The Peephole

by Jim Farrar (unfinished 1983)

Millie McJeffery often wondered about the man who lived across the hall because he seemed so strange and mystical. Though they had never spoken, not even to exchange perfunctory hellos, she'd see him coming or going almost every day. There was something deliberate about his silence that aroused her curiosity.

She didn't know his name. The plate on his mailbox still had the name of the former tenant on it, which was P. Johnston. The name above the peephole on his door had remained blank. She remembered P. Johnston. He was a stocky little man whom she would've guessed to be around thirty. He was an oddball, although harmless and quite friendly. He was always carrying something. It didn't matter whether or not he was coming or going, Millie swore that he had always had some kind of bundle in his arms. One day he had a whole frozen salmon, which was bundled up like a baby in swaddling clothes, the head protruding like a hernia with dead fishy eyes out of the end. The next day it was a bicycle and then for the next few weeks it was bicycle parts: a procession of hubs, cranks, forks, levers, tires, rims, wires, chains and frames. And then the parade reversed itself and the pieces started going out in an ascending order, smallest to largest, culminating in the removal of an entire bicycle two weeks later.

Millie had observed all of this with amused curiosity. She'd found him fascinating because she could never guess what he'd lug in from day to day. If it wasn't a lawnmower, a rather useless item in a high rise, she thought, then it'd be a baby alligator. She reasoned that the man had a fondness for things that swam and for things that had gears. But he dispelled that theory one day when he showed up with a bundle of old books in his arms, half of which he dumped on the landing in front of his apartment. The man was also a bibliophile.

Then P. Johnston moved out and he moved in, and things got very weird.

The walls in the building were quite thin, almost transparent. They could hear their other neighbors doing whatever it is that people do when they are home when they don’t have to do much of anything. They’d hear fights, music, running toilets, television, the sounds of lovemaking. They’d hear the alarm clocks in the morning and closet doors being slammed shut. Millie swore she could hear them thinking. Their lives were separated only by a gauze curtain.

And what did their neighbors think of them? What dark secrets did she and her husband share with the others? This lace of privacy frightened her in a way that she could not really pinpoint, yet it was always there, as if someone was watching. There was a feeling of breathing. Yes, that was it. Breathing. Someone breathing. A pair of eyes, invisible always, yet always there, watching her every move, invading every private corner of their lives. Always watching, always there. Just a presence nothing more.

He certainly is alone, she thought. It was as if he lived beyond a steel wall, soundless and voiceless. They’d see him infrequently, on the rarest occasions, but they always knew, she always knew he was in there. What did he do in there, she wondered.

“How should I know?” Her husband’s reply never varied.

“Well, doesn’t it seem odd to you? I mean, the man never even speaks. Who is he? I’ve even been tempted to ask the owners of the building who he is, but ...” her voice trailed off. It always did.

“And what good would come of it?”

“The guy makes me nervous, that’s all. A name with the face would at least make him seem human.”

The conversation always ended that way. He’d go off to bed to read and she’d just sit there, sometimes in the dark, because he’d turn the light out in the front room as a ploy to lure her into the bedroom. She wondered who he was, what he did in there. It became an obsession and then it became a problem because it dominated her thoughts. She became sullen and withdrawn. Her husband became a stranger to her, because all she could think about was him. At first she didn’t notice, because the signs were so subtle. Little by little, however, he began to realize that her personality was changing. Not noticeable because it was so slow, but it was changing nonetheless.

She never smiled anymore. She felt the changes within herself, but felt powerless to do anything about them. It was as if a shadow had been cast over her life, but she didn’t know what was blocking the light. It was her neighbor, of course, though she didn’t know why. He exhibited some strange power over her as if he were nestled within her psyche. She felt a macabre kinship with him, which she knew was silly, but it seemed so real, more real, in fact, than anything else in her life. He was the reality. Everything else was wrapped in fog.

She’d made up her mind: she’d find out who he was. Just knocking on his door and introducing herself never occurred to her. She knew what she had to do.

As far as her husband was concerned, life with Millie had changed and had changed badly. He’d heard about menopause and wondered if it could start early. It was a ridiculous thought, of course, but a confounded man is never the most rational man. At first he just thought that the marriage was going downhill, that they were starting to grow tired of one another. That would certainly account for the arguments that began, like clockwork, the moment he got home at night. They’d fight about nothing, or at least it’d seem like nothing, far into the night, quitting only because it would be two in the morning and they’d both be exhausted. What did the neighbors think? Certainly they’d heard. One night they’d fight about money, the next night they’d battle over who did and who didn’t clean the hair out of the bathtub drain. Their sex life became first a joke then nonexistent. They were too busy hurling epithets at one another.

No, they weren’t getting bored with one another. Their arguments were too lively. If it was boredom there would’ve been no interaction between them at all. Besides, he still loved her. Did she love him? Was that the problem? That certainly must be the problem he thought. He began to grow suspicious, almost paranoid. What did she do while he was away at work? If he asked her directly that would only provoke another fight and he certainly didn’t need that. No, he’d have to find out for himself. Someway, somehow, he’d find out.

Things were different across the hall. He was deaf, dumb, mute, and blind in one eye. With his good eye, he watched the world through the peephole in his apartment door. His world was totally devoid of any sensory communication with others. It was a perceptual disaster area. He couldn’t lip read. He knew no sign language. He was illiterate, always had been, even before the accident.

But he could think. He could perceive, but could not respond. He was trapped in a cage of flesh and blood and there was no jailer in the world who held the key. He had imprisoned himself in his apartment, or rather they had, for it wasn’t his idea. He had none.

The accident. It seemed so vague he could barely remember what had happened. There had been an explosion, yes, that’s it, an explosion. Then he was awake. He couldn’t talk. No vocal chords. His field of vision different. And all the people around the bed. They were moving but there was no sound. It was like watching television with the sound off. Why was everyone being so quiet? Their mouths were moving but they were saying nothing. He remembered this, but...what, was it real, did it happen, was it him, a dream, what? His head reeled with confusion. He was one of them once, but now he was different.

He looked through his peephole. A lady was coming up the stairs with a bag of groceries. He’d seen her before, seen her carry groceries up the stairs so many times he could almost imagine hearing the rhythm of her footsteps. They were heavy. He knew they were heavy because she always had a heavy look on her face. She was a heavy person.

When he wasn’t inspecting the comings and goings on his landing through his peephole, he’d amuse himself by killing the spiders that had more or less overrun his apartment. He never bothered to rid the place of their webs, although there must have been about a dozen of them; instead he hunt the spiders themselves. If an unfamiliar web sprang up, he’d immediately set to work trying to find the spider. More often than not, and with a great deal of enthusiasm, he’d track the evil spider down to some dark corner of the room, or the ceiling, and then he’d either grind the thing to a pulp with a Kleenex or he’d immolate it with a disposable cigarette lighter. He found the Bic disposable far superior to a Cricket because it lent itself easily to adjustment, which in his case involved a long tongue of fire emanating from its tiny nozzle; far easier than striking a match or using the tabletop lighter.

Interestingly enough, he’d been assigned to a special weapons and tactics unit when he was in the Army. He could handle a flame thrower better than anybody, a fact which he wasn’t ashamed of and thus never tried to hide. He enjoyed burning things, although the thought of actually being in combat and having to use the weapon on another human being tended to sicken him whenever he considered it. He could almost imagine having to do it; the screaming, the sight and smell or charred flesh – every aspect of the act was aversive. Burning things was different, peaceful almost – a cauterization, as it were, of the soul. Watching something burn made him reflective. Fire wasn’t a calamitous force at all to him. It was, instead, a friend, something that was constant and never failed his expectations of it. He enjoyed working around it and had planned on becoming a fireman after getting out of the service. He wanted to stay in touch with The Fire.

Such were his plans until the accident. He’d never heard of a flame thrower blowing up before, but this one had, by God.

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