The young man was having a cigarette on the street corner, feeling just about ready to get on with his day, when a man with a Clark Gable mustache and a shaved head leaned out his second story window and called down, “Hey you.”
There was nobody else on the street—just the young man on the corner—so he looked up as if he was looking straight into the sun, his hand against his forehead in something of a salute. He said nothing.
“Come up here,” the man with the mustache said. “I wanna show you something.”
The young man on the street threw his cigarette to the ground and stepped it out.
“Door’s right in front of you,” the mustache man said. His head sank back into the building. The window shut.
He could no longer summon the strength to stand in the midst of his kitchen, with all of the cold and calm surfaces stretching out everywhere, looking sharp and smooth like axe blades, and with the chorus of white noise humming night and day from the expensive electronic devices.
The man on the street decided to go up. He couldn’t think of any reason not to. He had left his house four hours earlier because it had gotten to that point again where he could feel his eyes starting to burn and his skin starting to turn red, and he could no longer breathe there. He could no longer summon the strength to stand in the midst of his kitchen, with all of the cold and calm surfaces stretching out everywhere, looking sharp and smooth like axe blades, and with the chorus of white noise humming night and day from the expensive electronic devices. So he told his wife he was going shopping. And this was how he had busied himself. And after a day of busying himself, he couldn’t think of a reason not to go upstairs. So he opened the door. It was unlocked.
The staircase running straight up in front of him was already thin, but the wheelchair access lift riding up the right-hand side of the wall made it difficult for him to squeeze through. Outside it was a sunny day with no traffic; the tourists who came to this beach town had left in these late days of fall, expecting that the nice weather was behind them. In this hallway, though, there was the sound of something reverberating, as if outside it was rush hour in a large city and the vehicles were making a stampede down a busy street. He walked up these stairs, squeezing by the wheelchair lift.
He had been expecting a cold day like everyone else—the kind of day you can see in the air around you, firm and brittle like a frozen sheet of paper ready to shatter—but when the sun warmed up in the afternoon he didn’t bother to rethink the thick wool cap or the button-down shirt or the heavy blazer (or the mittens his wife made) because this was what he wore every day, and, after all, why should the weather make him rethink something like that?
When he got up to the door at the top of the stairs, he knocked. There was no answer. So he knocked again.
“It’s open,” he heard the mustache man say. “Just get the fuck in here already.”
He pushed open the door, and it swung in smoothly-silently, like a ghost moving out of his way. The first thing was the smell of the place, like it was covered, wall to wall, in body odor and the sick sweetness of old milk. It was a two room loft, packed tightly with clutter, comprising: boxes filled with books and photographs; empty cans of soda and soup and empty milk jugs stacked atop one another; clothes cast about the place like old newspapers, splayed out on the ground as if there to soak up spilled drinks. It looked like so many things in there that the young man didn’t know on what to focus. There were only two small windows, and the burning white light from outside smashed through them like a fist, lighting the place brightly as if every inch of it was on fire. The second room was separated from the first by a small doorway, the size of which reminded him of the door to the playhouse he had when he was young. He could not yet see into this second room.
Then came the mechanical buzz of an electronic wheelchair, and the mustache man rolled out into this first room from the second and turned towards his younger visitor. He didn’t smile. He was old up close—his skin was wrinkled like it had just come out of a washing machine, and his shaved head was sprouting slight white hairs all over its surface. Sitting in that wheelchair, he only came up to the young man’s chest. When he spoke, his voice sounded hushed and shaky, like he was telling a secret of which he was unsure.
“Well, come on,” he said. “I have all day to stand around?”
At first, the young man didn’t move; he only stared back at this mustache man.
“I don’t like looking at you,” the mustache man said. “You’re not too pretty.” At that, he slowly spun himself around and rolled back into the second room.
The young man still didn’t budge. His eyes drifted to the corner, where there was a large pile of canvases stacked up, torn and rough around the edges. This pile looked too high for a man in a wheelchair to reach. All he could see was the painting on top. From where he stood, he could just make it out: there was a boy, looking to be about ten or twelve, standing outside a large white house in the midst of an American suburb. There was something slightly dark in his eyes, in his skin, like something had burnt him, and the way this set him apart from the blank whiteness of the house, as if the place had been made from office paper, threw the young man a bit. Down at the boy’s side, pulled tightly down as if a secret, was a cap gun with one of those comforting orange tips hugging the end of the barrel.
He looked at this painting for a moment. He wanted to walk closer, he wanted to look closer, but then he heard a rustling from the other room that turned into a series of thuds. He heard the mustache man spark a lighter, and then he smelled the cigarette smoke in the air. The mustache man coughed. The young man walked forward. He walked into the second room.
It was a combination bedroom/kitchen. There was an old-looking mattress tossed limply on the floor and shoved into the corner. There were dirty pots and pans and dishes littering the floor, clogging up the sink. In the middle of the room, at the center of everything, was a large and old fashioned-looking papermaker—the kind with the rolling press and the lever you have to pull.
The mustache man was sitting off to the side by the kitchen sink, by the kitchen counter. “Can you keep a secret?” the mustache man said.
The young man nodded.
“Say it. Tell me you can keep a secret.”
“Yes,” the young man said. “I can keep a secret.”
“Good,” the mustache man said. “Good,” he said again. He turned and opened up a small drawer, and the sound of wood scraping against wood reminded the young man quickly, like a flash fire breaking out before him, of the drawers and cabinets he and his wife used to have at the first house in which they lived, right after they had graduated college.
The mustache man pulled from the drawer a photograph. He rolled close to the young man and showed it to him. “See this?”
“Yes,” the young man said. “I see it.”
It was a photograph of a boy, maybe five or six years old, standing on a well-lit beach, the sand of which looked like pieces of white confetti, or like pieces of tissue paper.
It was a photograph of a boy, maybe five or six years old, standing on a well-lit beach, the sand of which looked like pieces of white confetti, or like pieces of tissue paper. The water flowed out behind him, like the vast expanse of the ocean was a cape he was wearing.
“That was taken in Cuba,” the mustache man said, “the day we left. We used to live there, the three of us.” He took a second. He breathed. “Do you know about Cuba?” he asked.
“Yes,” the young man said.
“We used to live there,” the mustache man said again. The young man realized that the shaking in this man’s voice was just the slightest hint of an accent, as if it had been piled for years under a landslide, as if this was the first time (in a long time) that he had tried to use it, had tried to speak at all maybe.
“That’s my son,” he said.
The smells in this place were starting to get to the young man; he couldn’t imagine how somebody could live here. But then he thought for a second about his house a few miles away, the house in which he lived with his wife. He thought about the counter-tops and all those electronic gadgets and all the angles, sharply sitting here and there-the kind of angles you can feel cutting into you every time you pass them by. When he really thought about it, he wasn’t sure how anyone could live in a place like that either. This loft started to smell a little better to him after that; it started to smell a little bit more like home, a little bit more like somewhere he would maybe someday live.
“We were on a boat together,” the mustache man said, “my son and I. We wanted to come over here. When we finally landed on American soil, he was supposed to wait for me out front the office, but when I came out he wasn’t there. There was a group of American tourists nearby. I asked them if they’d seen him, but they couldn’t understand me. It must have been my accent. They smiled at me. They walked away from me. I shouldn’t have left him there.” He looked up from the photograph; he looked right at the young man. He held his face close to his stomach, as if he was the young man’s baby, as if the young man was cradling him there.
“I’m sorry,” the young man said.
“Don’t say you’re sorry,” the mustache man said. He threw the photograph onto the ground; it landed next to a bowl half-filled with spoiled milk. “Don’t talk about him,” he said. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re saying.”
The young man backed away a bit and turned to look out the window. It was still bright and warm looking down on the empty street, but he couldn’t see it too well because the window was small. He turned back to the mustache man. “Are you a painter?” the young man asked.
“I paint things,” the mustache man said. “Yes, sometimes I paint things.”
“There was a painting of a house out there.”
“Yes,” the mustache man said. “It reminds me of something I saw in a magazine once.” The moustache man took a drag from his cigarette. “I was looking through a magazine many years ago,” he said, “and I saw a house that looked like that.” The mustache man did nothing but smoke his cigarette for a minute, and then he said, “I made the paper I painted that on.”
He was down to the end of his cigarette and was looking for a place to stub it out. The young man reached out and took it from between his fingers; he crushed it on an ashtray which rested upon a small windowsill. “What do you do here?” the young man asked.
“I’m a papermaker,” the mustache man said. “I make paper.”
“What happened to you?” the young man asked. He motioned towards the wheelchair.
“It happened on the water,” the mustache man said. “I haven’t set foot in a boat since. Would you like to buy some paper?”
“I might,” the young man said.
When he finally left, the young man carried with him: three large sheets of fiber-y white paper; two blank canvasses upon which he could paint (if he ever bothered to learn how to paint); twenty pieces of thin construction paper, multicolored in every shade and every hue you could imagine; and four reams of regular white eight by eleven paper, unlined.
“If you want anymore,” the mustache man said, “you know where to come.”
“Okay,” the young man said.
“You go home now,” the mustache man said. “You get the fuck out of here. You’ll be back someday, though,” the mustache man said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
“Okay,” the young man said.
“Take that paper home to your pretty young wife,” the mustache man said. “Write her some love letters.”
“Okay,” the young man said.
“And don’t forget,” the mustache man said, “to tell your friends. Tell them, come buy my paper.”
That was when the young man left. He still had shopping to do; he still had some things to pick up for the house, and he had wasted enough of his day on this old man.
Once the young man left, the mustache man picked the picture of his son off the ground and put it back into the drawer. He went to the window and he looked out into the afternoon; he could see the young man walking away, as if he was in a haze, as if he was watching him through a piece of paper stained with grease.
“I should go down to the beach,” the mustache man said to himself. “I bet it’s nice down on the beach.”
Just as he said this, a gust of wind swam past outside and the young man, walking down that street all by himself, lost hold of all that paper which was bundled up under his arm, pressed there between his arm and his torso. He couldn’t carry it all by himself, and, piece by piece, it was torn away from him, as if it was the very clothes he was wearing being torn from his body, and all this paper, it was carried up by the wind, lifted up by the wind, and then thrown back down onto the ground, scattering about everywhere like feathers, or like sand.
“He should be more careful,” the mustache man said. “He has no respect for a man trying to make a living. No respect at all.” He sighed to himself. “He’s gonna need some more paper. I’m gonna have to make him some more paper.” He said this to himself.
The mustache man, therefore, rushed to the printing press to begin his work. He moved about the room with such a speed that it was almost as if his hands had melted into the wheels of his wheelchair. He didn’t bother using the joystick sitting on the arm of the thing to get around; he pushed himself around with his hands, like he would have in older days, and it felt to him as if he was using his legs, as if he was running. The mustache man made more paper. This is what he spent most of the afternoon doing.
At one point he felt satisfied enough with his work to allow himself a break, so he went into the bathroom. He shaved off his mustache. Then, he looked at himself in the mirror. It had been a long time since he had seen his face so clean.
Then the papermaker went back to work.
Benjamin Rybeck is currently an undergraduate at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, where he lives with his girlfriend. “The Papermaker” is his first published story, though he is, like so many others, at work on a novel. He likes to see his inbox fill up at email@example.com.