The Writing on the Wall

By Robert Starr




If you drive home the same way everyday, and then one day you change your route, are you able to shake it of or do you say to yourself: ĎFrom now on this is the way Iíll always go.í

I see that on a red brick wall in an alley between two buildings, painted in white loud strokes like the cover of some heavy metal album one Saturday afternoon, and I stop and think about what it means, my eyes unfocused with the grey significance of it. My fingertips tap the brick, hoping contact might help me understand, and in the silent moment after I press my palm flat like I might lean in to listen too, I hear it for the first time:

"Do you ever find the time for thoughts like that?" a raspy voice says just behind my left ear, embarrassing me back.

"Do you like my little observation?" it says

"Who are you?" I say still facing the wall but turning my head slightly to see how far I can go. "Why have you done this here?"

"I did it to find someone like you, someone like I think you might beÖ. someone who knows how wrong everything is, who can see around the light and into the shadows."

"But who are you? Why here, now?"

The voice sighs and draws a breath before it answers.

"Look around you..do you see the hollow stumps walking around, do people bump and push by without any other contact?"

"Yes."

"And what will you do about it all?" it whispers in my ear. "Will you help me? Help me to clean everything up? Will you change the way you drive?"

"I donít know..I canít decide," I say. Iím shocked to know Iím hovering, even considering this something I know nothing about, and I feel like Iím standing here without clothes on.

"Iíll be by this way tomorrow," I say when the silence finally crushes me, but I know Iíve already cut the lines and set myself adrift.

*****

Nicklous Street is four lanes wide. When I turn around in the alley, I see people walking by, brief instants of grey-rushing-business-suits and slow tourist girls in bright dresses pointing and looking but not at me. But the cars are silent, going too fast by my little space like the numbers at the end of a movie reel. I start walking for the opening and the soles of my shoes clack off the pavement like the hooves of parade horses hooked up to a wagon ,so I speed up, almost breaking into a run, needing the light from the street thatís calling me.

I reach the opening and rush out, foolish and embarrassed in the sensible light and reasonable crowds, ashamed all the people I can see through windshields are heading for practical destinations. And I donít turn back once after Iíve popped free into the street, but I can sense the voice is standing just outside the entranceway- smiling bald headed with crossed arms over the chest, happily sending me on my way, pleased to see the plan working out.

But I wonít turn around, and there are other alleys on Nicolas street; I pass each one fixing my gaze straight ahead and seeing the obscene baldness from the corner of my eye-there-on my side and over there-smaller-across the road.

****

I feel foolish again by the time I get to my building. Nothing is different here, the circular driveway out front is still the same, swerving around to skirt the concrete arch covering the rust tiles that feel solid and indestructible when I walk over them.

The lobby is the lobby still- bright fluorescent lights overhead that make me squint although I donít need to and the routine of checking the names on the buzzer feels good and familiar, it brings me back and soothes me. I havenít seen anything on the street and an invisible warm curtain pulls up and over my mind.

This is real.

I walk across the empty lobby, check my mail, and push for the elevator.

Iíve made it: nothing ever happens here and gears jerk above my while the car slides down.

***

My apartment is just how I left it and that makes me sink. Iíd hoped for something- an ashtray moved or cleaned, a blind drawn when I left now an opened invitation to let me know someone was here. Something, anything, different. Something to confirm or deny what Iíd thought just happened. But maybe thatís part of it all. Maybe being haunted is never really being sure if youíre being haunted all.

I pick up the phone to call you.

"Itís me," I say when you answer, ashamed of all the things Iíve told you as soon as I hear your sensible voice, but unable to help or stop myself.

"If you go down to the third alley on Nicholas street on the south side, youíll see something concrete this time," I say with a twist of boredom, like Iím not at all impressed by the things Iíve seen but think you might be. But I know what youíll say and you donít disappoint, and the words make me lose my tentativeness.

"I really donít give a shit if you believe me or not," I say as if the whole thing was for your benefit anyway. But I know Iím losing again and I may never find anyone who might at least help me prove the thing one way or the other. So I hang up on you, and because you mirrored what Iím asking you to believe back to me, I spring up from my chair and decide to go back to the alley although Iíve never been haunted in the same place before.

I donít know what else to do.

****

Itís dusk when I get there, half through the light and shadow, the fizzling of the wick of day gracefully bowing out. Itís the time when things wind down and the stragglers pull the collars up on their overcoats and hurry along, bracing against their fear of the night, thinking of warm houses and brief moments suspended away from all this like bubbles in glass. And Iím here at the alley again. Not exactly at the front, but at the side, stopping to gather myself. One moment of clear peace like a down comforter on a cold night before I find out.

I close my eyes and walk around.

****

Nothing. I hold my breath and listen to the waves of my blood but hear nothing else. Suddenly, I realize I havenít thought to change my shoes, that Iím still wearing the old clompers I had on before, and the thought of walking with my eyes closed and my shoes beating out my location scares me into opening them.

There is a blue dumpster on my right with one flap open and hanging like someone dropped something furtively in and ran. Papers flap around at my feet, some are yellow with age, others chase each other on unseen currents like puppies. One piece hovers for a second at the far end like its was momentarily supported by an unseen hand. They look slightly luminous, faintly backlit in the dying light, and I bend over to slide my shoes off without untying the laces, keeping my head up so I can see.

I stumble forward on the second one, falling but quickly looking down to regain my balance

When I look back up, there is writing on the wall

****

Be Here Now, It says in white long letters shocking me with their sudden appearance.

"Be where? When? How? " I cry out looking at the walls on either side, then up at the sky. "What is it you want? Why are you calling to me?"

Silence. A scrap of paper gets caught in a corner and swirls around like another puppy chasing its tail

"Be here now? Be here now!" I shout in a quivering voice with my hands held palms out at my sides. Then I remember the last time and pad my way toward the wall getting close enough to see the white paint is still moist. I wait until my breathing slows down and reach out with the fingertips of one hand.

"Youíre really here," the voice says in a low tone like it had expected I wouldnít be. Itís the sense of vulnerability I hear that makes me tense-suddenly very afraid- very scared my appearance might make this thing desperate.

"What do you want?" I whisper, suddenly terrified by the fear in my own voice. And then there is more silence and I can hear my blood beating against the breakwater of my skull.

"I only want you to see things the way I see them. I only want someone to help me.. someone to understand."

"Understand? What?"

"Whatís it like to be here.To be alone here," the voice says and Iím sure I can hear lips part right behind me ear.

And then I know what it means, know what it is. I must turn around. Iím driven to face it for all the times I sat alone in my bedroom in the dark, staring at the crack of light under the door and watching horrible silent shadows flicker past. Yes. Iíll turn around to find out whatís behind the voice on the phone that calls in the middle of the night and whose momentary silence before it says anything shatters and pounds me with the weight of quiet like heavy water on my chest.

And I turn around but thereís nothing in the alley, but all the papers are lying flat on the dusty pavement and the dumpster is still open and mocking me.

Itís early morning . People are passing by the mouth of the alley and the cars drive by in silence.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Starr

Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's. After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

E-mail: r.starr@sympatico.ca

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