To The Touch
by GREG AMELIAN
"My first week on the job," Samuel told me. "I can't forget."
They had transferred my new partner a few weeks earlier, but Samuel had been forced by his previous department in Algonquin to take all his unused vacation days before showing up for work in Botter.
Samuel stood considerably shorter than me, but he would not turn his head up to my face; it was not his habit to do so. I was forced to stoop slightly to make any eye contact. His eyes examined me in turn, but never really met mine. The sun bounced off his bare head.
Samuel explained that he had been paired with an older officer who had a bad reputation in the department as a sort of hazing.
I asked the man's name but Samuel would not reveal it. "I shouldn't," he said. "He would not want me to and I am not like that." He ran hands covered in soft, leather gloves over his scalp.
At that moment we got a call about a domestic disturbance south of the river and the story suffered from an interruption.
The offending man was large and drunk, and had to be cuffed and transported. I should not say it this way, but I was shocked by Samuel. For one thing, he was maybe the most agile thing I had ever seen. Possibly I'd observed a cat as quick as he was at some point, I cannot say for sure. But he moved fast, and always knew exactly where to go. And he was strong. When I saw him lift his foot in the air and put this muscled individual on his knees I have to admit I was smiling.
But he made no mention of this display over lunch at a Sbarro. (They know me there, and I wanted him to see how others treated me.) Finally I decided to see if I could get him to talk about it. Casually, I moved my arm across the table, catching his mug of coffee enough to topple it to the floor.
Without even looking, it seemed to me, he caught it. And from his face, when I moved it into view, I suspected he was about to let me in.
He told me he was a Jew, and I said that I knew it, someone had mentioned it to me. His face drained of blood, so I said, "My wife's Jewish. That's probably why they said it." He relaxed some then, but resumed his already irritating habit of rubbing his scalp with his gloved hands.
"There was a tornado in Norwich last year," he said. "Maybe you had heard about it." I said I had seen it on the news.
"It's not really tornado country," he said. "I don't know if I've ever been to a place that was. We were, like most of the department, poking through the wreckage. Looking to find anyone who might have been trapped. The smell was incredible."
"It never blew away," he said. "Sometimes it filled my nostrils when I woke." I told him that I understood, and after a few moments he continued.
"There was a home that had not been decimated as the others. Downed trees filled the yard certainly, and the corpses of birds. But the home still stood, even when those around it did not, and the gate leading to it had been torn off its hinges."
By this time we were no longer in Sbarro. I pulled the car into the most scenic spot I knew. It overlooked a small lake.
"For obvious reasons it was the last place we went. My partner knocked on the door, and when no one answered, we opened it. It was unlocked, you see. Once we went inside, we found that it had locked us in.
"My partner began to panic. He would not stop pounding the door. Finally, he slumped against it while I went off to look for another exit.
"Nothing in the house, so far as I could see, had even been disturbed. The smell of death that had been following us that week had disappeared. I called out but no one answered.
"Finally, I descended rickety wooden stairs to a basement level. It was splendid down there."
"Splendid?" I said.
"Magnificent," he said. "It was a den as some men have, maybe even you have. The den where the first man slept. But everything - the bar, the pool table, the chairs - was painted a brilliant shade of gold."
"The Midas touch," I said.
He laughed. "It was not actually gold, you see. Simply the color of it. At the rear of the room, an older man, perhaps five or ten years older than yourself, reclined in a rocking chair. I called out to him, but he did not answer. When I took his pulse I found he was still alive, but most likely unconscious. I could not move him by myself, and he did not seem in any immediate danger.
"I thought to make my way back to my partner. It had been a trying few days, and Jim was not a young man. That is not his real name."
"I began to ascend the stairs, but I had trouble balancing. I felt light-headed, but I slowly made my way back to the foyer and the front door. I told Jim what I had found and suggested we carry the man back to our car. Getting an ambulance was unlikely, we might have waited all night.
"He agreed, and we went back downstairs. I was not feeling myself still, but I did not want to show it, and have Jim expose my weaknesses in front of our peers when we returned to the office."
With a motion of my hand I stopped his story.
I said, "You found you could lift the man in the chair by yourself, I suppose."
He only stared.
"I noticed it when you came into the car just now. You weren't paying attention when you opened the door." I indicated the passenger side door. "You almost ripped it off its hinges. Look at the damage there."
He apologized and fell silent. I told him to take off his gloves. He did not.
"It's communicated by touch," I said. "You touched the man in the chair."
"When you came back, was the man in the chair already dead?"
Samuel shook his head. "He was still breathing."
"I noticed you took off your gloves to apprehend the drunk we cuffed this morning," I said. "How long does he have?"
"He abused his wife," Samuel said. "You must know that's why I did what I did."
"I suppose it's one reason you did it," I said. "I suspect you can't go very long without touching something. Your old partner - how long did he live?"
"He never found the exit of the house," Samuel said, and started to weep.
I fought the urge to console him, to take him in my arms. "It's all right," I said. "It's all right. It doesn't matter now. It doesn't matter at all."
Greg Amelian is a writer living in San Francisco.
Paintings by Pham Luan.
"The Waiting" - Angel Olsen (mp3)
"The Sky Opened Up" - Angel Olsen (mp3)