Monday, June 20, 2011
I walked for a couple of blocks in the night thick with fog. Everything appeared white and moist and, although I tried to pull myself away from the recurring thoughts, it also appeared sinister. I walked like a ghost in a sleeping city. There were no cars speeding through the deserted streets, no women in rags promising good times and used condoms. There was no one around me at all.
I walked alone on the gray sidewalks and darkened neon signs until I came to a short alley that appeared familiar in its disarray. It path was covered with trash and the remains of dead dreams: old newspapers with forgotten headlines, empty ripped cardboard boxes, old coats now spotted with blood, broken bottles that somehow managed to twinkle green and brown despite the foggy sky, half of a magazine cover and a couple of soda cans that had been dented and used as pipes. It extended for half a block and ended with a black metal garage door and a little wooden stairway to its right.
I stepped through the strewn madness, finding small, safe pockets to step on. Walking though the ancient graffiti markings on either side of me, names scrawled in red and white paint, I made my way through the chaos easily. Beside the stairs, shadowed by the building, I saw the gatekeeper, a dwarf waiting for me in the darkness.
He held out his wrinkled hand.
"A dollar is all I ask... you still can't go through the main portal but you can go up the stairway. Be careful with your choice this time."
I thought I heard a sound, a chuckle, a stifled laugh.
I gave him what he asked for and walked up the stairway to a gray door, assuming he had confused me with someone else and curious to discover what was on the other side of the decaying metal door. I knocked and the door opened into darkness.
I smelled something familiar, a mixture of freshly rained upon soil and used cooking grease. I walked into the space further, down a long hallway. I could see shapes, but there were no colors. I was barely able to glimpse a feminine hand holding the doorknob behind me. A disembodied appendage, it appeared smooth and delicate with its long white fingers and tapered nails. It had been the hand that responded to my knock, allowing me entrance into the chamber.
I stood then in darkness and silence, waiting for something to happen. I became aware of the soft breathing of a woman. It was close to me at first, but I heard it move away slowly, moving down the hall until it disappeared altogether. I waited for what seemed painfully long, I waited and waited, but there was no further movement around me.
Slowly, my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I was then able to see the details of a long narrow hallway stretching into darkness before me. The flooring was made of old and worn wooden planks, a floor walked so many times that it had lost all its original luster. There was a long sequence of doors on either side of the hallway and each door had a little cutout window at eye level.
I started walking slowly down the hallway, afraid to disturb anyone that might be present, yet unable to stay where I was. As I walked past the first door I noticed a soft yellow light coming from inside. Checking around me to make sure nobody was watching, I moved my eyes close to the small window.
Inside I saw two men playing poker on a low wooden coffee table. One was short and stocky, the other tall and skinny. They both shared the same light coffee-colored skin, their faces were both shaved and like the wooden flooring of the hallway, worn by time. They moved their cards carefully, with the grace of experienced players whose bodies had memorized the gestures, the timing. It was all done fluidly and without thought.
I could see two walls clearly through the little window in the door. On them were photographs of the two men, sometimes by themselves, sometimes with others. Some of the photos were large and protected in frames of thin metal and glass, others were tacked to the wall in what appeared to me a haphazard style.
I was particularly mystified by a little photo that showed the stocky man when he was young. I was aware of the intense difference, how slender he had been then, his muscles firm and flat. His smile was less forced, as though it came from a place that did not need protection, that had not known pain or disappointment. In the photograph he held a yellow flower in his hand.
The man smiling now at his card game was very different, he was a cunning man who appeared to know the tricks of life and had a method for avoiding them. I turned from the chamber and continued walking down the hall.
I walked carefully, putting attention on each step to avoid creaking the old floorboards. I felt like I had to be quiet, to breath more slowly, to move more softly than I ever had. I passed a couple of dark doors without light and then turned to one where the inner light was bright, like the white light from a naked bulb.
I peeked inside, a little more brave now, somehow realizing that there was nobody around to be afraid of. These were benevolent ghosts and I had been permitted to walk amongst them.
This time there was nobody in the room, just a carefully made bed that could fit two people easily, a little night lamp with a bright bulb (the source of the room’s illumination) and several rows of bookshelves against the back walls. I opened the door, unable to control my eagerness to examine the rows of paperbacks and the thick bound hardcover books more closely.
I had placed one foot inside the door when I heard laughter coming from another room. With that lighthearted laugh coming from someplace close by, my attention and curiosity dissolved and I quickly closed the door and walked further down the hallway, reasoning with myself that I would come back later.
I looked for the source of the laughter and found it easily. She had long black hair and shining dark eyes which fell upon me as soon as I peeked through the small window of a blood-red door. She was there, in the center of the room, standing barefoot on a thin, worn maroon carpet. She, and the entire room, were bathed in the glow of bright red light. She was naked, her skin appeared red in the light, the shade made by her breasts and hips and ample contours was dark, like a simple charcoal drawing.
She looked at me directly through the window, gesturing with her right hand, asking me to come in. I began to turn the creaky knob and suddenly felt the sensation of warmth on my back. With this feeling I hesitated and turned around.
Again my attention dissipated. My curiosity for the woman fluttered away as I saw another stairway leading up, ending in a brightly illuminated open door. The staircase was longer, more worn, more fragile than the one outside. I thought it might break apart as soon as I set foot on it.
Feeling torn between the adventure of the stairway, the eyes of the woman and the mystery of the books, I decided to walk a little further down the hallway in case there were even more choices. There were many more doors, with other lights and other scenes.
But I could never decide, I could never make a final decision, turn the knob, enter the space and let the door shut behind me. There was always the promise of another choice, another door, something even better.
I kept walking down the hall until the light got darker and then I realized there were no more doors, no little windows, no options. I heard a voice that whispered to my left:
"Thanks for coming. Before you now there is only Death. Do come back."
Then, in front of me, a door opened. I heard the loud creaking of ancient rusted metal. A bright blinding light hit me and I found myself on a busy street, with cars honking, children crying and adults complaining about the price of gasoline.
My eyes took a while to adjust to the blinding light. Then I looked around and recognized the familiar street. I felt the pull of hunger and started to walk home.