IN THE GRIP OF A NIGHTMARE about my fingers having been shaved off and sold back to me at a markup, I slop over in my nightshirt and cap to answer the knock at the door.

 

Fingerless, I hug it open.

 

There stands the Night Porter, dressed in his usual cloth with a black plastic poncho stretched over and lashed around his waist with a bungee cord. He’s a lean man, but it’s pulled so tight a few rolls of flesh pop out above and beneath it.

 

“Wet out there,” he mumbles. “Been to Dead Sir twice already and it’s only — ” we both look at the clock to see what time it is. It’s early night. Last I’d known, it was afternoon. I must have acquiesced to lie down for half an hour following a spell of exhaustion that I couldn’t cut with coffee and face-washing, and fallen beneath the rest of the evening.

 

He holds up a maroon cardboard cake box and I don’t need to think to know that my fingers are inside, arranged in two layers of five with ice in between.

 

A moment of black humor where he pushes the box toward me with one hand and, holding up one of those digital package-receipt signature machines with the other, says “Sign here.”

 

We both giggle like What do we have to lose?

 

At this point I kind of lose clarity. It’s not an unusual feeling, that of the Nightmare wearing off like some drug in my system, being slowly filtered out through my pores. I know better than to expect to recognize the point at which I am again “fully awake.”

 

Certainly, the Night Porter is here for real, and my fingers — no ambiguity on this front — are gone, nestled nicely in the box he wants me to sign for.

 

Down in the blear, I ruminate on Dead Sir … a place I haven’t let myself ruminate on in a while. A bog or pit just outside of town where we go to submerge our undesirables, watching them sink and be held by a sub-world whose contours we believe ourselves free not to picture.

 

Unwanted children, impure thoughts, damning proof of indenture or indemnity, skins we’ve shed …

 

The Night Porter too … he hasn’t crossed my mind in long enough for his footprints to have been covered over by fresh leaves and snow.

 

He makes the rounds after we’re asleep, gathering up our stuff — stuff we’ve left in public, like the Hotel lobby and lobby restrooms, and also coming into our bedrooms (the knocking is just a courtesy … he can easily let himself in), to round up what’s not battened down, anything lying on nightstands or coffee tables, vanities, bureaus …

 

Then he either sells it back to us at 1.5x its value, or leads us out to Dead Sir (in classic style, only he knows the way), to dispose of it. He charges us for this service as well.

 

I’ve been shaving down my novel, ANGEL HOUSE, pretty relentlessly of late. My Room is filled with knives and razors, bandages and Nu Skin for all the places where I’ve cut into it, rank with the lardy smell of slashed excess and a body’s endlessly disturbed efforts to heal.

 

[What is the Night Porter doing while I’m thinking all this?]

 

There are piles of shavings on all the surfaces in my Room. Some are just little aggregations of hair and fingernails, while others are meatier, folds of skin and sinew stuffed into envelopes of one another.

 

In one corner, in twin burlap COFFEE, BRAZIL sacks, lie two entire characters that I hacked out earlier this week: Face & Star Simpson, lover-proprietors of a demon circus that, in the early drafts, came to my town and enticed my children out of their minds by offering them access to a “genuinely angelic landscape” in which nothing else could reach them. These were the days before I’d accepted (or even quite known) that people like Joe Hill and Will Elliott had beaten me to those punches, and recently too.

 

So now Face & Star Simpson, not dead but badly cut, lie entangled in their sacks, propped on wads of paper towels to soak up some of whatever fluid runs through the rough burlap.

 

The Night Porter, still in my doorway, looks at them, then at me, assessing the big picture.

 

“Hold on,” he says. “Let me get a hand truck.”

 

*****

First, we reattach my fingers. I tell him, optimistically, that I can pay for everything at the start of next month. He puts my word in his ledger.

 

We sit down at my bathroom counter and spread all ten out, painting the stumps with superglue like we’re applying false fingernails.

 

“I only shaved them down a little,” he says, consolingly, maybe guiltily, as if my fingers had been slight ungainly protrusions and not full, finger-length extremities.

 

Once attached, I hold them down by my side and wait for the glue to dry. They feel more like things I’m carrying than things that are me.

 

*****

The Night Porter compresses all my shaggy novel detritus into several plastic trashbags, then loads Face & Star Simpson in their burlap onto the hand truck, and shoves his way out the door.

 

I follow behind, feeling the Nightmare recede further and the glue on my knuckles start to bind with skin flaps and exposed bone. I shuffle along behind him like some kind of gimp henchman, unable to help.

 

As we make our way out to Dead Sir, I ruminate on why the Night Porter took my fingers tonight.

 

Perhaps, I think, he’s telling me to slow down on the cutting. “Put the tools away, son,” he’s maybe saying. “Let the poor thing heal. Process what you’ve cut before cutting any more.”

 

I smile to remember the feeling of logical thought, the assumption of a universe governed by comprehensible laws, as if it were possible that some things had tangible relations to other things. Ha.

 

WE ARRIVE.

 

Fuck, I think. This is why no one can remember the way to Dead Sir. If I’d just paid attention to the path instead of slipping into reverie, I could start coming here on my own, without ever paying him again …

 

It’s dark in all directions, thick with trees until you get right down to the bank.

 

After we push through, the Night Porter clicks on a flashlight. I notice that he’s removed the bungee cord lashing on his poncho, and used it to lash my bags to the hand truck.

 

“Ready?” he asks.

 

I hesitate, then nod yes.

 

He pushes the hand truck’s wheels right up to the very edge of Dead Sir, unties the cord, and tips it forward. The trashbags and COFFEE, BRAZIL sacks roll off, down, in.

 

I watch them break the surface and earn entry into a liquid as thick as oil.

 

Goodbye Face & Star Simpson, I think, their final bubbles popping in the dark. I appreciate your coming this far with me and I’m sorry I couldn’t take you farther.

 

The Night Porter has his back turned and headphones on, giving me privacy.

 

Looking up after the sacks have sunk all the way down and the ripples have stopped, I see a few other writers on the far banks, trying to keep themselves from my view as much as I am from theirs. All emptying their sacks, ridding themselves of ideas they’ve had and loved but can no longer live with.

 

Do we truly believe they will not resurface? Right at this moment, maybe we do. And maybe we deserve to — maybe that’s what we’re paying the Night Porter for.

 

The sun beginning to rise, we trudge away, back into the woodland lining Dead Sir’s edges, to be alone with the enormity and relief of what we’ve done.

 

More likely than not, we’ll all end up eating breakfast together at some Outskirt diner in an hour or so, looking down at our salt shakers, pretending not to be seen.

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