[WP] You suffer from agoraphobia and cannot leave your house. Every night you see an elderly man walk to the park through your window overlooking it. He sits there looking at the sky for about half an hour and then returns. He hasn’t shown up for the last 2 days and you’re getting worried.
He should be there.
The park at the end of the street was more a plot, and a blasted one at that. When Eliza was younger it had looked so big, everything from the slides to the great sycamore tree. It had looked, she thought, like wonderland must look, and she’d played at it just as hard.
Somewhere in the intervening years, she or it had changed.
Now the park was a blasted plot, the proud sycamore a bark-stripped ruin, the slides rusted. But sometimes, there was a man. He was old, solitary like her. His back was stooped, eyes always squinting skyward, and when he moved, which he usually contrived not to do, she could practically hear him creaking. By now there must have been a spot on the bench across from the seesaws carved to the shape of his ass by the slow wear of sharp old bones.
And he wasn’t there. He should be there.
Eliza sighed, laid down her paint brush for the third time that week, and tried not to think about how hard it would be to sleep.
He should be there, Eliza thought a night later.
Sleep hadn’t come until daybreak, her ritual retreat from the sun. And when she’d slept, Eliza had dreamt of him. Not the way he really looked, but the way he’d looked when she first painted him.
It had been, to her knowledge, the very first night he had moved into the neighborhood. Six months or more into her isolation, her other retreat. Six months since she’d gone outside or spoken in person to another human, though the lines blurred at the edges and sometimes she talked to the television as if it were a certain old friend.
And then she’d seen him and known what she must do.
Eliza was a painter and somewhere in the course of that first night she’d rendered his soul into twisted, abstract lines, a beacon of old faded light caught somewhere between a void and a stylized sycamore tree.
Painting him, this man she’d never know, had become Eliza’s one true comfort. She’d reorganized every part of her closed off life around him. She ate breakfast when the sun began to fall, dinner when the dawn threatened. If the night held a new project she prepared her canvas around eight, pulse gradually picking up speed until thready white hairs appeared in the corner of her window.
He should be there.
I should find him.
The thought arced through her like lightning, racing out to the tips of her sensitive fingers, coursing through the brush into paints that felt a mile away. It was midnight and he was overdue and without that little puff of flyaway hair she couldn’t paint. Without painting she couldn’t breathe. Without breath the house closed in, the warmth felt too warm, the cold felt too cold, the brush in her hand might have weighed a thousand pounds.
She set it down, like Atlas might have, and the whole world shuddered.
He should be there, Eliza thought, at one in the morning on a Tuesday. He should be there. It was eleven, then it was twelve, now it’s one, and he should be there.
She wore a thick coat and an old, threadbare scarf. She was barefoot, unable to find her shoes. She’d thought about makeup in a sort of distracted, distant way. In a, first-time-I’ve-been-outside-in-six-months-and-if-mom-was-still-around-she’d-say-I-should, kind of way.
She didn’t wear any. There wasn’t any point when she couldn’t find her shoes.
Eliza’s footsteps were thunderous smacks against the sidewalk, then the pavement. When she was younger and she’d tried college she’d heard a group of Taiko drummers, shirtless white guys playing at Japanophile with drums the size of truck tires. She shook her head hard, bit her lip and drew blood. Her footsteps were like that, like doom or like a god’s wrath. Or like an imposter, immediately and pathetically obvious.
Her feet were frozen, her neck burned up. Somewhere in the hundred-odd steps it took to reach the old man’s house Eliza lost her scarf.
His door was a thick ocher slab. She traced her fingers across the wood grain, felt an unfamiliar bite. Eliza glanced back at the park and then to her house. She could hardly see her window but the settee called to her. It screamed.
I should be there.
Eliza thought she had never been more scared in all her life. Somewhere in the distance, though she’d stopped walking, drums thundered.
“Please…” Eliza whispered.
And the door opened.
“I’ve never seen anyone take so long to walk so little.”
The old man’s voice wasn’t what she’d expected. Eliza had imagined knife edged words. She’d imagined him screaming. He simply spoke, calmly and collectedly, with the air of a doddering grandfather. He was, in short, an old man.
“Anyone ‘cept me, of course,” he said.
“I should go,” Eliza whispered.
“You could,” he said, “’cept it’d be a long walk and you’re already shivering. Come, come! My old Miriam woulda kilt’ me if I let you go.”
He said nothing about the hour. He said nothing about her bare feet. It was like he hadn’t even heard the drums. Eliza stood frozen to the porch. The old man shrugged, propped the door open with an old boot, and went back into his home. Through the open door Eliza could hear the sounds of Jazz.
The drum beat faded away into a cacophony of horns; somewhere between one breath and the next Eliza stepped in.
It looked, shockingly, like any other house.
“In here!” the man called. “I saw you coming and put on a pot. Turns out we both have windows.”
Eliza felt better with a cup of tea, safer, even if the kitchen table refused to be her own. It was laid about with knickknacks and souvenirs, the occasional gouge of old use. She wondered, idly, if it had been here when he came or if he’d brought it as a memento of somewhere else.
“Why weren’t you in the park?” Eliza whispered.
He laughed, he actually laughed at that. “You keep quite the eye on me.”
She blushed scarlet, looked away.
“Hey now, that’s okay. It’s just that you shoulda seen me years ago. I promise, I used to have hair!”
His laugh turned to a wheeze, then a cough. He sucked down the rest of his tea though both their cups were still scalding hot. “Why aren’t you in your window?” he asked.
And Eliza couldn’t respond. Suddenly it all felt so small, the things that had propelled her out into the world. Suddenly she was really here, in a strange man’s house, in a strange man’s world, and she didn’t even have any shoes.
“I should go,” Eliza said, trying to rise though her legs wouldn’t let her.
“You should stay,” he said. “At least for a few minutes. I need a second opinion. And perhaps a spot of help with my ladder.”
Eliza blinked heavy eyelids, forced her gaze up. His ladder?
“You’re a young thing, even if you’re scared. Come, you wouldn’t abandon an old man in need, would you? Besides, we’ve got something in common.”
“What’s that?” Eliza said.
He didn’t speak, he simply pointed.
And the world blossomed out.
It was as if she’d worn blinders the entire time, sketched a single unbroken line through deeper-than-night blackness from the front door to the kitchen table. Somehow, she hadn’t seen all the paint!
It was everywhere, spilled on the floor, on the kitchen sink, on the old man’s pants. There was some on the walls, long vertical stripes without any art to them as if he were what, testing colors?
His finger pointed right at her badly stained blouse, where her own paints peaked through her coat in splashes of blacks and reds and faded gold.
“Holy shit,” she whispered.
He just smiled and stood. The old man set his teacup in the sink, gestured for Eliza to follow, and left the room with an unexpected spring in his step.
“It’s been a long time since I showed,” he called. “Come! You wanted to know where I’ve been, see for yourself!”
The drums returned, softer now, and Eliza followed.
She was adrift beneath a blue-black sky, the first time she’d ever looked up and understood the word “firmament.”
“What do you think?” he asked, voice suddenly soft, afraid.
What did she think?
The living room ceiling and the walls stretching all the way down to the floorboards were an unbroken swath of color. He’d painted it all, all save a spot in the very center of the ceiling. The old man had turned his living room into the night sky. The ceiling might have been a mile away now, certainly too high for the step ladder he’d been working off of, overturned in the corner of the room. Eliza reached up with both hands, reaching for she knew not what, feeling small like it was the very first time she ever had. Like small were a comforting thing. The only thunder was the pounding of her heart.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.
“I can’t get up the stairs anymore,” the old man said. “Don’t know why I bought this damn fool place, Miriam woulda kilt’ me for that too. World gets a little small when you're confined to a couple rooms. Thought I could use a touch of the sky, a bit of Heaven. Bit of her, too.”
Eliza tore her eyes from the night sky to glance over at him. The old man was pointing up, towards the corner above the fallen ladder. “Right there,” he said, “right there. You see that bright star? That’s Miriam, my wife. She always did love the stars.”
“You were studying!” Eliza said. “This whole time, six months, you were preparing for this!”
“Yes,” he said. “Sometimes life requires perfection, and perfection requires patience. When all you’ve got is four walls, patience is the one thing you should have in abundance.”
“I’ve been painting you,” Eliza said breathlessly, “every night I’ve been painting you while you looked up. I always wondered what— ”
“When I’m done here, can I see them?” the old man interrupted. His eyes were like the stars above, more vibrant than real life had any right to be.
“Yes,” Eliza whispered.
He nodded once. “Good. Then help me with my ladder, I don’t bend so well anymore either. Damn fool move to knock it over.”
Eliza padded over to him, bare feet hardly a whisper on the hardwood floor, and soon he thrust a brush into her hand.
“There’s a spot over there needs painting,” he said, pointing to the blankness in the center. “A man needs unfamiliar stars too.”
The drums sounded, distant. Eliza took a steadying breath. She shucked off her jacket, folded it and lay it across the nearest unstained surface.
Then she climbed the ladder, and painted him an unfamiliar star.