There is a long wooden table at the center of the room. On the wall behind the head of the table is the portrait of a man who looks much like me. To either side of that portrait, there are hidden doors, where servants can enter and exist the room silently. Unheard. Unseen.
As I walk along the table, I try to see if I am alone in this room, but I cannot turn my head away from that portrait. The closer I get to it, the more warped it becomes, until I can see nothing of myself in it. Still, the plaque below it bears my name, which was my father’s name and his father’s name.
I reach out to touch the painting, my hand brushing along the navy jacket of the man in the portrait.
The navy and red lights are flashing outside of my building when I turn the corner down my block. They do not register to me until I am almost to the door and even then, the sight of them barely affects me.
As I put my hand on the door, I suddenly see that two policemen have dragged a young boy off of his bike and are yelling at him, waving their batons at him like they might use them. I see one of them raise his baton, his sleeve cutting the sky with a flash of navy blue. As he swings the baton towards the boy, his head turns and I almost think that I recognize the lines of his face.
The portrait began to crumble under my fingertips. I pull my hand back quickly, surprised to see the damage I have done. Around and around I turn, looking for someone to clean up the mess, to make the portrait whole once again. Someone who could rebrush the lines of that fine navy jacket, who could return this man who bears my name to his former glory.
There is no one around me to heed my cry for help, which is made silently, to no one but myself. I am alone, and on some level, I already know this.
I try the doors next to the portrait, the ones that lead to the servant’s quarters, but find that they did not open from the outside. Wherever their latches are, they have been concealed from me too well. The men who built this house had not wanted me here and now they refused to let me see behind the curtain.
I sit back down at the table. At least I can eat, since there is nothing else to be done. Pulling my plate over to me, I lift the cover from the plate. Steam rises from the food, but I find that it is all rotten. It is so funny. I never noticed the smell before. This looks exactly like the food I ate yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. Carefully, I push the plate away from me, placing the cover back over it.
Standing, I turn to look down the table towards the dark corners of the other end of the room.
There are long shadows in the hallway that leads to the elevators. One light has gone out and the other flickers in a mellow, rhythmic pattern. I stop at the front desk on the way to the elevator to complain about the flickering light one more time.
The woman at the desk nods, but she is glancing out the window at the red and blue lights. I notice that she is recording the interaction on her phone and with her other hand, she is holding the desk phone to her ear, speaking in hushed tones.
She notes my complaints quickly and shoos me away. It irritates me to be dismissed like that, but I am tired, so I walk along that flickering hallway to the elevator.
When I got to the apartment, the door was ajar. As I pushed through the door, tossing my keys on the countertop, I cursed myself for being so absentminded. This was the third or fourth time this week that I had left the apartment completely unlocked, the door swinging open loosely on its hinges.
Yesterday, someone had left me some snacks on the counter along with a note that said “I shut your door for you. Don’t forget to lock up!” with a little heart underneath. I didn’t know who had left the message, but I thought it was the little old lady across the hall. I kicked the door absently closed behind me and took off my shoes in the entryway, setting them off to the side.
I walked over to the windows and looked down at the street below. It was still flashing red and blue. The cops were still standing over the kid, who was now covered in blood and crying.
A crowd had formed around them in a mass of camera lights and yelling. At first, they just watched, enjoying the sudden drama that had been injected into their lives. Things like this happened from time to time and, every time, this same pattern would repeat itself. A crowd would form. The crowd would antagonize the police and record the interaction. Eventually, the crowd would disperse and the police would be left to do what they came to do. It happens all the time.
This time was different, though. This time, the crowd inhaled and exhaled as one, seeming to contract and expand organically around the two officers, who were now brandishing their weapons at the approaching crowd.
No one in the crowd did a thing, they just pushed into the officers until they could not move their bodies. The crowd kept constricting and I saw the two men begin to turn red, clutching at their throats. In seconds, they were both turning purple, their bodies contorting under the pressure of the crowd pressing into them. In one final contraction, the crowd enveloped the two officers entirely.
Not a single punch was thrown. No gunshot was fired. When the crowd dispersed, the two officers were nowhere to be seen. It was as if they had vanished from the face of the earth. The crowd itself spilled up the street, yelling in one voice and enveloping everything in its path.
Pedestrians disappeared into the crowd one by one as the crowd grew in size. They were not the only ones taken into the growing mass of energy. Street signs, mailboxes, strollers, cars all were swallowed up by the crowd as it rolled down the center of the street.
I realized to my dismay that the crowd had taken two of my car’s windows, removing them from the car without doing any damage to the rest of the vehicle. The replacements would cost more than I had to spend this month.
Somewhere in the back of my head, I saw that officer’s face. I thought of how small he had looked from my angle, how insignificant he had looked brandishing his weapon against the crowd.
Suddenly, I shivered. For a moment, his face in my mind became mine. Now he was gone and I was still here, for some reason. Now I had to figure out what I had just seen. Now I had to fix my car windows.
There was something wrong with the walls too. I stood from that long table to make my way over to one of the walls, where there was a small crack forming along the baseboard. Squatting down, I watched the crack spread slowly, spider-webbing its way up the wall with a measured speed. It was in no rush.
I looked around for someone to fix this problem. There was no one. I was totally alone here.
Looking at the wall, I saw a handprint forming along the end of the crack. It was a large handprint, covered in calluses and the scars of hard labor. One finger was missing – the pinkie finger – and I saw the lines of a lash crisscrossing the palm, where someone must have whipped the hand over and over again.
I watched the hand close into a fist, pulling at the crack, causing it to widen and lengthen. Now I remembered the hand. Its owner, a man named Jenkins, had been the one who built this home when I was a young boy. He had broken his back putting a house over our shoulders and we had paid him pennies, because he was a former slave and we wanted the work done cheap.
I don’t think I ever saw him after he finished that job, but I remember the last day when he walked out the front door and turned to mutter something in the threshold. Papa told me it was a curse he left us, but I never believed in all of that because curses and magic are just the invention of the uneducated.
Watching that crack lengthen, I turned to my education for a solution. Somewhere between Socrates and Algebra, there must be a way to rebuild this house.
I looked down at my hands and found them soft. I lifted them to my eyes to study them, looking for an answer of how to rebuild my home, debating ideas back and forth along the gentle lines of my palms. Unsure what the right path was, and too afraid to take the wrong path to move at all, I found myself frozen.
I did not look up as the house began to crumble. Because I did not look up, I had no idea I was still standing inside.
Photo by Oleg Stepanov on Unsplash