Chapter 2 – The Old Man
Fires burned in the distance as a child screamed for his mother.
Rain poured in through holes in the ceiling and all the windows were gone. A china cabinet lay splintered on top of the remains of an oak table. One of the chairs jutted out from the opposite wall. The stairs had collapsed and the boy’s father hung over the banister. Blood flowed from his open mouth and the light was already gone from his eyes.
A car ran a stop sign and broad-sided a pickup truck. In the truck, the driver’s head slammed against the window. Glass showered down into his hair and eyes before his body was thrown across the cab and into the door, shattering his pelvis and both collarbones. A young woman lay on the hood of the car; her knees had snapped the wrong way, pinned between the passenger seat and the dashboard. The young man behind the wheel tried to call out his new bride’s name, but the impact had crushed his rib-cage and his lungs were filling with blood.
A little girl watches, as the dog she has owned her entire life was run down in front of her house.
Five teenage white boys stood over the prone body of a small black boy they have just kicked to death.
A soldier dressed in black slit the throat of woman holding a baby. The woman’s eyes went wide as the baby slipped out of her arms and fell to the ground.
A hundred-people screamed or prayed or both as an airliner slammed into the side of an office building.
A man was drowning in an icy lake.
A fat lady choked on a crouton.
A hundred-million-people writhed and screamed in the fires of damnation.
In his dreams, Harold was the child and the young woman, the dog and the black boy, the woman and the baby. He was on the airplane, he was in the lake, he was the fat lady and he was one of the hundred-million-damned. In his dreams, Harold was the bombs that were falling and the driver of the car. He was the little girl and the five teenage boys. He was the soldier, the pilot, the lake, the crouton and the fire.
Harold Slevinski woke up clawing at the air around him. He was drenched in sweat and tears and piss. His navy-blue cotton pajamas clung to his body and his bed sheets were soaked and twisted around his legs. His heart beat so hard in his chest that he was sure he was having a heart attack. He tried to breathe. He tried to calm himself down. Harold was no stranger to panic. ’I must calm down,’ he thought. If he didn’t calm down, he would die. That thought panicked him further and he began hyperventilating. He tried to think of waterfalls and green grass, but he was terrified of water and the image of hundreds of dogs crapping in the grass only made things worse. He tried to visualize a warm summer breeze and beautiful roses; instead, he imagined huge swarms of bees chasing him through the eye of a hurricane.
He flipped on the light, grabbed the glasses off the nightstand and looked around. He realized that he was sitting in pool of his own ick and that propelled him out of the bed and onto his feet.
He groaned as he straightened up and his joints creaked. He began yanking the sheets off the bed. He stripped naked. He walked to the kitchen and pulled a plastic trash bag and a can of Lysol from underneath the sink. Back in the bedroom, he dropped the soiled laundry into the bag and sprayed down the mattress. He started a load of laundry, took a shower and covered the mattress with a thick layer of industrial plastic sheeting, before replacing the linens. When he had completed these tasks, his heartbeat had nearly returned to the accelerated pace it normally maintained. He sat on the edge of the bed and considered calling his therapist. He checked the bedside clock and decided that a 3am fit of hysterical ranting was no way to prevent himself from returning to the mental health facility that had assigned the woman to him in the first place. Memories of the facility’s dingy walls and public showers sent a wave panic through him and he tried to push the thoughts from his head. He removed a black, college-ruled journal and a black ink pen from the nightstand drawer and carefully recorded the details he remembered from his dreams. This task completed, he put the journal and the pen back in the drawer, he returned his glasses to the nightstand, switched off the light and laid back down.
The thick plastic crinkled beneath him and he could feel the, now cold, bodily fluids draining his body heat. He imagined he could hear the bacteria deep inside his mattress growing and multiplying. After a very long minute of trying to put the images out of his head, he sat up, turned on the light, grabbed his glasses, threw off the sheets and climbed out of the bed. Twenty minutes later he had stripped the bed, added the new sheets to the washing machine, thrown away the plastic, placed fans from the hall closet around the bed and let them run as he took another shower.
Howard stood at the bathroom sink flossing his teeth. He discarded the floss, emptied the wastebasket and flossed again.
As he waited for the mattress to dry, he sat in the chair in the living room holding a television remote. He pointed the remote at the television but did not push the button. He stared at the television. Instead of watching TV, he went to the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink and pulled out a bottle of Windex and a stack of clean white rags. He wiped the already spot-free TV screen clean and returned the Windex to the cabinet. He sat in front of the TV holding the remote but did not press the button. After a very long minute, he returned to the cabinet under the sink, grabbed the bottle of Pledge and a fresh stack of clean, white towels and proceeded to dust his entire apartment.
When he was done, every surface of his apartment shined in the dim light. After he returned the Pledge to the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink, he realized that he had worked up a sweat. He took another shower. While taking a shower, he noticed a thin layer a soap scum buildup around the drain. He turned off the shower. Went to the cabinet underneath the sink and returned with fresh supplies. He scrubbed the tub, returned the Tilex to the cabinet underneath the sink and took another shower.
When he got out of the shower, he brushed and flossed his teeth, emptied the wastebasket, and then checked his mattress. It was not yet dry enough so he decided to vacuum his apartment. He dragged the old Electrolux from room to room and fifteen minutes later, parallel lines ran from one side of his apartment to the other. He looked down and admired the profoundly satisfying symmetry of the pattern he had made. He then dragged the old Electrolux back to other end of the apartment and vacuumed the apartment again. After which, he took another shower, checked the mattress and decided to sleep on the floor between two of the parallel lines running the length of the bed. When he finally fell back to sleep, he did not dream.
Harold Slevinski was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1926. His father was a schoolteacher and his mother worked in her family’s laundry, pressing hospital sheets until she found out she was pregnant. She had come to believe that she could not bear children and when Harold arrived, his parents welcomed him as the blessing they both thought he was. His mother had been a good Irish catholic until she married his father, who had not attended temple since a disagreement he had with his Rabi over ten dollars and a piano. They raised Harold with love and patience, but no religion.
He was raised like most children in the neighborhood. Yet, he grew up a little different. He wore glasses before the second grade. He ate all his vegetables, kept his room clean, turned his homework in on time and got beat up after school on a regular basis. When he graduated, he enlisted in the army and spent the last years of the Second World War as a clerk in a munitions depot in New Hampshire. When his tour ended, he returned to Brooklyn and got a job as a copy editor at a magazine in the city. This was where he met the woman who would become his wife.
Harold’s bride, Ruth, had been a receptionist in his building and, as it turned out, had a soft spot for book-smart, quiet-types. They were married in the spring and she was showing by late summer. When their son was born, they bought a house across the street from the one Harold had grown up in and spent the next thirty years living a quiet, mostly happy life.
By the late seventies, Harold’s old neighborhood had gotten scary. He and Ruth could watch muggings, cars get stolen and drug deals from their bedroom window. Their son was an investment broker in Seattle, both sets of the boy’s grandparents had passed on and they couldn’t think of any more excuses to continue hiding behind the iron bars that covered all the windows and the four deadbolts Harold had drilled into the front door. They moved to Florida in ‘81, built a house in River City when everyone else was still retiring to Miami and traded smog and traffic for hundred degree days, and filthy pigeons for mosquitoes the size of… well… pigeons.
Harold loved his wife. He was neat; she was into every arts and craft known to man and left her projects strewn from one end of the living room to the other. He was quiet; she sang all the time and talked so loud when she was on the phone with her sister, he could hear her outside in the yard. He was organized and meticulous; she locked her keys in the car on a weekly basis and once misplaced a shoe while she was wearing its partner. It turned up in the dishwasher. Harold found it when they got back from the store.
Their son had been thirty-eight when he died of AIDS. Harold hadn’t known he was gay. Ruth lost it and Harold didn’t know what to do for her. After the funeral, he retreated further and further into his own head and the fears that he had done a fairly good job of managing on his own, up to that point. A year later, he lost his wife. She moved out and left him alone in the big, empty house.
A couple of years passed and he heard she had remarried, a dentist from Iowa. Her second marriage lasted nine years before she died of ovarian cancer that had metastasized to her lungs. He attended her funeral and never went back to the house. He moved into an apartment and let the house sit empty for nearly a decade before he finally sold it last January. The day after the deal closed, he collapsed screaming like a lunatic, in a bakery when a woman walked by wearing Ruth’s perfume. An officer showed up and hauled him off to the mental health facility, where he was diagnosed with OCD, a myriad of panic disorders and mild schizophrenia. When he checked out three days later, he had a stack of prescriptions that he never filled and an appointment with a psychiatrist that they told him if he didn’t go see he’d be back inside the institution. So, he went to his appointments, but he wasn’t going to start popping pills.
Dr. Parkes told him that he was being stubborn; he told her that she could go to hell. He liked the woman though. She was tough, smart and pretty. She reminded him of Ruth, the way she had been when they met. He told her about the night sweats and the bad dreams. She made him keep a dream journal that she said he didn’t have to share with her if he didn’t want to. He knew, and he was pretty sure she did to, that he wasn’t getting any better. That he probably wouldn’t get better before he died. But he hadn’t gotten worse, and he hadn’t been sent back to the institution. Most days, that was enough.
Harold Slevinski slept soundly on his bedroom floor as bacteria grew inside his mattress. He was lying on his back, breathing deeply and snoring loudly as dust settled back down onto all the surfaces of his small apartment. Soap scum from the five showers he had taken that night hardened around the drain of the tub, armies of microscopic mites inhabited every inch of the carpet he was lying on. Inside his mouth, bacteria fed on the blood he’d drawn brushing and flossing his teeth. None of these mundane things would bring about the end of the world. But the world was about to end, nonetheless.