Fiction by Paul
Silverman • Photo by Jill Burhans
To Whomever It May
at the National Geographic
is nothing the National
would ever cover. There are no foreign lands
involved, no exotic places. What is about to happen – the whole matter
– is just here, somewhere in nowhere, my few feet of cracked linoleum,
a zip code on a mailing label stuck to a yellow magazine. But I’m
writing to you anyway, because of your part in all of this. And under
the circumstances I’m writing fast. I mean fast as
I can. My fingers are
stiff as sticks and it’s even hard to curl them around a cane handle,
let alone a ballpoint pen. As I tell the bitch nurse who comes here
once a week, two or three of these knuckly digits are so twisted
they’re numb right down to the crud under the nails. She’s an
irrigator, that one, so she recommends an enema. This whole place is
about to be irrigated, I’m afraid. At least my two alcoves of it, my
unit, as they say. It’s cold in here and getting colder – and wetter.
The place has bad pipes, just like its withering occupants. Has them
now and it had them then, when it was my cage the first time around. My
editors, this is the very edifice where I perused my first National
horses still shat in the street. It’s where I flipped one open and
first saw brown breasts ballooning under some banyan tree. Now why they
had to go and turn my old school into a place like this – a lockup
then, a gulag now - makes me want to throttle somebody. As if I had the
fingers to shut down a windpipe. These days I can hardly wipe myself
without tearing a rotator cuff.
never thrown out a single copy! Saved every last one. Have towers
of them. Brought them with me, and packratted more, year after year.
Skyscrapers of them. Wedged from floor to ceiling. Every page a trip I
took. Took? To where? Why, to Lucknow. Timbuktu. Micronesia, Tuvan and
Yakut. All on paper – glossy stock, long-lens baboon shots, years
of trekking no farther than my own john.
the world on a toilet seat I went. Rode the porcelain to
Vladivostok, Tierra Del Fuego. Thus I spent my days, flipping the pages
while pinching a loaf.
old school of mine. Thought I served a long enough sentence here
back then. Miss Scully and her closet. The hours I spent in the
blackness of it. Rattan stripes on the palm. Radiator coils clanking
and hissing. O did I whoop it up and swig the old man’s rye on that
golden day they condemned the building. Bequeathed the rotting wreck to
we all thought would come next was the wrecking ball. Janitors and
truant officers all buzzing about the hulk being wired for dynamite.
Implosion imminent. But then it sat. And sat. Looming there on its
ratty rubble, a school for squatters and crate dwellers and dumpster
foragers while the neighborhood did a five-decade slide down skid row.
tide goes down, the tide comes up. Along comes the real estate
wave, then the Historic Preservation Committee. Along comes their
proclamation sanctifying the very brick of it. They anoint the hulk
with period significance, never to be violated. Sacred to the grout. To
chair the esteemed body they pick a gorilla with a briefcase, the
arch-entrepreneur of assisted living. His claim to fame a necklace of
“caring communities” strung round the metropolis. We will not so much
as brush a fly from the façade, he says, beating his monogrammed
chest. We will keep faith with the original footprint.
happen to know this building like the knuckles of my fingers. I swear
the “bedroom” of my “living space” is that closet. Windowless. Scratch
the painted sheetrock and smell Miss Scully, the steam of her rising
with each clank of the pipes. The skullness of her face bones creeping
out of the corners. The door she slammed shut on me – on my fingers -
for ogling that shot of the Borneo girl. Scratched at it in the
darkness like a dog, I did. Bringing more rattan stripes on my
other hand, the writing hand. But there’s no room in there any more,
Mr. N. Geo. Not for me. Years of packratting you, every last issue of
you, have squeezed me out to the hotplate and aluminum-framed walker in
the front alcove. And now it’s gushing icy cold from under your door.
kin and my kind, it was they who returned me here. To a cot in Miss
Scully’s old closet. Proclamation of the family. Assisting my living.
That’s what they said.
the slit called my window I see the moving truck pull up. Moving
trucks is what we call these long Cadillacs and Lincolns that roll down
here, what we seniors on the move call them – we seniors moving out and
on. To other galaxies, perhaps. Too far even for N.G. to cover. Outside
the range of the longest lens. The moving trucks and their little
orange flags, stopping traffic, rolling through stoplights to the
cemetery. Blacker this time of year when the snow in the driveway turns
hard white. When the icicles creep into the walls and stab the pipes.
the gorilla even rip out the asbestos? Sheetrock and paint, that’s
it, all he did - a few wheelchair ramps thrown in and a sign out front
naming the “facility” after him. Good as new. And he’s off to the bank
with the HUD seal of approval.
did my share of plumbing in my time. I know what’s cooking back
there. I know the sound of a frozen, bursting pipe. Know where the
shutoff is too, back behind the magazines, but I can’t reach it.
the water outweighs the floor, Maggie down below me will get a
crashing surprise. The dripping and seeping has begun. Plaster turning
to chowder. A rain of rust on her stuffed dolls, her pandas and
pigtailed princesses, her hundreds of roommates silent and smiling, her
sawdust friends from the shopping channel and the Wal-Mart warehouses.
No National Geos for her. Not huggable. Not right for tea parties.
Can’t serve a crumpet to a magazine stack.
so cold I could ice-fish in here. No climb to the shutoff
possible. Not over those mountains. Himalayas of paper, right up to the
buried ceiling bulb. No tunneling either. Not through the Gibraltar of
yellow covers, seven decades thick. Have an emergency pull-chain but
wouldn’t touch that. The gorilla installed an overseer (her title,
Executive of Caring Services) whose scowl alone makes Miss Scully the
angel of mercy.
there is a plan, I have my out. My exit strategy. Deploy my plastic
pill organizer, still high and dry on a shelf. Enough Medicare medicine
to take down a rhino. Just before it hits the stomach, I’d punch the
wall phone, summon the moving truck myself.
course I’d charge it to the family. Wood box and all, the
it starts, that cracking sound. Sir or Madam, I’ve been meaning
to do this for years. Please cancel my subscription.