…Self Storage, cont.
It was in that very hallway that K. was startled one day by two young men - boys, perhaps, judging by their body language and constant nudging and pushing of one another. But if these were boys they had men’s faces: lined, careworn faces mismatched to their open-mouthed expressions.
K. never addressed the patrons he ran across - it was so rare in any case - because he felt they were there for private reasons, and as a representative of the facility he should act in a manner commensurate with that trust. His habit (one could hardly call it a habit, he had so little occasion to practice it, but it had been thoroughly worked out in advance) was to make his eyes available, though without seeking contact. If contact were made, he would acknowledge it directly and then avert his gaze, not in a manner that communicated actual aversion of course, but simply that he needed his eyes again to help direct him on his path. Above all, he decided, he would refrain from casual pleasantries like those he had heard his landlady use so often. “How are you?” seemed ridiculous in any case, given the anonymous nature of the storage business. “Nice weather” was equally inappropriate, since they would almost certainly be indoors, and largely in the dark. Other introductory phrases he rejected because they seemed to require a second exchange: a banal introductory remark such as, “Hello, I am the caretaker of this facility,” or a cheerful business inanity like, “Always glad to see the customers happy!” were gambits that might not lead directly to an exit. Safest, K. decided, was to say nothing, and follow the path of his eyes.
This time, the inanities came pouring out of the two men, however. “You are the caretaker!” said one, a bit taller than his compatriot, although the difference in height seemed to happen at the floor, since above the waist he was actually quite compact. His eyes stared at two points on either side of K.’s head, missing his form entirely. A cap was pushed back on his forehead, which like his body was quite short but sat above an elongated face punctuated by an open jaw, extending it even further down toward his gangly legs. His voice was loud, certainly much louder than necessary in the cavernous area of the building they found themselves in. And its echo was shrill, as if only the most grating tones managed to find the walls around them, the more mellow ones falling in a heap at K.’s feet.
K. looked to the other, not with surprise so much as curiosity. “You are the caretaker!” he said in turn, though with a different emphasis. This one was squat in the legs, but with a huge barrel chest that eventually swelled nearly to the height of his companion. His head was rounder than would allow for a cap. He had no hair, but this lent him the air of a baby more than an old man. Ears stuck out from this childish head at odd angles, which seemed to change as he rotated toward his companion to repeat, in a more concise variation: “The caretaker!”
“I am indeed, gentlemen,” said K., maintaining the formality he felt appropriate. He said nothing further, in the hope that this exchange would go only one round. Eyes back to the path, he leaned forward and was about to take his next step when both men slid in front of him, like a sliding door closing together. They were surprisingly adroit in this maneuver, K. noticed, as if out of long habit.
“Don’t you want to know our names?” said the taller one, sounding hurt. “We know yours!” added the shorter one, for which he received a swift kick in the shin from his companion. This was returned with a punch in the arm. Which led to a shoving match between the two so violent, K. was forced to step backwards, rather than ahead as he had planned. The scuffling subsided.
“Thank you for your kindness,” said K, trying to diffuse what he judged was becoming a difficult situation. “However, please be assured your anonymity is safe with me, as a professional representative of this self-storage facility.”
The two stared at K., the tall one’s eyes drifting further apart, the short one’s ears waving forward and back like feelers. A silent moment passed between the three, bonding them together in the atmosphere of the building. Dust disturbed by the pair’s scuffling began to settle back onto horizontal surfaces: latches, the tops of paintings, the toes of their shoes.
“So you know us?” said the tall one at last, pushing some of the floating dust toward K. with his breath. “Anonymous is what we are supposed to be, but you knew that too.”
“I bet he doesn’t know your real name, Art,” said the short one. The tall one punched him in the stomach. “That is my real name!” he said. “Just like yours is Jerry.”
Jerry returned the punch, but to the jaw. “Jeremiah!” he said in a strangled voice. “Arthur!” said Art, throwing Jerry to the dusty floor. The two rolled past K., who stepped aside and decided to pursue the original plan, averting his eyes and continuing his path.