Humor Fiction posted July 31, 2011


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Life and laughs in a 70s tentement

The Tenants

by JeffreyStone

She cracked open the door just enough to cast one bespectacled eye on me as I hurried up the marble steps into the vestibule.  I suspected she had lain in wait, knowing that I got off my after-school job at seven.
 
Turning on the furnace for our landlady in the cool of the fall Friday evenings had become a weekly ritual. On Saturday mornings I would knock on Mrs. Bjork’s door so she could allow me to turn off the furnace for the day. Her Jewish orthodoxy forbade her to light or extinguish fires between sunsets on Friday and Saturday in observance of her Sabbath. Before leaving, I would dial the phone so she could talk with her son, Joseph. I would listen to one-side of a conversation in Yiddish and broken English. Mrs. Bjork would spit and sputter for four to five minutes before handing me the phone to replace in its cradle.
 
 “Marvin.” She opened the door all the way and crooked her finger in my direction. “Come here, boy.”
 
I glanced at the diminutive old woman as I stepped through her doorway. A washed-out patterned dress hung about her fragile body, the hem striking her mid calves. Pale beige nylons rippled like slow running water, the wavelets gathering at her ankles. Her graying hair was pulled into a bun at the back of her head with loose strands over her ears.  The years had not been good to her. “Can I help you, Mrs. Bjork?”
 
She motioned again with her finger, and I followed to the basement door. She opened it and pointed to the switch on the wall above the stairs.  “Turn on the furnace for me.”  Spittle formed in small white deposits at the corners of her mouth. The tip of her tongue protruded with each syllable as if she required some great effort to speak. Although I never asked, her broken English told me she was from Hungary or Poland, or maybe Russia.
 
She closed the basement door then walked back down the hallway, her body shifting on bowed legs, rising and falling like a penguin on ice. She held open the door. “Thank you, Marvin  . . . you’re a good boy.”
 
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Bjork. I’m glad to help you.” I started up the stairs to my family’s apartment on the third floor.
 
“Marvin.”
 
“Yes, ma’am?” I stopped and turned to look down at her.
 
Waving a finger at me, she shook her head in benevolent disapproval. “You mustn’t kiss your girlfriend on the front stoop any more. People will talk.”
 
“Yes, ma’am.”
 
“You’re a good boy, Marvin.” 
 
“Thank you, Mrs. Bjork. ”I smiled, knowing her compliment was intended to soften her chastisement.
 
Her door closed as I continued up the stairs.  
 
                                                                                           * * *
 
Muffled sobs penetrated Maggie Miller’s door. I hurried past on tiptoes, attempting to conceal my proximity at the moment of her distress. Hearing the fortyish Miss Maggie cry was usual fare most evenings since Mr. Tom Hatfield, a salesman at Johnny’s Used Car Lot, stopped calling on her. For more than a year at 9 pm, the dapper Mr. Hatfield climbed the stairs to the second floor. But his hour-long visits ceased altogether right after Labor Day.  That was when the effervescent laughter emanating from Apartment 202 ended. Now Miss Maggie’s frequent weeping could be heard most evenings by anyone pausing near her door.
 
I slid my hand along the banister rail, hoping she had not heard my footsteps on the stairs. As I stepped onto the landing leading to the third floor, a sliver of light from Maggie’s living room burst into the hallway. I stopped and stood quietly waiting for her to appear at the door. 
 
“That you, Marvin?” she asked without showing her face.
 
“Yes, Miss Maggie. You need something?”
 
She opened the door wider and wiped at a tear with the tips of her fingers. “You have a minute to talk?”
 
“Sure. I suppose I have a few minutes. I have to meet Rebecca at eight.” I walked back toward Miss Maggie and followed her into the apartment.
 
“She’s a lucky girl.” Maggie motioned for me to take a chair. She sat on the end of the sofa nearest me.
 
I laughed. “I don’t know about that. I think I’m the lucky one.”
 
We sat looking at each other for several minutes. She sipped on a glass of wine while I shifted nervously in my chair. I cleared my throat. “What would you like to talk about, Miss Maggie?”
 
“I don’t know, Marvin.  Just . . . I’m so lonely . . . I need a kind face to look at for a moment or two.”
 
“I’m glad to talk with you, Miss Maggie. You should know that.”

“Sure, Marvin.” She moved to the arm of my chair, still holding the wine glass. “Want a sip?” She tilted the glass toward my lips.
 
“Better not. I might get you into trouble. I’m only seventeen.”
 
“One sip can’t hurt a big boy like you.” She forced a laugh as she ruffled my hair with her free hand.
 
“All right then. One sip and I gotta go.” I put the glass to my lips and tasted the wine as I got up from the chair.
 
She took my hand. “Don’t go, please. I can’t be alone tonight.”
 
“What about Mr. Hatfield? Why doesn’t he come to see you anymore?”
 
She scowled. “Please don’t mention his name to me.”
 
“Why? What did he do?”

She began to cry, concealing her eyes with her hand. “He’s married.” She wiped away the tears.
 
She was a pretty woman, slim with warm hazel eyes, probably close to my mother’s age. I wanted to comfort her without overstepping boundaries, but I had no idea what to say. After a moment of awkward silence, I said, “I have to go now.”
 
She clasped my hand. I thought she would cry again.  “You really have to go?”
 
“Yes, but tell you what, I will check on you later tonight after I take Rebecca home.”
 
That brought a smile to her face. “Promise?” She held my hand tightly, her palm moist and warm.  
 
“I promise.”
 
Maggie stood with her back to the door, preventing me from opening it. She closed her eyes slowly then asked  seductively, “Pinky promise?”
 
“Yes, I will see you a little after eleven tonight. I promise.”
 
She stood on her toes as she pressed herself against me. She kissed me desperately, her passionate lips pursuing mine as I attempted to back away. “Please,” she pleaded, “don’t let me be alone tonight. I’m afraid of what I might do.”
 
“I won’t, Miss Maggie. I promise.”
 
                                                                                        * * *
 
“That you, Marvin?” Winton Simpson grabbed my ankle when I attempted to step over his prone body. He lay face up in the second floor hallway, apparently unable to stand. Mable, his wife of twenty years, had been considerate enough to toss a pillow out her door, not quite within Winton’s reach. Instead, his head rested on an empty Rebel Yell bottle.
 
It was almost midnight, and I was hoping to sneak by Miss Maggie’s door without being detected. But with the uproar the Simpsons had just created, the success of that endeavor was doubtful. I kept my voice barely above a whisper, at the same time, trying not to laugh out loud. “Yes, Mr. Simpson, it’s Marvin.  Don’t you recognize me?”
 
He almost opened his eyes. “Tell you what, Marvin, I can’t see a damn thing; can’t feel anything either.” Only my previous experience in conversing with an inebriated Mr. Simpson enabled me to comprehend his slurred speech.
 
The door to apartment 201 opened, and an ample portion of Mable Simpson stood, defiantly over the threshold. She might have been inclined to reveal more of her imposing figure, but the doorway was only forty-two inches wide. Regardless, I saw enough to convince me to remain aloof from the Simpsons’ domestic dispute. She offered an unmistakable warning that my better interest dictated no assistance or solace to the hapless drunk on the hallway floor. “Leave that worthless bum right where he is. Comes home again, no pay; spent it all on horses and booze. You leave him right where he is.”  
 
“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Simpson. I’m just passing through, going upstairs.” 
 
A demure smile momentarily found its way to her lips. I stood motionless, my back against the banister. Her smile quickly faded, and her face resorted to its natural scowl. I saw that she had removed her false teeth for the night. At that moment, I realized why the man on the floor was drunk.
 
“I hope someone steps on him during the night.” She backed into her apartment and slammed the door. The deadbolt clicked shut. Mr. Simpson was doomed to another night as a homeless drunk. It was not his first, and almost certainly, would not be his last.
 
Winton mumbled something unintelligible. I bent close to hear. “What was that, Mr. Simpson?”
 
Skippa My Lou in the sixth.”
 
His stale whiskey breath made me stand erect. “I don’t know what you mean.”
 
“The goddamn horse came in last. Led to the quarter pole then walked the rest of the way to the finish line. Thirty to one, the sonofabitch.”
 
“You bet on him?”
 
“Not him, Marvin. She is a filly. Don’t ever bet on a goddamn filly.”

He made an effort to sit, but his head slid onto the floor with a loud kerflump. The bottle scooted across the floor and bounced down the stairs. I chased after it, catching up at the bottom landing. All hope of avoiding Miss Maggie ended with the clamor on the stairs. When I reached the top, she was standing in the doorway, her svelte figure silhouetted in the dim light from behind her.
 
“It’s after eleven, Marvin.  When’re you coming to see me?”
 
“I’m sorry, Miss Maggie.” I set the Rebel Yell bottle down next to Winton Simpson’s head. He didn’t move. “He needed help.”
 
“He seems to be all right, now; sleeping peacefully.”
 
“He’s passed out.”
 
“Let him sleep it off.” She tugged on my hand, urging me to come into her apartment. When she leaned with her breasts touching my chest, I knew my good intentions had all been in vain. I put my arm about her trim waist and pulled her tightly against me.  We stood in the doorway, locked in each other’s arms. She turned her pleading face upward, and I kissed her. She sighed contentedly. 
 
Mr. Simpson suddenly sat up. ‘What the hell is going on?”
 
Maggie pulled me into the apartment and closed the door just as my mother called from the third floor. “Marvin, you down there?”
 
Maggie stood against the door and put her finger to her lips. “Shh.”
 
Mother called again. “Is that you, Marvin?”
 
I held Maggie aside and opened the door. “Yes, Mother. I’m just helping Mr. Simpson. I’ll be right up.”
 
Maggie tenderly touched my face. “Guess you better go home, young man. Your mother’s calling. I was about to make an awful fool of myself anyway.”
 
We stepped into the hallway. Mable’s abandoned husband was on hands and knees crawling toward us. The obvious solution to the problems of two unfortunate people popped into my head. “Mr. Simpson needs a place to sleep. Can you put him up tonight, Miss Maggie?”
 
“Why not,” she said. “Any port in a storm, I’ve always heard.”

That night, my mind ran rampant with visions of the sexually deprived woman downstairs. A little imp at the foot of my bed kept right on telling me, you are an idiot, Marvin Kaspersky.  Finally, my thoughts turned to Rebecca, and I thanked God for my mother’s midnight curfew. I fell asleep hoping Winton Simpson would get the hell out of Maggie’s apartment before Mable awoke next morning. But, at least, Miss Maggie Miller would not be alone this Friday night.   
 
                                                                                                * * *
 
I left for work early next morning after turning off the furnace for Mrs. Bjork. As I stocked supermarket shelves that day, the budding romantic triangle, which I facilitated to some small degree, was coming apart at the corners. Mr. Simpson did not awake earlier than his lovely wife. In fact, as she prowled the stairways next morning, she heard Winton’s unmistakable snoring coming from Miss Maggie’s apartment. When Mable’s modest knocks were ignored, she became enraged and put a hefty shoulder against the hollow-core wood panel, splintering the door.
 
I arrived home moments after Mrs. Bjork’s son pulled his Cadillac Seville to the curb at 1600 Eutaw Place. Joseph was a short balding man of about fifty. He was the problem solver for his mother, visiting the apartment building only on rare occasions. The demolition derby on the second floor did not happen every day, and thus, qualified as rare. Joseph was there to investigate, assess damage, and assign   blame and financial responsibility.
 
I attempted to scoot by the congregation in the second floor hallway as if they all were strangers. However as I crouched to be less obtrusive, Mable Simpson quickly identified me as the instigator of the salacious affair. Thankfully, she had rescued Winton from a wanton woman. She held him close, her chubby arms protecting him as if he were precious china.  She pointed her finger at the nose of her accommodating neighbor and uttered the word, harlot. Believing the term to be a little harsh, I suggested the more euphonic, seductress, with which all parties to the dispute concurred, with the possible exception of Mable.   
 
Through the entire inquisition and finger-pointing episode, Miss Maggie remained above the fray. She endured Mrs. Simpson’s accusations with grace, occasionally placing a reassuring hand on the arm of Joseph Bjork. With each touch of her hand, Joseph moved closer to Miss Maggie until it was obvious where he stood on the matter. Maggie invited him into her apartment where she could explain the situation in a calmer environment. Since the damaged door provided little privacy, it was necessary for Joseph’s investigation to convene in Maggie’s bedroom. Needless to say, she was eventually held harmless (if not innocent) in the whole affair.
 
But it was also good news for the Simpsons. Although Mable was obviously responsible for destruction of private property, Mr. Bjork—out of the kindness of his heart—declared he would pay for all the damage.
 
Now there is a solid oak door on Maggie Miller’s apartment. The new lock came with two keys.
 



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