Before I met Esther I lived only in rooms and rarely did I go outside them. Primarily I occupied one, the square room with the fermented red walls. The rough white windowsill failed to enliven the red-walled room, but with an ashtray, a flashlight, the white paint dabbed on glass like a lost animal’s track, the place approximated the idea of home.
I had a hot plate and would turn it on just to watch it glow.
I met Esther by chance in the week before the hurricane. She’d called, I’d answered, and that was it, it wasn’t going to be a joke, we were going to have to become inextricably involved. I remember afterward I rose and went to the window to see women walking slowly by, scanning ancient texts, months old, their posture that of a procession of penitents, faces slashed with rouge, while others strode around clutching smartphones in one hand, smartwater in the other, pinky out, maintaining a very personal, very insane brand of equilibrium, still others held plastic bags of takeout, swishing the steaming heft of styrofoam clamshells, an off-tempo screak and crinkle, and I could delineate the various cargo by ear, the shrinkwrapped cutlery scraping the upper valves, the packets of anonymous sauce nestled together. There was something inherently sad about this sound. It was funny how it all worked out, how the sadness of takeout determined the resolve of my involvement with Esther, but then, it was like that.
A week later it was pouring. I was powerless. I stood in the doorway and saw the neighbors in theirs, huddled below their solemn roofs, and I wondered if they felt the same way about the absence overhead. I’d seen blizzards before, the whiteness of the snowy sky was colorful, charactered. This was missing that. This looked like a lack.
Water pinged in a can. The sill leaked and I changed the can every hour. Rain thumbed the grill of the window unit in a caribbean rhythm. I thought she’d have liked that.
I lit cigarettes like incense, just to watch the smoke tremble. A humvee trundled down the street, the formality of the enforced curfew. I saw a fallen traffic cone and imagined it screaming in pain. A strong gust would permeate the walls and cause the closet door to slam. The walls were dewed with humidity and pulsing with candlelight. It was like living inside a bodily organ, but I couldn’t say which one or what it did or where it was or why so red.
——to be empty is to be void of anything valuable worthwhile and precious. I know that was like a ton of bricks right there. Being void suggests there’s no purpose for being here. I’m gonna break it down. Listen up, you have…
I ran a thumb over the dial and then killed the radio and turned it back on again. I only listened to AM radio at this point, it seemed the appropriate thing to do.
The corner of the torn doorscreen curled as a calendar page would in the movies, demonstrating the melodrama of the passage of time. Except right then, when the passage of time was limited to shaking a bottle of pills and experimenting with its rhythm, and listening to distant sirens and the sounds of brokered programming, and developing the original idea that things were utterly fucked, when the passage of time was limited to the painstaking task of forming a community around a lone listener, who happened to be me, right then the torn screen blew clear off the door, coupled briefly with the screen on the front door opposite mine, and screamed down the street.
The sideways rain made the sky look like a tracking error, interlaced imagery gone berserk with scanlines skipping from field to field.
I killed the radio and checked the phone battery. Low.
Several times an hour, the skeletal matron across the street appeared at her door, now screenless, her house in loosening form, her automatic refrain: How yaw doin, alright.
An orphaned engine ticked and sputtered on the tracks, titleless cars peeled out of nowhere, a rusted chain fence rattled a barking dog. Without the radio it was like that.
I tried to compass my inner self among such bleak exteriors. I thought of a flower in a bottle and other sorts of everyday brutality, brusque and silent meals, the violence of the dishwasher, a saucer madly tottering on the floor, a wristwatch ticking by the bedside. The quality of insufficiency, financial, forensic, aortic, erotic. I killed the phone.
It was a room of candles aflame, agitated by the red walls. Bizarre behavior exhibited by ambient wax. The closet door opened and closed. From the front door came a tremorous knock, at first frantic, then playful, over and over, a response not to the situation but to inner stimuli. Or it may’ve been the wind doing shave and a haircut. Whose stimulus is this.
I felt diminished. I turned on the phone. I wanted her to call my name so I could live in earnest.
The phone killed itself. The power grid was three days dead. From the fridge I heard the roaches in my vittles, scuttling in my butter and shitting in my meat.
Derick Dupré’s work is featured or forthcoming in publications including NOON, New York Tyrant, The Collagist, Sleepingfish, and Hobart. Currently he is based in southern Arizona, where he is working on a book of fiction.
Header photograph by William Christenberry