I used to be a substitute teacher for a required geography class. They knew where they were, what did they need from me? I quit because I wanted to write, I thought I could write, I was trying to write, I had words but no story. I thought about the vivid anarchic dreams I had after I skipped a night of sleep. I thought, maybe, I could force the dreams to come, and use them for material. Skim the scum off my brain so I didn’t have to live with it, so it didn’t seep into my life.
So I took a red-eye to San Francisco. I walked down to the warehouses of East Palo Alto. I ate at a Korean noodle house—you can’t get Asian food where I live. I returned to the airport and took another overnight flight home. It’s shocking how short the eastbound flight is. It’s barely half a night. The train station after dark and before dawn is the domain of madmen, shouting, sleeping, muttering. You start questioning your own equilibrium: there are more of them, after all. For the week after the election, I’d given to beggars as a way of buttressing the idea of goodness. Then I stopped, of course.
In the train station, a television slung at an angle from ceiling brayed the news. Futures will rise, said the treasury secretary, who knew more than one thing. I bought an airplane bottle of merlot at the kiosk. We have to put it in a cup, the lady at the checkout said. She cracked the screwtop and decanted it into a Coca-Cola branded takeout coffee cup. She snapped on the top and handed it to me. On the side of the cup was printed an arrow pointing upward, labeled “Sip Hole.” The brutal sheen of sleeplessness hung over my eyes and hummed in my ears. So far, the only thing I’d thought was the etymological roots of cahoots,which wasn’t anything, and just made me think of insects. I took a sip of the wine. Through the sip hole. It tasted like wet cardboard and butter.
There was a housebreaker in the basement when I got home. I could tell from a shiver in the air that someone else was in the house. The chemical composition, maybe: less oxygen, more carbon dioxide.
The housebreaker had a rattish charm. He’d been a bad student, I thought. I still had the teacher’s eye: scan the room and see who’s going to be trouble. I opened the door to the basement stairs, pulled the dusty beaded chain that lit the bulb, and there he was, just looking at me. What are you doing in my basement, I asked. Standing, he said. Well, come upstairs, I said. I’ve already eaten, but I have some pomegranate if you’re hungry.
The housebreaker held the pomegranate and looked at me questioningly. You hit it, I think, I said. I didn’t have a wooden spoon, but the basement door was still open, the shelves where I keep my tools, and so I handed him a hammer. It had a wooden handle and it was for hitting things with, so I handed it to him. The housebreaker stood at my counter hitting a pomegranate with a hammer.
A bad student, but an obedient one at least. Your name? I said. Roman, he said. He had a Kennedy half-dollar strapped to his watch-face with a tan rubber band. Your watch? I asked. Time is money, he said. What do you do with your time? I asked. Nothing, he said. What do you do for money, then? I asked. He looked around my kitchen. He was still holding the juice-splattered hammer.
I liked him. Not enough to have him over for dinner, but enough to give him some advice. I couldn’t think of any, though. I took the hammer back.
It’s time to go back downstairs, I said, and he turned obediently. Stop, I said and he did. I took our wine glasses and threw them down the stairs and they shattered on the cement. Now I’ll know if you run away, I said. Go. He stepped carefully and the glass crunched under his shoes. He looked up at me. The bare bulb burned. When I pull this chain, I’ll disappear, I said. Then I did.
I brushed my teeth, spit wine-lavender foam in the basin. I wrote rhythmic nonsense in my notebook, tumbling trochees and dactyls—Disco states. Bramble machismo. Second-string cacophonists—and laid it on my nightstand. I fell asleep like falling down a well and never landing.
It was noon before I remembered him, and when I opened the basement door expecting to see him looking expectantly up at me. Nothing, though, just the eviscerated boxes I throw down the stairs in advance of recycling day. Hey, I said. Hey, you there?
For a while I thought he wasn’t, then, crunching, he came and squinted up at me. You got some damp down here, he said. I got the French drain around the edges, I said. Yeah, he said, but it floods still. Get some pallets or these boxes are going to rot. And the collection pool in the corner, where the sump is, you could build a little tent over it so it doesn’t evaporate into your floorboards.
Thanks, I said.
Get me the stuff and I can do it for you, he said. There was something softer about him then I’d thought, a roundness around the cheekbones and hips. It was appealing.
You need anything else, I asked.
Nah, I’m good, he said.
I closed the door. I drove to the hardware store and bought a limp roll of clear polyethylene sheeting and some two by twos. It wasn’t quite spring yet. A cluster of optimistic crocuses had bloomed and paid for it. I knocked on the basement door. Just leave them inside the door, he said. The tools are on the shelves, I said.
I went upstairs to my office. The setting sun was in my eyes so I lowered the shutters and twirled the slats closed. I opened my computer to a blank blaring page. I typed:
We couldn’t figure out why none of the clocks in the house agreed. As if the jet lag wasn’t confusing enough, the kitchen stove read 8:23, the microwave said 3:11. His cell phone said 4:05 p.m., and the laptop said 5 a.m. ‘It's the power,’ he said. ‘You don't notice it because we have a generator in the backyard, but the power is constantly going out in this city, so the clocks are always wrong.’ Even on the computer? ‘Well, my wife, she just likes that to be set to California time.’
There seemed to be nothing more to write, so I closed the computer with a muted clack. The only light in the room now was a glowing, pulsing fruit. I went downstairs and opened the basement door. Would you like to join me for a glass of wine, I asked.
The silence gestated long enough to seem stillborn. Then the housebreaker’s thin oval face slid into the light. It was the only part of him, until he neared the top of the stairs.
He was short enough that he had to climb the barstool chair at my kitchen island, sliding up and on, butt first. He had dark hair that framed his face like parentheses, jeans, worn brown boots, but a pristine white dress shirt, loose and blousy. I set out two glasses.
Sorry, they’ve been a little streaky, I said, pushing one toward him.
Solar salt, he said.
Solar salt? I said. I tilted the bottle gently but splashed a little, making thin red streaks alongside the white residue.
You’ve got limescale in your water. I saw you have a water softener down there but you need a new bag of solar salt in the tank. Enough to break the waterline.
Cheers, I said. You’re a real handyman.
If you can’t keep your house in order, he said, what have you got.
I was standing, across the table. I had the urge to move to the side, next to him, so I did. So you’ll stay, I said.
He dismounted the chair. He looked up at me, now. Salt, he said, and he went back into the basement and closed the door behind him.
I woke in the middle of the night. That thing where you sleep too long on one side, then the other side—well, longing is too dramatic a word. But it becomes unbearable.
An old landlord was monologuing in my head. I rolled over and wrote it down. You cost yourself sleep, but you can always get more sleep:
Yadiel bought the land in 1981 for ten grand. He built a three-story house flush on the street, and still lived there with his wife, one of his daughters, and three grandkids. A few years later, he built another house—two stories—in the back of the lot, with a concrete yard between. Upstairs in the back house lived another daughter and her boyfriend, a muscular car mechanic, and their pit bull. The downstairs he rented to my girlfriend and I. They say don’t live with your landlord, they’ll always be watching you, always coming over, and it was true, but alright too. He would knock on the door and reset our thermostat to stifling temperatures because his daughter was cold upstairs, or poke at the crumbling matted ceiling above the shower stall but never fix it. His lower jaw was a rake of black rotted stumps. He was bald, with a bad bent back and bowed legs. He played basketball with his grandson, caught the softball pitching of his granddaughter, showed me the free weights and the heavy bag in his basement, you come down here whenever you want, man, I can’t do what I used to with this back, but I show you a few moves. When I got here thirty years ago, he said, that parking lot, across the street, it was all drug dealers and hookers, and me and the other homeowners on the block, we put together a group, like vigilantes, you know, we chased them out. I don’t care, man, I was a Marine, man, I was in Vietnam, I wanted to go join that Che Guevara in Africa, my wife, she talk me out of it. You know that lesbian bar on Fourth Ave, those girls would get drunk, come down here and pee in the alley, I chased them out, too. Now we just got that boy next door. He on the drugs. He away a lot, but he home now. That’s why you gotta keep those bikes locked up. Anyway, I gonna call Hector to fix that ceiling. I see you later.
We stopped by a year after we moved out, to show Yadiel our baby, and the back house windows were stopped up with plywood and topped with smoke smudge. Two tenants after you was a college student, he said, left a hot plate on. What are you gonna do. Right now I’m letting it sit.
I rolled over, but I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I went downstairs and gently knocked on the basement door. You up, I said quietly. Hey. The knob rattled in my hand and opened from the inside. Hot tea would be good, she said. Hot tea with honey. Her hands relaxed past her belt loops into her pockets. And two dozen two by eights. You got some cracked joists. I’ll hoist the floor, sister them with some fresh ones. Shore up the foundation.
Franz Nicolay is a writer and musician whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, the Kenyon Review, The Paris Review and elsewhere. His first book, "The Humorless Ladies of Border Control: Touring the Punk Underground from Belgrade to Ulaanbaatar" (New Press, 2016), was named a “Season’s Best Travel Book” by the New York Times. He has taught at Bard College and Columbia University, and is currently a lecturer in writing at UC Berkeley.
Art, with gratitude, from:
The British Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, and digitized by Open Knowledge Commons and Harvard Medical School. "Die katakomben von San Gennaro dei Poveri in Neapel : eine kunsthistorische Studie." https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14596654248/in/gallery-161405441@N07-72157697090073090/