Oyster City

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I would get a lot of phone calls for my boss from men who said they were Deep Throat. Usually I assumed they were really the boyfriend I was seeing at the time so I would say, “Hugh, is this you? Hugh, I have work to do,” and hang up.

My boss was having work done on his apartment and the two construction workers wanted to know what I knew about him, him being famous, and since I worked out of his apartment I showed them a pair of alligator boots he kept under his bed. The workmen, covered in sawdust, put down their hammers and saws and handled the alligator boots, whistling while they did, letting me know they knew the cost of things like boots made of exotic animal hide. When I put the boots back under the bed, I turned them over first, to shake out any wood chips or sawdust that may have fallen inside them.

Sometimes when the phone rang and the caller said he was Deep Throat, I would crack the workmen up by screaming into the phone, “Is this Deep Throat really? Well this is Mary Fucking Poppins!” They would get a kick out of that. Other days I was Little Bo Fucking Peep, or Little Red Fucking Riding Hood, but I think the day they laughed the loudest was when I yelled into the phone, “Well this is Aretha Fucking Franklin!” All that afternoon we sang all the Aretha we knew while I paid my boss’ utility bills, balanced his check book, booked him a flight, and made sure the dry cleaners were going to deliver his clothes on time.

My boss wasn’t often at home, and when he was, he was in his office working on a book at the opposite end of the house where the sun shone on his desk and made all the wood surfaces glow. He was not fond of metal and once I had to call about thirty shops just to find one that sold the kind of filing cabinets he wanted, not metal but made of brown wicker. He was on a diet where he only ate brown rice for every meal and my job was to make him the brown rice. I don’t think I ever made it the same way twice only because I didn’t know how to cook it, but he never complained and when I brought it in to him he seemed happy. He was seeing a woman at the time. He liked to buy her things and often he would call from a shop and describe objects to me that he held in each hand, asking me which one I thought she would like better. “Take the one on the right,” I would tell him, cutting him off sometimes, the descriptions pointless since I didn’t know her and I couldn’t possibly see what he was holding. He would laugh when I said things like that. “I know, I know, I’m being ridiculous. But I love her so much. I just want to make the right decision,” he would say.

Once the other man my boss had become famous with called and when he told me who he was I did not believe him. I had, that morning, received numerous Deep Throat calls and so when this man told me his name and said he wanted to talk to my boss, I said, “Right, and I’m Linda fucking Lovelace.” The workers liked that one too, and in the background, where they were building a new room and framing the walls, I heard them catcall and then start panting like the person had just called some porno set and we were in the middle of hard-core filming. When I hung up and the man called back, angry now, so that I could hear spit hitting the mouthpiece of the phone, I decided to put him on hold and use the intercom to call my boss in his woody, wicker-filled office (which I had started referring to as Bali, since it was so far at the end of the house that it seemed like another part of the world). I asked him if he would like to talk to the man. “Of course, put him through,” said my boss.

Right then I started to worry that maybe Deep Throat really had been calling all along. Maybe there was another lead or tip or who knows what information that my boss needed to hear. I was quiet while I sat at my desk in front of all of my boss’ bills from stores where he had been buying his girlfriend gifts. One of the workmen, Eddie, came over to me, still holding his hammer. He was tall and had hair the color of the pine sawdust that he was always creating with his band saw. When I first met him he was painting a wall in the house with a first coat, and he said he was a painter and I said, “Yeah, right.” What he meant to say was that he really was a painter, and had studied in school. Eddie put the hammer on top of the table, on top of all the bills, and I looked at the pocked metal of the hammer head, thinking how my boss probably hated hammers and tools because of all the metal. Eddie took his raspy fingers and put them under my chin and lifted my face up to his. I thought he might kiss me. “What’s the matter kiddo?” he said. I was a little younger than he was, but not by much. Hugh, my boyfriend, was my age. Hugh wanted to know a lot more about my boss than I did. He wanted to know, for instance, what kind of shampoo my boss used. I have no idea, I told him. “Don’t you look in the shower?” Hugh said. “No, I don’t,” I said. “What does it matter what kind of shampoo he uses?” I asked. “It says a lot about him. Is it salon shampoo or drugstore?” I shook my head. Hugh had started to smell. Before he had never smelled, but now he was on a new kick where he didn’t wash his clothes very often because he didn’t want them to wear out quickly or fade. He said it’s what the Spanish did. He had lived in Spain for a while. He would now only wash his clothes if they were stained.

Hugh was baby faced and I’d never seen him shave once, but Eddie, with his face up close to mine, I could tell was one of those guys who could have shaved twice a day. Because his hair was blond, his five o’clock shadow grew in kind of shimmery and sparkly, reminding me of flecks of fool’s gold you can find in the bed of a stream. “I’m all right,” I said. I looked at the clock. It was time to cook lunch for my boss. “Hey, anyone want some brown rice!” I said over cheerfully and loudly, trying to be funny. Sam, the other workman, groaned. “I hate that shit. My wife’s always trying to get me to eat it. I don’t eat anything that I can’t tell the difference if I’m eating larvae or not.”

Eddie peered over my shoulder, watching me cook. “Hey, can I have some of that rice when you’re done?” he said. “Sure,” I said and when it was done I placed it in three bowls, one for my boss and one for Eddie and one for myself. I wasn’t making enough money at the time to buy my own lunch. I had asked my boss for a raise, but he said it was all he could afford. I put my boss’ bowl on a tray with a napkin and a fork and a bottle of soy sauce, just in case he had taste fatigue and wanted to liven up his meal a bit and then I walked to Bali with the tray.

When I opened the door my boss had his back to me and his bare feet on the window sill. It was warm in the room because the sun was shining in through the long windows. My boss was looking down the avenue at all the old buildings that, when I was a kid, were places like slaughterhouses or places where pickles were set in barrels to soak in brine, but were now restaurants and apartments with doormen. When I was a kid the sidewalks of those streets were slick, either with the blood of cows or the brine from pickles, and you often slid walking down them and once I even slid off the sidewalk and onto the street, where the worn cobblestones glistened and looked like humps popping out of the ground, as if they could no longer be contained by the dirt beneath them. My boss didn’t turn around to look at me. He was just staring out the window. I placed the tray on his desk and took letters from the tiger’s eye maple wooden box on his desk where he kept mail he wanted me to put stamps on and take to the post office. Just as I was about to leave the room he spoke. “What would be the perfect gift?” he said. I almost kept walking out the door. It didn’t seem like a question he wanted me to answer, but I wasn’t sure, so I stopped and turned towards him. He turned and looked at me now. He ran his hand through his hair and it made him look like he had just woken up. He wore a shirt with the cuffs loosely rolled up and the collar wide open, the buttons unbuttoned far down so that I could see his graying chest hairs. I knew he was talking about the perfect gift for his girlfriend. I didn’t have an answer for him. “How’s the book going?” I asked him instead. He smiled and then laughed quietly, and maybe the only reason I knew that he was laughing was because I could see his chest moving up and down a little bit. I didn’t have an answer for him. I left Bali, shutting the door behind me. I walked down the long expanse of the house back to the area where I had my desk and the phone and the computer. “Come look at this” Eddie said before I sat down in my chair, and he showed me his paintings.

They weren’t really his paintings, just photographs of them he kept in a binder. They were of flowers. Every single one of them. The flowers weren’t growing up from the ground. They weren’t set in vases on tables. They were just all over the canvass, set against dark backgrounds of what looked like thick globs of paint that with time would peel off because the canvas wouldn’t be able to hold their weight. Eddie put his face close to mine and looked at me looking at his paintings. I raised my eyebrows. I nodded my head. I pursed my lips. “I like your petals,” I said. The petals he painted all had pointy tips at their ends. Not one of them looked like a pansy flower or a mum petal. Eddie nodded. I went back to the beginning. I began to look through them again. I was lucky when the phone rang. It was a long phone call. I had to convince the telephone company not to cut the phone service off. “My employer will be paying the bill right away,” I said. The late bill was my fault. I had forgotten to put the envelope in the mailbox. I still had the payment envelope in my bag with the stamp on it that I had put there myself. I took the envelope out while I was talking to the phone company and held it up in my hand, as if the phone company, being the phone company, had a way to see it through the phone. When another call came through while I was talking to the phone company, I asked the phone company if they could hold. The phone company said they couldn’t hold. I would have to call them back. “What do you mean you can’t hold? You’re the phone company,” I said. The phone company hung up. I nodded. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “They can hang up too.”

The other line was Deep Throat. It was a good deep throat. It sounded like this guy had put some thought into it. Maybe he was speaking into a salad bowl, because it seemed like it had an echo to it. I wondered how he fit his face into the bowl along with the phone receiver. “You must be crowded in there,” I said out loud. “You have no idea,” Deep Throat answered.

“Well, what can I do for you Deep Throat?” I said, and as I said it I swung around to see if Eddie was there, listening to what I was saying, but he wasn’t there. I could hear him in the back room. He began to pound a hammer into a partition they were building. I didn’t have any witty thing to say to Deep Throat. “Let me talk to your boss,” Deep Throat said. “Oh, sure,” I said. I held my hand over the mouthpiece of the phone.

“Eddie, Eddie, it’s for you. Telephone!” I yelled towards the room where Eddie was hammering. Eddie came to the phone and held his hammer in one hand and the phone in the other hand. I set the pot with the brown rice in it to soak. I wasted rice when I cooked it because I never learned how to cook it properly. I always had a hard layer of rice left at the bottom of the pot that was impossible to scrape out, so that after it soaked, the remaining grains became loose and bloated and it always looked like there was enough rice there to serve a person an entire bowl.

“I see,” Eddie said. I didn’t catch all of his conversation with Deep Throat. I put the soy sauce away in the cupboard and squirted liquid soap into the rice pot I had set to soak. When Eddie got off the phone he came up behind me and put his face against my cheek and then turned me so that he could kiss me. I thought he tasted like beer, and I wondered if inside his tool bag he kept some beer bottles alongside his ball-peen hammers and his screwdrivers.

“Guess what?” he said, after he drew back from kissing me. His five o’clock shadow was very shimmery now, and I looked at it because the overhead light in the kitchen was casting reflections on it, and it seemed like it was moving, as if it really was fool’s gold being turned over and skittered in a gentle current.

“I sold a painting!” Eddie said. “Just now?” I asked. “Yes, of course just now. He wants to pick it up at my house tonight. He’s coming with cash!” Eddie said. Eddie said the word “cash” so loud that I put my fingers to my lips. “Shh,” I said. I did not want my boss, all the way down the house in Bali, disturbed.

“Deep Throat bought your painting?” I said. Eddie lifted back his head and laughed so loud that I caught sight of one of his back teeth. It was gold and in its surface I could see how it was made to look like his other teeth, complete with bite marks.

“No, an art dealer bought it. That was an art dealer on the phone. I’ve got to pack up. I’ve got to go!” he said.

He left running down the stairs, leaving the door partway open.

Later, at my place, Hugh stopped by. We sat on my futon bed. Before I moved in the landlord had told me that the former resident had been found dead in his bed. I told Hugh that where we sat was exactly where the man had died. Hugh wanted to know how I knew. “Look around,” I said. “Where else could you put your bed?” The other three walls had windows, or a fireplace, or the wall was too short, because of a doorway to the kitchen. I lived in such a small place because I couldn’t afford a bigger place. I barely could afford to pay the next month’s rent on the place that I had. I lay back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. I saw a spot there that I bet the man who died saw every night and every morning. It looked like a grease stain, and I wondered how it got there. Did the man, one day, tackle the fine art of pancake flipping and flip too high? Hugh turned me over and rubbed my shoulders. He did not rub hard enough. His hands were not much bigger than mine. Down around his thumbs he had needle thin strips of skin missing from where he bit and chewed off hangnails. “Did you call me at work?” I asked, sitting up, going to the kitchen for a glass of water.

“Uh, was I supposed to?” Hugh said. I shook my head and said “no” into my glass. I sounded like I was deep inside the glass when I said it, as if I was backed up far into some cave. The water even tasted like minerals, heavy and metallic, the drippings from the pointed ends of some stalactite that had formed centuries ago.

Hugh’s radio went off. He worked as a grip, and often came to see me on his breaks since most of the films he worked on were filmed in my neighborhood. The radio crackled and hissed and a kid with a voice that sounded like a 12-year-old’s said, “We need more water in the trailer. Who’s out there that can get some more H20”.

“Do you have to answer that?” I asked Hugh. He shook his head. “Who needs the water?” I asked. I pictured a famous actress in the trailer demanding more bottles of Perrier. “The grips need more water,” Hugh said. I nodded. Then another crackle came through. It was a girl’s voice. “Hugh are you there? Are you coming over tonight? I miss you” the girl said. She had some kind of an accent. It might have been Spanish. It was news to me that Hugh was seeing someone else. It made me sad how naïve I was. He had obviously been seeing her for a while.

“I bet you have to answer that,” I said.

“This isn’t working out,” Hugh said.

“There’s the door,” I said and pointed to my door with its peephole and its dead bolt locks and its layers of countless paint jobs. Hugh looked at the door. We both did.

After he left, I could still smell him. I opened the window wide that faced a small backyard. There were overgrown trees in the yard and some grass that once was maybe a mowed lawn, but now it was weeds and vines with petals as large as grape leaves. There was rustling down there too, probably a cat or a rat. That night, even after I turned the light off, I could see the stain on my ceiling. I put my hands behind my head and stared at it, still wondering how the old man had done it.

In the morning, Eddie didn’t show up, and neither did the other workman. I guessed they had taken the day off. I fumed a little about Hugh. I called myself stupid for ever having gone out with him in the first place. I should have known. I pictured his girl as some Spanish girl who wore the same beautiful clothes every day. I filed some bills for my boss. I didn’t know if he was awake or not. The door to Bali was closed, but it was usually closed, and so was his bedroom door. I figured he’d want his brown rice soon, so I started to cook it. When the phone rang, the rice was on the stove. It wasn’t Deep Throat. It was Eddie. He said “This is Deep Throat,” but I knew right away it was Eddie. “Let’s go out to breakfast,” he said.

“Now?” I said.

“It’s morning, isn’t it?” he said. I heard him rub his chin. I thought I could hear the roughness of his hand rubbing against his gold flecked stubble. “Meet me at the restaurant on the corner,” he said.

I left with the rice still cooking. I didn’t think about it while I was with Eddie. What I thought about with Eddie was how his fingernails were purple and black from paint, and did not look like the colors of flowers at all. I ordered blood sausage and cooked apples on the side. Hugh had once told me blood sausage was a specialty in Spain and I had never seen it on a menu before. Eddie said it was his treat. He was going to be rich soon. He walked back up to my boss’s apartment with me after the meal. He was finished as a carpenter, but he wanted to pick up his bag of tools, just in case someday he had to return to his trade. On the first flight of stairs he stopped me and kissed me. I could feel Eddie pressing into me and the banister digging into my back. It wasn’t going to be a quick kiss. He slid his hand up my skirt. I could feel his finger tips reaching up to the elastic of my underwear. I smelled the burning rice then. It was a faint smell, Eddie probably couldn’t smell it, but I knew right away what it was. I pushed Eddie back and ran up the stairs. By the time I got the door open, Eddie was cursing at me from the staircase. “You cunt. You don’t walk away from me. I could have anybody I want,” he said. Because they had been working on the apartment’s electrical system, they had temporarily disconnected the smoke alarms, so there was no loud beeping, there was just the rice pot burning, and then the water sizzling while I filled up the pot. I turned on the fan above the stove and I opened up some windows. I saw Eddie down the street. “What about your tools?” I called to him. He heard me and stopped and turned around. He grabbed himself between the legs. “I don’t go anywhere without ’em,” he said. He threw his head back and laughed. The day’s sunlight was growing stronger, and it hit the gold tooth in his mouth and made it look like a flame, like he was a man eating fire.

My boss wasn’t in Bali. He wasn’t in his bedroom either. I knocked first and opened up the door after I didn’t hear a response. His alligator boots were by his bed. They were not too big on me. When I put them on and walked into the bathroom, they did not slip in the heel. I pulled back the shower curtain and looked. The shampoo bottle was one I recognized. I had used the same brand once before. I thought I should call Hugh to tell him. But I knew that if I called him, he would have egged me on. He would have asked me to find other belongings. He would have made me put him on speaker phone while I walked around the house, opening drawers for him and reading labels on shirts. I was tired now. I went to Bali and opened up the door. I sat in my boss’ chair and put my feet with the alligator boots still on them across some papers that had a seal from the Vatican on them. They were written on paper that was as thin as tissue, and I’m sure the hard heel of the boot was about to rip a hole on one page. My boss’ chair could swivel, and when I sat down it creaked like a hammock. The window was open, and a breeze came through that carried with it the smell of lemon and lime and coconut syrup, from the Puerto Rican vendor on the corner selling chipped ice in paper cones. I closed my eyes. I remembered being a girl, and how my mother always cautioned me not to buy those treats from the vendors. The ice, sitting out all day, my mother said, was peppered with city soot. “You might as well lick the pavement,” my she said one hot day when I did not want to walk any longer and the sun hit me with a force that felt like a grand piano falling down on my head.

I dreamt of her then, while I slept in my boss’ chair. In my dream she had died and I cried in my sleep. It was my boss who put his hand on my shoulder and shook me from the dream. When I looked at him I didn’t know who he was. For a moment I thought he was the Puerto Rican street vendor and that he had come upstairs to give me a cone. He wanted me to try one after all these years. “I burnt the rice,” I said, taking my feet off the desk, and a little bit of the Vatican’s letterhead with it.

“I can’t eat it anymore,” my boss said. “Shall we go for lunch instead?” he said. “I would like a burger, with fries and a coke.”

I was standing now. I could see afternoon clouds rolling in. It became darker in Bali.

“This isn’t working out,” I said. “I don’t make enough money here.” My boss scratched his chest. Beneath the gray and white hairs there, his skin was sweating.

“I have to quit,” I said.

“Let’s go to lunch now,” my boss said. “I could eat Chinese too,” he said. “I could go for some moo shu pork.”

I took off the boots and changed back into my shoes, while my boss stood in the doorway waiting for me to join him. My boss never seemed to notice I was even wearing them. I left the boots by the chair at my desk, as if someone invisible were sitting in the chair, still wearing the boots, still answering the phone calls and talking to Deep Throat.

I walked down the stairs with my boss. I looked at the steps. They seemed like they had flecks of gold in them, and I wondered if while Eddie was kissing me so hard some of his beard hairs had come loose and floated down the stairs.

I left my boss at the corner. “I have to go home now,” I said. My boss said he would call me later. He said I needed time to think. “Think about this,” he said. “I may not be able to pay you more money, but I could make things happen for you,” he said.

At home that night the phone did ring. I heard it while I was lying in my bed. The moon was full. Its silver light was everywhere, reflecting off mirrors and the glass in picture frames on my walls as if I were in the dark watching an old black and white movie flickering on the television. I didn’t answer the phone. I let it ring and it stopped after a while. I stared up at the ceiling, at the stain. Maybe there was something up there that had been bugging the old man who had died in the place before me. Maybe he had gone into the kitchen and grabbed a mop and stood on the bed and tried pounding on the ceiling, trying to get the thing to stop. There was a mop in the kitchen when I first moved into the place. I got out of bed and grabbed the mop and stood on the bed. Sure enough, the stain on the ceiling was the size of the head of the mop. When the phone rang again, I picked it up. I didn’t say hello. I just said, “What kinds of things can you make happen for me?” “A lot,” he said. “The world is your oyster,” he said. Then it started happening. The ceiling started shaking and I heard music without words coming from a stereo. My upstairs neighbor was dancing, or doing calisthenics. I couldn’t be sure. He was loud though, and I thought I could hear him breathing too, right through the plaster ceiling. He could have been lying beside me in bed right next to my ear, his breathing was so loud. “Can I ask you something?” I said to my boss. “Shoot,” he said.

“Do you ever talk to Deep Throat when he calls? Do you ever just talk to him because you have no one else to talk to?” I said.

My boss laughed. “I have a lot of people to talk to,” he said. I nodded. The neighbor’s dancing was getting frenetic. I could feel the frame of my bed slightly bouncing. The music was so loud my boss must have thought it was my music playing, and not my neighbor’s.

“What do you say? Will you come back?” he said.

I told him no, while still holding onto the mop, while I was lying in bed. The handle of the mop was on the floor, and the head of the mop pointed at the ceiling, and I held it like it was a scepter, and lightly banged it up and down, as if I were making a point, or wanted everyone in the room to be quiet, but the music kept playing.

I took another job, which paid me more money, working for a company that made hair transplants for men. The head of the company wanted me to videotape how everyone did their job in the building. Before the job I called Hugh and told him I didn’t know the first thing about taking video, could he help? “Is that why you’re calling?” he said. “Yes, that’s the only reason,” I said.

“Move slower than you think you have to,” he said. I slowly videotaped a warehouse where hair pieces made from the hair of Asians, because it was said to be the strongest, sat on the heads of mannequins that filled the room. I slowly videotaped a worker opening up complaint letters from men whose hair transplants had come off, one while he was breakdancing, spinning on his head at a wedding, another who had walked behind the running engine of a jet airplane, and his hair was blown off. I slowly videotaped a worker opening the photographs men sent of allergic reactions they had to the hair transplants, and how their heads looked like they had been burned in different places with the butt of a lit cigar. I videotaped so slowly, I ran out of tape, and when I asked my boss for more, he said it wasn’t in the budget. He said he was sorry, but he was no longer interested in the project where everyone’s job in the building was videotaped. He was going to retire now, and someone else was going to take his job who did not care about the videotapes. The day I was let go, Hugh came over to visit. He still had a key to my place, and when I got home he was sitting on my bed. “I think the old man who died in your place could have died by the window too. He could have set up his bed so that his head was by the window,” he said. “Show me,” I said, and Hugh showed me how the head of the bed could have been at the window and the foot of the bed could have reached out into the middle of the room. Hugh then said he was hungry, “What have you got? Can you make some brown rice? Sometimes all I feel like eating is a big bowl of brown rice.”

“I thought we weren’t doing this anymore. I thought it was over,” I said. Hugh nodded. His brown hair fell in front, and covered one of his eyes entirely, and for a moment he looked like a girl. “How can you do this? How can you just walk into my place and tell me where the old man died, and that you want brown rice for dinner after you’re the one who started seeing someone else?” I said. Hugh shrugged, “It’s not so hard to do. You still like me,” he said, and he moved closer to me, holding out his arms to take me in them. “What about the Spanish girl?” I said. “Isn’t it time you go to her place? She misses you. Oh, I understand now,” and I really was beginning to understand it all. “She dumped you. You need to leave,” I said. Hugh smiled. He sat on my bed. I was the one who left.

I still had the key to my old boss’ place. I walked up the stairs and unlocked the door. I knew he was away that week. I was the one who had booked the plane reservations for him to fly to Rome on business. I looked around the place. The other workman had finished building the extra room. There were no signs of tools or sawdust anywhere. I slept in my boss’ bed that night. I turned down the covers and checked the label on the sheets. They were so high in cotton thread count that they felt thin to the touch, and I worried that just by sleeping on them my elbows and knees would wear them out and cause them to rip. When the phone rang and woke me up, I jumped to answer it. I talked to Deep Throat for a long time. He was close to the ocean, and his true voice seemed masked by heavy rollers pushing in to shore. He told me what the weather was like where he was, and it was not so different than the weather in Bali. He told me birds took flight from salt water rivers and moved their great long wings. He said I would like the huge leaves on the trees that shaded him on the shore when he sat beneath them watching the sunlight hit the water. Over the sound of the waves, I heard a creak on the other end of the line. I figured it was the wicker chair he was sitting in. I heard the lazy whir of a ceiling fan on low. I could almost smell coconut and pineapple, or was that just the smell of my shampoo that I had used to wash my hair with before I went to bed. “What about the food?” I asked. “Do you like seafood?” he asked. “I love it,” I said. “The oysters are huge here, and for nothing you can have as many as you’d like. Think oyster city, think oyster to the hilt, think oyster ad infinitum,” Deep Throat said.

It was early morning by the time we got off the phone. I slept late, and I felt hot in the bed with the late morning light streaming in. Even after showering, I was still hot, so when I left the place I stopped at the Puerto Rican street vendor. He had just arrived. His block of ice was still covered in cloth that looked like it had been ripped from a pair of faded denim jeans, with threads dangling here and there. I ordered a blue frozen ice. When he poured the blue syrup on I watched it flow through the ice, spreading quickly, turning into some kind of snowball found only on Mars. I looked around me. I expected to see my mother. I expected to feel her grabbing the snow cone away from me and throwing it to the pavement. She wasn’t there. I walked away from the Puerto Rican vendor to the sound of him chipping ice to make more snow cones. When I got home, Hugh was there. Either he had let himself in again or he had never left. In my hand, all that was left of my treat was a soggy paper cone, colored bright blue, and the tips of my fingers were blue and my palm was blue. I held up my blue hand to Hugh, showing him. “I’m from another planet,” I said. “And I’m not here to help you.” Hugh laughed. “God, that’s awful,” he said. “What color is that?” he said. “It’s all over your mouth and your teeth.”

“You have something we need. It’s crucial to our civilization,” I said. “Yeah?” Hugh said. “Yes, give me the key, and I will spare your human race,” I said. I went up to Hugh, ready to dig my hand into his pocket, but I didn’t need to. He took the key out. His face changing. His smile disappearing. He threw the key on the bed. “You’re acting like a jerk,” he said. “We take pity on your kind,” I said. “Fine, I’m out of here then,” he said. I followed him out the door. I stood at the top of the stairs, watching him go down. “We will come back light-years from now to check on your progress as a species,” I said. He left the door flung wide, letting in a whiff of hot smelly chemical air from the vent located on the ground floor by the dry cleaners. I breathed in deeply; on my planet, I imagined, it was the only air we could breathe.

Later that night, when the neighbor upstairs started his loud music and his wild dancing, when the light fixture swung, and my bed shook, I went for the mop quickly. I pounded it against the ceiling, adding to the stain that was already up there. I thought if only I could smash the mop through the ceiling, then my neighbor would stop, and all the noise would cease. I was breathing hard. I was sweating. My arm hurt. I stopped and sank down to sit on my bed. “Is this how you died?” I said out loud, wanting an answer.

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