A WINDOWLESS KITCHEN
I am a hopeful traveler, I wear my hair in a long braid, sleep lightly if I sleep at all, and keep one town ahead of my sister.
I came by night to a skinny house on a hilltop, which was where the road put me. I hid my bicycle under the steps and knocked on the front door.
"I noticed your sign. May I rent a room?"
The man at the door looked all worn-out, his mouth a dusty cavern.
"I only let to men," he said.
I peeked past him to an empty sitting room, to a blank far wall beyond.
"Are there any men around?" I said. "I'm a paying customer, at least. I'll only stay a couple days."
"How old are you?"
"And traveling alone at night?"
"My sister will be by in a while. She's twenty. May I rent a room?"
He shuffled back, looked askance and said, "Well. Can't turn away a paying customer. Times being what they are."
I carried in my bag and had a look around. Sofas and tables with ashtrays, magazines in piles. A reception desk with a bell and key cubbies, a hat-stand, a barbershop chair. Ten dollars a cut, two dollars a shave. I'd never been shaved, but these seemed like reasonable prices.
"Breakfast and dinner included," the man said. "Breakfast at seven, dinner at seven. Sharp. Lunch can be had, but it's extra."
He held out his hand to take my bag, but I clutched it close and nodded to show him I could manage by myself. He led me up a flight of stairs. I paused on the landing, turned back to see the sitting room from above. A second perspective on a place always helps to make it familiar.
The man said, "My name's Murphy," and he unlocked a door marked thirteen.
"I'm Monica," I said, and carried my bag inside.
The room was small, perfect for me, just enough of what I needed. A bed to sleep on, a table to sit at, a window to watch through. Murphy set the key on the table and pointed out the wall sockets.
"Mind you wear your shoes. Old floor, you get splinters. I'll turn the heat on. Should take an hour or so, be nice and warm."
I thanked him. He seemed to consider my thanks, to carry it off in his mouth. He turned at the door and, as if he'd wanted to say so all along, said, "There is one rule."
I grinned. "No girls? We broke it already."
"One more rule, and it's serious. So listen. Anything you see in this house, you cannot judge it."
I thought this sounded bad, as policies go. What if the sheets were bloodstained? But I was tired from hours of pedaling, and so very close to a bed; I already had two perspectives and was feeling partly home, so I said, "Agreed. I won't judge."
He nodded, then he said goodnight and he left me.
I wore my coat as I unpacked my bag. Unpacking is ritual: even if I only stay one night in a place, even then, I like to unpack. It settles the room and settles myself besides. My two dresses went in the closet. My socks and undies went in the chest. My little telescope went on the windowsill. I ran a bath, soaked until I felt I might fall asleep and drown. I dried off and went to bed.
I was weary from the road and thought for sure I'd drop off as soon as I hit the pillow, but this was wishful thinking. People like me, we rarely sleep. And when we do, it's like robbing a jewel—something we sneak up on and never really get away with. The walls made sounds. The pipes groaned and gurgled like a bad digestion, and once that cleared, then came the feet.
At first I pictured a giant gruesome millipede, but I told myself no, more likely mice. I pictured mice in a train, each mouse with another's tail in her teeth, and all of them up on their toenails. The mice snaked through the walls, skitter skitter, skitter skitter, I think a whole civilization was there. I pictured offices, water parks, ferris wheels, mice in suits and cars, mice going out to dinner. I pictured mice with hammers as the radiator set to clanking. Clank clank clank! Noisy as a jungle here. Yet I told myself, they do sleep in the jungle.
Eventually, when morning made her threats, I slept.
Murphy seemed surprised that I took my coffee black, that I liked my eggs hard-boiled and my toast dry and my ham, well, I liked my ham.
"Quite an appetite on you."
I don't know what he expected.
The dining room was just a sliver of a place, the kitchen attached by a short hallway hung with a plastic curtain that missed the floor by a foot. I wanted to see inside the kitchen, but the plastic was all fouled up with greasy time, it only gave an impression, and the glimpses I caught as Murphy pushed through with dishes failed to satisfy. A kitchen is the heart of a place. You need to see it to know.
"You sleep all right?"
People often ask this. I have a tired look. The bags beneath my eyes are bold, like stripes on a cat.
"I slept fine," I lied (as I do). "Although I think you have mice."
The coffeepot stopped at the mouth of my mug and hovered dry. I looked up at Murphy's face and saw my error there. I remembered the one rule, that I must not judge what I see in the house.
"I don't mind," I said. "Mice are cute."
"This being an old house," he muttered, "you have to expect . . . Besides, I hate cats."
The coffee poured, the pot relieved. I changed the subject.
"What's there to see in town?"
"Not much. You after something specific?"
"Well, no. But I'm traveling. That's the point. To see new things."
"You been to this town before?"
"No . . ."
"It's all new then, isn't it?"
I gazed out the dining room window. The window faced the road I'd come in on and the hills I'd come over, just like the window in my room, which was right above us. Soon my sister would follow down that road. I finished my coffee and offered to help Murphy with the dishes, but he wouldn't have it.
"Guests don't clean."
Really, I just wanted to see the kitchen.
Since I'd arrived by night, I'd only seen the town in hints. My bicycle's headlamp had been the only brightness then. Now I walked out and saw. Pulled my cap down hard against the sun. The front steps were steep and bunched like someone had caught a thread in the wood and pulled. My boot-heels made a pleasant clip-clop sound at my descent.
What happened here? A storm, or a century's neglect? I wandered down to the houses, half-houses, buried up to their windowsills in sand. The sand shouldered up against beaten old siding and seemed to spill from yawning doorways, the dunes patterned lovely like a thrill on fat. Weeds grew, tough, dark, green, clustered, trembling in the small gusts. I shut my mouth when sand got in, walking slack-jawed like a fool bedazzled.
Cats watched. Cats stretched. Cats wriggled in the sand making half-moon shapes. They wouldn't come for pets, they were wild, but a cat is a cat and curiosity soon had them ganged up in a slinky formation, following after me like a big whale shadow. They were all black, hum.
I went inside a sunken house, stooping through the half-door, and touched the ceiling with ease. Felt claustrophobic, like a girl beneath an overturned boat, breathing the air pocket, wondering how much longer. I got down on my front and looked out the window at the blue sky, which cured me. Cats looked in, startled to find a person at their level. They stepped back with flattened ears.
I came out of the house and the whale shadow scattered, only to regroup as soon as I turned away. I wandered out between the dunes and imagined what my sister would say when she saw this. She hates things out of order—so she'd hate it, so I laughed. This was my kind of town.
My own slim shadow got longer and slimmer, and the cats became bold as their night camouflage fell, so I went back. I climbed the slope to the skinny house, which was painted all yellow, a detail I could not have noticed from within. Funny skinny house with a shingled roof like a bad haircut. I touched my own braid and wondered if here, at last, I would find a use for it.
Murphy served dinner, seven sharp, a hunk of meat with hunky potatoes, pooled gravy, peas. I thought he might join me but he just set the plate before me and vanished back through that plastic curtain. I felt almost alone here, Murphy more like a ghost. A helpful ghost—what would you call that? Anti-poltergeist.
I finished up and Murphy sensed this somehow, came out to clear my dishes.
"Lots of cats in town," I said without much thought, to rustle up a conversation.
"Yep," he said, retreating.
My ghost wasn't much of a talker, hum. At least I had a book to read.
I went to my room and sat at the table, laying out the book of poems I'd picked up somewhere and had resolved to read slowly. I am a fast reader. But this book contained poems of all times, best of all times, and since these poems had taken so long to accumulate, I resolved to read them word by word by word, and whenever an author made an image, I would close my eyes and really try to see it, the way you really stare at even ordinary objects in a museum—bowls and rugs and wheels—just because they're old.
I read until I came to lines of nonsense popping in and out, lines that no poem of all times would ever have. What a funny nonsense line—then you check back, and no such line exists, not on this page anyhow, and you know you must be drifting. So I shut off the lights like any regular sleeper and took to bed.
It always starts this way, shutting off the lights like any regular sleeper, yawning, stretching, settling back into the sheets. It's like I hope to trick sleep, trick her into mistaking me for any old regular sleeper, kiss my lids, goodnight. But sleep is not easily tricked. And that second night in my new room, I guess my performance was poor. Too much stretching? Or did I overdo my sleeper's smile of satisfaction? Unconvincing yawn? Maybe. Can't fake a yawn. No one can.
So I lay perfectly still. An hour passed, and I allowed myself one turn. I chose the left side. Always a mistake. Now all I wanted in the world was to lie on my right. But I couldn't turn onto my right, because then, officially, I'd be turning, and turning was practically tossing, really just semantics. I tried my back again, like a corpse, reliable. Oh, heck. Might as well sit up and look around.
The room was blue. I could see the moon from here, grown a little fatter. Some nights, sleep comes to me as a tiny owl. This was that sort of night. I scanned around and found her, perched silent on the chair back. Nothing for it now, I knew I wouldn't rest tonight. I got up and coaxed the owl onto my finger, then I placed her on my shoulder.
Now this is odd magic, but here it is: with the owl on my shoulder, no one hears my steps. I can creep around any place and even if I bump a table, break a glass, I make no sound. So long as the owl stays, I'm inaudible.
I crept to the door and turned the handle, stepped into the hall, no sound at all. I went downstairs, thought I'd look into the kitchen. I crept through the dining room. The plastic curtain parted without so much as a crinkle. Here I paused.
I'd seen the floor already: black and white checks. Now I faced a long counter supporting a stained-glass partition, which carried on to my right and ended just before a wall. If you rounded the corner, so I guessed, you'd find yourself in the kitchen proper.
But I didn't continue on because I wasn't up alone. I heard whistling and running water, saw a dim light through the glass. I noticed a shining wedge in the partition, where the tip of the beak on a stained-glass bird had broken—just big enough to peek through. I climbed up on the counter and pressed my eye to the hole.
There was Murphy. He stood whistling by a double sink, one of the basins full and steaming. From my vantage point I could see the sink, and Murphy in profile, and a bare bulb that made orange light, the kind of light you see before a storm at day's end, thunderheads piling over a sunset. I saw a clutter of pots and pans, knives, everything you might expect. Murphy stooped and took a tool out from under the sink, and this was something you wouldn't expect. I could think of no culinary purpose for it, looking Medieval and torture-useful. A tool like a silver lobster with claws and a crank. Murphy placed the tool on the counter by the sink. He pulled on a pair of rubber gloves all the way to the elbow. I saw that his shirt was unbuttoned.
Then I swallowed a gasp as he took up the tool and wedged it into his chest. I almost screamed to stop him—yet the look on his face was serene. I'd never seen him like that; his features were always pinched and worried whenever we met by day. He looked a little pained as he turned the crank, but only a flinch. He cranked, cranked, and his ribcage suddenly broke open with a sound I'd rather not describe or think about.
I turned to my owl, who'd swiveled her head to watch behind us, probably hearing mice. I pressed my eye again to the hole. Murphy had set the tool aside, and now he took up a triangular bottle I hadn't noticed before. He unstopped the cork. The bottle seemed to hiccup and inhale. He carefully poured a measure of fluid into the steaming basin, stopped the bottle up again. He stirred the water with a soup ladle. Soon it began to froth. Then Murphy took out his innards. Organ by organ, he emptied his chest, letting each piece slide into the basin as if he were releasing a fish. His organs looked dry and old, not shiny how you might expect. He moved methodically. I had the sense he'd done this many times before. When he came to his heart, he paused a moment to fondle it, to cup it and stare. The heart gave a weak throb, which caused Murphy to grunt. Then he slid the heart into the froth with all the rest.
Having taken out his vitals, he leaned on the counter, arms far apart to brace himself, head drooped down. He stood like that for a long while, letting the organs soak. Then he took up a scouring brush, and I watched with some concern as he plucked his liver out of the stew and set to scrubbing. He scrubbed vigorously. I worried at the damage. He gave the liver a quick rinse over the empty basin, and he draped it in a dishrack. Now it glistened like an organ should, though I could see dark splotches, not good.
Murphy scrubbed every piece, draped them in the rack to dry. I watched until he finished. I watched him pull off the gloves, wipe his hands with a towel, light a cigarette and smoke it slumped in a rocking chair by the oven, his eyes closed, his face dreamy. He finished the cigarette and dropped the butt in a jar. Then he sighed and appeared to sleep.
The act had transfixed me, but when Murphy fell still in his rocker I realized I should probably go. He might wake up at any minute, shuffle out here, find me spying. I hopped down—soundless, of course—and scurried off to my room.
"What do you think of that?" I said to my owl as I returned her to the chair back.
But sleep said nothing, only watched with pitchy eyes as I put myself back into bed, took the covers up to my chin, and, expecting no more of this night, dreamt.
"You sleep all right? Bed too hard?"
"I slept just fine, thank you."
Murphy poured my coffee to the brim. I felt restless as he served me, as he moved in and out of the dining room. His breathing sounded like bees in a hollow stump.
"Looks nice out," I said. "Sunny again."
"Have you noticed that all the cats are black?"
"Can't say I have."
"Well, they are."
As soon as my breakfast was done, he collected my dishes and vanished back into that kitchen. I knew I wouldn't see him again until dinner. How could I get him to talk? I would have to eat slowly, maybe compliment the cooking. Somehow, I would draw him out.
I spent the day with the cats in the buried houses. I found some nice places to sit and I sat. How do people become bored? I can never become bored. I will sit and do nothing, just look at the edges around me, and everything fascinates. But I do get lonely, hum.
My sister bores in a second. She is never lonely. Men want to talk to her and women want to talk about her and she can talk to anyone. Even my Murphy, I thought to myself. When my sister arrives here after me, she will somehow get him to talk. I wondered what he would say.
My dinner was more hunky meat. I hoped it wasn't cat. As I'd planned, I ate slowly, but Murphy wouldn't hover; he just left me to it and I felt dumb—I am by nature a ravenous eater. When I finished at last, I was almost hungry again. Murphy came out to clear the table.
"What do you do in your spare time?" I said, because people like to talk about their hobbies if they have them.
"Got no time to spare, in fact. Too much work."
He bustled off. And I didn't believe him. Sure, keeping up a house was a big job, but not that big, and I'd already snagged my dress more than once on a nail that needed bashing, and the floors were bristly with splinters, and the sink had hairs, and I just couldn't see much work put in. But maybe I'd jumped to conclusions. Maybe he didn't mean housework.
I resolved that evening to hang around. You want to talk to a ghost, you ought to haunt like him. No cats in the place—someone had to lounge on the furniture. I collected my all-time best poems and took a sofa in the sitting room. My nose burned from the dust in the cushions, but I read through my discomfort.
I read late. Murphy never appeared. I sat with a view on the dining room. As far as I knew, the kitchen had no exit—I hadn't even seen a window—so I guessed he must be in there. Did he sleep in the kitchen? I hadn't seen a bed. But Murphy might not need a bed, he might sleep upright, propped against the wall like a broomstick.
Lateness came and came. My eyelids drooped. At last I gave up. I really did feel tired as I trudged to my room. I put myself in bed and took the covers up to my chin, closed my eyes like a regular sleeper. But then I thought, Wait. What was I doing? My one power, sleeplessness, might be put to good use tonight! I sat up and looked around the blue room, found the owl. She stood on a round handle on the chest of drawers, puffed up like a pillow. I coaxed her onto my finger, placed her on my shoulder. I crept to the kitchen, peeked through the glass, and watched as Murphy repeated his task. He smoked his cigarette. He closed his eyes, he appeared to sleep.
In our family it's said that my sister is brave and I am foolish, and while I've always thought the opposite was true, this much is undeniable: she knows when she is being brave, and I never know when I'm being foolish. I felt quite brave as I hopped down from the counter and slipped around the partition. Now I stood in the kitchen proper. I listened to Murphy breathe for a moment, long and slow and deep, a sleeper's breathing. I went to the sink, glanced at the organs in the dish rack. They were swollen, blotchy, huddled tight like a brood of disease, unwell piglets. I guessed they must shrink a lot as they dried, otherwise they would never fit back in.
I forced myself to look away. Ah, here was that triangular bottle. I held it, turned it, watched the fluid slosh around within it. I gave Murphy a backward glance, then I unstopped the cork. I took a sniff. Weak of turpentine and something flowery, maybe lavender. I've always been bad at naming smells. I thought to taste it—thought better. I opened a cupboard, took down a shot glass, poured a measure in. My hands trembled. I glanced at Murphy. Still asleep, or faking it well. I stopped the bottle up, closed the cupboard, and with a giggle spirited my glass away.
I placed the glass on the table in my room and knelt by it. Green fluid moving all by itself, circulating sluggish. I watched, all giddy from the theft. I told myself that Murphy would never miss such a small amount, and I could even pour it back if my guilt oppressed me. Right then I felt no guilt, just happy wonder. I wished I were a chemist or a sleuth. Maybe tomorrow I'd find a microscope in town, some abandoned science factory. Then I could delve. What fun!
I returned my owl to her knob. I rolled into bed like an expert. I lay there full of plans, awake and scheming, and then, just because sleep is contrary, I dozed off.
Clink, crash, a noise woke me.
A patter and a flopping on the floor.
I switched on the bedside lamp and curled up my legs in reflex. I stared over my knees at the tabletop, where the glass had been. Drip, drip, fluid gathered into beads and fell, and I climbed forward, followed the droplets with my eyes—and jumped back.
I tried again. What was flopping wetly on the floor? I peered over the bedside. The little body beat itself against the boards, one final sustained vibration, then stopped.
A dead little mouse. Must have been a thirsty mouse. It lay in the pool of fluid fallen from the glass it must have overturned. Scattered shards, showing sharp. A little drink had killed a mouse. So. It must be poison.
I gathered the evidence in a hand towel, then I opened the window just enough to pass my hands through and shook it all away. No, I don't think I slept that night.
"You sure that mattress isn't too hard?"
"Oh, no. I like a hard mattress."
"It won't count as judgment, to switch rooms. Comfort's comfort, judgment's something else."
"No, the room is fine. It's fine."
I think I pressed my cheer too hard; he looked at me suspicious. Then again, he always looked suspicious. Except when he slept after soaking his innards in poison.
Breakfast went through my veins like crashing light, like taking a head and shaking it till stars come out in the eyes. I thanked Murphy and stumbled off. He watched me go—concerned, I think. I went down to the town and curled up in a house's shadow. I slept there like a cat.
A cold wet nose dabbed at my lips, brought me back. When I opened my eyes, my investigator jumped a mile. Other cats put up their tails and trotted off, stared at me over their shoulders, indignant, as if I'd tried to trick them. Like a snapping turtle, lying in wait, pretending I'm a log.
I sat up sandy. Smacked my mouth. I wear a little watch with a red strap, and I checked it, saw that we were half past noon. Still lots of day. I shook the sand from my braid and, well, this gave me an idea. I returned to the house in a flash.
I did not dare to part the plastic curtain, but I stood there, right by it, my toes with their tips on the checkered kitchen floor.
"Murphy? Are you in there?"
He coughed. I heard him shuffle near. I backed away, don't know why. Backed into the dining room, put the table between us before he even appeared.
"Everything okay?" he said, and I think he was concerned.
He parted the curtain, came through.
"Yes, everything's fine, thanks. It's just—I wondered." When I'm nervous I fidget, yes, you should have seen me fidget. Every finger twisting in its socket. "I wondered if you'd cut my hair."
I gestured lamely at the sitting room, where we both knew there was a barber chair.
"I only cut men's hair."
"Oh, that's fine. I want it short. I was thinking." I tugged at my braid. "Off. Short."
After some convincing Murphy agreed. I sat in the chair feeling clever. Now we would have to chat, it was practically regulation. He lifted my braid and let it fall a few times, watching it, as if trying to locate its weak point. Finally he shrugged and, without any warning or ceremony, cut it off with scissors.
I heard the braid fall and felt a pang of remorse, but that passed.
"I think change is important," I said, to see if Murphy was philosophical.
"Don't change much myself," he said.
"But you do, even if you don't know it. Are you aware that the liver regenerates itself completely every year?"
I bit my lip. Why did I have to go and mention liver? I watched Murphy's face in the mirror. He watched the back of my head, snip, snip, snip.
"How long have you lived in this town?" I said.
"All my adult life."
"Where did you grow up?"
"Town over thataway." He pointed with his scissors toward the dining room.
I watched bundles of hair slide down the cloth and come to rest in the valley of my lap.
"Do you like it here?" I said.
"Not much to like." He shrugged. "Unless you like sand. As I say, I don't like cats."
"Do you get many tourists?"
I wanted to say, "What is it you do in there every night? In that kitchen, that sink? Why do you do it? And don't you think it's bad for you?"
But I couldn't. I would sound judgmental if I did, and besides, I'd have to admit to spying. Instead, I asked mundane questions and Murphy answered carelessly, his eyes fixed on the work between his fingers. My interview petered into silence. I've always liked the sound of snipping.
"Well. That's it."
He swept my brow and the bridge of my nose with a soft brush. He stepped aside and I saw my new head. It was boyish; I liked it. I wanted to yodel. My sister, I knew, would hate it.
"Thank you, Murphy."
"Not sure what we'll do with this." He eyed the braid that lay curled by his feet like a vanquished snake.
"Maybe you could make a wreath," I suggested, "for the door."
Murphy smiled at that and even coughed out a small laugh. I was greatly encouraged. I paid him and left him to clean up, ambled out into the sun. My head felt free and light. I don't think the cats recognized me.
At dinner, I thanked him again for the cut. He told me he thought it suited me.
"Wasn't sure it would. Thought you might cry."
"Oh, I never cry."
"Hardly ever. Maybe once every six months."
"That ain't bad."
"How about you?"
He wrinkled his brow and stared at nothing. He really considered the question.
"Can't say there's much to cry about anymore . . ."
The way he said it, I thought he might go on. He didn't. He served me my meal and left through the curtain. I ate, and he cleared my dishes.
"Murphy?" I said. I stood by the curtain. Almost brave enough to enter.
"What's that?" he said over running water.
"Oh, just goodnight!"
I went to my room. The sunlight hadn't quite finished, so I took up my telescope and surveyed the hills. I'd already stayed too long in this place. My sister would soon be by.
I read best poems. My eyelids drooped. I put myself to bed. This would be my final night, I couldn't stay on longer. I listened to the mice parade on their nails. I stared at the ceiling, and there I projected what I should do. I should break in, I thought, while Murphy was soaking his organs. I should stop him, say, "Stop!" And, "Why are you doing this? Can't you see you're harming yourself? It killed a mouse!"
I waited. The room got very blue. I sat up. Where was my owl?
Not on the chair back. Not on the handle. Then I felt a funny tingling on the nape of my neck, and I thought as a joke I might see how far my head could turn. A joke an owl would like, you see. So I sat upright, and I turned, turned, turned my head. I turned it all the way.
"There you are," I said to my owl, who sat perched on the headboard.
With sleep on my shoulder I went downstairs, on this, my final night in the house. I crept through the dining room, parted the curtain. I climbed on the counter and peeked through the glass. There was Murphy. He cranked his tool, broke open his chest, and slid his pieces into the froth. Piece by piece, he scrubbed. I hopped down, rounded the partition. I stood at the back of the kitchen as Murphy leaned against the sink and drooped his head. He looked exhausted.
And who, I thought, was I to judge?
I ducked out just as he turned to shuffle to his rocker. I backed away, went to my spy hole. He smoked his cigarette. His face unwound itself and he looked peaceful, almost a smile on his lips. He rocked himself gently, then he fell still, his breathing long and slow and deep.
I climbed back up the stairs. I stood on the landing and looked down. My little owl whispered in my ear, "Too-whit, too-woo."
Which meant, "To bed with you."
So I put myself there, took up the covers. I stared at the ceiling, projected my deeds, and thought about tomorrow. Just before sunrise, the mice came out of a hole at the base of the hanging lamp fixture. They walked in a train, just as I'd pictured them, each mouse with another mouse's tail in her teeth. The line of mice came out, made a figure-eight on the ceiling, and disappeared back into the hole. I freed my arms from under the sheets and I applauded. I think the sun thought I was clapping for her.
"How was your sleep?"
"Perfect, restful, long," I lied. I'm such a fake. But Murphy didn't call me out.
"Made extra ham this morning."
"Thank you, Murphy. I'll have to check out today."
"I'll recommend this place. I've really had a great stay."
He poured my coffee to the brim and left.
I packed my bag, undoing the room, unsettling what I'd settled. Before I packed my telescope, I surveyed the road and the hills. And there she was. Distant, but coming. My sister.
Murphy waited at the front desk. I paid for the room. We watched our hands as the money passed.
"Murphy? There's one thing I wanted to ask. I can't leave without asking."
I hesitated. But I thought of my sister on her way, no time for hesitation. "May I see the kitchen? I always like to see a kitchen, wherever I go. A kitchen is the heart of a place."
Why did I mention hearts?
He nodded without a word, led me off. I followed him through the dining room, through the curtain. I admired the stained glass aloud, as if I didn't know it well. I glanced guiltily at my peephole. He led me around the partition. He pulled the chain on the single bare bulb. The room looked somehow smaller than usual and far more ordinary.
"This is it," he said.
"Oh. My." I found the triangular bottle. "Look at this. Lovely."
"What's in it? Liquor?"
"I rinse my insides in it." He wouldn't meet my eye. "Every night."
"You do? Does it hurt?"
"It burns, yes."
"Does it damage you?"
"Yes, I think so. I think it'll kill me."
"Why do you do it?"
He looked at me at last. "I don't know any other way to live."
My mouth was open, ready to speak. I knew other ways to live, many other ways. But the house had a rule. No judgment. I closed my mouth. He nodded again: time to go.
Before we did, he got up on a stool and took a small paper package from a shelf. The package was tied at the top with string, its label written with words that looked both upside-down and backwards.
"This is for you," he said. He showed me the package but kept it. "For observing the rule."
He led me out, through the curtain, through the dining room, through the sitting room, through the front door. I retrieved my bicycle from under the steps and placed my bag in the basket. Murphy knelt and tied the package, my gift, to the underside of the seat. I glanced nervously up the road. Murphy reached into his vest. He drew out a knife. With a quick stab, he punctured the bag, just a tiny hole in the bottom. White dust began to flow out.
"Salt," he said, "from a place where life is easy." He pocketed the knife and gestured at me. "Now go, go! Make sure the bag empties before you stop again. Then, I promise, you'll find you can sleep through the night."
I wagged my head, my mouth agape. I felt a teary joy.
"Does it work?"
"Sure. Guaranteed. But get on! Go! You got to make a trail."
"Thank you, Murphy. I really mean it. Oh—and watch out for my sister." I glanced once more up the road. "She's the judgy type."
Then off I went, and I smiled at Murphy over my shoulder, and over his shoulder I saw that he'd hung my braid on the door, as a wreath, like I'd joked. Maybe my sister would pass right on by. The place was charmed now.
Murphy waved and I sped off. I laid a trail of salt. A black cat watched me from the side of the road, and when I'd gone, it crossed.
©2016 by Trevor Shikaze
TREVOR SHIKAZE's fiction has appeared in The Golden Key, Lackington's, Betwixt, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.trevorshikaze.com.