Manny saw the irony of his situation. It was hard to miss. After a lifetime during which he committed innumerable crimes-- ranging from the stupid and petty to the atrocious and downright heinous-- he had never served a single day in jail, not even a solitary moment in a holding cell. Now, at age sixty-three, an age at which he should have been reveling in the fact that he had never been “pinched,” he was stricken with an extreme and irrational fear of open spaces-- agoraphobia, the doctors called it--which kept him confined to his small one-bedroom apartment, cluttered with furniture and comforting piles of old magazines that gave the room a musty smell. It was exactly like being under house arrest, he realized, and wonder what cosmic forces conspired against him.
Each morning, at nine on the dot, dressed in his bathrobe and Romeo slippers, he answered the loud thumps on his door. It was Jimmy Hicks delivering breakfast.
When Jimmy walked through the doorway, the apartment seemed all the smaller. He had to be pushing five hundred pounds these days, and every time he walked up a flight of stairs, his heart threatened to explode. Fifteen years ago, though, Jimmy had been the most feared collection guy around. Whenever Manny had sent Jimmy out to some bar to collect money from a deadbeat, other people-- people who didn’t even owe Manny anything-- would dig in their pockets, and throw money on the floor at Jimmy’s feet. This was because Jimmy, not endowed with a great memory, had the reputation of having broken the wrong fingers on more than one occasion, often returning to Manny saying, “I coulda swore you said Teddy on Third Ave, not Benny on First Ave…. Oh, well…” Manny had been both annoyed and amused by Jimmy mistakes, but what he liked most about Jimmy was his blind loyalty. Certainly, he couldn’t have got anyone else to bring him breakfast every day for the past ten months.
Every morning Jimmy planted his bulk on the sofa, and watched Manny sitting in his beat-up lounge chair and eating breakfast.
“Manny, you really need to start moving around, you know,” Jimmy would tell him. “Everybody knows where you are-- always.” Meaning that somebody bearing an old grudge could find Manny whenever they wished. “A moving target is harder to hit.”
Try as he had, Manny couldn’t get Jimmy to understand how he was trapped in the apartment by his phobia. Every time Manny told him he was afraid to go outside, Jimmy took it as a joke, laughing so hard he could barely breathe and sometimes began to choke. “Yeah, Manny, that’s a good one.”
Finally, Manny gave up, and told him, “Hell, I’m old. Let them come and get me, if they want. At this point it would be a mercy killing.”
This, of course, was mere bravado. There was nothing Manny feared so much as the idea of his own death. He would have nightmares two, three times a week. They were always the same; he would never see himself in a coffin surrounding by grieving relatives, but rather find himself in an open grave, slowly sinking and melting into the clayey earth. He’d waken, then, his body bathed in sweat, his arthritic hands trembling uncontrollably. It was as though over the years he had never accepted his own mortality, and now the thought of slipping away into nonexistence-- or worse, ending up in a place where he’d be judged for all the shit he’d done-- was terrifying beyond description.
No, if somebody came after him, he would escape somehow. He would defeat one fear to escape the greater fear.
Each afternoon, quiet because most of the building’s other tenants were at work, he would stand before the door that led to the hallway. He would remain still as a statue for a long while, before finally venturing to reach for the doorknob. He opened the door slowly, the gap between door and doorjamb growing minutely larger. When he peeked out into the hallway, his heart pounding hard and sweat forming on his upper lip, it seemed vastly wide, the standard gray carpet stretching to the opposite wall of the hallway. He paused a moment, eyes shut hard, telling himself, It’s not that bad. Put it out of your mind. You can do this now. You have to do this. Or else one day somebody’s going to come crashing through the door and fill you full of holes. Images flashed through his mind of him being swallowed by the earth, melting into the vast loamy mouth of the ground. He could barely breathe as he opened the door wider, wide enough for him to squeeze out into the hallway. He set his right foot forward tentatively, the toe of his slipper barely brushing the hallway carpet. He looked like a man about to take a bath, testing the water temperature by dipping his big toe into the tub. He fought to keep his eyes open; cowards shut their eyes. He set his foot firmly in the hallway, and now began the process of pulling the rest of himself out into the dreadful openness. When he was finally standing beyond his door, his body was trembling, his knees weak, his breathing shallow. He turned to look down the length of the hallway. It seemed endless. The longer he gazed down the hallway, the longer the hallway seemed to become, telescoping outward and away from him, so that the landing at the end of it seemed a mile away. He began to hear a loud buzzing in his head, and then the dizziness started, so badly he was instantly nauseated. Abruptly he turned away and lunged back into the apartment, slamming the door after him. He leaned his back against the shut door, and slowly slid down to the floor, as though all the strength of his body had finally dwindled down and now he was not strong enough to stand even.
Every day, a little more, he told himself. Just a little bit more. And then one day it’ll be all right. I’ll be able to run and run, and nobody’ll ever catch me.
Manny enjoyed the solitude of his days. As much as he looked forward to Jimmy bringing his breakfast, it wasn’t long before he grew weary of the big man. The guy was a moron who couldn’t keep up his end of a conversation. He was good for bringing breakfast, but that was about all.
Soon after he’d finished eating, Manny would just about shoo Jimmy out of the apartment. Jimmy never got offended-- you couldn’t offend him, not even if you tried-- he was just too simple to notice any slight or snub.
During the afternoon, Manny spent his time reading. He loved Mickey Spillane and Harold Robbins, and he had piles of well-worn detective magazines from the 1950s, with their lurid covers. Sometimes, when his eyes were bothering him from reading, he would watch television, usually some sappy soap opera he would never admit to anybody he watched.
The apartment building was blissfully quiet during the day. Most of the tenants were at work. The only other person on his floor who was home was a very old man who never made any noise.
One day Manny heard a faint scratching sound. He looked up from one of his old True Detectives, which, for some sick reason, he found hilarious. He listened hard, but the sound stopped. After a moment, he concluded that it had just been his imagination, and resumed reading.
A short while later, though, he again heard the faint sound, like the tip of a tree branch brushing against the side of a frame house. But the apartment building was brick and there were no trees close enough for their branches to touch it.
A deep horror rose within Manny as the sound brought back distant memories. Rats! It had to be rats; the scratching he heard sounded purposeful-- rats trying to do something, clawing their way through the wall, looking for a way into his apartment maybe, if they hadn’t got in already.
He looked around his cluttered apartment. They could be hiding anywhere. There were stacks of old magazines and newspapers, boxes of tawdry novels.
As his eyes darted here and there, searching for a horrible thin black tail slithering into some hiding place, his hand absently rose to the scar on his jaw. He had been way too young to remember how he’d got that scar, just an infant in a crib. For years, as he grew up, his parents had lied to him, told him he’s fallen and cut his jaw on the edge of a stair. Finally, his older brother Tony told him the truth: that a rat had climbed into his crib and started gnawing on his face as he slept.
Now he rose carefully from the sofa, and edged over to the closet. It was jammed with things, mostly sports equipment he had never in his life used. He dug out a baseball bat and started stalking through the living room. He kicked over boxes of books and 8-tracks, expecting to see a monstrous rat behind, standing on its hind legs and looking for a fight. But he found nothing. Yet the scratching sound continued. He tried to locate the source of the sound, but couldn’t, and soon the apartment was a completely disaster. Books, magazines, 8-tracks, video tapes, newspapers and a thousand other items that Manny had never been able to throw out were strewn across the floor so that the carpet couldn’t even be seen.
He walked around, his feet slipping on slick magazine covers or crushing on video cassettes. The baseball bat trembled as he held it out before him, ready to crush rat skulls. Once it seems a pile of dusty old books seemed to move by itself, and he ran over it and started beating the books with his bat. But there was nothing, nothing but musty old pages that had been nibbled on by silverfish over the years.
Finally he fell, exhausted, onto the sofa. The baseball bat slipped from his hand. The scratching sound continued.
“Little bastards,” he muttered. His hair was matted with sweat and his mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow.
Then it seemed the walls started edging toward him. The apartment was growing smaller. He knew it was impossible, but his eyes were actually seeing the minute inward movement on the walls.
He wanted to escape, but there was nowhere to go except the terrifying vastness outside. His mind raced frantically, trying to figure a solution. It was either risk going outside or stay inside, which was shrinking so that soon he would be inside a cramped box trapped with the rats.
He went to the door, and pulled it open against the mounds of debris on the floor. When he peered out into the hallway, it looked as long as ever, as long as an endless tunnel leading to nowhere. How could this be? He wondered. How could he still be afraid off open spaces? Wouldn’t his new fear, of close spaces, replace the old fear? Nobody could survive the fears of open and close space together; they would go mad, they would die, without being able to find a safe place.
He decided to venture into the hallway. For real this time-- not just playing, not just testing. The fear of his apartment swelled behind him-- it seemed like a much greater threat.
He began walking down the long, long hallway, slowly at first, his breathing short, his eyes darting at the hallway walls, which, thankfully, didn’t seem to be squeezing in on him. After several steps, he found it became easier to move. His dread of openness seemed to be fading, and the more it faded, the faster he moved.
It was like a miracle. He was out of his apartment, moving farther away from it, away from the rats and the windows covered with brown paper and the moving walls. With each step he took, his joy grew. Away, away, I’m running away, he thought, and then, in fact, he began to run.
And then he could see the end of the hallway. It seemed like a lifetime since he saw the spot where stairs led down to the parking lot. The parking lot filled with cars! How he used to love to drive! When his wife Marie was still alive, and his kids were still small, he had driven out to the country every weekend. He could drive again, go out on the open road without a lick of dread…. He was free!
He ran down the stairs and out into the parking lot. The air was chilly. His world spread out before him under the twilit sky, and it was a vast and wonderful world he no longer feared. He danced and skipped around the parked cars, like somebody who had wondered away from a mental hospital and was in bad need of his medication. But he didn’t care what people thought. He saw a woman and her little daughter walking toward the entrance to the building, and he accosted them was joyful greetings. He waved at a ComEd truck that was cutting through the lot, and behind the ComEd truck came a limo. He waved at the limo too. How many hours had he spent riding in limos? It seemed like a million years ago….
The limo came to a stop by him. He thought somebody would climb out, and he got ready to greet them. But the limo door never opened. The back window slide down silently, and the withered face of an old man stared out at him.
“Manny? Manny, is that you?” the old man asked, grinning broadly.
“Yeah,” Manny chirped. He recognized the old man, and although Manny couldn’t recall his name, he was glad to see anybody now, outside in the wonderful openness.
He never saw the gun, but heard the quick bang-bang and the flash come from inside the limo, which rolled away as it rear window slid back up.
Manny clutched his chest. He could barely breathe. He looked confused, like a small child who has just broken his favorite toy.
As he fell to the ground, so slowly this could only be a dream, the asphalt below twisted and seemed to open up to swallow him.