Fiction by Paul Silverman • Photo by Jill Burhans

To Whomever It May Concern
at the National Geographic

Dear National Geographic,

This is nothing the National Geographic 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 neighborhood school.

Dear editors, this is the very edifice where I perused my first National Geographic back when 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.

I’ve 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.

Around 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.   

This 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 the roaches.

What 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.

The 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.

I 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.

My 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.

From 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.

Did 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.

I 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.

When 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.

Getting 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.

But 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.

Of course I’d  charge it to the family. Wood box and all, the luxury package.

There it starts, that cracking sound. Sir or Madam, I’ve been meaning to do this for years. Please cancel my subscription.

Back   •   Home   •   Next