So that handbill was fixed firmly in my mind, and bombing down Olaf Avenue, I stood on the pedals and did not set my tender, saddle-sore ass down on the seat anymore than was absolutely necessary, gently mushing Edgar on the flats. From the East on Greenspan, Hoke on his Stingray wearing a totally gay knit tie. Boyle, his grizzled old Labrador, strained in the traces, as Hoke yelled, “Haw! Haw!” From the West on Volckes, Jenny Hinton on an old Japanese motorized scooter running on homemade biodiesel. She favored gabardine, and was allergic to pulldogs. We each gave the others a conspiratorial look, a nod, fell in line, yo-yoing with Jenny on her scooter as she observed all complete stops being on a motor vehicle with a special endorsement on her license, Hoke and Boyle and me and Edgar shooting right through in a cloud of blueblack two-stroke exhaust like daredevils. “Gee! Gee!” We yelled in unison when we got to Division, Jenny Hinton coming up the rear on her burner with the blinker on.
Inside the apartment there were beds and divans and sofas and ottomans (ottomen?) and a kind of yellow brown and orange carpet in the front rooms, then a brilliant white kitchen where the door was, and behind that, the biggest room, a master bedroom that ran the length of the building, but its walls were covered with some sort of interlocking cladding, tough vinyl. The others were somewhere else in the apartment, Charles with Hoke and Jenny, running through the legends and history and the expectations, the heresay and the facts, while I found an opening in the cladding, and behind it, pure sweet daylight, and stacked boxes with old clothes, climbing harnesses, shoes, terry cloth towels, spiral notepads with just a few pages left, covered with lists of things in ink and pencil, notes, doodles, the wire spiral itself clogged with the spines of torn out pages. Edgar and Boyle barked outside, along with some other pulldogs. Suddenly the place was quiet, completely quiet. A door opened somewhere. Charles went rushing past, his rushing-past sound was unmistakeable, unique, flat-footed but surprisingly agile.
I heard the residents. Strange voices, boisterous. I heard Charles greet them, trying to sound casual, an odd ass-covering note in his ass-covering words. They were coming down the hall to the Master Bedroom. “Someone has been in here fooling around,” said the voice of one of the residents. A young voice with an unkind edge. “Uh, I was looking for my camping mattress,” said the voice of Charles. “Didn’t you guys have that?” There was a skeptical silence, and then I heard a switch go tick and then some machinery moving deep inside the building somewhere, and the cladding began to fold and retract, some places it went into the recesses of the ceiling, in other places it went into the floor, in other places it just disappeared into itself, the heavy blue and white vinyl panels. I had no good place to hide. The boxes of old clothes and climbing gear were shelved on big modular shelving made out of chrome wire. I could just fit under the bottom shelf, but it offered me no cover. I curled into a fetal ball with just my face showing, my face with its black goggles and the red lenses, and I tried not to move at all. It reminded me of the time I hid under the bathroom sink and I could see through the latticework of the door, and I watched my sister go pee and tried desperately not to laugh or even breath, she would have killed me, and for the next three decades every time I went to my parents house I was amazed I had ever been (1) small enough to fit in there but (2) big enough to find it funny to secretly watch my sister go pee. Snickers, our cat, sat there looking at me though. Snickers knew I was in there. Snickers wanted to play, to have me catch the light of the sun on the crystal of my watch, and make a little spot of light wiggle on the floor, on the wall. But there is no sunshine in a cupboard under a sink.
I could see the residents now. Three of them. And the Master Bedroom was beautiful with the strange vinyl cladding gone. It was filled with natural daylight, the floors immaculate, the walls a little cobwebby but nothing you couldn’t tidy up with a feather duster or a long-reach canister vacuum cleaner. I stayed there, curled up, holding perfectly still, and no one saw me there hiding in plain sight, and they were just about to leave when one of them, a small white-skinned woman with straight black hair and a precise pant suit, walked directly over to me. “You aren’t fooling anyone,” she said. She turned and walked out and the rest of them were gone.
“How did you do it, Charles?” I asked.
“I told them the landlord had kicked us out. All of us. I even moved out with them. Put everything in liquor store boxes.”
“Do you feel guilty about it?” said Jenny Hinton.
“No. They were jerks. Middle management. Always looking out for themselves.”
“Didn’t they try to call the landlord to confirm?” I asked.
The number was written on a laminated sheet of mylar by the telephone. Over time, Charles had changed the number, one digit at a time. By the end, it was a number for a prepaid cellphone that he kept in his sock drawer. As expected, each of the former residents called and received a pre-recorded message that indicated the call had been directed to Gild Property Management, and then put them through an automated phone tree that yielded the info that their former lease had been discontinued for “unspecified violations” and that the premises was to be vacated by the first of the following month. Charles had gone through a lot of trouble to get us into the place. Ingenious.
It was six months of crazy group-living bliss, the windows thrown open to let the spring breezes run through the place like a friendly ghost, late nights out on the fire escape drinking Green Bottle beer. Charles was in fine form, what really turned out to be a sort of peak for him, given the decline that followed. There are images from that period. He might be stoned or drunk but he looks beatific, a sort of Roman senator, a local legislator in a bathrobe, Edgar and Boyle at his right hand and his left hand, even the pulldogs sort of acknowledging him to be the pack leader.
And a funny thing happened too, Jenny Hinton who took loads of anti-histamines to fight off the dog dander seemed to suddenly be cured of her allergy, and though she continued to drive her biodiesel scooter around – wasn’t comfortable with a pulldog setup, and still had her Special Variance and her methanol barrels and lye down in storage – she became a great lover of dogs, Boyle and Edgar in particular. One night we were stting together on a floral couch that Charles and Hoke had picked up somewhere, working together on repairs to the dogs’ little cordura booties, and I was lacing a seam with heavy floss, and I ran the needle right through the pad of my thumb. It didn’t hurt all that much – we’d been drinking Green Bottle – but Jenny Hinton grabbed my hand and pulled the needle all the way through, so the floss ran under the pad of my thumb, and then she put the whole thing in her mouth, my thumb, the trailing floss, the dangling booty hanging out of her thumb-plugged mouth, and the needle on the other end, hanging right between her small breasts, and it was like a dam had burst, and we were in like a race to get out of our clothes and making love with Boyle and Edgar circling on the carpet, lying down, pointedly and disgustedly looking away, yawn-curled tongues. We flailed and bucked and rocked for an hour, like animals, and after it was over, the needle was still there, stuck flat against her sternum, between those breasts that were shaped like champagne glasses. The floss and the bootie were gone. My thumb ached a little.
Hoke and Charles didn’t seem to mind that we’d paired up and moved in together into the Master Bedroom, and anyway it didn’t last much longer than that, because the landlord really did terminate the lease in actual fact by the time the leaves changed and the sun had channeled down to its equinox. The actual man came, not some Gild Property Management flunkie. We were surprised as hell. He turned out to be a guy we all recognized who worked in the marketing department, one of those evil dudes who were constantly holding our feet to the fire about shipping dates, selling software that was months away from being written and debugged and QA’ed, when games like Brothel Fire IV: Baghdad were barely even storyboarded yet. We hated them the way an army hates its advance scouts, hates depending on the people who don’t actually do any of the trench fighting, we know we’re all on the same team, sure, but why are these guys – not honestly the sharpest knife in the drawer most of the time – the ones who set our dates, and sell them, running around with their expense accounts, and then raise holy hell if anyone along the whole line loses a day or two, and the shipping date for Textile Factory Fire II: TriBeCa gets pushed? Anyway, our landlord was also named Charles. Ever afterward we distinguished between Apartment Charles and Marketing Charles, not Landlord Charles because Marketing Charles foreclosed on the Best Apartment in the City, it was going back to the bank, and the bank had no interest in property management, so it was out the door with all current leasees or sub-leasees. “It’s no longer mine,” said Marketing Charles, his palms out and standing in the doorway in a tee shirt that said “Hard.”
“So I could give a shit if you wanted to trash the place.” It seemed like he wanted us to trash it, and he stood there like he almost wanted to ask us for the keys so he could trash it, but it turned out the locks had already been changed while we were asleep drooling on our pillows, no one heard the dogs barking, and anyway we weren’t going to stand around and watch while our former landlord trashed the place using our stuff, maybe especially because he was in marketing, and the distrust was institutional, even if Marketing Charles did seem like a nice guy who was merely in over his head, and seemed to have a self-destructive impulse to swim to the bottom rather than to the top.
So I was rolling up the carpet, a cheapo facsimile of a Persian rug that Apartment Charles said he “found” that probably came from the former Rumpus Room at Hard Software, and I had to keep shooing Edgar and Boyle off of it, they just moved a few feet closer to the end and laid down again, tired as they were from the hauling we’d already done, shoving into our Burley trailers the suitcases and shoe boxes and then finally just a lot of loose stuff, wadded up clothes, pointless ATM receipts, a random volume of the Encylopedia Britannica, Hoke’s mint-condition Hungry Hungry Hippos. There was a knock on the door. I opened it, and the goth chick, former resident was standing there with a form of triplicate in her hand.
“Where’s Charles?” she said.
I wasn’t a turnip just fallen off the truck. “Charles?” I said. “The guy who used to live here?”
“You know damn well…” she said, leaving off the thought, and barging right in. Now I recognized her. She was from HR. Human resources. Only I think they recently changed their name to TM. Talent management. “Talent” was more disingenuously complimentary. “Management” was more pragmatically realistic. Now Edgar and Boyle and even Jenny's cat, George, started to growl at the goth chick in the black pant suit. No way she rode a bike here.
“You’re the fucker who was hiding in my room. My room,” she said. “Keep your animals away from me. I need to talk to that Motherfucker Charles.”
“He didn’t leave a forwarding—“
“SHUT UP. You’re in a shitheap of trouble too, my friend. Of the legal variety. Fraud. I advise you to shut your freaking piehole. ”
It was a word I hadn’t heard since my great granddad. Piehole. It made me giggle.
“Funny, huh?” said Goth Chick. “You’re in programming and you think you’re untouchable? You know how many kids could write Flash and Ajax around you so fast you wouldn’t know whether to wind your ass or scratch your watch? Any idea at all how many resumes and sample subroutines I look at every freaking day?” Now she was looking through the rooms. “If I ran Hard Software, you’d be parting out ThinkPads on the swingshift. Dork.”
Dork? I kept my trap shut. Goth Chick sputtered out and left like a hurricane.
What followed then should have been a mess of legal filings and counterfilings. It should have pitted different factions of the Hard Software legal department against each other. It should have amplified the hostilities between management and labor. It should have ended in front of a black-robed judge who would look down sadly and sagely at the entire courtroom, and say something like, “Is this what’s it’s come down to? Petty legal torts over a broken down old apartment in foreclosure?” And there should have been the usual bromides about how business was good for the community, that the jobs were great, and the tax base was sound, but then yes, you had to take some of the bad with the good, like pressure on the local housing inventory, interruption of some services now and again, longer lines at the Safeway, upward trajectories on the price of commodities from distant origins like bananas. That is what should have followed, but instead Goth Chick waited in her automobile parked out on Division, per the police reports, and when Charles came back and knocked on the window at the fireescape due to the locks being changed, there was a loud pop at the front door, and a cylinder of light crossed the room from where the lock had been, and then the knob turns and there’s the Goth Chick with some sort of a pistol with a tongue of blueblack smoke, and there’s a smell of cordite, again per the subsequent police reports. She sees Charles there, and the dogs too suprirsed and exhausted they just stare at her, and she lifts the pistol to aim it at him, and Charles hurdles the couch and sprints across the living room, strides over the rolled up carpet, and really just fucking tackles the Goth Chick hard, like holding nothing back, takes her out with his shoulder in her chest, and I see the porcelain skin of her neck as her black-haired head snaps back and Ka-Pow! The pistol goes off again and it’s freaking loud and even though its deafening I can hear almost a whipping sound or a ripping sound, but nothing seems to have happened and Charles has Goth Chick now by the throat on the kitchen floor and she’s trying to say something, and her beautiful white skin is turning bright red and Charles is making a telephone motion with his free hand as he sits squarely on her chest, like get me the phone, or you get the phone, or somebody call 911.
And then I turn and see that George, Jenny’s miniature cat that always had stayed the size of a big kitten, has been shot, right through the little barrel of his chest. He looks, seriously, like he’s just sleeping, but there is a clean black hole in the center of him, and a little puddle of ruby red blood under him, and his eyes are open, but it must have been instant. Is that the kind of person you want in Human Resources/Talent Management? A person who would shoot a harmless, sweet, friendly cat who actually did her business outside, needed no litterbox, was a joy to anyone who ever encountered her, even admitted cat-haters with serious allergic reactions, a cat without any obvious defects or deformities except being on the small side?
So after the police came and put the cuffs on the Goth Chick, making lots of jokes about medieval implements of torture and count Dracula and fear of the sun and garlic and so on, and she was fuming and Apartment Charles was frankly exhausted, crashed on the couch, and Edgar sat vigil over the tiny body of George with the clean hole through her little trout-colored chest, we couldn’t bear to tell Jenny Hinton, she was working a double shift on Watertower Paint Crew which was shipping in August, did not know how to break it to her, and I was digging in one of the closets for an old shoebox, I was certain that I’d seen one somewhere in there from when Charles had bought a pair of sandals last summer for our tubing trip down the Cannon River, the whole Watertower development team, minus sales, and then it had been a place where you put small change that was weighing down your pockets, and it seemed just about the size of George, if we carefully and gently curled her on herself, and it was just so heartbreaking that I went to the shelf by the phone and found one of Jenny’s scissors – they were “Shears,” she said, and for fabric only—for I intended to cut a small hank of George’s trout-colored hair as a sort of gesture or a remembrance, I don’t know, and when I knelt over George and reached out to snip some fur, the cat suddenly jumped up and chased a moth or a large fly, churning the air in front of her nose, and chasing it like a dominating pugilist right out the door to the balcony overlooking main street, and she jumped up on the banister and walked the length of it, the way she always loved to do it, and I could see a bright spot of blue sky through George’s chest, you could see through the cat where the bullet of the gun of the Goth Chick had gone. I wondered wherein the magic inhered: If we were, in fact, seeing evidence of a cat’s multiple lives – although to be fair, I personally had thought the old cliché was a metaphor for a cat’s uncanny ability to land on its feet, to repulse larger and more formidable foes, and that sort of thing. But now it was manifestly apparent that George the cat, our cat, Jenny Hinton’s cat, had survived a mortal wound, a gunshot, and we were seeing light through the thing. Or, on the other hand, maybe the bullet had been magic or charmed or whatever, and if the Goth Chick had succeeded in shooting Charles, it would have passed through him and left a similar non-life-threatening cylinder of light in his chest, and he like George would jump up and chase a moth or a firefly or what have you, and maybe balance on the railing of the balcony with his arms spread out, lightly stepping toe to toe.
After we were kicked out of the apartment, things began to fall apart. Charles took a job with a cut-rate competitor in Des Moines, Hoke got sent to the Austin branch to project manage some hush-hush new initiative. Jenny and I found a smaller place closer to campus, a nondescript little studio apartment in a building with Mansard gables and b&w bricks, hooks in the garage to hang up bikes and spare rims, studs in the summer, she got a tattoo of a threaded needle on her sternum, a very painful place for a tattoo I am given to understand. Hard Software plateaued, management said we’d “matured.” We didn’t see each other that much. Charles emailed us once in a while. He had a weirdly distorted idea of justice these days.
“I’m giving up coding,” he wrote. “Do you realize that there are people all over the city who falsify their addresses so that they can send their kids to better schools?” This incensed Charles, and he was going to become an investigator for the Des Moines school district. I emailed back. I remember the moment I hit send, because just then I saw George’s shadow move across the wallboard in a pool of window light. And in the middle of her shadow was a spot of light, her cylinder.
I typed: “Do you get to carry a gun?”
I was kidding.
We never heard back.
An Amusement & Diversion for The Genteel Cyclist. Daily.