He was no danger to her. Judith Map felt that immediately. He lay on the porch, one arm flung out across her doormat, obscuring the word WELCOME. She’d come home late from work. The street was silent, apart from crickets chirping and a far-off siren. She could see his chest rise and fall calmly. She turned her key in the door and stepped past him.
Inside, she switched on the porch light, and looked at him through the glass pane at the top of the door. He wore jeans and workboots, and a T-shirt which read QUICK’S LITTLE ALASKA. It was the name of the bar at the corner where her street met Schermerhorn Avenue, three blocks away. It was called Little Alaska because of the air conditioning.
A car pulled into a drive up the street, headlights flaring over the porch where he lay. Another of her neighbors coming home. The street led nowhere, and the only cars that went past were cars that belonged to houses there. Nobody on her street walked except Judith. But the man on the porch must have walked, or been carried. From the bar, she guessed.
She opened the door and lifted his arms and shoulders from underneath and dragged him across the threshold. His head lolled. The carpet at the entry bunched under his back, so that she had to nudge it away with her toe. She grunted, heard her own rough breath. His was still calm. She draped his arms over his stomach, and stepped out onto the porch. No one was watching. She shut the door.
She dragged him a little farther into the room, to the space between the sofa and the coffee table. She felt a little trickle of sweat under her arms. It was enough, she’d moved him enough. She went to the kitchen and filled a glass with water. When she went back in to look at him she was struck by the beauty of his features at rest. She felt she understood him. Though she didn’t understand how he had gotten to her porch.
She’d heard about the sleepy people, but she’d never met one before.
She climbed over the back of the sofa and sat with her legs crossed and peered down at him. Her heart was beating fast. She wasn’t frightened. She wondered if she should bring him a blanket, then remembered that the sleepy people conserved energy, kept themselves warm. He’d been on the porch, after all. Though really this was the kind of night where it was as warm outdoors as in. A perfectly calm night, as if it had settled itself around his sleeping body. She was the only thing agitated, her breath unsteady. But she wasn’t frightened.
Should she move him back to the porch? He might have wanted to be there. He fit nicely between the couch and the coffee table, though. She climbed over the back again, and went to her bedroom door. From that vantage he was completely out of sight. What if someone were looking for him? It would be someone from the bar, from Little Alaska. They might have left him here just because they couldn’t carry him anymore, intending to come back. Certainly her neighbors wouldn’t leave a sleepy man on her porch. But the people in the bar, the militia, never left the bar. She tangled again in the mystery of his arrival on her porch.
It didn’t matter. She was suddenly exhausted. She pictured herself stretched out on the sofa, alongside him but perched above. It was absurd, she decided, and thrust it aside. She went into the bedroom and locked the door, quickly. That too was absurd; she might as well have left him on the porch. It was as though she wanted to abdicate the house to him and reduce her own space to the single room.
She unlocked the door and left it ajar. She could see the back of the sofa from her bed. She could hear him breathe.
She didn’t dream, but woke thinking of him. She got out of bed to check; he was still there. His arm was threaded through the legs of the coffee table. She pictured him flinging his arms, gesticulating in the night. Otherwise he lay there exactly as she’d left him. She went to the kitchen and made herself coffee.
When she was ready for work she lifted his shoulders again and dragged him around the other side of the sofa, and back out to the porch. She didn’t want to lock him inside. What else she wanted wasn’t clear, but she shouldn’t lock him inside. Her back grew strong from moving him daily, she imagined reading in an eighteenth-century novel. His boots clunked, one after another, over the doorjamb. She propped his head and shoulders slightly, just because it seemed righter for daytime. Anyone could see him from the street.
There were only two other people left in her office, Tom and Eva. There had been six people working there when she started, two years before. It was telephone work. They were collecting information. The information was highly specific: the price of carpets and hardware, the cost of garbage collection and plumbing repair. The rent board had hired them to study the legitimacy of an appeal by the commission of landlords for a cost-related increase in fixed rents. She conducted phone interviews with suppliers, repairmen, and landlords picked at random. They weren’t necessarily the landlords who’d requested the increase, and they didn’t always understand the questions she asked.
Halfway through the morning she called Eva’s cubicle instead of the next number on the list.
“A sleepy man came to my house,” she said.
“Sleeping?” said Eva.
“He’s sleeping, yes. But sleepy, also. One of the sleepy people.”
“Do you have any houseplants?” said Eva, whispering.
“They make plants grow,” said Eva. “If you put them in the same room. Also sharpen razor blades.”
“That’s all I know. I better go, I’ve got a call.”
“Thanks,” said Judith.
“Sure. I think you have to put the plants pretty close to them.”
She went back to work. She knew that Eva and Tom spoke on the phone between their cubicles all the time. Tom and Eva were in love, she guessed. They never spoke in front of her.
She walked home a little early. He was still there, propped beside the door where she’d left him. She realized she’d been holding her breath. The evening sun cast the whole porch in yellow glaze, and the sleepy man seemed to her like a diver figurine resting at the bottom of a golden aquarium. She almost didn’t want to intrude. But she went past him, let herself in, dropped her keys on the sofa. There was half a casserole in the refrigerator; she moved it to the oven.
She poured herself a glass of wine to go with the leftovers, and sat drinking and just nibbling, poking at the food. Through the window the porch framed a sunset that glowed and died like an ember. The street was very quiet. He was still outside, his head just below the window frame.
A dog barked. It was night. She thought of how it wasn’t safe to leave him out all night. There were the people that roamed making trouble, the dinosaurs. They sometimes found this street, though it led nowhere particular, though it was just one of so many residential streets. She’d heard them, and seen her neighbors’ torn-up lawns, wrecked mailboxes.
A sleepy person would be a natural target for the dinosaurs.
Every sleepy person should have someone to take care of them, she thought. That seemed simple enough.
She went out and lifted his shoulders and dragged him inside. This time she got him up onto the sofa, first sitting him against it, then hoisting him up like a baby into a car seat, finally swinging his legs up so that he turned and sank against the pillows. She closed the curtains and got her wineglass and brought it over and sat with im, perching her buttocks on the lip of cushion left free. The margin wasn’t enough, and she slid down to the floor between the sofa and the coffee table. She’d taken his place.
She emptied her glass and put it on the coffee table. Outside, the dog barked again.
She turned in the little coffin-like space and was faced with his middle. His Little Alaska T-shirt had bunched up where she’d gripped him under the shoulders. His stomach was almost black with hair. It whorled in a devilish vee in and out of his navel and into his jeans. She was very close, having turned there. She propped herself with her elbows on the coffee table. He wasn’t fat but the jeans were tight on his hips, and there was a pinkish imprint of seam where they pinched his flesh. His fly was fastened with steel buttons. She undid the first. She could smell him a little. Her mouth tasted like wine.
The buttons had worn out their buttonholes. She only had to nudge them apart. His penis was beating slightly, like it had a little heart of its own. She covered it with her hand, then put her lips to her knuckles. His hair tickled her nose. Under her hand his penis was twitching, growing in little throbs. His chest rose and fell as steadily as before.
She pushed the backing cushions off the sofa to make room to fit her knee, and moved his arms up above his head, so that he resembled some sculpture she’d seen, a saint or slave carved in marble. But with stubble. Saint Stubble of Little Alaska, she thought. His erection was taut against his stomach now, the dewy pink head nestled in his black hair.
She slipped out of her underwear and clambered on top, then reached down and placed him with her hand. She was very wet. He sighed. She imagined that he was pretending to be asleep. He wasn’t, really. She moved slowly, keeping him inside. The backs of her thighs were a little cold.
She brought herself to orgasm, bracing her other hand against his collarbone, not hurrying. She pitched forward. He grunted gently. Outside the dog was barking. She slid to the side and then, knees a bit tangled in her stockings and skirt, to the floor below him again.
She daubed at them both with her underwear, and buttoned him up. She stood and pulled her skirt up and it was as if nothing had happened, except her smeared underwear was on the floor and she felt a coolness and a trickling on the inside of her thighs. She ran a bath. Then she went out to him again and arranged his T-shirt so it covered his stomach, and fit his arms back at his sides.
Something was wrong. The more she restored him, the deader he looked, as if she were a mortician. She moved him with difficulty to the easy chair, which was an improvement. It seemed to put more of an end to the affair. Then, a little guiltily, as though it should have been the first thing she’d done on coming home, she gathered the houseplants. There were four of them, a fern, a spiderplant, a tall thing that was some kind of succulent, with fat, fleshy plumes, and a small fist-like cactus with white wisps of hair instead of spines. She arrayed them near his chair.
He slept on. She got into the bath.
Excerpt from THE WALL OF THE SKY, THE WALL OF THE EYE, copyright (c)
1996 by Jonathan Lethem, reprinted by permission of Harcourt, Inc.