By William T. Vollmann, from Last Stories and Other Stories, to be published by Viking in July. Vollmann’s last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Life as a Terrorist,” appeared in the September 2013 issue.
Once upon a time I built myself a house beneath a delightful tree, but late on a certain afternoon I began to get old. The sounds of the evening unnerved me as they had never done before. I drew my curtains in order to feel more safe. Then it got very dark, and I slept a long time. When I opened the door in the morning, I discovered bulldozers digging everything up. A man in a hard hat told me to get out; this property had been condemned for nonpayment. “Why not?” I thought. “I’m too old for this.”
I bought myself a well-made house in the city and furnished it as comfortably as I liked. This time I made certain that everything was paid for. No noises ever came through the windows. My soft bed whispered ever more sweetly to me at night, and warm air sang to me from the ceiling ducts. One evening, I went to the door, but the door said: “Do you really want to go out? Stay awhile; you’ll be so much happier here.” Warm, sticky drops of something fell on my head. I looked up and saw that the ceiling was salivating. This house of mine meant to eat me! So I rushed to the closet to get my coat, but the closet said: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” I pulled at the handle, but the closet remained tightly closed. I sat down on the bed to decide what to do. The mattress felt softer than ever, and I became a trifle sleepy. “Now wouldn’t you like a little nap?” my pillow whispered. “I’ll give it to you just the way you like it.” So I lay back on my soft, soft bed, and my pillow wrapped around my face to kiss me. In an instant I couldn’t breathe.
After I ripped the pillow’s flabby folds from my mouth, goose down started whirling around me like malignant snowflakes. I leaped up, stepped into my shoes, and kicked the closet door until it squealed. When I turned the handle, it opened with a sob and a shudder, wetting my hand with its tears. “I thought you loved me,” it said.
“I do love you,” I said. “Now where’s my coat?”
“Wouldn’t you rather play dress-up? The weather report predicts a cold front. If you stay indoors with me today, I’ll show you costumes you’ve never seen. You can be either a king or a queen.”
“If I play with you today, will you try to stop me from going tomorrow?”
“I’ve always loved you,” said the closet. “It will never be easy to let you go.”
“Well, if I stay here forever, what do you have to offer me?”
“What do you mean? What way is that to talk to someone who would give you everything?”
“If you’ll give me everything, start by giving me my coat.”
“Are you saying it’s over?”
“Of course not,” I said, stroking the shiny, cool handle in just the way it liked. “I’m going shopping so I can bring you back some lovely, lovely clothes.”
“Do you promise?” whispered the closet.
I put on my coat, but just then the refrigerator spoke my name. It wished to offer me a really fancy piece of cheese. The instant I heard that, my mouth began to water, and, once that happened, the ceiling dripped more saliva on me. That discouraged my appetite, so I went to the window to investigate the weather. But I lacked the means to determine whether or not the closet had lied, because rain was running down the inside of the pane — the tears of my house, which feared that it might not be able to eat me.
Since the door refused to unlock, I broke the window with the base of a gooseneck lamp whose head kept hissing, swiveling around, and attempting to bite me. By now the world had grown dark. I smashed out every last shard, threw that quacking, squawking lamp into the hole, and poised myself to escape from my grave-house. Perhaps I should have departed sooner. The bathroom door kept slamming to and fro, the lights glowed red, and the oven timer was screaming. To tell you the truth, I wished that I could have seen something more than blackness outside. How far down did the night go? “It’s past your bedtime,” the house threatened. Leaping into space, I said to myself: “This is the last time I’ll ever allow myself to get old.”