A bizarre adventure of friends and foes, humor and menace, reality and fantasy, and love and loneliness.
I was asleep when the van rolled up. Some nights it comes screeching in at two am, other nights it might be five, but it’s always guaranteed the grumbling and sputtering sounds of the engine will snap me out of whatever dream I’m having. The van’s the type with two large, rusted doors in the back with no windows, making it impossible to see what’s inside. You'd have to stand on a chair to look in the front seat. And if you did, like I did, all you’d see is a stack of crushed beer cans, broken CDs, and crumpled newspapers from two years ago. It’s ominous, and the dark cloud of exhaust that follows it around clings to the van like a cape. The van belongs to the neighbor who lives directly below me, Patrick. He’s old and drunk and spends the afternoons in his second car with a beer in his hand. It’s his drinking car. I walk past him everyday, and usually give him a nod and a slight wave. He tells me stories about his past as I walk by, and part of me wants to stay, listen, and chat, but if I stick around long enough, they always turn into slurred rants about how he hates being called a Mexican or about the fights he gets into over parking spaces. Not that the rants are bad, but I find it hard to answer him when he starts asking me questions.
He once pointed his finger at me and asked, “Are you a Mexican?” while tossing a switch blade high in the air and catching it in between his fingers.
“Yes,” I told him. “I mean no. My parents you see... Well I was always told I was Mexican, but I was born in Houston. I guess I’m Mexican-American. I’m an American. My parents you see...”
“Heck of an answer, kid. You went to college?”
“Graduated last year.”
“Yeah, and I got a minor in-”
“Political science,” Patrick and I said at the same time.
“Figures.” Patrick took a sip of beer.
At two twenty five in the morning, the scrap metal of agony dragged itself into the parking lot and woke me from a dream about Mt. Fuji in a kaleidoscope of colors. I remember telling someone, “Wow, this is just like a dream.” The person next to me pointed to the peak, opened his mouth, and-
The van door slammed shut and classic tejano music with the accordion on every beat blared from his car stereo. Patrick sang and drunkenly mumbled along with it.
As I drifted back to sleep, Patrick’s half-mumbling, half-opera audition fused into a memory of him telling me about Lee, my one next door neighbor on the second floor. Lee is the quiet type who doesn’t even say hi on the rare chances we see each other. He told me Lee tried to kill himself a while back. It was a different time and a different place, so I don’t even know how Patrick found out about the story, but he tells it like he witnessed it firsthand. Lee turned on the faucet to the bath, took some pills and fell asleep with the water running. The tub overflowed and started seeping through the floor, dripping into the apartment below. It didn’t take long before the whole bathroom caved in and crashed next to the man who lived in the apartment below while he was eating dinner. An ambulance was called and they saved his life. Or at least, that’s the way Patrick told it.
I was at the base of Mt. Fuji once again. A rail car passed, packed full of people. “It’s like a dream.” The sky was a light purple and white, blooming flowers floated down from the sky. The ground shook, the rainbow mountain crumbled to pieces, and I was awake once again.Only this time, it was not Patrick’s van or his music that woke me. Someone was knocking at the door. But not my door, Lee’s door, and not knocking but bluntly and relentlessly banging. Three loud thumps, and I pulled my nice feather blanket over my ears. Three more thumps, slow and deliberate. The type of thumps that say, we know you’re in there.
“We know you’re in there!” A muffled voice pierced through the thin walls of the apartment. The banging and yelling continued. I turned on the music from my phone and the outside noise slowly blended into the music as I fell asleep.
As I was leaving and locking up my apartment the next morning, Lee was outside painting his door. And without realizing, a full sentence refused to stay in my head and bypassed any mental processing. “What are you trying to cover up?” Not that I thought he was covering anything up, but in a way he was. Poorly chosen words, but I stood by them like it was exactly what I meant to say.
Lee, unalarmed by my sudden outburst, calmly replied, “Needed a new coat, the afternoon sun fades it quickly.” His voice is so pleasant and light. He should read books out loud for a living.
I looked back at my door for comparison, to see if this was in fact a logical explanation, and my door was significantly lighter and sun worn. “Think you could touch up mine too,” I asked, critically looking the door up and down.
“No,” Lee replied.
I shrugged and walked down the stairs.
“You got an extra cigarette?” Joel spat as he leaned against his door. It was like he wasn't even talking to me. He was staring off into the distance and only met my eyes when he was done asking. Patrick’s next door neighbor is a skinny white man, Joel, who’s always asking for a cigarette and scratching at his neck. He has a habit of waiting outside his door every morning and pretending to stare off like he’s minding his own business.
“Nah. Sorry man,” I said, and continued on my way to the bakery. I got a job rolling out various kind of dough and cutting it into various kinds of shapes around two weeks ago, a little after I moved in. I sometimes see Joel out by the dumpster with his girlfriend, digging through the trash for clothes and furniture, and he puts all of the aluminum cans he finds into a bag. I don’t judge, but I do wonder what the man does for a living. An hour rolling out dough at the bakery could buy him two packs.
When I got home from work there was a cardboard box on my doormat. On it was a sticky note with handwriting that looked like it belonged to a third grader. “For next time,” it said. I opened the box up and there were two packs of cigarettes. They didn’t have a recognizable brand name, but a light green sticker that looked handmade, and in a semi-fancy cursive scrawl read, “Las Colinas No.2, Premium Mint Flavored Cigarettes made from Mt. Fuji’s Finest Tobacco.” The cigarettes themselves looked like they were rolled by hand in light green paper, each one bearing the cursive print, “Las Colinas,” the name of our apartment complex.
Joel's idea of a prank? I stuffed one pack in my pocket and threw the extra on the couch.
At one in the morning, I peeked out of my kitchen window to see if Patrick was home yet, I’d rather stay up until an absurd time than to get to sleep just to be woken up. There was nothing outside but the woods. Our building is at the edge of the complex. There are no fences separating Las Colinas from nature, just a small bumpy road dividing our semi-civilization from woods. It’s a small price to pay for the small price I pay.
Surely enough, the moment I closed my eyes the van screeched in like a dying dog, and I looked out my window to see what Patrick was doing. He hopped out of his van and stretched. His mouth moved, like he was talking to himself, and he pulled out a beer can from his inner pocket, taking a swig and tossing the fucking thing over his shoulder! He opened the back doors of his van, and I put my hands and face up to the window to try to see what was back there. I like to wonder. He slammed one door shut and threw his hands in the air, walking in a quick circle before heading off across the street and deep into the woods.
I walked outside in barefeet, only to reach the edge of the stairs before second guessing myself. I looked back and Lee was staring out through his blinds and into the woods with a pair of binoculars. I walked down the stairs, and there, leaning up against his own door, was Joel. “You got an extra cigarette?” I reached into my pocket and pulled one out. “Thanks man. Got a lighter?” I shook my head.
I made my way up the little concrete path, ducked under a tree, pulled out my flashlight, and stood in front of the open door of Patrick’s van.