Keeping Company by Rudy Eiland

Rudy Eiland tells the story of three lonely characters: Ainsley and Amica, who rely on each other for company, and Amica's slow-witted brother Felix, who relies on his own inner world.

The conversation had been hesitant and labored at first. It took the quiet passing of several houses before Felix started speaking more easily, talking now to Ainsley and not simply to himself. Each domestic facade peered coldly down on them both, Ainsley felt. He asked Felix a few questions until he hit upon something Felix was interested in, the fence in the backyard, and then the man talked more easily. As usual, Felix had kept to himself at first, even with his brother-in-law, until the other had waded a little ways into his world.

Despite the prediction of snow in a few hours, they had set off at a steady gait through the badly lit streets and the sidewalks covered with yellowed grass. It was only October, but something in the air foretold Christmas, a distant elation hanging there, the happiness of someone somewhere. Someone else's happiness. It was a long walk to his mother's, and so far Felix had remained sufficiently well behaved. The drizzle of sleet that came up every now and then was like somebody waking from a doze and drifting back off.

The evening light was reflected in the crumpled leaves on the ground; their crackling noise signaled the declining autumn. Little trails of detritus in the gravel, stamped cigarette butts, brown wrinkled leaves, car rubber - as they walked, Ainsley observed the sureness of their gait and wondered what would happen if they walked more aimlessly, meandered and sprawled like the random specks and leftovers on the ground. He felt like walking this way, but of course they wouldn't; they would continue into the greenish path of sidewalk and shrubbery, moving straight ahead to their destination like surefooted hunters. Ainsley let his mind wander. Instead of suburban uniformity he imagined they were in a gated community of some elite military township, each house a protected, classified area. From this he jumped to medieval times - the road became an endless, haunted path into a forest, the looming houses strange woodland creatures. But at the end of each musing his mind returned to the cold shock of modern domesticities, there partly to provide ornamentation but mainly to give protection from the elements and from outsiders. He felt a little sad about the return, as he often did about current times, each day a desperate cold declaration of an unalterable reality.

Felix could've cried about the sleet but he was quiet, showing his manners. This didn't always happen. Once at a luncheon early in Ainsley's courtship of Amica, Felix's sister, Felix had started tearing up halfway through a conversation about painting. When asked why, he told a short anecdote about how he lost his favorite toy at an art gallery a few years ago, a soft talking hyena doll that he claimed to have trained to behave at the dinner table. You could hear his voice start to shake as he began speaking accusatorily, lamenting.

Ainsley liked to make him comfortable as quickly as possible and thereby smooth the conversation. Their talk wound up reverting to easy topics - "gonna repair every last broken plank on the fence," he kept insisting, "every last withering slab, repair and paint white so it looks new like the wood I wanted to buy from the store but Mom wouldn't let me, gonna do it and see how fast I can do it all." This brought words of encouragement from Ainsley, despite some private reservations. He had come to think recently that the man should see others, go out and hear from people who had problems like his. Others who conversed in the slow way he did. Keep him thinking - keep him conscious of himself, if at all possible. All this time alone on his mother's third floor - his company the radio, and the old woman urging him to do things, to get up and repair the house. He needed more. His mind was simple but it got hungry, like anyone's. Ainsley was sure of that. He'd taken care of him for a number of years, had heard stories of his childhood from Amica, had gotten to know the boy and the man; and they both needed companionship. This, Ainsley thought to himself with resolution, would be the topic of their next dinnertime conversation with his mother.

She wasn't expecting them, but Felix would be dropped off there all the same; there was a "last minute" change of plan and he and Amica had decided to visit their friends near Hyde Park who had bought a new dog and were considering a name, a black-spotted spaniel they were eager to show to acquaintances in the area. Walking Felix back to his mother's - three miles? five? he'd never measured the distance - was now the plan, as Amica was out shopping for the new apartment and had taken the car. Their mother had wanted him to spend time with Felix - the whole day, she'd arranged - and though going to visit the new dog was cutting it short, the long walk back to her house was fine, was enough. The light stretched out their shadows into the gravel. He gave Felix a pat on the back as he went on about the areas of the backyard he could work on - a pat as if to say, "I'll be there with you, man. Don't get lonely."

They didn't bring Felix with them when they visited friends anymore. It had taken two or three get-togethers before he and Amica decided it would be better to keep him at his mother's most of the time. The first time he'd begun speaking very loudly at a housewife halfway through the visit, almost yelling, when the conversation broached the topic of vacations. When Ainsley listened in, it sounded as if Felix was insisting that the woman knew nothing about how to handle her time, that dividing time between work and family took special knowledge and only a few were fully equipped to take on the challenge. The woman was polite and after a short response carefully changed the subject. Later on, without directly referring to the earlier exchange, Ainsley asked him about scheduling, about how Felix spent his time. He wondered why Felix had gotten so defensive when he didn't even hold a job. Felix responded with comments about how he spends time with his "friends," most of whom were imaginary or embodied in one of his toys. This he spoke about quite fluently, as if he'd given much thought to the matter.

Ainsley and Amica wondered if they should bring up the fact that Felix was slow or if their friends would just notice it. The usual tactfulness in company helped them decide to remain silent about it. It wasn't as if Felix made a great show of it. It was only when one spoke to him for some time that it became clear. And even then it was mainly just a certain plodding quality to his speech, a tendency to speak his mind too quickly, a strangeness of conversational subject matter, a glaze in the eyes, a clinging to his sister or brother-in-law, evidence of odd conclusions or assumptions in his statements. That he was twenty-nine and lived with his widowed mother and had never held a job told the rest of his story. Sometimes he came off relatively normally, and even made friends, received invitations to come to others' houses, which he usually turned down. Ainsley hadn't seen him with any companion other than his mother or sister in the five years he'd known him.

The houses blended together when it rained, white houses each with a different colored siding. He looked at them and thought of the birch trees he'd dreamt about last night, thin and light-barked and strippable, blending together into a forest of white. "The playground's so old it might fall apart so I'm going to reinforce the beams and I'll get the new wood and caulk from in the back of the shed, we still have some in there." He was talking steadily and Ainsley spaced out a little, the light pattering of their feet rising between the occasional passing vehicle. A slow, deep green fire. This Ainsley had dreamt about, it came back to him now. He stripped several birch trees and lit a fire with his hands, and it hovered heavy and ember before his eyes. Voices seemed to come from it, the voices of relations he hadn't spoken to in years, sometimes-friends from college, a fling he'd had on a work-sponsored boating trip years back, kids he'd babysat for extra cash as a teenager. All they had in common, it seemed to him, was that he didn't talk to any of them anymore. A while of this and then he woke up.

He thought of Felix alone in his backyard, focused on nothing but the work in his hands. He told himself that he needed to escape more. To do the escaping for the both of them. In his job he hadn't nearly enough opportunities to move. He had lived for ten years in a small town before he met Amica. It was then that he realized he'd been spending most of his youth in surroundings that he would have termed "dead-end" were his writing style more sensationalistic. The towns around him were like a blanked-out page - old forgotten corners whose histories were never very interesting and had mostly been replaced by chain-stores. Monuments here were the few disparate conservation lands, whose well-trodden paths he made a habit of exploring early most mornings. It took only a short time before the woods all started to look the same. There were no museums, no great cathedrals or landforms, a few historic houses, mainly of local selectmen. Just a few cafes and forest paths that he frequented. He realized in his late twenties that the vigor and enthusiasm of his youth was projected into these scant surroundings. He found himself thrilled with a morning spent by the window of a small restaurant, pondering passersby. It was projection. One day he finally asked: why aren't I at the Louvre, excited by the Louvre? By some expanse in the Swiss Alps? All of the energy of his youth was spent here, nowhere. His initial conclusion was that he had wasted his time.

But he decided after he met Amica that he would not feel sad about his energy, about the misguided enthusiasm. That he would instead live a rich interior life, and that this would more than make up for the tedium and routine to which he had doomed his body, for the "dead end job." The industrial landfill of his general surroundings would fade, and the grandeur of fantasy would come forward. This became, he was sure, one of his base necessities. One of the reasons he loved Amica was that she let him talk out all that was on his mind, that with her he did his very best to create and share an interior world.

He looked over at Felix, who was humming a tune quietly to himself. Ever so often a smile came to his face and a few times he even laughed outright. Sometimes the man just laughed and laughed. He would forget everything and become so elated. Ainsley had learned not to ask why he laughed, because the answers always felt inarticulate. Whatever was making Felix laugh only made sense to Felix. This seemed good to Ainsley. If you can find the humor there, why not forget everything and just laugh?

Ainsley generally had no idea what was going on in Felix's mind. But it was a familiar reply that met him now, when he decided to ask his brother-in-law what he was laughing about. He said he was laughing at a joke his friend had just made, one of his imaginary friends, and it was an in-joke, so Ainsley wouldn't understand. They talked further, and broached the subject of telepathy. They had talked about this before, the voices in Felix's head. Felix would always say that he could read other people's minds and there was a complex inner dialogue with others happening in his head. No one else needed to be physically present, and he didn't need a phone. Felix could communicate all by himself, alone in his head. "I admire your ability to maintain relationships," Ainsley said. He told him he was glad that Felix didn't feel alone much of the time, even though, when he thought about it, he couldn't remember the last time Felix had gone out with a friend. He spent his time in the same house as his mother, but alone on his own floor. And yet he was never lonely, apparently. It was some emotion that came to Ainsley's mind at the thought of this, and he wasn't sure what; perhaps envy.

Their conversation went on. Were they real? The people in his head? Real people. Were there other bodies somewhere who heard his thoughts, gave replies? This would mean that the voices in his head belonged to actual, separate persons. Or was Felix creating them? Did they exist primarily for his fancy, all in his mind?

Felix always said that they were real. With real bodies. That there were other people and they convened with him, even without communication technology, just as Ainsley did now. He didn't know where they were and they never told him, but he was sure one day he would meet them in person - fast friends they'd be, as he'd already learned so much about them. A slight smile quivered at Ainsley's lips. It was a nice idea - somewhere, somehow, these souls floating in Felix's head would find their real body. "The word you're looking for, I think, is 'telepathy,'" he said, as he always did. Felix kept talking and might not have heard him.

It was a paradox really. A pretty sad one. Felix was never alone. There would always be somebody in his head, talking with him, keeping company. And yet how could he ever share this experience with anyone? Nobody standing next to him could be in his head with him, hear what he hears, see what he sees. Nobody ever could be. Even with the incessant company of the voices in his head, he was alone, and deep down, he would always be alone.

Ainsley couldn't figure out how to talk telepathically with others, and so each passing body seemed far away, silent, closed to discussion and advice. How would he ever consult with others about his musings, his troubles? He wouldn't. He had resolved long ago to keep most thoughts to himself, and as a result he felt confident and full of inspiration, and he admired his own ability to craft ideas and subject himself to the scrutiny of critique. All by himself as he wrote, he created a world of imagination and intellect, his own world. Aside from his writing, he had no desire to share this world with others and he wouldn't have known how to.

All except when it came to Amica. Thinking this way made his mind turn to her. It was incorrect to say he didn't share his world with anyone. He was close to his wife, very close. He told her whatever was on his mind, perhaps everything that was on his mind. When he brooded all day after a passing insult at work, she let him vent. When he felt lost in their neighborhood, a cold and uninteresting world of rusted signposts, gray sidewalks, and unconcerned neighbors, the suburban existence he couldn't escape, Amica gave him consolation. But it seemed sometimes that talk wasn't enough. In his head, he ended up feeling alone. He got so close to her, shared every last whim with her, felt her body growing warm in his arms - but always he felt trapped in his own mind, doomed to think only his own thoughts, be only his own person, have only these particular surroundings.

Maybe it was because he felt, sometimes, that they were close mainly because of how much they liked having sex. They had started seeing each other after he kissed her and felt her body during their first meeting, after a few hours of talking at a party. By the end of the week he had felt inside her and then the next week they had sex for the first time. He remembered those first few weeks how hot and urgent, how virile it made him to look at her, to gaze on her face and body and to think about how much she enjoyed fucking, how much she wanted to fuck him again and again. He thought a lot about her face, about how important it was for his arousal to look deeply into it as he entered her. This was still the feeling between them, after five years - so many days went by where their conversation was ninety per cent allusions and jokes about each other's body, quiet poking anticipation of when they would have time alone in the bed, later. And they were both fine with this - they both noticed the regular lack of intellect in their exchanges and neither cared, both thought only about sex. At these times one seemed to be there mainly to fulfill the other's demands and urges, and that was okay, they both liked that. Other friends were there to have cerebral relationships with, to explore the intellect, to study character. Amica's character was in her clitoris, in her ass. He had gotten to know her as an extension of what these parts of her wanted, he read this in her words and face whenever they were together. No one else did, only he, and no one else ever would, for they would be together until they died, or until they got tired of sex. He couldn't imagine what that would feel like. It thrilled him to look at her, to know he could take off her clothes and do whatever he wanted to her body, that it was there and there only for him. In sex he could show her his love. Create signs of their connection. See that she wanted what he wanted, as much as he did, that she aroused him because he aroused her.

But it happened every so often that he turned away from her when they were finished in bed, drew the covers over himself, and put his mind on something else. He'd open a book, or continue writing one of his stories. And she'd fade slowly away from him. There on the page, there in his musings, he was by himself, forced to face predicaments alone, to have a one-man struggle with inspiration, to ask questions that no one could answer. Only the warmth of her body there to keep him company, as he unraveled his mind into itself, alone on a tightrope. It was all too often that, after turning out the lights, he wept a little.

But Ainsley shook his head. All this was of no concern to Felix. Amica had reached an age where she stopped keeping herself to her family and began giving it all to another, to one person, him. But at the moment he had his brother-in-law to think about. A somewhat bemused pride had met him in his meandering thoughts and when he looked at his brother-in-law, his pride grew a little. They did a good job with the boy. The difficulties with social gatherings aside, Felix was a strong man, a good man. For a few moments Ainsley felt happy about this afternoon walk with his brother-in-law, an immediate elation. Being able to spend these few hours with him, unexceptional hours, not very different from any others they spent together - for some reason Ainsley felt excited just to be in his brother-in-law's presence, felt proud to be his kin. The feeling grew strong and then withered away, and a few moments later Ainsley couldn't feel it anymore however hard he tried.

They were two houses from his mother's. Felix was talking at length and when he noticed where they were, a slight whimper grew in his voice, as he knew they would part soon. Ainsley hoped to escape without going inside. He reached his arm out and drew it round Felix's shoulder, tuning back in to what the man was saying.

He was still going on about the voices in his head. "But what if they're alive, all by themselves? So that even if I don't know who they are in real life, they're still out there, living a big and complex life, and I get to share part of it with them? I know that they're real because of how complex they are." He went on.

As he spoke, Ainsley was a little surprised at the sophistication of Felix's thoughts. His brother-in-law was on to something. The key point was that he wasn't controlling what the voices said and did. They acted all by themselves. If he had been voluntarily dictating what they said, then they would be fictional, like characters in one of Ainsley's stories. But they were autonomous, like freethinking children. Perhaps Felix would understand, eventually, that it was all in his head, that his mind created these voices, however real they felt. But that they acted all by themselves, that they had complex characters, this was a different matter. Even if his mind fabricated them, they were like spirits, complex creations with complex lives. So who was to say they weren't real?

"I guess you're right about that. They're autonomous, right? They act all by themselves; you don't control them; you can't predict what they'll say or do; it's like a spirit that comes in to your head from without and talks to you. So it might be that your mind fabricates them. But since they act without your control, it's like God's given them their own life, their own autonomy. Their own reality." Felix just looked at him, his lips twitching, and his pace slowed. He wouldn't know what "fabricate" or "autonomy" meant, but something in his eyes signaled understanding. Earlier Ainsley had thought that Felix needed to go out more, see others, get away from himself. This feeling reappeared to him, hovered there, and for a moment he began to question it.

Ainsley's cell phone was ringing. He looked at it and a picture of his wife's beaming face shone back at him. For a moment he let the phone vibrate in his hand, knowing he was about to hear her voice, almost feeling the thrust of her words already, disembodied yet so fresh and warm to his ears. Another moment went by, and he glanced at his brother-in-law. The man had turned away, and was looking into the distance, mumbling something, to someone. He slowly brought the phone to his ear, and his wife's voice pierced the cold air around him.

She was shopping for the two of them, for something to hang on the wall. Some picture that made her think of him, that honored him for some recent sweetness. She searched her mind for something he had done lately that she could commemorate. Last Saturday after she was unexpectedly called in to work he had welcomed her home after with lamb chops and collared greens made, she could tell, clumsily but faithfully from a cookbook. Subsequently, after twenty-five minutes choosing a film to watch, he had started making love to her as soon as the tape began, and they missed the whole thing. She liked having her gifts to him represent a concrete event - one only she knew of - in addition to her love in the abstract. A kind of secret pride accompanied her throughout the store.

She felt a little strange buying a piece of artwork at a thrift shop. The pictures usually looked as if someone had lost and was looking for them. It made her feel a little lost herself, adrift. She brushed off the emotion and kept searching.

She saw one at the first store but wasn't sure whether he'd like it, and this made her unsure whether it would look right in the living room. It was two roses intertwined with each other, a rich oil painting that nevertheless left a soft impression, a kind of gleaming feeling of togetherness in the thorny coupling. She thought about it as she continued around the store; it was her favorite among those she'd looked at, it hung there in her mind. She wanted the picture to welcome, to complement the room's faded flower wallpaper, to reflect the reading material on the coffee table. All of it she knew should make guests smile with recognition and approval without demanding that they remember what they'd seen there later. Just the right amount of impressive.

But after letting it linger in her mind she wasn't sure about the roses. Would it be too exclusive, this emphasis on "two"? She didn't want friends to think they were one of those couples who neglected company, who were so into each other that they forgot about the outside world. She was probably overthinking it. But something in the brightness of the petals, the line directing the eye right to where the two flowers met and declared their union - something turned her off, made her feel it might begin to look garish, obvious. She quickly let it fall away from her mind.

He'd want to choose the books to display and she would trust that the results of his trip to the bookstore would be intriguing and yet unintimidating, a collection on film directors that included both the obscure and the accessible. She liked thinking about it; the empty apartment drew itself in her mind each day through breakfast and the mid-morning walk. She contemplated thoroughly, every corner full of opportunity, until the end of each day when she was bored and irritable at the thought of it, any of it, because she'd thought herself out.

At the second store she saw one of the patients who had passed through the office earlier that day. A tall middle-aged man with jet-black hair that made him look younger than he was and curved spectacles that made him look as if he had more to say if you asked him. She couldn't say hi to him, could she? He wouldn't remember her. Each patient passed briefly before her on his or her way to the doctor's office where she worked. To her they were merely names and occasional small descriptors on the cover of a file that she never opened. What was the name of this man? Something that began with a D. He looked her way, his eyes pausing for a moment on her - she dropped her glance - and then kept walking. He passed by her and she smelled a hint of cologne. Did this qualify as an exchange?

It was a psychiatrist's office. She wondered at their ailments, their way of confiding, what they revealed of themselves, what they hid, what they forgot. Hours of this - she sat behind the window and looked at them. Silently amongst each other in the waiting room - was she nothing more than a squeak of "welcome," the same smile screwed onto her face for each patient? Did the word ring true? Who remembered the receptionist hours later as memories of the confessions and declarations of the day drifted off into sleepy oblivion? The man with the black hair smelled a little of faded tulips. A nice brand of cologne. She thought about getting it for Ainsley.

At this second store she found at least three potential candidates. A photograph of a forest teepee diligently constructed from cedar beams, a surreal portrait of a house, and a realist depiction of a child sitting on the floor of a bedroom. The first made her think of Ainsley, the way he used to make her bed and clean her room for her when she went out on the weekends. She would come back and find everything swept and neat, a slight scent of pine disinfectant in the air. He always left before she returned, so she couldn't thank him when she saw it; she was to appreciate it alone, as if a mysterious suitor had come from the shadows to obey her every wish, even the slightest. Something in the neatness of the branches, however, put her off suddenly. She decided she didn't like it, even if it brought back sweet memories of Ainsley. The straight lines felt a little harsh, and the perfectionist tone was somehow intimidating; she wasn't sure why.

The second painting, as she looked at it, suddenly brought her back to a memory of an art gallery they'd visited some years ago, bringing Felix along. Abstract expressionists. Ainsley had talked ceaselessly of a particular De Kooning work. The curves and colors. Felix had stood in front of a Rothko set for some time, a series of blocks of colors. When she asked him what he thought, he said he didn't know. "Do you like them?"

"I think so.... Maybe." A slight effort in his voice. Eventually she had gotten a bit impatient, because he wouldn't leave the Rothkos. "Why have you been standing here for so long?" She wondered if he had gotten anxious being around all these people, and had curled up and decided not to move around. Maybe he was bored. Most likely anxious. They left a little earlier than they would have because of the looks on Felix's face. For the remainder of the night she hadn't talked to him. She decided she didn't want to bring him to an art gallery again. While Ainsley spoke at length in the car about De Kooning, Felix was silent. Was it shame that she felt about him? No, something similar, a dull ache at the base of her mind.

But this portrait was different, sharper than the usual expressionist work, a house clearly standing out in the scrim of lines. It was a one-room house, and in the window were a large bed and a telephone, nothing else. But at the same time, the house looked like the heads of a man and woman - what were probably, she felt, two lovers. She was entranced with it. She knew he would be too, that it would make him think of her, of the bed they shared, of their life in common. As the house displayed the togetherness of the two heads, she reminisced about their lives together. Eventually they had learned to think together, could tell what was on the other's mind; they felt the intensity of some thought, some drive, together, in the same head. Alone at work, she knew that he was thinking about her, every few moments his mind returning to her. They were knitted together, she felt - she knew that he behaved according to her taste, her whims, that he did this without thinking, as if he were sleepwalking. He didn't even notice it himself, but he would recommend articles whose subjects she had sent him material on weeks ago, and he was so enthusiastic about them; he would dress with the fabrics and colors she had admired with him, passing a store window on a recent walk. All of this by rote.

She knew that Ainsley liked to imagine that he still lived independently of her, that however much he loved her, he was his own man. But she knew, she saw signs every day, of their dual existence, his merging with her, whether he was aware of it or not. The painting expressed all of it - two heads, one house, one bed. She reached and held it between her fingers, looked more closely at it, felt its weight. An earthy color scheme and bright, ecstatic lines where the two heads met. An excited shine in her eyes, she dropped the painting in the cart. He would love it.

The third picture held her gaze for some time. It was very realistic. The child's eyes shone with a bright wet green, and he held a ball on the floor between his outstretched legs. He seemed to be looking at her. Or was it in her imagination? Some kind of foretelling in the face of the child. They had talked about having kids, but didn't want them any time soon. The figure in the painting seemed to dare her to have one. A third body in their home, a child. It was a very realistic portrait, and she imagined coming home each day to the weight of a baby in her arms, the small and dependent grasp of its hands, its fussing and crying and the utter devotion it would command of her. The seriousness in its eyes, despite their silent wonderment. A mixture of feelings rose inside her, and she wasn't sure how to decipher them. She quickly walked away from the painting.

At her car she loaded the painting she had chosen and a few other items into the trunk. The grayness of the day hung heavy upon her, and she suddenly remembered a time when she was a small child and had stayed home from school on a gloomy, overcast day, quite like this one. The whole day she'd spent buried in a coloring book, and she seemed to remember the outline of a house somewhat reminiscent of her new painting. Hours of coloring it, accompanied only by her mother and her dolls. And at the end of the day her mother chose that one to stick to the refrigerator. Amica had been heaped with praise, glowing words of appreciation from her mother - someday you'll be an artist, she'd exclaimed. And all week Amica had felt proud, partly from the painting, but mainly from her mother's earnest, encouraging words.

The memory was a bit foggy, like the day, and perhaps she was confusing it, imagining it, for some reason. But she got into the car and for a few moments she let the old prideful flame seep over her, burn into her, and she thought of mentioning it to her mom, asking if it had really happened. She decided against it; too unimportant. As she drove, it slipped quietly from her mind, and her thoughts returned to the move, the half-filled apartment, to their friends and the new dog.

His mother wasn't home yet so Felix almost got dropped off to an empty house. Ainsley would have left him on the porch and told him to wait there for his mother - there was a little chill to the air and the windows were curtained, the front entranced bolted. Like the other houses on the street, its seemed to be contained all within itself, each house a separate unit, barred from the others, nothing connecting one home to another except vague similarity of architecture. There was the sense that once, long ago, each house had resembled the others, had seemed welcoming, but the paling paint and hard fences made this difficult to discover now. The steps were gray stone, and they needed repairs. This was where Felix was to sit for an indefinite time - two hours? three? - smiling to himself or whoever it was he was hearing in his head, while Ainsley walked back to his and his wife's house and soon forgot the quiet breeze of the old neighborhood, the smiling of his brother-in-law, the slight squeak of his loafers.

He almost got away without going inside. But before he could steer the conversation toward farewell, Felix was already telling him to come in, insisting that he show him his radio. A beleaguered eagerness hung in his eyes. Ainsley didn't want to say no. His brother-in-law needed the company.

They entered through the back and climbed the carpeted stairs. Something of the mother's good cheer stood out in the faded decor of her home. A "welcome" sign at the entrance welcomed no one except Felix and his voices, but it welcomed nonetheless. Felix was clearly comfortable. He had begun singing as he reached the top of the stairs. Did Ainsley's company bring out some special hospitality in him, the company of a real, living, breathing body? They got to his bedroom. In the corner Felix's hulking body bent over a pile of electronic waste - pieces of foil, wires; aging, scratched metal. For a brief moment, Ainsley was struck by how old and gnarled his brother-in-law's form looked in the dimming light of the window; as if he were a sixty-year-old, a weathered expert on radios, who had spent years cradling fibers and plastics in his fingers. Felix was only twenty-nine, but for some reason he looked old, worn out, his time spent, his body degraded. Ainsley shook his hair out of his eyes. It was the light, playing tricks on him.

"Look," and he held out a shining rectangular contraption that, when Ainsley grabbed hold of it, buzzed with a shock of static and then settled into a steady humming. Words came out: "This week I'd like to introduce you all to The Presents, an oft-overlooked little doo-wop group from Texas that were together for two years before breaking up in 1959, and produced three solid albums in that time. Although only two of their singles made it to the charts, looking back on these albums proves that they were a steady producer of great, catchy songs. Let me start with an early hit - a hit at least to their local fans - from their first album, called 'I'll Always Be There.'" A few seconds of buzz and then a stream of lilting, sorrowful crooning came out. Ainsley looked at the little object, listened as it cried out to the room, and smiled. The walls were looming and spread out far from each other; there was little in the way of furniture in the room, a tiny sleeping pad, a rolling office chair without a desk, a little knee-high bookcase with papers strewn over it, a pile of circuits and wires and gadgets that kept Felix's hands worn and oily. Somehow the scarcity of objects made the room seem larger than normal; suddenly Ainsley felt tiny, shrunken into a vast, hollow chamber of musty radio currents. The song echoed around him and took over the space. The room was less interested in its real contents than in wherever the radio took it; Ainsley felt himself pulled into the melancholic, smoky air of an old soda shop, its jukebox worn out with use. Around him, young women glanced shyly at the boys sitting at tables by the windows; they sat still and waited, sticking their noses in their ice cream and letting the others do the approaching. Gray cigarette fumes clouded the space between. A man, no older than twenty-three, had been staring at a pretty redheaded woman for the last twenty minutes. Finally, clutching the cloth of his button-down with white knuckles, he managed to stand up and move in her direction; but just as he did, she arose and walked out the gleaming glass doorway, down the street and around the corner, with not even a glance behind her. He watched her go, the only woman there he wanted to talk to, a quietly longing look on his face; he reached his hand out toward her diminishing form -

"Isn't it, just - just - the coolest?" Felix's face was tightened into a goofy grin, his hands clutching the radio in eager pride. The words shook Ainsley from his vision and pulled him back into the room, back between its yellowing walls. The pile of electronic scraps in the corner had the marks of fresh, excited digging. "I just put in a new transistor and painted it." It was a classic radio, and it sounded fresh.

"It sounds good, Felix," and he managed a smile. "You painted it? I couldn't even tell. It looks new, like a factory job." He admired Felix's craftsmanship. Ainsley wrote a lot, but he didn't think he could ever muster the concentration to repair objects, or paint fences, or use his hands for a number of other activities, as Felix did. Another set of experiences he'd probably never have. Some were just made for this, he figured.

"I listen to Ollie's Oldies at ten, then Psychotron at 12, then Weird Wheezes at 3, and -" he continued, listing off each radio show on the station for the whole weekend, and would have continued into the week if Ainsley had not asked him, sometime around Tuesday's schedule, if his mother ever sat and listened with him. "She used to. She likes the rock music, and the show tunes, when they're on. But she hasn't for a while. For at least three months she hasn't." Ainsley thought of her, usually downstairs knitting something for one of her children or their cousins, or watching the news with a martini clutched in her wrinkled fingers. She'd probably gotten sick of the voices on the radio, never able to converse, always talking at you. She would prefer to make dinner by herself, chop vegetables and grind up spices in the kitchen's silent echoing, and then call Felix down when everything was ready. Some scant discussion, a kiss goodnight; Ainsley felt a little sad at the thought of it, and he wasn't sure why.

"What about Amica? Did she ever used to listen with you?" Felix looked into his eyes, his grin never faltering. "She used to always listen with me." He told him about her steadfast company; how she'd do her homework in his room while he fiddled with parts and blared his favorite station; about their long talks on music and electronics, though she knew little about the latter; how she used to turn down invitations from friends in order to stay with Felix instead. Ainsley thought of her, younger then, her brother her primary company. Was she so different now?

After talking a bit, Ainsley concluded that Felix knew very little about their relationship, that she had shared a lot with him but they hadn't ever really broached the subject of Ainsley. It seemed Felix and his sister had been very close growing up, and that the coming of Ainsley had pretty much put an end to this. Talking to Felix now, he could see nothing in his face to indicate he realized this, let alone felt sad about it. But Ainsley felt that something was missing from Felix's life, something he knew deep down was gone.

"Can you see them?" Ainsley looked up at his brother-in-law, whose face gleamed with a strange, glazed brilliance. Something in his eyes put Ainsley off.

"See what?" The room was darkening in the late afternoon, the air growing mustier, and the walls suddenly seemed almost translucent to Ainsley, to be opening out into some depth, some infinite expanse that was only partly imaginary.

Felix laughed. "I can see them. The radio waves. Look at them! See them? Look at how bright and colorful they are!" His eyes were excited, gazing off into the space above the radio. Ainsley looked and saw nothing; empty air. The radio blasted some old song, the jagged strains of forgotten records. Felix's gnarled, old-looking body leaned forward, quivering a little. He was in his twenties - why did he look so old? He squinted a little, and smiled again. "Look at them there. Can't you see them? Can't you?"

She had stared at the note for a long time, and she wondered whether it was appropriate. She'd written it in a characteristically careful, even hand. She would leave it there before she went out again; Ainsley would see it immediately upon entering. He should. Maybe he'd ignore, glance over it, his mind elsewhere, and her message would be lost. Sometimes he was careless in this way. He'd miss important details of a conversation, forget a meeting time, ignore the essential details of a film. It made him seem lost in his own thoughts, expecting the world to make exceptions for him, and not him for it. And she suddenly imagined that she was trapped outside of him, that she didn't know how to get in there, to get some message to him. A little cold fright of lonesomeness shot through her. But then she looked at the new painting, which lay picturesquely on the table. The two heads entwined with each other in warm, graceful togetherness. She had to stop doubting herself. He was a little spacey, that was all, and she pushed this strange feeling of separateness out of her mind. Just her imagination.

Her head ached, and the thought of seeing their friends and the new dog made her feel somewhat giddy.

After buying the painting, she had gone to an electronics store and asked about the landline telephones; she didn't know if stores still sold them, almost felt she might have to go to some novelty antique website to order one. They had discussed giving up the landline and relying entirely on cell phones, but decided after some conversation to keep it. It made the apartment feel more assured, more whole, more like the homes they remembered of their childhood.

It was a tall, dark man in dreadlocks who got one for her. He laughed a little at the sight of it, something that seemed so anachronistic, a device from a previous age when people could only make calls from their homes or some other tethered place. He even got into a conversation with her about it as he held it between his strong, calloused hands, his deep voice seeming to resonate in the aisles around her. "It used to be at the phone's discretion when and where we could call, but now it's all up to us. It's a responsibility, but we get used to it. It's like a little friend, that piece of metal in our pocket. Keeps us company." A little gleam in his eye. She remembered when he said this. He was right. A privilege and a responsibility. This phone would be special; they would give its number only to close friends; it would be like a secret network below their daily routines. She liked having details like this in her new apartment.

She took the phone from its box but didn't place it in the apartment yet. She'd wait for Ainsley to do this. She looked around the shadowy interior. Half-unpacked boxes lay everywhere. Signs of their uncertainty in decorating. A few pieces of furniture, a few areas that had begun to look like someone lived there, but mostly barrenness. Even places where they'd unpacked and decorated were not yet lived in, and to imagine that they were home was a stretch. The bed in the other room was warm and welcoming, but everywhere else seemed somehow empty and unmeaningful. The silence of the place weighed on her, and she felt a little oppressed. She decided to go out again, by herself. To take a walk in a local park.

Ainsley would be back soon. Her mind drifted to the new dog, to their friends. They would reschedule. Not a big deal, just a little appointment, easily forgotten.

His note had looked scrawled; he seemed to have written it quickly, half-conscious of its contents. "Brought Felix to your mother's. Be back by 6 to see the Evanses." He probably didn't remember writing it, and she just threw it out. Her note to him was more thought out, its handwriting clearer. "I'm going to the park to walk. I decided to cancel our visit with the Evanses, because I'm not feeling well. I need some fresh air. Call if you want to talk - feeling sick and would love to hear your voice -" She left it on the kitchen table in clear view of the door.

Before leaving, she put the picture up, and it took her almost a half hour to choose a space. She finally decided on a small patch of wall behind the kitchen door, which usually stood open and would block it. It would take a while, perhaps a few days, before he'd notice, she was sure. He'd probably happen upon it. Would he see it when he noticed it? Would he see her there, thinking of him in the warm, soft lines, see her quietude, her comfort, her heart?


  1. I felt the isolation of your characters and their interior lives as you went back and forth between their thoughts. Their struggle to connect made the story human and worthwhile.

  2. An interesting journey into interior worlds: the desire for, and obstructions to, making meaningful connections,
    Many thanks,

  3. "Keeping Company" is a nuanced and layered observation about how minds meet or fail to meet across the isolation of being human. In the harsh exterior world, there is misunderstanding and disconnect because one can only control part of what happens.

    But in the interior world, thoughts, creativity, memory, and hopes can be sweetly played out. There are autonomous voices and characters that make Felix laugh. Ainsley wonders if they are real—do they have bodies elsewhere? These are existential questions about the very nature of reality as humanity evolves toward greater interiority—for good and ill. Isn’t the stuff of consciousness more engaging than the exterior school of hard knocks?

    In the growing dark of evening, the mood sinks and things fall apart, reminding me of the weary bleakness of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Rudy Eiland answers the prophecies of Eliot one hundred years ago, as we stare into the Wasteland.