Fiction · 08/24/2011

Half-Light

When I saw the hand amid the Johnny Jump-ups, I assumed it was another weird lawn ornament like the angel babies the new super installed — until the thing began patting the ground as if searching for lost keys. Then a second hand popped up and the two of them scraped the earth, upturning clods of dirt and making a general mess until the head and torso of a man broke through.

This was Tuesday. I’d emerged from my apartment for my daily trip outside and now, before me, stood this emaciated man with skin like a rusty Pinto. He had that hangdog look you see on a person with no life, a look I could relate to.

“Are you okay?” I asked, though it was clear by the filthy clothes, the lesions, and bugs in his hair that he was not. But when I spoke, his eyes lit upon me so intensely my bones hummed.

I invited him up to my place. My last roommate moved out months before to live with her parents as she, too, couldn’t find a job. I’d gradually been selling off stuff on Craigslist and eBay, so large gaps punched the few rooms where a television, recliner, or an inflatable palm tree once stood.

The man didn’t seem to notice. We went to the kitchen and sat by the overturned plastic tub on the table — a final remnant of my ex, who ate cheese balls by the gallon. Following our breakup weeks before, the tub had reached the table and remained there amid a galaxy of orange dust. Basic upkeep of the place had shut down; lately, I’d been spending most days in bed.

I wondered how I appeared to him in my sweats and unwashed hair. His pin-point pupils seemed to reveal either nothing or something so vast I would never see its entirety.

“What’s your name?”

He blinked and turned to the window. The gunmetal day had drizzled it with rain and the glass appeared to be melting. I had a lot of questions but instead of asking, I listened to the life around us — the whoosh of the HVAC; muffled television violence; rapid-fire Spanish of a woman’s voice; a child’s tear-choked cry. Most of my days had been like this: allowing other, more vibrant lives to filter through the walls and pass into me.

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I made logos by the batch. Several sites listed client requests, so I’d cook up something on free software I found, then post them alongside dozens of others and hope my work would get picked. I’d won a few gigs. The year had been a slow decline into deeper humiliations, including work at a pet store, a Cinnabon, and a used car weekly — ending most recently in a clinical trial where I could eat nothing but root vegetables and tuna. I had blood drawn three times a day and kept a jar for round-the-clock urine collection, all of which scored me four months’ rent along with a lifelong hatred of parsnips and piss.

The logos were an improvement. At least I could listen to the radio while I worked and didn’t burn money on gas. I invited the man into the office where he sat on my Pilates ball, and I babbled a story I’d heard on the radio that morning about a new, Earth-like planet discovered 20 light years away.

“It’s half-light and half-dark. But we could live there. Humans, I mean. Not you and me.” I scrolled through requests and imagined myself part of the crew heading out there, our only goal being to stay on course, procreate, and make sure the human race doesn’t fuck it all up again.

I asked if he was hungry. He didn’t reply so I drove us out to a carnicería and bought brains and tongue. The few customers stared at his sunken cheeks, dirt-stained shirt, tie, and pants, so I explained, “Perdío su trabajo. Ha sido dificil.” He lost his job. It’s been hard. They passed sympathetic nods.

But he wouldn’t touch the organ meats. I couldn’t afford to throw them out so I sautéed them with onions, forced them down myself and went to sleep. He remained at the table. Later that night I sensed him by my bed. He leaned in close and turned his ear to my chest, as if listening to my heart. The rainy, clay earth of his skin permeated the air, and I inhaled deeply, wishing I could reach into the dark and pull him into me.

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He stayed a while. When I needed a break from logos and resumes, I’d talk. He wanted to know the world, I could tell — the latest earthquakes, the floods, the catastrophes — and was a patient listener, so I waxed at length on high fructose corn syrup, reality TV, war, my student loans, and the coming technological singularity that would wipe out the human race.

Sometimes I talked about poetry — even pulled up the verses I’d written years ago and read them to him. Afterwards, he took my hand. I was shocked not by the gesture and the chill of his fingers, but what it allowed me feel: the thick life of my own hand. A dense, soft, hotness. The flesh padding of my fingers, the muscles and tendons, and beneath them the bones, all of it part of a long and beautiful accident.

I decided to take him to the laundromat with the vintage arcade game in back. I wanted to share with him something I loved, or at least, that I could do. The game’s title was a swooshy mark upon a backdrop of stars. I’d never even paid attention to it — only to the big, red FIRE button I pounded and screamed at on days when I feared the world was not worth saving.

The place was empty. The only sound came from a telenovela on the screen over the dryers, a couple professing some pained and dramatic love. I dropped a quarter into the machine and the man stood next to me, watching as I zapped intergalactic wasps. I was conscious of him only until I fell into the game, entered the familiar pattern of dodging and destroying and feeling the power of my pixelated ship with its simple mission to kill everything. When I finished, I entered my initials in the top scorer list, then asked if he wanted to play.

“You just move around and shoot. It’s fun.” I fed another quarter and placed his hands on the controls. But when the game began he only looked at me, and a wasp shot his ship to bits.

I wanted him to react, to say something, do something. “Come on and play,” I demanded. “Play or you’re going to die!” I hit him on the chest. No response. I hit him again with both hands, and once I started that, I couldn’t stop. I beat him like he was all the wasps in the cosmos, and I had everything to save. “Why won’t you even talk?”

I began crying like the woman on the soap opera, sobbing so hard it sounded campy and unreal, but the man stood like a grave. When I looked up, his expression hadn’t changed, though I sensed something in his eyes had shifted. It reminded me of dark matter — an invisible substance theorized into existence only by its effects on other bodies.

That night I cranked the radio and sat in the kitchen staring at a crossword puzzle. I didn’t want to talk or look at him. So I was surprised when the station changed suddenly, flipping to AM then whizzing through crackpot conspiracy talk shows, oldies stations, Mexican bandas — all the way to the end, where it hit a thick wall of white noise. I returned to the living room and found the man there with his ear to the speaker the way people used to listen a century ago. I joined him, and for a while we stared at each other, face-to-face, listening until I heard it, too: there, in the dark stochastic, a far-away humming.

He left soon after. But he’ll come back, I know he will. Every night now I turn up the white noise, listen to the sound of distance, and picture him again: a million generations from here, a man crawling from the dirt to a strange, twilight world. A new and better person, skin bright, eyes wide, ready to open up and live.

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Sharon McGill received her MFA in fiction at Penn State University. Her stories, comics, and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Harpur Palate, PANK, Opium, and New Letters. During the summer of 2011, she was awarded the writing residency at ART 342 to continue work on a novel. Her website is sharonmcgill.net.