Read by Silas Hawkins
Outside, a tonne of air sits on Manhattan like a squatting golden Buddha. Inside, James Mercury searches for a friend in his Rolodex.
‘David – nope. Janice – no: how can I call her after last time? Louie Sweeney. Who the hell is Louie Sweeney? So no. Harry, Murray, Cathy – no, no, no.’
It seems that there are no friends to be found within James Mercury’s Rolodex.
Outside, men in shirtsleeves toil and smell richly of takeout coffee. The heavy sweat of the Buddha clings shirts to bellies and to damp small-of-backs. There is a June riot of horn-honking and much profanity from the taxicab drivers.
What a time – with the quicksilver racing towards a hundred-and-three – for the air-conditioning to go down! Listen: a constant whirr such as you might not notice until it stops, and then – what? An electrical fault? We must assume so – and then the slow death of the air-conditioning and:
‘Oh, for Pete’s sake!’
‘Jesus Christ, of all goddamn times –’
‘Ach, now this is all we need!’
James Mercury sets aside his Rolodex and walks to the window. He slides it open to the noise. Then, when he leaves the room to visit the bathroom, the hot golden fingers of the Buddha steal inside.
They carry with them dancing silver planetoids of dust. They swell and press against the walls of James Mercury’s apartment like a balloon in a box.
‘Jesus.’ James Mercury steps out of the bathroom shaking cold water from his hands. ‘Oh, Jesus, it’s hot.’
Walking once again to the window, he rests his hands on the sill and ducks out his head. Even up here on the fifth floor there is no cool breeze. James feels the hot weight of the tonne of air and sees the smile on the face of the Buddha.
‘Jesus,’ he says again. ‘What are you trying to do, kill me?’
He hears the voice of the Buddha over the yappy traffic – the Buddha has a big voice.
No, James. Always you complain and where does it get you? It gets you only a headache. You ought to take a more relaxed attitude.
‘At a reasonable temperature I could maybe take a relaxed attitude. Here it’s a hundred and three and I’m sweating a river.’
This is certainly true. Pungent sweat has made a dark stripe down the middle of James Mercury’s back.
Is that all that is bothering you, James?
‘Well, hell – I guess I’m kind of a little lonely, I guess.’
‘Kind of. I guess. Just a little. My friends are all – all out of town. I could kind of use somebody to share a steak with.’
The heavy Buddha smiles but doesn’t say anything. His broad mouth is closed. James Mercury leans out of his window and watches a pigeon clattering its wings across the street.
Not such a big voice, this one. James Mercury does not hear it over the street racket and the much-profanities of the taxi drivers.
‘What?’ James hears the voice and looks down. ‘Me?’
‘Yeah. Air-conditioning down up there?’ This is Sita, whose father is Mr Aftad who chops chicken with a cleaver, leaning out of the window.
James has seen Sita go in and out of the building once or twice. She has long black hair.
‘It’s hell down here,’ she says.
‘Hell up here too.’ He grins. ‘Quite a time for it to happen.’
‘I won’t sleep a moment tonight.’
‘It’s going to be a rough one, sure enough.’
Sita ducks back inside and closes the window, but she leaves a smile that lingers on the golden skin of the Buddha as James Mercury watches.
‘You keep out of my affairs,’ James Mercury says.
Mr Aftad says, ‘Who was that you were talking to?’ as he heats oil in a pan.
‘A guy on the fifth floor. Air-conditioning’s down up there, too. I swear this heat will make me drop like a horse at any minute.’
‘This isn’t heat. You don’t know anything about heat.’
Sita collapses into a chair.
‘The guy on the fifth floor knows. His face was red as a tomato.’
James Mercury is out on the street now, having emerged from a cool smelly delicatessen with a cold beef sandwich. On the pavement it is as-hot-as-if-not-hotter-than James’s apartment. He looks upward as he passes beneath the apartment on the third floor in which Mr Aftad still waits for his oil to heat.
‘What harm could it do?’ says James Mercury. He says it again: ‘What harm could it do?’
Are you talking to me? asks the Buddha.
‘Sure. What harm could it do?’
No harm that I can imagine, James.
‘Sure. But you stay out of my affairs.’
James Mercury knocks on the door of Mr Aftad’s apartment and hopes that Sita answers. Look: his cheekbones are indeed flushed to the colour of a tomato and his shirt is not now white but damply grey.
‘Yes?’ says Mr Aftad, opening the door.
‘Ah – hello, sir. My name is James Mercury. I live in an apartment two floors up? I thought – well, we don’t get much chance to meet our neighbours, so I – ’
‘You are the guy Sita was talking to just now?’
‘Yeah. Yes, sir, that’s me.’
‘I am Mr Aftad. Please come in. I am cooking. Sita!’ he calls.
James follows Mr Aftad inside. The heat! You never felt it. Three gas hobs flare their blue-flame crowns under seething bright pans and James Mercury feels the fearful heat in his eyes and on his tongue.
‘Oh! Hi!’ Sita comes in with bare feet.
‘Hi!’ James blinks. The window in the room is closed. ‘I just thought I’d pop by and, and say hi – we don’t get much chance to meet our neighbours, and I – ’
‘Great. Wanna Coke?’
‘Sure!’ James is standing in the middle of the room with his hands in the pockets of his trousers. ‘Sure is hot.’
‘Yeah, it’s murder.’ Sita hands him a fizzing bottle and the cold foam runs over James Mercury’s hand.
The heat! Air made out of boiling oil! James stands and sweats. As-hot-as-if-not-hotter-than the core of Earth! Sita watches James Mercury as if he were a burnished red curiosity.
‘Well – ’ Sita says.
‘Sure,’ says James Mercury. Like a pat of butter he will melt and pool on the carpet.
‘Are you okay?’ asks Sita after a silence.
James Mercury musters resolution and walks to the window. ‘Sure is hot!’ he says, because he can think of nothing else, and flings open the window.
‘I don’t think that will help very much,’ says Sita.
The Buddha cannot resist. The roomful of cardamom, cumin, tamarind – this he cannot resist!
First come his fingers, jewelled with dust motes, testing, tasting, like a fat tongue. Then the weight of the golden Buddha is in the room, impossible as a djinn in a lamp.
Oh James! How could you lock me out, even for a minute! The Buddha swims in the spicy heat. O! The savour! O! The flavour! Cardamom! Cumin! Tamarind! He whirls over the bright pans in a delight of steam and swelter. And ginger! and caromseed! and the long pepper! And – what is that? – I do not know – but oh, it is fine!
All the while Mr Aftad strokes his small moustache with fingers of turmeric yellow.
‘So what’s your name?’ says Sita.
‘James. James Mercury.’ James Mercury shakes Sita’s hand.
‘Sita Aftad. Pleased to meet you.’ When James releases her hand it flutters to gesture at Mr Aftad’s shining pans. ‘Do you cook?’
‘I can knock up a steak,’ shrugs James Mercury. ‘Medium rare, with grilled tomatoes. And a pepper sauce, not too strong? And French fries. It’s good.’
‘Pah!’ says Mr Aftad.
‘Come here,’ says Sita to James, ‘and be educated.’
James follows her to a table by the stove and a row of small white bowls filled with colours.
‘This is turmeric,’ Sita says. ‘Sniff.’
James Mercury bends too low to sniff and spots the tip of his nose with yellow. Sita sniggers.
‘And this here is paprika. Sniff.’
For the sake of his dignity James samples the paprika with a fingertip. Sita laughs and, taking a fingertip of paprika herself, spots James Mercury’s chin with red.
‘Sorry. But now you look great. Honestly.’
James Mercury retailiates with a spot of cinnamon on Sita’s cheek. All the while Mr Aftad smooths his moustache with a smirk on his face and all the while the Buddha flies around the room:
James, James! A most delicious heat! Oh, what do you know of the steam of the basmati and the marvellous burning of the red hindpur chilli!
James and Sita are spotted with spice.
‘What a mess you have made of my bowls,’ says Mr Aftad.
What a delight of paprika! What a splendour of coriander!
‘Listen,’ says Sita to James. ‘There’s a new juice bar down stairs – just round the corner. Wanna go get a cold drink?’
‘Sure,’ says James Mercury.
Look: James Mercury kisses Sita goodnight when they return from the juice bar. Taste: the soft sweet flavour of cinnamon lingering on her cheek. A tonne of air sits on Manhattan like a squatting golden Buddha.
The gremlin has been poked out of the air-conditioning by a caretaker’s broom-handle. James Mercury leans on his sill and it is early evening.
‘So,’ he says. ‘I know how this game works. You do something for me – even if I ask you to stay out of my affairs, but I’m gonna let that go – so I have to do something for you. What? What’s to pay?’
But the sky is turning to a bluebell shade and the lights are coming on. On the street, the drivers of taxi-cabs honk their horns. Blazing neon signs strike up the hum of an electric city and the wide mouth of the golden Buddha remains closed and he is silent.
(c) Richard Smyth, 2011
This Isn’t Heat by Richard Smyth was read by Silas Hawkins at the Liars’ League Hot & Bothered event on Tuesday, July 14th, 2011 at the Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London.
Richard Smyth is a freelance writer, editor, researcher and proofreader. He also draws his own Christmas cards. He's been freelancing for two-and-a-bit years and is still not entirely sick of it. Before that, he worked unhappily for a publisher, unhappily sat by A-roads counting traffic, and unhappily sold waterproof trousers. Emma Thompson bought some once.c