"Borders" by Steve Carr
by Steve Carr
The room the size of a small walk-in closet was Vance’s room. It was a room in a rooming house with six other rooms, but none as small as the one Vance lived in. All six rooms were on the second floor of an old building near the university. On the first floor of that building was a garage with six spaces all rented out to people who lived nearby.
Through the floorboards in his room the gas and oil fumes from the cars coming in and out of the garage would seep through and mingle with the smell of oil and acrylic paints, the aroma of linseed oil and turpentine, and the fumes from empty beer bottles which Vance kept in brown paper bags under his cot that was pushed against one wall. He kept the bottles there until he had enough to turn in to get the small refund he would get on each bottle, the refunds then being spent on more beer.
While painting surreal, grotesque, frightening portraits of people he imagined and drinking beer or lying on his cot Vance would watch through his open door the comings and goings of the other borders. He said nothing to them and they said nothing to him.
The afternoon Shawn moved into the recently vacated much larger room next to Vance’s room, he passed by Vance who was standing in front of a canvas, paint brush and oil paint covered palette in his hand. Shawn leaned against the frame of Vance’s open room and said, “Oh cool, an artist.”
Vance looked at Shawn, sized him up as it were, and while adding a few brush strokes of gray paint to the image of a man with an open umbrella over his head walking on a rainy street replied, “Your keen sense of observation will classify you as a genius among your fellow students at the university.”
To this, Shawn let out an exhalation of laughter. “I deserved that,” Shawn said. “How did you know I was a student?”
“Everyone here, everyone but me that is, is a student. I think the landlord takes a butterfly net on campus and catches students who look in need of a cheap room to rent.”
Shawn let out another burst of laughter. “I heard about it through the Veteran’s Assistance Office on campus.” He paused, then added, “I just finished a three year enlistment in the Army. I was stationed at a border crossing in Afghanistan.”
During the brief and oddly awkward silence that followed, Shawn looked around Vance’s room, at all the things crammed into the small space, at the head of a beer bottle sticking out of a bag under the cot, at the portraits stacked against a wall. He too had sized up Vance.
Winter came on quickly and ferociously. The damp and coldness seeped up through the floorboards from the garage below. The rooming house had changed. Shawn had changed it. Shawn’s room, separated from Vance’s only by a thin wall, had become a meeting place, a hang out, where other tenants in the house, and students from outside the house, listened to music, and ate meals together bought at a nearby Skyline Chili restaurant. Tenants and students walked by Vance’s open door all hours of the day and night. Only Shawn would stop and say hello.
Near Christmas, when Shawn was the only other tenant in the building, Vance’s two oldest adult children sat on Vance’s cot while he stood rigid like a man before a firing squad. His children didn’t ask about his painting, or what he was eating, or even if he was eating at all. What he had to say about anything was of no more importance to them any more than what they had to say about anything was of any importance to him.
After they left he closed his door and quickly drank two bottles of beer.
In the middle of the night Vance awoke to silence. He rose to a sitting position on his cot and put his hands to his pounding temples. His head felt light, not light as just before falling asleep after drinking too much beer, but as if his head would lift off of his neck and float to the ceiling. Getting up from his cot he stumbled to his door and opened it to the silence of the cold hallway. He knew whatever mixture of aromas and fumes – those he could smell and those he couldn’t – coming from his own room or from the garage below and seeping upward through the floor, whatever they were, they were making him very sick. He started toward the door leading to the stairs to go out of the building, then turned and saw the door to Shawn’s room was closed.
Opening the door to Shawn’s room, Vance saw Shawn sprawled on his back on his bed. “Shawn?” Vance said as loudly as his parched throat would allow. Getting no answer he went to the bed and finding a pulse in Shawn’s left wrist he took hold of Shawn’s limp body and pulled him from the bed and onto the floor and dragged him out of the room and into the hallway. For a brief moment he looked at Shawn’s face and wished he had painted his portrait, just as he was.
The last thing Vance did before his heart gave a final beat inside his heaving chest was to open the door at the top of the stairs and roll Shawn down the stairs into the feet of two firemen wearing breathing apparatus.