Ben Berman Ghan
“A serious house on serious earth it is,
in whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
are recognized and robed as destinies.”
~ Philip Larkin, Church Going
There is a bird on the windowsill.
Its small underbelly is white, and its wings are grey. The white travels up to the beak on either side of the little bird. The crest of its head has a black cap. Black feathers cover the underside of its beak. The eyes are watching me.
“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee?” it is asking. “Chick-a-dee? Chick-a-dee?”
Nobody is listening.
Nobody but me.
There is a pianist in a small apartment on the first floor. Her walls are lined with the literature of her studies. Works of political science, history, philosophy, poetry. She reads ferociously and indiscriminately of those who prescribe to her own ideals and those who she detests as monsters.
Simone de Beauvoir, Ayn Rand, Karl Marx, Thomas Moore, Langston Hughes, Emmanuel Levinas, Frederick Douglass, W. H. Auden, Adolf Hitler.
Back when she had visitors, some would propose to be just as offended by the first name as they were the last. She doesn’t have visitors anymore.
She is not lonely. She is preparing for a better world. I know this, because she says so, looking in the mirror.
Her hair is cropped short She wears no makeup; her clothes are plain and dark. Her eyes speak resistance over and over. She’s only five feet tall. She does not admit defeat.
She sits at her piano. It’s the only truly beautiful thing she owns. It is not out of vanity. It is beautiful because it needs to be. It is beautiful because no matter what she says, she still needs something.
There is a poster hanging in the bathroom, opposite the mirror. J. Howard Miller’s portrait of a woman, her arm bared. We can do it, it reads. She says this too sometimes. Standing over her sink.
“We can do it, we can do it,” she is exhausted.
During the day, she sells shoes. They are worn, and battered. The people who need them don’t mind. It is enough for them. It is enough for her.
It is enough.
What does she play?
Strange Fruit, Sinnerman, Crocodile Rock, What a Wonderful World,
Her fingers swim across the keys, chasing the hope between notes. She does not sing; she doesn’t need to. Her keys are better than any human voice in history. She plays as the master she is, variations on originals spinning out into the air as the inspirations comes to her, changes and repetitions.
Each song flows into the next until the whole universe becomes a series of circles in circles and every atom is dancing.
Billie Holiday becomes Ella Fitzgerald becomes Nina Simone becomes Oscar Peterson becomes Louis Armstrong becomes Herbie Hancock becomes Art Tatum becomes her. They are all there in her small rooms as she plays.
She plays each night, and dreams of the better world she tells herself is coming. She plays for the madman in the basement. She plays for me. I can feel her notes bouncing around inside my walls. Music is the only prayer she understands.
There is a man on the tenth floor with a gun pressed against the roof of his mouth. What kind of gun is that? An old revolver Colt-45, like the song I’ve never heard. He’s breathing heavily through his nose, nostrils flaring to keep up with the fast-paced pumping of his heart. He’s trying to stop himself from probing the barrel of the gun with his tongue. He hates the taste of metal between his teeth. He thinks it tastes salty. It reminds him of semen.
He never pulls the trigger.
He has done this every night since moving in four months ago. In the halls and the elevators and on the stairs, he gives almost no clue that so much of his time is spent trying to find the strength to take his own life. The only evidence to the outside world is the slight hesitation at front doors. As his dusty brown leather oxfords reach the space between the sidewalk and the foyer of my body, he pauses.
I can hear the disconnect between steps.
He is afraid to return to his small apartment with the Colt-45 waiting for him in the drawer of the nightstand by his bed. Maybe if he just runs out, runs to a bed far away from here, everything will be okay. But he can’t. He keeps coming back to me.
Maybe one night his finger will clamp down on the trigger and the piece of lead in the chamber of the gun will explode outward, ripping a hole into the man's brain. Sometimes I wish that he would. The sound of that heavy, adrenaline-fueled breath through nostrils night after night drives me mad because it is so loud and it will not stop. One loud bang would be better.
There is a light circle on the ring finger of his left hand. Perhaps he still puts it on when he goes out. I don’t know his name.
He’s so loud. They’re all so loud to me. They’re all living inside me.
On the third floor, a Mother and Father are screaming again. Son and Daughter hide in their room. Daughter has the top bunk tonight. I want so desperately for the screaming to stop. I want to run back to the 10th floor and seize the Colt-45, and then run back down again and shoot the screaming away.
What is it this time?
Father is offended about something. Something said by Mother’s sister. Something Aunt said to Son? What was it?
“Jewish men never look young.”
Is that true? Why does it hurt the Father? Why does it make him scream?
The man in the basement is only twenty-two. He’s Jewish too. Does he look old? I think he looks tired. I look tired. My paint has faded, and the weeds are growing through my scars.
Underneath how tired he is, he looks young. Underneath how tired I am, I still look old.
They all look young to me.
The man in the basement hides how young he is behind the bags under his eyes, bluish purple bruises of exhaustion that draw his face with cracks he hasn’t earned yet. He hides behind the slight furrow of his brow, in the line of his hair. When people tell him he looks old, they aren’t looking at him. They’re looking at the beard he managed to grow, and the scars on his hands and wrists, and the slump in his shoulders, and the crook of his nose, and the light that has gone out behind his eyes.
The man in the basement can hear the mother and father fighting floors above. He can hear all of them. All the pipes and vents that run through the building lead down to his small windowless apartment without carpets or furniture.
In his dreams, he pretends he can hear all those voices. He can listen to everyone and keeps all their lives in his head. In his dreams, he pretends to be me.
I can hear all of them, all the time. I focus, I focus. I listen to them one at a time. If I don’t, they’ll drown me.
His little brother comes to help him, but there isn’t anything that can be done. The man in the basement thinks he is insane. He thinks most of the other tenants are insane too.
His little brother is also Jewish. He is only fifteen. Does he look old? He doesn’t understand what has happened to the mind of his older brother. He can’t make him leave the basement.
He tells older brother he can leave whenever he wants.
“I know, I know,” Says the madman.
His little brother tells him he doesn’t have to die with me.
“I know,” He says. “I know.”
He doesn’t mean it.
But he will die, in me or out. I won’t even notice. One day there will be new Tenants, and I will listen to them as well. I can’t ever leave them by dying. I am trapped in my roots.
Often when the little brother leaves, he is crying, hiding little tears in the collar of his coat, turned up against the snow and the rain. I can still see him, from the windows. He cries as he waits for the bus that will carry him away from me. The kippah balanced on his golden hair is matted down by rain.
I don’t think he looks old.
There is a bird balanced on my windowsill. “Chick-a-dee-dee?" it says. The man in the basement can’t hear the bird. It is too far away.
Mother and Father have stopped screaming. Their silence is deafening to the madman in the basement, listening to the tenants through the pipes. It is the sound of absent connection. Something that isn’t there anymore. Something that’s never coming back.
I wish I could help them. Mother and Father are leaving. Son and Daughter will go with them. They are not all going together.
The man in the basement will never leave. He is trapped here; he has become a part of the structure of the place. He cannot separate himself from the brick. He thinks all these voices, all these people, are happening inside of him. But they are inside of me.
The failed science fiction writer on the roof, with the tips of his cheap-stitched together boots hanging over the edge into infinity. He is staring out at the gap between himself and the next building. It’s narrow to me but is massive to him.
From here he can see what he thinks are all the rooftops of the city, all my brothers and sisters, stretching away into the slim crescent moonlight. It is a road map to freedom. It is an escape route from me.
Next to him, a little bird is watching. He listens. I listen. “Chick-a-dee-dee?” it asks him. “Chick-a-dee?” he doesn’t answer. He never listens to the birds.
The man sways slightly with the wind, his body tipping out over empty space, and back towards the safety of the rooftop behind, and out again. It never occurs to him to jump even though his life is over. He lets his arms spread out in the wind, buffeted and hopeless, and the thick trench coat – the ancient, battered green of U.S Navy standard issue from over half a century before – falls, flying into oblivion to join the seagulls and garbage bags and used balloons that ride my skyline, falling to join the running shoes thrown over telephone poles below.
His chest is bared against the chilly wind. Tattoos wind their way across his torso. They are his words, printed in another’s handwriting. It doesn’t matter what they say. Even he doesn’t bother to read himself anymore.
Ink stains his figure like scars leading to the painting of the moon on his back, right under the edge of his shock-blond hair. He is the author of over seventy-four science fiction novels, sixteen plays, and one poem.
His books are sold in the back shelves of XXX movie rental stores that nobody has visited for decades and the secondary airports that people only ever see because of layovers. Nobody has ever put on any of his plays.
I know this because I can hear him whisper it to nobody. When he thinks he always does so out loud, not understanding I can hear him. I can hear all of them. It is painful to listen.
It doesn't matter how many new planets or mad robots or time travelers he finds dancing across his typewriter. He is a failure because he has beautiful ideas, but his writing is terrible.
It isn’t enough to have wonderful ideas now. Nobody cares about the space-age anymore. Even I am firmly set deep underground. I can’t see stars.
Once, the Pianist on the first floor played for the failed science fiction writer, because he had told her he was a writer, and she thought that should make him an intellectual. He was not offended by any of her books. He’d listened to her play Tiger Rag and had only this to say.
He told her jazz was just as dead. She told him to get out.
Since then, her only audience has been me, and the man in the basement. We listen. We don’t think her music sounds dead.
The ink-stained wretch doesn’t think of jumping from my roof. He only stands and lets the cold abuse him. He doesn’t think of anything anymore. In a way, he is dead already.
I wonder, can the man in the basement hear the others, even from all the way up on the roof? I think he can. I can. I can hear more than him.
He thinks the world owes him for wanting so much.
The girl on the seventh floor is crying again. The sobs make no sound of their own, but I can feel her shaking, curled up on the floor. Her childhood rape left her haunted by memories of her neighbor's dog, a large Black Lab with soft and doughy eyes.
The dog died from cancer of the kidneys more than a decade ago and is buried on the other side of the country. She knows this, but still, sometimes her brain tells her she sees the dog standing in in her hallway, and it’s expectant, simple face seems to be asking her why her knees are bleeding, and she can’t control the crying. She cries, and cries, and cries.
She is so small. Everyone is small to me. I tower over them, even as they hide inside of me.
I don’t know how to help her. I listen for the better times, when she makes the controller of her video game console click, or the tap of her finger on the keyboard, the gentle rustling of pages turning, or any of the other noises so many of the tenants make without knowing. Deafening proof of occupancy.
I make a point of hearing those noises from her I wish I had a way of asking her to read aloud so I could share in the stories. My only stories are the tenants. Her turning of the pages is the softest noise. It almost puts me to sleep.
I know when all her other noises stop that the dog is back, and she is crying again. I don’t know how to help her.
There is a mirror over her bathroom sink. Her hair sticks up in strange black spikes early in the morning. I want to find a way to tell her I like the tattoo of the little alien on her ankle the best. But I don’t know how.
I have tattoos as well. They spray them along my sides and along my base, paint over brick. I cannot read them. I cannot stop the boys who give them to me.
I wish she didn’t have to see the dog anymore. I wish nobody did. I wish she could hear the birds.
She changed her name when she first came here. She keeps on changing it. She doesn’t know who to be anymore.
The girl from the seventh floor has heard the pianist, through walls of my stairway. Keys tapping, feet tapping. I can hear the echo. She can hear the fight.
She leaves a note under the door. She was too shy to knock. I can see the note, little letters, printed neatly. I can see them, because the pianist has hung them on the wall across from the mirror, with the other posters in shades of black and white.
Play on, it says, because that was the only thing the girl from the seventh floor knew how to say, to say what she wanted to say.
Neither of them knows they have met. The pianist had sold the tattooed girl for twenty dollars. She didn't tell her the shelf-price had been seventy. She had seen the holes in the girl's old sneakers. She didn't mind how losing the money. It was still enough.
Neither will ever recognize the other.
I know no music can help Mother or Father or Son or Daughter. They are already gone. Their empty rooms are a vacuum inside of me. It hurts. I know they aren’t coming back.
I can hear the sick man in the basement, strange echoes of my own thoughts.
“I know, I know.” He says. The words have nothing to do with knowledge. He is screaming. We just want to help them. We want them all to be okay.
I wish the girl from the seventh floor had knocked. They need each other. All my tenants are alone, closed in by my walls. I am trapping them. I don’t know how to let them go.
The explosion of feet against the stairs. The elevator roars between floors as they climb through me. The whispers, the breathing, the music, rustling of paper, keys tapping, small crying, loud breathing. I just want it to stop. I am not in the basement. I’m everywhere, and it hurts.
They all think they are alone.
I wish the girl had knocked.
The roar of the gun is deafening. All the tenants heard it.
I can’t stop hearing it. Bang, bang, bang.
Then in the silence, suddenly the man on the tenth floor doesn’t exist anymore. After the silence, there is screaming. I am screaming. Sirens circle around me. Around and around, circles in circles. It is nothing like when the pianist plays. The siren song sounds dead to me. I was wrong. I’d do anything to have his heavy breathing come back. I don’t want the world to end.
The thing that isn't the man on the tenth floor is found. His neighbours, watch from the main hall as it is carried away, three-quarters of a person. The remaining quarter that the bullet of the colt-45 had finally managed to remove are hanging from the walls of the tenth floor. Someone will have to come and take the rest soon. The body was finally wearing the wedding ring on its left hand. It is carried away with him.
They are all there in the foyer as the body vanishes forever. The girl who cries, and the bastard writer, and the poor pianist, mixed in with so many others whose noises are indistinguishable to me. I just wanted them to be okay. I want them to hear each other.
The crying from the basement can't stop, the only one not there. The girl is asking something. She tries not looking at the dog. But it's there with her. It's with all of them if they can see it
What is she saying?
She turns first to the pianist who is on her left, who replies she doesn’t know with the utmost dignity and composure. Even her ignorance is royalty. She asks the girl from the seventh floor, who only shakes her head. She asks the room at large, her words echoing out to all the tenants.
She is asking for the man on the tenth floor, who doesn’t exist anymore. “What was his name?”
The failed science fiction writer says he might know. They are coming for me. I know, I know.
Those footsteps are growing so much louder. He is curled into a ball on the floor, and I am crying, the voices from the vents are mingling with the voices on the stairs, and in the hall. I am not in the basement. I am everywhere.
They are all here. They are leading him away from the basement, away from the vents. Someone is holding my hand. The girl from the seventh floor opens the door for us. They step outside, and I cannot follow him. My doors stay open, reaching. I am letting him go.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I’m sorry,” He says.
The Pianist picks me up when I stumble against the sidewalk. All the tenants are around me, and I am outside. They ask me if he knew the name of the man on the tenths floor. I know. I can’t tell them. I can only stand. I can only let them go. They tell me it's okay. They say someone has called his brother. It is so quiet outside. Someone is still holding his hand. Someone is holding my door.
“Listen,” They says. “It’s okay.”
I am so small.
“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee?” the little white black-capped bird asks me from the window. “Chick-a-dee?”
“I know,” I tell it. “I know.” The bird is the only one who can hear me.
The Tenant from the basement is leaving me; I can see my own reflection in the black window of the ambulance. I can see how tall I am. My windows are empty, but growing fuller. They are coming back inside, back to the dog, and away from the birds. I cannot stop them.
But at least he is free.
He turns to go, the tears on his face wash away all the age and all the time. They wash away all the traces of me from his mind. I don't think he looks old at all.
Ben Berman Ghan is a young writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada. He is in his fourth year of my undergraduate degree studying English, Writing and Rhetoric, and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. His short fiction has appeared in The Spectatorial, Occulum Journal, The Goose, The UC Review, South 85, Liquid Imagination, and the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal