by Greg West
Sarah had called the town a poor man’s Monterey but Joe moved there anyway, thinking, “I’ll live in poor man’s Monterey and Sarah can live where she lives and we’ll both be happier.” He loaded his belongings into the back of his Ford Ranger and drove to the little town, bought a newspaper and answered an ad for a studio apartment at four-hundred a month, plus a fifty dollar deposit. The apartments weren’t good. They were a poor man’s apartments—a row of sickly blue huts out in front of a splintered two-story in the back.
Joe knocked on the office door. Inside he could hear the audio of a pornographic movie being turned down. Out in front of the sickly huts two police cars pulled up and a red-faced drunk was handcuffed while two red-faced women yelled at him from separate doorways. A skinny bearded man stood in another doorway with a can of beer. He had a tall cactus plant and a lawn chair on his porch. “Sarah’s right,” Joe thought. “It’s not Monterey, but it’s still nice, this town.”
A man came to the door and introduced himself as Yolo, the manager. He was a jittery, lisping man with no front teeth, a head of oily flaking hair, and a long purple nose seeded with enormous blackheads.
“It’s zero-t-tolerance here” he told Joe, leading him up the stairwell of the two-story, words whistling off his gums. “What I mean is, it’s strict. No drugs, no hookers, no dealing, and, and, if you’re a cop, you have to let us know, legally.”
Each stair was about to give, from unevenness or decay, but as Joe and Yolo reached the top, Joe knew he was going to take the place. Through a tangle of cable wires he could already see a bit of ocean and part of the massive volcanic rock the town was known for. He’d have to shut out the courtyard of weeds and jalopies below, and the pride of diseased cats over by the overflowing dumpster—and the noise—it was the middle of the day but people were home. Joe could smell marijuana smoke and hear dramatic debates coming from the units. A woman in a housecoat and slippers was weaving around the courtyard looking lost and distraught. Joe and Yolo stopped at a roll of carpet and some paint cans that were out on the walkway. They looked into the apartment that was for rent.
“This is it,” Yolo said to Joe. “And this here’s Ron. He’s the maintenance.”
Ron the maintenance man was at the top of a folding ladder, painting the ceiling a dark brown. The apartment was tiny—big enough for a bed and a table maybe, but Joe kept thinking about the walkway. He believed it was wide enough for a chair and maybe a TV tray. He saw himself sitting out there with a beer or a cup of coffee and watching sunsets through the cable wires. He could take his phone out there and call Sarah and tell her about his poor man’s view. If he could shut out that squalor below—the jalopies and the arguing and the flea-ridden cats—he’d have himself a little taste of affluence at four-hundred dollars a month.
Ron the maintenance man set his paint brush in a paint tray and climbed off the ladder. He was shirtless and pot-bellied and had a few strands of hair on each side of his head. His teeth worked a billowing Camel.
“Did you tell him about the no tolerance?” he asked Yolo.
Yolo moved his feet and looked away. “I told him. H-he said he’d abide.”
“And you told him no bullshit? No drugs? No sellin’ pussy, no grab-ass? You told him how strict it is here?”
“I told him,” said Yolo.
Ron tugged at jeans that were trying to slide off his assless trunk, and stepped over what looked like a puddle of dried paint but was in fact the dried blood of a man named Eldon Creel, who three days earlier had killed himself in Joe’s new apartment. Ron stopped near the doorway and the three men looked down at the hardened glossy pool.
“He was just another one of those guys,” Ron said. “That came and went. Grocery store, video store, he had his groceries and his videos and that was all he wanted. Never said nothing to no one. We figure he sat about right here…”
Ron dropped to the floor and sat against the wall. “…We figured he sat about here and said, ‘to hell with it,’ and went, ‘one…two…three…’”
Ron fitted two fingers under his chin, pulled a thumb-hammer.
Yolo jumped and shuddered. A flurry of flakes fell to his shoulders. “We gotta tell you,” he said to Joe. “By law, we have to tell you.”
Ron got to his feet, pulled up on his jeans, and began running the flat of his hand along a roughened section of door frame. He pulled out a pocketknife and stuck the point of it into the door frame then showed Joe and Yolo what he’d dug out. Against the silver of the blade it looked like chipped tooth on a dentist’s utensil.
“We’re still finding ‘em,” he said.
“Brain fragments,” said Yolo.
“Skull fragments,” Ron said. “We already got all the brains.”
“That-that’s what I mean,” said Yolo. “Sk-sk-skull fragments. W-we’re still finding ‘em. Everywhere.”
Joe unloaded his Ford Ranger and settled into the apartment and began a daily routine. In the mornings he’d walk down to the ocean and in the evenings he’d sit on his poor man’s balcony and eat TV dinners and watch sunsets. Or, if it was too foggy and there was a fight or arrest below, he’d watch that. The one time he’d called Sarah she’d hung up on him.
Once or twice a month he’d find one of Eldon Creel’s skull fragments in his wall or ceiling and pluck it out with scissors or nail clippers or whatever was around, and after a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. He’d sit out there until dark sometimes, watching them fight and fuck and hunt, and lick their matted coats in the prickling fog. §
Greg West lives in a hole-in-the-wall motel in Nevada where he writes in his spare time between jobs.