|Tenancy in Common
It’s 5-ish in the evening, and the queen-size
mattress in the hallway has started some of the tenants talking to each other.
Simone Soirée, the Norman, Oklahoma girl turned North Beach stripper,
asks Don Nordine what he knows.
“Just what the landlord told me,” he says. As though Simone could know
what that was. “I sure hope they get the thing out of here pretty soon.”
Simone nods. Swings a fake pink dred behind her shoulder. “How creepy
it is, with that little, y’know. Bleh. That creepy stain and everything.
I mean, that is the stain, right? From the blood?”
Don Nordine tightens the green belt of his judo gi. His limp ponytail
makes one full twist from lower nape to mid-back. “Guess so. I’m surprised
there isn’t more, considering.” He widens his barefoot stance to face the
mattress. “I say we turn it around. So the stain’s to the wall.”
Simone crosses her arms to massage both freckled biceps. “Hey,” she
tilts her head. “What’s your name again, anyway?”
Don Nordine laughs, ha ha. After all these months living floor to ceiling.
“I’m Don Nordine,” he says.
Simone blinks slowly, and smiles. “I like your thing, your karate outfit
“It’s judo,” Don says. “Grappling and throws, no punching, no kicking.
Mano a mano. Come on, let’s turn it around.”
They turn it around. The other side is worse.
I will say: I know all this from a hole in the door. Not a hole I made.
If I sit on the low bench in my entryhall and bend to lace my boots, or
lean down over my knees to dig in my backpack, and if I turn and get close
and look, then it fills my eye: common space. Out There space. The first
landing. Across that, apartment #1. Sometimes, like now, there are people.
And, of course, the Portnoys’ bloody mattress.
Simone Soirée frowns at the maroon continent which has dried
into the fabric and puts her hand over nose and mouth.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have done that,” she says.
Don nods once, hands on hips.
“No problem,” he says, and grasps the mattress like it’s a judo competitor.
I watch him struggle vainly with chin toward the ceiling to turn it back
around in our tight first floor landing, all by himself.
Finally, Don Nordine concedes to the mattress and heads upstairs.
I go up too, only the back way. I got someone to see.
Here’s what happened: somehow Mr. Portnoy from apartment
1’s blood just poured out until he was gone, until he was gone and dead,
just like everything, eventually, like my car battery, and the cactus on
my deck, and my spaniel, and my brother. This happens. It happens, it happens.
That’s what I was saying to myself in my head when I saw Mrs. Portnoy
come out in her pilly cotton robe and slipper socks, when she emerged so
terrified eyes shiny looking unaccustomed to the bright light of morning.
Calling, “Help.” Calling, “Help, help, help.” Calling out hushed in neutral
hallway space to those shut away; far away. Each in our distant and protected
1 br/1ba micro-dimension.
And me, I was just watching, pulling hard on my left boot laces, wondering
which one of us- from apartment 2 (me) through 6 (Don Nordine) - would
get to Mrs. Portnoy first.
I’ll give you a hint: the correct answer is not the most obvious.
Apartment 2, which is mine, is the only unit with
a deck. A narrow door of paned glass opens from the living room onto the
roof of the garage I rent for my busted Karman Ghia. Once in a while I
go ahead and wriggle the door until it opens, and I pause as a shower of
paint chips falls around the threshold. Then, just like the first day I
moved in, when I had nothing but one duffel bag and my college backpack,
I step outside, stand pencil tall in the fog chill and smoke a clove. I
think two things, usually, out there during the smoke. First, there is
this clear picture that comes, of my little brother half-bent and shivering
on the diving board, squinting in late sun as I lug my army duffel out
the back gate of our lime stucco bungalow. That’s what I get, a long lingering
shot of him there, shivering. And then also, I think: I should get a chair
for out here; or a barbecue; or umbrella; depending on the weather. I don’t
even try to think about him, I don’t want to get morbid and see his face
in my eyes, or imagine him in motion. But since I did that one time, that
first day here, it’s like it’s his deck, a space of his own. Like I smoke
a while for him.
When I’m all done, I insert the used-up butt into a bag of potting soil
purchased in more ambitious times, and go back inside.
From a list of encounters with the other tenants of
1798 Fulton Street:
Don Nordine, Apt. #6:
Exchange on the buckled sidewalk out front, on New Year’s Eve day. It
was pouring down rain. He had an umbrella.
“Do you rent that garage?”
“So it’s not available.”
“No, it’s not available.”
“I was just wondering, since I never see anyone using it.”
The next day he used the blue tack on my door to affix a note. If I
ever decide I don’t need a garage, be sure to let him know. Thanks, Don
Nordine, Apt. #6.
Guy & Stefanos, Apt. #5:
Multiplied times 500.
Simone Soirée, Apt. #4:
Took it upon herself to remove my laundry load from the washer and put
it on top of the dryer. I found three socks and a pair of my underwear
in wet little twists and balls on the floor of the laundry room. When I
picked them up they were coated with lint, cobwebs, black pubic hairs.
I threw the stuff away, right there. It was Simone who did it, all right,
because I checked the load in the washer, and you don’t mistake Simone’s
wardrobe for, say, Don Nordine’s. If the soapy swirl of g-strings wasn’t
evidence enough, the red and gold kimono she wears to get the paper in
the morning was incontrovertible.
Julius Webb, Apt. # 3:
We were at the 5 Fulton bus stop one morning, our chins down against
the wind that rushed eastward, straight off the ocean. Julius, all young
lanky cool and brown nubby hair, had his arm around a stand-up bass zipped
into a gigbag.
“You’re the guitarist, right? The songwriter.”
“I listen to you play on Tuesdays, when I’m home in the afternoon.”
“Sounds good, too,” tipping his head once, inside the flipped-up coat
collar, “maybe we can jam one time.”
For one thing, I liked that he said “listen,” instead of just hear.
Also, there was last week, when he delivered something special right
under my door. I was sitting on the floor fiddling around with my walkman
when I heard the pop-pop of knuckles cracking, so I looked out. First I
saw crotch. Then an ear, smooth as a beach shell. Then the name “Saleo”
coming at me over the hardwood, and I had to roll out of the way fast as
he pushed that neo-bebop cut-vinyl gem under the door, my heart revving
high because of how he came out of nowhere into the hallway. So I rolled.
Backward over one shoulder, landing low on all fours. I just so happened
to be wearing a black turtleneck that day and spinning 60’s pop jazz on
the stereo, so I felt kind of slick and criminal. Slick but with heart
beating hard, like a surprised animal in the brush.
Bernard & Melba Portnoy, Apt. #1:
Until Mrs. Portnoy came out that day, came out looking confused, saying,
“Help,” I had never seen her or heard her voice. As for Mr. Portnoy, I
couldn’t say a thing. For the Portnoys as an entity I had only clues: slamming
cupboards at the dinner hour; show tunes and crooners from a skippy needle;
blue shifting light of television through the amber Edwardian glass of
their front door. And, too, more than any other thing I could say, there
was the smell: persistent, close, sweet, it was the smell of age; of secrets.
Of sickness, maybe, and fatigue. Maybe, I thought one time, on a day when
it wasn’t so strong, it was just the smell of old love.
I’m standing on the back stairs where the old garbage
chute is, right outside Julius’s apartment: a bottle of Chianti in one
hand, unlit clove gripped in my front teeth, a worn LP clamped under my
arm. I am silent in rubber soles.
Through streaked glass I see him in front of the stove, faded yellow
swim trunks riding low and casual, a warm glint along his brown cheekbone
from the stove light.
The phone rings on the wall above the recycling bins. On the second
ring, Julius swings his head extra slow. As though moving through water.
He always looks that way to me, like someone living underwater. I hope
for a quick call so I can knock all casual, arriving with wine. But Julius
leans his forehead against the wall, looking down at his lean toes. “Hey,
baby,” he says low. “I guess you took your time.”
So I squat in evening shadow to slide the record under the back door,
and I do it with such minute movements he doesn’t hear or see it coming.
Later, he will pick it up and turn it over, and then he’ll play it. “Gimme
That Booty (Don’t Gimme the Boot),” 1973.
In there he’s looking down, rubbing the top of one foot with the ball
of the other. Saying, Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.
Who got to Mrs. Portnoy first? I’ll tell you who.
The paramedics got there first. Right when my hand was reaching up, wrist
already rotated in the air so it could meet the knob and whip open the
door, that’s when they came. Right when I was getting up off the bench,
there they were thudding up the short first flight, equipment knocking
and jangling all over their uniforms, to get to Mrs. Portnoy.
I slurp up a can of tomato soup for dinner.
While I’m fitting the soup bowl into a stack of matching bowls in the
sink water, I hear what sounds like a small ruckus out in the hallway.
I take smooth glides in my socks over to the door and sit on the bench,
leaning elbows on knees.
Before anything else, let’s just say I get a thick whiff of Portnoy.
Not dead Portnoy. Just the usual trapped, inhabited air, about as full
of someone else’s cells as air can get. Like eating them up to breathe
it. Like eating Portnoy.
The door is ajar, and a bit of kitchen is visible. Unlit. There is a
four-foot stack of newspapers with two cans on top, labels removed, I can
see that, but nothing more.
And then I hear dull thumps, creaks, rapid sounds of descent on the
stairs, and suddenly there is Julius barefoot in yellow shorts, standing
at the Portnoy entrance and pushing on the door with a flat palm. Imagine
“Mrs. Portnoy?” he says, and goes on in.
My mouth is open, my hand for some reason reaches partway through space
for the doorknob. My hand reaches up when he pushes on the door. Why? Maybe
I don’t want him in there.
Beyond the mattress slouching against the wall, there is the wide open
doorway of the Portnoys’ apartment. There is draped light, ill-defined
curves; great flaps of ceiling paint the color of tea-stains hanging down
like forgotten party decorations.
Now, that day when she came out there were lights on in all the rooms,
and even though I was really concentrating on the actions of Mrs. Portnoy
I could see other details I can’t see now. For instance: oval picture frames
all down the hallway, in different sizes, just like my parents had outside
the den. You’d think with all those people to have pictures of so prominently
displayed, they would have had a visitor or two. Around the holidays, at
least. They seemed like nice enough old people. Nice enough to put up photos
of people who never came by, let’s put it like that.
And then out of murky light and smell comes Julius, carrying something.
A large cardboard box.
“If you’re sure you don’t want them,” he says, smiling lucky. “You don’t
want to keep a few, for sentimental reasons?”
Mrs. Portnoy follows him out to where he climbs a stair and turns, hitching
up the sagging box for a better grip. From where I sit, I can see exactly
why it’s such a heavy load. What Julius has there is an armful of the Portnoys’
old records, their collection of favorites. Island musicals and wartime
trombones and moody instrumentals that made up someone else’s memories.
I wouldn’t touch someone else’s memories. Don’t I have enough of my own?
All I can think is I’d better not be getting any of those under
my door, that’s all.
Mrs. Portnoy is smoothing the waistline of her wool skirt, sliding a
thumb back and forth along the inside. “I don’t really know.”
Julius shrugs, what do you say. Apparently nothing comes to him.
Believe it or not it’s Mrs. Portnoy who says that. Probably just to
fill the space with what’s supposed to be there.
A moment later, we are alone again.
It was like 2 minutes, maybe. Time seemed paralyzed.
I saw her come out, saying what I said. Saying, “Help, help, help.”
I looked behind her and saw towels strewn around down the hall. Mrs. Portnoy
stood facing me, thin sandy hair nearly frazzled off its curlers, eyelids
fluttering as if she was going to faint. Kind of like now, actually, I
mean the fluttering, only now she’s standing more loose and melting around
the shoulders. Not rigid and tipping back on her heels and then forward
again, and then back, like before. I’ve seen the look. I know
that face on my mother, the vacant eye and fuzzy hair and pilly robe of
a woman who’s suddenly alone, surrounded by the ashes of her life. It’s
a look I can’t get used to. It’s a look I don’t want to see. But she needed
help, Mrs. Portnoy, she was out there calling for it, and I wanted to.
I reached for the doorknob, and I reached for what seemed like a long time,
I stretched for it but felt nothing. Finally, she turned slowly and went
back in. From where I was, sitting with feet in unlaced boots, I heard
the deadbolt slide and click.
I waited there, watching. The siren lifted from the other sounds, and
Mrs. Portnoy is looking at the mattress. She
presses thumb and knuckle into her bottom lip. Outside a diesel bus guns
it though the intersection, but I don’t think she hears it. I see her eyes
move down, to the side, around, looking at the stain.
And then she glances doubtfully behind her at the stairs to the front
door. She puts a hand on the edge of her own bed and grips so I can see
arthritic joints go milky white, and she tugs at it. Knees bent inside
her skirt. The mattress just slumps further to the floor.
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.
Mrs. Portnoy is going to cry.
It’s not okay. She does cry, is crying and then turning away, and she
is gone. Like before, I hear the deadbolt turn. Behind the amber, TV blue
flashes silently, like always.
And then I open the door and I go out there.
Maybe Don Nordine couldn’t handle the job, but I do. I grab on tight,
bend for leverage and inch slowly backward into my apartment, pulling the
piece of junk in with me. The whole way, especially at the door to the
deck where I have to touch a lot more of that mattress than most people
could probably handle, I don’t think too much about Mr. Portnoy’s last
sleep on it, bleeding all night long. I try not to, anyway.
When I get it onto the deck, I drag it across the redwood to the far
end and begin lifting and pushing its lumpy bulk until it’s poised there
on the railing, drooping kind of half on either side. I catch my breath
in the swift breeze, and then give it a big flip. Down it goes. Bam. A
few bottles skip over cement. I lean over and see that I’ve hit the overflowing
dumpster damn near on center.
All of a sudden I want to stay out here forever. I sit down on the splintering
planks and lean against the railing. It is a dark and clear twilight, with
laughing voices in the street. So many people, right? Everywhere, people.
Coming and going, in and out. I light a clove and watch the smoke swoop
up making faces in small whips of wind.
Cara Stimpson is the author of Aggro Mist & Other Signs of Resistance, a novel about
underground politics and music, set in San Francisco. She lives in Oakland, California, where she
works as an archaeologist.