(Note: I’m not used to slapping stories down like pancakes, still bubbling, from griddle to plate. I’m more of a crock-pot writing kind of gal. Throw everything in, let it simmer for as long as it needs and then pick out the good stuff. But, what the heck, I’m willing to work the grill. So, feel free to dig in. I’ll try not to pour on too much syrup, oh, and watch out for dough in the middle!)
520 South – Chapter Two
Finding a Vacuum
Helen flung her apartment door open to the unknown knocker. An act that, at three o’clock in the morning, was either necessary or dangerous. The whoosh of the door’s backdraft was felt in the hollow of her chest. What if some nut was standing there?
The pock-faced older man leaned into the doorway. “…it running?” he said.
Helen blinked hard. “What?”
“…wa’ it running?”
“um, what?” She struggled to understand the thick accented words. It was difficult to focus, her body was still collapsing in relief to see the familiar face of her apartment manager. Only then did her knees begin to shake.
“He wants to know if the burning smell is coming from your apartment.”
Helen glances over the manager’s head surprised to hear another voice. Two young men are standing on the hallway’s center stairway. One has a tight grip on the railing, Helen sees bare chest, arms and legs through the railing, his pale, thin body is pulled close to the railing. One leg rests on the step below and the other two steps above. To Helen he looks like one of the spider monkeys at the zoo, clinging onto its cage. Above him, on the landing, the other guy is wearing plaid boxer shorts and a black sleeveless t-shirt. She doesn’t know his name but they’ve spoken on occasion when passing through the building’s lobby.
“Oh my god, I can smell it here in the hallway!” Helen tells him. Her heart pumps fast underneath her hand. She doesn’t remember putting her hand there.
She inhales. “Yes. It’s a burning smell.” Her heart stops until she lets out a breath. “Where’s it coming from?”
“We don’t know.”
Helen looked up. How much time did they have? Images from a fire safety training film come to mind, from when she’d worked in an office high-rise. In it, a faulty outlet sparks and a couch ruffle catches fire and within five minutes flames leap off the fabric to wall and crawl up to and around the ceiling. Helen sweeps her eyes across the hallway’s ceiling. They have at least five minutes.
“I’d better get dressed.” she says directly to Boxer Shorts. Her voice has a breathless sound. Back in her apartment Helen feels light-headed as she pulls off her pj bottoms. At the same time her free hand grabs jeans discarded on the bathroom floor only hours before. The tempo of her movements has speeded up, keeping up with the frantic beating in her chest. Without unlacing her sneakers she jams her foot inside and slips a sweatshirt over the top half of her pj’s. All senses have heightened. Helen listens to every sound coming from the apartment building. Apartment keys clink in her unsteady hand. At the last minute Helen grabs her purse and, with shoes halfway on, she clomps back out to the hallway and joins the other three who are pounding on the apartment door next to hers.
“Why don’t you call out her name?” Helen says to them.
Both the manager and Boxer Shorts pound louder but do not shout.
“Maybe she’s scared to open the door. Let her know who you are.”
The woman who lives there is not timid. Helen has seen her many times. She has a loud commanding voice and uses it to speak what’s on her mind. But she always stops to exchange niceties with Helen. Sometimes her little boy is with her. Not all of the time. Helen thinks he stays with his father part-time. The little boy is energy in motion and more curious than a cat. Helen loves to see his bouncing blond hair coming toward her on the stairs or in the lobby. He’s always on the run, all smiles and giggles. The energy flowing from him is so vital one can almost see it. Sometimes Helen wishes she could scoop some of it up and go skipping down the middle of the street with it. One time he stopped just long enough for Helen to ask how old he was and his two hands went into the air with six fingers showing. She didn’t know kids still do that. She could have hugged him on the spot but he was already halfway up the next set of stairs.
In the hallway the three men stop banging on her neighbor’s door for a moment, resting their arms.
“What’s her name again?” Helen asks.
“Lucille.” Boxer Shorts tells her and begins pounding on the door again. The manager folds his fist and slams it numerous times against the white wood.
“Maybe she’s not home. Don’t you think the little boy would have heard by now?” They continue knocking. Why won’t they call her name? Why doesn’t Lucille answer the door? The acrid smell hangs in the air. The men rest their arms again.
The manager lifts a ring of keys off his belt loop and the others step back from the door.
“Touch the door and make sure it’s not hot!” Helen says fast. She’s afraid of what might be behind the door and the only thing she can think to say is something from fire safety training.
Boxer Shorts presses his open hand against the wood so she can see. “It’s okay,” he says. Helen feels better.
He always takes control, Helen thinks, as she watches him. The last time, two months back, the alarm went off shortly after midnight. When the loud, annoying buzzing continued for more than twenty minutes, Helen had felt her door then walked the empty hallway and down the stairs to knock on the manager’s door. No response. She’d walked each floor to make sure everything looked fine in the building. Strange how none of the other residents bothered checking. Maybe the alarm had gone off just enough times in the past they assumed it to be a false alarm every time. Could they not hear it blasting for over half-an-hour? Couldn’t the manager hear it? The manager’s family kept the building clean. The grandfather worked hard every day vacuuming and polishing the stairway railing, and washing down the driveway, but this alarm business was, well, alarming. She’d returned to the manager’s apartment to knock once more. That’s when Boxer Shorts showed up in the hallway. What a relief it’d been to see him. He’d nodded to her, pulled open a door she thought should have been locked and reached in and flicked off the alarm.
At her neighbor’s door, the manager clicks the key in the lock and pulls open the door wide. All of them raise their heads and look at each other - shocked puzzled expressions on every face.
“What is that sound?” Helen takes a step back as she says it. She’s unsteady, her shoes are still halfway on. She has to dig her toes in hard to keep them from slipping off her feet. The other three stand in Lucille’s doorway without moving.
A high-pitched rushing noise rattles from the apartment, loud enough they have to raise their voices to be heard over it.
“What is it?” Helen says louder, moving closer.
Inside, the apartment is dark. The manager enters the room, creeps forward three steps, then returns to the light of the hallway and motions Boxer Shorts to go in.
Helen stops a few feet from the door. She doesn’t have a good feeling about this.
Boxer Shorts enters the apartment ahead of the manager. Ten seconds later the rushing sound stops. Helen moves closer and peers into the apartment. The burn smell is strong. The manager, standing near the door, points to a vacuum cleaner propped up against the wall. Helen gives him a quizzical look and reaches in to touch the vacuum then pulls her hand away. The vacuum cleaner is burning hot and for the first time Helen notices a smoke cloud rising up from the vacuum’s motor. “What the…”
She looks into the interior of the apartment. It’s a large room and all of the windows have been pushed opened and blinds pulled up. At the opposite end of the room, under the windows, a bed pushed lengthwise against the wall is lumped in blankets.
Boxer Shorts leans over the bed and knocks his knee hard against the mattress. “Lucille,” he says in a strong voice.
The bed lump does not move.
He pushes at the mattress so the entire bed shakes. “Lucille. Get up.”
A head of dark hair rises from the blankets. “What are you doing here?” she asks Boxer Shorts. Helen cannot see her face.
“You left your vacuum on and it’s smoking up the building.”
The dark hair drifts back to the blankets. “Oh, okay.” She pulls the blankets over her head.
The manager and Boxer Shorts look at each other, they do not look happy, and Boxer Shorts walks to the door.
“You woke up the entire building because you left the vacuum on!” Boxer Shorts calls back to the lump on the bed. The manager shouts, “no more!” and even the bare-chested third guy chimes in, “It’s three in the morning and we’re all trying to sleep here!”
They crowd out of the door into the hallway, still muttering. The manager shuts the door tight and shakes his head.
Helen’s head spins with confusion. “Why would she do that?” she asks the group.
She cannot comprehend what has just happened. Who leaves a vacuum on all night? Helen thinks about how she’d react if she ever woke up at three in the morning to see two men in her apartment. She’d have a heart attack before she could even begin screaming.
“She’s crazy.” Boxer Shorts says as he heads to the stairs.
“How could she not hear that vacuum?”
“Because she’s nuts. Last week they had to call the police on her.”
“Why?” Helen is stunned. This nice woman with her cute little boy…
“She was in the garage talking on her cell phone, acting crazy, screaming and yelling so loud they called the cops.”
“For talking on the phone?” Helen almost laughs. Was this a joke? She thinks of the busload of people she has to listen to every morning and evening blabbing on their phones. How wonderful it would be to call the cops…
“She was screaming so loud they had to call them,” Boxer Shorts stops halfway down the stairs to tell her, “and she reacted the same way she did tonight, like nothing had happened. She told the cops “what do you want” and when they told her she said “okay” and then kept talking on the phone with the cops standing there. I told you, she’s a crazy lady.”
Back in her apartment, Helen could not think about sleeping. She felt tensed up inside. She stopped and listened to every noise. It was like her head was filled with blinking yellow warning lights. How could she sleep now? The alarm clock was set go off in less than an hour. She heated leftover coffee and waited for five o’clock a.m.
And in that early morning silence Helen’s mind was loud with thoughts, like how it’s a strange way to live when you really think about it. So many different people crammed into one building. Anything can happen. People are so unpredictable. Appearances only hide what’s inside. Like buildings; even here, at 520 South. Painted and scrubbed and landscaped on the outside, pleasant to look at, but inside who knows what lurks there, hidden in pockets of interior decay and disarray.
Weaknesses within what was once thought as structurally sound.
Helen got off the bus that evening, all those cell phones and not a policeman in sight, and made the weary climb up the stairs to her apartment. All she wanted was to soak in the tub and sink into bed. Her eyes felt droopy. She positioned the apartment key in her fingers; she could almost feel the softness of her pillow. Reaching the landing she turned toward her apartment. Helen slowed at the sight of her doorway.
Sticking out from the thin spacing between door and molding was a big white envelope.