Every morning, before the sun or just after the sun has come depending on the season, I sip my coffee and watch the men push the cart. They are going uphill in a hurry, up to The Crossing, which they will not cross. Later, once I’ve gone to the office, returned home, prepared my evening soup, and am again sitting at the window, I will see them chasing the cart back down, the metal a twisted heap, some shards of it tied to their ankles and clanking behind with no rhythm. What in the morning is a coordinated mission is by evening a loud and sad parade of mess.
Where do these men sleep, I wonder. Do they have wives, secret boyfriends, children they do or do not claim, kitchens of their own, have they given their lives to their employment, is it worth the pay, do they remember the before. I watch them through the window, which I open in seasons without chill so I can hear if they speak words, which they do not. In the morning they only shout, chanting in unison what must be a language but sounds like blur, like no way of meaning. I’ve tried a few times now; a familiar alphabet doesn’t capture it.
It’s not just them. No one crosses The Crossing, the abyss connecting this place to the rest. The bridge hasn’t had repairs since anyone can remember, and no one even talks about it anymore. I remember asking my Nana Mano when I was young, right before she died, back when I was still a twin. I asked if she’d ever known a time with a way of making it over, if she knew of anyone who’d done it, and her face went blank as paper. Then she told me, “Sometimes, I answer the phone and there is no one there.” She was enamored with phones, which arrived late in her life. She was always talking about them no matter how irrelevant. Their buttons, the dial tone, the click of the hang-up.
I’ve known nothing beyond the Flat Blocks, the part of Zone L where I grew up without a single hill, not even an arch in the concrete from a tree root bursting through. I have never ventured uphill, though I’ve heard there are turnstiles that haven’t been active since before my own childhood. The days of paying a fare to cross over were already legend by the time I was old enough to wonder.
Sometimes I dream I am following the men up with their cart of metal, coordinating their supposed efforts of repair, their county-funded manual labor that somehow never leads to the new bridge we would need to leave this place. I’m yelling in their language to put the piece here and hammer the bolt here and so on, but no one seems to hear me.
And always I am standing boldly on the edge of the construction, over the void, which who knows, could be not a void at all, my having never actually been up to The Crossing. Maybe in waking life it is only a sweeping view, or a staircase. But in the dream, it is a black abyss. And you can guess that I begin to fall as I wake up with a jolt. A hypnic jerk: a sleep-state, full-body hiccup. When I awake I have twisted myself in my sheets and am sweaty, despite the thermostat’s 66 degrees.
On this morning, the men are nearly out of sight when I startle. A waking-life brain hiccup. The sound of my door clicking open. No one ever enters my apartment but me, no one even comes knocking, and it’s been so long since a visitor of any kind that I’ve grown lazy about turning the sticky old deadbolt, any fear of intruders worn away by the fact of my solitude.
When I turn to the sound, the door opens to a tall, middle-age man in the doorway. He stays in the hallway for a moment, seemingly out of politeness, but when our eyes meet he steps inside, tracking mud from his boots onto my old beige carpet. A stranger has entered my house. A man with the worn hands and harsh features of a cart pusher. The tired jeans, brown shirt, and scuffed black boots of a cart pusher. No one ever enters my house but me. We stand there, across the living room, in the pause of full silence for what the glitching of my brain can’t make out as anything other than long enough to think the single clear thought, “Why?”
And by why I somehow mean why has it taken you so long, though I know this is nonsense, that I ought to be scared. While I am frozen, he sits down next to me as if I’ve invited him. Maybe I have. Sweat bubbles his brow, I’m close enough to see this. He asks for water, or I somehow know he wants water, though he hasn’t, I don’t think, spoken words. I squint at him, realizing I can read nothing on his face. I cannot, even while squinting, make out his features in any particular way. Somehow he is both full in his humanness and unrecognizable to me, impossible to distinguish. There is familiarity in this, having watched the cart pushers every morning and known no particular face.
When I hand the man the glass of water, a big fly that has been flying around my apartment for days drops dead on the table cloth. I stare at it there, legs-up, a ball of black on the white weave. I scoop it onto a napkin and hold a silent memorial ceremony, the man watching me with what feels like sorrow-laced understanding. Then I speak the eulogy out loud: “You were a big nasty thing banging from wall to wall. You were like a stunt double. A 20-eyed airplane. You just kept trying. Did you know you were going nowhere?” The man watches while I stand, go to the window, remove the screen, and throw the dead fly into the wind.
As soon as I sit, I feel that I need something else to do; I get up to refill my coffee, betraying my own rule of a single daily cup and thus the mitigation of the hypnic jerks of my future sleeps, related as they’re thought to be to over-caffeination, and poor management of stress. That eventually night could come and I could again be alone in my bed falling asleep feels frightening. This fright surprises me, safety having always meant alone. There’s comfort in this man’s presence and I don’t want him to go, though he’s making no effort to leave, isn’t moving at all, in fact. It’s strange how a new reality can make its way slowly to center. Like God is entering and rearranging the scene. What I would have written off as impossible before can become the way of all things.
“Well my personal God,” my Nana had said on the last visit before she died, “is mist with the power to shapeshift into stacking blocks. Then into ropes of soft worms tumbling through a field.” I don’t know how, but I knew what she meant. Sometimes I really was of her flesh, sharing her blood in its very pulsing.
“My god is a banana peel,” I remember thinking, “turning to black in the heat of the sun.”
I turn to the man from the coffee pot on the counter and ask, the words awkwardly formal in my mouth, “It’s today, then?” Then I think I see him wink but I can’t be sure, and he casts his dark eyes down to his hands. He seems to be studying their creases, the looseness of their aging skin. His pulled-up sleeves expose a series of scars, keloids the shapes of bursting stars on his forearms. I try not to show alarm.
This time his speech, while still not words as I’ve known them elsewhere, comes in the form of sound. It’s the language of the shouting men in the morning, but at the volume of room temperature, and I somehow understand each word.
“Do you know,” he asks, “what it feels like to try daily to heal a wound, only to watch it rubbed raw anew?”
I do, I think. There was the time I blistered my heel but only had a single pair of shoes. And the love I knew once, and the attempts at love that came after. And there is every way I have witnessed the hurt of another.
The truth is, I take people, their words, their hurting, into my body like I ate them, like nicotine through the patch, a dose bigger than I asked for. This rubs me raw from the inside. It becomes impossible to distinguish myself from what I have seen or heard. Once a man honked long at a woman in an intersection, while I stood on the street corner. The woman rolled down her window and, the man already gone, she took both hands off the wheel for a double middle finger to nowhere and yelled, “Well fuck you!” She laughed in a bursted cackle that faded with her dark exhaust. Her words reached me instead of the man, and I twisted up in the gut and cowered into the next alley. I puked in the green bin, the yard waste, then puked more at the stench of rotting fruit but missed the bin. The bile mixed with oatmeal splattered my jeans.
“I do,” I say out loud now, to the man. “I, too, need an exit plan.”
He doesn’t respond with any more words, but his eyes brighten a bit and he seems satisfied. His hands are resting on the table now, palms down, his glass of water empty. His shadow is cast across the clear plastic tablecloth by the overcast daylight of the big window, where I look up and can see both our reflections. I study my own face for a moment, seeing a glimpse of my brother like I always do.
He’s dead now, but I was a twin once. People think twins are special somehow, like they know about the backsides and insides and upside downs in ways solitary progeny cannot, stuck seeing straightwise as they are, thinking that’s the all of it. My brother died young, and I only have memories of hurting him, so though I do often wonder if the tingle in my bones is a kind of connecting across realms, I cannot say whether or not twins at large are this kind of special. But if it’s true, if sharing birth times and splitting the stuff of the egg sack makes a deeper seer of us twins, imagine being a tadpole. Armadillos, too, giving birth to identical quintuplets as the rule. Or a mola, the largest bony fish on the planet, cranks out 300 million eggs in one season. The molas must know all, then, being one of so many.
No. There’s nothing special about living as multiplication. I was only ever angry at my brother for the ways he diminished my selfness. The first time I made him bleed was by pulling his front tooth. I was a scientist, a technician, a professional with a task, tying dry floss around the base of my brother’s front tooth with steady little hands, a knot, a bow. After I slammed the door I felt a heart-fist sorry and then a satisfaction as the sight of my brother bleeding from the mouth landed with a thud somewhere in my chest. I remember the feeling of its dislodge from gums, as if it had happened in my own mouth. I heard his breath come in and then a pop that was a breaking, a ripping apart. And then my brother cried a little whimper. Red dripped on the beige carpet whose every stain had gotten me wooden-spooned and would again that day.
Night comes and the man and I are still at the table. There are dishes in front of us, the aftermath of my clumsy, distracted efforts at an edible dinner while we formulated our plan. He had eaten his spaghetti with such cleanliness and precision. I stand, gather the dishes, pile them on what’s already in the sink, and leave the man at the table while I go to my room to pack my bag. The men with the cart, I realize, must have long gone back past my window in their clanking parade of chewed-up and spit-out. For the first time, I hadn’t noticed.