Billboard

By William Wright

        “I’ll get you the money you deserve!” He says, standing confidently, arms crossed, winking. His gigantic orange face with its unnaturally white teeth and poorly fitting suit are supposed to be reassuring, but in reality, he looks like a man who is safe in the knowledge that the only person standing to gain anything from his offer is himself.

        Living on the top floor of the highest building on the block usually ensures privacy, but I am painfully aware of the injury lawyer, huge and two dimensional staring from his billboard directly into my kitchen. I rarely cook, always eat in the living room, and leave the room while waiting for the coffee maker.

        It has gotten cold lately. If I leave my bedroom window open at night, in the morning miniature crystalline forests of frost will have grown out of the ledge.

        And It’s still dark on a morning when I walk to the train. In the shivering dawn I stand on the platform, and watch the smoke I exhale mingle and intersperse with my own breath under orange street-lamp glows. I see the same four people every day. The woman with the red pea coat and crumpled face with a constant smile, crossing the road boldly without looking first; a few mornings ago I had seen her slip on a patch of ice and her arms flapped in panic like a terrified bird as she fell slowly onto her back. Perhaps she thought she could regain her sophistication if she lived unsafely. A man in a puffy jacket, and a hat embroidered with the logo of his old college football team, not so much clinging to former glories, as he was assuring himself that they happened; that his past sporting achievements mattered at all in his life now where he wore a tie and polished shoes to work every day. And the elderly woman with Irish-eyes and a crucifix around her neck, who will take the train only as far as two stops to wonder down the slowly regentrifying strip of independent businesses and coffee chains a mile up the road. They all look at me, nod and smile, and then turn away into their own thoughts, their own worries about their greying hair, their failing daughters, the teenage black boy standing a few feet away from them with headphones on, relishing the private moments he could enjoy during his commute to the school he hated now, but knew he would be thankful for in a few years’ time.

        Lizzy is sitting on the train, the seat across from her saved for me with the heel of her shoe and her briefcase; she sees me and shines her usual smile – as though she is glad I’m there, but isn’t interested in talking to me. I sit down, and the train jerks onwards, the echoing bells at the crossing fading, and then stopping all together as the sound of cars lurching forwards across the tracks resumes.

        “You look cold”, she said, smirking as her eyes fell upon my dull-or- ange woollen hat. I smiled. “I hate this weather, reminds me of being a kid when our dad wouldn’t let us turn up the heat, and instead we were all forced to gather round the fire. He said it brought us closer as a family, but really he was just too cheap to spend the money.”

        “I think that sounds nice. You probably all listened to the radio or something too”, she said.

        “No, we didn’t. And you wouldn’t think it was so nice if it was you sitting in a house without heating in the middle of January. It reminds me of taking down Christmas decorations too.”

        “Why?”

        “Because that’s what you do when it starts to freeze outside. Christmas is cold, and then when it finishes, and everybody is depressed, it gets even colder.”

        “This is terribly morbid.”

        “Because you’re always so chirpy on a morning?”

        I didn’t know her well. The only time we saw each other was on the train to work, but she was easily able to tell me so much about her life. She lived two stops further south than I did, she didn’t talk to her family that much – maybe once or twice a year – she wasn’t interested in having children her- self; her marriage had seen better days. I felt guilt ridden satisfaction, like a fat little boy eating stolen ice cream, when she’d tell me of the latest drama between her and her husband; how she suspected that he didn’t enjoy spending time with her any more, or that they had had another argument that began as banal bickering and ended with her husband staying at a friend’s house, how he begged her for children.

        I found myself giving her marital advice; like a part-time agony aunt, I would offer weak hearted suggestions on a way to resolve the latest issue she was having. She began to tell me more and more. At an unnerving pace I was led into the most private depths of their relationship, trying my best not to recoil from the horror of it all. It was horror; standing on the precipice of companionship, but being confronted by a towering electric fence; this was as far as I could go – second hand accounts only, no first hand experience.

        Once, after we parted at the train station, I wondered what I would do if she asked me to kill her husband. And I saw him in front of me, faceless, and submissive and scrambling to get away.

        “What is it with you today?” I said. “You’re not complaining about anything yet.”

        “I like to keep myself to myself.”

        “That’s why you spend every morning detailing the misery of your marriage?” I was trying to keep a bantering tone to the conversation, but she responded with a frown.

        “Well I can’t keep everything all bottled up inside me, I would end up withering like a dead leaf. You just look like the sort of person who won’t judge me I guess,” she said.

        “People aren’t always what they seem are they.”

        “You mean you do judge me?”

        “No, not really, I obviously have thoughts about the things you tell me, but that’s just me, and what’s the use of my thoughts to anybody?” I looked at her, her pale complexion in the harsh winter-morning light, ashy-blonde hair juxtaposed by her dark eyes, staring pensively out of the window. One got the feeling that her nonchalance or obliviousness to the fact that I wasn’t the only one on the train finding it hard not to look at her was well practiced.

        “What’s the matter?” I said, seeing that her hands were placed together, her fingers intertwined, as she picked at each nail with her thumb, her shoulders were set, rigid, square, and her feet were resting so that only the tips of her toes touched the floor.

        “Well, according to you, your thoughts are of no use.”

        “I just thought… you know barely anything about me that’s all.”

        “But you know plenty about me. I sit here every morning telling you the ins and outs of my marriage and my job and my friends and my life. I should think your opinions, or thoughts, considering how much you know, would be pretty valuable”, she said, without once looking at me. Out of the window as downtown Chicago rose up in the distance, the buildings’ silhouettes coming into focus as the train rattled us forwards toward the towering skyscrapers which had risen from ashes to climb their way to the clouds.

        “I feel like we are approaching some fake mountain every day when I see the city. Everything so flat, then suddenly so high”, I said, following her gaze.

        “I feel like I’m going to work.”

        We were silent for a while, until she abruptly turned to me, without a bat of her eyelids, and said, “I caught my husband cheating on me; he’s been sleeping with my cousin.”

        “Jesus. What the fuck, are you okay?”

        “He always smells of perfume, and sometimes I find strands of hair that aren’t mine on his jacket or shirt collar, but he rides the El every day, so I just accepted that he can’t help but be packed into a train nose to nose with people, and things like that are obviously going to happen. He never really works late, it’s me that does – I usually get home an hour or two after him.”

        “What does that have to do with your cousin?” I said.

        “Well he’s always had a little thing for her. Always staring at her tits, and going out for smokes with her at family parties, even though he doesn’t smoke; and he is always asking odd questions about her. Well, I say always, but recently – the past six months or so – he’s practically winced every time her name came up, never mentioned her once.”

        “But, that’s not very much evidence to prove that they’re sleeping together, or that he cheated at all. Maybe he just got over his crush.” I said, surprising myself by fighting for her husband.

        “Is finding her purse at our house enough proof?”

        “You found her purse?”

        “I called him last night on my way home, I finished early, and he was flustered. Anyway, she must have left in a hurry, because her purse was in the kitchen.” Her voice was callous; she showed less emotion than most do when discussing the weather.

        “Well then. What did he say?”

        “I just pretended to believe his excuses – “She stopped by to pick up a baking tray” – At least until I know what I’m going to do.”

        “You can’t just pretend you know nothing about all this.”

        “It’s to be expected isn’t it? We hardly have a fabulously happy marriage. I don’t know what I will do.”

        “Well, I don’t know what to say. But your cousin? Are you sure?”

        “Of course I am. I called my lawyer last night, it’s just -”

        “What?”

        “Well… It’s not that easy to just give up on a marriage.”

        “You’re not happy,” I said as the iron roof of LaSalle street station wiped the winter sun from the sky; “I don’t care, but you can’t just go on being unhappy.” I wasn’t looking at her. She didn’t reply, and the commuters began to hobble past and out onto the platform, heading for their offices. The train car was almost empty now. “I suppose I will see you tonight then – first car.”

        “Okay.” She said, and I left her sitting there.

        I stepped off the train and joined the crowd moving down the platform, a clash of men and women in polished shoes and puffy winter coats, hundreds of individuals, each more indistinguishable than the last, silently making the same trip they made yesterday, and the day before, and the day before, trying not to think about it.

        I started northwards, heading for work, but diverted, and found myself crossing Michigan Avenue into Millennium Park. In the open space around the gigantic mirror of the Cloud Gate, the salty wind burnt my face and eyes, tears trickled down my cheeks, as I looked out upon the city from the edge of the vast plateau, staring at the weeping wall of skyscrapers confronting me. They were coaxing me back into them, with offers of a shield from the wind and the cold, which was slowly stiffening my trembling fingers, disconnecting them from me, releasing them from my control.

        But I continued to stand there. “I’ll get you the money you deserve!” It rang in my head. And still I thought about was Lizzy’s hands, twisting as she scratched at her fingernails. Michigan avenue was as oddly quiet, and the buildings looked lonely and unneeded. Here and there walked tourists, making their way to the river, a businessman walked quickly with a disposable coffee chain cup, and a student from one of the nearby colleges ambled along with a concern-less look on his face.

        I finally succumbed to the cold and crossed back over Michigan, feeling the wind drop as I plunged back between the buildings. I saw Lizzy’s husband again, his blank, featureless face like that of a cheap mannequin. There was a barrage of sound, an ear-pounding bang, then nothing – silence. And a pair of eyes opened on the Husband’s face, blue and two dimensional.

        I turned into a cafe, and felt the warm air from the heating like a blan- ket in the night. Checking my pocket my fingers touched metal, and I felt it drain warmth from my fingertips, I ordered a coffee, and sat down. I took a flask out of my pocket, and splashed golden brown liquid into the steaming polystyrene cup.

        At one o’clock I got home. I reached the door of my apartment and my phone began to vibrate again; the latest in a long line of calls from my boss. I hadn’t turned up to work, but instead had walked aimlessly through the loop in the cold, stopping at a department store or a coffee shop every now and again, before slowly walking back to LaSalle, and catching a train back south.

        The Injury Lawyer was still staring into my kitchen. “I’ll get you the money you deserve!” I laid down on the sofa, and fell asleep without having anything to eat. The sound of cars and trucks passing beneath the window echoed throughout the apartment, diminished by the short distance it had to travel, and as my eyes closed, the pipes of the heating system began to buzz and rattle inside the walls.

        “Get up. Get up fucker,” he said, “Get up.”

        I opened my eyes, and standing over me, in the darkness that had fallen upon the unlit room, the Injury Lawyer was breathing softly, smiling reassuringly in his cheap suit.

        “Want a beer, or coffee? I’m going to have a beer, if that’s fine with you, unless you have something stronger?” He said. His skin looked like paper, no different than it did on his billboard.

        “What the fuck?” I didn’t sit up, but lay on my back, staring at him, trying to fight the shocking sensation that kept pulsing through my neck.

        “Don’t bother asking who I am, because you know. And I got in because you’re the sort of person who doesn’t lock his door when he’s in the house, as though your simply being here ensures your safety.”

        “What are you doing?” I said, and another shock went through my neck, stronger.

        “Sit up, you look like a slob. Still in your suit, sleeping like that, fuck, it makes me feel bad.” His paper face didn’t change when he spoke, that smile remaining fixed, as though he had got so used to it, he had forgotten how to do anything else.

        I sat up, “What do you want?”

        “I’m here for compensation.” He reached into the inside pocket of his suit, and kept it there, “You know why, don’t you. I can already see the guilt; rubbing your neck like an amateur poker player, in over his head.”

        “I have this shocking sensation in my neck, I must have slept funny.”

        “Next time try the bed instead of the sofa”, he said, and sat down on the chair opposite me.

        “How the fuck do you even know who I am?”

        “I spend all day just staring into your apartment, at your sad little life. I stand out there, all alone while you’re on the train, talking to my wife.”

        “Your wife?”

        “Yes, Lizzy. You talk to her on the train every day, don’t you, and then you think about her when you get home, before you go to sleep.”

        “What? Get out, you fucking lunatic.”

        “I don’t think I will. What difference does it make anyway? If I leave I will still be outside, looking in at you.”

        “I’ll call the police if you don’t get the fuck out.” He pulled his hand from his pocket, and opened it up to show my phone sitting in his palm.

        “Lots of missed calls here; you must be an important man.” I reached out to take the phone from him, but he simply sat motionless, staring at me, and I retracted my hand. “Now, you are in love with Lizzy, aren’t you,” he said.

        “We’re just friends.”

        “Lizzy doesn’t have male friends; she has guys who want to fuck her.”

        “You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re obviously not sane.” I said, and his smile grew wider, and he reached into his jacket pocket again, removing a handgun, and pointing it at my forehead. I tried to react, to back away, but only fell deeper into the sofa.

        “You ended my marriage, and I’m here to claim compensation.” “You ended your fucking marriage yourself!”

        “And that gives you the right to tell her to divorce me does it? You little creep.” He held the gun at arm’s length, without so much as a quiver, the gun followed me, remaining aimed directly in the middle of my forehead.

        I sobbed, and a tear rolled down my cheek, “I didn’t tell her to do anything” I said, and sat forward momentarily, but still he sat there, motionless, and my body deflated, and I sat back in acceptance. His face contorted into a glitching smile that repeated itself, over and over, “You’ll be fine, I will take care of you,” he said, I’ll take care of you, I’ll get you what you deserve, it’s my job.”

        Outside, the orange street lamp glow cast itself on the flurries of snowflakes that were beginning to slowly drift down towards the earth, where they would land and become lost, indistinguishable among the millions of others that had already made it. I thought of Lizzy, and her hands clutching my own, and as I did, her face began to dissolve, until hers too was blank, with just a pair of mahogany eyes remaining, and then they dissolved too, leaving just a body, leaning worriedly against me.

        The Injury Lawyer turned to look out at the snow. “It must have warmed up a little”, he said. “Isn’t that nice, everything’s going to look so pretty.” I laid down, and closed my eyes on his paper smile.