The knocking began the same way it always did, a few minutes after I arrived home from work. It was followed by several seconds of subtle tinkering with the knob, then a hollow call from just outside the door.
“It’s Chris,” the call informed.
Of course it was Chris. It had been Chris every night at this time for the past seven evenings running. Chris was like a homeless cat, returning to the stoop of any house where he’d been fed a decent meal. And yet, between working six doubles and sleeping very little in between, I hadn’t the time – nor the inclination – to figure out what I might do with him.
Chris lived down the hall from me, and – ever since he had taken to showing up unannounced – I’d been doing my utmost to avoid him … hunching low beneath his peephole whenever I scampered down the corridor; leaving my shoes out on the landing to avoid slow-weighted footsteps. In the end it really made no difference. Sooner or later, Chris would either hear me shuffling in my apartment or he’d spot a sliver of light escaping beneath my door. From that point forward, it was only a matter of time.
And so I wandered to the doorway, slid the bolt and yelled, “It’s open,” before taking back my seat along the table. Chris made his entrance, slow and easy, as if completely dialed down on fumes. He hovered over me for several seconds, staring blankly at my cheesesteak. Then he inhaled heavily through flailed nostrils, eager for me to acknowledge he was standing there.
“Want some fries?” I mumbled between bites. “I’m afraid you kind of caught me in the middle of dinner here.”
“Fries, no,” Chris responded, dismissing me with a gentle wave of his hand. “But I could definitely deal with one of them Old Milwaukees you got there … y’know, assumin’ you might have a couple more of ‘em lyin’ around.”
“In the fridge,” I told Chris. “By all means, help yourself.”
Chris ducked down low into the mini-fridge, reemerged with a pair of Old Milwaukees. He slammed both cans down on the table, drug a chair in from the bedroom.
“Where’s Bill?” Chris said, drawing out the –ill as if it were an -eal.
“Down in his room,” I said. “He said he might stop down in a little bit.”
“He not drinkin’ tonight?” Chris wondered, as he lit up a cigarette.
“You know, Chris, I really couldn’t tell you,” I responded.
This was a lie. And a very blatant one, at that. I had just walked home with Billy Lee no less than 15 minutes prior, at which point he mentioned how he could no longer deal with Chris knocking on his door throughout his dinner break. It was the only opportunity Billy had to catch up on sleep, and – as such – he had taken to napping in dank stock rooms underneath Morey’s Pier, propping himself up across a six-foot sea of stuffed animals to avoid the interruption.
“I don’t think he likes me,” Chris said, perhaps picking up on the sarcasm in my tone.
“I really wouldn’t know,” I responded, licking the grease off of my fingers.
And so it went for the better part of an hour, Chris asking simple questions as I deflected via a series of curt, one-sentence answers. Things began to simmer once I settled into a weak buzz, and, eventually, I even broke the seal on a half-gallon of vodka I’d been stashing in the crisper.
Chris and I were passing that half-gallon back and forth now, making jovial toasts as we jammed to Live Through This.
“I don’t think you ever actually told me where you’re from,” I mentioned, turning the music down just slightly.
“Central Florida,” Chris responded. “I was born and raised around those parts.”
“And I take it you spent the majority of your adult life there, as well,” I said.
“Thirty-some-odd years of it,” Chris confirmed. He swept dark locks of hair behind his ear. Then he dropped his cigarette into a beer can, shook it slow to hear the fizz.
“Why on earth would you decide to leave?” I wondered.
“Well,” Chris said, hesitating to consider the right phrasing. “A couple months back, I somehow managed to get myself tangled up in the worst possible kind of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble is that?” I asked, without the least hint of inhibition.
“The kind that there ain’t no comin’ back from,” Chris told me. He shook the final Newport out of a soft pack, lit it up, then crushed the wrapper. “It’s the kind where you either pick up and leave immediately, or you ain’t never gonna get the chance to pick up and leave again at all.”
“I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean,” I responded, laughing awkwardly as I sifted through cassettes. “But either way, I still don’t understand why you would travel a thousand miles or more just to hole yourself up in some broken-down old boarding house along the east end of Poplar Avenue.”
“This wasn’t the original plan,” Chris explained, twirling his index finger in the air to indicate he meant The Vacationer. “Way back in April, I’d been fixin’ to make a go of it up north there in Atlantic City. But then I came up empty after a handful of weeks spent looking for a job, and I couldn’t really pay the rent or even buy myself a goddamn sandwich. And so I got to talkin’ to my landlord one afternoon, and he suggested I might have better luck down here.”
“Atlantic City’s got a year-round economy,” I protested. “Why would anyone recommend you hoof it all the way down to Wildwood if you were looking for a decent job?”
“Well, first of all, I’m pretty sure that wily fucker was fixin’ to get rid of me,” Chris responded. “I still owed him two weeks rent on a three-week stay, and he had Memorial Day weekend loomin’ on the horizon. But more importantly, I was lookin’ for the type of work that’d keep me off the books.”
“And that diner you’ve been working at over on Pacific,” I responded, “you’re telling me that place is paying you under the table?”
“I’m tellin’ you it is,” Chris confirmed. He took a quick swig of vodka, wiping the excess dribble with his collar. “For what it’s worth, that is.”
“Why? What seems to be the problem?”
“Oh, you name it,” Chris said. “Shitty pay. Shitty hours. Shitty labor. Shitty attitude. They got me comin’ in there at the fuckin’ crack of dawn, man. Most of the time I’m still half-shot in the ass by the time I leave in the afternoon. My boss keeps on promisin’ he’ll move me up to lunch once the 4th of July rolls around. But between then and now, I’m broke as a joke, wanderin’ round that cooped-up kitchen like a goddamn zombie every morning.”
“I’ve been there,” I told him, nodding my head in agreement. “The first summer I moved down here, a friend of mine got me a job working mornings over at Samuel’s Pancake House. There were moments when I’d fall asleep standing upright over the sink. Then, of course, I ran into the whole issue of trying to cash a check without any acceptable form of ID. The good news is, sooner or later, you make some valuable in-roads and, eventually, you wind up landing on your feet. In the meantime, if there’s anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
“Oh, man,” Chris said, as he cracked another beer and slurped the rising foam, “that’d be a huge weight off my shoulders.”
“What would?” I asked him.
“Well, it turns out I’m completely tapped until I get my pay this comin’ Friday. You think there’s any way you might be able to spot me a couple of bucks until the weekend?”
“What exactly is a couple of bucks?” I wondered.
“Oh, I dunno,” Chris sniffled, “maybe, like, 10 … actually, maybe more like 15 dollars, assuming it wouldn’t break ya or nothin’. All I need is enough to get me by, y’know?”
I dug down deep into my cut-offs, fished out a pocketful of crumpled bills. I ironed out a 20 on the table, held it high above my head.
“I expect this back no later than Friday,” I told Chris. “My entire bank account is sitting in these pockets right now. It’s not as if I’ve got money to burn.”
“Honest Injun,” Chris responded, snapping the 20 out of my fingers. “In fact, you’re welcome to walk on down and pound on my door if I don’t get it back to you by 5 pm … Speakin’ of which, what’s with that ole’ biddy livin’ directly across the hall here? Bitch came knockin’ on my door this afternoon, started givin’ me a whole mess of what-for about playin’ the music loud.”
“That’s the landlord’s aunt,” I told him. “She’s kind of like the caretaker around here.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Chris explained, “I met her once before on the day I first moved in. But I ain’t never seen her like she was this afternoon. Bitch stood there rattlin’ her fist at me with a ball-peen hammer in her hand.”
“She does that,” I explained. “By all appearances, she also drinks considerably more than you and I combined. Her son Henry lives right down the hall here – second door on the right.”
“You mean that whiny fuckin’ pipsqueak with the Little Rascals haircut?” Chris asked.
“That’s him,” I said. “Believe it or not he was actually screwing Giesela for a couple of weeks there, immediately after she moved in.”
“Giesela? Now she’s that nutty bitch who lives right on the other side of the wall here,” Chris said, more as a question than a statement of fact.
“The very same,” I assured him. “Rumor is, it took Giesela a little over a month or so to screw her way across all three floors of this joint. That’s got to be some kind of land-speed record, y’know.”
“And what about her roommate, Alex?” Chris said. “She don’t strike me as bein’ that way.”
“Alex is nothing like Giesela,” I told Chris. “Alex is an Orthodox Christian with some recognizable semblance of morals and values. Believe it or not, she actually keeps a swear jar on her bureau.”
“What the fuck’s a swear jar?” Chris wondered.
“It’s a way to curb the amount of bad language you use,” I explained. “Y’know, like every time a person says ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ or something like that, they have to drop a quarter in the bucket. Eventually, you not only cut down on all the bad stuff you’re saying, but you can go buy yourself an ice cream cone as well.”
“Sounds like some hokey-ass bullshit to me,” Chris deadpanned, as he unbuttoned the placket of his shirt.
“See now, that would’ve cost you a quarter,” I said.
“Say, so long as we’re on the subject of quarters,” Chris murmured, pulling his chair in close to the table, “you know of anyone I might be able to buy some decent weed off of around this place?”
“I thought you just told me you were broke,” I said.
“Yeah, well, there’s broke and then there’s broke,” Chris said. “I’m only broke broke until this coming Friday. After that I’ll have a couple extra duckets lyin’ around to buy me some house weed and beer.”
“Well, if you’re looking to buy from somebody in-house, your best bet might be to talk to CJ up along the second floor. I know he sells pot and maybe even a little bit of coke to another tenant named Mike Gray. You might also want to check with that dude Saget who lives up on the third floor. I’m not sure whether he’d be willing to sell you anything, but he can definitely point you in the right direction.”
“Sag-et?” Chris said, allowing the word to roll around in his mouth for a moment. “Now is he the tie-dye guy?”
“He is,” I said. “Skinny. Beard. Looks just like a cro-magnon version of Bob Saget.”
“Hmmmmm,” Chris said, as he considered the derivation once more. “Sag-et.”
Chris had the placket of his vintage bowler flung open now, and – try as I might – I simply could not take my eyes off of a pulsing purple scar that ran the length of his mid-sternum. That scar just sat there, staring back at me – dual stitch marks set like rail ties down the span of either side. A foot above, the jaundiced light threw ashen shadows down across both eyes, emphasizing a series of splintered rings that broke the grain of either cheekbone. Chris looked emaciated, perhaps even demonic. And he was up now, on his feet, sauntering slow to a communal bathroom across the hall.
“What the fuck happened to your AC?” Chris shouted, upon his return. He was standing just beyond an archway that separated the kitchen from the bedroom. “It’s pretty fuckin’ hot in here right now.”
“Someone stole it,” I shouted back. “I came home from work a couple of nights ago and the entire fucking thing was gone.”
“And you have no idea who might-a took it?” Chris shouted.
“My assumption is it was just some drunken asshole who happened to be walking by out there.”
“I guess that kind of comes with the territory when you’re livin’ on the ground floor,” Chris offered. He wandered back into the kitchen, took a seat across the table.
“It’s not so bad,” I assured him. “I slept with the window open last night. But I kept waking up every time I heard someone clapping their feet across the gravel. Goddamn mosquitoes nearly ate me alive, as well.”
“Is that why you keep your fuckin’ door locked all the time, even when you’re in here?” Chris wondered.
“I’ll tell you exactly why I keep that fucking door locked,” I countered. “When I originally moved in here, way back in early May, I promised Sean and E.J. I’d keep an eye on the place until their aunt arrived. A couple nights later, I heard this thundering crash out in the hallway, and I kind of felt like it was my responsibility to go out there and investigate. Only the entire corridor’s pitch black, see. So I’m scaling those popcorn walls out there, until I land upon that flood box located about midway down the hall. I fiddled around until I found the emergency button, and then, Voila!
“Turns out there was a 6’5 black dude leaning up against the wall out there. I asked the guy to leave but he wouldn’t. So, eventually, I just let go of the goddamn button and took off sprinting toward my room. As fate would have it, that fucker started chasing me down the hallway in the dark. Fortunately, I managed to dive into my apartment and slam the wooden door behind me. After that the dude just kind of stood there, a foot or two outside my room, breathing so goddamn heavily I thought he might explode.”
“Holy shit,” Chris said.
“Holy shit, indeed. What’s more, I actually pushed my bureau in front of the doorway before I went to sleep that night. The next morning I climbed out the bedroom window and ran down to the Launderette to call my friend Gerry, who helped me perform a routine sweep of the area. Anyway, the point being, I’m much more concerned about the threat of what might be lurking out in that hallway right now than I am about what might be lurking out on the street. And that is why I keep my fucking door locked all the time.”
“Say, man, you mind if I bum a smoke?”
It was well past 3 am at this point, and the midnight sky outside was slowly fading into sapphire. I slid my pack across the table, encouraged Chris to help himself. He slipped one cigarette between his lips, wedged a second firm behind his ear.
“This way I figure I won’t have to bother you again,” he reasoned.
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll give you what’s left of that pack if you explain to me why it is you had to hightail it out of Florida a couple of months ago.”
“What are we, negotiatin’ now?” Chris said.
“No negotiation,” I countered. “Just leave me one cigarette so I can have a quick smoke before I go to bed, and the rest of the pack is yours. There’s got to be at least six or seven cigarettes left in there.”
Chris flipped the lid, eyed up the remaining inventory. “You sure you want to hear this?” he wondered.
“I am,” I said, nodding my head reassuringly.
Chris settled low into his chair, ashed his smoke into a half-shell. Then he launched into the story, as if he’d been rehearsing it for weeks.
“So I was granted my early release way back in mid-December,” he started.
“From prison?” I interjected.
“You want me to tell this story or not?” Chris said.
“My apologies,” I said, raising both hands in surrender. “The floor is yours.”
“So I was granted my early release way back in mid-December,” he reiterated, “at which point I went about satisfyin’ the conditional terms of my parole. I checked in with my P.O., took a handful of piss tests … I even registered for work release. And so a couple weeks or so down the line, I landed me this cush job drivin’ overnights out of a warehouse in Ocala. It was good work, y’know? Slow and steady, with very little supervision in between. And so eventually, I took to stashin’ a flask – or sometimes even an entire bottle – along with me for the ride. I never really had no problems, y’know – always delivered my shit on time, returned everything to dispatch in ship-shape and what not. But then there came this one night back in April … I suppose you could say I was pretty fucked up at the time. And so I’m gunnin’ it along this lonesome stretch of Highway 4, see, when out of nowhere I notice these dancin’ lights across my dashboard. And so I set to lookin’ in my side-view, and wouldn’t you just know there’s a goddamn Florida Trooper cruisin’ right-on up alongside.
“Now keep in mind, I’ve got no idea how long this rabid fucker’s been on me. Coulda’ been five seconds or it coulda’ been five minutes. Either way, I’m as drunk as a skunk, speedin’ like a demon, and I got a half-empty bottle of whiskey doin’ cartwheels by the pedal. And so this Trooper, see, well he’s runnin’ neck-and-neck with me at this point. And he’s got his lights flashin’ and his siren blarin’ and he’s signalin’ for me to pull on over to the side of the road. And I suppose it was just one of those moments, y’know, where you only got, like, one of two decisions to make, and there ain’t no neither one of them that’s gonna do you any good. And so, given the helpless squeeze that you’re in, you just kind of do whatever it is you do and figure out the rest as it comes along.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“What the fuck do you think I did?” Chris said. “I grabbed the wheel and swung hard right. Forced that goddamn Trooper off the road.”
“Off the road?” I said.
“Off the goddamn road,” Chris repeated, his right hand gliding across the kitchen in mid-air. “Watched his squad car rip straight through a metal guardrail, then kept an eye in my rear-view as that son of a gun flipped out into a barrel roll before landin’ face-down in the brush.”
“And then what?” I asked him.
“And then I took off, man,” Chris said. “Ditched my rig outside a weigh station all the way down there by St. Pete’s, packed my bags and hit the road.”
“So that’s it?” I said, completely dumbstruck by the nonchalance.
“That’s it,” Chris said, as he took a slug of vodka. “Shit happens, y’know?”
“And you have no idea how badly that trooper might have been hurt?”
“Now how the fuck am I supposed to know that?” Chris wondered. He was staring me down through capsicum eyes.
“And you never heard anything from anyone about the police following up on the whole matter?”
“Heard what? From who?”
“So in other words, you just kind of ditched your entire life and swung out on the lam?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” Chris said, as he lit another cigarette.
“Well, you don’t provide a whole lot in the way of answers,” I responded.
Chris swiveled slightly in his chair, index finger tapping hard against the table.
“How in shit d’you chip that tooth of yours?” he asked me.
“I got drunk and ran into a door,” I responded. “How in shit d’you get that scar?”
“Oh this ole’ thing?” Chris boasted, puffing his chest out like a charm. “I got this from some skank bitch down in Florida. Wench fuckin’ rushed me with a steak knife. Broke the point off on my heart.”
“Jeez-us Christ,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” Chris said. “But it ain’t no never mind. In the end that scabby bitch got hers, believe me.”
With that Chris staggered to his feet, explained he had to be at work in a little under two hours. He dug down deep into my refrigerator, pulled the final beer out from a 12-pack, asked if he could take it with him for the road.
I nodded reassuringly, wished him best of luck, then walked him over to the door.
I made a point to slip the lock in place behind him.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)