Russell Is In The Other Room
by T. Sean Steele
“Put Devon on. I called Devon, not you. Where’s Devon? Put Devon on.”
“Not a great time for Devon to come to the phone,” Keeth said. “They’re halfway through a two-hour session in my sister’s rocking chair. I’ll get them if you need me to, of course, but do you really want to make them start the two hours over again after you’re done talking? Is whatever you have to say worth however many hours of Devon’s time? Three and a half, if you make them start over?”
I had him on speaker. I was trying to put in my contacts looking in the rearview mirror but my fingers were covered in chicken grease and after a few minutes of jabbing them into my eyeballs the contacts were ruined. I flicked them out the window one after the one.
“Yeah, go ahead and have them come to the phone.”
“Sure thing,” he said, but then the line went dead. OK. Where were my glasses? I didn’t know where I was parked, either. Squinting didn’t make it better or worse. The moon was a puddle. There were… let’s see, cars, and a street…
Kim, out of town, called to say she had a house-sitting gig for me. A rich folk house in Silverlake.
“Will they pay me?”
“No but you get to live in a nice house for free.”
Still nighttime. I was outside of my car but not going too far away from it.
“I think I’m already, I might be in Silverlake.”
There was a fence. I was next to a lake. Not a lake, a reservoir.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
There were three dogs on the other side of the fence. I whistled to them and they laughed at me. Not dogs, coyotes.
“You get to stay twenty days. That’s a long time.”
“How nice is the house?”
“Very nice. Wooden kitchens and all that shit. A surfboard stapled to the wall, that kind of thing.”
She hung up before I got to ask her how was Chicago. And wait, why couldn’t I stay at her apartment while she was gone? I talked myself through it. Sometimes there was no why. The situation was no I could not stay at her apartment while she was gone. “These are the facts!” The coyotes, there were three of them, didn’t like me shouting. My heart was pounding and I wondered why. Oh, I see. The coyotes are actually on this side of the fence. Still very blurry but one of them had some kind of satchel wrapped around its waist. A sack or something dragging behind him. They were coming closer, got between me and my car. “Hey there, slow down little pups,” I said. “You cute little… don’t eat me, now…”
I backed myself into the first building with an unlocked door.
A glass door and there were the coyote eyes, unblinking. All the coyotes but that one with the satchel sat down to wait for me.
I turned around to see where I was. A narrow room with a counter. Fluorescent hum. A chalkboard. Aldo’s Pizza. “You’ve got no shoes on.” Some guy with a gray beard behind the counter. The beard wasn’t naturally gray, I was close enough to see that. He had spray-painted it. The man was going for some kind of effect. “I see you squinting at my beard. That’s right, it isn’t normally this color. I dyed it for Halloween.” He took a square of paper from his pocket and unfolded it. “I went as a man in an old photograph I found in my parents’ basement. I painted my face white and wore dusty clothing, then sat in a chair at the Halloween party in the exact pose as the man in the photograph for the whole night. Head cocked sideways, like my neck had been snapped. I didn’t have fun at this party, of course, but sometimes you’re not supposed to have fun. Sometimes you’re supposed to make fun for others. You’ve got no shoes on.”
“Yeah, it happens I have no shoes on. I got separated from my belongings.”
He kept waving the square of paper at me, gesturing that I should take it.
It was the old photograph he had been talking about. A dead guy in a chair.
I looked at the photograph and then up at the man. Blurry, he might as well been the exact person in the photo.
“That’s a very good costume,” I said. “Halloween was a while ago, though.”
“Was it?” he said. “How long?”
“I’m not sure.”
We moved on. He asked what kind of pizza I wanted but I explained I wasn’t here for pizza unless he had samples. I was here to avoid those coyotes. He looked past me out the door and frowned. Coyotes don’t normally harass people, he said. Recently I was hypnotized into thinking I was a wolf, I explained. Every comment he said followed by a proper response from me. Maybe five or six comments followed by five or six proper responses. A good conversation so afterward I capped it with my stock good conversation finisher. Do you have a place where I could clean myself up real quick?
“Sure, the bathroom is back through the kitchen. No one’s gonna jump out at you, don’t worry. I’m saying that because you seem pretty shaken.”
“I’m not shaken I’m just blind.”
I shouldn’t have mentioned blindness. I cleaned up while thinking about blind Little Robert. Tug-of-War? The woods? Right this moment they could be digging him out of his new mother’s stomach. If I wasn’t going to help him why had I even suggested it was a bad thing he was in for?
Back at the front counter the man was halfheartedly taking an order over the phone. He was silent and listening for a long time. “That’s quite a lot of ingredients, sir,” he said finally, not having written anything down. “You what? Want me to repeat that order back to you? OK, let’s see…” he said, then hung up.
The coyotes were gone. “I saw them leave,” the man told me. “Yes. One of them was eating that cauliflower hemorrhoid hanging out of that other one’s ass. It started leaking and they dragged him off to safety. To safety, or to die. At any rate, away from here.” He clawed at his cheeks scratching his beard releasing the smell of paint into the air. “It was actually basically a tableau. If you replaced the coyotes with humans, I have a photo here, also from my parents’ house, that looks remarkably the same.” He patted his pockets.
There was a man in the house. At the kitchen table, clipping his fingernails. Could I hold on just a minute while he finished up? The nails needed to be clipped in a particular way and he wasn’t good at talking while doing it. Was he also going for some kind of effect, with this fingernail-clipping stuff? No. This was a practical matter. “They are cut to the contours of my nose,” he said. “For the plucking of my nose hairs, see.”
“I didn’t know anybody would be here,” I said.
“Did you find it all right?”
“No but my sister walked me here over the phone.”
“Your feet are bleeding.”
“I took my shoes off.”
“Where are your shoes?”
“I took them off on the front porch.”
“There’s no porch.”
“I didn’t know anybody would be here,” I said again.
“My husband and kids are already out of town. But listen, I need you to do me a favor.”
He dusted the nails off the table to the floor then brought me to the kids’ room which was in disarray. A pile of wood on the floor which used to be a bunk bed. Two mattresses with their foam guts bursting out.
“Usually I let my side piece stay here when my family and I are out of town because he’s transient. Lately, however, he has consolidated his drinking. Only three nights a week but on those three nights he goes hard. You see.” He gestured at the mess. “Ultimately harmless. I suppose he doesn’t want me having kids but being only half a madman the best he can do is not let them have beds. What I’d like for you to do is throw away the old bed and put together the new bed, which arrived today and is in the garage.” He plucked at the foam, shaking his head. “Have you ever been sexually tested? Not in the medical sense. You know what I mean.”
“Not in the medical sense.”
“Who is to say,” I mumbled.
“You have your personal sexuality versus, you know, your sexuality when you engage with other people, and I’ve found that the two are impossibly different. Nary the two shall meet. It makes reality feel like a prison. And when you’re trying to actualize your personal sexuality all you’re doing is creating a bunch of detritus. Kids and side pieces and bunkbeds and families. What do you think?”
“What do I think of what?”
“Of what I just said.”
“Oh, I’m not sure any of that’s real.”
“It’s not real?”
“No, I think it’s all made up. I think it’s, you know, it’s nothing.”
He reached up to his nose and with very little effort was able to pull out a bouquet of wiry hairs. He held them to his lips and blew them into the air.
“Maybe so,” he said. “At any rate his name is Russell, the man who destroyed this room. I’m telling you this because he’s asleep in the master bedroom. He gets to stay as long as he wants. My husband thinks it’s just you here so don’t say anything.” He made a fist at me. “You can sleep on the couch, or the bunk beds once you’ve made them.”
Russell was not in the master bedroom. He wasn’t anywhere in the house. This was much later that same evening. I had thrown away the old beds then, half-blind, built the new frame in two separate pieces, and now I needed help lifting one frame on top of the other. But there was no indication Russell had ever been in the master bedroom. The room was spotless and the bed was tightly made.
“I checked on Devon for you. Keeth had them tied up in the rocking chair. It wasn’t a voluntary thing at all.”
“So what did you do?”
“Now Keeth is tied up in the rocking chair. We’re trying to figure out what to do with him.”
“I’m sure whatever you choose to do will have been the right choice.”
She asked how house-sitting was going and I began to tell her about meeting the husband-guy but then I petered out halfway through.
“Detritus?” she said.
“It’s… forget it. I’m real sick of talking on the phone about stuff with people. It feels like all we do is trade deeply unreal stories.”
“They’re not unreal. They’re happening.”
“Yeah but they’re happening across the country from each other. That’s hardly what I would call real.”
“Real and unreal aren’t the words,” she said. “You’re thinking of here and elsewhere.”
A door in the bedroom led to the backyard. Not a backyard exactly but a porch the length of the house and six feet deep, bordered by a wall of ivy.
“He’s begging for his life,” Kim said. “It’s wild. We haven’t even done anything.”
“You tied him up, didn’t you?”
“I bet most people who get tied up end up getting killed.”
“Maybe. But he’s tied up in a rocking chair.”
The wall of ivy shifted and loosed a pack of small birds which flew away over the roof.
Two coyotes at the far end of the porch.
“On the other hand now Devon is running around screaming, ‘It’s Devon’s Day it’s Devon’s Day,’ so it’s not unreasonable he thinks he’s going to die.”
One of the coyotes dropped something, a sack, out of its mouth, then dashed away around the side of the house followed by the other. I walked up to the sack and knelt close until it came into focus.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a drunken cough. The husband-dad guy. He stood over me in the master bedroom, swaying.
“I told you, bunk beds or the couch,” he murmured.
“Aren’t you supposed to be out of town with your family now?” I said.
He grabbed me by my loose-skin lapels.
“I get the master bed! You get the bunk beds! Or the couch! You idiot! I am Russell! I am the side piece!”
Russell came to his senses for a moment and looked down at the loose skin oozing in his grip. Repulsed, he flung me across the room.
“I stay here,” he said. “Not you, me.”
“That’s fine with me. I didn’t think anyone was here,” I said. “The room was so freaking tidy. The bed was made.”
“I leave rooms in one of two extremes!” he yelled, advancing. “Disarray, or harmony! Hell, or utopia!”
“Hell or utopia? Come on now, Russell, it’s just a bedroom…”
He slapped me on the forehead.
I had been sleeping and now a man was attacking me in the dark. He wanted me out of that bedroom, but anytime I dodged for the door, he blocked my way. Then we would stand across from each other looking dumb. Dodge again, block again. Look dumb again. I see. He wants me out but only on his terms. That’s fine, Russell. I’ll leave however you want. I gestured for him to approach like I wanted to fight him, but instead I let him wrap me up however which way he wanted. It ended up being like a kitten. He had me by the scruff of my neck skin. Chest skin lapels, gross. Neck skin scruff, fine. He carried me out of the bedroom. On our way out I saw the two coyotes in the window, on the back porch sitting and watching. Clacking their teeth.
The coyotes led me back to my car while I whispered placating messages to them. “Don’t hurt me pups. Just lead me back to my car. That’s it. We’re friends now. I ate that hemorrhoid you left for me in the backyard, just like you wanted. That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? OK, I didn’t eat it but I did have to get real close to see what it was.”
When I got back to the car I turned on the dome light. One last look for my glasses but no luck. However I did find my contacts. The ones I had flicked out the window. The window hadn’t been rolled down all the way and both of them got stuck on the glass. They looked almost perfectly spaced on the glass, meaning the space between them was level and equaled the space between my eyes. I pressed my forehead against the window to check. Yes, they were perfectly spaced. In the morning I needed to get back into the house for my phone and my shirt. “Don’t forget,” I said to myself.