by Kay Harris
It was the shortest street in Long Beach—one block. That's what the Manager told Jimmy and me when we rented the furnished efficiency apartment from him. The building was pink stucco, circa WW II, with a couple of palm trees in front. There were two floors, and each apartment had its own entrance door. Our place was on the second floor, so I'd feel safer when I was alone. For the first year that I lived there, Jimmy spent few nights with me. But, we had just gotten married and we made good use of the apartment when we were together.
There was a kitchen, a bathroom, and a sitting room with a Murphy Bed that came out of the wall. Next door, on the bed wall side, was an elderly couple who had retired to California from the Midwest. They rented the apartment years before because it was inexpensive, and only a few minutes across the Boulevard to the beach. She told me that in the beginning they went every day. By the time I knew them, it was a big event to get out the walkers and totter over once a week. Mostly, they "took their sun" on the tarred roof over our heads.
At night, when both our beds were down, I listened to their noises—snores and snuffles, and trips to the bathroom, and rumbling indistinguishable conversations, through "our wall." I imagined them discussing their numerous aches and pains.
On those times when Jimmy was there, he laughed at me as I insisted we sleep with our heads at the foot of the bed—"To get as far away from the Ancients as we can." He teased me for blasting the radio during our lovemaking, "so they won't hear us."
"We hear enough from their side," he said. "Besides, maybe they'll remember good times listening to us."
I insisted on the camouflaging music.
Mrs. Ancient once commented, "You sure play that radio a lot when your husband's home."
I said, "He's a great music fan—hope it doesn't disturb you." With a wry smile, she answered that it didn't.
The apartment on the other side of mine was being used for storage, so it was vacant most of the time I lived there. At least it was quiet. On our few "dates" to dinner and a movie, Jimmy and I would come home, heady with the fragrance of night blooming jasmine, as we walked past the vacant apartment toward our own door. Then, I'd see the Manager standing by his window at the end of the building, no matter how late it was. "He gives me the creeps," I'd say, watching his hand move toward his mouth with his bottle of beer.
"He's waiting," Jimmy said.
And, I'd say, "I suppose that's true."
The Manager and his wife seemed old at the time, but they probably were about fifty. Their apartment had a bedroom. In the bedroom, the Manager's wife lay dying of cancer. She was there in the front room the day we rented our apartment, the skinniest woman I'd ever seen. We never saw her after that. According to the Ancients, he used to work at Douglas all day, and she managed the place. After she got sick, he stayed home, taking care of her, and waiting.
The Angel of Death never came while I lived there—for either Mrs. Manager or for Mr. and Mrs. Ancient. Every time I heard a siren's screech, I imagined stretchers and aid cars coming to cart them away.
Jimmy's ship was in and out on maneuvers, non-stop, and finally came the day I dreaded. We'd only been married a few months. I stood on a pier with a crowd of weepers. A band played "Anchors Aweigh" while his ship left for a tour of Viet Nam and Japan. The length of the cruise was unknown, but Lifers said, "Plan for at least nine months." After the band left and the people drifted away, I stood watching his ship fade to a dot on the horizon—trying to keep him with me as long as possible. I didn't worry much that he was going to a war-torn country. After all, he was in the Navy. My main concern was the long separation, and if he'd remain true to me. I'd heard lots of stories.
Once I was completely alone, my life became almost totally predictable: work all day, home and double-bolted in my apartment by 6 P.M., no matter how hot it was, no matter how many invitations I got from friends at the office to go out and experience Long Beach's nightlife. Instead, I holed up with my fan on, watching TV, wearing nothing but the t-shirt that still carried his smell. Saturday, I bought my few groceries, mainly canned spaghetti and TV dinners, at the market near the apartment, and did my load of laundry at the room built into a corner of the flat tarred sunroof. I always encountered the Ancients, holding hands across lawn chairs, under an umbrella, yakking away to each other.
Every payday, I shopped at the department store near my office—buying presents for Jimmy. Since I wasn't sure what he'd like, mostly I bought him "Civvie" shirts. I'd also been told, when the sailors returned from cruises they brought lots of presents home—red and black enamel jewelry boxes, mother-of-pearl covered compacts, jade rings. I wanted gifts to give back to him. After shopping, I'd place my accumulated purchases around me across the Murphy Bed, turn the radio on, and imagine the celebration we'd have when he finally came home.
Three-quarters through the cruise, the ship went to Yokosuka. Husbands called their wives at home with the news that the end was getting near. Jimmy's letters had told me his call would be soon. I'd been waiting for several evenings when I was awakened, long after midnight, by the telephone's ring. We talked for a few minutes. There wasn't much to say, except how much we missed each other, which was what we'd already been saying in letters. I teased him about the Yokosuka street girls, praying that he would stay away from them. He asked me about work and my friends there. Hearing his voice, and knowing it would still be months until he returned, having nothing much to say, and such a short time to say it in—it was the worst night of the cruise.
After we hung up, I used the bathroom and went back to bed where I cried myself to sleep. A short while later, I awakened to water pouring onto the floor. The innards of the tank had gotten stuck and the toilet was gushing all over the place. Not knowing about the intricacies of plumbing, I made an emergency call to the Manager, who came rushing down to my apartment to dam the flood. After he showed me the knob that turned the water off, I sat on my chair, knees under my chin, clutching my robe to me, like a chastened puppy. He had brought a mop and pail and was rapidly sopping the water up, his bathrobe swinging as he hurried to get it done before there was leakage to the apartment below.
When he turned to talk to me, his robe was still tied around his flabby middle, but the sides had slid over to his hips, revealing his pitifulness, as he slurred, "I've gotta get back to the wife now—she's havin' a really bad time—needs me to talk to her all night long." I learned about the functioning of toilets that night, and about being so drunk from sadness that a person could not feel his own nakedness.
Shortly before Jimmy came home, the Manager emptied the storage apartment next door, and new neighbors moved in. I never saw them. He was a bartender. She was his barmaid. Their hours were upside down from mine. For the first couple of nights, I didn't hear them. Then it started, and more nights than not, I'd have a repeat performance. At 2 A.M., they arrived home and he started speaking loudly to her. Soon, the conversation escalated. He was hollering. She was screaming. He accused her of coming on to customers—men she'd spent too long serving. She accused him of having a dirty mind. Before long, I'd hear crashes against the wall, and him yelling, "Don't you hit me, you slut." It sounded like they were picking up the chairs and throwing them. She'd scream, "It's none of your business, you son-of-a-bitch," and I'd hear another crash. The first time, I was ready to call the Manager when I heard, "Baby—please stop," in her somewhat softened voice. Then the noises changed. He moaned, "Oh Baby—Oh Baby." For the next ten minutes, I huddled in the dark, staring across the room at our shared wall (glad it wasn't the bed wall), waiting for their noisy release, and wishing they had a radio on at peak volume.
The day finally arrived when the ship came home. I stood on the pier with a crowd of wives and children, while a band played "America the Beautiful." We all stared at the hundreds of white uniforms lined up by the ship's rail. Finally, I recognized the face I was searching for.
At 2 A.M. that night, we were exhausted and asleep when we were awakened by the Bruiser's noises. I didn't want to worry Jimmy while he was gone, so I'd never mentioned them. We'd been too preoccupied for me to warn him when we first got to the apartment.
"My God—is he going to kill her?" Jimmy said. He quickly ran through his options—call the Manager, call the cops, or put on his pants and go save her himself.
"Just wait," I assured him.
After it was over, we cuddled there, listening to the snores and snuffles on one side, and the complete silence on the other. I imagined the beat up ones sharing a smoke as they rubbed new owies.
Jimmy said, "Well, I guess that's one way to keep excitement in your marriage."
A short while later, Jimmy got stationed on base. This meant he'd never have to leave again, so we moved away to a bigger place.
The day I turned the keys into the Manager, he told me, "Had to evict those neighbors of yours. Hope they didn't cause too much trouble for you." I assured him that I had survived, and that living next door to the Ancients for a year had been a delight.
"They've been married almost 60 years, and still act like honeymooners," the Manager said with a frown. I didn't think this was quite the case, but maybe from his perspective.... "And then those others, the bar people," he continued, "fifteen years of wedded bliss and, somehow, they haven't killed each other. Sometimes it doesn't seem fair...." Then, "You've been a good tenant—all the best to you and your fella." I thought about it a second, then gave him a quick hug.
Being together forever and ever lasted two more years. I wondered sometimes about Mr. and Mrs. Manager, and how long she lasted after I left. And, I wondered about the Ancients, and hoped when they finally went it was together. And, I wondered about the Bruisers, and how many years their bodies held up.
Mostly, I wondered about us. It sure wasn't the way I imagined. There was never anything to talk about. Jimmy started going out at night with his friends from the base. I started running with a group from the office. The apartment was a mess, and nothing seemed to work—even the radio. When it broke, we never bothered to replace it.
Copyright©2003 Kay Harris