Perhaps Thom succumbs to the charm of an old apartment. His faucets leak, his pipes trickle, his light fixtures well up when it rains. And then, one day, his radiator begins to cry—not the usual hissing and clanking but real crying, like an infant calling out from behind the bars.

Thom’s radiator looms against the wall. It is massive, corrugated, gothic. It pounds out hourly requiems of heat during the cold months. Its first concert of the season is his annual shock, and he drops tea mugs when it rollicks on. He sits up in bed, rigidly awake, his figurative nightcap streaming up to the ceiling. He also gets used to it. By the end of November, the radiator can clank out the entire Mass in B Minor and he doesn’t look up from his laptop. But the crying is different. Thom cannot get used to the crying.

He is working at his desk when it first begins. He is sitting with good posture, in his softest chair, a searing mug of chai close at hand. When the radiator thunders to life, it is only the percussive flourish of the chai’s vapors—no more noticeable than the warbling outlaw country music seeping up from the apartment below. More noticeable is the flurry of snow in the window, the one near the Burro’s Tail dying from exposure to the cold. (Sometimes Thom forgets to move it when he opens the window to release heat.)

The radiator hisses. The radiator clanks. Thom abandons work to click through the internet. One of his oldest friends has been diagnosed with something. Hard to know what. She has been orbiting the cyber rim of his life for years, trailing a benign litany of ironic quips. Now her postings are earnest, cheery, elliptical, and terrifying.

Thom burns his knuckles on the chai mug. The radiator goes silent, and this silence flies under the threshold of Thom’s consciousness. Thom lives alone. He recently stumbled out of a thrift shop carrying A Treatise on the Delivery of Sermonsby John Broadus, D.D., L.L.D. (1870). Does he plan to preach to the Burro’s Tail? The radiator emits its first keening cry.

Thom’s socket leakage has moldered his floor trim. His clawfoot tub has clawed his thigh. He once got a little drunk and broke some weird phantasmagoric lead glass out of a cabinet in the kitchen. It’s not easy, living alone on the set of a shut-in poet’s bad dream. Maybe the girl in the apartment below, Miss Outlaw Country, is taking care of a baby? The crying could be echoing up through the heat pipe. This crying—and it is piercing, the very platonic ideal of aural distress—could be a permanent addition to the symphony of Thom’s life.

Or maybe the crying is coming from the apartment above; the one occupied by Sven the Shitty Spy. Sven is probably not really a spy. Sven is probably the defrocked lawyer he claims to be, the day trading one who alludes to investments that don’t sound real. Sven drives a very real Porsche that he parks in front of the building like a big shining commandment to rob the occupants. The Porsche is supposedly an Austrian friend’s Porsche and lives here to avoid some kind of Austrian Porsche tax. Real shitty spy stuff, and the presence of a crying baby in Sven’s apartment—or possibly a crying woman with a nasally baby-hooker voice—seems not impossible.

Or the crying could just be mechanical. Some whining minotaur of a gear caught in the radiator’s labyrinthine inner-workings.

Whatever the case Thom wants to take action against the crying. But he is under no illusion of being God’s white knight. He knows he is not even God’s crippled foot soldier. He thinks it more likely that he is Satan’s archer, the one firing thin shafts of evil at the pilgrims trudging along the road. Thom sips chai and listens to the crying. He slouches in his soft chair. How to signal his cyber support to his old friend? An ironic quip seems insufficient—or would it be heartening?

Thom’s watch skates down his wrist below the mug. He has been mysteriously losing weight for months. No idea where it goes. Now he has a work meeting in an hour. His boss, usually another cyber entity, has flown in from France. They have to go eat little sandwiches and drink wine. Not that it’s torture, but he, Thom, only has so much time. Death is not solely the province of other existences. Survivorship is no longer everyone’s default fate. And what about this new distressing sound? Flashlight colonoscopies have revealed the interior of the radiator to be a dank bowl choked with dust.

When Thom was seventeen, he had a vision under a tree. He was running in a park and, under the influence of a spiritual laziness, he drifted off the trail and flopped down under an oak. Looking up through the branches, he saw golden leaves under a cerulean sky. He saw skeins of cloud pinwheeling through an infinite robin’s egg. He’s been wading through doubt ever since, but whenever his watch skates down his wrist (or any other portentous simulacra announces itself) he thinks of this vision. The crying seems like an opportunity. Yet, when he rises from his chair and moves toward the radiator, he gets frozen mid-step.

Now he seeks to free himself by imagining a witness; someone he’d like to impress with his compassionate action. Not one of the dead former occupants of his apartment. They were sad and lonely people—he is sure of this—and their ghostly approval is meaningless. Better to imagine himself being witnessed by an ex-girlfriend who had an almond face and linear hair and who once, in the basement of Thom’s father’s house, many years and time zones ago, allowed him to graze the crowning scrub of her maidenhead before whispering, in the most martyred voice, you promised—which he had, a promise he had every intention of keeping until she released the button on her slender fit jeans and pressed his hand down onto a timeless understanding: that a promise—to be faithful, to be true—only carries meaning in contrast to its opposite.

Thom is again free to move toward the radiator. The crying increases in volume, as if encouraged by his approach. Doesn’t it know he’s never been good at comforting anything? During that brief interlude when he manned the battlements at a homeless shelter, Thom struggled with both the physical alleviation: handing out mashed pastrami sandwiches and portioning out rubbing alcohol, and also the philosophical: talking dead relatives and PTSD and colostomy bags and the glaring absence of divine providence. Thom squats before the radiator, genuflecting before its gray bars.

Is it getting late? Is there not much time? Probably not for Thom, Thom thinks. Certainly not for Miss Outlaw Country, or for Sven the Shitty Spy—all of whom are laboring under the illusion of immortality. Why else would they be living in these old apartments? No! These old crypts—where the faucets leak and the cracked ceilings rain grubs in the fall? Thom once opened one of his phantasmagoric cabinets to find a live mouse eating a dead mouse. The live mouse looked up from behind the piebald carcass of the dead mouse with blood smeared across its little snout. It bared its teeth as if to say, get it? But still he did not move, and now he’s here, on his knees before the alter filling his dwelling with the cries of the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars who shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone. So much for John Broadus, D.D., L.L.D! So much for the Burro’s Tail, for that matter. It, too, is doomed to wither. All must pass. Thom extends his arms out to either side. With a strain he should just be able to grasp the radiator’s outer bars.

And what is the end? Thom thinks about this over the radiator’s cries. What is it really? The mere fact that soon you will not exist? That, ten years after that, you will still not exist? That, ten years after that, you will still not exist? And so on. Seems unfair. And yet. And yet. Our lives are a puff of smoke. This is a world of dew. Thom leans forward and embraces the radiator. The boiling iron seems both scourge and blessing, both a question and its answer.





© Craig Barnes