He’d forgotten his radio. Tonight, Ben the night watchman would settle for music at a remove. Its strains would drift from the Institute’s tiny painting studios, or the photo processing room, with its synthetic stink and fuzzy crimson light. Nina Hagen. Peter Gabriel in Deutche. Der Kommisar. 99 Lufbalons. German consonants colored the air they breathed at the Institute in those days.
Ben himself was of German extraction. His father a sportfishing boat captain who retired at forty and spent 16-hour days building a new home above East San Diego’s wild beige ravines. He’d told them of feral dogs he’d encountered in the early mornings. How he’d fought a pack off with a shovel. Ben’s mother had written to him about these things. It was easy to picture her at the kitchen table with her Bermuda shorts and varicose veins, her stack of books and deep tumbler of rosé.
When Ben and Cyn were growing up, she’d sometimes fallen asleep at the dinner table, hands entwined in her linen napkin. She’d been an anesthesiologist, before her legal troubles. She kept the lawsuit a secret from them back then. But they knew their father’s cruelty, as all children know. The house was steeped in his spite, although no one ever spoke of it.
The watchman shift covered Ben’s expenses. He slept in the truck parked at Land’s End, a few yards from the furtive couplings that took place in the twisting chaparral that rose from that section of Ocean Beach in those days. The waves’ crash rising into the frigid night. A whiff of men’s cologne. Sometimes a gay guy might glance in the truck’s window before disappearing on one of the narrow dirt paths that dropped into the brush. But nobody bothered him and Alphonse.
A few years back, a student had killed himself up in the print studio. This student was found by the film teacher in the pink context of dawn. In full drag and makeup, cheesy Mancini on a turntable set to repeat. Auto asphyxiation, they’d called it. The lore was that now you’d hear footsteps, chill winds. Rattling doorknobs. Back when they were rebuilding the tower, heavy objects kept falling to workman’s heads.
“Alphonse.” Ben’s Australian cattle dog alerted. He always stayed by Ben’s side as he headed toward the gallery halls, the theatre, and the bathrooms that flanked them. During the shift, he was to clock in at different sections of the campus. Otherwise, he guessed, it would be too easy to laze away his shift behind the desk, leaving the cement campus unwatched.
He drew the folded envelope from his coat pocket. His sister had never before written him a letter. “It’s gotten weird,” Cyn had scrawled in pencil. “Mom has some kind of tumor in her lungs. Dad drove Billy James to a ravine in East County and dumped him there to die.”
Their mother had gotten the cat after Ben and Cyn had left for school. Named him Billy James for an old suitor of hers from Minnetsota. One she had forsaken because he had a heart murmur. The idea was that Billy wasn’t expected to live a long life. He wouldn’t have been a good family man.
Their mom had telephoned Cyn in Boston, sobbing, the letter read. “Dad told mom he won’t be around sickness. He’s says the marriage is over. He gave her $30,000 in cash to get out.”
“She stays up at night, calculating,” the letter concluded. “Trying to figure out how long she can last.” Like a trapped queen in a German folktale. He wished Cyn were with him now. Together they could figure it out. Like a couple of medieval urchins in stained glass. Like Hansel and Gretel. But he and his sister hadn’t been in one another’s presence for nearly a year. It occurred to him he might never see her again, if she would write something this momentous in a letter, rather than calling.
It was time to punch in at the printmaking studio. The dog Alphonse always refused to enter the last clock-in site, the printmaking studio where the student had died. Instead, he’d trot off in the direction from which they had come, and meet Ben two minutes later at the studio’s exit. But Ben had never caught sight of a phantom or had his shoulder brushed or whirled at the sound of footsteps to face an empty hall.
Still, Ben always ran across the huge room, looking neither to the left or right, pausing an instant to punch the clock before Alphonse’s familiar low bulk greeted him at the exit door.
Why had Cyn not telephoned? He felt she was withholding her presence and the commitment of a present time conversation. Their mother had called her in Boston. Then had held the news to her, writing out, sealing, mailing the words that would cross the breadth of the nation in an envelope before Ben could receive them.
All these nights had passed, with Ben at work and his father crawling into bed at nine. His mother at the kitchen table, circling available apartments or job listings. Willing herself to spin a life to its conclusion with only a packet of cash and a blank horizon. And Cyn, privately living her life in Boston, so far from them all.
Auto asphyxiation. Choking the life out of oneself. Ben’s breath caught as he stood in the doorway of the print studio. The fluorescent lights flickered meagerly, then blasted on.
Normally, he ran. But tonight, he paused, willing himself to register a caress on his cheek, a rolling light across the floorboard. He made himself wait at the door. There was only the sound of his own breath. A moment later, a whimper from Alphonse on the other side of the far door.
Was that student who choked his life out turned on, pink and painted under the print studio’s hot light? Some element of exhilaration at his own display? Was he impassioned, praying someone would walk in and love him?
Or had he felt like the last person on the planet, perched atop a cement fortress over a graveyard, as in a German fable? A ghost story in the making?
Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.