It began last February, in the middle of a cold dark night. Hopely and I were tenants of our forgiving landlady, old Mrs. Zalinsky, who rented out rooms in her large dilapidated house on Randolph Street. It snowed all day, and in the evening the wind picked up and turned everything to ice. I went to bed early. It was the only warm place in that drafty old house.
But several hours later, I was pulled from my dreams by the sound of someone screaming. I sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. The screaming was so loud that I turned on the light, if only to reassure myself that there was no one in my room. I was alone.
The screams were coming from the bedroom next to mine, the room of Mr. Muelle, Mrs. Zalinsky's new tenant. I got out of bed, grabbed my robe, and went out onto the landing. Mrs. Zalinsky was coming up the stairs from her apartment on the ground floor. She looked frightened, and was relieved to see me. Together we knocked on Mr. Muelle's door, but he did not answer. Mrs. Zalinsky undid the lock with her spare key, and opened the door an inch or two.
"Mr. Muelle, are you alright?" she said in a small voice.
There was no reply.
She seemed reluctant to proceed further, so I stepped forward and pushed open the door. The screaming sounded more like wailing now, and as I walked into the darkness I thought I could detect names in his cries. I turned on the small lamp beside his bed and saw him. He was lying on his mattress, fully clothed, in the fetal position. His eyes were closed, and the thought occurred to me that he was having a bad dream. I touched him, and he woke instantly, if indeed he had ever been asleep. But he was still screaming.
He looked at me, but he did not know who I was. Mrs. Zalinsky came forward, and somewhere inside poor Muelle's mind there was a faint sense of recognition, and at last the screaming stopped. The silence rang in our ears.
Hopely, who was the only other occupant of the house, came down the stairs from his attic room. He put his head around the door and whispered if there was anything that he could do. Neither Mrs. Zalinsky nor I could answer him, so numb were we from the experience.
When Mr. Muelle had calmed himself, Mrs. Zalinsky asked him what he had been dreaming about. Muelle was confused by her question, his English being very limited. He looked very tired, and I was convinced that although his eyes had been closed, he had not been sleeping; that the cause of his nightmare was not a dream, but something that was with him always.
Muelle had been living in the house for only one week. Mrs. Zalinsky rented him the room, despite the fact that he was on welfare, for two reasons. Firstly, because the house was so run down now that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find tenants, and secondly, because Muelle was a refugee.
Some people at the Salvation Army, who knew Mrs. Zalinsky, had sent him along after sheltering him at the mission for two days. Immigration had sent him to them. He had come in on a plane from Africa. He had no visa to enter the country, and very little money.
He arrived at our house wearing a large oversized coat, and a pair of lace-less shoes, and no socks. All his possessions were in a small canvas bag that he held onto with thin boney fingers. He was very tired and dispirited. I introduced myself and shook his hand, but he seemed so far away he hardly noticed me. He went into his room, lay on his bed, and went to sleep.
That was a week ago, and yet not a thing had changed in his room. Old Mr. Thomas, the previous tenant, had died in the room two months before, but it was as if he still lived there. His same dull pictures of dogs remained on the wall. The plants were where he had left them, dead now since no one had watered them. The furniture was in exactly the same position. The armchair looked as if it hadn't been sat in since Mr. Thomas had been found in it those eight weeks before. The only evidence of Muelle's presence was his tattered canvas bag, and the crumpled twisted sheets of his bed.
Before I tell you any more about Muelle, perhaps it's time I told you about the rest of us and this place we call home.
Mrs. Zalinsky lived on the first floor of our three-storied house. On the second floor were my room and Muelle's, and a kitchen and bathroom, which we shared with Hopely, who lived in the attic above us.
My room was large enough for my needs. I had a single bed that with the aid of some large cushions doubled as my sofa for occasional guests, usually Hopely from upstairs. I had a comfortable armchair tucked away in the corner, close to the fire. There was a dresser, and a small table where I was supposed to eat, but that's where I had my CD player, so I ate my meals on a tray while I sat by the fire.
I have never been one for the material trappings of this world, and as such my needs are few. So money never seemed to be a problem till I lost my job at Porters, where I was a clerk. I didn't think it would take me long to find a job, but things have changed in the city, and jobs are hard to find. Six months have passed and my employment insurance has just run out. Hopely told me where to go to apply for welfare.
Hopely is a writer. Ten years ago one of his books did quite well, but now it was more a case of plain survival. His financial affairs were a mess. I know for a fact that he did not pay Mrs. Zalinsky every month, that she threatened him once, apologetically of course, with eviction if he didn't pay some of what he owed her. He sold his Encyclopedia Britannica, and a first edition copy of New Grub Street by George Gissing, which he had bought in his more successful years. The money from this sale was enough to appease the inoffensive Mrs. Zalinsky.
Hopely didn't eat well, for any money he had spare he would spend on books, but, as I have often told him, books can't keep you warm in winter, and although they may bring sustenance to the mind, they offer little to the stomach. There were times when he ate stuff out of the fridge that belonged to me. I of course would not begrudge him food, but he didn't have to steal it from me. Towards the end of the month, when I knew his money was low, I would invite him to eat with me. I would make the meal look larger than it was, by filling it out with potatoes and carrots. Hopely didn't care what he ate, he was just anxious to fill his stomach, so that he could get back to his work.
In the summer, when the attic was a furnace and he knew that he would not be able to write, he worked as a tourist guide. The money was not good, but it was reliable. This, and the money he got from his writing, was just about enough to get him through the year; well almost. I was silly enough once to ask him why he didn't get himself a permanent position, and perhaps work on weekends at his writing. He looked at me as if I had suggested that he take part in some treasonable act. I didn't understand then just how much of an uncontrollable passion it was for him.
Hopely is lucky in a way, he can see a purpose to his life. And I have learned that no one should question another's purpose, for far worse than the eccentricities of obsession are the vagaries of apathy.
Now, I make no judgments about Hopely. His responsibility wasn't to the way he lived or behaved, but to his talent, his ability as an artist. Perfecting that skill was his life's work, Hopely's responsibility to himself.
I liked his work, he said some interesting things. I enjoyed his insight into life; chiefly I think because it was from the same viewpoint as my own. But I knew he would never be in the best-seller lists; never would sell more than a few thousand. But that didn't matter. Hopely's task was to record the lives of all of us who lived in the shadows of what passed as "real" life: a large class of people that would never attain the ideal. History demanded Hopely's insight.
He did not harbor any ideas of being famous. He wrote because that was what he had to do. It was a search for something deep within himself, an answer to everything that he believed lay within us all. At least that's my understanding of the man, and I think I know him as well as anybody. I have spent many a night talking with him, up in that attic room of his, till late into the night, with the wind creaking in the roof, and the warmth from his small one bar electric heater trying to beat back the cold.
Hopely's room was very unlike mine. He couldn't understand how I could live in such an ordered way, and I couldn't see how he could find anything in the scrambled mess that his book infested attic was. Each wall had a bookshelf, but they were all full to overflowing; the coffee table, the desk, the dresser, they all had books on them, and all over the floor piles of them reached up in badly planned towers of knowledge and literature. And yet he seemed to know where everything was, or at least that's the impression he gave.
On his desk there was a small nook that was left clear for him to work on, and that was usually filled with wads of paper full of scribbled notes. Hopely also had an old battered desktop computer that he typed up his final drafts on. It whirred loudly, and if he worked at night I could hear it downstairs, but I didn't mind so much, because I knew that finished draft would mean that he would be in a good mood the next day.
He writes stories for a magazine in California. The editor, Hopely says, is one of the few people who understand what he is trying to say. This work brings him a small, but fairly reliable income. And that, along with his tourist work in the summer, gave Hopely just too little to make it through the year. However, when he got a book accepted, the advances he received managed to balance the equation, but it was a close run. Hopely didn't seem to mind, he was happy because he got to write all the time, and nobody could tell him otherwise. He was as poor as a church-mouse, but he was his own boss. He had his dignity.
As I say, I never complained about the noise of Hopely's old computer, and he never complained about my music. In fact, he said, at times it would inspire him. Listening to classical music is one of my passions. I find I never cease to be lifted away by it. It's as if through music I find the key to my imagination, that world I run to when this existence becomes inane. At times I wonder what I would do without it.
When I was working, I would often attend the chamber music that they would play at the Symphony Hall before the main performance by the Symphony Orchestra. Although the cost of attending the Symphony performances on a regular basis was a little too high for my budget, the cost of the chamber music was negligible. And sitting in the quarter-full Symphony hall listening to our city's best musicians was a delight.
Mrs. Zalinsky did not seem to mind my music either. She herself liked music, although her preference was for waltzes. She would often tell me how she and Mr. Zalinsky had been good dancers just after the war. Sometimes on Sundays when the noise from the street was not quite so loud, I could hear her la-laing along to Strauss, and I imagined her dancing around in her apartment.
I had only been into her apartment a few times in the ten years that I had lived there, and each time was never long enough to tell you exactly what it was like, but I can give you an impression. It seemed darker somehow, and I'm not sure whether that was because of the dark wood of her old fashioned furniture, or the fact that she only seemed to open her curtains halfway. The exception to this was the solarium at the back of the house, which was warm in the sunlight, and full of wicker furniture and lots of potted plants that trailed over everything and gave one a feeling of being in a garden.
Much of the apartment reminded me of my grandmother's house, a capsule from a past age protected from the modern world by the attention of its septuagenarian curator. I remember helping Mrs. Zalinsky move a piece of furniture, and before we could move it we had to lift off a plant that was on top of it. The plant was resting on an old newspaper, dated 1955.
The whole apartment smelt like Mrs. Zalinsky. I guess it must have been her perfume, for the smell was violets. On the mantlepiece above the fireplace, there was an old photograph of her and her husband on their wedding day. Mr. Zalinsky stood proud and tall and beside him Mrs. Zalinsky watched him with admiring eyes. Their marriage lasted seven years before Mr. Zalinsky died. I believe it was a heart-attack. I've never asked. I felt that if I did she would get upset.
Before coming to Canada, she and her husband lived in Kiev in the Ukraine. She still had a strong accent, and would often slip into Ukrainian, especially under her breath. She wore clothes that made her look as if she was still on the Steppes, ragged cardigans and cotton scarves that held her hair in place. When she laughed, she would cross her arms beneath her large old breasts, and shake back and forth, a large deep laugh spanking out from her wide smiling mouth. When I looked at Mrs. Zalinsky I found it hard to imagine her young. Even in the picture of her with her husband she looked old. Whether it was the Siberian winds across the Steppes that did it, or the horrors of Stalin's rule, who knows, but the deep wrinkles on her face have been there a long time.
The door to Mrs. Zalinsky's apartment was always open, and she always came out into the hallway when she heard somebody come into the house. I liked Mrs. Zalinsky, but I always found myself trying to hurry past her on my way in or out. I think she was lonely, that ever since her husband died, she'd been trying to give away her affection. I pass her by with a few words of greeting and nothing more, and yet Hopely seems to be able to engage her in a conversation and still be up the stairs quicker than I can.
So this was our home, the refuge that Muelle had come into, hidden away from the world behind dirty white sheers; a house of creaking floorboards and brittle linoleum, of carpets worn bare by the passing of half a century of tenants' feet; tenants whose presence could still be felt in strange aromas in the closets and dressers. And many of them immigrants, much like Mrs. Zalinsky, happy to find a little bit of old Europe hidden away from the caustic glare of the New World. This was where the past was still alive, memories locked in the dust and cobwebs, sealed in the old-fashioned wallpaper that countless hands had passed across, slowly rubbing away the pattern, polishing it with the touch of human flesh.
The next morning, I went downtown to the Welfare Office. As I passed by Muelle's room, I could hear Mrs. Zalinsky in there talking to him. It was obvious by what I heard that she had decided to take him under her benevolent wing. I wanted to go in there to try and learn what it was that made him call out in the night like that, but did I really want to get involved?
As I took my seat on the streetcar, I wondered how different all this was to Muelle. People didn't go about in fear of their lives as they had done in his country these last few years. Our heads were full of heating bills and shopping lists, but by what I heard and saw in that room last night, Muelle's head was full of ghosts.
When I got back to Randolph Street, later that afternoon, Mrs. Zalinsky appeared at her door as usual, but this time, without saying a word, she beckoned me inside, putting her finger to her lips as I entered.
"Come and see," she whispered.
She led the way to the solarium at the back of the house, which was warm with bright sunlight. Muelle was asleep in one of the wicker chairs. Mrs. Zalinsky had put a blanket over him, and he looked very much at peace.
"He's not used to all this cold weather," she whispered. "Its rather chilly up there in his room, so I invited him down here to sit in the sun, and within a few minutes he was sleeping like a baby."
Mrs. Zalinsky spoke with pride. She felt that she had achieved something, and looking at how peaceful Muelle was, I was inclined to agree with her.
"Did he give any indication as to why he had been screaming?" I asked her. She shook her head and her smile faded. I looked at Muelle. We could guess and speculate as to what happened to him, but only he knew the truth.
Hopely was upstairs in the kitchen heating up a tin of beans. His hair was standing on end. He looked as if he had been bent over his books all morning, deep in study. He looked up when I came in, and I could see from his expression that although he had risen from his books, his mind was still working hard. I decided not to disturb his thoughts, but it was Hopely who broke the silence.
"How is he?" he asked.
"Muelle?" I said.
"Yes Muelle," he said, with the faintest hint of impatience.
"He's asleep in Mrs. Zalinsky's solarium."
Hopely nodded. "Good," he said.
Steam began to rise from the pan, and Hopely removed it from the heat and emptied the beans on to a piece of toast. He sat down at the table and began to eat.
"There's some coffee left," he said. "Be a good man and pour us both a cup."
I got the coffee and sat down with Hopely at the table. He ate quickly, which I knew to be a sign that things were going well with his work.
"What do you think about Muelle?" I asked.
"He's noisy," said Hopely, crunching his way through a piece of bean covered toast.
"You know," I said, "when I went in there last night, I thought it was a dream he was having, but he wasn't asleep."
"I'm not surprised," said Hopely, "how could anybody sleep with that noise carrying on." He smiled at me, but could see I was being serious. "He troubles you doesn't he?"
"He does," I said.
"Why's that then?" said Hopely, finishing off his beans and picking up his coffee.
"What do we know about him? I mean, really know about him? There were some terrible atrocities committed in his country."
"There still are," said Hopely.
"Exactly," I said. "But how do we know for sure that he is a victim and not an aggressor fleeing reprisals. I mean, he'll not tell us what made him scream last night, or what happened to him in Africa."
"Maybe it grieves him too much to talk about it."
"But you should have seen the look in his eyes, Hopely. It was as if he was being haunted."
"Trauma affects people in different ways."
I did not know much about the effects of a traumatic experience. I presumed Hopely had read about it, and maybe he was right. Just because Muelle wasn't grieving the way I presumed he should, did that make him bad? I tried to convince myself that it didn't, but I couldn't.
"I don't know about all that," I said. "All I know is what I saw, and I'm inclined to expect the worst."
"Why not expect the best?" said Hopely. "You're always expecting the worst. Why not look for good things in life. Why not give Muelle a chance. I mean if you're wrong, think how much extra suffering you would put him through."
"Perhaps you're right," I said.
Hopely rose from the table, and I felt that he was smiling at me, but when I looked up he was already on his way out the door, back upstairs to his work.
Over the next couple of days there was a break in the cold weather. The temperature rose above freezing, and the sun seemed warmer than usual. It was indeed a welcome taste of the spring to come.
There had been no repetition of Muelle's night of screaming, and he spent a lot of his time downstairs with Mrs. Zalinsky. One morning I heard the sound of Strauss playing loudly below, and Mrs. Zalinsky laughing. Then there was a knock on my door and Hopely came bounding in.
"Come and see this," he said, "believe me it's worth it."
I followed him down the stairs and into Mrs. Zalinsky's apartment, and there were Mrs. Zalinsky and Muelle dancing a waltz, or at least attempting to. Muelle had absolutely no ability as a dancer, and kept stepping clumsily on Mrs. Zalinsky's feet. She roared with laughter every time he crushed her toes, it was either that or cry out in pain, and Mrs. Zalinsky was too kind-hearted to let Muelle know he was hurting her. Hopely was laughing too. But when I looked at Muelle, he wasn't even smiling.
The waltz came to an end and they stopped dancing and Hopely applauded, and after a nudge from him I applauded too.
"Now here's the man for you Mr. Muelle," said Mrs. Zalinsky referring to me. "He knows a lot about music, I'm sure he'd take you to listen to some."
Muelle proffered a weak smile in my direction.
"Go on," said Hopely. "Isn't there a Beethoven performance tomorrow night?"
"Yes there is, but..."
"Would you like to hear some Beethoven, Mr. Muelle?" Hopely asked.
Muelle nodded his head.
"There you are," said Hopely, "it's a date."
"Yes," I said "it's a date." There were times when I did not like Hopely.
I was surprised by just how much Muelle knew about Beethoven. We were talking on the street car on our way to the Roy Thompson Hall. It was then that I learned that Muelle had been a school teacher back in Africa, and that he had spent three years studying in Belgium before returning to his homeland.
Hopely, who always had the ability to surprise me, lent Muelle a good shirt and sports jacket, as Muelle did not seem to have many clothes. As we took our seats, Muelle surprised me again, by saying that the last performance that he had been to was Tosca at the Paris Opera House. As the music began I felt angry with myself for being surprised. Soon, however, all these thoughts faded away, as I became transported away by the music.
The Beethoven peace was quite short, and as a bonus we heard Max Richter's Autumn Music. I don't know if you know the piece, but it is very beautiful, and hearing it live certainly stirs the heart. While they were playing, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that there was a tear rolling down Muelle's cheek, and for the first time I felt his pain. Everything around us seemed so civilized, and yet so unreal, so far-removed from the world that Muelle had been in, and yet it still had the ability to find him, to grasp his heart.
Afterward, we sat in silence at the back of an empty streetcar. The world of Africa and the world of Toronto seemed so far apart. Muelle had a foot in both worlds, caught between the two as they drifted apart.
When we got off at the end of Randolph Street, Muelle shook my hand and thanked me for the evening, and said that he needed to walk for a while on his own, so we said good night and went our separate ways. I did not think much about that until the police officers arrived the next day.
Muelle's arrival at the house had certainly woken us up. We had gone along with our sedentary life for a long while, and it was quite disturbing to have such an intrusion into our safe world. It is amazing how you can fool yourself into believing that you still play an active part in the world, but when it arrives you realize just how far you have drifted away from it.
The next morning I heard strange voices outside my door. I came out on to the landing in my robe and slippers, and there, towering over the frightened-looking Mrs. Zalinsky, were two large police officers, radios crackling on their shoulders, large black revolvers resting in their holsters. The tallest of the officers told me in a deep voice to step back into my room. I did so, but listened at the door. They knocked loudly on Muelle's door, and I heard him answer it and say hello. I could only imagine what he must have been thinking. I just hoped he didn't do anything stupid.
Perhaps the presence of Mrs. Zalinsky allayed his fears, because he asked the two officers and Mrs. Zalinsky to come in. They all went into his room and shut the door. I picked up a glass and listened at the wall.
It appeared that a man called Patrice Banda had been murdered. He was a taxi-driver, a countryman of Muelle. He had been found in his taxi underneath the Gardener Expressway with a bullet in his head. I felt a shiver run down my spine.
The police had disturbed the killer, but had been unable to catch him. It seemed he had been looking for something. Inside the car beside Patrice Banda was a piece of paper with a list of names on it, at the top of the list was the name of Mr. Muelle. Then the police asked him where he had been last night. He did not say anything, but Mrs. Zalinsky said that he had been with me at a concert. The police officer asked Muelle if that was so, and I heard him say quietly that it was.
I had just enough time to put the glass down when the police knocked on my door. I opened it, and the two officers, Muelle, and Mrs. Zalinsky, came into my room. My heart was racing at an alarming rate.
"We would just like to ask you if you were with this gentleman last night, at a concert," asked the tallest policeman.
"Yes," I said.
"What time did the concert finish?"
"I'm not sure. I think about 9pm."
And then he asked me something I wished he hadn't.
"Did you come home together?"
For a split second I looked at Muelle, and felt responsible for him, felt that I had to protect him.
"Yes," I said. "We came home together."
I did not look at Muelle again, because I thought that if I did the officers would know that I was lying, but I could feel him looking at me.
It was then that Mrs. Zalinsky surprised us all. For a long time she had been trying to look at the sheet of paper with the names on it that the police officers had in a plastic bag. Then she suddenly exclaimed to the officers that she recognized the hand-writing. The two big officers turned back to the small old woman who they had forgotten about, just as surprised as I was. She asked us to come downstairs to her apartment, said that she had a letter downstairs that she was sure matched the list of names.
The list of names had been written by Mrs. Zalinsky's friend at the Salvation Army. Later that day we discovered why. Patrice Banda offered his fellow countrymen the chance of becoming taxi-drivers. The Salvation Army had given Patrice Banda Muelle's name and address as a possible candidate for his training. Banda and Muelle were from the same tribe. The police took Mrs. Zalinsky's letter and left the house.
Muelle seemed different after this incident. He did not register any thanks for my and Mrs. Zalinsky's support, but he was more relaxed around us. I like to think that he felt as if he had found a home.
A week went by and everything seemed to have returned to normal. Once more our concentration was back on our own lives. Life on welfare was a miserable affair. One finds it hard to feel good about oneself when one knows that one has failed in life. Of course there was always Hopely there to save me from myself.
He had just finished writing his latest book, and invited me up to his room to read the final chapter. I read it as he sat quietly in a chair beside me. I thought it was very good, for Hopely.
I didn't have to tell him that I was not exactly happy with my situation, he knew. He told me that of all the opinions on his work, he was most interested in mine; told me that my quiet confidence in him, and my unquestioning friendship enhanced his belief in the human spirit.
Hopely could always make me feel like somebody. And I knew he meant it.
He had a half full bottle of whiskey, and even though it was only mid afternoon we began to celebrate Hopely's completion of the novel. We sat up there in his room, warming ourselves in the sun that came through his skylight out of a clear blue winter sky. He told me that when the police had come that day, he had been lying on the floor with his ear pressed to the carpet trying to listen. I laughed, and he laughed.
"That's the most people you've ever had in that room," he said. "The closest you've ever come to having a party."
He laughed again and I did too, but I wasn't sure why.
The whiskey seemed to go down smoothly, and I could feel it inside me, unwinding all those tense balls of stress, working like a snake charmer uncoiling those venomous vipers.
We talked about a lot of things. About Muelle. How he and Mrs. Zalinsky had spent a lot of time together. We talked about our money troubles, about Hopely's writing, and my love of music. We discussed our hopes and dreams, and aspirations. Then all at once the bottle was finished. Hopely suggested that we go out and get some more. I suggested that we get some food too, and Hopely thought that a good idea.
"Let's go to Kensington Market," he said. "Let's get the ingredients to cook ourselves up a feast."
That was the thing about Hopely that I liked the most, his ability to not let life wash over him, to turn his setbacks into triumphs, to get all that he could from the experience of living. There was an amazing love about the man, a love not concentrated on any one individual, but on a whole existence. I envied him so much that gift of seeing beauty where others saw the mundane, of recognizing something special in what we all took for granted, of feeling, at times, so privileged to be alive.
So Hopely and I cooked and ate a good meal. Then we settled down for the evening with a brand new bottle of Johnny Walker.
Several hours later, the whiskey began to make me morose.
"Cheer up!" said Hopely.
Recalling my thoughts on Hopely's optimism I asked him, "Okay, okay, but where do you get your enthusiasm from then?"
Hopely thought for a moment, swayed a little, and then said in a slurred voice, "By doing exactly what I want."
"Exactly what you want!"
"And that's the secret."
"Yeah, shh!! Keep it to yourself." said Hopely laughing again.
"How can you do what you want if you don't have any money?"
"That's a good point, but there's a way around every problem. You just have to open your mind to ideas."
"Okay, okay, what about this. You're not going to have enough money to see yourself through the year and I'm going to live like a pauper. I don't want to do that, and you need to be able to write, so what do we do?"
He thought about it for a moment, and then suddenly it came to him. The idea seemed so perfect he even began to sober up at the prospect of it.
"We go to Mexico," he said.
"We go to live in Mexico. It's a whole lot cheaper there than here."
"We can't do that," I said.
"Yes we can," he said. "We'll go there for most of the year, and come back here to work in the summer."
"I don't have a summer job."
"I can get you in with me. I'll teach you all you need to know."
"I suppose we could."
"Think of it, no more cold winters, no fuel bills. We can find ourselves a small apartment at some ridiculous rent."
"Can we get a place by the sea?"
"You know," I said, "I've always wanted to learn to play the violin."
"Now you're thinking," said Hopely. "See how easy it is to recharge your life. You just need to have a little courage and belief in yourself."
"But can we really do it? What if it doesn't work out?"
"What have you got to lose?"
"Nothing, but it's still a bit of a frightening idea."
"But that's what makes it exciting, what makes life vibrant."
"I guess I'll not be doing it alone," I said.
"No old friend, we'll do it together. We'll buy some wreck of a car and drive there. Drive south to Paradise Land."
We laughed and drank, and life seemed so full of hope and possibilities. It was a new experience for me. I went downstairs to my room very happy, leaving Hopely to finish the whiskey. But as I climbed into my bed, I knew it was the drink that had made us talk of escape. I was wary of believing it could happen, but even so, I dreamed of what Hopely had called the Paradise Land.
Outside, above the house, above the city, the sky was moonless. Thick gray clouds full of snow had moved up from the southwest, blotting out the light from the moon and stars. Far off in the distance one could hear the distant rumble of a slow-moving freight train as it made its way north out of the city. But on Randolph Street all was quiet, the last bedroom light had been turned off an hour before, and darkness had filled every doorway and alley.
From the shadows beneath the trees they came walking softly into the garden, or at least this how I've imagined it. They moved as stealthily as cats, pausing mid-step at the slightest of sounds, then continuing their approach to their prey. One of the men felt something wet and soft against his face and gave a start, until he realized it was just snow. It fell in heaps from heavily laden clouds softly and quietly across the garden, across the city.
The assassins came to the back of the house. It seemed to them to be cocooned in glass. One of the killers whispered something to the other, who nodded in reply. Then a match was struck and a torch ignited, its brightness lighting up their faces. Each of them detected a brief moment of pleasure in the other's face as the flaming torch was thrown through the windows, followed by a bucketful of gasoline which made a whooshing sound as it exploded into flame. It did not take long before the ground floor became engulfed by fire, and smoke began to pour up the staircases to the floors above.
The assassins turned and walked quietly away, back into the shadows from whence they came.
I was in an alcohol-assisted unconsciousness when the yelling began. I woke immediately with an awful fright. The yelling was coming from my room. Muelle was there shaking me. For a brief second I thought he was there to kill me, but then I saw the smoke.
"Did you set the house on fire?" I yelled at him.
He looked at me strangely. "Of course not," he said. "It is my enemies. They killed Patrice Banda, now they must kill me."
"We have to get the others."
"You get Hopely, I'll get Mrs. Zalinsky."
Muelle disappeared into clouds of smoke. I grabbed my robe and ran up the stairs. Hopely was out cold. I shook him and slapped his face and he woke.
"Quick, get your robe there's a fire."
He was very confused, but then he became aware of the situation, grabbed his robe and ran out the door. He turned and I was not with him.
"Come on," he yelled. "Where are you?"
I appeared out of his room.
"I couldn't let you leave this behind," I said, showing him the thumb drive that contained his novel.
The smoke was thick and the temperature was hot, but Muelle carried on down the stairs. "Mrs. Zalinsky!" he shouted above the roar of the flame. He kicked in the door to her apartment, and a whoosh of flame licked off his eyebrows. Mrs. Zalinsky, overcome by fumes, lay unconscious on her bed, the flames touching the blankets.
"Natasha!" Muelle rushed into the room to his friend's side. Her clothes were on fire. He dragged her from the bed, and put out the flames with his bare hands. He picked her up. Flame was all about him. It singed his hair and burnt his flesh. He rushed out of the room, but was overcome before he could reach the front door.
Hopely and I began to make our way down the staircase, but the thick smoke and heat drove us back up. Flames were already beginning to lick their way up the staircase.
"The roof," shouted Hopely.
"Out through your window," I yelled back above the noise of the fire.
We raced back up the stairs to Hopely's room. We opened the window and climbed out on to the roof. It was steep and covered with a new fall of snow. It was very cold. We could hear the fire engines, and the crack of windows at the back of the house.
We climbed to the ridge and began to inch our way along it towards the other houses. We seemed to be an awful long way above the ground. I think it affected Hopely. He was unsteady on his feet. And then it happened. A patch of ice and he slipped. Time seemed to freeze for me as I watched him fall towards the edge.
I remember thinking, "There, see, I was right, life is against you, accept that for once and for all." But in a reflex action both our hands swung out and I caught him, his hand tight fast in mine.
Hopely hung there, dangling over the edge. He was just a grip away from almost certain death, but he looked up at me and smiled. It was then that I knew we would go to Mexico together. I held him, grasped his hand as firmly as he embraced life, and waited for the firemen to reach us, hopefully before the flames.
Because he was closer to the ground, Muelle got more air and regained consciousness. Mrs. Zalinsky, however, did not. Muelle felt that he was melting, but he grabbed hold of Mrs. Zalinsky and dragged her towards the front door. Then all at once it swung open, and two firemen with breathing apparatus on came into the house to drag them out.
The fireman's ladder reached us and we were escorted to the ground. Blankets were put over us and we were taken to the ambulances. Muelle was there, crying wildly beside Mrs. Zalinsky. She had a breathing mask on and looked badly burned, as did Muelle.
"She will live, yes?" Muelle asked the medic.
"I'm afraid I can not be sure," he said.
"She must live, she must," cried Muelle.
"You did all that you could do," said the medic. "Without you she would most certainly be dead. Now come along, you need those burns seen to."
It was easy for the police to track the assassins through the snow. They hadn't gone far. They had stayed to make sure that Muelle was dead. The police took them completely by surprise. They found enough evidence to convict them not only of the attempted murder of the residents of 29 Randolph Street, but also the murder of Patrice Banda.
Mrs. Zalinsky lived, but suffered badly from the smoke inhalation. In time the doctors predicted she would recover, but until then she needed a lot of caring. Without being asked, Muelle said that he would care for her.
At first it had seemed strange to me that he went to such extremes to save the life of an old woman. Was it because he had grown fond of Mrs. Zalinsky, since he undoubtedly had? I like to think that her love had given him a reason to believe again, that there was still hope. Who knows? But he was triumphant when she lived, and when she opened her eyes and spoke his name, he wept.
We drove down to Mexico the next week in a beaten up old convertible. On that long drive south, I thought the world such a marvelous place, full of variety and possibilities, beautiful and all encompassing. Hopely once said that in order to be alive, we must act as if we are, and I knew that he was right.
We were émigrés now, just like Muelle and Mrs. Zalinsky, but for Hopely the whole world had become his homeland. Perhaps he was a little too far ahead of his time to ever find recognition as a great writer, but of course to him that was neither here nor there. He was as free and happy as I had ever known him.
And what of me? I'm here on the beach, sitting beneath a palm tree, with a violin in my hands, watching the sea roll in, and thinking that maybe life isn't so bad after all. Maybe it's what you make of it that counts.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Steve Olley. All rights reserved.