Monday, January 8, 2007
Randall Binkins occupied a fourth floor apartment, a garret, in a worn-down building in the heart of Baltimore. He was broad-shouldered, somewhat portly, and, as he climbed the stairs this night, he mumbled to himself, cursing, and swearing, and hating the world.
Walking home from the office where he was employed as a clerk, he had two blocks to go when the rain began. It was a cold autumn day and the rain came down in torrents. He ran, but the sidewalks became puddles. Water drenched his shoes. It splashed onto his clothes as he ran across the street, jumping to avoid the stream flooding out from the gutters. When he got to his apartment building, the key stuck, as it did form time to time, and he fumed while he jiggled it, shaking and kicking the door in his fury.
His wet pants clung to his legs. With each step there was a squishing sound. Water droplets rolled down his nose. He felt a chill as he climbed the stairs, rounded each landing, and continued upward. By now Randall Binkins was breathing in heaves. As he started climbing the last flight of stairs, he looked up and the hallway was dark. "Damn it," he thought, "the light bulb is burned out." Ascending into the darkness with the key in his hand he reached out blindly for the lock on the apartment door. Raging and swearing he finally got it open.
Stepping inside, he turned to close the door. A faint light from his apartment barely illuminated the hallway but as he turned around to shut the door he jerked back, startled. There, barely visible in the shadows of the hallway where he had passed just seconds before, was a body, laying prone but propped against the wall, clothes tattered and ragged. How had he avoided tripping over him in the dark? At the same time he was terribly thankful that he had not...
Randal felt his beating heart begin to slow. His wet clothes sent a shiver up his spine and he wondered - "Is he sleeping? Is he dead?" He certainly was not conscious - this man, this pile of rags. A rush of disgust overcame him. His former mood claimed him once again and Randall closed and bolted the door.
He loosened his tie and went over to the cabinet to pour himself a shot of whiskey. Downing it, he looked at the floor and sighed. He decided while getting out of his damp clothes that he would call an ambulance. Throwing on a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt he rubbed his hair with a towel and, walking over to the phone he picked up the receiver and began to dial. A thought made him stop. He hung it up. Perhaps his eyes had played a trick on him. What if there was no one out there after all? Could it have been a hallucination, a figment of his imagination, some shadowy form misconstrued, further tormenting his troubled mind - or maybe a poltergeist was playing mischief with his rotten disposition? He had to open the door again and take a look, to touch or kick him in the leg. If he was sleeping, maybe he could just wake him up and chase him out. And what if there was no body out in the hall? What would he tell the ambulance driver? The driver might think he was crazy and try to cart him off to the funny farm for having delusions. There was no getting around it - he would have to double check to make sure of what he believed he saw in his hallway. He would do it.
Randal Binkins felt numb, scared, inert. A feeling swept through him just then - a loathsome and horribly cold feeling of fear - a feeling that he was suddenly a prisoner in his own home. The door went out of proportion, became part of the wall, as if painted there. he knew as he stood gazing and the door gazed back - he knew that he could never open that door. he went to the mirror in his bedroom. He looked at his face. His hair was wild. He brushed it. What was this fear, this unreality that took charge of him? If there was someone invading his space, some bum, he would simply investigate and do what had to be done. Why had this become such a big deal?
"Now Randall," he thought, "get a grip on yourself." For a second or two he wondered whether he was going crazy. "Maybe," his mind taunted him, "maybe this was an early sign of insanity. Are you going crazy?" he thought, "was it that job, my boss, this life of mine?"
Something snapped just then and reality came bursting forth like a gust of wind, like fresh air rushing in through the window. "Enough of this," he stammered. Clomping over to the door with an impatient stride, he undid the lock and flung it wide open. His purposeful jaw was set, but it quickly dropped. He gasped and his eyes opened wide - nothing was there! No body. Nothing. Nothing except - and he walked into the hallway to get a closer look, bent down and squinted - a single white feather.
The next morning, Randall was up before dawn proceeding with his morning ritual. He showered, had his morning coffee and he was finishing dressing for work. He was quickly making his bed, and as he did so he suddenly stopped when his eyes rested on the white feather which he had set on his night table. The events of the previous evening came back to him, dreamlike. And for a moment he fell into a ponderous lull. Giving his head a quick shake, he finished making the bed.
The sun was just rising now. Randall was full of morning energy. It was Friday. Locking to the door to his apartment, he bounded out in a good humor. But half-way down the first flight of stairs he paused and looked back up. "Funny," he thought, "that bulb is not burned out at all." Indeed, the hallway was brightly lit, the mellow red of the new day hardly coming through from the small window up above. "That's funny, I know it was dark in here last night."
Randall turned back around and headed down the stairs, still puzzled and thinking back as if this new mystery threw a fresh clue to the bizarre events of the night before.
Randall Binkins dutifully set out on his eight block walk to the office. He strode down the street past the old Basilica and the public library. On down the hill were office buildings, nameless facades that filled the emptied daily with workers in their office attire, delivery men darting to and fro. Signs along the street and shop windows held his gaze but little, having become mere landmarks on his daily route. He was about half-way now. He thought he smelled peanuts roasting. There was a small peanut shop just down one of the streets he passed. Randall loved peanuts. A little further on, a small crowd of people, mostly blacks, were standing about in the diner - some sullen, lost - others making loud conversation. he smelled coffee and toast. The morning traffic was brisk and the sound of cars drowned out the voices at the diner as he continued on. The city now opened up into public spaces, a civic center, a federal building. The streets grew wider. Steam rose from grates and manhole covers. Pigeons poked along or flapped away on the sidewalks around him. There was a happy Friday feel to the city streets. Even the porters in their garish costumes who managed the entrance way to the big hotel were smiling and seemed livelier than on other days of the week.
Randall was now a block from his office building. He noted with pleasure that not one homeless bum type had begged some money from him this morning. He had seen some beggars out of the corner of his eye but had developed the street-wise habit of looking askance at them, if at all. When they begged he would ignore them completely. They had become such a scourge, a pestilence, a new city-fixture phenomenon - rampant and seemingly out-of-control.
As he rounded a corner, one block from the building that housed his office, a greasy bag person lay sprawled over a heating grate. By odd chance, Randall's eyes met his and at that moment he heard the predictable words - "Got any spare change?" Uncharacteristically, Randall took offense and he snapped back, "Can you spare some change for me? The bum eyed him with a half-astonished leer and said nothing. Randall passed, and as he was walking away from him he heard the reflexive and mocking - "Thank you, sir." At this he spun around and stopped to glare at the bum square in the face. It was a face that wore an ambiguous indifference, tinged with a sublimely hateful disdain. The bum's weather-hardened countenance grew suddenly blank, pitiful. Randall stood for a moment, transfixed, wanting to curse him and his impudent wretchedness, but the words would not come. His throat felt tight. He felt the foul mood returning from the night before, sullying his sunny Friday disposition and he blamed it all on this miserable lout. Then something, some light wispy garbage protruding from one of the man's bags made him think again of the feather, the white feather he had kept.
Then he heard it. I deep bellowing whisper called out his name - "Randall..." He looked high up into the clock tower nearby searching somewhere, anywhere, for the source of the voice that had reached unmistakably into his inner ear and summoned him - a mystical, otherworldly voice. In an instant his senses froze, then resumed functioning. He walked away wondering about it, feeling that something had happened in his life; as though some entity was trying to connect with him. Pensively, he approached his building, reserving further thought on the matter for later.
As he entered, nodding to co-workers and uttering his good mornings, Randall braced himself for another eight hours of tedium as a clerk at his place of employ.
The strange events of the preceding twenty-four hours had been suppressed as Randall had gone about his mundane clerking tasks. But he lay on his bed now, this Friday evening, thinking and meditating about what these sights and sounds he was experiencing could mean. He hadn't changed his diet or his habits lately.
Randall Binkins was a lonely man. At thirty-nine he was starting to feel what he imagined to be mid-life crisis; he couldn't lose weight as easily as before and there was that broadening face, a few wrinkles, a double chin, aches and pains that came and went - a quiet panic stirred inside of him now whenever he looked into the mirror, whenever he took some moments to wonder where his life was going. He had the sort of friendly composure and manners that at first appeared socially acceptable and even warm. But his conversations with people often would lapse into silence or take unexpected twists as he pursued some unusual thought. Others would soon learn to keep a distance. And he knew he had this effect on people. Randall's world was a place apart.
So, Randall Binkins had resigned himself some years ago to exist on a single, self-made island of his own simple design. Not that he was a loner, a nerd who had no conception of social convention. He just chose to do without what he called "the Glare." This isolation removed him further from a vibrant, changing world and intensified his feelings of alienation, of mid-life crisis, of a world leaving him behind now.
He wasn't a bad looking fellow. In fact, he was handsome, ruggedly handsome though filling out with the years. In his twenties and early thirties he had shared in the reckless pursuits of his peers - drinking and dancing and not thinking about tomorrow. He also had enjoyed some serious, loving relationships with a few different women and they had taught him valuable things. But his tomorrows were upon him now. The loves he had known were only pleasant memories he evoked from time to time. Occasionally he thought he saw a spark of interest in the eyes of some waitress or some attractive girl he might pass on the street. Yet in his mid-life his confidence was waning; he felt he could no longer stand before them cocky and sure, his hip thrown to one side, and charm them silly as he did in his youth.
Alone now, he pursued a work-a-day regimen that simply permitted his existence. Realizing dreams and making changes all came harder now. He had given up and given in to the maturing process, though he stayed ever-vigilant for some perfect circumstance - the right woman, the irresistible career opportunity, something to lead him to a brighter path and away from the doldrums of his present situation. But sadly, he thought, such a thing would not come to pass.
Randall lay staring at the ceiling. He imagined an abyss. He pictured himself standing at the precipice, his haggard face staring down into the darkness and the heaviness of his life weighing on him, barely allowing him to keep his balance.
He shut his eyes.
Something big swelled within his head. There was a sharp pain there. He thought he should rise and take an aspirin, but he could not even open his eyes. A spasm bolted through his legs. Then a lightness descended on Randall Binkins.
In the garret of a run-down Baltimore tenement on a Friday evening, an expanding smile rose and spiraled up above the building, over the city and disintegrated into the dark blue atmosphere with a fizzling "pop."
The neighbors had smelled an odor and the police had been called. A few officers were poking through Randall's things as the attendants, sweating and cursing after their four-story climb, wheeled the body out of the cramped apartment. "Looks like natural causes to me, Ed," one policeman said as he stared blankly out the window. The other officer grunted in agreement. He had entered the bedroom, had picked up the white feather and was stroking it thoughtfully.
In the street below some onlookers had gathered. When the body bag appeared with the attendants struggling to manage its weight on the stretcher, the crowd suddenly hushed and watched. A wino among them mumbled incoherently, angry that he could not pass along the sidewalk. Then he too saw the black bag that shrouded death from their view. Unmoved, he turned to those in his midst and, in a curious venting of creative marketeering, the bum begged for spare change, saying, "That poor dead guy could be me, it could be you, please give me something before it's too late!"
Randall Binkins was removed from all of this now. The ambulance pulled away abruptly, the police officers left the building and the people were dispersing, gossiping as they went. Up above some pigeons stirred in the rusted-out soffit of Randall's old building. The wino bum was the last to leave. And as he wandered away down the street, a single white feather fluttered from above and settled on the pavement below, unnoticed.
October 28, 1993/ Isola Maddalena, Italy