Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"The Man in the Attic," by Steven Millhauser

At exactly midnight by his strapless watch, Haverstraw puts down his No. 2 hexagonal yellow pencil beside his spiral-bound notebook, which he leaves open on the desk, and leans back in his chair. For a moment he feels dizzy, and grips the edge of the desk; it is hot in the attic room, and the air feels stale and close, despite the twenty-year-old rattling window fan that is supposed to draw the hot air out and somehow leave coolness in its wake. The attic room, lined with bookshelves, is above the second floor of the house, where his mother has her bedroom. Haverstraw's bedroom is also on the second floor, but he prefers to sleep in the old guestbed in the attic study. The mattress sags, his feet stick over the end, and the room is poorly heated in winter, but Haverstraw does not seek comfort. Haverstraw is thirty-nine years old and lives with his sixty-six-year-old mother. For the last nine years he has been at work on an immense project, an experiment in memory, which will justify him. Tonight the writing has gone well, or at least not badly, though perhaps his ideas have carried him a little astray; he has the sudden sense that the whole project is astray, his whole life astray, but the thought is so terrifying that he quickly suppresses it. He must get out and walk in the night. His waking hours are divided into three segments: from one in the afternoon to six at night he gets through the day, from seven to midnight he writes, and from midnight to five in the morning he gets through the night. He sleeps from five in the morning to one in the afternoon. Dinner with his mother is from six to seven—always. His work will justify him. People will understand. He will be redeemed. Remember old Haverstraw? Guy who lived in the attic? Well! Seems that he. Turns out he. Haverstraw needs to get outside and walk. He turns off the bent-neck standing lamp, pushes back his chair—an old kitchen chair with a pillow on the seat—and stands up, wondering whether his little attacks of dizziness are something he ought to worry about. After all, he's a man almost forty, a man stuck in a bog. His back hurts. His eyes burn. His life hurts. He will be justified. He picks up his watch without a strap and thrusts it into his pocket. Haverstraw crosses the room, switches off the overhead light, and makes his way through the unfinished part of the attic, filled with the abandoned games of his adolescence, the stuffed animals of his childhood. He never throws anything out. Somewhere in a shoebox are all the little prizes from the cereal boxes of thirty years ago, still in their transparent crinkly plastic wrappers. In a drawer of the old dresser sit piles of old bubblegum cards no one has ever heard of: science-fiction cards, movie-star cards, fire-engine cards. He still has his old patrol-boy badge on its white strap, his old paper targets full of BB holes. He ought to clear out all this junk, but it would be like throwing away his childhood. Haverstraw tiptoes down the wooden steps of the attic and makes his way in the dark along the second-floor hall, past his sleeping mother—he can hear her breathing—and down the carpeted stairs. On the dark landing he passes a black, invisible picture: Hokusai's Great Wave. In his mind he sees vividly the little yellow boats, the little white heads, the towering waves that frightened him as a child, and far away the wave-like top of Mount Fuji. He continues down the carpeted stairs to the front hall. From a hook on the wobbly clothestree he removes his blue nylon windbreaker. He opens the front door quietly, for his mother is a light sleeper. When he steps outside he sees, high up in the dark blue sky, the big white summer moon. His heart lifts. The night will forgive him.

Excerpted from Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser. Copyright © 1999 by Steven Millhauser. Printed online at http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1199/millhauser/excerpt.html.

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