I reside alone in a one room apartment in the historic Anderson Hotel downtown San Luis Obispo, California. It used to be quite grand. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it’s five stories stood proud on the corner of Monterey and Morro Street. The lobby furniture once matched. The carpet was a vivid green. Now the carpet is so faded, it has no color at all, worn right down to just a feeling of low-income dejection.
My apartment is a tight little dwelling stacked high with books and magazines. I have no view so I spend many evenings haunting the ground floor of the Anderson; from there I take my view of Morro street. The steady blue thrum of life consoles me. You see, my wife died years ago and the kids are scattered to the four winds. I get calls from them on my birthday, and for me, that is enough.
Peeking on me, you would think all I have to show for my life are the stacks of books everywhere, and it would nearly be true. My whole life I’ve loved books: the classics, books written about classics, books written by friends. My wife the librarian said I spent too much time in books. In her last days, she said, “Herbert, get out of your books. Promise me.” I promised. Then she died.
I haven’t read one book since. Oh, occasionally I open one, but I don’t read. I only look at the words. That’s different. Passing stores, I notice nice book covers and touch them. She never said anything about not touching. Even an old man needs something to finger, if not flesh, paper and binding is fine. A good book has a sort of warmth. The lobby in the Anderson has a little book shelve, well, I’m generous to call it a bookshelf. Real shelves must be assembled by thoughtful readers. The shelves in the Anderson lobby are a mish-mash of donated and abandoned books ranging from the wonderfully ordinary to the down right dull. Occasionally something interesting shows up. To Kill a Mockingbird showed up a while back. A week ago, a badly water stained Lolita appeared! I mentally catalogue the new arrivals. However I refrain from opening them for fear of seeing the blatant disregard shown in each torn page and marked up passage. Oh that hurts me.
I mostly sit near the books, think about my wife and mourn, and watch the blue window and the flies in the sill.
The ground floor has three designated sitting areas, I should explain this now. First is my area by the window, I just told you about. Second is a television area with long couch and arm-chairs. This area is in the center of the lobby and takes up the most space. Third is the table and three uncomfortable chairs under the chandelier. The chandelier is too bright so residents don’t typically sit there at night. Now we get to the meat of my drama.
One evening I was sitting on the ground floor. The falling twilight made the world outside a beautiful blue. The television area was dominated, as usual, by the same four, white-beard men. I don’t belong to this group, nor do I care very much for them. Children keep their distance. Children are smart. The men talk to each other in low gurgles. I think of them as a herd of bison. Animals to be respected, even admired, but best to be kept at a respectful distance. Well, they were watching a football game, and suddenly I had a desire to walk and take some air. It was a warm evening, the college kids just emptied out of town, so I took a stroll up Monterey Street. I couldn’t have been gone fifteen minutes. When I returned the bison had moved, dispersed as if by some black magic, and she had taken their place! Resplendent, side-lying sphinx, surrounded by candy and drugstore makeup. Her arm propped up her head while her skinny legs rested the length of the sagging couch. She flipped through the channels with an air of such authority. I thought perhaps I’d stepped into the wrong building! I must have looked a fright leaning in the doorway like that.
The old bison assembled around the table and chairs for a game of cards, all the while making low distress noises to each other. I cast worried looks between the bison and the girl. Did she know what she’d done? Yes, I decided, she must have.
Her name was Tonisha or Teesha. Tish in italic—when she traded verbal abuse with her Haitian mother. The step-father, she hated. Step-father was more or less a mystery. Step-father spoke in low tones and rarely left the apartment. His gaze only flashed upon me once but it was sharp and forceful. Forgive me, but as a trio, they at first repelled me. I watched them move in, surrounded by a rain of constant bickering. Once settled, something more like a slow building hurricane seeped from behind their door, pots and pans crashed at any hour of night.
Presently, Tonisha muttered a steady stream of genial dialogue towards Wheel-of-Fortune. “Come on Pat, let’s have a P! Nope, sorry. Try again.” She clapped along with the audience, shrieked with the contestants’ triumphs and made sad sounds with each loss.This drew more irritated gurgles from the bison but only deepened the drama for me as I stood paralyzed watching her.
Finally, I crossed the lobby and placed my fingers on the battered copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I picked it up to look busy. Then I put it back. It amused me the way my heart fluttered in its cage. What have I become? Hiding in the shadow of books? I snuck a sidelong glance at the girl. She was wiggling her leg in youthful restlessness. A pool of heat flushed across my skin and I felt the bison looking at me. Then I felt terrible, at the crossroads of utter confusion. I fled to my apartment and locked the door.
The next morning, I came down to check the weather. Tonisha and a little boy named Kyle were at the table and chairs where the bison had sat the night before. Tonisha was explaining the rules of Dominos, all bright eyed and happy. Kyle swung his legs madly, then turned and smiled at me. That was the only invitation I needed to draw into their orbit. “Wanna play?” Tonisha asked. She wore the same clothes as the night before, a multi colored crop top and high waisted jean shorts.
“Thank you,” I said and took the third chair. Kyle was very small, like I said. Maybe he was eight. Everyone knew his mother was chemically dependant. They had lived in the Anderson longer than I did. Maybe Kyle was born here. His interests included soda pop and comic books. Both sides of his mouth were stained with Cherry Coke. My wife and I never allowed soda in the house. I pointed to the can. “Where’d you get that?”
“There.” Kyle pointed to a vending machine tucked in the corner. Well, I’d never seen that before. I bought a Cherry Coke for myself and a Mello Yello for Tonisha.
“Okay. We startin over,” she announced. She placed a double six down and helped Kyle make his first move. For all I could tell, she had a generous disposition and enjoyed other people. I ventured to ask about the night before.
“I saw you watching Wheel-of-Fortune last night. Tell me, how’d you get the remote control from those old men?”
She sighed and gave a secretive smile. “They scared of me. You should be too.”
“Scared,” Kyle echoed.
“Why should I be scared of you?” I asked, feeling my insides start to react unfavorably.
“Stick around and you’ll find out,” she said looking up from her dominoes with a devious glance.
“I will,” I said with sudden fervor. Then I laughed. Then she laughed, and Kyle kicked the table with delight.
“What school do you go to?” I asked.
“Who gives a shit?” She smirked. She had beautiful eyes, slightly turned up at the ends and that beautiful Haitian complexion. “What do you do?”
“I use to give lectures.”
“Literature. Do you like to read?”
“Hell no! I hate books.”
I couldn’t stop myself from glancing at the book shelf. I almost said something about the badly abused To Kill A Mockingbird but stopped myself. I reminded myself of my wife’s final words. Herbert, get yourself out of books. In the presence of this girl something uncoiled inside me. I wanted to be her friend.
I composed my face, I put all ten fingers on my dominoes and said in a low voice, “I’m gonna whup your ass.”
Kyle giggled again.
I wanted desperately to see the man. Get a good look at him, the step-father, the one Tish called Ass-Face. I had a hunch as to why she practically lived on the ground floor and never wanted to go home. Since dominoes, many months ago, I had grown quite attached to her and Kyle. They were my friends as much as an older man can be friends with two unrelated kids. Yet they were better than my friends, cause I had none. They were my surrogate children.
One night I heard a mouse at my door. I hadn’t gone to bed yet. When I opened the door Tish stood in the brightly lit hall, desperately clutching herself. “Can I come in?” she asked advancing forward, not waiting for an answer. I ushered her in, gave her the remote and busied myself making popcorn and hot chocolate. She settled herself on my loveseat. “Want to talk about something?” I asked from the little adjoining kitchenette.
“No. I just hate being there. Ass-Face is always bugging me, and bitch does nothing ‘bout it.” Tonisha’s voice reverberated through my apartment.
I leaned around the corner. This was the first time anyone had been in my apartment since my wife died. Tish turned to QVC but her eyes glanced around my room, taking in all my books. I felt exposed. My mind raced with a flood of emotions. What could I do? How could I help this girl? What was wrong with me?
“Tonisha. Should we call the authorities?”
“Naw. Idiot,” she muttered. “It’s you, I worry about.”
“Me?” I looked around my room. The book stacks were like little towers of Pisa everywhere, about to fall. I laughed, a nervous pathetic laugh. I waited, stirring our drinks. I wanted her to continue talking about me. I felt that she must have some insight into my own soul. So why wouldn’t she go on? Why would she only talk to the television?
Still, I wanted to see the step-father.
I consulted Kyle. Eight year old boys are ingenious at answering complex adult problems. We were walking to the comic book store. Once a month, I bought him a new one. I enjoyed the air and the company. “Have you noticed, we never see Tish’s parents?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Kyle said, his small brown eyes fixed straight ahead.
“I want to ferret them out, but not let them know it was me.” I paused, letting the last part sink in. “How would you do it?”
“You could always pull the fire alarm,” he offered.
“Brilliant,” I said. “But I need an accomplice.”
“Ok,” he said.
The next day, I worked up the nerve to pull the fire alarm in the lobby, but nothing happened. The damn thing needed repair. Kyle and I scurried back to our respective apartments breathless and undetected.
New Years was coming upon me and my friends. I had inquired once more into the health of her family life and Tish instructed me to stay the fuck out of her business, that she could take care of her fucking-self. Then she got depressed. “I wish I could go to New York for New Years Eve like they do on t.v. I wanna see the ball drop.”
Against my better judgment I gave Tonisha a new copy of To Kill A Mockingbird with the vehement hope that she’d read it and find some enjoyment. But this was pure wishfulness and her eyes turned down even as she tore open the wrapping paper. To Kyle I gave five new comics, ones he’d been eyeing for some time.
We sank into position in front of the communal television as the rain fell on the streets. A dank and stoic chill unfurled through the Anderson. No one could get warm, not even the rats in the walls. Tonisha, stone-faced, flipped through the channels while Kyle shifted around on the couch unconsciously chattering to himself as he read his new comics. I sat in the armchair stewing over my Mockingbird mistake. I felt responsible for her depression. See we were reaching the end of our friendship and I knew it. I was desperate to give something worthwhile, not let our time on the ground floor be a waste.
The next day, I struck upon my solution while getting my hair cut at the corner barber. Tonisha and Kyle were keeping me company. Kyle was slurping a soda while Tonisha flipped violently through a magazine. She stopped on a picture of the New York skyline and gave a heavy sigh. “I wanna go here,” she said, holding up the picture for me to see.
“These your kids?” the barber asked leaning over my receding hairline.
“Sure are,” I said. It had become our little joke.
“You’d better take this girl to the Big Apple.” The Barber winked at her.
“Maybe I will.” I watched Tonisha cautiously. She remained glum while Kyle popped upright.
“Yeah, let’s go. Right now!”
So this is the end of my little drama.
My heart was not feeling well at all. In fact I was daily, feeling a heavy pain and flutter that can only mean bad news to a man my age.
A couple hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve, I broke onto the roof of the Anderson Hotel and wrestled up there three folding chairs, a battery operated radio, snacks and a bottle of sparkling apple cider. My heart knocked painfully against my chest the whole while and my brow released a heavy sweat. When my friends joined me the night air was cold and dry but the sky had depth and startling clarity. I turned on the radio and bent over the edge. “Look, Time Square!” I gasped.
Tonisha looked at me sideways folding her arms against herself. Kyle looked over the edge and then started jumping.
“And look, that ball! It’s dazzling!” I said pointing at the full moon.
“The ball drop! The ball drop!” Kyle said, now taken over by the idea. Festive music squealed through the tiny speaker. We heard the roar of Time Square.
“Come on, Tonisha–” Kyle wailed. “It’s fun!”
She tilted her head and then slid reluctantly into the mood. “Look at all those people!” she exclaimed. We heckled people milling below and they looked up and shouted back, raising their drinks. The street simmered, and cracked and pushed towards explosion, tearing wide open, the facade of reality.
Oh, my little friends, I shall miss you. You are more than just a flash in an old man’s memory. Kyle you are a superhero. Tonisha, there will be better places for you, I sincerely do hope so. As for me, you were right, I was scared of you. I’m still scared as I sink down to join my wife, but I was also elated to have been friends with you and Kyle.