Such Delicate Things

by Rudy Koshar
I woke at two in the morning with a strange sense that someone somewhere in the apartment building had screamed. I thought I’d been dreaming, but if I had, I forgot the dream the moment I awoke. Maybe the scream roused me out of a dream. Or the dream, if it existed, roused me out of a scream. I couldn’t get back to sleep because I kept listening. My mind was mired in questions. Had the scream come from down the hallway? The basement? Did it come from the street below, or from some grayness between my mind and reality, a non-place like a shopping mall or an airport terminal? It could have been any of those; the scream was distant yet near, muffled yet distinct, minute yet immense.

“Did you hear that?” I asked my fiancé Mavis.

When there was no answer, I reached out to touch her, but grasped only space. I remembered she’d gone home early. She hadn’t used red pepper flakes in the pasta dish, and that had meant we wouldn’t sleep together.

I felt disoriented—the scream, Mavis’s absence, night. I got out of bed and found myself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. I still existed, judging from what I saw in the reflection: a tall, reedy twenty-something male, olive complexion, thanks to a Greek mother and Slovenian father, jet-black disheveled hair appropriate in length and style to the demanding graduate-student fashion dictates of the moment. “Enough,” I whispered to the darkness, “you’re real.”

I shuffled to the living room window, pulled the curtain aside. A perfectly normal January scene in Madison, Wisconsin. It had snowed that afternoon, four or five inches, but the snowplows had already cleaned up. The new mayor, mealy-mouthed and overweight, knew that his ticket to re-election was keeping the streets plowed. The streetlamps bathed everything in a bizarre metallic light that made me think of chewing aluminum foil. The only movement I saw was a black and white squad car pulling into the university police station across the street. Sometimes at this time of night I would see students straggling back to their dorms or apartments after a night of hellacious boozing. But it was winter break, and Madison became very quiet when students did their binging and retching back home for the holidays.

I went into the kitchen, let the tap run, and poured a glass of cool water. I took a sip and took the glass back to my bedroom, where I put it on my nightstand. Mavis was often annoyed with me for leaving half-full glasses of water scattered around the apartment. I couldn’t help myself: I was a serial water pourer and glass filler. It was even worse on nights I couldn’t sleep. Then I might get up three or four times, pour a glass, take a few sips in the living room or bedroom, and leave the glass there. If I did that often enough I had to get up several times to go the bathroom. That kept Mavis up, and even if we’d had red pepper flakes in the stew or spaghetti, she’d get in a huff, demonstratively rotate herself several times under the sheets, and tell me, after one final thrash, to go sleep on the couch, which I did.

From the bedroom, I looked outside again. Nothing had changed. The plowed streets and shoveled sidewalks, the lit-up police station, an early-morning inertness as indistinct as the moment between waking and sleep. Madison was still except for the yellow caution light at the intersection, which flashed on and off, on and off, as if trying to start a conversation. No one responded. Or maybe only the screamer had.

*

That morning I ran into Roger in the hallway of our building. He gave me a broad smile, as was his habit, and said he’d been meaning to invite Mavis and me for dinner. We’d had him over to our place on three occasions, he said, and it was time he reciprocated. “Is this Saturday okay, Anthony, for you and Mavis?”

“Saturday’s great. We look forward to it.”

Roger had appeared one day about six months before. He lived in the apartment two doors down the hall. I couldn’t recall seeing him move in. Nor could Mavis, and though Mavis didn’t live in the building, she was there often, and she noticed things—if the couple across from me was having relationship problems, or whether the woman in 7a with the Angela Davis-style Afro was holding another meeting of her radical political discussion group. Mavis was so expert at observing and noticing that I joked to her once she would make a good spy. She harrumphed, scrunched her prominent Gallic nose, and went back to her Sudoku puzzle.

We found Roger unconventional, and we were drawn to him. It was 1977. The Vietnam War had come to its ragged end, but radical politics and the counterculture still hung in the air like incense. The ‘60s had come to our decade to ride out a hangover, and Roger somehow fit the ambience of the time, though he himself was neither countercultural nor, as far as we could tell, hung over. With broad shoulders, blond crew-cut hair, and a Dick-Tracy chin, he looked like he’d been a linebacker in high school, a homecoming king, a surfer, all of the above.

Roger was six or seven years older than we were, and he’d done two tours in Vietnam, in army intelligence, he said, but he’d also learned something about explosives. He taught us all the places in our building where you could put an explosive charge and bring the three-story structure to the ground in a matter of minutes. We found the information exciting and almost intoxicating: we possessed arcane knowledge that was subversive to the powers that be. He told us he had a dozen guns in his apartment, though we never saw one of his firearms. In our eyes, he was a desperado in a sports coat and pressed slacks, a Che Guevara without beard or beret or any particular political commitment. He said he’d once driven down to Tijuana, alone, and paid a whore for her services, only to be robbed of his money, beat up, and stripped of his clothes by three thugs. “I wandered around the city buck naked until dawn when I worked up the courage to mug a homeless man and literally steal the shirt off his back,” he said chuckling and shaking his blockish blonde head. Roger was exotic to us, two Midwestern kids who aspired to see the world but hadn’t seen it yet.

Roger also had a gentle side. In the apartment across from him there was a young couple with an elderly dog, a mix between a Labrador and a fill-in-the-breed-of-your-choice. The couple had inherited the dog from the man’s recently deceased father. Their work schedules kept them out of the apartment at all hours, and Roger generously offered to take the dog out in the morning and early evening. We saw him walking the old dog up and down the block every day. He even offered to walk it on weekends. He invariably asked Mavis and me if he could pick something up at the grocery store for us. “I’m going there anyway,” he would say grinning, “do you want me to add something to my list?”

Despite his regular dog walks, Roger too worked irregular hours. Since I was a graduate student, I was often up late at night studying or, if I had a teaching assistantship, I might be out the door early to teach a discussion section. I’d hear Roger come home after  just big enough to keep me from bumping into myself. Roger said he had a boring but well-paying office job in an insurance company on the west side. He explained his irregular comings and goings by saying he did a lot of off-hours consulting for several security firms. The two gigs together paid the bills, he said, and then some.

*

We arrived for dinner at Roger’s with Santana playing in the background. Roger greeted us as he always did, a gentle hug and kiss for Mavis and a bone-breaking handshake for me. With a wave of his hand he invited us to sit down. It was then we noticed that on the end tables and bookshelves and in glass cabinets were dozens of porcelain figures. There were doves, dolphins, foxes, owls, kitschy little shepherds and shepherdesses, dogs, horses, lambs, flowers, and much more. We felt uncomfortable at first, partly because it was so incongruous to see such a collection in Roger’s apartment. What was a linebacker doing with stuff like this? But we were also afraid we might bump into something and shatter a valuable piece.

Roger may have sensed our discomfort. He smiled and explained that he’d been collecting since he was a teenager. “Other kids bought clothes or records or pot but I saved my money to buy porcelain figurines. I have all the finest German specimens. Meissen, Rosenthal, KPM, Villeroy & Boch, Nymphenburg, Fürstenberg, Wallendorfer, Weimar, Hutschenreuter, Arzberg, Barbara Flügel, Wagner & Apel—they’re all represented.”

Impressed but trying not to look too dumbfounded, we sat on the couch watching Roger as he surveyed his porcelain empire.

“I like delicate things,” he continued as he waved his hand like an opera impresario presenting his latest production. “I like being surrounded by vulnerable things so fragile they could dissolve into nothingness at a moment’s notice. Such delicate things, they remind us of the precariousness of life itself.”

His words had a dramatic effect on us. We already liked Roger, but now we gained a new respect for him. He wasn’t just unconventional but also a lover of culture, a collector of objets d’art, a philosopher or maybe even some kind of guru.

We found out yet another thing about Roger that night: he was an extraordinary cook. I still remember his spicy Thai noodles, which he served with a tasty cilantro chicken. Later that night Mavis raved about the dish and promised me she would try it herself as soon as possible. I didn’t protest.

*

It was soon after Roger showed us his porcelain collection that I heard a second scream. Mavis had used red pepper flakes in that night’s meal—she’d made a knockout version of Roger’s spicy Thai noodles—and so we made love twice. But post-coital sleep was all too short for me, and soon I was awake watching headlights dance across the bedroom ceiling. The scream was short and sharp—a quick burst of agony or fear or pain in the night. It was as difficult to locate as the last time, but something told me it came from below. Not from the street below but below in our building, like the basement, which I’d never entered because it had always been locked and had a black and white sign posted by the door reading Private: Keep Out.

“Did you hear it?” I asked, lightly touching Mavis’s shoulder.

“Hear what?” came a groggy reply.

“The scream.”

“You must’ve been dreaming.”

“No, I know I wasn’t. I was listening to you snore.”

“Ah-hah.” She turned over.

“Let’s cuddle,” I whispered.

She didn’t say anything, but she gently arched her behind toward my groin, which was all the invitation I needed. Turned out we did more than cuddle, and again I fell into a post-coital slumber, this one much longer than the first.

The next morning I was more convinced than ever I’d heard a scream. It was as real as Mavis’s body had been.

*

One day I found myself standing at the basement door. I checked to see if the door was locked, and it was. The sign telling me to keep out was still there too. In other apartment buildings I’d stayed, the basement was for tenants’ storage, or there were laundry facilities, or what not. This building had all those things on the ground floor. So there had never been a reason to go into the basement. I jiggled the doorknob, a pointless gesture. Even if it had been unlocked I would have had to deal with two other padlocks. The door looked to be made of solid wood. I rapped on it several times to make sure and heard nothing but stubborn impenetrability.

Just then Roger strolled down the hallway. I was surprised to see him since his place was on the other side of the L-shaped building. But then so was mine, so we were both in a part of the apartment we normally never visited.

“What’s up?” he said in his usual affable way.

“Not much,” I responded in like manner.

We chatted for a few minutes; our conversation was as amiable as it was aimless. “Would you like to see my latest porcelain purchase?” Roger asked after our exchange ran its natural course. I’d been impressed by Roger’s collection but not so much that I wanted to become an aficionado. To be frank, I wasn’t at all interested in Roger’s latest find. But Roger insisted. His manner was almost urgent, as if he were trying to pull me away from the door.

“Well, sure, I don’t have much time, but I’d like very much like to see it, Roger,” I said, meaning the opposite.

Once we were in his apartment, Roger showed me a small Rosenthal vase, no more than four inches high, that looked like a paper bag. “This piece is controversial,” he explained. “Traditionalists hate it because they favor human or animal or botanical figures. An everyday object, something like an ordinary paper bag no less, is in their opinion inappropriate as a subject for a world-class porcelain manufacturer.” Roger invited me to look closely at the glazing on the white bag. “See its lovely wrinkles and creases?” he asked. I nodded, trying to look interested. Then he said, “It brings back an interesting memory of how South Vietnamese intelligence would leave the head of a rebel they’d executed in a bloody paper bag. They’d place it in a prominent spot as a warning to the opposition.”

I’d heard similarly gruesome comments from Roger before, so I didn’t react with surprise or disgust. The guy had been in Vietnam, after all, and had seen things I couldn’t have imagined. He’d come by his nightmares honestly, and such remarks made him more interesting and unconventional in a sad way.

Soon our conversation was over. I’d made the appropriate positive comments and decided to ignore Roger’s Viet Nam memory. “The bag really is beautiful,” I’d said. “I don’t know much about porcelain, but it looks to be a very interesting addition to your collection. I have to admit I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I can understand why it would be controversial. Very fascinating.”

Then, having done my best to be supportive, I excused myself, saying I had to pick up Mavis from a dental appointment. “Give your lovely fiancé my best, then,” said Roger with a self-satisfied smile.

As I drove away from the apartment, I noticed an unusual amount of activity across the street at the university police station. There were a lot of squad cars coming and going. The police officers outside the building bustled around and seemed to be in a terrible rush. I’d completely forgotten about the basement door.

*

About this time, for no more than a couple of weeks, I had the feeling that Roger and Mavis had a thing for each other. Why I thought this was a mystery to me. Maybe it was the way she laughed at his odd jokes and turns of phrase. Or maybe it was Roger’s way of giving her a kiss on the cheek whenever he saw her. It seemed to me he lingered a little longer with his kisses than he should have—and Mavis, her mouth subtly turned toward a smile, enjoyed the lingering too much. At first glance, there was nothing to suggest that Roger and Mavis belonged together. No way a hunky linebacker would find bespectacled, short, rather mousy-looking and frizzy-haired Mavis desirable, I thought. Because I found her impossibly attractive in an oddball way was reason enough for me to assume that Mr. Crew Cut would never have similar feelings. Yet even if my mind told me not to jump to conclusions, my heart couldn’t let the suspicion go, so I came right out and asked Mavis on one of our red-pepper nights.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said.

“But you like him.”

“Yes, but not in that way. He is charming, but I love you, Anthony.”

“I thought maybe you’d tired of our engagement.”

“Tired? How could I have tired of it? We’ve only been engaged five years.”

I always liked Mavis’s irony, but during this period of my life, that too made me suspicious. I thought it might make her potentially more interesting to Roger. I wondered about Roger’s irregular schedule. What of his early morning arrivals? Had he been with Mavis on the nights she didn’t sleep at my place? Maybe the consulting job was just a cover for his amorous adventures with my fiancé.

During one stretch Mavis stayed at my apartment every night for a week. This wasn’t a frequent occurrence but it was by no means unusual. It was spring recess and so we both had the chance to relax a bit and sleep in. Mavis used a lot of red pepper flakes in her cooking that week, and I was a well-fed, happy, and tired young man. Still, I felt a vague undertow of doubt and I decided to use the week to keep close track of Roger’s movements. If he held to a regular nine-to-five schedule, then I’d be even more suspicious. I’d conclude that if he couldn’t be with Mavis he had no reason to be up at all hours.

I was overjoyed when on several occasions that week I heard Roger come back at three or four in the morning. I’d made a point of being up—not a difficult thing for an insomniac in training—and it was well worth the effort. Of course, there were multiple possibilities. Roger had several women including Mavis, for example. If Mavis wasn’t available to him that week, then one of his other ladies was. Or he was seeing her during the regular workday, in a motel or in the back seat of his car or wherever. But for me the test proved what I wanted it to prove: that Roger and Mavis weren’t having a relationship. I soon filed away my suspicion with a lot of other overwrought ideas I had at that time in my life. The evidence spoke for itself, I told myself. The evidence never lied.

*

In those graduate-student days. I had visions of being a successful historian. I’d teach, write books and articles, travel regularly to Europe to do research and give papers. I’d marry Mavis, who was also a graduate student, though she was in the English department. My specialty was twentieth-century German cultural history, hers eighteenth-century English poetry. We’d be an academic power couple, I thought, like my thesis advisor and his wife, both famous historians.

But there was that thing called a dissertation, a daunting, slavering monster from which I could escape in only two ways. I could write it, revise it, and defend it before a committee of five professors who would be as eager to see me out the door as I was to run through it. Or I could just walk away and be done with the anxiety and self-doubt and eyestrain. For reasons still unclear to me, maybe from laziness, maybe from fear of failure, I chose the latter and took what my department delicately called “a terminal M.A.”

Mavis chose the first option and became a professor of English at a good state university in Iowa, where she wrote erudite and arcane scholarly monographs on erudite and arcane eighteenth-century English poets. I was her faculty husband. I taught now and then at a community college, wrote several articles that made their way into popular history journals, did some editing and freelance work for a firm that needed German business documents translated into English. In a reversal of our earlier lives, I did most of the cooking, along with cleaning the house and raising our two children. Professionally, Mavis was the planet and I was her satellite, and that was fine with me. We’d lost all contact with Roger.

The years went by without event, as years have a way of doing in Iowa, until one evening when we were in our fifties. Mavis and I sat watching the evening news and sipped a box-quality Chardonnay, one of my personal favorites. On the screen we saw a picture of a dozen men, special security agents who’d apparently been organized in the early 1970s to go after the President’s political enemies. The group took on a life of its own, and although it was eventually disbanded, it spent more than a decade illegally interrogating and torturing a still indeterminate number of dissidents and others who’d run afoul of the government.

Agents had moved around the country operating under deep cover, the newscaster reported, often being attached to rather benign institutions whose officials might have been unaware of their darker actions. It turned out that one such institution was Madison’s university police department, one of the most liberal in the States. After undergoing hellish abusive treatment, the victims were cowed into silence with threats to their families and loved ones. Reporters discovered that numerous young women, seduced by the bravado and charm of the agents, had collaborated to identify and locate potential targets for such “special handling.” The announcer said that it was only after CIA torture policies in the post-9/11 era came to light that former victims, or their spouses or children, felt safe enough to tell their stories. The men were still at large, as were most of their collaborators, but law enforcement officials were certain they would locate them. One of the men on the screen had blond hair and a linebacker’s tree-trunk neck. His angular jaw came straight out of a Dick Tracy comic strip.

I looked at Mavis, who stared at the screen without expression. A sharp chill ran along my neck and shoulders.

“Mavis?”

She didn’t respond. I wanted to take her hand because her mouth had curled into that grotesque half-smile that often precedes crying. But my arms felt leaden and I couldn’t move.

After a few minutes of withered silence, Mavis sighed. She got up, hurried to the kitchen, opened the door to the spice cabinet, and pulled out a small plastic container of crushed red pepper, which she then plunked on the counter. “Just for old times sake,” she said as she began preparing a meal.

I wanted to help—above all I wanted her to talk to me—but her actions were so frenzied that walking into the kitchen would have been like stepping off a curb into heavy traffic. I busied myself in the living room watching TV and sipping more Chardonnay until she called me to the kitchen more than an hour after starting to cook. With the air of someone who meant to say everything by saying nothing, she placed before me a dish of Thai noodles with cilantro chicken.

The silence dragged on as we ate, but after ten minutes, I got up to leave the table. It wasn’t that Mavis didn’t utter a word. I had accepted that talking about the news was impossible for now just as it was impossible for us to talk about Roger’s secret life and my reawakened suspicions that Mavis had been involved with him. Maybe Mavis would never discuss the matter, never tell me the truth, never say what she knew and when she knew it and above all what role she might have played. And what if the FBI determined she was one of the collaborators, one of those young women seduced by a linebacker’s charms? What then? I thought of Roger’s speech about his porcelain collection and the fragility of things. How could anyone so wrong be so right?

But all that wasn’t what made me get up from the table. The problem was the food, which was too spicy, and which later kept me up most of the night with the worst heartburn I’d ever had.
Rudy Koshar is a former Guggenheim Fellow and Pushcart Prize Nominee whose work has been published in Corium, Riptide, Guernica, Eclectica, and elsewhere. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, blogs at rudykoshar.net and Huffington Post, and thinks “Bob and the Trees” is the film of the decade (pick a decade).

© 2016, Rudy Koshar