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Portland Riley is a Canadian writer.

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Portland Riley

The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the empty cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.

At first I wonder if it’s only my heartbeat. But he’s still there in morning light, a hunched figure throwing shadows on a house disguised as any house on the street, knocking on a door that will not open. Because it is his door. Because it is his house and because, to the best of my knowledge, he has always lived there alone. Yet experience has so often proven my best knowledge useless I now suspect that if a sentence can be said, it is untrue. Or even that the very act of speaking a sentence causes reality to bend subtly away, to flee capture. For instance, I say: I exist. The syllable sounds rattle around my skull, and at this moment I am changed, I am the least real I have ever been.

The man works in shifts to get all his knocking done. The door will not knock itself, and he evidences understanding of human attention’s vacillation. An hour of knocking, twenty minutes of rest, then another hour of knocking. Rest periods he lays his body supine on the front porch and stares into whichever new sky has lensed over the firmament: blue, pink, grey, black, red, gold. In my office upstairs I work, shifting pixels around the hospital glow until, exhausted with so much nothing, I blur myself with two benzodiazepines. Still, and through the thick tongues of earplugs, the knock knock knock knock knock—a sound below sound, squirming air. I tell myself that the man does not exist, and the knocking loudens.

Knock knock knock knock knock.

Under the morning’s halogen kitchen light I concoct a pretense. I perform a dumb show for my appliance audience. I need bread, I say. Portland, did you really eat that entire loaf of bread? I say. Boy, I say. Oink. Then I oink again alone in this, my house, my house among houses. I once was a child. I was a child in this house.

Outside, slowing my walk to the speed of crawling, I see the body built around the man, and in the pink bulb mounted on my shoulders I write a sort of description. Early to mid-forties. Thinned hair in stringy strands. Teeth a rotten yellow flecked with grey spotting, lips chapped and cracking from exposure. Black flesh like bruising under the eyes, one of which bulges larger than the other, probably a congenital defect. Although, I don’t believe in defects. The man is interesting to look at and probably doesn’t like the way he looks, but I do. I am ugly as well. I think ugly things are beautiful.

Woven into the long rhythm of work and rest there’s the shorter bipolar rhythm of his muttering. For about half the time spent knocking he baby-babbles apology: I’m sorry, I love you, please let me back, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t mean to, I wasn’t in my right mind when I said it, you know I’m not like that, remember how it was before, when you loved me? Then comes the rage. Grit teeth and spittle spraying, knocks loudening, and this unintelligible wash of bitches and fucks and yous and hates.

The next day it’s cheese. Hey now, I say to him. You’re not getting anywhere like that. I have an extra room, why don’t you come with me? Fuck off, he says. You’re disturbing the neighbourhood, I say. This neighbourhood is so sick at heart it could use disturbing, he says. I don’t disagree, I say. But look, it’s due to blizzard heavy tonight. Don’t go this way. Leave me alone, he says, but I leave him the cheese instead. I don’t really need it. I’m so well-fed I could probably starve a year without dying.

That night the night sky clouds and shakes and sheds snow, thick dandruff flakes falling diagonal. It doesn’t stop, doesn’t even begin to stop, the next day or the next. I can’t sleep. The neighbourhood is sick. The sky is sick and grey and sick. The man bores a deep canal in the white, wending from the self-shaped indentation where he rests to the door where he works. I bring a blanket and lay it in the indentation. He does not acknowledge me. If he has eaten the cheese it does not show on his bones, which now are visibly gnawing their way through lipid layers to the skin’s surface, as if in want of escape.

I call the police, who leave deep blue and yellow wounds welted on his body when he comes swearing over them, howling you don’t know my life, what I’ve experienced, where and who I’ve been, how it feels to wake up inside me. The next day he’s back at it again. My insomnia starts hallucinating, friendly strange snakes shaping smooth curls, nightlight shadow puppets. In my basement I rummage through highly symbolic childhood keepsakes. They bring to mind forgetting. I drill four aluminum poles into deep snow and erect a tarpaulin over the man’s porch. He now neither rants nor apologizes. He lies down in his indentation and stares up at me, sunken-cheeked, while I tuck him under the blanket.

You used to live in your house with people, and now the people are gone, he says. That’s right, I say. My parents. Died? he says. That’s right, I say. Did you love them? he asks. I stare at him. Yes, I say, I guess I did. The man begins to cry. This sound, sucking through all his nightstick bruising and papery flesh and single protuberant eyeball, is the ugliest sound I’ve ever seen or heard. I love him, now. He’s overcome, wants to confess to me—there’re words worth a thousand days, I can tell, but his lips are blubbery, capable only of incomprehension, language that slips to nowhere. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, I tell him—I understand.

Knock knock knock knock knock.

The next day the snow stops, the clouds clear, the police return, then ambulances and fire crews, then other cryptic vehicles painted black and beige bearing men of no uniform, a pair of whom ring my doorbell. They show a composite sketch, a young woman, so beautiful she could be anyone. As if each person asked for a description offered only: she was so beautiful.

Do I know her? I don’t. Am I sure? I want to say I’m not, that beautiful faces move me so little they often seem never to have existed at all. But I don’t. I ask what it’s about, anyway, and the man’s face contorts. They tell us what they tell us, he says, probably nothing at all. I close the door and go upstairs to bed. I lie silent under the cloudless canopy of my bedroom’s stucco ceiling, where even as a child, I remember now, I would experience feelings of deep peace after my long insomnias. My father would come and rub my back until I disappeared from myself. His hand, kneading my young flesh as he sang to me a tuneless tune, lyrics about the mouths of graves with lips of grass speaking silence into a sky of burnished wood. I’d never feel him exit the room.

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