Near-Death, Pt. 2

Late to the story? Catch up on Part 1.

II.

Paul’s red pickup truck finally gained an inch—he could almost open the window and touch the fat blue line. He resisted the urge. “No doubt thirteen million other visitors have also put their hands all over it,” he muttered sharply, “and didn’t wash them.”

Paul’s front tires now sat on New York territory, but from the dashboard and back, his truck was in New Jersey. In thirty seconds his cup holder might be in a different state. And to think…at any moment, ninety feet of seawater could flood this tunnel. It would only take a leak, a bomb, an earthquake.

An act of God.

It could be worse, Paul reminded himself, if I hadn’t traded in the hearse. A hearse under ninety feet of seawater would have been a dinner invitation to Lord Grim. Paul was not afraid of death: he knew well the fragility of life, and he had performed so many funerals in his lifetime that he felt his own death would be a mere formality. But nothing upset his stomach so much as the thought of drowning…except over-steeped coffee.

A tunnel and two hours later, the red pickup finally pulled beside a cross brick complex—six stories crawling with zig-zagging, ghastly black staircases. More than one step was missing. From the third landing hung a pale white banner: “Apartments for Rent.” Below it was a “No Parking” sign. Rules are for keeping, a stern, motherly voice barked inside Paul’s head. He continued driving down the block.

Paul remembered how Steven made a habit of taking down signs. “No parking?” Steven had pouted one day as they both drove up to theater. “Give me a second while I fix that…” and he unscrewed the sign with the most abominable smirk, then threw it into the trunk. Paul still kept that sign.

He continued five or six blocks down the one-way street before taking a left, then another left to investigate the complexes from behind. All the parking spaces were filled. “How do people live here?” he huffed. After about ten minutes of circling the complex, he stopped again in front of the rude sign. He thought for a minute, pulled onto the sidewalk, and thoughtlessly locked up the pickup’s exposed trunk.

“I’d like an apartment, single occupancy,” Paul announced as he opened the door into a cramped office. A young fellow—barely twenty—sat behind the counter. He didn’t blink or stir at Paul’s entrance. The guy was apparently hankering for some caffeine. Paul harrumphed and he nearly jumped onto the counter.

“Uh, yeah, sure…um…let me find the forms,” the startled man nearly shouted. His mannerisms matched his oily crop of disheveled hair. He turned from Paul to the bar behind him and threw a glissando of papers into the air. “Um, listen…” he droned without turning back, “why don’t you check out the place while I…uh…” he made a frantic gesture to the corner, where Paul espied a teenager, younger than the guy behind the counter. He had not noticed him there till now. “Yes sir,” the boy hailed Paul with an unusually grownup tone, “I’d be happy to take your bag and show you a room. Follow me.” The doorman reached for Paul’s briefcase, but Paul clenched it tightly and offered him a handshake; the lad shook it heartily. This guy actually knows how to give a good one, Paul thought approvingly.

Out the door and up the black staircase the two ascended—one of the loose steps shivered under Paul’s weight. The apartment was on the second floor. Is the second floor too boring? Paul dismissed the notion: the sixth floor was horribly impractical. He sucked his teeth. “Is there one available on the third floor?”

“This is the only single we have available right now,” said the doorman as he jiggled the key around in the lock. “Is that alright?”

“It’ll do,” Paul shrugged.

The door required some prodding, and with a thrilling squeak it opened before them. The doorman shifted to the side; Paul strode across the threshold and stopped. He scanned the room with a cold glance: aged brick walls, streaky wood flooring, a metal duct that would give a basketball player a concussion, and a beamed ceiling. There was a single window to the right of the door and a crude desk with a couple ink marks. No bed, but that was to be expected. The bathroom vanity at the far end of the apartment looked decent, though the mirror above it was a little rotted around the edges.

“How do you like it, sir?” ventured the doorman, stealing a glimpse of Paul’s face.

“Hmmm…” Paul chewed his lips slightly and chilled his gaze even more; perhaps the ‘professor face’ would reduce his rent. After an exacting twelve seconds, he turned to the doorman, who appeared entirely unphased by his act.

“We do have some doubles available, if you’d like something more spacious.”

“Nah, this is fine,” said Paul as he retreated behind the threshold to the stairs. “I suppose your boss is done throwing papers around?”

The papers signed downstairs, Paul headed outside toward the pickup, with the lad following closely.

“Is this your car, Mr. Herbert?” the boy asked.

“Um…no,” Paul smoothly answered. “Taxi driver’s. I think he’s getting something to eat. He did leave me the keys so I could unpack.”

“Well, I hope he’s back soon. My boss—supervisor—might have a nervous breakdown if he sees someone parked on the sidewalk.”

“I’ll let him know.” Paul thrust in his key and popped the trunk open. “Everything should be in here…can you give me a hand?”

Paul looked back at the doorman’s face, which had completely altered: his vigorous, professional countenance had all but slinked down through the sewer grate. His pupils were cemented on the coffin in the trunk.

“It’s my clothes chest,” said Paul. “Alright…here, grab this side and I’ll hold from back here.” The doorman stretched out a single hand and delicately fingered the handle, then suddenly drew it back to scratch his nose.

“You’re going to need both hands for it. Solid wood.”

“Sorry—allergies, sir…no problem.”

It was feisty business getting up a metal flight with loose steps, but even more so because Paul seemed to be carrying most of the coffin’s weight. “Right here is fine,” he pointed at the wall opposite the desk, “gently, please.” The boy rather dropped the coffin on the floor. Paul slapped his hands on his shirt and immediately fell to writing at the desk; the doorman did not leave, and instead parked by the entrance with a transfixed expression. I suppose they do tipping here? Paul thought. The boy was still staring at the coffin.

“Here, I’ll prove it to you,” said Paul with some aggravation while unlocking the hinge, revealing a mess of hastily folded clothes, some bath accessories, and an old French press. “See,” he gestured, “no corpse. It was made for my grandmother, but she didn’t quite fit when they tried it.” Paul let out a nostalgic laugh (and didn’t mind). At this the boy’s eyes grew wide, and with a jolt he quitted the room.

“And I thought it was a pretty good joke,” Paul chuckled to himself as he scribbled away. “What? no pencil sharpener? Bother. Better see if Mr. Flying-Papers has one.”

Paul nearly tripped down the black stairs and thrust the door open into the office, the speed of which alarmed the “Boss.” The lad was in his customary corner and had reflexively snapped his mouth shut. Paul didn’t care that he was interrupting something.

“Do you have a pencil sharpener?”

“Sharpener? Um…nooo, but there is an office supply. Couple blocks from here, I’d say.” The Boss addressed Paul but was awkwardly looking past him. “Is…is that your car out there?”

“—Taxi driver’s,” the doorman exploded.

“He can’t park on the sidewalk like that!” the Boss gasped. “Where did I put that tower’s number?”

“Yah—” Paul stammered “—well, maybe he had a drink, or two. I can take the car to him…he left me the keys.”

“Will you be okay?”

“Oh,” Paul whistled and slapped the air, “I handle people all the time.”

He couldn’t help smirking as he hopped into the pickup. Then he suddenly groaned.

“Good grief! I’ve got to buy a mattress. Now how am I going to get it up there without those two seeing my car? I can’t drag that thing up those stairs by myself. Bother!”