To read Chapter One click here.
Joyce scratched her head with her cigarette-free hand while staring at the twin mattress floating in the pool. The fitted sheet, somehow still on, was frayed and holey and a curious shade of yellow, with “this is a mattress” scrawled across it in marker. In case there was any confusion.
This had Kevin written all over it.
He was a labeler. He said he did it for Joyce’s benefit, you know, because she was old.
One time, he punched a hole in the laundry room wall, then wrote “here is a hole” with an arrow pointing to the hole in question.
“He has a disability,” his mother had said when she moved him in. He appeared to be an average nineteen-year-old kid at the time. Although Joyce understood special needs weren’t always visible. Her own Josh had his troubles, never looked people in the eyes and kept to himself. Doctor said he was “special”—and he was. He was very special and smart. Earned a PhD from Stanford in Bioengineering and used his fancy degree at a biotech company in the Valley, formulating medicine for chronic illnesses. Joyce took every opportunity to brag about it.
No one elaborated as to what Kevin’s diagnosis was, nor did Joyce ask. In addition to owning the building Joyce managed, Kevin’s parents owned half a dozen other communities across Los Angeles County, all managed by Elder Property Management (the small management company she worked for). Didn’t seem like a good idea to pry.
After all, how difficult could he really be?
Fast-forward twenty years, and Kevin was perfectly summed up in an old nursery rhyme, the one about the little girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead Joyce used to recite to Josh.
When he was good,
he was very good indeed.
But when he was bad,
he was playing his saxophone in the middle of the night on his patio wearing nothing but socks.
Or however it went.
Everyone knew Kevin had been sent to live there for many reasons, and none of them had anything to do with a “disability.” Still, meddling wasn’t her style. She stayed out of his hair unless forced to intervene… those “intervenences” becoming more regular as of late. His file now took up two long cabinets.
At one time, she thought about compiling Kevin’s incident reports and turning them into a novel—The Man-Child Chroniclesshe’d call it.
Bob had laughed when she told him. “If we wouldn’t both get fired and sued for millions, I’d say go for it.”
“You’re probably right,” she had replied, disappointed. Bob had spent five decades as her husband, four as an English teacher and one as a maintenance man. He knew what he was talking about.
Still, an apartment manager can dream.
Blowing out a cloud of smoke, Joyce moved to the edge of the pool. The tips of her white Hush Puppies hovered over the water as she surveyed the situation. This isn’t good.Using the end of the pool skimmer, she poked at the mattress a few times to see if it would easily budge. No luck.
At least I tried.
Content with her effort, she shuffled the skimmer back to its spot on the fence, slid another cigarette between her lips, and headed back to the office—her sanctuary.
When she first started, the community averaged a thirty percent vacancy rate, high for a forty-unit building, especially one in a desired Los Angeles neighborhood. Why was the occupancy so low? Easy, the lobby was decorated in oranges and browns with clunky metal folding chairs. It reminded her of the waiting room at Bob’s proctologist. In an apartment building, the front lobby is a direct reflection of the time and care management is willing to provide, and, if anything, it should say, “Welcome home” not “bend and cough.”
Joyce spent weeks redecorating on the tight budget provided. This was before Pinterest and blogs and YouTube. She pored through magazines and interior design books, and took note of the décor on her favorite television programs. She and Bob painted, hung wallpaper, installed new lights and a ceiling fan, and put in new carpet, new tiles and new furniture. The lobby and office were transformed from seventies blah to early nineties ta-da!
Everything from the teal carpet to the bright floral armchairs to the dried eucalyptus branches hung above the overstuffed peach couch was timeless, so she thought. Attached to her apartment, the office and lobby were the only places she could go that didn’t require too much walking, and didn’t require the use of a car, and didn’t hold too many painful memories. If only Joyce could smoke in there, she’d never leave.
Back in the office, Joyce took a seat behind her desk, intending to script the incident report (the tale of the yellow mattress), when the morning newspaper stole her attention. The plastic covering was still intact, which meant the crossword puzzle had yet to be solved. This must be done before work could resume.
You know, priorities.
The door chimed. Andy, a stout thirty-something with bird-like facial features, appeared at the counter, the one separating the enclosed office from the lobby. He cleared his throat, a wet, scratchy sound, and then belched into his fist, because saying “hello” was evidently not an option.
“Can I help you?” Joyce asked, annoyed. A five-letter word for unitary was all that stood between her and the satisfaction of completing a crossword puzzle.
Andy cleared his throat again, fidgeting with the “ring for service” bell next to the brochures. Joyce rose and met him at the counter. In a previous life, back when she gave a damn, she would have escorted Andy to the couch, eager to help with whatever was causing him to burp and sweat like a whore in a minister… or chapel… or however that saying went.
“Get on with it,” Joyce urged, yanking the bell out of his hand before he broke it.
“Well… I’m having a problem with one of my neighbors.”
“No. Um, here’s what happened,” he began, his voice barely above a whisper. Joyce leaned in closer, struggling to understand. “There was a tap on my window. When I pulled back the blinds, it was a woman I’ve seen around here before, but I don’t know her name, and she hissed me.”
He shook his head, as if hissing were a silly notion. “No, no, she didn’t hiss at me. She HEXED me.”
“I know it sounds crazy.” Yep.“But I’ve had diarrhea ever since, and now I’ve got this weird rash on my—”
“Don’t need specifics.”
“Right. The thing is… I’ve got a really hot date, and I can’t spend the whole night on the can. And what if we go back to her place?” Andy dropped his head into his hands, digging his fingers through his hair. “I look like I have herpes!”
Joyce pressed her hand against her forehead. “Is it possible there is no hex and you actually have herpes?”
“No way, man. I only dig clean.”
The door swung open and in charged Daniella in an itsy bitsy yellow bikini. “Yoyce,” she snapped, propping her hands on her hips, just above the strings holding her bottoms up. “I have a problem.”
Andy backed away, shielding his hexed manhood with both hands. Joyce followed his terrified gaze. “Daniella, did you do something to Andy?”
“Yes, I hexed him,” she replied, not skipping a beat.
Andy’s face contorted into a told you so!look, his hands still cupping his crotch. The back door opened, and Robin from Apartment 19 slid in. She joined the group robed in a muumuu-looking dress you’d expect to see on a Golden Girl. “Hey Joyce, what’s my September rent?”
“Same as last month,” replied Joyce.
“But there are only thirty days in September?”
Daniella nodded. “We should prorate the month of September. I won’t pay for one more day.”
“Dude, what about the hex?” pleaded Andy, now cowering behind the curtain.
Joyce pinched the bridge of her nose. “Daniella, unhex Andy so he can go digging tonight.”
Daniella crossed her arms over her chest, pointing her nose up as if someone had just farted. “I won’t lift the hex. I don’t like him. He parks too close to my car in the carport. It makes it hard for me to get out.”
I need a smoke.“Andy, you be more careful when you park, and Daniella, you lift the hex.”
Andy was quick to oblige, while Daniella reluctantly murmured, “Fine.”
Robin raised her hand, and a stack of golden bangles slid down her arm. “Um, excuse me? So you’re saying I should prorate September?”
“No, Robin. Daniella, hex.”
Daniella rolled her eyes and then spit into her palm, slapped her hands together and snapped her fingers. “There, it’s lifted. I’m going swimming now. Wait, you know there is a mattress in there? That’s why I came in.”
Right. Mattress. Slipped my mind.
“The rash is still there!” cried Andy, taking a gander down his pants.
“That’s because I have no hexing abilities, moron,” Daniella cackled.
“Eww, TMI,” Robin said.
Joyce stared at the ceiling. Damn you, California tobacco regulations. “Robin, rent is the same every month no matter how many days. We had this conversation in February and in April. Now, I’ve got to go deal with the mattress.”
“What? That’s ridiculous!” She threw her hands up so fast a bangle went sailing across the room and landed on the coffee table.
“What about my rash?”
“See a doctor,” Joyce offered over her shoulder as she shuffled into her apartment and closed the door. She quickly lit a cigarette and closed her eyes as the nicotine fed the all-consuming craving, soothing the anxiety and calming the hand tremors. Through the warped wood she could still hear Andy complaining about his red wiener.
I’m getting too old for this.
Two more long drags, and broaching the mattress situation felt feasible.
Bob was in his recliner, sleeping, as usual. He used to walk the property all day, fixing things that didn’t need fixing. Chatting with residents. Organizing the maintenance garage. Now he spent his time watching court shows—People’s Court, Judge Judy, Judge Mathis, Judge Joe Brown, Paternity Court, Divorce Court. If a hotheaded judge was involved, he watched it. She took up smoking. After the incident, he took up daytime court television. Everyone copes with trauma differently.
Judge Longwood from The Friendship Court banged her gavel, startling Bob awake before Joyce had the chance. With a low grumble, he reached down and pulled the handle on the side of the recliner. The footrest jumped into place, and he pushed back and readjusted, scratching at the gray whiskers scattered across his chin, settling in for his fifth catnap of the day. Despite his scruff, and the fact he’d been sporting the same outfit since Monday—jeans, shirt with Maintenanceembroidered above the breast pocket, and his almost sole-less New Balance shoes—he was still as handsome as ever. Piercing blue eyes, a thick head of dark gray hair (once brown), with a dimple in the middle of his chin.
Joyce stood over her husband, debating whether to wake him or let him be. Before, there’d be no hesitation. She’d lean down and plant a kiss on his forehead. He’d wake up, flash a sheepish grin and run his hands down his clean-shaven face, or he’d pull her down and wrap his muscular arms around her, refusing to let go. She’d fuss and tell him to “get your butt to work” and then he’d say “yes, ma’am” or “yes, captain” and slap her tush. They’d been sweethearts since grade school. Now, they were practically strangers.
Joyce tapped Bob on the shoulder. He didn’t budge. She tapped him again. This time he stirred and swiped at her hand. “What’s wrong?” he groaned, his eyes still clamped shut.
“There’s a mattress in the pool. I tried to get it out, but it’s too heavy,” she whispered, not exactly sure why she was.
Bob moaned and grumbled, then reached down for the handle of the recliner and sprung upright. “I’ll take care of it,” he told the television and left out the front door. No “yes ma’am,” no spanking, not even a glance in her direction.
Five letter word for unitary… alone.