The Monroe Arms
The apartment was brown. The curtains were brown. The dark wood walls were brown. The floor was brown along with the beaten-down area rug that had lost any sort of recognizable pattern to decades of awkward, circular footsteps—its flowers and leaves now looking more like a forest undergrowth in fall than an Arabian garden. The recliner cradled an old man whose inert skin matched the coffee color of the chair. The recliner and the man were positioned to face the antique TV set with its plastic "wood" siding. Even the noonday seemed to turn brown as it filtered through the cigarette-stained curtains. The only things moving in the apartment were black and white movies on the television and the dog. A white dog with wrong eyes. One blue, one brown.
With a push three envelopes fell through the brass slot into the room. The dog barked and barked and barked. She heard no response as the footsteps receded down the hall. She sniffed the mail, sometimes there was a treat thrown in with it. Leaving her post by the door, she headed back towards the kitchen. The dog's ghostly, pointy face pushed down into her food bowl. She loved this flavor the most. There were three flavors the old man gave her. Her tongue greedily pressed against the tan insides as she lapped up the greasy residue. This was the second morning she hadn't been fed in six years. The old man lay stiff on the recliner in the center of the den and hadn't moved, hadn't breathed since last night.
She trotted around the kitchen, her uncut nails clacking on plastic tile, her nose sucking in the stale air as if the sweat she smelled in the air itself was food. The leaky refrigerator's water was overflowing from the Tupperware the man left to collect it. She left grimy footprints on the warped tile as she paced back and forth. Eyeing the tables and fixtures, she reared up and tilted her head sideways on the countertop. She knew there was food up there. That's where the old man always grabbed her treats from. She settled back down on her haunches and then gazed towards the den. The old man's legs were visible, framed in the doorway, motionless in the moving light of the TV. She jumped, ribcage hitting hard against the corner and fell with a yelp. She jumped again, fell again. She went back to the den and fell asleep under the stiff, elevated legs of the old man.
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The dog woke up barking and wild-eyed. It took her a moment to realize the shrieks were coming from the TV. Her tongue hurt and she was panting heavily. In the bathroom she lapped up the remainder of the water at the bottom of the bowl, her tongue pressing as deep as possible into the pipe hole, her entire head below the yellow waterline ring. Her tongue hurt less, but she was still thirsty. She could see the beads of water around the tank of the toilet. She could smell the water. She knew it was there. She pushed and pushed with her nose, feeling the bruises swelling. It finally lifted, just a crack. On her back legs she was able to see all the water, hidden there for purposes she did not know. She forced her head in, cutting her nose with all the precision of glass on the rubber soles of a gym shoe. The heavy porcelain lid shattered on the tile, breaking in three big sections and spraying miniscule white fragments everywhere. The flush water tasted like rust. She went back to the den and this time slept beneath the light and sounds of the TV instead of the old man.
An unfamiliar scent reached the dog as she lay fatigued by the mail slot. The second she smelled it she perked up and started barking again.
"Crazy dog" the substitute postman said through the heavy door, kicking it, making the whole door shake, dust falling through the brown air and making her jump back. She rushed to the slot just after the mail fell and barked in synchronicity with the receding footsteps.
Back in the kitchen she had finally managed to get on top of the counter, she knocked off the aluminum cans lined against the wall and tore into the thin cardboard box, the fibrous sugary contents made her parched mouth feel like it was filled with cutting hairs, but she kept on eating, kept on eating until she was licking the insides of the bag. She knocked over the glass jar containing the treats the old man fed her and jumping down to the floor she ate those, too. Her tongue scrapped the soggy warped tiles underneath the leaking refrigerator and she lapped the thick, mucus-colored water that had pooled stagnant in the Tupperware. Collapsing flat on her side, her bloated belly protruding onto the tile, she fell asleep oblivious to the knowledge that in one hour she would wake up gagging on the vomit of all she had eaten.
Restless, lean, and frantic—the next morning she ran through the apartment, knocking over the chairs and digging the stuffing from the cushions. When the postman came to the slot she jumped up and tried to bite his hand. Each finger moving like it was its own separate animal. Wiggling, moving—moving on their own and smelling like meat. She tried eating the soap in the bathroom with texture like cold butter before spitting it out. Chasing around the aluminum cans on the floor she found that once punctured, a smelly liquid fizzed out and she bit through them all, cutting her gums and she lapped it up—the metallic taste of her own blood and the metallic taste of the liquid. She liked it. Dizzy and woozy, she passed out by the mail slot, as far from the den as she could be.
The sun didn't seem to move at all, out there somewhere behind the curtains of the den. She waited by the mail slot, but no one showed up. It was Sunday. The dog stared at the old man. First from the kitchen. Then closer, from inside the den. His arm was dangling over the side of the armrest, his head resting on his shoulder—he seemed to be staring down the length of his arm, right at her as she stared at the hand. The purplish lined fingers hung loosely down, like a sopping wet sack—stale. Unrecognizable from the fingers that had pet her each day. She stared. She stood up, sat back down. The fingers didn't move.
—Get your back to the wall, yah dirty scumbag before I fill yah full of lead!
She barely even heard it anymore.
—You think you got me Jimmy? You think you got me good, but this isn't it, this isn't it by a long shot.
The light danced on the old man's face, his body, his arms, his hand.
—Oh yeah? What do you think you're gonna do now, you corrupt copper? You're the one going to prison now, not me!
She turned her head away to head back into the kitchen.
They moved, she growled. She stared again. They started moving in a wavelike motion, each one like a little animal. Each one like meat, feeling the air. She growled. His eyes stared down at her, unmoving.
—Ha! What do you think of that, yah chump? You thought you had some grand escape plan, didn't you? Didn't you pal? A razor in your shoe, huh?
She thought of the soap and the way her teeth went through it so easily. She thought of the metallic taste and the sores in her mouth. The little animals looked stringy, chewy, tough. They were still dancing in front of her. When she looked at the old man's face, still his eyes had not moved. Meat.
• • •
Tommy's Doc Martens made a dull, grinding thump on the sidewalk as he stepped out of the mail van and pivoted, looking over his shoulder. His urban route required a lot of walking and a lot of stairs. He especially hated the Monroe Arms. The whole building was a wreck. Neglected and mostly vacant, the elevator never seemed to work and somehow the management had been able to evade installing a convenient mailroom. Instead, he was forced to walk from apartment to apartment, skipping three or four vacancies at a time.
As he wound his way around the corners of yellowing walls with peeling clamshell print, sporadic echoes of the rooms pushed against his ears. 12, 14, 16. "I told you you not be bringin' any more of that shit home! I told you you stupid..." 28, 30, 32. The thud of music was oscillating in volume. "I came up wit two new ways to get rich I can't wait. Got a brand new cig and that old thirty eight." "Fucking spook!" Tommy yelled back. 34, 36, 38. He had just gotten back from vacation—vacations that had become more and more frequent the closer to retirement he got. 40, 42, 44. "But if Ricky finds out that you're the twin of his dead fiancée, oh, Julia, I don't know how he'll..." 46, 48, 50.
As Tommy stuffed the bundle of bills and junk mail through the slot, it caught against the brass metal hinge on the brown door and through it he noticed a pile of unopened mail. He stopped. Bending over, feeling his taut beer gut press against his pants as tan Polish fingers propped open the slot, he saw a white dog sitting there—just outside the mail fanning in a circle across the floor. Just sitting there. Hunched. Panting heavily. Staring. The hairs on its muzzle a crusty red, sticking together in clods. Then he smelled it, something putrid wafting through the rectangle. Something stale and bubbling. Something familiar. Something he hadn't smelled since Khe Sanh.
"Will!" Nothing. "Will! Hey, Mr. Taylor!" The dog continued to stare. "Hey, Cassandra! Go! Get Will!" The dog seemed to slump more. "Come on Cassie, go get him!" She just tilted her head, the panting getting heavier. His fingers groped and pulled and his mailbag leaned awkwardly on his side as he slowly felt his way to the back of the mail slot and there on the back was a grey piece of duct tape curling up at the edges. The brass slapped shut as Tommy pulled away. Stuck to the glue on the back of the tape was a key. Tommy pushed open the door, hearing the envelopes and dust coagulating into mounds in its wake. The dog sat up and followed him as he entered.
The walls of the foyer hallway he was passing through were brown. The sound of his boots was hollow on the wooden floor. He looked to his right and noticed the vacant living room with its old brown table and deep maroon scars in the finish. As he walked through the dining room he noticed a browning medal shaped like a star and next to it a picture with a bark picture frame. It brought back memories of sitting down for coffee at this table, of tales of Pork Chop Hill and memories of a forgotten war that had somehow validated his own experience, thinking of older generations fighting and dying in Asian jungles. The chairs they had sat on were now overturned, the stuffing ripped out. There was chalky brown vomit on the floor. A smell like sewers in summer was coming from the open door to his right, but it wasn't the smell he was looking for.
As he approached the den he felt like he was entering a bunker, entering the earth. There on the recliner was Will Taylor, missing a hand. There on the television set was James Cagney, smiling in the shadows. There on the floor lay an untidy pile of white bones gnawed to stubs and surrounded by wine-red streaks painted on the wooden floor, leaving an imprint that made Tommy think of tongues. There were no puddles. Fragments of bone and stringy sinews hung in clots from the flannel shirtsleeve like corpses hanging from trees that he used to see pictures of at St. Mary of the Angels. He was glad the flannel was red.
Turning around he stared at Cassie, sitting there. Tommy felt the illegal mace in his right pocket and the dog biscuits in his left and he was unsure which to reach for. He was unsure about memories, and how even when you tried to forget them they still kept coming back at night. Unsure about the routes. Unsure about retirement. Unsure about vacations to Saigon with his vet buddies and Vietnamese BBQ in the shadow of hotel rooms by the ocean and laughing at the half-white faces of the young girls in maid outfits. He was unsure about a lot of things. The one thing he wasn't unsure about was the phone call he had to make.