#333: X, "Wild Gift" (1981)

In retrospect, of course your tour was short. At the time you didn’t think anything of it, so mesmerized were you by a constellation of dust in sunlight seeping through translucent curtains.

You didn’t see much of the two back rooms. One tenant still slumbered at noon on the left, and a dirty litter of kittens avalanched from the room on the right as the owner shoved them back with a tasseled loafer.

These were obvious red flags. Yet you ignored them with an “It will be fine,” focusing on a copse of trees across the street, the cheap Asian market across the intersection. And the price, the lowest online.

Your wife had corresponded with the owner’s, who expressed a desire for a quiet, responsible tenant. You projected this terse email onto the place, transforming it into a haven from a town packed with youth away from home for the first time and all the dumb shit that rides shotgundumb shit the two of you had gotten out of the way almost twenty years prior.

The phone call from your wife, who went down a week early: this place is smaller than we thought.

Back room roof eaves, both sides, limiting headroom. The sleeping dude, the mewling kittens.

But it would be fine. You were there, doing it together.

The truck you booked was way too big and utterly terrifying to drive, no replacements available on a booked Labor Day weekend. You backed the mammoth over the lawn and destroyed the front staircase railing with the back bumper as a hurricane loomed in the distance. Sheets of hard rain pelted windows overnight.

The symbolism, you thought, was perfect: the storm clouds lifting just in time for triumphant arrival.

Post-move and pizza and beer with your friends, the first full day dawned, and with it the realization why the place was so cheap.

Some of it, anyway.

Your downstairs neighbor worked maintenance for your landlord’s properties. You learned the names of his two yippy dogs within minutes because through your thin floor every bark, every whine was audible.

So were the bellows of the maintenance man’s wife. You’d met her in passing the day you signed your lease, and, later, saw her working the convenience store adjacent to your shared place. The maintenance man, you learned, was partially deaf, requiring every communication between them to be in all caps.

It wasn’t the kittens or sleeping tenant that abbreviated your tour.

A curtain of paranoid silence descended after you told your wife the pizza was almost ready. You heard the neighbor first tell her husband that the neighbors were having pizza, then remark that they should, too. The whole thing gave you the creeps.

Her son visited on weekends, parking his tricked-out hot rod behind their shared beater. You had a hard time believing your wife when she’d stand silently next to one of the nigh-useless heating vents and point, face a rictus. But before you dated, she’d briefly lived in an apartment where spoons disappeared. She would know.

Temperatures below fifty turned the apartment into an icebox, you discovered in mid-October. Your oil heat offered brief comfort before goingwhere? You tried to trace the lack to a leak before the realization that the apartment was virtually uninsulated. Your dad arrived some weeks later with thick sheets of rigid foamcore and a power saw. You propped these sheets against the eaved bedroom’s flat walls, tacked thrift store blankets where you could. After dark, you’d push foamcore into the windows. These comforts were more psychological than physical, and heavily backloaded: you’d pry insulation from the mansards each morning, greeted by the same sun that had so captivated you initially, and think that you’d made it through another day.

You got used to it.

In the spring, you heard the neighbors bellowing about cleaning products, boxes. You texted your wife immediately: they’re moving.

A few glorious weeks of silence and beautiful weather later, you met the next roommate, a mild-mannered college kid, sweet and quiet. Your life was no longer a chorus of yips and hollered queries about pizza toppings.

And the smell went away.

Another hurricane loomed, this one with your adopted home in its sights. You worried that so much as a glancing blow from a tree branch would crumple the whole building and made arrangements to stay with friends. As you readied to leave, you met one of your two new neighbors, a kid being moved in by parents in a BMW. Seemed nice enough.

Your apartment didn’t so much as lose power through the storm. You returned to find the new neighbors installed.

At least the prior tenants had a schedule: they’d watch cop shows on TV for a few hours before bedding down by nine, both leaving the house before you woke.

The new neighbors were not entirely unlike the maintenance man and his wife: they, too, spoke in bellows, but for no reason. And at all hours. You’d be falling asleep before your ninety-minute-each-way commute only to be woken by shouts about pizza rolls being ready. Some nights this would happen at eleven, others three-thirty.

You realized the assertion the landlord and his wife madethat they were looking for quiet, responsible tenantswas complete bullshit. You should have realized this much earlier.

But it was far easier not to.

You went downstairs and asked them to keep it down. We can hear everything, you said.

Okay, the kid replied, eyes bloodshot.

The next weekend, they invited thirty friends over.

Look, you said on your shared porch, we just want to know when this is going to end. So we can sleep. We can hear every word. There’s no way to escape the noise.

If you don’t like it, the kid replied, you should move.

You went back upstairs, where your wife wore earplugs in an attempt to blot out the noise. You couldn’t help but think: our whole fucking life is a wreck.

                     For Kat

—Michael T. Fournier