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RichEisbrouch

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About RichEisbrouch

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  1. Chapter 8

    1999 At The Brink The most exciting thing that happened around the building all year was the bomb scare. (BOMB SCARE!) Unfortunately, I was in Richmond at the time, fending off Hurricane Floyd while overeating with my blood cousins (and doesn’t that sound appetizing?) So I had to piece together the news afterward. Seems around mid-evening Saturday, Chuck – not a building resident, just another armed neighborhood paranoid – noticed a pair of suitcases loitering in the cul-de-sac. (I’d say “on the grassy knoll” which has a certain conspiratorial elegance, but this tiny patch of Valley has been cement since Jimmy Hoffa ruled his turf.) The suitcases lurked in front of the building The Screaming Woman had just – finally – been evicted from. (She’d been two-AM howling all year, stalking her jalousie-windowed cage while battling her – possibly sequential – boyfriends on her cordless phone.) Everyone heard her. I’m surprised you didn’t. Most bouts ended with DON’T YOU FREAKIN’ DARE HANG UP ON ME!! I’M THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN YOU’VE EVER HAD!!! (“Freakin’” and “had” are my words. Now that I’ve resumed teaching in this age of Reign of Terror harassment suits, I’ve ethically cleansed my vocabulary.) Still, when Chuck saw the mysterious luggage sitting unattended, where anyone else might have figured “I should put that somewhere safe till the owner comes back,” Chuck zoomed BOMB! (Well, he is a member of the National Guard. And he does do voluntary sentry duty outside his building days and evenings – he’s otherwise unemployed after a double hernia operation he once described so graphically to me it could have been on an enemy. And he mainly roils about in camouflage fatigues, military cap, and lace-up reinforced boots.) Despite this GI Joe facade, he also told Franck – now in his 76th year and so bored since he retired he’ll listen to anyone – that had the Guard actually been called up for “That freakin’ Croatian thing” (automatic censor again) he would’ve instantly skipped to Canada. Still, Chuck’s a pretty good watchdog for an ex-pat Texan, and it’s not like he stands outside spying on our neighbors just because that’s what they’ve accused him of. He’s actually only smoking (possibly the main reason the woman he currently lives with refuses to marry him). (Possibly.) “She even made my daughter come out here when she was visiting. Just to light up! And she drove all the way from Dallas!” (Hard time for nicotine fiends.) Soon after spotting the luggage, Citizen Chuck summoned the cops, no doubt proactively thinking – in his too-many-X-Files way – this set of mismatched Samsonite might just be The Screaming Woman’s Revenge. (We later found out The Noisome Nuisance hadn’t been evicted after all. In a sentimental flourish, she merely named one of her multiple boyfriends sole co-dependant and moved to his lovely home in Woodland Hills.) Still, Chuck wasn’t the first to spy the potential explosives. That fell to Meg and Quinn – already slightly bombed themselves (‘cause when they go out to dinner and don’t have to drive, they “pre-drink” to save money on booze). And when Quinn’s sober-but-puckish boss picked them up, he hopped from his personalized Snap-On Tools van and pretended to bellhop the bags. Only Meg, afraid this might rile the rightful owner (on this shoot-‘em-up block) scurried their party off to their ritzy dinner – at a place where everybody knew their names and the waitresses wear no tops (I hang out with the creme de la flem). Despite Meg’s caution, when the officers arrived, another of our watchful neighbors – that’s why everyone knows our names – connected the luggage to Quinn and the Snap-On van (soon to be a retro band). “Were they planning a trip?” a patrolman asked a random passer-by – who just happened to be Meg ‘n’ Quinn’s neighbor, Rob (the architect turned computer technician). Rob knew Quinn ‘n’ Meg were only going out to dinner ‘cause he sometimes gets their leftovers (Meg has a kind heart and a way particular cat). Still, the cops wanted to talk with Quinn, who – of course – they couldn’t find. (And they somehow managed to miss his enormous Snap-On truck – alarmed in our driveway as our first line of riot defense – cleanly lettered with Quinn’s pager.) So after sniffing around the suitcases like righteous, if timid, hounds, these Enforcers of Law alerted their brother Bomb Squad. And those left-brained chemists, armed with sparkly flares and miles of Do Not Cross! tape, evacuated our building. Heck, (censored) they evacuated the entire neighborhood: Our building. The one next door. Chuck’s. Three across the street. Ninety-eight apartments total, skimpy by other standards, but maybe other people wouldn’t have been frantically stashing bongs as rescue arrived. Still, the Bomb Boys, meticulously sweeping door-to-door, also managed to overlook Franck (it was barely nine, but he was already sleeping). “Well, Edan,” – his Heidi-like granddaughter, only taller – “was visiting her no-good dad. And the Dodgers weren’t playing. And I’d already fed the rabbit.” (That’s not euphemistic – Franck actually house-sits Edan’s new baby bunny.) The dumb thing is the cops should have asked Franck – ‘cause he knew exactly what was in the bags. See his daughter Annie (the leggy Edan’s mother) collects things – and I don’t just mean ex-husbands. If she spots something on the street – something inert – that she can use (or simply sell) she’ll skarf it up faster than a bat’s tongue and stash it under the tarp-wrapped stack that used to be her parking space. (Often there’s a cat on the stack, too, but it’s never for sale.) (Darn.) And she nearly appropriated the suitcases Saturday on her way to Luke’s (her rock singer/stagehand boyfriend Franck can’t stand). “‘Cause he never even looks at Edan – he’s worse than Ed,” (Annie’s sweet-seeming-but-gambling-prone second ex). Annie boldly popped open the suitcases, cannily calculated their mock-vinyl worth, then shrugged ‘em off like a wedding vow and sped to her latest lover. But not before Franck, smoking on his recently annexed perch – the Mod banana seat of Cole and Summer’s little-used red Kawasaki parked out front – copped a peek. Which the cops never knew. Instead, they held everyone hostage at block’s end for the length of a TV movie, fruitlessly trying to make the Snap-On connection. Finally, they evacuated the Samsonite in a lead-lined Black Maria, boot-heeled their flares, furled their yellow tape, and vamoosed. The Snap-On Connection would have paid off, too, ‘cause – waiting to be ferried to dinner – Meg ‘n’ Quinn had seen the luggage being deposited. “It was that heavy, middle-aged woman next door,” Meg confided when I was mini-sleuthin’. “She and her husband were off to Vegas – I think they go a lot. She brought out the bags, and he must’ve forgotten to load ‘em.” Useful – though it still doesn’t explain why one of the suitcases was dead empty (something Franck later divulged). Was the gambling duo hoping to make a jingly slot machine kill, then haul home their booty for a private coin-wrapping fest? (Who can trust Swiss bank accounts these days?) Or were they merely smuggling cut-rate Pall Malls? (Does anyone... still smoke... Pall Malls?) Either way, it gave our block – ‘cept for the slumbering Franck – a nasty case of saturday night interruptus. Safer than occasional cop chases ending at our front door, rifles high and sirens blaring. Quieter than throbbing traffic ‘copters circling fresh rush hour carnage where the 101 rams the 405 (“Gonna shoot down one of those things some night,” Chuck vowed recently). But not nearly as much fun as The Screaming Woman: “YOU LIPOSUCKED LOSER!” she midnight-screamed just before she decamped. “PUMP IT UP AS BIG AS YOU LIKE! YOU’LL STILL NEVER KNOW WHERE TO STICK IT!” As for what everyone else has been up to – here’s the annual psychiatric-role call: Apartment 1: Cole and Summer replaced the Biblical, beige-coated pick-up truck they seemed to service each night by flashlight with a new(er) SUV – the choice of freeway-chasing Angelenos. But they still slam doors hard every six AM as Cole pulls out from behind piggy-back-parked Summer. There’s also rumor they may move to happening Redondo Beach. Only thing stopping them – besides Meg’s bet that they’re too mellow to pack – is sun ‘n’ surf is two hours away from their jobs. Still, they’re both natural blondes. Apartment 2: Yep, I’m happily back designing and teaching. Writing was and is fun, but it’s never paid the rent. As part of my slightly delayed 50th birthday celebration, I drove the perimeter of the United States for two months this spring to visit friends. Tom went with me, along with the dog whose name I stupidly will not speak. But I still came back. Which is why I fit in so comfortably with these loonies. Apartment 3: Steve continues to see the Malaysian mistress he swears is “Just a co-worker.” Though they never seem to co-work when his kids are around. After three years, he’s still living in a two-hundred square foot studio, mainly devoid of belongings. When a two-room apartment opened this winter, I asked if he wanted it. He drooled, but after tending to his daughters and his still not quite ex-wife, he’s hard put to buy candy. Apartment 4: Lindsay is going with an off-shore oil man she sees on a fourteen-day cycle (meaning she mainly smiles alternate Mondays). But she threatened, one more time – as predictably as cats in our crawlspace – to move out of the building this summer. Though her heart didn’t seem in it. And she still drives the slightly-crunched, fading green Toyota that past boyfriend # 3 damaged in a local bang-up. (He was the local bang-up). “It’s been two years, but I can’t afford to fix it,” she sighs. Good thing they didn’t get tattooed. Apartment 5: JB is inching ever closer to being a full-time, union-paying, high-class film animator. But he’s not there yet. Though he may get work on Toy Story 14. Apartment 6: Rob and Birgit were together again, briefly (six months, which is several LA lifetimes). But it turns out that though “We really love each other, and we’re great on the phone, and at the beach, and with other, well, you know, ‘stuff,’ we just can’t live together.” So she’s back in blonde Sweden, and he’s painting the red-haired French maids he dreams about. He’s also dating a red-haired beauty Meg ‘n’ Quinn have arbitrarily named Kate. (“‘Cause we’ve never actually been introduced.”) Maybe Rob hesitates ‘cause he was seeing Kate between splinters of his marriage to Birgit. (Though when Birgit came back, Kate took off with another guy.) Now while Kate’s still seeing that guy, she’s also seeing Rob. (Censory overload.) This may all juggle better in Rob’s new house – with fewer neighbors around to speculate. But his simply buying a house is the start of the end game for many of us here. We all knew the bridge would eventually toll. We just wouldn’t bet who’d flee first. Apartment 7: Odds were on Meg ‘n’ Quinn, who are becoming Snap-On trillionaires and are already home loan-approved. (As they hoard toward that oh-so-important-interest-saving down payment, they’ve bought a small boat and have taken up fishing.) “Next, golf,” I kidded Quinn one afternoon. He laughed: “I’ve been playing that since I was ten.” (Meaning the suburban re-metamorphosis hasn’t as far to go.) His once shoulder-length Rock tangle continues to be an ever-blonder buzz cut. Lasering his body art will probably coincide with his ‘n’ Meg’s first kid. Though this is California, so there’s always that still small anarchistic hope. (Meg, by the way, is a redhead this year – though hopefully not the one Rob dreams about. Quinn’s not that easy.) Apartment 8 and New! this year: Samantha’s in school and changes part-time jobs about as often as Meg changes hair color. But Samantha’s boyfriend, Adam, is presently out-of-work, too, so that gives them lots to talk about, when they’re not scanning the Want Ads or she’s studying. Adam’s unfortunately allergic to cats, though Samantha has two, so he tends to vacuum when he visits (he otherwise lives with his parents; did I mention how young these tykes are?) Cleanliness is praiseworthy, though not a roaring Hoover at ten PM, no matter how impatient your libido (as Marie – from just below – tried to point out). After uncharacteristically hammering on Samantha’s door one night, Marie blurted – in her limited, but surprisingly fierce English – “The Boy Sleeps!” Unaware The Boy was Marie’s nine-year-old son Ricardo – and too horny for coherence – Adam simply slammed the door. Now we have a small war going. Which would be far worse if either Adam or Marie were verbal. Apartment 9: Annie is still seeing Luke-the-stagehand much to her father Franck’s displeasure. Her daughter Edan doesn’t seem to like Luke either, but then a number of people don’t like Edan. (That’ll get me killed if Franck, the doting grandpere, reads this.) Still, Annie, through laudable hard work, has been steadily promoted at Ralph’s (a local supermarket) and has been promised the Night Manager position at her own store come January. To prepare, she seems to be upgrading her life, and Luke – attentive or otherwise – may soon be swapped for a corporate model. Plus, Annie, Franck, and Edan may also join the Moorpark migration as Edan – despite her height (she’s currently taller than I was at ten) – was purposely kept back a grade this year so she wouldn’t have to be bussed to school. Come summer, the trio may go wherever Annie’s career leads. Apartment 10: Isabelle is still whining. Still. Whining. (Did I mention Whining?) That may be why her roommate and fellow nanny, Marie, so rarely talks. In contrast, Isabelle speaks extremely well: every so often, there’s an articulate message on my machine beginning, “Richard, this is Isabelle from Apartment 10,” (as opposed to the many other Isabelles in my life). The complaint is usually minor – maybe a dripping faucet – but she always manages to merge that with the facts that she’s an immigrant, a woman, underpaid, and unmarried-so-presumably unprotected (this woman is not unprotected). I often wish Madeline Albright were the manager here. Apartment 11: Korki is now a Full-Fledged Police Academy Trainee and has enough well-oiled guns under her bed to rout the Israeli fleet. She also – still – tends those three little dogs on weekends. (“PEANUT! DID YOU DO THAT?!? BAD, BAD, PEANUT!”) Come the end of her year-long training, Korki will be permanently assigned Somewhere Else – outside LA County is all she’s been cryptically told. So she’ll probably be packing as well. Meanwhile, between her arsenal and the barricade of Quinn’s truck, we all sleep peacefully. Apartment 12: Kristen has finally – gratefully – finished her two-year slave internship and is now a card-carrying (I actually touched it) member of The Directors Guild of America. (Oooooh.) This also means she now makes lots of money working on stupidity and no longer has to subsist on what she’s reimbursed for gas. The prediction is she’ll also move – to somewhere slicker, with, say, uninterrupted hot water. Though who knows why. Even when she’s outearning Brad Pitt’s taxes, she’ll still have to work sixteen-hour days, five days a week, exhaustedly crashing on weekends. She could easily live in her car. Apartment 13: Franck just keeps rollin’ along. And smoking, though cigarettes have topped three bucks a pack. He thought about finally quitting, then figured Why? (He’s nearing four score.) Meanwhile, in his millionaire way, he economizes by pulling junk mail fliers from the trash, clipping coupons, then buying Costco TV dinners, two-dozen-to-the-crate. I mean, when I’m not at a restaurant with Tom, I make the same salad every night. But at least it’s not cryogenic. Apartment 14, and also New!: Anthony had his Merry Widow mom co-sign his lease ‘cause he’d kinda ruined his credit (possibly doing something shady, though we don’t know what – he seems like a nice-enough guy). Still, things must be improving financially ‘cause he just bought a new SUV – red, maybe to compensate for his matching, thinning hair – and he starts filming an independent movie this winter. Hopefully, he won’t follow an earlier, short-staying former resident of this same apartment and make the movie right in his bedroom. As hopefully, his actors will wear clothes. Finally, once again, the building has new owners – the fifth set in nine years if you count the bank after the ‘94 default. But where others were benign, disorganized, or merely distant, this pair is Absolut Amateurs. “We’re glad to get an old place this time,” said the wife of the owner-couple the first time she materialized. “Our other building’s new and so badly constructed it’s always falling apart.” I tried – gently – to point out, while sidestepping cracks, holes, and ruptures in the stairwells, that this forty-year-old caddyshack also needs constant repair. But she seems to be a romantic, fond of the swaying palms and the climbing jasmine that’s finally returned to the courtyard railings and down-spouts. Which, ultimately, means the time has come, the Walrus whinnied, to get the hell out of Dodge – that’s “heck out” if I say it in front of a class. (I also find myself muttering “Ish” a lot, an affectation I picked up from a long-ago grad school friend but only lately have realized is an abridged anagram for defecation.) For months now, I’ve had my vaudeville exit plotted. But – like Lindsay – I just don’t seem able to sing it. Soon.
  2. Chapter 7

    1998 At Large After last year’s short story, I’ll slip back to a more trackable roll-calling. People wanted to know what was happening with the rest of the group. Apartment 1: Summer and Cole are loners. (Cole’s a guy.) When they moved in – replacing Tim and Cyndi – they were friends of Meg and Quinn in Apartment 8. In fact, Meg said she’d found their last three apartments. “They’re not so good at that sort of, you know, ‘social’ stuff.” But now the two couples aren’t speaking. “He’s gotten too paranoid,” shrugs Quinn. Define “too.” Well, Cole may be Cole’s actual first name, but his last name’s fiction. “We had to do something to fix his credit,” Quinn said, grinning. And this summer – during a heat wave when you couldn’t pay an air conditioner repairman to appear – our landlord amazingly found one to do maintenance. I posted a notice asking anyone who had problems with a serviceman being in their apartment to let me know. This is still LA, home of the casually-carried .45. The next morning, there was a scribbled note on the door of Apartment 1, saying “Air conditioner seems fine.” But it didn’t scream, “DON’T GO IN!” so we did. Good thing, too: after twenty-five-years, the machine was clogged with lint and huffing along with a derelict filter. Also, after three weeks of 100-plus days, with air conditioners steaming uninterrupted, this one was about to blow. The service guy vacuumed it shiny, then blessed it with a virgin filter, and I put a note on the door telling Cole and Summer what we’d done. That evening, Franck – Apartment 13 – was sitting on the steps as usual, smoking, when he pointed toward the small bulletin board over our mailboxes and said, “That’s crap!” “What?” I asked. “Crap” describes a lot of things in LA. “That note!” He pointed again, and I went to look. On the bulletin board was a mini-manifesto – unsigned, but clearly from Cole – protesting a manager “Too dumb to read a sign obviously stuck right on our door!” Ending with, “When are we all gonna get keys to Rich’s place?” So I knocked on Cole’s door to apologize for the misunderstanding, explaining how lucky it was that we’d serviced their air conditioner. Especially because Meg and Quinn’s had burst into blue smoke just the week before, and if that had happened while Cole and Summer were at work, we might have lost the building. Cole’s reply: “I didn’t smell smoke.” I tried another way, gently reminding him that I wasn’t really the manager, just a volunteer who did the job, unpaid, as a favor for other people in the building – people who’d specifically asked me to. Cole: “Well, if you’re not the manager, how come you got keys?” I volleyed this carefully: “Remember the time someone left beans cooking, then went bowling.” “Yeah,” Cole admitted, laughing. “We had to break a window. It stunk everywhere!” “That’s why I now have keys.” Cole: “Then we should all have ‘em. What if you’re not home?” I pointed out that when we tried communally-stashed spare keys, one young, adventuresome-if-irresponsible, couple was lifting the keys then dancing naked in all our apartments. Also fucking in our beds. That curled Cole’s isolationist lip. Though he still wouldn’t back down. “What would it take to accept my apology?” I finally kidded him. He verbally poked at me for another ten minutes, jumping me through his Oliver Stone-X-Files-doomsday-home-invasion-conspiracy scenarios, until Summer announced, “Dinner’s ready.” Then Cole rocketed off like a good li’l boy, to eat pizza in front of Cops. Apartment 2: Still me. Above Summer and Cole, which is why I have to stay especially friendly with them. As with Cyndi, TV is their night light, and just a tweak of extra volume through our veneer floors would turn me into one of the unslept. Overall, it’s been a great year, though not ending quite as I’d hoped. I did a novel version of these letters, hoping to attract an agent. But even my friends said: “Too many characters. Too episodic.” So I wrote another mystery novel, trying – one more time – to teach myself to plot. Got six dozen rejections just on the inquiry letter, though two agents offered me consistent, terrific advice. I did rewrites till it turned out that I just don’t like killing people, even on paper. And it’s not like I refuse to sell out – you’re talking to a guy who did six years on Wheel Of Whats-it. But I basically write light stuff. I’m no literary Dr. Kevorkian. And I never had the tools to compete with John Updike on the high ground. So I’ll try something else featherweight, and if that doesn’t work out, I’ll go back to design jobs. Real soon. Honest. Right after New Year’s. Before Spring. Definitely before summer. Apartment 3: If you remember, Steve has an ex-wife – quasi-ex. They both want out, but – between them – can’t really afford to whisper the word “lawyer.” He also has two, rapidly developing daughters, who visit alternate weekends with their loving hands out. Plus a pretty Malaysian girlfriend who turns up regularly after work, for sex ‘n’ stuff. (The “stuff” must involve garlic because a whiff of that frequently oozes from under his door.) Steve has a seemingly lucrative data-tracking job, but his quasi-wife freelances and is often out of steady work. And though they moved to California two years ago, she’s still living in her sister and brother-in-law’s guest room and partly depending on Steve’s child support. Now Steve’s a Virginia gentleman, who’d rather keep his kids in Play Stations and Furbies than pay additional rent – which is why he hangs onto his studio. He also hasn’t had a home phone since Bell was a boy, and he gave up his car, favoring the bus. He works just over a mile away, so he walks a lot, too. Great legs, though maybe he wears shorts so often because he can’t afford pants. Still, with Christmas here, and Steve’s holiday bills probably stacking like F-16s over Baghdad, how many nanoseconds do you think it’s gonna take till I open my door one morning and find him naked, drooling, and nuts? Apartment 4: Lindsay’s given notice. Again. Since her hair’s too fine to color and too slow-growing to cut, and since her secretarial job doesn’t really pay enough to be wantonly frivolous, and since every time she gets a cat – or a new guy – they don’t last any longer than a journalist’s perspective, when she really “needs a change,” she gives notice. Then, a few months later, without so much as an “Oh, didn’t I tell you? – I couldn’t find anything,” she gives notice again. (In her mind, I guess, she knows she’s told us.) If she’s too-recently given notice and still needs an change, she calls for a plumber. Sometimes multiple plumbers: one for the kitchen sink and one for the toilet. But they never find anything. So each time she calls – even with the seventy-five buck visit being paid by our landlord – they’re a little less eager to come. As are her boyfriends. But don’t get me wrong: Lindsay’s my friend – she always gives me great homemade fudge for the holidays. And she’s quiet. What more could I ask? Apartment 5: JB makes beer. JB bakes bread. All in his apartment. He has an extra refrigerator in his dining room, too, just for fermentation. And he bakes faux English muffins, though nothing like Martha Stewart’s. These are masculine. Scorched. When there’s finally a killer quake, we all assume JB’ll whip out a generator from his store of camping equipment, then selflessly feed us – plus keep us giddily sloshed. Till the rescue Marines come marching up Moorpark Street. Apartment 6: BIRGIT IS BACK! And you can’t even remember who she is. Why Birgit is the Swedish beauty! Now, you remember: Rob’s wife. (Not Craig’s. That was the malevolent Joan Crawford – okay, technically, Rosalind Russell, remade with Crawford.) Anyway, one day Rob was up on the balcony, chatting on his cell phone, and the next he was winging off to Stockholm to reclaim his not-quite-divorced-bride. They could afford a lawyer and had actually started proceedings, but, just, kinda, well, you know, forgot. So she came back, and Bobby – Rob’s twice-and-we-hope-not-future-roommate – moved to an apartment near his mother and girlfriend. (That’s two separate women, just to clarify.) Rob and Birgit plan to move, too. “We want a fresh start,” and carpet cleaning alone won’t do it. To be helpful, when Bobby left, he also took the dog. (“Rob never had time to walk him.”) Birgit also recently got her driver’s license. “I could drive in Sweden, but cars and gas are so expensive, hardly anyone does.” (While recently visiting, Rob scandalized his in-laws by accidentally filling their tank. Most people buy gas a demi-liter at a time.) I’ve asked when they’re thinking to go, but they can’t be sure. “We’re looking for one of those government defaults – with a pool.” Rob’s given up studying architecture and has settled in as a computer tech, building a career where Bill Gates fumbles. So they should be financially set. Soon there’ll be little Robs and little Birgits – the wired and the beautiful inherit the earth. Apartment 7: While everyone was focused elsewhere, Jonathan graduated from the University of Judiasm, married his girlfriend, and moved out. Soon after, Avigayil (av-ee-gay-uhl) and Yair (yah-ear), another pair of Israelis – Yair being the guy – moved in. Also, an untranslatably-named, probably under three-year-old, piano-throttling kid. They’re Israeli – even the piano, which was shipped. Yair’s an entrepreneur, currently working one job during the day and nurturing a pair of budding businesses evenings and weekends. Avigayil works, too, though she’s pregnant with another probably soon-to-be-untranslatably-named bouncer – or maybe they just mumble and their kid’s named John. And Avigayil smokes. I keep wanting to say, “Hey, in LA, we’re not allowed to smoke in restaurants and wombs.” But that’s probably being nouveau Californian. Actually, I’m fudging a bit: Avigayil and Yair moved out in mid-October, to a place with central air. You’d think, after being raised in the desert, they’d be used to inhaling grit. But maybe they’re just star-struck. Their new home abuts the pre-Rocky digs of Sly Stallone. Apartment 8: Meg and Quinn have lived in Apartment 8 since just after the earthquake, but – when Avigayil and Yair left – they traded up for the two-bedroom Apartment 7. Actually, they were planning to move to Prescott, Arizona, and “Buy a nice piece of land,” Quinn drawls, settin’ wide his newly acquired boots. “Build a house, too. Raise kids.” “Not just yet,” Meg hedges, and Quinn recoils. “Hey, I’m thirty now. How long you think I’m gonna be able to keep it up?” Meg merely smiles. You can get away with that when you’re wearing a Union Jack bikini. Still, just as they were getting the Prescott News bi-weekly to hunt long-distance for jobs (Prescott, by the way, is pronounced “press-kit,” perhaps having been founded by a lost band of PR reps.) Just when Quinn was about to land the perfect bartending gig, he tripped across a local Snap-On Tools franchise, which was seriously underperforming. Now try to remember this: until last spring, Quinn sported shoulder-length, shaggy blond hair, mutton-chops, a handlebar, mustache, and a pair of thoroughly tattooed arms. Now, he’s clean-cut as a McDonaldite and always wears his sleeves long. And we have a Snap-On Tools truck big as the Ponderosa parked in our front drive. It does drop the property values yet another notch, but as Meg pointed out this summer by the pool – Quinn was Olympic cannonballing off the carport – “Didn’t you know that Moorpark spelled backward is Kraproom?” Apartment 9: Ed, Annie’s second husband, is almost permanently gone, assuming he was ever really here to start with. He still occasionally appears, like Bluebeard’s ghost, to take Annie out to dinner with Edan, who it now appears is her daughter by her first marriage. Ed, at least, is presentably bland. Annie’s first husband – who we previously didn’t know existed – is six-eight and weighs over three-hundred pounds. It explains where Edan gets her height. “I thought Ed and Annie named Edan after themselves,” I mentioned to Franck one afternoon. “How could they do that if Ed isn’t Edan’s father?” Franck stubbed out his latest cigarette and explained. “Annie hated Edan’s original name after the divorce. Her first husband had picked it. So since Edan was still a baby and wouldn’t remember anyway, they renamed her.” “Must have been a quick remarriage,” I tallied. “Like father, like daughter,” Franck said, shrugging it off. Despite her height, and the fact Edan looks nearer sixteen at nine, fortunately, she hasn’t discovered sex. She mainly busies herself whomping wiffle balls off courtyard windows and SuperSoaking innocents – if there are any left in LA. Franck, who lives surrounded by Franklin Mint mini-castles and faithfully attends the heiress Edan, doesn’t seem to mind Ed’s uprooting. He even gave his second ex-son-in-law his collector-era Datsun to speed him away. Though, recently, he seemed pissed because Ed ditched that car and is now renting a five-hundred-a-month, this’ll-get-you-laid, slick red pick-up truck. Still, Franck has bigger things to bash. “How’s Annie’s new job?” I asked the other day. She’s quit bagging groceries and assembling rhinestone earrings on her dining table and is now full-time managing the meat department at Ralph’s. In answer, Franck grumbled, “He shouldn’t be sleeping with a married woman. Even if she is throwing herself at him.” “Who?” I asked. “Ed?” It hardly seemed to matter, since he and Annie were practically divorced. “Not Ed,” Franck rumbled. “Luke!” Luke was Annie’s latest, a formerly scraggly-haired, cement-truck-driving, rock guitarist, now clean-cut-as-Quinn and working as a TV stagehand through his dad’s union contacts. “Luke’s sleeping around on Annie?” I asked, surprised. The few times I’d met him, he’d seemed like a decent guy. “No!” Franck rebuked. “Luke’s sleeping with Annie! She’s the married woman!” Franck’s gotten real cranky since turning 75. Apartment 10: Isabelle, Marie, and the kid: two mainly quiet nannies and a Latino Gary Coleman. But though they say little, they have a strong moral effect: when Edan briefly adopted a Chihuahua this summer, she impulsively named it Spic – because it was Mexican, see? – Franck quickly re-christened it Speck. Other than that, Isabelle and Marie are a silent presence, partly because Marie still prefers not to speak English. Though after four years of living and working in the US, she certainly understands it. But if I have to communicate something complicated to her, like, recently, “There’s dead possum in your flower bed,” – I get her son, Ricardo, to translate. Mostly, I wait till Isabelle comes home, though she’s not the easiest person to talk with, even when you both know the words. Lately, she tends to lurk in the darkened laundry room, I guess for a shred of privacy. “We do have electricity,” I tried to joke, after I’d gone to check a wash, and she popped out, scaring the bleach out of me. “I like it this way,” she insists. Apartment 11: Two years ago, when Korki moved in, she was a personal trainer, finishing her Master’s. Then she was a high school gym teacher. Now, she’s applying to become a cop. She once had the quietest Labrador you’ve never seen. Sadly, he was an old Lab and recently died. Now, she acquired – at least on weekends – three yapping, crapping toy poodles – well, one’s another stunted breed, but if you think I’m gonna learn dog species, you’d also bet I’d vote for the younger George Bush. (And when is his mother gonna learn to dress? That striped, bean bag thing she just wore in Time magazine could have been P. T. Barnum’s back-up tent.) One of the pets Korki dogsits for is named Sadie, one’s Peanut, and the third must actually be trained because she never shrills its name. (It’s Peaches, by the way, and she has her own hand-knit mohair coat.) As diligent as Korki is, she also “forgets” to clean up after yon pups. (Did I sound convincingly animal loving? When they appear in squadrons, I sometimes hate them all.) Last Friday afternoon, Korki was shepherding the teeny terrors, unleashed, on the short trek from her car to her apartment – where she weekly shaves the wee buckaroos with a whiny electric trimmer at hours even the rudest frat boy wouldn’t mix a Margarita. (I guess she figures that if she closes the blinds, the neighbors can’t hear). As I passed the dogs, I asked pleasantly, “Are you planning to clean this up?” (“This” shall remain undefined, as my friends tell me their kids now read these letters.) “Clean what?” Korki blinked innocently, so I pointed toward the pottied sidewalk. “My dogs didn’t do that!” she insisted. “Kork,” I eased, “the gardeners five minutes ago. They just washed and blow-dried the courtyard. It was spotless.” “It wasn’t my dogs,” she flipped, trailing tails into her apartment. She’s gonna be some cop. Apartment 12: Here’s a math problem. If Kristen’s a Second Assistant Director trainee for the mega-competitive Directors Guild of America program, and if she works eighteen-hour days, five-days-a-week, for two uninterrupted years, blindly sleeping through weekends so she can creep pre-dawn to some new set each Monday, and she never has a moment even to consider throwing out anything she inadvertently pack-rats – like crew gifts, Japanese take-out, and the inevitable 24-hour Ralph’s pasta – how much do you think she’ll accumulate before the things that go bump under her sink claw her throat out some midnight? Apartment 13: Franck finally retired. Good thing, too, since he’s 900-years-old and used to sit under bridges harassing trolls. “I did it!” he laughed, after consecutively-canceling three summers’ worth of scheduled trips to Oahu with Annie and Edan because of last-minute film dubbing. “This time, they’re not talking me out of it. Not with raises. Not stock options. Not even three-for-one splits. I’m just gonna sit on my couch and watch the Dodgers.” Fortunately, he’s not a basketball fan. Also, occasionally, he flies to Las Vegas, though he too-quickly crapped out in this year’s Midsummer Blackjack Fest. “I was gonna stay for five days,” he said. “Had the room comped and everything.” As a previous Big Winner, he automatically rates luxuries without asking. “But I folded the first afternoon. Had the unluckiest cards.” “You could still have spent the weekend,” I suggested. “Just relaxed.” “I thought about that,” he admitted. “But what’s there in Las Vegas I can’t see here?” Beautiful, half-naked women, strutting down steps? “Besides,” he sighed, “I didn’t have it in me this year.” He paused to light one of the now merely dozen cigarettes he rations himself each day. Then he repeats his mantra: “I just want to live to see Edan start college.” If she’s as bright as she is screechy, she might be able to skip a grade or two, but that still puts high school graduation seven years off. And though Franck had a grandmother “in the old country” who “made it past 100 while still managing her own farm,” I doubt he’ll stretch that far. He’s beginning to remind me of my Aunt Min in her withering years: one eye, one breast, one lung, one kidney, and forget about teeth, uterus, or ovaries. Even her husband, Sam, died with only one leg, courtesy of diabetes. But Franck could surprise me. “On my seventh birthday,” he said, “I thought about what a wonderful party they were gonna have in the year 2000, and how I wanted to be there. Now I almost am.” For comparison, on my seventh birthday, I thought about how much I wanted a coonskin cap. But that’s why Franck speaks multiple languages and is a millionaire. Maybe on his hundredth birthday, he’ll still be sitting on the steps smoking, and I’ll still be hacking out these letters. Excuse me. Gotta go kill myself now. Apartment 14: Noy and Arieh (noy and ah-ree). “It’s Noya,” she corrects, despite what the landlord told me. “Noy,” she continues, “is an old woman’s name.” My name site – my new writer’s toy that replaced various aging phone books – says Noy means “beauty,” but adding one little vowel ups the stakes to “divine beauty.” I guess it’s a kind of Israeli vanity plate. And Arieh means “lion,” suitable for a hardy man raised on a kibbutz, perhaps overbuilt to withstand nightly bombings. Here, things in their apartment constantly self-destruct. Doors throw themselves off hinges. Garbage disposals pop like supernovas. Smoke detectors scream without a wisp of smoke. Way-too-personal items clog bathroom drains. Even newly-installed air conditioners spit oil and flame, though not – miracle of miracles – for eight days. And it’s not Hasidic poltergeists. After all, this is one, ordinary couple – they haven’t shipped the guilt of the Bible across the Mediterranean. Still, I’m finally thinking of buying – if you simply purchase these things without an exorcist – one of those religious doohickeys you nail to the side of your door. You know, a bit of consecrated goatskin – don’t ask which part – sanctified by rabbis, and Hebraically-inscribed. I believe the prayer goes: “ Bless this hovel, Lord we pray. Make it safe till we get the hell out.”
  3. Chapter 6

    1997 The Ballad Of Cyndi And Tim Cyndi and Tim went out in a racket of bullets. Well, not exactly. But they coulda. Cyndi kicked Tim out again shortly after New Year’s. She was working at yet one more of the seemingly infinite reception jobs available in LA, land of the temp, home of the slave. Tim hadn’t worked since he quit delivering Humvees, possibly soon after those now-trendy war-flotsam started being manufactured. There had been the usual yowls from below and crashings of cheap black leather furniture as I sat on my own quaking couch. “It’s that Post-Christmas Funk,” sang Lindsay, one of our more astrologically-twisted neighbors, updating “Ol’ Debil Moon.” “No, it’s not,” Cyndi countered. “He’s a louse. He’s a rat. He’s a druggie. He’s a jerk. He’s a moron. He’s a creep. He’s a...” I interrupted her Reader’s Digest vocabulary expansion to ask if there were anything I could do. “Kill him,” she said. “But that would be too easy. Lock him up, and let him scream off the drugs. That might hurt.” She grinned. “But he’s been off drugs before and always goes back, so that can’t hurt enough. I’d say kick in his balls, but you can’t really hurt him sexually, ‘cause he doesn’t really do much sexually, not that there ever was much down there to do much with. Still, as often as he’s flopped on the couch with his hand down his jeans, you’d think he was Tom Cruise in that Risky Something movie – if those rumors in the tabloids aren’t true. I mean the one thing you can say about Tim is he really loved me when he really loved me, which is probably more than you can say about Tom Cruise and his so-called wives.” Talking – or listening – to Cyndi is always educational, in a dribbly sort of Rosie O’Donnell way. She looks a bit like that Ring Ding talk show hostess, too, though younger – Cyndi’s barely cracked twenty. Tim looks thirteen, even after the frequent supposed self-and medicinal-abuse, though he’s in his early thirties. He has that slight-and-famished look of an upcoming Johnny Depp who might just swerve toward working Sunset Boulevard without ever the chance of being rescued by Richard Gere. Mostly, he’s harmless, bordering on ineffectual, and the drugs Cindy constantly snipes about are over-the-counter pain pills for headaches. Then the moon shifts, Tim grows hair, Cyndi starts to breed, and the Stephen King stuff kicks in. They go through their formula break-ups so often, in the building, we use them to mark seasons. The same way the Aztecs once used captured warriors and young things to celebrate holidays. “Hear Cyndi and Tim last night?” Quinn asks cheerfully in the parking lot – roaring his newly repainted, matte black former police ‘cycle alongside my timid Geo. “It was really cool,” Rob chimes in – again bereft of the lovely Birgit, who divorced him after a mere nine months of dance hall bliss (she’d been working part-time as a rhumba instructor for Arthur Murray). Birgit followed her sister, permanently departing for Sweden, where she’s sending film dispatches to The Hollywood Reporter, though our other Swedish ex-pat, Franck, warned her, “The dark season is coming.” “I liked the part when the cats got so freaked they clawed out the window,” Quinn goes on. “And when Tim threw the flaming halogen lamp! Ya think they did that digitally?” Who needs Seinfeld? We got We Love Lucifer. Normally, the Tim-Cyndi outbursts are as short-spanned as sunspots or Santa Ana winds, then all’s quiet till the next flinging of mud. But January was different. Soon after she first evicted Tim (this long goodbye wobbled on as episodically as Mary Worth – and why hasn’t Angela Lansbury played that perennial octogenarian yet?) Cyndi crudely disassembled Tim’s resonant, five-grand ebony-and-glass entertainment system. “He didn’t pay for it!” she insisted, viciously yanking cables. Technically, Cyndi didn’t pay for it, either, unless her hard-working, wealthy father has recently retaken control of his sporadically moody daughter’s many credit cards. Tim always insinuated that Dad covered their rent, too, though our landlord’s wife confides that the pastel, cartoon-strewn checks that arrive monthly bear both Cyndi’s gold embossed name and her decoratively calligraphied signature. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here,” Cyndi went on that evening, hauling Darth Vader stereo components out her door into the January damp. “And there’s all these wires.” She held up a clipped angel hair mass and a pair of scalloped pinking shears. (Between streams of willful unemployment, she’s also a home-based Martha Stewart acolyte.) Then she cheerfully tossed the wire mess into her car. Some components she stashed in Annie’s neighboring apartment. “Tim’ll never think of looking there – if he ever thinks at all! Mostly, he uses his head to put drugs in all its holes.” Other component parts, she crushed into her trunk and back seat – “To take to my parents’ house. They have this big garage and live in a gated community!” “Why don’t you just return everything?” Annie asked warily. She’s Cyndi’s closest friend in the building, but clearly the two don’t always agree. “I mean, it’s not paid for.” “I tried,” Cyndi moaned. “No one wants it back – not even at discount! I’ll just have to run ads on the Internet.” Cyndi’s remarkably adept at web-surfing. A usual evening at home – as reported by those who survived the fevered merriment – “Who can turn them down?” Jonathan, our now lone Israeli and his American girlfriend (they met on a Biblical summer dig) asked. “Tim gets all these great movies!” An evening consisted of sitting with Tim, watching second hand tapes from the Motion Picture Academy – he has a contact – while nearby in their Snoopy-decked living room (86 varieties), Cyndi explored chat lines and electronic junk sales. “And they have good popcorn, too!” Bobby added, passing by. After nine-months of post-graduate bachelorhood living alone in an overpriced North Hollywood single, he reclaimed his former bedroom and re-joined college roommate Rob when Birgit returned home. Sadly, generous bowls of overflowing Orville Reddenbacher’s Poppin’ Best ended with Tim’s banishment and electronic dismembering. “He’s never coming back this time,” Cyndi swore. “Never, never, never, never, never!” Well, hardly ever it turned out – Tim was back the next morning. “I still have keys,” he twinkled, dangling them teasingly as a sex worker and letting himself in. “He’s back?” Franck asked, crouched on his customary perch – the low doorstep of his daughter Annie’s apartment. Franck’s often our resident monitor, flicking endless Marlboro Lights into his former Skippy jar, while wheezing. “Who knows?” I asked. “Cyndi said she’d call the police. That’s what she told Annie.” Annie’s Franck’s daughter from his second marriage, but he has two older children with already grown offspring “back in the homeland.” These “kids” were born in Minnesota, but long-ago chose to return to “the other side” with their mother, perhaps for reasons best unquestioned. Annie presently lives with her wild-but-well-funded demon-child, Edan, the wealthy Franck’s primary heir. Annie’s own second husband, Ed, finally lost his end game of cards, denying himself – by terms of his probation – use of both Annie’s bed and weekend tooling privileges in Franck’s ancient Datsun. (Ed wasn’t allowed his own car, nor access to his weekly paycheck, for fear some payday he’d bolt to the land of booze and debauchery – which is exactly what had happened.) When he was first kicked out, Tim still had his own tarnished roadster – which Cyndi (or her commercial insurance-selling clan) had bought for him. The morning after his latest exile, he drove up accompanied by a buddy, and they crammed heavily-loaded garbage bags into his car’s back seat. “Only clothes,” he assured the ever-watchful Franck. “Just taking what’s mine.” “If he took what’s his,” Cyndi growled that evening, “he wouldn’t even have his tattoo! And I’m having mine removed!” (For those malignantly curious: twin, discreetly-positioned tiny Snoopies. Everything’s revealed by those who wade in the pool.) In the evening dark, Annie helped Cyndi change the locks on her apartment door. “I’d bar all the windows, too,” Cyndi vowed, “but then the cats couldn’t get out.” (Now that would be awful. At that point Cyndi still owned a quartet of those mice-whompin’ brawlers, who steadily interrupted our midnights weary with their song.) “Would you really call the police?” I asked. “If Tim shows up?” “I tried swearing out a warrant – you know, to keep him like a thousand feet away. But there was too much paperwork.” “What if he comes back?” “He can’t get in! He has his clothes! There’s nothing left!” Nonetheless. The next day, while restively reading, I heard Tim’s old BMW crunch to a halt in front of our building. His car door slammed, then I listened while he tried his keys. “Freakin’ sleeze!” he soon grouched, I assumed to his scaggy friend. I listened again as they tried the front windows. Locked. The side window. Locked. They moved round the back, and as I watched from above, unseen, Tim popped the bathroom screen and slip-slided on his stomach to the cat-littered floor. “Why didn’t you do something?” Cyndi yelled at me that evening. “Like what?” “Call the cops! Dial 911! That shithead broke into my apartment!” “What did he take?” Annie asked quietly. “My big Snoopies!” Cyndi cried. “He knows he can’t sell them – he’s tried before. They’re just for collectors! He only took them to hurt me!” “You have to lock your windows,” Annie counseled. “I can’t.” “I’ll keep your cats...” “They’ll just fight with yours. They do half the time anyway.” “Then let them run free a few days. No one really owns a cat.” Cyndi was persuaded, Annie and I helped her lock all her windows, then she tightly shut her dusty blinds. After that, she divided anything else she thought Tim might steal between Annie’s place and her car. “I’m not sleeping here anymore,” she told us. “I’m too scared. I’m staying with my parents.” “That’s not right,” Lindsay – Cyndi’s nearest neighbor – announced. “She shouldn’t be afraid in her own space.” (Lindsay’s soon moving out of “her space” – as soon as she finds somewhere cheaper. “I’m leaving ‘cause there are three guys I’ve had affairs with here, and it depresses me every time I get home.”) Still, it was nice to hear Lindsay defend Cyndi as, just after Christmas, the two of them had a courtyard screamfest. Lindsay insisted Tim was leading her then musician/boyfriend Justin into drugs (a possibly naive charge). Cyndi howled back that Justin was a thief who nearly got her and Tim arrested when he stole a guitar and had them drive getaway. “It was my guitar!” Lindsay screeched. “He was taking it in for repairs!” “Well, he didn’t come out with the same one he took in! And why were people chasing him?” The third afternoon, Tim was back again. I heard his car shutter to a stop, door slam, then listened as he tried the front, side, and rear windows. “What a creep!” he muttered. “How can she do this to me?” His car door slammed again, but he didn’t drive off. I listened. Quiet. Maybe he was thinking things out. Then one of Cyndi’s back windows smashed in. I carefully considered what to do – not intending in any way to get involved with this teenaged Punch ‘n’ Judy. But I also couldn’t have Tim breaking up the place. It was my chosen, if possibly ill-considered, home. Finally, I called the landlord, quickly telling his wife what had happened. She immediately called the police. Then. Nothing. Happened. Maybe a half-hour later, I went to check the mail. Only to find two cops – pistols drawn – where the merry mailman should have been. “Who are you?” the first cop spat. “M-m-manager,” I almost stuttered, involuntarily invoking my normally unused title. The officer thumbed me away. Behind this armed pair was another duo – with shouldered rifles. Down the block were four hastily-parked squad cars. “Who’s in there?” the second cop hissed, his gun now – politely? – aimed at my feet. I wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere fortified. “Tim,” I whispered back. “Maybe his friend.” “Armed?” I thought for a moment. “Barely fingered.” “What!” “Not armed,” I corrected. No time for comedy. The cop grunted. I started to walk. And kept walking to the end of the block. I wasn’t going to get myself shot for the love of Tim. “What’s goin’ on?” a man on a balcony called. I quickly explained. “Wow!” he marveled. Maybe ten minutes later, our landlord’s car appeared. I signaled. He stopped. “Do you know what’s happening?” I asked. He knew more than I did: the cops had Cyndi talking with Tim from her phone at work. (That was gonna lose her another cush job.) Our errant boy knew about the lurking cops but wouldn’t come out, fearing police brutality. Besides what he’d learned from movies, it seemed Tim had some personal experience with cops – and a minor criminal record. Not for the expected – drugs. For loitering at 12 near a gay bar. Still, Cyndi – possibly on that same “too much paperwork” basis – wouldn’t press charges. And Tim insisted – through the magic of telecommunications – that he was merely watching TV in his own bedroom. “My name is on the lease!” Though he’d never personally paid rent, the landlord couldn’t deny that Tim had wobbily scrawled his name on a legal piece of paper. So after an hour of long-distance trade-offs, Tim jauntily came out his alleged front door – admittedly, hands wide above his head and in Star Wars briefs – then blatantly swaggered to his car and defiantly drove off. “Too bad,” said the guy from the balcony. He had what looked like a kid’s telescope and a videocam and seemed “that close” to the winning lottery-video that would send him off on a nice vacation. I waited for the landlord, who was finishing with the police. “Those kids are crazy,” he grumbled, as if this were news. “I’ve got to move them out.” “No argument here,” I allowed. He shook his head. “It’s not that easy. The law’s set up to protect the renter. No matter how bongo the bozo.” Bingo. “Maybe she’ll move,” I encouraged. “She’s already scared.” “And maybe I’ll buy the Dodgers.” Then things got weird – as though up to now it had been Father Knows Best. Cyndi still insisted she didn’t want to see Tim, and she wouldn’t sleep in her apartment ‘cause she was “too afraid of him.” And her parents – or so claimed Annie – swore they’d “cut Cyndi off if she didn’t permanently ditch the runt.” But Cyndi and Tim drove to Las Vegas for a weekend. “It was so much fun!” I heard her exclaim when she’d stopped at Annie’s to “feed my babies” – the cats. “What about your parents?” Annie asked patiently. “Oh – them!” Cyndi laughed. “I’ll think about them tomorrow!” She giggled. Tim appeared the next afternoon, with keys clearly supplied by Cyndi. “For my tapes,” he pacified Franck. “He’s going to sell them,” Cyndi explained that evening. “Get money to drive east.” “What’s east?” I asked innocently, wondering what new scheme Tim’s video-withered brain could devise. “His mom lives in Pittsburgh.” Now, abstractly, I knew that Tim had a mom – it was basic science. But somehow, I didn’t figure she’d survived his birth. “He’s driving that wreck cross-country?” Franck asked. “I’m amazed it made it to Vegas.” “Oh, we didn’t drive that there!” Cyndi said, laughing again. “Some car dealer wanted to sell me a Land Rover – I got this letter in the mail. Of course, I didn’t want one – they’re too clunky. But they let me test drive one all weekend.” I love Capitalism. On his odyssey east, Tim’s car barely reached Nevada again, dying at a state line casino. While trying to plod out what to do next, he repeatedly rode their world-class roller coaster. Meanwhile, Cyndi moved back in. “Got to show my parents I’m independent, or they’ll stop my monthly checks.” But she wasn’t happy. Every evening, she moped on her couch, front door open as though awaiting Elijah. Too blue even for home crafts and the Internet, she and Claire – our other semi-dependant – loudly discussed antidepressants across the courtyard. “I hate drugs,” Cyndi insisted. “Tim had pills for every occasion.” “Take ‘em!” Claire called from her second floor window. “Or watch TV,” Annie suggested more levelly. “I can’t. I’ve got this great collection – all these tapes except the ones Tim pawned – and I can’t even play them. They sit in piles.” Being neighborly, I offered to help reassemble her entertainment system. “Nah,” she sighed, “it just makes me think of him. How happy we were.” All night, her lights stayed on. “Keeps away gloom.” Twenty-four hours, her bedroom TV blared. “For company.” “Could you turn it down, just a bit?” I asked – gently at first. “You know how thin the ceilings are.” She promised but always forgot. “And your ceiling fan really squeaks,” I added later. “Mind if I oil it?” “Sure,” she lisped languidly. Three-In-One didn’t help nor did rubber washers. I asked if she’d keep the fan off till summer, when open windows and outside noise would drown the vibrations. Again, she promised but forgot that, too. Finally – with her permission – I went in one afternoon to take down the fan while she was at work. It was a good thing, too: as I entered her heap of a heart-torn place, I smelled burning plastic. The bathroom litter box – more a traveling cage – was pressed against the red-coiled wall heater, seconds from ignition. I shut it off, cooled down the box in the shower, then reported to the landlord. “She’s has to go!” he shouted. “Now!” But, again, there was nothing he could legally do. Later that week, Cyndi’s clock-radio went off at six AM, and was still rockin’ ‘n’ buzzing at nine. I phoned. I heard neighbors whack at her door. When I finally knocked myself, I noticed a nasty letter from Isabelle – our Valkyrie nanny – taped to the screen. “If you don’t care about sleeping,” it threatened, “maybe you should move somewhere else! Some of us work for a living!” Seeing me, Claire called helpfully from her window. “Did Cyndi overdose?” I got the passkey and went in. No death, but no Cyndi, either. Just cats. Rampant. “Guess she stayed at her folks,” I told Claire. “And forgot the alarm.” And the lights. And the TV. I turned them all off, and – while I was at it – jiggled the handle to stop the running toilet that was threatening to drain the bay. Two nights later, the TV was so loud, I finally – desperately – phoned Cyndi at four AM. Repeatedly. Without answer. Yet I knew she was there: I’d seen her come in, watched her shift moodily on her couch, and her car was parked outside her door. I was tempted to kill the power – I had that ability – but it was an unauthorized overstep. Besides, with no alarm, she’d probably oversleep and lose yet another job. Who wanted her here every day? I finally stomped hard, once, on my bedroom floor, just above her TV. The good old New York solution drifting back from childhood days: grandmothers and great-aunts banging broomsticks on water pipes to silence upstairs and downstairs neighbors. My heavy footwork didn’t seem to wake Cyndi, but doing something – anything – relaxed me enough to sleep. At seven AM, my phone rang. The landlord. “Cyndi just paged me,” he complained. “Hysterical. Said she woke up this morning surrounded by glass. Claims it’s your fault.” “It probably is,” I said, groggily knowing instantly what had happened. The old light fixture I put back after removing Cyndi’s ceiling fan had a slightly cracked shade. After forty years, my heavy tango was all it took to shatter. That afternoon, Cyndi’s expensively-dressed, far-slicker-than-God, father knocked on my door. We’d never met. He was clearly my age and worth more than Ted Turner. “She’s doing so well,” went his plea. “She’s out of our house and has deep-sixed the midget junkie. Couldn’t you just take care of her? Treat her like a younger sister?” I tried being tactful – an admittedly alien approach. “My kid sister never brought cops to our home. Or – even accidentally – tried to burn the place down. And if you think ‘the junkie’s’ gone, try looking in your daughter’s bedroom. Along the wide headboard, there’s a double row of his framed pictures.” “He’s never coming back! Cyndi promised!” Tim was “home” for dinner, grinning triumphantly like Richard Nixon. He’d been holed up in a cheap Hollywood motel, after thumbing in from near Vegas. Waiting. “I feel so much safer with him around,” Cyndi told Annie. “When Tim’s here, no one’s mean to me.” But even Annie wasn’t buying that. “He’s not staying!” the landlord swore. “He’s not staying!” Cyndi’s father howled. “He’s not staying!” shouted every other tenant – who may’ve missed Tim’s movies but hardly his state of siege. Franck just sat on his step, smoking. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t evict ‘em. It was winter, even in California. We all kind of shut ourselves in. But somehow this ends happily: Mid-March, Tim and Cyndi suddenly moved out – claiming they “needed more space.” All those Snoopies. All them tapes. And I suppose the Voodoo figures we’d each been shoving fifty-penny nails into had no effect.
  4. Chapter 5

    Mid-1997 Update Yesterday afternoon, I got back from riding 15 miles on my bike and took a long shower to decompress. As I finally turned off the water, I heard yelling – full-out hollering – and I figured, “Cyndi and Tim.” Then I realized it wasn’t Tim’s voice, and I figured “Cyndi and Justin” (Lindsay’s current musician/boyfriend who irritates Cyndi). Then I heard something about “Get off my balcony!” Now Cyndi and Tim and Lindsay (and by default Justin) all live on the ground floor. They don’t have a balcony. So I quickly combed my still-soaking hair, pulled on a shirt and jeans, skipped shoes and socks, and went to see what was happening. On the balcony, Birgit and Rob, Claire and her mother, and Quinn and Meg were all screaming at each other. I mouthed to Meg, “What’s happening,” and she calmly waved me away, though seeming disgusted. Meanwhile, Justin and Cyndi were standing separate but peacefully in their doorways, looking completely innocent, as if to say, “See, it isn’t us for a change.” Then Korki – standing in her own doorway – gestured me over. “If you need a witness,” she said, “the woman (Claire) hit the guy (Quinn) first.” “They were hitting each other?” I asked, incredulously – as the howling soared on. “I want the police!” Claire bellowed, and Meg calmly said she was calling them on her cell phone. That assured – and maybe with me (who everyone seems to trust) standing by – Claire and her mother swept off to Claire’s apartment while everyone else retreated. “What happened?” I soon asked Quinn and Meg, then Rob and Birgit, then Claire and her mother. “Someone took my pillows out of the drier,” Claire explained, now under control . “They put them on the counter, still wet. They stole my cycle!” “The pillows had been drying for two hours,” Quinn insisted. “They were just sitting there – not spinning, still damp, with no one around. Meg ‘n’ I carefully put them on the counter ‘cause we needed to dry our own stuff. Everyone does that, you know that. Everyone’s always fair, sharing the machines.” (That is our etiquette.) “Then she (Claire) went ballistic.” “I did go a little nuts,” Claire admitted. “It’s the pressure from moving, and I just got my cat’s ashes back from the vet.” (It seems she’s been waiting for her aged cat to die before she moved to Hawaii to live near her Mom.) “And you know I’m a little manic-depressive.” What’s being left out in this calm reiteration is Claire’s banging on Isabelle’s door – because Cyndi mistakenly told Claire that Isabelle probably needed the drier so had moved the pillows to start with. (Isabelle, fortunately, wasn’t home, or we would have had an international incident, with her again screeching about being persecuted for being an immigrant). Also defensively deleted was Rob’s yelling at Claire for making so much noise in the courtyard when he was trying to watch the Dodgers. And Birgit’s insulting Claire when Claire told Rob to “Shut up and mind your own business,” (expletives sidestepped). And Quinn insulting Claire ‘cause she still wouldn’t pipe down when he was trying to watch the Dodgers with Rob. Then Quinn inexplicably insulting Claire’s mother, who was just trying to smooth things over. (Quinn has tattoos, remember. They stimulate hormones.) That’s when Claire gently shoved Quinn, and he (almost) slapped her back. (“I pulled my punch. Honest to God, I did.”) Whoa. Still, by the time the police arrived, everyone had the chance to back off, and Quinn had put on a long-sleeved shirt. (With his arms covered, as I’ve mentioned, he looks like a choir boy.) The police – two squad cars full; were they expecting a riot? – mainly laughed, probably relieved that they didn’t have to break up a donnybrook. Afterward, I asked Rob, Birgit, Meg, and Quinn (who were now all watching the Dodgers together) “Is every apartment building in LA like this?” “No,” they seemed to agree. “Isn’t ours great?”
  5. Chapter 4

    1996 At Liberty Even in conception, this building was never classy. But lately people are right: it’s become an immobile home. If I did more than sleep here, I’d move out. But what would I write about? Apartment 1: Cyndi threw Tim out in August. Of course, Tim insisted the police arrived to escort him to safety. “Can you believe she threw a 400 dollar sub-woofer at me?” he yelped, ducking CDs. “You don’t work!” Cyndi wailed. “You lie! I bought you a car! I buy you movies! I order pizza! You use more drugs than the whole Olympics team! My cats have better sex! (And more frequent: at one point, the crawling creatures in Cyndi’s apartment – excluding Tim – totaled 11.) After Tim was banish-ed, Cyndi changed the locks and bolted the windows. When Tim tried to retrieve his clothes, pleading through the unresponsive door, “I’m wearing nothing. I’ve been in these jeans for a week,” Cyndi howled, “I hope they cremate you in them!” Still, by September, Tim was back – which mightily pissed off Franck, our resident grandfather. One day, Cyndi was threatening a restraining order. The next, she and Tim were decopauging frames together in the courtyard. (It’s one of Cyndi’s side businesses – along with tabby farming). She had no explanation for Tim’s return. They still yell as regularly as government deficits. Tim had a job – briefly – delivering serviced Humvees at a local dealership (Weren’t they afraid he’d wreck one?) then he quit. “The sales people kept ordering me around,” he whined. “‘Make the coffee! Water the plants! Sweep the showroom!’ I was a licensed driver, not serf!” He slumped on the couch, adding, “Now, I’m so bored, I rented Frankenstein. But can’t watch it. I know how it comes out.” “Maybe the dealership will take you back,” I suggested. “They wish!” he said, tossing me a tape. “Have you seen Mary Reilly? Malkovich is great, but I can’t get into the story – too much Jekyll and Hyde.” Apartment 2: In case you haven’t heard, I’ve left Wheel (and the Berlin wall’s down). For two months, I worked on the limited run of Pauly, a misconceived sit-com starring the actually fairly funny Pauly Shore. Now, as unemployed vaudevillians used to say, I’m “At liberty.” Happily. For the first time in nine years, I can sleep till ten, stay up till two, and read. I actually know what’s on page C-16 of The New York Times. (It’s financial stuff; I didn’t say I understood it.) If I were better at it, I’d write another novel. But as my friend Karen said after starting to read the mystery I wrote ten years ago, “Larry’s the murderer, isn’t he?” I said, “Karen, you’re on page three. No one’s dead yet.” She said, “But Larry’s the murderer.” When I had to admit he was, she said, “Needs work.” Apartment 3: “Will the guest resident please sign in?” We started with Eran and Gali, then Gali went back to Israel, pissed because Eran wouldn’t marry her and return to Tel Aviv where he was a prosperous electrician. But Eran came to the United States to better his life (better than seventy bucks an hour and all the attitude you can stand?) and had a young son (as well as an ex-wife who’d provided the American citizenship). Besides – as he exploded to Gali one evening (we have thin walls) – “I didn’t come here to study at the University of Judaism just to become a cab driver!” But that’s exactly what happened after Gali left in June. When Eran’s son arrived for the summer, they moved to apartment 11, a luxurious one-bedroom (3's a studio). Soon after, Asaf (ah-sav) and Maya (maya), another set of Israeli students, moved into 3. Asaf had long dark hair. Maya was blonde and spent lots of time nearly naked at the pool, helping Marla make up for our lost Swedish beauty of years past. But summer ended, the pool cooled, and Maya and Asaf must have decided that $495 a month was too much for rent. So they skipped by the light of the moon, the moon. They skipped by the light of the moon. Two weeks and a fast cleaning job later, Steve moved in – kind of. I say that because, other than clothes, his present possessions consist of a TV set, an end table (on which sits the set) and a folding foam “chair” which opens into the sheetless narrow “cot” he sleeps on. Except when his two kids visit: then, his eight-and-three-year-old daughters share the cot, and Steve sleeps on the floor. I offered them my futon. “I mainly use it for guests,” I explained. “It has sheets.” “No, sir,” Steve said, in the politest Virginia drawl. “I’m fine. I’ve been sleeping on a couch for a year – since my wife, sorry, ex-wife, and I moved here.” “Messy divorce?” I wanted to ask, but all news comes to those who wait, and when I knocked on Steve’s door Halloween – to offer him a tiny dining table someone had abandoned in the parking lot – I got another piece of the rock. Steve answered in Roy Rogers drag and Herman Munster make-up. “Waiting for your kids?” I asked, physically unable to say, “Trick or Treat” (it’s my anti-Martha Stewart gene). “No, sir,” Steve replied. “I program at Wells Fargo, and for the holiday, management decided we should all be cowboys and ghouls.” (So that’s what management does.) While we waited, Steve dripped Munster blood and explained his pending divorce. “We moved here ‘cause my sister-and-brother-in-law told us there was better work. We were having marriage problems even then, but figured extra money might help. We sold our house, put everything in storage, and – ‘temporarily’ – moved to my in-law’s. Found great jobs all right, but our marriage kept getting worse – I think we plum don’t like each other. So we kept putting off buying a house, and I kept sleeping on the couch. And sleeping... and sleeping... Which it turns out kinda pleased my wife – she was all comfy sharing the bed in the guest room with our daughters. Finally, I moved out.” And that’s when Steve’s kids showed up – screaming happily at their decorated dad. So that’s all I know about Marital Things Virginian. Apartment 4: Lindsay’s big crisis this year was “putting her cat to sleep.” “She was barely a year old,” Lindsay mournfully explained, “but I’d already spent nearly a thousand dollars, and the doctors weren’t even sure what was wrong yet – they thought maybe cat cancer.” She sighed. “Not that I minded spending the money,” (!!) “she was like my best friend. She knew exactly what I meant when we talked. I’d say, ‘Don’t sit on the counter,’ and off she’d scoot – I didn’t even have to point. I’d say, ‘I’ll be home at eight,’ and there she’d be, sweetly waiting by the door (it’s a one-room apartment). I’d need to be up at six, and right on time she’d nuzzle me, or lick my nose – so much nicer than an alarm clock.” “You could get another cat,” I tried to say, not too callously. “God knows, we have enough around.” (At that moment, three were grazing our courtyard). “I could never replace her,” Lindsay promised solemnly. Yet, three months later, two of Cyndi’s coven simultaneously calved, and we were swimmin’ in kittens. “They’re so cute,” Lindsay squealed. “I just want to eat them up.” “Good thought,” I suggested. But no one took me seriously. Soon after, Lindsay “adopted” one pair of squirmy mewers, while Annie (Apartment 9) took another set. “You know,” I told Cyndi, “when I mentioned you might have too many cats for one apartment, I didn’t mean to simply redistribute them.” “You’re right,” she giggled. “I’ve got to get them fixed.” But she didn’t. Apartment 5: JB’s still my friend, so I can’t say much. Currently, he’s in the tricky process of changing careers and spends more time studying animation at his computer than there is time. Still, occasionally, we pass in the parking lot. He looks pale. Apartment 6: Birgit (burrr-git) the Swedish beauty is back! She reappeared in early September, too late for the swimsuit competition, but bringing along her near-twin sister, Britt. “Our parents liked ‘B’ names,” they laughed. Within a month, she bought a dog (too puny for cat-fightin’) and married Rob. “I’m now Robert Mitchell Kimball III,” she announced one twilit evening. “Isn’t that a great name?” Now she, Rob, Bobby, Britt, the dog (Cody), and the boa (Mr. B. cramp happily in their two-bedroom apartment. It could be worse: Butch – Rob’s cat – ran away last spring. “Well, not away,” Rob explained. “He’s next door. He comes back whenever he’s confused.” “He likes their food better,” Bobby put in. “Likes the fact they have food,” Rob corrected. “We never remembered.” “Let ‘im eat cigarette butts, I say,” Bobby laughed, tossing his latest over the balcony rail. Rob, Bobby, Birgit, and Britt all smoke, but not inside their apartment. “Stinks up the place,” they chorus. Instead, they stand on the balcony, whispering on Rob’s mobile phone, puffing, and flicking ash on us lesser folk. Apartment 7: After greedily competitive bids from Georgetown and Columbia, Ben finally chose Tulane for law school. “I’m the first Israeli they’ve accepted. They’re so excited, they’re paying for everything.” He grinned – enormously. “I love this country.” He moved out in June, though his brother Jonathan stayed on. Jonathan spent the summer working eighty-hour weeks as security director for El-Al – that mandatory army training always feeds you. “The money’s great, but I never get to see my girlfriend,” he panted, heading up the stairs late one night. Still, the rest of us always knew when she spent the night: her white Volvo played musical chairs with our parking spots. When you got hit, you knocked on Jonathan’s door, he came out – often wearing a towel and a strained smile – moved her car, then scampered back to bed. His new roommate Ilai (eee-lie) – also an Israeli studying at the University of Judaism – looked a lot like Asaf (long dark hair; ubiquitous soldier’s build). Their main distinction was one had a birthmarked neck. But neither spoke, and both drove jalopies and favored ragged jeans and rotting T-shirts. I treated them as twins, mainly nodding, only risking conversation when one clearly had his arm around Maya. As it happens, Jonathan doesn’t much like Ilai, and for months they’ve argued over Ilai’s moving out. The date’s been repeatedly set, with a burly friend of Jonathan’s – Jewish, but not Israeli (he couldn’t pass the fitness test) – poised to move in. (Meanwhile, the friend also visits frequently, hogging our assigned parking spaces.) Still, each month Ilai claims he’s found no place cheaper to live, Jonathan relents, and the stolid friend continues to live at home with his mom (along with his even more tightly-packed kid brother. I ran into them once in the supermarket. They look like twin stacks of pink Michelin tires). Supposedly, in mid-December, Ilai’s moving out, the friend’s moving in, Ben’s visiting from Tulane, Jonathan has a break from both school and the airport, the girlfriend’s staying for ten uninterrupted days, and all will be right in this particular world. Whew! Apartment 8: Meg and Quinn got engaged! On Valentine’s day! “Quinn’s so romantic,” Meg said. “Actually, I was all kinds of nervous,” Quinn confessed. “Meg ‘n’ I have lived together two years. But I’d never spent time with her family.” “They’re just happy I’m getting married,” Meg insisted. “I’m almost twenty-nine.” “Past those peak child-bearing years,” Quinn quipped. They told me this while standing on the balcony – where chic people meet – smoking. “We can’t smoke in the apartment,” Quinn once explained. “It annoys the cats.” Lately, he’s spurned tabbies and is cultivating tattoos. “Trying for the Illustrated Man?” I asked this summer by the pool. (It was July Fourth, and they were sponsoring the annual Cannonball Off The Roof Bash.) “Nah... I hate that look,” Quinn answered. “I’m just doing my arms (every last millimeter). “This way he can leave his shirt open,” one of his friends joked. “Use them pretty pecs to pick up chicks.” “Aw... pretty,” his biker buddies sighed while Quinn bristled. “Body tats are butt ugly,” he soon fiercely announced, grinning wickedly at his friend’s splattered torso. “Up your ass!” growled the pal. “Guys!” Meg shouted. Who’d have thought there was tattoo protocol? Apartment 9: Things have been strangely quiet with Ed and Annie – makes me want to hide the chain saw. Ed’s had no unexplained “sales” trips. Annie’s Stepfordly polite when chatting in the courtyard. Even nine-year-old Edan has stopped torturing Barbies and has turned sullenly pretty, maybe heading for her Lolita phase. They did get a new car, willing Franck – Annie’s father – their old one, though I’ve yet to see him drive. (With his money, of course, Franck could buy Detroit and still afford a small baseball team). I think claiming the car is Franck’s is Annie and Ed’s way of scamming an extra parking space. (They’re also eyeing the storage closet with fascist enthusiasm). Still, Franck’s entitled to park. Hell, Isabelle – Apartment 10 and also carless – deeded her space to a Joad-like family next door (though not the folks harboring Rob’s former cat. This inbred clan couldn’t nurture barnacles). Apartment 10: Isabelle and Marie have also been quiet. (Marie’s so quiet I don’t even know her name. I call her Marie in these letters so you’ll think I know everything about everyone.) The kid – Ricardo, sometimes Richard – continues to grow, though short and stout. He’s only four, but I sometimes want to give him a mask and wrestling magazines. Isabelle and Marie also call me Richard, probably in connection with the boy, though it’s a formal name I usually reserve for immediate family or people I’m sleeping with. (I’ve just made myself a target, haven’t I?) Marie’s tow truck-driving boyfriend either hasn’t been around much this year or is learning to slink like a cat burglar. I think he still calls me “Shithead,” but, hey, mi Espanol es weak. Apartment 11: Holly and Kaz were finally evicted in May. “We’re moving closer to work,” Kaz confided, studiously packing their van. (Were they planning to live in the van?) It’s not that they never paid rent. They just lived on a sixty-day cycle. We got so used to seeing eviction notices on their door, we considered them set dressing. Management barely inspected the place before Eran and his son took possession. (The boy must have been claustrophobic in Eran’s studio – he constantly played stickball off the walls. Still, all summer, pieces of violently-trashed military toys littered the courtyard.) By mid-September, strangely, there was another eviction notice up, this time for Eran. Seeing it, Tim whispered, “Deja vu,” then hummed The Twilight Zone theme, a connection I never made. “They shouldn’t have done that,” Eran scowled, tearing down the notice with the rage of Martin Luther. “I flew my son to his grandparents in Chicago, then searched all of San Francisco for work.” “Find anything?” I asked, pleasant under assault. “I’d rather drive cabs on those goddamn hills,” he hissed, “than live one more day in this pisshole!” (The building or the city?) Heaving the crumpled notice toward the trash, he slammed into his apartment. And that was his final bow: keeping his threat, the next morning he was gone – leaving only a cheap halogen lamp, a polyester shirt (quickly acquired by Tim), and a pastoral painting we attributed to the artist Gali. A month later – it’s a slow market, and several applicants’ credit ratings rivaled Charles Keating’s – Korki moved in. An athletic blonde from Missouri, she owns a huge black Lab named Edge. They sport matching red bandanas. Have to see about this. Apartment 12: Claire reigns (at least temporarily). Franck recently mentioned that, deep in the night – Franck never sleeps – Claire and her latest boyfriend seemed to be relocating the contents of her apartment to the guy’s truck. Still, I saw her in the courtyard this morning (a rare daytime sighting: she’s mainly visible after twilight’s last gleam) and she gave no hint of moving out. Besides, I’ve been in her apartment – bobbing for a lost earring in her garbage disposal. (Don’t ask.) She could easily lose half her furniture and still have plenty for several houses. (If she left things near the dumpster, Steve in Apartment 3 would be grateful.) Also, Claire has ample reason to leave: Tim and Cyndi live just across the way, one flight down, and Tim’s music frequently tornadoes through Claire’s living room. This summer, one afternoon when everyone else was gone, they had a decibel war. “I propped my stereo speakers in the window and blasted Vivaldi at him,” Claire told me proudly. “The Four Seasons!” (What else?) And while I’m sure her effort was noble, how much damage could her tinny Panasonic do against the five-grand-SenseSurround system Cyndi’s bought for Tim? One evening this winter, Tim was screening Tora! Tora! Tora! – who knows why? – and a minor battle scene brought Kaz and Holly tearing from their apartment, sure we were having another quake. Apartment 13: Franck went to Las Vegas last spring. “I don’t go often,” he started slowly, with all the time of a man long-retired (though he still isn’t). “I don’t really approve of gambling, but there’s one game I’m not bad at, and – fortunately – they have this Blackjack tournament every March.” Franck didn’t notice, but I was on my way to a movie and glanced obviously at my watch. “I always set a careful limit,” he continued. “Either something I’ve gotten as a bonus or picked up in overtime. (Franck’s fortune was built not by cleverness, but by union negotiations.) “I either win or lose,” he declaimed, “but never go beyond that limit – and I never spend what I win.” (He was becoming Polonius) “I’m very good at that.” He’s also very good at Blackjack it seems: in the tournament, he won twenty-five grand. “Twenty-five thousand dollars!” he repeated. Several times. “Now that’s a nice trip.” “Sure is, “ I said, edging towards my car. “I took it as a check,” he went on, oblivious. “Only a fool carries that much cash.” (And we all have the chance.) “I put the check carefully in my wallet, then – since I had time to kill before my plane – I tried my luck again.” I knew better than to ask how he’d done. His head was already shaking from side-to-side. “Not so hot,” he admitted. “But what the hell!” – he grinned hugely – “I’d just won twenty-five thousand dollars!! Again, he repeated the number. “It went straight into Edan’s trust fund, of course,” he confided. I boisterously jangled my car keys, trying to fend off this latest recap of Edan’s finances. “Except I forgot to save money for a cab!” Franck finally finished. (The punchline!) “You believe that?! To leave just then, I would’ve testified he was Eva Peron. “It took me three hours to get home from the airport by public bus! With a check for twenty-five thousand dollars in my pocket! Three hours! Longer than it took to reach Las Vegas, win all that money, and fly home!” But less time than it took to tell the story. Apartment 14: Marla and Lefty are also gone – finally off on their rock band’s frequently postponed European tour – leaving Titanic debris. Cyndi’s snooping proved correct: their bedroom had been transmuted into a litter box for Jeri, their enormous Doberman (who fiercely serrated the edges of the fanciful “Beware of the Dog” sign hung humorously in the front window). Almost monthly, Lefty would toss the skeleton of another futon into the dumpster, but I naively figured futons were cheap, and maybe he and Marla had some Karmic ritual going. I never guessed they’d been feeding these cotton wonders to Jeri, like mice to snakes. With the litter box-bedroom, of course, came Biblical pests. When I went to inspect the damage, I immediately wanted to burn my pants and shoes. Holes in the walls, holes in the floors, “holes in our bellies, and holes in our clothes.” But how holes in the ceiling? Were terrified flying roaches trying to flee the hairy hound? Two cleaning ladies (ain’t it sweet how they’re still called “ladies”) took three days to sandblast the place – and they kept gasping into the courtyard for air. I told management if they didn’t tip those women heavily, there’d be an international incident (we should have just encased the place in concrete like Chernobyl). The refrigerator, carpet, sub-floor, and all the interior doors had to be replaced. An extravagant bribe coaxed two wary painters into hauling away the cushionless wreck of a creeping couch. (Jeri must’ve snacked on its stuffed delicacies while Lefty and Marla packed.) The apartment has now been restored and repeatedly fumigated, but – after several months – still remains empty. Rumor had Steven Spielberg planning to make Poltergeist 8 there, but he couldn’t get the Health Department permits. That’s about it. I thought about sending some of these electronically, then figured a well-intentioned friend might post one on the Internet, ending me in a huge cyberlibel suit (even more repellent than seersucker). Still, that’s coming soon enough.
  6. Chapter 3

    1995 All’s Quiet on Moorpark I actually have an interesting life. But everyone wants to know what’s happening with my neighbors. I get postcards begging for updates. So here goes: Apartment 1: Cyndi and Tim have moved up – down, actually. They’d originally taken over the studio apartment just across my landing. Now – with Sally gone – they have the one-bedroom directly under me. This makes it much easier for their cats to crap in the courtyard. (Technically, one of their four cats recently “Wan away fwom home” as Cyndi put it – she of the ever-expanding Snoopy collection. The “missing” kitty – dark, vile, and hairy – now rules that vast litter box in the crawlspace under our building.) Meanwhile, Tim still doesn’t have a job, and Cyndi is working on her fourth receptionist position since January. (Is there a receptionists’ Kama Sutra?) One of Tim’s former army pals (He’s a Vet! We trusted him with weapons!) came for a weekend this summer – from Waterloo, Iowa, where he assembles surveillance systems – and stayed for three months (“Eighty-seven days,” Cyndi moaned.) He didn’t pay rent, either. Cyndi’s father does that. (“He almost bought this building,” Cyndi beamed – it was recently for sale. “Then I would have been manager.”) (And I would have been ex-tenant.) The high point of Cyndi and Tim’s year (non-chemical variety) was not appearing on Wheel of Fortune. By rights, they were ineligible, since no one who knows anyone on the staff can appear on the show. But Cyndi answered an ad for “Best Friends Week,” and I didn’t want to spoil her hopes. She and Tim practiced for weeks in their free time – which is considerable. They dutifully watched every night and played their computer version during the day. Then Tim wimped out. “He’s shy,” Cyndi admitted, trying to hide her disappointment. This, about a man who once auditioned for a porno flick. Apartment 2: That’s me. Almost nothing has changed this year: I’m at peace with Merv and Mammon. I did get a new car. Had the old one for fourteen years. Half my adult life. Apartment 3: Eran and Gali. (err-ron and golleee – Eran being the guy) They’re Israeli, as is the building’s new owner, Amon (possibly a descendant of the historical Meshullemeth) Eran is fierce and surly and arrived with his arm – and his tentative sense of humor – in a cast. Gali is learning English from TV, and she couldn’t understand how her apartment’s former tenants had lived without cable. When I mentioned that one of the renters – Paranoid Vic, now in the Scientology Home – lived without electricity for several years, I’d say she was speechless, but that’s her normal state. (I’m counting pets, and they have none.) Apartment 4. Lindsay. A petite colleen from Boston. Works with Rockers in the Music Biz. Occasionally brings home a hulking, tangle-haired, pierced one (“When I’m lucky,” she says, grinning). Also, prone to spray painting knick-knacks in the apartment courtyard without newspaper. (“Did I leave that?” she cooed, trying to smile away a stain unconnected to cats. She also harbors two of the slithy beasts.) Apartment 5: JB’s a friend of mine who reads these letters. If I say anything nasty about him, my tires’ll disappear. But he’ll confirm that I don’t make these people up. No one in California needs an imagination. After the earthquake, he inherited the apartment that had once been MackTommy and JoniJean’s, after it was retrieved from the damage done by their kids. (No pets.) Apartment 6: Bobby and Rob. (“Just don’t call Rob ‘Bobby,’” Bobby quickly advised. “He gets pissed.”) That’s because Rob’s the good-looking one, former lover of the Scandinavian beauty who use to lie by our pool, raising hormone levels of the insecure. She’s gone back to Sweden now, and the rest of us to pornography. Bobby’s a teacher. Rob may be an architect, once he learns to wear a shirt. He has a cat named “Butch,” and a boa constrictor who lives in the walk-in closet. (What is it, besides the obvious, about guys and snakes?) Still, neither pet solves the roach problem – memories of snack food past. And Bobby wondered – when he stopped by my apartment one night to talk about bugs (I have none, by the way, if you’re thinking to visit) – Bobby glanced around my apartment and asked,” How come you have adult furniture and we don’t?” (It goes with the chest hair, kid.) Apartment 7: Ben and Jonathan. Israeli Brothers, fellow students of Eran and Gali at the nearby University of Judaism. Ben’s shorter, older, and more ambitious. He’s trying for Columbia Law in the fall. Eventually, he’d like to run Israel. (I should be nicer to him.) Jonathan’s more easy-going, but oddly possessive about small things – like his parking rights. (“How come Eran and Gali have two spaces,” he asks, “and Ben and I only have one?” He asks this a lot. “They moved in after we did. They don’t have a bedroom, and we have two. Her name isn’t even on the lease.” When I tactfully explain that the management company made the deal, he walks away muttering, “It’s unAmerican.”) (No cats, but they’re considering a dog.) Apartment 8: Meg and Quinn. (Quinn’s a guy.) Meg is a friend of Lindsay’s – that’s how she found the place. Quinn’s a former scene painter with a jail-bait face and the tattoos of an arc-welder. He’s currently a Motorcycle Messenger. (“I hated my old job,” he says. “Too many bosses. Now I just have one.” When his 24-hour pager beeps as we speak, Quinn’s lip curls.) Meg has two cats. One was recently sealed under the bathtub after the plumber made repairs. When the tub mewed, Meg panicked. (Rest easy – the cat was rescued.) Quinn, by the way, continues the Moorpark tradition of guys cannonballing off the laundry room roof. It doesn’t need to be taught. Guys see the roof and the pool, they tear off their clothes, climb, and plunge.) Apartment 9: Annie, Ed, and the screeching Edan. (Ed just reappeared, after being gone for a couple of months. He may have been doing time. Remember, he has a wee gambling problem.) He also has one with grammar. “Ain’t the pool never gonna get cleaned regular?” I’ve heard him ask. With Ed gone, Annie got a job, though it didn’t seem to improve her personality. She can still defang coyotes with a sneer. “My bathroom needs painting,” she recently whined. “But if I tell the new owner, he’ll do it that dirty white.” (It’s called “Irish Linen,” Annie, and it’s a favorite of the Kennedys.) (Tres gatos. That’s “three cats” to you monoculturalists.) Apartment 10: Isabelle, Marie, and the kid. The kid’s three, a boy – Marie’s son. Few living things take to Isabelle. She complains. Frequently. “No one cleans the laundry room.” “Someone’s always in my parking space.” “Those people,”– she points across the narrow courtyard to Cyndi and Tim’s apartment – “play their TV too late.” (Admittedly, Isabelle goes to work early. But nine PM is not “late.”) When her garbage disposal jammed as she made dinner, as a good neighbor, I looked at it, first warning her I knew almost nothing about plumbing. As Isabelle mashed potatoes, I yanked fistfulls of peels from the disposal. Below them were onion skins. I gave Isabelle a short history of disposal etiquette, but I’m not sure it registered. Another night, I nearly sliced the side of my car pulling into the parking lot. A huge tow truck was crammed in Isabelle’s compact-only space. The truck’s been parked there before, but because I knew how unreasonable Isabelle can be, I wasn’t about to get involved. Still, three other tenants had left messages on my answering machine, so I quietly tapped on Isabelle’s door – very quietly; it was nearly ten. Marie, who never speaks but seems to understand English, answered. “Is that your tow truck?” I asked. Marie’s boyfriend, flopped on the taco chip littered carpet watching gangster flicks with the kid, grunted, “Yeah.” “Could you move it?” I asked politely, explaining the complaints. Quote the boyfriend: “Nah.” “The management company could have it towed,” I warned. “But this building’s too small for people not to get along.” The boyfriend chugged beer. By this time Rob, Bobby, and Meg – my fellow complainers – were standing behind me hissing: “Tow the truck! Tow the truck!” Lately – accidentally – I’ve become the default resident manager. “You don’t even live here,” I counseled the boyfriend. “Why risk someone else’s good reputation?” I pointed toward Marie, unsure whether Isabelle had any kind of favorable rep. Faced with the hissing choir, the boyfriend finally abandoned the TV and moved his truck. The next morning the real management company rep – another Israeli, named Nehori (Are these names Biblical?) – called to say that I should have had the tow truck towed. Nehori (“Call me ‘Bart’”) had already spoken with Isabelle – who’d slept through everything the night before, but loudly fought with Marie that morning. (“Marie!,” she reportedly yowled, “Take not my good name!”) (It loses something in translation.) Still, Isabelle insisted the whole thing wouldn’t have happened if she and Marie weren’t being picked on for being immigrants. (“And what am I?” Bart asked, laughing.) (Isabelle, Marie, and the kid share one cat, presumably bilingual. For those counting, the cat total’s now passed a dozen.) Apartment 11: Holly and Kaz. Kaz paints houses, when he’s not watching videos with Tim from apartment 1. Holly’s an office manager, who pays the rent, occasionally on time. For a while, they got monthly eviction notices, and Eran and Gali were poised to sweep into their spacious one-bedroom. But Holly always finds the money, and Kaz sweet-talks the management company. “Everyone owes me money,” he explained one afternoon, “No one cares about housepainters. Someday I’ll get mine.” (This has a certain historic resonance. I should be nicer to Kaz, too.) Kaz also complains about Claire in the apartment above. “You ever been in that place?” he asks. “Cat food everywhere! On the floor! On the bed! In the tub! No wonder roaches come crawing out of our answering machine!” (Kaz and Holly have a cat of their own. They also have a beautiful, Springer Spaniel. I wish it would do its natural job.) Apartment 12: Claire and friends (presently her mother, who’s been sleeping in the bedroom for a month while Claire sleeps on the living room couch; more typically, Claire’s serial boyfriends.) Claire reminds me of Molly Goldberg – I mainly see her from the waist up, leaning out the window, watching as I weed the courtyard garden. “You should be manager,” she repeatedly insists. “You do more work around here than anyone.” “I’m just bored,” I tells her. “I won’t do this for money.” Besides, we have a gardener, a pool boy, and a handyman – the last, another Israeli, named Urine. (Okay, it’s spelled differently.) I feel like landed gentry. (Claire has 3 cats, and Kaz is right – there is cat food in the tub.) Apartment 13: Franck (Fronk) father of Annie in apartment 9. When his wife died, Franck – a semi-retired voice-over artist, who speaks five languages – began sleeping, almost obsessively, on Annie’s couch. (Ed had run off – perhaps with a coke spoon.) Annie is Franck’s closest child. He’s a really nice guy, which makes you wonder what kind of demon genes Annie inherited from her mother. When an apartment became available here, Franck quickly sold his huge, unused house (“To be near the women I love,” – a princely ambition if your main descendant isn’t Annie’s daughter, the obnoxious Edan). Franck sits daily on Annie’s low cement stoop – or by the pool with an empty peanut butter jar – chain-smoking and watching. Watching what? The cats at play? Maybe he’s counting annuities. “It’s all in trust for Edan,” he tells me – either because we’re in the same business, or because he tells everyone – a hazardous hobby. “She’ll have a million bucks by the time she’s ten.” (Doesn’t that make you want to throw yourself into the pool?) “If she doesn’t go to college,” he continues, “she’ll get half her money at twenty-five, and the other half ten years later.” (Think Annie would adopt an aging set decorator?) Thanksgiving, Franck worked sixteen-hour days, Thursday through Sunday, dubbing a Japanese cartoon into Danish. (Hail, our Global Village.) “I normally get three thousand an episode,” he told me Sunday night – when I’d merely wished him ‘Happy Holiday’ – “but since I missed spending Thanksgiving with my family, I billed them four grand each.” (For twenty-six episodes, that’s $104,000 for four days’ work. “There’s no business like show business.” (No cats – they’re poor investments.) Apartment 14: Marla and Lefty. (Lefty’s a guy.) (Yes, indeed: a Kaz, a Lefty, a Quinn, and a Fronk. Clearly the punchline of some joke you can write yourself.) Lefty knows Lindsay and Meg through music. I’m not sure what Marla does, but when I was in their apartment last summer, checking their sputtering air conditioner, the dining room wall was stacked three-foot high with medical newspapers. (They weren’t guidebooks: I doubt she’s Jeffrey Dahmer.) Lefty, who stands maybe five-six, works out occasionally in the carport. (I keep waiting for his weights to slip in the oil slick.) In the summer, Marla bakes scantily by the pool – pleasing, but hardly replacing our Scandinavian Lost Lenore. They just got a “cute little puppy”with enormous paws. They’ll be riding the damn thing come August. “I hope Jeri (the dog) will be all right,” Marla told me one night in the parking lot. “It was so hot in our apartment last summer, the ferrets died.” (Ferrets? Right here in River City! You think they eat cats?) The main thing is – now that we have both a good owner and management company – I think these people may stick around for a while. Become friends. Family. Time to move back east.
  7. Chapter 2

    1994 What Was That? Actually, it’s been a quiet year. Except for the earthquake. “The room began to jolt, the bugs to bolt, A whim of Spielberg’s aliens? Or the occult?” It was 4 a.m. I was sleeping. (What else would I be doing?) Then I was up: Whomps. Car alarms. Quivering. (I was quivering.) You’re told to stay in bed; blankets mask the sound of walls shattering. I huddled. Nothing heavy hangs over my bed: no lethal print of “Nude Descending.” I was earthquake-ready. (“Semper Disaster.”) Still, the mattress bucked. Wind chimes clanged. Finally, it stopped. (What seemed ten years later.) Then: Sirens. Shouting. Darkness. (It was dark before, but my head was under a pillow.) Glasses? (No glasses.) Floor? (Yep, floor.) Glasses on floor? (Books on floor. Newspapers on floor. Lamp on floor.) Glasses? (Glasses!) Still, no light. I dressed for winter, though it had been eighty the day before. (In January, no less: gotta gloat about something.) I grabbed everything I’d need: Keys. Wallet. Watch. Flashlight? (Flashlight!) (Not something I normally carry. Still, who knew what I was about to see?) The front door was jammed. A night-latch I never use had wedged in place. I found a screwdriver, then dismantled the damned thing. (So I could get back in – providing “they” let me.) I was way too calm for a disaster. In the courtyard, neighbors gathered. (Half the guys without shirts: quintessential California.) “Everyone here?” I asked. No one else had. They were too busy awarding Olympic scores. (“6.5.” “7.5.” “8!”) We were all there. Every sniveling child and ex-husband. Edan had her kitten, Lonnie his snake. (What comfort.) “You shut off the gas?” I asked the apartment manager. “Hey!” he decided. “Good idea.” (Still stoned after too many years.) Later, I learned you’re only supposed to sniff for gas. Shut it off, and you wait forever to get it back on. Still, if I’d smelled some of those apartments that morning, I would have let them explode.) We shut off the gas, then the water. We left the electricity on – hopeful. It was barely five AM. Stars I’d never seen lit the sky, but an hour waited till dawn. Car alarms slowly died, though there were sirens on the street. And dogs howling. Drums. You’d think the moon had eclipsed. No one had news. (Fourteen apartments and not one portable radio. Lots of beer though, oozing down them bare chests.) I went to my car, tuned the radio, and promised to get a portable for next time. (Next time!) Six months later, I still haven’t bought a portable. Tomorrow. “A major quake!” reporters exulted. “No lights in the city!” “No water!” “No gas!” “Don’t drive!” they exclaimed. “Don’t drink!” “Don’t panic!” (Right.) Despite warnings, cars left our lot: The two women with the large dog. And pillows, lots of pillows. (What could they do with so many pillows? Who owns that many?) Gianpaolo, the Italian guy with the stretch-limo. (White, with “Hot Mama” plates. I could never ask why because he barely spoke English.) Helen, the nurse. (“Going to work,” I thought, “God bless her.” She never came back, driving all day and night to Colorado. Her sons shipped her stuff.) But the cops said, “Don’t drive,” so I sat in my car. Besides, where could I go? From Ventura Boulevard (fifty feet away) reporters sent H. G. Wells flashes: “Buildings demolished!” “Fires blazing!” “Streets flooded!” (Flooding? In a desert?) “Water mains crumbled!” (Ah.) Finally, dawn. Carefully leaving my car, I circled our building. The pool wall had tumbled. (Cinder blocks dove throughout LA) The cabana leaned at 40 degrees – like the Jetsons’ carport. Our mail kiosk was pebbles, its wishing-well roof shards. But the apartment building stood, gallantly, o’er splintered windows and stucco cracks. Neighbors still filled the courtyard. (What had they been doing for a hour?) Kyle (the child actor) had built a tent from sheets and was charging his sister to sleep in it. (Kid should be an agent.) Edan was crushing snails with her Barbie. Harv (the carpet-layer) and Lorelle (his police-trainee-wife) were hauling suitcases down the steps. “Gotta catch a flight to Maui,” he shouted. “Think the planes’ll fly?” “Bet everyone wants to leave,” Mack (Old Elvis) warned. “We got reservations,” Harv insisted. “Where are your kids?” I asked Lorelle. “With my step-mom, their half-grandma. Sure hope they’re all right.” Harv and Lorelle were back two weeks later. “For the kids and the small stuff,” Harv told me. “Forget the other crap.” “We found jobs in Hawaii,” Lorelle added. “Gonna live where it’s safe. Can’t raise kids where the ground shakes.” “What about volcanos?” I wanted to ask. Gianpaolo and the white stretch-limo were never seen again. Three months later, the apartment manager divided his meager things among hungry tenants. (Gianpaolo went back to Italy. No volcanos there. Sure thing.) Lonnie, the buffed accountant, vamoosed to Seattle. Taking his python (or boa constrictor) I hope. After three days, the women with the pillows returned. Offering no explanation. Leaving the courtyard that morning, I cut through what had been the pool wall. A water spout blocked Ventura Boulevard, shooting straight across like a riot hose. Glass from store windows glazed the cement. Guests from the nearby Hilton crowded its sidewalks, staring up at its ravaged tower. The men all wore bathrobes, clearly tourists. Along our street, children taunted each other while their mothers clutched rosaries. In my apartment, everything that could fall did. Water bottles had leapt, like lemmings, from my kitchen cabinets. Books levitated. Magazines flew. My computer sat rakishly atilt. But only one drinking glass broke, probably clobbered by migrating water bottles. Why do I have a cabinet of bottled water? Why three-dozen cans of tuna? A case of saltines? Earthquake food. And so tasty. You’re also told to hoard a hundred dollars – in singles and change. And never use the gas in your car below a half-tank. And hang up all dangling pay phones. Who makes these rules? Charismatic Fire Chiefs whose TV ratings soar with each disaster. Think I’m kidding? You don’t know Hollywood. Fire Chiefs have replaced stand-up comics in sit-coms. Back home, I put things away. I’m neat. And there was nothing else to do. Except ride aftershocks. Which came steadily, like Valkyries. A giant, yanking teeth. A fraternity, head-butting walls. The phone was dead, which it shouldn’t have been, but I guess too many pay phones were off the hook. There was no heat. No lights. No running water. Neighbors were siphoning the pool with Ripple bottles as I ate breakfast. (Cold cereal. I’ve got a case of that, too.) Then I went back to my car radio. “Don’t leave home!” reporters triumphed, “Don’t consider it!” (As they drove all over L.A. themselves.) “This is Gary Gabriel, standing near what, only last night, was a busy shopping mall.” “This is Steve Wolford, perched on the ruins of an teetering over-pass.” “This is Lisa McRee, surveying what had been Warren Beatty’s Hollywood Hills home. Say, Warren, how do you feel about this?” (How do you like your blue-eyed boy now, People magazine?) I tried to read. Tried to pay bills. Even tried shining my shoes. I was big time bored. Outside, neighbors fought. “Don’t eat that, Edan!” her mother shouted. “I told you, ‘Never eat anything Mack gives you!’” “Never eat nuttin’ you find up your nose, neither,” Mack sulked. Finally, I went to sleep. I’d been up late the night before, had slept maybe two hours, and can usually sleep through anything. It’s genetic: my dad slept on a carrier deck all the way back from Okinawa. Getting up only to eat, piss, and play poker.) An aftershock woke me near noon. We still had no power or heat. Wheel was in Miami, and I’d stayed home to ship things they’d need. I was also supposed to look after my older boss’s house. But radio reporters still trumpeted, “Disaster!” “Pillars of Flame!” “Stay home!” (Where it’s safe?) But I knew my duty. The freeway east was jammed. Who, exactly, was “Staying home?” Cars blocked Ventura Boulevard. Side streets were crowded with people afraid to go in their houses. (And with children, merrily looting.) Using canyon roads (Am I nuts?) I headed for CBS. Why? Telephones. Emergency power. Earthquake supplies for 2000 people. (Originally stocked for nuclear war, but now used for more mundane disasters.) The building was nearly empty. If it hadn’t been a holiday – Martin Luther King Day – it was now. Our third-floor office was flooded. A rooftop water pipe had cracked. Open drafting file drawers cascaded like fountains. Suspended ceilings were fallen papier-mache. The CBS maintenance crew knew this but couldn’t help. The basement was in water a foot-high. Million dollar video equipment was being ruined. I called New York, and my family was relieved. “How’d you get a line out?” they asked. “We’ve been calling for hours. Sherman Oaks is all over the news.” Once I righted and dried the office TV, I turned it on. Sherman Oaks was all over the news. I could have stayed home and waved to friends. Instead, I phoned Miami. My bosses had gotten word as the earthquake happened. There, it had been seven AM. One of the joys of satellites is people know you’re dead before you do. I warned them about the office, and my older boss asked about his house. Try explaining the concept of terminal traffic to a man comfortably having a snack 3,000 miles away. (“Oh, sure I’ll risk my life to see if your chimney has cracked.” Forget teaching Darwin in public schools. Teach the Food Chain.) I found a shovel among our props and started to dig out our office. Wet ceiling tile’s as heavy as snow. I blotted sopped blueprints with diapers. (Why stock diapers? They’re great for cleaning prize cars.) Hours later, I finally headed toward my boss’s house, only to hear the radio crow, “Curfew! Curfew! Off the streets by dark, or go to jail!” (Except, of course, our toughened reporters.) It was already five. If I tried to get to my boss’s house and then home, in traffic, I’d end up playing Pinochle all night with pimps and hookers. I called a nearby friend, said I had some great prize wine, and asked how she felt about overnight guests. And as the sun set, I sat – and drank – on a 19th floor balcony of a steel-and-glass apartment building. Wondering why I possibly felt safe. Someday, I’ll get out of here. Meanwhile, I hope you’re all on solid ground.
  8. Moorpark Palms Letters

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  9. Moorpark Palms Letters

    These are the original, annual, New Year's letters that I sent to my friends from 1993 to 2001. That was from two years after I moved into the building to a year-and-a-half after I left. As mentioned, the letters were the basis for the book, and they often overlap the same material. But they cover more time and more characters, and are sometimes funnier because they're more compressed and somewhat more rude.
  10. Chapter 1

    1993 Just Off the Camino Real I love living in this place: Moorpark Palms. U-shaped. Stucco and stone. Fourteen apartments on two floors. Out back: a kidney-shaped pool. When I moved in, the trim was orange, the courtyard overgrown. New owners painted the doors aqua, razed the jungle and planted petunias. There are now two palms; there may have been more. There's never been more excitement. My favorite neighbors are Mack, whose name may really be Tommy, and Joni, whose name is probably Jean. Mack, hairy and tattooed, almost never wears a shirt and looks like Old Elvis. Once, he may have resembled Young Elvis, presumably why Joni married him. She was an Elvis groupie twenty-years-and-sixty-pounds ago, but more about that later. MackTommy and JoniJean have two kids: four-year-old screeching Gini (short for Virginia) and eight-year-old, shag-haired Kyle (a ninja child-actor who reportedly supports them all). They also have two dogs: Bordeaux, a white German Shepherd, and Gini (don't ask) a lumbering Basset Hound Joni found and couldn’t “bear to put to sleep.” Instead, she spends much of her time (and ours) calling in the courtyard: “Gini! Gini! Bordeaux! Kyle! They all run free. Mack’s official profession is Window Cleaner (like Windex). Over their mailbox and on signs attached to their aged black Caddy (more later), it reads: Anderson’s Awning and Window Cleaning. I have no idea who Anderson is. Their last name is Turner (supposedly). When they first moved in they asked Vic – my crazy former neighbor whose last name was also Turner – if they were related. Had he said “Yes,” and if he’d had any, they might have hit him for money. They hit everyone else. Mack and Joni were originally hired as part-time apartment managers, replacing the angst-prone Bret, a short-order cook and would be chef, who also wore no shirt. (He lived with his wife, Lola, and a tormented, unneutered tomcat. More about them later.) Supposedly, Tommy was Mack and Jean Joni because, in addition to getting free rent in exchange for building maintenance – while probably misusing Kyle’s sporadic acting income – they were also collecting “government benefits,” which is to say welfare. This information came from Donna, who – when she moved into the building – was introduced as Joni’s sister. “I’m not her sister,” Donna soon told me. “We met twenty years ago, when I was a security guard for Elvis. She was a hanger-on.” “Elvis?” I asked quietly, not meaning to upset someone’s fantasy. (The front plate on the Turner family Caddy reads “Elvis,” and, supposedly, a plaque on the dashboard – I once heard Kyle bragging about it – reads “Made expressly for you-know-who.” The car’s so bedraggled now I’ve been afraid to look. Besides, I wouldn’t cross Mack. He’s the kind who makes pigs squeal.) Donna simply nodded at my question. “He was so great, nothing like what you hear. He’d be there, playing Yatzee with us – it was his favorite game – and throwing water balloons off his balcony. People would look up fifteen floors, screaming, not knowing who they’d just been soaked by. Then he’d go on stage and was like this different person, someone I didn’t know at all.” For six years Donna was one of His Vegas security people. (“I was at his last birthday. It’s all so sad now.”) She’s “Aunt Donna” to Gini and Kyle, and while she lived in the building – she recently moved – occasional companion to Garth. Garth’s a dark-haired, good-looking rodeo cowboy and stunt man, maybe thirty-two. Donna’s forty-something, with several grown kids. Unlike Joni, she started young. When I first met Garth, he was drunk, naked, and sparring in the courtyard with our newest apartment manager, a twentyish, California blond boy who’d just moved in. The few times I saw Garth after that, he was always friendly, if never fully dressed or sober. He and Donna constantly invited me to dinner, offering thick steaks grilled by the pool. I once gave in, then had an exhausting conversation about race tracks, stunt-flying, and car engines – my favorite subjects. Hearing I was a designer, Garth insisted I paint western scenes for the back windows of his wealthy boss’s pick-up trucks. I never completely convinced him I wasn’t a graphics artist. When we shook hands goodbye, he nearly crushed my fingers in affection. Donna moved suddenly, in the middle of the night. She’d had a restraining order placed against Mack (“I never liked him.”) and was barely speaking to Joni. The order compelled Mack to stay 50 feet away, though their apartments were less than 20 feet apart. Trouble began when Donna and Garth went to Hawaii, and Joni used her manager’s keys to strip Donna’s kitchen of food. She also ran up the phone bill, blew out the air conditioner, and let the kids trash the place as a playground. (“I love those kids,” Donna told me. “I’d do anything to get them away from that man – especially Gini. Kyle brings in the money so they spoil him rotten, then they treat her like shit.”) Before Joni and Mack were replaced as managers, they had my odd neighbor Vic evicted. He’d been threatening to go for years anyway, insisting Mack was plotting against him – and Bret before that. (Bret felt Vic always spied on him. “Any time I look up at his window, the curtains move, then he flips me the bird.”) For two years, everything Vic owned was packed in cardboard boxes. He’d even turned off his electricity. Before Mack padlocked the utility box, Vic would turn his power back on as needed. After that, I’d occasionally come home and find an extension cord running under his door and up to the light fixture in the stairwell we shared. As I reached the landing, Vic would crack open his apartment door and from the darkness – sweaty and shirtless – goofily explain, “The lottery’s reached thirteen mil,” or “UCLA’s playing tonight.” Vic’s my age and height, though slightly heavier. He owned a bike, no car, and constantly thumped his Schwinn up and down our steps (“So no one messes with it”). Before he’d been pensioned on disability (“Back problems”) he’d been an aerospace mechanic. (“My boss was a real Mickey Mouse. I keep this logo on my door to remind me.”) (Mickey’s image also guarded Vic’s mailbox.) As I first moved in, Vic stood in his doorway watching me. “Are you Steve Allen?” he finally asked. I hadn’t heard that question since the early sixties, when subway bums wanted “loose change.” “No,” I said. “You his son?” I smiled and introduced myself. “Royal?” he misheard. “Rich,” I repeated. “Royal would be neater. You should change it.” I smiled again. “I went to school with Steve Allen’s son,” he soon went on. “They live near here.” He studied me again. “You’re sure you’re not his son?” Vic always spooked Bret, though Bret was probably born edgy and further twisted that way. In the year he was part-time manager, he lost maybe a half-dozen restaurant jobs. (“People are real selfish,” he swore. “Always thinking of themselves. Never thinking what I might need.”) When he and Lola fought, their horny cat howled like a battered child. When the cat escaped his apartment-prison, Bret gave chase, waving flashlight and leash, hissing the cat’s name. After Lola ran to a neighbor’s place one night, locking herself in, Bret stood in the courtyard, in pajama bottoms, in the four AM rain, yowling, “Lola! Lola!” “Stella! Stella!” Vic’s studio apartment was quickly rented to a pair of college students: a lanky farmer-type and his tattooed Chinese girlfriend. (A large black star graces the side of her neck. I trust it’s not from a cult.) Odd odors occasionally greet me on the landing, a mix of incense and sweat. And there’s screaming, late at night. For a long time, I didn’t connect it to them. I thought it was on TV. Finally, late one night one of their windows smashed out. “She really lets him have it,” a neighbor – the boy’s brother-in-law – told me. “She’s smart, real smart. All women are.” The neighbor, Harv, moved in the same week as the college kids. With him came Lorelle, his Police Academy-trainee wife, and their two Village-of-the-Damned-blonde daughters. Joining Gini, Trina and Tara incessantly circle noisy plastic-wheeled trikes ‘round and ‘round our concrete courtyard, aping the kid in The Shining. Harv lays carpet for Lorelle’s father and makes “‘Bout fifty thou per – off the books, natch.” He’s always talkative, always friendly, and rarely wears a shirt. He looks like Mack’s double, with more symmetrical tattoos. Harv was planning to apply for a job as a school bus driver this fall (“They make sixty grand per – you believe it? And only work forty hour weeks!”) but there were 12,000 other applicants. (“And some of them had experience.”) Beneath Harv and Lorelle live Annie, Ed, and their also-Gini-aged daughter, Edan. Donna, at first hearing Annie shout for her daughter – everyone shouts around here; it goes with guys not wearing shirts – asked Annie why she’d named her daughter after herself. (“I know men do it with sons, but I’ve never seen it with girls.”) “Her name’s ‘Edan.’” Annie corrected. “Mine’s Annie.” “Oh,” Donna said, “I misheard.” “We made it up from the first letters of my name and Ed’s.” (A contestant on Wheel of Fortune recently was named Marence – for his mother Marsha and dad Lawrence. He married a woman named Michelle, and they named their daughter Marchelle. This has got to stop.) Ed’s a traveling salesman (“In “videos”). I hope that’s not literally, though he’s bland enough to be some dim porno star. He and Annie seem nicely ordinary, though moving in, midsummer, they brought a Christmas tree growing in a garbage can. It’s presently dying outside their door. If they fought, it was never in public, though they both frequently brayed “Edan! Edan!” and squabbled loudly with Mack. Still, the other morning everyone woke to hear Ed screaming at the same locked door Bret once faced. “Annie, let me in, goddamnit! I’m your husband!” We all quickly found out – as Annie argued fiercely through the locked screen door – that Ed had taken a business trip to Vegas then delayed coming home. We also found out he had a slight gambling problem. “We thought you were dead!” Annie howled at him. “We called everywhere! Hospitals! Police! The Highway Patrol!” “I would of called...” “If you were dead?!” “What could of happened...” “I want you out of here!” Annie screamed. “You’re not coming in! I never want to see you again!” “It was just three days...” “And borrowing money from your mother! When you know all she does is smoke and live on credit cards!” This went on for an hour, then ended abruptly, and nothing more was said. They still live here, Ed travels, and Edan plays with Gini, despite their parents’ mutual glares. Other neighbors: For part of the summer, we had a woman living here with lots of friends. Male friends. Different male friends. Soon after she arrived, screams tore from her apartment one night. Worse screams than even Bret’s cat’s. Everyone rushed to the courtyard, men especially, ready to prevent murder. Only it seems the woman was entertaining. Then there’s Lonnie, an accountant – pleasant, mid-twenties, buffed. He often wanders, shirtless of course, through our courtyard. With a python around his neck. And the two women with different last names and a huge dog who share a one-bedroom apartment and talk to no one. (Can you blame them?) Luba, a red-haired Russian, who complains she should pay less for her two-bedroom apartment than the families with four people living in them. Finally, Sally, who moved in when the apartments were new in 1957. She was a dancer, who’d come from Pennsylvania in the 1930's to make movies. Instead, she married, and for a long time she and her husband managed the building, raising three daughters. (“It was all so pretty once. The outdoor lights were pink. There were hanging baskets of flowers.”) One of her daughters died here. (“She planted this jade.” Presumably there’s no connection.) Her husband passed on. Sally outlasted earthquakes, death, and uncaring landlords, but not Mack. He terrified her. When the tires on her little-used Fiat went flat, she blamed him. When her purse vanished, along with a man who’d talked his way into her apartment, claiming to “wash windows for Seniors at discount,” she blamed Mack. (Because he washes windows.) To protect Sally, a great-granddaughter took the adjoining apartment, then mostly busied herself with boys. (“The Irish Virgin,” Vic called Shannon, simultaneously showing interest while admitting defeat.) When Vic moved on (to a Scientology hotel) Annie started a petition to evict Mack and Joni and quietly get their job. Everyone signed, but Mack and Joni are wily (and still here). Finally, after thirty-six years, Sally moved eight rooms of dark furniture out of her one-bedroom apartment. She now lives with a daughter. Why do I stay? The rent’s cheaper than other people’s cable. Also, the walls are comforting knotty pine. It looks like Reno in the 1930's or one of my suburban neighbor’s basements in 1955. When it’s quiet, I have everything I need. When the kids wail, I turn on the air conditioner – Haydn, in winter. I think about moving, but I’m in California to save money. How’s the show doing? Wheel is still # 1, syndicated. (Talk about Elvis sightings.) Do I “love” working on the show? It’s fun. Could I leave California? Quickly, though not for a few more years. Could I face “real” winter again? I ain’t sure. Am I settled? No. (I’m a bum.) Do I own a couch? Yes, but it’s very small. The thing I like best about this place is the earth could crumble (and might) and I wouldn’t miss a thing.
  11. Chapter 31

    Glad you both liked the story. As I said, there's a bit more to come, mostly in a different form.
  12. Moorpark Palms

    Jake's adventures continue in this funny book about the small Los Angeles apartment building he lives in. It's full of hot young people who spend a lot of time nearly naked around the pool. But they're often bonkers.
  13. Chapter 31

    Steve soon moved into Tim and Cyndi’s old apartment. It fortunately didn’t need a lot of work. And like other tenants before him, besides the clothes he was wearing, Steve brought almost nothing. But he was wearing a very nice suit. And Bart assured me, he was a good risk I offered him my futon. “I mainly use it for guests,” I said. “It has sheets.” “No, sir,” he declined, in his politest Savannah drawl. “I’ve been sleeping on a bad couch for most of a year – since my wife, sorry, ex-wife, and I moved here. A hard floor will do me good.” “Messy divorce?” I wanted to ask, but I couldn’t. Though when I knocked on his door a few weeks later – Halloween morning – to offer a dining table someone had dumped in the next building’s trash, I learned a little more. Steve answered in cowboy clothes and monster make-up. “Waiting for your kids?” I asked. I knew there were two of them, maybe four and eight. They visited on weekends. “No, sir,” Steve replied, quickly adding, “I work at Wells Fargo. For the holiday, management decided we should all be cowboys and ghouls.” So that’s what management does. While we moved the table, Steve explained his pending divorce. “We came here because my sister-and-brother-in-law told us there was better work. We were having marriage problems anyway but figured the extra money might help. We sold our house, put everything in storage, and moved – just for the time being – to my in-law’s. We both found great jobs, that was no problem, but our personal stuff kept getting worse – I think we just don’t like each other. So we kept putting off buying a house, and I moved out of her room and started sleeping in the den. And sleeping. And sleeping. Which it turned out kinda pleased my wife – she was all comfy by herself. Finally, I couldn’t take it and walked out.” “I hope things get better.” “Well, fortunately, we have money. But this is gonna take years to sort out. And the kids are young – I’ll always have to be in touch with her. Talk about unlucky mistakes.” “I’ll tell you if I find any other furniture,” I said. “That would be kind. Thank you, sir.” It would be great if everyone in the building was as polite. But yesterday afternoon, I got back from riding fifteen miles on my bike and took a long, selfish, almost illegal shower to decompress. As I finally turned off the water, I heard noise – full-out shouting – and absently figured: Tim and Cyndi. Then I realized they didn’t live here anymore. I considered: Ed and Annie? Then I heard something about, “Get off my balcony!” Now Ed and Annie live downstairs. Franck lives upstairs -- so there was a chance his daughter and son-in-law were fighting in his apartment. But Franck didn’t have a balcony. If he did, he’d probably sit on it and smoke. I quickly combed my still-sopping hair, pulled on jeans and a shirt – skipped socks and shoes – and went to see what was happening. On the balcony were Rob, Birgit, Claire, a middle-aged woman I didn’t know, Quinn, and Meg. All screaming like the last act of an opera. “What’s going on?” I mouthed to Meg, who seemed the calmest. She waved me away, though looked disgusted. Meanwhile, Lindsay, Sally, and Annie stood peering from their doorways. Then Korki – watching behind her own screen door – gestured me over. “If you need a witness, the woman – she pointed at Claire – hit the guy – Quinn – first.” “They were hitting each other!” She nodded as the howling increased, and Vic appeared behind her, half-grinning and pulling on his T-shirt. “I want the police!” Claire shrieked from above. Rob whipped out his cell phone and called. That assured – and maybe because I was now standing by – Claire swept down the center stairs, across the courtyard, and up to her own apartment. The older woman, mumbling apologies to all, followed. “What happened?” I soon asked Rob and Birgit. Then Meg and Quinn. Finally, Claire -- the unknown woman turned out to be her mother. “Someone took my pillows out of the drier!” Claire accused. “They stole my cycle!” She was still excited, though was counting out sedatives. “Her stuff had been in there for hours,” Quinn rebutted. “Trying to dry, but it wasn’t happening -- those pillows were just getting lumpier. Meanwhile, our things were dripping on the counter. And Birgit had two wet loads in the washers.” “I was ready to hang it all on the fence,” Birgit confessed. “My shorts!” Rob panicked. As though he wore more in the pool. “Finally, the pillows were just sitting there,” Quinn went on. “We checked the machines, like, two or three times before moving anything.” “The driers had stopped,” Meg insisted. “And you know the rules.” Unwritten: If someone’s laundry is just waiting -- in a washer or drier -- and you want to use it, you neatly move their things to the counter. Established by Churchill at Yalta. “We were careful,” Quinn warrantied. “We were,” Meg vouched. “Even tried to fluff the dead pillows.” “We did.” “Not knowing whose they were.” “Now that we do, we should’ve run them over.” One reason the “rules” exist is so you don’t have to go knocking on every apartment door, seeking owners. “Anyhow, we put our wash in, popped in quarters, and came back to watch TV.” “There’s racing on.” “Then: Bam! Slam! The bitch is at our door!” “Quinn...” “Well, she scared the cats!” “Still...” “Okay... the possible bitch.” He grinned. Meg took over. “She announced to the whole world that we’d stolen her drier!” “No way!” “We swore otherwise. But she still went ballistic.” “I did go a little nuts,” Claire admitted. “All the pressure from moving. And I just got my cat’s ashes from the vet.” I’d known Claire was moving -- to Hawaii, where it turned out her mother lived. Franck’s predictions had been true. But I didn’t know the details. “I’ve been waiting and waiting,” she explained. “I’ve been wanting to go for months -- even before the mess with Tim and Cyndi -- almost since summer. But my cat was so old, and so sick, and it seemed so unfair of me to move, making the end of his life so miserable. So I held off.” “He died Wednesday,” her mother said softly. “I could’ve buried him here -- but just couldn’t convince myself. Not when he could sleep on the beach. In almost paradise.” “I flew in,” Mom went on. “To help pack.” “She’d done most of it already.” “And I wanted to take everything clean -- or give it away. We were just finishing up, doing my bed things.” “We put in enough change for three hours. You know how stubborn pillows can be.” “Then the ashes arrived and we got distracted. Still, when we went to the laundry room, someone else’s clothes were in our driers!” “And everything we’d carefully washed was on that counter.” “Like trash!” “You can’t give dirty things to charity. What would they think?” Not quite what Quinn had testified “I tried to find who did it,” Claire finished. But what she left out was -- first -- her wanton pummeling of Isabelle’s door -- because Annie, mistakenly, told Claire that Isabelle had probably needed the driers, so had moved Claire’s things. Fortunately, Isabelle wasn’t home, or we would have had nuclear war. And during that initial pounding, Rob had yelled down from the balcony that Claire was making so much noise, he couldn’t hear himself on the phone. Prompting her tense reply, “Shut up, and mind your own business!” Which brought out Birgit. “I mean, she was so rude!” Birgit complained. “We have every right to use the courtyard!” Claire thought otherwise: “I constantly hear their calls -- no matter how personal! At every hour! Even with my windows locked!” “She probably plants microphones!” When the fight got too loud to ignore, Meg came out. By then, Claire was up the stairs, and she quickly managed to insult Meg -- whose bedroom once shared a wall with her own. “Let’s not even start on what kind of noise those two made!” Quinn stepped in to defend his betrothed. Which was when -- somehow -- Claire discovered who’d actually moved her pillows. “She started screeching just about every swear word I’ve ever heard!” Meg exclaimed. Luring her mother into the fiasco. Now Claire’s mother seemed a completely sensible person somehow unthreatened by her daughter’s manic depression. She’d tried to calm Claire. But once she saw Quinn’s savagely tattooed arms -- which seem to stimulate the most benign hormones -- things got shaky. “I thought he was going to hit her!” Claire exploded. “I thought she was gonna smack Meg!” Quinn sniped. What everyone agreed -- and Korki and Vic collaborated -- was: Claire slightly shoved Quinn. Then he lightly slapped her. Then I came in, with my junior detective kit Still, by the time the squad car arrived, everyone had the chance to back off. Quinn put on a long-sleeved shirt -- which turned him back into choir boy. Claire’s pills had grabbed hold -- while the sun dried her pillows. Rob and Birgit finished their own laundry and were readying the barbeque for dinner. Everyone else had gone inside. The police mainly laughed, relieved they didn’t actually have to do anything. “I’m moving out tomorrow,” Claire assured them. “I’ve lived here longer than I’ve stayed anywhere else. I’ve never caused problems. And my cat just died. I just want some quiet.” “Your cat died?” cooed Meg. “Oh... how sad.” The cops packed off. Meg took Claire some flowers. Quinn tossed me a beer. Eventually, he, Meg, and I drifted to the pool, where Rob and Birgit were grilling. Lindsay soon followed, carting Sally and overly sweet dessert. Bobby turned up after his weekly family visit, darting upstairs only to stash his clean laundry. Vic and Korki brought something that looked like tufu hot dogs. Annie fed Ed and Edan and Franck from their own, separate grill, which the rest of us weren’t allowed to touch. Later, even Ben and Jonathan came back – celebrating. After greedily competitive bids from Georgetown and Columbia, Ben had chosen Tulane. “I’m the first Israeli they’ve accepted! They’re so excited, they’re paying for everything!” He grinned, enormously. “I love this country!” We all laughed and gave the boy a beer. “Is every building like this?” I asked our group, just a little exhausted. “No,” they agreed. “Isn’t ours great?”
  14. Chapter 30

    Cyndi and Tim didn’t go out in a racket of bullets. But they might have. Soon after New Year’s, she kicked him out again, claiming that, since November, he hadn’t done his share of “the money stuff.” “This time, I hope they lock him up and let him scream off the drugs,” she told me. “The only good thing I can say is he really loved me when he really loved me.” Listening to Cyndi was educational in a scary sort of talk show way. She looked like a talk show host, too, all that empty sincerity. But she seemed as harmless as Tim was with all his movie knowledge. Until they fought. “Did you hear Tim and Cyndi last night?” Quinn would ask, roaring his matte black former police department motorcycle beside my Toyota. “I liked the part when the cats got so freaked they clawed out the screens.” Who needed blockbusters? Normally, Tim and Cyndi’s fights were as short as their attention spans. But January was different. These bouts settled in like a Santa Ana. After the New Year’s ousting, Cyndi crudely disassembled Tim’s very expensive entertainment system. “I pay for half of it!” she muttered, viciously yanking cables. “That’s not exactly true,” Franck said. “She mainly uses her paychecks for hobbies, and her dad picks up the bills.” “Tim’s half, too?” I asked. “No, she’s wrong on that as well. He pays half of the rent and electricity, and he’s always giving her money for take-out – neither of them cook. But I guess she wants more.” Still, Bart told me the rent was always paid by one of Cyndi’s checks – pastel, cartoon-fested, with Cyndi’s name in gold and the writing elaborately calligraphed. “I really don’t know what I’m doing here,” Cyndi said, the night she disemboweled Tim’s electronic baby and stacked the components outside her door in the January damp. “And there’s all these wires.” She held up a mass of clipped angel hair spaghetti and a pair of her scalloped scissors. “I told him to pick these up,” finished It seemed she didn’t mind having paid for half of the system. She just wanted it out of her sight. Annie took them all into her apartment. “I don’t want them ruined. We really should sell them.” She and Cyndi were remarkably adept at finding garage sales. That was another place Tim got his tapes. “People practically give them away,” Cindy crowed. It’s also where she bought her Snoopies. “I have over a hundred and of them.” Many of them Tim gave her as presents. “This time, he’s never coming back,” Cyndi swore. “Never, never, never, never, never!” Well, hardly ever: Tim was back the next morning. “I still have keys,” he twinkled, dangling them as a tease and letting himself in. Then he carefully reassembled his system “He’s back?” Franck asked, crouched on his customary step, flicking Marlboro Lights into his jar. “Who knows?” I said, and I headed to work. “Cyndi said she’d call the police,” Franck called after me. “She’s afraid Tim might steal her car.” “Why? His is better.” When he was first expelled, Tim had his own BMW. It wasn’t new, and Cyndi – or her dad – may have indeed helped pay it off. The morning he came back, he was driving a Porche. “My boss’s,” he explained. “Mine’s in the shop.” He’d really only come back for clothes, he assured the soon watchful Franck. “I’m staying with my boss. But I couldn’t leave that system a wreck. Cyndi’ll want to use it.” So Franck had let him into Ed and Annie’s apartment. That evening, Cyndi reportedly growled at the system. But she turned it right on. “I’d bolt the windows,” she told me. “But the cats couldn’t get out.” “Would you really call the police?” I asked. “If Tim shows up again?” “I was going to take out restraining order. But there’s so much paperwork.” “What if he comes back?” I persisted. “He has his clothes. What more would he want?” Nonetheless. Early the next morning, Tim’s BMW crunched to a halt in front of our building. The car door slammed, then I listened while he tried his keys. Franck had again changed the locks. “Fuckin’ whore!” he grouched, I assumed to himself. Cyndi was gone, and Franck wasn’t yet on his steps. As I finished breakfast, I watched Tim try the front windows. They were locked. He went around to the back of the apartment, where I couldn’t see him, and that’s when I left. I didn’t have time to get involved. But when I pulled out onto the street, in my rear view mirror, I could see Tim studying the back windows. I knew they were locked, too. Annie had Cyndi’s cats. Later, it turned out, Tim had popped the bathroom screen, disassembled the casement crank, then slipped slideways onto the floor. “Why didn’t you do something?” Cyndi yelled at Franck that night. “Like what?” he asked. “Call the cops! Dial 911! The shithead broke into my apartment!” “What did he take?” I asked. “My big Snoopies!” Cyndi cried. “Well, half of them – the ones he gave me. He knows he can’t sell them. I could, but he doesn’t know how, They’re for collectors. He only took them to hurt me.” “You did trash his stereo system,” Annie counseled. “This hurts more.” No one wanted to measure that. “I’m not sleeping here anymore,” Cyndi told us. “It’s too scary. I’ll stay with my parents.” “What about your cats?” Annie asked. “They’re safe at your place.” “They can’t stay overnight. They’ll fight with mine. I had to lock them in Edan’s bedroom. There are just too many.” “Then let them run free for a couple of days. They do half the time anyway. No one really owns a cat.” Annie was persuaded, and she and Cyndi double checked the locks on all her windows, and tightly shut her blinds. After that, she divided anything else she thought Tim might steal between Annie’s closets and her car. “That’s not right,” Lindsay advised. “No one should be afraid to stay in her own space.” It was nice to hear Lindsay defend Cyndi because, just before Christmas, the two of them had a screaming fight in the courtyard. Lindsay had insisted Tim was leading her new musician/boyfriend into drugs, a possibly naive charge. Cyndi howled back that Cliff had more drugs than Tim could ever imagine, and Lindsay was a fool not to figure that out. Lindsay said Tim was a thief who stole a guitar and had her boyfriend drive getaway. “It was my guitar!” Cyndi screeched. “Tim was taking it in for repairs!” “Well, he didn’t come back with the same one he took in!” “Mine was beyond repair!” The noise solved nothing that day, but I was glad they got over it. The third morning Tim returned, his car shuddered to a stop, the door slammed, he tried the front, side, and rear windows, then came back to the door. “Good!” he muttered. “She’s learning.” His car door slammed again, and I waited for the motor to start. Nothing. Maybe he was thinking things out. Or getting high. Then one of Cyndi’s back windows smashed in. I considered what to do – not intending to get any further involved with this pre-school Punch ‘n’ Judy. But I couldn’t have Tim breaking up the place. I phoned Bart, reaching his wife and telling her what had happened. She immediately called the police. Then. Nothing. Happened. Maybe a half-hour later, I went down to leave for work, only to find two cops – pistols drawn – where our mailman should have been. “Who are you?” the first cop spat. “The m-m-manager,” I sputtered, involuntarily invoking my title. The officer thumbed me away. Behind him was another armed pair with shouldered rifles. Down the block were four quickly-parked squad cars. “Who’s in there?” the second cop hissed, his gun now slightly more politely aimed at my feet. I wanted to be somewhere else. “Tim,” I whispered back. “A tenant.” Former? Present? I didn’t know “Armed?” the officer asked. “Barely fingered.” He stared, but I had to laugh. “What!” he shot. “Unarmed,” I quickly clarified. This was no time for comedy. The cop nodded. I started to walk. And I continued to the end of the block. I wasn’t going to get shot for Tim. “What’s goin’ on?” an unknown man on a balcony called. I tried to explained. “Super!” he said. Minutes later, Bart’s car appeared. I signaled to him before he turned the corner toward the building. “Do you know what’s happening?” I asked. He knew more than I did. The cops had Cyndi talking with Tim from her office. She said he’d just come home to sleep in her bed – that he missed her. But he wasn’t coming out of the apartment because he feared police brutality. Besides what he’d learned from movies, it seemed Tim had some personal experience with the police – and a minor criminal record from high school. Not for the expected – drugs. For loitering. He’d passed a gay bar one too many times in the prescribed two hours. Still, Cyndi – touched by Tim’s missing her – wouldn’t press charges. And Tim insisted his name was on the lease. Bart confirmed it was. “Then what are we doing here?” one of the officers asked. “It’s not illegal to get locked out of your own apartment.” After an hour of assurances – by Bart, by the officers, by me – Tim cautiously out the apartment, hands wide above his head and wearing only briefs. After some talk, he got into his car and drove off.” “Too bad,” the guy from the balcony said. He was on our front lawn and carried what looked like a video-cam – “that close” to a tape that would send him on a nice vacation. I walked towards Bart, who was just finishing with the cops. “Those kids are crazy,” he grumbled, as if that were news. “They’ve got to go.” I couldn’t argue that. He frowned. “But it’s not that easy. The law is set up to protect the renter. No matter how bongo the bozo.” “Maybe she’ll move,” I encouraged. “She’s already scared.” “And maybe I’ll buy the Dodgers.” Then things got weird – as though up to now they hadn’t been. Cyndi still insisted she didn’t want to see Tim. She also wouldn’t sleep in her apartment because she was “still terrified.” And her parents – or so Annie claimed – swore they’d “cut Cyndi off if she didn’t ditch the little runt.” Still, Cyndi and Tim drove to Vegas for a weekend. “It was so much fun!” she told Franck, when she’d stopped in the courtyard to “feed my babies” – the hundred-and-one calicos. “What about your parents?” he asked. “Oh – them!” Cyndi giggled. “They do whatever I ask!” Tim appeared the next afternoon, with freshly-cut keys plainly supplied by Cyndi. “For my tapes,” he pacified Franck. “I’m not living here. We’ve agreed to a trial separation.” “He’s so much nicer when he begs to see me,” Cyndi soon explained. “And he’s going to take a road trip east.” “Why east?” I asked, wondering what movie might have inspired him. “His mom lives in Pittsburgh,” Cyndi said. “He hasn’t seen her in years.” Abstractly, I knew Tim had a mother. But I hadn’t figured she’d survived his birth. “He’s driving the BMW cross-country?” Vic asked. “I’m amazed it made Vegas,” I agreed. “Oh, we didn’t drive that!” Cyndi laughed. “Some car dealer wanted to sell me a Land Rover – I got this letter in the mail. Of course, I didn’t want one – they’re too clunky. But they let me test drive one all weekend” I wondered how those fools sold cars. Tim’s car made it to Iowa, Cyndi reported. Then he spent two weeks with his friend. Cyndi gloated about that, knowing who was footing the hospitality. One Tim’s car was repaired, he pushed on to Pittsburgh, then headed south. Last Cyndi had heard, he was in Texas. Meanwhile, she’d moved back in. “Got to show my parents I’m independent,” she told Sally. “Or else they’ll stop supporting me.” But she wasn’t happy. Evenings, she moped on her couch, front door open as though awaiting Elijah. Too blue even for crafts and the flea markets, she and Claire loudly discussed tranquillizers across the resonant courtyard. “I hate drugs,” Cyndi insisted. “Sometimes you’ve got to take them,” Claire replied. “Watch TV,” Annie suggested, more sanely. “I can’t. I’ve got all these great tapes, and I can’t even play them. They remind me of Tim.” All night, her lights stayed on. “It keeps away gloom.” Twenty-four hours, her small, bedroom TV blared. “It keeps the cats company when I’m at work.” “Could you turn it down a little?” I asked – gently at first. “My bedroom’s almost across from yours. I can hear the sound clearly.” Cyndi promised, but she always forgot. “Franck said your ceiling fan squeaks,” I’d added. “Do you mind if I oil it?” “Go ahead.” Three-In-One oil didn’t help, nor did WD-40 or rubber washers. I asked if she’d keep the fan off till summer, when open windows and outside noise would drown the vibrations. Again, she promised but predictably forgot. Finally, with her permission, I went in one Sunday to take the fan down. She and Annie were off somewhere at an auction. It was a good thing I went in because as I entered, I smelled burning plastic. Jumping in and out the window, the cats had somehow knocked the bathroom litter box – a kind of Tupperware traveling cage – against the wall heater, and turned it on. Its red coils glowed dangerously, and the plastic box seemed seconds from igniting. I killed the heater, cooled the box in the shower, then reported to Bart. “She’s out!” he insisted. “This minute!” But there was nothing he could actually do. A few days later, Cyndi’s clock-radio went off at six AM, and was still rockin’ ‘n’ buzzing at nine. I phoned. I heard other people bang at her door. When I finally knocked myself, I saw a nasty letter from Isabelle tucked in the screen: “If you don’t care about sleeping, you should move somewhere else!” Seeing me, Korki asked helpfully, “Did Cyndi overdose?” It was nothing I’d considered. Using the passkey, I went in. No death, but no Cyndi, either. Just cats. “I guess she stayed at her folks,” I told Claire. “And forgot the alarm.” And the lights. And the TV. I turned them all off and even jiggled the toilet handle. Its constant running was jacking up bills the building owner paid. Two nights later, the TV was so loud, I finally called Cyndi at four AM. Repeatedly. With no answer. But I knew she was there, even though, this time, her lights were off. I’d seen her come in and had watched her sit moodily on the outside steps when I working at my desk. Also, her car was parked in the space beside her door. I was tempted to kill the electricity – I had that ability. But it was a huge overstep. Besides, with no alarm, she might oversleep and endanger her job. And who wanted her hanging around the building all day? I finally banged loudly on her door, despite the hour but only succeeded in waking up Franck. He came down the stairs in an old terry bathrobe that stunk of cigarettes. I explained that I was trying to wake Cyndi. He listened and went back upstairs, then I heard him stomp once, hard, on his bedroom floor, which was right above Cyndi’s. The music stopped. Franck came back. “It’s an old trick I learned from living in cheap hotels,” he said. “You can also bang on radiator pipes, but we don’t have any.” I didn’t ask why he was living in cheap hotels. I just went back to sleep. At seven AM, my phone rang. It was Bart. “Cyndi just called me – hysterical. She woke up surrounded by glass and claims it’s all your fault.” “Possibly,” I admitted groggily, knowing exactly what had happened. The old light fixture I’d put back after taking down Cyndi’s fan had a slightly cracked shade. After forty years, Franck’s heavy footwork was all it took to shatter. That afternoon, Cyndi’s slicker-than-God father turned up in my office. We’d never met, but I could tell he was clearly worth more than Bill Gates. “She’s doing so well,” went his pitch. “She’s out of our house. She dumped the midget junkie. Couldn’t you just take care of her? Treat her like a kid sister?” I tried tact: “My kid sister never brought home the police. Or -- even accidentally -- tried to burn down our house. And if you think Tim’s gone, try looking in Cyndi’s bedroom. Along the wide headboard, there’s a double row of his framed pictures.” “He’s never coming back! She promised!” Tim was home for dinner, grinning like Dick Nixon. He’d had a great time on his trip east and was relaxed and happy. “I feel so much safer with him around,” Cyndi told Lindsay. “When he’s here, no one’s mean to me.” No one was buying that. “He’s not staying!” Bart swore. “He’s dead!” Cyndi’s dad threatened. “Evict them both!” every other tenant railed. Franck just sat on his step, smoking. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t kick ‘em out. It was winter, even in California. We all shut ourselves in. Yet somehow it all ended happily: Mid-March, Tim and Cyndi suddenly moved out – claiming they “needed more space.” All those Snoopies. All them tapes. And I suppose the Voodoo dolls we’d all been shoving nails in didn’t hurt.
  15. Chapter 29

    Despite everything else, almost the most exciting thing that happened around the building all year was the bomb scare. BOMB SCARE! I was on location, on a day-long shoot in nearby Ojai, fending off studio politics and Craft Services – neither very appetizing. So I had to piece together the news late that evening when I dragged home. Sally was the first to tell me. She’d been waiting up. It seems that mid-afternoon, Chuck – who wasn’t our tenant but who lived in the building just east – noticed a pair of suitcases abandoned near his part of the cul-de-sac. I’d say they were “on the grassy knoll” – which might lend a sort of conspiratorial elegance to a neighborhood that sometimes seems inhabited by territorial paranoids – but the area between our tiny front lawns and the street is flatly paved. Chuck claimed the suitcases sat in front of his building, though he was a renter like the rest of us. “His building” was also the place The Screaming Woman had just – finally – been evicted from. The Screaming Woman had been a 2 AM howler who, for over a year, had paced her curtainless living rom while battling her possibly sequential boyfriends on her phone. Through year-round open windows, everyone on the block heard her, including people in the motel, and there had been constant complaints. Most of her long telephone bouts ended with something like, “DON’T YOU FREAKIN’ DARE HANG UP ON ME!! I’M THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN YOU’VE EVER HAD!!! “Freakin’” and “had” are words some of us tactfully used on the police reports. Sally said that when Chuck saw the mysterious luggage sitting unattended, that where anyone else might have figured, “Hmm, I should put those somewhere safe till the owner comes back,” Chuck zoomed in on BOMB! I suspect Vic might have done the same thing, had he seen the suitcases first. Once Sally described Chuck, I remembered seeing – and even talking – with him before. He was a former National Guard member who seemed to do voluntary sentry duty outside his building both days and evenings. He was otherwise unemployed, after a double hernia operation he once described to me so graphically it could have been on an enemy. He mainly roils about in camouflage fatigues, a military cap, and lace-up reinforced boots. Despite this GI Joe facade, he also told Franck – who sometimes seems so bored he’ll listen to anyone – that had the Guard actually been called up for “that freakin’ Croatian thing” – automatic censor again – he would have skipped to Canada. Still, Chuck’s a pretty good watchdog, and it’s not like he stands outside spying just because that’s what some of his neighbors – including, of course, The Screaming Woman – have accused him of. Sally told me this. I hadn’t heard it before and can’t say I was very interested. Sally also explained that Chuck only stands outside smoking because the woman he currently lives with – but who refuses to marry him – hates cigarettes. “She even made his daughter stand outside with him when she was visiting. And she came all the way from Dallas!” LA is turning into tough place for smokers. Soon after spotting the luggage, Citizen Chuck summoned the cops, no doubt proactively thinking, in his too-many X-Files way, that this set of mismatched Samsonite might just be The Screaming Woman’s Revenge. We later found out that she hadn’t been evicted after all, so she wasn’t angry at her former neighbors. In a sentimental flourish, she’d merely moved in with one of her multiple boyfriends. Still, Chuck wasn’t the first to spy the potential explosives. That fell to Meg and Quinn, who told me they’d already been slightly bombed themselves. “When we go out to eat at an expensive restaurant – which is where we were headed,” Meg explained. “We kind of pre-drink.” “What’s that mean?” I had to ask. “You know, we down a couple at our place first,” Quinn told me. “Saves a couple of bucks.” “It’s kind of sucking-up,” Meg added. “His boss was taking us out, but he doesn’t drink. So we didn’t want to stick him for too much.” Quinn’s sober-but-generous boss and his wife were also picking them up, and rather than making the couple search for a temporary parking space, Meg and Quinn were waiting at the curb. While they did, they noticed – and checked out – the bags. “There were a couple of nice things,” Meg admitted. “A scarf. A blouse. But I wasn’t about to take them.” So they headed off to dinner. Despite Meg’s caution, when the officers arrived, good neighbor Chuck somehow connected the luggage to Quinn, his “un-American tattoos,” and the “slick black Audi” that had taken him away. “Were they planning a trip?” an officer asked. Rob, who happened to be in the crowd and knew Meg and Quinn’s evening plans because he sometimes got their leftovers – Meg has picky cats – said, “Nope, just going out to dinner.” Still, the cops wanted to talk with Quinn. But no one knew his pager number. They all somehow managed to miss the – admittedly small – sign on the back of Quinn’s motorcycle, which was parked right in front of them and the building. Cleanly lettered was “Motorcycle Messenger” and the contact number. After sniffing around the suitcases like cautious hounds, and encouraged by paramilitary Chuck, these enforcers of our law alerted their bomb squad. They came armed with flares and miles of Do Not Cross! tape,” Sally said. “They evacuated our building, and then everyone around.” Our building. The one just north. Chuck’s. Two next to his. And three across the street. Probably a hundred apartments, easy. They could have disturbed more people if they’d added in the motel and the much larger hotel, just east of it. But those people might not have been frantically stashing bongs and their accessories as “rescue” arrived. The Bomb Boys meticulously swept door-to-door, knocking on the door to every apartment but somehow managing to overlook Franck. He’d worked overnight and was catching a nap. “Edan was off to a movie with Annie and Ed, and the Dodgers weren’t playing,” he later filled in. “And I’d already fed the rabbit,” – Edan’s latest “toy” was a baby bunny. The dumb thing is the cops should have asked Franck because – like Meg and Quinn – he knew exactly what was in the bags. While Edan and Annie were waiting for Ed to “bring the car around,” Annie had checked their mail and had seen the bags. Since she collects things, if she spots something on the street that she can use – or sell – she’ll pick it up faster than kibble on a cat’s tongue. Then she stashes it under the tarp-wrapped stack that’s crammed into the back of her parking space. Often there’s a cat on that stack, too, but it’s never for sale. Franck said Annie nearly appropriated the suitcases, but after she popped them open and calculated their and their contents’ worth, she shrugged and left. But not before Franck, ambling from his usual smoking perch on the steps, copped a peek. Which the cops never knew. Instead, they held everyone hostage at the end of the block, fruitlessly trying to find Quinn. Finally, the bomb squad loaded the suitcases into its armored van, boot-heeled their flares, rolled their yellow tape, and moved on. “Finding Meg and Quinn would have helped, too,” Sally said. “Because they told me when they came back that they knew who’d left the luggage. They’d seen what had happened.” “It was a couple next door,” Meg explained – as it happened, in Chuck’s building. “The woman and her husband were going somewhere – I think I overheard ‘Vegas.’ She brought out the bags, and he must’ve forgotten to load them. Quinn nearly ran after them, when they drove off, but he was all dressed up.” “And I didn’t have the keys to my cycle,” he added. I could’ve caught them at the corner.” The odd thing is, none of this explained why one of the suitcases was empty. “I think they were planning to win,” Quinn guessed. “Nah, she was going shopping,” Meg said. “All those outlet stores. But she can buy new luggage there, too.” “And cartons of discount ciggies.” “Any way you look at it,” Vic added. “It gave everyone something to do.” “On an otherwise dull night,” Korki put in. “And it was safer than one of those car chases that come off the freeway and ends at our front door,” Claire decided. “I hate the sirens and helicopters.” “That’s what happens when you live at the 101 and the 405,” Tim informed us. “Do you know it’s one of the 10 worst intersections in the country.” “That’s why it’s always so dusty,” Lindsay said. “It’s the only bad thing about living here.” I wasn’t sure about that. I still remembered the recent nights of The Screaming Woman. “YOU LIPOSUCKED LOSER!” she’d howled one 2 AM. “PUMP IT UP AS BIG AS YOU LIKE! YOU STILL NEVER KNOW WHERE TO STICK IT!”
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