23rd & L
George was a prick of a landlord, one of those old white people who was too into history, especially the Civil War. I’m not even sure which side he rooted for. He wore overalls and an engineer hat and he yelled every time we saw each other.
“You’re a loser,” he said once. Actually, more than once. Maybe a hundred times. I was kind of a loser, though, so I didn’t really take it personally. I lived on the third floor of his old teal green Victorian that looked nice on the outside but inside it was infested with cockroaches. The building smelled dead and sour. The window that faced our neighbor’s house was the one I liked to sit in to smoke cigarettes. The neighbor was an old lady. Her hair was orange because she dyed it that way and she was always outside watering her plants. Under a certain light the sun would shine through her thin orange hair and onto her scalp and her head appeared to be on fire. This one time, I was in my window smoking a cigarette watching her tend to the garden. She took care of each stalk, each leaf each flower petal individually. It was impressive, the attention she gave to every plant. She was out there for hours, most of the day, with her fingers touching each part of every flower. One day she looked into the windowsill and saw me sitting there, smoking.
“Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to fall out of that window?” she yelled up to me.
“No,” I answered. “Are you afraid?”
“I don’t care what you do,” she said, and went back to her plants.
I flicked my cigarette down into the little walkway between our apartment building and her yard.
“Hey,” she said. She carried a hose that was spewing water. “Where are you flicking those?”
“Down there,” I said, pointing to the walkway.
“Don’t you have an ashtray?”
“No,” I said.
“If you need to smoke, get an ashtray.”
“My bad,” I said.
I noticed that when she stared at me her mouth looked like a cunt.
The next day, I got an ashtray. No, I didn’t. But I set a Budweiser can near the windowsill and ashed my cigarettes into that. When I smoked my cigarettes my neighbor didn’t look at me anymore because I had my little makeshift ashtray and that made her happy, I suppose. I still watched her tend to her garden and I realized that it was annoying how meticulous she was with her plants. She treated each one like it was an infant and I knew she didn’t even have kids. If she did have kids I bet she wouldn’t have harassed so much about about my cigarettes. She would have understood that kids are capable of much worse than littering.
The guy in the room directly across from me was named Josaih– a black guy who wore these really intricate braids. He wasn’t very interesting. He was a rapper, actually, a really good one. He could rap his ass off. He would go to rap clubs, take the microphone and battle other rappers, but in real life he was stupid as fuck. He didn’t understand social cues. Like, he would see a
girl who he liked and even if she was with her boyfriend, he’s sit down and talk to her. And he’d get her number, too. That was a bad example of his stupidity because that just sounds like he was some sort of Casanova, which he was. He fucked quite a bit. Sometimes I’d walk into his apartment and he’d be fucking. He had no rhythm or style when he fucked, like a big black tugboat, putting through the sea. Anyway, he introduced me to his friend Mike, this goofy-looking white guy. He dressed preppy and looked like he worked at a country club. But he wasn’t preppy at all. In fact, Mike loved to do drugs. Hard drugs. Right when I met him he got really into speed. Me and my Filipino girlfriend went over to his apartment once and we did a big bag of speed together. We were so high that night we could barely stand. Mike kept pacing around the apartment, asking if he could fuck my girlfriend.
“I’m fucking horny,” he said. “It’s killing me.”
He was wearing this hideous salmon colored Polo shirt tucked into his chinos and he looked like a young investment banker, whacked out of his goddamn mind. He paced around the house for about an hour and then put on some porn and jacked off on the couch. But his dick wouldn’t get hard so his penis just flopped around in his hand for a few hours while me and my girlfriend talked. When we left, it was about 6 a.m. and Mike was still on the couch, sweating, tugging at his red, raw cock.
I knew it wasn’t good when I heard George coming up the stairs. For such a withered old man he had a lot of power in those footsteps. Especially when he was ascending stairs. Clonk, clonk, clonk. He banged on the door.
“Open up,” he yelled. “Get the fuck out here.”
I put on a pair of boxers and opened the door a crack. George slammed the door with his elbow into my big toe. I jumped up and down and he stepped into my room. George looked around with his hands on his hips and surveyed the room while I stood on one foot and massaged my hurt toe. His engineer hat was so fucking ridiculous that it took all my sensibility not to laugh out loud.
“Don’t you have any self respect,” George asked, in a way that told me it wasn’t a question.
“I guess I do,” I said, picking up a few Bud cans off my chair and placing them on the floor so I could sit down. My toe throbbed.
“Mrs. Boleto said you gave her a hard time,” George said. His hands were still on his hips.
“Your neighbor, over there, in the house next door.” He pointed in the wrong direction, across the street where the bar was. “Don’t give me hell, too, you little shit.”
“I didn’t know that was her name,” I said. “Honest. She doesn’t look like a Mrs. Boleto.”
“Why are you giving her a hard time?”
“Don’t lie to me,” George said. His face was red and I could see large purple veins in his red nose. “You flicked your cigarettes on the ground and told her, “I’m bad, I’m bad.””
“No,” I corrected him. I explained to George how I had said “My bad,” not, “I’m bad.” I told him how it was supposed to be an apology.
“Oh,” George said. His face softened and his hands came off his hips.
“I even made an ashtray,” I said, pointing to the can on the windowsill.
George didn’t look at the ashtray. He just stood there, shaking his head.
“What an old fucking bag,” he said. We stood there, in my dirty little room, for what seemed like five minutes, watching Mrs. Boleto down below, hunching over her little infant flowers.
George made me the building manager that night, which meant that I was in charge of sweeping up once a week, collecting rent and making sure the other tenants weren’t fighting or smoking drugs in their rooms.
“You’re the most responsible one I got,” George said. The other tenants were drug addicts, like I was, but they were happy being fuckups. My saving grace was that I was wholly uncomfortable with who I was. Or at least that’s what George told me.
“Look at you,” he said. “You’re crawling in your own skin. You can’t even look me in the eye. All Kwan down there does is look me in the eye, the creepy little bastard.”
Kwan, the Asian man who lived in the tiniest apartment on the first floor was the kind of guy who you see on the street and say, “Where does that guy go at night?” He was a speed freak. He’d wake up every morning, snort some speed he kept in a Karmex container and then set off with his huge boombox and stand in the middle of downtown blasting A-HA. And then, every night at about 9:30, he’d come back to his tiny apartment on 23rd & L. That’s where he went. On my 22nd birthday, we broke into his apartment, snorted all his speed and replaced it with crushed up Aspirin. On the second floor was Bernt—a Swedish guy who, for all practical purposes was normal. But there was something odd about him. He had a job that he’d get dressed up for every day, but he seemed off, like he might have a little boy fetish or something. When there’s a normal, productive member of society living in a halfway house, there has to be something he’s hiding. Something big. His name was pronounced “Bay-r-nt” but everyone called him “Burned” and he’d flip out and tell them to fuck off and eat shit and things like that.
So I was the manager of that kind of stuff. When George started coming by the building every now and then, it wasn’t to scold me, but to give me fatherly advice. “You know how you stay out of jail,” he said to me once.
“Quit acting like an asshole.” And then he smacked the back of my head.
One day, he came over while I was sweeping the hallway downstairs. He watched me for a second before he grabbed the broom out of my hands.
“Didn’t anyone teach you how to properly sweep?”
“No,” I said. “It seems pretty easy.”
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Watch.”
I watched him sweep. Like he was angry at the ground. Like he was trying to sweep a hole into the goddamn earth.
When I finally moved out of that place, I cleaned my apartment so thoroughly that it looked better than when I moved in. I even painted. When I was finished both my hands were bright red and my palms were covered in blisters. When George came in for inspection he stood there with his hands on his hips and said, “This is beautiful. I didn’t know you had it in you.” And then he gave me my deposit back in cash, patted my back and almost said something. But he didn’t. He just grabbed my shoulder so hard that it left a bruise.
A few years later I was talking to an old friend and we got to the subject of 23rd & L.
“Did you hear about George?” she asked.
She told me that one of the foreign exchange students who lived in one of the spare rooms in his mansion came home after school one day and found George sitting in his favorite chair wearing only a pair of his tighty whitey underwear, clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels. She wasn’t surprised because that’s how she often found him when she came home after 4 p.m., but usually when she came back he’d tell her to stand in front of him while he barked orders like “clean the sink better next time” or “come here and let me massage your neck.” But this time he just sat there so she went up to him and saw that his eyes were open but they weren’t looking at anything. He was just sitting there, dead, clutching his whiskey bottle.
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“What do you mean what happened?” she said, confused. “He was dead.”
“But what about the student?”
“She went back to Japan, I guess.”
“Did she say how his face looked when he was dead?”
“What do you mean?”
“Was he smiling?”
“What are you talking about?”
I don’t know what I was talking about. George died in an old leather chair with his hands wrapped around a bottle of whiskey. And that was it. It seemed so simple, but I didn’t think it should have been.