Becker did not use her half bathroom, a tall square room with chipped tile and a blue stain in the sink where the water dripped. It seemed somehow grubby to her in a way that no amount of scrubbing would rectify. The salmon pink of the tiles might not have been source of the problem, but it certainly didn’t help; the lightbulb, if there had been one, would have been naked in the ceiling, screwed into a socket thick with paint. Fortunately she had a full bathroom that was not distasteful. It was also fortunate that although she was a photographer she did not need a darkroom. Becker made her living selling photographs of inanimate objects to literary magazines, and for this purpose a high-end digital camera worked very well.
Her apartment building was sandwiched between the train tracks and a shallow artificial lake that had been installed by the owners of a nearby office building. Originally it had been a warehouse, a repository for the excess stock of a company that manufactured plastic garden hoses, which accounted for its high ceilings and inconvenient location. In the summertime she could look out her window and see a few ducks paddling in the scummy water. In the wintertime the lake froze, and tin cans and other garbage rattled over its grimy surface. Becker, who had never cared much about the outdoors, didn't mind the bleakness of the view. If it had been nicer the rent might have been higher.
The building housed three other tenants: a fat old woman, a young man with only one arm, and an unhealthy-looking young woman whose fights with a man who was her frequent visitor could often be heard in Becker's apartment. If she passed one of these people on the stairs or in the hallway she walked past without saying anything. None of them appeared overly eager to talk to her, either. She walked in and out of her apartment every day with a camera slung around her neck, and they might have thought she was a terrorist.
Becker never took pictures of people, though she had once been accused of doing so by the man who had the screaming fights with her neighbor down the hall. She had come home one day to find him waiting in front of the neighbor's door. This was not unusual; she had known him to stand there for hours at a time, whether waiting to be let in or waiting for the young woman to come out Becker did not know. They had never exchanged a word, but Becker nevertheless despised him for forcing her to walk past him on the way to her apartment. She had often entertained vivid fantasies of splitting his skull open with the aluminum baseball bat she kept just inside her door.
He had turned from her neighbor's door to look at her as she went past. "What's that?" he'd said, in a grotesque tone of feigned surprise, reaching for the camera around her neck. Becker had backed away from him, one hand clutching the camera and the other groping in her pocket for her keys. In her mind she had seen a dull smear of blood on shiny aluminum.
"Don't walk away from me, bitch," he said, following her. She stood in front of her door clutching the camera with both hands, afraid to put the key in the lock while he stood there. "I've never seen such a pretty camera," he said, his tone wheedling. "Are you a spy? A narc? Who do you take pictures of with that thing? Do you ever fucking take it off your neck?" She knew he had seen her without it many times.
Silently she waited for something to happen to get rid of him. "Can I just see it a second?" he wheedled, his tone still nauseatingly false. "Let me take just one picture. One picture of you. Come on, please?"
Then the neighbor's door opened and the neighbor herself came out into the hall to scream at him to get the fuck away from there, he was drunk, she would call the cops. Becker slipped into her apartment then. She leaned against the door, still clutching her camera, feeling it jerk against her chest with the hammering of her heart.
That winter the snow began abruptly in the middle of January and fell nonstop for five days. Becker's apartment was drenched in watery white light. The snow on the ground was almost perfectly featureless, punctuated only occasionally by a bird's footprints or a few coarse grains of salt, each surrounded by its own halo of bare concrete. Becker read in The New York Times that these grains of salt had been extracted from the Dead Sea and shipped halfway around the world for the purpose of exposing uselessly small patches of the sidewalk outside her apartment building. Presumably the landlord had strewn them there. She had never actually seen the landlord, but his existence could be deduced from the occasional gunshot-like snap of a rat trap at the end of the hallway.
She was taking her garbage out to the huge metal bin that the Sanitation Department sent a truck to empty once a month. The bin was one of several things about Becker’s building that made it seem only partially suitable for human occupation. Each month as the collection day drew close crows would start gathering on and around it, pulling at whatever scraps they could reach through the gap under the lid. The noise they made while doing this was extraordinary. Becker didn't mind it but on several occasions she had heard one of her neighbors throwing rocks at them. The rocks bounced off the lid and the sides of the garbage bin with no noticeable effect on the crows, who in each instance went on cawing just as loudly as before.
Once Becker had heaved the garbage into the maw of the metal bin, and brought the lid down again with a bang that echoed off the office building and back toward her over the ice, she crouched down to take some pictures of the snow. Twigs poked through, a stone. Near the shore of the artificial lake a short black length of pipe lay half covered. Becker took a picture of it and then picked it up to examine it more closely, which was when she saw that it was not a length of pipe at all, but the muzzle of a gun, a six-shot revolver.
She had found strange things near the garbage bin before. In springtime the lake thawed and disgorged the refuse people had thrown into it the previous fall: hastily discarded bags full of cannabis, small vials of white powder and big vials of pills, shoes and wallets and empty, bloated women's purses. She had never found a gun before, but finding one did not surprise her very much.
Becker had never held a gun. She pointed it at the middle of the lake and pulled the trigger. There was a loud report, and her arm recoiled violently. The crows rose in a screaming body and flew away.
She had never used the gun again, but she thought of it sometimes. It was reassuring to know it was there, with three bullets still in it, in the drawer of the endtable next to her bed. And she liked to imagine drawing the gun from her pocket and pointing it between her neighbor’s boyfriend’s eyes. Usually in this scenario his face collapsed like a soufflé, and he backed away from her until he had backed himself against a wall, stammering apologies; but sometimes he laughed at her outright, daring her to pull the trigger.
Becker had never killed anyone, though she had thought about it on several occasions.
For a period of two or three weeks the year before a gray, twitching homeless person of indeterminate age and sex had loitered, day and night, by the trash bin outside her apartment building. She thought that this person possibly even climbed inside the bin to sleep. There was a specific human stench that accosted her every time she walked past to get to her car. She could feel the eyes, too, following her across the parking lot, watching her until she drove out of sight. On these occasions Becker had wondered if it would be difficult to kill someone who would never be missed.
But the man who had the screaming fights with her neighbor would be missed, she knew: the sickly young woman would miss him, and call the police. People were like that. But Becker was not sentimental. She thought that she would be able to kill someone, if she had reason to; sometimes she almost regretted that the homeless person had disappeared before she found the gun.
I don't think I appreciated the first time around how batshit crazy Becker is. Even for a schizoid personality she's a little bit odd. I don't know, maybe I could actually write this book now. I always said I'd go back to it. Of course, I say a lot of things.