I was on edge, jumping at sounds off in the distance -- car horns, voices, some real, some imagined -- and close by, a door opening or closing, not knowing which, opening or closing, and there, a cat thrumming gleefully as it padded through the night in search of mice and insects to torture.
I compared what I saw in front of me to the sad state of the apartment I'd left behind. At least Shelley was facing her present and limited future honestly. This was a lie of success. Shelley's apartment reflected a sense of sad dignity. The vulgarity before me, however, reflected a man in denial. He'd go out with a fanfare, if he could. Shelley would go with a whimper. The injustice sickened me. There had to be retribution.
I stepped out from behind the tree, crept along the street, passing through the glow spilling from a streetlamp dappled with a dozen or more terpsichorean shadows: lunar moths parading through its beam, feathering the lens with antennaed heads and fluttering wings.
Several broke off from their eerie celebration to form a trail behind me. Together, we swept across the front lawn toward the light in the window, pressing our faces to the glass, only to find the curtains tightly drawn and no glimpse inside to be had. Two deserted me to return to the streetlamp. As I watched them go, I silently vowed not to disappoint those that remained with me: I'd see they got inside.
We moved to the rear of the house, where we found a light on in the kitchen. Balancing on a runoff pipe that protruded from the wall, I peered inside.
Other Guy, bald-headed, walking across the tiles exposed and oblivious in a half-open maroon dressing gown, probably heading for the refrigerator and a swallow of juice, glanced at the window and saw my face there, rain-soaked, moth-haloed, glaring in at him with volcano-glass eyes and a frozen wolfish snarl.
He flinched, but it wasn't the jolt or coronary I had hoped for. I recalled Shelley's nonresponsiveness to me searching her room and decided that for someone living with AIDS it probably took more than a room turned over or even a face at the window to drag out a reaction. Before I allowed sympathy a foothold, however, I shattered the glass with the hilt of the knife. My right hand sustained a few shallow cuts from the falling shards, but I I was in.
I climbed, scrambled, rolled across the windowsill, sink, and countertop before falling elbows first on the hardwood floor. The knife slipped from my grasp and skittered across the floor, coming to a stop beneath one of the chairs at the breakfast table.
"Stay down," he ordered me. "Don't fucking move."
With no weapon, the coward inside me rushed to the fore, threatening any resolve I may have had before entering the house. I almost didn't, couldn't move. But I reminded myself that this was the monster, the Thing from my nightmares. There had to be retribution.
"Who are you?" he asked.
I scrambled to my feet. We grappled, him in his flapping robe and white shorts, me in my wet coat and jeans, five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen, and longer, trading punches when either one of us could free an arm. Deadlocked, I brought my right foot down hard on his bare toes. There was a bone-crunch, and then he cried out, releasing me to grip his cracked metatarsals instead, which of course only educed greater pain and louder cries. It was gratifying to watch him writhe, so much so I almost forgot it was only a preview. I crossed the kitchen and bent to retrieve the knife. But he guessed my intention and limped closely behind me, managing to push me off balance just as my thumb brushed the knife hilt, which sent it sliding further under the table. I would have to go on hands and knees to reach it, but there was no time, not without gifting him an opportunity to kick me in the ribs. He grappled me again, a bear hug from behind this time, and tried to squeeze the air out of my lungs. I jerked my head back with every concentrated ounce of strength and crushed his nose with the back of my skull. I felt sticky infected blood in my hair, panicked, lunged forward, and tore free of his grasp, creating a gap between us. Then I spun around to face him.
There, in his kitchen, sweat-soaked, hunting breath, eyeing each other for flinches and reasons, we circled like two newly met dancers
Then, after coughing to ensure it sounded unshaken, he found his voice.
"What do you want?" he said. "Money?"
"Your money's no good with me, David," I said.
I watched, satisfied, as surprise stretched his eyes. He couldn't keep the tremor out of his voice when he spoke next.
"You -- you know my name."
"A man should know his enemy well," I said. "And I know everything about you, David. Everything I need to know, that is."
I had him shitting bricks. He kept swallowing like there was something in that filthy mouth of his he couldn't swallow. His eyebrows rose and his face went slack around the edges. There wasn't going to be a better opening than this, but I wanted him to make the first move, so I waited.
"Someone sent you here."
"Who? Tell me."
"Why, you did, David."
He licked his dry lips with a dry tongue. "At least tell me why you're here," he said. "What it is you think I've done."
"How many others have you infected? That's what I'd like to know."
He went pale.
"Shelley Swanson. Remember her?"
Recognition fluttered across his face. "Listen -- listen, I didn't know I was infected, not then, not until it was too late. I'd already passed it on to my wife and -- and a couple of others. I didn't know, I swear to you. I had no idea there was something wrong with me."
"What a comfort that will be. Now make a move, you fuck."
He backed away then, his hands raised in a placating gesture. "I didn't know I had it," he said. "I-I can't beat you. If you want something to take back to her, tell her -- tell her I'm dying. Tell her I have high-grade lymphoma. Hodgkins." He pointed at his bald head. "This is radiation therapy right here. I'm 33 years old, for chrissakes. If she wants me dead she won't have much longer to wait."
"Why did she send you? Who are you?"
"Actually, she told me to stay away. I'm the one you replaced. Shelley always knew her own mind, but I should've fought for her. I regret that. Every day."
"Is that what you're doing here now?"
I shrugged. "Maybe. Yeah -- yeah, I think it is."
He tried to run. He made it out of the kitchen, down the hall, all the way to the bottom of the stairs, before I caught up to him and threw him down hard. His face connected loudly with the fifth step. There was blood and plenty of it. He groaned and rolled over onto his back. He wiped blood from his lips and chin, hissing through the gaps in his mouth as he spat red tooth chips onto the rich, white carpet.
I stood over him.
He looked back at me. His eyes didn't seem scared anymore but resigned to his fate.
I remembered the knife lying underneath the table in the kitchen. Too far.
"Fuck you," he said. "Let's get this shit over with." He spat a wad of phlegm and blood onto my left shoe.
I stood there and wondered what Marlowe would do at a moment like this, face-to-face with a double-crossing bastard at the climactic moment of a Chandler novel. There would be dialogue and then violence. But with no resistance, what would any of it mean?
"You ruined lives," I said.
"I hate you."
"Join the club, I hate my-fucking-self."
"I came here tonight to kill you."
"I can't stop you."
"Would you try?"
He looked at me and then away.
"That's irony for you," I said, "because it probably just saved your miserable life."
"Saved? For what?" he said, and laughed; laughed like an idiot.
I went to the front door and opened it. The world hadn't changed. It never would. The night breeze had a bite to it; memories of winters past. It felt good on my skin. My heart beat fast and hard, flushing the lethargy from my body. And over in the glow of the street lamp, the moths continued to dance and knock their heads against the burning bulb. They never learned; they only continued the dance.
I left and headed back to Shelley's apartment.
When I reached the door of 202, I found it locked. I pressed the bell and waited for her to answer. Peering out through the chain-locked gap, she smiled weakly at me.
"One has to keep the bad types out," she said, and let me inside.
I followed, curious by her sudden change in attitude towards personal safety.
She led me through the hall into the bedroom where she crawled back beneath the covers.
"Sit down on the bed," she said. "Take your coat off."
"I'll stand, if that's OK."
She shrugged. "Free country."
I wanted to sit down, of course, but I was still confused by what was or wasn't happening between us.
She made small talk for the next five minutes, until finally I held my hand up to stop her. "Aren't you going to ask me what happened?"
She smiled. "No need."
"Maybe he's dead."
"Not yet," she said. "And not because of anything you've done."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I knew you once, remember?"
I blinked, and in that fraction of a second when my eyes closed I saw it on the back of my eyelids -- what I'd seen earlier lying on top of the speaker. A CD jewel case.
Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars.
I turned around and there it was.
So what? I asked myself.
"Come back here when it's done and show me the same mercy you show him."
I moved across the room and stood at her bedside.
"Gimme your hand," I said, reciting Bowie lyrics, an old lovers' routine of ours.
"Because I'm wonderful?" she asked, gazing up at me with tear-rimmed eyes.
I squeezed her hand while I kissed the top of her head.
We talked and talked for hours until, exhausted, Shelley drifted off to sleep. I made a pot of coffee and walked around every room in the apartment two, three, four times, immersing myself in her life since our breakup, thinking about the past and, for the first time in years, the future, too. Eventually, I sat back down on the bed where she lay snoring beneath the covers. I laughed as I recalled how she'd kept me up many a night with that. I hoped she would again. Then I threw open a window and watched the sun rise, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the city I'd once thought of as a favorite winter coat. And although it was perhaps only a glimmer of its former glory, it was nevertheless mine, my coat city.
If we loved each other once, we could love each other again.