No Deposit Love
Thursday afternoon, like so many before and after it, saw me broke and desperate for a beer, and I spent an hour, maybe two, I'm not sure how long really, I no longer wear a watch, scrounging for loose change in the pockets of old winter jackets, digging beneath the ragged cushions of the sofa, reaching behind the silent refrigerator, it no longer hummed, the electricity had been shut off weeks ago, looking under the throw rugs, behind the toilet, inside the broom closet and, though I pitied myself for doing something so obviously futile, beneath the piss-and-sweat-stained mattress where instead of money I unearthed an assortment of dirty magazines.
As my fingers crept spider-like into every dark recess and mite-infested alcove, a loud knock came at the door, three solid raps with a pause between each one, a very serious-sounding knock, a knock that said I was in deep shit, maybe the deepest in a long time and me without a pair of boots to wade through it, and in my best tough-guy voice I shouted, "Go away!" because no one ever knocked at my door except for the obvious reason—money. My ex-wife and her attorneys, even old friends and neighbors, you name it, they all lined up at my door, looking to hit me up and suck me dry. Now their work was complete.
I resumed my search for nickels and dimes, all the while fantasizing about winning the mega millions jackpot. The first thing I would do, of course, is buy back the old cottage on the island, spend my mornings on the veranda, enjoying a simple meal of toast and orange marmalade, sipping a mimosa, maybe sampling one of those sweet island ice wines, and I would glance up from the newspaper to gaze at the lake or watch the tourists disembark from the ferry, only this time I would possess enough self-control to avert my eyes each time a pretty girl walked down the gangplank, especially those buoyant, blossoming Lolita-types in their string bikinis with the salon-perfect Brazilian wax jobs. With a tranquility so absolute and profound it could only be described as religious, ascetic even, I would bury my nose deep in the editorial page and gradually, perhaps unconsciously, allow the events of the past two years to fade from my memory, the sheer stupidity of it all, the carelessness on my part, but I would not let those memories vanish altogether, no, not before attempting to answer the one question that continued to trouble me: Why is it that human beings, but men especially, have a primal urge to sabotage their own lives?
It's genetic, I thought, it's got to be genetic, and as I worked out an elegant and simple solution to one of life's great mysteries I felt a little tremor, a tingle like static electricity on the back of my neck, and then, suddenly, that infernal pounding started up again.
"Right, right, right," I grumbled. "Just a minute!"
No sense in postponing the inevitable confrontation, the hero forced to do battle with the fire-breathing dragon, the troll lurking beneath the bridge, and though I wanted to run like hell the entrance to the cave was blocked, the bridge burnt to mere cinders. Against my better judgment I cracked open the door.
"Why, good afternoon, Mrs. O'Neill," I said, trying to smile amiably, but the charm and charisma of my youth had vanished long ago and so, paradoxically, I grinned like a defiant child who has just been forced to eat a bar of soap.
"Fuck you, Kaliher. You got somethin' to smile about these days?"
Old Mrs. O'Neill, the owner and manager of the Zanzibar Towers & Gardens, leaned heavily against the doorway, a heavy green bathrobe draped over her potato-shaped frame, gray slippers concealing her swollen feet, a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. By the way she crossed her arms and stared at me I could tell that she was stone cold sober. Not a good sign.
"Pay up, Kaliher. Now. Or hit the road. This ain't no charity ward. Bunch of goddamn infants living here. Helpless parasites, every last one of yous."
While she possessed a rather limited vocabulary, old Mrs. O'Neill had a remarkable gift for cutting through the bullshit. I say "old" even though it was fashionable these days to describe someone like Mrs. O'Neill, a sixty-year old widower, as being middle aged, but for a man like me whose fortieth birthday loomed on the horizon this was something of an insult. I didn't want to be lumped together in any way with a woman like that, even if only categorically. After all, I still had some shelf life.
"That ain't no weed I smell, is it?" She thrust her bulbous nose with its tangle of broken blood vessels past the chain and breathed deeply, her nostrils puckering and then flaring. "Cause if it is I'll call the cops, by god almighty I will. Make my life so much easier. One call and out ya go."
"Weed, Mrs. O'Neill? Heavens no." I unhooked the chain and swung open the door. "Maybe you'd like to come in. For a cocktail."
Luckily, Mrs. O'Neill wasn't particular, she'd drink just about anything, rubbing alcohol, mouthwash, cooking sherry, but we both knew the truth, knew my cupboards were bare, this was just a little charade we went through every month, but even the destitute abide by a sort of etiquette, certain rules that cannot be broken, and I felt ashamed for having nothing to offer but a Lake Erie highball. What did it matter? I'd become so desperate that I was willing to lie just so I could enjoy a few more minutes of warmth. Though my apartment was drafty and damp it was much better than what awaited me outside. The weather in Cleveland, god, the weather!
Mrs. O'Neill put her hands on her hips. "Whadaya got?"
"Oh, Kentucky bourbon. Irish whiskey. Single malt scotch."
"You ain't got jack shit."
"No, I swear it. How about some wine? What was it you like—red or white?"
I took her by the hand, but she pulled it away and wiped it across the back of her robe. Cat hair floated through the narrow shaft of light from the hallway. Amazing that she was the one to wipe her hand! But I wasn't about to let something like that bother me, no, that might mess up my timing, and believe me I had these innocuous little transactions of ours timed to the nearest minute.
Mrs. O'Neill plodded into the apartment, and when she brushed past me I caught wafting around her mouth the oversweet smell of dark chocolates and maraschino cherries and red licorice.
"Yer wife was here yesterday lookin' for ya. Musta pounded on the door fer a good ten minutes 'fore I come down and chased 'er off. I can't have some angry welfare mom makin' a spectacle of herself. Not in my place. I don't like troublemakers, Kaliher. Don't like deadbeats neither. What's yer ol' lady want anyhow?"
I glowered at her, my tormentor, and wondered how many men she'd managed to lure here over the years, how many she'd cajoled and threatened and humiliated. She actively sought out male renters, losers one and all, the newly downtrodden, ruined, addicted, insane. Usually she captured her prey ("drummed up business" as she called it) at the corner diner where a horde of sad saps drank one cup of coffee after another and stared out the window as if waiting for someone who actually loved them to miraculously appear and say that all was forgiven, mistakes happen, now it was time to start life over again. Mrs. O'Neill took great delight in playing the role of comforter and confessor. Her act was easy enough to see through, but it's a well-known fact that some men yearn to tell a woman, any woman, all about their private miseries, and old Mrs. O'Neill was a woman who listened with great patience and understanding, nodded her head at just the right time, squeezed a hand in a very reassuring way and offered a warm and matronly smile when it was most needed. Then, moving in for the kill, she brought up the subject of her apartment building, "the property" as she called it, willed to her by her now deceased third husband, told these simpletons that no deposit was required to rent a room, you just come right on over, sweetheart, see the place for yourself, and maybe we'll work out some kind of arrangement. Usually these men were so grateful that they didn't wait for her to scribble the directions on a napkin, they just accompanied her back to the building. To see these men, a never-ending parade of them, shamble up the walkway with their scrawny bodies and scruffy chins always made me feel self-conscious. Jesus, I thought, do I look that bad? But I already knew the answer to that one. And so did Mrs. O'Neill.
"So where's that drink?" she asked. Then she burst into laughter. "Don't panic, Kaliher. I ain't thirsty." I didn't know what was next. Was this the beginning of the end? Was she going to throw me out once and for all? Fearing I would break down in front of her, fall to my knees and weep, begging her to take mercy on me, I turned away, but then, to my great relief, she disappeared into the bedroom where I heard her bathrobe hit the floor. In the corner furthest from the rattling window I perceived, dimly, the glowing ember of her cigarette and the outline of the mattress on the floor. No frame, no box spring, no down comforter, but these primitive living arrangements never seemed to bother her.
"Time!" she proclaimed.
I unbuckled my belt and marched into the gloom. The very idea of sex turned my stomach these days. I no longer entertained lurid fantasies, never daydreamed about the women I saw in the bars, never recalled with fondness and pride those not infrequent island conquests, all those silly, besotted college girls who readily consented to my most perverse proposals.
No matter how often we performed this monthly ritual I remained shocked by Mrs. O'Neill's eagerness and desire, how she reveled in the minute details, the foreplay, the embarrassing bedroom talk, "Oh you dirty, dirty boy. Go on, go on, work it, work it!" I clamped my eyes shut and, taking directions like a trained seal, serviced her to the best of my abilities. At one point she shoved my face away from her wrinkled breasts and barked another command: "Now, suck my toes." I resisted, knew she was only trying to humiliate me further, but she dug her tobacco-stained claws into my flesh and rasped, "Suck 'em like you mean it." What choice did I have? I rolled my tongue over the tough meat of the sole, up and down the swollen arch, hesitated, tried to control my rumbling guts, then realizing there was no hope of escape I opened my mouth to accept the five little piggies of her left foot, used my teeth to gently nibble on the thick stumps that resembled a man's knuckles, large, hairy, slightly simian.
Mrs. O'Neill fired up another a cigarette, her second pack of the day, and said, "Okay, Kaliher, you can stay. One more month. But you're an awful lay, do ya know that? Truly despicable. No wonder yer wife left ya." She coughed, hacking up phlegm. "A little advice, Kaliher. Either come up with some cash or improve yer skills in the sack." And with that she pulled the bathrobe around her torso and limped out of my apartment.
"Oh, you horrible, horrible . . ." I whispered.
After bolting and chaining the door I raced to the bathroom where I brushed my teeth with the last remnants of toothpaste, but no matter how long I stood at the sink and scoured and gurgled and spat, the putrid taste of toenails, simultaneously sour and bitter like lemon rinds, clung to my tongue and cheeks. I wept I think, I can't be sure, and when I could no longer tolerate the dirtiness on me and in me and around me I forced myself to stand under an icy spray of water in the shower, washing myself as best I could, there was no soap, no shampoo, none of those fragrant accoutrements I once enjoyed, the exfoliating scrub, the conditioner, the shaving gel. I traded it all away for other things, late nights at the bar, sex with strangers, an occasional wager on a horse, a hundred financial indiscretions that my vindictive wife blabbered about to the courts, and now nothing remained of my old life except the mattress on the floor, an artifact from my failed marriage, the mattress on which Mrs. O'Neill occasionally positioned herself and groaned with pleasure.
All was not lost however. The same mattress that once upon a time played a role in the conception of my two children and had just now helped me to secure another month in this wretched apartment now offered up a new miracle. Wedged between the mattress and the wall was a twenty-dollar bill. How I'd overlooked it I do not know, but with a little whimper of gratitude I placed it in my pocket, and donning on my jacket and straightening my shirt I rushed outside.
A young man trudged toward the building, an artist-type judging from his steel rimmed glasses, goatee, and receding chin. Poverty dripped from his tattered jeans and T-shirt, leaving behind him a long, messy trail of despair and desperation.
"Hey, man, you live here?" he asked.
"Know a lady by the name of O'Neill?"
"Yep. Just saw her."
"Great. Then I must be in the right place."
I looked him up and down, took in his sheepish grin, the bad teeth, always the bad teeth, the trembling hands, the slightly scoliotic curve of his back, the dark circles around the eyes, the distant gaze of a man who hasn't sleep well in many nights. He'd seen harder times than most, but this fact did not make me feel any sorrier for him. Like everyone else condemned to live at the Zanzibar Towers and Gardens, he probably had it coming to him, I know I had it coming to me, and so I patted him on the shoulder and in a solemn tone of voice said, "Yes, comrade, you're in the right place."
Without looking back to see if he went inside I made my way down the street. I knew the barmaid at the corner tavern, a nice enough lady with a couple of kids and no old man in the picture, and as I bundled my jacket around my neck and lowered my head into the wind I remembered how she once offered me a job as dishwasher, said it in a way that suggested she wanted some company during her shift. Maybe I would ask her if the job was still available, and if I hurried maybe I would make it just in time for happy hour.
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