Painting by Olivia Bransom
by Clarke Clayton
Heroin addicts used to whisper and paw at our front door at night. In the morning their syringes glinted on the stoop. “Are they breaking in?” Helen had gasped the first night that it happened, cowering from her bed. In seconds she was hyperventilating. My sister was nervous about most things; she inhaled anxiety from the oxygen in any room. “No,” I told her, peeking through the glass. “They’re just leaning against the door. I don’t think they know anybody lives here.”
Issue #31 soundtrack: Two Bicycles "Alone At Sea"
There were only two of them, and they seemed to be no more than teenagers. Their mischief wasn’t especially obtrusive, but the glass vials and needles they left behind made us uneasy. In the mornings, I swept the stoop and told Helen not to worry. It was different here, after all. The addicts were all bored rich kids and the drug was regulated. In Zurich, a coworker had informed me, they treated drug addicts like kings. If you were a user, you could get free lodging and all the needles you wanted.
Despite understanding that the addicts were commonplace, my sister was unhinged by their presence and could not be consoled. A childhood trauma had left her incapable of enduring the world’s anxieties. She combed each day for knots of sadness and danger, and it was unfortunate that she should perpetually encounter that which reinforced her fears. The night people, as we began to call them, stirred her deepest terror about the capacity of the outside world to wriggle its way into even the most secure places.
To Helen, our house was inadequate protection. It was a small cottage of two rooms separated only by a curtain. In the front one, we cooked and ate and watched television. In the back, we slept in twin beds flanking each other and separated by a nightstand. Like all the houses on our street, the cottage had been built in the twelfth century. The rent was enormously expensive, and we planned on ultimately moving to a more spacious apartment in the suburbs, but for the present we agreed that sharing the small space and living in a central location was the best way to acquaint ourselves with our new city.
There were certain things about the cottage that had bothered Helen from the beginning. She disliked that we were on the ground floor, making us more vulnerable to burglars and troublemakers and noise. Even though we lived on a quiet alley in a good neighborhood boisterous drunks routinely passed by, crowing and hollering in the middle of the night. In the afternoons, teenagers from a nearby school used the alley for their daily misbehaviors, indiscreetly smoking, groping each other and occasionally fist-fighting. And then, a few weeks into our lease of the cottage, the prowling outside began to stir us at night, the night people’s ritual on our stoop.
Though not exactly loud, their sounds were various and disturbing. They had voices that were sometimes urgent and sometimes giddy, and they tapped absently at the ground and the frame of the door. Sometimes it sounded like ghosts or lost children trying to get our attention. Other times it sounded like an intimate cocktail party to which we’d not been invited: the low voices, the smell of smoke. When I peeked out the window, I could see them leisurely passing around the accoutrement of the drug and loitering a while before carelessly rising, the tinkle of glass echoing on the ground as they wandered away. They were quieter than the drunks, but in their whispering and rustling, much eerier.
“Let’s turn on some music,” I would tell Helen, when their nightly creeping would rouse us. “Or I’ll bang on the door and tell them to go away.”
“No,” she’d inevitably say, jerking her head back and forth stubbornly, “no, no, no. I don’t want them to know that we know that they’re here.”
Then she would lie with a pillow over her head until she slept.
I worked every day just over the German border, in a chemical engineering facility. My job was not a high-ranking one, but because I had been willing to move from the United States, which none of my colleagues had been eager to do, I had been granted a somewhat unearned promotion and was being very well-compensated for my work.
Helen worked at home, teaching the piccolo to schoolchildren. She’d played the instrument for years, and it was a coincidence that the skill was relevant at all in the city we’d moved to.
All the residents of the city played the piccolo. Instruction typically began at a very young age, four or five years old. The reason why everyone played the piccolo was because the instrument had a special role in a traditional Swiss winter festival, similar to Mardi Gras and comprised of three days of parades and public drinking. There were professional marching bands during the festivities, but also scores of citizen-performers who took to the streets as well with their piccolos. These bands of children and adults played around the clock for three days straight. The festival had enormous significance to the people, who spent all year looking forward to and planning the events.
We had not been present for that year’s festivity, having moved just after it. But when we arrived the confetti was still in the streets, and the city’s anticipation still swelled, even though the festival was already over. And as a continuation of the festival, at dusk each Sunday for the rest of the winter and spring, residual marching and playing of the piccolos occurred, and that is how my sister discovered that her mastery of the instrument was highly regarded among the Swiss and a possible source of income for her.
She gave six children private lessons several afternoons a week. It was a leisurely schedule that left her with plenty of free time. Her main pastimes were buying pastries, amusing herself at the English bookstore, and shopping for little knickknacks to improve the coziness of our house. I paid the brunt of the rent and the bills, but the things that she bought dressed our lives in a pleasant way. She bought quilts and pillows and teacups and bouquets of flowers, bathrobes and bottles of wine and boxes of sweets. In one month’s time she had determined the finest linzer torte in the city, and the best confiserie for cheese tarts and chocolates. She determined which of the three cathedrals was the nicest place to sit and she would often visit it, marveling in the vast security and absence of chaos in such a place.
I was envious of Helen’s pleasant days, since mine were spent in a windowless office working in solitude. But I was also happy for her, because she was not as strong as I was. And because nights caused her such anguish, I was glad for her peaceful days.
Sometimes it would seem that the night people had abandoned our stoop. A few evenings might pass in silence, and we would both become filled with warm, false hope that we didn’t speak of out loud. The possibility that they would not bother us anymore transformed Helen. A rare confidence would settle over her. “I think I’ll take the tram to France today,” she might say over breakfast, full of the sort of ambitious energy that usually escaped her. “I’ll get good bread to have for supper tonight.” She would bring back delicacies from France, baguettes and slabs of salty Beaufort and butter cookies for the children she taught. On such days, when I returned from work, she would be animated and full of stories, spreading the day’s anecdotes before me like a hand of cards. Those times, the days when she was confident in herself and the world, were happy ones.
But inevitably, the night people would return again. As time passed and the weather warmed, their visits became more bothersome. The cottage became uncomfortable at night because we kept the windows closed, at Helen’s insistence, and the room’s air would grow hot and stuffy. I tried to sleep on top of the covers, and was always amazed that she in the bed opposite me was still curled up beneath a pile of quilts and blankets. No matter how hot it grew as the night passed, she never budged from beneath the protective shield of bedclothes so long as the noise from outside persisted, the muffled, close laughter and the mumbles and the rustles.
The only trait of Helen’s that rivaled her nervousness was how superstitious she was. She respected the omens of even the most amateur psychics, she prayed to various deities effortlessly and in full belief. For her myriad fears, she prescribed herself cures that were to me nonsensical: checking the locks five times each night, never climbing into a bed that had not been properly made, entering rooms with her right foot first. On these rules her fragile sanity rested, and although I thought such habits silly, they set her at ease.
Silence during the prowls outside had been one such habit that I respected even though I had long guessed that if we made any sort of racket from within, we’d scare them away. But this rule, of absolute silence, changed one especially hot night in May. As usual, Helen refused to open the windows and we were stiflingly hot. I gave up attempting sleep and stared at the ceiling drowsily for hours. Around two in the morning, I sat up in bed having been roused by a new sound, a whining loop of music that dredged me awake.
Helen sat at the foot of her bed playing her piccolo, the high-pitched sound streaming out weakly. I recognized it as a children’s song and she played it again and again.
“Helen,” I whispered. But she ignored me.
Finally she paused and looked at me. “If I play this,” she said clearly. “They stop doing what they’re doing and they listen.” She began playing again.
I wanted to see for myself. When I peeked out the window, I saw the figures crouched on our stoop, silent and still. Helen kept playing the tune. To me, it was unremarkable but it must have signaled something to the night people: perhaps summoned a childhood memory, or distracted them into pausing and looking at the things in their hands, wondering how they had ended up here.
In the morning, Helen woke early. She made pancakes and watched me eat them, too content to have much of an appetite herself. At the table she began drafting a list of elaborate chores to complete, errands that required roaming the city. I smiled at her new robustness. Finally, it seemed she had found a way of coming to peace with the night people, even though to me it was as impractical as the other compulsions she thought warded off danger and chaos.
That evening, she let us crack the windows open before bed. With the room comfortable, I immediately fell into a deep sleep. I only woke up when I heard Helen and her piccolo some hours later. It was dark out, perhaps two in the morning. Hearing me roused, she turned and said excitedly, “They brought their friends.” I peered out the window. There were five or six darkened figures sitting outside the door, listening to her playing. I myself was unnerved by the increase in visitors and could not understand why Helen wasn’t as well. But she seemed flattered by the attention. She played for an hour.
As the weeks went by, this became routine. We began to go to bed earlier and earlier in anticipation of Helen’s nightly concerts. By June we’d taught ourselves to fall asleep at eight o’clock, and then just after midnight, Helen would wake up to play for several hours. Around five, we would fall back asleep and the addicts would traipse back to whatever corners sheltered them by day. Sometimes only the original duo came to listen and other times as many as eight or ten materialized from the darkness. Whoever they were, they left things in their wake: the vials, the needles, and now also empty bottles and blankets and once even a shoe. I was glad for these things because they proved that the people outside were real, and not some joint conjuring of our imaginations.
Helen thrived under the new routine. With relish she spent her days absorbed in chores and tutoring the children, and at night she mollified the addicts at the door.
There was an evening in late June that must have had special significance to the night people, because they came in droves. After darkness fell, the rustling outside began. We napped lightly until around midnight when they clawed for Helen at the door. The murmurs outside seemed to add up to a crowd and a covert look out the window confirmed there were about two dozen gathered around our stoop. They fell silent as she began to play.
I had never thought of Helen as a natural performer before. But suddenly I was struck by her confidence, how calmly she seated herself on a stool in front of the door to begin her concert, how she seemed to inhale the night people’s anticipation and curiosity into her lungs, and exhale it into the instrument in the form of the plain, playful children’s songs that they so liked. It occurred to me more than once how tinny and silly the music sounded; and how, had she played a more substantial instrument, that the response outside might be somehow more justified. But it was undeniable that her flimsy little piccolo conjured something of more meaning to the night people than a cello or a harp might have. Or maybe it was the source of the music that fascinated them, for we had long supposed that they thought our cottage was abandoned, and that was why they’d congregated outside at nights to begin with. Either way, they were transfixed, and Helen played for them until her hands trembled and her lips were bruised.
Around four in the morning, she stopped. By then, I was sprawled across my bed, exhausted and eager to rest until I had to wake for work in a few hours. Helen set down the piccolo and went to watch out the window, as she always did after she played, to see them gather themselves up and scatter away. She looked out the window and watched for a moment before murmuring something.
“What?” I propped myself on an elbow sleepily.
“They aren’t leaving.” She sounded curious but not quite frightened.
Then a gathering of sound began outside the door. It rose steadily and enveloped the room: applause. Helen’s eyes were enormous. “What should I do?”
I shrugged, not entirely comprehending her and feeling myself tumbling backward into the irresistible softness of sleep. The clapping continued, its rhythm compounding my exhaustion, and I lay back against the pillow. Dreamily, I watched her smooth her nightgown and with a single finger unlatch the door chain. I watched her grasp the handle and, shoulders set, fling open the door.
Then Helen stepped outside, into the darkness and into the applause of the night people.
Clarke Clayton studied writing at Barnard College, where she was a recipient of the Peter S. Prescott Prize for Prose Writing. Her short fiction has been published in Knee Jerk and Untoward magazines, and she was recently a finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars Unified Literary Contest.
Olivia Bransom is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, pursuing a BFA in Studio Art. The Rialto Theatre in Aransas Pass, Texas, exhibited a solo show of her work from June through September 2010. She also placed first in the Rising Eyes of Texas art competition in 2007, and was featured in it from 2007-2010. View Olivia's online portfolio at olivart.org.
Two Bicycles is the side project of British Columbia-based Teen Daze. His new LP "The Ocean" released in April through Crash Symbols. For more, visit the band on Facebook and Bandcamp.