Blood Wall, Nicholas Rombes, 2012
by Nicholas Rombes
This is the story of a crime—of the murder of reality. And the extermination of an illusion—the vital illusion, the illusion of the world.
— Jean Baudrillard, from The Perfect Crime
Where am I now?
Ah, yes . . .
I, Bronson didn’t see the note—hand scrawled in red ink on one of my hospital discharge papers—until a few days later, after I had settled back into my apartment. I had been asked (yet again) by my agency to provide documentation of such-and-such a nature about my condition, treatment and release. The note appeared to be scrawled in my doctor’s handwriting, in the sharp, completely vertical lettering that I had come to anticipate and to fear during the months in Wing B, Floor 3 of the hospital.
The note, near the bottom of a blank page of paper, simply read:
I removed the sheet of paper from the discharge file and considered it more closely and slowly at the small wooden table in my dusty kitchen. It had been, after all, four months. Four months while the apartment sat empty as I was at there, at the hospital. Some dust was to be expected. Otherwise, a mild disorder seems to have crept into the apartment, which, from the third floor, overlooked a wide boulevard that was strangely quiet. For the most part, everything was exactly the same as the sunny day four months ago that I had been removed. If it appeared that somebody had gone through my bookshelf in my absence and replaced a few familiar volumes with unfamiliar ones, then I chalked this up to my experiences at the hospital, and how they may have made my memory less reliable.
For instance, I have no recollection of owning Manifestoes of Surrealism—its black lettering its shocking white spine—and yet there it is, on the shelf. Likewise The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. That one, in particular, bothered me, for I had never (at least to the best of my recollection) been a fan of science fiction. And yet when I removed the book from the shelf, and held it in my hands, and flipped through its pages, it seemed perfectly reasonable that this was, indeed, my book.
There were other small differences, as well, that I hardly noted at the time. The white towels in the bathroom were stained; there was a slight crack in one of the leaded windows overlooking the boulevard; an oil painting on the wall of an ancient Italian city seemed to offer a slightly different perspective than what I had remembered. And then there was the sound, or rather lack of it. Not that it was silent in my apartment, but quieter. The usual doors opening and shutting, the daily comings and goings, the dinging and scraping of the old elevator, the occasional arguments from two doors down: all missing now. Instead, the periodic ringing of a phone in some other apartment, and the rare slamming shut of doors.
The bottle of bourbon, with its sunflower yellow label, was still there, in the cupboard. I poured myself a few fingers, simple, and considered the message.
* * *
Hours later, I awoke.
Two fingers, four fingers, six fingers.
The entire bottle, empty on its side behind me, absent the ship inside. Darkness. The distant wail of sirens. I turned on some lights. Flicked on the gas logs in the fireplace. In the shower, I noticed the residual glue from the adhesive bandages, and scrubbed the back of my neck, up to the base of my skull, until it came off. Afterwards, I shaved, put on fresh clothes, combed my hair. I felt good again, whole for the first time since my discharge. Shards of memory were coming back now, in thin slivers. I imagined core drilling in the Antarctic, the drills burrowing straight down in the ancient ice for miles and coming back to retrieve thin tubes of ice. Very narrow bands of knowledge.
I could remember something very specific and real, but it had no context. I remembered, for instance, with fierce clarity the cold, plastic gloved hand of the doctor on my neck, beneath my jaw, feeling for “swollen glands.” And I remembered other moments from before the hospital: the rusted swing set and the hooded boys watching me from the edge of a forest; the screaming of two fighter jets overhead flying so low that I could smell the exhaust; the sun across the face of my daughter as we sat in the glass-walled museum restaurant.
And the Voice.
I remembered the Voice. I had only ever heard it on the phone. In fact—and it was coming back now in larger and larger swaths of memory—that’s what had landed me in the hospital. It wasn’t, as they assumed, only a Voice that I alone could hear (like in some cheap Hollywood movie), a fact which I proved to them by playing the tapes. I was prepared for the fact the tapes would be confiscated (which they were) so of course I had made duplicates before my removal to the hospital, tapes I had hidden away in a small cardboard box in the basement of the apartment building, behind a loose panel in the wall in the boiler room.
But before I went to retrieve the duplicate tapes there was someone I needed to see. My sister, Evelyn, lived not far away, in an apartment of her own, on the far side of the village. She hadn’t known about the hospital, nor the Voice, and although I was by no means the paranoid type, I sensed that a change was coming, and that the marks it would leave would be permanent, and for this reason I wanted to see Evelyn face-to-face, before it was too late. It had, after all, been a long time.
Outside, the streets were deserted. This had always been—or at least since I lived here—a quiet part of the town, with several abandoned buildings and pot-holed side streets lined with sagging houses on unkempt, weed-infested lawns. But even on the quietest of afternoons you’d find, at the very least, the vagrants in their burlap clothing sitting in the sun on the marble steps of the old brick church. Today, however, I could sense the Void. There was a sense of hollowness to the streets and buildings, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was on the flimsy set of a movie. I walked down Madison, turned left on First Street, and headed towards Evelyn’s, a small, rust colored apartment building that backed up to an enormous parking lot.
The physical environment had slipped, somehow, as if a very thin, nearly undetectable layer of reality had been removed. I could have sworn, for instance, that the Farmer’s Insurance building was a story or two taller than it had been before I entered the hospital. But it was the less obvious transformations that I somehow noticed most: the streets that seemed slightly wider, the telephone wires that sagged more deeply and heavily, nearly touching the ground in some spots, the parking space striping that were bright red rather than white or yellow, the voices of birds, which sounded more like creaks than chirps.
Inside Evelyn’s building, the elevator was out of order, according to a piece of cardboard taped to the doors that read “NOT WORKING,” in what appeared to be a child’s unsure black-ink lettering. The stairwell lights were too dim, and it stank. Like ammonia. I breathed through my mouth and climbed the first flight of stairs and then the second, to Evelyn’s floor. Of course here, too, there was something unsettled about the hallway, which curved slightly to the left where I had remembered it being straight.
I took a few steps, lost my balance, took a few more and then, then I found myself standing before Evelyn’s door which was warped, the dark green paint peeling back as if it had been exposed to a blast furnace. I imagined her in there, my sister. What was it that had separated us so long ago? Something important, I was sure, and yet I couldn’t remember what.
Should I have been surprised that what I heard on the other side of the door was the Voice, or that without hesitation I opened the unlocked door and stepped inside? A blankness, severe and complete. That’s what I felt. And it was so powerful that I wished to be to be anyplace—even back in Wing B, Floor 3—than here. I knew at that moment that Evelyn was not there, nor had she been for a long time.
What had happened to my sister? To me?
Blankness. Not dark nor light. The room was, simply, blank. White walls with no windows. No furniture. No light source except the room was not dark.
I expected to see a moving wall, a moving wall of blood, I tell you. I expected to see it steaming down one of the white walls in Technicolor red but also orange and yellow. I expected to see the blood coming down the wall at an impossible speed that suggested the distance of light years. I expected to see Evelyn step forth from the red torrent, her movement somehow putting an end not to evil but to the idea of evil.
Instead, of course, I was confronted with nothing of the sort. Simply the blankness of an empty room.
Where am I now?
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places. His digital home is The Happiness Engine.