By the time Joyce Plummer, the onsite apartment manager, followed the power cords through the courtyard and into the first laundry room, Daniella and Carmen were already screaming and swearing and stamping their feet. Carmen, from Apartment 26, had a basket of dirty whites propped on one hip and a baby balanced on the other. Her mousy hair was tied in a knot, and she looked as if she’d been punched repeatedly in the face by insomnia. Daniella, on the other hand, looked rested and fresh and preened. Her dark hair curled into loose waves, and her face was painted on bright and thick.

If it came to blows, Joyce had her money on Daniella. She was a decade older and a foot shorter than Carmen, but she was scrappy. She once poured maple syrup into the rent collection box because she wasn’t allowed to have a charcoal barbecue pit.

“You’re an inconsiderate piece of dog crap!” Carmen yelled, readjusting her basket.

“Woof!” replied Daniella.

“I said crap, not dog! You’re dog crap! Crap doesn’t bark!”

A dirty sock went flying over Joyce’s bright red hair and landed in the walkway. Rolling her eyes, she leaned against the doorjamb and pulled a pack of Marlboro Reds from her back pocket. Her hands shook as she pounded the fresh pack against her tiny palm. It was hard to know if the shakes were a byproduct of the arthritis or the stress of too many decades of property management. It could also be the nicotine. She was up to three packs a day.

Suddenly, it was raining dryer sheets.

Joyce remained unfazed. She’d seen everything. Three-in-the-morning emergency calls about poorly installed stripper poles. Residents who kept bed bugs as therapy pets. A hamster caught in the bathtub drain… Nothing shocked her any more.

So, of course, the quarreling women had little impact. Neither did the crockpot on top of the washing machine simmering what smelled like beef stew or the toaster oven on the second washer heating up Home Style Garlic Bread (as per the box on the ground next to the pool of Tide). Dirty spatulas and ladles were scattered on the counter along with a cutting board and a colander filled with sliced vegetables. Orange power cords were plugged into the outlets designated for the dryers, and ran across the room and out the door. The laundry room had been transformed into a kitchen and a generator, and it didn’t take a detective to know why.

Daniella hadn’t paid her electric bill.

Last time this happened, Joyce caught her in a vacant unit using the kitchen to prepare a four-course meal for her salsa instructor. Joyce was showing the apartment to a prospective tenant when she found Daniella massacring a Butterball with an electric knife. There were turkey gizzards and raw bits all over the newly glazed counters and salmonella juice dripping down the front of the cabinets.

This was back when Joyce was capable of empathy. She hadn’t come down too hard on Daniella, sympathetic to her financial hardships (and she had managed to rent the apartment regardless). Now, she just didn’t give a damn any more.

Not after…the incident.

The incident of which she longer spoke of.

The incident of which no one spoke of.

With the cigarette balanced between her wrinkled lips, Joyce unsteadily brought the lighter up and ignited the end. She inhaled several times and blew out ringlets of smoke (a trick she’d been practicing), counting each one before it disappeared.

The room went quiet except for the ticking of the kitchen timer next to the crockpot. The two women stared at Joyce. Daniella’s lips turned down in the corners as if she were a toad. Carmen dropped her laundry basket and used her free hand to cover her baby’s mouth. Seven was the child’s name. Joyce wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl, or when prime numbers became first names.

“Joyce,” Carmen said, coughing dramatically. “You can’t smoke in public areas. Those things are cancer sticks.”

Daniella bobbed her head in agreement.

Joyce scoffed. The entire country had gone wacko. Everyone felt they had a right to share their opinion on her habit, whether she asked for it or not. Even the billboard near the liquor store, the one displaying a picture of a smoldering cigarette with a shadow of a gun behind it, weighed in on the subject. QUIT TODAY. SMOKING KILLS it said in bold black lettering. Every time she drove past, she felt like yelling, No duh, Sherlock (or however the saying went). Why do you think I’m smoking more?

She used the door in lieu of an ashtray, stubbing out her cigarette, already aching for another. Let’s make this quick.“What are you doing, Daniella?” she asked in her raspy voice. She’d been hoarse most of her life, a botched tonsillectomy in the fifties.

“Yoyce, I’m doing nothing,” replied Daniella in her thick accent.

Carmen’s eyes nearly exploded out of her head. “She won’t plug the machines back in so I can do my laundry!”

“I told her I was using the laundry room right now. When I’m done, she can have it. Whether I do my laundry or whether I do my cooking, what’s the difference? I pay my rent. I can use my laundry room how I want,” Daniella said with a patronizing smirk.

“This is not your laundry room!” Carmen screamed.

Seven started crying.

The kitchen timer dinged.

Lexie from Apartment 3 walked in with her phone sandwiched between her shoulder and ear. She stepped over Carmen’s laundry basket and yanked open the dryer. “What the hell? Why are my clothes damp?” She turned around. Her eyes darted around the room from the crockpot, to the screaming women, then to Joyce. “The dryer isn’t plugged in!” She took in a big breath, ready to spew her mind, but before she could, Joyce interjected.

“Settle down, settle down, ladies. I’ve got—” But she launched into a coughing fit before she could finish. Her eighty-pound frame quaked violently with each blast of expelled air.

There was no mistaking, this was a result of the nicotine.

“Hold on, my apartment manager is, like, dying,” Lexie said to her phone, and poked Joyce’s shoulder with her finger. “You need, like, an ambulance or something?”

Joyce pushed her finger away. Nothing pissed her off more than pity. “I’m…” She cleared her airway once more. “Fine.” She coughed into her fist and used the other hand to give Daniella the Three-Day Notice she had prepared earlier, when she had been sitting behind her desk and spotted Daniella hauling the crockpot into the laundry room.

Daniella pinched the paper between her thumb and forefinger. “What is this?”

“Shape up or cruise out.” Cough! Cough!“And clean this up.” Cooouuugh!

“What? You can’t threaten to kick me out, Yoyce!”

“Looks like she just did,” Carmen almost sang, pulling the basket of dirty whites back up on her hip. She cocked her head and flashed a smile, baring large teeth. “Now get all this out of here so I can do my laundry.”

“Yeah, yeah, what she said,” Joyce rasped in between coughs. She took the small step out of the laundry room and onto the walkway, pulling out a fresh cigarette as fast as her hands would allow and lit it.

Much better.


Never mind.







9 thoughts on “CHAPTER ONE”

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