There comes a time in every writer’s career when their very bones begin to ache, as a long-healed fracture makes its presence known with the change of weather. This ache is not mollified by
pressure, a tightly wound bandage to the afflicted area being impossible to achieve. For this is a referred pain, the ache of an artist’s soul in the throes of creation. That Kerry Keller’s
creation would culminate in nine months would seem ironic to some, but indeed it was prophetic.
Kerry Keller wound his way around glistening patches in the street, careful to avoid deep potholes glazed with ice. His grocery bag dangled from a wrist, within--a meager offering of canned beans
and sourdough bread. He consoled himself with thoughts of piety; the most notable of his imagined peers suffered through periods of want and need, and the offspring of their sufferings, the progeny
of neglect and ignominy, delivered pure genius. Art was the only thing worth suffering for, and for Kerry the art of writing was worth the sacrament of pain.
He picked up his pace once back on the sidewalk, flanked by fresh snow-berms on either side, the white frigid fingers guiding him homeward. His breath quickened with the exertion. Dragon vapors
puffed from his mouth, trailing momentarily until quenched by the blustering wind. January in Chicago was bracing and brutal.
As he approached the rear of the four-story demolition-in-progress called “home,” Kerry wondered how much money exchanged hands for the city to ignore the blighted neighborhood. Since the city
would not raze the buildings, it seemed the inhabitants were determined to accomplish the task themselves, piece by piece.
No matter; his apartment would suffice until he completed his labor of love. He was convinced that fate smiled on him at last. After all, his ‘story of a lifetime’ came to him in a night vision as
profound as an epiphany. His faithfulness to nurture the vision to life, to craft the perfect piece, would bring his reward.
On the stoop, Kerry fumbled his key from a pocket. It didn’t help that he refused to remove his gloves. There were evils to be protected from. Cold, certainly, but far worse things kept the gloves
forever on his hands. Nothing was safe to touch. Wrap a bare hand around a doorknob? Unthinkable! Dare to touch another person, an animal, a flower? Never. He knew better. Every living thing was
dying, and everything dying was a festering, vile thing. The world had the saying all terribly wrong; there is no such thing as a circle of life, only a circle of death, and he would cheat death
its victory as long as possible. Today was one of Kerry’s double-gloved days.
Before Kerry could insert the key, the door swung open. The yellow-toothed scowl and pockmarked face of his neighbor greeted him. Ruben, with his girlfriend and her three filthy urchins, lived
together on the third floor. Neighbor was a stretch. They lived in the apartment directly below Kerry, but Yellow-Tooth-Pock-Face insisted on calling everyone in the building the faux-friendly
term. Kerry knew him to be aggressive. He was a schemer, prying and talkative--far too talkative. Kerry didn’t consider himself a recluse, but there was no denying the knife-blade of anxiety when
he had to speak to Ruben, or to—anyone. He felt the pit in his stomach deepen beyond the constant companion of hunger. There was no avoiding the man today.
“Mr. K!” Ruben’s gross bulk filled the doorway. “How’ya been, man? Nobody’s seen’ya for days. I’ve been up to your place a couple a times now, an’ you never answer the door.”
Kerry tried to maneuver around Ruben, being careful not to allow his clothing to touch the man, using his free hand to gather up his loose-hanging overcoat and pressing it tightly against his
waist. Ruben moved aside only enough to tease a narrow way of escape to the inner staircase, forcing Kerry to twist sideways to avoid contact. As Kerry attempted to pass, Ruben put a firm grip on
his shoulder. Kerry paled.
“Why so rude, man? I’m tryin’ to be neighborly!”
Yellow-Tooth increased his grip painfully until Kerry looked up into the man’s face.
“Don’t cha’ wanna know why I’m wasting my time climbing the damn stairs to your place?”
“Sure, yes, of course. I’m sorry. I--”
“Sorry. You’re sorry all right, an’ that’s a fact.”
Ruben pulled Kerry’s shoulder hard to bring his face to within inches of his own. The stench of cigarettes was revolting. Kerry had to turn away.
“I’m fed up with all the racket! Who can sleep with all the noise you’re makin’ up there? It’s all night long!”
“Oh, hey, I didn’t know you could hear me. I …I’ll keep it down.”
Kerry trembled, feeling once again like the little boy who hid in a closet half his childhood. A memory obtruded of his lying fetal in the seclusion of complete darkness, buried under musty
clothing and intoxicated by the smell of old leather. There was safety in seclusion. He had an uncontrollable yearning to return there now.
“You best keep it down! And that woman we keep hear’n, is she your girl, or are you bringin’ in hookers? It sure as hell better not be hookers! All that moanin’ and howlin’ had better stop. You
ain’t no damn Romeo. Look at you, you’re a freakin’ bone-bag!”
Kerry’s eyes flitted beyond Ruben to a reflection of himself caught in the door glass, and recoiled at the image. He looked so—old, so drawn. When had he become so gaunt? Had he neglected himself
long enough to look this, this ghoulish? And what about the girl? How could he explain what even he didn’t understand? Ruben was the last person in the world he would ever tell about—her.
“I don’t have money to spend on hookers.”
A loud thwack startled both men; they turned toward the sound in the hall. An old woman worried herself in their direction, hobbling as fast as her arthritic legs would allow. She brandished a cane
as crooked as her legs, smacking it a second time against the banister as she passed.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she said with fading breath, looking directly at Ruben. “I’ll not have you hurting him. I won’t have it!” She stopped, still yards away, struggling to catch her
“This ain’t got nuthin’ to do with you, lady.” Ruben’s face contorted into a smirking smile. “It’s a private conversation. Go back to your knittin’.”
At this, she drew herself up as straight as a gnarled old tree could, but her eyes flashed something imposing. Fire. Ruben’s smile faded immediately.
“Let go of him, Ruben. Let him go and be on about your business.” She resumed her shuffle, directly toward him, her cane firmly gripped by knuckles deformed into human burl wood.
He relaxed his grip on Kerry and feigned a friendly look.
“Whoa, grandma. Easy now.” Ruben appeared suddenly uncomfortable. “You know my name -- how’s that? Never seen ya before. We know each other from somewhere?”
“Oh, I know you, Ruben, yes, yes. I know you. Apartment three twelve.”
Ruben’s face narrowed, lines prominent between his brows. The smirk returned after a moment.
“Ah, I see now,” he said, his eyes focusing on the wall of mailboxes. “I guess I gotta get the lock on my box fixed. You know it’s breakin’ the law to snoop people’s mail.”
Ruben released his grip on Kerry’s shoulder, brushed away the imprint left on his jacket with the back of a hand, and stepped out of the doorway.
“Alright, we understand each other then. You have yourself a nice day.”
Kerry bolted past the old woman and reached the stairs in the next second, bounding up two treads at a time. The dank stairwell and squeaking treads never felt so welcoming.
“Wait, stop!” the old lady called after Kerry in a voice that could not be ignored. “Help me please! Help me back to my apartment. I’m feeling so weak-I don’t think I can make it”.
Kerry settled himself deeper into the cushion of Mrs. Rotterdam’s vintage rocker recliner, the most inviting chair in the sparsely furnished apartment. He held a nearly empty bowl of wonderfully
scented vegetable soup as Mrs. Rotterdam ladled it full again.
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Rotterdam, the soup is fantastic.”
“Please, call me Vera. Let’s not stand on convention, shall we? We will talk as old friends, you and I, reunited at last, and eager to be acquainted once again! Yes! It has been so very long since
we could spend time together, hasn’t it? Too long-and it is so cold lately! Reminds me of the day Xavier arrived from Oslo, but he didn’t mind it a bit, did he? No, no-not Xavier! He thought the
cold could put out the very fires of hell, didn’t he?” Vera paused with a quiet chuckle, but her expression belied fond memories. “Xavier always did have a flair for the dramatic. I’m sure you
Kerry stopped mid-sip and stared at the old lady. “Xavier?”
“Yes, Uncle Xavier of course. He asks about you all the time. He still lives nearby if you want to visit him. No, you must visit him, but I dare say he’s become a bit frail and cranky of late.”
Vera gave a visible start. “Oh! Where are my manners! You were telling me about Jan and the kids, and I’ve interrupted you! Are they well?”
“I don’t…,” Kerry stammered, searching for something diplomatic to say, but a chill crawled up his spine. He continued after a moment, “I haven’t a clue who these people are. I was talking about my
“Oh, yes, yes! and…what were you saying?”
“Just that I write murder mysteries and that I am well on the way to finishing my best one yet.”
Kerry surprised himself with such an outburst of bravado. He never felt confident in his work before, but this story would get him noticed, he was sure of it. Kerry could feel it in his bones.
“Murder mysteries! Oh, my! Seems a sordid business to write about. Have you had many published?”
“Well, none have been published so far, but I’ve had a few bites, some serious interest. These things take time you know. There are a lot of good writers out there.”
“I’m sure there are, honey. I’m sure there are. But do your publishers say what the stories are missing? It would be a great help if they did.”
A feeling of embarrassment flooded over Kerry. It was painful recalling the rejections that half-filled the bottom drawer of his desk.
“If you boil it down, I guess I’d have to say authenticity. Several publishers said the stories needed ‘more meat on the bones’.” At this, Kerry sat the bowl in his lap and used his hands to make
air-quotes. “But I know the stories will be picked up soon. I guess you’d say for now, mine is just a voice crying in the wilderness.”
“You fancy yourself a bit of the Baptist then?” She stared into Kerry’s eyes intently. “Are you willing to wear sackcloth? Are you ready to eat locusts for dinner, just to be heard?” The pause that
followed darkened the lighthearted conversation.
“Look at me, Vera. I’m halfway there already.”
Kerry said this in a joking way, but the intensity of Vera’s gaze, and the gravity in the way she spoke, left him uncomfortable. He had thought her harmless and a little batty, but this brought
home the fact he didn’t know her at all.
“It was just a metaphor. I didn’t intend to get off into the woods. I just meant I had to be patient.”
Vera roused herself from somewhere deep, leaned closer, and grasped his arm. “Write what you know, only what you know. Isn’t that the wisdom of those who write?”
Kerry looked at Vera’s hand as she squeezed him, amazed he didn’t recoil. He almost found comfort in her touch.
“Certainly, at least for the most part,” he continued. “But what if you want to write about horrible things, like murder, rape and the like? It’s not as if you are able to write from first hand
knowledge, now are you? You have to wing it, use a little imagination, put yourself in the mind of a killer. What do you imagine a killer thinks? Is he a creature of pure evil? Or is he a victim in
his own right? Does he kill for revenge or for the sheer pleasure of it? How can you possibly know?”
“Oh, honey, what do you know of evil? You are a true innocent. Rare, so very rare these days to find someone like you.”
Kerry didn’t know how to respond. Maybe it was the comfortable chair, or the warm soup, but he soon found it impossible to keep his eyes open. For a second he dozed, only to resurface as Vera took
the bowl and spoon from his gloved hands, and then draped a leather and fur throw across his chest and neck. The musk of leather filled Kerry’s senses.
“Thanks, Mom,” left his lips as he slipped back asleep.
“Oh, I’m not your mother,” Vera said as the boy lightly snored.
“Not even a bit.”
© Copyright 2021 Derek Atkins. All rights reserved.