on the page magazine
issue no. 13 summer/fall 2006
unfinished business


The Secret

by Jacob Kornbluth

back in our cramped apartment at the top corner of the monster. I think of the building we lived in as alive, a seething monster, six massive stories of apartments built around a courtyard. All the people teeming like vermin in all the apartments, old women in nightgowns moving past open windows. Cockroaches running down the drain when you turn on the light in the bathroom, rats and mice scurrying through the space in the wall. Husbands and wives yelling at each other in Spanish, music constantly playing and invading my space, the sound of water in the pipes in the walls as people constantly flush their toilets. It’s not natural, all those living things piled on top of each other. I need to focus not to be disgusted by it.

It’s Washington Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan in 1979. I’m six, and I’m practically the only white kid I know.

I lean out the window, let the blood rush to my head till my face blushes, and feel the pressure of the window frame imprinting on my little chest. Six stories of clotheslines holding the day’s washing, the distant cry of babies and noise. Spit dribbles from my mouth until it breaks off and falls. I watch it fall through the vertical, then explode as it hits the ground with a distant ping.

I start to love throwing things out the window. Water seems motionless as it falls, an illusion of perspective, and then ... SPLAT! An apple splats, a Rubik’s cube explodes into separate cubes, a cast iron pot that’s so heavy I can barely heave it out the window cracks the concrete and bounces loudly. I move to the window overlooking the street and try to hit people with water or LEGOs, fixated on hitting a moving target from above. A quarter actually breaks the windshield of a car, surprising me, but they never know it’s me. I quickly pull back from the window, my heart pounding, as they look up from the street and curse the sky.

But people could see me from the building across the way if they chanced to look. I’m smart enough to know I’m going to get caught eventually, someone will find out and discover me, it’s not a perfect plan.

That’s when I start to go up to the roof. You go up the stairs, through the emergency door that you know you shouldn’t be going through, to freedom. I feel a rush of joy in the space and comfort in the open feeling.

I sit on the edge of the roof, dangle my feet carelessly over the street below, and savor the vertigo feeling and rush of danger. If I focus, I can master the feelings of fear. I stand on the edge and look straight down, testing myself. I could fall, but I’m not going to fall. I can hear the distant Master Blaster making its way through the neighborhood on a big kid’s shoulder, see the cool walk and the pick in the afro in my mind’s eye. Down below, fire hydrants open, distant scream of kids, and, closer to my senses, the black gooey tar of the roof, smelly and sticky from the summer sun.

This is a moment I savor, a feeling I dwell on. Standing on the edge of the building, sticking out my arms like an airplane, obsessed with the vertical. I imagine if anyone’s looking up I look like I know what I’m doing. I’m almost calm, risking death, feeling free, heart pounding. A king. I remember thinking that maybe we only know if we’re a superhero if we have the faith to jump. If you’re chosen, you fly. If not, you die. How much bravery it must take, that moment you decide to act.

I climb down carefully and hang over the edge of the roof by my hands. Such a stupid kid, could that really have been me? I was testing fate, almost sure that if I fell I’d somehow be okay. Maybe I’d even fly. My feet hanging over the street below, curious if I’m going to fall, thinking about letting go. I lift my fingers up one at a time, “1... 2 ... 3... ,” losing my grip, until I get too scared.

back in my apartment, my mom’s cooking spaghetti. While she’s in her bedroom with my dad, I throw a spoon she’s using out the window overlooking the courtyard. Why? A lot of the stuff I throw out the window nobody would miss, but this spoon my mom will ask me about right away. Stupid. Not like me. Too reckless.

I have to get it back. I tell my mom that I want to go down to the basement to take out the trash. “What?” she asks. She knows I hate the basement. “Let him go,” my Dad says confidently. He was amazingly intuitive, I could tell he knew I needed to go—but what was he doing at home? That part of the memory can’t be true, he was always working, but in my replaying of it he’s always there. Interesting-looking guy, my dad. He had a big beard and always wore Osh Kosh overalls. He died right after this happened, so I like to see him there.

If the building was a monster, then the basement was the disgusting bowels of the beast. All of the waste and trash produced by all those people living on top of each other in the tenement building was stored there. It was terrifying, but I had to get the spoon and the only way to get to the courtyard was through the basement.

The elevator goes down, down, down, the fear rising till it’s almost too much, lurching from the sixth floor to the basement. Elevator doors open to a harsh fluorescent light reflecting off the shiny granite walls—uneven rock, like cave walls—and then quickly falling off to darkness. A snake-like tangle of pipes on the low basement ceiling. Narrow passageways opening up to dimly lit rooms, occasional lights casting irregular shadows on the walls. My strategy for dealing with the basement was based on sheer terror. I would normally sling the trash over my shoulder, run to the middle of the room, and frantically check behind me and all round to make sure no robbers or giant rats were chasing me. I was convinced that if I slowed down enough to think, bad things would happen.

This time, the trash is over my shoulder banging loudly against my butt as I run through a narrow passageway where I could be trapped and don’t stop until I’m right to the middle of the room near the wall of trash. The wall of trash smells like fermenting banana peels, which means rats, but that also means I’m almost there. I can almost sling the trash on the pile, get the spoon, and leave.

I’m breathing heavily, frantic and emotionally out of control, and I quickly check over my shoulder for robbers or whatever. As I snap my head around, right in front of my face is the string that you pull to turn the light bulb on or off. My eyes take a second to focus from the dimly lit wall of trash to the string, and I suddenly realize that right in front of my face at the end of the string is the biggest cockroach I’ve ever seen. The fear almost makes me physically wretch, it’s so sudden ... so close to my face I see all the detail of its body, shiny and black, its disgusting tentacles probing around trying to touch things. I freeze, terrified. I can’t run, I can’t scream, can’t even breathe. Just as I’m aware I’m stuck, and that I have to make my legs move out of this quicksand, the roach ... flies! For a second I hear it flapping, its shadow huge on the irregular wall, and it flaps around for a terrible second and lands right on my nose!

Well, I kind of lose my mind. I drop the trash, scream, and swat my face and run away. Interestingly, I trip over myself. People always get angry at horror movies when the girl trips running away from Evil. But it’s true, it happens. When you are really so terrified that you want to jump out of your skin, your mind demands that your feet go faster than they can, and you trip.

I need to go upstairs, but I have to get the spoon or my mom will be mad. Before I can stop and think, I run back and lower my shoulder—slam!—through the door and outside to the courtyard to get the spoon.

Now here’s the absolutely creepiest part of the memory. In the courtyard, it’s bright compared to the dank basement, and I scan for the spoon as my eyes adjust. As I focus and catch my breath a little, I realize there’s a dead guy in the corner. A dead guy who looks ... smushed. Looks like he jumped off the roof and landed right on his head. Splat. Disgusting. I have a mission, though. The spoon. My brain almost doesn’t process it. As I run over to get the spoon, I can see that he’s knocked down a bunch of the clotheslines that were strung across the courtyard. Some clothes are still on lines connected by clothespins, and some clothes have been knocked down to the courtyard next to him. He must have just done it—he wasn’t there when I threw the spoon a couple of minutes ago. I walk right past him, pick up the spoon, and go upstairs. I give the spoon to my mom like it’s no big deal, and I never mention the dead guy or the cockroach to anyone.

Jacob Kornbluth has written and directed two feature films, The Best Thief in the World and Haiku Tunnel.

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