© 1996 Harrison Bae Wein
This story originally appeared in the summer 1996
issue of the literary magazine Samsara.
| It was 7:34 on a Saturday night when Maxine made sure there was no
"I can't stand you," she said.
The phone fell from Albert's hand, and took four minutes and thirteen
seconds to reach the ground.
"Maxine," he had said to her the other night, "I love you."
"I appreciate it, Albert," she answered. "I really do, but I don't love you in
return. I've tried -- you're a very good friend to me -- but it's not working.
Sometimes it's just not meant to be."
"Maxine, please. You're the only person I'll ever love."
"You're twenty years old, Albert. Don't be ridiculous."
During the four minutes and thirteen seconds it took for the receiver to hit
the floor, Albert turned toward his bed -- the bed on which he and Maxine
had spent so many nights -- and glanced from his seat at the woman who
was to take her place.
"Come to Mama, baby," she rasped, her deep groans rumbling in his
ear. Fleshy liver colored hooks crept from her sides. They wriggled along
the floor toward Albert, twisted around his torso, and dug into his spine. He
flinched. "Leave me alone!" Albert shouted. He tried to stand, trembling as
he struggled against the lines pulling him toward the bed. He finally
attained a semi-erect position, barely balanced.
"Oh, my foolish darling," she grumbled, "I'll never leave you. Why, don't
you know that I love you?" A forked tongue reached from her mouth to wipe
some spittle off her dark brown leathery face. She opened thin, scrawny
arms to him. They were glazed with a milky slime. Albert shivered but
maintained his position by the desk.
The receiver hit the floor.
"Albert," the voice called to him over the phone. "Albert, what happened?
Are you O.K.?"
"Forget her, Albert. I'm all you really need."
The panic surged in his chest. Albert yanked free of the restraining lines
and burst from the room, slamming the door behind him.
"Albert . . .," the voice called through the thin wood. "Albert . . ."
He scanned the drab red hallway. Usually filled with children screaming
and playing or women gossiping, the floor was now deserted, completely
quiet except for the gravely voice coming through the door: "Albert. . .
Albert. . ."
So much pain. Leaning back against the door, Albert tried to catch his
breath and gather himself. He was glad that there was no one in the
hallway; he was starting to cry and could not stop.
Albert found his way into the stairwell where the voice couldn't reach. He
curled up on a cold stone step and wondered who he might turn to for help.
Albert soon made up his mind to visit his best friend Kevin. Perhaps he
would be of some comfort. Wiping his face, he walked down to the third
floor, opened the door, and stepped into the long green corridor. There
was not a person in sight. The buzzing fluorescent lights overhead lent a
cold, eerie glow to the scene. Albert went to Kevin's door and knocked
gently. The sound echoed in the empty hallway.
"Who is it?" came the familiar voice.
"It's me, Kevin."
"Your best friend, Albert."
The door creaked open and Kevin appeared in the doorway. "Albert --
yes, I do know you."
"Why of course you do," Albert said with a smile. "I'm your best friend."
"Come in, then," said Kevin.
Albert walked into the dank room. Only a small lamp on the desk
provided illumination. "May I sit down, Kevin?"
"Of course. Sit anywhere you like," he said, gesturing to a chair with a
frayed canvas cushion beside the bed. Albert sat down and the cushion
flattened beneath his weight. Kevin took a seat on the bed, casually lighting
a cigarette. He leaned forward to study his friend.
Albert, twisting the bottom of his tee shirt around a finger, said, "I must
say, Kevin, that it is good to see you."
"A delight," Kevin said, leaning back and taking a drag at his cigarette.
"What brings you," he asked, "to your best friend on this cold night?"
"I'm afraid things have not gone very well between me and Maxine. Not
well at all. Things have become rather a mess. You remember Maxine,
"Yes, yes," Kevin answered, blowing some smoke toward Albert. The
blue swirls drifted out across the room, dimming the light still further. "That
was the last time I saw you."
"I was in love with her, Kevin. I'm very upset."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Kevin.
"I've come to you for help."
Kevin blew some more smoke toward his friend. The gentle curls
reached out to embrace him as Kevin inquired, "In what manner do you
wish me to help you, my friend?"
Albert considered for a moment, choked on the thick air, then lifted his
head, looking to Kevin for support. He couldn't be sure in this light, but it
looked like a smirk had developed on Kevin's face. "You're my best friend,
Kevin," he pleaded. "You of all people must be able to help me."
Kevin lifted his head and let some smoke spill from his mouth toward the
ceiling. "I'm sorry I can't help you, Albert." His eyes burning, Albert could
barely see Kevin's mouth moving through the grimy screen.
"Kevin," Albert ventured, coughing again, "would you allow me to open a
"I'm sorry, my friend, but that isn't possible."
"Kevin," he gasped, finding it difficult to breath, "I really must be going.
Thank you for speaking with me." He got up and groped his way toward the
exit. "It's always good to talk to a friend when you're troubled."
He paused, then turned the doorknob and opened the door. "Good-bye,
"Good-bye, my best friend," a familiar voice said through the thick smoke.
Albert stumbled outside, following the fumes which poured from the room,
and threw the door closed behind him. He felt very alone in the green
Dejected, he walked up to his room on the sixth floor. As he mounted the
stairs, he resolved to face this nightmare, this sack of excrement which had
followed him ever since his first pangs of loneliness during pubescence.
He reached the entrance to his room. His hand trembled on the
When he flung the door open, Albert saw a room that was not his own. A
gaunt, bearded man was sitting at the desk of a dark messy room whose
walls were covered with rock posters. He was reading by the scant light of
a desk lamp.
"Excuse me, sir," said Albert, "but this is my room."
The man looked up. "This is my room. As such, it can't be your room."
"But where is my room?" Albert asked.
"I believe it is one floor down."
"Thank you, sir," Albert said, and left, shutting the door behind him.
He went to the room one flight below and opened the door.
"Ah, Albert. It's so nice to see you again." She was leaning back against
the wall, the glazed brown skin of her naked figure set in an infinite number
of tiny folds.
Albert closed the door behind him and glared at the grotesque stump on
his bed. This was most certainly his room. The walls were hung with brown
and white print sheets depicting a collection of ferocious animals in varied
poses. Albert's forehead was glistening with sweat. "I don't love you," he
"But I love you, Albert. That's what matters, my baby, and that's why I'll
never leave you."
Albert watched her scrape the grit from her yellowed gray toe nails as he
lifted the telephone receiver, still dangling on the end of its cord, and held it
up to his ear to listen. Maxine was gone, her voice replaced by a harsh,
persistent tone. He put the receiver in its base, then stood with his hands
on his hips staring at the thing on his bed.
Albert flew out the door in a panic and ran down the stairs. Sam, he
reasoned. He could talk to Sam. Once Albert had gone down a flight, the
sign told him he was on the third floor. Sam was now only one flight below.
Sam answered the door within seconds of Albert's knock and peeked
through a tiny crack he opened in the doorway. "Yeah? What do you want?"
"It's me, Sam."
"Albert, Sam. It's me -- Albert."
"Albert, I haven't seen you since you forsook our friendship for a
meaningless interaction with Maxine."
"It wasn't meaningless, Sam."
"All relationships with women are meaningless."
"Will you open the door and let me in, Sam?"
"Well, you see, I have some friends over."
"Oh, who? Do I know them?"
"They're always here," Sam said, and opened his door so that Albert
could see inside. Three clowns sat on the bed dressed in baggy red, white,
and blue clothing. Thick white make-up poorly masked their unshaven
"Come in," the man on the left beckoned, honking his nose, "Join the fun.
We're all wonderfully happy."
"Yes," the others honked, echoing in a monotone, "wonderfully happy."
They continued honking their noses, pausing every few honks to state,
Sam was trying to say something, but Albert couldn't hear him over all the
asynchronous honking. "Wonderfully happy. Wonderfully happy." He
retreated down the hallway, shaking his head back and forth. Sam was
coming after him, his mouth still working, his words drowned beneath the
honking. He grew more desperate as he realized Albert couldn't hear him
-- he drew closer, he shouted louder, but Albert only withdrew in fright.
Finally, Sam gave up and returned to his room in frustration. When the
door shut behind him to block out the drone of honks, Albert was left only
with the buzz of the fluorescent lights. He turned around to find that he was
suddenly in front of his own room.
"God damn you!" he shouted to the pile on his bed, slamming the door
behind him. She was gradually smelling up his room. Like decaying
bananas. Her odor was difficult to get rid of, Albert knew from experience.
"Now why would the Lord damn me, Albert?" she rasped, saliva dribbling
from the corners of her mouth. "It is you who are damned. You trusted.
Never put too much trust in one person -- except for me, of course. When
all your friends have deserted you, when you feel you have no one to turn to,
turn to me. I will always be here for you."
Exhausted, Albert's anger began to ebb, draining through the floorboards
beneath his feet. He found he could not stand anymore and fell down into
the desk chair. Putting his head in his hands, he began to cry again.
"Maxine, why? I trusted you. I loved you."
"Everybody needs someone, Albert. We all have needs. I can embrace
your needs. I can take your pain away."
He felt the room drop with a thud onto the next floor.
"I can only fall so far, Mama."
"And I will be there to catch you," she said carelessly. She began to
squeeze a mole on her stomach.
He burst out in fury, "I won't come to you."
"You don't need to. I'm always here."
The next thud shook Albert off his chair and onto the floor. Once the room
had settled, he looked up at her, his face shaking in nervous defeat. She
shifted her weight slowly, coming to the edge of the bed. He could reach
out and touch her slimy limbs, she was so close. The rotting bananas were
"I've been down here so many times," he muttered despondently, "I can't
remember them all anymore."
"Come to Mama," she begged and smiled sweetly. Albert lifted himself
to his feet and stood scrutinizing the short stump on his bed. Such a pitiful
figure yet so powerful. After Michelle and, going backward, Laura and Kim
and Kate and Wendy, reaching back to the beginning of self-awareness --
she has been familiar for so long. She will never leave, and maybe that is
Albert took a step forward and bent to embrace her. He wrapped his
arms around her damp skin. He held her close as she warmed him,
seeping into his arteries and capillaries and veins. She spread completely
-- into his skin, his muscle, his bone. She uttered something inside his
"You can always trust family," she said.
Albert lay on his side, watching the animals play on the walls.
Albert sat at his desk reading by the scant light of a desk lamp. The walls
of his room were covered with rock posters.
A young man burst in, throwing open the door. "Excuse me, sir," he
gasped as he looked inside, "but this is my room."
Albert looked up. The man was extremely flustered. "This is my room,"
Albert responded calmly.
"But where is my room?"
"I would guess it is one floor down," answered Albert.
"Thank you very much," the man said, and left, shutting the door behind
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