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House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

FOREWORD

The first edition of House of Leaves was privately distributed and did not contain Chapter 21, Appendix II, Appendix III, or the index. Every effort has been made to provide appropriate translations and accurately credit all sources. If we have failed in this endeavor, we apologize in advance and will gladly correct in subsequent printings all errors or omissions brought to our attention.

— The Editors

This is not for you.

Introduction

I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I'm not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.

For a while there I tried every pill imaginable. Anything to curb the fear. Excedrin PMs, Melatonin, L-tryptophan, Valium, Vicodin, quite a few members of the barbital family. A pretty extensive list, frequently mixed, often matched, with shots of bourbon, a few lung rasping bong hits, sometimes even the vaporous confidence-trip of cocaine. None of it helped. I think it's pretty safe to assume there's no lab sophisticated enough yet to synthesize the kind of chemicals I need. A Nobel Prize to the one who invents that puppy.

I'm so tired. Sleep's been stalking me for too long to remember. Inevitable I suppose. Sadly though, I'm not looking forward to the prospect. I say "sadly" because there was a time when I actually enjoyed sleeping. In fact I slept all the time. That was before my friend Lude woke me up at three in the morning and asked me to come over to his place. Who knows, if I hadn't heard the phone ring, would everything be different now? I think about that alot.

Actually, Lude had told me about the old man a month or so before that fateful evening. (Is that right? fate? It sure as hell wasn't -ful. Or was it exactly that?) I'd been in the throes of looking for an apartment after a little difficulty with a landlord who woke up one morning convinced he was Charles de Gaulle. I was so stunned by this announcement that before I could think twice I'd already told him how in my humble estimation he did not at all resemble an airport though the thought of a 757 landing on him was not at all disagreeable. I was promptly evicted. I could have put up a fight but the place was a nuthouse anyway and I was glad to leave. As it turned out Chuckie de Gaulle burnt the place to the ground a week later. Told the police a 757 had crashed into it.

During the following weeks, while I was couching it from Santa Monica to Silverlake looking for an apartment, Lude told me about this old guy who lived in his building. He had a first floor apartment

peering out over a wide, overgrown courtyard. Supposedly, the old man had told Lude he would be dying soon. I didn't think much of it, though it wasn't exactly the kind of thing you forget either. At the time, I just figured Lude had been putting me on. He likes to exaggerate. I eventually found a studio in Hollywood and settled back into my mind numbing routine as an apprentice at a tattoo shop.

It was the end of '96. Nights were cold. I was getting over this woman named Clara English who had told me she wanted to date someone at the top of the food chain. So I demonstrated my unflagging devotion to her memory by immediately developing a heavy crush on this stripper who had Thumper tattooed right beneath her G-string, barely an inch from her shaved pu**y or as she liked to call it—"The Happiest Place On Earth." Suffice it say, Lude I spent the last hours of the year alone, scouting for new bars, new faces, driving recklessly through the canyons, doing our best to talk the high midnight heavens down with a whole lot of bullshit. We never did. Talk them down, I mean.

Then the old man died.

From what I can gather now, he was an American. Though as I would later find out, those who worked with him detected an accent even if they could never say for certain where it came from.

He called himself Zampano. It was the name he put down on his apartment lease and on several other fragments I found. I never came across any sort of ID, whether a passport, license or other official document insinuating that yes, he indeed was An- Actual--Accounted-For person.

Who knows where his name really came from. Maybe it's authentic, maybe made up, maybe borrowed, a nom de plume or—my personal favorite—a nom de guerre.

As Lude told it, Zampano had lived in the building for many years, and though he mostly kept to himself, he never failed to appear every morning and evening to walk around the courtyard, a wild place with knee high weeds and back then populated with over eighty stray cats. Apparently the cats liked the old man alot and though he offered no enticements, they would constantly rub up against his legs before darting back into the center of that dusty place.

Anyway, Lude had been out very late with some woman he'd met at his salon. It was just after seven when he finally stumbled back into the courtyard and despite a severe hangover immediately saw what was missing. Lude frequently came home early and always found the old guy working his way around the perimeter of all those weeds, occasionally resting on a sun beaten bench before taking another round. A single mother who got up every morning at six also noted Zampano's absence. She went off to work, Lude went off to bed, but when dusk came and their old neighbor had still not appeared, both Lude and the single mother went to alert Flaze, the resident building manager.

Flaze is part Hispanic, part Samoan. A bit of a giant, you might say. 6'4", 2451bs, virtually no body fat. Vandals, junkies, you name it, they get near the building and Flaze will lunge at them like a pitbull raised in a crackhouse. And don't think he believes size strength are invincible. If the interlopers are carrying, he'll show them his own gun collection and he'll draw on them too, faster than Billy The Kid. But as soon as Lude voiced his suspicions about the old man, pitbull Billy The Kid went straight out the window. Flaze suddenly couldn't find the keys. He started muttering about calling the owner of the building. After twenty minutes, Lude was so fed up with this hemming hawing he offered to handle the whole thing himself. Flaze immediately found the keys and with a big grin plopped them into Lude's outstretched hand.

Flaze told me later he'd never seen a dead body before and there was no question there would be a body and that just didn't sit well with Flaze. "We knew what we'd find," he said. "We knew that guy was dead."

The police found Zampano just like Lude found him, lying face down on the floor. The paramedics said there was nothing unusual, just the way it goes, eighty some years and the inevitable kerplunk, the system goes down, lights blink out and there you have it, another body on the floor surrounded by things that don't mean much to anyone except to the one who can't take any of them along. Still, this was better than the prostitute the paramedics had seen earlier that day. She had been torn to pieces in a hotel room, parts of her used to paint the walls and ceiling red. Compared to that, this almost seemed pleasant.

The whole process took awhile. Police coming and going, paramedics attending to the body, for one thing making sure the old man was really dead; neighbors and eventually even Flaze poking their heads in to gawk, wonder or just graze on a scene that might someday resemble their own end. When it was finally over, it was very late. Lude stood alone in the apartment, the corpse gone, officials gone, even Flaze, the neighbors and other assorted snoops—all gone.

Not a soul in sight.

"Eighty fu**ing years old, alone in that pisshole," Lude had told me later. "I don't want to end up like that. No wife, no kids, no nobody at all. Not even one fu**ing friend." I must have laughed because Lude suddenly turned on me: "Hey Hoss, don't think young and squirting lots of come guarantees you shit. Look at yourself, working at a tattoo shop, falling for some stripper named Thumper." And he was sure right about one thing: Zampano had no family, no friends and hardly a penny to his name.

The next day the landlord posted a notice of abandonment and a week later, after declaring that the contents of the apartment were worth less than $300, he called some charity to haul the stuff away. That was the night Lude made his awful discovery, right before the boys from Goodwill or wherever they came from swept in with their gloves and handtrucks.

When the phone rang, I was fast asleep. Anybody else I would have hung up on, but Lude's a good enough friend I actually dragged my ass out of bed at three in the morning and headed over to Franklin. He was waiting outside the gate with a wicked gleam in his eye.

I should have turned around right then. I should have known something was up, at the very least sensed the consequence lingering in the air, in the hour, in Lude's stare, in all of it, and fuck, I must have been some kind of moron to have been so oblivious to all those signs. The way Lude's keys rattled like bone-chimes as he opened the main gate; the hinges suddenly shrieking as if we weren't entering a crowded building but some ancient moss-eaten crypt. Or the way we padded down the dank hallway, buried in shadows, lamps above hung with spangles of light that I swear now must have been the work of gray, primitive spiders. Or probably most important of all, the way Lude whispered when he told me things, things I couldn't give a damn about back then but now, now, well my nights would be a great deal shorter if I didn't have to remember them.

Ever see yourself doing something in the past and no matter how many times you remember it you still want to scream stop, somehow redirect the action, reorder the present? I feel that way now, watching myself tugged stupidly along by inertia, my own inquisitiveness or whatever else, and it must have been something else, though what exactly I have no clue, maybe nothing, maybe nothing's all—a pretty meaningless combination of words, "nothing's all", but one I like just the same. It doesn't matter anyway. Whatever orders the path of all my yesterdays was strong enough that night to draw me past all those sleepers kept safely at bay from the living, locked behind their sturdy doors, until I stood at the end of the hall facing the last door on the left, an unremarkable door too, but still a door to the dead.

Lude, of course, had been unaware of the unsettling characteristics of our little journey to the back of the building. He had been recounting to me, in many ways dwelling upon, what had happened following the old man's death.

"Two things, Hoss," Lude muttered as the gate glided open. "Not that they make much difference." And as far as I can tell, he was right. They have very little to do with what follows. I include them only because they're part of the history surrounding Zampano's death. Hopefully you'll be able to make sense of what I can represent though still fail to understand.

"The first peculiar thing," Lude told me, leading the way around a short flight of stairs. "Were the cats." Apparently in the months preceding the old man's death, the cats had begun to disappear. By the time he died they were all gone. "I saw one with its head ripped off and another with its guts strewn all over the sidewalk. Mostly though, they just vanished."

"The second peculiar thing, you'll see for yourself" Lude said, lowering his voice even more, as we slipped past the room of what looked suspiciously like a coven of musicians, all of them listening intently to headphones, passing around a spliff.

"Right next to the body," Lude continued. "I found these gouges in the hardwood floor, a good six or seven inches long. Very weird. But since the old man showed no sign of physical trauma, the cops let it go."

He stopped. We had reached the door. Now I shudder. Back then, I think I was elsewhere. More than likely daydreaming about Thumper. This will probably really wig you out, I don't care, but one night I even rented Bambi and got a hard on. That's how bad I had it for her. Thumper was something else and she sure beat the hell out of Clara English. Perhaps at that moment I was even thinking about what the two would look like in a cat fight. One thing's for sure though, when I heard Lude turn the bolt and open Zampano's door, I lost sight of those dreams.

What hit me first was the smell. It wasn't a bad smell just incredibly strong. And it wasn't one thing either. It was extremely layered, a patina upon progressive patina of odor, the actual source of which had long since evaporated. Back then it had overwhelmed me, so much of it, cloying, bitter, rotten, even mean. These days I can no longer remember the smell only my reaction to it. Still if I had to give it a name, I think I would call it the scent of human history—a composite of sweat, urine, shit, blood, flesh and semen, as well as joy, sorrow, jealousy, rage, vengeance, fear, love, hope and a whole lot more. All of which probably sounds pretty ridiculous, especially since the abilities of my nose are not really relevant here. What's important though is that this smell was complex for a reason.

All the windows were nailed shut and sealed with caulking. The front entrance and courtyard doors all storm proofed. Even the vents were covered with duct tape. That said, this peculiar effort to eliminate any ventilation in the tiny apartment did not culminate with bars on the windows or multiple locks on the doors. Zampano was not afraid of the outside world. As I've already pointed out, he walked around his courtyard and supposedly was even fearless enough to brave the LA public transportation system for an occasional trip to the beach (an adventure even I'm afraid to make). My best guess now is that he sealed his apartment in an effort to retain the various emanations of his things and himself.

Where his things were concerned, they ran the spectrum: tattered furniture, unused candles, ancient shoes (these in particular looking sad wounded), ceramic bowls as well as glass jars and small wood boxes full of rivets, rubber bands, sea shells, matches, peanut shells, a thousand different kinds of elaborately shaped and colored buttons. One ancient beer stein held nothing more than discarded perfume bottles. As I discovered, the refrigerator wasn't empty but there wasn't any food in it either. Zampano had crammed it full of strange, pale books.

Of course all of that's gone now. Long gone. The smell too. I'm left with only a few scattered mental snapshots: a battered Zippo lighter with Patent Pending printed on the bottom; the twining metal ridge, looking a little like some tiny spiral staircase, winding down into the bulbless interior of a light socket; and for some odd reason—what I remember most of all—a very old tube of chaps tick with an amber like resin, hard cracked. Which still isn't entirely accurate; though don't be misled into thinking I'm not trying to be accurate. There were, I admit, other things I recall about his place, they just don't seem relevant now. To my eye, it was all just junk, time having performed no economic alchemy there, which hardly mattered, as Lude hadn't called me over to root around in these particular and—to use one of those big words I would eventually learn in the ensuing months—deracinated details of Zampano's life.

Sure enough, just as my friend had described, on the floor, in fact practically dead center, were the four marks, all of them longer than a hand, jagged bits of wood clawed up by something neither one of us cared to imagine. But that's not what Lude wanted me to see either. He was pointing at something else which hardly impressed me when I first glanced at its implacable shape.