Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

Graphic Novels

Algimantas Maldutis, Stairs, 1982, 17x17 cm. From the MO Museum collection.

By Kerry Shawn Keys


I live on the ninth floor of an old Soviet-block of rundown flats.

Yet like many of these constructions with such a dismal exterior, once inside they are often quite cozy and attractive, taken care of meticulously. Inside, each has its own personality though on the outside they are often indistinguishable, one from another. I like that. Yet the corridors and staircases remain quite dingy except sometimes for plants put on the windowsill on the landing between the floors. Ours has a prickly pear. Each of us on the corridor above has the chore of watering it once a year, and if it’s too cold someone takes it inside for a while. I like that also. Kind of neighborly, but that is the extent of our neighborliness. My quarters are no exception – quite comfortable. I painted my flat blue with beige stripes. I also have my own prickly pear. I like to joke that it is the better-half of the “pair” on the landing, decidedly more distinguished. The bathroom I painted snowy white with cherub decals on the tiles that run part way up the sides. Unfortunately, money was short, and the wall behind the sofa in the living-room remains a ruby red with a golden design that resembles a series of halos sliced off from 16th century Russian icons. I figure some Georgians with gaudy taste must have lived here before me. And the peculiar kitchen is what I call puke-yellow – rather distressing – but really there is no sufficient income for me to make any further changes. I call it my provisional caboose, imagining the day when I will be able to paint it blue with beige stripes to match the other rooms. Well, let me take you to the heart of what I really want to tell you.

The first time I noticed his presence was about two months ago, although we may have encountered each other before – my being unaware of it. Often, my thoughts carry me away into a daze and the things around me never come into focus. I had just left my flat – by the way there are four flats to each floor sharing the same elevator. I pushed the button and waited. It was dimly lit in the corridor but the elevator had been renovated by the municipality and had a mirror on the far wall, a nice new floor, and fluorescent lights.

I waited. The door opened, and a man in an overcoat with a pale-blue fedora got out as I got in. I know who my neighbors are, and so immediately placed him as a stranger. Besides, the impression of our seemingly insignificant passing wasn’t negligible – he had on a fedora very similar to my own, was wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and behind them, glacially blue eyes seemed to be staring directly at me but somehow through me. After I got off at the street level, I could still feel the proximity of his gaze. Somehow I thought something was required of me, and then my mind went on to other things – like getting the number 53 bus to work and buying cigarettes beforehand at the kiosk. Usually four – thank God they are still sold individually here unlike in some countries I’m told. Two super-lights of any brand I fancy that day, and two Belomor Canal, just as a reminder.

That evening on returning, the encounter at the threshold of the elevator had been completely forgotten until the door opened for me to exit the elevator on my floor. And there he was again, the same chap, entering now as I got off. This time our passing was a bit more brusque with no time for eye-contact. Still, it left me a tad uneasy and I was even relieved to find the door to my flat locked and everything seemingly in its place. I don’t have a television and I don’t much like to read, and so the little things of the day can often become obsessions. Of course rationally he must have been a friend or colleague of one of my neighbors. In one flat there was an older, retired couple that lived very frugally as pensioners must. He had been a clinical psychologist and a social worker, and it was rumored that his wife was also his sister. In another flat there was quite an attractive woman about thirty-five, whom I took to be a nurse judging by her demeanor and the uniform I often saw her in. In the flat across the way I never saw anything or anybody but a German shepherd that would go out the slightly opened door, down the stairs, pee on the linden tree in the courtyard, disappear for a while, and then return to the flat, the door closing behind him. But I was almost certain that the shepherd did not live there by itself since I had once furtively tested the door to see if it was locked, and satisfying myself that it was, concluded that it couldn’t possibly live there alone, managing to lock and unlock the door with its teeth let alone with its paws. However, I still had my doubts because I had seen it peeing on the prickly pear once, and wondered if this was its turn for watering it. Although I do admit shepherds are quite intelligent. I even saw one once in a carnival sideshow trained to smoke a cigarette. It wasn’t so dexterous as to use matches but it did fumble a cigarette out of a pack, lift it up with its teeth, went to a spectator for a light and then sat on its haunches puffing away. In awe I watched a blue-grey nimbus of nicotine settle slowly and elegantly down over my head. So about that flat across the way I’m really not so sure.

The next morning on entering the elevator no one got off. I felt relieved. But only for a few seconds, because on getting off, there was the same man with the overcoat, horn-rimmed glasses, and that hat. He got in. I walked to the kiosk and bought my four cigarettes, took the bus to work, but this time I didn’t forget and waited almost expectantly for work to end and to return home. Besides, I was always biting the bit to leave work, even quit. I never liked my job. My boss was execrable – always insinuating that I looked too rumpled, that I should get a sharp suit, a haircut, get less conspicuous glasses, look more distinguished. I took the bus straight home, and sure enough as I entered the elevator there he was getting off with the same gaze as if going right through me. Perhaps he had seen me coming down the street from the flat window, but still the timing was too perfect, and, besides, only my window and the dog’s had that view of the street. Although I leave for work at the same time each day and someone could pretty well catch the elevator to encounter me getting in, or more easily just wait for me to get off, it would take much more patience to cross by me on my return from work since I am not so consistent then, often doing some shopping or having a drink or two at the local watering hole. This was getting pretty eerie, and since it had been snowing most of the day, I looked carefully in front of my flat to see if there were any footprints or puddles of water. There were just some paw prints from the dog and that was it. The intruder – I often referred to him as that now – must have stayed wherever he stayed all day.

Well, some variation of this pattern went on for several more days and I was getting more and more spooked. And even confused with all the coming and goings – at times when trying to recount the previous days, I wasn’t sure if I was coming and he was going or he was coming and I was going. Usually once I am at home in my flat I stay, almost by instinct. If I have an engagement in the evening I don’t come home first.

However once during those evenings I remember returning home about midnight, half anticipating we might encounter each other. And we did – this time as I exited the elevator he got in. We passed each other like ships in the night but I was sure he could see me in the elevator mirror walking towards my flat, as I imagined I could see him looking in the mirror gazing at me. I was really getting more and more anxious. I had bought a .38-special on the black market a week before, and had it at the ready in my overcoat pocket. I even must confess that I did not feel relieved that there was not an occasion to use it. I wanted to get this business over with. After all, he had instigated it.

Now that I was packing a gun, I felt a sudden surge of boldness and decided that over the weekend I would set my alarm for some obscure hour and go for a walk. Just to see if we would meet. So, sure enough, 3 A.M. I got dressed in my shabby overcoat, cleaned my glasses with some vinegar – they were quite dirty as usual – so that I could see everything with the utmost precision, put on my hat, and went out. This time I would use the steps to go down. Just as I was about half-way down, he was half-way up, and as we were passing I said “hello” as a kind of experiment, though my hand was on the safety of the gun in my pocket. He didn’t reply. Nervously I walked around the park for about an hour, returned, and decided to use the steps again – all nine floors. As I was half-way up to my flat, there he was – overcoat, fedora, horn-rimmed glasses – passing me coming down. I said “hello” again, and again there was no answer.

Things were surely heading for a climax. There would be no other way. I was convinced that one of us had to go. The strain was really too much. I couldn’t concentrate on my crossword puzzles anymore, an habitual evening pastime. Even hanging up my overcoat in the closet became a senseless and incomprehensible act. I began to wear it to bed instead of changing into my pajamas at night. In my distress I accidentally knocked the prickly pear over onto the floor and had to repot it. All that work week the pattern of our inexplicable meetings continued. You could say I was almost ashamed by my situation. I felt like a coward, a victim, like I had been pricked with the mark of Cain, though objectively I had no real grievance. That weekend I decided I would try another experiment. I set my clock for 3 A.M. again. I put on my hat, thoroughly cleaned my glasses – I didn’t want to miss him or mistake him for someone else that might be a look-alike – and I went out, quietly closing the door behind me. I decided to use the elevator. As I exited at the lower floor, sure enough there he was getting in. And this was my trick – I howled “good-bye” in his face as a kind of slap of the glove, my hand on the trigger of the gun in my pocket. But not a courteous peep out of him – he just looked at me as if looking right through me, and got into the elevator. I had also looked at him squarely for the first time, and could see even the moth-eaten holes in his coat. I was really agitated. I started to walk through the courtyard towards the park when I noticed the German shepherd there in the moonlight peeing on the linden tree, but at the same time staring back over its shoulder at me. I hurried on, wishing and not wishing the hour I had designated for my walk to come to an end. Of course it did, and I found myself heading back towards my flat.

I pushed the button of the elevator with no intention of using it – persuaded that if he got out when it descended to the street level he would be utterly perplexed not finding me there. I immediately started to quietly but swiftly climb the steps two at a time. Even if he was waiting for me up at the top, he would be startled by my sudden appearance from the stairs because the manner of our convergence would have lost all traces of its previous order. I got to my floor – the ninth – and was momentarily confused but more disappointed that he was not there. I immediately pressed the button to go back down, not having the wind to try the stairs. When I jumped in, he was there, but much to my surprise he didn’t get out and we started to descend together for the first time. This time he didn’t gaze at me as if he were looking right through me, but looked squarely at me and said “good-bye”. I pulled out my gun and shot him right between the eyes, almost blowing his head away. I took the elevator back up and lurched and dragged his body into my flat. All of a sudden I noticed I wasn’t wearing any clothes, and I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere. Well, early in the morning the flat supervisor must have seen the blood in the elevator, called the police, and eventually they found me. That’s why I’m here. But it was all circumstantial evidence. Just the bloody overcoat and the shattered glasses. A bit crazy really, but my neighbor, the retired psychologist, does volunteer work here. He just needs to knock on my door and someone will answer. Even I can manage. And the attractive nurse in the snowy uniform that lives down the hall, she comes and works here too, except she’s a paid employee. She’s the one who told me they found the hat in the shepherd’s mouth in the courtyard. Hey! why are you looking at me like that. I mean, come on. Woof woof. Woof woof!

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