“My upstairs neighbor is converting his toilet into a public toilet.”
1. My upstairs neighbor is converting his toilet into a public toilet. He says he’s submitted zoning forms and he’s already calling it my public space, but I never see him walk upstairs carrying jugs of soap, or a mop—he just calls it a public bathroom and the public are already using it.
2. In the beginning, when the public saw me sitting on the porch, they would stay on the sidewalk and not mount my steps, seeing as how I’d give them the eye to make them feel guilty, guilty to approach my private residence. And I’d wear an orange cap with a bank logo on it, my bank’s, to project a sense of importance.
“Morning,” I’d say. “Good morning,” which is heavier than hello, heavier because I’d say it until almost noon, so they’d have to think, ‘Is it really still morning?’ and realize that oh yes it was, and then they’d feel the weight of me being right. But now they walk straight on up. Sometimes I hear the toilet rush in Oscar’s apartment, on the second, final floor.
3. Now they’ve taken the porch. One of the regulars who uses Oscar’s bathroom I call Baseball because he always wears the same damn Orioles jacket. That swish, zip, swish sound of sleeve against rib usually slices some sort of silence, usually mine, while I’m trying to write my poetry. Oscar’s at grad school during his visits.
And I know Baseball wanders in Oscar’s apartment. I hear a distant lightswitch flick loudly, the latch catch on the microwave door, the roar of the television while I’m trying to read my Reader’s Digest. I get suspicious.
4. I try talking to Oscar on the porch while they’re all upstairs. Spring is turning so the neighborhood smells like clothesline and citronella. We drink wet cans of Schlitz and Oscar uses a pocketknife to sliver a small triangle near the mouth of his can, which he claims will allow him to drink faster. I let him cut mine, not because I am a guzzler, but because I want to feel young too.
I ask him if he’s ever afraid they’ll steal anything.
“I’m not. We say we’re afraid of helping people like this. At least we tell ourselves that. Like how some people are afraid of spiders but not ladybugs. They’re both bugs, right? So you know what I think it is? We say we’re afraid, but in the end it’s just the effort we’re afraid of. We just hate f.ing doing these things, you know?”
I’m flailing at this a little, but I try not to show it. “…So it’s an effort thing with you then?”
“Sort of. It’s like, have you ever seen that show, Going Green with Ease? It’s just this guy doing as little as possible to make a difference. Like for him, cutting up six-pack rings would be too much effort.”
“Do the birds still get stuck in those rings?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“I haven’t seen those commercials for a while, with the ducks.”
He says, “I feel like we’ve advanced past that by now. When was that, the nineties?”
“It was the late nineteen-eighties,” I say.
“Do you still cut yours?”
“I do, but it is more out of habit than anything else. Keep going.”
“Well with the show it’s like, very little effort equals change. They got it right. I mean, with my situation right now…I don’t want to say it’s a quick route to my idea of social justice, but that’s it.”
I don’t know if I’m angry because Oscar is doing what he said—the least amount of effort for the most payoff—while I’ve been here, watching the neighborhood rise like a phoenix, until this.
5. My umbrella is missing. My umbrella is missing, so I go around tearing up towels, kicking down boxes to find it. I hear rain bounce off the air conditioner. Of course it is raining. Of course it is raining. Of course you only realize the loss of an umbrella under a storm. Outside, like under a bus shelter, or a public library, they sit where they can. Oscar’s there too, leaning on the railing, but I bet behind his back his hands grip the rails.
I say to Baseball, “Have you seen my umbrella?” I stare at the others to imply conspiracy.
“You can’t find it?” says Baseball.
Oscar, his face the jumbled redness of a morning spent trying to please everyone, says, “You can’t find it, Frank?”
I look out at the chalk-white sky, and then down at the muddy tracks they made, a mat of tracks leading upstairs. “Hey! What’s worse than a public bathroom?” I pose to Oscar and his audience. “A wet public bathroom.” And then I stick out my tongue and slam the door.
In the rain I have to walk to the subway.
When it is time for the jobbed to return home, I walk back from PNC, where I am a part-time teller. I let the afternoon shade, through the leaves, draw lattices on my face. I want to say to them, “Since I was just released from my job, I am in a hurry to go home and relax. Please, public, let me pass without speaking. Let me go home to my poetry.” My stoop is packed with public. “Excuse me!” I say. I accidently clip one of them on the side with my bag. He sways like a knockabout doll and then replants on the step.
6. Oh of course I could walk upstairs. Of course I could. But I have my own bathroom right here, thank you, tiles as blue and clean as glass cleaner. I wonder if Oscar’s switched from…what does he use…those black bars of oatmeal soap, to the public dispensers? Of course, Oscar’s black bars of oatmeal soap are my own invention, but they’re a trait I pin to him. The people in my life are not that complex. Oscar has more or less bended to the view I had of him when he moved in one year ago. And even when he turns from his type—like the time I caught him on the porch trying to read a romance novel—I know the move is conscious. He accepts his type but sets…forked left turns to keep himself interesting.
Oscar’s a good kid, but his head is too open. He lets too many people mull around in it and then I have to see everything. And this is what happens when you ask him a question; you ask, “Oscar, do you think the rich should pay for the poor?”
And if he doesn’t know, he’ll animate. People tell me sometimes that the way I see the world is too tinged with poetry, but I swear, Oscar animates. Not in a way that suggests nervousness, but a customer service sort of chattiness comes over him. He’ll start exhausting these “I think” and “I feel that”s until he’s blue.
He probably sincerely wants to help people. I imagine he was raised in the suburbs and learned at the good schools there. You know, he told me he wrote poetry once, and he said it wasn’t that good, and I’m sure it’s not. Oscar has just enough grooming to be disappointing.
7. There is a crossing guard who patronizes Oscar’s bathroom. She lurches up our stoop, engulfed in banister. You try to ignore her, but when there is such a croak in her step it becomes obscenely apparent, like a carhorn, the same key as your morning alarm. Her ascent must take at least six minutes and I bet it’s by watching her that that’s how all the public learned what was up there. She might pinch the spine of a magazine from the recycling and flip it into the air…and I, like a kite string, follow the flutter, from one floor under, into another room. When it lands I collapse on the couch.
As more of them shuffle upstairs, I begin to determine the exact shape of Oscar’s apartment. Before I’d be following single strays, my head ramped, waiting for sounds to signal rooms. But as Oscar’s apartment begins brimming over with public, their bodies fill in a map. A black sponge painting of shoeprints. I know they go through his bureau, slip his socks on their hands and talk through them. I imagine it would be hard to write poetry with socks on your hand, though Oscar would be easy to puppet. My God, what if they’ve made one of me.
8. Dinner grows difficult. One night, I am pan-frying fish. And as the food pops and crackles and the first tuft of steam wafts up and unfolds against the ceiling, I hear a drop above like bowling pins. I look up. I know they are sniffing the floor, like dogs. I push open my kitchen window, clear the cobwebs, and try waving the steam outside.
They are destroying the pleasure of my meal alone, and it is rare for one who lives alone to love anything more than a meal. Oh how I wish I had my umbrella, to make a canopy over the steam. But they’ve taken it. So I try to find my fan, to blow the steam away. I rummage through the closet but I can’t find the fan. I can’t find the fan. I’m afraid that if love found me I wouldn’t know it was love because I’d be too busy picking out its faults. I walk to the bedroom, get under the covers, but then I feel something slippery on my foot. I reach down. It is my umbrella. Of course it was hidden the whole time. Of course I was wrong. I’m reminded why I am living alone, old. I let the wet paper towel thoughts snake from my eyes. I stay like this.
9. Selecting the object to heave against the ceiling, to make the noise above recede like a wave, was a tough choice. At first I used a broom, but now I spear chopsticks up there. I hurl my darts, then shield my head with my arms as they fall back to Earth. Heavy-stepped public stop stomping to tiptoe, those who knowingly stray into other rooms leap like fire dancers. I make them hop! One night after such a mission I hear a knock on the door. I unsheathe the drapes from the front window, and through the glass, Baseball. He smiles. “Come upstairs?” he says. I shake my head and use a certain finger to point back up toward Oscar’s apartment.
10. I see Oscar sitting alone on the porch one morning, so I go outside with plans to confront him. He looks exhausted, sweating. Oscar’s wearing this hooded sweatshirt with a big lightning bolt surging across the chest. “I never wear this out anymore,” he says. “It’s for this record label…but I don’t think I’m the kind of person who likes it. I think I’m getting tired of it.” And then he looks up. “I’m getting so tired of it,” he says. And I look up to where he’s looking.
11. The mailman has problems stepping around them. He has to look for bare gray slats on which to step, instead of the stomachs or legs of those sleeping. It is I who keep bringing him back. I’ve been ordering more and more things, replacements for the things I’ve lost: tiny drink umbrellas, semi-automatic wine openers, beach towels. As the mailman steps he raises his mailbag to avoid the heads of the public. I keep bringing him back because I like watching a different person deal with my problems.
12. Now it’s as if my life has broken in two. In the cellar, I set my laundry basket on the futon. Oh, futon. When one gets older, futon is the first word to go. Then I hear footsteps upstairs—upstairs in my apartment. I throw a wire hanger skyward and it hits the ceiling and flips off the water heater and the footsteps stop. I hurry up the stairs and through the alley to the porch. I kick open the door and see them all in my living room. The crossing guard plays Scrabble with a guy I recognize from 18th Street. A bird-drenched woman watches television. Baseball bows over my copy of The Bell Jar. “Get out!” I scream. And they all look at me. “You belong up there!” I say. “Not in here! Not in my life.”
Baseball comes up to me. “Frank,” he says, “We want you to know we’re there for you.”
“Out,” I say.
“You know, we can hear you, too.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. Then the crossing guard stands up and walks closer. She says, “We hear you crying.”
I flail at this for a moment. Then I notice Oscar’s bike leaning against the banister. He walks in the door and addresses me, the adult. “Frank, I need to tell you that I’m moving out tomorrow. I’m really sorry about this.”
“What?” I say.
“It’s too much to handle. I’ve already spent literally a hundred dollars, just on soap and toilet paper. And I’ve met someone. I can’t even bring people over now. Frank, if…hey, I just can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.”
And then we regard each other.
The public all leave, defeated. Oscar follows, and he walks his bike down the stoop and pedals off.
I step outside and I see Baseball slouched on the bench. I collapse next to him.
He begins by telling me about the dissolution of his first marriage. “I remember telling her how terrible it would be if we broke up. We had so many favorite movies. Songs too.” And he starts humming something, then stops and stares at the floor. “And when I hear those songs again, it feels like they’re off limits to me now. I have to start getting new songs. I have to relearn a lot of things.”
He tells me that depression is an intense inward-turning.
“You know,” he says, “I think you would like it with us.”
“I decline,” I say. “What’s up there is not part of my life.”
“Don’t compartmentalize,” he says. “Everything is your life.” Then he looks around like he was hoping no one had heard him. “That was not supposed to sound large.”
I push some dry leaves aside with my toe and they scrape at the silence. “You know,” I say. “I call you Baseball, but what is your name?”
“It’s Eddie, Frank.” And we shake hands, but he holds onto mine, and then we stand up together.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.