The Echo of Titus
It was New Year’s Day at eight in the morning when I looked out the window, hung over and blurry-eyed, to see my neighbour, Ivy King, running stark naked out her front door. Tripping through the snow, she ran to her frost encrusted car and yanked at the door. It was locked, of course–after all, where would she keep the key? Frustrated, she pounded at the window, hair flailing and her big flaccid breasts flopping against a belly still blemished with the vestiges of a Caesarian scar. Upon discovering the futility of her incessant beatings upon the car, she collapsed into a sobbing heap into the nearest snow bank. She sprawled on her back as though reclining in a comfy La-Z-Boy chair and wailed up at the bleak winter sky.
Behind me, Tim snored and snuffled under his pillow. It was his favored sleeping position and I’ve always marvelled the he never suffocated under all that foam. I turned from the window and leapt into bed beside him.
“Tim,” I called and shoved him, though I knew that after last night’s revelry, he would be gone from the world for several more hours. “Wake up! I think Mrs. King across the street needs help.”
Tim released a low moan, acknowledging that he’d heard me, but made no move to even lift his head up from under the pillow.
“Wake up!” I shoved him harder but that only made him burrow deeper into the quilt.
“Fine!” I huffed and reached for my warmest bathrobe, a frayed terrycloth thing that lay in a heap on the floor. “I’ll do this myself.”
I knew from the beginning he would be no help to me—or Mrs. King. I padded down the stairs while knotting the sash around my waist and stepped into my boots by the door. They were still wet from trudging home through the snow at two in the morning. The cold air hit me like a blast of ice when I opened the door. It was so cold outside my nostrils pinched shut against every inhalation.
“Mrs. King!” I called as I stumbled through slick clumps of snow that clotted the street. My boots crunched the grit left behind by the snowplows. I waved my arms over my head to grab her attention, afraid my voice wouldn’t carry in the frigid air. “Mrs. King! It’s me, Lisa. Are you all right?”
Ivy King stared up at me as though I was a ghost that had materialized out of nowhere. Her breath heaved out of her in great puffs of vapor that rose and dissipated over her head. Snow frosted the thick patch of pubic hair that ran halfway down her inner thighs. Already her skin was reddening and she shivered as though palsied.
Her lower jaw drooped open and she said, “Huh?”
“It’s me, Lisa Mahon.” I tapped my chest. “Remember? From across the street? What are you doing out here like this?”
Mrs. King shook her head as though shuffling her thoughts. But all she could say was “Huh?”
“Did something happen?” I asked. “Was there an accident?”
I grabbed her arm and hauled her to her feet. She was shivering so badly, she didn’t have the strength to resist. Her skin was clammy and ice cold, almost like a corpse. I pulled my robe off and draped it over her trembling shoulders so that I stood out in the biting wind in nothing but my boots and pink flannel pyjamas with the little yellow ducky print, a Christmas gift from Tim.
“We have to get you inside before you freeze to death,” I said.
Recognition slowly seeped into Mrs. King’s blank expression. She looked up at me and her voice trembled as she spoke, though I couldn’t tell if it was from her sudden burst of emotion or from the cold.
“I have to get to Burger King and get some food.”
I wrapped one arm around her waist and together we hobbled toward her house.
“I don’t think Burger King is opened at this time of the morning on New Year’s Day,
“But I need to get some food!” Mrs. King’s voice cracked and her face crumpled up into a silent sob.
I opened the front door and we stepped into the warm house. It was dim inside; all the lights were out and the furniture hunched like shadowed beasts against the walls. The television was on but the sound was off, illuminating the living room in blue ghostly light. I led her into the kitchen and sat her down at the table. Her teeth began to chatter and she trembled harder, bunching my robe under her rattling chin.
“Are you hungry?” I patted her quivering shoulder. “I can make you something to eat. But first we need to get some hot tea into you.”
I think Mrs. King nodded. I couldn’t tell because she trembled so.
I turned to the counter to look for a kettle and stopped short. The kitchen was a mess. Piles of soiled dishes teetered by the sink. Dried bits of food clung to the plates, along with congealed streaks of gravy that looked as though someone had run a chunk of bread through it to sop up the last drop. A mixing bowl big enough to whisk the batter for a seven layer cake sat in the sink with puddle of sour milk in the bottom; a thin mash of cereal flakes floated in it. A large frying pan sat on the cold stove with a thick layer of bacon grease glazing its surface. Empty cartons of juice and cereal, dented cans of pasta, brittle microwave popcorn bags and an assortment of other garbage littered the floor. I couldn’t believe it. I never would have imagined such a petit and decorous middle-aged woman living alone could be capable of devouring that much food.
“Did you eat all this?” I asked and bent to pick up a crushed plastic Pepsi bottle from under the table.
Mrs. King looked up at me with sad vacant eyes and shook her head. “No.”
A rumble started in the depths of the house. It began upstairs as a steady thud that rattled the walls enough to make the cheap prints jerk and lean off kilter. It grew louder, followed by a moan that sounded like a caged animal in the throes of torture. And the voice echoed down the stairs:
“Ma! Bring me my burgers! Now!” Thump! “Now!” Thump! “Now!” Thump!
Thump! Thump! Thump!
Tim and I were one of the first families to move into the neighbourhood. Back then Willowy Lane was little more than a freshly paved road that slashed through the upturned soil of what had once been a farmer’s field. Two years earlier, Castle & Lowe Developments had bought the land for inexpensive tract housing, the kind bought by newlyweds like us as a way to get our foot in the door of the booming real estate market. It wasn’t long before cheap identical single family homes on miniscule lots sprouted like toadstools along the curb. They were ugly houses, for sure—little more than garages with windows over them, narrow and crammed so close together they hadn’t even bothered installing windows on the sides because you would be able to see right into your neighbour’s house. That first year we had no grass, no sod, no garden to speak of because the great brains at Castle & Lowe wanted to wait until all the lots were sold before ordering the sod. But that didn’t matter at the time since it would take years for the families to stamp their individuality upon their homesteads.
Since we had few neighbours that first year, I was overjoyed to see a big Day-Glo SOLD sign appear on the lot across the street. Finally, someone to talk to and a house to block the view of the ugly mounds of dirt left behind by the bulldozers that had razed the lots on the other side of the development. The King’s house was built that spring, in a matter of a few weeks, and was almost identical to ours except the garage and front doors were on the left and ours were on the right. Ivy and her son Titus moved in before the front steps were even finished and they had to bring their furniture in on a wooden ramp.
“Hello!” I called, slamming the car door with my hip.
Ivy stood watching the movers lug an enormous wardrobe up the ramp on a dolly and disappear into the depths of the house. She turned at the sound of my voice.
“Welcome to the neighbourhood,” I called and stepped toward her to introduce myself. Being one of the first to move into the area, I fancied myself as the unofficial one woman welcoming committee.
“Thank you,” Ivy called and shook my hand.
“It will be nice to have some new faces in the neighbourhood,” I said.
Ivy laughed. She seemed nice enough. She wore faded jeans and a blue bandanna round her head that emphasized her striking black glossy hair. She looked good for a woman her age, short and buxom and with uncreased skin save for a few tiny wrinkles round her eyes.
“I’m sure we’ll be very happy here,” Ivy replied.
“You and your husband?”
Ivy shook her head. “My husband passed away some years ago. It’s just me and my son Titus now.”
Ivy nodded in the direction of a grey compact hatchback trolling up the street, dust spewing and pebbles snapping from under its tires. It lumbered to a stop by the curb.
“There he is now,” Ivy said.
The young man who climbed out from behind the wheel was enormous. At around six foot three I had always thought Tim to be a tall man, but Titus must have outdone him by a least half a foot. I was amazed that such a compact car could accommodate his bulk. He was not just tall, but beefy. He was balding already and his thickset head rested between two wide shoulders that looked as though they had been padded with sports gear under his shirt. His heavy arms were flabby and speckled with freckles and fine downy red hair. A leather belt cinched his middle—he had no waist, and his round prominent belly sagged over the buckle. In one hand he carried a jumbo sized paper drink cup; his other arm was curled protectively around a bucket of fried chicken with a large grease stain spreading on the side like a bruise.
Trying not to stare, I shook his hand and introduced myself, welcoming him to the neighbourhood and telling them both that if they should need anything while getting settled, our door was always opened.
We didn’t see much of the Kings after that. As the neighbourhood grew and greenery finally sprouted around the lots, they kept mostly to themselves, save for the occasional wave and obligatory smalltalk whenever we passed one another. I sometimes saw Ivy arriving home from work in the evenings, always toting bags bulging with groceries from the Superstore. From time to time, Titus boarded his car and drove off somewhere, though I didn’t know where and I didn’t want to pry. Ivy had mentioned once that he didn’t have a job, but he was always “looking” and considering returning to school. Once in a while I spied him late at night as I closed the shades in the bedroom window. He would get in his car and drive off somewhere; I couldn’t imagine where he would be headed so late at night.
Over the course of the next three years, his excursions began to wane until I rarely saw him except late at night when he would lug sacks of fast food from his car and ramble into the house as though he was engaged in some illicit activity.
It took about another year before I realized that I hadn’t seen Titus at all. I was walking Rufus, our lackadaisical Basset Hound, along the sidewalk one glorious warm autumn day and saw Ivy raking the leaves left behind by the spindly saplings the town had planted in front of each lot the previous spring. I waved and stopped for a chat.
“How’s Titus?” I asked. “I haven’t seen him around lately.”
Ivy leaned against her rake and cast a cursive glance up to the bedroom window over the garage before replying.
“He’s fine,” she said. “He went away to college in September.”
“How wonderful,” I replied. “What school?”
“Carleton.” Her answer was quick and flippant, as though she didn’t want to discuss it further. She turned her back and resumed raking a patch of grass with so few bits of alder leaves it hardly seemed worth the trouble.
“Good school,” I said, trying to push the conversation. “What’s he taking?”
“Economics.” Ivy didn’t bother to turn back around when she answered.
Rufus pulled on his lead and snuffled around her trash bins, overflowing with greasy hamburger wrappers and empty cookie packages. A wasp hovered over a crumpled McDonald’s drink cup and settled on the straw to suckle a congealed drop of orange pop. Ivy lifted her eyes to the opened garage door. Titus’s car sat under a layer of dust.
“He left on the bus,” she said. “He said he wouldn’t need his car.”
“That’s strange…” I began but Ivy cut me off.
“I have to go now,” she said and dragged the rake behind her as she headed into the garage. She yanked the cord over her head and the garage door flapped shut, sealing me out. At my feet, Rufus whined for attention.
It felt as though an earthquake was shaking the house down to its foundation. Ivy clutched the collar of my bathrobe tighter against her throat and stared up at the ceiling where a large crack zigzagged across the plaster. The walls shook until the dirty plates on the counter rattled like bones. Instinctively, I reached out to steady myself as though I was on the bow of a lilting ship during a storm.
“What in the world is that?” I said.
Ivy shook her head and covered her face in her hands, her lips moving in some silent prayer.
“Ma! Ma! Get me my burgers!” The voice thundered down the stairs. “Ma…ma…” It gradually ebbed to a weak whine.
“Who else is here?” I asked. “I thought you lived alone.”
Ivy didn’t reply. She lifted her face from her hands and stared into the hallway at the foot of the stairs. She still shivered, but now I think it was more from distress than from cold.
“Is that Titus?” I headed toward the stairs but Ivy grabbed the cuff of my pyjama top and tried to pull me back.
“No!” she croaked. “Don’t go up there. Please don’t go.”
“But he sounds like he needs help,” I said.
The flannel of my pyjama top snapped back in her hand as I broke free. I bounded up the stairs two at a time. It was easy to find my way around. Her house was a mirror image of ours. I headed to the master bedroom where I heard a voice behind the door whimpering as though in agony. By then Ivy had somehow found the strength to get up and chase after me, all the while pleading for me not to go in there. I pushed through without knocking.
The first thing that struck me was the smell. When Tim and I first moved in together, all we could afford was a squalid two bedroom apartment in a building filled with recently landed immigrants, mostly Asian and Eastern European. Some evenings, the stench of their combined cuisines filled the corridors so we could barely breathe—a myriad of meats and spices and cooking oils that sent us clutching our nostrils as we scurried to the relative sanctuary or our own apartment.
This smell was worse. The stink of old food combined with the redolence of sweat and body odor was so strong it almost seemed a living thing, creeping round the furniture and burrowing into the rug and curtains. I covered my nose and turned away, afraid I would vomit all over Ivy’s threadbare carpet.
Ivy stood before me, numb as a mannequin, the front of my robe hanging open and exposing her scarred belly and flaccid breasts streaked with blue veins like a road map. I coughed and retched and tried to bring myself under control.
“Is that Titus in there?” I heaved.
Ivy nodded. I was afraid to look behind me. I hadn’t seen him for so long I’d almost forgotten his existence. It was sheer curiosity that compelled me back into the room, the collar of my pyjama top pulled up over my nose and mouth like a surgeon’s mask.
The drapes in the window were shut, blotting out the whiteness of the morning so that only a thin sliver of light beamed through. The room was dim but not so overly dark I couldn’t see. The television was on, a blurry square of bluish light in the corner. I expected the room to be a mess but I never would have imagined the squalor I found. More soiled dishes were piled up on every available surface, on top of every bureau, every table, every bookshelf. Some had toppled and lay on the floor in shards. Bags and crumpled food containers from every conceivable fast food place were scattered around the room. Empty bags of chips and ice cream cartons littered the floor around the bed.
The bed was king sized and made of dark mahogany with tapered posts at each corner, although the two at the foot of the bed had been sawed off to ensure a better view of the television. Someone or something moved on the bed and the mattress squealed in objection. At first my mind couldn’t register what I was seeing. I thought I saw a head with curly auburn hair turn at the sound of footfalls. But what lay under that head couldn’t possibly be a human body. It was too large, too wide; the bed could barely contain it. In the gloom it looked like a massive wave of raw bread dough spilling out across the quilt and tipping at the edges of the mattress.
“Who’s there?” The voice was wheezy and strained as though the speaker had been crying. Though I hadn’t heard it is so long, I still recognized that voice.
“Titus?” I said and crossed the room to open the drapes. “It’s me, your neighbour Lisa Mahon. Remember me?”
“Don’t open that!” Titus barked but it was too late. I pulled the cord and the curtains parted, flooding the dark room with hoary winter light. I had to open the window and whisk some of the smell out of the room; I didn’t care how cold it was outside. An icy wind blew in, tingly and refreshing, and I eased my nose out from under my collar as I turned around to look at Titus.
“No!” he wailed, turning away and covering his face with a flabby arm speckled with pocks and freckles, twice the thickness of both my legs put together. He was huge, a beastly walrus of a man. He lay naked on the bed, a long strip of blanket across the relative area of his hips if he had any. But there was no need for such modesty. Even without the blanket, his genitals would have been hidden behind the massive folds of flesh that rolled over his body like the hills on a barren field. The residue of past meals streaked his chest and belly—sticky syrups and ketchup and puddles of congealed soft drinks with crumbs still stuck in them. He looked and smelled as though he hadn’t bathed in months.
Ivy crept into the room, clutching the flaps of my robe together, her eyes lowered.
“How could you?” I asked. She shook her head. Titus peered out at us from under the blubber drooping from his arm.
“How could you let this happen?” I repeated. “Look at him. Don’t you see what you’ve done?”
“I had to,” Ivy whimpered. “If I didn’t get him his food, he got violent. I was afraid he’d hurt me. Or worse. He might leave. Then I’d be alone.”
I knew any accusations and diatribes I hurled at Ivy would be useless. Titus didn’t get this way on his own. He needed an enabler, especially now that he couldn’t move from his own bed. I couldn’t watch their mutual self-destruction anymore. I turned away and headed toward the stairs. Ivy could keep that old bathrobe. I wouldn’t be able to wear it again anyway.
Behind me, Titus shifted in his bed until a heard a springboard crack and said, “Did you get my burgers, Ma?”