After The Disaster
( a love story )
by Ben Ehrenreich
After the disaster no one went to the Natural History Museum anymore. Crowds still pushed their way into the Met and the Modern for the first few weeks till every last painting, sculpture, mobile, and video installation was stolen, slashed, smashed, or shat upon. Across the park, though, things were quiet. People had been there. They had left signs, traces, trash. Graffiti stretched improbably over the domed ceiling of the planetarium. The gift shop and cafeteria had been looted. Kaleidoscopes and maps of the solar system and plush stuffed hyenas lay strewn about the floor. Not a crumb of food remained. The big blue whale had been cut down and sprawled broken on the floor of the cafeteria. Squatters apparently had at some point taken up residence in its cavernous fiberglass belly, leaving behind beer cans, ashes, and a shit-stained bedroll. Like Jonah, though, they were nowhere to be found. Whoever had been there had not been particularly ambitious, or rapacious, or mad. For when Bruno returned one last time to wander the museum's marbled halls in search of Mildred and the giant squid, his heart aflutter with lust and longing, he found that the now-dusty glass-encased displays of silverbacks and okapis, bison and antelope, lions and emu, each arranged in perfect nuclear family units, were entirely undisturbed. Who had time for nature anymore ?
He first encountered the squid by accident, weeks before the world as he had known it so effortlessly dissolved. He had no idea what he would find. He wandered into the museum to avoid a storm that, in the middle of a peaceful walk through the park, had broken without warning or apology. He stayed only because he knew that, despite the posted $9.50 "suggested contribution," the kind-eyed folks behind the admission desk would let you in for a quarter, a penny, or a dime. Bruno's pocket contained two nickels, a dime, three pennies, and two crumpled dollar bills. Not without some pride, he paid with a dime.
Still soaked, his hair sticking to his forehead and his shirt clinging to his sunken chest, Bruno dragged himself up a flight of wide marble stairs. He found himself in the Hall Of Biodiversity, where he marveled at the many forms of life, large and small, furred and smooth, striped and spotted, every one of them irrevocably dead. A herd of stiffened pachyderms, feet raised, tusks lowered, tentlike ears eternally at attention, stood in the middle of the room, frozen in mid-stomp. Stuffed sharks swam suspended from the ceiling. Along the walls formaldehyde-bleached lobsters sulked in oversized Mason jars beside legions of fluorescent blue beetles, dried fungi, glass-eyed rodents, and lacquered frogs. "Cartilaginous fish," announced a placard.
At the end of the hall stood a single uniformed guard, his hands clasped loosely behind his back. A dim blue light shined sullenly forth from the corner behind him. Its source, Bruno saw, was a low tank, about twelve feet long and three high. Inside it was the giant squid. Four Korean children in bright rain slickers walked by, paused long enough to observe the squid and, screeching in exaggerated disgust, scurried off.
Around the tank on all sides were blocks of italicized text in white letters on a navy background.Before even glancing at the tank's contents, Bruno read, "The giant squid has never been seen alive in its natural habitat." The squid, he saw, lay in an ethanol-filled casket, its white, papery flesh peeling as if sunburnt, flecks of its skin littering the blue bottom of the tank. It was surely dead, and very far from home.
"The giant squid is the largest of the invertebrates," he read on. "Females can reach seventy feet in length." This squid, however, was male and only twenty-five feet in length, though it looked much smaller. In truth, only the two tentacles were that long, and they had been folded back to rest upon the squid's lifeless head. Its white and pulpy arms were tangled atop one another, an orgy of chalk-white eels. Each one was lined with round, once-lethal suckers, now arrayed haphazardly, comically even, a drunken chorus line of pupilless eyeballs. The creature's dead eye was enormous and terribly sad, a grey and faded lump of useless meat, loose in its tattered socket.
Bruno did not notice Mildred at first. But she lingered on beside him as others came, took a quick look, tittered for a moment, perhaps flashed a snapshot or two and moved on. Despite the closeness of the air in the museum, she wore a thick, black, woolen overcoat, which hung baggily over her wiry, almost brittle frame. After staring wordlessly at the squid for a spell, she turned to Bruno and spoke. "Amazing, isn't it?" she asked, letting a smile race across her lips and swiftly disappear, leaving her face awaiting Bruno's response with blank expectancy. A long white hand emerged from the wide sleeve of her coat and shook a strand of hair from her eyes.
Bruno was not accustomed to speaking with strangers, especially those of the female sort. Truth be told, he was not lately accustomed to speaking with anyone at all. Nonetheless, he grinned with as much warmth as he could muster and nodded his assent. Mildred's face relaxed. There was a softness to her eyes that spread into the harsh lines of her cheekbones and chin, almost blurring them when she smiled, which she did once more. Breaking her gaze, Bruno turned again to the squid's cadaver, its flesh heavy and wrinkled, bloodless and white.
"Did you know that they're bright red when they're alive?" Mildred asked. "A deep scarlet." Her green eyes widened as she said it.
"I had no idea."
Mildred pointed to the long tentacle that stretched limply to the end of the tank before doubling back again. "The males carry sperm in there," she said. "I read this. In a magazine. They shoot it through the tentacle - but the penis is somewhere else, I don't know where - but they shoot it through the tentacle, until they're ready to fertilize themselves."
Bruno watched Mildred closely. Was this a come on ? Her eyes gave nothing away, staring as they were at the squid and not at him. "How do they know when they're ready?" he asked.
Mildred considered this for a moment, then shrugged. "I suppose they just know. The article said they probably travel alone, giant squid. It can be so long that they won't see another squid that whenever they see one they mate, because it might be the only squid of the opposite sex they'll ever see. I guess you'd call it mating. They know this because they found a female once with sperm still in her tentacle. She never used it."
"I wonder if they enjoy it" Bruno said, and was embarrassed to find himself blushing.
Mildred at last looked up. "Squids?"
She shook her head. "I don't know. I hope so."
The guard standing next to the tank shifted his weight from one foot to the other, brushed at his mustache, and glanced nervously from Mildred to Bruno.
Mildred wrapped her fingers lightly around Bruno's upper arm. He tensed it involuntarily. Her nails, he noticed, were painted blue. "What do you like about the giant squid?" she asked.
Bruno felt his cheeks redden once again. "I didn't know anything about them until today. I guess just that, that no one knows anything about them."
Mildred pursed her lips and nodded. "The mystery," she said. She let her hand fall from his arm. His bicep was warm where her fingers had been. "What about you?" he asked her. But Mildred's only answer was to flash a tight smile and ask him the time. He told her it was four fifteen and she said she had to run.
"Nice to meet you," Bruno said
"Nice to meet you," said Mildred, and turned to go.
Bruno waited for the storm to clear before leaving the museum. It was dark when he at last shuffled down the steps and gazed up at Teddy Roosevelt in bronze, mounted high on his horse, one hand on his gun, flanked on both sides by loyal, naked, and manifestly noble savages, Indian to his left, African on his right, facing down an invisible enemy floating above the trees of the park. Inside, Bruno knew, was the squid, slowly disintegrating in its long, blue tank. And somewhere, perhaps not far, was Mildred.
He circled the block twice, peeking into each cafe and corner deli, then extended the radius of his search by one block and then by two blocks, until a cab sped through a puddle on the corner of 77th and Broadway, coating him with inky muck. He gave up and commenced the long trek home to save on subway fare. Bruno slogged through the park, which smelled of rain and rotting leaves. He walked all the way down and across town through streets that smelled of rain and garbage and of good hot food he couldn't afford, over the bridge which smelled of rust and urine and through one last piss- and trash-stinking mile to his home, cursing himself all the while for not at least asking her to join him for a cup of coffee in the cafeteria, right there under the ridged white belly of the big blue whale. How often do you meet someone, he asked himself, someone you can really talk to ?
That night Bruno dreamed of the ocean. He dreamed of infinite blackness and cold. He breathed the frigid water as if it were air. With each breath the cold filled him to his very center, which was darker and colder than even the depths of the sea. There was no above and no below, no light anywhere. None of the fish had eyes. They were white and bloated and the shadows beneath their scales were blue. They didn't swim but drifted, directionless. His legs and arms were tangled in long belts of rubbery kelp. Ice-white shrimp nibbled at his fingertips, his nipples, his shrunken prick. And he heard a sweet sad song, the moaning of the waves, and the water turned scarlet, warm and thick. He saw Mildred swimming past him, her limbs, like his, trailing kelp. She smiled at him. Between the strands of seaweed he could make out her small and purple nipples, the sharp shadows of her ribs and her jutting hip bones, black tendrils of pubic hair floating across her thighs. As she kicked her legs he spied her labia, scarlet in the scarlet sea, the hollows of her knees, and the sole of one arched foot.
When Bruno awoke his face was wet with tears.
There was no hot water that morning. In the shower Bruno stood far from the stream, and as far as he could from the mildewed shower curtain. Shivering, he looked down at his pale body, at his knobby knees, his shriveled, bouncing cock, at the small black hairs on his wrists. He thought of the giant squid, of its tangled legs, dead in its casket, not red but white and trapped forever. He thought of the white flesh of Mildred's wrists peeking out from under her baggy coat, of her long white neck beneath her straight black hair. He rinsed the soap from his body and dried himself.
That afternoon Bruno returned to the museum. He paid his dime, walked upstairs to the Hall of Biodiversity, past the pack of pachyderms, the lacquered frogs and bottled lobsters. Mildred was not there, but the giant squid remained. It had not shifted so much as a tentacle.
Bruno lingered by the squid for an hour. He paced in front of its case. He looked for her in the cafeteria, by the great mammals of Africa and the mammals of the Americas, by the dinosaur skeletons and by the Indian canoe, but he did not find her. He left the museum. He bought a hot dog with everything and ate it on the damp marble steps, following Teddy Roosevelt's cold imperial gaze above the treeline and across the park.
Five days went by before Bruno returned to the museum. It was again a Tuesday, as it had been when he had first seen the squid and first met Mildred. From the very end of the Hall of Biodiversity he saw her, still wearing her baggy coat despite the weather, her head slightly bowed, her face hidden beneath her hair. He quickened his pace, wanting to run, but not wanting to be out of breath when he arrived at her side. Soon the pachyderms, with all their ancient bulk, blocked his line of vision. He passed the father, his proud tusks raised in challenge, the mother just beside and a little behind him, and between the sturdy legs of their long-dead offspring he could see Mildred's feet -- her pale ankles bare, sockless in red sneakers -- as they swiveled round and she walked away. When Bruno emerged from behind the wrinkled posterior of the last juvenile pachyderm, she was gone. He hurried past the squid, which he almost expected to acknowledge him, to point with one of its eight legs or two tentacles and let him know which way she'd gone. But it did not, and he did not see her in the hallway behind its long case. He didn't see her on the stairs, or in the gift shop on the landing, or in the great muralled hall below. He loitered outside the ladies room, left the museum and circled the block not once but three times, all to no avail.
So Bruno walked back up the stairs to await her return to the squid. Its white eye lolled in its socket like a rotting scallop, pupilless, unwinking and dead. Giant squids have larger eyes, Bruno read, than any other animals. The eye of the giant squid can grow to fifteen inches in diameter. There was an image of such an eye beside the text on the display case, perfectly round, the size of a dinner plate, its pupil still intact but without an iris, colorless. It looked nothing like the flaccid white eye of the squid preserved beside it, an eye which communicated nothing, not even death.
It would be wrong to say, in retrospect, that the disaster came without warning. There were rumblings and there were whispers. For those who look for such things, there were signs. The moon did not always complete its full circuit; more and more gunshots, screams, and screeching tires could be heard in the night; the sun rose an hour late one morning, then two hours early the next; everyone had the same mild flu; bond prices fluctuated wildly; pigeons and squirrels were more skittish than usual. But Bruno noticed none of this.
He sat in his kitchen on a bentwood chair he had found on the street and opened a can of squid. The chair's wicker seat had been torn out, so he sat as lightly as he could on its wooden frame. He dumped the can's contents -- six squid, each about five inches in length, floating in brine dyed purple with ink -- into a bowl. They smelled like a shallow tide pool on a hot and windless day. In death, their skin was scarlet once more, if only because their own ink had stained it so. They had been cooked prior to canning until their flesh was so brittle that they broke when he handled them. Their bodies tore into neat, papery rings, exposing a grey substance that the can's label described as "viscera." Inside the squid, surrounded by this viscera, was a transparent shard of cartilage, like an elongated arrowhead, called a quill. It was the closest thing to a skeleton the squid had. He brought the bowl of squid to the table and carefully sat down on the broken chair. The squids, he noticed, still had eyes, with tiny black pupils intact.
Bruno returned to the museum each of the two following Tuesdays and once on a Saturday, but he did not see Mildred again. He continued to dream of her, sometimes in the awful solitude of the deep, as on that first night. Sometimes she would take his arm in her hand on the street or in the halls of the museum and kiss him or whisper something incomprehensible in his ear, then run away. She was always barefoot in his dreams. In the mornings he remembered her feet, long and white. One night he dreamed she came to his apartment. They stood in his kitchen, by the sink. She was fully clothed, in her coat as always, but Bruno was naked. Her eyes were red and inflamed. She caressed his penis with her right hand, which was very cold, and scolded him for not having been gentler with the canned squids, for breaking them right there by the sink. The quill he had removed from one was still on the counter, pointing at him accusingly. As he felt himself approaching climax, he saw that the skin of his cock was beginning to peel in her grip, like the dead flesh of the giant squid.
The disaster fell that Monday, and Bruno stayed indoors for the next two weeks. At night the western sky was bright with distant fires. Tremors shook the windows in their panes. With each muffled boom Bruno's furniture leapt about the floor. The winds didn't let up till the weekend, and Bruno couldn't sleep for their howling through the streets. He lay on his lumpy mattress watching the sheetrock glow again red and yellow as another blast gripped the city. And as the cracks in the plaster once more cast their shadows stark above his head, he wondered about Mildred, if she was warm enough, if she was safe, if she'd gotten sick, if she had enough food to eat and clean water to drink, if she'd been hurt, if wherever she was she ever thought of him.
Bruno paced and counted the linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. There were nineteen of them, and, he was fairly sure, 461 ceramic tiles in the bathroom. Bruno read old newspapers, even the ads. He did all the crosswords. He did push-ups and sit-ups and jumping jacks. He used an extension cord as a jump rope until the downstairs neighbors fired a shot through the floor. It left a small hole, which he patched with a rag. He wrote a letter to his father who died when he was four, then thought better of it and tore it to shreds. He sat on the edge of the bathtub and wept and slapped himself in the face. He counted the tiles again. There were 456. He filled the margins of the phone book with sketches of Mildred and of the giant squid and of Mildred and himself together wrapped in the squid's eight legs and two tentacles until all his pens ran out of ink. He took the back off a transistor radio and tried to figure out how it worked. He pulled the motor out of his deceased refrigerator and later reinstalled it, none the wiser for his efforts. He masturbated repeatedly into the same dirty sock, imagining Mildred's breath on his navel, her long hair in his eyes, her blue-painted nails pulling on his scrotum.
Bruno trapped cockroaches in empty tin cans, thinking he might need them one day. He soaked stale bread in water and ate it with salt. He opened his last can of corned beef on Thursday and ran out of sardines on Sunday morning. He ate a few spoonfuls of cold beans from the can with crackers twice a day after that and cut back on the push-ups and masturbation.
The morning after the night that Bruno took his final swallow of beans, shook the last cracker crumbs from the bottom of the bag and licked them from his palm, the water gave out. The faucets spun round and round, but not a trickle poured forth. It was time, Bruno knew, to venture out into the world.
He left his apartment without giving much thought to his destination. He would follow his stomach, he decided. But in the end it was something else that led Bruno on his wanderings and he found himself, to his surprise, once again on the wide marble steps of the museum. Teddy Roosevelt had been removed from his high post and lay on his side in the middle of the street, still mounted on his now horizontal horse, contemplating the well-clogged gutters. The stone base of the statue had been shattered and Teddy's once faithful savage companions had apparently abandoned him.
Bruno climbed the stairs and pushed through the great wooden doors. The lobby was empty. Its floor was strewn with brochures and crumpled floorplans, which leapt about like tumbleweeds in the breeze that blew through the deserted streets and in through the open door. Before he got to the top of the first flight of stairs, Bruno heard it, a series of dull thumps unconnected by any discernable rhythm. As he rushed past the landing and down the darkened Hall of Biodiversity, he mistook the banging for the unsteady murmurs of his own agitated heart. But he found its source at the very end of the hall. There was Mildred, hacking away at the squid's tank with a crowbar. She had made no mark at all in the thick glass. Bruno was nearly at her side before she noticed his presence. She stopped in midswing and let the crowbar fall to her side. Her black coat had been thrown on the floor behind her and her T-shirt was dark with sweat. Her bony shoulders shook with exhaustion. "Will you help me?" she asked.
Bruno took the crowbar from her, swung it back above his head and let it fall with all his weight on the glass. The shock of the blow rang through his joints and the bones of his fingers, wrists, and elbows. It was all he could do to keep the crowbar from flying from his grip, but he had dislodged only the tiniest chip of glass. Another swing bore the same result. Bruno motioned to Mildred to follow him to the other end of the hall. Once there, he lifted her up, then jumped himself, and they swung from the end of the great ivory tusk of the largest of the pachyderms. It broke free with a crack and a moan and clattered to the marble floor. Straw spilled from the cavity they'd opened in the dead elephant's face. Its glass eye did not blink.
They charged the display case with the broad end of the tusk. On their eighth or ninth try, their battering ram crashed through the glass. A wave of rank ethanol burst through, soaking them, and the giant squid, stiff and white, rolled with a thud to the floor. Mildred dropped the tusk, leapt into Bruno's arms, and kissed him noisily on the lips. Before he could respond, she was on her knees, carefully picking shards of glass from the squid's tangled arms. She looked up at him and pushed a knot of wet hair from her eyes. Two of the squid's arms were cradled in her lap. "You'll help me, won't you?" she asked. "I can't carry him home alone."
"I live nearby," she said. "It won't take long."
The squid was heavier than it looked. Soft and fleshy as it appeared, death had hardened its body and stiffened its legs. It stank of ammonia and brine. They heaved the mantle and head onto Bruno's back. Mildred did her best to carry the extended legs and tentacles, but one or another of them kept slipping from her grasp. Before they reached the stairs at the end of the hall, Bruno stumbled and fell. The squid pinned him to the floor. Mildred rolled it off of him and helped him up. She lifted his chin and inspected his face for bruises. "Are you all right?" she asked.
Bruno took her hand from his face and held it in his. "I've been looking for you," he said.
Mildred gave his hand a squeeze and turned away. Something in her face seemed to dim. "This isn't going to work," she said, and Bruno felt a sharp, tight pain encircling his ribs.
Mildred looked around the long, dim hall. "Maybe if we wrapped him in my coat," she said, "we could just pull him."
The pain dispersed and warmth returned to Bruno's limbs and he pulled Mildred to him and kissed her. She smiled tightly, pecked him on the lips, then turned and ran for her coat, which she had forgotten by the broken window. "We have to hurry," she yelled over her shoulder. "He won't last long unless he's in alcohol and we don't want to be out after dark."
They rolled the squid onto the jacket, its legs and tentacles trailing off behind it. They buttoned it in, then each took one woolen arm and pulled. The squid, like a monstrous scarecrow, slid along the smooth floors to the top of the staircase. Bruno supported its body from below. The alcohol had quickly soaked through the coat and he could feel the animal's cold and surprisingly brittle form inside it. He backed it slowly down the stairs while Mildred guided its arms and tentacles. With each step, the bundled squid gave out a soft and squishy thud. "Be careful," Mildred said.
They pulled the squid across the wide lobby and down the stairs to the street. The air had chilled. The old stone apartment buildings and the tall glass office towers across the park glowed pink in the light of the setting sun. Above them hung the moon, pink too and abnormally large, a shade less than full. The sidewalk was trickier. The cement was not as smooth as the marble floors of the museum and they were forced to stop every few yards to disengage a corner of Mildred's jacket, or the slender tip of one of the squid's eight legs, from a hidden crack in the pavement. Three loud pops rang through the air, gunshots a few blocks to the south. Bruno froze for a moment, his eyes wide with uncertainty, until Mildred motioned him on.
A young boy, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, sprinted out of the park and into the street a half block ahead of them. Three older boys ran after him. One caught him by the shirt, which tore loudly as he was thrown to the asphalt. The others raced in and commenced kicking him in the ribs and face. They dragged him screaming back into the park by his ankles. Bruno stopped again and dropped the squid. "There's nothing you can do," Mildred said, and kept pulling.
They had made it almost to 83rd Street when a man dressed in camouflage fatigues scurried into the middle of Central Park West behind them. He stopped, spun around, and emptied an automatic pistol at his pursuers, who were still invisible around the corner. As he turned to run again, Bruno and Mildred heard another shot. They pulled the squid into the shelter of a doorway and huddled together, crouching. The man's head was thrown forward and his body crumpled to the asphalt. Bruno could not see any blood. Three overweight men in tattered police uniforms approached the body with their guns drawn. They prodded it with their feet, then, satisfied that the man was dead, took his gun, boots, and jacket before returning in the direction from which they'd come.
Bruno and Mildred held each other tightly, each with one arm wrapped around the squid. She stood up first and tried to pull him up, but Bruno just looked at her. "Come on," she said. "Get up."
He tried to laugh, but what came out was more of a stifled retch. "It's not like this in Brooklyn," he managed. "I had no idea."
"Two more blocks and we're home."
At the corner of 85th Street, Mildred told Bruno it would be just two blocks more. The muscles in his back and thighs were cramping. His clothes reeked of ammonia and decay. They stayed close to the buildings and ran when they had to cross the street. As they crossed 89th, Bruno felt the squid suddenly grow heavier. He gave it a sharp tug and, just as Mildred screamed "Wait!", commenced pulling. His burden felt surprisingly lighter. Bruno kept moving until he heard her voice again. "Wait," she repeated, her voice firmer this time. He stopped and looked back. The squid's head, arms and tentacles had broken off from its body in a single clump and lay limply alone on the sidewalk. Only the mantle was still wrapped in Mildred's coat. A tentacle had gotten caught in a storm grate and wrapped itself around the steel grillwork. She pried it loose, then sat, crouching with the tentacle in her hand, shaking her head. "I'm sorry" Bruno said.
A burst of shots from an automatic weapon rang out nearby -- Bruno couldn't tell from which direction. He pulled the squid's head under the overcoat, shoving it into the detached mantle as best as he could. Another shot echoed across the avenue and Mildred sprang up and began pulling. "We're almost there," she said.
On the next block Mildred stopped in front of a short, brass-railed staircase. They lugged the squid to the top of the stairs and through a varnished mahogany door. It was harder now that the squid was no longer in one piece. Mildred rushed them through an elegant, wood-paneled entryway and up three more flights of stairs. She had to stop every few feet to unravel the squid's tentacles from the carved wooden pillars supporting the banister and to reinsert its head into its body. "The door at the end of the hall," she said, and produced a ring of keys from the pocket of her jeans.
The apartment was dark, but Bruno could make out tall bookshelves along a distant wall as he and Mildred stumbled in. The carpet was soft beneath his feet. He let himself fall against the wall and slid into a slump on the floor. "Not yet," Mildred said. "Just help me get him into the bathroom. Then you can rest all you want. Please."
But Bruno did not stir. "What's going on out there?" he asked.
"I want to put him in the tub. It'll only take one more minute."
Bruno looked up at her. Her arms were wrapped around the squid's eight legs, which she supported from below with one raised knee. She was shaking with fatigue. The squid's arms shimmied soggily in hers. "Is it always like that?" Bruno asked.
Mildred at last let the squid drop to her knee and from there, carefully, to the ground in front of her. "Didn't you know?" she said, "Where have you been?"
Bruno shrugged helplessly. "It's quiet in Brooklyn at night."
Mildred unbuttoned the coat which the squid, in two pieces now, was just barely wearing. She stared at the half foot of empty space separating the squid's head from its body, then closed her eyes and leaned her head against the wall. "At night it's bad," she said, "like you saw. At first it was like that in the daytime too, only much worse."
"What were they going to do to that kid?"
Mildred abruptly stood and wiped her palms on her jeans. "I don't know," she said.
She took Bruno's hand and helped him up. The squid's flesh glowed blue in the dark. Its white eye rested limply on the carpet. The smell of ammonia had gotten stronger. They wrapped it again in the coat and each grabbed an end. Mildred led the way around the corner and the squid slid heavily between them.
The apartment was bigger than it had at first seemed. They passed through three large rooms before Mildred opened the door to the bathroom. She produced a cigarette lighter from a shirt pocket and lit a wide red candle sitting on the sink. Mirrors on two walls reflected the flame about the room and Bruno could see all three of them, Mildred, himself, and their ghostly companion, all the same shade of pale orange. In one corner of the room was a low black porcelain tub, the fancy kind with jets set into its sides. They heaved the squid's tail in first, propping it up against the edge of the tub and letting it drop noisily over. The head, arms, and tentacles remained on the floor. Mildred shook her head. "I can't believe you fucking broke him."
Bruno lifted the giant squid's head into the tub and maneuvered it back inside the mantle as Mildred struggled with the arms and tentacles. Barely the first yard of them fit in the bathtub. The bulk of the stiff and tortured mass stuck straight out above the bathroom floor and rested on the lid of the toilet across the room.
From a cabinet beneath the sink, Mildred pulled a cardboard box filled with blue-labeled plastic bottles of rubbing alcohol. She handed a bottle to Bruno and opened one herself, pouring its contents into the tub. They emptied all twenty-four bottles, but the resulting puddle was barely an inch and a half deep. "Shit," Mildred said.
She sat on the edge of the tub, bit her lip, and absentmindedly caressed the squid's extended arms. "We'll have to use water," she announced.
"You still have water?" Bruno asked, but before the last word had escaped his lips, Mildred had twisted the taps and the tub had begun to fill.
"There's no hot water," she said, "but there's plenty of cold."
"Do you have any salt?"
"Add it to the water, like brine. Maybe it'll keep longer."
Mildred hustled off to the kitchen and came back with a can of Morton's salt and another candle. She emptied the can into the tub. "Help me stir it."
Bruno pushed the sleeve of his shirt up to his elbow. He got on his knees beside her and pushed the cold liquid around the tub. "Is it supposed to smell like this?" he asked.
"To keep them buoyant, giant squids have these little pockets of ammonium chloride solution in their muscles, like balloons. It's lighter than water, so they float. They don't have air bladders like fish. Otherwise they would have to keep moving all the time to keep from sinking."
"I guess," Mildred shrugged. "I don't know about sharks. If you want to clean up, there are clean towels in the closet behind you. I'll give you some privacy."
Once she had closed the door behind her, Bruno stripped off his clothes and splashed his face with cold water. He rubbed soap onto a washcloth and scrubbed the dried sweat and the stink of ammonia and pickled rot from his body. He bent to wash his face again and, for an instant as he straightened, in the mirror behind him he saw the squid's arms and tentacles rise from the tub and toward him. When he turned, the squid had not moved. He laughed to himself and wagged a finger at it. "Stay," he said.
The door opened suddenly and Bruno scrambled to cover himself. He dangled the washcloth over his crotch. Mildred laughed and threw him a towel. "Sorry," she said. "I thought you were done. It's my turn."
She held the door open for him. As he bent to grab his wet clothes from the floor, she told him to leave them, that she had dry ones he could wear. She handed him a candle. "I'll be out in a minute."
In the first room he came to, Bruno almost tripped on a low, glass-topped coffee table. Beside it was a plush velvet couch. He put the candle on the table and sat to wait for Mildred, listening to the rush of water running behind the bathroom door. He let himself sink into the couch and imagined Mildred standing naked in front of the sink, the giant squid in the tub behind her. He imagined her bare neck and the harsh curve of her spine glowing orange in the candlelight. He imagined the broken squid beckoning to her from behind with a single raised tentacle.
When Bruno awoke the next morning, he found himself in an unfamiliar room. The walls and ceiling were paneled with a warm, dark wood and carved into intricate geometrical moldings. In one corner stood an antique wooden desk with dozens of very small drawers. There were two well-stuffed chairs upholstered in velvet, and a glass-topped coffee table on which sat a single unlit candle. He lay on a deep, soft couch made of the same fabric as the chairs. Under his head was a pillow and he was wrapped in a duvet, beneath which he wore only a damp towel.
On one of the chairs, Bruno found a neatly folded stack of clothes. There was a pair of men's worsted dress pants and a white cotton shirt, white boxer shorts, an undershirt, and a pair of black silk socks rolled tidily into a ball. The boxers were two or three inches too wide at the waist, as were the pants, which barely fell below his ankles. The shirt's sleeves didn't reach his wrists though the neck was a good inch wider than his. On each cuff were embroidered the initials RG in tight silken script.
Holding his pants and underwear up with one hand to keep them from slipping down his hips, Bruno inspected the rest of the apartment. The floors of each room were covered with Oriental carpets and the walls with ornately framed paintings and prints. Bruno recognized one of the paintings from books he'd had to study in school. The next room over was apparently a study. Its walls were lined with bookshelves filled with sturdy old leatherbound volumes. The room itself was dominated by a heavy oak desk, atop which sat an open laptop computer, its screen lifeless, its keys coated with dust. The study adjoined a dining room, furnished with a long, linen-covered table and twelve tall-backed chairs, which opened on one side to a kitchen and on the other to the living room, high-ceilinged and sparsely furnished, one wall giving way to a huge bay window with, largely hidden by heavy drapes, a view of the park. The moon, nearly full, still hung pale and low in the morning sky. Save the shimmering of the leaves in the wind, nothing moved, in the park or in the streets.
Bruno was standing by the window, the drapes pulled back, gazing out over the city, when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He spun around to find Mildred, her hair still tousled with the night's odd angles. Her eyes were ringed with dark circles, but she had pulled her face into a smile that was by all appearances genuine. "Good morning," she said.
"Do you want some coffee?"
"You have coffee?"
"Only a couple pounds are left," Mildred said, "but this counts as a special occasion."
"How do you mean?" asked Bruno, who was not altogether certain that his feelings for Mildred were reciprocated. Was it the squid's presence she wanted to celebrate, or his own?
Mildred did not answer, but asked again if he wanted coffee. "Sure, of course," Bruno replied, "but how are you going to make it?"
He followed Mildred into the kitchen where she produced a small camping stove and gestured to a cabinet filled with propane canisters. "There's enough for at least a year if i'm careful," she said. "Plenty of food, too."
She opened a door beside the refrigerator that led into a long and spacious pantry, its shelves stocked with food. There were heavy bags of rice, dried beans of every size and color, boxes and boxes of pasta and crackers, shelf after shelf of canned goods -- no Vienna sausages or sardines here, but pat de foie gras and spring lamb stew, vichyssoise and Alaskan crabmeat. There were tins of truffles, jugs of deep green olive oil, boxes of chocolates, bags and bags of venison jerky, salted cod, mixed nuts and dried apricots and cherries. One corner was filled with five-gallon jugs of water stacked to the ceiling. Beside them were piled cases of wine, a few boxes of scotch and a few of cognac, even a case of champagne.
In his asonishment Bruno could form no words at all. Mildred smiled slyly, twisted the valve on the stove, lit a match, and then watched the burner leap into flame. "This apartment belonged to a man who was privy to information that almost no one else had access to. He was able to begin preparing long before anyone knew there was anything to prepare for."
"Where is he now?"
"The day after it happened I ran out to the museum but I couldn't get in. They were fighting in the street right out front. When I came back I saw them leading him away at gunpoint. There were six of them, in real uniforms, new ones. They'd pulled a pillowcase over his head, but I know it was him from his walk, the shape of him. They put him in a jeep and drove off."
"Are these his clothes?"
"Yes," Mildred looked at him and raised one playful eyebrow. "I'll find you a belt." She stared at the blue flame of the camp stove and said, almost forgetfully, "I was his secretary."
"And he let you stay here?"
Mildred did not answer, but lifted the coffeepot from the burner and took two mugs from a cupboard above the sink. "There's no milk," she finally said. "Do you take sugar?"
"Yeah," said Bruno. "Two."
When he'd finished his coffee, Bruno felt a rumbling in his lower intestines and excused himself. There was no window in the bathroom, so he lit the candle on the sink with a book of matches Mildred had left there for that purpose. It was with a shock of remembrance that, as the light splashed about the mirrored room, Bruno saw once again the fractured squid lolling in the bottom of the bathtub, its arms shooting out over the end of the tub like the branches of a stunted and terrible tree. In his awe of the apartment's riches and his anxiety for Mildred's affection, he had forgotten the silent companion that had brought them together. But there it was. Its limbs swayed in the flickering candle light; its head and tail bobbed in the brine. The ammoniac stench had not faded. Bruno pushed the beast's stiffened legs from the toilet seat, dried it with crumpled toilet paper, let his pants fall to his knees without unbuttoning them, and sat. He had not eaten enough in recent days for his bowels to be very fruitful. He sat on the toilet and groaned, his thighs shuddering and in the process occasionally brushing a cold, slime-slicked tentacle. When he was finished, he washed his hands and dabbed with moistened toilet tissue at the spots where his legs had made contact with the creature's corpse.
Emerging from the bathroom, Bruno found Mildred sitting on the couch on which he had slept, her elbows on her knees and her head in her hands. The pillow and duvet were gone. Mildred looked up and, seeing him, brightened. "Try this belt on," she said. "We may have to poke an extra hole in it. Richard was a little thicker than you."
"No, this is okay. How do I look?"
She covered her mouth with her hand. Cinched tight at the waist, the slacks bulged out above the belt but barely reached his ankles. "You look good," she said. "A bit like Huck Finn, but good."
Bruno tried to laugh. He couldn't think of anything to say. He rolled up his sleeves and pushed a stray shirttail into his pants. He crossed his arms and combed at his hair with his fingers. He uncrossed his arms. "Are my clothes dry yet?"
"I don't know. I haven't checked. You don't like these ones?" she laughed.
"No, it's not that. They're fine. It's only, I just thought that when the other ones dry I could go."
"Where will you go?"
"I don't know"
"Back to Brooklyn?"
"Do you have any water left there?"
"What about food?"
"No. Not anymore."
"So why go?"
"I just thought . . . . . "
"What did you think?"
"Well I didn't know if you . . . . . "
Something hard and bright shined in Mildred's eyes. Seeing it, Bruno found himself unable to finish his sentence.
"You know, after all this you still haven't told me your name," Mildred said.
"Bruno," Mildred repeated. "My name is Mildred. Would you like to sit down?"
"Sure," said Bruno. He lowered himself into an armchair.
"Not there." She patted the couch beside her. "Here."
In the daytime they pulled open the heavy drapes and let the cloud-occluded sun fill the rooms with light as best it could. They walked through the apartment naked, or nearly so, lounging in unbuttoned shirts, french cuffs flapping at their wrists, with cashmere socks to warm their feet as they shuffled across cold parquet floors. They rarely spoke, but napped and read to themselves from the heavy, leather-bound books they found in the study and on oak shelves in the bedrooms.
And when Mildred would shake her hair from her eyes, put her book down on the carpet and gesture to Bruno with a crooked finger, he would cross the room and join her on the couch and their hands would find each other under their unbuttoned shirts. Their lovemaking was gentle and leisurely, filled with fluttering kisses and the lightest of caresses. At times they barely moved, but held each other, stroking one another with an eyelash, a lock of hair. Bruno learned to love every corner of Mildred's body, each hair under her arms or between her thighs, the scars on her elbows and knees from girlhood tumbles, the sad, lost look in her eyes when he put himself inside her. Even when he was not holding her, the glow of her touch remained on his limbs and on his face, a quiet, quivering joy.
The bliss of Bruno's days was interrupted only by trips to the bathroom, which he took as infrequently as possible. The twisted squid in the tub chilled him. The fascination he had felt for it, locked away, unchanging in a museum display case, had turned to revulsion under such close quarters. The cloying scent of its slow decay, which had begun to creep in beneath the ever-present stench of ammonia, sickened him. He felt its legs writhing and reaching for him every time he turned his back on it to pee. The odors of the giant squid lingered in his nostrils for an hour after he left the room, and for the length of that hour he could not help closing his heart to Mildred, regarding even her smiles with suspicion, finding in the traces of warmth her hands left on his body, no matter how tenderly, only disgust.
Bruno and Mildred did not share a bed. She assigned him a bedroom, its walls painted green, and took another for herself. They retired each night to their own rooms after watching the rays of the sun fade out the window, over the park, across the face of the motionless moon. Bruno never questioned the arrangement.
When she came to him at night, though, she came on like a fury. He would wake, startled, with her hands and mouth on him, her hair warm and wet and slick, her fingertips wrinkled, haunted by the smell of ammonia. She did not kiss his lips or his face, but pulled with her teeth at his nipples, at the flesh of his stomach and thighs, at his bony shoulders. The moonlight cast dense black shadows beneath each of her ribs and below her jutting hips. She seemed to move in fragments, like a filmstrip slowed. She took him into her mouth almost brutally, she shoved a brusque finger into his ass, she pulled him quickly into her. Their bodies slapped together, all bone and collision, and the sheets whispered in protest beneath them. But no sooner had Mildred's back arched and a long broken gasp escaped her, than she slid out of the room in silence, leaving Bruno, shaken and drained, to contemplate the slow movement of shadows on the ceiling as the damp sheets grew cold beneath him.
Bruno could never get back to sleep on the nights she came to him, and could barely drag himself through what little activity was required by the following day, speaking rarely to Mildred, longing for solitude and wide open spaces. But some nights he slept peacefully, uninterrupted by nocturnal visitors, and awoke with a smile on his lips that only grew wider when he rose and first cast eyes on Mildred. And there were the nights Bruno feared most of all, when he was visited only by dreams of drowning, of Mildred diving, pulling him into the depths of the sea. He would dream of walking the streets at night, stumbling in the dark and falling backwards into a puddle, long white tentacles holding him down, sputtering for air as the black water filled his lungs, and would wake, gasping, his hair wet and tangled, the sheets soaked and twisted. He would lean out the window to suck in the night air, but he could not escape the stench of ammonia and rot, which had sunk not only into his pores and nostrils, but deeper still.
On the fourteenth evening after their reunion, Bruno and Mildred opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate their first two weeks together. They ate a full tin of pate de foie gras, spread on hard and salty crackers, and washed it down with Veuve Cliquot, warm and from the bottle. They lit far more candles than necessity required, piled cushions on an aging Oriental carpet and made love on the floor, as if in slow motion, swallowing each other's smallest movements like the last drops of sweet fresh water on earth.
Afterwards they lay sprawled on the floor, a tangle of limbs, and opened a bottle of brandy. They passed it back and forth, licking from each other's chest and chin whatever spilled from the bottle's neck. "How much," Bruno asked, "would this have cost us before?"
"You mean the cognac?"
"I don't know. In a restaurant, maybe twenty dollars a glass, or a snifter, they call them -- something like that."
"For one glass?" Bruno laughed. "I always thought it was a bum's drink. That's what they drank on the corner, by the liquor store where I lived. E&J from the bottle. No snifters."
"Did you ever," he asked her, tracing with one finger the line of her jaw, her neck, her bony shoulder, "order a twenty dollar glass of brandy?"
She shook her head. "No, but I served them."
Three muffled blasts sounded in the distance, and Bruno and Mildred were silent. They stood, naked, arm in arm, and looked out the window. Fires glowed on the horizon to the north. Smaller ones burned here and there in the park beneath them, the scattered camps of squatters or soldiers or bums. Two strange white stars arced soundlessly above the squatting moon and on across the sky, then a third. They hit the earth and the distant fires flared white, a premature and insufficient dawn. A few seconds later the sounds of the explosions followed, three faraway thuds, hollow and deep.
"They're mortars, I think," Mildred said. "Maybe something heavier. I don't really know. In the Bronx, it looks like." She turned to retrieve the bottle of cognac. Bruno took it from her hand and drank.
A tear fell from his eye. "Why?" he said, gesturing to the world outside. "Why all this? What happened?"
Mildred smiled weakly and wiped the tear from his cheek. "Politics, I guess." She pulled Bruno to her and hugged him. "It's late," she said. "Let's go to sleep."
"Wait," Bruno said. "First tell me, why the squid?"
She stiffened slightly in his arms and stepped away. "What do you mean?"
"Why is it here? Why did you take it?"
"We took it, remember. Because it wouldn't have lasted in the museum. It was only a matter of time before vandals got to it."
"But why did you want it?"
Mildred shrugged and smiled sadly. She turned her back on Bruno and pulled a shirt from under the cushions piled on the floor. She buttoned it slowly. "I'm too tired for this, Bruno, and a little too drunk. Tomorrow."
She kissed his brow and walked away.
Bruno did not sleep that night. He lay in bed and tried without success to impose some order on the thoughts chasing each other furiously about his mind. He got up and stumbled to the bathroom, intending just to pee, but the rising stench of the putrefying squid turned his booze-uneasy stomach and he found himself on his knees before the toilet, brandy and sharp undigested bits of cracker burning his throat. He rose too quickly, felt the cold touch of the squid's rot-slicked tentacles on his naked back and fell to his knees to vomit once more.
He did not go back to bed, but returned to the window. He stood for hours, shivering, warming himself only with brandy, watching bright shells scar the sky before bursting silently aflame in unseen streets. A skirmish broke out in the park. Screams and gunshots rose in the thin night air. The fighting spread into the street just a block away. Shadowy figures ran and dodged, taking cover behind cars long abandoned. The clatter of boots four stories below, muzzle flashes and groans. A bullet ricocheted off the bricks a few yards from the window. Bruno threw himself to the floor, hid his head under a pillow, and wept.
He didn't fall asleep until dawn and awoke shortly thereafter on the rug, still naked, his head throbbing. The apartment, save Bruno and the giant squid, was empty. Mildred's bed had been made. Bruno washed himself without lighting the candle above the sink to avoid seeing what he knew lurked behind him in the tub. He held his breath until he left the room. No sooner had he dressed than he lay down again, reclining on the living room couch. Picking up an open volume of Melville from the floor, he began reading where Mildred had left off: "....... curling and twisting like a nest of anacondas, as if blindly to clutch at any hapless object within reach. No perceptible face or front did it have; no conceivable token of either sensation or instinct ....."
The words fell through Bruno's eyes but stuck to nothing. He read them again and again found his mind drifting off between clauses. He put the book down and closed his eyes. Would Mildred return ? Bruno paced from room to room, twisting the untucked tail of his shirt in his fist. The smell of the rotting squid, sharp and thick, had spread throughout the apartment. Bruno pulled the bathroom door shut and opened all the windows. The curtains billowed in the cross breeze. Cloudlets of dust and hair tumbled across the table tops and the parquet floors. Slipping a cashmere sweater over his shirt, and a tweed jacket over the sweater, Bruno leaned out the window.
The park was quiet, the streets abandoned. A greasy snake of smoke stretched above the trees on the other side of the reservoir. Bruno yelled Mildred's name into the empty city, but heard not even an echo in response, only the thin whimpering of the wind. He collapsed into the sofa, hugging himself and rocking slowly, certain she would not be back.
It was the jiggling of the lock that roused him. He scanned the room for a weapon and, finding none, scurried into the kitchen. He met Mildred in the hallway, a carving knife in one hand, a hefty tin of vichyssoise held high above his head in the other. Mildred, looking out from under the two cardboard boxes she had clutched to her chest, did not flinch. She smiled, amused, and said, "Put those down and help me."
Bruno happily complied, taking the boxes from her hands, putting them both on the floor and hugging her tightly as she tried to wriggle out of her coat.
"Where did you go?" he demanded, and before she could answer added, "I was so worried. I didn't think you were coming back."
"You thought I would leave you?"
"I didn't know."
"Where would I go?"
"Where did you go?"
"I had to get more ... "
Bruno interrupted, "How could you go out alone like that ? You know how it is out there."
Mildred waited. "Do you want to know where I went ? "
Bruno nodded. "I'm sorry," he said. "I've just been worried."
She picked up one box and asked Bruno to get the other. He followed her to the bathroom, where she put the box on the toilet and lit the candle. "I can't believe how lucky I was," she said, her eyes glowing in the flickering crimson light. "It didn't take long at all." She opened the box and pulled from it a plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol.
"You got two cases?" Bruno asked.
"For a pound of coffee and a box of chocolates," Mildred gloated, smiling broadly. She emptied the bottle into the milky fluid, clotted and rank, that obscured the lower half of the giant squid, then opened another.
Bruno tried not to look at the broken corpse, which was now covered in a mucilaginous layer of rot. "Where?" he asked.
"In that little triangular park over at Broadway and 72nd. People meet every day to trade what they can. You just have to pray you don't get robbed coming or going, and that the militias or the cops don't show."
When they had shaken the last drop of ethanol from the last bottle, Mildred blew out the candle and, grinning mischievously, pushed Bruno into the hallway. She unbuttoned his shirt, let his trousers fall to the ground, and tugging gently at his penis, which was already hard in her hand, pulled him to the floor.
After fifteen minutes, the knots of Bruno's spine ached from grinding into the hard wood floor. Mildred rose and fell above him, her hands pushing against his chest, her body shiny with sweat, but Bruno lay still, no longer rising to meet her thrusts. "I'm getting sore," she said, slowing her pace.
He lifted her off of him. "I can't do this with that thing in there."
Mildred reached behind her and swung the bathroom door shut. "Do you want to go in the other room ? "
Bruno sat up, leaning his back against the wall. "I want to know what it's doing here."
Mildred stood and pulled Bruno's shirt over her pale back, which was covered, like her neck and face, with red splotches from the pressure of Bruno's fingers. Shaking her head with irritation, she walked off down the hall, buttoning the shirt as she went. Bruno followed, and found her lying on the sofa, her legs crossed, angrily staring into the book open in her lap, tapping its cover with blue-painted nails. "Why did you bring it here ? " he asked.
She closed the book. "You wanted it too. Don't pretend you didn't. You kept going back to the museum. What brought you back ? And don't give me any shit about 'the unknown,'" she sneered.
"I wanted you. I was looking for you."
"Well, you found me." She picked up the book again, her jaw clenched, and began to read. They did not speak for the rest of the day.
Before the hollow evening light had fled the city entirely, Mildred retired to her bedroom and closed the door. Bruno, who had for hours been sitting on the bare floor in the corner of the living room, his head sagging between his knees, fetched the brandy from the kitchen pantry. The bottle was still half full despite the previous night's efforts. He sat on the velvet couch and drank, watching the shadows lengthen and mingle until they had invaded every last inch of the room. He watched the stars appear one by one, leisurely, like guests to an all-night party. He watched the moon brighten, its rays hardening and chasing the shadows from a slowly shifting trapezoidal patch of carpet, from a table top, from the sole of his bare foot.
All was still. No shells arced through the moonlit sky, no blasts shook Bruno's jaw. Not even a gunshot rang out above the park. Bruno tilted the brandy into his mouth. He could smell, from two rooms away, the heavy, acrid stench of the squid. It was time, he decided, to leave.
In his bedroom, Bruno removed the worsted trousers, tailored shirt, and V-neck sweater and donned again the threadbare corduroys, T-shirt, and windbreaker he had worn the day he left his home in Brooklyn. He kept only the cashmere socks, pulling his sneakers on over them, knotting one lace where it threatened to tear. He thought of leaving a note, but could think of nothing to write, and left, pulling the door closed quietly behind him.
It was colder in the street than Bruno had imagined. He had not been outside in weeks, and opening the windows occasionally had made him only vaguely aware of seasonal change. The wind rattled the few dry leaves still clinging to the trees in the park. Bruno buttoned his jacket, pulled up its collar, and headed downtown. Better to avoid the park, he decided.
It would rain, Bruno was sure of it. Every once in a while it would rain. He would go back to his old place and collect rainwater in pots and pans on the fire escape. He would trap pigeons and squirrels and catch fish in the river with a bent safety pin and a ball of twine. He would twist chain-link fences into crab traps. He had been fine before Mildred, and would be fine after her. He would bathe in the river. He would shit in a bag and save it for fertilizer for the garden he would grow, if only he could find the seeds.
Two men stepped from the park into the street a half block ahead of him. They were walking downtown. One wore a dented policeman's cap and what remained of a blue dress uniform. A pistol hung low on his hip. The other wore what appeared in the moonlight to be a pinstripe suit, topped with a motorcycle helmet. A shotgun, its stock and barrel sawn off, swung from his hand.
Bruno kept tight to the side of the building, taking shelter in its shadow, and slowed his pace, stepping as softly as he could. He would be fine in Brooklyn. He had never had much - what would really change ? Winter was coming, but he could sew a coat from the hides of squirrels and rats, use their sinews and tendons as thread. He had grown flabby these last weeks, but he knew his body and mind would soon be leaner, stronger. He could defend himself if he had to, but who would bother him ? What did he have that anyone would want to steal ?
Three more men appeared a block or so ahead, heading uptown. Two of them wore dark blue shirts adorned with epaulettes and badges, tattered jodhpurs tucked into soiled boots. Bruno could not see the third for the shadows, only the silhouette of the rifle slung over his shoulder, an absurdly long ammunition clip protruding from its breach.
Bruno ducked into a shallow doorway, then peeked his head out. The two groups had stopped to confer. They turned to walk together uptown. In a few seconds, they would be at Bruno's doorway. He tried the door, but it was locked. He was ten yards from the corner of 92nd. If he ran away from them, he would have to run straight for nearly a full block before he could turn onto 93rd. He breathed in deeply, stepped out of the doorway and turned to his right, walking directly toward the five policeman, trying once again to stick to the shadows. Before he had walked two paces, one of the men put his arm in the air, and all five stopped. The first raised his rifle to his shoulder. Bruno crouched and sprinted for the corner. As he flung himself around the bend he heard a bullet shatter the bricks of the building beside him, then another.
Bruno ran, zig-zagging, avoiding the moonlight, his heart pounding faster than his feet. Another shot rang out and the air beside his ear was sudenly warm, then cold again. He dove behind a stoop. His pursuers stood in the middle of the intersection, guns drawn. Bruno edged himself out, keeping low, hoping the shadows would conceal him. He had only taken a half dozen steps when the bullets began to swim again through the air around him, crashing into the sidewalk, spraying his calves with pebbled cement. He dove behind the next stoop, heard three more shots, then a voice, "Save it."
Bruno crouched in the dark, shivering. His pants, he noticed, were wet in the crotch, and warm. They soon grew cold in the night air. The moment he was sure the men had gone and was certain his legs would hold him, Bruno stood, walked around the block, and headed back uptown.
Without looking first for Mildred, hoping instead that she was sleeping and would not notice he had been gone, Bruno went straight to the bathroom, stripped off his soiled cords and underpants, and threw them in a corner. He breathed through his mouth and kept his back to the tub. He lit the candle and found a washcloth hanging beside the sink. Soaping it, he felt something touch his thigh. A chill rose through his body as he imagined the squid rearing in the tub behind him, reborn. But he saw nothing in the mirror save his own reflection, the flickering candlelight reflected orange in his panicked eyes. And whatever it was that brushed again across his legs was firm, and, though cold and wet, not slicked with slime. Bruno turned.
Propped up in the tub, crowded by the squid, lay Mildred, one pale arm intertwined with the squid's twisted limbs, her flesh wrinkled from soaking and almost indistinguishable in the dim light from the creature's own, except for one dark nipple, floating above the foul alcoholic brine. Her other arm hung over the edge of the tub, grasping now at Bruno's knee. Her head lolled, hair woven into pillow of stiffened tentacles. Her eyes were half open, and less than half awake. "Bruno," she moaned. "I dreamed you left me."
Bruno knelt beside the tub and kissed Mildred's fluttering eyelids closed. He cradled her head in his arms, watched his tears splash in the hollows of her cheeks and, for a moment at least, did not even notice the cold and oozing corpse on which his forearms rested.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
((( from McSweeney's issue 12 )))