When I came home from work, I saw a package for him,
so I took it up to the sixth floor where he lived.
I was puffing a bit since I wasn’t used to the climb.
I lived on the second floor of the same building
with busted mailboxes and marble steps, worn thin
towards the side nearer the banister from all those years
of people ascending and descending—the immigrants first,
then the working poor, and now drug addicts and artists.
There was no doorman, and in place of our buzzer,
just a few dangling red wires. The mailman dumped
packages and magazines onto the floor
of our phone booth-sized foyer. The second metal door
had a square of mesh over the glass window
because someone had smashed it in.
Everything was painted a spooky gray,
and the halls smelled like must and mold.
Most of the blue and cream tiles
that I imagined were once beautiful
were broken or missing. The maintenance man
my roommate called “a junkie with a hammer”
had put some pink putty that looked like old bubblegum
in places where the tile was completely gone.
I was curious about the man who subscribed
to Art Forum and Spy and Time, all of which
I had been stepping over in the foyer.
His fed ex box was heavy in my arms
as I climbed those eroded warped stairs
which were hard to negotiate, like walking
on a beach, one foot in the water,
the other on an incline in wet sand.
There was an occasional crack vial on a landing
that I’d kick into a corner. When he opened the door
he was just like the neighborhood, tragic
and ravished and exquisite. He was holding
his arm in a bunch of bloody paper towels.
He’d just put his fist through a glass coffee table
at his girlfriend’s place—she lived
a few blocks north and west. They’d had a fight,
and he was picking out translucent slivers
from his arm. I wondered if he’d also smashed the glass
on the metal security door. When I knocked,
he probably thought I was the girlfriend,
begging to take him back. I looked over his shoulder
at the mattress on the floor, the tiny refrigerator
like college kids have in dorms. As he told me
his troubles, they seemed to drift into the past,
and I knew that I’d be his next girlfriend.
He was forty and I was twenty-eight, a little out of breath
from the stairs, a little beyond grad school, but not much.
A poet, I said. A painter, he said. I’ve lived here two years, I said.
Eighteen years for me. He had the old kind of apartment
that was not yet renovated, a toilet in the hall
that he shared with two other bachelors on his floor.
A filthy bowl that no one bothered to clean,
a dusty light bulb with a chain, a defunct lock
that looked as though, at one point, might have been
accessed by a skeleton key. I went into his apartment
and sat on his mattress, as there were no chairs
or couch. He said, You want a drink? His walls were blank.
I contemplated asking where all his paintings were,
but instead I took the tweezers from his shaking hand
and began to pull out the shards from his palm.