1. Location, Location, Location!
The new antimalarials give me sweat-soaked, screaming night terrors, so I’m often awake. Between caffeine and fear, I’ve developed a pretty good case of chronic insomnia, my brain getting fuzzier and fuzzier as I try to get by on shallow, dozing naps snatched in the early morning, or at work, or on the bus. I have a month to go on these current pills, then I can get the doctors to switch me over to another brand, preferably one of the psychologically gentler synthetic quinines that keep my neuroanatomy from turning itself inside-out each night.
But, because that’s a month away, it is nearly three in the morning and I’m awake and listening to my neighbor through the thin wall that separates our apartments. She’s creeping around, the thin wispy shuffle of socks against carpet and the creaking of floorboards in the kitchen betraying her every step. I hear her opening closets, a tinny click of the lock and the scuff of the particleboard door against the backstop.
It’s not as rude as you think; I’m not being creepy. The first time I heard her moving around was last week, while I paced my own room. Each night since, I have heard her. I try to ignore her until I hear the balcony door open, sliding aside with a hiss into the hot Florida night, followed by a cold chalky rattle that travels through the floor and wall and up my feet. There is a scrapping, a steady beat, and I go out onto my own balcony to see what it was.
2. The Fine Art of Menu Crafting
I stand in the humidity and see an emergency rope ladder has been lowered from my neighbor’s balcony. It is fixed solidly against the jamb of her balcony door, a complex series of knots bracing the webbing to the wood and securing the nylon in place. It creaks with the weight of her body as she climbs down the four stories to the earth below. I see her reach the ground, and then lose her in the shadows as she sprints off through a cloud of mosquitoes in the rain garden. The moon is half-full and the sky is cloudy, but I’m afraid that she will see me watching her, so I go back inside and close my balcony door and listen.
Half an hour later, I hear the scrape of rope and stucco, and know she is ascending. I hear her straining up and over the ledge of her balcony, hear her breathing hard as she hauls the rope ladder back up, hear the door of her balcony slide shut, hear her run the water in her sink, hear her shuffle back to bed, hear the creak of the bed, and then hear nothing as she, presumably, sleeps.
Odd, but not unduly so, not for the four towers on the edge of Gainesville, built as offices before one of the inevitable crashes turned them into efficiencies trapped on the border between the suburbs and the swamps. I dozed after a while, and dreamt of something moving around my apartment, something long and white and empty that crawled up the walls and stared at me from the corners of the room, always behind me or just out of sight.
3. Beer, Wine, and Spirits: A Little Something For Everyone
The next day was Tuesday, which meant it was mail day. It’s supposed to be delivered every day except Sunday, of course, but there’s no way the mailman is going to drive all the way into the swamp to drop it off every single day. Living in the towers means you get your mail of Tuesday, and that’s it.I look forward to Mail Tuesday, because it usually gives me something to read as I fight off sleep in the early evening. I sleep a little on the hour-and-a-half bus ride out of the city, so between my nap and my mail, I might have a fighting chance tonight.
The sheaf of mail in my little box is larger, much larger and much heavier than it has been in the past. It is held together with a thick rubber band, blue and heavy like the ones they use for broccoli bunches. I wrestle the wad out of the band and find that the fecundity of mail is a result of misfiling. My neighbor’s mail has been incorrectly stuffed into my mail box.
Her name is Margaret Summers, and she receives many magazines.
I can’t correct the error by putting the mail into her box, since I don’t have the key to open any box except my own. I will have to take it to her. Upstairs, I knock on her door, but no one answers.
I lay her mail out on the bar that separates the tiny kitchen from the rest of my room, reading her magazines as I drink my beer and take my antimalarials.
“Gaia News” is a combination of Green gardening, composting tips, and survivalist conspiracies; it suggests that the New World Order will soon seize control of the major urban centers of this country, and as such I should be stockpiling heirloom tomato seeds.
“Bookmonger Monthly” is a trade publication, offering articles and analyses of current pricing and sales figures for the competitive world of bookselling. The voice of the editorial is cutthroat, the words steely, and that tone is carried throughout the publication. Bookselling is serious business.
“Hatchet World” sells hatchets, ranging from “classic” wood-handled and red-bladed fireman’s helpers to
terrifying black titanium ampersands with razor edges and tactile grips. They exhibit a dramatic range in price.
“SaucerSpot” is an amateurishly printed and assembled 24-page magazine that assembles, in list form, the major UFO sightings of the last lunar month, organized by country and date. Interspersed between the lists and brief descriptions are foully scatological jokes, typed in larger comic sans font.
“Pacon!” is a newsletter for the Esperanto-speaking community of Central Florida, as announced by the only non-Esperanto bit of text in the magazine. It has high production values and a thick section of classified ads that take up nearly half of the publication.
“The Ouroboros” is the alumni magazine for a university in California, and disguises thinly veiled requests for donations as news about the successes of its students, current and former.
4. Music and Lighting!
It is a strange collection, and I end up reading them well into the night, eating supper over Gaia News, skimming The Ouroboros on the couch, taking SaucerSpot into the bathroom with me several times. I’m drinking tea and reading about the new particle accelerator being installed at Shaver University (thanks to the generous support of the Pickman Foundation) when I hear her stirring next door. It is nearly midnight. I will wait until the morning to return the magazines.
I fall asleep on the couch, dreaming that a small thing is moving around the room, muttering to itself. It is shapeless behind a riot of black fur. It darts from the corner to the futon and then to the bookshelves, the whole time jabbering away in a language I cannot understand. I want to get up and smash it, but I can’t move. I know that when it has finished searching the floor, it will climb up onto the futon and search my body, and I desperately do not want it to touch me.
The sounds from next door wake me up out of the dream, careful steps and opening doors and rattling and scraping. I lay on the couch, listening. It is nearly 3:30 before they stop.
In the morning, a little before 8, I put the rubber band around the magazines and go and knock on her door. She answers, bleary but awake. Her eyes are two different colors, one green and the other very bright blue. She has put many thousands of dollars into snaking, winding tattoos that run up her arms. She thanks me for getting her mail to her. As she takes the packet of magazines, I note that the tips of her fingers are stained black.
To catch the bus to work, I walk through the empty courtyard that anchors the four apartment towers. That morning, it reminds me of an Aztec plaza, abandoned and waiting for the forest to reclaim it. That night, I spend my money and my time out drinking, and do not return home until nearly dawn.
5. Univited Guests: Bugs!
Thursday evening I stop at a camping supply store on the way home, a cavernous structure full of potted trees and fake rocks and dead-eyed trophy heads mounted on the walls. I purchase, for $79.99, mid-range binoculars. Outside of the store, I sit on a concrete bench fronting the highway for 35 minutes waiting for the next bus.
Arriving home, I walk around the back of my building before going in. I pass empty planters, deep concrete bowls algae-slick and buzzing with insects, and come around behind the tower. I walk out into the rain garden, swatting at mosquitoes. I look up, and I can see my corner apartment, the plastic folding chair leaning against the railing of my own balcony. Next door is her apartment. The blinds are drawn on the sliding glass door that leads to her balcony. The sun is going down, and the bugs are getting thick, so I go inside.
Like clockwork, the sounds begin again at three in the morning. I wait until I am sure she has climbed down her rope ladder to step outside with my new binoculars. The moon is brighter, nearly three-quarters full, and there are no clouds. The rope ladder hangs heavily off of her balcony, and I see her stepping carefully off the bottom rung below.
6. Organizing Side Dishes!
She walks into and then out of the declivity of the rain garden, heading off across a patch of centipede grass towards a small hummock of high ground just beyond a scrubby ditch. She has a flashlight, and I watch the oval of light projected on the ground bob and weave as she navigates the dark. Through the binoculars, I can just barely make her out as a dark shape obscuring the flashlight’s beam.
She makes it to the hummock, and crouches down in front of a broad-armed pecan tree. She sets the flashlight down, and its beam illuminates her and the tree’s trunk. Hunkered down, she begins to dig, her body moving rhythmically, metal glinting in her hands. She heaps a pile of dirt up next to the hole she is excavating, reaching deeper in the soil with each scooping stab. Eventually she stops, and reaches into her pocket and leans over the hole, her arm up to the elbow in the earth. She backfills the hole quickly, patting the soil down carefully and then examining her work with the flashlight. She turns and starts walking back to the tower.
I crouch down behind the wall of my balcony. I hear her climb, hear her bring the ladder back up. I wait, holding very still, until I am sure that (if she has followed her previous pattern) she has gone to bed. I stand up and train my binoculars on the spot under the pecan tree, but see nothing.
I watch until dawn, sitting in my chair and drinking coffee and pissing in a bottle so I can keep the pecan tree in sight at all times. Nothing happens. Birds begin to call as the sun starts to warm the sky. It is a little before six in the morning when I decide to go down to the tree.
7. Frisbees for Everyone!
I hurry down the stairs, around the building, through the rain garden, over the ditch, up the hummock, and under the pecan tree. The disturbed soil is easy to spot, churned and cleared of grass. I do not have a spade, but I have a pocket knife and the dirt is loose. I dig down, four inches, six inches, eight inches, until I find hard packed soil at the bottom on the hole. I expand outwards, left and right and towards me, moving all the loose dirt I find until I run into packed, undisturbed soil on all sides. Moisture begins to ooze into the bottom of the hole.
I sift the loose dirt through my fingers, but find nothing there. I stand up and kick the dirt back into the hole, tamping it down with my foot. There is nothing buried under the tree, she left nothing behind in the soil.
I stop in the rain garden and look up at our apartments. Hers is still and quiet. Looking closer through the binoculars I can see where using the rope ladder has abraded the stucco on her ledge. I scan over to my balcony, still looking through the binoculars. The blinds behind my sliding door have been drawn shut, and they ripple with movement. As I watch, the kitchen light goes off.
The dew has soaked through my sneakers, and I can feel my socks getting wet. I have my wallet in my pocket. How far away can I get on what I have with me, I wonder?