Excerpt: An Agent and A Mirror

Ray sat behind the desk in the lobby of the assisted living home. It was past midnight. The building was silent. The outer gates were locked, and would stay that way, until he’d unlock them at dawn. 

“About ready?” An old thin man approached the desk. He always helped Ray make his first rounds. After that, Ray only made rounds out of boredom. The rest of the time he read or recited Bruce Springsteen songs like “Thunder Road” or “Dry Lightning,” or taught himself to play piano in the front hall. 

“Let’s do it.” Ray followed the old thin man out of the bright lobby and down the first floor hall. The carpets were as thin as a credit card and splotched with dark stains. The saddest part about the place wasn’t the isolation, it wasn’t the middle of the night quiet-dark, it wasn’t the plaques the residents made for their own temporary doors, it wasn’t how slow the time would go, it wasn’t the lonely apartment that awaited Ray, it wasn’t that he couldn’t drink, it wasn’t that there was no one to talk to after the thin old man went to sleep. It wasn’t any of that. 

It was the individual smells that came from the rooms. The scents held all their aloneness and hopelessness. They must come from soup bowls—half-eaten and left on tables all night until someone came to checkup the next day; they must have come from times when people couldn’t remember or muster the courage to feel that action mattered. What did it matter to take the trash out? How could one summon the courage to feel that an action like this mattered? How could anyone muster faith against such odds? 

This assisted living building was in the worst part of town. The gates were locked because it was dangerous beyond them. The gates were locked to keep the old people safe. Keep them alive and un-robbed. How could anyone with a clear head have the faith to do anything when a place like this may await them? These people were forgotten, waiting to die; and the smells that crept from under the door slips into the hall told the story. 

That was the real reason that Ray didn’t make many rounds after the first obligatory one. The old thin man and Ray made their way up each floor, and down, and back. Sometimes Ray would ask the old thin man about his life, but it was hard to understand him—he’d jump from topic to topic, and was short on concrete details. But Ray liked him. He was kind and meant to be helpful. Ray wondered what his life had been like. Had he been a security guard himself? Had he been married? Did he have kids? Was he a drinker? Did he feel content with his life? Or had his life always been some variation of this place? Except with a soul-sucking job added on top?

Ray followed the thin old man through the carnival of sad sights and scents, dragging his feet over the thin carpet, wearing his hollow light badge, blue button-up shirt and blue slacks. “Eagle Security,” read the bronze badge that stuck to the fabric of his shirt in front of his heart. A needle cut through the blue fabric and held it on him. If he paid close attention, he could feel the cold needle against his chest. 

After they made the rounds, Ray was glad to be alone. He said goodnight to the thin old man, and sat back down at the front lobby desk. This job gave him the time to be with all the thoughts he had to put off the rest of the time. He felt good being alone here, most of the time. When it got close to the end of his shift, the time would go slower. Ray opened up his book. He’d started reading another book at work. Breakfast of Champions. This book felt like himself, Ray thought. He was always in the mood for it. He sat in the beige cloth rolling chair for a long time and read. He liked the night best when it was fully dark. When it started to get light he felt worse. 

After a while he got tired and wanted to move. He walked up to the seventh floor. There was a room on the floor that always had their TV on. He imagined the old man or woman having a good time; always watching some great old movie, never having to work. He imagined they were lively. Fun. He walked back down the concrete stairwell to the fifth floor and walked down the hall. He walked by a room with a very sad smell. He always tried to avoid it. It smelled like unfresh beef broth. Not rotten but unfresh. It signified to Ray how things always disintegrate. How they fall apart, little by little, until they can’t hold themselves up or take care of themselves anymore. Until they can’t be beautiful any more. Or fun. Or sharp. His shoulders sagged forward as he made himself move down the hall. His feet drug along the thin carpet. He looked down at the carpet to avoid seeing the door that the sad smell was coming from. He didn’t want to know the name on the door.

The carpet was worn and splotched and stained. He imagined the day it was installed. The hall must have felt like one of the world’s great hotels on that day. He imagined how fresh the new carpet smelled, how good it looked in the bright hall light. How soft it felt when some security guard from the past had walked across it. How it filled the residents with pride. Now it only reminded them of how dire it all is. It may as well be a fucking billboard with bright neon lights that screams D-E-S-P-A-I-R!!! Take a deep breath, and get a good look, folks. This is it. 

Ray fingered at his badge and made his way to the steel stairwell door, watching the angle where the thin fraying carpet touched the wall. 

The morning light had started to strain at the edges of the soft dark, and it made Ray feel more tired. He no longer felt in the mood to read his book. He could only walk down the first hall—the smells weren’t too bad there—and back. So he did this, and he looked at his watch, waiting for five-thirty. 

Finally, it was time. He walked outside in the light-splintered dark, toward the gate. He used his key, and took down the chains from the gate. Then, he walked to the other gate. It was cool in the summer almost-dawn. A group of guys wearing gold chains and sweat pants walked by, somewhere between partying and more partying. They’d probably go to some room and do more drugs, watching cartoons until they became daytime talk shows, none of them ever getting the reward they felt the night had promised them. Only the passing from night to dawn to full-morning to late-morning to noon to early-afternoon. Then, one by one, they’d splinter off into the daylight, ending up wherever they could end up, sleeping when they could. Ray felt a vague threat from the loud group of people at the same moment that he felt sorry for them. He thought of the smell outside the room on the fifth floor. He carried the chains over his shoulder. They were damp with dew.