Where I Live
by Marianne Paul
Cockroaches come out in the dark of night when no one is watching. They scurry about your countertop and hide again in the day and you may not even know that they are there. So you answer the ad in the classifieds for the one-bedroom apartment available immediately utilities included $900 a month. You marvel at your luck because the vacancy rate is nil. The high cost of housing is making people sit tight in their apartments since they can't buy a house now that the prices have doubled and their incomes havenít bothered to do the same. The super's wife talks to the East Indian couple who have arrived first to answer the ad. You think damn! because you're too late. She smiles sweetly at the couple and says she will call them as soon as another vacancy is available, but a single mother on welfare left just before they came and "We must be fair, mustn't we, give her the apartment since she got there first?"
The East Indian couple leave, let down thick in the heaviness of their step. The super's wife takes her fat round ring of keys in her fat white hand and says follow me and so I do. She opens the door to the empty apartment. It isn't fancy but I take it and sign the papers. They say nothing about cockroaches and I do not think to ask.
Larry Number Sixteen at the top and far right runs a bawdy house. At least he used to run a bawdy house before the police arrested him. Except for the elderly ladies in Number One we all knew what he was doing. Myself and Big Vera and Dolly Parton and little Elfie in Number Six right beside me and the super's wife too although we never admitted it in words. Just raised our eyebrows and winked and made pucker shapes with our lips behind the backs of the strangers in our apartment building. Bean-pole girls stuck to their arms as if with Crazy Glue. Garters peeking below mini-skirt hems the top of nylons sagging seductively between the clips as if by accident but actually by design.
Larry is a jet-black leather jacket over a white T-shirt. Jet-black Elvis Presley hair stark against the white marble of his skin. He smiles a lot even at the elderly ladies in Number One making them think of their lovely daughters and baking apple pie and celebrating Christmas with family and friends. But now that the bawdy house made the front page of the newspaper the elderly ladies in Number One smile back at Larry and think of garters peeking below their skirt hems and the top of their nylons sagging seductively between the clips as if by accident but actually by design. I can see it in their eyes, see it in their bodies.
"He warn't hurtin' nobody," the super's wife said to the cop.
The cop wrote down her words in his little black book and then snapped it shut with a flick of the wrist. The red lights flash against the black of the night. I watch out the window without bothering to turn out the lamp or hide behind the curtain while they shove Larry into the back of the cruiser. He smiles at each of us looking out our windows as if we are One repeated to infinity but he cannot wave because his hands are cuffed behind his back. He is pleased because the black and white cop car blends nicely with the black and white of his Elvis-Presley hair and marble skin. Life is a leather coat against a T-shirt. They glide away as if floating on air and the moment is not real. But Larry comes back in the drab of the dawn in a green taxi cab that clashes with his hair. His skin looks sallow and he slinks into the building and up the stairs needing the railing to do what his legs will not. He drags himself to Number Sixteen and he is three months behind on his rent. Times are tough so the super's wife gives him another chance because he is a good boy at heart and he tried hard to get the rent money even though there's a law against a bawdy house. So Larry stays in the apartment from which the previous tenant was evicted a man with long hair wound under a turban who once paid his rent three days late.
Little Elfie Number Six hides the beer bottle under the pillow on the sofa and thinks that I do not know it is there because the booklet from Alcoholics Anonymous is open on the coffee table like a prop in a play. She looks like a sprite. Black hair cropped close to her head. Beer in her bloodstream an injection of confidence that finds its way to her throat and she giggles. Her body nags for alcohol and I see desire on the edge of insanity so I leave her at the mercy of obsession and return to my apartment. An hour passes disguised as a minute and there is a knock. Little Elfie blood streaming from her head blood in her hands blood marking the rug like an umbilical cord joining our two doors. I tell her she needs stitches. She screams like a banshee as if I am responsible and runs like an animal and curls into the space between the refrigerator and the wall. She flings curses at me stones at my own stoning. The sprite is a demon and I know she will kill me if I show her my fear and she watches intently so I act unafraid although inside I am trembling. There are knives on the counter impatient to kill me. I hear sirens and curses and she folds into herself like a chair from a card table. The sirens lift her away on the waves of their wail into the black of the night. Such is the place where I live.
Little Elfie Number Six is remorseful. She will never ever drink again she tells me. Black circles around eyes white face contrast stark like night and day. Last night and this day. I know it is a lie what she tells me. She will drink again but for now this moment it is truth. We are friends. She confides to me over coffee common-law husband tossing her like rag doll blood surging from her head because the East Indian family in Number Two is moving into a house all to themselves. He is destined to live in an apartment with cockroaches in the wall and an address shared with a circus of others for the rest of is life with barely enough money left each month to buy a case of beer but never a house. Somebody is at fault but surely not him. Surely not him. Blood pours from her head as she squeezes into the space between the refrigerator and the wall to escape his rage and to gather her own.
Dolly Parton in Number Eleven complains about the queers who make love too loudly in Number Five right below her bedroom. You would never guess the gentlemen were anything but roommates because there is no passion in their black penny loafers or gray flannel pants or red knit vests that they wear rather ordinarily. Dolly Parton -- not her real name but what the other tenants call heróis more likely than not outside in the parking lot polishing the hood of her white Corvette the remnant of her last marriage. She polishes hard until she sees the reflection of her bleached blond hair piled high on her head. She leans far over to reach the spot near the windshield. Lifts one foot pushed into a tiny red high-heel shoe big boobs pushed into a red-lace wire bra. The male drivers turn their heads to catch a better look at the lady with the low-cut tight dress leaning over the hood of the white corvette their fantasy come true. The people at City Hall can't figure out why so many accidents happen at the street corner of the place where I live. They debate the feasibility of erecting a traffic light to solve the problem. I debate writing a letter to point out the fact it isn't just traffic lights that stand erect. Itís no coincidence that the crashes started when Dolly Parton moved into Number Eleven filling the vacancy left by the old lady who cooked curry and called everybody "girl" because she didn't know the right words in English.
The super's wife whispers knowingly that the smell of curry attracted all those cockroaches now traveling the freeway of pipes under our floors and behind our walls and beneath our toilets. Big Vera in Number Nine across the hall and up a floor says the exterminator reminds her of a rock star. Rock stars, she says, treat their guitars like giant penises. Strutting across the stage picking at their strings playing with themselves and pretending it is art. Masturbating in front of all those kids. Without the decency to wear a raincoat and do it in the shadows.
The exterminator is a short fat wheezing man. He doesn't strut. Big Vera thinks he would if he could because of the way he touches the cylinder with lust in his hand. We enter the kitchen where the cupboards are bare and spread open like a prostitute's legs. The exterminator squeezes a nozzle that squirts a yellow liquid into the crack where the wall and the floor don't dare to touch. He sprays his yellow liquid everywhere like a cat staking out territory and then he leaves me for Number Five lugging his cylinder with him.
The gentle smell of summer slips through my open window and mixes with the yellow liquid. Soon summer loses itself inside the chemical so that there is no more gentleness inside my apartment building. The chemical rises around me like mist but thicker and more deadly than mist. I know I should leave the apartment building until it dissipates but I do not because this is the place where I live.
Mr. Jones in Number Fourteen wears a poppy over his heart every day of every year lest he forget on any given moment to remember the dead. "In Flanders Fields the poppies grow between the crosses row on row and not just on November 11th," he shouts when I ask why he wears the red flower in March and July and December marking his chest like a spot from a bullet hole.
Not until I was seventeen years old did someone tell me about the Holocaust. People herded into gas chambers and exterminated like cockroaches. Men women and children packed into cattle carts processed as if meat for sausages. Numbers forged on skin instead of on apartment buildings. People made into lamp shades flesh upon flesh baked in layers stenching the air with the sin of these ovens. Organized hate. On the stage of the world. Without the decency to wear a raincoat and do it in the shadows.
This rich lady politicking at my door does not belong in the place where I live. She belongs in the big stone houses across the streets and yards of jungle gyms and swings and two-car families and backyard pools that separate us into our neighborhoods. She talks to me because I am a vote just as she is a vote and the law says we're equal when it comes to the ballot box even though I pay rent on a one-bedroom apartment and she pays a mortgage on a single family dwelling. She gives me a brochure and another and another and asks if her mainstream-center-of-the-road-just-a-bit-to-the-left party can count on my support in the federal election. I wonder if she knows she is begging as surely as the panhandler in rags on the street. She makes me think of the wino who sleeps in our laundry room and uses my towels still hot from the dryer to cushion his head and I tell her I'll vote for her party if she finds a bag lady to sleep in her basement. Later that night I read in the newspaper about a political group that is running sixty-two candidates in the federal election and is inspired by the philosophy of a man who believes Queen Elizabeth is a drug pusher and non-whites are sub-human and the Holocaust is a delusion and that Jews did not die in the war.
I wrap myself in the dark of sleep. Morning pushes light through the weave of the blanket the new day searching for me with the insistence of the Jehovah's Witnesses who right now pound at my door peddling their only-we-can-save-you brand of religion. I will not answer. I will not wake. I hear a turn of a key a turn of a knob a door opening with the stealthy softness of secrets. Footsteps tread into the midst of my dream so I push away sleep and I look.
The super's wife. In my bedroom. Fat round ring of keys dangling from her fat white hand. "I knocked, but you didn't answer" she protests, trying to pass the blame to me but I do not accept it. "Thought you were out," she says. "Haven' a coffee at Donut City."
She tells me why she is in my bedroom but it doesn't matter. There's a law twenty-four hour's notice in writing before she can legally enter the apartment without my permission. She knows it. She is caught. In the act. At my mercy. I climb out of bed and pull on my housecoat. First one arm then the other. I tie the belt slowly savoring the control of the situation that is mine.
"Big Vera says there's a vacancy," I say.
The superintendent's wife nods yes and smiles at the change in conversation because empty apartments are something she understands.
"I have a friend that needs a place to live," I add.
Her smile broadens with the depth of her understanding. She says, "Why isn't that a coincidence? Shall I pull a few strings?"
She looks at me and adds in words without sound do I understand her meaning?
An apartment in exchange for my silence you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours isn't life a mutual affair a polite agreement between two consenting adults.
"Wonderful," I say.
"Wonderful," she agrees.
The covenant is consummated with a knowing look that passes between us. The super's wife is bound by our pact but still does not comprehend the power of private acts performed in the shadows without the hoopla of the stage. My friend is East Indian and will be cooking curry for dinner.
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