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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Part 5 - Cellar Door

Adam felt as if he were being watched.  Even in the darkness of his basement nest he could feel someone’s eyes on him.  The last grocery day he’d left the house and felt as if his movements were being traced.  It was a point of pride around this neighborhood, nobody watches anything anybody ever does.  Nobody knows anything.  So he felt eyes on him and he wondered.  That was the day the new kid at the liquor store talked to him.  Bad day.
The next grocery day he’d slowed down a bit, allowed himself to reach out a little and observe his surroundings.  He thought he’d caught a glint of something from across the street.  He walked down the street to the liquor store and picked up his groceries.  This time no incidents.  He thought he saw movement as he walked back home.  He walked nearly the whole way to the house before leaving the cart in the sidewalk (nobody would touch it, of that he was certain) and walking back to the liquor store.  He watched the young man go into the liquor store.  He watched him talk to the clerk.  He watched him walking out empty handed. 
He went back to the house, retreated into it, drank his vodka, slept and thought.  By the time he was ready for his next grocery day, he felt calmer again.  More himself.  He left the house for groceries.
* * *
Eddie stepped into the house and pulled the door shut behind him.  He set the timer on his watch for twenty minutes.  The way he figured it that gave him more than enough time to look around, take what he could, or just get the hell out if he needed to.  The foyer of the tenement was a shambles.  Stairs leading to upper rooms were unusable.  They way Eddie figured it, that was a blessing.  Fewer places to look.  Carpet had been pulled up from the floorboards.  It was rolled up and stacked in the corner of the foyer next to shredded carpet pads.  The exposed floorboards were warped and water stained, the tack strip curling slightly away from the floor.  There was a door in the hall that appeared to be a bathroom room.  Eddie pulled it.  The door resisted, the wood frame swollen and warped.  He wrenched at it and it gave way with a shower of dust from the ceiling.  Inside it was dark, and he unslung his backpack and pulled the flashlight from it.
The beam crossed the floor and illuminated an old tub.  The smell of mildew was thick and Eddie could see the black blooms of mold growing on the walls and the ceiling paint sagged and blistered.  In the tub was shredded wallpaper and insulation.  A rat’s nest.  No sign of the rat family but a few stray pellets.  The sink and toilet that should have been next to the tub were missing, the pipes were exposed, hot and cold, and the wax ring lay where the toilet must have rested.  Eddie shone his beam down the pipe.  It stunk of urine.  He backed out of the powder room and pushed the door shut.  It shuddered and caught on the floor and the door frame then slammed shut.
He glanced at his watch.  18 minutes left.  He saw the basement door and checked it.  It swung open easily.  The reek of rot wafted out the door and he fought the urge to gag.  He looked down the stairs and swept them with his flashlight.  They looked intact.  He started slowly down the steps, testing them.  The creaked only slightly and he quickened his pace. 
At the bottom of the steps the smell was even worse.  He fought off the nausea, breathing only through his mouth.  The beam of the flashlight swept the basement.  It was mostly empty.  A cellar door on the far end stood slightly open.  Near the stairs was an old mattress it was stained nearly black.  Hundreds of empty bottles lay around it.  He hurried over to the mattress, scattering bottles as he went.  He peeled the corner of the mattress off the floor and looked underneath.  Nothing.  He dropped the mattress again and it thumped against the concrete.  He looked again at his watch.  16:20 left.  He swept the beam across the floor and noticed the space under the stairs.  It was crowded with old boxes that said, “Karkharov Super Premium Vodka”.  A red falcon graphic was printed on the side. 
He walked over to the stairs and started looking through the boxes.  Most of them had nothing in them.  A few had empty evelopes.  Eddie puzzled over this briefly.  The rest of the boxes had garbage in them, empty Slim Jim, pop tart and twinkie wrappers, Dorito bags.  Eddie combed these with his fingers before dumping the boxes on the floor and kicking them away from him to look in the next box.  It was all garbage.  He remembered the cellar door and walked over to it.
He illuminated his watch face.  13:00.  He pulled open the cellar door and looked inside.  Not thinking, he sniffed, and nearly threw up.  The smell of rot hit him.  He stood still for a minute, trying to quiet the revolt in his stomach.  Inside the cellar were a dozen stain blackened duffel bags.  Next to them and against the wall was a nightstand.  He pulled open the drawers and looked in each.  Inside were envelopes.  Eddie picked one up and looked inside.  Hundred dollar bills were pressed inside it and a single slip of paper.  He pulled the slip out curiously.  It was someone’s name and address.  He stuffed the envelope in his backpack and looked in the next envelope.  More money, and a new name and address.  He pulled the drawer from the nightstand and upended it into his backpack before opening the next drawer.  More envelopes.  Out came the drawer, in went the envelopes.  Eddie tossed the drawers aside.  He had more than enough to pay off his debt.  He turned to leave, the beam crossing one of the duffel bags.  He stopped and glanced at his watch.  9:30.  Plenty of time for a peek.  He was still giving himself plenty of time to get up the stairs, out the door and out of this sewer. 
He knelt down next to one of the bags.  He pulled at the zipper.  It was stuck, the teeth coated in black grime.  He yanked harder and the zipper released slowly.  He played the beam over the mouth of the bag and found himself staring into the eyes of bodiless human head.  He shuffled backward, losing his balance and landing on his butt.  The flashlight clattered to the floor and shut off.  In the blackness he pushed himself away from the bag.  His back was against the cellar door, still partly closed.  His questing fingers found the strap of his backpack in the dark and he pulled it to him.  Above him the stairs creaked. 

Part 4 - Casing the Joint

Eddie learned a lot in his five days of house watching.  One thing it had taught him, for example, was that his morning coffee ritual, though satisfying, was impractical, since he had to piss almost immediately after he and driven, lost and in the dark around countless blocks of blackened buildings, flood-stained, windows shattered, front doors missing, past alleys where withered men slept under rag blankets surrounded by rain warped boxes or shopping carts.  He’d gotten his bearings and parked his car a few blocks away, approaching on foot.  A tenement across the street offered him a good view of the house (another tenement house), and later that day he paid a ridiculously small amount of money and rented himself a room there for the week.  On a whim he had signed his name “Tony Sporano”, the name of his apartment neighbor and car pool partner, but later felt guilty, as if he’d betrayed a trust.
He had arrived the first morni
He watched all day that first day without any sign of movement.  The house itself was a two story tenement not unlike the one he was watching from.  Weeds pushed through buckled sidewalk three feet high and choked the yard.  All the first floor windows were covered in sun bleached plywood boards.  The wood slat siding had fallen away in places giving the house a hollow look, like you could punch holes in it.  In some places weathered slats, pealed of paint hung from rusty nails like loose teeth.  On the second floor faded yellow paint chipped and pealed from the siding, the windows on the second floor were all boarded save one.  The glass in the uncovered window was shattered.  Vines grew up the side of the house and across the face of it, through the open panes.  Two plywood-covered doors led in from a landing that was no longer there, the absence noticeable only by the lack of chipped yellow paint outlining the missing structure.  When he returned to his car the window was shattered and his car stereo was gone.
The second day he saw the man leave.  He had marked down the time, noting that he had drawn a length of chain through the loops of the front doors and padlocking them in place.  Eddie waited.  He returned thirty minutes later, pushing a shopping cart, emptied it, and dropped a box and bag on the front stoop before unclasping the padlock and drawing it back through the handles, slinging the chain over his shoulder like a scourge before bending over to retrieve the bag and disappearing into the darkened building.  He emerged a moment later for the box, bringing it inside before dragging the shopping cart around the house where he dumped its side out of sight in the tall weeds. 
Eddie left then, but returned the third day with bolt cutters that he hid inside a jacket as he went up to his room.  There was again no movement that day, and, Eddie noted, no light from within either.
The fourth day the man had left again.  Again the door was padlocked.  This time Eddie waited until he was almost out of sight, then followed him, sweating with anxiety, his hands habitually running through his hair, nervously glancing about to see if anyone was watching him.  A liquor store proved to be the destination.  In and out in a minute or so he waited until he was gone and then crossed the street, pushing open the doors.
“Whew!  What is that smell?”
 The clerk glanced up from his magazine, shaking his head back and forth in disgust.  “You should have been here a couple minutes ago.”
“You get all the A-listers in this store, I guess.”
The clerk chuckled.  “Yeah, that one’s a regular.”
“Lucky you,” Eddie said, looking around the store.  “You guys sell beer in here?”
“Nah, just booze.”
“Shit, I was looking for beer.  What’s the guy before me drinking?  I wanna steer clear of that!”
“Vodka, man.  By the case.  You would not believe how much.”
Eddie wandered over to the counter.  “Yeah?”
“Yeah, a couple cases a week we sell that guy.”
“Jesus!  Drowning his sorrows, I guess.”
“Yeah, well he isn’t takin’ a bath in it, that’s for sure!”
“Wonder what his story is. . .”
“I don’t know man, but he’s bad news.  We buy groceries and booze and keep them on hand for him.  He comes in, drops a couple hundreds and goes out.  I don’t ask too many questions.
“Hundreds?  That guy can’t afford running water and he’s dropping hundreds here?”
“Yeah, a couple times a week, no less.  I’ll bet he spends four or five hundred a week in here on booze and junk food.”
Eddie shook his head.  “Is there a place that sells beer around here?”
“Yeah, man, walk out of the store, make a right and head up the street a few blocks.  They sell it at a little grocery store up there.”
“Alright, thanks for your help.  Invest in some air fresheners or something for this place will ya?”
The clerk chuckled and Eddie pushed out the door.  It chimed as he left.  The clerk looked back down at his magazine and didn’t notice when Eddie turned left and went back the way he’d come.
The fifth day of watching there was more darkness, more silence, no movement.
On the sixth day, the man pushed open the door to the building and stepped into the sunlight, and Eddie slung his pack around his back, waited for him to disappear, jogged across the street, cut the chain across the door, and disappeared into the ruin.

Part 3 - In the Dark

Adam woke in the dark.  He always woke in the dark.  His house (technically owned by a family by the name of DiLuca) was less house than lair, less home than den.  There was no electricity.  No running water.  He played no music, read no newspapers.  He lay down in the basement of the old tenement.  What little light might have been cast by the windows was choked off from the sun by weeds and debris or boarded over.  His sole homage to his lost humanity was the alcohol he used to help distance himself from it. 
His dark-adapted eye picked out the shapes of the bottles around the mildewed mattress he rested on.  He pushed past a couple empties with his hands and hooked a vodka bottle by its neck, dragging it across the basement floor with a fluted scrape of glass against concrete .  He swirled the bottle and felt it slosh before propping himself up on the mattress and unscrewing the cap to the bottle.  He tilted it back and pulled deeply from the bottle.  He cleared his throat, coughed, and drank deeply again, finishing off the bottle.  He put the bottle down and turned over on his stomach feeling around the mattress for other bottles, scattering them with his hands.  All empty.  Grocery day.
He pushed himself up and got shakily to his feet.  He kicked empty pop tart wrappers, liquor boxes and vodka bottles out of his way and put on his jacket.  Inside the pocket was the slip of paper and an envelope with $5,000 in it. 
The steps were wooden and creaked as he climbed them.  He opened the door and was momentarily dazzled by the wan light streaming in from the cracks in the wood slat frame, or around the plywood covered windows. It was hot, and the air was wet.  His shirt felt tacky on his skin, but he left the jacket on for the extra pockets, the pockets of his jeans long since worn through.  He stepped into the light and closed the door.
The main floor of the tenement was rain-rotted and smelled of mildew.  The steps leading up to the second floor rooms were mostly missing.  Weeds vined through the moisture-gapped slats and climbed water-stained and mold-black walls to clutch broken light fixtures in green tendrils.   He could hear the cicadas shrilling outside the building.  He picked up a length of chain from behind the door where it lay coiled and cold like a slumbering serpent.  A padlock dangled from the end of a link, and he unhooked it, pulling the key from the lock and pushing it into his pocket before opening the front doors, and walking out, trailing the length of chain.  He squinted his eyes from the sun and the yard grew silent, the cicadas stilled abruptly for a moment before resuming their song.
He pushed the chain through the door handles and pulled it shut tightly, leaning back and pulling on the ends of the chain before bringing them together and hooking the links with the padlock.  He snapped shut the hasp and tugged it.  He walked down slanted steps and around the side of the house, retrieving a weathered shopping cart, and drug it out into the street.
* * *
The clerk looked up from his “Hot Rod” magazine.  He saw the bum shambling across the parking lot, barefoot and black with filth, pushing a shopping cart with a wobbling front wheel.  He was new, only been in the liquor store for a week, but he’d received “informal training” on this.  He rushed to the back of the store and grabbed the case of  Karkharov Super Premium Vodka and carried it out to the counter.  Karkharov Super Premium vodka differed from gasoline in only one major category:  it was cheaper per gallon.  At least that’s the quip the clerk had heard as his manager had helped him prepare the “Care Package”.  He bent over to pick up a plastic bag of groceries (if poptarts, Slim Jims and Twinkies can be called groceries) and put it next to the cardboard box.  The ‘groceries’ were purchased by his manager from another store and stockpiled in the back, bagged in advance, then replaced behind the counter as needed.
“He comes in every two days or so,” he’d been schooled.  “Pays in hundreds and leaves.  Don’t talk to him, don’t offer him change, don’t ask for more money, don’t do anything but put the box and the bag in that shopping cart and get him the fuck out of the store as fast as you can.”
“What if he asks for something else?”
“He won’t.”
“What if he doesn’t pay?”
“He will, but if he doesn’t don’t worry about it, just let me know.”
The door chimed warning and the clerk shook himself from this recollection to see the bum pushing the cart in the front door.  His stink preceded him to the register.  His hair was matted and greasy, his hands and feet were black with dirt, crusted with something that almost looked like dried blood.  He was staring down at the floor.
The clerk hurried around the counter, breathing through his mouth, and grabbed the box, dumping it into the cart.  He pulled the grocery bag by the straps, sliding it over the counter and swinging it in beside the box.  From the pocket of an oil-stained jacket, the bum was pulling an envelope.  He reached two fingers inside and pulled out two one hundred dollar bills and handed them without looking to the clerk, who was looking inside the envelope.
“That’s some wad o’ cash you got there, buddy,” he said.
The bum growled something and his hand shot out and grabbed him by the throat before pushing him back against the counter.
“You don’t fucking talk to me. . . EVER!” his voice rasped like a smoker’s, at once hoarse and guttural.  He was pushing up against the clerk, his eyes burned inches from the clerks, his lips pulled back in a feral snarl, fingers clutching at his throat.  His breathing rattled heavily in and out as he advanced on him.  The smell of him was in the clerk’s nose and it made him want to retch.
“Y-yes. . .,” he offered haltingly.
The bum pushed away from him, and the clerk fell back against the counter, knocking over a lottery display.  Shaken, he stared after him as he pulled the cart out the store, not looking up from the ground where his blackened feet walked over gravel and small pieces of broken glass alike as if he wore shoes. 
He walked back behind the counter and breathed heavily for a minute, collecting himself.  He badly wanted to bathe.