned to the wall. He slept or he passed out. It was impossible to say. The room filled with the smell of him, it breathed with woodsmoke and blood, sweat and leather. The smell of him made George hungry. The room filled with shadows and a sharp breeze shivered through the stagnant air.
Towards evening, George thought about making soup. Sick people needed soup; people with their teeth knocked out and their guts punched in, they wanted soup. Well, maybe he’d make some, but not just yet. He sat and watched.
George didn’t move as the light left the room. He felt tired, sure, and he’d love to go to sleep. But this man was in his bed. So he pulled his knees up and tucked his feet under him for warmth. He lurched to one side in a big chair, which was ragged and threadbare, missing half the springs in its seat and caving in along the bottom. But it had a small wing against which to rest his head, and he leaned against this and watched the man in his bed until his eyes ached.
He didn’t think he’d ever sleep like this, so cramped and uncomfortable, but he must have slept, because he dreamed. In his dream he approached a house, which was small, shabby and wrecked from the outside, but immaculate and palatial from within, with corridors and staircases leading to strange and wonderful rooms. He woke with a start, confused and disoriented in the startling darkness of the room.
A small shaking light came through branches that spattered on his window. In this bewildering glow he saw the man’s face, he thought he saw his eyes, open and staring. He thought the man looked at him, at George. He nearly fell through his chair with the shock of it. But when he looked again the man’s eyes were closed, and his face turned to the wall, away from George. In a sweat, George tried to sit up; he needed to leave. But where would he go? Where would he go.
In the morning George woke to fragile rainwashed light and spasms of pain. The man slept on, unmoving. George worried that maybe he was unconscious or dead, and he didn’t know if you were supposed to try to wake somebody or the opposite, if you weren’t supposed to touch them. And he wouldn’t know what to do, anyway, if he was unconscious or dead. So he imagined instead that the man didn’t wake because he hadn’t slept in a bed in weeks, that he hadn’t felt safe and comfortable, that he’d lain in ditches, startling sweating awake at every sound. He imagined the man thinking about a warm bed, a soft bed. George’s bed was not such a bed, but it was better than nothing, better than some old muddy ditch with the wind whistling over him and the constant goddamn spitting rain.
George stood and crept around the room, testing out his grumbling joints and his whining muscles. He had a rotten stomach, as he always did when he hadn’t slept well; unsettled, uneasy. He closed himself in his small bathroom, which held layers of filth and failure, stale, rusty water, cracked porcelain, and a bare lightbulb that flickered and clicked. In the splintered mirror his face came back to him shattered. The mirror man looked old, and he despaired over his sickly pale face, creased with bitterness and disappointment. A feeble dribble of yellow water spluttered from the tap. The pipes sighed.
Back in his room he warmed some coffee, hoping the smell of it would rouse the sleeping man. He didn’t stir, so George drank all the coffee himself, and felt jittery and strange, so that when he heard a knock on the door sharp panicked prickles shot down his arms and legs. And what a fool he’d been not to think of it sooner! Of course somebody was looking for this man! The police, maybe, he was almost certainly a fugitive, just look at him! Just look at the desperate state of him! Or the men who had done this to him, who had left him in this terrible condition. Sure, they had come to find him and to finish him off, along with anyone who had sheltered him.
But it was only the old whore from next door. She must have smelled the coffee warming. Or maybe she smelled the man in George’s bed; maybe this is what had drawn her in. She stood leaning against his doorframe with a strange smile on her face.
She said, “Can I borrow some sugar?”
And George said, with more testiness than he intended or expected, “I don’t have any sugar, you know that.”
She just laughed. “How bout some coffee, then?”
“Well,” said George, trying to sound calm, and unclear in his own mind why he didn’t feel calm. “I drank it all myself. Maybe next time.”
“Sure, sure,” she said. But she didn’t walk back down the dingy hall to her own place. She pushed right past George into his rooms, saying, “Sure, sure, sugar,” as if she liked the sound of the words. She pretended to be surprised to see the man in his bed, but George knew that she knew he was there all along. Of course she did. She sat in the sagging chair and gave a chipped laugh. “Good night, George?”
George didn’t answer. He had only one other chair in the room, even less comfortable than the first, upright and skeletal, but he sat here and watched the old whore. He wanted her to leave because she made him sad, but it made him sad to think about asking her to leave, so she stayed. He thought about how hard it would be to be an old whore, harder than most other things. He thought that you don’t expect to hear about old whores, you don’t read about them very much, and maybe this is because they’re not expected to get old. They’re expected to die young, of one thing or another.
She called herself Fleur, but George suspected this was not her real name. She wasn’t very like a flower. She had told George once that she wanted to be like him, small and light on her feet. Lighter in every way, floating about in the world. But she said it was just as well she wasn’t, because the men liked something to hold onto, something to sink into. She had confided to George that she didn’t wash very often, because it was unhealthy, and because she had her hair “done” every other week, and it was expensive, and you just ruined it all if you got yourself wet. So she had a strong smell, but she didn’t seem to notice. She sat there happily in the dense fug of her own scents: sweat, cologne, powder, and other things that George didn’t like to think about. He thought he could smell all of the men that she had been with on her flesh.
He could hear her through the walls with her men. The sound of it made him feel lonely. He didn’t want to be with her, not in the least, but the sound of it made him feel edgy and alone. Sometimes he thought he could hear that she was being hurt. He heard blows and cries and weeping. But what could he do? A small man like himself.
Fleur settled further into the chair with a groan. George tried not to look over at her, but he could tell anyway that she was staring at hm.
She shrugged and sighed. She was noisy in everything she did—sighing, shrugging—her cheap jewelry clanked, her joints creaked, she belched.
“It’s just…he’s not like you, you know.”
First George thought, how the hell can she tell that? He’s passed out and he’s a mess. Then the icy prickling fear returned and spread to George’s feet again. He tried to move them, he tried to stand, but he couldn’t.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. And you don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t know.” His voice came out in a rusty squeak, so he stopped to clear his throat. Her laugh was harsh but not unkind. She shook her head and sighed and played with the bracelets on her wrist.
When the fear passed, George felt a strange sense of relief. After all, what could she do? What could she do to him, with all that he knew about her? Not that she ever tried to hide anything anyway.
He recovered his voice and asked, “How do you know?”
“Oh,” Fleur said wearily, “I see it all, I hear it all, I know it all.”
“Well, you couldn’t have heard very much from me, lately. I’ve been terribly lonely.”
“I know that, too.”
When the man moaned and rolled towards them, they fell suddenly silent and moved forward in their chairs. Fleur could see his full face for the first time and she said, “Oh, my.” They sat and watched him for a while, but he didn’t move at all, and he didn’t open his eyes. Fleur’s head fell to her enormous sagging bosom and her snore resonated through George’s room. Loud enough to wake the dead, but not to wake the man in George’s bed. She woke herself, though, with a start and a snort, and she left a slurry of drool and white powder on her dark dress.
Fleur went back to her room, tired from working half the night, and though George had been anxious for her to leave, now that she was gone he felt her absence as a loss. He moved to her chair, but the smell of her made him sad.
George kept his supply of food, such as it was, on the windowsill. He had a couple potatoes, a carrot, an onion, a lump of fat. He drew water from the reluctant sink, and he didn’t care that it took a long while. He was a patient man, he never minded waiting. He had no kitchen, just one electric burner, but today this was fine, because this meant he could keep an eye on the man while he cooked.
“I wish I had some lemons. I think they always add flavor. But they’re so hard to find this time of year.” George told the man. His voice sounded different with this man in his rooms, not like it always sounded when he talked to himself. It sounded better. So he told the man something else. He said, “Where I’m from, which is not this grey world, lemons aren’t so hard to find. Where I’m from the sun shines from time to time.” He told the man a few other things, safe things, dull things. He stirred the soup, which was boiling now, filling his rooms with damp fragrant warmth. He saw the man through the steam, dreamlike, and he decided to tell him a story he’d never told anyone, a story he’d been thinking about since he’d found the man in the alley.
They pushed me in the creek again, but I didn’t mind this time. The day was stifling; the water was cool. Sometimes they came into the creek, but not this day. They got bored and soon left. A moth fell onto the water and floated stretched on pale soaking wings. I tried to lift him out, but his wings folded up on themselves and he sank down instead. When I stood, the water ran from my swollen pockets and weighed heavy in my shoes. I dragged myself across the moss-slippery rocks under the train bridge where the water made bright waves of light on the old stones. I walked away from town, because obviously I didn’t want to see anyone. There was nobody in that town I wanted to see. Once I reached the road, the hot dusty wind soon dried my clothes and coated me with a fine silt. I stopped to rub the dust from my eyes and that’s when I first saw him, through the tears starting in my dry red eyes. He was small, like me, but he was smiling, which I never did. He was whistling. He watched me as he passed, he watched me long enough that his head turned, and he looked at me over his shoulder. Such a look. I had never seen such a look, though I had imagined it. I felt terrified of him, but I followed him anyway, back into town. I didn’t talk to him, of course. I didn’t talk to him for weeks. I wandered town hoping to catch a glimpse of him, and nearly died when he appeared. It nearly killed me every time. He got a job at the hardware store, and I passed it ten times a day, but I never even dared to look in the windows. And then one day my father sent me for a length of rope. My father. The store smelled of soil and leather and dust, and I walked the aisles on trembling legs. I saw him and nearly ran, but he blocked my path. He took me to a back room for rope, but I didn’t see any there. He stood so close in the small room that I thought he could hear my heart beating, my heart pounding to fly away from my body. He told me his name and I stood stupid and scared and said, “Yes.” He asked mine, and I couldn’t control my voice to tell him, but he said, “Never mind, I already know, George.” I left with a length of rope clutched in shaking hands, hands that had brushed against his. I didn’t see him for some days, I was too scared to walk into town, but one day he was outside my house. When I turned out of the gate he walked alongside of me with easy steps, the most natural thing in the world. We walked out of town and he talked a little, but I couldn’t. We could have touched but we didn’t, though I thought about it every second. He was light, buoyant, he seemed to float beside me in a glow. I thought about taking both of his hands to keep him from flying away, though I knew I would never dare, and then I saw that I had done it, I had taken both of his hands in my own. Of course he kissed me then, and all of the pleasure and pain and fear that I had ever felt caught on fire within me. That week that followed was the best and sweetest of my life. The sweetest. I discovered my…voice. I discovered my voice. One hot afternoon we lay in my shadowy room, with the blinds drawn. And it seemed to me that the bright slats of light held us pinned to the bed. And it seemed to me that everything in the glaring brightly colored outside world was not real, was false, compared to the dusky world of my bed and the breaths that we exchanged. And then my father came in. He did shift work, I never knew when he would be home, but I didn’t expect him then. Of course I didn’t expect him then. I can’t forget his face, angry, but strangely not surprised. When he finished I looked like you do now. And for all the cuts and bruises, for all that…the thing that hurt the worst was my lips, sore from kissing. Ringing sore. Ringing sore, and…”
George turned then, at a slight sound behind him and saw the old whore in the doorway, leaning against the jamb with the door ajar. How much had she heard? How much had she heard.
“Listen to you!” She said. “What a talker! So lurrical. I declare. Bright slats of light!” She sat in the sagging chair and folded her hands in her lap. She said, “Bright slats of light. Bright slats of light.”
George sat in his hard chair and sighed. He looked at Fleur, but she was gazing in the direction of the man in his bed, though she didn’t seem to see him. “Do you want to hear the story of my first kiss? Do you want to hear it?”
“No! No, god no.”
“Well it ended up very much like yours did! You see, we’re not so different. You and I.”
“Don’t say that!” George squeaked, and then added more calmly, “I don’t see that at all. We’re not alike at all.”
Fleur sat, unusually silent, and George tried not to look at her. When he heard her make a sound between a sniffle and a snort, he saw that her eyes watered, and he hated to think how her face would look with the makeup all running down it, and he hated to think he made her feel bad. He took a bowl of soup over to the bed and sat by the man. He tried to tip a spoonful of soup between the man’s torn and bloody lips, but it only seeped out onto his cheek.
“For chrissake,” Fleur snapped impatiently, “That’s no way to feed a man. I hate to see a thing done badly.” She took the spoon from George, she bent over the man and pressed with a finger and thumb on either side of his mouth, which made his lips pucker strangely and his jaw open slightly. George had to look away, it seemed so indelicate, so undignified. When he looked back he saw that the soup had run down the man’s chin and puddled in his ear. Fleur croaked with laughter, and George said, “Don’t laugh! Don’t laugh at him! It’s not nice!”
“Nice! Nice? Look at me, have you seen me? Nice.” But she stopped laughing. George wiped the soup from the man’s face with his blanket, and he’d be smelling that soup for weeks to come, every time he tried to sleep, every time he woke. It became the smell of that time, for George.
He looked at Fleur sitting across from him on his bed, with this man between them, and he felt suddenly very tired, very hopeless.
“I tell you what,” said Fleur, sitting up and fumbling in the pockets lost in the folds of her skirt, “I tell you what, this man doesn’t need soup. Soup! Bah! He needs a little sip of this, as do you yourself, by the look of you.”
George looked doubtfully at the flask she handed him. The smell of it alone burned his nostrils and made him dizzy. And her lips had been on it. He hated, he really hated, to think where her lips had been.
“Go on, then. It will warm you right up.”
He did drink, after all. He took a great swig and filled his mouth with burning liquid. George rarely drank, because he didn’t want to be like his father, reeking and reeling with rage and hate. So he knew it would go right to his head, now, but he didn’t mind. Fleur laughed gleefully and took a long drink herself, and then she poured a quantity into the man’s mouth.
The man spluttered and choked. He shook the bed with an anguished bellow of pain and surprise when he sat up. He looked from Fleur to George with eyes of startling pale blue. Fleur silently handed him the flask, he winced as he drank, and he handed it back to her. George stood beside the bed, frozen, too full of doubt and wonder to move or speak. The man turned to George. He took both of George’s hands in his own strong scarred hands, and he pulled on George to raise himself up, out of bed. He gasped, and froze for a moment with the pain of moving at all, and then he stood swaying on unsteady feet, holding George’s hands tight in his own. They stood close, now, and George felt so strange and strong to be holding up this man so much larger than himself, this man who towered over him.
The man said something in a language George didn’t understand. He said, “Spacebo.” He tightened his shaking hands on George’s, for just a moment. And then he kissed George, hard, on the lips, lingering there till George could taste his scars. And then he turned, he lurched unsteadily to the door. He leaned against the wall and moaned, and then he was gone.
George stared after him, and even Fleur was quiet for once, for a moment. But just for a moment. Then she giggled and said, “Oh, my!” And she said, “Well? Are you going after him? He doesn’t move very fast!”
George sat in his bed, with his back against the wall, and he patted the space next to him. When Fleur sat down, pressing herself against him, he took the flask from her and had another deep drink. He didn’t mind her smell, he didn’t mind the squalor all around him. Something burned on his lips, and in his mind, and he let it. Eventually he rested his head on Fleur’s ample sagging bosom, he listened to her steady ragged breath. They drank and talked. She told him the story of her first kiss, and he wet her dress with his tears. Tears for her, tears for himself, tears because it was all so goddamn sad. At midnight a man came to keep an appointment with Fleur. They heard him yelling and pounding on her door. They held their breath as he walked by George’s door, which they knew to be unlocked. And they breathed again to hear him on the street below George’s window, shouting, staggering, swearing, and then gone.
All night long they clung to each other, bobbing on a sea of whisky and memories and dreams, lashed to a floating spar that sank and rose and sank and rose again. And in the morning they washed to shore, tangled together like children from a shipwreck. They lay entwined in the never-lightening morning in George’s bed, and sheltered each other from the constant goddamn spitting rain.
Dez Walker is currently based in Lisbon. He’s traveling as much as possible because he couldn’t stay put in case they shut it all down again. His stories have appeared here and there, and he’s proud that anybody ever has read them.