DEAD MEN NAKED
Chapter One and Two
O Lord, give each person his own personal death.Rainer Maria Rilke
A thing that moves out of the same life he lived,
In which he had love, and intelligence, and trouble.
The spirits of the dead continue to exist in the unseen world which is everywhere about us; and they all become gods of varying character and degrees of influence.Hirata
My first name, Angelene.PJ Harvey, Angelene
The prettiest mess you’ve ever seen.
There are no secrets to the dead, as after this life they still exist, and known to them is the exit from this stage of fools. Alas, everyone will join in this secret eventually, in his own personal way; but a great death takes a life of preparation. That is why it is said that in the final moment you get the chance to review your entire life, to watch it unfold before your eyes as you’re turning your soul in.
But while everyone can picture a last moment of intimacy with his or her demise, very few stop and think of the end during all the other moments of their life. If Death itself was a person, we would have noticed his or her presence long before the last check out. Bumped into him on the subway. Exchanged a seat on a plane. Or glanced over at his watch to check what time it is because you’re running late.
We purposely relegate this thought to the very end — an end that’s simply pushed to the back of our mind and only rarely comes back, usually in the heart of the night, haunting our sleep. That’s why, even if Death were an actual person, we’d never recognize him.
The personification of our Death.
Even if he turned out to be your pale, skinny neighbor upstairs.
Every good story has its beginning in the middle of the action, so I’ll spare you the boring details of my anonymous life until that dreadful night. I’ll give you the basics: I’m twenty-eight, an only child, parents long dead. I’m smart enough to finish college cum laude, but not smart enough to pick something actually useful. Poetry. What was I thinking again? But that’s a different topic. Of course, as no good story ever started with Once upon I time I was drinking a cranberry juice, I’ll start with me and Neil — my best friend Neil, who knew the secrets of my buttery heart that trembled and fell in love too easily; Neil, whose heart was lighter than mine — Neil and I, as this story starts, in a pub at sundown in the City. Nameless voices filling the air and the smell of alcohol and sweat and people trying to find shelter from themselves. That night saw us celebrating my third month unemployed. But the important part of the conversation, the part that set everything in motion, came unnoticed when we ended up talking about my new neighbor, the guy in the attic. We didn’t know his name, and we didn’t care – having surrendered our lucidity to the spirits already, we were wildly speculating about pale Skinny Guy, so Neil said,
He’s a vampire, I tell you.
No, Neil, he’s not. Vampires don’t exist.
Have you ever seen him in broad daylight?
I couldn’t say that I have.
Does he freak out in front of a cross? Garlic?
Never shared a meal; never been in his house, my friend. How would I know?
The conversation weighed the possible pros and cons of having a vampire living in the attic above my old apartment and involved a good number of tequila shots with beer backs. As we’ll discover, the effects of tequila on human beings are heavily underrated. But let’s stick with the order of events. Neil kept insisting on his vampire theory and said,
So, let me recap: He always dresses in black. He’s pale as the moon and so tall and thin it’s a friggin’ miracle he can even stand up straight. If he’s not a vampire, then he’s definitely something. Possibly a Satanist. Does he wear t-shirts with goats on them?
I wouldn’t know, Neil. I saw him once—twice. Never even said hello to him.
And he moved in what, three weeks ago?
More or less. More tequila?
We drank to a point where we couldn’t keep the conversation going logically anymore. We paid, left the tip, and then decided to call it a night. My house was close by so we walked in that direction. Neil took a rounded piece of metal out of his pocket, with a little chain attached to an end. An old watch. He started spinning it around until the chain would grip around his hand, only to proceed to spin it in the other direction to release the chain – in, then out, then in again, then out – a manual and imprecise pendulum.
You still have that old thing? I asked.
It’s my grandfather’s, you know. Besides, it’s just for looks, he said, spinning the time away from his hand.
In the night-cold air we let the drinks take over and instead of saying Goodbye, Good night, Neil suddenly jumped ahead and started running up the old stairs of the house, skipping my floor and heading for the attic.
Neil! Where the hell are you going? Neil! You’ll get us in trouble! I said, hoping that my whispers weren’t actually shouts, mislead by the alcohol in my blood.
If he sleeps in a coffin, we oughta kill him! Said Neil, and continued, I just wanna check out his place. Lights are out. He’s probably out.
It’s one thing to discuss the weird guy in the attic that you don’t know and make fun of, but it’s entirely another to break into his house. Right? Try reasoning when drunk and tell me how it worked out for you. So instead of trying to force him down and Go home and See you tomorrow, what did I do? I followed him up to the attic, to the door of Skinny Guy. The doors that are doomed to open are always unlocked, and this was one of them. We were in.
As soon as we closed the door behind us it was dark, and I immediately sensed a stench. Mold and dust and rot. I imagined nests of rats and evil things crawling in the dark – not a good thought to have. I was holding Neil by the shirt like a child. We stood there, frozen, until our eyes were able to see. Dark wooden floor, old unpainted plaster walls, a rusty stove, and nothing more, other than a feeling of restlessness. I wanted to say Let’s get out of here, but I didn’t have time as Neil walked towards the window. Before I could get to him I heard him scream. It was a short-lived scream that died in his throat as he fell. I jumped to help him, shouting Neil! and when I moved closer – there it was.
Blocking the window was a dark silhouette, black melting with the surrounding black, a mantle and a hood, darkness taking shape, and as the streetlight shone on a long blade I fell down and hurt my face, on the ground, helpless. I tried to move towards the wall to find something to grip onto and pull myself up, but before turning to check on Neil again I heard voices that said,
Does he actually see you?
I do not know. It seems so. The other one?
He is grasping at the wall.
One of the voices was difficult to identify—it could have been the voice of a little girl or an old man or a young woman or a toddler muttering mamamama for the first time. The second voice was clearly one of a heavy smoker – words shaving his throat out and trembling. I finally managed to pull myself up and leant against the wall to keep myself straight.
I finally took a clear look.
The smoker was a six-foot-tall giant black bird. Black like oil, black against the hooded tall figure on his right. The blade the tall guy had in his skeletal hands was to my knowledge a scythe. My heart paused for a second, only to catch the energy needed to start racing faster and faster, and so I had to hold onto the wall, while with my foot I reached out to Neil to poke him and wake him up. The two figures started to talk again,
They see us, mate – rasping voice of hell talking – that is rather strange to me, and I don’t even think entirely possible. If not out of place completely.
I know. The other one saw me already, I would dare say.
The tall figure removed his hood, revealing the face of my neighbor – Skinny Guy. At this particular point, I wasn’t sure if I could cross off vampire from the list, but seeing his face was enough to help my heart slow down. As logic seeped in, I thought that maybe he was one of those guys that dress up as knights and myths and demigods – for deep is the human longing to mimic the immortals.
A man in his right mind would simply collect his passed-out friend, ask for forgiveness, and go on with his life. But I wasn’t in my right mind. See, alcohol is not a friend, it’s not the solution to your problem, it’s not a balsam that when passed on your mind cleanses it from pain. It is a drug and a demon and limbo and dark oblivion. But I didn’t know that then, and as I was possessed by this demon – which has a sense of humour of its own – instead of going about my own business I shouted,
So the giant bird turned towards me and said something like Oh, very very smart; nice. I’ll make you meet the dead fella in a heartbeat!
He spread his arms, or wings. The costume was really good; all looked real, dark wings five feet out from each side. I was starting to feel my heart pounding again when Skinny Guy stopped him and said,
Leave him alone.
Leave him. He saw me anyway, and he is still here.
What about his dead friend here then? I can’t just leave him here?
Things have a way of figuring themselves out.
Great night out, my friend. Remind me not to hang with you anymore.
Still holding tight to whatever was on the wall behind me, I muttered something like,
Sorry, guys. Look, my friend isn’t dead; he’s just passed out. He does this when we drink too much—I kept poking Neil with my foot—so if you’ll excuse us for our disturbance, we actually just hit the wrong floor. Our night’s over, but you can go on to whatever party you were going to. Great costumes, by the way.
The crow hopped towards me and I pressed myself closer to the wall as he was really pretty scary. He turned my friend’s body over with his long, black beak.
Dead, he said.
Blood was coming out of Neil’s nostrils and his face was distorted and his eyes were wide open. Unnaturally open, unblinking. Whatever was holding me up wasn’t enough anymore and I fell to my knees with my hands over my mouth and my heart racing the final mile up to my throat. The voices of the bird and Skinny Guy became murmurs too heavy to be whispers, but needles stinging in my ears together with a buzzing sound. And I wasn’t listening anymore, but rather throwing my eyes at Neil’s body – at the window – at the two guys – at his body again – and the blood and the buzzing became unbearable and then I believe I saw Neil standing outside of his body and looking at his body; and there were two of him and then the ringing sound became a flash of light in my eyes and my body gave up and I saw darkness there, and nothing more.
I’m in a cold room with a strange smell. Old air and dust. No one had been here for a while. There’s light coming in from a big window. It’s a bedroom, but it isn’t mine and I can’t see anything I recognize. When I move my feet they bring with them a black sticky substance. I look at the floor and it’s dark. Dark and glossy and crawling. The light beaming onto it makes it shimmer in hundreds of little flashes of light. I take another step and realize that the floor is liquid. And I am able to walk on the dark liquid without being swallowed.
I take two, three steps towards the window and I see a shadow there. Against the window, where the light is, there is a tall Being of Beauty.
The light isn’t coming from the window but from the person standing against it. And the person is a woman and there’s warmth, a wave of happiness coming from her. I can’t see her face clearly.
Her dress is covering her whole body and it’s white. It looks like a cape or a robe, and I want to go nearer and see her face. Her hands are resting on her belly and she has her head tilted to the right. I think she’s looking at me but I can’t be sure. The light becomes more intense and it’s like every particle of it is touching my skin and making it new and it’s a mystical experience.
All I want to do is go near her and touch her because I know that if I touch her I’ll be saved. But I stay here, still, floating on the liquid floor, looking at this light-emitting figure and now I see her face.
And it is the face that Beauty wears when it doesn’t want to hide in flesh and bones. It is beauty and love and compassion and in the secrets of my soul I’ll always know splendor visited me that night.
And the floor now starts to take me down into it but I’m not scared because she’s smiling at me, and the last thing I see is her silhouette against a beam of light and her smile and her eyes like shooting stars and forgetting all this I wake up.
Spinning in the darkness behind my eyelids. A carousel of dark filaments all around. I opened one eye for a second — morning, and I was in my bed — and then closed it again because the outside world was spinning, too. One by one pieces of my body started to call themselves out. Cold feet, check. Cold legs, check. What time did I get home?, my brain told me, while checking off the list. Cold arms, check. Am I sleeping in the same t-shirt I had on yesterday? Mouth opening and closing, dry and with a terrible—unbearable—flavor of nicotine and vodka and, is that tequila? A gag rose and I was ready to puke. Don’t move. Don’t move. Yet. Minute by minute the spinning got easier to bear, adjusted to the pace of a sloppy merry-go-round, dancing still to the rhythm of a thousand hammers banging on my head.
I managed to open both of my eyes and the pace of the room slowed until the world just gently circled around me. I managed to sit on the side of the bed and grab a sweater, put it on, a pair of pants, put them on, no socks, and walked to the kitchen counter — What did I do last night? — turned on the coffee machine — Was I with Neil? Yes, I was — filled the metal cup with coffee grind — Did we get that drunk? — placed it in the arm and closed it and pressed the button.
The loud noise coming from the machine had the effect of a kick to my ear and I let out a little howl and stopped the machine immediately – but then pressed the button again because coffee is your only true friend the morning after a bender of this magnitude.
I was dazed. Last night, last night. What the hell happened last night? Me and Neil in a bar drinking tequila, talking about. About, about. About? I stopped and put two spoons of brown sugar in a cup and poured the black coffee and stirred while trying to recall what we’d done. Hung on the counter with a hot cup in my hand I scanned the room to check for signs, for clues. The room was clean and empty, filled only with the unpleasant smell of someone who’d drunk too much and hadn’t showered. Shower, that’s good, I thought.
I sipped some of the coffee, left the cup on the counter, and moved towards the dresser, took a pair of underpants and black socks and a pair of jeans here and a plain t-shirt there and dragged myself to the bathroom, massaging my right temple in a ritualistic circular movement to beg the Gods of the Hangover for sympathy. I have to call Neil, I thought, while opening the bathroom door, instantly recoiling from the foul smell of day-old digested tequila, and I almost fell face down, but instinctively knelt to puke someplace safe and that’s when I saw Neil – and the memories came back like flashes. Me and Neil leaving the bar. Me and Neil going to the attic and something wasn’t right and his face was deformed and his nose was bleeding and he wouldn’t wake up and the Skinny Guy said something and I passed out, and now I was puking on Neil’s body, with the same deformed face but a whiter shade of pale on his face. I tried to keep myself straight with one hand and to shake him with the other, and when I stopped retching I started shouting Neil! Wake up, Neil, you son of a bitch! And I was shaking him and then I was shaking him harder, with both hands, but my brain wanted to stop because it was useless.
Neil was dead.
But my hands and my eyes didn’t believe it so they kept shaking his body and my mouth had no more words to say but Neil, Neil, Neil, caught in a loop of disbelief and I started slapping his face because I was enraged, because I hated him, because I hated that he was dead and I was there, helpless, shaking a dead body, calling his name, until my mouth surrendered to the fact that Neil was dead and stopped calling his name, and the hands started believing it too and stopped, and I fell back, sitting on the floor with my face covered in blood and vomit and snot and tears, next to his dead body in my bathtub.
I sat there crying with a blank mind for I don’t know how long. Eventually I found the strength to stand up, helping myself up with the side of the tub, careful to avoid looking at what was in there. I made my way to the sink and had to fight my gag reflex back. I turned on the cold water and splashed it on my face first, then when my face was clean I got rid of my t-shirt and splashed water on my body, and then soap, and then cold water again, and if I could have rained cold water and soap in my eyes and in my mind to clean up what I saw I would have done it. But the stains on the soul can’t be washed away with ease. I started crying again, face in the sink, water running, alone. Neil. My best friend Neil, my childhood friend Neil – dead. Dead like anyone can be, a dead body in the bathtub in my apartment. I threw more cold water over my face and left the room, leaving everything as it was: dirty and foul, like every death is, every time it knocks on your door. What happened in the attic? How did we get back here? My mind was trying to make sense of it all, working backwards to find out why and when and how, so I closed the bathroom door and moved to the kitchen. I needed more coffee.
What happened last night?
While the coffee machine was still buzzing, I called the emergency services and said there was a body in my apartment. They asked me if the body was definitely dead and if I knew him and I replied Yes and they told me not to move, not to go away, took my address and dispatched someone, and I didn’t move, and I didn’t go away, but stood still, leaning against my counter with my cup of coffee, waiting for someone to knock at my door and tell me it was just a bad dream.
When the policemen arrived — four or five of them — three came in and asked Where’s the body and I showed them, pointing at the bathroom door with my arm extended and a full cup of cold coffee and then I placed the cup in the sink and asked Do you want a coffee? but they didn’t reply and I just stood there. A policeman with a shield and classic pants and a black sweater and brown shoes came closer and asked What’s your name, and Did you find the body—Yes, I did find the body; he’s my friend, Neil, my voice said. And then he made me sit down and he opened a little notebook and started asking me questions like what did I do last night and how would I describe my relationship with the victim, and while he was talking and asking questions the two other men disappeared into the bathroom and eventually when they came out other men came in, and my house was full of strangers and a dead body—Neil’s dead body—and dreadful smells and for every question the man asked me I had other questions bouncing around in the back of my mind, so I asked,
Could I have been drugged?
Why do you think you’ve been drugged?
I don’t know. I’ve never had such a hard time remembering what happened just the day before.
Alcohol can do that to you. Do you — did you and your friend drink a lot? Drugs?
No, no. No drugs. We drink when we’re out, you know, for fun. I don’t know if it’s a lot.
Why do you think you’ve been drugged, he insisted.
Because I have weird memories, strange flashes. Like hallucinations. From last night, I said, recalling that something was off. Then I continued, You should check the attic.
Why should we check the attic?
Because I think Neil died there.
The police officer looked at the bathroom door, then at me. And why do you think that?
Because I remember him falling down in the hallway, while going up in the attic.
Okay. Why were you going to the attic?
We were in the attic because we were drunk, and we skipped my floor, and we found ourselves up there.
And how did the body end up in the bathtub?
I don’t know. Maybe – I stopped. Was it like that? Now I remembered Skinny Guy in his costume. The officer must have noticed my face, my reaction to something, because he asked What? What is it?
I know! I almost shouted, then continued, We went up the stairs and Neil and I bumped into the guy that lives there, a very tall man, very, very skinny. He was dressed up in a black robe or something. We wanted to check him out because we thought he was a Satanist or something and we walked up there and-
A Satanist? So you went up to the attic with a motive?
No, I mean, yes, we just wanted to talk to him, you know? And we were drunk and we didn’t stop to plan it or anything. We went upstairs and he was dressed in a black robe and had a blade—a blade! Did he kill Neil? It must have been him. It was dark and I couldn’t see properly or don’t remember, but I saw Neil falling down. Then I passed out and they must have carried us down here. You should check the attic! I shouted.
Yeah, there were two of them, one dressed up as a bird, a crow. A giant black crow, with a rasping voice. It was well-acted; gave me chills down my back.
So let me get this straight, the officer said, You and your friend broke in to your neighbor’s house late last night. Drunk. He had company, a giant bird—and I am quoting you here, he said, while giving me a suspicious look — a giant black bird and your neighbor; what’s his name?
I don’t know his name.
A giant black bird – quotation marks – and your neighbor, whose name you don’t know, who was in possession of a blade. And your friend died upstairs, you say? And you woke up here and found him here?
Yes. Yes, I think. It’s hard to recall.
I crossed my arms and felt like the chair was eating me. The officer scrolled through his notebook. It was obvious from his face that he didn’t believe me. We sat at the table, in silence, for a good five minutes.
Eventually Neil wasn’t in the bathroom anymore; he was brought out in a plastic bag while the two guys that came out of the bathroom gave a sign to the officer that was questioning me, and he jotted down something quickly and then told me,
Apparently your friend doesn’t show any external signs that can give us a probable cause of death. We’ll need an autopsy. And we need you to come with us, to make sure you are alright.
But I am alright.
We have to check. It’s procedure. Until we know what happened to you and your friend, we must be cautious. I’ll check the bar you mentioned and the attic, and we’ll keep your neighbor for questioning as well. But you have to follow us.
I didn’t do anything.
I believe you. But you have to come anyway. He said this and closed the notebook and said, Put on some clothes.
I was still shirtless, with only a blanket over my naked shoulders and wet pants from all the water I’d spilled. While the police were still in the apartment I went into autopilot mode and took some pants and a t-shirt and socks and underwear again, hitting restart on the day clock, and got dressed. From the door I heard the police guys calling the radio saying they had a probable fifty-one-fifty or something and another number and other police talking. I went out of the room and finally asked,
Officer, am I being detained?
Detective, please. No, you just have to come with us, and we’ll check you’re okay.
I left my house in a police car; people were staring from their windows, and neighbors were playing hide and seek behind their doors, carefully left unlatched — but no sign of any skinny man, let alone a giant bird.