A Short Story By Sha’Tara
Downtown Sloanville there’s an ancient six floor apartment building, slowly falling into its last years. It houses many unfortunates and derelicts, rejects, ex-felons, alcoholics, drug addicts, many of them single parents, and one entire floor is basically “reserved” for the hookers and their trade. And this old place also houses me. Down in the basement, next to the service room where the noisy heating system abides, and where the paraphernalia from years of maintenance has landed, sometimes being carried down, sometimes just tumbling down rickety stairs to land, the worse for wear, on the cracked cement floor. Gravity gets us all. The janitor, maintenance man – that’s me – would then drag this stuff into the service room and stack it wherever space could be found. Much of it should have gone to the dump years ago, but for that you’d need a truck, and some cash, both of which the place cannot seem to manifest any longer. So whatever is too big for the six garbage cans allowed per week, sits there, a constant reminder of better days, an accusation for allowing dreams to die.
I’m Baldo. I’ve lived here since I left the joint, a felon marked for life, some thirty years ago. How did I end up there? A combination of booze, pot and stupidity which got me into a fight that got out of hand. Someone was killed, I couldn’t remember doing it, in fact I was passed out from an uppercut long before the fight was stopped by the cops. I was dragged out of the bar and thrown in a paddy wagon, that I vaguely remembered later in my cell. I had no family, no friends, no money, no alibi, no memory – a perfect fall guy. They gave me a pimply faced lawyer just out of grade ten. I got twenty years, reduced to thirteen by the parole board “for good behaviour and good signs that I was rehabilitated.” When I came out, my parole officer said I could find cheap accommodation here until such time as I found a regular job.
I had been pretty handy in the joint and I found that job: here. It suited me. I had no life and didn’t want to attempt starting a new one, so this quasi entombment between seeping cement walls and stained brick partitioned dereliction seemed perfect. I became “Joe” to those who didn’t know me, or “Man, get the f—k up here!” and to the “lifers” (those with permanent residency status), Baldo. Why? I am bald, sure, but why not Baldy? Maybe I look Italian, with my short, hunched over stance, brown eyes and reticence to enter into any conversation lasting more than ten words. I guess they assume I can’t speak English very well and that too is fine by me. Oh, one more thing, I like classical music – can’t get enough of it. And I like religious books, any kind of book on any kind of religion. There’s something soothing about reading these stories of spiritual people and spiritual beings and events. I know I found a lot of comfort in those books and damned if I can find any contradictions in any of them. Some people, they’ll tell you these books are full of contradictions, and that may be, but I’m not reading to look for things that don’t add up and I’m not looking for vindication, or “salvation” as was pushed at me when in the joint. Some people, they see me pull out a Bible on the stairs during a lunch break and they immediately think I’m a Thumper, but I don’t say a word. So then they assume I’m not too bright, which I wouldn’t deny.
Usually the manager – when there’s a manager – will give me money to go buy supplies for the building, cleaning stuff, paints, some lumber and trims, basic hardware to keep the place from totally falling apart. The problem is always finding somebody with a truck when there isn’t enough money to rent the hardware store rental van. But I manage, that’s what I do. And often, I manage more than just the maintenance: I manage the building, minus the money entrusted to an absconding manager, or one who is fired after a drunken binge on the fourth floor. Did I mention the fourth floor? Well, it’s the hooker floor. It’s the most lively and noisy floor in the place, as you can imagine. Anyway, I am rambling here because what I want to say, I really don’t want to say.
I feel really old now. These old walls, they’re closing in on me. I’m going to die here, soon, I know that. All my post-joint days I’ve spent basically alone. At first, I visited the fourth floor, or one of the girls came down to my place, but I wasn’t entertaining, didn’t drink and bottom line, I can’t afford it. So I became a ghost, a handy one, but a ghost nevertheless. To say I am taken for granted would be the understatement of the century, no, not this one, but the other one, the full one hundred year one, the 1900’s – the century that saw me born, saw me go wild, incarcerated, then slowly go to seed. That century.
I don’t do news, that’s another thing. No TV, no radio, no newspapers, except it’s not a rule. I often read old papers and magazines I am hauling to the recycling bins. I do like reading. I have quite a few books here, collected from garage sales and open market stalls. Just about anything. It doesn’t have to be English either. Sometimes I’ll buy a book in Russian or Spanish and go through it, reading as if I understood. I think that deep down inside me, there’s another me that understands this stuff. Maybe many “me’s” even. I can imagine a Chinese me, walking the Great Wall, for example, or a Pakistani me climbing a mountain in the Karakoram range just to see what China looks like on the other side. I can be Hawaiian or Tahitian, and paddle a long outrigger canoe far out away from land, and stay out there for days, fishing and enjoying the cool, clear drinking water stashed in a water tight container tied below the prow. It’s not what I can drag out of the sea that I care about here, it’s just being here, alone, totally alone, and watching the stars move so slowly across the sky at night. Or the great birds, the albatrosses gliding past at times. Such majestic views. And I wonder, while I’m here, why I’m so lucky to have such a charmed life.
And that’s what I hesitate to write down. By the standards of this world I live in, my life is considered worthless, a failure. I haven’t done anything, except that one stupid thing that got me in jail. After, I cleaned up after people and was responsible to keep a roof over the heads of people who are considered even greater failures than I. But as I consider it all, and realise how close I am to dying, I increasingly believe that I’ve been blessed. So incredibly blessed. I haven’t suffered. That’s one thing. And, I have lived, albeit vicariously, so many interesting episodes from all the people come and gone of “Block 1900” as we call this place. It’s in the 1900 block, Aspen avenue, you see. There probably hasn’t been an aspen anywhere near this place for 90-plus years, if there ever were any, but that’s how it is, isn’t it? I have to get back to my story here.
Not only did I always have a place to sleep in, and stash a few personal belongings important to me, but I got to help others find a similar place when a breath of wind would have blown them over. I remember “Mrs. Jones” – that’s the only name I ever knew her by, she didn’t want anyone to know who she was. Those of us trained by joint secrecy can keep another’s secret better than any Catholic priest doing confessions and we know better than to ask. She and her little girl Annie came to the building late in December years ago, down and out, no place to go. The child was crying, the mother was desperate. I answered the door and let them in – how could I not? When I saw the state they were in, I led them down to my place and made some room in the infamous utility room for them to crash for the night. I shared left-overs from my supper with them and gave the little girl milk I kept in the old brown Kelvinator fridge – long gone now. I smiled inwardly – not one to show feelings me – as she put down the glass and showed me her white milk moustache. “Mrs. Jones” offered to exchange sex for the hospitality, which I denied, not that she wasn’t extremely attractive once cleaned up and in her dress. But I have personal rules, and one of them is unbreakable: never take advantage of someone who’s in worse shape than you are. We talked instead, and I mentioned the possibility of the Fourth Floor. She was afraid for her little girl, so I said she could bring her down to me when she entertained upstairs. So I set her up and she did OK, knowing she was under no pressure to accept questionable clients. Did I feel good doing this? Yes, I did. I knew I was doing something good, and it showed, perhaps to no one else but me, but inside, I felt it, like the famous balm of Gilead if you know what I mean – and that’s what I mean about reading, I learned things, important things like that.
For me, religious books were like old newspapers. What does it matter if the news you read is four days old, or four thousand years old? I think the older it is, the more reliable it becomes. It stands the test of time, you see. It’s like remembering past lives. I know, I wasn’t going to mention that, but it’s all part of the picture I’m painting here, on this page of foolscap with this dollar-store pen. If you can remember your old stuff, it makes you that much more real, and that much more rich. You can be more than you are, more of a fool perhaps, but still more. Remembering, or reading old news makes you think. Daily news are no good, no good at all. You don’t have a rat’s ass chance to figure out what’s going on before another load of “news” is dumped on you. If I were editor of a newspaper, I’d have it come out once a month, certainly no sooner. Once a month, people could read “news” that meant something, something they could savour, analyse, think about. Not being buried under an avalanche of pulp crisscrossed with ads for stuff you don’t need and can’t afford or have no place to store.
I have to stop procrastinating here and tell you the rest of the “Mrs. Jones’” story. Getting my chronology straight now, let’s see. We spent Christmas together, “Mrs. Jones,” Annie and I. It was the best Christmas I ever had, not a word of lie. Annie was four years old then, and I got her a doll from the street. It was a bit shabby, but her mother washed and patched the clothes and I scrubbed the little doll body until it was spotless. I used a bit of blue enamel paint to fix the eyes, and her mother used real makeup on the doll’s face. With a container of eggnog on the table between us, we watched Annie’s totally absorbed happiness as she interacted, mother to child, with her doll. From that time “Mrs. Jones” plied her trade upstairs and Annie did her homework and sometimes even helped me as she got older. The years passed. Not surprisingly, Annie was brought into the family business, so to speak, and did very well for herself, making good money, enough to take her from here to college. Happy times all around until that night, Christmas eve, when Annie was coming to see her mother, having taken a taxi from a modelling job. A freight truck lost control on some ice on the by-pass and crushed the taxi. Both Annie and the driver of the cab were killed instantly. “Mrs. Jones” came down to me that night and we cried together, long, long into the night. “Mrs. Jones” lost the will to live that night. She died of complications two months later. And I put on a few years I had been holding at bay. And that’s life, isn’t it.
I think that people should all experience two things: a year or more in jail, and the life of a janitor in an old decrepit tenement building for at least five years. Never mind all the other stuff. Never mind university degrees, and jaunts to other parts of the world, combining “help” with adventure and romantic curiosity. It’s all right here, practically under your feet. But you have to look for it. And it’s scary. You can’t buy your way into my life, there isn’t enough money in the world to get yourself here. You have to have an inordinate amount of luck, and, I dunno, some kind of horse sense because it’s very dangerous. I’ll tell you what got me to where I could “see” a “Mrs. Jones” and her daughter. After my stint in the joint, I was left without a shred of judgement regarding other people. They were just people, and no matter how badly they had wrecked their lives, they were still better than I. And that was the key to my success.
Now, if you’ve read this far into my ramble, you will probably have a hard time accepting that I am successful. And I don’t blame you either. It’s how you are raised, and trained, you see. You probably believe, and can probably come up with the proof, that you are as good as some and better than most. Well, that’s what you need to succeed in your world. You need to believe in yourself. To assert yourself. To take advantage of every door that isn’t locked. Push, push, push. You need that glitzy resumé that will cause excitement among those who want to hire you. You need to convince them that if they give you that chance, you’ll make them richer, perhaps even famous. You have to have your angle and the right bait.
Here, well, it’s quite the opposite I think. Here you do. You take all that you know and you put it to work and then you wait for the results. If you are honest, hard working and maintain your innocence in the midst of the endless problems, never losing your cool, always proffering solutions to the problems people create for themselves, standing quietly aside when being thrown verbal abuse or even material objects then sooner or later, something slips into your heart from the stairs, from the walls, from behind those cheap doors with the fading and cracking paint. Something so wonderful, it has no words, but as your heart expands, it brings tears to your eyes. And it opens your eyes too. You see and you know, and then you realise you no longer need anything. You have everything you could ever need, right here, right inside you.
I don’t know what else I could tell you. I suppose I should continue, but I am not feeling so hot right now, so I’ll just leave this here and go to bed. I might have another story to add to this tomorrow.
One of the toilets on the third floor, in Jose Melendez’ apartment, developed a bad leak during the night, and Jose called the manager in the morning. Darwin Barker, the manager, went down to Baldo’s room to wake him up and found his body on the floor, with the above “story” on the old metal table he used for a desk. The ambulance came and took the body away to be cremated. Mr. Barker read the notes and decided to take them to a friend of his who worked for one of the local papers. That’s how the story got out. That’s how I came across it. So I thought I’d share it with you. I found it not just a great human interest story, but somewhat troubling. It’s not what it says, but the reams of pages left blank that bother me – all that Baldo never tells us, but leaves us to ponder.