Vol.1 Brooklyn is pleased to present an excerpt from Adrian Van Young‘s collection The Man Who Noticed Everything, out via Black Lawrence Press. We’ll be hosting Van Young, along with Rivka Galchen and Adam Wilson, at Community Bookstore on January 8th. This excerpt is from his story “The Sub-Leaser,” the story that closes the collection.
And so I returned from a series of errands to find my apartment unalterably changed. Which change, I should say, was in fact several changes that had, in collusion, effected the one by dint of a sly and concerted campaign against the state of my rooms preceding my absence. Rooms, and not room, to be clear on one thing; namely, that I, their primary tenant, was only fiscally and moreover physically liable for the sustained occupation of one, my room, while the other, which lay around a bend and down a splintered wooden hallway from my own, the north room, I had leased for undetermined months to a certain third party little known to me then. But more of him, the sub-leaser, the stranger, to come.
It is the matter of the change that I wish to embark on.
My apartment is a standard one for the part of the city where I live. It begins at the door, which opens, like so, to show the splintered wooden hallway that I mentioned before. On the right is a bathroom, ill-sequenced of tile, with a sink built onto the wall and a bathtub, where a thin and mildewed curtain hangs, clad in a pattern of green and white plaid. To the left of the curtain, an insolent toilet, coated with a film of brown. Above the toilet is a window of thick, smeary glass that peers out on a bend in a courtyard of stone which does not correspond, I have need to observe, to the crook of the L that makes up the apartment. Continuing down the splintered hall, tandem to the bathroom on the right, is a kitchen, with a wide metal sink, and a stovetop and oven, and copious shelf-space above, where sit foodstuffs. Facing the shelving, a circular table, unmatted and scarred, with extendable leaves. Though these leaves, I should mention, have not been extended for some inhospitable months by my calendar.
Roughly tandem to the kitchen is the room in which I take my rest. My room, the north room, leased only to me, is a large and ascetic, say, scholarly space, bisected along the western wall by a naked lead pipe grown outrageously hot in what are now, as I write this, the dog days of winter. Next to the pipe sits a modest bookshelf where I have invested a paperback library—philosophical texts by dead men with spry minds in whom I have vested a tentative trust. Northeast of the shelf, in the room’s farthest corner, hunkers the whiteness of the bed, and next to the bed, a lacquered side-table, where a number of disparate items reside, including, but not always limited to, the book I happen to be reading, a flexible, prehensile lamp, a humidifier that severs the air with its shrill, unbending jet of steam, a glass of night-water with things floating in it whose molecular makeup I would rather not know, things native to here, to the pipes underneath, to the far reservoirs, kept by concrete, that do their best to keep me healthy.
There is nothing on the walls of the room where I sleep. The white of the paint there has proven acceptable.
Beyond the living room, in the back of the apartment, lies the south room, the strange room, the room not mine, and of which I prefer, on the whole, not to speak. For it marks what is clearly, in my mind at least, the origin of the greater change that I found had come over the whole of the rooms upon coming back from the series of errands. As if, like some malignancy, the change had begun in that room and spread outward. It had been occupied, the room, I mean, by the sub-leaser little known to me, who had come to inquire about said room after happening, he claimed, on an advertisement for it. That was the word he had used, the word happen—I happened on the ad, he’d said, while reading the paper this morning at breakfast. As if to say in truth that he’d done nothing of the sort, but had had the room in mind to sub-lease for some time, and this feigned indifference the ultimate ploy to ensure it would be his, and quick. When I returned from my day running errands he had gone, without a word in advance or a courtesy call, and the apartment without him was utterly changed, not because he had left but because he had been there.
However, he did leave a note, the sub-leaser, less a source of information than it was a kind of cipher, tamped beneath the grey saltshaker at the center of the table with extendable leaves. It was a word-processed note, as opposed to handwritten, which struck me as odd for a couple of reasons: 1. As a note, it did not merit printing, which was what had produced it, a printer, I mean, and not a typewriter, as might stand to reason, the latter machine on the whole more conducive to jotting a note on the fly, for quick viewing, and the former altogether best for composing a statement or even a missive, while the note, as you will find, was neither; 2. The sub-leaser, for whatever reason, had quit the south room with remarkable haste in the five-hour period I was gone, which was really four hours, by the sub-leaser’s clock, for he would have been wise to account for, at least, a buffering margin of one or more hours between when he had fixed for himself to be gone, and roughly the time he expected me home, which was barely enough for the moving essentials, let alone to sit down at a laptop computer, format a note and print the note out; and 3. It consisted of the following words, which were odd irrespective of their method of production:
Enclosed bills ($60) are for Tatiana, arriving 2/2/09. Thanks for the shelter, however brief. And good luck!
P.S.—Tatiana’s #: (212) 676-2398
Hank’s enclosed bills were indeed in the note, congruent the seam of the folded up paper. They were not meant to count toward the rent, I was sure, which he had always paid by check, and which he had paid me in full the day prior by way of said check slipped under my door, perhaps, I reflected, to avoid circumstances that would have been colored, on his part at least, by the awkward foreknowledge of his imminent departure, which he planned to effect the next day, i.e., this one. But then again, I reconciled, he had long been in the habit of paying me thus by slipping the check beneath my door, and therefore had always been planning to leave, as soon as the moment presented itself. So the money was not, then, intended for me, but indeed the elusive Tatiana, set to arrive 2/2/09—which now I considered it was tomorrow—and whose contact information, which appeared to be local, appended the word-processed note. But who was she, this Tatiana, and what had the sub-leaser hired her to do? And why, furthermore, was her number a post-script as opposed to placed beside her name? When I added the numbers, successively, I arrived at the sum of 46. What did it signify, that number? Or was it merely happenstancial? And what, furthermore, had the sub-leaser meant when he thanked me, rather glibly, I thought, for the shelter? Did shelter refer to the shared space itself, in an easy and jocular way, perhaps, or did it have a more urgent, even literal dimension, as in shelter from harm, i.e., persecution, which put me in mind of nefarious doings that Hank might well have taken part in—ones that had driven him here, to these rooms, to seek respite in anonymity?
For what did I know about him, really, this trespasser into and out of my life? His name was Hank. His trade was law. His hair was close-shaved. His complexion was reddened. The checks that he wrote me never bounced. He lived alone inside the room. He was early to bed and early to rise. He hardly ever cooked.
In between prior tenants, I had not leased the room, though I could have with relative ease, I am sure, as the demand among students for similar rooms is great throughout the city where I live, which is expensive. But as I began to compose my thesis, I had less and less time to eke out pocket money, and my small fellowship had been cut by a third so as to provide for the less senior students who were just then beginning their coursework that fall. All of which resulted, in my fifth year of study, in my agreeing to host, for once, a sub-leaser, who had happened across my ad, he claimed, while reading the paper one morning at breakfast. I happened on the ad, he’d said, and it made good sense to inquire, so I did. Yet this, I should mention, at last, was impossible, for I had posted no such notice in the paper or elsewhere.
But here are some facts about the change, originating, as I mentioned, in the sub-leaser’s room and extending its dominion northward. That room, the south room, was completely destroyed, so far as the word, destroyed, I mean, can be applied under proviso of a security deposit, which I should concede I had failed to draw up between the sub-leaser Hank and myself, upon move-in. There were two ragged fractures afflicting the baseboards that sit below the window-frames, one left and one right, in the room’s southern wall where the windows themselves look out on the courtyard, and along the same stretch of the L, so described, that the windows of the living room look out on as well, this vista divided, inside the apartment, by a bisecting wall with a door centered in it.
The leftmost of these holes was large, running slant from the baseboard’s northwest corner to where it met the wooden floor, while the rightmost hole, though just as dark, was smaller than the leftmost by nearly two-thirds, perpetrated one meter southeast of the first. Upon seeing the holes, I had knelt by the left one and put my eye against the void. The space within was parched and dusty, the air so still it seemed not air but a dark insulation in the walls, between the beams. A minuscule race of woodlice, maybe, crawled along the ridge of the hole, in the light. The rightmost hole, but a third of the leftmost, consisted of a corner where the plaster had buckled so as to show a gash of dark, as if a foot or a first had made it so, presumably that of the sub-leaser. I put my eye to this one, too, and a small sharp wind irritated my fluids.
I returned to the larger, leftmost hole and tested the air, which yet proved still, and then I returned to the rightmost again, where the tiny, sourceless draft still blew. Though the holes were strange and incoherent, they could have been due to some botched heavy lifting, perhaps the big desk that the sub-leaser worked at, positioned below, and between, the two windows, to enjoy what little cross-breeze had blown in from the courtyard.
Yet it was gone, the desk, I mean, along with every other article the room had contained. And the room itself an echo chamber, with a thick skirt of junk shoring in its four walls.
On the baseboards adjacent to those with the holes, beginning at the center of the room’s western wall, there was a pale pinkish wax dribbled onto the plaster that trailed to the floor where it started to pool. An island chain of suchlike pools reached clear into the center of the room before fading. The widest of them looked so hard that I would doubtless have to face it with a chisel.
As for the junk at the base of the walls, it was banal as any junk. But just the same it struck me as a foul exaggeration of type of dorm-style living the apartment assumed. So many sweet wrappers, and beer bottle caps, and random receipts from habitual spending, and cigarette foils, and paper clips, and pennies, and nickels, and dimes, and some quarters, that it suggested that the person who had lived in the room, I had to assume the sub-leaser, had littered down along the walls in what appeared to be an even distribution.
In the northwest corner of the room, a pair of orthopedic shoes. White and with lifts, like the shoes of a nurse, or the shoes of a dead geriatric. One of the shoes lay slumped on its side, while the other of them sat upright, as if the owner had stood not a moment ago in the worn cushioning of the insole. The shoes were old and faintly dusty, with yellowed cloth tongues in place of shoelaces. It is also pertinent to note that both of the shoes were turned into the corner.
The forest-green pennant of some sports team still hung on the white of the wall, right of center.
Besides a few discolorations and dents in the wall, there was nothing else visibly changed in the room, which is not, in any way, to downplay the significance of the disparate holes, or the pools of dried wax, or the pair of orthopedic shoes, or the emptiness of the room itself, achieved in the space between two heartbeats, or what seemed, on reflection, to have been achieved thus in the five-hour period I’d been gone. Visibly changed, I specify, for I had not yet had occasion to open the closet, where I found, on a hanger tortured out of its shape, what remained of a cable-knit turtleneck sweater, stickily matted and infested with holes, as if it had been set aflame, doused with cold water, then set back to rights. On the floor of the closet, more random detritus, in what seemed to me a more or less uniform coating, and on top of which sat, in a maddening tangle, a series of plastic and copper coat-hangers.
I was just about to leave the closet when I chanced to hear a sifting sound, as of dirt being poured from some height to the floor, and I pushed aside the ruined sweater, hanging far left along the rack, to spy, in the closet’s western corner, a dark obscuration, not part of the closet, suspended in the crevice where the walls met the ceiling. I stood on my toes to get a better look at it and prodded the shape a few times with my finger, which touched a little woven object, clung about with dirt. At the risk of fiddling with a light and startling the thing, which might yet be alive, I cupped my hand around the bottom and eased it away from the walls that retained it.
I held a desiccated bird’s nest, with the mummified bits of a few dead chicks.
But barely recognizable as chicks, I should add, just as the bird’s nest had been as a bird’s nest. Shriveled knobs of black and brown, their dainty legs upcurled beneath them, flightless wings held fast and flush. There were four little avian corpses in all. I had never myself been one for pets. The bird’s nest crumbled in my hand and into the cuff of the shirt I was wearing, collecting in the elbow, at the bend in the sleeve, where it sifted when I moved my arm.
I set the dead chicks on the bed of coat hangers, but left ajar the closet door.
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I took a writing workshop with Adrian Van Young at Grub Street in Boston some time ago and his work was dazzling then. We kept using the word “lyrical” for it, as I recall. I was really happy to hear he had a book coming out this year. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.