It begins simply enough.
An old flophouse, too impossibly ancient to exist within the city of Houston. Three to a room and there are many rooms. How many is anyone’s guess. Every Monday you nail rent, $50 cash, to the front door. Someone comes and takes the money away but no one ever sees who.
The tenants get by however they can, food scrounged from dumpsters behind some of the city’s finest eateries, petty theft, day work competing with Mexicans down on Washington, but mostly it’s just death in slow motion.
The mirror in my quarters is worse than most. Most mirrors, I mean. This mirror takes up an entire wall and it is worse than most any other mirror of my experience. You know all mirrors have their mistakes – reflecting a Levi’s tag when you are wearing Calvin Kleins, motions a fraction of a second slow, whatever – but this mirror’s mistakes are severe by any standard. Like I wake up and before I even start to stretching, my reflection is already brushing her teeth.
This is intolerable to me and I say as much. Roommate number two announces we will complain to the landlord but no one knows who the landlord might be. Roommate number one breaks the mirror slam-crack with a dumbbell but the next day another one has taken its place and worse than the one it replaced.
My current working hypothesis is that this is where my real troubles begin. Like cause and effect, you dig? Everything else springs forth from this one source but in ways not recognized for years if ever because you can turn any two events into cause and effect if you work at it hard enough and without resorting to Kevin Bacon.
The house by default exists in this city and this city ostensibly has a police force to protect and serve all citizens. This police force does not stop much crime but they do enjoy breaking down doors. One of the few perks of the job, I am told. Generations of splintered wood piling up in entryways, enough rusty door knobs to set up an antiques dealer for life, and no one even bothers sliding a pin down the new hinge these days.
Tonight’s cops seize an admittedly stolen box fan and proceed to grab me up by the butterfly collar. My reflection remains behind, looking dumbfounded but otherwise unmolested.
Lights of the city reflect off windows of the cruiser flashing by and there is concrete and there are trees of a variety I cannot recognize. Maybe they have pulled me out the wrong door. “We’re in the wrong city!” I insist from the back seat, but no one answers me. Probably they believe I am making a jurisdictional argument of some sort.
It is wet. I am in an interrogation room but cannot recall coming in or getting dragged in or just appearing here from someplace else, lost time and with different cops and there is no one anywhere I can call to come down and get me. I know that there used to be someone but now there is not or else their name slips my mind at the moment.
Let me think...
“We know you did it, Mandell!” A cop with a badge I cannot read, just hieroglyphs or something, really, he slams a picture down on the table between us. A third rate actor doing a prime time bad cop schtick.
The picture reveals a fat and balding middle-aged Mandell. The picture is not a picture of me and I do try and point this out as politely as possible but he laughs in my face and he holds the picture up right next to my head.
“That look like the wrong guy to you, Sipowitz?” he says and now his partner is laughing, too, and I know before I even look down that I am Mandell or at least currently appearing to all the world in a fleshy Mandell fat suit.
When did I put this thing on? How long have I been wearing it?
“There has been a terrible mistake!” I unzip the flesh right down the center of my (or, rather, Mandell’s) hairy chest. Thick blood, formerly held in by the flesh suit, leaks out and onto the floor of the interrogation room, towards a drain installed for just this sort of eventuality.
I step out of the flesh suit, which hits the ground with a splat. Underneath where it was, the thing I am still does not seem right. Just a jumble of prosthetic limbs held together with pins and with wires and I shuffle to remain standing – this way and that – like a puppet on strings. Still not me or else not the me who I remember.
Men in Hazmat suits arrive and they sweep up the pile of Mandell flesh off the floor and take it into custody. I am never informed of the crime for which me and/or me-as-Mandell was accused.
The officers loan me a Mary Lou Retton flesh-suit from out of the evidence room to wear over my bare plastic prosthetics and metal wire endostructure. It is a gift and even though as gifts go it is a poor gift, I am duly appreciative.
“This is the greatest Christmas ever!” I lie as I get up to exit the interrogation room. At my display of appreciation, Sipowitz gets all choked up and gives me cab fare to get back home.
Home is a flophouse where a new front door is just being installed.
A noise from somewhere across the room… Tangerines… The color mauve…