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By Fritz Leiber
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 The Estate of Fritz Leiber
All rights reserved.
"Present fears are less than horrible imaginings."
Old Ramsey Ryker only commenced thinking about going to see (through one-way glass) the young women fingering their genitals after he started having the low-ceilinged dreams without light—the muttering dull black nightmares—but before he began catching glimpses of the vanishing young-old mystery girl, who wore black that twinkled, lurking in the first-floor ground-level corridors, or disappearing into the elevator, and once or twice slipping along the upstairs halls of the apartment tree (or skeleton) that is, with one exception, the sole scene of the action in this story, which does not venture farther, disturb the privacy of the apartments themselves, or take one step out into the noisy metropolitan street. Here all is hushed.
I mean by the apartment tree all the public or at least tenant-shared space within the thirteen-floor building where Ryker lived alone. With a small effort you can visualize that volume of connected space as a rather repetitious tree (color it red or green if it helps, as they do in "You are here" diagrammatic maps; I see it as pale gray myself, for that is the color of the wallpaper in the outer halls, pale gray faintly patterned with dingy silver): its roots the basement garage where some tenants with cars rented space along with a few neighborhood shopkeepers and businessmen; its trunk the central elevator shaft with open stairway beside it (the owner of the building had periodic difficulties with the fire inspectors about the latter—they wanted it walled off with heavy self-closing doors at each floor; certainly a building permit would never have been granted today—or in the last three decades, for that matter—for such a lofty structure with an open stairwell); its branches the three halls, two long, one short, radiating out from the shaft-stairwell trunk and identical at each level except for minor features; from the top floor a sort of slanted, final thick branch of stairs led, through a stout door (locked on the outside but open on the inside—another fire regulation), to the roof and the strong, floored weatherproof shed holding the elevator's motor and old-fashioned mechanical relays. But we won't stir through that door either to survey the besmogged but nonetheless impressive cityscape and hunt for the odd star or (rarer still) an interesting window.
At ground level one of the long corridors led to the street door; on the floors above, to the front fire escape. The other long ones led to the alley fire escape. The short hall was blind (the fire inspector would shake his head at that feature too, and frown).
And then of course we should mention, if only for the sake of completists, the apartment tree's micro-world, its tiniest twigs and leaflets, in a sense: all the cracks and crevices (and mouse-and rat-holes, if any) going off into the walls, ceilings, and floors, with perhaps some leading to more spacious though still cramped volumes of space.
But it would be discourteous of us to wander—and so frivolously—through the strange labyrinthine apartment tree with its angular one- and two-bedroom forbidden fruit, when all the time Ramsey Ryker, a lofty, gaunt old man somewhat resembling a neatly dressed scarecrow, is waiting impatiently for us with his equally strange and tortuous problems and concerns. Of these, the black nightmares were the worst by far and also in a way the cause of, or at least the prelude to, all the others.
Actually they were the worst nightmares in a restrained sort of way that Ramsey ever remembered having in the seven decades of his life and the only ones, the only dreams of any sort for that matter, without any visual element at all (hence the "black"), but only sound, touch, intramuscular feelings, and smell. And the black was really inky, midnight, moonless and starless, sooty, utter—all those words. It didn't even have any of those faint churning points of light we see, some of them tinted, when we shut our eyes in absolute darkness and when supposedly we're seeing rods and cones of our retina fire off without any photons of outside light hitting them. No, the only light in his nightmares, if any, was of the phantom sort in which memories are painted—a swift, sometimes extensive-seeming flash which starts to fade the instant it appears and never seems to be in the retina at all, something far more ghostly even than the nebular churnings that occur under the eyelids in the inkiest dark.
He'd been having these nightmares every two or three nights, regular almost as clockwork, for at least a month now, so that they were beginning to seriously worry and oppress him. I've said "nightmares" up to now, but really there was only one, repeated with just enough changes in its details to convince him that he was experiencing new nightmares rather than just remembering the first. This made them more ominously terrifying; he'd know what was coming—up to a point—and suffer the more because of that.
Each "performance" of his frightening lightless dream, on those nights when his unconscious decided to put on a show, would begin the same way. He would gradually become aware, as though his mind were rising with difficulty from unimaginable depths of sleep, that he was lying stretched out naked on his back with his arms extended neatly down his sides, but that he was not in his bed—the surface beneath him was too ridged and hard for that. He was breathing shallowly and with difficulty—or rather he discovered that if he tried to investigate his breathing, speed or slow it, expand his chest more fully, he ran the danger of bringing on a strangling spasm or coughing fit. This prospect frightened him; he tried never to let it happen.
To check on this, explore the space around him, he would next in his dream try to lift up a hand and arm, stretch a leg sideways—and find out that he could not, that so far as any gross movement of limbs went he was paralyzed. This naturally would terrify him and push him toward panic. It was all he could do not to strain, thrash (that is, try to), gasp, or cry out.
Then as his panic slowly subsided, as he schooled himself to quietly endure this limitation on his actions, he would discover that his paralysis was not complete, that if he went about it slowly he could move a bit, wag his head about an inch from side to side, writhe a little the superficial muscles and skin under his shoulders and down his back and buttocks and legs, stir his heels and fingertips slightly. It was in this way that he discovered that the hard surface under him consisted of rough laths set close together, which were very dusty—no, gritty.
Next in his dream came an awareness of sound. At first it would seem the normal muttering hum of any big city, but then he'd begin to distinguish in it a faint rustling and an infinitesimal rapid clicking that was very much closer and seemed to get nearer each moment and he'd think of insects and spiders and he'd feel new terror gusting through him and there'd be another struggle to stave off hysteria. At this point in his dream he'd usually think of cockroaches, armies of them, as normal to big cities as the latter's muttering sounds, and his terror would fade though his revulsion would mount. Filthy creatures! but who could be frightened of them? True, his dear wife, now dead five years, had had a dread of stepping on one in the dark and hearing it crunch. (That reaction he found rather hard to understand. He was, well, if not exactly pleasured, then well satisfied to step on cockroaches, or mash them in the sink.)
His attention would then likely return to the muttering, growling, faintly buzzing, somehow nasal component of the general sound, and he'd begin to hear voices in it, though he could seldom identify the words or phrases—it was like the voices of a crowd coming out of a theater or baseball park or meeting hall and commenting and arguing droningly and wearily about what they'd just seen or heard. Male voices chiefly, cynical, sarcastic, deprecating, mean, sleepily savage, and ignorant, very ignorant, he'd feel sure. And never as loud or big as they ought to be; there was always a littleness about them. (Was his hearing impaired in his nightmares? Was he dreaming of growing deaf?) Were they the voices of depraved children? No, they were much too low—deep throat tones. Once he'd asked himself, "Midgets?" and had thought, rich in dream wisdom, "A man lying down is not even as tall as a midget."
After sound, odor would follow, as his senses were assaulted cumulatively. First dry, stale, long-confined—somehow so natural seeming he would be unaware of the scents. But then he would smell smoke and know a special pang of fright—was he to be burned alive, unable to move? And the fire sirens when the engines came, tinied by distance and by muffling walls, no larger than those of toys?
But then he would identify it more precisely as tobacco smoke, the reeking smoke of cigars chiefly. He remembered how his dead wife had hated that, though smoking cigarettes herself.
After that, a whole host of supporting odors: toilet smells and the cheap sharp perfumes used to balance those out, stinking old flesh, the fishy reek of unwashed sex, locker rooms, beer, disinfectants, wine-laden vomit—all fitting very nicely, too, with the ignorant low growling.
After sound and odor, touch, living touch. Behind the lobe of his right ear, in his jaw's recessed angle, where a branch of the carotid pulses close to the surface, there'd come an exploring prod from the tip of something about as big as a baby's thumb, a pencil's eraserhead, snout of a mouse or of a garter snake, an embryo's fist, an unlit cigarette, a suppository, the phallus of a virile mannequin—a probing and a thrusting that did not stop and did not go away.
At that point his dream, if it hadn't already, would turn into full nightmare. He'd try to jerk his head sideways, throw himself over away from it, thrash his arms and legs, yell out unmindful of what it did to his breathing—and find that the paralysis still gripped him, its bonds growing tighter the more he struggled, his vocal cords as numb as if these were his life's last gaspings.
And then—more touches of the same puppet sort: his side, his thigh, between two fingers, up and down his body. The sounds and odors would get darker still as a general suffocating oppression closed in. He'd visualize grotesquely in imagination's light- less lightning flashes, which like those of memory are so utterly different from sight, a crowd of squatty, groping male Lilliputians, a press of dark-jowled, thickset, lowbrowed, unlovely living dolls standing or leaning in locker-room attitudes, each one nursing with one hand beneath his paunch a half-erect prick with a casual lasciviousness and with the other gripping a beer can or cigar or both, while all the while they gargled out unceasingly a thick oozy stream of shitty talk about crime and sports and sex, about power and profit. He envisioned their tiny prick nubs pressing in on him everywhere, as if he were being wrapped tighter and tighter in a rubber blanket that was all miniscule elastic knobs.
At this moment he would make a supreme effort to lift his head, reckless of heart attack, fighting for each fraction of an inch of upward movement, and find himself grinding his forehead and nose into a rough gritty wooden surface that had been there, not three inches above him, all the while, like the lid of a shallow coffin.
Then, and only then, in that moment of intensest horror, he'd wake at last, stretched out tidily in his own bed, gasping just a little, and with a totally unjoyous hard-on that seemed more like the symptom of some mortal disease than any prelude to pleasure.
The reader may at this point object that by entering Ramsey's bedroom we have strayed beyond the apartment-tree limits set for the actions of this story. Not so, for we have been examining only his memories of his nightmares, which never have the force of the real thing. In this fashion we peered into his dream, perhaps into his bedroom, but we never turned on the light. The same applies to his thoughts about and reactions to those erections which troubled his nightmare wakings and which seemed to him so much more like tumorous morbid growths—almost, cancers—than any swellings of joy.
Now Ramsey was sufficiently sophisticated to wonder whether his nightmares were an expression, albeit an unusual and most unpleasant one, of a gathering sexual arousal in himself, which his invariable waking hard-ons would seem to indicate, and whether the discharge of that growing sexual pressure would not result in the nightmares ceasing or at least becoming fewer in number and of a lesser intensity. On the one hand, his living alone was very thoroughgoing; he had formed no new intimacies since his wife's death five years earlier and his coincidental retirement and moving here. On the other, he had a deep personal prejudice against masturbation, not on moral or religious grounds, but from the conviction that such acts demanded a living accomplice or companion to make them effectively real, no matter how distant and tenuous the relation between the two parties, an adventuring-out into the real world and some achievement there, however slight.
Undoubtedly there were guilty shadows here—his life went back far enough for him to have absorbed in childhood mistaken notions of the unhealthiness of auto-eroticism that still influenced his feelings if not his intellect. And also something of the work-ethic of Protestantism, whereby everything had its price, had to be worked and sweated and suffered for.
With perhaps—who knows?—a touch of the romantic feeling that sex wasn't worth it without the spice of danger, which also required a venturing out beyond one's private self.
Now on the last occasion—about eight months ago—when Ramsey had noted signs of growing sexual tension in himself (signs far less grotesquely inappropriate, frightening, oppressive, and depressing than his current nightmares—which appeared to end with a strong hint of premature burial), he had set his imagination in a direction leading toward that tension's relief by venturing some four blocks into the outer world (the world beyond the apartment tree's street door) to a small theater called Ultrabooth, where for a modest price (in these inflated times) he could make contact with three living girls (albeit a voiceless one through heavy one-way glass), who would strip and display themselves intimately to him in a way calculated to promote arousal.
(A pause to note we've once more gone outside the apartment tree, but only by way of a remembered venturing—and memory is less real even than dream, as we have seen.)
The reason Ramsey had not at once again had recourse to these young ladies as soon as his nightmares began with their telltale terminal hard-ons, providing evidence of growing sexual pressure even if the peculiar nightmare contents did not, was that he had found their original performance, though sufficient for his purpose as it turned out, rather morally troubling and aesthetically unsatisfying in some respects and giving rise to various sad and wistful reflections in his mind as he repeated their performance in memory.
Ducking through a small, brightly lit marquee into the dim lobby of Ultrabooth, he'd laid a $10 bill on the counter before the bearded young man without looking at him, taken up the $2 returned with the considerate explanation that this was a reduction for senior citizens, and joined the half-dozen or so silent waiting men who mostly edged about restlessly yet slowly, not looking at each other.
After a moderate wait and some small augmentation of their number, there came a stirring from beyond the red velvet ropes as the previous audience was guided out a separate exit door. Ryker gravitated forward with the rest of the new audience. After a two-minute pause, a section of red rope was hooked aside, and they surged gently ahead into a shallow inner foyer from which two narrow dark doorways about fifteen feet apart led onward.
Excerpted from Horrible Imaginings by Fritz Leiber. Copyright © 2004 The Estate of Fritz Leiber. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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