In an apartment in Brooklyn two men sleep in their bedrooms, which lie on a line divided by the kitchen and the living room with its old long brown sofa, its TV, a low oval table. Between the bedrooms there are no windows except for one, which leads onto the small, locked porch and which is double guarded against mosquitoes. The back bedroom, where the younger, smaller man sleeps (still, he is not young) looks onto foilage and sunlight and next door, the yard of a bike shop, where unsold bikes hover under a transparent, crinkled roof that shields them from rain. The weather though is currently right now perfect. Customers don’t come into this back, but sometimes the manager has conversations on the phone, and half of them enter into the man’s room. “So, you just finished art school?”; “And, what would you feel comfortable in terms of repairs?” Sometimes they have parties and people in their twenties squeeze into the corridor between the bikes and the edge of the yard and drink beer, eat from the grill and listen to music. It isn’t clear how any of them are linked to the shop. It is hot already. The air conditioning has been on all night and leaves cool areas in the room but still he lies uncovered, just one bent leg under the comforter. The other is straight, diagonal across the double bed and his foot, small, well formed, the nails well kept, lines the edge. Though he wears a mask at night, his head, which faces the wall is also deep inside the pillow; his breathing is inaudible. The floor everywhere in the apartment is a dark wood, narrowly spaced slats of mottled brown becoming black, noticeable most where the apartment has least light. Doors of lighter wood broken by square, glass panels lead into the rooms between the bedrooms, which are gloomy until the evening when the lights are turned on. The dining table, over its slightly grubby tablecloth, white, with green diamonds, is half cleared leaving enough space for two to sit and eat, and half covered in things; bureaucratic letters in opened envelopes; receipts; a bowl filled with cards and split down the middle from being fingered through the day before – old Metrocards, one valid for the Airtrain to JFK, loyalty cards, half filled, to local coffee shops, reminders for appointments at doctors and opticians. The bowl is meant to be in the middle but isn’t, leaving a hole on the mat which marks it. Surrounding the hole the mat carries ten prescription pill containers, brownish transparent with white lids (PUSH DOWN AND TWIST). Both of the men take medicines, different types. Some of the pots are empty. A pile of old New Yorkers lies nearby, their spines along one side of the mat. Most of the copies have been read, or at least opened, and some which have been carried in rucksacks around the city are still cylindrical, flopped over onto themselves, tiny cracks running up the coloured front covers. There are other things, mainly things pushed out of the way to make space for other things, dimes, newspaper cuttings and, all on its own, a men’s fashion magazine, sleek and bright in the darkness. Near the end of the kitchen table where the men sit to eat, next to the iron front door is the white door to the bathroom. On the inside (it is now closed, the light off) is stuck up a map of the subway (there is another one the same on the older man’s bedroom wall. His room is full of maps, children’s touristic maps with New York’s attractions illustrated in heavy cartoon and blown out of all proportion, in one quiet corner a map of the whole world, and a globe, made to look old and large on its shelf) with certain stations highlighted in generous yellow circles, routes scribbled elliptically in black ink. There are two hooks to hang towels on; the shower, big and white-tiled, has two taps, one low, and the head, above, high and shiny; on the ledge is a shower gel, made for men, which comes out opaque and metal-grey, and another which smells of whatever purple flowers cover its front. A pair of white briefs, wet from the night before, hang no longer dripping on the lower tap. Outside, one of the cats who live in the apartment is nudging his shoulder against the younger man’s bedroom door. He is the younger and stronger of the two, and as he presses his shoulder against the central crack of the door wood grates on wood, causing a tiny sound with each of his efforts. It takes a while. The door was firmly shut the night before, and the frame is wide. He persists. He tautens his front legs and flattens his neck against the grain. The greatest noise, the softest of bangs, is made when the door is finally knocked ajar. The man twitches his hand in his sleep. The cat slips through. This happens every morning, and it used to wake the sleeper; for a while he used the tiny hook lock on the inside of the door to latch it tight, but the cat would just make more noise failing to get in, having learnt to hit his shoulder but not to give up. Once in, he does not jump on the bed. He pads to the chaise longue which lies near the window and, jumping lightly onto it, steps onto a patch of sunlight on the window sill above. Curling his tail under him (it presses against the bottom of the pane) he arranges himself to sit lengthways facing into the bedroom. The air conditioning hums. He stares around with his impossible green eyes. The plants outside the window flicker the sunlight into the room. The man is still. Within a few minutes the sitting cat is followed through the open door by the other one, now thin with age. Even lighter on the ground, he jumps more lightly onto the chaise longue. The cats don’t sit together though but mirror eachother to frame the window. They look in different directions. Soon they will dip their heads into their bodies and fall asleep as well. They cannot enter the other man’s room. His door is stiff even for humans, and when he gets up he will lift the door handle hard to get it open. He will have turned the air conditioning on in his room, but outside his door the air will be heavy and hot. In boxer shorts he will cross the living room into the kitchen. From beside the fridge he will study a can of FancyFeast, holding the can at an angle to check the flavour (the cats are fussy and get bored easily) and opening it with his thumb will empty it into a shallow plate. The food keeps its tin shape in its pinkness on the floor. There will probably still be water in a bowl nearby. He will then reach upwards to the black iron shelf where the men keep five types of granola. Hunting for a bowl, finding one he used to eat blueberry clusters while they watched Netflix in the early hours of that morning, he will pour spelt flakes and Rice Milk™ into the pool of milk and wet crumbs at the bottom. He will return to the sofa to eat them sitting, still sticky from sleep, one knee crossed under him (he is sixty, but his brown body doesn’t show it, that recently he had a minor stroke), and once finished he will place the bowl carefully on the low table. He will sit, blinking, one eye closing just perceptibly before the other. For now, though, his bedroom door stays closed. He lies on a black double mattress in the barest corner of the room. Around there is only a lamp, spindly and tall standing far above the mattress. When it is turned on, by a cord made of tiny metal balls, it gives a soft light although it has no shade. Lists are taped to the wall, carefully stuck up, with some of the items crossed out. Reminders to get keys cut (crossed out), several names and email addresses and a date September 21st inside a spider diagram linking them all together. The other man’s name, also, several times, reminders to buy things for him. A veterinary leaflet for administering cat medicine is stuck up between the final list and the door frame. Yesterday, the man spent a while in the morning tidying, rearranging his room; certain objects, some which might have been found on stoops, or thrift stores, seem now strangely conscious in the manner of the carefully replaced; at a raffish angle and now on his desk a framed copy of the Desiderata ‘Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe…’; in block capitals at the bottom is the lie that it was found in a church in Baltimore in 1692; the frame is simple and black, the paper greying, the title an expensive red. Nearby on the shelf, a tiny tripartite Oriental screen, black framed also surrounding miniature whitewood carvings (behind glass) of a Chinese garden; its curved roof, agonisingly but still rough-cut plants over the suggestion of a pond. On the back part, which is obscured in his arrangement is a heron amongst marshes. At its longest the screen is fingerlength, the heron a crack in a thumbnail. He never removed the tag, Salvation Army acid green rectangle on the shiny black edge, printed $3.99. On the floor are piles of books, self help books mainly, one on top of the other but neatly stacked; You Can Heal Your Life, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High, Switching to a Mac – FOR DUMMIES, How to Best Depression in an Hour, The Way to Love, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, a hardback missing its cover, potted histories of the All Time Greatest Jazz Singers, Mother Teresa: Come be my light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, a copy of Hamlet, The Ultimate Guide to Detoxing your Mind, The Power of Now, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People; many more.The blinds are kept down all summer long in this room, for the windows face onto the street but still it spurts into the room. Chefs preparing for shifts at the English-style pub two doors down use the stoop two metres from the older man’s head to smoke. They talk and joke. Later in the day, old Brooklyners, black men, jostle, smoke, eat KFC in the same place. He sleeps through the car noises, and the slamming of the bike shop door but it is voices which will wake him, entering both of his ears; he sleeps on his front. Outside in the living room, behind the TV, are bookshelves which cover a whole wall. They have never been filled while the men have rented the apartment, but recently they had someone come in to paint them. Before, they were dark, almost black wood, darker than the floor except for a long white stomach in the middle where they had once tried a colour and agreed it didn’t work. This time, they chose cream, “and, like, I didn’t even want cream. I wanted off white”, but they both like it. The apartment still smells faintly of paint. The man who came to do it was a Hungarian who had lived with his daughter in the city for twenty years, and whose only regret (he told the younger man) was that he couldn’t vote. The TV had been moved to the older man’s floor, and they were both careful to keep the stiff door closed while it was in there; the cats could have damaged it. The painter took off his shoes, and left them amongst the messy circle of the men’s indoor and outdoor shoes. He laid down a sheet, and kneeled, broad-chested and tanned, with his soreless soles faced upwards speckling with paint as he worked. He had long, heavy, curly, hair, black and grey, kept from his face by a black and white bandana. He sweated. After the first day, he took the moveable fan from the side of the sofa and placed it on a chair facing the shelves, where it ran all night and until he was let in the next day. He applied the second coat over six hours and then left at four. ‘Recommend me!’, he’d requested, his rates being reasonable. The fan now lies on the floor, unplugged, near the TV, which had been returned to its cabinet the night after the painter left. There are no books on the shelves yet, though the paint is dry. Only three ornamental vases which had decked the shelves unpainted have been returned to their original positions, all in a line. Small, Venetian glass (one pink and green, one whitish with a blue line through the middle), they had been bought at some expense by the younger man at a time when he had appreciated their colours. Every other shelf is clean and empty and the cream gives no shadows, even in electric light. In the days to come, each of the men will put just a few books on the shelves; a Keith Haring retrospective, an Anselm Kiefer retrospective, a book on Goya; Time Out guides to Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Berlin placed casually-proudly on the top shelf; a thick guide to the getting the best results from herbal remedies. The men will at first place the books carefully, aesthetically, perhaps even together for a few minutes. Some weeks later, when the younger man has gone to the shows in Paris for work (he will stay in Europe after that, for several months), the older man will take an afternoon to carry some of the books from his floor to the lower shelves. He won’t bring many but doing this will disappear from one of his lists. He will mention it when the younger man calls, whose own books, still in boxes under his bed, will stay there until spring. He hopes to sublet his room before he leaves, and has placed an ad already. A twenty-year-old student who will begin at Pratt in the fall has shown interest, but he has yet to show her profile to the older man. She is blonde and pretty, and is so excited, she writes, about experiencing the New York winter. They will hope she won’t smoke pot, even on the porch. But it is still the end of August; the air still dank, hot; no women come here and still the men sleep long and late into the morning sun.
Pelham Levy is an English writer who lives in New York. A number of his short pieces have been recently published in American journals, and he is currently working on his first novel.