Something Cannot Breathe


I don’t buy cigarettes from the man downstairs anymore. No, not anymore, not since he stopped selling them. “Paper, son,” he told me, “paper is what the future holds for me.” I looked inside his boxy storefront and saw crates full of dead wood and flower clippings.

At night, there’s a buzzing I can’t place. It keeps me awake. I stare at my gray plaster ceiling and think about everyone else in my building, this lattice-work of single rooms, doing the same thing.

My neighbor’s room nests into mine; our walls slope into one another. I see her scrubbing dark smudges of travel stain from the carpet in front of her door and see red welts on her shoulders and neck. I don’t mention them to her, the same way I don’t discuss the welts under my downstairs neighbor’s chin as he carries wood in from outside. I say nothing about the buzzing to anyone, as if only I could hear it.

On my way home, I swat a fat wasp out of the air with my rolled up newspaper. Soon afterward, ants form a thick, circular perimeter around my building. I crush them underfoot with my comings and goings, enough that I can smell it; dead ants smell like juniper. More ants swarm over the fallen, but none of them advance within two feet of the front door.

Articles of furniture pile up outside as, floor by floor, my neighbors clear out their apartments. The man down the hall from me used to play his wireless set late at night. Now he sits outside his room and drools into a clod of pulp, shaping it with his bare hands and spreading it across the wall and ceiling. I ask him what he is doing and his response is a low, droning sound, his jaw slack. Other neighbors mimic his behavior.

The buzzing is louder now, and apneal. Something cannot breathe. I ask the maintenance man if there’s a problem with the building’s steamboiler or pipes, and pulp falls from his mouth like gruel. The next evening, the building’s electrical power shuts off, and no steam hisses from the pipes. They buzz instead.

The only thing that drowns out the buzzing is rain, and if I had a large enough gun I would commit my life to shooting holes in the sky.

I’m almost hit by a red-panel steamcoach as I cross the street, and the driver jumps out to curse at me. His eyes are clear and I can understand the words leaving his mouth.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “it’s these goddamned bees.” He swats one away, then shields his face from possible retaliation with his arm.

“Wasps,” I say. I never could stop myself from correcting people.

“Whatever they are,” he says, “I’m not letting them near my family. I sent my wife and children out of the city already. With any luck, I’ll be gone by sundown.” He swats three more away, but they hover above his head.

“Where are the flies, is what I want to know,” I tell him. I haven’t seen a fly or mosquito or even a cockroach in weeks now. The man tells me he isn’t sure, hadn’t even thought about it. His chin sinks toward his chest. I tell him to be careful and make haste to my apartment. Insect husks rustle under my shoes.

My floor is completely shelled in by paper, and so are all the floors below me and at least one floor above. Men and women on ladders are plastering the building’s exterior, and when the rain falls it bounces right off their handiwork.

There used to be an advertisement for an undertaker and embalming service on the side of my building, painted right on the bricks. It’s been papered over now. I buy a pastel crayon and do my best to recreate it from memory, but an old woman who lives on the first floor swats the crayon out of my hand. I turn and yell at her, and when she opens her mouth, a single wasp floats out like a soap bubble. I smash it with my bare hand and she bursts into tears. Ants scramble up from where her tears hit the ground and join the squirming ring of their fellows holding vigil around the building.

I can hear the buzzing during the day, now. I open my door to leave and tear through a thick paper carapace one of my neighbors smeared over it in the night. When I return, a group of them is pulling my door from the hinges altogether. My landlord is among them, her thin face and asthenic body bloated with welts like all the others. I chase them away and run from the cloud of wasps they leave behind, pulling my jacket up over my head and neck to shield my face from them.

From a distance, my building fans out above the others like an umbrella. It looks brittle and delicate. I suppose it is.

I find a new apartment, and a new man to sell me cigarettes. I watch the paper husk over my old building creep down the block. Continuous buzzing muffles the normal hubbub of city life and no longer interrupts my sleep. Newspapers detail the medicinal benefits of wasp stings.

Someone on the wireless reports a red-panel steamcoach abandoned on the railroad tracks with both doors open. They found blood spattered on the seat. The rest of the report is drowned out by buzzing, then abruptly halted by the music they play during technical difficulties.

I keep dreaming about stripping naked, walking outdoors, opening my arms to them. One day, I will wake up to find myself doing it. Until then, I pray for rain.


Dave K’s work has appeared in Front Porch Journal, Cobalt, The Avenue, Welter, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, TRUCK, and on the LED billboard in Baltimore, MD’s Station North Arts District. He is the author of The Bong-Ripping Brides of Count Drogado (November 2017, Mason Jar Press).

  • Pal LaFountain

    I very much enjoyed the imagery in this story. Thank you.