Marty Robins does not recall who called him the last time his telephone rang. He thinks it was one of his golf buddies. Maybe, it was Herby Johnson, who is kind of a pain in the neck. Every time Marty is picking out his iron, or sizing up the green, he has to tune out Herby’s incessant banter. It is not just that Herby talks way too much at the least opportune time. It is that the silly old fart talks too loud on account of his damn hearing aid never working right. He is also forever peddling his son’s vitamins and supplements. Marty does not care about living to a hundred and three. He wants to hit the green on his tee shot, if that is not too much to ask.
Still, for all of his faults, at least Herby has been calling him ever since he got a bad case of the shivers. The silence from the others has been conspicuous. Marty is not resentful. He knows very well that a man over seventy is as reluctant to confront his friend’s mortality as to stare face to face at his own. A man is getting old when he assumes he is on the way out every time he is struck down with an illness. It is like a convict on death row who assumes the worst whenever he sees the guards lining up on the other side of his cell. One of these days they will march him into the little blue room at the end of the hall.
For sure, it has been a couple of days since his telephone rang; but perhaps it has been longer. Marty has a heck of a time keeping track of the day of the week, the time of the day, what bill still needs to be paid and when. It is a real job nowadays to keep his head straight, and since he got sick he has not had the energy for that much.
He travelled the world in the United States Navy, and hit every one of the fifty states as a top medical supplies salesman. Now, Marty is a bona fide tourist when he walks from the bed to the sofa. It is not just the number of slow and heavy steps that that takes. If Marty’s bedroom is a shrine of framed photographs and vintage clothes to his dead wife, his living room is a museum of his exploits around the globe. There are souvenirs from each continent including even a stuffed penguin from Antarctica. There are impressionist paintings, marble sculpted heads, Indian headdresses glued onto mannequins, and golf irons that had been swung by famous United States Navy Admirals. Marty recalls only bits and pieces of the stories attached to these museum items. Some days he is convinced he is storing all this shit for one of his golf buddies, and he is determined to clean everything out as soon as he is well. Those are the bad days, because he is pissed beyond measure, but cannot do anything about it. He goes to his bed early on those occasions so that he can shut out all of the clutter. Thus far, the good days have outnumbered the bad days; but eventually, that will be reversed. If he does not die first, there will come a time when there is only one continuous bad day. Marty hopes that ‘ignorance is bliss,’ for on that last, long day there will nothing going on upstairs to distract him from his own swansong. He used to cry aloud at his own predicament, but now even that is too much effort.
If there is one consistent solace, even when he is as sick as he is now, it is the seventeenth century spyglass he keeps near the living room window. He haggled for it at a Moroccan bazaar years ago. He intuited that it was worth a lot more than what he paid for it, and an antiquities expert later told him that a notorious Spanish pirate indeed had owned it. Rather than keep it protected in a glass case, Marty used it on a lot of his trips over the years. With the spyglass in his hands, he felt like an old world adventurer searching the horizon for the first signs of Terra Incognita. Before his old age got the best of him, Marty preferred to think of life as a daredevil trip with many exotic stops along the way. Even now, when he has reached the last of those ports on the high seas, he still finds now and then a moment of joy in being able to explore his surrounding world like a seaman from his crow’s nest.
Even on his bad days, when he thinks his living room is stuffed with someone else’s antiques, he knows that the spyglass is his. Sometimes, he is too sick to stagger over to his window. When that happens, he stays on his sofa, but eyes his spyglass as if a child unable to reach the cookie jar. It is his eye to the world, but it is also his line to the past. When he is staring down at the sprawling urban life under his apartment window, he is almost again that happily married, energetic, successful man who had moved into this same unit many years ago. The spyglass magnifies many people and things down there; but, more importantly, it almost captures the ghost of the man he used to be. So long as Marty can think at all, and his precarious health allows, he will continue to stand at his grand living room window and to search for his elusive past.
Marty sits up on his sofa. It is the late afternoon, and he senses that he is well enough to walk into the kitchen and to warm up a can of soup. He still has Saltines in his cupboard. It is not gourmet, but if his stomach can handle this he will be pleased.
Marty takes awhile to get up off the sofa. Every time he tries to move quicker he feel nauseous and has to lie back down. He hates that he is so damn tired after so little movement, but the alternative is to lie there in his sweat and to starve all night.
He starts to walk toward the kitchen, when he sees the spyglass leaning upon the living room window. He has not taken a look in a few days (maybe longer), and it may cheer him up a little to see what is happening in the outside world.
He feels better the moment he picks up the spyglass. There is no magic, so far as he can tell, but there is a mental association between the pirate’s long eye and his own youth. He knows the moment will pass, and so he is not going to stay long. Still, for the first time in days, he has a reason to grin.
Marty stares through the spyglass at the downtown park behind his building. No one is sitting at any of the park benches. He seldom sees people there. Picnicking seems to be a largely forgotten custom from the past. There are little ones on swings watched closely by middle-aged women who are presumably their mothers. There is a pick up game at the basketball hoop. The hoop has not had a net in eons, but Marty is very happy to see that that has not dissuaded teenaged boys from trying their best to air walk with a ball like the pros. There is an old man with a limp walking a dog as feeble as he is. Old men deny one another’s impending mortality, but not equally old dogs. They know what is round the bend for themselves and their masters, and do a better job suffering with dignity. The beginning of life and the end of life pass by one another in this park most afternoons. They seldom interconnect, though once Marty witnessed an old timer pick up a loose basketball, and join a pick up game. He had a good pair of feet on him still, and he danced around those teenagers with the ball as if a pro from the past. Perhaps, he had been. Most of what happens down there is as predictable as sunrise and sunset, but there are still miracles even in modern times.
Marty does not see any miracles this afternoon, but he is happy to see that for some life is lived. He is too sick to envy them. Instead, he lives vicariously through all those young and old folks down there even if only for a few minutes.
His stomach grumbles. He has an appetite, and that is a good sign. He puts the spyglass down, and hobbles over to the kitchen. He almost goes for the chicken soup but then decides to live on the edge a little. He opens up a spicy tomato soup instead.
* * *
Marty looks out the window every afternoon for the rest of the week. Though still weak, he stays a little longer each time. The scene is pretty much the same every time: Kiddies on the swings, teenagers in a pick up game, and old timers with a limp or a cane walking their dogs. One afternoon, he does see a young couple making out on one of the park benches, so that is a little different from the norm. No one but the dirty old man with the spyglass seems to notice them. He is a little surprised that the boys with the basketball are not paying attention to this impromptu demonstration of the birds and the bees, but perhaps they already know all about that. Marty is not sure, but he thinks now he did not have a clue when he was their age. For him, heavy petting had not yet been invented, and for all of his success later in life he never did become a pro in that department. Perhaps, in a way, that is why his wife checked out early on him. When a lady is unsatisfied with her meal, she will find a reason to pick up her fur and her gloves, and to call for her driver, long before the dessert is served.
Marty puts down the spyglass. He is about to hobble into the kitchen for soup when the telephone rings. He is startled. It so seldom rings anymore.
It is Herby Johnson calling to make sure that Marty is still among the living. It does not take long before Herby is talking too loud about his son’s vitamins. Marty is not in a patient mood at the moment, and almost hangs up on him midsentence. Just as Marty is at wits’ end Herby says that he is going to drop by tomorrow. Marty does not really want Herby to visit, but he is agreeable, so as not to hurt his feelings. Also, he desires to finish this telephone call sooner rather than later. Marty hangs up, rubs out the small headache echoing in his temples, and continues on toward the kitchen.
* * *
It is twenty-four hours later, and Marty is asleep on the sofa. He has been hit hard by a particularly nasty dream, and he awakens suddenly in a cold sweat. He has no idea where he is for a moment. He wonders if he is trapped still in his nightmare.
When finally he is able to grasp a trace of reality, Marty sits upright, and rubs a painful kink in the back of his neck. He has forgotten that Herby Johnson is coming soon. He just wants to hobble over to his bed, and to fall asleep again. He hopes that that nightmare does not follow him into his bedroom.
He stands up, and prepares to return to his bed. Something odd snatches the corner of his right eye. He turns his head slowly in that direction. Even before he can see anything out of the ordinary, his heart starts pounding hard against his chest. He feels an iced cold shiver down his spine.
Marty catches his breath. He reaches reflexively for his throat, and at first he fears he is choking on something or suffering a stroke.
Before he reaches for his telephone to dial 911, his conscious mind is able to make sense of what he is seeing through his living room window. It makes no sense, but it is what he sees. Or perhaps he is hallucinating the whole thing. Regardless, he surmises that his reaction has nothing to do with a physical ailment. Rather, he is in the cold clutches of fright, because what he is seeing or imagining simply cannot be.
Marty lowers his hand from his throat. He takes in a deep breath, and walks to the living room window. He presses his forehead against the glass, and stares out at what is not supposed to be there.
The park is gone. In its place is a sky rise apartment building. He studies the edifice and concludes that it is identical to his own. The building is close enough he would be able to see the apartment directly across from him, if the lights there had been turned on.
Marty picks up the spyglass. He focuses on the opposite apartment. With the apartment lights turned off, the spyglass magnification cannot reveal anything else about that space. He looks at the building itself. It has been weathered by age and is in need of a wash. It appears newer than his building, but still looks like it has been there for many years. Is he looking at his own building, but as it was in the past? Or is this a hallucination, or perhaps even a continuation of his nightmare? If indeed he is staring at an illusion, then is he losing his mind?
Marty lowers the spyglass to his side. He leans his forehead again on the glass and starts to cry. For some time, his mind has been fading into a dismal, old grey, but this is like being pushed into the black. He is mentally blind; a boy trapped in a small closet who is reaching out for an unseen doorknob that may not be there. All that he can do is to grab at the dark, stuffy air around him and to wail at his own feebleness.
The doorbell rings. Though he is not sure at first what that is, the sound kicks away the cold fear in his heart. He steps back from the glass, and gently leans his old spyglass against the window. He stares blankly at the building in front of him, as the doorbell rings a second time.
Marty recognizes the sound. Who could be here? Guys in white jackets ready to haul him away? Perhaps, he has been going mad for a long time, and they are here to outfit him in a straightjacket. For a person grasping at straws anything is possible.
The doorbell rings a third time. Marty walks toward the door. The whole time he keeps looking over his shoulder to see if that building is still there. The building is not going away apparently. He remains frightened, but he is also starting to get mad.
“That damn building out there is an intruder,” Marty thinks. It has come from nowhere to upend a life he barely can hold onto nowadays, and for what reason? His gradual descent into senility is hard enough.
Consumed with his emotions, Marty starts to pull open his door without first looking through the peephole. The door slams up against the chain. Marty manages to calm down a little, and peeks through the crevice. He sees Herby Johnson looking a bit irritated or maybe just confused.
“Herby, what are you doing here?” Marty asks unpleasantly.
“What?” Herby asks.
“I said, what…” Marty begins to repeat in a much louder voice.
Herby cups his right ear with his hand. He looks around like he is not certain from which direction he may have heard someone.
“What?” Herby asks.
“Jesus,” Marty mutters, while releasing the chain, and opening up the door.
Herby sees Marty in the doorway, and smiles. Herby is wearing his white golf shirt and checkered pants. He looks like Gerald Ford, if the ex-President had spent a lifetime drowning in whiskey and sodas every night. His bloodshot eyes and his beet red nose indicate he is a few shuffles closer to the grave than the man he is visiting.
“Come inside,” Marty says hurriedly, while pulling in Herby, and shutting the door behind him.
Herby holds up a large, white bottle of supplements. The label screams out in bold, red letters: “Super Max Growth Plus.” Herby’s son is on the cover. He has on his white doctor’s jacket. A speech bubble emanates from his open mouth, and inside of the bubble he states with apparent confidence: “With my certified Vitamin C shield!”
“You’ll want to take two of these every six hours,” Herby yells, while shaking the bottle. “Write it down so you don’t forget.”
Marty barely glances at the bottle. He looks over his shoulder, and observes that the building is still outside his living room window.
“My son says you can live to be a hundred and…” Herby yells.
“Take a look out the window,” Marty orders, while pulling Herby towards the living room.
“Three or Four,” Herby yells while trying to finish his sentence. “Maybe even a hundred and five. I don’t remember.”
Marty posts Herby in front of the living room window, and gestures for him to take a look. Herby seems unaware that he has been moved anywhere. Instead, he is trying to finish what he had intended to say.
Herby turns his face towards Marty, and again holds up the bottle.
“Kicks old age in the nuts,” Herby yells.
Marty turns Herby’s face towards the window.
“What do you see out there?” Marty asks.
Herby is confused. He ponders the question a moment, and then holds up his son’s bottle of supplements again.
“Kicks old age…” Herby yells.
“Tell me what you see!” Marty roars impatiently, while again moving Herby’s face towards the window.
Herby stares blankly out the window awhile. He walks forward with Marty at his side, and he presses his forehead against the glass. He looks down just like Marty does sometimes when he is checking out the park.
“Kids,” Herby answers.
“What?” Marty asks.
“And an old man with a kite,” Herby continues.
Marty presses his forehead again the glass and looks down. There is no park, so far as he can see. The building totally covers over it.
“What about the building?” Marty asks in exasperation.
Herby looks back at Marty in utter confusion.
“I don’t know what…” Herby yells.
“The building! The building!” Marty interrupts, while he points towards the apartment directly across from his.
Herby puts his arm around Marty’s shoulders. Though hard of hearing, Herby speaks more softly in an effort to convey empathy.
“It’s okay, Marty,” Herby says.
“You don’t understand,” Marty pleads.
“It’s okay,” Herby says.
Marty looks at his own slippers. He wipes a tear from his eye. Herby has not seen anything out of the ordinary. Of course, it is very possible that Herby is the one losing his marbles, but deep down Marty does not think so.
Marty looks up. He decides not to argue the point with his friend. He changes the subject by feigning interest in the bottle of supplements.
Herby leaves after talking about his son for a while. He repeats a story Marty has heard many times about how his son found the cure for cancer.
“It’s in the water,” Herby says of the cure for cancer. “But the bastards won’t let my son publish what he found.”
Herby gives Marty the bottle of supplements before stepping out the door. He really thinks the capsules will cure him from “seeing things.” Marty thinks that there is nothing in those capsules but snake oil, but he is touched anyway. He promises he will write down Herby’s instructions (take two every six hours), and then he bids his friend a goodnight.
It is dark outside by the time Herby leaves. Normally, Marty would observe at this hour the first star of the night, but it is obstructed by an apartment building that apparently only he can see.
Marty is hungry, but more so he is tired. He wants to go to bed, and hopes the building will be gone in the morning. Sometimes, the madness just goes away, when you sleep on it.
* * *
Even before he opens his eyes, Marty senses that the madness is still there. It is the guest intent on staying around, even though it was never welcomed in the first place. He glimpses the building when walking through the living room on the way to the kitchen for an English muffin. It is there still on his way back to bed.
* * *
Over the next few days, Marty spends his afternoons either sleeping upon the sofa or staring out at the building. Even when asleep, he sees the building. It is much more dark and menacing in his dreams; a black omen embodied in structural beams, walls, and cement. It blocks out everything, including the sun, and turns his cramped apartment into an inescapable prison cell. He can never find the spyglass that he left leaning against the window, and much of the time the nightmare scenario consists of trying to find it among all his things. If he hears anything at all in these dreams, then it is the sound of laughter incongruously coming from that lifeless building. It laughs at his feebleness. It scoffs his old age. In time, the edifice will block out the air as well as the sunlight, and Marty will be left to suffocate alone. Though he will die from not enough air, the actual death certificate will say that he died from “old coot madness” abetted by “an overdose of senility.” The old coroner will laugh at what he has typed.
With that laughter still ringing in his ears, Marty awakens in a cold sweat. He sits up on his sofa. It is night outside, and he should hobble back to his bed for more sleep. He is about to do so when the light in the apartment across from his turns on.
This has never happened before. Marty desires to rush over to the spyglass to take a closer look. He is careful to move slowly, though, because otherwise he will be nauseous.
Just when he arrives at the window, and lifts the spyglass to his eye, the light across from him switches off. He thinks he observed over there his sofa, though in a much newer condition. Maybe, he also saw some of his unique souvenirs, including the stuffed penguin standing beside the Roy Rogers mannequin.
Or maybe he imagined the whole thing. It is one thing to see a whole building that no one else sees. It is another to see all your things over there, which suggests a kind of mental transference. If indeed this is all “his experience,” then why not make it even more his own by imagining his stuff over there?
Marty stands alone in his fear and confusion. He cannot tell where he stands apart still from that damn thing over there. He senses that the longer this continues the more his life will be a part of that dark and sinister fantasy across the way. If he cannot stop this madness somehow, he will be lost in an apartment building no one else can see or find. It is not just that his mind is vanishing. He is vanishing; and that is a fate he cannot comprehend rationally, but can feel in his gut.
* * *
The next morning Marty awakens suddenly from another bad dream, and he does something he has not done in many years. He hobbles into the living room, and pulls the shutters down over the living room window. He lies on the sofa in the dark, and prays for the madness to end.
* * *
Marty camps out in his dark living room for the next few days. Apart from an occasional trip now and then to the kitchen or the bathroom, he remains on his sofa. His sleep is restless and consumed with nightmares. His fever seems to have passed, but in its place is a cold psychological terror that shakes him uncontrollably at times. Whenever this happens, he clutches his heart, and strains to take in a breath. He had feared his slow descent into senility, but now he fears a sudden fall into madness. He has just overcome another bout of hyperventilation, when he hears the building say:
“Open your blinds.”
Marty sits up on the sofa. He wipes away sweat from his eyes, even though it is too dark to see anything. He stares in the general direction of the shuttered living room window. His mouth opens. His tongue is as dry as sandpaper.
“Open your blinds.”
The voice seems to be coming simultaneously from inside his head and from the building beyond the shutters. It is a deep, menacing, male voice. He imagines it is the voice of a stalker taunting his victim over the telephone.
“Open your blinds.”
Marty feels a strong force pulling him up from the sofa and over to the living room window. He resists in part because he is frightened of what he will see, and in part because he does not want to lose control. That force is more powerful, though, and he finally gives up the struggle.
“Open your blinds.”
Marty braces himself for the monster on the other side. That is the first time he has ever defined the building specifically as a “monster,” but what better way to describe it? Anything with this much power and control over his life is a living beast.
“Open your blinds.”
Marty picks up the spyglass. He holds it up to his eye with one hand, while he slowly raises the shutters with the other.
It is night outside. Marty is barely able to see the apartment across from him.
Then, suddenly, the light switches on over there. Marty observes a man in the opposite window staring back at him through an identical spyglass.
Marty screams. He almost drops his spyglass.
Without dropping his spyglass, the man in the opposite window slowly raises his right hand and waves.
Marty scrambles to pull the window shutters back down. He knocks aside his Roy Rogers mannequin while looking for the string. When he finally finds it, he pulls down too hard. The shutters snap off, and fall to the living room floor. He steps back in time, and the shutters miss his feet.
The apartment light across the way switches on and off repeatedly. When off, the building is completely dark and lifeless. When on, the man with the spyglass still stands at the opposite window waving back at Marty.
Still holding on to his spyglass, Marty hobbles through the darkness towards his bedroom. He is drenched in iced cold sweat, and his heart feels like it is about to pound through his chest. He trips on something, and falls hard onto his knees. He is in considerable pain, but is too frightened to stay there. He forces himself to get off the floor, and steps into his bedroom.
Marty locks the bedroom door behind him. He sits on the edge of his bed, and sets his spyglass aside. Though he rubs both of his knees, he stays as still as possible on account of his horrible nausea.
His telephone rings in the living room. Who could be calling him? It could be Herby Johnson or another one of his golf buddies, but deep down he doubts that. He thinks the man in the opposite window is calling him. He thinks this man is trying to drive him insane.
After six rings the telephone falls silent for a minute. It rings again six times, and falls silent for a minute. It rings again six times, and falls silent for a minute. He braces himself for a fourth call, but that does not happen.
Marty lies on top of his comforter. He stares up at his ceiling, and cries. It is a long, hard cry. Normally, a cry like that relieves his stress; but he cannot shake from his mind the image of that man with the spyglass waving back at him. The man very clearly is taunting him, but that is only a part of the problem. What disturbs Marty a lot more is that that man is so recognizable. Who the hell is he? Who is so motivated to toy with his mind? Who wants to push him fast into a grave, and for what reason?
Marty slides into another night of restless sleep. He will dream of that man in the window. The man will stare at him through that spyglass, and then he will wave.
* * *
The telephone rings, and Marty awakens. He sits up on the corner of his bed. He has a really bad headache, and cold sweat pours down his face. He is a sick man.
He feels like he should check himself into a hospital, but he knows that there is nothing they can do for him there. He has his share of physical ailments, no doubt, but stress and fear are the main culprits. If he goes to the hospital, it is only a matter of time before they release him, and then he is back here.
And the building will be here waiting for him…
Along with the waving man with the spyglass…
And the incessant telephone ringing…
If the telephone did ring late last night, after he had fallen asleep, then he was able to sleep through the noise. Now, he cannot imagine trying to fall back asleep, so long as the telephone in his living room remains unanswered. It rings six times, falls silent a few seconds, and then rings six times again.
Over and over…
Marty opens up the bedroom door. The ringing is so much louder now. Had it been this loud before? Did it always echo in his head?
Marty almost slams the bedroom door shut, but he restrains himself. There is no refuge for him back on his bed. He must answer the damn thing. He has no choice in the matter.
For a moment, Marty imagines that Herby is on the other end. He is not sure if he would be relieved, or if he would be pissed off that the old coot is calling him so many times. Maybe, a little of both, but of course deep down he knows that Herby is not the one calling him. That is wishful thinking.
With a shaking hand, and an open, dry mouth, Marty walks over to the table beside his sofa, and lifts up the receiver. He braces himself for the malevolent voice.
“Take a look.”
The telephone clicks off, and Marty hangs up. He slowly turns his head to the left, and looks out the living room window.
It is late morning outside. The sun shines brightly on the face of the building. The man is standing in the opposite window. He is staring back at Marty through his spyglass. A woman walks up to the man’s side. She is wearing a flared, red skirt and a white blouse. Her curly, red hair is in a style Marty has not seen in many years. He knows immediately who she is of course. He can feel it, even though he cannot view her face that clearly without the aid of his spyglass.
Marty rushes back into his bedroom, and he retrieves his spyglass. He walks up to the living room window, frightened as always, but also curious. He lifts up his spyglass, and focuses in on the woman. He takes in a deep breath.
The woman is his wife from many years ago. She wore her red hair that way about the time they moved into this apartment. Her face is pretty, cheerful, and full of the life that the cancer later would steal from her.
“Maddy,” Marty whispers.
Marty feels his eyes welling with tears. He recalls holding her hands the day she died. Her hands had been so bony thin and cold, but even then Maddy had been able to look up at his tear-streaked face and to smile.
The young woman across the way smiles the same way. She lifts up her right hand, and she waves.
Marty moves his spyglass slightly so that he focuses in on the man beside his wife. The man lowers his spyglass so that Marty can take an unimpeded observation of his face. As expected, he sees his own face from many years ago.
The young Marty smiles at the old Marty, and he slowly puts his arm around his pretty wife’s shoulders. Together, they are the perfect couple, healthy, beautiful, and happy. They seem to be inviting the old Marty to come on over and to join them.
Old Marty focuses in on Young Marty’s eyes. He knows something about eyes from his years selling medical supplies. He can tell when they are the eyes of a good, honest man, or when they are the eyes of a backstabbing liar. Is the man really going to buy like he has indicated, or is he going to try to weasel out of their deal? The line between good and evil can be very subtle, especially when the liar has perfected the art of seeming to be his opposite.
Young Marty is a goddamn weasel. His wife deserves so much better. Had he been that two-faced when he was that age? Had his wife suffered in silence all those years from his emotional detachment and duplicity? Why did he hurt the one person he had ever really loved in this world?
Old Marty lowers his spyglass. He cannot look any more. It is just too painful.
* * *
Marty sits on his sofa. He glances out the living room window, and the happy couple is gone. They will be back, though. It is only a matter of time before they both reach out to him again. He cannot fathom what they want with him, though that cold shiver down his spine indicates that Young Marty at least intends to do him harm. Is that also true of Young Maddy? He hates to think so. She had smiled at him just now, and it had been the same smile from the day she died. Had she meant him harm that horrible day, or had she forgiven him finally for all of the emotional baggage that he had brought to their marriage? He wants to think the latter, but how sure can he be?
What he knows for sure is that he cannot continue to hide from them. He can hobble back into his bedroom, and shut the door behind him, but they will telephone him when he is asleep. Or he will see them out of the corner of his eye, when he goes to the kitchen for a bite to eat. He can repair the shutters, or even board up the living room window, but they will find another way to intrude on him. Sanity is tenuous at the best of times, but madness is persistent. It keeps coming back until finally a man breaks into inconsolable tears and falls to the grave.
Marty thinks about what to do. He picks up the telephone receiver, and dials.
* * *
Herby helps Marty put on his jacket. They are standing together in the foyer of Marty’s apartment. Marty is nervous, and seems much too sick to go outdoors on this sunny afternoon. Herby is confused, as always, but trying to help a good friend he is convinced has fallen off his rocker.
The jacket hangs loosely. Marty has lost too much weight. Herby notices this but says nothing.
Herby steps over to the hook by the front door. He retrieves Marty’s favorite Scottish riding cap. He normally sees his friend wear this thing on the golf course. It is the only piece of clothing that reminds Herby of the active and healthy Marty with whom he is familiar at the club. When he puts it on top of Marty’s head now, though, it just highlights how much healthy fat Marty has lost on his face. Herby tries hard to refrain from tearing up in front of his friend, but he cannot ignore how sick he looks.
Herby reaches for the bouquet of white roses on the table by the door. Marty had asked him to pick up a bouquet before arriving, but had not indicated why. This is the most mysterious detail in Marty’s plan. Why does he need a bouquet to take a stroll in the park?
Herby hands Marty the roses. Marty holds them like a boy about to go to the prom. Herby does not know what to say. Untypically, he has been pretty much silent since arriving, and Marty has made no attempt to start up a conversation.
They are about to step out when Marty gestures for Herby to wait a moment. Marty goes into the living room, and returns with the spyglass. He hands it to Herby.
“Whatever happens, hold onto this,” Marty says mysteriously.
Herby does not hear what his friend says, but he gets the message. Marty has entrusted him with something he values. Herby holds it like he would the Holy Grail.
Herby stays close to Marty’s side, as the two men leave the apartment. Herby will steady Marty, if it looks like Marty is losing his balance. Though he moves slowly and cautiously, for the time being Marty seems to be holding his own.
Downstairs, the two men step out the back door. Marty sees before him a tall building identical to his own. Herby sees a park with a few little kids in the distance taking turns on a swing set. They both feel the warmth from the hot sun above them.
“You don’t see anything,” Marty says loudly.
“Just the park,” Herby responds. “Some kids on the swing.”
“Okay,” Marty says loudly. “I know this isn’t going to make any sense to you. I am not sure I believe it myself.”
“That’s okay, friend,” Herby remarks, while he pats Marty on his upper back.
Marty looks at Herby square in the face. He speaks carefully. He wants to be sure that Herby understands him.
“I’m going inside,” Marty says.
Herby glances back at the building from which they just exited. Marty can see how confused Herby is. Marty points toward what Herby sees to be a small city park.
“No,” Marty says. “That building.”
Herby looks at the park again. There is no building, of course. He looks down. He does not want Marty to view how horribly concerned he is for his friend’s sanity.
“I’m going up to the same floor and room number where I live,” Mary goes on.
Herby remains silent.
“If I never come back, you need to know where I went,” Marty explains. “Even if it makes no sense, somebody’s got to know.”
Herby nods his head in agreement, but continues to look down.
Marty steps away. He stops, and turns back towards his friend.
“You may want to use the spyglass,” Marty states. “I’ve seen all sorts of things over the years I never would’ve without it. Just open your eyes. It may surprise you.”
Marty turns his back to his friend, and focuses on the building before him. He steps into what appears to be a dark and empty lobby. The door swings shut behind him, and for a moment Marty is lost in a dark, cold place that feels like a mausoleum.
Herby looks up. He watches Marty walk onto the lawn that stretches down to the swing set. He presumes that that is where Marty is headed. Maybe, his friend will give his bouquet to one of the kids.
Then, suddenly, Marty just vanishes into thin air. Herby is frozen in his fright and confusion. He mouth opens wide, but otherwise he does not move at all. He just cannot believe it. He wonders if he too is losing his marbles.
* * *
Marty walks passed the front desk. The thick layer of dust indicates that the desk has been unmanned for eons. There is a sick smell. It calls to mind a locker full of rotten meat.
Marty approaches the elevator. He expects it to be as dead as everything else in here, and yet the elevator button light is working. He presses the button. He waits for the elevator doors to open while clutching the bouquet close to his heart. It takes a while, but the doors open finally with a loud creak.
Marty steps into the unlit elevator. He prays he will not be trapped in there.
The elevator doors close. The rotten meat smell is even more intense in here, and Marty’s first instinct is to get the heck out. He restrains himself from attempting to escape, though. Instead, he looks for the floor buttons. Like this elevator, all of the buttons are unlit except for his floor. He pushes the button with a shaky index finger.
Nothing happens at first, and Marty feels a claustrophobic reaction to the fact he is standing inside a small, smelly, unmoving elevator. His mouth opens wide, and he struggles to breathe. This makes the smell even worse, and he very nearly vomits.
The elevator rattles, and starts to move up the shaft. Every step of the way up the building, creaky noises suggest an elevator ready to snap loose and to free-fall to the lobby. Marty cannot wait to step out when finally the doors open into a dark hall.
The smell is even more intense in the hall. Marty finds a handkerchief inside of his jacket, and he holds it up to his nose. That helps a little, and he is able to walk the number of steps it takes from the elevator to his apartment. He looks up at each of the doors he passes. They are shrouded in blackness, and the door numbers have been chiseled away. He senses (and smells) death behind every one of them.
He reaches his apartment. It is the only door he has seen still numbered. It is not as dark as the others, and yet it is just as foreboding. He feels like a boy about to ring the doorbell of a notorious neighborhood child killer. Moreover, the smell is as intense here as behind each of those other doors. He is about to be greeted by death.
* * *
Herby looks down at the spyglass in his hand. He has been in a daze since he saw Marty vanish before his eyes. He had forgotten about the antique telescope that Marty had handed him.
He thinks about going inside to tell someone what happened, but really what can he say? He has noticed how in more recent years people have started to look at him like he is clueless. It does not help that he seldom hears what somebody says to him. The result is that most people tune him out or write him off. In his generation, people used to state, “children are meant to be seen, but not heard.” He has come to realize that apparently that is true of the aged also. It rubs him wrong, but what can he do about it except shuffle on his way and maybe mutter an old fashioned epithet under his breath?
So even though he wants to find out what happened to his friend (or whether or not he imagined this Houdini disappearance act), he is reluctant to talk to the girl at the front desk. Instead, he keeps staring at the spyglass like he is not sure what to do with it.
He holds the spyglass up. It seems simple enough, and Marty did urge him to use it. Maybe, he will see something in the park he cannot see with his naked eyes. It is possible his friend is standing right before him, but is obscured somehow. Strange things happen sometimes.
Herby looks through the spyglass. He sees the park magnified many times. It is a little disorienting at first, but also fascinating.
He looks at the spyglass, and soon figures out how to focus it better. He lifts it to his eye again, and zeroes in on where he last saw his friend.
For a while, Herby sees nothing there but a patch of lawn. He observes where Marty’s shoes had pushed down some of the blades of grass. He observes where too much sunlight had burnt the spot where Marty stood.
He is just about to lower the spyglass again, when he sees something come in and out of focus. That is strange, since he is not manipulating the lens. He is terribly frightened by this strange phenomenon, but continues to watch.
Suddenly, the grass is gone. Instead, there is a grey wall. It looks like the wall of a tall building, though of course that is not possible. Maybe, Herby focused on the building across the street by accident. He lowers the spyglass, and takes a long look with his naked eyes at the storefront across the street. It is not the same color wall, and there is a sign on that storefront wall, which he cannot observe in the spyglass.
Though shaking with trepidation, Herby again looks through the spyglass at the spot where Marty had vanished. Again, he sees a grey wall. He tilts the spyglass upward, and observes that the top of the building is obscured by sunlight. It is very clearly a sky rise and not a storefront.
When Herby lowers the spyglass, he sees the grass where Marty had stood, but when he lifts the spyglass he sees the wall of a sky rise. If he is going mad, then this is the very same mental illness his friend had suffered. Herby is no shrink, but that seems to be awfully coincidental.
Looking through the spyglass, Herby steps forward until he touches the wall of the sky rise. It makes no sense, but this is where his friend is. He sees the door to what appears to be a lobby. He is frightened, but he senses that his friend right now may be in over his head. He sets his fears aside, and opens the door to this phantom building. He mutters a prayer that he will be able to handle whatever he finds there.
* * *
Before Marty can ring the doorbell, the door opens. Maddy stands before him, and Marty sighs audibly. His eyes well up with tears, and he holds onto the doorway to keep from falling to the floor.
She smiles warmly, and opens the door further. He notices the bouquet in his arms, and hands her the roses. She accepts them graciously, and gestures for him to follow her inside.
Marty steps into his apartment as it had been years ago. It is much the same as it is now except that the kitchen appliances are older. He follows Maddy into the living room, which is less cluttered than it is now, but already a museum dedicated to his global travels. Maddy’s afghan is on the sofa. Marty has not seen it there since the day she died, and he moved it into the closet. He breaks into tears just seeing it there, and Maddy offers him a Kleenex.
“I can’t believe this,” Marty says after wiping away his tears.
“It’s real, Marty,” Maddy states in a softly accented voice Marty had forgotten in the intervening years.
“Is it?” Marty asks.
Maddy slowly nods her head. She walks over to a large collection of bouquets in the corner of the living room. Most of them are the same as the bouquet Marty has given to her just now. Marty notices this, but he is too overwhelmed with emotion to deduce anything. He is just so happy to see the lady he loves.
Maddy places the bouquet with the others. She arranges the flowers with the delicate touch of a lady well accustomed to such gifts. She looks over her shoulder at Marty and again smiles.
“Please sit down,” Maddy says.
Without thinking Marty sits on the sofa where he had sat thousands of times beside his wife. The old habits come back so quickly. She sits to his left, and places a hand on his knee just as she always did.
“So this is real,” Marty says after a while.
“It always has been,” Maddy responds.
Marty does not understand. He notices how she is staring at his face. It is like she is reading him. For the first time since she opened the door, Marty senses there is something wrong with her.
“Not always,” Marty says. “For years I haven’t seen you…”
“Hush!” Maddy says while placing her index finger on Marty’s lips. “There is no future here.”
“I don’t understand…” Marty says.
“I can explain,” Maddy says. “First, I need to know for sure that you are who I think you are.”
“Of course,” Marty mutters, while a cold shiver rolls down his spine.
Maddy moves on the sofa so that she is able to look directly into Marty’s face. She stares deeply into his eyes. Marty is uncomfortable, but does not look away from her at that moment. The same force that had propelled him to go to his window and to open his shutters keeps him from looking elsewhere.
“Do you remember the first time we met?” Maddy asks.
“Yes,” Marty says softly. He is frightened, but also fighting back loving tears.
“It was a party on Martha’s Vineyard,” Maddy says.
“Yes,” Marty says.
“What was I wearing?” Maddy asks.
Marty recalls the incident as if it had happened last night. Of course, this is a trick question. Is she playing with him? Or is there a nefarious reason for this? He is not sure what to make of her intentions, but he decides it is best to answer honestly.
“Nothing,” Marty says. “You were skinny dipping in the pool.”
Maddy smiles, but Marty focuses on her eyes. She has made a decision about him, and he can read that in her eyes. She said she wanted to know if he is who she thinks he is, but now he is wondering the opposite. Is this really his wife? Does this woman beside him love him as he has loved her? Or is she setting him up for a fall?
For that matter, where is that Young Marty? He does not see him anywhere, and yet for days that man had been standing in front of this very window staring at him. Did he step out? Or is he hiding? If the latter, then Marty is now in real trouble.
* * *
Herby walks through the cold lobby. Everything in here is dark and dead. He pushes the elevator button, but it is also not working. He looks for the staircase, but it is very hard to view anything that is nearby when he is staring through a spyglass. The magnification distorts what is close, and yet he is fearful that if he refrains from using the spyglass the building will disappear. His friend is somewhere inside of this building, not out in the park, and so he does not want to lose his tenuous connection to this strange reality.
He moves along the wall feeling for a door handle. He finds several, but they are locked. The staircase will not be locked, since it serves as an emergency exit. He cannot fathom why a dead place like this would need a fire escape, but he grasps on to whatever idea seems vaguely logical. The alternative is to be an old coot madman trapped inside of a madhouse. He will not be able to help himself or his friend if that happens.
He finds an unlocked door. For the first time, he notices the pungent scent of rotten meat. He had sensed that smell earlier in the lobby, but he had been much too focused on trying to see in the dark through the spyglass. Now that he has found the staircase the smell slaps him hard in the face. He recoils in disgust, and almost drops the spyglass.
Interestingly, the building had not disappeared, when Herby nearly dropped the spyglass. It faded a little bit, and he senses that it will vanish entirely after some time has passed. For now, though, he can walk up the dark staircase without having to look through that telescopic lens. He hopes he can move up the steps much faster as a result. His sixth sense is telling him to hurry up now. His friend is in real danger.
* * *
Young Marty is standing in the bedroom closet. He holds in both hands a long garrote wire. He considers himself a master killer with this particular instrument of torture and death. If he and Maddy were not travelling from one parallel universe to the next, killing all of the older versions of himself, and piling up the strangled, grey corpses in this bedroom, he would be an instructor. Perhaps, he would work for one of the clandestine services. He has an adventure streak in him. So far as he has seen, all of the Marty Robinses do to some extent. The others are not as tenacious as he is, though, which is why they are rotting away in this bedroom. Survival of the fittest is the rule in every universe; and the fittest are always cold, deceptive, and murderous.
Young Marty still notices the death smell, though in time he is getting used to it. Maddy explains that it is a kind of aromatic trophy to their success. She is always so calm and logical. He fell in love with her mind that first night together in Martha’s Vineyard. Yes, it helped that he saw her beautiful body in the pool, but although still very young at the time he could distinguish at once love from lust.
It also helps that the Old Marty Robinses invariably bring bouquets. They are all so predictable, which makes sense of course. Maddy could have been an artist in a different lifetime. She has a flair with the flowers, and the combined scent from all those roses stifles the death smell.
Still, Young Marty wishes that he could stash these corpses elsewhere. They really clutter up the bedroom. He and his wife have not been able to sleep (let alone to make love) in their own bed for ages. The problem is that the same strange force that they use to draw the Old Marty Robinses here also keeps them in check. Neither he nor his wife can leave this apartment. They cannot even walk down the hall. This place is a prison for them as much as it is a trap for the others.
If there is one silver lining in all this, it is that Young Marty and his wife get to remain beautiful and healthy. The logic is very simple really: Killing Off an Old Marty means Young Marty is killing off his own future. The more of these old coots he kills, the more future time itself is being chipped off and discarded. Eventually, if they get around to enough of these parallel universes, they will have killed time totally. That means one Marty and one Maddy left. Just the two of us, like in that song, living with one another in an eternally healthy and beautiful present.
What about the Old Maddies? They seem to have struck them all down, since they are no longer coming across any Old Maddies in these parallel universes. If and when they come upon another one, then naturally they will dispatch her also. Just as he has had to kill off his old selves, so his wife has had to do the honors with her old selves. Maddy is softer than him. She has chosen to inflict stage four cancers on each of the Old Maddies, so that they can die restfully in their hospital beds. Marty prefers the violence, and he gets a hard-on whenever one of the geezers struggles to get free from his garrote wire. The problem is that in every one of the parallel universes thus far his method is considered murder, not a natural death, and so he has had to stash away his victims in the bedroom like some sort of sleazy criminal. To her credit, his wife does not complain, even though his method stinks up the place. At most, Maddy sometimes will laugh at the sour death smell and say, “Oh, Marty, boys will be boys.”
* * *
Herby hurries up the staircase as fast as he can. Thank God, even now in the winter of his years, he still walks the golf course, rather than smoke cigars and ride on one of those carts. His son got him off of tobacco years ago, and his son sent him articles on how the elderly need to exercise. He does what his son advises. Sure, he may be “the old man,” but who is he to argue with a son whose “certified Vitamin C shield” can cure so many ailments with a money back guarantee? Herby may be old and deaf, but he has got sense.
Herby has been careful to count the number of floors. It is much too dark to see if there are floor numbers painted by the emergency exit doors, so he has been counting out the floors aloud. He thinks (more like hopes) he has reached the right one. He opens the door, and steps into a dark hall that smells even worse than that staircase. If this building has any maintenance, they should all be fired. This odor is bad even for downtown living.
* * *
Maddy stands up from the sofa. She turns around and offers Marty her hand.
“Come with me, Marty,” Maddy says with a soft glow in her cheeks.
Marty remembers that look. It was when she wanted to take him back to the bed for love. For a moment, he is a young man again. He is caught in her spell, and is not interested in being anywhere else.
Marty stands up. It takes him longer to do so than in the past. So much for his revitalized youth. The spell is almost broken, but he smiles and follows his sexy wife to their little nest.
“So tell me,” Marty says when they reach the door. “How is this all possible?”
Maddy turns around. She looks lovingly into Marty’s eyes, and places both of her hands around the back of his neck. She looks like she is going to kiss him, but at the last moment she stops and smiles instead.
“Step inside with me, handsome, and you’ll find out,” Maddy whispers.
Maddy turns around to open the door. It is then that Marty again notices the rotten meat smell. It had gone away when Maddy opened the front door, or perhaps he had been so smitten with her that he had pushed it out of his mind. Regardless, it is back again with a vengeance.
Marty almost faints from the odor. He takes his handkerchief, and covers his nose. He steps back from the bedroom door in agony.
“What in the hell is that?” Marty asks.
“Oh,” Maddy says surprised. “You can smell that?”
“Of course I can,” Marty says. “What is it?”
Maddy is speechless. This has never happened before. Her feminine warmth, and the bouquets, always covered up the pungent decay at least until it was too late.
Marty steps back into the living room. He starts to choke on that awful smell.
“I need to go,” Marty mutters.
“No!” Maddy says. “You can’t just leave.”
Marty grabs his heart, and hobbles toward the front door. He cannot tell if he is grossed out by the smell, having a heart attack, or just plain frightened. It may be a combination of all three. He has to get out of there whatever the explanation.
“I’m sorry, love,” Marty mutters.
“Marty!” Maddy screams.
Marty looks over his shoulder. He thinks she is calling out to him, but instead his younger self bolts out from behind the bedroom door. In a flash, Marty sees how Young Marty indeed looks just like him from way back when. The difference is in the eyes. Young Marty has a demonic intensity in his eyes that Marty never had. This is a crazed exaggeration of the adventurous, devil may care approach to life he had back when he was a top salesman and a global traveller.
Young Marty pounces upon Old Marty in the foyer, and he wraps the garrote wire around his neck. He presses hard. He wants this old coot dead and dragged into the bedroom to remain in eternity with all the others.
Then, he and his beautiful wife need to figure out what the hell went wrong.
* * *
Herby stands in front of the apartment door. He sees the door number, but he cannot find any doorbell. Why is he always screwing up at the least opportune time?
Herby cannot hear worth a damn, but he senses a life or death struggle on the other side of the door. He decides to forego the doorbell, and instead knocks several times really hard.
* * *
Young Marty and Maddy hear the door knocks. That too has never happened. They look at one another with astonishment.
Young Marty releases his grip on Old Marty. The old man slumps to the floor.
Young Marty is about to answer the door. He looks over his shoulder, and his wife slowly nods in the affirmative. Whatever this may be they cannot just ignore it.
* * *
Herby is knocking still, when the door opens. He looks up and sees the face of his friend from many years ago. He is surprised at first, but that soon turns into cold, raw fear when he sees the diabolical murder in the man’s eyes.
Herby has seen similar eyes before. Marty does not know he is a veteran, and he saw plenty of death up close. His war instinct kicks into gear, and he responds the way he did fifty years ago in a rice paddy in South Vietnam.
Herby lifts the spyglass high over his head, and slams it down hard on Young Marty’s forehead. He opens a wound, and Young Marty staggers back. He follows his victim into the foyer, and slams the spyglass several more times into that same open wound. Young Marty stumbles over Marty, and hits the back of his head hard on the floor. Blood fans out from inside Young Marty’s head wound.
Maddy staggers back. She raises the back of her right hand to her mouth, and she screams holy hell. Herby locks eyes with her. She turns and runs frantically into the bedroom. She slams the bedroom door shut.
Herby looks down at his friend. Marty is bleeding from a cut in his throat. He is slipping in and out of consciousness.
Herby cannot fathom dragging his friend down those stairs. He has no choice but to try, though, and so he starts to drag him out into the dark hall. As Herby does so, the building flashes in and out of existence. One moment he is pulling Marty into the hall. The next moment he is pulling him over the lawn.
And then the building is gone completely. Herby has pulled Marty completely off of the lawn. They are now where Marty first had left him.
Herby drops to his knees, and cradles Marty’s head in his lap. Herby sees that one of the kids has noticed, and he calls out to him to fetch the paramedics. Like any kid nowadays over the age of two, he has his own iPhone, and he dials 911. The kid watches the two old men from afar, until the paramedics finally arrive on the scene.
* * *
It is early evening, and Marty is lying on his sofa. He has a bandage wrapped around his neck, but otherwise is feeling much better than he had in the weeks prior to the arrival of that building. He has no idea what really happened, and since he has no way of investigating the matter further he tries to push it out of his mind. That is easier said than done, of course. A considerable amount of pent up sorrow had been released when he saw his young wife again after so many years. He is grieving now, and likely will be for the rest of his life.
Grief does not need to be a death sentence, though. He can learn to live with it, and as soon as he has recovered completely from the neck wound he will take the steps necessary to regain some of his vigor he had surrendered to old age. Herby is urging him back to the golf club, and he still has a lot of frequent flyer miles to burn.
Marty sits up on his sofa. He sees the spyglass leaning against the living room window. Herby dented it against that madman’s head, but it is working just fine. One of these days Marty will have the dent removed. Until then, the scar will remind him of the strange thing that happened to him; not that he is very likely ever to forget it.
Marty sees the glass of water beside his telephone. He also sees the bottle of “Super Max Growth Plus.” It is time for another dose. He is not certain if it is going to do anything for him, but he would like to live to be a hundred and three, if possible.
Marty swallows the dose with water. He gets up from the sofa, and hobbles to the living room window. It looks like a balmy evening outside. He thinks he observes a pick up basketball game way down there. He lifts the spyglass to take a closer look.