Green Hills Literary Lantern

The Tenants

 

 

            She thought the walls themselves were vibrating with the noise as if they were the stretched head of a drum. Sleep was impossible. The party had spilled over into her living room and the laughter, the voices, the hammering music, seemed to be in her very bedroom, a kind of madness that threatened to overwhelm her. When Mrs. Bridge had interviewed the young couple, they had never spoken of parties and not even remotely of this kind of lunacy. They had simply rented the downstairs apartment. Now they had disrupted her life, threatened to destroy it. She would have to act, and this thought caused the arthritis in her hip and knee to worsen. She huddled in her bed, tried to hide from the noise, push away the fear that lapped at her. She had to do something. It was, after all, her house, and had been for over fifty years. To open her door, go in there now and complain, seemed to Mrs. Bridge equivalent to entering hell and she could not even consider it. Besides, what insanity lay on the other side of the door?

            It had happened slowly, innocently enough. When Mrs. Bridge’s husband died, two days shy of their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary, her daughter, who lived in New York, urged her to sell the house and move to a condo. But she looked about the house, at all the familiar things, thought of entering new surroundings, and could not consider the thought for long. Then in the background lay another thought, larger, overwhelming: making decisions on which furniture to keep and which to give away, then the moving itself . . . . She was comfortable here, comfortable with the local supermarket, comfortable with her neighbors, with Santa Monica, though the homeless that roamed the streets, pushing grocery carts, frightened her and she hurried past, head down. She liked the nearby beach where, on cool days, she strolled the pedestrian pathway, watched the surfers, thought of them not as humans but, in their wet suits, as alien black fish. It was here in Santa Monica, under the benevolent southern California sun, where she had lived her life, taught elementary and middle school, and where she would die.

            But Mrs. Bridge missed her husband, at times desperately, his reassuring presence, his ability to repair all broken things. She still wore his marriage ring. She dusted the precious and fragile first edition books he had collected—Newton’s Principia, Darwin’s Origin of Species, a medieval bible—and that stood like so many vulnerable dependents on the bookshelf in her living room. When Mrs. Bridge returned from shopping, she found comfort in the odor of old books that greeted her. She often felt loneliness as an ache inside her. She remembered their happy times together; their quarrels faded as if they had never existed. They had once traveled to Europe, to Italy—where her husband had bought an early edition of Dante’s Divina Commedia—and visited Verona. They attended a performance of Tosca at the outdoor arena. Each member of the audience was given a candle and before the start of the performance all lights were extinguished and everyone lit his candle. The image of the flames of thousands of candles burning in the dark, illuminating the faces with a flickering yellow light, had stayed with her. She remembered nothing of the opera except that it was interminable and the seat was very hard. On that trip, which she recalled as the high summer of her life, they bought a vase, elliptical in shape and of delicate crystal, shading from light blue at the mouth to a piercing cobalt at the base. The vase now stood on the mantelpiece in her living room, the physical embodiment of a happy time. Sometimes, sitting in her rust-colored chair, she gazed at it, in moments when she wished to relax, to think, and the light, concentrated in the blue glass, helped her concentrate her own thoughts. The oriental scatter rug in the living room was something her husband had fallen in love with and had to have despite the cost. She didn’t much care for it, but since her husband’s death it had become precious to her.

            And so, though she was not at all strapped for cash, she decided to rent the bottom floor of the house. Her husband had used it as a study and her daughter had lived there for several months after her divorce. Besides a bedroom, there was a complete bath and a living room, all furnished, and a kitchenette with a full set of dishes, silverware, and pots and pans. The downstairs living room, through a set of sliding doors, gave out to a garden where her late husband liked to putter and where Mrs. Bridge now tended the flower beds and cut the ivy.

            Mrs. Bridge put an ad in the Santa Monica Mirror. The couple that answered were young, reasonably well-groomed. His name was Karl Scadlock and said he worked at an advertising agency in West L.A. His wife Pat was a magazine editor. Mrs. Bridge found something touching about the woman, the mystery of a different life, the flavor of a different freedom. The man troubled her: she thought his forehead too low, his eyes under a ledge of skull too deep, neck too thick. When he looked at her he narrowed his eyes as if he were measuring something. The couple had recently married and were saving to buy a house. They looked around approvingly, were pleased that the apartment was furnished since they had no furniture of their own and would only buy when they had purchased a house. Mrs. Bridge asked for the first month’s rent in advance.

            “You mean you didn’t ask for a security deposit or sign a lease?” her daughter asked.

            Flustered, Mrs. Bridge answered, “It didn’t seem necessary.”

            The couple brought a television set with them. The first problem arose when they played the television until late and the noise bothered her. The upper floor where Mrs. Bridge lived led to the downstairs apartment via a stairwell. There was no separating door, so the noise generated by the couple rose unimpeded to the upper floor. Mrs. Bridge said nothing. When she had rented the apartment, she had hoped for a bit of company but she saw little of the couple. They had their own downstairs entrance and paid no attention to her. They must eat out often, she thought, for rarely was there the odor of cooking. Their jobs must be tolerant as well for they both slept late.

            Then they both smoked and the odor of smoke rose to her apartment, a smell that impregnated the furniture, even her clothing. Sometimes the smoke had an odd odor, a pungent sweet-and-sour smell that she did not believe came from ordinary cigarettes. Then one evening Mrs. Bridge heard laughter and voices coming from downstairs and to her surprise saw that the couple had rigged a floodlamp to illuminate the garden. Young men and women were wandering in and out, drinking, smoking, playing music heavy with drumbeats, loud enough to where it would disturb the neighbors. Someone had brought a barbecue and the odor of cooking meat rose from the garden to Mrs. Bridge’s rooms. In the morning, her heart fell when she noticed that her ivy and flowerbeds had been trampled.

            “Emma, this is Rosalyn,” the person on the phone said. Mrs. Bridge, foggy from lack of sleep, said, “Who?” “Rosalyn Baker, your neighbor.” “Of course,” Mrs. Bridge said. “How are you?”

            “I’m fine,” Rosalyn said. “The question is how are you? That was an awfully noisy party last night. I was going to call but figured you were asleep despite the noise. . . . Could you ask your tenants to keep it down to a dull roar? Ralph and I couldn’t believe the racket they were making.”

            Mrs. Bridge caught the couple before they went out that morning. “Your party last night just about ruined my garden,” she blurted out, though it was not the reasoned approach that had kept her up much of the night trying to formulate. “And you were loud. My neighbors called saying you were disturbing them.”

            “We’re sorry,” Pat Scadlock, the young woman said, and made a gesture of concern.

            “We’re not monks, you know,” Karl Scadlock said. “When we rented the place, nothing was said about not having friends over. And it was never said that we couldn’t use the rest of the premises. We’ll pay for restoring your flowers, if that’s what you want.”

            Mrs. Bridge found the man too close, masculinity radiating from him like a dangerous light. She retreated, searched for a proper reply. “Look, we’re late for an appointment,” Scadlock said. “We’ll talk about this another time.”

            Mrs. Bridge called her daughter. “Did you check their references?” the daughter asked.

            “I never thought of it,” she answered lamely.

            “And you don’t have a lease. . . . God, Mom, you’re naïve. Well, you’d better have a heart-to-heart talk with them about what they can and can’t do.”

            “Yes, of course,” Mrs. Bridge said, unsure whether she could bring herself to do that.

            “I’d come out to help,” the daughter said, “but I can’t right now, and not for a couple of months.”

            “No need for that,” Mrs. Bridge said. She felt dazed, unfixed in the world. When she tried to think, a shadow moved across her, darkening her mind.

 

            At the next party, Mrs. Bridge heard voices, loud and angry, right outside her door, in her living room. This was more than she could bear. She rose from bed, put on a robe, opened the door a crack. A half-naked woman was sprawled on the couch, a man stood over her; they were shouting at each other, one obscenity after another. Then the man grabbed the woman, tried to embrace her; she shoved him away, went off, apparently to the bathroom. When she returned, she sat close to him, their quarrel seemingly forgotten. They began to make love. Mrs. Bridge closed her door, locked it. Later, she heard then using her kitchen.

            The party went on interminably, again spilled into her garden, her living room, her kitchen. Someone tried the door to her bedroom. Finally, it all subsided, but Mrs. Bridge did not sleep. She would tell the couple that this is not at all what she had bargained for. They had rented the downstairs apartment, not the whole house. Her daughter was right: she would have to set rules or ask them to leave. Would she have the courage to do this? She thought of writing a note, then decided that speech was more direct.

            The phone rang. It was Rosalyn Baker. “That party was louder than the last one,” she said. “How is this going to end, Emma?”

            “I plan to speak to these people this morning,” Mrs. Bridge replied.

            Mrs. Bridge inspected her living room: the oriental scatter rug was stained, probably with spilled wine. Her eye searched out the blue vase: it sat on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, beautiful and pristine. The bookcase with her husband’s precious first editions was untouched. The kitchen was a mess, empty wine bottles and beer cans scattered over the table and on the sink. That day, a Sunday, there was no movement downstairs until the early afternoon. Her hands cold, she called down to them. “Yes, what do you want?” the man called back.

            “I’d like to talk to you.”

            “About what?” He came up the stairwell, barefoot, wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans, a cigarette in his mouth. His body looming before her, his eyes bloodshot, she became aware of the beating of her heart.

            “I’d like you to leave,” Mrs. Bridge blurted out, all thought of setting rules forgotten. “This is not working.”

            The young woman appeared, wrapped in an aqua-colored terry cloth robe. “Did the party last night bother you?” she asked.

            “You overran the house. Look at the stain on my rug. Go look at the

kitchen. . . .”

            “I’m terribly sorry we disturbed you,” Pat Scadlock said. “We’ll clean up the kitchen. . . . Maybe the party did get a little out of hand.”

            “Look here,” Scadlock said impatiently, “maybe the party was a little rowdy. We’ll try to control that. But as I told you before, when we rented the place nothing was said about our not having access to all of the premises. So you have no reason to complain.”

            The woman pulled at him. “Let’s go clean up Mrs. Bridge’s kitchen.”

            And they did clean up the kitchen. The young woman appeared later with a bowl of soapy water and a brush and scrubbed out the stain in the rug, leaving a shadow where the stain had been. And that’s where the matter ended.

 

            But the problems continued: the television late into the night, the occasional pungent sweet-and-sour smoke. One morning, when the couple had left, Mrs. Bridge went downstairs. The sink was piled with dishes, bed unmade, laundry scattered about. The bathroom mirror was cracked; Mrs. Bridge could not imagine how this had happened. She recalled her daughter’s comment that she should have asked for a security deposit and sighed. Intuition told her that matters would get worse. She had to go shopping but instead lay down in bed, overcome by torpor and a feeling of helplessness. Fatigue spread through her body like a stain. When she finally went out, the sky appeared narrow, alien, and compressed. The house itself took on an odor of fatigue and dejection; she had a premonition of calamity.

            Then one night, improbably a Sunday, another party, this one, if anything, louder than the first. The walls themselves seemed to be vibrating with the noise as if they were the stretched head of a drum. If the couple were exerting greater control, this was not apparent. The party again spilled into her garden and into her living room, the noise, the laughter right outside her bedroom door. She locked her door; the arthritis in her hip and knee nagged at her. Then the voices became loud, angry. She heard the sound of objects being thrown. She lay huddled in her bed, afraid to look in her living room, afraid of the insanity that lay on the other side of the door, tried to overcome the fear that destroyed all thought. She considered calling the police but was unsure what she would say to them. What exactly was her complaint? Then the anger turned to raucous laughter, the music hammering, louder yet, incomprehensible. Someone slammed into her bedroom door causing her to flinch, her heartbeat as frantic as a trapped bird. Then her phone rang. “Emma?” the voice said. “This is Ralph Baker . . . your neighbor.” Mrs. Bridge made acknowledging noises; then Baker said, “You’ve got to stop those people from making that racket. It’s well past midnight and I have to go to work in the morning. . . .  Do you want me to come over and talk to them? Or do you want me to call the police?”

            “What would you tell them?”

            “This is a residential neighborhood. Those people are disturbing the peace.”

            “I’ll do something, Ralph,” Mrs. Bridge said. She called her daughter.

            “What? What are you saying?” her daughter said, clearly disoriented. “Do you know what time it is? I was fast asleep. What’s the emergency?” When finally Mrs. Bridge managed to put together a coherent story, the daughter said, “Tell them to leave. Go out there and tell them to leave or you’ll call the police. . . .  Listen, Mom, I’ve got a busy day ahead of me and I need to sleep. Just tell them to leave.”

            The noise, the music, continued until dawn as Mrs. Bridge huddled in bed waiting for the madness to subside. In the quiet of the early morning, Mrs. Bridge opened the door. The living room furniture had been moved to create an open space where people had probably danced. Now, bodies lay strewn on the rug, the couch, the floor, like victims of a drive-by shooting. Then she saw the books, her husband’s first editions, spines cracked, scattered on the floor like roadkill. Her eye was caught by a blue sparkle near the fireplace: shards of blue crystal lay shattered on the hardwood floor, reflecting the early morning light. Something exploded in Mrs. Bridge’s head. Something fierce and desperate took possession of her; all thought ceased. In a crazed burst of energy, she ran to the kitchen, paid no attention to the puke on the floor, the mess of bottles, cans, broken dishes, grabbed a broom from the closet, ran back to the living room, and began to prod the bodies with the broom handle. “Get out!” she cried. “Get out! You’re in my house! Out!”

            One man opened an eye. “Why it’s the wicked witch of the west,” he said, then added, “Fuck off!” and rolled over. Mrs. Bridge slammed the broom into him. She ran around, slamming the broom into the other bodies. The bodies stirred. “Hey, knock it off!” a man yelled. “She’s nuts!” a woman cried.

            Karl Scadlock came running up the stairs, paused an instant, then grabbed the broom from Mrs. Bridge. She stood in front of the rust-colored chair; he stood over her, naked except for jockey shorts. Despite his nakedness and size Mrs. Bridge did not retreat. “Are you insane?” he yelled at her.

            But, the fury still upon her, Mrs. Bridge yelled back, “Look what you’ve done! Destroyed my house, my precious things. Out! I want you out! Out, or I’ll call the police.”

            The man’s face distorted so it was barely recognizable. He shoved Mrs. Bridge and she fell back into the rust-colored chair. “You’ll do no such fucking thing!” he shouted. “We pay rent. This place is as much ours as it is yours. And these are my friends you’re disturbing.” He came close, his nakedness upon her. She could feel the heat of his body, smell the odor of him. His eyes burning into her, she felt herself in another world, lawless and barbaric. “Now you settle down,” he said, voice slower now and deliberate. “Or I’ll call the police. I’ll have you locked up for assault and battery.” He came closer still. The bodies in the room were sitting up, accusatory, hostile. “Or better yet,” he said, inches from her face, the words fired at her like bullets, “I’ll have you put in a nuthouse because you’re crazy. . . . You are crazy. A crazy old lady. That’s what you are.”

 

            Mrs. Bridge wanted to call her daughter, decided against it. That day, everyone gone, she went downstairs, paid no attention to the mess. She would die before she let these people dismantle her life. Grimly, she took the hose from the garden and flooded the bedroom floor and the bed. She took a scissors and cut the power cord to the television set. She found a potato and stuffed it into the toilet so it would overflow. She felt that she was coming to terms with something, not sure what.

            Mrs. Bridge called Rosalyn Baker. “I have to get rid of these people,” she said without preamble. “The whole thing has been a terrible failure. Can you give me the name of a good lawyer?” As soon as she hung up, Mrs. Bridge called the attorney. After she explained, he asked if she had cleaned up the mess. When she said no, he advised her to go to the drugstore, buy a couple of disposable cameras, and take pictures of the damage. They made an appointment for the afternoon of the following day, his first opening. She photographed the smashed vase, the scattered and broken books, the vomit on her kitchen floor, the bottles and cans scattered everywhere, the broken dishes, the trampled flower beds and ivy. Now in action, she felt better than she had in months. That evening, the mess still untouched, Mrs. Bridge waited for the couple to return. When she heard their car in the driveway, she turned her radio up to full volume, sat in the rust-colored chair, and waited.

            Karl Scadlock came bounding up the stairs. Dressed in a business suit and tie, he seemed diminished, less intimidating than in his elemental nakedness. “What’s going on here?” he cried. “Our bedroom is flooded and our bed is soaked.”

            Mrs. Bridge shrugged. “Is that so?” she said. “It must be an act of God.”

            “Don’t screw with me, lady,” he said, his eyes narrowing. “And turn down that fucking radio!”

            Mrs. Bridge experienced a twang of fear, but as she observed the face of the man before her, a distant memory jolted loose. She had experienced his kind before: the man was just a bully, a schoolyard tough, of which she had seen many in her schoolteacher days. At that moment Mrs. Bridge thought she saw the whole of him, the true Karl Scadlock, and all fear was gone. “Well, Mr. Scadlock,” she said, “you don’t consider the effect on me of leaving your television blaring for half the night. Why should I worry about the effect of my radio on you?”

            Scadlock looked around, found the radio, strode over and ripped the power cord from its socket. At that moment Pat Scadlock came up the stairwell, face no longer friendly. “The toilet just overflowed.”

            Scadlock moved deeper into the space between them. “Are you responsible for all this?”

            “I’d like you to look around this room, Mr. Scadlock,” Mrs. Bridge said as she gave her marriage ring a half turn. “Those splinters of blue glass were once a crystal vase that my husband and I bought in Italy years ago. It cost over a thousand dollars, and there it is. Just look at it . . . don’t look at me, look at that mess of glass. Look at the books scattered around, spines broken, pages fallen out. They’re first editions my husband collected.”

            Scadlock waved all this away. “We’ll pay you for the damage,” he said.

            “That’s not the point. The vase, the books, are irreplaceable. I don’t want your money.”

            “What do you want?”

            “I want you to leave, and leave now. On the off chance that you might not agree, I have started legal proceedings to have you evicted.”

            “You don’t like us, Mrs. Bridge, and we don’t much care for you.” It was Pat Scadlock who had spoken. “So we don’t mind leaving. But I have no idea how long that’ll take. Maybe a couple of months.”

            “That’s not acceptable,” Mrs. Bridge said. “My attorney tells me that in the absence of a lease, I can ask you to leave now. And I mean right now. But let’s make it in the next forty-eight hours.” She stared at the couple, at peace with herself. “Oh, one more thing. If either of you steps above that stairwell and into my area without my permission, I will immediately call the police and have you thrown out for trespassing.”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Scadlock said. “When we rented the place there were no restrictions on where we could go.” Mrs. Bridge noted with satisfaction that Scadlock now appeared furtive and damp, voice subdued, tentative.

            “Why don’t we let our lawyers debate that?” Mrs. Bridge said. She stared at the two if them. “You might want to start packing,” she finished.

 

            That night Mrs. Bridge heard voices from downstairs, loud, argumentative. Her night fear returned. She wondered whether it might not be wise to spend the night in a motel. Then she stiffened: no one could make her leave her own home, her home of fifty years.

            In the morning they were gone, the closets empty. It took weeks to clean up the mess they left. Her daughter congratulated her as did Rosalyn Baker. She returned the books, even those with the broken spines, to their former location and all was as before, except that the blue vase was gone. Her home was once again clean, the museum of her life. She recalled her confrontation with the Scadlocks, relived the moment again and again, one of the few times in her life when she felt she had truly lived. She thought again of renting out the downstairs apartment, shook her head at the absurdity of the idea. Evenings, she settled in her rust-colored chair, read, and waited, not exactly sure for what. The winter rains had started; rain beat drearily on the roof and windows and gurgled in the rain gutters. Mrs. Bridge rotated her marriage ring as she stared out at the streets, empty and desolate.

 

William Eisner’s first novel, The Sévigné Letters, was published to critical acclaim, was adapted for the stage and played at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara. A collection of Eisner’s short fiction, Done in by Innocent Things, was published by GreyCore Press in 2003 to excellent reviews. His short stories have been widely published.