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A Book of Revelations
By A.C. Burch, Madeline Sorel
HomePort PressCopyright © 2016 A.C. Burch
All rights reserved.
Watch out for that old bastard. One kind word, and he'll bore the skin off your bones."
The whisper came from behind as I stood on a glassed-in porch gazing out at a decrepit front yard. It was the end of August, '73 — a week into my sophomore year in music school. When my girlfriend's gorgon of a roommate had banished me from the apartment we three were to share, I'd skirted disaster by signing the first lease I could afford. Though this was by far the oddest house I'd ever seen, I would live here for the rest of my college days.
The "old bastard" was my new landlord, Mr. Gould, a stooped old man of seventy whose pale, wrinkled skin and halo of white hair offset features otherwise hard and grasping. His eyes constantly darted from one thing to another, and he frequently cocked his head as if he'd heard something. These quirks, plus his hackneyed expressions and rambling, teary sentiments, made him a caricature in my young eyes. But it was this apartment or sleeping in my car; he had me in a corner, and he knew it. Once I'd met his price, though, he was gracious enough to let me move in immediately.
As the old man doddered down the walk toward a late-'50s Cadillac convertible with long, pointed fins, the voice behind me grew louder.
"The hours I've wasted listening to that old fart complain: 'Too much heat! Too much hot water. The taxes. Oy vey, the taxes!' Christ!"
The imitation was perfect, but with an unnerving, caustic edge. Curiosity won out. I turned to look, expecting a wizened old biddy. At first, I saw only the faint glow of a cigarette behind a veil of sheer curtains. As my eyes adjusted, the form of a tall woman, no more than thirty-five, emerged from the dim light.
Except for the cigarette, she'd be a novice staring out from a cloister, I thought, if only for the briefest of moments. Mr. Gould beeped his horn and waved. My shadowy
companion waited until the car crept forward. Then, as I turned back to her, she clenched her right fist, lodged her left hand above her right elbow, and thrust her forearm into the air. To my amazement, she also managed an astoundingly rude noise without dislodging her dangling cigarette.
So much for religious analogies.
"You! Boy wonder! Stop gawking like you've never seen a woman before. Get in here and give me the goods."
I had no idea what she meant.
"Fill me in, sweetie — as in, who the hell are you? I know you're taking the upstairs apartment, so don't play dumb with me. I hear and know all in this dump. Better start off on the right foot by getting that straight."
What had I gotten myself into?
Her door swung open with a loud, torturous creak.
"Get in. Quick. Mind the cat."
I entered a narrow room whose sole source of light was the curtained window. My new neighbor was lanky, flat breasted, and slightly stooped. Her chin was pointed, her cheeks sallow, her eyes spaced far apart, and her neck elongated. She wore a white peasant blouse over tight blue jeans. A faded paisley kerchief covered her head. One hand rested on her left hip. The other slowly removed the cigarette from her mouth and pointed toward a tattered peacock chair.
She sauntered to a narrow daybed that filled the far corner of the room, sat down, and restored the cigarette to her thin lips. As she arranged four orange cushions around her, two on each side, I stole a furtive glance around the tiny railroad flat.
An archway next to the bed led to a small kitchen with two plant-filled windows. Spider plants, ivy, and geraniums crowded together, cascading to the floor. What light made it through this indoor jungle illuminated a '50s gas stove whose chrome vent curved up into the wall. A porcelain sink stood on spindly legs beside it. In the center of the room, two rickety wooden chairs were placed on either side of a Formica table, on top of which was a small slate chalkboard in an oak frame, propped up by what appeared to be a dictionary.
The board displayed a date, time, and a series of hash marks.
A litter box sat by the inside wall of the tiny bathroom next to the back door. Given my unobstructed view of the entire apartment, I decided the cat must be under the bed.
"Sandy Singer," the woman said, holding out her hand palm down as if we were to dance.
I stood and took it in mine.
"Ah, the boy has manners. We'll pound 'em out of you in this hellhole."
My provincial upbringing had left me ill prepared for this strange combination of flower child and fishwife. As I maintained a self-conscious silence, she took a long drag on her cigarette, studied me further, then ground the stub into an ashtray.
"Matt Atwood," I answered, feeling as though my right hand should be on a Bible.
"Ah, a WASP. Rare thing these days, WASPs. Where from?"
"Assonet, Massachusetts. I'm attending the college of performing arts."
She pondered this for a moment as if I'd divulged crucial information.
"Sit down, kid."
"So not from around here, huh? Musician or dancer?"
"Good. All men dancers are fags. Trust me."
I was unnerved by this pronouncement. I'd been assiduously avoiding flamboyant types in the Opera and Theatre departments, though I'd witnessed an extra pair of shoes in the men's room stalls more than once. I didn't so lack sophistication as to need such a warning, did I? What sort of a greenhorn did she think I was?
"Here's the deal," she said, unware of the internal conflict she'd ignited. "Don't forget your living room is right above me. Don't start practicing before ten on Sunday morning, and quit by nine every night. Music students have lived here before. I'm used to them. You won't get crap from me about good music. If you stink, of course, I'll have you thrown out immediately."
I suspected she was teasing, but couldn't quite tell. No doubt I was nothing but a tiresome intrusion to be dispatched as soon as possible.
"Please let me know if I ever disturb you."
I was yielding too much ground and regretted it at once.
She smiled knowingly.
"Don't worry, kid, I will ... I will. I hear and know all around here. Keep that in mind if you know what's good for you. Drop off your number when they install your phone. That way I can tell you to pipe down if I need to."
I nodded, wondering why I agreed with everything she said the moment she said it.
"OK, sweetie, you're dismissed."
"A pleasure to meet you, ah ...?"
"It's Miss, but you can call me Sandy. And the pleasure was all mine, kid. Trust me."
* * *
Mr. Gould returned two days later. I was in the shower when I heard his cane tapping on the door. I threw on jeans and raced to admit him, but by then he'd already let himself in.
"So, you gettin' settled?"
Seeming unabashed, he sat on a folding chair, the sole piece of furniture in what I now considered "my" living room.
"It's fine," I replied with only slightly veiled annoyance. "I'm bringing some furniture from home next weekend and should be set up after that."
My displeasure seemed to bounce right off him. "Your old man gonna help?"
I couldn't understand what interest that was to Mr. Gould. Feeling it necessary to stay on good terms with him, I refrained from asking.
"No, he died when I was eight. My mother will help with the packing, but I've got friends lined up for the heavy lifting."
Not that I needed all that much help. I'd just come off of a summer in the Adirondacks hiking the mountains and sailing Lake Champlain. Compared to most guys in the music department, I was a jock.
"Not a good thing to be raised by a woman alone. Kids need a man to draw the line for them. Women let them get away with things that ruin their lives later on. Like those goddamn hippies and all their damn 'free love.' It's the fault of too much mothering; I've always said. After my wife died, it took all the strength I could muster to stop my daughter from destroying her life 'cause of it."
I sensed we were in the midst of a recurrent monolog — more recitation than conversation — and fought to suppress a sigh.
What right did he have to cast aspersions on my mother? For someone who'd had to raise two kids alone, she hadn't done that badly. Besides, what did he know about her in the first place?
As he droned on, my thoughts congealed.
"I lost my parents, two brothers, and a sister in the war. I watched them die, one by one, in front of me. That's when I vowed I'd learn to fight. I couldn't save them, but a few years ago, I fought like hell to save my daughter — and, by God, I did."
His voice grew louder as if he were justifying his actions or trying to save a soul. I thought fleetingly of Father Mapple from Moby Dick, then realized there was something unsettling about the way my new home so readily evoked religious references.
Mr. Gould continued as if he were speaking to someone else.
"Blood is all you have in this life, kid. No one else gives a damn — they'll try to steal whatever you have. A man has to protect his own, no matter what, sometimes even from themselves ..."
The phone interrupted. Answering, I heard a low, somewhat-familiar, whisper.
"Don't say anything. Just listen." It was Sandy.
"Tell the old man you have to help a friend. Leave by the back stairs. I'll have my kitchen door open. You can hide out here until he goes. He won't dare come in. No arguments. Just do it. Now."
"OK, I'll be right there."
I felt silly playing her game, but annoyed enough with Mr. Gould to welcome escape.
"I'm terribly sorry. A friend needs me right away. You'll have to excuse me."
"Good that people depend on you. The sign of a good person is when others feel they can ..."
He made no sign of moving.
"Mr. Gould, I'm sorry. I have to lock up and leave, right now."
"OK, kid. OK. I'll move my keister."
He stood slowly and tottered toward the door. At the threshold, he seemed to suffer a bout of dizziness and grabbed the doorframe to steady himself. As he did, his shirtsleeve slid to his elbow, revealing blue letters and numbers tattooed on his wrist.
AU — Auschwitz.
In an instant, I understood why he was so protective of his "blood." With this revelation, I felt a sharp pang of guilt at walking out under false pretenses. Even so, Sandy was waiting.
Mr. Gould regained his balance, raised his hand in a slow, dismissive wave, and shuffled to the landing. I locked the door behind him, then raced down the rear stairs to Sandy's apartment. She beckoned to me from the kitchen table where iced tea and cookies were laid out on a white plastic doily.
"Shut the door. Quick. He can't see through the plants, and he doesn't hear, so we'll be fine."
At first, Sandy seemed to be enjoying herself. She chatted about the house and gossiped about our neighbors. Then her tone changed in an instant, and she leaned forward, eyes on fire.
"Look, kid. I really don't want that old goat around this joint. So don't encourage him, OK? He seems like a sweet, harmless, lonely old man, but he's a monster. Trust me and don't let him get too close to you."
I didn't know what to think. The old man had taken a chance on me, so I felt some obligation. If he were lonely, I could certainly understand why. On the other hand, he'd lost my respect by barging in uninvited.
"Did you know he was in Auschwitz?" I asked.
"Yeah, kid. I know. I've heard that tale a thousand times. So many times I've run out of Kleenex. Time moves on. Some things you just gotta put behind you, dontcha think?"
As it turned out, what I thought didn't matter in the least. Every time Mr. Gould pulled up in front of the building, Sandy summoned me, and I obeyed without resistance, sensing the complications that would ensue if I refused. I preferred to practice at home and counted on her continued indulgence.
Once in our bunker, we'd listen to Mr. Gould's footsteps as he explored my apartment. It felt like waiting out an air raid or hiding from storm troopers, except Sandy was a charming hostess, plying me with tea and cookies as the floorboards creaked above us.
Mr. Gould's behavior annoyed me more with each incursion. Before long, I relinquished all pity I might have felt and aligned myself solidly with Sandy. We bonded in our defense against a common enemy, and eventually our strategy paid off. The impromptu visits diminished, then stopped altogether.
* * *
A brutal, soulless renovation — no doubt perpetrated by Mr. Gould — had obliterated all traces of our building's Victorian grandeur. Its circular turret was clad in multicolored bands of rolled asphalt, turning what had been an architectural tour de force into a psychedelic grain silo. The tower's elongated, conical peak had earned our home the moniker of the "Witches' House." Children crossed the street to avoid it.
Every apartment other than Sandy's had its bedroom in the turret, whose round walls were mostly windows. There was only one section of wall large enough to accommodate a double bed, which meant my other neighbors slept directly above or below me. The circular rooms seemed to push sound upward, and the ceilings — just cheap canvas nailed to joists that barely supported rutted hardwood floors — did little to hinder its progress. I often thought the span of taut fabric acted like a giant loudspeaker, but could never prove my hypothesis. Between this and paper-thin walls, I came to know my neighbors far too well.
Alysse and Bill, or Bilious et al., as Sandy had dubbed them, slept in the bedroom above mine. Alysse was a stylish brunette with well-crafted features. Everything about her, makeup to wardrobe, seemed the result of considerable, exacting effort. The finished product was a calculating, harsh facade that intimidated most everyone who crossed her path. At the slightest provocation, Alysse decimated those she encountered. Sandy ran for cover whenever she heard the clip-clop of Alysse's heels on the stairs, and, after a couple of disastrous sparring matches, so did I.
Bill, whose Italian good looks were fading fast, was far more pleasant. His shaggy brown hair, innocent wide eyes, and unkempt mustache brought Sonny Bono to mind, though Bill's whiskers sported their first trace of gray. His equanimity was so at odds with his wife's caustic temperament it was hard to imagine how they'd survived a single date, never mind two years of marriage.
Hyman Gorstein occupied the first-floor apartment next to Sandy's and slept in the turret-room below me. He was a quiet and timid CPA type — about five foot five. His thick, round, dark-framed glasses and close -cropped hair reminded me of Poindexter from Felix the Cat. On the rare occasions when Hyman and I spoke, he avoided all eye contact, preferring to stare at the ground as if something far more fascinating had suddenly caught his interest.
His girlfriend was a blowsy woman of indeterminate age, heavily made up, with spectacular breasts and platinum-blonde hair. Sandy had dubbed her "Xaviera," after the author of The Happy Hooker. Xaviera had a penchant for cheap jewelry, halter tops, red stretch pants, and spike heels. Though I never knew her real name, I knew — all too well — her likes and dislikes, for her voice soared through the old house with all the verve of a Wagnerian soprano.
At nine sharp every Sunday morning, Hyman mounted Xaviera for an impressive hour of lovemaking. She was either clueless or astoundingly indifferent to the acoustical vagaries of the old place, for, with each of her frequent climaxes, she screamed "Hyman, hold me" at the top of her lungs. Her weekly serenade caused me intense speculation: there had to be much more to Hyman Gorstein than met the eye.
Sometimes, as Xaviera's vocal pyrotechnics resounded through the turret, Alysse and Bill joined the fray. From above, the squeak of their bedsprings and the thump, thump of their headboard played a primal ostinato to the raucous aria from below.
My girlfriend, Claire, was a staunch Catholic who routinely reminded me she was giving herself "in anticipation of marriage." She staked her claim by staying over most nights, lest I forget. Far from yielding, as Bill and Alysse sometimes did, to the Sabbath's rampant eroticism, Claire was mortified. At the sound of Xaviera's opening motif, Claire would leap out of bed, race to the far end of the apartment, and, clad in her modest flannel nightgown, practice her French horn. While its mournful tones shielded her ears from the earthy rites pervading the house, they did little to mask sound in the turret where I lay, a petulant island of frustration amidst a writhing sea of passion.
I don't think it ever occurred to Claire that our intimate moments — my soul-searing moan at climax, and her more genteel, though heartening, "Yes, yes, YES!!!" — were overheard as well. I, on the other hand, was convinced that Sandy paid close attention. Already feeling outgunned and outmanned by Hyman's herculean performance, I tried mightily to dismiss the thought.
One particularly bawdy Sunday, I kept a running tally of Xaviera's outbursts, only to discover the next day that my count matched the hash marks on Sandy's slate. It was easy enough to confirm: the chalkboard — complete with date, duration, and the occasional exclamation point — sat upright on her kitchen table until the next marathon. To the uninitiated, it appeared she'd been tracking laps at a swim meet, but once I was in on the secret, the tally became a constant reminder that all with Claire was not quite what it might be.
Excerpted from A Book of Revelations by A.C. Burch, Madeline Sorel. Copyright © 2016 A.C. Burch. Excerpted by permission of HomePort Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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