Friday, July 18, 2008


Returning from the corner store with a bag of pills and razor blades, Norman found himself once again thinking about that article in The Times, the one about how everyone was getting cut off from everyone else, how no one knew their neighbors anymore, how everyone spent far too much time on his or her own, behind one's own closed door. He wasn't sure why the dreadful thing—poorly written, of little import really—was at the top of his mind again, but later he would realize it was seeing the kid in the hallway, for the third night in a row.

Thursday evening, he'd seen the kid from the elevator, so he had averted his eyes as he passed, and quickly went to his own door. He had his keys out and ready for a neat escape, but even for the brief moment it took to unlock the door, he could feel the kid's eyes on his back. Don't talk to me; don't say anything, he had repeated over and over to himself, and had somehow managed to will the kid into silence.

Nonetheless, once inside his apartment, he had found himself breathless, his heart racing, and he leaned back against the closed door, inexplicably unnerved by the presence of the kid in the hallway, his hallway, where there had never been a kid before.

On Friday night, Norman had spied the kid from the elevator again, and although since, he had thought about why a kid was out in the hall so late at night, and why this particular kid was spending so much time in a hallway in the first place, at the time, his only thought was to keep his eyes in another direction, along with a notion that willing the kid to do the same had worked the night before, and so would work again this night, influencing the kid, the situation, the universe, in the way he most wanted at that moment.

He had made it almost all the way to his door, which was directly across from the kid, when, against all better judgment, he let his gaze slide toward the kid—a moment he could only later explain to himself as a result of the copious amounts of alcohol coursing through his system at the time. Much to his immediate discomfort, the kid was likewise looking in his direction, and their eyes met for a second or so. Norman looked away, and stumbled quickly for his door. How can The Times be blathering on about disconnectedness when there's a kid in my hallway? he had wondered.

Of course, the kid's presence was bad enough, but the fact this peculiar encroachment on what he considered his territory was precipitating thoughts of an otherwise forgettable article particularly bothered Norman, who didn't like to think about things of no real consequence. He was sure he'd read the article years ago, although he couldn't imagine why the paper would print such a ridiculously inane article once, no less twice.

(His own culpability at having read two different articles on this topic—or, perhaps, the same article twice—went unacknowledged, though had he been pressed, he would have explained that he read the paper cover to cover every day, thereby shifting the blame solely onto the editors. It wasn't true; in fact, he'd never even come close to reading the entire paper cover to cover, though he quite fancied being the type of person who did.)

In any case, the article was of the type that used to appear with some frequency before 9/11, only to be replaced with stories about neighborliness and how helpful and kind everyone is, after the tragedy. Now, enough time had passed that people could be insular, solitary, and devoid of bucketfuls of empathy for all humankind without being sneered at by others for whom the glow of the communal spirit had not yet worn off. So it was back to nameless neighbors and lonesomeness, self-imposed or otherwise—just the way Norman liked it, save for the requisite articles about how disconnected we all are. Norman hated articles like that (despite his compulsion to read them), but they did make him feel another little bit closer to normal.

Saturday, Norman didn't think of the kid at all, not when he was getting ready to go out, not when he went out and failed to notice that the kid wasn't there, and not when he returned to the building and traveled the five stories in the elevator to his floor. He was thinking about how he'd soon be crawling into that empty space inside him, the undulating void that made him angry, made him sad, made him to very tired. He peered into the brown paper sack he clutched in his hands and looked at the array of pills. He knew it would be enough, and he knew it would be quick, and it was the first thing that had made him smile in a long while.

And even though that article had popped into his head again, unbeckoned, he was still smiling when the elevator doors opened and he walked out into the hallway toward his door, and he was still smiling when he walked past the kid without even noticing he was there, and he was still smiling when he put his key in the door. It was only when he heard the voice, the word, that would change his life, that the smile fell from his face.

"Hi," said the kid.

Norman lurched forward against the door as if he'd been hit squarely between the shoulder blades. He knew there was no one else in the hallway to whom that squeaky greeting could have been directed. He turned to see the kid, sitting on the step outside the opposite apartment door, looking at him expectantly. "Hi," he said again, and gave a little wave.

"Um." Norman wrinkled his brow. Hadn't anyone ever taught this urchin not to talk to strangers?

He was suddenly very aware of the bag he held. He gripped it more tightly, held it against his hip and turned so it was out of the kid's view. He felt somehow that to allow the kid to see it, for the two things to even be in the same hallway, was bad. Norman was lots of things that he wasn't proud of, but a corrupter of innocence wasn't one of them.

"I'm Jake," the kid said.

Norman resisted telling the kid his name. He sensed it would only make the imminent gruesome discovery soon to take place across the hall that much worse for the kid if there was a name attached to it. "I have to go now," Norman said curtly.

"All right," the kid said. "See you later."

Norman looked sharply at the kid, who smiled in return, then turned his attention back to the tiny model racecars scattered around him.

"Okay," Norman said. He turned and walked into his apartment, then went to the kitchen, bewildered, and threw the paper bag into the trash.

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