the lonely floor
harold lived alone with his cat, jeremy, on the sixth floor of an ugly, sprawling apartment building in a bland corner of the city, right near the commuter train, not that that’s important.
over the course of his existence, harold had been suffering from terrible bouts of a deep malaise which kept him from ever developing any kind of a career, or in fact holding down any of a number of odd jobs throughout his life. he had no family nor any friends but he had found one thing that held his interest, and that was his television. more specifically, the new ‘streaming video’ that was so fashionable in those days. he had a remarkable library of film and television viewing at his disposal any time he liked, and the thrill of outdoing a weekly cliffhanger with the touch of a rubbery button made him absolutely giddy; long and painful winter hours of unemployment became somehow manageable as he scheduled his existence in 22-, 46-, and 90-minute segments, day after ineffectual day. the integration of it into his experience was his panacea — and yet, and yes, his downfall.
there was, of course, a direct correlation between harold’s increasing reliance on this vicarious journeying and the disarray of his living area. his interest in maintaining any kind of order in his surroundings had in the end fallen out the window as easily as his last dead plant, the pot squatting helplessly on the sill and cowering its final dry-dirt gasping sadness as the cat casually thunked it over the edge and out into the alleyway below.
one dark afternoon, harold awoke to an excitable scratching sound, realizing that jeremy was sifting through the litter box for a cleanish place to bury his shit. groaning, harold begrudgingly got up and shuffled to the box, pushing the cat aside whining yes yes, I’ll handle it already, and he scooped out the waste from the box and dumped it in a plastic sack which he left half-open on the floor. trudging back to the couch in his dirty flannel pants, he could hear jeremy digging through the fresh litter as a train rushed by the window.
jan, harold thought, was on the contrary rather fetching in her new glasses.
as the begloomed and beleagurered hours wore on, thunderous convergences mounting over the skyline and threatening the streets below with slosh and noise, he sludged through the interior debris of the falling-apartment toward the refrigerator as jeremy tiptoed his way over hidden horizontal heights — somewhere beneath, furniture — looking to be fed. fortunately there continued a reliable source of nutrition for the cat despite the quality of squalor it was forced to negotiate on a daily basis, yet it was clearly a frustrated cat, blessed with a chronic mild hunger as well as the typical disdain its species is known for.
sleep: harold gave in. frequently.
the alien informed harold that humankind were the descendants of the Martian race, who thousands of millennia before had annihilated themselves with something amounting to a global nuclear war, and that the martian planetary surface that terran observation had revealed was lifeless and desertlike only because what was being viewed were the uppermost layers of ages and eons of nuclear fallout. the ‘face’ humans were familiar with was in fact the buried topography of a high mountain peak; the canals were simply crevasses and fissures created by quakes and settllings and, yes, probably riverways beneath, for Mars had been in its heyday an orb of considerable moisture indeed.
Martians, harold was told, although they were to themselves of course not martians per se, had made an unprecedented escape only a few years prior to their horrendous self-destruction. throngs of survivors were gathered up and deposited with the earlier experimental settlements of earth, where scientists conducted genetic experiments on the native primate species which, by some miracle of evolution of the Sol system, very closely resembled themselves. the going theory was that life on these neighboring planets had many of the same extra-planetary origins, perhaps having been derived from a body that once orbited in between the two, long since consumed and exploded and now a mere asteroid belt.
the dead surfer’s toes were missing. Well, said the detective, let’s hope he can still hang ten in the next world.
…harold, it may as well be noted, was not in any way partial to sports television, or reality shows, or any type of news reel. he sought out the more sophisticated and enticing garbage, and also very old programs that no one watched anymore. in particular, he could remain entranced for hours by anything that went unremembered and tucked away in the annals of internet collections that came and went mysteriously. Why, WHY do they keep taking down Tales From The Darkside? where else is it even available? tis not in the library. nor on dvd. mystified, he tripped over a blanket.
harold was apparently host to an old martian personality that preferred science fiction programming. i mean, really, how could that NOT be the case? the martian wanted to see Welt am Draht again, but harold fought for control over the remote, as he had discovered an intriguing documentary on the history of ice-harvesting.
speaking of ice, their Mars being a much colder planet than this, those ancient researchers and subsequent doom escapees here on earth back in the day were relatively relaxed and toasty, and thus eventually evolved to be primarily hairless, retaining only patches on little vital areas with stronger blood flow — an idea many conspiracy-minded or ancient alien theorists were these days touting as fact. and fact, in fact, it most certainly is. according to what harold was told.
ghosts and gods and other paranormal phenomena described by humans through mythologies, legends, and direct experience, were frequently the remnants of the martian psyche, persisting with a surprising degree of intelligence and awareness and having recollected some of their ancient telepathic methods to retain identities and inhabit this earth without corporeal form, traveling instead from host to host and observing, living vicariously, mostly silent — an established fact, particularly in fiction. the alien personalities would latch onto a human host and follow about and watch the world, like…. like television, really. but on occasion the host became aware of them, and this was harold’s either belief, or fear, or dismissal, depending on the nature of the day. martian possession, he knew, was typically diagnosed as mental illness, as dissociative and schizoid disorders, he understood this well and not just from tv broadcast admonition. sometimes manifested as physical illness… antisocial behavior…. slovenliness…. entropy…
but anyway, realizing they were the last remaining of their civilization, and in such small numbers, this race of now-mostly-hairless large-brained upright beings recognized that the only possibility of preserving themselves on a reasonable scale was to enable mating with the locals. which they did. which, it turned out was not really necessary or even ideal, since the martian lifespan pre-hybridization had been at least several earth centuries, and they considerably whacked that down to near-nothing by thoroughly messing with the underlying code. so. maybe you SHOULD be concerned about gmos. it’s not my department, however.
the notion that harold was either insane, dreaming, or possessed by aliens is not really of any particular consequence in this story. it could have gone any number of ways, and in fact this paragraph is being inserted long after the fact of the initial telling (which has morphed this way and that numerous times since first committed to paper). harold was, nonetheless, plagued by incomplete thoughts that would come and go during times of insight, or duress, or blissful laziness, sometimes a pleasant distraction, sometimes a horrible plague… often profound; more frequently impossible to collect; habitually, ultimately incomprehensible. he struggled with his consciousness, and what it meant, regularly.
not that he would remember this, not precisely and to speak the truth not even vaguely, but harold once ate an avocado on a tuesday. the titleist-sized seed sat absorbing murky sinkwater for quite some time until the day he unwittingly scooped it out and tossed it in a heap of decaying plant matter, a soggy grocery bag of neglect that sat on the floor beside the fridge in a perpetual state of mid-spill. weeks went by. it sprouted on the day that Zardoz was explaining the evils of penises and virtues of guns. it had successfully breathed life into seven leaves by the week of the Quatermass marathon, due in large part to the leaking refrigerator icebox harold had once begun to defrost and long since forgotten, whose moisture seeped quietly along the floor to nourish the lump of compost that fed the tiny tree.
harold’s incorporeal and uninvited guest, harold was informed, was itself lazy and obsessed with television.
sometimes this made him feel just a little bit better. even superior.
randolph mantooth? was that his real name?? who gave someone a name like that? and what exactly do they mean by ‘rampart’, anyway? …for the rest of the day harold could not escape hallucinating scraps of the star-spangled banner. lying on the couch at two twelve in the morning, it occurred to him that it truly was a terrible song, with an infectious and diseased melody he wished he could once and for all time step on, like a scurrying roach.
eventually harold had be asked, not particularly politely, to resign from his employment. his aroma had grown rather awful, and his speech, if it could find an analogy here, had degenerated about to the level of his (otherwise physical) hygiene. not to say he spoke dirtily, or that he had developed some sort of tourette’s-like capacity for outbursts of the uncouth; more like…. like disheveled, his thoughts and speech were disheveled, and his ability to organize his inner chaos to a degree translatable to words was complicated by the fact that sentence formation increasingly eluded him. his output was, in fact, becoming linguistically atrophied.
he knew he could no longer leave the house after the episode in the little korean market where he’d ventured to get supplies. he was having increasing difficulty focussing. the martian parasite harassed him for selzer and tv, as it was lazy as well, and very possibly not real. this however is not certain and has never been proved one way or the other. ‘shut up!! shut up, shut up, shut up, or i will tear my head off with my bare hands just to fucking spite you!!!’ he would yell this into his coat, until he at last chose to remain indoors and simply order sardines in bulk from amazon.
harold had a fitful, terrible dream.
in it, he was in the dark, watching television — when his skin began to crawl. at first he felt it undulating along his core, the surface rippling and stinging and itchy. the tv set became larger and showed mostly static, with intermittent voices. a terrible feeling of dread came over him which quickly escalated to panic and fear as he saw his skin moving independently of the inside of himself. he gradually became aware that he and his skin were not united of purpose at all, and that in fact his skin seemed to have wholly separated from his insides and was attempting to consume him. screeching, he began flailing and struggling and was somehow able to peel the layer from himself, slipping out of it in a supernaked slime of skinlessness. he was on the floor, backed away from the pile of his shed skin, gaping in horror…
the pile sat up, looked at him, grinning. he screamed as it lifted its drippy arms toward him. it seemed to be laughing. jeremy the cat had meanwhile come over to him and now began nosing his exposed interior surfaces, daintily tasting his flesh; he was slick flayed meat, then jeremy approached the laughing pile of skin and somehow slipped into it, moving toward harold. he was sitting up on the floor and began dragging himself backward with his arms, but he was heavy, heard a scraping sound, legs immobile — looked down and saw that he was dragging not his lower body but a hunk of corroded metal, covered in rust, with rivets and huge lag bolts coming loose.
then he was outside himself, watching himself drag what he realized was a piece of old fallen steel bridge, he realized his legs were actually debris from what might have been the buttressing of an old railroad trestle, a decaying steel girder, and as he dragged his helpless torso across the floor sparks flew up all around him, becoming little demon fireflies with hats and colored streamers and oozing some greasy relentless rage.
then he was jeremy, wearing the suit of his skin, pawing at the air with the empty costume of what had been his arms, he began licking the skin, licking excitedly, the skin laughing, jeremy purring, the hunk of bridge scraping, he screeching but also he was jeremy but not jeremy he was something else, he was rotting metal, he was skinless, he was helpless, he was hungry, and the skin picked up a leg and began feeding it to him, he was jeremy eating his moulted skin while he watched screaming, watching himself watching…..
... yes i know.
… well, it’s really just become intolerable...
… ha yeah you and me both.
… nah i really just gotta get out of this situation…
… yeah i’m thinking about it.
… oh i appreciate it.
… sure, thanks for the encouragement.
… hope to see you soon too.
jeremy hung up the phone and entered the room where harold sat immobilized on the couch. the cat stared at harold and noticed the man’s eyes were watering, a milky fluid that slid passively down his face. finally jeremy spoke.
‘listen, guy, i’ve had about as much of this as i can take. you suck, you’re boring, and you’re not meeting my needs. dry food? i’m so sick of dry food i can hardly find anything to say about it. things just... things just aren’t working out between us, yeah?’
harold’s head slowly turned from the set to the cat. utter terror transformed his flaccid face in a peculiar slow-motion. his eyes bulged, his mouth gaped, and the sheer horror of the speaking cat shunted the blood from his countenance, and jeremy watched with ancestral indifference as the color drained from harold’s hair which stood on end — somewhere beneath the whitening mop a blood vessel exploded and poor harold suddenly expired on the spot.
the cat fetched the keys from where they’d been tossed despairingly into the mess of the kitchen counter some indeterminable day before. returning to the lifeless body, lost and frozen in a silent scream, he ate the soft, loose parts of harold’s bloodless face, which was alright, different at least, but what he really craved was to go out into the country and find a nice fresh nest of wee rabbits. enough of this city life and its canned and bagged mediocrity fare. bunny heads were crunchy and exotic, a delicacy, and their warm and struggling little bodies were a joy to play with before getting down to a nice soulful meal.
jeremy took the elevator down to the garage. harold’s car had not been started in quite some time and the battery might be dead, so there was the possibility of that inconvenience.
he hoped he would not have to call Triple A.