some days are better than none
202 Williams Street
Eric Victor Neagu
“202 Williams Street is next,” Michael said into the car window. “Boy, look at me when you talk,” his mother clutched his knee hard and laughed. Her laugh exposed a missing front tooth and shook the glossy forearm fat. “2-0-2 Williams Street be right there, mamma,” said Ty, one of the twins.
Ian, the other twin, calmly picked at his nose and asked, “Why we movin’ again mamma?”
“We relocatin’. Tha’s all,” she replied. Under her breath she grunted, “Landlord mother fucka’ think they can do me like that.” Anger fed her grunts until her voice boomed, “Ain’t nobody do me like that. Who he think I am?” She paused, breathed deeply, and then chuckled humorlessly to herself. The twins giggled, but did not know why. For Michael none of the places they had lived landed remotely close to the vision of home he had seen on TV. There was no father who corrected the twins, and there was no mother who baked or corrected misspelled words. He sighed as they drove to a gas station to call the landlord for a viewing. Michael would dial, she would talk, and by the weekend the family would move into their sixth home in two years. 202 Williams was exactly as described in the ad. Bernice thought she might be able to make this place last at least six months. It had a new roof and fresh yellow paint on the clapboard siding. There were two units, one upstairs and an unfinished unit, Apartment B, above the garage. Plenty of space for privacy. And a bit of newly laid sod and a mostly intact picket fence brought the whole thing together. Ralph Sampson, the landlord, shook Bernice’s hand vigorously and then shook Michael’s. After months of advertising, his enthusiasm at meeting the Johnson’s concealed his age. In truth, Ralph was a week past sixty years old, but only his growing belly and handful of gray hairs betrayed his age. The gray he blamed on the steady stream of problems this rental property business had caused him. He hoped this woman would bring those problems to an end.
Although she liked what she saw, Bernice identified every minor flaw in the place. It was part of her game. She told Ralph the bedrooms needed paint and several of the ceramic tiles in the kitchen had to be replaced. There was a slightly broken step on the porch. And despite Ralph’s claims that the bathroom was supposed to be “classic,” she wanted a bigger tub...”I like to take baths,” she lied.
Ralph knew she was playing him. Four years of failed rentals had taught him many tenant games. The old “this place is a dump trick” is one he knew best. But Ralph had games of his own. He already knew he could come down to as little as $500 a month and still make money. $650 was just a starting point. They would haggle; he would win.
As he showed the house, Ralph noticed Michael and smiled. The boy looked bored, but bright. Ralph wondered how he did in school, and whether or not he played sports. He wondered the same thing he always wondered when he saw a healthy young person: If Janice had lived, would our child have been like this child? Distracted by a pang of loneliness, he did not hear Bernice.
“I can’t pay no $650, tho’,” she said. When it dawned on Ralph that the haggling had begun, he returned to reality and played the part of the game he played best. In the end, the lease was signed for $550 a month and the family moved in that weekend. Six weeks later Ty led Ralph to his mother in the living room and then ran into the adjoining bedroom, closing the door behind him. Bernice battled a fading hangover in her spot on the couch, one leg on the coffee table. The living room was empty except for the couch, the television, and a particleboard mission-style coffee table. The television sang with music videos. Bernice deposited ashes from her cigarette into the ashtray on the floor. She did not look at the man. She coughed, “You is one of them?” Ralph had no idea whether her comment was a question or an observation. He decided to politely ignore her, “Beautiful morning, Mrs. Johnson. Listen, I was wondering if you have that rent. You mentioned you’d get paid this Friday past.” Through her missing-toothed smile Bernice mocked him, “Oh, Mr. Ralph, I’m afraid I was sick from work yesterday. Been sick in general lately, but I’ll get you the rent. Don’t you worry.” Michael entered from the bedroom, tucking his black t-shirt into jeans. Ralph gratefully acknowledged the boy’s presence to break the tension. Battles over late rent never ended well. With Michael in the room he had an excuse to put this battle off. “I’m sorry to hear that Mrs. Johnson. Is there a better time to discuss this?” “I’m feeling half better. Maybe Monday I be at work and can pick up my check then,” Bernice grinned. “Well,” Ralph averted his eyes from the spread-eagled woman, “I got another thing.” He hesitated, but got out his idea, “You mind if I show the boy something in the garage? I could, uh, use some help and might have some work for him, if he’s interested.” This question meant acknowledgement of two things Ralph did not like to think about. First, that he was getting too old to accomplish everything he needed on the house. And second, that he would never have a boy of his own to teach. Given his life of TV dinners, old movies, and pool halls on the weekends, it was unlikely many other options for sharing years of know-how would come along. And earlier in the week when Ralph mentioned the idea to the boy while fixing the broken step on the porch, Michael showed just enough interest to justify asking the mother. Bernice looked at Ralph and then glared at Michael. A painfully long moment and then that awful smile, “Fuck ya’ll, mother fuckas.” She waved bitter approval and waited until they turned toward the garage before ashing her cigarette onto the floor. “Here, help me a little with this. I got something to show you,” said Ralph. The cavernous empty space echoed with the crunch of dry-rotted tarpaulin as they pulled it back and exposed the German perfection beneath. If this did not impress the boy, nothing would. The boy’s cool toughness left him and Michael asked in wonder, “What kind is it?” “German,” was all Ralph said. In his circles, for his generation, announcing the car was German-engineered told the world something important. Michael had never seen anything so streamlined and brilliant. The aerodynamic nature of the thing registered on a primitive part of the brain and told him it probably went fast, very fast. “Can we take it for a ride?” he asked. An uncomfortable combination of pride and embarrassment bothered Ralph as he replied, “It’s, uh, not exactly cherry.” The “it” under discussion was a 1986 red Porsche 911 Carrera 3.2 Liter, convertible. In another time and place “perfect” described the car beautifully. That time and place had gone. Now Ralph had to explain how little the right side facing them had in common with the hidden left. On that left side, the door had fallen off, along with the rear quarter panel and one of the tires; the result of a bad accident that involved the previous owner, several drinks, and an interstate guardrail. Ralph wanted to fix it, but he needed help and motivation. He also needed to get the other apartment in shape first. He could not do both by himself. “You drive?” Ralph asked. “No.” “You know anything about cars? Michael glanced nervously toward the house, “No, she won’t teach me.” “Interested in learning?” “Maybe,” replied Michael. “If that ‘maybe’ turns to a ‘yes’ we have an arrangement to discuss.” Michael changed his reply, “Yeah, I could learn.” As deals go, neither Ralph nor Michael sacrificed much. That upstairs apartment needed help. The floors creaked and smelled of animal urine. Mold grew in corners and windows needed replacing. If Michael would help fix the car and the apartment, Ralph would teach him to drive and give him $100 for every 20 hours worked. They wrote the agreement on a fading bit of paper and made everything official. As part of the agreement, Ralph would tell the mother. Michael thought the idea would sell easier that way. “Mrs. Johnson,” Ralph interrupted an Oprah rerun. “I have a bargain with your son here. The upstairs apartment needs some work, and I’ve asked for his help. With your permission, of course.” Bernice moved to ash the cigarette on the carpet, then stopped herself, catching the ash in her hand. “What he get?” she replied, glaring at Michael. Ralph replied, “A few driving lessons, and, uh, use of a spare car I keep in the garage. It needs some work, but I think it would be fine for the boy to use sometimes.” “There’s money in it, too!” added Michael.
“Money” conjured bitter joy in Bernice. She replied shortly, “I don’t give a gotdam what you mother fuckas do. Just don’t make no noise. As you could see, I’m a sick woman.”
Michael began his new routine later that week. Each day after school he cleaned, mopped, and scrubbed. In the first week the urine smell was gone. By the second week most of the walls had been washed into a dirty gray, ready for priming. And then he proudly repaired, by reading and re-reading a series of household maintenance guides, the upstairs toilet and shower. The place was becoming livable and Michael quickly took advantage of it. After a week of work, when he felt Ralph trusted him, Michael secretly took advantage of the livability. At 9:30 every night he ducked into Apartment B. The twins were usually asleep by then, and Bernice had moved the second television into her bedroom so she could watch VHS movies in silence. Nobody noticed and nobody cared that Michael took stacks of books and a bedroll into the apartment each night. Michael felt independent and strong. Privacy was more than he ever imagined or knew. This was the first time in his life he slept in a room alone. It was the first time he could read a book without the sound of television in the background. Had he known his mother threatened this new independence by withholding rent, he might have found the strength to say something to her. As it was, the debate about the rent had been going on now for almost three months before he learned about the threat. “I’m not saying I’m going to evict you or anything,” Ralph said on the day the fourth month’s rent came due. He had not seen a dime beyond that $550 deposit. The expenditures on Apartment B, coupled with his unreimbursed mortgage payments, were stretching him unbearably thin. Evict was a powerful word. It was part of the game with a problem tenant, and he knew how to play it. Bernice stopped him short, “Evict? Evict? Look at this man,” she said to the twins, who were playing a handheld video game on the living room couch. “Rent is long past due. I don’t want to start taking out of your deposit, but the lease states I can withdraw $25 a day for each day the rent is past due. I’m willing to ignore that if you just pay the back rent.” “Listen bitch,” Bernice placed a hand on her large hip, “I know the lease! I am a sick woman. Sick women cannot work. When I am better, I will pay you yo’ gotdam rent.” “There’s no need for language. I think we can resolve this politely.” “Solve this? Ain’t no problem to be solved,” she chuckled. Ralph breathed deeply. This latest attempt to collect rent was as unsuccessful as the previous attempts had been. It was becoming harder to believe the money would come through, but he was not prepared to admit defeat. The mother’s tirade grew and stretched, “Gotdam, mother fucka, get out my place. Up in my shit like this? Who you think you is?” Ralph’s eyes darted between the two entrances to the house, the kitchen and the front door. He hoped Michael would come and save him. There was no Michael. “I been coughing my ass silly in this dusty-ass hole. So much dust up in here I should get me a lawyer. Take your ass to court for excessive dust abuse,” she grinned at her own joke. Michael heard the shouting through the vent in the upstairs bathroom while brushing his teeth. “Shit,” he said and spat toothpaste into the sink. He put on his work shirt, blue with white paint stains, a pair of jeans, and gym shoes. Taking the wooden steps three at a time, Michael exited in time to see Ralph drive off. Inside, the impish twins giggled and their mother, in a black cloud of anger, banged about muttering “Gotdam” and “Mother fucka” in her bedroom. The twins were only seven years-old, but the pattern belonged to everyone in the family and they knew as well as Michael what their mother was up to. When she emerged with her usual security against intruding landlords, a box of newspaper, Michael knew something had happened. If he hoped for anything more from Ralph, he would have to be more vigilant. When Bernice laid out that box of newspapers on the uneven coffee table and asked, “What you waitin’ for?” they all knew how to respond. Michael helped the twins and his mother cover the windows in newspaper, knowing exactly what his actions meant. His self-loathing grew throughout the afternoon and he hated himself once all of the windows had been covered. And although he had vowed to keep her in his sight, he longed for a few moments alone. That night he climbed into apartment B and fell asleep. The next morning Ralph pulled into the driveway at six to get an early start on the other project. Ralph’s reaction to crisis was always the same; find a project and work on it until the crisis ended. He never realized his father’s favorite adage, “Hard work can fix anything,” had its shortcomings. For Ralph, working an old car was easier than playing the hardass with a delinquent tenant. Old cars were cranky, but never talked back and always repaid you for hard work.
Michael entered the garage two hours later rubbing his eyes and wondering if Ralph knew his secret. “This the day, huh?” said Michael.
Ralph played a little game, trying desperately to contain his own eagerness, “I don’t know. Just got the idea that maybe I’d finally take a look at this old thing. Maybe we can tinker with it a little this morning then go finish patching that living room later.” Michael replied with his first lie to Ralph, “Me and her talked about it, and I just don’t know how I could drive another man’s car. She says I should get a real job and wait until I can buy one for myself.” “Well, it’s a young person’s car, and I’m getting a little old. I guess if you don’t want it,” Ralph said casually. Ralph never said the word “give” before, but the meaning had been conveyed. Michael did not really expect the car, the free space and weekly allowance had been fine. Michael forgot about the newspapered windows in the house and what that meant. His energy focused on what it would be like to have a car of his own. The word “escape” came to mind so clearly that it almost left his mouth. But Michael played it cool. “Whatever,” he said, “I just need to go inside and change clothes.” When Ralph turned back to the car, Michael bounded toward the house on the heels of hope. Ralph liked this boy and felt confident the mother could try all she wanted to disrupt things, but she would not succeed with Ralph Sampson. She could skip another month’s rent, he thought, for all I care. He knew the boy was now firmly on his side. Hard work would win eventually. Having Michael as an ally wouldn’t hurt, either. That afternoon marked the twins’ introduction to confusion. Life had always been easy and clear to eight year-old boys. But now they sensed family conflict and they did not understand who was right and who was wrong. Ian asked Ty, “Why you think Michael like that old man for?” Obese and dirty Ty replied, “I think he payin’ him.” “I think mamma right. That old man is a mother fucka,” said Ian. “Michael bein’ a little bitch for helping him. I ain’t gonna be no bitch.” “Me neither,” said Ian. Ian looked across the room at the whitewashed drywall, “What you think should go on that wall?” After two uncomfortable hours of silent work, Ralph stood, stretched his back and asked, “You thirsty, boy? I’m parched. Why don’t you go get us a couple of waters from the house?” “I can go to the store. Get us a couple of Cokes,” replied Michael. “Nah, I’ll just go grab a couple of waters from the kitchen, if your mother won’t mind,” Ralph started toward the door. The day was going too well. The old man did not need to know about anything, yet. There might still be time to stop it. It has to end someday, why not now, thought Michael. Michael panicked, “She…you know she won’t like that. I’ll go. You wait.” He poured the waters in a house full of whispering silence. Michael followed the whisper to the dining room, where it grew louder. He heard the newspapers crumple against the window as he walked into the living room. The whisper became a hiss. And then he heard the hissing and laughter behind the door to the boys’ room.
Michael walked into the bedroom and discovered that Ian had decided what to put on that wall. He saw the undeniable and peculiar ears of a version of Mickey Mouse, an outline six feet large, gradually filling in with black spray paint. Bernice and Ty directed his efforts from the bed. They appreciated the beginning of destruction like another family might enjoy a picnic on a beautiful spring day.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Michael shouted above the hissing paint can. Bernice laughed almost uncontrollably at the “fucked-up-ness” of Ian’s Mickey Mouse, “What you mean ‘what we doin’? Fuckin’ obvious what we doin’, ain’t it? It’s art!” Black paint on his arms, Ty paused and looked a Michael. “The newspapers is up. You know what that mean,” he said, pointing to the window as though the whole world understood the logic of it. “Yes, but we put them up yesterday,” the confused timetable genuinely threw Michael. Newspapers always went up and action followed. It was the first time Bernice ever extended this process to the next day. He had hoped this meant his mother had changed her mind. Michael implored, “But he’s here! He’s in the garage. Why can’t you wait?” Hands on hips, Bernice said, “Wait for him? For his ass? I forget, boy, is you us or is you him? ‘Cause if you us, you know we don’t wait.” Ian echoed her, innocently, “Yeah, Michael, I thought you was us.” Michael did not respond. He pretended to change his shirt as Ian filled in one of the mouse ears. Ty directed Ian’s coloring. Bernice watched, eyes half-closed, missing tooth smiling at Michael, who could feel her stare behind him. Michael opened the door to leave, knowing the ugly question could not be answered easily. “Well, mother fucka,” Bernice said, “Is you us or is you him?” “Is you ‘us’ or is you ‘him?” ran through Michael’s mind in the garage. On most days Michael worked thoughtfully with Ralph, approaching tools and projects as a craftsman’s apprentice. But in the garage that afternoon he skidded wrenches across the floor to Ralph, banged his thumb while hammering, and dropped two screwdrivers that clanged and bounced off of Ralph’s toolbox. “Is you ‘us’ or is you ‘him?” Until Michael hit the thumb a second time, shouting a “Mother fucka” that sounded uncannily like Bernice, Ralph had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. “Hey, there,” Ralph stopped. “The language. No need for it.” “What?” Michael replied. Ralph pressed the boy, “’What?’ That’s no response.” Turning back to the car, thinking the whole scene had ended, he mumbled, “Just watch the language, son.” A mountain of thought crumbled on Michael. “Son?” I ain’t him. Mother fucka. I ain’t them, either. Who am I? He looked at the car. That ain’t mine. Us? I ain’t them. Pounding a large wrench against his leg, Michael watched Ralph holding something deep beneath the hood with his left hand, turning something else with the right. This ain’t me. Anger had been his mother’s strength; quiet capitulation had been Michael’s. Michael looked at Ralph holding out a hand, “I need the next wrench size down,” commanding Michael to behave, to jump. Rage built in Michael’s throat, threatening tears. He mounted a fierce defense and battled the tears into his shaking hands and then his running feet. Ralph was awakened by an early phone call that next day. Although he had been a landlord four years by then, Ralph had never before fielded a public complaint about a tenant. His immediate reaction included many apologies; somehow anything a tenant did was his fault, he felt. “Yes sir. It won’t happen again. I’ll talk to them. Very sorry. It won’t happen again. They’re good people. Very sorry.” The policeman was kind, “We don’t normally worry about these things. Nine times out of ten it’s some oversensitive neighbor. ‘A lot of banging’ can mean different things to different people. But if you wouldn’t mind checking on it…” Puzzled more than angry, Ralph drove to the Williams Street house, hair unkempt, shirt untucked. The clock on the dashboard read 6:15 AM. At 202 Williams Street the sunlight crept over a tall tree behind him, casting Ralph’s long shadow on the walk. For the first time he noticed the strange yellowing newspapers in the windows. What did they mean? No noise other than the gentle flapping of paper against panes of glass. Nobody moved. He tried to see beneath, between, and above the newspaper, but Bernice and the boys had taped everything up too tightly. At the door Ralph tried not to make any sound on the wooden front porch. His watch was at 6:25 now; much too early to disturb them. He debated about knocking just long enough to hear a loud thud—the door to the bathroom had fallen off as one of the twins tried to close it inside. Unsure about the police, about the thud and the newspapers, Ralph broke his own rule and knocked before seven in the morning. He knocked four times before anyone stirred. Bleary-eyed Bernice opened the door. She had improved her style with each new apartment. Whereas before she might only have opened the door a suspicious crack, now she opened it a confident two feet. She smiled, “Why you wake up a sick woman? You always collect rent this early?” Ralph stammered, “No rent. I, I, there was a phone call about noise.” “You hear noise? I don’t hear no noise.” “I just thought…Why did you put newspapers in the windows?” “It’s too damn early for dumbass questions,” she said. “’Sides, I get 24 hours notice ‘fore yo’ ass can come in. ‘Less you got a warrant. You got a warrant?” Panic ran through Ralph. “Warrant? Why would I need that? What is going on?” Bernice knew her lease. He could not come in. She grinned and waved goodbye as she closed the door. Leaning against the door with Ralph just outside, Bernice looked on her masterpiece. Her boys had done a good job. Baseball bat holes pockmarked the walls. Where the plaster remained, six-foot painted cartoon figures danced. For kicks, the boys had pried the trim off the walls and exploded M-80s in the spaces between. They had poured a gasoline trail on the new cedar floor. The trail led to the wicks of the M-80s. They lit the fuel, it burned to the wick, the wick ignited, the walls exploded. Pieces of oak trim littered the floors. Black snake marks of burnt fuel scarred the hardwood throughout the apartment. Other rooms experienced far worse. In the kitchen, the boys placed a six-pack of cola in the microwave Ralph had loaned them. Watching, Bernice placed her hands gently on the boys’ shoulders as though posing for a picture at some church function. One by one the cans exploded until the microwave itself blew something in the back and electric flames scorched the walls and burned enough of the room to justify spraying it down with the garden hose. While Ian continued in the kitchen, Ty transitioned to the bathroom. He had always wondered what those knobs beneath the sink and behind the toilet do. With much effort and the help of a hammer, he turned them once, twice, and then many more times. Water gushed out of unseen fissures in the pipes, something he found hilarious. Next he was determined to find out what enamel was made of, so he took that same hammer and pounded away at the tub, the sink, and the toilet. Nothing interesting inside, but the destroying sensation became intoxicating so he continued until nothing solid remained. It was Bernice’s grandest scene and largest project yet. Only the newspapered windows were still intact. This, this apartment, was magnificent. She breathed a long proud “gotdam,” knowing in two hours she would never have to deal with the “mother fucka” on the front porch again. Michael did not sleep that night. Throughout it all he hid himself in Apartment B, head hung low in solemn defeat. Since leaving Ralph the day before he had witnessed a man’s hard work destroyed. His own recent efforts taught him how much more there was in a house than just time, tools, wood, and plaster. He knew it took heart to rebuild something. He heard the M-80s and saw smoke from the kitchen. He heard pounding and laughter and the steady slap of newspapers. Briefly, Michael covered his ears and head like a schoolchild during a tornado drill. “Us” versus “him?” The question faded against the backdrop of destruction and Michael discovered there was a third option. This new option had always been there, taunting him like the unreal dark to a small child. It could be many things, good and bad, but mostly it was just frightening. He ran through the summer’s earnings in his head. He had enough to do something. He would do something, go somewhere, be someone. He could work. He could change his name. The third option did not scare him now. Upright and calm, Michael walked down the street to the corner store. He waited for a car to leave and then dialed three numbers and waited. A woman’s voice answered and Michael said, “I think…I think there is some noise at 202 Williams…” At first light, Michael heard Ralph’s truck door close and then an angry conversation. He stepped away from the window and calmly lifted the loose floorboard to withdraw the money he had earned that summer. In a small backpack he placed his toothbrush and some clothing. And then he walked down the stairs and through the garage, pausing to look at a German template for freedom, half-undone.
Eric Victor Neagu lives in Chicago, where he works as a consultant. Eric has degrees from Purdue University and The University of Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, The Pedestal Magazine, Bewildering Stories, Aphelion, and many other journals. In addition to fiction writing, Eric spends time working on environmental issues in post-industrial communities. He is also working on his first novel and a documentary about the Great Lakes.
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