AT NIGHT AND FROM A DISTANCE
A voice had come in from the dark. It was a last hot night in that studio apartment, close and small and all but empty now. I lay on an airbed on the floor and kept watch on a spray foam ceiling, awake the whole time, though used up from a bitter sweat and a day’s work. The window sash was laid open to the screen, in a thirst for air, and for privacy the blinds were angled off. The second story walkway was just on the other side of that dirty mesh, ten concrete paces left and right and an iron rail on a courtyard. Stucco and brake pad soot, same as any thereabouts at rates so low. Privacy, or near to it, but no peace. Every sound was mine, as was the distant voice. No word had stood out, just the tinge of a complaint. The onrush built again. Racks of traffic were hitting a red on Santa Monica Boulevard and it let them go in fits. A starless orange laid griddles on the wall where the slats threw the achy light. Bed aside, the floor held only a duffel, the clothes I had stepped out of, and those ready for me to wear. A ran a finger where the desk had weighted down the carpet tuft, tight as a seam. Hauls on a concrete flight of stairs—down and up several times—had got me to that camp, and nowhere. The true move awaited, first thing. Out of those three small rooms, then out of state. My hands were raw from boxes and I had to peel loose to shift for comfort. Sore, broke, and stiff in my own salt. Sleep was owed, and a full security deposit. I was no less desperate for rest than I was for cash in hand.
The onrush again. No traces of the voice in the last gap. The apartments were near to Westwood, all but kitty from the green temple lawn and LDS trophy. A complex of three buildings, with two courtyards, likely Streamline Moderne before a frump-over in the 1970s. Maybe thirty people living there, none of whom I knew and few I had ever caught glimpses of. We kept to ourselves, waiting it out. Shut doors, shut windows. Both had screens on them to let in air, but most often they went battened down. From the inside traffic would be no more than a hum. Shore break, if you could trick yourself. Gentle combers at the boardwalk. But when summer came—with no buffer of glass—it was just a racket once again, tread and motor that rose and fell in a drawn-out gasp for breath.
And now, once more, the gripe out in it all. The voice of a man—louder, nearer. The apartment buildings were open to the street. Neither courtyard had a gate, front or back, to shut him out. “Goddam,” was what I heard him say. “Goddam.” A shuffle nearby—the sidewalk on Little Santa Monica. “Goddam.” Some drunks had charm. My last, seen from the long glass of a coffee shop on Abbott-Kinney, met the dawn in a tee and no pants. I’m Donald Duck! I’m Donald Duck! Walt Disney had shown up in the form of a cop. “Goddam.” This drunk had no jokes to tell and rankled to be any part of one. The cuss held on a note that faded out, but it returned a moment later, louder than before. The man had come back down the alley, where tenants’ cars had spaces, as if sniffing out the place. My own car had been sold a year before to pay the deposit and first month, last chance, and I would need every dim nickel back that I could get. Hence the love put into the cleanup. Bleach, polish, a razor on the shower stall glass, soap scum shaved off like wet pages. The space seemed big again, as it had on moving in. “Goddam,” from the window in the kitchenette. The drag of his feet was out in the other courtyard, where the property manager had a ground-floor unit. That might get him gone. I had never met her, though at times I had heard the rasp of her voice. More often I had heard her will done, in the form of the busybody. Custodian, personal friend to her, or both. I call him that not for a grudge but because he had a chip about drivers who took the alley as a shortcut. He would get in front of their cars. This isn’t a throughway! Always heard, never seen—as I heard him now, come out to vie with the drunk, maybe in slippers and a kimono robe. “What are you doing? People are asleep here. Git on. You’re trespassing.”
Git had brought the shuffle to a halt. The turn was slow. Ideas fought for mouth time. Best skipped, but the cruxes were fuck you, you’re wrong, I was here earlier for a meeting, I left my keys, fuck you twice, don’t you feel stupid now, keys, suck my balls. Mention of a twelve-step—that got at the real story. To a man fallen off a wagon, any West L.A. courtyard looked the same. And to me, though I would ride the bus. The busybody spoke in an aside to a phone. “I’d like to report an intruder.” The story, the address, a thanks. That call might have put a shove on just about anyone, but not a sorrowful drunk bereft of his keys. Feet took the treads to the next level. A wounded scoot, tired of the load. The busybody had gone back inside to wait for backup and to keep any pities to himself. I heard a screen door open to the inner wooden one, and then a banging. Open hand on hollow core. It might have left a dent, but the riff he chose, it was that much worse. “Shave and a Haircut.” At two or three a.m. The drunk began to shout. “Think I’m mad at you? Goddam. If I were mad I’d just kill you.” A wait, a grumble. The screen door slapped to. More shuffling, past the middle door and straight on to the far corner. The creak of spring hinges once more. Same riff, same attack. A pause. “Come on. Come on.” Another pause. A sigh. The clap of the frame, and on again. Further goddams and such. He went through variations on the theme a half dozen times. He trudged to the back court corners—both levels, skipping the property manager—and then into mine.
Goddam. The riff would play at to my door. The anger was like a sudden gust, but hot and dry. As I tensed up the scoot came to my open window. The drunk was just on the other side of the slats, the dirty screen, and right behind him was the handrail I’d shove him past. No sleeping now, come whatever. But he walked on by to try another corner unit, my immediate neighbor. Riff, groan, cuss, the screen door slapping shut. He seemed to like the corners. The place he had been, where he had last seen the key ring and the exit, must have been the same. My apartment stood in the middle of a walk. I could wait him out, skip the trouble, leave it all behind. No story for a cop, if one ever came. No complications. Just sit pat like the tenants I would never know, and be gone, be done.
A good plan of action, but no relief. Heat kept me sharp, mine and all the rest, and every last sound drew a picture. He had gone down the flight with that hurtful plod, and I heard him take a lower corner. Yet another door that I had never once seen open, near to the postal boxes. It could just as easily have been that nobody lived there—nothing would be at home behind the door but the hollow sound of the knock. The riff made it past “shave” when I heard the latch clear the strike. The door had come open, and quick. A faint thud, no more, and a rustle as the drunk was pulled inside. There was a bump of shoes over a threshold, and I went cold. The inner door shut with a slam and the screen door rang behind it. The hush was like no quiet I had known until the traffic came on again. There was no further sound. As late became early the swell of cars thinned out. At one point a handset chirped in the dark and a flashlight swept the blinds, and nobody living there came out to meet the law. Three hours to sunrise when traffic would thicken up again. One hundred and eighty minutes of lulls and rushes. My heart beat just as loud, but fast and close, and I never felt a pause. I thought to shut the windows—never mind the awful roast—but I was too afraid to move.
“Well hello! Are you number nine?”
“I was. Morning.”
I knew the voice, and now I had the face: the property manager, a older lady waiting down below. She wore velvet and had a pom on a leash, training its frightwig pizzle on an alley hedge. Green leaves, but if you held one between a thumb and finger, the soot of traffic would be there too.
The pack strap bit lightly at my shoulder. The airbed came down the steps in a choke and a limp wad, dragging on the treads. That flight, the one in back, was farthest from the door yet in my thoughts. The dumpster was at the back, I told myself, and I could walk up the alley to a bus.
“We never did meet you!” she said. “Your neighbors said you were so quiet. No trouble at all!”
The trash bin took the airbed, and a set of clothes that I would never wear again.