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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St.

Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

A Lynching

Adam liked a lot of things about his new apartment. It was a one-and-a-half-bedroom for only $1,200 a month in a nice neighborhood, near two subway lines and a big grocery store. It had mice, though. He found their droppings under the refrigerator and the stove. He scattered poison bait pellets all around and went to sleep at his girlfriend’s for a few nights. When he returned home he found a five-inch-high mannequin lying face down, naked in the middle of the kitchen floor. He knelt and touched it with a finger. It felt slightly rubbery, like skin. He touched his own bare arm for comparison but found that more confusing than helpful, because his arm was warm while the tiny figure was cold. He fished in his backpack and came up with an old plastic ballpoint missing its cap, put the nib under the torso, and flipped it carefully, leaving a thick blue line at the bottom of the ribcage. The doll was stiff and rotated all at once. It had what appeared to be dried blood under its nose, but no other marks. Adam brought his face within a foot of the little body and scrutinized it. It had to be a doll, of course, a very carefully made, realistic doll with a shriveled little penis and individual strands of body hair all over its legs, arms, and chest. Except he didn’t have any practical-joker friends and only his girlfriend had a spare key to this place. Not even the super had one: he’d had the lock installed himself. There was a way to know for sure. He could cut into it and see if it had real flesh inside. But if it was a real man and he’d died in Adam’s apartment, didn’t Adam have to 1

Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

call the police? He would if he’d come home to a full-sized man dead on the kitchen floor. And if he did call the police he might already be in trouble for having killed the little guy, even if it was an accident. It would look that much worse if he’d sliced open the corpse. On the other hand, if he called the cops without verifying it was real, what would he say? “I found a little body in my house that might only be a doll, come right away?” He had an idea. He went to the bathroom medicine cabinet for a pair of tweezers, then searched his half-unpacked boxes until he found his sewing kit. With the tweezers he took hold of the lower lip and pulled it down gently, exposing the bottom front teeth, each the size of a grain of millet. He forced the tip of a straight pin between them and the upper teeth, creating a gap. Then he slid another pin beside it and used them together to lever the jaws apart a few millimeters. There was a tongue. A very cunning doll might have teeth, but no way would there be a tongue. It was real. He went and sat on his couch in the living room, staring through the kitchen door at the body on the linoleum, trying to decide what to do. Probably nothing too bad would happen if he called the police. But why take the risk, however small? He could drop the body in a garbage can somewhere and no one would ever know. No, that didn’t feel right, dumping a person in the trash. He would bury it. He had no backyard of his own, so it’d have to be in the park. He used a paper towel to pick it up—it was light as a hunk of bread—and put it in a plastic shopping bag. That still felt too exposed, like people on the street would see what he carried. He rolled up the bag and stuffed the plastic bundle in his backpack. He didn’t own a spade so he brought a tablespoon.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

It was autumn, and night was coming earlier. There wasn’t much daylight left. If he’d had more time he might have picked somewhere quiet and nice for the burial, like Rick’s Place, a mud puddle on the bridle path where warblers gathered during migration. But that was in the middle of the forest, a good fifteen minutes away, and people got mugged in the park at night. A man had even been killed recently, not far from Rick’s Place itself. He chose a wooded hollow beside the park’s waste-collection lot, close to the exit yet secluded, hidden from anyone passing on the city streets or finishing a jog on the park drive. He scraped a trench a foot long and half again as deep and took the plastic bag from his backpack. He used his fingertips to slide the body out, folded the paper towel around it firmly, and laid it in its grave. The hole was deepest in the middle so the corpse rested on its head and feet with a space under the remainder, and it had stiffened with its left arm and leg splayed, so it only fit at an angle. He pushed dirt in, filling the spaces as well as he could, smoothed the spot with his foot but did not step on it directly to tamp it, and scattered twigs and leaves for disguise.

The next day he caught himself remembering the little man’s face and body. He’d been mostly bald, with a rear fringe of dark, shaggy hair, weak-jawed, and painfully thin, almost emaciated. There was something familiar about him. He looked like someone Adam knew. It bothered him at odd moments of two consecutive days.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Midafternoon of the second day it occurred to him that the tiny man had looked like him, a version of him from another century or a poorer country. Most likely Adam would have been bald if he hadn’t been on Propecia since his early twenties, and without orthodontia he could have had an underbite like that too. Even the slight torque in the tiny man’s right forearm—Adam had broken that arm as a teenager, and it might have healed like that if it had never been set right. He canceled a date with his girlfriend and went straight to the park after work.

His main worry was that rats might have dug up the body and gnawed it. He hadn’t buried it very deep. It didn’t occur to him until he was there that he might not be able to find the grave. He’d camouflaged it, after all, and leaves had fallen steadily since. They carpeted the hollow. There was also far more paper and plastic trash than he’d noticed before, drifted over from the collection lot’s dumpsters. He remembered approximately where he’d dug, and tried dragging his instep along the ground to sweep it, but leaves piled up on his leg too quickly. Even if he cleared the space, he realized, he didn’t know what he’d be hunting for. Six inches of earth that looked turned over? He’d never find it. He tried, though. He bent down and searched, gathering leaves between his hands and tossing them aside patch by patch. He kept at it through dusk, until it was too dark to see, and then at last surrendered and headed for the park edge. He emerged at the mouth of a parking lot, near a Parks Department building. Trees from the neighboring rise cut the streetlights into paisley shadows. A pair of boys in their middle teens were entering the park as he left. One called out to ask the time, and Adam

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

paused to draw his cell phone from his pocket, enjoying the cheap benevolence that came of an easy favor for a lesser. “Seven-fifteen,” he said, and turned to go. A shock. A flash of light. A metallic sound and a vague sense of revisiting an unpleasant childhood memory. He stumbled— —and the next moment he was half a block away, sprinting with all his strength. His feet felt no impact when they touched the pavement, only a friendly resistance to the next flying stride. He traveled another block in a few seconds and only then did he think to cry for help. He howled it—“Heeeelllllp!”—without slowing down. The light changed and he cut across the road, away from the park and toward shops, traffic, people. Already he was pouring sweat; he could feel it trickling down his forehead. He put up a hand to keep it from his eyes and it came away coated in blood. He ran ten more blocks, straight to the nearest hospital’s emergency room.

The cut took four stitches. They kept him awhile to make sure he didn’t have a concussion or a fractured vertebra, as apparently a heavy blow to the head could cause. A police officer came and he tried to answer her questions. He did poorly. He could tell because the cop made very few notes. Her partner sat a few yards away, drinking coffee from a disposable cup and chatting with an orderly. In a curtained area beside them an old woman shrieked at the nurse putting in her catheter. At 6:00 a.m. the hospital sent him home with a factsheet explaining that “You Have Been The Victim Of An Assault.” It came in handy when another cop stopped him. He hadn’t changed back into his shirt because it was stiff with dried blood, and he used the factsheet to prove that although he was shuffling around the neighborhood with a hospital

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

gown hanging open over his jeans and his head wrapped in gauze, he had in fact been discharged and was not an escaped mental patient.

He woke up midmorning to call the office and take a sick day, and then went back to sleep until early afternoon. When he finally left bed for good his head throbbed and his legs and back were stiff, he guessed from running hard in the Oxfords he’d still had on from work. He swallowed a couple of Tylenol and watched daytime TV for an hour. To do something useful he went out and bought glue traps for the kitchen. Then he decided he ought to get a copy of the police report. He had an idea that his health insurance might demand to see it. That’s how it was with car accidents, anyway. He called information for the number of the precinct house, dialed it, and was passed from one person to the next. At last a man checked the records from the night before and said no report had been filed. “Do you remember the officer’s name?” he asked. Adam did not. The cop apologized for the mixup in a tone that didn’t really care, and told him that if he did want to make sure one was filed, he could come to the station anytime. He took a shower first. He unwound the gauze and threw it away, and the water turned pink from the blood caked in his hair. His cut stung, and the puffy lump surrounding it hurt even from the impact of the water. He dressed and caught a bus to the station, a Depression-era building with a high ceiling in the entry lobby. A wide, worn granite staircase faced the door. He explained

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

himself to an officer behind a sort of countertop, and the cop asked him to wait on a bench along the wall. Adam sat nearly an hour. Cops filtered in and out, most in uniform but a few in plain clothes. Not many civilians and no one at all in handcuffs. At last a uniformed officer younger than Adam himself came down the stairs, apologized for making him wait, and led him upstairs to a cubicled warren last redecorated in the 1980s. This cop, earnest and goateed, took Adam a bit more seriously than the woman at the hospital. He booted up a laptop running facial-composite software, and instead of firing questions like “Could you see what they were wearing? Were they the same height or was one bigger than the other? Did you see any jewelry or facial hair?”—questions that had made Adam feel mildly racist since all he’d been able to remember was that both were about sixteen or seventeen and black—he told Adam he was going to start before the moment when he’d been hit and gradually lead him up to it. Of course the first question he asked was, “What were you doing in the park?” which forced Adam to start with a lie. Whether for that reason or the same effects of trauma that had blocked him last night, he still couldn’t call anything to mind. Rather than admit that, though, he began to describe the tiny dead man from his apartment, and as he picked one detail after another the cop tweaked features onscreen, bringing them closer and closer to his memory. He had to keep the face black, of course, he could hardly recant that, and not balding, because he’d said they were teenagers. He chose tightly buzzed hair to approximate baldness and an underbite that seemed perfect, but got stuck for a long time on the eyes, since—thankfully—the manikin’s had been closed.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Eventually he had a light-skinned black version of what he thought he remembered, with eyes close to his own. It had that aggressive, criminal glare common to police sketches, which was disconcerting coming from his own eyes, but he still asked for a copy. The officer made him a black-and-white printout even more criminal than the color image.

On the way home, as he sat half woolgathering and half mesmerized by the picture he carried in his lap, the bus jounced through a pothole and his hands flinched up and forward to ward off an invisible blow. He was back in the moment immediately after the bat hit his head; he didn’t just remember it, he felt the confusion and terror again. No, that wasn’t right. At the time he hadn’t been scared. Now he was, his breath shallow, belly tensed. But in that moment his dominant impression had been I know this. Why? He’d never been mugged before, never even been hit on the head in an accident. And why did he think it had been a bat? He hadn’t seen what hit him. He’d started running at once and never looked back. The feeling of familiarity had come with the idea of something thrown, which he’d combined with the metallic sound to form the concept “baseball bat.” He began to remember. He’d been eleven or twelve, in summer camp, long enough into the session to be resigned to the bullying. His cabin had been on a day hike, straggling through open pine woods, when his reverie on the pine needles and patches of light was broken by that feeling of impact and shock. Someone had thrown a rock and hit him in the head. He’d whirled and seen one of the bullies pointing the finger at another kid, a weakling like Adam, already holding out his palms to say no, I didn’t, it wasn’t me.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

Adam believed him, but still accused him and then fought him, because he had to fight somebody or look a coward, and the bully was too strong. He hadn’t thought of that event in years. Nevertheless the memory seemed muchhandled, like a note folded and stored in a wallet so many times it turned velvety. He got down at his stop feeling weak and out of sorts, no emotion he could name but distinctly unpleasant, an irritating, unhappy itch in his throat. Someone just off his right shoulder spoke: “Do you have the time?” He shied from the question so hard he almost tripped, shaking his head against sudden fright. It had been a middle-aged Latino man who’d asked, dressed in office casual clothes with a gym bag over one shoulder. The farthest thing from a threat. Yet Adam kept backing away, to the man’s open puzzlement.

He returned to his job the following day. Twice in the morning and once in the afternoon he got scared like that again, a rush of fear taking hold of him and making him jump for safety: once when a panhandler tried to stop him; once when he was waiting at a crosswalk and a man spoke to his friend right behind him; and last when, as he left his office lobby, a man rushing down the sidewalk almost collided with him. All three men were black and young. He was falling into blanket prejudice. He talked to his girlfriend on the phone later and made light of this, but really it distressed him greatly. He didn’t want to be afraid of black people. He dug a little-used bottle of Scotch from the back of the freezer and mixed a big dose of it with water to help him relax. It made his head throb. He had another an hour later to get to sleep.

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

It gave him terrible dreams, fear dreams. He was running again, only this time his feet barely pushed him forward when they touched pavement. He kept floating away from the ground. Something caught him; he huddled on the ground, trying to protect himself with his hands, but when the first blow of the bat fell it snapped his forearm. He woke up and lay still a moment, small in an outsized room that roared with empty space like a conch shell. He moved a little and his skin made a harsh, windy sound on the sheet. The pillow was moist with sweat and spittle. He turned onto his back and breathed deep. Gradually he became aware of a scratching noise from somewhere else in the apartment. Scratch. Pause. Scratch scratch. He threw off the blanket and got up. In the kitchen another tiny man had gotten stuck in a glue trap, one foot only. The scratching noise was him trying to drag the sticky paper behind him. This one was black, and Adam decided at once that it resembled the bigger of his two attackers. He decided in the next moment that it, not his roach poison, must have killed the first manikin. The thought enraged him. The very sight of the little criminal enraged him. He kicked open the nearest floor cabinet and grabbed a pot. The tiny black man cringed, hands extended in the universal sign of harmlessness, and cried something in an incomprehensible squeak. Adam flipped over the pot to trap and hide the man, panting despite the small effort. It wasn’t enough. Rage was too welcome a relief from fear for it to be enough. Adam wanted to obliterate the little man, destroy it so completely he wouldn’t even have to remember it or anything else from these few days. He reached into the cabinet again for the lid, readied it near the floor next to the pot, took hold of the pot handle on the far

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

side, scooped the pot right-side up with that hand and forearm, and clapped on the lid. He had a glimpse of a black body twisted helplessly by the broad, unwieldy sheet of glue paper. Pings came from inside. A long, sustained, human squeaking cry. Tremors as the prisoner kicked or threw his weight against the metal walls. Adam held the lid with his thumbs, fingers curled around the handles, and carried the pot to the sink. He set it down in the basin, slid the cover an inch to one side, positioned the faucet over that space, and opened the tap. The squeaking stopped. For a split-second he pictured himself in there, in the dark as the first water fell, the awful moment of recognition that he wasn’t just trapped, he was going to die. Then he wrenched his mind away from that sympathy, swung the pot to the stove, and turned on the flame. Silence still from inside. Soon, though, the water must have begun to heat because the squeaking recommenced, with less anger and more pleading in the voice, a cascade of high-pitched syllables that might have been in a language, the same few in shifting clusters of three and four. The tiny man was begging for his life. Adam gritted his teeth, donned an oven mitt, and held the lid in place. Minutes went by. The voice fell silent again. He imagined himself in there, weeping and trying to float as the bottom grew too hot to touch. He might even try to drown himself to dodge a more painful death, but that was near impossible. The involuntary desire to live was too strong. You could breathe in water but then by uncontrollable reflex you’d thrash to the surface and cough it out. Another scream. Neither angry nor pleading, just a squeak of pain. Then another, long and awful. Adam kept his hand pressed firmly on the lid and turned to watch the

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Joshua Malbin 307 12th St. Apt 8 Brooklyn NY 11215

second hand on his kitchen clock. It ticked off thirty seconds, a minute, two minutes. At around three the screams grew short, breath cut by the roiling water or the steam. At five they stopped altogether. He took his hand away at ten and sat on the floor, back to the wall opposite the stove, paralyzed with exhaustion. At twenty he leaned forward onto his knees and shut off the flame. Then he sat down again and gazed at the oven door for an uncounted length of time that only ended when he caught himself falling asleep. As he shook himself awake he remembered that there had been no sign of violence on the first homunculus’s body other than the blood under the nose, and that the poison he’d used was supposed to make mice bleed to death. He stood up. He put his still-mitted hand on the pot lid. He lifted it. The body floated in the water. A sheen of fat lay on the surface, studded with bits of matter that could have been shit or flesh. He’d destroyed it. Maybe it had never been real; he’d still reduced it to nothing. The effect was the opposite of what he’d wanted, though. Now he’d never forget: he’d held down the lid and been soothed by the silence after the screams. He replaced the lid, carried the pot downstairs, and left it in the dumpster behind his building. Then he went to bed and eventually to sleep.

The next morning he woke at 7:30 a.m. He rose and made himself coffee. He put on his suit and went to work.

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