Change of Address
by John O'Toole
If I hadn't been caught window-peeping on the woman next door, I would probably still be living with my parents today. Dad in his armchair, Mama on the sofa, cheap clothes in tatters on their cheesy dead bodies. I enjoyed living at home, but I liked sex too, and with a face like mine- - caved-in, lopsided, false eye bugging out and crusted with mucus -- my only option in regard to amour was that cherished midnight peek through my clothes closet winodw at Mrs. Lymon in her green bra and panties. Middle-aged woman, big waxy thighs, knees sunk in blubber, stomach scarred and sagging from too many babies. And though she might well have finally squealed on me out of pure moral outrage, I prefer to believe it was her own wretched guilt over putting on those nightly girly shows of hers for me. At any rate, her brother-in-law happened to be our landlord, lucky us, leaving my parents with no choice but to give me the boot or face eviction themselves.
The apartment I chose, my first and always dearest, was on Winthrop Avenue just south of Loyola University. This was in the days before the pushers moved in, the block still popular with students and young marrieds. A few of the lawns overgrown. Lots of trees bending lazily and sighing in the heat. Buildings of brown brick and stucco, some with terracotta trim, mostly three-flats, one twelve story limestone tower into which my dad and I -- never once speaking of the reason for my move -- lugged my bed, my desk, my suitcase full of clothes and books, and a broken-down armchair we had salvaged from the alley. Dad with his pronounced limp, grand swoop down as though fielding a grounder. His buzzcut and droopy eyes. Droopy Black Irish. Chain-smoking, one always tucked behind his ear at the ready like an on-deck batter. A bit too cheery, calling me "Sport" and making jokes -- clean ones, mind you -- about my co-ed neighbors who would no doubt be accosting me in the hallways, hurling their "skivvies" in my face, assaulting the very walls with axes to get at me. When the last of my junk had been hauled through the doorway, and I had given him a warm 7 Up to help replace the three or four gallons of bodily fluid that had soaked through his T shirt, he sat himself down on the edge of my bed, lit the on-deck cigarette and abruptly grew serious. "Stay in the Church, son. Receive the Blessed Sacrament." For Chrissake, I'd only moved four blocks away. The truth was, I'd been skipping Mass on the sly for so long that at first I drew a blank on what he meant by "Blessed Sacrament." Oh, wait, Communion. Right? Patted his shoulder, then his sandpaper head. "You bet, Dad," I assured him. "You have my word on it."
"That's good enough for me," he said. It wasn't, of course. Only Mama's nagging -- "Let the poor thing have his Sundays" -- would keep the man from limping on over and ringing my fucking bell off the wall every Sunday till the goddamn Second Coming. It would have to do for now though. Time to go. Mama's meat loaf waiting on the table. Stalling now on the edge of the bed, bad hip throwing him slightly off balance. He sighed, his rawboned shoulders slouching off center. He looked like a broken bicycle. His legs seemed to pedal as he struggled to rise. I didn't bother helping him. He would have squeezed the life from my arm if I had.
I stood at the single window and watched him limp homeward up Rosemont and under the elevated tracks. I was hoping he wouldn't turn and wave and he didn't. Probably didn't know I could see him from up there. When I was damn good and sure he was home, once again under lock and key, eating his meat loaf, I left the place and shuffled over to the Granville el station and spent about twenty red-faced minutes perusing the single most extraordinary assortment of girly magazines in North America. Buying half a ton of them. Copies of Chicago Magazine and Modern Bride for camouflage. Stopping at Standees for a mushroom burger to go.
On the way back I discovered it. The turd in the stairwell. The elevator was out of order, stalled half a floor above the lobby, and the building manager, a Mr. Krauss, was skulking around underneath it in his overalls, the shaft lit by a single maintenance bulb, bits of schmootz resembling tattered bat wings floating about and landing in his hair.
"It's busted," he scowled. "You weren't think of using it, I hope."
"And crush you like a milk carton? Never," I said.
He gestured with his pipe wrench at my brown bagged sandwich. "I hope you got a wastebasket. I find that paper bag on your floor I won't like it."
"I find you in my place I won't like it much either."
"Sense of humor, huh?" Mr. Krauss kicked something at the bottom of the shaft. It made a loud clang. He crossed his fat forearms on the metal door runner. "Well, fine. That's fine. We got rules in this building. Fire rules. Safety rules. Laundry rules. Rules." Scratching his jaw with the pipe wrench, he thought about his rules for a moment. "Most of all, we got cleanliness rules. You keep your place clean, you can get away with murder here. Lotta girls in this building. You like girls, do you, kid?"
"From a distance."
"So I heard," he said, winking.
Deciding that he liked me. Buddying up. All the same, I didn't dare ask him what he'd heard, or who from. His statement alone, though innocently vague, was burning my cheeks like a pizza in the face. A sudden bad case of the shits had me trotting toward the stairwell, Mr. Krauss laughing, barking "So I heard" again.
On the second floor landing I came within a toe's length of stepping smack in it. Two plump, intertwined wieners of the stuff, blackened with blood, much too big and stinking to be any kind but human. Cleanliness rules. Right. All tenants are requested to kindly bag their bowel movements before lobbing them into the stairwell.
Back in my place I took the new toilet on its maiden flight. Handled like a dream. Dropping my bombs over Dresden, so to speak. I came in for a landing and sat there eating my mushroom burger, dropping the crumpled bag on the floor.
It was the first of many items, deemed "trash" by the fussy, that I would drop at my feet in the months to come, or hurl from the bathroom, or fling from my bed, several wall-to-wall strata accumulating slowly, complete with a network of crisscross paths, to the bathroom, the kitchenette, even an evacuation route to the door, lest one of my cigarettes spark an inferno. In fairness to myself I had a godawful job, paying bills for a Loop clipping bureau run by a German woman named Elfriede who would throw her stapler at me when the books didn't balance, leaving me at night with barely enough energy to eat junk food and shudder in my underwear. Add to that my growing depression, having realized that, considering my Herman Munster-face, I would probably grow old and die alone in that dump, and it was easy to see why I might actually welcome a few harmless roaches, just to have someone to talk to. Mama had a saying about housework: "It takes a lot of joi d'vivre to scrub a toilet." How right the woman was.
And speaking, as I just now was, of growing old alone, I had found since reaching puberty that, though staunchly heterosexual, perhaps because of that, I would on rare occasions reach a point of such lust-maddened, abject despair, that suddenly my fellow guys wouldn't look so bad. And though in those days I had what I suppose you could call a pathological inhibition against female pinups, no doubt caused by a boyhood of bedroom walls as preternaturally spotless as the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I apparently had no compunctions, while in the momentary throes of gay despair, against now and then hanging up a picture of a stud. The stud in question -- Mr. October, I believe his name was -- bleached blonde calendar boy wearing nothing but one of those male-stripper bow ties, Scotch taped to my bathroom wall one night during an apocalyptic thunderstorm, yours truly soaking in a lukewarm tub and hoping against hope to get struck by lightning.
Well, the homo-funk passed, as I swear it always does, and to tell you the truth I forgot about the picture. It wasn't all that large -- three by five, maybe -- and a man who has spoons stuck in concretized Wheaties can hardly be expected to change his damn calendar. Which wouldn't have mattered much -- In time it simply would have rotted off the wall -- had Mama not found herself two mornings before Christmas overcome with joi-d'vivre to the appalling extent that she packed all her cleaning tools in her little shopping cart and shoved it wobbling and squealing the four blocks to my place and, letting herself in with the spare key I'd given her, proceeded to throw out the trach, using enough Hefty Bags to tarp the Titanic, then scrub every square inch of guy-befouled surface.
Arriving home that evening, I thought I'd been robbed. Though not my habit to squawk like some exotic jungle bird, I nonetheless managed a fair imitation, dropping my bucket of Moo Goo Gai Pan on the sparkling-clean floor and stumbling around gawking like a peasant in a palace. She had even cleaned the Campbell's Pork 'n Beans off the window. The first thing I did was check the hole in the clothescloset wall, into which I had pathologically stashed my girly mags behind several loose bricks. Good, she hadn't found them. I was safe on that score, and praise the baby Jesus on his one thousand nine hundred and seventy-third birthday.
And speaking of the Yuletide, that sweet, thoughtful woman had left me a Christmas card. Three-by-five scene of reindeer prancing in the snow. Taped to the wall above my freshly-polished desk.
The Scotch Tape did it, sent me lunging for the bathroom. The stud in the bow tie was missing from the wall. Dear God, the hot face again. Lava in the gut. I sat down and let it flow. Tried to cry. Couldn't. God damned waste of bodily fluids.
Later that night I went out to buy Maalox and pick up some presents for her and the old man. A crowd of noisy party kids was holding up the elevator so I pounded on the door a few times and took the stairs. The turd was still there. Petrified now, didn't smell quite so bad. Someone should trim it with tinsel, I thought. Maybe some mistletoe. I zipped up my parka and headed down to the street.
About the author:
John O'Toole recently moved to Los Angeles after spending most of his life in Chicago. He studied playwrighting at Chicago Dramatist's Workshop, and has published short stories in "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" and "Detective Mystery Magazine." His poetry has appeared in numerous periodicals both here and abroad.