Miriam and I had once more made a pass at breaking up. I wandered the streets looking for a place that I could afford. In my wanderings, I came upon a building that had just been condemned. It stood between two commercial buildings, just below 51st Street on Broadway, in Oakland. It was a two-story wooden building, set back on the lot, with no front door. On its lawn was parked a yellow tractor, waiting like an angry young dinosaur for some signal to tear the building to the ground. It looked like I might be able to strike a deal with someone so that I could temporarily live there. Who wouldn’t want a few bucks until the permits to tear it down came through?
I found a phone number, made my call, and talked them into renting me a room in the building for fifty dollars a month. I met them, and paid in cash. I called Miriam and told her I had a new house, and that things would be all right for me.
I brought my few clothes and no possessions over and examined my new home. It had a small kitchen. I had the apartment on the second floor because the downstairs floor was missing. The kitchen had two windows, electricity, and, for heat and cooking, an old wood-burning stove.
The bedroom was exactly large enough for a single bed. It was furnished with such a bed, and I brought covers and Miriam gave me some sheets and a pillow. The difficulty was that there was no front door, and neither the door to my kitchen nor the door to my bedroom had a lock, as they had both been removed.
I decided that my only protection from being murdered at night, when someone came in, was to train myself rigorously to go from a sound sleep to sitting up and saying, “Hi, would you like a cup of coffee?” at the first sound of the door opening in the middle of the night.
I rehearsed this until it was involuntary. I would wake myself at random times in the night and pronounce my lines, as a drill. Then I would listen to see if it sounded convincingly congenial, and then flop back onto my pillow for a few more hours of sleep before the next drill time.
It was winter, wet and very cold. When I realized how cold it was, it was too late. The next morning, having spent the night freezing, I became fixated upon gathering wood to burn from the streets.
I looked throughout the neighborhood, and, like a nesting bird, dragged home pieces of broken furniture, twigs, and old chair backs that I had found in the bushes. I was determined to keep warm the next night by keeping a roaring fire going in the kitchen wood-burning stove. This struggle to stay alive kept my mind off Miriam and that terror I felt, like a lost five-year-old who continually wanted to cry.
After several hours of looking, I had quite a stash of burnable things, including straw for kindling, and old paperback books I had found.
Night came with excitement for me. I was a native again. I would start my fire at just the right time, and keep myself warm with a roaring blaze. I was secretly happy to be alive. At length, it was dark, and the chill of the winter air had slipped in through my windows like swords in a magician’s trunk. I was the woman locked inside. I filled the stove with wood, shoved paper down under it, and lit it with wooden matches. It began to smoke and then to burn. I had earned my life. When the fire was burning brightly, the yellow light lit up the ceiling, and I slid the round cast-iron plate over the hole with its wire-wound handle.
As the roar began to intensify, however, the smoke began to fill the room. It became dense very quickly, and I struggled to turn the vent this way and that, but it seemed disconnected from the air valve within the hot pipe. It was locked shut, and the room became a cube of smoke. I held my breath, and when the room filled with heat, I then lunged for the window, opened it, and let out the smoke and the heat that I had accumulated.
So this cycle began to take me into the night. I heated up the room again until I could no longer breathe the smoke-filled air into my lungs, at which point I would open the windows again, and let out my night’s heat, in exchange for breathable air.
Like Sisyphus, I was caught in a cycle that I could not break. It was simply too cold not to keep the fire lit, and so I was fated to carry out this hellish rite until I was so tired that it would be possible to fall into a deep sleep, going somewhere beyond knowledge of hot or cold.
Covered under my blankets and my coat, my stockings and clothes still on to hold in the heat, and the smell of smoke clinging to me, I pulled my wool cap over my face and fell asleep.
I do not know how long I had slept, when the door to my bedroom was slowly opened. In my training, I heard it squeal, and like a man being shot from a cannon in slow motion, my sleeping body lifted itself up. I sat up, opened my eyes as if I were conscious, and from the land of deepest sleep, extruded the words, “Hi, like a cup of coffee?”
I retrieved my body in time to hear a deep, slow voice say, “Uhh, okay.”
By now I was decidedly in my body, and swung my feet around to stand into the kitchen and open the kitchen door, so that my visitor could come around and join me for a little four-in-the-morning congeniality.
“I’m Ross,” I said, on fully automatic.
The big, slow man came around to the kitchen door, and I opened it, letting him in. I had a table and two chairs. I re-lit some wood, partly opened a window, and put on a pot of water. I turned around.
He was easily six-two, and a Native of some kind. “I’m Eddie,” he said.
“Hi, Eddie. I’m Ross,” I repeated, needlessly. “Coffee will be ready in a minute. Have a seat,” I said.
Eddie sat it all down, slowly, carefully. He had on an army jacket, army boots, and dungarees. He lifted his rabbit-fur-lined hood, revealing long, black hair in a pony tail.
“Where are you from, Eddie?”
He thought about it a minute. “Alaska. I’m Alaskan.”
“Alaskan. Funny. I’m from Buffalo. What brings you to the East Bay?”
Again, he thought the question over long and deep. “I’m here to study Eskimo politics at the university, and then go back and lead a revolution.”
“Revolution. Huh. Yeah, well. I’d like to hear about that. Here’s some coffee. Half and half? Sugar?” I asked.
“No,” Eddie said. “I take it just black.”