Deadbeats

“Of course I do not propose to compare you. There is a wide difference between you. What with them was chance, with you was choice.”
—Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

One of these deadbeats called the police last night, Eugene, and I wasn’t the one. I swear. It must have been two thirty-seven in the morning, and that inconsiderate idiot upstairs who moved in a week ago and has made my life nothing less than hell was treating all the tenants in Sunken Meadow Apartments to a feast of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

At heartstopping volume, he would play first a song by one, then a song by the other, as though weighing them, trying to decide which group he liked best. Maybe he wanted to figure out whether the White Album or Beggar’s Banquet would rattle my kitchenette most. Maybe, and this possibility frightens me more than I can say, no purpose guided his choices. “Let’s Spend the Night Together” followed “I Am the Walrus” by chance. Why not “Lady Jane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Why not an orgy of Beethoven and Mozart, Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams, James Brown and Martha and the Vandellas?

The only answer I can offer is that I can’t live like this, at his mercy, because he is merciless. I’m terrified by randomness, Eugene, and my new neighbor’s life seems ruled by it. The night before last, he and three of his hollow-laughed friends stood on the roof of a red car in the parking lot. Why?

For one thing, they use drugs. So maybe nothing registers. As they passed my window once, one said, What’d you do last night, man? Another answered, Not much. Smoked some dope and dropped acid. I swallowed the biggest fucking piece of cardboard I ever put in my throat.

This might sound like 1967, but it’s not. No, and I can’t go on never knowing when my peace of mind will be destroyed by a reincarnated flower child intent on turning his freedom into punishment for the people around him. Most of them seem oblivious, some deserve to be visited at dawn by the bloated ghost of Jim Morrison armed with a needle and a spoon, but that’s beside the point. What have I done to be awakened by the sounds of wasted youth celebrating itself?

He calls himself Tim, and I’ve heard some say Tom, but his real name is Norman. There’s a circle around me that consists of Norman, he said last night after the police left, and there’s a circle around me I consider Tim. Sometimes they intersect. Sometimes they don’t, and I forget who I am or what I’m doing. I almost felt sorry for him, until I realized that the only reason I had become a party to poor Norman’s troubled psychology, his schizophrenic anachronism, was that he needed to scream over the racket.

I thought of you and your winning ways three days ago, when my phone rang. A wheezing woman with a Southern accent said I’d been chosen and did I want my full-color portrait taken. I told her no. Do you know anyone who could take advantage of your prize? I told her no again. Then she said, If you supply us with ten names and numbers we will send you a camera, one hundred rolls of film, and a ticket to Florida. I told her to forget it, I wasn’t interested. I began to wonder if you were behind this, I mean masterminding some con game. I can’t imagine what benefit is in it for them, but then I picture me venturing out innocently, entering a dark motel room, red light on, purple curtains drawn, the sound of a transistor radio in the bathroom playing “Helter Skelter” or “Sympathy for the Devil,” and never returning.

What would happen if I never returned? Who would handle my things? The government says I can live as I do, but what if I didn’t. How long would it take anyone to notice? Would it be days of perfect silence, not a squeak of my floor tiles, or something as impersonal as a missed rent check that prompted them to peek in under my partly raised blinds and find me absent?

I peek out. Across the way, my neighbor’s cat has torn the shade and crawled through the gap. It likes to sit on the windowsill, that cat, which has wide eyes and determination but no name. One day, a little girl from another building knocked on its owner’s door and told him to call the cat Peeper. My neighbor said, Animals don’t have names in nature. Why should I give it one? Which you could take as either sensible or cruel, I have not come to a conclusion. I peek out again. I scan the lot. Near the dumpster is a black boy the size of a small fire hydrant. With one hand, he lifts his diaper. With the other, he drops in dirt from a pile at his feet, which are tiny and bare. From the way he squeals and squirms and reached for more dirt, I guess he likes the feel of it. Later in the afternoon, between three and three-thirty PM, his parents will wheel twin shopping carts over and dig through the dumpster, in search of what? I can never bear to look. I wish I could say I don’t care, but I wonder. What happens behind closed doors that look like mine but hide strange lives? What goes on behind strangers’ eyes? What good things would you find if you dug through the garbage of the world? I know you’ve been through a trash heap or two in your day. I remember you saying you once ate a slice of pizza someone threw away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, you just brushed off the cigarette ashes. That’s you. That is so you. That was you before I met you, but I suppose it remains you, so much that I wonder sometimes how you survived.

Out in the parking lot, a tall man wearing a gray cashmere overcoat and a gray felt fedora just picked up, I mean literally lifted from the ground and carried off like a rolled-up carpet, the unfriendly woman who lives next door. She laughed and said, You can’t do it! Oh yeah? he grunted. As he carried her to the door, she grabbed his hat and dropped it on her own head, which is magenta and partly shaved. Her laugh sounded so free it made me happy.

Now she has turned on her one record. I can’t identify the song or the singer, though I have heard that thing more times than I remember. It starts out slow, the bass moving up and down like a seesaw. Then a woman comes in, making soulful noises that don’t seem to be words, and the beat picks up. This drives me nuts, especially when, as now, I think, it’s foreplay for sex. The woman next door is a nymphomaniac. I hear her headboard bang against the wall, I hear the grunts of her boyfriends, I hear her cries at the climaxes. I don’t hate her, though she hates me, I just want her to buy another record. One day the grooves will wear out, or she will move out, and I’ll miss that mysterious song.

Meanwhile, I overheard her story one day. I want to tell you, but I’m not sure how to start. Slowly, soulfully? Or with banging headboards. It seems she was a desperate young woman, aimless, homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. Most of the people she knew, though, were deadbeats—crooks, hookers, poets, guitar players—doing her no good whatsoever. You get the idea. One stormy Wednesday, she was working behind the counter at a combination bagel restaurant and used bookstore. She spent that dismal afternoon talking nonstop with an irregular customer. His intense eyes and the dark dents below them looked troubled, even evil, but he said some things that made sense. One of the hardest parts of life in a Godless universe, he said, is that we make patterns, then break them. Visit that same place, same parking space, five days of the week, year after year, say, only to have it filled by someone else some day.

You’ve heard this one before, so you know what happens. She goes off with him, goes off like a gun. You remember how it ends? They’re in that purple room, blinds down, Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, and she wants to leave. She’s had enough. He said some things that made sense, but he said a lot of things. He said, You can’t breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same time keep your precarious grip on existence. He was some kind of inferior genius. He said, If I can’t have you, nobody will, and lay back on the bed, drinking Southern Comfort from the bottle. When his head dropped, followed by his hand, that nameless young woman ran. She reached the highway and hitched a ride with, of all things, a rock band called the Suicidal Munchkins. They asked about her belongings. She had nothing but her life in her hands.

I hear her cries, followed by devilish laughter and foot-stomping from the retarded man who lives behind me. Through the paper-thin walls of this complex, I am privy to all the surrounding noises. I’m in an old submarine movie. It’s World War II, I’m submerged, and the Nazis are floating on the surface. The sailors below depths remain absolutely silent, so the destroyer above can’t use its sonar. Everyone stays in place, and if they move, it’s on tiptoes. They do not play records, have sex, or use weapons, except for silence.

In this way, living as a fugitive becomes a game of strategy. You use psychology to keep from being destroyed by the Nazis, because you know they want to provoke you into responding, only to mock your response. That’s why they bounce basketballs against kitchen cabinets and ride skateboards against bedrooms. That’s why they play songs from the Sixties—which you, as they know, they are not stupid, have already heard too many times in your life—at hours when decent people dream about burning their mortgages over barbecue pits and taking all-expense-paid vacations in the swamplands of Florida.

Last night I lay back on the bed, knowing that one sound from me would be a dead giveaway. I refused to act, determined to give them nothing. Then I heard boots, chains, engines, radios, heavy footsteps up the staircase, and a male voice saying, Want to keep it down, boys? I knew the police had arrived, my submarine had been saved, though I had made no move. Whatever I did, the outcome would have been the same. I realized then that moving or not moving is like a contest between the Beatles and the Stones, a choice you never have to make.

I watch that nameless, curious cat. Our eyes meet, and its gaze feels like fur against my face. I think one of us is going to burst into flames, but the cat looks embarrassed, caught peeping, and turns away. We play this game all the time, only the shade keeps changing, so in a way my neighbor plays his part. I don’t see him very often, but he seems to be a decent person. He goes out, he comes home. He wears striped shirts with button-down collars. For a while, I suspected him of dealing drugs, because he keeps irregular hours and used to have frequent, furtive visitors, ringing his bell, looking nervous, cars outside with engines running, but I’ve given up that idea. I don’t know what goes on over there, but I don’t care, do I? Living in close quarters like this, I’ve learned that learning not to care is half the game, and living alone and having time I find a lot of things becoming clear that were not clear before. Do you know what I mean, Eugene? I mean for a long time I expected to peer under my blinds one day and find you there, next to the dumpster, waiting for something. Now I know you’ve been in here with me all along.