(Author's Note: With the rise of foreclosures going up, I thought I'd dust off an idea I had awhile back to put together an anthology of Landlord/Tenant Horror Stories. Anyone interested in adding to or helping compile such a beast, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Rhonda was a sixteen-year-old lesbian white supremacist from Lakeside, California. Although she believed in the natural supremacy of the white race she was not, in fact, a racist, on account of she’d had several Mexican girlfriends. She also wasn’t a holocaust denier, but felt that people concentrated far too much on the Bad Things Hitler Did to appreciate The Good. At sixteen she considered herself a committed lesbian, although she’d had sex with lots of guys and even turned a couple of tricks. That was back when she was younger of course, she was long past that now. All this I was able to gather from our first five minutes of conversation: it was her calling card… how she introduced herself to the new neighbors.
The next part of her monologue concerned “Uncle Joe”, the guy she’d moved in with. He wasn’t really her uncle, that was just the story they’d given to the landlord in order to move in. I’d seen him for the first time that afternoon, this huge, sullen manmountain about twice her age, standing outside their apartment, three doors down from mine. He was heavily muscled - prison buff – with the usual gallery of tattoos. He was missing a couple of important front teeth and had a thin, skuzzy layer of hair that accentuated the knife wounds all over his head. As soon as I saw him the first thing I thought was “That’s it. I’m moving.” So when Rhonda tells me he’s out on parole for some-weird-violent-thing-in-the-past it doesn’t really surprise me. Hell, if I’d seen him gnawing on a human skull it wouldn’t have surprised me.
Rhonda insists Uncle Joe is actually really nice, he just doesn’t get along with people very well because of the way he looks. Which makes him kind of paranoid. And he has kind of an anger control problem sometimes. Rhonda leans in a little closer and says “He’s kind of fucked-up you know, up here…” tapping lightly on the side of her head. She says it quietly, as if he might be listening, or as if it were some terrible secret I could’ve never guessed on my own.
Joe and Rhonda had moved in next to Chuck, a nice-enough but ever-so-slightly brain-damaged fellow with severe diabetes who was often prone to seizures. Chuck had a dog named Sugar - which was kind of funny for a diabetic – a long haired honey-colored spaniel with bright green eyes and one of those ultra-hyper, almost spastic personalities, like three or four dogs, each with their own doggie agenda, poured into one dog body. Chuck said Sugar was a companion dog, trained to warn people when his blood sugar got too low. When that happened Chuck was usually too far gone to fix himself, so it was generally up to the neighbors to call 911, which had worked out well enough when the young Navy couple lived next door, but with Joe and Rhonda I couldn’t help seeing a bad moon rising.
For a while I’d see one or the other of them - Joe or Sugar – keeping watch at the far end of the building. Sugar was just about as cute and benign as Joe was menacing, though both of them looked like they’d be happier gnawing on a bone. Joe rarely wore a shirt, which probably came as a survival mechanism from prison: he was built like a goddam superhero. It wasn’t just that Joe looked scary, everything about him was scary. Usually he’d just stare at me as I passed by, a cold bright stare I could literally feel follow me up the walkway. Other times he’d be mumbling some angry litany, then stop to glare as if I’d interrupted the conversation. Once he actually growled at me. Apparently though he did this to everybody. It was as if he’d been sent from central casting, or hired by the management company to scare the rest of us out.
When he was off his medication Uncle Joe would go into wild rages inside his apartment, thumping the walls and smashing things, screaming about niggers and queers while Rhonda screamed at him to stop. For all his violence and rage though, Joe exuded a weird sense of containment as well, like no matter what was coming out of him he was still keeping ninety percent of it inside.
In multi-unit apartment complexes there is usually a single layer of separation between landlord and tenant: the apartment manager. Ours was Sandy, a stern, officious woman with thin bloodless lips that seemed to be molded into a constant scowl. She had a bachelor’s degree in communications, which was odd in that she had no personal communications skills whatsoever. When one too many of the tenants complained about the deranged Nazi couple at the end of the building she finally exploded “I’m not your fucking babysitter!” Far from being an isolated response, this turned out to be the cornerstone of her personal philosophy, which didn’t help matters any.
As Sandy saw it, the problem wasn’t the violent parolee that scared the fuck out of everybody, it was Sugar, the Cocker Spaniel who’d apparently been running around without a leash. As a companion dog, Sugar never ventured more than fifteen feet from her owner’s side, but rules were rules and Sugar was supposed to stay on a leash. Sandy’s way of making the point was to call animal control to try and have Sugar impounded. Naturally Chuck didn’t think too much of this. Even when his sugar levels were normal, Chuck’s communication skills were roughly commensurate with Sandy’s resulting in an argument that was both painful and spectacular to watch. By the time the animal control van arrived though, enough of us had gathered in the dog’s defense to send them back on their way. The fight with Sandy, and her threats to his dog sent Chuck’s sugar levels plummeting, and within an hour he was having a seizure.
Surprisingly, it was Uncle Joe who ended up calling 911, and when I got there he was out on Chuck’s stoop holding onto Sugar while the firemen and paramedics inside tried to calm Chuck down. A violent diabetic seizure can be frightening as hell – the natural, reptile brain function of a body that knows it’s defenseless. Unable to determine where he was or who was surrounding him, Chuck reverted to his most primal defenses, lashing out blindly with his arms and legs screaming “Get Away! Get Away! Get Away!” I watched through the window as the firemen – five of them - pinned him to the bed. He continued fighting them, wild-eyed, screaming and pouring sweat, until they finally managed to get some insulin into him. He calmed down pretty quickly after that.
After the paramedics left, Rhonda came in and sat with Chuck, sitting on the edge of his bed and stroking his hair in the ruins of his apartment. Joe sat out on the doorstep with Sugar and for a while there was this quiet, sober sense of damaged people doing what they could to look out for each other. I started talking to Joe after that. Not much: just the usual “Hey man,” or “How’s it goin’?” when I’d pass by him. Sometimes he’d answer, sometimes not. Sometimes he’d just mutter. He was still, I suppose, as scary as ever, but somehow I’d grown used to him in a way.
Twenty-some years of renting, along with more than my fair share of evictions had taught me not to get on the bad side of my apartment manager, but this was a case where I felt I had to say something. I walked over to the office and talked to Sandy who, in her cool and officious way, did manage to listen. I explained that Chuck was very, very sick with juvenile onset diabetes and that it was practically a miracle he’d managed to live as long as he had. He couldn’t drive or really walk further than a couple of blocks from his apartment. His life consisted of television, his dog and the friends he’d made in the building. I’d known from previous, more casual conversations with Sandy that she’d been a professional surfer and traveled to places like Brazil, Hawaii and Indonesia to compete. I’d traveled a lot too, and speculated that either of us had, in a good week, experienced more of what life had to offer than Chuck could look forward to for the rest of his.
She said she understood this, and that her father was also a diabetic, but that rules were rules and the dog running around without a leash was a hazard. Looking at her scowling behind her desk, surrounded by papers and practically seething to be rid of me, I wondered how she managed to keep it up: the permanent scowl and get-the-fuck-away-from-me approach to every interaction. As she stared at me, exasperated, I realized how badly she not only hated her job, but by extension everything else. It wasn’t that she particularly hated me, Chuck, the Cocker Spaniel or the nazis, she simply hated everything… every waking minute of every single day. In her way she seemed to have just as much boiling under the surface as Uncle Joe. I told her I’d try to explain things to Chuck.
For the next week or so, while by no means friendly, Chuck and Sandy managed to keep off each other’s backs. Chuck bought some rope and attached it to Sugar’s leash so she could still run around outside the apartment – his way of obeying the rules without exactly giving in.
Uncle Joe and Rhonda, however, were not doing well, with screams and outbursts coming from their apartment almost nightly. “I’ve got to get out of there,” Rhonda told me, “He’s dangerous now – He’s losing his mind!” “No…” I replied, “Uncle Joe? Say it ain’t so.”
The next day I saw Joe, shirtless and seething outside his apartment. I offered up my usual, “How’s it goin?” and he stared at me straight in the eyes and hissed “Lookit me, man – just lookit me. I haven’t touched powders in years man in years and now I’m just wasting away…” I nodded respectfully and slowly turned away.
Rhonda knocked on my door around midnight that night. She said things were starting to go well for her and that she’d be moving in with one of her girlfriends soon. Pointing over at my bookshelf she asked, with utter sincerity, “You don’t have a copy of Mein Kampf do you?”
“Oh well,” she shrugged, “Take it easy!”
The next morning I woke up to find police everywhere. There were four squad cars, about six men in uniform and a couple of plainclothes detectives. One was wandering around the far end of the building putting plastic number placards on the ground, one for each individual bloodstain. When I walked up to him he was on number 23. “What happened?” I asked.
“Somebody got stabbed.”
“Who was it? Was it a girl?”
“No. It was a guy. You know the people from this apartment?” He pointed at Joe and Rhonda’s door.
“Yeah… sort of.”
“Why don’t you go and talk to that officer over there...” he pointed at one of the uniformed cops, “He’s gonna want to ask you some questions.”
After talking to Sandy and some of the cops, here’s what I found out: Uncle Joe finally lost it around four in the morning. He’d started beating Rhonda with a flashlight and some other guy who’d been in their apartment had tried to intervene. Joe attacked him with a butcher knife, slashing him a couple of times on the arms and face before burying the blade, as far as it would go, into the guy’s chest, collapsing one of his lungs and missing his heart by about an inch. Rhonda started screaming for help, holding the victim in her arms while he bled and sputtered for air through the hole in his chest. Chuck was the first person on the scene saw and when he saw what was happening immediately went into a seizure. When Sandy got there she found Rhonda screaming with a man dying in her arms, Chuck going into convulsions and Uncle Joe sitting quietly waiting for the cops to arrive. She said Joe was covered in so much blood it took her awhile to realize he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
Sandy called 911 for the cops and ambulances, pulled the victim out from Rhonda’s arms and lay him out on the lawn, blood pouring from around the knife handle sticking out of his chest. Then she grabbed Rhonda and pulled her into the office, locking the door until the cops got there. Sandy made it about halfway through her story before she started to break down in tears. It was the first time I’d ever seen her without her angry façade. I got the feeling that whatever dam had burst in Joe also burst in her when she’d seen what he’d done.
So here’s where the really weird, horrible part of the story begins. The next day Sandy tacked up two eviction notices. One on Joe and Rhonda’s door, presumably for violating the building’s “no stabbing” policy, and one on Chuck’s,(and here I’m quoting directly from the eviction notice) “For disturbing the quiet enjoyment of the premises for the residents due to paramedic activities.” I pulled the eviction notice down before Chuck could see it and stormed over to the office. “You can’t do this!” I said to Sandy, holding up the notice.
“Look,” she began, “it’s not me, it’s the management company. And I think we both know Chuck needs to be someplace where he can get some help…” “No,” I cut her off to explain, “I mean you can’t DO this. It’s illegal. You can’t kick a guy out for needing an ambulance! It’s utterly ridiculous!”
“I know you care about Chuck, but I don’t see how it’s really any of your business…”
“Oh give me a break. I’m a tenant here – maybe someday I’ll need the paramedics – I don’t want to get evicted for it. Think of all the old people we have here… what do you think they’re gonna say when they find out you’re evicting people for needing an ambulance?”
She knew I was right. “I’m done talking to you.” she said.
“Disturbing the quiet enjoyment of the premises…” I said, shaking my head. “The guy was dying on his doorstep… hell, he was dying in your arms!”
As I expected, it didn’t take more than one call to and one call from a lawyer to take care of the eviction notice. I didn’t even bother showing it to Chuck. Sandy quit and moved out the very next day and was replaced a few days later by a guy who, comparatively, was nicer than Santa Claus. Joe went back to prison and the guy he stabbed, according to Rhonda, actually pulled through, although he ended up losing one of his lungs.
Rhonda had stopped by to collect her things, telling me and Chuck she was doing okay and had moved in with a girlfriend out in El Cajon. Even though she was putting on a brave face, it occurred to me that out of all of us she’d been the one to emerge from the whole ordeal relatively unaffected. I couldn’t help picturing her out there in El Cajon, introducing herself to the new neighbors, talking about her lesbianism, white supremacy and consideration of Hitler as one of history’s most misunderstood figures… perhaps adding something about Uncle Joe and the poor guy who lost a lung trying to protect her.