If Your Light Must Leave You

Amanda Goldblatt

Five swans are a picture, but fifty are a nuisance. Leaving my apartment building I often had to guard my body from their beaks with a briefcase against my chest. There were battalions of them nosing around my car each morning, their beaks poked out like syringes, like blades. Green and brown snakes of excrement stretched wet across the parking lot beside the lake. Some residents of the building complained in bored spats in the lobbies and elevators, but the plague was somehow romantic and no one wanted to touch them. I was more afraid of the swans than anything else.

When I got older but was not yet elderly, my earlier notions of concrete life began to fall like wet paper apart into pulp. Sometimes I forgot that swans could be dangerous. I sometimes forgot a lot of things. I had an overriding sense of ill in those days. I went to the doctor but there was nothing she could say without more tests. I sputtered at the thought of more tests and told myself there was no reason to think myself ill if I did not feel ill. I thought of the doctor and her bunched cheeks and wondered which human features read as reliable to other people. Every morning, I took an egg out of its shell and poached it. The doctor told me to cut out the eggs but I did not.

There was a woman in my building who walked around with white stuff under her nose and I didn’t trust her either. It wasn’t because of the white stuff. It was more because once I had a welcome mat climbed all over with patterns of leggy wisteria and then suddenly she had it. It had been a gift from my sister. I didn’t feel I could say anything so I didn’t.

We talked sometimes and she thought we were friends. “Your aura’s muddy, man,” she said once in the elevator.

“It does feel muddy,” I barked back. Sometimes I didn’t know why I said things.

She dipped into a fat red bag that was shrugging from her shoulder, an extra organ for holding things outside the body. “Here,” she said and held out a crystal in the shape of a small pyramid. “For healing, you know.” I shook my head and wouldn’t take it.

After the elevator ride we were in her apartment though I couldn’t understand how either of us had gotten there. Before, I’d had the clear notion of the passage going down and not up, but sometimes I was mistaken.

In her apartment there were lots of things, not in the least a small white-haired boy in a cowboy hat watching an enormous television. It was the only child I recalled seeing in the building. There were also: twin somber geraniums and breakfast plates upset at their abandonment on the coffee table. A steamer trunk cloaked in a scarf, decorated with fake gemstones like a whore.

There was also: me, in her apartment, with her.

“This is my son,” the white stuff woman said.

I didn’t respond. I felt I had a certain latitude as a guy with a muddy aura and I felt sicker for being in the apartment. I had a vision of being amongst the feral swans, petting their backs as they nipped out plugs of my flesh. The woman looked at me like I wasn’t supposed to say anything at all.

I had a strong feeling of there being an extensively unfolding world out there around the lake, and an infinitely shrinking and crumbling origami world in the apartment. The television set crackled and the woman led me by the hand to the whore steamer trunk.

I felt like the woman was a thief, because I didn’t feel ill anymore. After that, she didn’t say anything at all to me anymore; I wondered if she thought I was someone else entirely who also did not speak, the way I did not speak before I was replaced by this someone else. I remained not speaking.

After this, the woman’s skin slackened unappealingly and I was less and less likely to notice her anymore.

In my later years there seemed to be less swans than there had been but I could not be sure. It seemed like a strategic trick. It was summer one time and the protective plastic coating on the windows of my sunroom was peeling yellow. I looked from the plastic rhododendron to the small table with the book and the leather case with my old military revolver inside to the white wicker wingchair and then back to the peeling window. I saw each object separately, like a series of slides projected on someone’s wall. I called my building manager about the peeling coating. This was the first year skin cancer was in the news. It was not like me to call people, but I had been going to meetings in large rooms with many adult humans as translucent as me. I was getting braver. We were all letting light through, the woman with the bob and the seashell earrings said. We were letting the light through when all the time we were supposed to be absorbing it. She wore Miami-colored power suits and when she said, if your light must leave you, you must ask it to pay a toll first, her voice spread above us like a drop ceiling in the hotel banquet room.

During our lunch break I wanted to go sit out on a patio and drink a drink I had only ever heard of people drinking on vacations. I did not order this drink on any patio. Instead I took the lobby elevator to the basement level. I thought of elevators and wondered who fixed them, and how many I had been on in my life. Beside me was a woman in a gray smock with a very plain face like a substitute for someone beautiful someone else loved fiercely. You could put anyone else in a face like hers. She got off in a buzzing square hallway. I knew I shouldn’t follow her but I also knew that I should pretend that I was the type of man who absorbed his light, rather than let it pass through. Learning all these sorts of things felt like something that should be intuitive but was instead confusing, difficult, like a maze printed with funny pages. I wasn’t paying attention and I was in the basement of a hotel when I was supposed to be in the banquet room.

The air smelled sour and flowery, mildew and laundry detergent commingling. In places the hallways narrowed like secret tunnels. I was not working anymore. The government gave me allowance. I was not elderly but it was possible that I was far older than I had been before. The sconces were bulbs in wire cages. They buzzed. I wanted to sit on a patio and clasp my lips against the cheek of someone young.

The gray-smocked woman was turning her blank face more and more as she advanced down the hallway. I didn’t know what to do so I continued to walk as if I knew where I was going. Then she turned in to a room and I heard talking in another language and another gray-smocked woman, younger and sharp-nosed, leaned out the doorway of the room to look at me. I didn’t know what to do so I went back to the elevator but saw there was a keyhole instead of a button. I found the stairs and ascended, heaving.

The banquet room was full of empty chairs because it was still lunch so I sat in one of the empty chairs quietly with my hands asleep in my lap. The woman speaker sat down beside me without asking.

“I see you,” she said. I imagined that if I held my face to hers I would be able to hear the ocean in her earrings. She took one of my hands and held it in both of hers. “Take the light that you’re due,” she said. Then it was not lunchtime anymore and she went back to the lectern and her assistants passed out worksheets to the crowd that had re-assembled in the chairs without my noticing.

I went to a few more meetings and then it was not summer anymore and I no longer wanted to go. I felt like a screen door more than anything else. This was fine. The lake outside had fewer and fewer swans and no neighbors said anything to me about it. The swans were irritable drug addicts that happened to look like feathery ballet dancers. They could come out with their sharp beaks at any moment. Did anyone care if the numbers of irritable drug addicts were dwindling? It was not the type of thing I could feel conflicted about. They didn’t get any less violent in smaller numbers. I parked closer to the building so that I did not have to confront them. Occasionally I still stepped in their excrement and scraped it off of my shoes on the curb. The lake started to grow a neon moss veil. Somewhere, underneath many other facts in my brain, was a half-sentence about algae being good to eat. I ignored this.

There was a death on the floor below me in the building. Then there was another death on another floor. A week after the second, there was a third, I believe, though I couldn’t be sure. The deaths were all of more or less natural causes. There were many elderly residents. The danger of these deaths felt close and sexual, like the humming heat of an old bar in my service days.

In the mailroom there was a coffee can for donations for one or another dead person’s favorite charity. The charity was something to do with children who were all dying of the same thing. It was not what any of the neighbors had suffered. The coffee can was bottom-heavy with pennies and fluffed on top by several ostentatious dollar bills. Each day I would go and get my mail after the game shows had ended on television and I would look at the coffee can and its contents. It had one of those translucent plastic tops but I peeled it away every day like it was nothing. It was not designed to keep a man such as me out.

One day I took a dollar and the next day I took two. By the end of the week I had thirty dollars and I took myself out to a small strip mall restaurant for spaghetti and two plates of tiramisu, twin fortresses there on the beige vista of the thin tablecloth. The server was a young woman with a port wine stain against the left side of her jaw. I became fond of her because she did not make so much as a noise regarding the duplicate dessert. I remembered twins who had been my grade school classmates, both with port wine stains, though one’s looked like an elephant and the other’s could not be compared to anything at all. The elephant twin was always the more popular one, the one who married early to a buddy of mine. The other twin never married.

Then it was night and autumn and I thought I might like to go over to the lake and look at the dark water but I did not. In the vestibule was a young man with light hair. He opened the door for me so I did not have to fumble for my key. I felt a wider blessing from the universe cast a sweet net over me. I did not address the young man. I went to sleep that night, taking out my hearing aid and setting it on the nightstand beside me. It was the last thing I did each night. It shrieked like a squeezed small creature and then sat beside my clock like a spare body part.

In the morning my egg tasted like an egg but not like it usually did. I could not explain it. I stood in my sunroom beside the plastic rhododendron and looked again at the peeling yellow coating on the window. There was a voyeur bee on the other side of the glass. I realized then that the building manager had never called, and that it had been months, and that I could not account for any of those months. Work, office-going or factory-clanging work, was the thing that was the frontier between untroubled forgetting and troubled forgetting. It was not as if I could go back now. The bee hit the window, so thirsty had it been for me, and then shot off into unremarkable air. I felt ill. I called the building manager and left a message with the answering service.

The light-haired young man was on the other side of the peephole. I already knew who he was by the time he arrived there. Espionage would have been a good wardrobe for me as a young man. Often I had nosed suspicions, correct and cutting. The talent had unsettled many women, cheaters and angels alike, but always soothed me like a pet. The doorbell came loud, magnified by the system the last building manager had installed at my request. I was in my windbreaker pants and the old velour robe I used as a blanket while watching the game shows. The hearing aid went in and the arms through the sleeves. Knocking commenced. I did not speak, only opened the door. The man was not handsome, his cheeks pocked from old acne and an early set of prodigious under-eye pouches. He appeared pleased that I had opened the door. A heavy plastic box with a handle rested near a foot, on top of the plain straw welcome mat. “Hiya,” he said in a broad voice.

“Yeah.” I said loudly. “Hiya.” I enjoyed speaking loudly though I did not have to.

“I’m going through some work orders—” The man adjusted himself. He wore work boots, the laces untied.

“The windows?” Again, loudly.

“Yes sir. I—” He advanced through the door without asking, toting the plastic box, trundled across the still of my home, and ended up in the sunroom. “All the apartments are laid out the same. If you were drunk enough you could end up in someone else’s bed and not know until morning.” He seemed pleased by this recital, just as he had when I had opened the door. I did not answer him. The plastic box was opened and inside there were many usual tools including a measuring tape which he withdrew. There was a pad of paper, too, and a bitten pencil behind his ear. He began to measure the windows. “How long have you been here?”

“A long time now,” I said, sitting myself down in the chair and watching him work.

“Did you know my Ma? She lived just a couple floors up.”

He was the little blonde boy in the cowboy hat, who had watched the large television, in the apartment with the white stuff woman, all the way back then.

“I’m not much for neighbors.”

“I lived here for a little while, when I was real young. I only came back because she was sick. Cancer, you know.”

I did not answer him. I did not know. In due time the measuring tape retracted into its case and then the case went into the plastic box and the plastic box was fastened, too. Then I watched the plastic box swing through my living room and into the entryway and at the door the young man turned. “I’ll be back Wednesday if you don’t mind,” and I told him I did not.

Later, I was on the line with my sister. “We’ll come up for the day, not to bother, just to say hello.” She had been the infant my new mother had come with after my old mother was gone and my father was sick of trying to work at the yard and pay attention to me at the same time. I didn’t blame him for this, preferred it to going to a home, which is something I had once heard voices somewhere discuss. My baby sister had turned out to be a nice woman. Also she had married a nice man. She thought I was a nice man. She liked us to have a nice lunch every once in a while, nice people sitting around a neatly set table, chewing and swallowing. I could not deny her that.

My sister came up with her husband on Wednesday. I dressed early and washed the two water glasses that had been sitting in the sink, put the individually wrapped chocolates my sister liked in a little silver dish on the table in the sunroom. They buzzed at eleven and I came down to meet them. Their car, a familiar Buick with a tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the rearview, idled in the turn-around. Both of them stood outside the outer-door of the building, inappropriately wide smiles set on their faces. My sister had her arms out even before I drew close. She hugged me and her stiff permanent hairstyle nestled against the side of my face. “Sweetheart!” She was the only person in my life who used such endearments.

“Hello,” I said and presented my own smile.

Her husband, a short, sweatered man with a beard and the accidental look of an old Marxist, set his paw on my back. “Well hello to you!” he blustered. They were a couple that favored exclamations.

The three of us went to a Chinese restaurant in the same strip mall where I had eaten the two tiramisu served by the discreet waitress with the port wine stain. I thought of her as I worked through my chicken chow mein. My sister’s egg roll crackled as she broke it with a knife. “What have you been doing with yourself?” she asked, as flakes of the egg roll wrapper fell from her mouth to the pink tablecloth. My brother in-law concentrated on ferrying his shrimp and snow peas from chopstick to mouth with commendable focus. I responded that I had been doing the usual. It was all she wanted to hear. Then she was free to talk about her daughter and her daughter’s husband, and their Yorkshire terrier, and I turned my hearing aid down and nodded and hmm-ed the moments her mouth seemed to rest. Meanwhile, my brother-in-law finished his food, shot me a sly look as if to say, We’re in this together, we men. I nodded slightly in response and when the check came he insisted on paying. I let him. Later in the Buick, I turned my aid back on.

It was a feint, inviting them up to tea. My brother-in-law wanted to get back on the road but my sister, solid as an elk, won out. We stood in the elevator together, and I remembered that I had read somewhere that if one person already on an elevator was faced toward the back of the vessel and not, as was customary, the doors, that each new passenger would mimic this pose. I felt sorry I had not tried this on my pliable relations. I thought of the swans in the lake. Though I did not like them, I admired them their immovability, their impermanence.

It was Wednesday and things were not working out as I would have liked. When we arrived at my front door, it was open. The light-haired building manager. This was precisely the reason I did not like to have people underfoot. My sister was predictably alarmed, looking at the door ajar and seeing the possibility of home invasion. She was always expecting crime, watched too much television news. I explained, in few words, about the peeling yellow coating on the sunroom windows. This seemed to settle her. I told her about the chocolates, and we three advanced.

I put my keys in the dish by the door and was about to call out when my sister did it for me. Her voice was a shock of brightness cutting through the room. My brother-in-law was close behind, a simpering shadow. I went to the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil and let them advance. I heard voices from the other room; the low young register of the building manager buoyed above the couple. I had a box of tea in the back of the pantry and, with some difficulty, withdrew it from where it had been lodged behind several dusty canned goods.

Tea was a simple thing. I took out my three sturdy, ugly mugs. They were fired clay: brown and blue and speckled. The lips were rough like pumice. I arranged them on a breakfast tray my sister had given me on one holiday occasion, placed a bag of tea in each, a water-spotted spoon beside each. Something on the stove burner crackled as the gas flame did its work. The kitchen smelled like a small incinerator.

The kettle whistled and I poured the water in each mug, watched it saturate the tea bags, drowning them, and then allowing them to pop up to the surface. The jar of honey was the last thing on the tray, which I carried through the small dining room and into the sunroom, where my sister and her husband were watching the building manager do his work.

The man was obscured behind a sheet of thin yellow film the color of flypaper. The sheet came cascading from a large roll and bent and crackled, rude as cellophane. Beneath it the man looked discolored, like an old tooth. Meanwhile, my sister was flirting nicely with him and my brother-in-law had out the travel opera glasses they had given me for one birthday or another. “Swans,” he said as he swiveled in his seat when I entered through the doorway. There were two left, out across the lake. Someone had turned on the radio and generic string music stretched itself around the apartment. I felt ill.

I felt feverish as in the old days. I could not explain what had been taken then replaced when my kin had arrived in their Buick. Something had been elbowed out and I did not want to have the new stuff. An autumnal collection of crackling chocolate wrappers piled on the table. “Yes,” I said to my brother-in-law.

“They’ll attack you if they have half the chance,” he said. I felt close to him.

“Yes,” I said again.

“I think they’re beautiful,” my sister said, and looked to the young man for support, but he was chewing on a pencil and humming along with the awful string music. The old coating had now been stripped away entirely. The peelings looked like the shed skin of a sallow beast, littered across the carpet. The sunroom was approaching oven hot. On cue, the swans winged away.

My brother-in-law put down the opera glasses and I looked at him. I pretended it was all a lucid dream. I looked at the gun case. My stare could be a beacon, or the lights on the sides of movie theatre aisles that alert you where to follow in the dark. Look here, I thought. Look here. Touch that.

He did not touch that. I stayed in the doorway. He picked up the book.

I had a feeling of being lodged at the base of a funnel, arms and legs out to stymie the final descent. I did not want to be in the sunroom. I did not want to be with anyone.

I saw that the young man did not want us to be there, was pressed against glass. My brother-in-law was turning pages in the book. It was the coffee table book about U.S. Presidents, with full-color pictures and large-type biographies. Nixon, Ford, Carter. The pages made crisp whispers. My sister unwrapped another chocolate. It was not until I heard the twist of this new wrapper that I remembered the tray in my hands. “Tea for everyone,” I said, and put the tray on the table.

The young man turned and looked at the carefully arranged tray. “No, thanks,” he said and turned back to his work. He was less personable than before.

“How long have you been working in the building?” My sister: so intent upon being nice.

“Not too long,” he said. He used a small penknife to cut the coating. “Lived here when I was real little. Your brother says he didn’t know my mom, but I figure he must’ve.”

“He’s not very sociable,” my sister said. They spoke of me as if I wasn’t in the room. My brother-in-law was staying out of it, on Reagan now. I looked at the pages and saw Reagan as a young man, the actor, the entertainer. Then: in a navy blue suit behind a lectern. I looked again at the gun case.

“My grandma used to say that quiet men are the only ones you can trust to keep secrets.” The man had cut the first panel and was using the nail of his forefinger to peel the clear backing from the coating.

“Oh, Terry doesn’t have any secrets,” my sister laughed, using the old nickname that I had sloughed off after grade school.

“Terry, you wanna help me?” The man held up the coating. “It’ll stick to itself if you don’t have someone else holding a corner or two.”

I took two corners and stood there, holding the film taut. The man smelled like smoke and deodorant. Closer, the acne scars on his cheeks were like moon craters. Together we moved closer to the window and the adhesive sucked itself to the glass. His closeness was not offensive. I felt only like a utility.

My sister drank her tea and continued to speak. I stood by the window, slipping out my hearing aid and putting it in my pocket as the man pressed a burnishing tool against the new coating, pressing out the air bubbles. I stayed standing there. I saw the parking lot, full of dirty automobiles, and past it, the lake: green at the edges and brown as a walnut skin toward the center. There was no current.

I imagined that the swans would return in the warm weather, and that when they did, I would shoot them. I imagined I would find a soft-cornered box of ammunition in the back of the pantry. I imagined I would watch blood’s red saturate feathers’ white. I imagined the bodies, dumb as Thanksgiving turkeys, falling through the algae. I imagined oxygen bubbles sent up through the water. I imagined cars behind me in the parking lot floating across the asphalt, ringing me like a company of dancers. I imagined passengers speaking in their interiors. I imagined old gum in someone’s center-console ashtray, a stuck seatbelt, cracked upholstery. I imagined everyone in the world in cars, floating by, seeing what I had done. I imagined them clambering, ambivalent, thousands of lips pursed as old rubber.

I imagined that later there would be a scene.

The man packed his tools into his case and shut it. He nodded at me and at my guests. I did not turn. A few moments more, then a tapping on my shoulder. My sister. Her stiff hair against my cheek. Her perfume like flowers made into cleaning fluid. My brother-in-law. His hand on my back. I turned and followed them out.

In the elevator I stood facing the back. My relations stood facing the door.