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By Narrow Domestic Walls

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Albert has to smoke on the balcony. He isn’t allowed to ‘devalue the property’ these days thanks to Cooper’s insistence and a bullshit new regulation from building management, enforced vigorously by their Cro-Magnon building manager, Mr. Schue. In retaliation, Albert has taken to building sculptures from his cigarette butts with toothpicks and lowering the results down to Mr. Schue’s balcony with a string and hook. It takes some skill and care, usually in the dead of night, but the results are always hysterical. The bastard’s been glaring at Albert in the halls ever since he found a model of the Eiffel Tower sitting on his deck chair two weeks ago. No doubt his imagination isn’t broad enough to contemplate how his gifts arrive, but arrive they do, and without a trace of sender. Smoking with latex gloves has been more than worth it.

Albert is lowering his newest creation onto the deck chair. A ball and stick model of cholesterol took some work and consideration to construct, not to mention several weeks' worth of butts. Nat Sherman black and gold cigarettes make up the carbon rings and associated hydrogens, and a single Marlboro butt hangs off one end as the hydroxide. It’s a work of art, even if inbred Mr. Schue won’t get the joke.

Albert slides the hook free with a flick of his wrist, leaving cholesterol waiting on the chair, and reels in his kit. Cooper would disapprove of his artistic endeavors, he’s sure. He doesn’t expect Cooper to stay in the dark too long—he’s as canny as he ever was—and Albert half expects to find his fishing line tied up in some intricate Buddhist friendship bracelet on his pillow every morning. The anticipation just drives Albert to enjoy himself more while he can.

They’ll both need to enjoy it, he thinks. Cooper didn’t notice the memo above the mailboxes this morning, but Albert knows there’s finally been an ordinance enacted that will hit him as hard as the smoking ban has hit Albert. It may be petty, but Albert enjoys being in the same boat as Cooper, even if it’s just the HMSS Misery Loves Company.

He hides his line under Cooper’s dwarf juniper. If Albert has used the balcony as the last refuge of the nicotine addicted, Cooper has attempted to turn it into a miniaturized Eden, each bonsai tree pruned and watered to perfection even in the Philadelphia pollution.

Albert catches a glimpse of himself in the chrome of the rail next to the juniper tree. His hairline, always precarious, has receded well past recovery, and his close-cropped hairstyle has become necessity to ward off the possibility of accidental comb-over. It’s a constant reminder he’s only one year away from mandatory retirement from the field. They haven’t talked about it, but they both know Cooper will also start flying a desk then. Gordon has been bucking for retirement for years, and Albert’s retirement will be the perfect excuse to promote Cooper. The office will commemorate the occasion with the first resounding silence in years.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Cooper says behind him. The warmth from inside accompanies him, although Albert didn’t hear the door open.

“Don’t you mean ‘arrived’?” Albert asks. “Unless you suddenly possess the ability to cook Moo Shu vegetables, neither of us has lifted a finger to prepare this meal except to dial.”

“I find that ‘ready’ makes a meal seem homier. Just because neither of us is adept at the culinary arts doesn’t mean we should bypass all domestic gestures.”

Albert turns. Cooper leans against the door. They’re both still in their suits, inured to rough fabric and tight collars after twenty years of wearing them in the line of duty, but Cooper always sheds his tie and undoes the first button on his shirt as soon as they hit the door of their apartment. Even with his gray hair and the lines under his eyes and around his mouth, he hasn’t stopped looking boyish and disheveled as soon as his suit starts to come off.

“Come inside,” he says again, and Albert does.

Their kitchen is small, significant only in its unimportance. Once a month Cooper does his level best to burn the building down cooking something, and that’s enough to remind them not to tempt fate for a while. Albert is almost looking forward to Cooper taking over for Gordon, if only because he’ll be busy enough he might give up his attempts at domestication.

He might. But it’s not likely.

The rest of the apartment is more lived-in and less singed: furniture is littered with forensics journals, classic literature, ‘The Law Enforcement Bulletin’, and the occasional newspaper. Shelves are cluttered but clean. There’s plenty of criminological literature, but no crime scene photographs. It’s a mutual agreement that they leave their cases at work unless faced with dire emergency. Even then, the pictures remain at the office along with the agents. It doesn’t happen often, thank God. Albert’s getting too old for that shit.

The doorbell rings, and Cooper goes to pay and fetch their food. He has an uncanny knack for knowing when the unpredictable Mr. Jin will arrive. Albert hears Cooper thank the decrepit old man in Mandarin, and then the door closes again. It’s Thursday. This is the routine. Mr. Jin has become as familiar a fixture as Mrs. Jin’s Mu Shu vegetables, new issues of ‘The Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology’, and Cooper’s fuzzy slippers.

They sit down at the coffee table, and Cooper lays out the spread with meticulous care, each box, bag and utensil in its place, despite the informality of the setting. Albert indulges this as just another part of Thursday.

When everything is present and correct, they take up chopsticks and begin to eat. They don’t talk while they eat. They don’t need to. All the general topics were trod over years ago, and there are no current cases to talk about or office gossip to deride. It’s a quiet evening in an increasingly quiet life. Some part of Albert will always rebel against stagnation, but more and more he has to admit that this life feels right.

Cooper’s elbow bumps into his arm as he reaches for the spring rolls.

They’ve nearly worked through the entire meal when Cooper says, “Mr. Schue did not appreciate finding a pyramid of cigarette butts on his deck.”

Albert doesn’t bother denying his handiwork. It’s beneath both of them. “Mr. Schue is an ignoramus. It was the Eiffel Tower.”

“You shouldn’t antagonize our building manager. He’s been very accommodating, considering the number of times we’ve come home bloodied or covered in otherwise questionable substances.”

Albert takes a judicious bite of the vegetarian potstickers, probably Mrs. Jin’s best dish. He savors it, both because it’s good and because he knows it’s driving Cooper just a little nuts to be ignored. Albert takes his thrills where he can.

“Albert,” Cooper says. He always manages to sound prim, disapproving, and cajoling all at once. “It was not his decision to enact a smoking ban.”

“It was his decision to single us out for enforcement just because we live two floors up from him.”

“Paranoia is beneath you, Albert.”

“Cooper,” Albert says, finally losing patience, “you may still labor under the delusion that you can make me stop smoking after twenty five years, but it can’t extend so far that you think you can slide some blatant falsehood past my notice. Mrs. Chemelwitz smokes like a chimney and never cracks a window. We pass her apartment every day. Now I may be a forensics god with a nose keener than most, but I’m pretty sure the astronauts in the space station can smell her apartment.”

“She’s ninety-four, Albert. One cannot expect her to change.”

“I’m stubborn. One can’t expect me to change either.”

They exchange glances, years of resistance and grudging compromise stretched between them. A thousand arguments and just as many solutions—each testing the bounds of their creativity and tolerance—have mapped their relationship from the beginning.

Albert doesn’t believe in ‘meant to be’. They don’t naturally mesh: Cooper wanted to do over the guest room with reed matting and make a meditation room; Albert wanted to make an office. So they built an office with a damn Zen garden. Albert appreciates sleek, modern furniture; Cooper likes Eastern antiques. So now their apartment is decked out in sleekly modern furniture imported from Tibet. Albert prefers quiet when he sleeps; Cooper drifts off listening to Tuvan throat singing. Albert has gotten used to earplugs. At each turn, one or both of them have seen their way through to a solution. The result is not so much a ‘normal life’ as it is a life that’s right for them, and insane for everyone else. Especially for Mr. Schue.

Albert steals a glance at Cooper. He’s opened the small bag of homemade doughnuts Mrs. Jin has taken to throwing into their order for free ever since Cooper went over to the restaurant and charmed the socks off her. He takes such obvious delight in extracting the first doughnut that Albert honors the occasion by keeping quiet until he’s finished the first bite.

But Cooper’s made his move against cigarette sculpture, and Albert needs to counter it. Just as well. The longer he waits, the more likely it is that Cooper will see the memo himself and spoil a perfectly good turning of the tables.

Cooper swallows, and Albert says, “Mr. Schue is prohibiting the burning of candles or incense in the apartments, Coop.”

If Cooper still had doughnut in his mouth, he would choke on it. He boggles at Albert. “Where did you hear that?” he asks.

“A note tacked above the mailboxes. He says they streak up the walls and ceilings. Didn’t you see?”

Cooper’s lips compress. “There must be exceptions to such a rule.”

“Only if you’re ninety,” Albert says. He looks Cooper up and down. “I suppose you could try to pass. We could claim you have a glandular problem.”

Cooper frowns at Albert, but says nothing. He eats a few more doughnuts and Albert finishes his potstickers. At length, Cooper says, “While I do try to honor all rules laid down by those who own and maintain our building, such a mandate violates religious freedom. Many pertinent rituals require the burning of candles or incense.”

Albert wipes his fingers off on a napkin. “I guess he figures you’ll be enjoying your rituals outside with us smokers.”

Cooper again says nothing. When the doughnuts are finished, he gets up and disappears into the bedroom in the closest he comes to a snit. Albert manages not to snicker at his rigid back, but he can’t contain himself when Cooper’s righteous indignation is deflated by a reappearance to help clean up the meal. Albert chortles his way through throwing out the garbage, and he completely loses it when he sees Cooper’s look of resolve while elbow-deep in suds. Cooper glares, and Albert turns his head and wheezes. It’s not an argument, really. It’s just Cooper understanding that holier-than-thou attitudes only feel good when it’s not your stress relief being curtailed.

They deposit the last carton in the recycling bin, and Cooper snatches up a large Tupperware container on his way back to the bedroom. After several minutes he reemerges, the container full to brimming with candles and incense. He ducks into the office/Zen garden, and soon the Tupperware container is overflowing.

“You’re going to need a new container,” Albert says. He prides himself on his straight face. “Possibly a tub.”

“No, Albert,” Cooper replies, the very picture of dignity, “I won’t.”

Cooper disappears onto the back porch and Albert doesn’t follow him. He isn’t too concerned about Cooper’s moods. They’re all familiar after twenty years. Cooper will get over his huff, apologize for his actions, and then it will be Friday and they’ll go to work and order in Greek. Albert reads through the newest issue of ‘The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology’, and then pours himself a Scotch. Only then, standing in the empty kitchen, does he realize that Cooper is still outside. His shoes are on the mat next to the front door and his coat is on a peg. It’s been over an hour. It’s getting cold outside.

Cooper isn’t given to overt insanity, just quiet oddity. Albert expects him to notice basics like weather, hunger, and exhaustion. These expectations are usually met, but not always. And when Cooper forgets, Albert will curse and complain and drag him to bed, or to a restaurant, or bring him a goddamn coat. He yanks said coat from the its peg with bad grace and hauls it to the balcony, throwing open the door and getting ready for a healthy berating.

And he stops. Cooper is surrounded by a dozen candles, each burning brightly against the city lights behind him. He looks ethereal in his shirtsleeves, with his legs crossed and his jacket tucked under him. He’s the Buddha in stocking feet; the Divine dropped into urban sprawl.

Albert banishes such thoughts before he allows himself to become maudlin. “It’s too damn cold to sit out here without a coat or shoes, Coop,” he says.

Cooper doesn’t seem to notice he’s spoken. He bends from the waist with more flexibility and grace than a man his age should possess, and he picks up a gray candle. Albert watches him drip wax onto something hidden from view.

Albert crouches down to see, and when he realizes what Cooper is doing he laughs again. This is a rare laugh, honest and devoid of derision. Each new drop forms a bead of hair on a small Tibetan Buddha made entirely of candlewax. Cooper looks up at him, and his grin catches the light of a dozen little candles. “I fear I have been unfair in my judgments of you these past weeks, Albert. I have minimized something that has clearly been a struggle for you, and have disapproved of your coping mechanisms. Can you forgive me?”

“Yeah,” he says, gruff to cover the desire to grant Cooper anything he asks when he gets like this. “Yeah, I guess I can.”

“In that case, if you would be so kind as to retrieve your fishing line, I would be eternally grateful. My Buddha is hardened sufficiently, and while I trust my hands to remain steady, I bow to your experience in the navigation of difficult winds and in the safe delivery of such gifts.”

Albert stares at Cooper for several seconds. He understands the meaning almost immediately, but can’t believe his ears. Then he grins in answer to Cooper’s smile. Albert pulls his fishing line out from beneath the dwarf juniper, and gets ready to set a wax Buddha down next to cholesterol. There’s a message there somewhere, he thinks, or maybe it means nothing more than their usual insanity. He starts lowering the Buddha inch by painstaking inch, and Cooper joins him at the rail. Their shoulders press together in the chill.