by Ben Unglesbee
Please notify us of any damage to the carpet, paint, tile, etc. in your apartment. This will help us prepare the unit for the next resident after you vacate on the 30th. NOTE: Alerting us of issues does not release you from liability for property damage.
Stony Brook Apts. Management
1. April 12th, 2009, is the last known date at which the garbage disposal worked properly. Today, and forevermore, turning it on creates a shrieking hell-sound that scrapes cells from the ear drums. I cannot say what has caused the malfunction; I have not inspected it. You see, my mother devoted several years and nearly a thousand of dollars to crafting a fear in me of getting my fingers and eyeballs shredded by a garbage disposal. Yes, both bodily constituents, though not necessarily at the same time. She destroyed over twenty grosses of bloodshot rubber eyeballs and ten grosses of severed plastic fingers, with red-polished nails, in various demonstrations throughout my childhood. She even subjected me to an ambitious public service film that she produced, directed and financed herself called “Eyeless, Thumbless Joe and the Garbage Disposal of Doom.” I was the star of the film, although I did not know it during production. I only knew that my mother doused my hand in liquefied lipstick and asked me to scream again and again while she videotaped me. I was a very obedient child; I didn’t question her at the time. After I saw the film, I assumed it would launch my career as a child actor, finally. But it never found a broader audience.
At Christmas dinner three years ago I asked my mother why she crusaded so fiercely to instill this phobia in me and she answered: “There are so many terrible things that can happen to children, and you simply can’t stop every one of them. So I put all my effort into preventing just this one thing, and I succeeded.” It was as proud as I have ever seen the woman.
So, I offer my best guess: The malfunction probably has something to do with the travel-sized can of shaving cream I once dropped down the sink.
2. The unit’s thermostat becomes unresponsive when set above 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Ted the maintenance guy is aware of this problem and has so far shown indifference. In fact, the issue has been a source of some acrimony between us. After the second time I notified him of the thermostat’s malfunctioning, he asked me why I needed it so warm in the first place. My response was more emotional than I think either of us expected. I accused Ted of encroaching on my 4th Amendment-implied sphere of privacy and compared him to the darker aspects of Benito Mussolini’s character. Still, what I said surely did not warrant such a defamatory response: “What? Does having it so warm remind you of your mommy’s womb, little baby?” Communication has been stilted and uncomfortable between us since.
3. The kitchen linoleum is slightly peeled at the boundary with the living room. As someone who spends a good deal of time hovering at the border between kitchen and living room, unable to commit myself to being in one room or the other, I’ve become distracted by the peeling linoleum. After my sweetheart left me last June, on the thin premise that she found someone she liked better, I’ve lost considerable chunks of my life in 15 to 30 minute episodes to staring at the fine curvature of fake tile. I imagine the peeled linoleum as a miniature half pipe ramp and myself as a tiny Tony Hawk. The long-term consequence of this recurring fantasy is a deep sadness over the realization that life’s sweetest, most mercurial glories can only be experienced by someone less than three centimeters tall and with righteous vert skills.
4. The fire sprinklers are outrageously hypersensitive. They have caused far more damage to the unit than they have prevented. Given the over-achieving sprinklers, it is ironic that the unit’s fire extinguisher is laughably ineffective. (And know that I would not say “laughably” if I had not actually laughed at the time. Several people in my life, unknown to each other, have described me as “tyrannically literal.” I take it as a compliment.)
Ted demonstrated his usual cantankerousness when he saw the water damage. He posed many questions about information I repeatedly told him was proprietary, between me and the chemical products company that contracts with me for technical communications. After some back and forth, I offered him a general explanation: I cannot write about the company’s products without understanding them. And, being a tactile learner, I cannot understand them without having used them for myself. Granted, I did not expect Ted to appreciate my devotion to the craft. Yet I still don’t see any good reason for his having gotten the fire marshal involved.
5. The situation in the bathtub compels a detailed explanation. In the six years of my lease, I have never once used up a bar of soap entirely. I suppose I never have in my life, but I didn’t notice this until I lived alone in this Efficiency Studio unit. There must have always been some other member of the household who either used up or disposed of the remaining soap. As a consequence, I never gave the nubbies so much as a passing thought. Whoever these Soap Nubbie Angels were, they performed their labor without thanks: the very definition of saintly, if my dictionary counts for anything. In a way, the tower of soap nubbies rising up from the corner of the bathtub was a tribute to those people in my life — siblings, roommates and lovers — who saved me from the Sisyphean degradation of trying to get clean with a slippery, dissipated little wisp of soap. (You should know that I hate the word “wisp” and hate myself for using it. It makes me think of an emaciated wasp. And that is why “wisp” is the perfect word for it, for even describing a soap nubbie is a debasing undertaking.)
Once the pile of nubbies reached about a foot in height, I started to have the recurring thought, “I should do something about that.” But, as I only had this thought in the shower, it wouldn’t have been practical to throw them away then and there with me all wet. And so I would forget about them until the next shower. For six years this cycle continued. It became like a game of Jenga in reverse: precarious construction. Well, the Jenga tower collapses every time you play the game and so did my soap nubbie tower. When this happened, I was overcome by my fight-or-flight instincts. I chose flight and ran from the apartment, with time to dress but not to dry. It was hours later before I found the courage to return — still wet and utterly miserable. When I arrived, the tub was essentially in its current state: a gray-blue primordial soup of soap and soap scum. The many dozens of soap nubbies floated to the top as though they were the dead victims of a contamination incident, as fish corpses rise out of an algae bloom. Only, of course, the nubbies were the perpetrators of this disaster.
The tub has never fully drained since that day, and may never again. The water level decreases just enough every day to keep from overflowing in a five-minute shower period, though I abstain from showering every second Wednesday to correct a slight imbalance between water input and drainage rate. Standing in the stale, soapy water has never bothered me, and I leave it to the next tenant to decide if it is suitable for his or her lifestyle.
6. Here, I’m caught trying to decide between two words: incident or experiment. I’d always considered the line between those two to be bold and clear, but I’m no longer so certain … of anything. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter which word I choose. The basic thread of the narrative would unravel the same way. It begins with dry ice and a hammer drill and ends in the complete obliteration of the bathroom’s door knob. Would Ted the maintenance guy’s life be any easier or harder, any more or less enlightened, if he had a lab report with a full list of control and experimental variables detailing the destruction of the door knob? No. An assured no. (However, I would of course be happy to furnish a copy of the report upon request.)
Ted, let it be known, made a big production out of telling me how much harder I was apparently making his life. Yet did he once stop to think about how my own life proceeded without a bathroom door knob? How would he like it if his most private actions were exposed to his guests? I bet he wouldn’t at all. And has he ever tried to explain to his sweetheart why he shaves his arms, that he has an acute and untreatable obsession with aerodynamics? Doubtful. Nor can he possibly have any idea what happens when such explanations fail to assuage her perturbation and tears, otherwise he would not have acted as he did. So I’ll tell both him and you what happens: She leaves, and she runs into the arms of a mangy theater student who smells, with his wine-breath and unwashed pants, like a hobo.
7. The medicine cabinet hinges creak. One night I found that I could work a sound out of those creaky hinges that approached something like music. In some of my loneliest hours, I played those hinges like a sad rusty steel guitar, a fine and sorrowful accompaniment to the Hank Williams lyrics I’ve been singing at nights since my sweetheart left me for that reprobate, Death-of-a-Salesman flunky.
Those chords provided solace, but no money. Not for lack of trying, I should note. Setting up a makeshift recording studio in the bathroom, I thought I had founded my true vocation, finally. I believed those creaking bathroom hinges would be the next ripe thing to transform mainstream musical tastes, as the electric guitar and beat machine before them. More wrong I’ve never been. Not even the miracle of Youtube could launch my one-man act into the spotlight. Moreover, listing my address so that people could mail their orders for my album did not produce the results I expected. Once again I underestimated the world’s cruelty. I received many things in the mail — some still living, some dead, some merely disgusting, but all of them the work of scatological minds — but not a single album order. And still, the packages come in the mail, which is why I have made the difficult decision to move on to a new apartment.
However I have no regrets about the endeavor. Even if the music had not changed others’ lives, as I hoped, it changed my own. It provided a soundtrack to a lonely life lived in this Efficiency Studio. And as any first-year film student knows, the soundtrack is 90 percent of a scene’s meaning.
On second thought, please leave the hinges unfixed. Consider them my gift to the next tenant.
I thank you for your continued patience and compassion.
by John Mitchel
July was hot and wet on the loading dock and I had a hangover. I leaned over the edge and let one go. It hit mostly grass and dribbled a bit on the pavement. Doesn’t matter which beer or how much it costs. The vomit always feels the same. 4 quick punches to the sternum, acid flushed out, then relief. The work was grinding into my head and the day was far from over.
Trucks came and went. I spent an hour unloading 6 pallets of paper and sending them down the conveyor belt. There isn’t much to it. One guy at the top unloads. Two guys at the bottom restack the boxes for the forklift. The truck driver stands and watches. Back when I was driving I always gave a hand at unloading. After hours in a truck a little movement was just right. Five years ago Fleck’s Books had a CB radio near the dock and I’d call in to let them know. I’d tell the guy in the sun if he should stand at attention or if he had time for a smoke. I knew a few of them and we’d talk. Then Fleck’s switched the supervisor to a cell phone and everybody quit talking.
I complain, but I’ve done worse things for money. A little bit of everything. I’ve worked as a janitor at a firm that made vaseline and sexual lubricants, night clerk at a rent-by-hour- motel, billboard repair and replacement, waiter, repossessed mattress stain inspector, hot dog vendor outside a shelter for battered women, fluorescent light salesman (door to door), and had made a few valiant attempts to help the Nigerian Royal Family. None of those panned out and I moved on. The history of it all lead to the only memorable job interview of my life.
“Now let’s take a look here, Mr. Johnson,” said Heinlein. “It says you used to drive a truck and then sort of bounced from job to job.”
I gave him a look before I answered. Heinlein is the sort of guy in every corporation. Nebulous title “Corporate Logistics Derivatives Analytical Supervisor,” and a Bubba Keg full of coffee. “I guess it was sort of a walkabout.”
“I’d like to ask a few questions. On page 2…also let me note that a single page would have been fine here…on page 2 it says “R and D for a Blow Up Doll Factory?”
“That was mostly to allow me to write off expenses.”
“Okay. Tell me about this entry,” he pointed at a spot on the paper that I couldn’t see behind his desk lamp. “Working at the oil change place up the street.” He took a swig of coffee. It sounded like a wet/dry vac with a clogged hose.
“Worked there a week. I guess it wasn’t for me.”
Another slurp. “So…what was wrong?”
“I guess it was the after hours crowd at the bar.”
Now he gave me a look. “So you don’t drink?”
“Not that. It’s just we’d all be there for a few hours and all anybody talked about was oil changes. “Yeah so this guy who wanted 5W-30 Penzoil and all we had was Mobil so I had to argue with him for over four hours about the various components of oil. Can you believe people think we are grinding up a dinosaur out back? That’s what people think right? I mean I don’t….”
“I think I get the idea, Mr. Johnson. So, from what I understand you were terminated for putting out a fire?”
“No bad fire puns?”
He slurp and gargled the coffee like Scope before pulling it down. “Not today.”
“Well, I worked at Stan’s Grocery and Used Electronics. I looked out the window and a cab was smoking with a couple trying to put it out. There’s nobody else around, so I grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall and run out.”
“Anyway, I get the flame put out and find out I’m canned.”
“Any reason given?”
“Removing company property from company premises.”
“Keep your amateur fireman activities minimal and you got a job.” He slurped again. It was a different sound. Maybe a victory slurp.
Working at Fleck’s is a valid job. It is valid in the way that hitting a speed bump too hard and hearing the frame scrap or watching an elderly man shovel his own snow is valid. It passes the time. Fleck’s is a dump and third tier at best. There are two campus owned shops and a couple of chains in town to supply students and other folks who enjoy branded office materials. Fleck’s has one leg up. Marketing. Jason, my direct manager I see once or twice a week came up with it. It was a great idea and got him to keep his dock manager salary. All management had to do was put a huge “Shop Local” banner on the side of the building. The follow up was to have all of the paper supplies unpacked and have the dock staff plaster “Made in Rossville, IN” stickers on them. Rossville lacks the warehouse space, the factory, and the baseline intelligence to produce office supplies. It is however, just far enough away and just useless enough that nobody would go there to check.
On the loading ramp and everywhere else the clocks slammed a hand on every minute and the day chewed 6 more hours out of my soul. Eight hours of unloading boxes by hand, trucking things on the dolly, dealing with managers, and scrubbing toilets because my time was paid for and janitors are pricey were trying to pour out of me in sweat. I was thirsty and half ready to walk upstairs and drop a two dollar bill on a bottle of bad water, but the clock hit 5 and I punched out.
The bus bench wasn’t too far from Fleck’s dock, but it was far enough away that the book store didn’t lean over it for shade. I set an alarm on my watch to snap me up when the bus was about to come then I settled in. I pulled Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame from my bag and thumbed open a page. I hadn’t read more than a line or two when I felt something stab my shoulder. I turned around. Next to me stood the dirtiest bum I’ve ever seen. He was black and bent over. He had to be a hundred years old and his clothes looked nearly Victorian. His shirt had been white once and his stained red floral tie was a proud double Windsor. His tan coat hung in wool threads around his body. Its pockets were bulging beyond capacity. A glimpse into the pocket nearest me: a spool of silvery wire, corks from expensive wines, dice made of ivory and carved by a tribesman, the bulb from my 8th grade math teacher’s overhead projector, a broken locket, half a model of an Apollo Lunar Lander, and a cobblestone stolen by a tourist. I looked at his hands. His nails had grown sharp and hooked like talons or fire hardened spear points.
“Got a square?” he asked before he was bent over by coughing.
“Got a square? A smoke? A Lucky Strike? A cigarette? One of those things that comes in a carton with Joe Camel on it?”
I reached into my pants pocket and pulled one from him. “You’re sure you want to smoke with that cough?”
He produced a dented trench lighter and got the smoke rolling. He coughed a few more times. “Don’t worry about the cough. Character defect. Seems human.” Then he pointed at the book. “That yours?”
“I never liked books,” he said. He coughed for a bit then. “People who read too much are full of crap,” he said. Then he laughed or he coughed or he fought things off for another breath.
“I just like to read sometimes. Makes the bus come faster,” I said.
“Well, kid,” he said, “give yourself some time for the crap to wash out so you’re not full of it.” He paused for a few seconds. “You look like a writer.”
“How does a guy look like a writer?”
“None of that. You’re a writer.”
He could tell I was a little off guard. “You’re reading at a bus stop and it isn’t a self help book, magazine, or Grisham novel. So hot shot, mister big time poet, Mister Kanye-West-of-Our-Time, Where’s the fan fare? Nobody want to read the “famous John Johnson” and his rhymes?”
“I don’t get fanfare..”
He took a swig of something dark from a greasy oil can. “Because you’re wasting your life?”
“Writing and working on the loading dock. Get a real job.”
“Thanks for the career advice.” I pulled out my notepad and marked a few ideas down in shorthand.
The bum howled with laughter and other other substances. “Kid,” he said, “you’re more full of crap than you know. Take some time to wash it out. Get some whiskey or a girlfriend.” As he turned to go, he handed me a 2 dollar bill “You’ll need that bottle of water. Be seein’, you.” I went to hand it back and he was gone like a diamond down a storm drain.
I got up from the bench and decided a walk would clear my head. With the 5 o’clock downtown madness it’s actually faster to walk than ride the bus. I just like buses. I always wondered if a bus driver is lonelier than an over the road
“Hey man,” somebody said.
Glad for a reason to stop I opened my eyes and looked around. About 10 feet down down a guy covered in tattoos and wearing a stained wife beater was struggling to load a huge, rusting grill into the back of a rusted green Ford F series from the 1960s. “Hey man,” he said again.
“Could you give me a hand with this?”
“Sure,” I stopped and tried to slow down my panting. Then I sized the grill up.
“My wife’s pregnant or she’d help. Gotta get out of here by 10 pm or the landlord is gonna sue. Eviction notice.”
A little grunt work and we had the thing in. It was really heavy and awkward. By the time we had it wrestled up onto the tailgate, I felt like we’d both need spinal fusions. He shook my hand and as I went to walk off he said “One more thing.”
“You got a light? I got mine packed somewhere.”
I pulled out a cheap black Bic and he took it. His hand snapped into a bush and pulled it back slowly. He had a jack rabbit by the ears and it hung without a protest. It’s eyes were still and glassy like toy marbles. The man took the cigarette lighter and snapped it alive beneath the rabbit. The rabbit locked eyes with me without fear. The man snapped the lighter again, but the rabbit wouldn’t burn.
He turned to me. “Lighter or the rabbit?”
“Which would you prefer, the lighter or the rabbit?” He handed me the lighter and launched the rabbit straight up in the air.
I was gone before it hit the ground.
Halfway home, I walked past the Speakeasy. It’s a dive that weathered prohibition by rebranding as a chocolate shop. Walking through the doorway it still looked like it hadn’t been mopped since the name change. I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a rye and coke and a tall glass of water.
“Should have bought that bottle of water and gone home.” Right next to me was the same bum. I handed him back his sweaty 2 dollar bill, but he wouldn’t take it. “You need it more than me, kid. Remember to take the propane tanks off first next time. It makes life easier.” He was smoking a cigar he had skewered onto a single claw on his left hand.
“What is your problem?”
“A bit rude, but I think you’re actually wondering what the gig is. I’d have hoped you’d have caught on by the middle of page 3 but you’re still not quite there.”
“It’ll work better if you don’t think about it too much,” he said. He drew hard on his cigar and coughed from pulling too fast or from being alive too long. “This whole loading dock worker/writer shtick. Go get a real job.” he said. “At least in the truck you could hide all those books. Plus, you’d never be around long enough for people to realize you’re a foil character.”
“I don’t drive truck any more.”
“Because you backed up over that guy when he was drunk and fell off the bookstore loading dock,” he said.
“That’s about enough!” I kicked the barstool out from under me and heard it echo in the empty bar. I was on my feet and pissed. I reached back to throw a straight left right into his jaw.
“You don’t want to do that,” he said.
He was right. I realized I was still sitting on the barstool and he was right.
“So you kill a guy and decide you’re the drunk on the loading dock now. Rabbit or the lighter?” He waited for a moment. “Stop getting burned, kid.”
Our bartender came back and filled my water. She looked at my full glass or rye disappointedly. I laid a 2 dollar bill on the counter and she brought me another drink without a word. I turned back to the bum. “Fine.” I tried to think about anything else. I couldn’t help but notice this blonde sitting at a table in the corner. She had that exhausted and worn look beautiful women get when they’ve been too many places, but don’t want to be alone. I smiled at her and she smiled back over the top of the book she was reading. It was like the first scene of a romantic movie except that it wasn’t and I was covered in sweat.
“She’s a nice girl. Real nice actually…her name is….”
“Would you stop that?” I asked the bum next to me.
“Alright,” he said. “It’s on you. Go talk to her. She’s your type.” He stretched like a community theater actor after working as a clown at a school carnival. “I think that last metaphor stretches things too far,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
He blew a huge puff of cigar smoke in my face. “I was actually talking to somebody else,” he replied. “Anyway, you didn’t even bother to interrupt this time. So why not talk to her?”
“Why don’t you talk to her?” I asked. I drained half my drink in one good splash.
He looked down at himself and clicked his talons on the bar. “That’s not my role,” he said. He sounded more bored than mysterious. It was the kind of tone you’d get out of somebody suicidal or really successful, condescending and half bitter.
“Like already knowing everything about her?”
“This is the moment where you lock eyes and you can’t tell if she’s creeped out or wants you to come by or the moment where you try to be impressive and trip over something.” He pulled a couple of high end cigars and cut them.
He pushed one my way with a good lighter and I got it going. “You have money for a $400 box of cigars yet you’re homeless?” I asked.
“$500 and this isn’t about me,” he said. “Did I ever say I was homeless?”
“But you’re dressed like that and bummed a smoke,” I said.
“I paid for that smoke, then disappeared like a diamond in a gutter or something to that effect. You’re the one who just took an expensive cigar for free, Mr. Famous poet. Stop ragging on hobos. Jesus was a hobo and I hear he was a pretty good guy all in all.”
“So you’re a magic hobo who knows everything, but hasn’t changed his clothes since the Civil War?”
“That’s the kind of the joke that tells me the guy typing this is out of ideas. Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, “you have a young lady to meet.”
By the time I turned back to him he was gone. I walked down and tapped the blonde on the shoulder. She looked up at me and I looked back. I said “Can I buy you a drink?”
Her fingernails were sharp and black. She wrapped them on the cover of You Get So Alone at Times that it Just Makes Sense. She gestured to a couple bottles of water sticking from the top of her purse. “It’s about time. Why don’t we take a walk?”