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I was twenty-four and unemployed after being sacked from my strip club bouncer job. An acquaintance I ran into mentioned a vacancy at a property management company owned by his cousins, two brothers— Dave and Samuel Rains. The nondescript company had only seven employees who worked out of a tiny, dimly lit suite of a gray skyscraper. The position’s title, Property Associate, was vague enough for any adult to be able to sink into, and the duties seemed minimal. The acquaintance noted that the owners were looking for someone “enthusiastic” and “spunky” to fill the spot.
I chuckled. “Do I look enthusiastic and spunky to you?”
The brothers took to me right away. Maybe because my acquaintance was their cousin. Or because I did not complain about the minimum wage that they offered, or the kennel they assigned to me. After five sordid months of unemployment, I relished the plaque with my name on the door. It was either this gig or working fast food where employment references did not carry weight.
The Rains brothers, my intense internet research revealed, were the owners of the forty-floor skyscraper that housed their grubby little business, as if they were any other tenants and not the owners of the whole tower.
I’d like to believe that the brothers’ interest in me, and not my proximity to their wealth, anchored me and gave me purpose. Before finding employment with them, I was a man adrift; described with disappointment by the few I let into my life as cold and wanting.
It was during one of our Thursday evening socials at a shirt-and-tie pizzeria restaurant housed in one of the properties owned by the brothers, when a disheveled young woman ran inside, screaming over the pleasant hum of conversation. It was difficult to make sense of her, but I gathered she was one of the brothers’ tenants. I assumed it was an eviction, which I myself had been a victim of in my earlier days. After being expelled from school for instigating a knife fight, and in a cloud of anger moving out of my father’s home to strike out on my own, I stumbled through young adult life like a bull in a ring.
I escorted the woman out of the restaurant. After all, I was a former strip-club bouncer, experienced in dealing with throngs of horny, inebriated fools. I knew how I appeared to others: unleashed and mountainous. Taking a bird-like girl barely five feet tall by the elbow, and pushing her out the doors of the restaurant was nothing short of blowing on a feather. In fact, it got my blood rumbling like a fast-moving train over train tracks, and when I reentered the restaurant and approached the brothers, I was smiling.
The following week, I was in my office filling in a spreadsheet with information about tenants in danger of eviction—it was a long list of about three dozen—when I received an e-mail from Dave Rains inviting me to a Sunday service at a highbrow Park Avenue church. The invitation made me snicker and roll my eyes, I was not a fan of cults, which is what religion was to me, but I felt a pleasant, warm tickle somewhere close to my heart. My father was the last adult to express any real interest in me, and after severing all ties with him years ago, I began to grow a dark void inside me. Dave and Samuel Rains were in their mid-forties, younger than my father, yet their self-made wealth and status gave them a kind of parental hue.
I was early to the service. I sat inside on one of the cushioned pews, the interior warm and drowsy. I stared up at Jesus on a cross, trying to remember how old I was when my savagely Italian father dragged me—kicking and screaming—to a flimsy, uncomfortable, poorly attended church. Once the appointed hour approached, I walked out into the frozen street to wait for Dave Rains, my heart beating just a tad faster.
With Dave Rains beside me, the service seemed to last a minute. It was short and well-said, staying away from uncomfortable topics. I was in a bit of a haze, feeling underdressed, without a jacket and tie, but savoring Dave’s and his wife’s presence. His wife was dressed in a creamy white suit. Her black curls, golden skin, lilac perfume, and a red manicure an intoxicating brew. She was middle aged, yet, to me, she appeared to be one of the most beautiful women I had ever spoken to. She liked to place her palm on one’s knee, or forearm, or shoulder and give it a gentle squeeze, as her raven-dark eyes stared deeply, coquettishly. Although not immune to a woman’s charms, I do not fall victim easily (and never have); a fact I am most proud of.
After the service, the devotees spilled out onto the snow-covered street like precious jewels, emanating an expensive glow that I, an outsider, was particularly aware of. Dave nodded at me and said: “You see, this is what gives me power. Belief!”
We headed to a bar several blocks down. Once inside, the bar made one forget the time of day. It was dim and noisy, bubbling with patrons. We sat in a corner around a little red table, Dave across from me, and his wife between us. She did not say much, except for small purrs here and there, her fingers wrapped around an olive martini, leaning into Dave and looking at him with adoration.
“Samuel and I,” Dave began, “were talking about the great job you did at the pizza restaurant last week. You surprised us! Everyone just kind of looked at each other waiting for someone to do something. You jumped into action. You escorted her out the door. We like that. Men of action are valuable.”
Dave’s wife leaned closer to me, transporting me to a field of lilacs.
She whispered, her lips two inches away from my mouth: “That woman has been stalking me.”
“Have you gone to the police?” I asked looking from one pair of troubled eyes to the other.
Dave gave a slight shake of the head. “We can’t have our name out there, associated with something like this.”
I took a sip of my beer.
At my last job, a couple of strippers needed protection from male stalkers. The men watched them. Approached them on the street. Followed them home. I took care of that. I knew how to deal with that kind of human waste.
I remembered how fragile the crazed young woman’s bird-like bones felt in my tight grip and I put my glass down, as if it weighed a ton, the beer wedging in my throat like a fish bone.
I cleared my throat. “What’s her beef?” I asked.
I could tell from Dave’s silence that he was thinking what to reveal and what to keep hidden.
Finally, he said: “She is in a rent-stabilized apartment engaging in prostitution. She was asked to change her behavior, but the situation has not resolved itself. Now, she just needs to go.”
Obviously, I knew where the girl lived. I put on a blue jacket that said “Leaks and Plumbing” in bold lettering that I purchased at a Halloween store, and at a reasonable hour approached her apartment complex, named The Majestic, which was owned by Samuel Rains. The twenty-three-floor building was sleek with large, sunny windows, balconies, and a rooftop swimming pool. Like heartburn, the luxury reminded me of all the things I could not afford. Last month I moved out of my buddy’s roach-infested apartment into a basement studio, also roach-infested.
The doorman welcomed me with a smile and a bow. “Ah, yes! The leak!” he uttered, as if I was there to perform brain surgery. He called the girl’s apartment and I could hear her bird-like chirps. She must have been protesting because the doorman said, “No, no, no, Miss. The residents above you have a leak and we need to make sure there is nothing wrong with your apartment.”
I gave the doorman a quick wink and boarded the elevator, which was mirrored and smelled of citrus. Classical music softly played. I stood in its midpoint, trying not to come into contact with its walls, as if my very touch would soil it.
The girl opened the door, her lips in an exaggerated arc, like I was last month’s milk. My hat was pulled low over my forehead, and my face sported a two-week-old beard. The girl stared at me a second too long, and I knew she recognized me, but could not place me. I hurried into her apartment, before she realized who I was.
It took a few moments for my eyes to adjust, it was dim inside. Odd, considering the time of day.
The first thing I noticed was an enormous scaffold outside her window. The scaffold was piled high with debris and wooden planks, preventing natural light from illuminating the studio.
She grimaced. “It has been there for three months now.”
The second thing I noticed was the stench of mold.
I rubbed my eyes and said: “Would you mind if we turn on the light?”
She did not budge and she said nothing.
In the silence, I could hear her brainwaves frantically trying to figure out who I was.
A movement in the corner of the room drew my eye. A large cockroach confidently marched across the floor.
She walked over to the light switch and flipped it on. Or off. No light came.
“Voila!” she spat.
I was prepared to enter unsavouriness, considering the charge of prostitution lodged against her, but I did not expect to find an apartment in utter meltdown.
A wave of disgust rolled through me. She could never afford an apartment like this, and look what she did to it. If the state had bestowed on me an apartment in The Majestic, I would have treated it like my own flesh and blood. I pulled my hat off and stared at the bird-girl.
She stared back at me.
And then her little beak opened as if she was about to receive a chewed-up worm from her mama-bird.
“You work for them!” she screeched. “You grabbed me at the restaurant! Get out, you prick!”
I ambled, heavy and bear-like, and as I squeezed past her, I paused for a moment, letting her feel her bird-like smallness, letting her realize her helplessness.
It didn’t take much to find out where the bird-girl worked. She was a waitress at a café.
I watched her through the large, stained windows as I mooched on the sidewalk. She wore her hair in a thick braid, the very end of which tickled her rear. I watched her smile and laugh and giggle, and look serious, her forehead creasing as she took orders, and as she rushed back and forth balancing plates and glasses on a tray, her little bird-body looking sad and ant-like.
By early afternoon, the lunch crowds had thinned. When I stepped inside, she plastered a robotic smile on her face. Her smile melted as soon as our eyes met, leaving behind a pale mask of fear. I took a seat without her inviting me to do so.
“Excuse me,” I called out to her, my hand in the air. I knew what I was there for. I knew the unpleasant nature of my business, and I did not want to make things worse than need be.
“Excuse me,” I called out to her again, giving her a harmless grin.
She looked around, as if searching for somebody to save her, before edging toward me.
Her hand trembled as she took my order of deviled eggs. I took note of that fact, without taking pleasure in it.
My food appeared five minutes later. Another waiter rushed it out of the kitchen.
Hey,” I called out to him. “Where is the nice waitress that took my order?” I wondered. “I wanted to give her a nice tip.”
The waiter smiled back and whispered: “She wasn’t feeling well so she left early.”
I left my new waiter a hefty tip, and then approached him and asked to use the café phone. I dialed the bird-girl’s number and when she picked up, I made little bird sounds. Little tweet-tweet-tweet noises, and listened to her gasping silence.
I had the window down of the rental car. Like a criminal breaking out of jail, a gleam of sunshine squeezed through the heavy, low hanging clouds. The skyscrapers around me stood dark and silent, sinking into the gray mist.
I watched the bird-girl, her hair braided, walk out of The Majestic, her eyes downcast.
I pulled out of my parking spot and crept down the street, the long, bouncing braid gleamed in front of me like a target at a shooting range.
She turned and, the light being green, stepped down from the curb onto the street. I hit the accelerator and headed for her and she froze in the middle of the street, her mouth a gaping hole inside her pale bird-face.
I slammed on the breaks and the car screeched into submission three feet away from her.
I held her eyes with mine in a chokehold. I was no longer staring into a pair of human eyes. At the epicenter of her eyeballs, surrounded by hazel seas, a pair of black horizontal oblong pupils of a prey were watching me with resignation.
I knew what she was going to do.
Tomorrow, she was going to take the bus on the corner. She was going to get off on the seventh stop, walk across the street, enter one gray skyscraper, and take the elevator to the nondescript, dimply lit office suite on the eighth floor. She was going to knock on the brown door. She was going to be pleasant and smiling as she hands over the keys to her apartment. When asked, politely, why she was vacating such a nice (rent-stabilized) apartment, she was going to apologize profusely and say that she was going out of town to take care of an aging relative.
I knew what I was going to do also.
I was going to be courteous and kind. I was going to retrieve the paperwork for her to sign. And as she was taking the pen from me, she was going to shudder. And as she was signing, her hand was going to tremble, and her signature was going to have a tiny little wobble in one of the letters. And only I was going to know the story behind the wobble, but I was going to take no pleasure in it.
After living in the real world, Julia discovered she prefers to reside in the fictitious one. Her short story, "Raven Eye" is forthcoming in Sundial Magazine. Most recently, her stories appeared in Suspense Magazine, and Wilderness House Literary Review. She just completed the second draft of her first novel.