by K. Joffré
From Fall 2018
Early Winter 2006
Sometimes I would stay in, have a cigarette on my mattress, sit cross-legged, with my ashtray on the windowsill, blowing smoke out of the window through the holes in the screen like a chain-smoking Buddha. One time I drank red wine from a glass that I put on the floor, for lack of a table, when a piece of my ceiling crumbled and fell, shattering the glass, spraying red wine in all directions. It was the first ominous sign that this place was trying to kill me.
I lived in a box over 140th street surrounded by old Black barber shops, and nail salons. The light of the setting sun painted my white walls gold. I owned a few things, but my only prized possession was the small library of self-help books perched on a nearly barren bookcase. My building was run-down and dimly lit with an elevator that looked and operated more like an overgrown dumbwaiter for people. A few weeks back I had been robbed in that elevator by two thieves who took off with my wallet and phone. Their serrated knife pointed at my stomach was another sign that this place was trying to kill me. I wondered when it would happen.
My roommates were almost never in their rooms, and had lives that transcended the need for space and knick-knacks. They were never home because this place wasn’t a home. There were three of them; the Russian, the corduroy nerd, and Redbeard.
The Russian was a thin sophisticated woman around my age who spoke in a cartoonish accent. She was studying at the local city college and––at first glance––seemed like a prim and proper type, though she was nothing like that. In all confidence, she would tell me about her many conquests and how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get it up for her. Her ex was our other roommate, the corduroy nerd, who I harbored a dumb crush on. The Russian and I became fast friends. We smoked pot in the living room while Redbeard played in Jersey with his over-the-hill band. She was sickly, and like all of us, she had no healthcare, so she would make due with ancient remedies and emergency trips to free clinics by gypsy cab instead of by ambulance.
There was my second roommate, the corduroy nerd, whom I named after the corduroy jackets he wore. He had a mop of curly sandy brown hair, blue horn rimmed glasses, and tight pants. He was all mystery. When we smoked joints, he would brush my finger. When we talked, sometimes we would stare, and catch ourselves falling into each other’s eyes.
One day, he knocked on my bedroom door, and I opened it in my underwear.
“Hey dude, I thought you’d like this seeing as how you’re into music,” he said.
He handed me a CD, The Boy With the Arab Strap by Belle & Sebastian. I looked at the green jewel case, opened the liner notes, and let him guide me through the tracks he loved; I inhaled his scent, mostly corduroy. He spoke gently about music into my ear and it was like listening to music itself. He left after that with a tight smile, closed my door, leaving me sitting on my mattress holding onto a CD. I wondered if he liked me how I liked him, and I settled on the idea that he might, if only in short moments. I spent the rest of the day scrambling and piecing together each word of every lyric in that Belle & Sebastian CD, trying and find this boy’s secret message to me.
My third roommate, Redbeard, was a ginger man with a red goatee like a viking and a bald head like marble. He was over six feet tall and moved through the apartment as quickly and ferociously as a rhinoceros. When he was home, he turned the common area into his lion’s den, where he smoked cigars and watched television. We stayed in our rooms when he was here, as if his presence itself was oppression. His name was the only one on the lease. I wondered why the others were repelled by him other than his obvious appearance, and then the Russian told me that Redbeard had once yelled at her when no one else was home. We were sitting on the floor in the living room smoking pot when she told me that he had repeatedly slammed the door to her room because she refused to engage him in an argument. Her response was to laugh. She laughed so hard that the power of her mockery turned him a deep raspberry red and he retreated into his room.
“What did you do to make him angry?” I asked.
“It does not matter what I did,” she said.
The story the Russian told me about her encounter with Redbeard frightened me. When I went to sleep I dreamed that a hundred dark figures rushed into my room and held me down with hundreds of human hands. I would struggle to get up out of the bed, then struggle down my hallway and out the door. I asked the Russian what she thought of the nightmares.
“Bad mojo,” she said.
“What does that mean?”
“Maybe we are cursed, or this place possibly is haunted.”
The Russian burned sage throughout the house while blasting The Police’s Greatest Hits from the living room record player. Her barefoot smoking dance made me laugh, but it also soothed me.
When Redbeard finally attacked me, it seemed like the fulfillment of a prophecy, and the dreams and omens had prepared me for it.
One winter evening I was alone in the house with Redbeard. I knew he was home because I heard the hard stomping footfalls charging around the hallway and kitchen. I was a little alarmed to hear him scream my name.
“Jo! Jo! Goddamn it!”
I opened the door to my room just enough to peer through our hallway.
“Jo! You broke my wine glass!” His screaming charred the air with mania.
“Totally by accident. The roof caved in and broke it. I’ll get you a new one,” I replied without much thought.
“When? When?” Redbeard appeared in the hallway completely naked. He was pale from head to toe with a large belly, strong flexed arms, and a small penis surrounded by a patch of red pubic hair with small razor bumps around the edges as lurid proof of carelessness. His face was burning red. He charged towards my door which I used to keep his naked white body separated from mine, but he snuck in a huge leg through the doorway preventing me from closing it.
“How many things you gotta break around here? I’m getting fucking tired of it!”
“Get off my door or I’ll call the cops, man” I said.
Redbeard let go of my door, but he continued to shriek and rant about his broken wine glass. I slammed my door shut and pushed myself against it. I heard him pace down the hallway and into the kitchen. I cracked my door open again and he reappeared in the hallway holding a large butcher knife. He disappeared into someone’s bedroom––not his––it might have been the Russian’s. He kept appearing and disappearing, pacing in between my door, the hallway, and the various rooms, a man possessed by an implacable rage he plucked out of thin air.
I thought about escaping through my bedroom fire escape, but it didn’t fully extend to the ground. While I had threatened to call the cops, it was a bluff, because I hadn’t purchased a replacement phone since mine was stolen. I thought about running towards the building’s hallway and frantically knocking on a neighbor’s door to use their phone, but I figured they wouldn’t be home and he’d gut me like in every horror movie I’d ever watched.
Then, a crazy idea popped into my head; I could call the cops from Redbeard’s phone. He couldn’t possibly have it on him as he was completely naked. I could run into his room, lock his door, and look for his phone. That was Plan A. Plan B would be to jump down his bedroom fire escape.
Always have a Plan B.
“Calm down and I’ll run down and get you a new wine glass.” I shouted from a crack in the doorway.
“You motherfuckers take all my stuff,” he bellowed. He’d lost it. This was––as Freud might have said––no longer about the wine glass.
I studied his movements from my door. He was slowing down, staying in the kitchen for a while looking through his stuff, making sure nothing else was broken. I moved out of my room and crept towards his down the hallway. For a split second I became a believer in everything the Russian said about curses, because I needed to believe her sage would protect me. With my heart almost beating out of my chest, I snuck to the kitchen, waited a few moments, then sprinted to his room. I heard his thunderous footsteps behind me. I slammed his door closed and locked it.
“What the fuck are you doing in my room? What the fuck? Get the fuck out of there!”
Redbeard jerked the doorknob so hard that I believed he could pull it off the door frame. To my relief, he stopped moving the knob, but the blade of his butcher knife made its terrifying appearance in the crack of the door and I fell backwards into a dirty pile of clothing strewn on the floor. The blade looked like it was trying to smell for me, moving left and right, up and down, until it failed to jimmy the door open and broke itself in two. Outside I only heard muffled cursing. I looked around his room: The walls were barren with some water damage in the ceiling. He didn’t own much, but he did have a proper bed and several musical instruments propped against a wall. No way for a man in his late thirties to be living. I started looking through his room for his cell phone. I couldn’t find one. I feared he had taken it with him to the living room, back into his lion’s den.
“Hey dude, I need you to calm down and just tell me where your phone is,” I announced through the door.
“Jo. Listen to me carefully. Get out of that room, now!” He said, completely failing to meet me halfway in our negotiation.
Plan B it was, time to escape through his window.
Before catapulting myself out of the frame I noticed his clam phone resting on the window sill. I flipped it open and dialed 911.
“911––What is your emergency?” a dull voice asked, and the question dangled in the air. I thought about how this call could end up on a show about people being murdered.
“Hi, hello, my roommate is trying to kill me. He has a knife. Or had one, but it broke. Unfortunately he owns more knives.”
“Ok, where is your roommate now?”
We had a pleasant conversation over the facts of my impending murder. She told me to stay put, and I did, and had she told me to jump out the window, I would have done that too. Redbeard was no longer pacing the halls, and I was sitting on his bed talking about his reign of terror, feeling better about myself. I announced to the door: “The cops are going to be here in a few minutes, you better put down any knives you grabbed!” A few tense minutes passed and I heard the police knocking. I peered out of Redbeard’s room just enough to see him fully clothed and opening the door.
“We got a call––”a short brown cop started to say, and I interrupted by bursting out of the bedroom.
“He was trying to kill me!” I pointed an accusatory finger at Redbeard.
“I was not trying to kill him.” Redbeard laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“Why were you carrying that large knife for then? And why were you naked?”
“I wasn’t naked. Officers, I wasn’t naked.”
“Sir,” the officer interrupted, talking to me, “do you have a place to stay for the night?”
I nodded, realizing there was a second female officer behind the first. I was probably just another hysterical person they had to deal with. I calmed myself, walked to my room, and packed my rolling luggage with essentials, my self-help books, my mother’s bible, and left everything else in my bedroom. I left the apartment with the police, who asked me how long I had lived in New York, all that insignificant small talk, and I responded out of simple courtesy. For some reason I had it in my head that they would drive me where I needed to go, but they didn’t, instead they turned to me once we were outside the building.
“You gonna be alright?” the police woman said.
“Yeah, I think so,” I said, feeling the winter wind against my exposed face.
“Good,” she said. They walked away, fingers around belts, surveying the neighborhood, muttering to themselves about Harlem and tenants. They were done with me, and they’d move on to some other altercation, some other emergency. I took my rolling bag, got into the subway, and rolled it to midtown, to Bobby Lee’s place, the only place I knew I could stay.
“Would you believe me if I told you I called the cops on my roommate?”
“I sure would,” Bobby Lee said in a nasally drawl.
I walked into Bobby Lee’s apartment like a wet, beaten-down dog. Bobby Lee poured me a glass of wine. He was groggy, downbeat, I think it was the combo of nighttime pills he might have taken. He rolled out an air mattress for me and I said I’d take care of it. He went to bed.
I spent a week in his apartment finally building up the courage to go back to my old building to warn the Russian and corduroy nerd about what happened. It had snowed overnight and piles of it towered along the sidewalks. I wore converse sneakers with holes in them, so I slipped and crawled all the way along the sidewalk to my old building and felt ice water soak through to my socks. I took the slow ancient elevator to my floor, reached my door, and found an eviction notice taped onto it.
“What the fuck?”
I put my keys into the lock and couldn’t open the front door. How had they been changed so quickly? I knocked furiously on the door.
“Hello? Hello? For fuck’s sake.”
I raced downstairs, out into the snow, slipped and slid all the way to the back of the building, and I screamed at the windows.
“Hey! Hey! Asshole! You still have my stuff!”
My voice rose up against the walls of the tenements and out through the air. No one replied.
I returned to Bobby Lee who explained that the only way the eviction was real was if Redbeard had been pocketing our rent money and hiding all the landlord’s warnings from us. A classic druggie move, he called it, from his years of experience as a realtor.
I was all out of luck, sequestered in Bobby Lee’s apartment with my laptop wired to his router looking for a room to rent. I finally got a bite from someone who lived near Columbia University. I needed one hundred dollars up front, which would be no problem. The problem would be the rent a month later.
The man with the room wanted me to meet him in an hour, and so I left Bobby Lee’s place with a hearty thanks, dragging my rolling luggage behind me. I made my way back uptown and met the man who was portly, disheveled, wearing thin glasses and sporting graying short hair.
“Ya Jo?” He said in an even thicker New York squawk than Bobby Lee had.
“Good. The room is around the cawner. It’s a very nice room. Very nice. Uuuuh Very near the schools and everything. Lots of grocery stores…”
I winced at every sentence. Nothing about what he was saying felt right. I’d gone through an interview for my old room, but this felt more like an awkward first date. He asked for one hundred dollars in cash and I said I could give him eighty for now then twenty later. He agreed, took my money, and led me to the place. This building was older than my last one. The lights inside dimmed every so often; it seemed mostly abandoned. The man struggled to open the front door to his apartment, and he talked the entire time. “Oh you’ll like it here. The bagel store down the street…the libraries…” He shoved the door open and was almost buried in mountains of paper.
“You’re gonna have to be careful stepping in ‘ere.”
Inside there was a one bedroom apartment covered in garbage. Mountains of folders, boxes, and forgotten knick-knacks. He pushed against them and navigated towards a hallway. I followed his lead, stepping where he stepped to avoid any other falling garbage.
“Here’s yer room.” He gestured towards a small bedroom filled with newspapers and boxes. I made my way inside, perched on the bed, and immediately started thinking of an escape plan. The older man disappeared for a good hour and I used that time to open my laptop to try and find hostels in the area. The man eventually reappeared.
“I can’t make it to my room,” he announced. “Lots more stuff in ‘ere than I thought. I’m gonna have to sleep in here with you.”
He walked into the room, struggling over piles of boxes, and made his way onto the bed I was sitting on. He reached the opposite side of the bed, mounted it, and flipped over onto his back with a great sigh. I couldn’t go back to Bobby Lee’s apartment after telling him I got a room, I couldn’t go back looking like an even more beat down dog. I turned off the lights, closed the laptop, closed my eyes, and prepared myself to kill this old man if he tried climbing on me. An hour passed and he never tried it.
The man fell asleep, and I looked at him and felt pity and contempt over my stolen eighty bucks. I got up, packed my laptop into my rolling bag, stepped over the trash and made my way out the door with all of my belongings. I walked around the neighborhood for a bit. The streets were empty, an eerie fog floated around every corner. There was a chill in the air.
I missed the Russian and her therapeutic soups, and the pot we smoked, and the music she played. The street lights reflected on the black concrete pavement turning them into big neon orange puddles. It would be a long time before sunrise. I walked down the main street, past the subway, down side streets and towards the water.
I missed the corduroy nerd, and my silly crush on him that, in another life, perhaps, might have sprung into something real. It was too cold by the water. I walked back to the main street listening to my rolling bag make the loudest sound in the city. Like a minor miracle I found an internet cafe. I paid the fee to use their computers to find a nearby affordable hostel. I found one, and used the extra time to try and look up my old roommate’s profiles on Myspace, but I couldn’t remember their names. I had only lived with them for less than a year. The computer timed me out during my search, as if I’d failed to please it.
I walked two more blocks and found the hostel, brightly lit on the outside, but dim on the inside. The man behind the front desk looked up from his newspaper like a wary security guard. I asked for a room and told him I only had twenty bucks. He said I could stay for two nights for that price. I handed him the last of my money and he pointed towards a door down a hallway. When I opened the door I saw maybe twenty bodies that slept on cots completely in the dark; most of them moved and recoiled over their mattresses in response to the light streaming in from the hallway. I rolled my bag up to an empty cot and climbed into it. I reached into my bag and pulled out my walkman and the CD the corduroy nerd had given to me, The Boy With The Arab Strap, and I listened to the title track in my ear and remembered how he smelled and how good he looked in his short brown curly hair.
How do you live in New York? You lower your expectations, remove the part of you that doesn’t want to be hurt, and then let the city hurt you. I always had a Plan B, an alternate escape plan, but tonight I needed a Plan C. Instead the little motors in my brain spun and spun around like a useless clock in the middle of a landfill. What a fine way to spend your twenty-second birthday.
I whispered, “Oh God,” and fell asleep.