Content Warning: Mild Gore
The mornings at Three Gracie Square start with a woman making her way down the foyer. Her wavy blonde hair, kept in a bob a few inches above her jaw, a shade darker than the curls which he knew best at midnight, framed her features. The sleeveless summer dress, with a waistline that fell at her hips, swayed against her legs when she made it out the door. Every morning she stops, at the same spot every morning, to say hello to the doorman. An amused smile across her lips. And hidden beneath the folds in the corner of her mouth, the doorman finds a secret that neither of them ever said out loud.
Her first daughter, and second child, had arrived on a quiet night, three years ago. The news of the birth made its way to the ears of the father, Nick Carden, in the middle of a poker game. There hadn’t been much joy in it. Nick’s eyes widened for a second before he leaned back and lifted the cigarette in between his fingers to his mouth. After a moment of consideration, he waved his hand, dismissing the messenger- a woman a few years older than him, with red hair at her cheeks, and trembling eyes.
“She needs you.” The woman said, the words forced through her teeth.
Nick looked up from the game. A match between him and one of the many countless faces that filled the room, the scent of smoke and sweet perfume thick in the air.
“Does she?” He then asked, uncertain.
The woman looked to the side, biting the inside of her cheek before admitting that there had been no call, “She’s your wife.” She insisted. “What does it matter?”
Nick looked away from the woman, eyes falling to the game. A game with no honour, no money on the line, that he was clearly winning, and felt no need to abandon.
“Very well,” Nick had said, pressing the cigarette into one of the many ashtrays littered across the house. His fingertips grazed against the cup of tea, filled with whisky. He stood up, turned to the doorman (before he had been the doorman) stood behind him. His palms and fingers travelled along his coat, a nervous habit of his meant to settle everything back into place. For a second, before Nick parted to the flat below where he and his wife, Emily, had spent the last three years of their married life, their eyes met.
The doorman found his breath caught beneath his tongue, trapped within the sight of the soft blue of Nick’s eyes, like a stream bubbling down between rocks. Loud and vivid, where time had no business and no need to intrude on the lives of unsuspecting men and women. It was only later, underneath the light of a single candle, that the doorman learned the wife’s name and that she did not care about them both.
Three years later, the doorman found himself in reception. Dressed in a uniform that made him feel like a child with their feet inside their father’s shoes. And though he wasn’t entirely fond of greeting people, he let himself enjoy it. After all, he knew Nick. And though of Emily there only ever was the mornings and the woman, she was kind. Like a person you’d like to be your friend, if only you had met under different circumstances.
He rarely ever spoke to her first. Sometimes, on her way out, she would stop before him and say, “The weather is dreadful today.” He would then produce a black umbrella, since she always left on foot, and offer it to her. And she’d say, with a little ring to her voice, “You always got what I need.” Her eyes would flicker, the blue in them bright and still. And the doorman would think that she and Nick, in all ways but sex and tastes, were the same. It sent a chill down his spine… sometimes.
At night, she made her way back into the building, usually accompanied by a woman with black hair, kept in style. Short, in a boyish bob, strands curling up against her cheeks. Her lips, a bright red. Her name was Sarah. Emily had tried introducing them, but the woman never said much. She barely even smiled. The doorman never asked where the red-haired woman had gone, if they still spoke to one another, or if the time they had spent together had simply been washed away. Nothing more than dust in the wind.
When night settled over New York, the doorman made his way to his room. There, he had a fish. It had once been small enough to fit in a palm, fingers clenched, but had grown big enough to lay down perfectly, from head to tail, in a cast iron. It had been three years since Nick’s daughter had been born, and one since Nick had returned from his friend’s party with a fish as a gift. And in all that time, all the doorman could do was watch as the fish grew.
“Do you prefer it?” Nick asked one day, his voice echoing from behind, a few steps in front of the doorway. Not too far and not too close to where the doorman sat in a brown chair listening to Gene Austin on the radio. “Spend any more time with it, and I will begin to wonder if you care for me at all.” He moved towards the radio, lowering the volume, steps seemingly measured out. The radio went silent. And in came the voice of the city, seeping in through the window where it had been previously held at bay.
“It listens.” The doorman replied.
“Does it?” Nick laughed, throwing his head back as he did. “Tell it of the news, then.”
“That is not-”
“Tell it war stories, of the horror and the glory. Tell it of the weather and tales meant for children. You can tell it whatever you want, but all it will do is stare to the side.” The doorman couldn’t quite tell him that he had. That at some point, as it grew, he had spoken to it of more than just asking if it was okay. He’d told it things that Nick didn’t know and that his mother could only guess at. “It’s a fish, baby. It can’t talk back, nor reply. It just swims and eats.”
“Not too different from you.”
“In the eating, yes. But, the swimming? I’ve never been fond of pools or having my head beneath the water.”
The doorman looked the fish over, watching the water flow through its gills. “It keeps growing.” He muttered, standing from where he sat, taking a few steps towards the table where the fish laid inside a large glass bowl after it had grown too big to fit inside the sugar bowl Nick had brought him in. Plucked right off the desk where someone-the name always slipped away from Nick’s mind-had put it on display.
The fish had been magnificent back then. A deep red (crimson), with its fins flowing around it, like blood swirling in the water. But all that beauty had washed away, the red tint replaced by a soft grey, crawling over its body. And it refused to eat.
“Have you thought of releasing it into the wild?” Nick suggested. “Or giving it to someone else.”
“I have.” The doorman lied, running his tongue across his front teeth. “How is your mother?” He tapped against the glass.
Nick stepped back, returning to the entrance, pulling out a cigarette and placing it between his lips. “She’s not well.” The smoke curled up against the ceiling. “A week ago, she called. Told Emily that my brother had gone to the war, died fighting somewhere in France, but couldn’t quite choose between getting shot in the chest or stabbed through the heart. Must have read it in a book somewhere.” The fish shifted the water, drops pouring out of the glass bowl and onto the wooden table it was on. “Emily could not tell her the truth.”
“It wouldn’t make sense to.”
“No. I suppose not.”
The fish’s eyes rolled around in its head. “My offer stands,” Nick suddenly said. The words fell heavy against the air between them. “You will like it out west.”
“I don’t think-”
“You’ll like it,” He said. With a certainty that really wasn’t deserved, but was always there. “Emily wants to go be with her family.”
“She’s staying behind.”
The doorman supposed that made sense, since Sarah had always given off the impression of someone who lived in the city. She belonged there, more than anyone ever could. She walked as though she owned the streets, like there was always somewhere she had to be and she was late.
“Your mother-” The doorman tried to argue.
“Has my sister to take care of her.” Nick quickly said, and he smiled at the doorman like he knew every thought going through his head. The doorman always felt bare in front of him, and boring. Like Nick had already met and known him a thousand times before, leaving little behind to explore. “I can’t leave without you.”
The doorman wondered if he could ask Nick to stay?
No. Not then. The perfect moment to have done it would’ve been earlier, before the thought ever came to be.
Emily had thought about it first. She’d told Sarah first, before she’d suggested it to Nick over breakfast. And for a whole month Sarah had vanished, lost somewhere within the city, before she came back as though nothing had happened.
After Emily had suggested it to him once or twice over dinner, Nick came around to the idea. And soon he was at the doorman’s room, with speeches and promises that felt like dreams.
There was no stopping it.
Once an idea set foot within them, it never left. It grew. It reached out with its arms, thin like tendrils, and it slowly made its way through them until it was all they could think about. Until it was all they became. They made up plans upon plans, and set aside what they needed so that the idea could come true. More often than not, it fell through. Something else would catch their eye, or they’d stop, realising how mad they seemed. Rarely, something would get stuck, at the back of their mind. And neither would feel at peace until they managed to scratch away at it.
The doorman never knew how long an idea would last. It could be years, months. That was how their children were born, after all. She’d wanted a girl to dress up and to talk to when they were older. And it had the added benefit of soothing her mother. (She did love them both, which the doorman found reassuring. Though Nick didn't bother with the children at all.)
He also could never tell whether they’d go through with anything. Not until things fell apart, and he was left listening to them recount the stories, gin in hand, mouths cracked open as laughter fell out from in between their lips.
He thought that maybe that was why, when Nick said, “I can’t leave without you,” he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that the only thing tying Nick, tying them all really, to New York was himself. The doorman wished he could trust him, just a bit more. Then he’d be able to stop himself from feeling like time was slipping away from him, and from searching for subtext in words that had none.
The fish shifted, struggling to move within the bowl. “My family-” The doorman began, his words straying at the sound of Nick’s sigh. And that was the end of that. It was an argument they’d already had, and Nick had grown tired of it.
“Emily is at Eve’s. The children are in capable hands.” Nick muttered, ignoring the sound of the water as it moved past the creature's gills, its tail rising out from beneath the surface and falling against it with a thud. “When did we last go down to Hamilton?” It had been ages. Too long, maybe. But the fish was writhing now, and its fins folded against the bowl. The doorman was too busy making a mental list of where else it could go, since it was getting too big for its current home, and another on what to do when it died.
“Turn the radio back on,” The doorman replied.
The fish grew legs. Four small limbs that flailed against the water. They looked human, though their skin tone was a slight grey, and they appeared to be more soft. Malleable even. They were pieces of flesh attached to the creature’s stomach. It had also grown and was now slightly longer than a man’s arm, from the tip of the fingers to where the bone settled against the shoulder. And in its growth, it had fallen off and onto the floor, where it struggled; the legs unable to keep it a few inches from the ground.
He cleaned up the shards from the bowl and observed the creature, eyes unable to entirely look away of the squirming legs, and its mouth, parting wide, revealing two rows of pearly white teeth.
It made its way to the corner of the room and lay there, unable to curl up against the floor and settling instead for lying down on its side, shying away from any water the doorman offered.
Upon seeing it, Nick pressed up against the wall, head falling backwards and a fright settling against his chest. “What happened to it?” He asked, his blonde curls were crushed against the wood. He continued, “No, don’t mind that.” The creature stretched out its legs, and they fell, flopping against its side. “What are you going to do with it?” Nick left the wall; curiosity getting the better of him. .
“I don’t know.” The doorman told him. “It won’t eat.”
Nick stopped by his bed. He peeled off his clothes, stripping down to his undergarments, and draped them neatly over the chair. “You surely don’t plan on keeping it,” he said. He removed his shoes and debated where to leave them before setting them down by the bed. “Have you seen it?” Nick sat down on the bed, strands of his hair falling over his eyes.
“What would you have me do?” The doorman asked, unbuttoning his shirt and stepping out of a pair of brown shoes Emily had given him as a gift.
“Put it out of its misery.” Nick muttered, the blue of his eyes finding the brown.
“It’s endearing.” The doorman said, the syllables rolling softly off his tongue. “And it was a gift.”
Fingertips found themselves against the doorman’s cheeks. A thumb brushed against his cheekbone. “Then I give you permission to get rid of it,” Nick said.
“Not now,” The doorman insisted, and whatever concern that’d been on Nick’s cheeks left, replaced with a spark in his eyes and a wide grin.
“Has it grown conversational?” Nick asked, the corner of his mouth reached his eyes.
It had not, but it did seem to beg with the shivers and quirks that went down its body. It made him wonder, more often than not, if the fish would’ve lived had it stayed in its home. He’d ask Nick, but Nick was likely to simply say, “You should have seen the room it was in. All encased in gold. Do you seriously think it was better there on display? They didn’t even feed it.” And the doorman wouldn’t have to ask why Nick gave it to him, as a gift, when they’d never spoken of fish before or animals for that matter. He knew that Nick would say, “It reminded me of you. I thought it would bring you some comfort,” and the doorman didn’t want to hear that.
The fish did not stop growing.
It soon took over half of the small room. Its scales littered the floor, and in their place, bone had begun to protrude through the skin. The remnants of what appeared to be a human face found itself by its eye, a collection of calluses and wrinkles, and what he assumed to be a collarbone. He began to dream of a person, with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, clawing their way out from underneath. Eating away at the fish to stave off the hunger. He woke up mourning, eyes straying far, making their way past his thoughts and into nothing.
The smell began to make its way, through the bricks, into the hallways and the rooms of the families.
But it wasn’t dead. Though he could no longer walk into the room without taking a few deep breaths, or rushing towards the window for some air, and though there were small pools of blood on his wooden floor, the creature still breathed. Even if everything about it seemed to say otherwise. It moved its mouth, opened it in small little gasps that made him wonder if it could feel, feel as the flesh began to fall from its bones with the same intensity as it was to witness it.
He had Nick, whispering in his ear and the creature’s eyes, two large holes, nearly perfectly round, as though someone had reached out and scooped them out with a curved knife, always found him. He had Emily asking him, “When will they get to the smell?” before she even thought of talking about the weather. And the questions began to pour, from tenants to guests to men delivering milk and picking up bones in a wooden cart. Complaints piled up at his feet, and at the feet of every other employee in the building.
He stood then, outside his room, in the corridor. A piece of fabric wrapped around his neck and a butcher’s knife, borrowed from a cousin, held against his side, fingers tightly wound around the handle.
He wondered, for a second, before he opened the door, if the fish would've remained, normal. Small. Magnificent in its crimson shade and flowing body that flickered in the water. He wondered what would be of it, had Nick not plucked it away from its home, where it laid softly on a wooden table, by an old clock, and a woman’s photograph.
The fish did not seem relieved as it took its last breath. The doorman could not blame it though, since the death was not quick and more of a frenzied mix of motions, all stabbing and slicing away, trying to make it quick. But it was too big, and the knife was too small. He apologised, because it seemed right. And because it had finally stopped thrashing its tail from side to side, and its legs had stilled after kicking at the ground and the air, at times hitting his shoulder or chest. And, when it was all over, he found himself by the window, out of breath, blood flowing out onto the floorboards.
He cut pieces off its body, day after day. He placed them into a metal bucket, then went outside, dumping it onto the streets where dogs and cats would bite away at it. He didn’t stay to watch, but could listen as he walked away as they growled at each other over the pieces of meat. He doubted it was good for them. But he did not know what else he could do with it.
At first, he’d thought of wrapping pieces of it and give them away. Small tokens of appreciation to cousins and friends, and people whose names he didn’t quite know but sort of vaguely recalled. But the thoughts had stopped once he found a bone, not at all like that of a fish and too much like the ones he’d seen sticking out of men’s bodies on the battlefield. So, he tossed it out, wherever he could, but he didn’t give it to people. And little by little, all that was left was the blood on the floor.
One summer evening, Nick stood by the open window of the doorman’s small room.
“Emily bought The Great Gatsby, wouldn’t stop pestering until I read it. Every last page.” He said, the smoke swirling with each word he spoke. “She speaks wonders of the author. Scott F… Fitzgerald, I suppose. She is set on travelling to France now, to meet him.” He reached out, tapping his finger against the white and letting the ash fall. “She wonders what kind of story he would tell of her. She’s been rather keen on someone picking up a pen on her behalf. Though why Fitzgerald? I don’t know.”
The doorman would’ve laughed, had he not found himself, with his sleeves up to his elbows, soaking up blood from the wood boards. “She probably already knows what they’d say.” The water in the bucket was crimson.
“Maybe we could tell him of you,” Nick spoke between a smile, motioning towards the room, where the creature had once been. “And the creature. See what he makes of it.”
The doorman leaned back, using his forearm to wipe sweat off his forehead. “I doubt it would be of any interest.” He looked Nick over, his blonde hair had grown a bit longer. He chased away thoughts of it coated in blood. There hadn’t been any hair inside the fish, despite what the dreams had said. “What would I do out west?”
Nick’s eyes widened, then they settled down as he pretended to have always expected the doorman to ask. “What do you want to do?”
The doorman raised an eyebrow, he felt the wood beneath him. His fingertips ran along the lines and the creaks. And though he’d never written a single story in his life, he said, “I’m not sure. I could work for you in your home or somewhere close by.” He assumed they still needed doormen out west.
Nick nodded, in that way he did when he wasn’t actually listening. More like he was waiting for one to stop speaking so that he could say something after. The words bubbling inside him, yearning to make their way out from beneath his tongue. “If we were to go to Paris-” Nick asked.
“West or Paris?”
“Does it matter?”
The doorman thought it over. He let himself ponder it long enough for Nick to show something else in his eyes, and he found it in the corner of Nick’s eye, though it was small and neatly tucked away. “No,” The doorman said. He looked at his fingers, there was blood caught underneath his nails. He asked, “Can you turn on the radio?”
Nick laughed, crossed the room without much thought and held him close. Even if the doorman’s hands were still covered in red, and there was sweat on his brow. And he promised, as he always did, too many things. Most of which would likely only ever be spoken once, before they’d become nothing more than a memory. But, the doorman let himself believe them.
Sunset soon came. Nick left to have dinner with his family. The doorman found himself in his room, getting ready to fall asleep. There was a song playing on the radio, but he paid little attention to it, fumbling instead with the buttons on his shirt. In the corner of the room was the bucket, the water emptied out and the sponge inside. Still red, though bits of it were pink. He took his shirt off, set it to the side and looked up, just for a second. Then it hit him. A strange feeling.
For the first time in months, he felt that the room was big enough for him. It felt wide.
Hope you enjoyed it! :)