ART BY JOHN DAVID BROWN
Crowe listened to the super and the super's wife in the cold-air return. He wanted news of deliveries or renovations. He wanted specific apartment numbers.
Instead their talk was the same endless stream that it had been for months:
I can't trust you.
Crowe went into the bathroom and came out with a towel. He stuffed it into the vent and the voices disappeared.
Falling into bed again, he felt the exhaustion from another fruitless day on the upper floors, knocking on doors, imploring tenants to consider the weight of their things. There were rumors of new hot tubs, new gas fireplaces with stone mantles, new deep freezers. Nobody cared. Some slammed their doors. Others opened their doors only as wide as their chain locks would allow. They admitted to having heard the rumors and load warnings too, but what could be done. Others confronted him. They'd earned their money and it was their right to spend it however they wanted. They didn't want to hear about the size of the cracks in the ground-level apartments. Air pockets, they countered, when he explained that one part of the building had sunk two inches in six years. Buildings settle into soft soil. It's perfectly natural. It was as though they had memorized the Board's letters of assurance.
Predictions of a complete collapse made most laugh or shake their heads. Doom and gloom, they said, pointing out their windows towards the building's buttressing exoskeleton. They spoke confidently of the Board's twenty new steel pilings, despite reports that less than five pilings had been properly installed.
Crowe countered with the arguments that he and Dagmar had concocted. She was more militant than he was, but he was more persuasive in person. The foundation had never been constructed for so many residents, their excessive belongings, or the addition of more floors. Some listened, and he gave these tenants his name and his phone number in addition to his pamphlets.
The telephone rattled Crowe from his half-sleep.
I need help, an old man's voice said.
Crowe blinked at the itchy fatigue in his eyes. What?
I fell. I can't get back into bed.
Crowe sighed. Sir, I'm so tired. Can't you--
I called other numbers. They hung up.
Crowe sat up against the dead weight of his body. What apartment are you in?
The old man gave him a number. Seventeen flights up.
Crowe imagined the climb. There's nobody else?
Just my aide. She doesn't come until the afternoon.
Crowe threw his legs over the side of his bed and shuffled his feet in the darkness until he stirred up his pants. Okay.
I'll push the key under the door, said the old man.
Crowe imagined a skinny, grizzled body inching pathetically across the floor to the apartment's threshold.
Hold tight. I'm on my way.
In the stairwell, he took the steps two at a time.
In the morning, he woke to shouting coming up through the cold air return and punching through the muffling towel:
I hate you.
Crowe rose from the bed, knowing he wouldn't fall asleep again. It was Sunday. People were always home on Sunday. He had work to do.
He lifted the towel. Ihateyou!Ihateyou!IhateyouIwishyouweredead…
Waiting for coffee to brew, he remembered the old man from the night before. Crowe had opened the door and found all shivering ninety-five pounds of him lying on the floor with the entry rug draped over his bony torso.
I am so thirsty, the old man said.
Crowe picked him up and delivered him back to his bed. A moment later, he brought him a glass of water.
Is this what you wanted?
You're a good man, he said, patting the back of Crowe's hand with his cold fingers.
Crowe stayed until the old man was breathing the regular, raspy breaths of sleep. He let himself out, locked the door behind him, and slid the key back under the door.
Now, sipping coffee, Crowe fingered the growing, jagged crack that ran from his own floor nearly all the way to his ceiling. He showered, grabbed his pamphlets, and headed for the stairwell, hoping to get to the topmost floors today. Ascending, he thought of the old man's thankful eyes. He wondered what his own parents would have been like in their old age. They had died when he was still young, when a major shift in the building snapped a gas line and asphyxiated them in their sleep. He had taken their apartment and their problems.
Crowe climbed until he came to a point where the emergency stairwell was blocked by a locked gate. He opened the fire door and stepped onto the sixty-first floor. An overweight security guard met him. Feeling tight heat along the base of his neck, Crowe handed the man an envelope. The guard took it. He glanced behind him into the empty hallway that narrowed towards a tiny vanishing point. The guard then turned back to Crowe, taking a cursory glance at his shoes, his dress pants, his satchel, his tie, and finally his neatly combed hair.
What you selling?
Crowe glanced at the envelope in the guard's hand. Right now, my hope is to buy.
Nodding, the guard opened the envelope, ran the tip of a sausage finger along the edges of cash, and then stuffed it in his pants pocket. Anyone asks, you tell them you managed to sneak in while I was on another floor.
The guard unlocked the gate, relocked it behind him, and then vanished.
A moment later as Crowe passed the service elevator, there was a bing, the doors slid open, and two men wrestled out a goliath, rubberized mattress. Crowe followed them at a distance as they struggled and swore their way down the hall. They soon stopped and rapped on a door.
A young man dressed in a business suit opened it.
This is the last of it, the biggest of the delivery men said.
Nodding, the young man stepped aside to let them in. He stood in the doorway watching their progress, telling them to be careful of the statue in the living room.
Excuse me, sir, Crowe said.
The man gave him a quick onceover. Yes?
That's a big bed. He cleared his throat. Do you live alone?
Frowning, the man looked down the hallway. Where is that fat assed security guard? He looked at Crowe. What do you care about my big bed? You turning tricks or something?
Crowe reached into his satchel, flipped through papers, and then produced a pamphlet. He handed it to the man. The title read, What You Need to Know about Waterbeds and Load.
The man looked at it. Oh Christ...get out of my face.
Sir, that bed will add nearly a ton of load once it's filled. I just want you to consider the--
The delivery men came out again. The man turned away from Crowe.
The burly men assessed the situation. This guy bothering you? one of them asked.
The young man shook his head and then traded the pamphlet for the delivery receipt clipboard.
The delivery man studied the paper in his hand. Looking Crowe coldly in the eye, he shredded the pamphlet into pieces. He took the clipboard back and smiled menacingly at Crowe. Enjoy that bed, sir.
The man nodded. Walking away, one of the delivery men whispered in the other's ear. Looking back at Crowe, he shook his head.
Crowe's pulse beat in his ears.
The other man went back into his apartment and closed the door. After a moment, Crowe sighed, took another pamphlet from his satchel, and slipped it under the man's door.
He spent the next hour knocking on other doors, trying to get people to sign petitions, trying to get them to take pamphlets, trying to get them to listen. Door after door slammed in his face.
Then he hit the jackpot. A door opened to reveal Mr. Russell Scott standing before him, a younger member of the building's Board and the firebrand who had spearheaded the push for the steel pilings that reinforced the building's exoskeleton.
Crowe cleared his throat. Mr. Scott?
Mr. Scott studied him for a moment. Yes? Can I help you?
Crowe extended his hand and introduced himself. He had one shot. I am with a group of concerned tenants who--
Mr. Scott's face turned serious and dismissive. Board business is for Board meetings. I can't speak to you right now.
Sir, if you could--
Contact the Board secretary to get on the agenda.
What I have to say would only take a minute. Please--
Mr. Scott started to close his door.
Crowe reached out, only to get his fingers caught between the closing door and the doorjamb. Yelping, he pulled his hand free and fell back against the wall. He grasped his wounded fingers and squeezed at the pulsing pain. Eyes closed, he slumped down to the floor.
Are you okay?
Crowe imagined what Dagmar would do in his place. She'd sweep Scott's legs and bring him down like a condemned building. Grabbing him by the lapels, she'd hold her reddened fingers in his face. This? she'd say. This is nothing. I'd bite them off if it meant that you'd listen, you sonuvabitch!
Dagmar worried Crowe. Following her lead, some tenants had started going to the building's receiving docks and slashing the tires of delivery trucks. How could that lead to anything good?
Crowe let go of his fingers and turned them in the air in front of him. Blood seeped from two of the bludgeoned knuckles. The board secretary never puts us on the agenda. We've asked, he said, wincing as he tried to flex his hand.
Mr. Scott crouched down and took Crowe's hand in his. He turned it back and forth, examining it. How bad?
I don't think it's broken.
Mr. Scott released Crowe's hand. So what is so damn important? he asked, smiling.
Crowe reached for his satchel. He had a board member listening to him. He had to go big.
Panic rooms. An apartment invasion occurred a year ago on the thirty-eighth floor. The tenant was beaten into a coma and woke three weeks later severely brain-damaged. Since the incident, more and more people on the upper floors are having panic rooms built.
I know, Mr. Scott said. The Board gave the okay. The weight issues are negligible.
Negligible, Crowe said, if people follow the code, which allows for replacing one wooden door and doorjamb with steel on one existing interior room. That's not what's happening. Crowe reached into his satchel and showed Mr. Scott a copy of blueprints that Dagmar had obtained. It called for the demolition of walls to an existing room to be replaced with three-inch-thick steel walls reinforced by concrete. He tapped the piece of paper. Mr. Scott, we're talking about twenty tons of additional weight per room...at least.
Mr. Scott crossed his arms. I find it a little hard to believe--
We have evidence that at least three such rooms exist. Crowe raised his index finger. And, we have a witness... an electrician that wired just such a room up on the seventieth floor.
Looking grave, Mr. Scott stood up slowly. And so what would you have the Board do?
Crowe rose, too, stuffing the blueprints back into his satchel. Enforce the code, he said. Have any existing panic rooms demolished at the owners' expense. Establish only one receiving area with a checkpoint to examine all incoming items, especially building materials. Crowe crossed his arms. If something isn't done, this whole place will undoubtedly collapse on itself, exoskeleton or not.
Mr. Scott scratched his chin. You'd be willing to brief the Board about this?
Crowe smiled. We've been trying to speak to the Board for over five years.
He wrote down Crowe's contact information and promised that he would be in touch personally. If it can be arranged, I'll want you to bring those blueprints... and that electrician.
Smiling, Crowe nodded.
That evening, he sat at his small table eating a bowl of shrimp-flavored fried noodles. He nodded, snapped open his eyes, and soon nodded off again.
The telephone rang.
Mr. Crowe, this is Russell Scott of the Board. I've talked to each member, and a narrow majority has voted you onto the agenda for Thursday.
I'll be there.
Some of your listeners will be quite resistant. They'll need to hear everything.
I'll bring the works.
Hanging up, Crowe immediately punched in another number. Dagmar answered, and he told her the good news.
I'll come over tonight and help you with your presentation, she said. We'll make them quake.
Crowe beamed. Feeling fully awake, he opened his satchel and found everything related to panic rooms, spreading out the materials on his table.
Ihateyou. Ican'tlivelikthis. Idon'ttrustyou. Liar. You'rekeepingsecrets. You'resleepingaround. You'respyingonme. You'retheworstthingthateverhappenedtome.Iwishyouweredead...
Crowe dropped two towels over the voices of the super and his wife. He wrote his speech and then rehearsed it.
Panic rooms are a knee-jerk reaction to an isolated incident. Of course, ladies and gentlemen of the Board, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be panicked. Crowe paced. What should panic us are the panic rooms themselves. With your permission let me describe--
There was a knock at his door. Expecting Dagmar, he instead saw three bearded men standing at his threshold.
A fist landed in his stomach like a brick. Crowe lay on the ground, struggling to breathe against the spasm of his diaphragm. The men came into his apartment, closed the door behind them, and circled around him.
Wish you had a panic room now, don't you?
One of the men went to Crowe's table, gathered his papers and the blueprints into his satchel, and slung it over his shoulder.
Another of the men crouched down close. You're not going to go to that Board meeting. Right?
A boot landed in Crowe's kidneys. His vision blackened.
When he opened his eyes, he was in his bed. His lower back throbbed. Dagmar sat in a chair near him. The bastards didn't get anything we can't replace, she said.
Crowe tried to sit up. Pain put him down again. Do we have a spare set of kidneys? He winced. Talking hurt.
Dagmar laughed, pushing her hand through her silver bangs. Believe it or not, this is good. It means they're scared.
Crowe rubbed his sore guts. Who were they?
She shrugged. Thugs. Hired by the panic room contractors or hired by some Board member getting kickbacks from the contractors.
Crowe stared at her black military boots.
I'll have someone camp outside your door tonight. You can sleep easy. She stood. Excellent job today, Crowe.
After she left, Crowe thought over what she'd said. She was right. People were scared. The Board was going to listen. They were going to put an end to panic rooms. Maybe they would even listen to their other concerns. An end to excessive furniture, weight lifting equipment, grand pianos...
Crowe looked at the vent. The idea of trying to cover it made his body ache. Please shut up, he thought. Please just let me sleep. He wondered if maybe, in addition to the moratorium on panic rooms, he could talk the Board into firing the superintendent. He'd heard, though, that the super's contract was airtight. He was personal friends with some of the Board members.
Suddenly, their stream of suspicion and hate became coherent conversation.
What is that? What is that!?
Dynamite, Anya. I can end your misery right now.
Asshole, you'd kill us both.
So much the better... like Romeo and Juliet. Though Romeo and Judas is more like it.
Fine, Sam. Let's do it right then. Give me a stick... we'll end it together. Oh happy dagger!
Crowe strained his ears in the quiet that followed, waiting for them to keep arguing and, for the first time, hoping for it. The walls pinged and ticked with the building's settling. Crazy assholes, he thought. If they didn't waste so much time fighting with each other, the super might actually be able to repair some of these cracks.
Shaking his head, he tried to fall asleep.
An hour later, wretched with insomnia, he propped himself up against the headboard. Air whirred and hummed in the vents. He waited, listened, wanting something. Anything. Would he even hear it? Would anyone? The tiny flick of a lighter's wheel. Spark meeting butane. The hiss of a fuse.
He recalled what he could of the speech he had prepared.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Board, let us consider the mayhem of a building this size crushing itself from the top down...
For effect, his speech opened with graphic detail about the coming devastation. He couldn't bring himself to repeat it out loud.
Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College in Midland, MI. His stories have been collected in a full-length collection, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press). Individual stories have appeared in Coe Review, Existere, Space Squid, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. He has two novels: Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press) and Landscape with Fragmented Figures (Bottom Dog Press). Whistling Shade Press will soon release his novella and collection, Threatened Species and Other Stories. He maintains a website at www.jeffvandezande.com.