Carlos Rodriquez is always running. Dude's wiry, with skin like beef jerky from the neck down, but from the way he hurtles past his Silver Towers neighbors, you might guess he was a high school track star. When I'd catch him in the building's elevator--back when I could catch him--I'd watch his feet in full bounce, sneakers flopping up like fish blown ashore in a storm. His knees would jerk forward in his khakis, right-left-right-left-right, as he watched the little yellow light descend from four to three to two, and as I'd begin to mention that his Annual Recertification was approaching, he'd sprint out the elevator doors, darting through a field of lint-like hair, flashing over his shoulder a youthful, though somewhat rotten, smile.
If you ask the Property Manager, he'll tell you I'm the Administrative Assistant. I'd been a month on the job, though, when our Assistant PM--the original resident wrangler--went MIA, and I've been covering her workload ever since.
The PM's job is not so much to chase tenants as it is to squeeze from them every cent he can, and he does this through rent increases; increases justified by the findings of my interrogations, and by the findings of the paperwork I process.
Paperwork means, Tell me what you're worth, solean see if you're lying to me--tell me, and III tell you if you can still live here. I could tell you about verification forms; forms faxed to our residents' banks and their employers, past and present; forms sent to their second cousins and their third grade teachers, if we suspect they're alive and willing to snitch on our residents' finances, but that's not what you'll want to hear about. You'll want to know how I came to spend my nights tucked into the building's various crevices, scurrying through darkened halls like an Ocean Drive alley rat. But we'll get there.
Here's the important part: My manager says that if we get rent increases to a high enough bracket by the end of the fiscal year, hell convince our head office to reapprove the Assistant Manager position and promote me. As the APM, I'd be able to rent my own apartment; I could live like a fully formed, first world human. I need this.
Here's the downside of being the face of rent increases in a low-income property: The residents wish you dead. Not a month goes by that I don't receive hate mail. This arrives in the form of letters, mailed to us from our tenants' family members: How can you raise my mother's rent? You want her to starve? the letters ask. If you're really NON-profit, how come you're so damn greedy?
It's not just the rent hikes that anger our tenants' next of kin, either. One letter actually read, My father shouldn't have died alone. How could you let him? How could I let him.
But the ones that really stick are the handwritten notes.
The last one, retrieved from our office's drop box about a week ago, simply read die. That its author penciled it in lowercase letters makes me feel worse about it somehow. Were it written in all caps, followed by exclamation points, I'd attribute the message to an act of rage. But die, to me, seems so coolheaded. The sender appears to have given this ample thought.
Often I'm spared the brunt of the insult because the notes are terribly misspelled, illegible, or not written in English at all. Not long ago, though, we received a sheet of construction paper displaying a message that circumvented language barriers or miscommunications caused by literacy deficiencies. The note featured a sketched stick figure hanging in a noose. One stick arm reached up to grip the vividly rendered rope the character swung from. An arrow pointed toward the figure's head, the word tu written at the other end. I turned the paper over and saw El Jefe written on the back.
Oh, thank god, I thought. I handed the paper to my manager and said, "It's for you."
It might be a stretch to say I identify with my tenants, but I can empathize well enough. When I moved back to Miami a year and some months ago, I returned with no money, with not one more skill than I'd left with, to no real home to speak of. Moms said to hell with Florida, with this whole country--the rat race, all of it--let the bank foreclose on her house, and dipped back a Yard my final year of college. She said she could finally breathe. She felt freed by the privilege of relative racelessness. In 2005, Jamaica was the murder capital of the world, and my mom moved back there so she could finally feel safe.
So it was my father's address I wrote on the job application. I didn't last a week there before the beef got too thick to choke down, though, so I moved into my Jeep; parked it in whichever lot I could find, the few left without security officers or meters, moving it incrementally to keep gas costs low, and to keep from getting towed. The day I finally interviewed, I took a ketchup-cup filled with fast-food restaurant hand soap, and washed myself at a South Beach shower station, the one just a block over. I aired my suit on the seawall, waiting for the sun to bake my drawers dry.
You might guess the best thing about transitioning back to a paycheck is the food security, the dignity of work, or the hope for a prosperous tomorrow, but it's none of these things. The best thing about a job is having a toilet where you can sit and unload your twisted, clogged-up colon without having to fake like you're planning to buy a Double Mcfuckery with fries.
The residents, you'll see, if you ever visit, have been through this kind of hustle--worse, if I had to guess. They're broke and broken. You see it on their faces, in the congealed grimaces and winces. They've been drained, decimated by poverty in conjunction with aging. The ones who are alone in their last years are pitiful. The ones who still hold familial obligations are damned. This brings me back to dude I was telling you about earlier. Carlos. Carlos is among the damned.
Carlos, whose recertification is due for processing, spends much of what's left of his time caring for his invalid wife. I suspect she's the reason he's always on the move. When he sprints into the building, back from work or whatever errands he's had to run, you can see the worry in his eyes, the tension constricting the muscles overlaying his jaw, the look of someone certain they've left their burner lit under a fiying pan. Imagine carrying that stress for several hours a day, every day, for years. Consider what that does to a person.
We've never established a protocol for processing catatonic spouses, never bothered with terms like power of attorney, so in the past I've allowed him to take blank copies of the recert forms up to his apartment to have his wife sign. Of course, he comes back after too short a period, her signatures closely matching his own. I've never pressed the issue.
This year, when I reminded him about our appointment, he said his wife was not doing well.
"Still, we have to get this done in December."
"Late December," he said. He flashed his crooked, gray-brown teeth, a book-worth of jutting, spent matches, before fleeing down the hall. His signature red baseball cap sprang up and down as he sidestepped his neighbors, a child's bouncy ball bounding through week-old snow.
I've always liked Carlos, let me just put that out there. Maybe it's his demeanor in spite of his financial or familial woes. The red-stained corners of his lips, much like his cap's brim, are ever aiming upward. He's perpetually draped in an oversized navy polo, Walgreens stitched on the breast, the bagginess adding to the impression of youthfulness about him, as if he's planning to grow into his older brother's shirt.
Excluding the elevator, Carlos will halt in the hall outside my door for exactly one thing: his Hawaiian Punch fix.
The building's vending machines are stationed to the left of the second-floor elevators. One offers your mainstream brands of canned liquid sugar rush--Crap, Diet Crap, Orange Crap, Iced Crap, and even Malta, which proves our vendors do understand our demographic. More mysterious is the second vending machine, the straight-up nineties throwback, the dedicated Hawaiian Punch dispenser.
The machine glows blue and red around the mischievous illustrated figure jumping-yet-frozen in the center of the enlarged can pictured on the front. The character sports a red hat of his own, the shape of poorly drawn deer antlers; below this, a blue-and white-striped shirt. Carlos, the sole patron of this dispenser as far as I can tell, will pause to purchase a can, slurp back the red syrupy liquid, and once he's refueled, dashes back into action. If you were to catch sight of this ritual in your periphery, you might think the sudden blue and red burst from the backlit box's center was the character escaping the confines of the machine.
Apart from youthful quarks, Carlos stands out as one of the building's few fluent English speakers, employees included. Since I took this job, I've had to cultivate what I like to call Leasing Spanish, Spanish being the predominant language spoken here; Russian coming in as the distant second.
I get the engineers to fulfill maintenance requests through hand gestures and miming and our mutually limited, though ever-expanding knowledge of each other's languages. Una problema con la puerta en apartamento #512, I'll write on the work order, when a tenant complains of a squeaky door. The original complaint itself will have been acted out for me, with the tenant making screeching sounds as he opens and closes my office door. My reports are nothing close to precise, I realize, but why deprive the engineers of their chance to get in on the charades and rounds of telephone I play daily?
I convince residents to sign the necessary forms, which we keep printouts of in four different languages, simply by striking an X next to the signature line. And, if it's Spanish that the tenant speaks, I've learned enough to get across the basic questions--Tienen un gato? and the like--which require the most basic of answers.
When my ninth-grade Spanish comes up short, I break down and call the manager to come help translate. He, of course, thinks this a monumental waste of his time, but I'm supposed to be helping him with his English, a trade-off for his translation services, so he'll generally acquiesce.
Truthfully, our deal's a sham, because dude speaks English about as well as any community college grad in Miami-Dade County. Every now and again he'll slaughter an idiom, saying, "For better or for worst," and I'm supposed to correct him. I did at first, but I've begun to suspect he goes out of his way to exaggerate his English deficiency to appear foreign, or local, depending how you look at it.
Over the course of two years, his English has deteriorated rapidly; a political move to gain influence with the Cuban community's older generation, I suspect. He insists he belongs to this community, but he's admitted too that his almond skin, his full lips, his too-round nose, and his tight curls are viewed among many of his brethren with distrust and contempt.
"Eres Dominicano?" I've heard about a dozen residents ask him. When they ask, I see the hurt drowning the corners of his eyes.
"Dominicano mi pinga!" he answers. "Soy Cubano!"
I shake my head and suck my teeth when I witness this transaction. I'll slam a file against my desk, don my fuck you face in the name of solidarity; not office solidarity, mind you, but in support of a fellow first gener. We children of immigrants--those of us born into cultures birthed out of countries we've never resided in--wear desperation for belonging on our sleeves, and to be denied our heritage is a painful blow.
Or maybe it's solidarity for the Halfrican fraternity, of which we are both members.
"They act like there's no color back on the island," my manager once told me. "They act like Africa doesn't run through all our veins. The people need history. We need to educate ourselves."
The absurdity of such pronounced colorism is, in his view, topped only by the fact that, despite my twenty-odd years in Miami, I still haven't learned Spanish. "How do you even get by? How do you talk to your neighbors?"
"I'm from the Ridge," I explain. "South Dade." To his blank expression I add, "Many of our rapist grandfathers were British."
That he needs English language tutoring is what's unfathomable. I suggested that perhaps he's just bad with grammar, so he elevated our lessons to the next level. He'll say, "What's the word for," and point at something unbelievable, like a pencil sharpener or the sole of his shoe, and I'll say, "Tip grinder," or "Foot bottom."
Last time, when he pointed at the AC vent and started, Como se dice, I asked, "Dude, aren't you American?"
"Yeah, but I grew up in Hialeah," he told me.
"That's in America, though, no? I mean, didn't they teach you English in school?"
"Have you been to Hialeah?" he asked. "Even the stop signs say Alto."
Carlos is also interested in ethnic and racial distinctions, language proficiency, and the such. One memorable exchange of ours began, "I see you, and I can tell you are Mulatto. Am I right?" He'd hurried into the office and slung himself into the seat facing me, as though excited to share his revelation."We don't say Mulatto in this country. I mean, I suppose--"
"I knew this!" he said, immediately standing. "I can tell you no one of these Negroes." He wagged his index finger at me, saying, "I have a nephew," before dragging the same finger across the skin of his wrist, then aiming it back my way. I thought he would say more, instead of winking, then practically skipping out of the office.
Carlos has been incrementally prepping me for his random, if specific, expressions of prejudice. "I'm Puerto Rican," he likes to tell me. Nearly every conversation we have includes this bit. "I'm no going yell at you, 'Learn Spanish.' I'm no one of these Cubans."
The Cubans and the Russians who split the building's population beef furtively, rarely inviting my participation. The factions cling together like true Mafiosi. Carlos Rodriquez sticks to himself. He has to. No one can keep up with him.
I've seen less and less of the guy as we get midway through December. I'll hear the tumble and catch of a can in the machine, peep a flash of red fly past the office's entrance; by the time I step out into the hallway he's ghost. When I knock on his apartment door no one answers. I tried sliding the recert forms under his apartment's door, hoping he'd sign and drop them back at the office, but the gap underneath stays blocked up by a mat or a towel or some other implement of subterfuge.
Most of the December recertifications have wrapped up smoothly, which is good because next month is our big audit. Federal audits mean the bosses are on edge, which means I've got double the workload, purging and combing through files and updating documents. El Jefe has spent most of the month working from our head office in preparation for this audit, so I'm practically running things solo over here.
Since Carlos is the last tenant who hasn't filled out his paperwork, I've had time enough to scrutinize his file and realize he has good reason for avoiding me. In his file, on last year's Employment Verification form, Carlos's signature is at the bottom, and on the line that asks Are you currently employed? Carlos wrote No.
This contradicts the several mornings a week I see Carlos in his uniform, running in the direction of the Walgreens over on 5th and Jefferson. Could he be newly employed? you might naturally ask, if Carlos hadn't worn the same blue work shirt nearly every day since I started here. Why I'd never noticed this discrepancy before or during his last lease signing? I was too busy learning the job maybe. But since I've gotten that down, I've had time to learn our tenants' names and faces, routines, and the such.
I know Alvaro and Leonardo Fernandez run dominos daily in the cafeteria, and I know Vladimir and Saskia hold down the front stoop from noon to 3 PM. And I know Carlos is a fiend for that red liquid crack, so the odds of catching up to him are in my favor.
When next I spot him, I run up on Carlos right as he drops a coin in the vending machine's slot. He looks up at me reluctantly, then down to his curled, coin-carrying fist, then to the vending machine, like he could cry. The machines digital screen flashes Insert 00.75.
"How's work?" I ask him, examining his polo.
"Oh, no, I no work there anymore." With his free hand he pinches the shirt near the Walgreens insignia, as if to subtract it from his personage.
"No?" I ask. But he is down the hall, heading for the stairs, before I can further question him. I nearly run after Carlos, then stop. You're not a cop, I remind myself. You make $8.20 an hour. I press the machine's Coin Return button and pocket Carlos's quarter.
Christmas brings extra mail in the leasing office's drop box, and as I check it, I see that the bribes have started rolling in. My first Christmas here I thought the envelopes stuffed-with-cards-stuffed-with-cash were signs of holiday cheer, but soon I realized that the envelopes came exclusively from tenants with December and January recertifications. I recognized, sooner or later, that, considering the dictatorships so many of my tenants have escaped, these offerings are vestiges of the survival tactics they acquired in the old country.
My manager requires that I report this money to him and initially I did, given that none that first year were addressed to me, while some envelopes indicated they were meant for him, and others simply read oficina. He took the cards and propped them up in the hallway-facing window in his office, so the residents could see his appreciation. The money, he claims, was returned to the residents.
Since then, the Christmas cards have taken on more careful designations. Many of the envelopes still read El Jefe, while a more or less equal number are addressed to me. They don't actually read Trelawny, of course. They're addressed to Secretary or Secretario. Either way, I place the cards on my desk and pocket the cash. When El Jefe presses the issue, I give him half of whatever originally filled the card. Did I tell you how much I make? Besides, these offerings make no difference in whether rents go up, which, almost certainly, they will.
I'm carrying this year's envelopes to my desk, pondering my responsibility to report Carlos to the manager, when a manila card in the pile catches my eye. I pick it up, wondering if cash or a rent check might fall out. When I open it the card is empty, except for the carefully hand-drawn penis shooting across the inner fold. The back of this card does not specify the intended recipient. An arrow points to the dick's head and at the end of the arrow a single word has been written: tu.
It would be easy to prove. A quick phone call. Walgreens is a few blocks away. I could walk there and see for myself. If Carlos is employed, his income might just account for the rent hike needed to spark my promotion. You see, I like Carlos, but, by leaps and bounds, I like me more.
When I get back from lunch I'll fax an employment verification form to the store and see what happens. The space on the form for the tenant's authorizing signature will be blank, but I'll send it anyway.
Milda Perez is a different kind of problem. Milda is a May recert, which means that, it being December, I avoid her at all costs. She's the Towers' tiniest, most audible resident and she's the only one who might keep up with Carlos, if she didn't move in circles.
Milda should not live alone, yet does, so she loses the keys to her apartment several times a month and leaves duplicate checks in the drop box. She's thus far avoided eviction thanks to a generous nephew who will do anything to keep her from living with him.
She'll peek in my doorway, watching me tabulate rent payments or type up our building's newsletter. When I look at her, she'll dart over to the elevator, press the call button, and then dash to the cafeteria's entrance and peer through the glass double doors. After flittering up and down the hall, she'll stomp into the office in a fit. If it weren't for her pitch or her tone or for her lack of front teeth, I might manage to pick out more than bits and pieces of her frantic Spanish before she runs out in frustration. A few minutes later, though, she'll run back in and tell me in near-perfect English that the air conditioner in the dining room is blowing too cold, or the elevator is taking too long, or that the mailman hasn't yet arrived.
Today, Milda shows up a little after eleven o'clock. I know the time without checking my watch because the walkers clacking from the elevators toward the dining room have already quieted, and a steady hum--cut by dominos smacking tabletops--emanates from the end of the hall. Milda waits for the phone to start ringing, for a fax to begin spitting out of the machine, before her mouth gets working. I pluck a fax off the floor, wave it at her, then grab the phone.
Milda stands just beyond the threshold, saying something I don't think I could understand if she were speaking English. For-real baby talk.
"Silver Towers," I say into the phone.
My boss, on the other end, says, "You sure you want a promotion, welcoming calls like that?"
"Sure I do. It's a beautiful day at Silver Towers. A busy one too." "How're the recerts coming?" "One left." "Get it done this week," he says. "I hear this auditor's a bulldog."
Milda approaches, as if pushing against a barrage of waves. She grows louder as she nears. Her face is wet. Her eyes are humongous behind her glasses. Her speech crackles over her saliva.
I've missed the last several things my manager has told me, so I say, 'Yeah, it's just that I can't seem to track down Carlos Rodriquez. He's the last one." I cover the receiver with my palm and say, "What's the matter, Milda?"
She stops midway between the door and my desk, mixing words with elongated breaths.
"Dime en Ingles," I say.
My boss says, "Make sure there are no surprises with his income and bank statements." I glance at the fax in my hand; it's the returned verification form from Walgreens. The space for the employment information is empty, though, and right below the line where Carlos's signature should have been, the words Authorizing Signature have been circled. As though he were staring over my shoulder, my boss says, "Take his signature off one of last year's forms. It's not rocket scientist."
I follow Milda out into the hall. We make it halfway to the cafeteria before she stops to stare through the window that looks out on Collins. I'm not sure if she's forgotten her destination or if this is it, so I follow her gaze. A crowd has gathered below on the sidewalk in front of the building. It's December; locals pass quickly through the crowd wearing light sweaters and Ugg boots, but it's also seventy degrees out, so the dawdlers consist mostly of sandal-clad, tank-top-draped, browned skin.
"Meda, chico," Milda says, staring down on the street.
Traffic has halted on both sides of the gathering. A cacophony of horn blasts rises above the buzz of the people. I'm wondering which celebrity decided to disrupt our day with her presence, or else whose inebriation ignited a fistfight, but I can't seem to locate the source of the spectacle.
Milda raises her hand high, palm faced down, stretched horizontally. "He went over," she says, bringing her hand into a vertical dive.
I look back through the window, searching between the tanned necks and shoulders of onlookers standing with their backs to us. When I lower my gaze, I see the sprawl of gray asphalt interrupted by pink-tinged body fragments.
"It's better this way, chico," Milda says, sniffling. "He had the cancer."
Silver Towers' waitlist for residency is five years long, but officially, the waitlist is closed. Do we keep this list in an electronic database or anything so efficient? Is it encrypted with up-to-date security features? In fact, our list takes the form of four rag-tag composition notebooks, which we house in a drawer in the supply closet. I'm curious to see what the auditor will say when she sees our system.
Our waitlist is closed, but every once in a while I watch, with my own two, El Jefe jot a name in the only of the four that still holds room enough to write in. When he catches me witnessing this, he gets to citing excuses. He says the person occupied a space on the list but got taken off by mistake, for instance. Whatever, man. Like I said, $8.20 an hour. But, on the other hand, I look like the asshole when I just argued with some senior citizen for twenty minutes about the impossibility of getting him put on.
As to the efficiency of the list itself: When a tenant does a ten-story belly flop flat into Collins Avenue, leaving both a permanent pink stain and a vacant apartment, I call the number next to the first name in the book that isn't crossed out. If no one picks up after that initial set of ring-a-lings, I'm on to the next name. If a wait-lister does pick up but can't meet our fast-approaching move-in date, she gets scratched off the list completely. They beg me not to do this, if they understand at all that I'm doing this, which I try my best to ensure. They say, "Just call when the next one opens. I'm ready then." But I don't make the rules, yo, even if they have my sympathy.
Point is, the applicant who makes it into our leasing office is rarely, if ever, the "next" or "first" person on the list. It usually takes eight to ten calls before anyone even picks up, and I'm not calling twice (as per protocol). They'll see Silver Towers' number on their caller id and call back, though, often after it's already too late, at which time I tell them that this was just a courtesy call to let them know they're still on the list. The truth, that their trip to the grocery store or the pharmacy or the toilet cost them their rightful opportunity to move in here, would just upset them.
This system has left some waitlisters hanging additional months and even years longer than a more patient, compassionate system might. Given our clientele, it's not difficult to imagine that some applicants have literally died in wait. I sometimes wonder if they realize, these lingering names jumbled between blue lines, that this is some luck of the draw, arbitrary-ass shit.
The fallibility of our waitlist procedures gets ticking on the dome when a woman in her late forties strides into the office, inquiring about the possibility of etching her name in composition book number one. It's her age that distinguishes her from our other applicants, true, but before I examine the relative smoothness of her face, it's her movements that strike me. She approaches my desk, hips leading her thick body in a rolling, coiling movement.
When I stand and step forward to greet her she introduces herself as Jesenia. Jesenia smiles when she speaks, as though passing along a joke or a piece of good news to an old friend. There's a sparkle in her eyes, which detracts from her shallow crow's-feet. Jesenia's blouse exposes a deep valley of cleavage, speckled with coffee-colored sunspots, only slightly lined with vertical stretch marks. I fight to keep my eyes from veering below her lips. That she's old enough to be my mother, and I her son, holds little bearing. When she asks about the waitlist, I find myself disappointed to tell her it is closed.
She doesn't flinch when I tell her this but says in a thick accent I take to be Eastern European, "Surely, there is something that can be done." She steps closer, adding, "I'm desperate."
"Maybe you don't realize, this is elderly housing. I don't think you'd qualify either way."
"I have disability. This makes me eligible."
A HUD provision states that people with qualifying disabilities are eligible for residency here, despite their not meeting our age requirements. It's clear she knows the system--less so that she has any such qualification.
"But still, the waitlist is closed," I say. "And if it weren't, there'd be a five-year wait."
"Please." She raises her hand and rests it on my forearm. "Help me."
I pull slightly out of reach and look toward the entrance, to the empty hallway beyond. Most of the residents are up in their apartments this late in the afternoon. "There's nothing I can do for you. My manager is out. Have you tried Alton Gardens?"
"Here," she says. "It needs to be here. I'll do anything." She lowers her voice. "I have thirteen hundred dollars I can give you."
"I can't take your money." I say it quickly, as though I'm insulted at her suggestion. But within a breath my mind has divvied and spent every dollar.
She steps closer, taking my arms in her grasp. "I could give you something else." She pushes her shoulders back. Her chest pushes forward and up to meet mine. "Anything you want." She's near enough that I can see my reflection in her dark, unblinking eyes, a clear sign that she's inappropriately close, and that I should push her away. I ask myself, staring back from her pupils: What kind of employee are you? And just what kind of man?
There are perks that come with this job, perks that go beyond a toilet and my unofficial Christmas bonuses. You might imagine--on days when tenants aren't throwing themselves from their balconies and would-be applicants aren't throwing themselves at you-- elderly housing to be among the most mind-numbingly boring environments a young man could find himself working in, but that's before considering this particular building's location.
On a slower workday, it's easy enough for me to pop over to Ocean Drive during my lunch hour and take in the parade of near-bare asses and European supercars cruising the strip. From my office you can hear the party atmosphere--the unrelenting succession of amusements down on the street below--again, when it's not drowned by the wail of ambulances.
More importantly, when the weather dips into the forties at night during a cold front, and my Jeep becomes unbearable to sleep in, there's a spare apartment on the second floor, two doors down from the leasing office. Technically, this space is the break room, used by all Silver Towers employees, from the social worker to the engineers to El Jefe himself, but it's also a model apartment, a showroom with a kitchen and a tv and a working shower. When you lock yourself inside at night, after everyone has gone for the day, the space s homeliness becomes more apparent. And while the only furniture in the would-be bedroom is a conference table, the floral print couch in the living area isn't as stiff as it first appears.
I don't even bother going to the car when my weather app buzzes with an Early Morning Frost alert.
I dip out of the office and walk the strip for a couple hours instead, window-shopping, reading sidewalk signs promoting happy hours. I'm heading north on Ocean, along the west side of the street, where tourists, both meandering and seated at the restaurants' sidewalk dining, make for an ebbing, flowing obstacle course.
The beach doesn't really pop off till later in the night, which makes right now a buyer's market, and everything's on special. The bouncer at Wet Willies, a hulking mass of muscle, actually nods at me as I pass--surprising, because South Beach bouncers are known to toss people through windows sooner than make unsolicited eye contact. Up ahead, two of Mangos' dancers, a bare-chested roider-type and this super-thickness of the sweeter sex, have wandered out front in their leopard-print costumes and are gyrating, shaking their flesh against anyone feeling froggy enough to join them.
Snaking through the tunnel of tables and storefronts, canopied by the umbrellas these tables crouch under, I become aware that I'm an onlooker at a carnival that has not quite started. The guy with the albino boa constrictor wrapped around his shoulders and the lady with the parrot are arguing over who gets to front a specific alleyway; they stop cursing each other only to insist I halt to touch and pose for pictures with their respective animal.
As I pass the restaurants' entrances, the hostesses leap at me, their menus aimed at my chest like daggers. They're impossibly gorgeous, these hostesses, displaying phenotypes that, according to American media outlets, should not coexist. Latte-colored flesh makes aqua eyes glow like jewels in their faces. Tight blonde coils spiral out above plush pink lips. Pale, broad noses create backdrops for sprinklings of orange-brown freckles. All manner and mix of racial ambiguity guards the entryways to these establishments, which boast French or Italian or Mediterranean cuisine. These gatekeepers' images should be plastered over magazine covers and billboards, but their bodies, the hips and thighs and backsides, are more robust than mainstream fashion mags and ad execs know what to do with, the sole reason the hoi polloi are allowed to stand this close to them.
American men, Southerners and Midwesterners, stop to ask where these young ladies are from. More often, they drunkenly ask, "What are you?" To which the girls smile and name their country of origin. These lames are just that for asking, but I linger when they do, because I also want to know.
These girls are hired on to lure the uninitiated into dining at these beachfront establishments, restaurants that provide the lowest quality food for the highest possible price. If business is slow, they'll part their lips for you, expose their teeth and gums, and flutter their eyelashes, as though your patronage is their one wish in life. When business is a-boom, these girls remain tight-lipped and stare around you, unless you look a lot like money.
They're hungry for diners now, so even in my frumpy work clothes, I'll do. I nearly succumb to several of these sirens before crossing the street and wandering onto the sand to sit barefoot, awaiting the sky's gradual fade from indigo to black.
In the past, when loneliness struck, I've hit up Mangos or The Cleve-lander, where I flirt with tourists (never the dancers--waste of time), especially the Americans who think every light brown thing in Miami is exotic. If they ask if you're Cuban, say yes. If they ask if you're Trini or Puerto Rican or Cape Verdean, say yes to that too. Anything they ask, just nod along; be what they want, and they'll take you back to their room at The Colony or The Shore Club or the hotel on Fisher Island, where the necessity for security clearances and aquatic transport will transform you from a fling into a captive audience. But at least there will be a bed.
This time, though, I tuck my toes deep into the sand, forcing myself to enjoy the hushed breath of solitude. When the waves break, glimmering black against black earth, I'm reminded of the beauty and lure of oblivion.
The evening security guard stationed at the front desk sees me reenter. It's inevitable. But we contract our security officers from a company that rotates them out often enough that word of my nightly returns seems unlikely to make it back to the bossman. Just in case, I always prepare an explanation; prepare to tell them about the audit and the necessity to work late, for instance, but from the expression on this guards face, unadulterated disinterest, I know he won't ask for more than a glance at my credentials.
When I flash my badge, he answers in the same Haitian accent they all answer in, "Okay, my friend."
In the elevator, instead of two, I hit the button for ten, intent on sleeping in a bed tonight. The tenth's hallway is dim, but I know the layout well enough to find Liebnitz's apartment with no trouble. I get in, and the process is always the same: I turn the TV on with the volume low and keep the lights off, in case any tenants venture out into the hall, see the light, and decide to knock. These tenants, you see, are curious, to put it mildly.
A group of the building's Russians once started a semi-successful petition to evict one of their Cuban neighbors whose daughter had been visiting for a little over a week. It's true, there are limits and restrictions on these visitations, but still. If they'd do that to each other, imagine what they'd do to me.
Keeping the lights off has the added benefit of my not having to look at the deceased's family photos or interior aesthetic choices. In the dark, if I can ignore the inevitable stench of decay, I can pretend the space is mine.
This night, I'm especially lucky: since Liebnitz's illness left him mostly bedbound, he'd moved his television into the bedroom-a no-no for most tenants of his generation.
So reclined in the slow-flickering beam of television images, I scroll through my contacts and find an old friend to text back and forth with. This time, I text Katie, who still has another semester up at university before she graduates. She asks me if anything interesting happened at work, so I tell her about Mr. Leibnitz's suicide.
That's terrible, she writes. Did you know him?
Just his name, mostly. I know he paid $150 for rent.
Jesus. And he killed himself?
I start telling her about Carlos and his elusiveness. About how he's costing me my promotion.
Since when do you want a career in housing? she texts back. I thought this was just your day job. What about applying to grad school? What about art?
I'm already doing the work, I respond. I m ight as well get paid for it.
I guess, she texts. Just don't become a suit. Especially not some senior citizen-abusing suit. Christ, Trelawny.
The subject of the conversation rotates, as per usual, to when she can come visit. I want to see your glamorous South Beach lifestyle, she writes. Plus I need to escape the snowpocalypse.
Too bad you have to spend winter break with your family, I text. I leave out that if she did visit, she'd have to squat in the home of the recently departed.
Let's lock it down, she types. Spring break?
I type, Tired. Sleep time. Then I turn the volume up on this documentary about poachers killing black rhinos in Africa. The poachers smuggle the rhinos' horns into Asia, Vietnam being the largest market for the contraband. They sell the horns for boatloads on the black market. Some buyers keep the horn intact, to show off as a symbol of status, but more frequently buyers grind the horns down and ingest it as medicine. Rhino horn is rumored to be a cure-all; cancer patients are among some of the most enthusiastic buyers. Of course, ground-down, ingested rhino horn cures nothing in reality, but the poaching continues all the same.
When I see these dehorned rhinos, not the ones that have been killed outright, but the ones that were tranquilized and that are struggling to awaken with their faces crudely hacked to a red gaping wound, I want to avenge them. I want to fly to Zimbabwe and stake out the most vulnerable of what remains of the species. And when the poachers arrive, I want to hack off their noses with rusty saw blades and machetes.
Yet, somehow, I fall asleep envisioning myself at a party, at a mansion on the beach somewhere. The host offers me a glimpse of his horn, not a rhino's, but a unicorn's, the last in existence. He's ground the horn into a powdery heap, compiled on a silver tray, and women and men in shimmering gowns and suits are queuing up to snort lines of it.
I wonder, so far removed from the brutal annihilation of this oncemajestic being, with the whispered promise of everlasting health, would I do it? I wonder, would you?
I make sure to shower then clear the apartment before 7 am, leaving as little evidence behind as possible. The maintenance guys will be by to empty the place; to throw the family portraits, the mattress and couch, and the leftover milk in the dumpster. A family member might pop by in time to see if there's anything worth salvaging; a watch or necklace or a ring, before it's all tossed. If it'll fit in their pockets and holds monetary or sentimental value, these sons and granddaughters and nephews will take it. If it's larger than a handful, they let it ride to the dumpster.
I go for breakfast, taking the back stairs out so the morning guard will see me enter, upon my return, for the first time.
When I'm done eating I still have a half hour to kill, so I walk over to Walgreens. From the "Travel-Sized" section I pick up a stick of deodorant, some toothpaste and a toothbrush, and then wander the aisles, searching for Carlos. The store is virtually empty, except for the pharmacist and the teenager working the front register.
"What's good? I thought Carlos was on today," I tell him.
"Who that?" the kid shouts. He flops forward, nearly in slow-mo, onto his elbows, knocking my purchases back toward me. His jaw winds in tight circles, but he's not actually chewing anything, as I'd first suspected. The white arms of his sunglasses rest over his pink ears, only the lenses wrap the back of his closely shaven head. His eyes are bloodshot and he reeks like he showered in rum.
"Rodriguez," I raise my voice to match his. "Carlos Rodriguez."
The kid shrugs, "That your uncle, bro? Tio Carlito?" He laughs.
"Nah. Lanky, old cat. Red cap? Works here."
"Oh, nah. I think I know who you mean. He might work the photo lab."
I look over at the empty photo center. The lights behind the counter are dimmed. "What time's that open up?"
"Never, bro. The machine broke down five months ago."
I push the deodorant toward him with my finger. "If you see him," I say, "tell him his Mulatto nephew is looking for him."
Adding a new name to the waitlist is both simple and tricky. If I add it to the end of the list, in that glaringly blank space beneath what should be the final waitlister, the next time the boss looks at it, he'll recognize that this name was not penned in his hand.
Adding a name to the top of the list is also tricky.
The names aren't numbered, but they're jumbled so tightly together that it is impossible to write anything in between them. Simply writing a name to the side of these others will draw the auditor's attention, and I'm not trying to go to the Fed. My best bet is to hold off till it's time to call her in for the application, and then act as though one of the already scratchedoff names belongs to her.
It's nighttime when Jesenia comes back to the building to meet me. I let her in through the door that connects the parking lot with the back stairway, the one that opens only from inside. The motion detector has kicked the stairwell's lights on, but I lead her up the stairs by the hand, slow, as though we best take extra care to watch our steps.
On floor two, we step out into the hallway. The door shuts behind us, tucking us into the blanket of relative darkness. The red glow from the exit sign overhead exposes Jesenia's lost expression, so I lead her toward the break room. All is quiet, except for the hum of the vending machines up ahead. We pass through dark, then through the Hawaiian Punch dispenser's luminescence.
We slip into the break room and Jesenia's head whips back and forth. Before she can find the light switch, I pull her into the living area and onto the couch.
"Are you certain you want to do this?" I ask her.
She lifts her palms to my face and grips me uncomfortably. "Boy," she says, in a hushed, brusque voice. "Life is not wants and diswants. There are only dos and won't dos. I will do this for a spot on your list. You will give me that if I do this, no?"
She releases me.
"And the money?"
She hands me a small envelope, the kind banks give you cash in. "Six fifty," she says. "The other half when I sign lease."
It's too dark to count the money, so I slip the envelope into my pants pocket. "Fine," I say. In the daytime, she seemed to want this as much as I did. There's no seduction here.
She seems a woman capable of anything, and this thought, not for the first time, sparks my paranoia. "Open your bag," I say. "I want to make sure you're not recording this." I search her handbag, pulling from it a comb, a compact mirror, several tubes of lipstick and eyeliner. I empty it out on the coifee table, then run my hands over her body to make sure there's no devices taped under her dress. By the end of it, my erection stabs roughly against my slacks.
I rest my palm on her thigh. "Tell me why living here is so important. To you," I add. She seems to search my face, my eyes, but in the dark it's impossible to tell.
"I've given you my money," she says. "Take what pleasure you will from my body. But don't ask for any more of me."
I flip open the waitlist and, for a half hour, stare at the names cast in the early morning sunlight. I've showered, but Jesenia's scent still lingers in my nostrils, which is irritating, because it makes me want to see her. I could call her to come in straight away to fill out the application to take Leibnitz's apartment. In a sense, I could have had her fill out the application before she left.
But I don't call her. I pick up the phone's receiver and begin dialing applicants, beginning with the first name on the list.
In the evening, between workdays end and my return to the break room, I wander the storefronts of Washington, all the way down to Lincoln Road. White Christmas lights swath the palms between the shops. Red ribbons and bows wrap palm trunks, with no detectable sense of irony. Next week is Christmas, and I have no one to buy gifts for but myself.
The throng of shoppers provides an even more diverse backdrop of languages than does my building; French and Arabic and Japanese join the Spanish and the myriad variations of English spoken in the crowd. Young black dudes keep trying to sell me their rap albums as I walk the mall. They're approaching everyone, but when they see me, their eyes brim over with hope and they abandon the tourists, judging me a more appropriate target.
"Support home team," one says, when I don't pause to hear his spiel. "This is that real three-o-five right here, bruh."
It's important not to make eye contact with these peddlers or else they'll never let you alone. I make the mistake of saying, "Next time," which this young entrepreneur takes as encouragement.
He springs in front of me, cutting off my stride. In one hand, he holds his box of CDS. In the other-headphones. "All I ask is that you check it out, my dude."
I pluck a CD from the box and bring it close to my face to examine its cover. The quality of the image is impressive, Hi-Def. On the cover, the young artist sits shirtless on the hood of an old-school Cadillac, gold fronts shining in his mouth, his hand gripping the gold Jesus piece at the end of his elephantine chain. I set the CD back in the box. "Try me when you drop your jazz album," I say, and then step around him.
"Uncle Tom-ass sellout," he says to my back.
I bypass the maxis and sparkling cocktail dresses and tutus draped over porcelain mannequins in the windows boasting "couture" and find a shop that mass-produces for the young hipster demographic. A skinny white girl sitting cross-legged on the concrete blocks the shop's entrance. Her purple hair flips from one side of her face to the other, as she performs some kind of monologue. A small gathering surrounds her, making it even more difficult to enter the store. There's a dollar bill crumpled in the upside-down fedora to her right. In front of her, a porcelain bowl sits thick with red paste, which she stirs with her hands. The bowl grates violently against the concrete as she stirs. "And he did this to me," she's screaming. "He did it!"
I duck into the store, feeling I've escaped something horrific.
I shuffle through racks of t-shirts and jeans, a bit lost, before wandering into the home decor section, setting my eyes on a display of record players. They have the kind that folds neatly into a carrying case, and that can transfer vinyl recordings to digital files. It's more than twice what I want to spend, but it's exactly the kind of purchase that will make my future apartment feel homely. I pat the cash-filled envelope in my pocket for reassurance and walk the record player to the register. As I pull out the envelope to pay, I find myself wondering if Jesenia likes records, if she appreciates the fullness of their sound.
"Why it is you never wear underwear?" Jesenia asks on the third night she visits. "This is something the young men are doing?"
I'm sandwiched between the couch and her body, her heavy breasts squished against my chest, her fleshy hips nearly spilling over mine. I rest my palm on her ass cheek and run my fingers through her hair, remembering my boxers scrunched with the rest of my dirty clothes in the back of my Jeep. "Its complicated."
Her body is warm and soft on top of mine. In the dark, my position beneath her feels womb-like. Through the dark, I can see my record player, which I've set on the table near the sliding glass door that lets out onto the balcony. But it's too risky to play music, so the player sits silent, off.
When I can restrain myself no longer, I ask, "Have you done things like this before? In the past?" This thought plagued my mind most of the day. "Is this how you get your way?"
Her face peels off mine. "You have?" she asks. "You always take advantage of poor, vulnerable women? Do the viejas remove their dentures and suck your cock to reside here? This is your way?"
I grip her tight around the waist. "Of course not."
"Why 'of course not' with you, but for me, I have to play whore? Tell me this."
"I'm trying to know about you. I'm not certain who is being taken advantage of here."
"Why you do this?" Her tone softens. "Tell me. You're handsome." This part she says as an accusation. 'You must have girlfriend. One much younger than me, I suspect."
I sift her hair with my fingers.
"If it's money alone, you'd take only that. You need this, of course. But no. It is power you want to experience. Am I right?"
"But I feel powerless against you."
'You want the thrill of recklessness, too," she continues. "To brush flame. That's your youthfulness."
"A little bit you want to know what it feels to be with woman."
"Because you're my first."
"Girls, more likely." She rests her head against my shoulder. "When will I move in? I know there is vacancy."
"How? How is it you know so much?"
"The jumper. He was all over news."
"You better not have told your spy about this. I could go to prison. We both could."
"I am careful," she says.
'You think they'll blackmail me. But just wait. They'll expect something out of you too."
"Don't change subject."
"That apartment is already taken."
"Taken taken. The app was already in when we made our arrangement." She sits up, resting her wet, cushy weight on my groin.
"Try not to stress it. These people die all the time. It's part of their charm."
"Don't fuck with me." She says this in a way that makes me think her accent is not Eastern European at all but South American.
"Where you supposed to be from again?" She stares into my center.
"I've been thinking about the rest of the money. You'll probably need it for move-in costs."
"I will pay you money," Jesenia says. "After that, I will owe you nothing."
"Suit yourself." I roll out from under her and head for the bathroom. When I come out, Jesenia is no longer inside the apartment. Her clothes lie in a clump beside the couch. I pull open the front door, finding Jesenia naked in the hall.
She stands only an arm's length away. "What are you doing?" I shout in as hushed a voice as I can manage.
She tilts her head toward me. "I came out only to pee." Her hand limply raises toward the lady's room across the hall then drops. Her head straightens, away from me. "I'm sorry."
I turn to the silhouette of a man standing in the center of the hall, just beyond the vending machine's cast light. His head is a balloon floating in the barrier of black, smooth and round and faceless. A second passes in which I expect the man to say something aggressive or else turn away, but he just stands very still in the shadows.
I'm close enough to Jesenia to see the expression on her face, the terror. I hook her hand and tug her back into the break room, locking the door behind us.
"Did you see who it was?" I whisper. "Did he say anything to you?" I jump into my pants, then throw her clothes at her. "Dress! Don't just stand there."
She falls onto the couch and struggles to slip her skirt on.
"Okay, okay," I say, grabbing her wrists. "Just think. Was it security? Did you hear a radio or see a badge?"
"It wasn't security."
"How can you tell? Look at me!"
"It wasn't security!" she shouts.
"Okay." I pat her shoulder. "We're okay then." I throw my shirt over my head. "We just need to get out of here." I close the record player and shove it behind the couch. Then I crack open the door and peek out. The hall, the stretch of dark between the vending machines and the red glow of the exit sign, appears empty.
I'm forging Carlos Rodriguez's signature when Milda scampers into the office. I'm tracing it, to be precise. I'm exhausted. The late night drive to Jesenia's, plus the drive back, plus the paranoia ... When I dropped Jesenia home, she would only give me directions to her complex. Wouldn't say a word otherwise. Went so far as to make me drop her at the corner, like I'm going to see where she lives and stalk her or something. Before she opened the car door to exit, I almost commented on how close she lives to Silver Towers; twenty blocks away at most.
But to hell with it. I knew this couldn't last. It never should've begun. Nothing is so clear as this: I fucked up. Still, I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope that once she moved in we could keep this going, at least from time to time. If she wanted.
The car was too cold to properly sleep in. I just sat reclined, rubbing my arms for hours with my eyes closed, waiting for the sun to rise and burn through the front.
It's difficult to describe this feeling of impending doom hanging over me. I don't know which direction it will arrive from or in what form, but I have no doubt it's coming: obliteration. Some tenant will stroll in at any minute to blackmail me. The manager might call me into his office in a couple days to tell me I'm fired. Charges of some sort might be brought. At the very least, I can't expect to continue sleeping in the building anymore without getting caught.
In the light of this sobering morning, I realize how much work I've neglected over the past several days, since I met Jesenia-that my promotion seems as far away as ever.
When Milda chirps, "Ven, chico!" I don't even try to hide or halt my act of fraud. "Chico, ven!" she prompts me.
"What is it this time, Milda? Tell me."
She clutches my arm and begins to pull me out of the office. I allow her to drag me into the hall, but when she presses the elevator's call button I lose patience. "Can you tell me in English?" I ask her. "I know you can."
She shakes her head.
Down the hall, the social worker's door is closed and the Will Return At clock is posted. The maintenance office is closed too. I was so terrified to return to the building that I somehow managed to be the first employee onsite.
In my scan of the hall I see, strewn across the tile floor, from the vending machines to the wall opposite, tiny silver circles, a fleet of flying saucers in a gray, upside-down sky; quarters and nickels and dimes. I turn and start toward my office.
"Un momento, Senora," I shout over my shoulder. I go into the manager's office and grab the key to Milda's apartment. As I pass my desk I see Carlos's file next to the form I originally faxed Walgreens. I realign last year's Employment Verification under this year's and finish tracing over the thin copy paper. I stick the form in the fax machine and redial the store before locking the office behind me.
Milda and I step into the elevator. She presses the button for the eighth floor-surprising, since she lives on the seventh. The many times we've made this ride it's been to let her into her apartment. I don't have the energy to convince her she's forgotten where she lives.
She speaks hushed Spanish, rubbing her hands together, watching the light as it moves up the columns of numbers. I catch the words emergencia and enfermo. Enfermo? Sick?
"Quien?" I ask her. She doesn't tell me who but continues to wring her hands as she watches the light ascend, until it finally arrives at eight.
The elevator doors slide open. I follow Milda toward an open entryway at the end of the hall. She whimpers as we near. She puts her hand over her face and stops five or six feet from the entrance. I stop too. Milda points toward the doorway, urging me to continue without her.
I cross the threshold, finding myself in the apartment's kitchenette. The lights are off.
"Hello!" I shout. "Hola! Is everything okay?" I make my way around the kitchen counter toward the living room. The apartment is dimly lit by the sunlight peeking from behind the living room's drawn curtains.
A woman sits on the couch pressed against the room's left wall. I don't immediately recognize her, except that she looks like the others-grayish, whitish hair; grayish, blotchy skin; wrinkled. She's perfectly still, her hands in her lap, her eyes planted on the wall ahead of her. There's no indication that she has heard or seen me. I begin to approach her, then stop.
At the foot of the couch, someone is lying flat on the floor. Khaki pants appear deflated over a pair of stiff, twiggy legs, and above that, a dark-colored shirt could be ironed to the gray carpet. The torso seems to have altogether vanished, except for the shoulders, which are hunched, holding the arms perfectly parallel. My eyes come to rest on the red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
This is Carlos Rodriguez's apartment. This is Carlos. It doesn't seem like him at all, but some inanimate mold.
Rustling sounds from down the hall. A woman emerges from the back bedroom carrying a light blue sheet. It's not until she places the sheet over Carlos's body-over his head-that I fully grasp what I am seeing. The words Fire Rescue stretch across the back of the woman's gray shirt. She sits on the couch beside Mrs. Rodriquez, placing her gloved hand on the old woman's shoulder.
The faint ding of the elevator rips through the silence, and I take a backward step, then another and another, until I'm out in the hallway where it is possible to breathe again. I can't see Carlos from out in the hall, only his doorway, only his kitchenette beyond, yet I can't seem to turn away from him. Rolling wheels squeak behind me. Two more members of Fire Rescue pass on my right, maneuvering a gurney into the apartment.
I look over at Milda, who hasn't moved. "I didn't understand," I say. She nods.
I head back down to the office, so I can call the property manager to let him know we've lost another one. I get him on the line and ask, "What should we do about Mrs. Rodriguez?"
"Call the next person on the waitlist," he tells me. "She can't live here by herself."
I think about the Independent Living Agreement. I vaguely hear my manager saying, "This isn't a nursery home."
I hang up and call Jesenia.
When she picks up, her voice cracks, like maybe I've woken her. "Good news," I say, but from the way I say it, I know that it is not. She starts to wail on the other end.
"Listen, don't sweat last night." My words are of no consolation. "Listen, listen, listen," I repeat until she's quieted some. "An apartment just opened up."
"I don't want!" she screams. "You don't get it? It was him. It was for him I did this."
"Him?" When I suggest we meet so I can give her money back, she hangs up on me. I drop the phone's receiver in its cradle, stunned not as much by our brief conversation as by the immense quiet that follows.
A slip of paper shoots into the office from under the closed door. I rush to open the door, to see who has delivered this paper, but when I peek out, the hallway is already empty. I pick up the paper and flip it to see what appears to be a hand-drawn horse. No, it's a donkey. The arrow points to the donkey's backside. Written at the tail end of the arrow, in English this time: you.
An hour hasn't passed since I returned to the office when I hear a fax coming in. It's from Walgreens. Carlos is their employee, according to the fax. At least he was up until today. His start date stretches back years. His hourly wage, times hours worked, adds up to not very much, but it's enough that we could charge his wife back rent, if I turn in the verification. Given her impending eviction, we could realistically expect to use this information to keep her security deposit, which, for my boss, is plenty.
I imagine him getting his hands on the document-picture him waving the fax around like a gift certificate to be exchanged for a new chair or a new monitor or a new something we don't need. This would please our head office. El Jefe might finally fulfill his promise to promote me. The signature validating this document is forged, of course, but Carlos is dead, so who's left to call me on it?
What I really wonder is this: Was it the running that killed Carlos? Or was it that moment in the dark sliver of hallway, in the dead of night, when he finally stood still?
I'm questioning this even as my manager enters the office. "They're dropping like cats and dogs," he says. I fold the fax up with the drawing of the donkey and walk them to the shredder.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2017|
|Previous Article:||Nocturne with Cottonmouth and Blood.|