Apartment House Blues

This story originally saw print in Transfer #75, Spring 1998

By David Accampo

Leroy leaning on the black iron gate, Leroy owes me forty dollars. He’s thin as a lamppost, bent over, brown skin faded. Shit, I mean look at me. I’m black, white, everything, all mixed up, he tells me, thin arms outstretched, scant black hair curling up his forearms. Why did Leroy tell me that? When he asked me for ten dollars yesterday. Didn’t have any milk. No milk for the kids. His breath was sharp and hot, the metal tang of malt liquor. Hey, can I come in for a minute? I want to ask you something. I’ll pay you back as soon as I get my check. Disability check only comes once a month. Leroy scratches the brown weave of his hair under his baseball cap. Once a month marijuana smoke drifts across the cement courtyard. Leroy’s blue eyes waver when he talks about his newborn baby in the hospital, Her…her heart can’t beat on its own, they got her hooked all up with tubes and wires and shit. But I asked the doctor, you know, ‘cause me and Debra smoke a little pot on occasion, but that’s okay, the doctor was saying that it ain’t ‘cause of that. Can I use your phone to call the hospital? We don’t got a phone right now.

In the courtyard, Pablo paints the door to the apartment next to mine. Bright blue. The police busted it open when they arrested the last tenants, a swarm of black-and-yellow jackets buzzing through. I heard the shouts through the paper-thin walls, heard the stomping boots, heard the door frame splinter. I turned the volume on the television down and listened to the voices, sometimes loud and raw, sometimes low and firm. Pablo’s shiny skin is striped in blue. You let Leroy into your place. I wouldn’t do that, man. He and Debra got a problem with the crack, if you know what I mean. Pablo likes me because I pay my rent, even though its always late. A fading shaft of daylight plunges down the center of the courtyard, down past the iron railing of the second floor, illuminating gray concrete, an overturned tricycle. I think he’s checking your place out, I think he’s casing it. Robert, in #16, got robbed when he was out of town. I think it might have been Leroy. I mean, I heard about the baby, but I never seen it. I didn’t even know she was pregnant, did you? The Washing Woman carries a wicker basket across the court. I’ve never learned her name, but she is always doing laundry, jeans and shirts and socks draped across the railing, drying in the column of sun. The chubby white girl in a plain yellow dress smacks a soccer ball against the mud-streaked walls until her mother cracks open her door. Get in here! Now, you little shit! If you don’t get in here right now, you’re going to be SO fucking dead! The gate creaks on its hinges as Milo walks in, home from work, his coveralls smeared with paint and primer and plaster and dirt. He hums a tune, jingles his keys, and opens his mailbox. Pablo says, Hey, and Milo tips his hat to us and climbs slowly up the stairs.

Pablo shakes his head, telling me the trouble with Leroy. Leroy hasn’t paid the rent. He keeps calling the Health Department about the mildew on the walls, so Pablo can’t evict him. Leroy sold the furniture, the children’s toys. I was in there, man. It’s empty. Pablo shakes his head, and I nod mine; he stops talking, but I don’t start. I don’t know what to say. Leroy’s two younger children, Pookie and Nonnie, sit on the stoop or dig in the dirt by the gate. They are pale, faded like Leroy. They cling tightly to the poles and railings and stare at me, at people walking by. They do not speak. Arthur speaks. Arthur, with the king’s name; Arthur the shining boy. Dark-skinned like his mother, luminous eyes that light amber in the sun. He stands always in the spearhead of sunlight, his wide smile bright, like a sickle-shaped Excalibur. Arthur plays my video games, Oh man, that’s tight. The X-men’s cool. They’s all that. Pablo wipes his forehead with his arm, smearing the paint. He tells me, Be careful. Oh yeah, he adds, I’m going to fix that knob in your shower real soon. I tell him not to hurry, I’ve gotten used to using pliers.

The light fades from the center of the building. Washing Woman nods as she carries her laundry past me, calling over her shoulder in a hoarse flutter of Spanish. Her son, Bebop, the special boy with the hooded eyes and loose, thick-lipped smile, walks behind her and waves at me with one jangling wrist. He likes to do the girls’ hair, his sister’s, Nonnie’s, the chubby white girl’s, tamed into braids and pony tails and fastened with plastic beads and clips. Milo pulls his kitchen chair out onto the second floor landing. He sits his heavy body down and rests his guitar across his lap. He pushes his thick glasses up on his nose and smiles to me. He begins the strum his fingers across the guitar, playing the blues and tapping his foot. He plays every week at Blake’s, but I’ve never gone to see him.

Arthur slips out from across the court, out from blue door #9. He grins at me as he passes, catching the last of the daylight, then runs out the gate, clanging it behind him. The door opens again, Leroy slides out, watching his feet as he shuffles toward my door. Hey, can I come in for a minute? Leroy in the living room, staring at the ceiling, rubbing his lips with the palm of his hand. The baby died. I tell him I’m sorry, that I’m sorry, really, that’s just terrible, and then I pause, and add, is there anything I can do? I got to get Arthur some dinner. You know, macaroni and cheese or something. I don’t know. I can’t even think. I just need a drink. A little something to drink. He drops his long arms straight down his sides, his blue eyes meet mine and don’t look away. Leroy, who owes me forty dollars, but how can I say no?

Above me, Milo’s fingers glide. He’s really feeling those blues tonight; he’s tapping his foot and swinging his head side-to-side, side-to-side. His lips are silent, he isn’t singing, but that’s okay, I already know the words.

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