My first thought was that it must have been a cat, or perhaps some wandering possum that had slipped in through a window. The sounds fell soft like pattering, occasionally accompanied by the creaking knock a door might make when shut inside a windy room.
It was a Tuesday night in late September, and cold air was settling in across the island. The only two tenants still remaining inside of The Vacationer were myself and a bookish coworker named Alex. Alex lived along the ground floor in an apartment right next door to mine, and she spent a considerable amount of her time that postseason teaching me how to
operate a stick.
Two months shy of 21, I had finally acquired my state learner’s permit. Meghan’s father had been kind enough to take me out on a number of occasions, schooling me on the finer points of pulling out and parallel parking. That alone would prove enough to help me pass my on-road driver’s test. But the real challenge – the actual reason I had felt such an urgency to acquire my state license – would be learning to negotiate a manual transmission. Meghan’s Fiero had a manual transmission, and Meghan’s Fiero was the vehicle she and I planned on taking when we drove across the country.
As such, those hour-long sessions spent with Alex were imperative. Alex was empowering, inconceivably diplomatic to the extent she never scolded me for burning out her 323. I, in turn, proved wholly undeserving as a student. My objectives had a lot more to do with convincing Meghan I had gone through all the necessary motions than they did me mastering the subtle art of driving stick. I placed a considerable emphasis on learning all the bullshit terms and jargon, which I subsequently used to provide my girlfriend with a false sense of security.
Most evenings Alex and I could hear each other milling about inside our apartments. We were living in small units, side-by-side, neither one boasting anything more than 225 square feet. There was a thin slab of drywall separating Alex’s efficiency from mine, and the weather had become such that we left our windows open. Looking out, one could see the light and shade of shadow frames across the hollow.
It was because of this I naturally assumed Alex could hear those subtle noises overhead – a sudden thump here, a cushioned bump there, but no discernible rhyme or rhythm to it all.
At a quarter-to-eight there came a rapping at my door, so tempered with restraint I thought it might be shutters clapping. “It’s Alex,” I heard a voice from just beyond the doorway say. “If you’re in there, please open up.”
I pulled the chain-lock, slipped the bolt. I drug the bottom rail across the rug.
“Look, I’m really sorry to bother you,” Alex explained. She was pacing back and forth now, bony fingers clasped into a steeple. “I’m sure you’ll probably think I’ve gone insane, but I think that there might be someone upstairs. Like – over in my room? – over in my room you can actually hear the sound of something movi …”
“I know,” I said.
“You know what?” Alex said.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” I said. “I can hear it over here, as well.”
“Well, what the heck do you think that we should do about it?” Alex wondered.
“Y’know, I’m really not that sure,” I told her. “But either way, we can’t just go on ignoring the whole thing.”
“So what?” Alex wondered. “Are you thinking that maybe we should call the police?”
“Actually, I was thinking that maybe the two of us should just take a walk up there on our own.”
I fell back onto the mattress, staring straight up at the ceiling.
Alex fell back into my love seat. She was staring up, as well.
We were standing on a wooden porch just outside the second floor, and I was sorting through a ring of keys, searching for the long one with thin rivets.
“Maybe we should just call the police,” Alex kept saying. “Maybe we could just shine a flashlight down the corridor from here.”
“C’mon,” I responded. “Chances are it’s just a raccoon, or maybe just some swinging door or something.”
I found the key, unlocked the door. I pulled a blackjack from my pocket.
“If there’s anybody in here,” I beckoned, “I want you to know that we’ve already called the police.”
A lie. And a horribly cliched one, at that.
I slid my frame along the east wall, peeling flecks of popcorn stucco off the finish. Alex took up a foothold near the banister, casting a 3-volt beam of light upon the first door to my left. I turned the knob, then forced the panel, keenly aware if something did come lunging forward, it would more than likely target Alex. I was peeking in through barrel hinges, content that nearly half the room was vacant. I eased my head into the foreground – jerked it forward, and then back. I settled low into the archway, wielding that blackjack like a rood.
Silence. The dying chirp of smoke alarms.
I was standing in the room where Mike Delinski lived that summer, and I found myself considering how Mike D. and Mike Gray would play John Madden in that room till half past dawn. I found myself considering how Mike D. would leave his door wide open, encouraging anyone to wander in and join, how that policy came to an abrupt end one evening after a third-floor tenant by the name of CJ came hurtling in from out of nowhere, pummeling Mike Gray over the head with a stunning plethora of blows. I found myself considering how Mike Gray spent the remainder of that summer wandering ‘round with some wanna-be skinhead in tow, how that skinhead stared straight down or even through the nearest object, how he had a Tweety Bird tattoo along the right side of his calf. I found myself considering how most good things came to an abrupt end when one was living inside of The Vacationer, how the majority of good things felt like casualties, lost to constant drinking and drug-taking, all of it occurring in a 30-unit boarding house with seven tenants to each john.
I found myself considering that it was time for me to move along.
I was sweeping down the hall like T.J. Hooker now, swapping sides as I yelled “Clear,” through passing doorways. Every unit ran rectangular, void of furniture or closet space. The carpets ran soft blue with moonlit accents, ghostly shadows falling down across an empty box or magazine. The central corridor smelled rancid, as if three decades worth of mold went bustling mad beneath the surface. And yet, as I approached the fire exit, a rush of calm began to settle. On the one hand, I was standing square inside the space directly over my apartment. On the other, I hadn’t heard a peep since we’d arrived out on the landing. And so I went about my business, clearing the bathroom, then the fire escape, clearing the studio where Bobbi Jean once lived.
“All clear,” I called to Alex, as I circled back along the egress. “This entire floor is empty.”
It wouldn’t be until much later I came to realize that was bad.
A raccoon? Perhaps some swinging door? Who in Cape May County was I trying to fool?
Alex knew as well as I did that the source of all that racket signaled semi-constant movement, if not the ability to go about one’s bidding freely. Those noises, noises that had since gone deafly quiet, persisted right on up until we arrived along the second floor. Assuming that the source of all that brouhaha was human, he or she could only bank on one of two worthwhile retreats – up the stairs or out the fire exit. Out the fire exit meant down the fire escape. Down the fire escape meant a forced game of roulette, highly indicative of the reason Sonny Corleone never stepped foot
in an elevator.
The indoor stairwell, on the other hand, might allow someone the chance to wait it out along the third floor, preferably toward the rear, where one could still access the fire exit, if necessary.
Either way, the lack of certainty kept haunting me. If there was some whacked-out vagrant wandering mad up on the second floor, he or she could burglarize me sure as busting out a screen. Earlier that summer I’d come home one night to find my air conditioner was gone, stolen right out on its haunches from the wood pane of my window. A few weeks later I awoke to find two drunkards staring down at me, beet-red faces pressing hard against the mesh.
Now it was the last week in September, and the entire island felt deserted. One could hear the fire whistles wailing long down on Montgomery, one could see the lonesome boat lights drifting out beyond ebb tide. North Wildwood ran sparse with corner delis serving locals. Wildwood Crest ran sparse with a lot more of the same. Down here along the woodland blocks, however – along East Juniper through Spicer – there was no hint of friendly porch light, nor trace of dangling windchimes. Down here along the woodland blocks, the overwhelming lot of us were loners. Down here along the woodland blocks, the entire world had gone on lam.
All of which explains why I was sitting alone inside my bedroom at 8 pm the following evening, wrapping loose change on the carpet as I listened to cassettes. Somewhere around 8:30, I heard what I assumed to be a horseshoe, crashing hard along the upstairs hall. I dropped the change, then killed the music. I heard a second crash, and then a third.
I opened my apartment door, stepped out slow into the fold. I traced the sound of racing footsteps as they scurried down the hall.
Alex sprang from her apartment, both eyes fixed upon the ceiling.
“Did you hear that?” I asked her.
“I heard it,” Alex told me. “I don’t think I wanna live here anymore.”
We were clomping up the outdoor steps when Alex flat-out asked me why we weren’t calling the police. I, in turn, ignored her. It seemed a flimsy argument, explaining that I didn’t want to give them ample access to the building. The entire structure had gone out of code. There were no light bulbs in the exits, the foundation walls were rotting and asbestos had seeped in. We were living in a firetrap, but we were living there for free, having paid off our base rents before the final
week in August.
Any visit from the cops might mean a visit from the Fire Inspector. Any visit from the Fire Inspector might mean no living on the premises. What’s more, there was a jet-blue women’s 10-speed leaning up against the southern wall … a women’s 10-speed I assumed was stolen property. There was also the fact a Wildwood Lieutenant had jacked me up two summers prior, that he had flailed me with such force it left an imprint on the siding, that he had lodged his pruning elbow in my windpipe just for kicks, that I couldn’t swallow right for days. There was the fact I’d been arrested two weeks later, that I’d been charged with underage consumption, that I’d plead guilty without paying. There was the fact that there might be a local warrant with my name on it.
All of which combined to make me fearful of police.
And so I found the key, unlocked the door. I suggested Alex wait for me outside.
Alex handed me the flashlight and I turned it down the hall. There was a breadcrumb trail of napkins leading back toward a closet. Residing just outside was what appeared to be a bowling ball – big and shiny, dark and round. Otherwise, the entire corridor looked empty. All eight doors were still ajar, casting soft-gray tombs of light across both walls.
I took one step onto the stairwell, located a few feet to my right. I ran my flashlight up along it, veering wide to minimize the groan. Halfway up I hesitated, three pieces of ephemera cycling blindly through my gourd. The first was the original theme from Scooby Doo, the second Mr. Brady telling Carol that the house was settling, and the third that naked biddy from The Shining, reaching out to hold Jack Torrance.
I slithered low onto the top step like a soldier near the line. I turned my flashlight on a closed door with a crevice running long. I swiveled forward on sharp elbows, eager to force that crevice wider. And that was when I heard it, a sound so weak and shiftless it could’ve passed for wind through curtains. I looked up, and then I ran. I ran so wanton blindly that I missed one step completely. I slid the final three steps on my hind. My spine felt raw and torpid. And yet the urgency was such I bolted right back to my feet. I hit the porch and kept on going. I went and went until I hit the sidewalk. Then I went a little more.
“What happened?” Alex asked me. She was chasing from behind.
I was wincing with my back arched, trying to dislocate the pain.
“I saw something,” I admitted, placing both hands on my knees. “Like something up there, looking down.”
“What d’you mean, like a cat or a dog or something?” Alex asked me.
“It wasn’t a cat,” I told her. “And it wasn’t any dog.”
And then like Matt Hooper, pulling his face out from the basin, I added, “It was a person.”
There was a squad car pulling up as I arrived home from the pay phone. A pair of officers emerged, peppering Alex and I with questions. Yes, we had both heard an unexpected series of noises. No, we could not explain them anymore than we could dismiss them. Yes, we were the only two tenants still remaining on the premises. No, we were not scheduled to remain there throughout winter. Yes, the second and third floors were supposed to be on lockdown. And, yes, I happened to be in sole possession of spare keys.
“What makes you believe that there might be an actual intruder on the premises?” the senior officer wondered.
“I took a walk upstairs a little while ago,” I said, “and I found the third-floor entrance had been opened.”
“And I assume that third-floor entrance should be closed?” the senior officer said.
“That’s correct,” I told him. “Keep in mind, that hallway door was only open just a smidge. I was eye level with the top step at one point and I looked up to see what I believed to be another human being staring back at me.”
“It looks to be pretty dark up there,” The younger officer interjected. “What makes you so sure it was a person?”
“I had a flashlight,” I explained. “I could almost see the matching glare in both his eyes.”
“He?” the younger officer said.
“Umm, yeah,” I said. “I guess I just kind of assumed it was a guy.”
“Let me ask you,” the younger officer said, “you have any idea who that ‘he’ might’ve actually been?”
“None whatsoever,” I told him.
Both officers executed a routine sweep of The Vacationer. I went along to act as guide. In the end, the only leads their search turned up were a trail of crumpled napkins and one eight-pound Brunswick bowling ball.
“What exactly am I looking at right here?” the younger officer inquired. He was standing on the third floor, pointing upward with his flashlight.
“That’s the attic,” I told him. “Nothing more than unused storage space up there. As a matter of fact, I don’t even have a key for it. Nobody’s been up there since the beginning of last summer.”
“Looks like the entrance to a meat locker,” the younger officer noted. He climbed the ladder, yanked the handle, pounded loudly on the door. “Open up,” the younger officer insisted. “Wildwood Police.”
He remained there for a minute, staring straight down at the carpet. Then he threw a glancing shoulder at the lock stile, climbed back down winding his arm.
“What’s with that smell?” the senior officer wondered.
“That what?” I said.
“That smell?” the senior officer repeated. “Smells like Pigpen’s ass-crack up here.”
“Oh, that,” I said. “Well, that smell just kind of came with the place, y’know?”
“Is there any other way into that attic?” the younger officer demanded.
“Not that I know of,” I told him.
“Not that you know of?” he said.
“There’s not,” I rectified.
It wouldn’t be until much later I came to realize that was wrong.
Alex fell asleep on my love seat late that evening, an open copy of This Perfect Day resting softly in her lap. I was sitting in a director’s chair a few feet away, watching Rush Limbaugh prattle on about Bill Clinton’s recent weapons ban. The entire room was bathed in satin, and I kept thinking about the attic. It stood to reason that if every floor required a fire exit, and every exit a fire escape, then that escape might lead one up onto the back end of the …
That was when the first wave hit, followed by a second, then a third, rolling thunder dropping down like baseline mortars from above. I grabbed the flashlight, woke up Alex. I led her out into the hall.
“Where are we going?” Alex asked me.
“It’s OK. Just follow me.”
We hurried out onto the fire escape, dry-rot sawdust sprinkling under as we sprinted to the top. We were crouching neath a window – a backdoor entrance to the attic.
“All you,” I intimated as we fell against the side.
“All me?” Alex shot back, her forebrow furrowed with dismay.
“I did my time,” I told her. “I took the second and the third.”
“You’re kidding,” Alex whispered.
I assured her I was not.
The window frame ran hollow, and Alex ducked her way inside. I shined the flashlight low before her, fanning out from left to right. The first object that I stopped on was a tiny tinfoil wrapper, then a hot plate and a napkin, then a wide door standing open. From there I traced the ceiling as it slanted to a mattress. I traced my way across bad tuna, across a T-shirt, then a toilet. I traced my way across clam ashtrays, across the Hesperus at morning.
“We need to go,” I heard Alex hasten. “We need to get out of here right now.”
We ran down to a pay phone, called the Wildwood Police. The same two officers arrived, only this time flanked by back-up. Several officers entered the building through the second-floor front entrance. Less than 15 minutes later they had moved in on their man. One officer confirmed he’d been living in the attic, that the suspect had been wanted for armed robbery and assault, that both crimes had taken place somewhere in Northeast Philly, that the bench warrants alone would be enough to “lock him up.”
The suspect’s name, it didn’t register, nor his face when he was ushered past. He wore Doc Martens without knee socks under two weeks’ worth of grizzle. He wore a shit-brown guinea T-shirt over shiny Hiatt handcuffs. He wore it all in stunning contrast to the way he stared right through me … the way he stared right through me and the tattoo on his calf.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)