Short Story: ‘The First Night’ by Andrew Moran

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Walking slowly up five flights of stairs in an antiquated apartment building on a cold winter’s day, exhaling breaths that one can clearly see, the thought suddenly struck William Potter’s mind: “I am a blighter.” He paused for a brief moment on the fifth step on the fourth flight, holding a newspaper under his right armpit, a cup of coffee in his left hand and a pair of keys in the other, thinking that he is now scheduled to live a life of solitude, an existence all by himself. This gripping thought flooded his mind, provided an extraordinary but subtle bombshell to his soul. It further succeeded in one primary perhaps supernatural objective of his first night in isolation: amplifying his fear of death, reminding him of his mortality.

William arrived at his floor, opened up the door with great difficulty and read a notice plastered on the glass that read: “DO NOT ENTER! SPRAYING FOR COCKROACHES!” This made William chuckle because he and his wife had been living with cockroaches for nearly twenty years and it took the complex’s ownership this long to finally conquer the primitive savages, the disgusting vermin that leave trails of eggs, slime and shivers. It was an inconvenience, though, because now he had to wait before he could return to his living quarters. Rather than sauntering down the stairs again, he just sat down on the step and bided his time, even if it meant dirtying his black pants, the only pair he owned.

As soon as he sat down, opening up the front page of the newspaper, one of the roach terminators informed William, who was in a trachle state, that the spraying had been completed and it was a success and that there shouldn’t be anymore meetings with this species.

“This is one of the biggest infestations in an apartment building I have ever seen,” the man, holding a cigarette in his right that was as black as a coal miner’s shirt, said. “How could you live with such filth?”

“Rent control,” William, without looking up at the young man, sullenly replied.

The worker, who was probably no older than thirty, did not know how to respond; that’s a problem that many of our youth have: a paucity of quick wit.

“Well, let’s hope you never have to witness a cockroach ever again,” he noted. “So long.”

“Farewell,” William said saluting the king of cockroaches, continuing to gape at the newspaper.

William returned to the upright position and ventured into his floor. The spray’s odor was still lingering, leaving a terrible taste in the back of his mouth. He wondered if this would poison his body and, if so, would this be his final night on this plane of existence. Who knows?

Inserting his key into the lock, he turned it to the right, took a deep breath and opened the door. William was at first hesitant of sauntering through the doorway; this would be his first night alone in his humble abode in about thirty years. Standing there for approximately three minutes, William finally mustered up enough temerity to enter the premises. The first thing he noticed was the cockroach spray smell, which had infiltrated his apartment and left a horrible scent in his immediate vicinity.

The second thing he came across in the rent controlled apartment was a cockroach.

The behemoth pest was sitting close to the front door, perhaps mourning the death of others of his kind. It was frozen in the same spot, even as William was making a commotion surrounding the bug. William had no other choice but to remove the juggernaut from his home by squishing it with his right black shoe, another accessory that was his lone item. He gawked at the dead carcass, realizing that this will be him one day just as it was his wife, prognosticating that something will squish him in the future.

William refrained from contacting the superintendent because there would be nothing he could do; it takes him a month to fix a faucet, another month to vacuum the hallway floors and another month just to clean up urine – dog or human – in the front entrance. The only option he had was to endure the brown skin, the long horns and the speed and agility of such creatures. Besides, would it really matter? He likely did not have much time to live (or so that is what he kept thinking).

A long day at the funeral parlor, William was famished and fatigued. Putting down his newspaper and cup of coffee, taking off his black blazer and rolling up his sleeves, he waltzed into the kitchen and boiled a pot of water. For years, he had been jubilant in prognosticating that it would be enthralling to selfishly cook a pasta dish all for himself without sharing with his significant other, without reducing his own portion.

Waiting for the water to come to a full boil, William turned on the stereo and inserted Enrico Caruso’s greatest opera hits – the superb twentieth century tenor was their favorite of all time, though this moniker could also be attributed to Placido Domingo, depending on the mood and occasion. The first tune to play was Giuseppe Verdi’s O Figli from Macbeth. As the aria was playing, William stood near the window and stared at the snow descending from the heavens, the bitter cold inflicting man and the gradual nightfall. Yes, it was a typical winter’s day.

He woke himself from his daze to notice that the water had come to a boil. William poured in the rotini noodles and let them sit for ten minutes, or until fully cooked. In the meantime, he proceeded to chop an onion and throw it on a frying pan. Allowing the vegetable to morph into a golden brown, William grabbed his beef and tossed it in the pan with the onion. He mixed everything together and let it cook. It was truly a monotonous occasion, considering that this was all for himself and no one else – perhaps he grew accustomed to performing every task, every chore not only for himself but also for his corn-blonde, bobbed-hair companion. Pouring in the tomato sauce in the frying pan, some of it splashed onto William’s clean and crisp white shirt, which was, once again, his only one in the closet. Finally, the dinner was complete, and, for the first time in ages, he decided to eat in front of the television, something that his wife had frowned upon for so many years.

William reached for his placemat, placed the meal onto his plate and served the dinner. He grabbed the channel changer, turned on the television and began to imbibe his spaghetti. It was impossible for William to come across anything of interest on the idiot box. Like eating in front of the television, it had been ages since William had channel surfed and searched endlessly, without any thought, for a program to consume.

Nothing.

It was a waste of time, a joyless endeavor that led to absolutely nothing. William had finished his meal before he could discover a thought provoking show or motion picture. He shut off the television and started to clean up after himself.

Upon completion of his washing and drying, William emitted a massive yawn from his mouth. As he showcased how tired he was to the hidden cockroaches, he noticed a medium sized black cat sitting outside of his window – he lived in one of those apartment building with steel steps surrounding the building. The black cat was simply sitting there frozen, staring at William and his quest to eat spaghetti, watch television, clean dishes and perhaps take a nap a couple of hours before bed. The black cat, who he had never seen before, refrained from making a move. Instead, he watched every move made by William, who did not let him in the apartment for fear that he would bring in unwanted dirt, disease and destitute, and these concerns had made him feel contemptuous of the creature. In order to encourage his departure from the stoop, William began to pay less attention to the feline and went about his business.

Akin to what he had done for the last thirty years, William grabbed his newspaper, lied on the sofa and read what was going on in the world. Similar to the last thirty years, the newspaper was engulfed in headlines of death, famine, corruption, war, lies and anything else that desensitizes populations to the inevitable decay of the human spirit as if that is as normal as the sweet taste of a doughnut.

Reading the obituary section of the daily newspaper, noticing that someone he went to high school with had taken their last breath just a couple of weeks ago, William fell asleep with his glasses on – he had been slowly losing his vision in his left eye. As he entered into REM sleep, William started dreaming of exotic elements: Rita Hayworth, pina coladas, Hawaii and Arthur Schopenhauer. He was sitting at a resort in Honolulu with Dixieland jazz playing in the background, playing a game of gin rummy with the philosopher as the bombshell actress was lighting up William’s cigar. They did not share any words, but there were just chuckles, even from the pessimist philosopher. Suddenly, William shouted “gin” and both Arthur and Rita were beginning to cry, and the alcoholic beverage turned into a glass of milk, the cigar into a straw, the jazz into melancholy chamber music. Indeed, the entire dream was rather queer.

The nap lasted only about twenty-three minutes and William eventually woke up to neighbors screaming at each other over which pole was superior: the north pole or the south pole. For the past three years, William’s neighbors, a highly neurotic but young couple had fought over the most inane topics: coffee versus tea, burgers versus hot dogs, summer versus winter, Jean-Paul Belmondo versus Alain Delon. Everything you could think of, they battled over, and nobody ever was victorious in these heated arguments.

Sitting up on the right part of the sofa, William decided to venture outside for a brief walk around the block. He stood up, which was oftentimes an extreme sport for William in his old age, and put on his black blazer, black trench coat and his black shoes. He reached for his keys, opened the door and left the apartment. William could still taste the venom that supposedly eradicated the cockroaches. He went down the five flight of stairs, checked the decades-old mailbox for any packages, letters or parcels, in which there were none, and exited the building. William lived in an apartment that was on a busy part of the city, an area that had rents exceeding two-thousand-dollars for a shoebox; it was great that William and his wife were able to get in early on the market.

Briefly deciding which direction to walk in, William felt how cold it was. Enduring the frigid temperatures, he gawked at a variety of pedestrians. There was a brunette dame, sporting the skimpiest of outfits, staring at her smartphone without a care of anyone else in her vicinity. There was a white-haired grandmother, dragging her grandson by his left wrist, who was picking his nose with the other hand. And then there were two Mormons, sporting the obligatory black pants and white shirts, who liked to initiate conversations about God. These were the audience members of his purview.

As he became older, his bones weakened, his skin wrinkled, his teeth fell out and he could not endure the freezing temperatures any longer. Disappointed in himself that he could not bear the cold, he returned to his warm and cozy apartment, and decided to get ready for bed instead.

Just as he got back to his apartment, there was a knock on the door. William looked into the peephole and did not see anyone there – the thought of a cockroach banging on the door rushed to his mind; William was an imaginative fellow. After several more knocks, William opened the door and it was the superintendent, a short, stocky and balding middle-aged man, who always sported a dirty apron and was loquacious. He maintained the habit of concealing himself from the peephole.

“Hello, Frank, what do you want?” William inquired in an attempted jocose manner.

The superintendent was speaking, but William did not hear any words depart from his mouth. He first believed that he had gone completely deaf, but he could hear everything else surrounding him. Continuing to utter words without any sound, William, who was extremely frustrated, simply nodded his head and waited until the building manager finished whatever it was he was espousing. He eventually ended his tirade (or speech?) and left, prompting William to finally shut the door and go to bed.

As he locked the door, William turned around and faced his living space, understanding one important thing: the apartment was no longer a residence of laughter and love, discussion and debate, happiness and homeliness, but rather it had metastasized into and maintained a hebetudinous atmosphere, a flaccid environment, an insouciant ecosystem that was occupied by a coxcomb and widowed senior citizen. The discovery was rather depressing.

Shaking his head, sighing in a morose manner, he went into the bedroom and initiated his routine for his adventure into dreamland. He swapped his black suit from the day’s funeral for his evening pajamas; a pair of khaki shorts, a black t-shirt and white tube socks. William did not feel like brushing his teeth – he was losing most of his teeth anyway – so he just rinsed his mouth with water instead. Prior to laying down, William ensured that he had Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls at his bedside. Seeking out any cockroaches before going to bed and ensuring that everything was as quiet as a mouse, William was rest assured that everything was under control for the next eight hours. He now was able to apply his body to crisp and green cotton sheets.

“What a day…what a first night…nothing…oy vey…” William uttered out loud to himself. “I wonder what you are doing right now, my dear. You’re either combing through the universe, being reincarnated or sitting at the foot of this bed making faces at me as if you were Myrna Loy. I hope you weren’t too unhappy about the funeral. There wasn’t much I could do about it because I didn’t know what you wanted. You never told me after all of these years together. It’s not my fault! Anyway, as the song goes, I’ll be seeing you, I guess.”

Finally hitting the hay for the day, William began to read the Russian classic. He had read the book before but felt like consuming the novel again; William always enjoyed the first half but became increasingly disappointed as he progressed through the second half. During this bout, William did not get very far as he fell asleep once again, and again with his glasses on.

Snoring loudly as he usually does – William was always unsure how his wife could sleep through these sounds that were similar to that of a train – he started to dream. This time, he began to dream of his wife collecting souls of people that he had never seen before – individuals that he may have passed by on the street, sat next to on the bus or seen at the movie theater – in Central Park. As she was adding souls to her duffle bag, the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Danse de Cygnes from the third act of Swan Lake started to play. His wife was wearing a ballerina outfit – a tutu, white stockings and ballerina flats – dancing to the music with her bag of souls.

Out of nowhere, the dream transitioned into Venice, and he was sitting on a gondola with that black cat and an orchestra playing that same Swan Lake music. His wife had morphed into the gondolier, chuckled at William, grabbed him by the lapel and tossed him in the duffle bag. William could see all of the souls she had accumulated. They all had tattoos of the years they were alive on their foreheads, but they were backwards: one person had “1783 to 1495,” another person had “1990 to 1971,” the person standing on front of him had “200 to 20.” William concluded that time had moved backwards instead of forward, and that he could not see what tattoo he had on his forehead.

“I beg your pardon, but do you know what years are on my forehead?” he asked a person standing next to him.

“1935 to 2016.”

Confused by the direction of time, William asked the individual a question. “Why is my time moving forward and not backward like all of the rest?”

The person, indifferent to his concerns, shrugged and fell asleep.

William was awoken by a knock on his door. He was unsure if he should open it or let the person continue to knock. The knocks persisted so he made the brave decision to determine who was knocking on the door. He rose from his bed, limped to the front door and opened it without peering through the peephole. It turned out to be the superintendent again; William did not want anyone to see his messy gray hair, which was thinning.

“What the hell do you want? What time is it?” William, annoyed by the interruption of his sleep, asked.

“I want seven-hundred-and-fifty dollars to help cover the cost of last month’s rent. I told you before.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I spoke to you earlier this evening and informed you that the building is requesting tenants to add funds to their last month’s deposit. Since you left just two-hundred-and-fifty-dollars thirty years ago, and today’s rent is one-thousand dollars, I need seven-hundred-fifty dollars. Now!”

“OK, OK. Hold your horses…”

“You know,” eerily smirking from ear to ear, “I was just a teenager when you moved into this building. It is truly astounding how time flies.”

William ignored the remark. He turned around and grabbed the checkbook sitting in one of the kitchen drawers. He wrote out the check, but as he was writing in the amount, William witnessed an enormous cockroach that must have been ten-feet tall. Stunned by the grotesque nature of a massive bug, the cockroach laughed and lifted its front hands and squished William just as he predicted earlier in the evening.

With his final moments, his dying breath, William signed the check and handed it over to the superintendent, who took it and left the apartment. Despite his imminent death, he wanted to know what time it was for some strange reason: it turned out to be three in the morning, the time of the devil.

“Does this mean I’m going to hell now?” William wondered aloud.

Well, he could taste the underworld…or was it the cockroach spray?

And this turned out to be the first night away from his wife, and also his last. He couldn’t even make it to the next day without the woman with the green eyes and love of Swedish pastries. At least now the building can finally charge market rent for the cockroach infested unit.

So it turned out to be a happy ending after all.

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