“In Bob Berg’s House” by Deven James Philbrick

Still-Life, Steven Ostrowski

The touch-starved. Her clientele comprises itself mostly of those, but not exclusively male, seekers of skin-to-skin contact at night. Her work takes place only at night and during the crepuscular hours, since that is when these men are most alone.

She hasn’t had sex in seven years. Something about this endeavor, this touch fulfillment, makes her incapable of having successful intercourse with non-clients, and her clients themselves—that’s not what they pay her for and they just aren’t interested. She has never had sex in exchange for money.

Often, she wakes in a caliginous room, unsure where she is for just a moment before waking reality returns to her. When she first started this line of work, she’d had consistent difficulty falling asleep. Now, she has no trouble at all.

The men frequently give aliases; as simple as John Smith or as attention-seeking as Carlos Danger. She guesses that they believe her name to be an alias too. But it isn’t. She always gives her real name. Always.

Bob Berg. She had the sense that was, indeed, the man’s name. She wasn’t sure why. The house looked like all of the others: postcard exterior, dust-bespoiled interior, photographs with faces of people she would never meet, souvenirs from trips she never dare ask about. The detail that separated his house from her other places of business was the presence of a red and white parrot—a macaw, she believed. Those birds live for almost a century. She wondered how old the bird before her was, whether he was older than Bob Berg.

She performed her typical safety-check ritual. Her friends do not know the specifics of her work life, but those who have an inkling worry about her a great deal. One of her friends, a male friend, not among those who worry the most, told her just what she’d need to do to keep herself safe; locate all exits and possible exits: back doors, side doors, sliding doors, garage doors, windows big enough for her to fit through; identify objects able to be used for self-defense: golf clubs, walking sticks, kitchen knives, frying pans; make sure her cell-phone is fully charged and within reach, and bring a spare charger along just in case. She has never felt this ritual necessary, she always feels safe, but does it anyway, for the sake of those who are concerned about her. They think it a failing that she doesn’t worry about her safety. She thinks it a failing that they do.

In Bob Berg’s house, she ran through the rote ritual, but the preponderance of her mental energy was devoted to scrutinizing the parrot, whose plumage—a variety of red one would think is industrial or synthetic, too bright to occur in nature—drew one’s eyes immediately to the bird, making himself the center of the room. Bob Berg, she noticed belatedly, was already ready for bed when he answered the door. She could tell this night would be a first for him.

She tries, always, to avoid chitchat with her clients. Something about the intimacy of—How was your day? What do you do? How did you end up like this?—seems to run counter to the project of her nightly encounters. The project is to get her clients through the night. Anything beyond that is beyond the bounds of her profession.

On her night with Bob Berg, she violated her own rules. She could blame it on the macaw. After giving her cash, which she placed in her pocketbook she left by the front door, Bob Berg asked her if she wanted anything to drink or eat. She declined, though unlike other circumstances under which clients have offered her tokens of their hospitality, she felt, emerging from a place she didn’t recognize, the desire to accept his offer and she had to fight it. Then she asked about the macaw.

“His name is Bert,” said Bob Berg. Bert the Bird. “I’ve had him for about fourteen years.” She wondered whether or not Bob Berg had gotten Bert when he was a baby bird, or if he’d already lived a long life with someone else who’d died. Or if he was given up under melancholic circumstances. She resisted the temptation to ask him. There was the subtlest hint of a feeling that Bob Berg and Bert the Bird had a very close bond for a very long time. She didn’t know whether or not this precluded Bert’s being only fourteen years old.

In dreams, when she remembers them, she likes to run a test to determine whether or not she is dreaming. Although lucidity is a prerequisite, she finds this technique to be fairly reliable, such that she is only rarely unsure of whether she is in dreamed or waking life. That rare lack of surety emerges at the transition point, where borders so often fade into fuzz. It is in those moments, just on the cusp of sleep or waking, that she forgets to run her test and doesn’t know where she is. The test takes place as follows: run as quickly as possible to a door and fling it open with great haste. She finds when she does this in a dream that there is a delay between the time at which she opens the door and the time by which her mind has invented the contents of the new room. She cannot open the door quickly enough, regardless of effort, or perhaps she can and does and the strange nothingness she witnesses on the other side is incomprehensible to her sleeping brain. In either case, it reveals to her beyond any reasonable doubt if she is dreaming.

At Bob Berg’s, she ran her test and realized she was, in fact, awake. It occurred to her that she might be dreaming when Bert’s feathers seemed to redden with each passing second, interrupting the introductory blather between her and Bob Berg to say, in a voice startlingly human, “Eyes above you.” She did not know what the phrase meant, but was convinced that none of her encounter with Bob Berg had been real. Bob Berg was startled by the speed with which she took off toward what she correctly guessed was his bedroom door. Upon flinging it open, the room’s interior was immediately populated by furnishings such that she knew she was not dreaming. The room smelled like mothballs. The carpet was discolored. Torn doilies adorned two different bedside tables, each with its own digital alarm clock. The bed was a double, just large enough to accommodate comfortably two average-sized persons, and there was an ancient looking cedar chest at its foot. Dust was active in the air.

“Ready for bed already?” asked Bob Berg, approaching her from behind. She was far too embarrassed to admit that she’d been checking to see what was real and what wasn’t, so she nodded.

Typically, she brushes her teeth before getting into bed with a client. She likes very much to make her nights seem as quotidian as possible, which typically means to her, brushing her teeth and hair, washing her face, applying moisturizer, and changing into pajamas. Her goal with this routine is twofold. Primarily, it is to create an atmosphere of intimacy with the client—that is, after all, what they pay her for. But secondarily, her aim is to establish, for herself, the kind of normalcy someone living an entirely different kind of life might experience on a nightly basis. This normalcy is not a value she holds, and yet, before sleeping each night, she likes to make a gesture toward it, as though she is offering the world a compromise, as though the way she has chosen to organize her life needs an anchor to affix it to everyone else.

On the night she spent in Bob Berg’s house, she abandoned her routine. She disrobed, down to her underwear there in his bedroom and climbed into the bed, tucking herself securely under the covers. He did the same. She noticed for the first time, as he hoisted himself up onto the mattress, how old he was. He had to have been at least seventy-five, she thought. Perhaps older. The skin of his chest was sallow and pruney, his nipples dark and uneven. The hair on his chest and stomach was patchy. He was perspiring heavily. “I’m a little nervous,” he said cautiously, “but I think I’m really happy about this arrangement.”

She never, or almost never, engages her customers in pre-sleep banter. She almost never notices their bodies. Neither thing is of concern to her, really. She is there to sleep and that is all.

She listens to the voices of Bob Berg’s house: “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in over a year”,“Eyes above you”,“It’s really wonderful that you provide such a service to a lonely old man like me.”

“Eyes above you.”

She thought for a moment she heard Bert say something else, similar in meter, but slightly off syllabically, but she resigned herself to the fact that he’d merely repeated the same nonsense he’d been screaming since she arrived. She felt overwhelmed. Bob Berg placed a liver-spotted hand on her bare shoulder, the only part of her body that remained uncovered. “I hope this is okay,” he said. She nodded. He was far enough away from her in the bed that she was surprised she could feel his hot breath on her face. She could hear Bert flap his wings in the other room. Bob Berg paid no attention. After what seemed a very short time, he was already asleep. For an instant she thought he had woken back up, but realized the sounds he made were merely the somnambulatory shouts of someone with chronic pain, the nocturnal twitches of a lonely old man. She ignored them and tried to sleep.

The muscles in her extremities began to relax and Bob Berg’s hand on her shoulder felt heavy, ragdoll-limp and immobile. Her eyes closed, she began to breathe more deeply and slowly, as though to fall asleep, when the flapping of the macaw’s wings grew louder, as though the bird were approaching the bedroom. She fought to ignore it, struggled with everything she had to keep her eyes closed, but the increasing volume of the wing flap and the eventual feeling of beaten wind on her face forced them open.

Before her, at the foot of the bed, the hovering macaw, Bert—who seemed even larger than the already massive size she’d seen before—and whose red, red feathers had reddened yet. Bert’s face took on a monstrous quality, and yet, somewhere in his eyes, she saw something akin to compassion manifest in the shape of his pupil, its size relative to the rest of his eye—she had difficulty identifying precisely why this thought made sense to her, but it did.

Bob Berg’s body was like a boulder next to her and she found, when she tried, that she couldn’t move either. The bird, whose wing flaps were even stronger now, called out again: “Eyes above you.” In a moment, Bert had flown away or vanished or both, but was, at the very least, no longer within her field of vision, and she tried to shake Bob Berg awake. Nothing. She tried again. Still still as stone. She needed to leave Bob Berg’s house. On her way out the front door, she pulled the bills Bob Berg had given her out of her pocketbook and dropped them on the floor.

imageDeven James Philbrick is originally from Massachusetts. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington and currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he is pursuing a PhD in English Language and Literature. His scholarly work focuses on 20th century experimental writing and the intersections of literature and philosophy. He has previously served as the prose editor of the Seattle Review.

HeadshotSteven Ostrowski is a writer, painter and college professor. His poems, short stories and short plays are widely-published in literary magazines, journals and anthologies. He is the author of five chapbooks: four of poetry and one of stories. His manuscript, After the Tate Modern, a long poem about the effects on the viewer of looking at modern art, won the Atlantic Road Poetry Prize and was published by Island Verse Editions. Two books of poems written in collaboration with his son, Ben Ostrowski, were published in 2018, Penultimate Human Constellations (Tolsun Books) and a chapbook, Seen/unseen (Cervena Barva Press). His paintings have been published in several literary journals and magazines including cover art for the inaugural issue of Lily Poetry Review.