When James Paul graduated college on a hot, dry day in May of 2008, he realized, for the very first time in his life, that he’d been born in the wrong decade. Or at the very least, he realized he’d been born in the wrong year of that decade, because he suddenly found himself stepping out into a world of finance that had been ravaged, disemboweled and thoroughly ripped apart by the global financial crisis of 2007. And for a young man of twenty-two who possessed an undergraduate degree in Economics but no real plans of exactly what it was he wanted to do with his life within that dizzying field of complex mathematics and endlessly swirling decimal points, the decision of what to do after graduation loomed more frightening and difficult than any other he’d faced before. And so maybe that was why, instead of finding a place to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn, he decided to move into the perpetually dark, one room apartment on the top floor of a grungy apartment building in his hometown of Topine, NY.
“It’s just safer, it’s a much safer bet, with things so unpredictable in finance right now,” he said to his parents a day after the move, as he sat stiff and uncomfortable in the living room of their house, the house he grew up in, the house he used to call his own but couldn’t anymore. And as he sat there, fondling and crushing the bunched seam of rough denim at the hip of his jeans, he suddenly felt like a stranger in his own life. “It’s just temporary. Just until things calm down and the job market shakes out. Then I’ll start looking for a place in the city, closer to . . . you know, the better jobs and everything.”
The silent, slow nods of approval he received from his parents showed their satisfaction with that explanation. And it did sound like a good plan; a smart one even. That had always been the key word with them. So, as he explained the fabricated logic behind his decision, his voice droning reedy and dry in that newly unfamiliar room, he even started to feel some relief from the guilt that had been bubbling hot and acidic in his stomach ever since he took the coward’s path and moved back home after graduation.
And it was this small success that stopped him from telling his parents about some of the more unorthodox details of his new apartment. Details that, had he shared them that day, most likely would’ve prompted his father to slide to the end of his chair in head-cocked alarm and command his son—in those hard short bursts of forceful consonants—to move out of that damn apartment at once. But James Paul didn’t share those strange details on that day, and instead, he left his former home among beaming smiles, tight hugs, and heavy thumps on the back.
Later, as he walked home following this visit, feeling alien and strange inside his own skin, he had to admit that those bizarre aspects of his new living situation injected a sense of thrilling mystery into his drab life. Never before had he heard of an apartment building with a half floor, but now that was exactly where he lived, on the fourth and a half floor of the Tannembaum Apartment building on Grimes Street. In reality, his door only stood on a little raised landing hovering about six or seven feet above the carpet of the fourth floor hallway—a landing accessed by a short staircase at the far end of the floor—but the asymmetrical floor plan and the fascinating uniqueness of his apartment number—apartment 4 1/2 A—made him feel like he was living inside a surreal painting or the impossible twisting architecture of a vivid dream.
But what truly grabbed James Paul’s fascination, was the apartment next door. Apartment 4 1/2 B. His sole neighbor on the fourth and a half floor. And from the moment his landlord Daniel Tannembaum had told him about that room—(“Oh and by the way, nothing you have to worry about, but the place right next door to you, four and a half B, we’ve had it sealed off since sixty-eight . . .”)—he’d found it impossible to get that mysterious, inaccessible place out of his head. And as much as he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—admit it to himself, he knew he’d chosen to move into that specific apartment because he couldn’t imagine living his life without knowing exactly what, if anything, had been sealed away inside apartment 4 1/2 B.
A week after moving into the new apartment, James found a minimum-wage position as a teller in one of the local banks. And as he went about the mundane, brain-numbing business of his day-to-day life, the mystery of apartment 4 1/2 B was never far from his thoughts. Often, he’d find himself carrying out some mind-deadening task—listening to the crinkling, papery swish of endless twenty-dollar bills passing through his hands—when another puzzling question about apartment 4 1/2 B would suddenly pop into his head:
Had Tannembaum himself ever seen what was inside apartment 4 1/2 B?
Who would design a building with such a strange, asymmetrical floor plan?
And these questions only multiplied when two weeks later, after waking up from a vivid dream at three a.m., James first noticed the smell.
It was a faint smell; the kind that floats thinly in the air and hovers just below the awareness of an active mind. But it also had a bitter, astringent bite that stung the sensitive, wet flesh lining the inside of his nose. And then there were the other smells buried within the multitudinous whole: the black, ashy notes of burning brush or sticks; the thick, suffocating tar of heavy ink and newsprint; and the round, hyper-foul sweetness of human body odor.
The next morning James couldn’t stand it anymore, so he stomped down to the basement to talk to Tannembaum.
“So you’ve never been inside there yourself?” James said, standing in front of Tannembaum’s desk as the huge, round man sat hunched and mumbling to himself over a messy white ocean of scattered paperwork.
“I have, Mr. Paul, and I know exactly what’s in there. Nothing. I was standing three feet from the doorway of that room when my father had it sealed up in sixty-eight. So I can tell you, without a doubt, that there’s nothing in there,” Tannembaum said, suddenly looking up at James with a quick, jump-cut snap of his neck. The man’s plump face shined with a thin glaze of sweat. Now Tannembaum sighed and his expression softened into the exhausted contentment of a severely overworked man who nevertheless loves his work. “Okay. Here’s the story. Because of the, artistic liberties,“—he sighed heavily here, as if the term sickened him—”taken by the architect in the design of this building, the second room on the fourth and a half floor, apartment four and a half B, ended up with two of its walls having only about five feet of floor space between them. Five feet . . .”—he squinted his eyes and looked up at the ceiling—”three and a quarter inches if I remember correctly. And because of that, my father couldn’t get a single person to rent the damn place. And so that’s why he had it sealed up. So it’s just easier this way. You get to enjoy a few extra square feet of space on your side, and I don’t have to deal with the headache of worrying about that place on the other.”
“Okay, but you just said you haven’t been in there since—”
“Sixty-eight. And neither has anybody else. I promise you, there’s nothing in there. And I’d show you myself, but then I’d have to get a crowbar to wedge the door open. Now,” his chair let out a squeaking groan as he leaned back and let the heavy weight of his wet-cement stare once again fall onto James’ shoulders. “If I do that, are you going to pay for my door to be fixed? Are you going to call the carpenter, and the locksmith, to come and put a new door on that apartment? Yes or no. I’m asking.”
To this, James could do nothing but give the man a feeble shake of the head.
“Good. So why don’t we let it go, and you can continue enjoying your extra footage, while I get back to work. Good? Good.”
But that conversation only served to deepen James’ curiosity about apartment 4 1/2 B, if now, only to prove to Tannembaum that he wasn’t a monumental fool for questioning the man’s awareness of his own building.
And so, from that day on, James spent the majority of his free time monitoring apartment 4 1/2 B. Most days he woke up hours earlier than he had to for work, just to sit next to the thin wall of his apartment with his soft ear crushed against the dimpled plaster, listening for sounds of life or movement inside apartment 4 1/2 B. And he even heard something on a few occasions—or at least he thought he did—but he couldn’t tell what exactly it was that he had heard. One sweltering morning in July he thought he heard a wheeze or a cough, but he couldn’t tell if it was actually that, or if it had been the sound of someone’s TV on the fourth floor. Another time, after James woke himself up at two a.m. to listen at the wall, he thought he heard the screech of a rat and the muffled murmur of a human voice speaking very softly; but the sound had been such a brief, phantom wisp of a noise that by morning, he couldn’t be sure if the whole episode had happened in reality or in a half-remembered dream.
So, as the months passed and the world economy limped toward a cautious recovery, James felt himself drifting ever further from the person he’d been just a few short months before, when he’d walked out onto the lawn of the campus soccer field and shook hands with the dean of the college. Soon he lost all interest in ever moving to the city to find a new, better job in finance. A few weeks later, he stopped going out with his brother for beers on Friday nights. And by the time he’d been living on his own for half a year, he stopped visiting his parents’ house for Sunday night dinner.
Now, with his world reduced to the size of the fourth and a half floor of the Tannembaum Apartment building, he began to seriously wonder why he had ever chosen to study economics in the first place. He had always been good at math, sure, but at the same time, he had always found it to be the most dry, thoroughly drab subject out of all he had been taught in school. So why then, did he ever think it was a good idea to spend the rest of his life working in a field comprised primarily of a topic that bored him out of his mind? His question was finally answered one early morning in October. As he sat in the corner of his place, his right ear pressed to the apartment wall, a distant memory from his junior year of high school suddenly flashed in his head. Back then, the question of what to do with his life had loomed over him so heavy and frightening that he had developed the nasty habit of gnawing on his fingernails to relieve the stress. And it was on an anonymous winter night that year, as he gnawed at the wet, flaking shreds of one or another of his jagged, ruined fingernails, that he overheard his dad talking on the phone.
“. . . well, they can say whatever they want, Mike, but even a toddler knows that money is what makes the world go ‘round . . .”
And so, after hearing his dad speak those words, James decided that, for someone who didn’t really want to do anything with his life, money was as good of a thing as any to study. At least that way, he would always have a good job to support himself until he figured out exactly what he really wanted to do in life.
So, with that small mystery finally solved, and with the months slipping by as anonymous and quick as streaks of rain crawling down a blurred window pane, James realized that economics was just about the last thing on Earth he wanted to spend his days worrying about. He didn’t want to move to New York City. He didn’t want to put on a suit every day and carry a briefcase to make himself feel important. And he didn’t want to waste his time and energy worrying about some rich old man’s liquidity. His life was here. He was living inside a grand, exciting mystery. And it had to be solved. So that’s why, on a cold, gray day in late February, instead of going to work at the bank, James walked four blocks to Winston’s hardware store on Grove Street. Once there, he bought a measuring tape, a six-inch jab saw, a crank-powered hand drill, and a pack of air-filtering face masks. If Tannembaum wouldn’t let him into 4 1/2 B, he would find a way in himself.
Later that night, once the stomping noise and fluttering chatter of the fourth floor finally died to roaring silence, James pushed the skittering frame of his bed away from the thin wall his apartment shared with 4 1/2 B. Measuring the width of his shoulders with the slicing yellow tongue of the measuring tape, he traced a squat rectangle at the base of the wall. Following this, he quietly and patiently turned the crank of the hand drill and punched a series of holes through the plaster, watching, in hand-trembling glee, as a miniature mountain range of plaster-dust peaks slowly collected on the floor.
From here the rest of his night was spent sawing in slow motion, drawing the saw’s curved teeth over the plaster with the speed of a glacier to minimize the grinding noise of his work. He made the final cut just as the gray, pre-dawn light started streaming in through the foggy window at his back. Moments after removing the white rectangle of plaster from the wall, sharp, acrid air began flowing into the room. It smelled like the interior of a junkyard car that had been burned to a mangled, black ruin. Underneath this scent floated biting notes of foul, fruity body odor. Now James slipped on an old, baggy t-shirt, a pair of worn gray gym pants, and one of the air-filtering face masks. Once ready, he pushed open the window beside his bed and drew in a deep breath of crisp February air; then he dropped to his belly and entered apartment 4 1/2 B.
The moment the crown of James’ skull penetrated the threshold of 4 1/2 B, something light and plastic dropped down onto his head. Feeling this sudden touch, he squirmed and thrashed his body in a momentary panic; seconds later, once he came back into himself, he calmly swatted the object off his head. Following this it bounced off the opposite wall and came to rest in what looked like a black, cast-iron bowl sitting in the center of the narrow apartment. Looking there he saw that the object was just a bag, a plastic bag filled with strips of shredded paper. As James pulled his legs through the hole and squatted between the two close-set walls, he saw that the bag was filled with shredded money. Paper bills. A quick look around the room revealed at least a hundred more bags, some clean and professionally sealed like the one that had dropped onto his head, and some soiled and spilling open; but all were filled with shredded money or old but intact bills. From here James reached his hand into one of the open bags—a kitchen garbage bag this one seemed to be—and came up with a crinkling handful of wrinkled, pre-2000s one-dollar bills. There had to be hundreds of bills in this one bag alone. Now he noticed the walls. Near the center of the room, where the bags were stacked only knee high, the walls were scorched a deep, tarry black. Seeing this James ran a finger through the dark tongue of color and came away with a fingertip coated in thick crumbles of ash. Then he turned around and looked at the window. Broken. So now he knew how the smell was getting into his apartment. Underneath the window sat ashy handprints smeared on the sill. Now he pushed open the window and looked down the sheer face of the building. A tall, sturdy oak yawned up next to the building, its gnarled trunk standing less than ten feet from the brick facade. James looked out past the tree. The woods behind the building stretched out dense and primal for as far as he could see.
Entrance, exit, cover.
From here he turned around and looked down at the cast-iron bowl in the center of the floor. A sheet of flat, dented scrap metal that James estimated to be about two feet square sat underneath the bowl. Returning to the center of the room, he pushed the bag of shredded money out of the bowl and picked up the concave object with both hands. He braced his body for the heavy weight of cast-iron, but instead the bowl flew up in his grip with shocking ease. Cast-iron it was not, but the jarring force of this pull caused a plume of ash to puff into his face. James shielded his eyes and turned his face away from the cloud and squatted down on his haunches until the ash dissipated.
What the hell was all this?
Checking inside the bowl, he saw a charred, curled sliver of shredded money. Seeing this, he looked up at the ceiling. No smoke detector in here. Now he looked at the walls to his left and right again. The black tongues of color seemed to be darkest and most concentrated near the center of the room where the bowl had been sitting. It didn’t make sense. And then it did.
“He’s burning the money,” James whispered to himself, in a voice of hushed reverence. And then he said the same words again, but this time he said it with a nod of his masked head, with a flat tone of deep understanding. “He’s burning the money.” And then he said it a third time, just to solidify the realness of the idea, to preserve in his memory the otherworldly strangeness of this experience. Because suddenly, all this, seemed to make more sense to James Paul than anything else had before. Nothing else seemed to match the importance, or the necessity, of the bizarre acts that had taken place in this strange, charred shrine of destruction.
Following this James put down the bowl and stood up and walked to the sealed door. When he pushed the stacked bags of money out of the way, he saw, smeared in the black streaks of ash-slicked fingertips, a finger-stroke painting of a spinning a black hole. And underneath the black hole stood the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center: the dual, identical buildings, the narrow vertical slits of rectangular windows, the single, needle-like antenna rising from the roof of the left tower. In this strange artwork, the top of each building was being sucked into the center of the black hole.
James stared at this painting for a long time. After a while, he finally understood what he wanted—no, needed to do with his life. He may have been born in the wrong year of the wrong decade, and he may have rushed blindly into the wrong career, and he may have followed the coward’s path in life, but none of that mattered anymore.
He now knew what to do.
From here he dropped to his belly and squirmed through the hole in wall. Once back in his own apartment, he grabbed his wallet off the dresser, walked into his half kitchen, and picked up the lighter with the long plastic snout he used to light the stove. Then he locked the door of his apartment and wedged the back of a chair under the knob. Moments later he squirmed through the hole in the wall, pulled the bed frame in front of the hole, and slid the square of plaster back into place.
No longer did he feel like a stranger to himself. Now he removed the mask from his face and let it fall from his hand. From here he closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. The stench of the apartment passed through his nose, stinging and slicing all the way. Once the ashy air filled his lungs, he opened his wallet and slipped out a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Moments later the bill fluttered into the charred bowl. With a click of the lighter’s trigger a flame appeared, orange and shuddering, and soon the corner of the bill was on fire, the young, crackling flame slowly eating the taut paper. Not long after this he heard a sound outside; it was the oak beside the window, creaking, as if under sudden weight. Then came the hard, huffing grunt of a man, the scrabbling scrape of shoes against bark. James turned back to the bowl. By now the bill had curled and shriveled into a brittle black spiral of charred ash. A thin string of gray-black smoke rose to the ceiling. James breathed the smoke and stared at the painting on the back of the door. The room went dark as a shadow blotted out the gold sunlight of dawn leaking through the broken window. Seeing this, James Paul turned his head just as the window slid open.