Gregory Spatz

The Relative Mutability of Distances

        We didn't know what to do about the body. Where we'd left it was unclear, though several of us thought we remembered a house—not really a house so much as a set of walls very much like a house but with a dirt floor, windows that didn't work (some were nailed shut) and walls that were the same on the inside as they were on the out. It was situated on a beachfront lane and surrounded by other houses like it, from the outside that is, though most of those other houses, we suspected, did not lack plumbing, wiring, insulation, central heating, you name it, as ours did. Some of us remembered the night in question, and some could envision nailing the door shut with planks and weather-worn 2x4s, though being such a porous structure anyway, it was hard to see what good the effort was. Before this there had been the bandaging up and the blood. Was it an accident? We weren't sure. We didn't think so. It had the air of a deliberate crime. Some things, we were sure of: how the body had been wrapped and buried under the floorboards in the one section of the house that was more like a house and had floorboards. From outside, it didn't look so bad. You couldn't imagine what the house contained or what was wrong—blood everywhere, the cold that didn't stay out, the unfinished walls and floors, the sink with no pipes. Now, very likely it was too late anyway. Police would have come, knocked down the door, found our missing man. Very likely there was nothing we could do, no way of going back there without incriminating ourselves and therefore no way to see: was the body there or not? What had become of it? Had we remembered correctly? Was it fair, leaving him? What if strangers had bought the house and come to live there, fixed up the walls and floor and plumbing, and built him right under? In most regards, since that night, our lives had gotten on fine—normally, even. We were fathers, doctors, businessman, lawyers and one of us even owned his own toy store. To remember was to risk losing everything. It was sick and stupid. And yet we were drawn—almost as if in reviewing what was left, even if only to better conceal it, we disclosed our true desire which was to be found out and made to pay.
        In this, as in all such matters, we trusted ourselves to Brad; he was the bravest and most willing to make decisions, though several of us—those who remembered, anyway—had reason to doubt some of his bravery and think his decisions foolish. But he was the one talking, good or bad, and we needed someone to follow. Someone to say things like: We return under cover of night. Or, A flotilla of inflatable zodiacs and burial at sea. Or, Remember the secret passageway through the arch at the top of the back stairwell. We'll meet up on the other side. It was all spying and hi-jinx where Brad was concerned, secret passageways, messages written in blood and decoded by flashlight. There was a siren in our brains then—one that had been chasing us for years already, in fact; we knew in the end Brad intended to expose us, double-agent style, but we were bound to him and could not help but go along with whatever he said.
        We weren't sure, at first, how we'd gotten here: the air was salty again, cold, and the walls exactly how we remembered—the cold coming straight through and making a mockery of all our attempts at warmth and of the concept of walls, generally, which is to say the concept of any set of prescribed appearances. Again it was night, fog in the headlights of the truck, truck engine running, and we were in a rush to get the door of the house down, blasting at it with hammers and axes. And now it was coming back to us, how we'd made the trip: a recollection in snapshots and images between hammer blows—first, the difficulty of coming through the hole in the high wall with the tide rushing in, and the boats circling and the long swim ahead. Then the swim cut in half unexpectedly, through the addition of an in-ground swimming pool that was stagnant, half-filled, and vined with dirt and old leaves. As always, Raoul, who was youngest and fattest, came through the last saying something about how there was a presence on his skin, a damp cold airborne residue which could be nothing other than sleep or the dead man himself. Up through the hole he came, out along the bottom of the half-full pool and up the wall, into the night, running.
        The door was coming apart for us nice and easy, but now we were scared. Scared of what we'd find inside when suddenly it occurred to us that we were caught in exactly the same trap as before—that, or time had doubled over on itself and we were once again in the original moment which we had spent so much of our adult lives attempting to escape. Brad, or maybe it was Brett, was in the bed of the truck and asking one of us please to help him get the body out. "Look, he's not going to make it. He's dead already. I say we just roll him up as best as we can in some of those old sheets—Raoul: you said there were sheets in there, inside, in the wardrobe? The only actual piece of furniture in there?" Yes, old sheets, cold and worn smooth and smelling of my mother's lilacs and the years of her having slept between them. Not that he would mind any smells, the dead guy, being dead. Still, it was something you had to consider just the same—the smell, the texture, the temperature. Here were the sheets now and we were all going at it, rolling the poor, half-dead guy over and over like a big fat joint. Lifting him, boots clattering against the side of the truck, into the ferns and the rain-drenched muck and running inside to get started digging again. Get him in under the floorboards, back out of the way, in the only finished part of the house.
        Only, hey, look it had changed since we'd been in here last—or maybe not. Maybe we were only now remembering what we'd always previously forgotten (or forgotten to notice) in our panic and concern with the body and how to get rid of it: there had been an upstairs that went on and on, ranch style, room after extra room, each on a slightly different level and connected to the rest by one or two sets of doors, and full of stuff no one ever used—extra sleeper couches and recliners and beds and TV's with porn on them. All of it officially barred from our use, except that we always used it anyway—or at least used it occasionally. We could occasionally remember using it, that is, and no harm coming as a result. So, things hadn't been so bad here after all! Then there were the older rooms, too: oak paneled, with shiny pocket doors and stained glass chandeliers, these rooms connected by a secret passageway to the main, one-room beach house we'd lived in. Or thought we remembered living in, anyway. The one with the dead body under the floorboards. How were you ever supposed to navigate quickly, being chased, around all of those antique chairs and couches and end tables—like a furniture gallery, really. All of it ours—ours, but again somehow barred from our actual possession. Still, we were enjoying the feelings that sometimes come with an unexpected new ownership, or long forgotten and therefore unexpected and new-seeming ownership. A kind of lassitude and joyous entitlement. There were cut glass dishes and crystal lamps with pull strings and brass handled fire pokers. Some of it we'd have to get rid of. For instance, the old painted pottery donkey that was really a flowerpot. Who had any use for that?
        The body. There was still the body. We had to get back down from the ranch-style rooms, back in through the pocket doors and oak paneled rooms, all of us, back to the beach front house with the sand floors where there was always the sound of surf and nothing was real or substantial enough seeming, and where the murdered man lay. Murdered men. Because now in revisiting it we'd apparently doubled our crime and there were two bodies. The one to bury still, the other (hopefully) still buried. We had to dig in under the floorboards and bury him. Who? That was the real question. One thing we knew: he was bearded and jeans-wearing with chafed split knuckles and fingertips as rough as unfinished boards. Or no, wait, he was young and glasses-wearing, with pale hairless skin and flat black hair and black-gray eyes. We had lost him at sea. Gazing out at sea, that is, from a high point on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific coast and thinking about the relative mutability of distances (gulls reeled overhead, blue boats moved in the channel) and picking up handfuls of colored pebbles to throw so the gulls would chase them and the boats might move a little faster. He'd died then, or washed ashore, and we'd had to drag him up through the surf, to the house, to give him a proper burial. Under the floorboards. Here. Where we'd already buried him the one time before.
        And now they were coming for us. Already you could hear the sirens. Quick. Out through the windows. Move. All of you. Get down, get down, get down. Into the back of the truck. OK. Let's move.