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There lived three men in the other room, all named Smith, and not one was seen without the presence of the two others. So it was for all the years that Jonathan Blackley had lived in the decaying flat at the end of Sweet Road. The building itself was not remarkable, seeming only to stand because of its proximity to other, newer buildings, but the rent was the most that Blackley could afford, considering his diminishing royalty checks and distaste for work that required him to spend much time without proximity to his typewriter.
He typed often, not always of words, but in some cases he would type pages only consisting of punctuation marks, imagining a language without letters and only with the pauses and exemptions of a punctuated text. He lusted after dull white paper, buying it in reams and carrying it quickly with him to his room, where he would unwrap them, carefully folding the coarse wrapping paper and placing it in the leftmost drawer of his desk. A sort of semi-religious ecstasy overcame him with the scent of warm, newly made paper at the copy shop, and he often dreamt of being enveloped in thick, wet linen sheets, crumpling and crinkling around him until his body was pressed between them, could then be pressed with ink and characters, be clicked and clacked at by tiny metal characters until his whole surface was covered in text.
Between dreams of becoming paper, Blackley disassembled and reassembled his typewriter. He wrote the punctuated papers that his editor would secretly discard and replace with a collection of his more coherent works. There were reviews, which Blackley did not read himself, but was instead read over the phone in excited tones by his editor.
In the morning he would go to the dining room, where breakfast often was, but sometimes wasn’t, and the three Smiths – who looked far too diverse to be relatives – would discuss with him the Meaning of Things.
“What does it mean?”
And they would point to a discarded page from his typewriter. “The characters. Here. What do they mean?”
“Pass the coffee,” if there was coffee.
“That’s not what it really means. What did you mean this to say?”
Six eyes would fix on him intently, three fingers spaced evenly about the thickly accented page, and he would say nothing. He would return upstairs and write commas. The critics praised his mystique.
Blackley knows a murderer. “I was surprised at first, when I realized that people had organs.”
“It wasn’t pleasant. I always thought people would be full of clock parts.”
“Though, when you think about it, it kind of makes sense.” Blackley didn’t think about it. Blackley thought about ink ribbons and indentations. The murderer thought about organs and how, while clock parts were hard and fit together snugly, the quivering, fleshy parts inside a human torso were far more indicative of the frailty and softness of the species. “I’ve thought about it a lot.” Blackley knew that, too.
The murderer would bicycle away, leaving Blackley alone in the front yard of the flat, clutching some appliance to his chest, some critical organ, component of the machine his fingers probed and squeezed unquestioningly, and the little sounds of pleasure and mechanical indifference to his existence. “Think about it.”
“Think about what?” it was murder, but already too late, and the murderer was gone. Blackley would spare a single thought to wonder if the murderer had a home, or a name, or whether he was a murderer at all.
He’s drunk. It’s in the way he hurls his words then follows through, like a pitcher’s arm in slow motion, to the end of his sentence. He says, “Castle Doctrine.” Fingers, disconnected from hands, disconnected from body, from mind, trace the outline of a house, “Not a literal castle. It’s the guy’s name. Castle. He came up with this,” he begs himself to continue, wrists rotating widespread fingers, “Doctrine. Thing. Came up with it and then he said.” A pause while he intends to resume, “Hold on a second,” then, “Okay, I’m good. He said that you have the right to defend your property. Like a,” he laughs, haggardly, for a moment, “like a castle, right?” Yeah, like a castle, I say. “So that’s why I always say,” he forgets, then sharply returns to, “Deadly force is authorized!”
He’s drunk and he’s on my shoulder. Poor Alen. Put a gun in his hands and he’ll remember the time when his old friend was shot dead in his arms by a little Turkish boy, weep like the moldy drunk he knows he is, but he’s too proud to admit it. He’ll tell you a story about when he came here from Serbia, tell you with a laugh that it was the worst decision he’s ever made, that back home every family had a fat pig and an acre of land, but then smile and tell you nothing could grow in that barren shithole. His muddy old face loves it. You can see it in the sparkle of his golden canine, another war trophy, and by the dirt-caked wrinkles around his eyes when he smiles.
“Did I ever tell you the one,” he says, a little too loud, then whispers, “oh, sorry. Did I ever tell you the one where me and Branimir were in the war?” He makes like he is holding a pistol, aiming it around and cackling, “Branimir was my good friend. He and I grew up, grew up together. Have I told you this one? Have I told you it?” He has, but I say no. “Oh good, well it all starts with my tenth birthday – my father he says, ‘Son?’ and I says, ‘Yes, Papa?’ and he says, ‘Alen, you’re a grown man.’” he pauses, “I knew he was serious because, because he said it in English. My father, he was a professor, you know! It’s why my english is so,” he giggles, “so fucking proper, yes?”
He tells me the story of his first rifle. His father was an educated man, but saw some virtue or value in struggle, valor in arms. “Just because he never had to fight a day in his life,” Allen adds, then tells me of his first days as a soldier in the Serbian Army. “Grandfather was a war hero, at least he was to us.” He stops, then clarifies, “I mean, my family, anyways,” he vomits, chuckling to himself, “sorry, sorry. I didn’t get any on you?”
Alen’s grandfather fought with the Ottomans in World War I, on account of Serbia’s annexation into it during that time. “Serbia,” he says, “always Serbia. Never Ottomans. Disgusting Turks.” This is the part of the story where he remembers his old comrade, the look of fear and hatred in his bloody eyes. “I tell you what he says to me, in his final,” sniffle, “final moment. I’ll never forget the words. Never in my life.” His body lurches and shivers with sobs, and he makes a pitiful noise. Then he breathes deeply, calming himself though his voice quakes, “I forgot.”
We’re at his home now, and I carry him inside. No more stories from Alen tonight. He always stops himself before his friend’s final words, but I know he still remembers. Perhaps another night, another drunken walk home, another soundly sleeping Alen. I sometimes wonder what he dreams of, if he sees Branimir, the war he always talks of but never seems to say anything about, the bullet-wound scar hidden under his right arm, the little boy, the drinking, the sadness, the resignation. Snoring.