New York's Dolls: pt I


J. Edward Tremlett

Off of X and Y, downtown, in New York, there's a tenement. It's big and it's brown and it's old, and it's made from the sort of stuff you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

It's not much to look at. There's no reason anyone would want to. The windows that aren't missing all have bullet holes in them, and the doors have more locks than a bank vault. The normal people who live here hurry out and hurry back in. The addicts and deviants who squat in the vacant places don't stay there too long.

It's been there since forever, at least in the minds of the people who live around here now. There's got to be some record, somewhere, that says when it was built, and who made it. The city didn't just come from nowhere, after all, so neither did the buildings.

But maybe there's something here that's older than any of it.

The kids who live on this street won't play in front of that place. They say it's spooky, and you don't have to be a kid to agree. It looms like a vulture, or maybe a nurse leaning over a dying man. It looks right down its nose at you, and tells you that you're going to die.

When you're standing right in front of it, under its shadow, the rest of the noises of the city go quiet for a while. It's just you and this building, then, and nothing else in the world wants to say anything. And every once in a while, if you do that on the right days at the right times, you might realize that the tenement's trying to say something else.

What does it say? That's for you to find out. Go and look.

I'll wait here.


There was a man standing in front of the tenement, then: smoking like a chimney as the Fall leaves blew past in the wind.

They made a perfect couple, in a lot of ways. If it wasn't much to look at, then neither was he. If he'd had a bottle of rotgut wrapped up in a plain paper bag you'd have called him a wino and ignored him, unless he got too close. If he'd been driving by slowly in a big black car you'd have thought he was one of those freaks who does sick stuff to kids, and told your daughter to get inside. And if you'd found him dead on the street, with blood running out of his nose and dried puke next to his mouth, you'd have just walked over him or around him and wondered when they'd clean him up. Put him in a bag. Take him away.

This man was large. He was big-boned enough to have played football in high school, and slightly pudgy around the middle and neck. He wasn't too tall but he wasn't too short, either, but then calling him "average height" seemed like a cop out: "he's shorter than he appears to be, but taller than he really is" summed it up.

He wasn't too good-looking. He looked like he was made to play a heavy in a string of action films. He had a large forehead that stood out above his eyes, which were squinty and dark, brown little things. He had a nose that wasn't too impressive and lips that were fairly full. His hair was somewhere between black and dark brown with flecks of grey. It was kept short and straight, and was fairly thick.

And he was a slob, too. His dark grey trenchcoat was in bad need of a wash. The white, button-down shirt he wore under it was stained from lunch three days ago and the pants were pretty ratty in places. His shoes had seen better days, too. His skin was greasy, he was unshaven as a rule, and his hair was pretty unkempt. And he always stunk of cheap cologne worn in excess.

Watching him light up was a show.

He'd take a pack of something cheap and noxious out of his trenchcoat and pat the bottom against the large palm of his left hand. He'd flick the dying cigarette out with his right hand, making sure the butt went someplace appropriate, like a manhole cover or sewer grating. Then he'd pop a new one in his mouth with the same hand, put the pack away and get out a cheap lighter, like what they give away to patrons at backstreet strip joints for their opening week.

He'd cup with the left and light with the right, keeping it there a second or two longer than needed just to make sure the flame took. The light would play over his features, making him appear even more ugly and unshaven than before. Then he'd inhale three times in short little puffs, wait a second, and exhale in a quick, steady stream while putting the lighter away.

And that was Anthony: Anthony Bruhn. Tony to his friends. Never Mr. Bruhn.


He'd been there for at least an hour, looking at it. Every once in a while he flicked a cigarette away and lit up a new one. There was a good collection of butts here and there, now.

A few people had come and gone since then. Some old lady with too much eyeliner walked past, noticed that he was standing in the middle of the street, and said nothing in the sort of way that says all it needs to. One of the place's resident crackheads had stumbled out, pissed himself while standing on the curb, and then stumbled back in again. Three kids from another block ran by playing war, and one of the guns was not a toy.

He looked at his watch. Anyone who knew from knock-offs would see it was an imitation of a well-known, expensive brand that he probably couldn't really afford. But then, maybe he was the sort of person who could have had anything he'd wanted to with a little effort. Maybe he didn't aspire to anything more than booze, cigarettes and his next meal, or a roll in the hay with someone who reminded him of his first love, or his mother.

He shook as though he were expelling some memory from his head, and looked again. His gestures were those of the man who was getting close to the time he'd need to do something. Soon the Sun would go down, right over the roof of this tenement building, and plunge this part of the street into shadows.

A quick look to the left and the right followed the look at the watch. The street was getting deserted real damn quick. Doors were being locked up, windows were being shut, and kids and dogs were being recalled to the safety of indoors.

He waited a few minutes more. Then he reached into his coat again, and pulled out a brown paper bag wrapped tight around a bottle of something good and cheap. He unscrewed the cap with his eyes closed, abandoned the cigarette he'd been working on, and took a good chug of whatever was in the bottle. He exhaled between clenched teeth, feeling the burn, and then tipped the bottle just a little, making a thin stream pour onto the cracked pavement.

He turned around in a circle, going left. He did this once, then twice, then a third time. All the time he was saying something under his breath that any altarboy in town would have told you was Latin. They probably wouldn't recognize the meaning without help, though. It wasn't what you'd say in a church.

That done, he stopped where he started, and screwed the cap back on the bottle. Then he stopped, smiled a little, unscrewed the cap and took another chug before putting it away for good. His coat's pocket bulged once under its weight and then settled back to normal.

He lit up. This time it was slower than before. More methodical. It was as though the ones before this were dry runs for this one, special cigarette. He puffed three times and held the smoke in with eyes closed, waiting for the moment when his eyes were draped in the shadows that were quickly climbing his chest. His neck. His chin.

And then they were over his head. And he was in darkness. And there was just him and the building, and everything else in the whole, wide world wasn't making any noise at all.

"So," he said to the tenement, exhaling a stream of smoke and looking up as the Sun dipped right behind and cast the rest of the area him in shadows, too: "What's your fucking problem?"


(He looks at the person he's talking to. Exhales smoke.)

A lot of people get the wrong fucking idea about ghosts and haunted houses.

A lot of times they think it's a former tenant out to get them. They go looking in the basement for dead bodies or rip out the drywalls looking for stolen treasure. They'll spend hours looking through old press clippings at the city library to try and find if anyone died in the place, or in a house that used to be there before.

Of course, old times being old times, there's lots of raggedy old coots who kicked off in their sleep. Lots of sick kids who breathed their last in their bedrooms instead of a nice, shiny hospital, too. It happened all the time when people were poor in the days before medical insurance and whatnot. You look in the history of any house that's older than fifty, there's got to be at least one person who bought it there. Maybe more.

So these people read that, think they got themselves a ghost in a house, and think they need to do something about it. They go and hire some spoon-bending moron with a fake European accent to come in and clean their house for them. They get a psychic to talk to them. They find out some old, grave injustice happened and try to set it right as best they can.

Maybe it works. It usually doesn't. Ghosts are funny that way, and a lot of people don't know what's really going on there. Sometimes they aren't tied down to one place. Sometimes they're more interested in a person than a house. And sometimes they're just malicious sons of bitches who like to hurt people, too.

(Exchanges old cigarette for new. Inhales. Exhales)

And sometimes, in some places, you get more than one kind at once.


There was a dull silence, then. Anthony waited for an answer. Maybe the house just didn't like that kind of language?

"Hello?" he asked: "You in there?"

I hurt, came the reply, at last. It sounded a lot like Anthony thought it would: deep and rumbling, its throat all gunked up like the floor drain at a spit-sink Chinese restaurant.

"I can see that," Anthony said: "You wanna tell me why?"

I do not know how I should explain it.

"Why not?"

You would not understand.

"Aw, cut with the pity-me routine, huh?" Anthony said: "Jesus Christ. You think you're the only haunted building in the whole city?"

You... you can see them? Its attitude seemed to perk up at that.

"Yeah," he replied, looking at the windows.

There were new faces there now, ghostly and pale and barely able to see over the mantles. They were children, all of them: their eyes were hollow, sunken shadows and their hands were long and spidery things. They stared at him accusingly, as the eyes of dead children often would.

"Yeah. I can see them," he repeated: "How long have they been there?"

Since I have been here.

"And how long is that?"

I... I fear I cannot be certain. What year is this?

Anthony nodded. This was looking like a bad one.

"Okay," he said, knowing that this was the tricky bit: "I'm going to step outside the circle and come in. I want to talk to you face to face. Where's the best place to find you?"

The attic, the building answered, But I do not know if they shall let you.

"Why wouldn't they?" Anthony asked: "Don't they want to leave?"

Some of them are very afraid to.

Anthony sighed. He should have known this was coming. Oh well.

He put his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out a small, leather-bound book. He dragged off the cigarette one more time, stamped it underfoot, and then, carefully, stepped out of the circle.

Nothing happened.

He knew better than to breathe a sigh of relief, though. And as he took another step outside, and started walking towards the nearest door - where the crackhead had come from - the wind started to pick up.

Go away, he could hear something whispering in the leaves: Leave us.

"Yeah, yeah," he said, heading on up the cracked steps and pulling a business card out of the book: "Just here to sell vacuum cleaners, kiddo. Let me talk to your dad."

* * *