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They had a bad neighbor. Bad in all the usual ways, and difficult to ignore. Music, noise on the stairs, carelessness about the disposal of garbage. Above their heads, he carried on wrestling matches with the furniture. His uncarpeted floors were a soundstage. He dropped and bumped and scraped. Jack and Chloe called him Hippie Pothead Rasta Boy, or sometimes just H.P.R.B. Being witty made them feel better, although not for long. Pot smoke wafted down to them along with other alarming vegetarian burnt smells, brown rice flambé or tofu gone wrong. A perpetual low-grade party reigned upstairs. There were muffled shrieks, more of the furniture wrestling, comings and goings late at night. When, after a time, they complained, they got nowhere. The kid was too stoned, his life already too full of mess and distraction for anything they said to register. The landlord was no help, nor were the police, unless they wanted to get him busted for the drugs. Even under the circumstances that seemed like a crummy thing to do. So eventually they learned to live with annoyance, grievance, and the sense that an unfairness had been done to them.
Their building had only four apartments, two up and two down. One in three odds of getting a rotten neighbor. Or no, that was figuring wrong but the odds didn't matter, they'd still lost out. The building was seventy years old, faced with mellow brick, located in one of those near-north Chicago neighborhoods that was in the process of changing from bad to marginal to good. You had to put up with the occasional street crazy or filth pile, but that meant the rents were more affordable. They intended to be tough and savvy about city life, although neither of them had much practice with it.
When the realty agent had first shown them the apartment, Hippie Pothead Rasta Boy must have been out of town, or sedated. The kitchen was small, the plumbing arthritic, the baseboards had been painted muddy brown. But Jack and Chloe fell in love with the expanse of front windows and good light, the hardwood floors the agent promised would be sanded and refinished, the sense of cozy space that allowed for a vision of smart urban living. They went out and drank martinis to celebrate signing the lease. The future had the same bright jolting perilous taste as the gin. They were young and just starting out, and every decision felt momentous.
The remaining two neighbors were old, remnants of earlier migrations that had in turn been succeeded by other ethnic tides. Jack and Chloe's apartment was first-floor front. Mr. Dandy was first-floor rear. Little Mrs. Lacagnina was directly above Mr. Dandy. Jack and Chloe were conscientiously nice to them. Or tried to be. Mrs. Lacagnina was entirely deaf, a fortunate thing given her proximity to H.P.R.B.'s antics. Jack and Chloe waved and arranged their faces in welcoming expressions as she staggered past with her trolley of groceries. Sometimes she allowed one of them to help her get it up the stairs. More often she brushed past them, her lips shaping soundless prayers or imprecations, wrapped in Sicilian widowhood as she was in her head scarf and old wool coat. The coat was rubbed slick with wear, a dark, boiled green, although it gave evidence of having once been black. Perhaps it had been bought new for the funeral of the anciently dead Mr. Lacagnina. She wore the coat even now, in the blooming warmth of spring. Her skin, what Jack and Chloe saw of it, was flat, chill white, like a milk carton. They hadn't lived there long enough to know how she managed in wintertime, or if she now remembered she'd had another life before she'd taken up mourning.
Mr. Dandy had more conversation in him. He was the first one they met. The day after they moved in, they found him out in the lobby, scrutinizing the names they had newly posted on the mailbox. "Orlovich," he said. "What's that, Jewish?"
"Christ," Jack said, but only loud enough for Chloe to hear. He felt her warning fingertips against his arm. Then she took a step past him and the light fabric of her dress brushed his knee.
"Hi, I'm Chloe Chase and this is my husband, Jack Orlovich."
Jack watched the old man absorb the full impact of Chloe, Chloe being charming. His loose and mottled face seemed, for a moment, not young, but as if there might be a young man somewhere behind it. God he loved seeing that look on other men's faces, even a creaking ruin like this guy, and knowing that he was the one who had Chloe. Not them. The old man pulled his stomach in and introduced himself as Seamus Dandy. Seamus! What's that, Irish? Jack wanted to ask. They all shook hands. Jack made sure he gave him a wrenching grip. Mr. Dandy scowled. "You two are putting me on. You aren't really married, are you?"
"Really and truly. We just have different last names," Chloe said in her pleasant, humoring tone.
"Well that's a bunch of hooey. What's the point of getting married if you aren't even going to sound like man and wife?"
Jack had missed his chance back there with the Jewish remark. The thing to do when people asked belligerent questions designed to put you on the defensive Are you Jewish/gay/gaining weight was to say, heartily, No, are you? In this case the true answer was more complicated. Yes, by ancestry, his father, which was probably all Mr. Dandy cared about. No, by inclination and practice and by the way it's none of your goddamned business. But he hadn't been quick enough and now all he could do was stand there while Chloe did her usual swell job of handling things.
Chloe laughed, as if Mr. Dandy had said something agreeably witty. "Oh, there's lots of reasons."
"Huh," said Mr. Dandy. "I'm a bachelor. It's made for a long and happy life."
Chloe deflected Mr. Dandy's further opinions on the married state by asking him if he'd lived here very long. Mr. Dandy said if she meant Chicago, he was Chicago born and bred and never lived anywhere else except for when he was in the service. If they meant this exact spot, he'd had the same apartment for twenty-three years last November.
"Then you must like it here," Jack said, making his official, inane entry into the conversation.
Mr. Dandy looked as if he was trying to remember who Jack was. Oh yeah, the Jewish guy. "It suits me."
Chloe said they thought it was a great building, so much more character than their previous cookie-cutter suburban complex. The construction was much better also. They didn't skimp on materials back then; there was a big difference. She made it sound as if she was paying Mr. Dandy a personal compliment. Mr. Dandy said, "Well, they don't let the colored in. That's something. There was a Mexican gal once, she was in your place. That was only the one. Which ain't bad, considering how they're thick as fleas everywhere else."
Jack and Chloe didn't dare look at each other, though a current of disquiet passed between them. Jack thought that Chloe was probably a little sore she'd wasted all that niceness on the old coot, maybe even chagrined that she'd courted him so transparently. Transparent at least to Jack; Mr. Dandy was as dense as the famously well-constructed brick walls. Chloe was good at getting people to like her, agree with her, do what she asked them to do. Diplomacy, they called it. Jack was the impatient one, while Chloe was better at negotiating with the world, smoothing the way. At least this was how they had come to think of themselves, one of the ways they had agreed to be a couple. Chloe had perfect pitch when she wanted something from people, knew how to read their high and low notes, say or do or be what was needed to harmonize. There are some beautiful women who stand a little to one side of themselves, gauging the effect they have, adjusting, stepping back or bearing down. And that was fine, except, perhaps, for those occasions when the mechanics showed a little too obviously.
Neither of them quite knew what to say next. They were embarrassed for Mr. Dandy because he was too oblivious to be embarrassed for himself. Jack considered making some black friends for the express purpose of inviting them over. He thought this was funny, in an awful kind of way. Later, when he tried it out on Chloe, she threw a pillow at him.
Mr. Dandy said, "I grew up in Back of the Yards. That's all Mexican now. There's whole churches they took over that's nothing but Spanish. Padre Armando. Padre Jorge. You ever hear anything so silly? At least the colored keep to themselves that way."
The longer you listened to such talk in silence, the more complicit you became, and the more likely Mr. Dandy was to move on to other races, creeds, and nationalities. Chloe hurried to invite Mr. Dandy to tell them what line of work he was in.
"I'm a railroader. Retired. A union man. I worked on the Burlington Northern longer than you been alive, young lady." Mr. Dandy winked gallantly. He had puffy, prominent eyelids, like a frog, Jack took pleasure in noting. "So what is it you folks do?"
Chloe spoke the name of her employer, the famous downtown bank. "Jack's the creative one. He's a writer."
"Part-time schoolteacher," said Jack. He wished Chloe hadn't come out with that. If you said you were a writer, people wondered out loud why they'd never heard of you.
"Substitute teacher," Jack admitted.
"Writer, like, books? Which ones?"
"I'm just starting out," said Jack stonily. Damned if he was going to tell Mr. Dandy anything else that could be used against him. He was already pegged as the Jewish guy who didn't even have a real job and wasn't man enough to be ashamed that his beautiful wife was the one supporting him.
"That's the book you need to read if you want to be a writer. That guy's rich now, you know. They turned it into a movie. And the best part is, he didn't have to make anything up."
Jack murmured that he had indeed read Angela's Ashes, and admired it. Mr. Dandy said, "It's full of all the great Irish themes. Tragedy. Suffering. Innocent little children stricken dead. You get some suffering under your belt, young fella, so's you'll have something interesting to put in your book."
I'm suffering right now. Activate flight plan. Outta here. Jack sent telepathic messages to Chloe, willing her to receive them.
"Hey, you get stuck for ideas, you come talk to me. Thirty-seven years of railroading, I bet I got enough for two, three books. The glory days of rail, when you busted your hump and did a man's work. Winters when the lines froze solid and summers when the wheels put out sparks and set off twenty miles of grass fire. Amtrak was a bad idea nobody'd thought of yet." Somewhere inside Mr. Dandy's yeasty flesh he was muscling an engine around a sharp curve, or some other legendary lie. His eyes kindled and his knuckles cracked. "I can tell you everything you need to know, all you got to do is write it down."
Which would be worse, Mr. Dandy looking sideways at you, glowering and mistrustful, or Mr. Dandy waylaying you with scrapbooks and memorabilia, a runaway train on a collision course? Jack imagined timing his exits and entrances, furtively skulking in and out of the apartment so as to avoid Mr. Dandy, the legion of imaginative excuses he'd need in order to explain why he wasn't writing about the glory days of rail, Chloe, help.
Chloe said, "Oh, Jack never runs out of ideas. You'd probably have to wait a long time for him to get around to your book."
"Decades," agreed Jack, deadpan, for Chloe's benefit.
But Mr. Dandy was already losing interest in him, reverting back to his original glum disapproval. "Ah, whatever. Write a book, don't write a book. Either way it don't keep the world from spinning."
A blast of amplified music startled them. It came from upstairs, loud but distorted, as if it originated inside an agitating washing machine. Reggae music, set on spin cycle.
Jack and Chloe looked at each other, then Mr. Dandy. He said, "That's something you better get used to. This guy." He jabbed his thumb at the mailboxes. Jack craned to read the name. Berserk? No, Brezak.
"Does he " Jack began, but it had become difficult to make himself heard. He tried to pantomime questions, who and what the hell. He shrugged at Chloe, who shook her head and looked unhappy.
Mr. Dandy waved his hands around his ears as if shooing gnats. He raised his voice to bawl, "It's enough to make you curse the invention of electricity, ain't it? Nice meeting you folks." He stumped off down the hallway, pursued by island rhythms.
Jack and Chloe retreated behind their own door. Through some trick of acoustics, the music wasn't quite as loud, but it was clearer, jumpety jumpety jump, a singer carrying on about his no-good woman. Jack thought it was Bob Marley, but then, Bob Marley was the only reggae singer he knew. He said, "I didn't think anybody was still big on this stuff."
"This could really be a problem."
"Wasn't there some old Eddie Murphy reggae skit, 'Kill de white people, kill de white people, yah yeah.'"
Chloe said, "Seriously..."
"Give it a minute." Chloe would expect him to go up there and complain, threaten, whatever. It was man's work, the opposite of charm. It was nothing he looked forward to. He sat down on the couch with a magazine and pretended the loopy music wasn't making his foot pat in syncopation.
From the bedroom Chloe called, "It's worse in here. Like it's traveling through the heat register."
Hell and death. He put the magazine down and stood. Just then the music stopped and someone upstairs took a running start, raced across the floorboards, and collided with a heavy object.
Silence followed. Chloe came out of the bedroom and the two of them gazed at the ceiling. Jack said, "Maybe they killed themselves. Death by reggae."
"Is there a noise ordinance? We should find out. If it's as bad as he was saying."
"I hope it doesn't come to that. The calling 911 part."
"You gotta admit, it would be getting off on the wrong foot."
"Well you have to work here. You decide if you can take it."
"Yeah. My work." He watched Chloe pick up a lamp without a shade and put it down again in the same place. They were still unpacking and everything was scattered and disordered. "Speaking of which..."
"I'm sorry honey, I had no idea he was going to pester you like that. What a character. I bet you money everybody calls him Jim Dandy. What."
"Not nothing. What."
"Just don't go around introducing me to people as a writer."
Chloe was messing with the lamp again. Jack thought they were both waiting to see if the music would start up again and force them to do something about it. Chloe frowned at him. "Really?"
"Yeah, really." There were times when Chloe tried to charm her way past him as she did other people; Jack always called her on it. He didn't want to be other people to her.
"You think I'm trying to make myself more interesting by bragging about you."
"No," said Jack firmly, although he might have believed something of the sort. But to admit the possibility would be to open the door to one of Chloe's morbid self-criticism sessions.
"I can't even tell normal people, like the ones I work with? How come? I want to brag about you."
"Wait until I do something worth bragging about."
Chloe made a face that was meant to express forbearance in the presence of long suffering. "Not this again."
"Not the pep talk again, okay?" He'd published a few poems and two stories, all in magazines whose names were known mostly to the other people who published in them.
"I love 'The Joyride.' It's a great story. Can't I brag about that?"
"Do me a favor, say I'm an English teacher. Everybody knows what that is, you don't have to answer a million questions."
He didn't feel like a writer yet and he wouldn't until he had more to show for himself. Only in the last few months had he attempted to go about it in any organized, full-time fashion, although he'd always written things, had always vaguely imagined doing something that messed around with books and literature. Teaching English to high school kids had been the path of least resistance. One night, after he'd again complained, whined really, about the things he was always whining about students who were dull or rude or semicriminal, small-minded colleagues, administrators whose names were synonyms for incompetence, the daily round of frustration, tedium, and outrage Chloe said, "Maybe you should quit."
Jack stared at her. "Gotcha," Chloe said.
"Quit and do what?"
"I don't know, whatever's going to keep me from listening to you be miserable every night of my life. Unless that's the fun part for you. You know, the hopelessness and all."
Over the next few weeks they planned it out. Chloe was going into the bank's management-training program. If he substituted even a few days a month, the money would be enough, barely. It was understood that this was a chance for him to make the writing work, one way or another, within a finite but unspecified period of time. They agreed that Jack might feel dependent, beholden, etc., that Chloe might come to feel burdened, resentful, and so on. They resolved to be clear-eyed and up front about these and other possible issues, talk things through. It pleased them to be arranging their lives this unconventionally. Chloe's job, the only real job now left between them, was downtown. It made sense to move into the city, and besides, no one expected a writer to live in the suburbs. What were you supposed to write about, shopping malls?
So now it was all up to him. No excuses. It filled him with dread. There had to be writers out there with titanic egos and monumental, obnoxious amounts of self-confidence. He wasn't one of them. Maybe if he stumbled onto some unforeseen, high-profile success, he'd be transformed, maybe that was what happened to people. But this was difficult to imagine when he sat in front of the computer, that expensive, obedient, superbly engineered machine that had been chosen for its ability to effortlessly reproduce and transmit his every written thought, and felt like a goddamned fraud. At his lowest ebb he felt himself to be devoid of ideas, talent, taste. He wasn't fooling anyone. He didn't have what it took. Whatever it was. He tried to imagine the words he wrote at this very desk making their way out into the world, catching on fire in the minds of people he would never meet. It seemed absurd.
Yet he knew that all this was to be expected, even the dopey, puerile, self-hating parts. It was what he'd signed on for, a process that might still lead to nothing, but there was only one way of finding out. And when he seized on something he'd written, a page, a paragraph, even a single word, and thought it was good, more than good, it allowed him to keep going until the next such time. As long as he kept going, he was allowed to take himself seriously.
These were in a sense the most private moments of his life. He didn't always feel like offering them up, even to Chloe, who sometimes, in her solicitude, sounded as if she was encouraging a slow child. He usually settled for saying that his day had been "not bad" or "not terrific." Sometimes he fell into the easy pose of exasperation, since there was always something to be exasperated about in writing. But always there was what he held back.
Chloe let a silence settle. Then she said, "They did a nice job on the floors, didn't they?"
"Yeah." Floors. He recognized another Chloe tactic, a statement you were meant to agree with. But he was ready to be softened up. He didn't like being out of sorts with her, especially when it was due to his own gloomy, backward pride.
"It's a selfish act, isn't it. Writing. I mean it's supposed to be all about communication, but it's actually very self-involved."
Of course they'd been over this ground before. "Yup," Jack said. "Damn near misanthropic."
"My name is Igor. I assist Dr. Frankenstein in the laboratory. His genius is far beyond me. I can only gape and marvel."
Jack raised himself off the couch just far enough to grab Chloe by the waist and pull her down on top of him. Her legs beneath her skirt were bare and he ran a hand behind one warm knee.
"What are you doing?"
"Don't worry, I'm a doctor."
He pulled her dark hair away from her neck and kissed his way down to where he could feel her heartbeat. He waited to see if she would protest or pull back, but she didn't. They had been too tired from moving in to make love last night. It felt like something they should do in this new place before much more time passed.
Chloe stood up and took his hand and they slow-walked into the bedroom. Jack kicked his shoes away. Chloe's dress had a zipper in the back and she presented herself to him so he could help. He loosened the zipper, then pressed against her from behind, spreading her legs and making her stagger a little, until he gripped her around the waist and steadied her. "Let me get this off," she murmured, trying to twist around to face him.
"Not yet." He wanted her clothes tangled around her, wanted to push them aside and see her breasts and flushed stomach and perfect ass revealed in all the ways he could imagine, imagining just moments away from happening because his hands and mouth were full of Chloe and her breathing was damp and rapid and now he had to hurry to get his own clothes off. Chloe was on her back on the bed and he was leaning over her when the music started up in mid-growl, as if the volume control had been yanked hard right. Again it was reggae. Boom da boom da ya ya, hey mon, talkin boom da boom da ya ya.
"I don't believe this."
Jack tried to carry on for a while as if it wasn't happening, had to give up. "Shit."
Chloe rolled away across the bed. "Maybe now you'll want to go talk to them?"
"Not this very minute." With an effort, he reclaimed his body.
"You still want to..."
"Why not. It's a cinch they can't hear us."
So they went ahead, determined not to get chased out of their own bedroom. It felt as if they were trying to race the music to the end, boom da boom da ya ya, boom da boom da ya ya.
It was another couple of days before they had any face-to-face encounter with the upstairs neighbor. Sometimes the noise level dropped off and they actually found themselves straining to hear the music. They let the weekend pass without complaining. After all it was the weekend, people stayed up late, carried on. It sounded as if giant mice, giant Jamaican mice, were loose upstairs, bouncing and tumbling and smoking weed. There was at least one girl up there; they heard her giggling and shrieking. But they saw no one. The inhabitants seemed to have entombed themselves, although it was fine spring weather and people were crazy to get outside, the way you were in a northern city once winter was behind you.
On Sunday Jack and Chloe bought Italian ices and walked along Belmont Harbor and watched people launching their boats into the blue water. They explored the less threatening portions of their own neighborhood, went to a pizza place on Clark and drank a bottle of red wine. They walked home with the streetlights just beginning to bloom. The air was warm and scented with something that might only have been the right mix of pollution and automobile exhaust, but which smelled sweet anyway. A maple tree in an apartment compound was sending hundreds of kamikaze seedpods rattling to the ground. People were sitting out on their front steps in the twilight. Jack and Chloe exchanged greetings as they passed. They felt again the promise of the city, a place that might be ugly in its separate parts, but was beautiful in its whole.
Chloe had to get up early for work the next morning. The people upstairs seemed to have no such imperatives. At ten-thirty the music was still bouncing merrily, and voices were cheering it on. Chloe sighed and looked at Jack. He gave her a mock salute, closed the apartment door behind him, and climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Since it was inevitable that he'd be making this trip, he'd more or less rehearsed it in his head. He wished he was someone who flew into righteous rages and made threats and scared people. Once only had he gotten into it with a guy in a parking lot outside a bar, his first fight since he was a kid. They'd both been drunk and the other guy went down after a few sloppy punches, knocked off balance more than hurt. A crowd had gathered to watch. Now they began backing away. Jack, who was tall but not built so as to intimidate anyone, had laughed incredulously and spread his arms to show how harmless he was, and just then the other guy had risen up and tackled Jack around the knees and they both went down again.
The upstairs hallway was a narrow corridor running the length of the building. It wasn't hard to figure out which door was the problem. The wood fairly vibrated. Jack knocked, then pounded.
The door opened. A girl with short hair dyed Raggedy Ann red peered out through a crack. "Hi, I live downstairs " Jack began.
The door closed. Now what. He raised his hand to knock again, and it reopened. This time it was a kid in a wrinkled gauze shirt, with a tuft of beard on his chin and an expression of droopy suspicion. "What's up," he said. A statement, not a question.
Jack was only five, maybe six years older than the kid, but already he was at some age-related disadvantage. "What's up" didn't invite you to respond in any way that moved the conversation forward. It was some kind of hipster code or beer-commercial-speak, layered with irony. Jack settled for mumbling "Sup," feeling stupid, then launched into his speech. "My wife and I just moved in downstairs..." The noise was making him shout. "Hey, can you cut that music down?"
The kid turned to give some instruction to Raggedy Ann, who was probably busy spraying Ozium into the clouds of reefer smoke. The music subsided. Jack imagined Chloe downstairs, listening.
"Hi, Jack Orlovich."
He extended his hand. The kid stared at it as if it were a piece of machinery that came without instructions. They weren't doing real well at the greetings thing. Finally the kid shook, a vaguely sticky, squirming grip. "Rich."
"Nice to meet you. Look, you have to keep the noise down. Especially when we're trying to sleep." Screw diplomacy.
"Oh...Okay." The kid Rich leaned into the door. Beyond him Jack could see some grimy wood floor and an ugly couch that looked like you'd get a rash from sitting on it. "So when do you guys sleep?"
You wouldn't think it was a hard idea to get across. Jack couldn't tell if the kid was belligerent or just way stoned. His hair was long and pulled back into one of those rat-nasty ponytails. He looked shifty as hell, but not really dangerous.
The kid turned his back to Jack and had some sort of conversation with the girl behind him. Then he swung around again. "Does your plumbing work?"
"I guess. Sure." Now what.
"Mine's screwed up, we got no water pressure. You know anything about plumbing?"
He didn't, and Chloe was waiting downstairs for him, but the kid was opening the door wider, beckoning, and Jack stepped inside. How could he not? Three days of listening, he wanted to see where they kept the trampoline and the pipe organ.
The apartment was laid out like his and Chloe's, same-but-different enough to make him feel as if he was the one who was stoned, or had followed a white rabbit down its hole. The kid was leading the way back to the kitchen, loping through the rooms with a sturdy gait that Jack well recognized. The music was still damn close to loud, and Jack took the opportunity to turn it down a few notches without the kid noticing.
He had an impression of walls painted in bright, inflamed colors, turquoise and purple, and blinds drawn across shut windows, and curtains on top of that, and too much lamp light, and stale, overcooked air, a total effect of hectic claustrophobia. The television and stereo and their attendant cords and clutter took up one entire wall, like an altar to noise, or maybe to Bob Marley. A poster of him, his brooding silhouette edged in bands of rainbow, hung on the wall where, in his own apartment, Jack would have seen a newly hung print of Monet's water lilies.
There were stubs of melted candles in jar lids, paperback books, clothes hung on doorknobs, scattered newspapers, mail, drinking glasses abandoned with an inch or so of suspect liquid in the bottom, plastic forks, towels, a pair of ancient, peeling cowboy boots, magazines, a couple of empty jugs of supermarket wine, a Halloween mask of a green and melting-faced monster, a bag of foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs, a paddle racquet missing its tethered rubber ball. This and more was piled or strewn on floors and tables. He told himself it was just like the way he'd lived when he was the kid's age, though he didn't really believe it.
When Jack reached the kitchen, the Raggedy Ann girl was there too. "It ran out right in the middle of doing the dishes," she said, an aggrieved housekeeper.
The kitchen wasn't worse than the rest of the place, or at least it wasn't exponentially worse, as he might have feared. It smelled of curry, and some other spices he couldn't put a name to, something dank and weedy that he associated with countries where people died of plagues.
The kid said, "I think maybe it's the water line, the whole line coming into the apartment, because the bathroom doesn't work either."
Jack pretended to examine the faucet, even made a show of opening the cabinet beneath the sink and fiddling with the valve. How dumb were these people? "Well, for whatever reason, it looks like your water's been shut off."
"God, Richard, weren't you supposed to call them? Wasn't there some kind of big deal deal with the bill?"
The two of them looked incapable of formulating any sort of response besides staring longingly at the sink. Jack said, "There was probably some water still in the pipes when they shut it off, so you couldn't tell right away. Tomorrow's Monday, you can call the water company in the morning."
"This just sucks," said the kid, peevishly. "I mean, we can't even flush the toilet."
Jack only wished it had been the power bill. "Well...," he said, preparing himself to leave before they asked to come downstairs and use the bathroom.
"Why do they even charge you for water, what kind of rip-off is that? It's like charging for air."
"Or food," Jack couldn't resist, which made the kid give him that sullen, cross-eyed look again, before he decided it was funny, and laughed.
"'They belly full.' Yeah man, some things just don't change."
"Yeah." He must have uttered some Rastafarian password without knowing it.
"Hey, you want a drink? Look and see what we got." The kid nodded to the girl, who opened the refrigerator and began rattling through the shelves.
"Thanks, but my wife's got to be wondering what happened to me."
"Tell her to come on up and party," said the kid cheerily. He was sloshing a bottle of undrinkable wine into not entirely clean plastic glasses.
"Work tomorrow," Jack reminded. "Maybe some other "
"One drink. What the hell. No water, plenty of wine. Come on, don't be a total killjoy."
He was exactly that, he was the King of Killjoys, and he didn't want to get too chummy because he guessed, correctly, that this was only the first of many occasions when he'd be up here trying to get the kid to do or not do something; nevertheless here he was, taking the glass, sitting down on that ugly couch, not passing up the joint when the kid sent it his way.
Or no, it hadn't happened quite that fast. They were still in the kitchen when the girl, whose name no one had thought to tell him, shrieked without warning, "Mouse! Mouse!"
She was squawking and pointing to the floorboard next to the refrigerator. Jack caught a disappearing glimpse of something gray and frantic. "Oh God," said the girl. "Rich, we have to set some traps."
"What are you so scared of, you're only what, five hundred times bigger than it is? It's a living creature, it has a right to exist."
"I don't care, I don't like the way they sneak around on their sneaky little feet. And they're dirty." She appealed to Jack. She had some kind of dire stuff on her eyelashes that turned them into dark blue spikes, and a number of tattoos peeking out of her clothing like glimpses of underwear. "Don't you think mice are just vermin?"
Jack was struck by the notion that the times they'd thought the people upstairs sounded like mice, it might have been actual mice. No, a bigger concern was that the mice might begin commuting downstairs. He said, "Well, killing mice isn't any worse than frying a chicken or "
"Exactly," said the kid, happy to launch into this. "That's why I don't do that shit. Eat flesh. It's unnatural."
Jack, who could never keep himself from meeting an argument with an argument, said, "Animals eat other animals. That's pretty natural."
This stopped the kid for a moment, but then he kept right on coming. "McDonald's isn't natural. Antibiotics and hormones and brain and bonemeal in cattle feed isn't "
"Okay, forget McDonald's. We're living creatures too, we're allowed to exist, take up space, eat. You know, survive. We don't have to apologize for being here." By this time Jack was drinking the wine, which was so sharp and metallic, he found it necessary to get a great deal of it down, so as to anesthetize himself against the taste.
"Survive, yes, not trash the planet so corporations can make big piles of money for their stockholders. The white man's Bible spells it out, page one, where the Lord gives man dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth. It's a fucking business plan."
He must be one of those white guys who went around pretending they were black. It seemed like a really tortured way of going natural. At the same time, Jack couldn't entirely disagree with the kid's sentiments, although he himself might put it in some less simpleminded way.
The kid said, "Come here," beckoning him through the dining room at least that's what it was in his own apartment. Here it was harder to determine function. In the front room the kid shoveled through a pile of books and came up with a frayed paperback, Triumph Over Babylon. The cover showed a city skyline, Babylon, presumably, skyscrapers and power lines and traffic signals, the works, everything wavering and crumbling. "This lays it all out. The roots of the struggle against the death culture."
"Oh. Sure." Jack sat down to open it. The first chapter was called "The Black Jesus." He wondered, not for the first time, why he bothered writing fiction, inventing things.
He looked up to see a lit joint under his nose, the kid waving it so the curl of smoke scribbled back and forth. "Coming at you," said the kid, in a strangled, trying-not-to-exhale voice, and Jack reached out and took it.
He sucked in a mouthful of smoke, felt it rising in him like an elevator. Lungs, bloodstream, brain, top floor, everybody out. The kid's stuff was excellent. No wonder he always looked so slack jawed. Not that Jack was feeling entirely crisp and articulate himself at the moment. Chloe didn't like him smoking, and over time he'd pretty much given it up. It wasn't anything he'd promised her never to do, so technically he wasn't going behind her back, what the hell, she was probably already pissed at him for staying up here, which in some stoned way seemed to make everything all right.
"You're not a cop or anything, are you?"
The kid was sitting on the floor with his back against an armchair that was the mate of the wretched sofa. The girl had come in and draped herself across him and was rubbing one hand in slow circles above, below, and over the kid's crotch.
Jack was too stoned to pretend not to stare. "No, I'm not a cop, I'm a writer."
Damned if he knew why he said it. He felt pointlessly embarrassed.
"I really didn't think you were, I just had to ask, you know?" The kid had only heard the not cop part. He was safe. "Because cops'll sit right down with you and smoke your shit, but they have to tell you who they are if you ask them. It's the law."
Jack was pretty sure this was not the case, but he nodded, Uh-huh. His head felt like it was full of syrup.
"Oh, this is perfect." The kid jumped up, spilling the girl in a heap, and bent over the stereo, turning the noise up to painful levels. The song was "I Shot the Sheriff," the kid accompanying it on a spirited air guitar.
"Whoa, whoa," Jack flagged him down. "You can't play it that loud. Wife. Work. Sleep. Remember?"
The kid shrugged and looked sulky, but lowered the volume. Jack said, "Headphones. Quiet hours. We've got to get something worked out here, Rich."
The kid said Sure, okay, but in the moment before he did so Jack caught the knowing look that passed between him and the girl. It was plain to them he was some hung-up fussbudget fixated on tiny decorum, an inhabitant of boring squaredom. They had their own absorbing world of sex and music and intrigue. He wasn't any part of it. When you were under twenty, the boundaries were clear. He could hang with them, smoke their herb, groove to their music or pretend to. He would still amuse them.
Maybe it was just his brain on drugs that made this rankle. Hey, wiseass, you're the one who's the joke here. Let's get that straight. He hated having his insulated bubble of smugness punctured, wanted to believe, in the face of all evidence and history to the contrary, that he was the only one capable of insight, observation, judgment. It was always a shock to realize that someone else was peering back in at him, that he was himself horribly visible.
He was ready to get up and leave, he was through with these people, but before he could get his hands and feet and all his other balky parts in motion, the door buzzer sounded.
The apartment building had a security door and a buzzer for people who wanted entrance. Also an intercom that was supposed to let you ask who was there, but this was broken, and looked as if it had been for some time. It wasn't a problem for Jack and Chloe, who would only have to open their front door to see who was standing outside. But the kid would have to go downstairs. He and the girl looked at each other.
The kid jumped up and hit the entry buzzer. Now it really was time for Jack to leave, but he lingered, just to see what new sort of oddity might walk through the door, and also to administer a few more cautions about the music.
There were feet on the stairs. The kid opened the apartment door then made an effort to close it again, too late, somebody he didn't expect already half inside, the kid giving up and walking away, the girl leaning forward with her lips pushed into a pout all this happening in a second or so, as Jack struggled to get upright in the sagging couch cushions and brace for whatever menace was on its way into the room, vengeful drug lords or some other bad trouble he'd just larked his way into the middle of
But it was only another girl. A narrow-shouldered, narrow-faced girl with a hitch in her step and pale, damp blond hair. She didn't say anything, nor did anyone else. The kid resumed his seat on the floor. The Raggedy Ann girl hunched up close to him and got her hands busy with his shirt buttons.
The blond girl closed the door behind her and surveyed the room, Jack included, with an expression of haughty disinterest. She took a seat in a corner that put her in everyone's line of sight, although the three of them were careful not to make eye contact. Jack was actually grateful for the music. Without it there would have been only glowering silence. Raggedy Ann was playing up to the kid for all she was worth, pressing and squeezing and carrying on voluptuously. The song ended and another song began. It seemed to be a contest among them to pretend that no one else was in the room.
The blond girl maintained her cool, scornful pose. She took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her denim shirt and studied it critically, then removed one and reached across the coffee table for the lighter.
Her sudden movement startled the kid, who had been lying back with his eyes half closed as the redhead fondled him. He'd been pretending the music was so compelling that he wasn't noticing anything else, a supreme, almost yogilike act of concentration. But the way his eyes shot open and his head jerked gave him away.
The blond girl lit her cigarette, allowed herself a small, meant-to-be-noticed smirk, and tossed the lighter back on the table.
Jack thought he could guess what all this was about, although the notion of anyone fighting over the kid's scrawny ass seemed ludicrous. Without meaning to, Jack was examining the two girls, comparing them, as if he were the one who got to choose. Raggedy Ann was, if not prettier, at least more decorative, had gone to more effort with her eye makeup and silver rings and bright green blouse. The blond girl was less obtrusive, less costumed. Her clothes were drab and her hair hung flat and straight around her shoulders. She didn't have much of a figure, at least as far as Jack could tell from all her flapping layers of cotton. She had on a patterned skirt of the sort of material that was usually made into cheap bedspreads. It was hiked up around one knee and when Jack tried to get a peek at her legs, she caught him at it and withered him with a look.
Jack sank back into the sofa. He felt like an idiot in so many different ways, there was no use in trying to sort them out. He wished there was a lever he could pull that would drop him through the floor and into his own living room. The blond girl spoke up above the music. "Who's the big asshole?" Meaning him.
The kid was pretending he'd just noticed her. "Him? He's..." It was clear that he'd forgotten Jack's name. "Neighbor."
"What did you tell him about me, huh?"
"Because he's looking at me like he heard something really choice."
"God, you are so paranoid. Like everybody's supposed to care about you and your crazy psycho-bitch routine."
"Right," said the girl, sending smoke through her nostrils. "I remember how much you used to hate it. And all the different interesting ways."
The redheaded girl lifted her mouth out of the kid's neck for long enough to say something utterly vulgar.
Jack got to his feet. "Just leaving. Take it easy."
Nobody said anything, although the kid raised his hand in a halfhearted wave. Don't let the door hit you on the butt on the way out.
Jack paused in the hallway. He no longer felt the pot, at least not in the way he had before, but he was still addled and unsteady and uncertain about what had really happened. He stared at the closed door, shook his head as if there were someone there to agree with him about the strangeness of it all, then made his way downstairs.
The music was a low growl overhead. He supposed this was the best you could hope for. He saw how quickly they would come to accept all such unacceptable intrusions and annoyances.
Chloe was asleep. She lay on her side with the covers drawn up to her waist, leaving her arm and shoulder bare. The arm was long and graceful and as insubstantial as a bird's wing, and like a wing it was bent at the elbow as if tensed for flight. Her face was in shadow but the line of her throat was clear and the dark mass of her hair spread across the pillow with that same look of arrested motion. He wanted to wake her up, tell her everything, get her to laugh and marvel and exult in how lucky they were to have each other and the life they were building together, a life the freaks upstairs would neither know nor appreciate. What had happened tonight would be incomplete to him until he told her the story. But tomorrow was a workday, and he let her sleep.
He had only gone into the bathroom for a minute and when he came out he paused, listening to what was going on in the bedroom overhead. It was not the first time he had heard these sounds, although never this clearly. On other occasions it had been possible to at least pretend they were something else. What unsettled him now was not so much the sounds themselves, but his absolute certainty that no one had come downstairs from the second floor.
Copyright ©2004 by Jean Thompson