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The Gnome


February 2, 2012 by marcus


I need my rent money before the fifteenth this man says to me. He’s my landlord and he lives beneath me in the basement apartment with his wife and dogs. I don’t know how many dogs and I don’t know what they look like because I’ve never seen them but I’ve heard them. I’ve heard them at three, four, five o’clock in the morning. Howling and moaning. It sounds as if they are conjuring demons. I’ve told my landlord about the dogs that howl and moan in the middle of the night and my landlord wiggles the toothpick that’s plugged into the side of his mouth and looks at me like he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and I look at him like how could you not know what I’m talking about when I hear the dogs howling upstairs in my flat and you live in the same room as them, I guess, unless him and his wife are not home at three, four, five o’clock in the morning. There is no way they could not hear the dogs howling. And I can’t think of a reason why they wouldn’t be home at that ungodly hour. What could possibly be going on down there?

I’ve seen my landlord in his ugly light blue van out on the street. It’s a beat up old Dodge with a mangled wire coat hanger antenna. I’ve seen it idling near our apartment and I’ve looked in the window and seen my landlord in there, just sitting there staring straight ahead as if he’s forgotten that he’s sitting in a van idling. My landlord’s name is Owen Cabot. He looks like a gnome and is squat and has one of them thick mountain man beards and a thick bowl cut brown head of hair like he’s out of some Hobbit movie or something. I can’t complain to the Hobbit about the dogs right now because my rent is months overdue. He tells me this, he tells me I’m months behind and then he tells me he needs his rent money by the fifteenth and now I have to avoid him and check up and down the block when I enter and exit my apartment building because I don’t want to run into him. My brother paid his portion of the rent but he’s not trying to put up for me and I don’t blame him. My brother put up for me before and this is the way it is, I don’t have money. I gotta find a job.

When my landlord showed us the apartment there were these disturbing paintings in the common stairwell. And when I say disturbing I mean awful garish colors and portions of faces all distorted and snarled looking and thick oil paint that looks slapped on too thick. They look like some demonic nightmare from hell. I purposely look to the ground when I enter and exit my apartment because they aren’t what you want to see when you’re starting or ending your day. They are the landlord’s wife’s paintings. I’m shocked that she considers herself a painter. I’m shocked that she has the audacity to put these framed images in the hallway of their apartment building. The only use I can see, and this isn’t much of a stretch, is that if I was a thief and I was breaking into this building and I looked up and saw these fucked up paintings I might turn around and leave. My brother has threatened more than a handful of times to take them down. That lady who is married to our landlord runs a florist business and does big high-end corporate jobs and I just don’t get it. My brother says he’s seen her walking the streets drunk and mumbling to herself and I’m like, where? And he tells me up and down Seventh Avenue and I’m like, shut up, and he shrugs his shoulders as if to show me that he doesn’t care if I believe him or not, and so I say, get out of here, and he just flips channels on the television and then I ask him, why?, because I want to keep the conversation afloat and figure out who the hell lives below my room, and he’s like, why what? And I can’t seem to make sense of these two folks and their demon dogs that howl through the night.

I come home and my landlord’s wife is parked on the steps in the common stairwell and she smells like vodka and not like a couple of drinks vodka, she smells like she’s been binging for a couple few days because it’s coming out her pores and her lips look all glossy and wet and swollen and red like folks who drink vodka for days look. I know she’s there because she needs to collect my rent money and now is drunked up and who knows what kind of trouble she’s going to start. I’m thinking she must want some cash to get another bottle of vodka. I’m cold busted because she’s been there waiting for me to come home and I don’t have the money because I can’t find a job. I’m trying to think of the best way to tell her this when she tells me she lost her key and can’t get into her apartment. I’m relieved but then I’m thinking that I hope she doesn’t think she’s staying in my place. I’m feeling all put on the spot because it’s cold out and she’s looking all pathetic like she’s homeless and I’m like, do you want to use the phone? I’m trying to sound all accommodating and hospitable because I owe them a whole gang of money and she’s like, I want to get into my apartment and she tells me she can get into her place through the back door in our kitchen and I’m like, oh? Then I remember the door in the kitchen, and I remember that it doesn’t have a lock on it so my brother had shoved a bunch of crap up against the door so no one could get up into our place. I move all the crap and that lady stumbles down into her apartment and I’m like, see you later, and I catch a glimpse of their apartment that looks all dark and musty. I shut the door and put all the crap back up against the door and I’m wondering why these folks live down in the basement when they own an entire brownstone and I’m thinking what kind of a place is it down there because it sounds as if they have three or four dogs and then the two of them and the place can’t be all that big.

I have to find a job and this one lady named Anika tells me to go to a temp agency because they’ll pay you that week, which is exactly what I need, so I have got to get to that temp agency. I don’t have money for the train. This is how broke I am. I’m so broke I don’t even have money to get on the goddamn train to go and try to get a job from this temp agency. I go up into my brother’s room and shovel change off his dresser into my hand. I see some silver and some quarters so I’m thinking I’m in pretty good shape. I ride the F train to Forty-Second Street and get up out the train and look for number Four-hundred and Fifty Madison Avenue, which is actually on Forty-Second Street not Madison Avenue. I go up into this outfit called Quality Temps. I go in the door and there are all kinds of folks sitting in chairs looking as pathetic as myself. The guys have leather jackets over shirts and ties, print sweaters with buttoned down shirts poking out of the collars, worn-looking black shoes, worn-looking brown shoes, the ladies are in dresses, solid muted colors, with half-ass looking hems that are bunched up just over the knees and platform shoes that look torturous on their stocking covered feet. I’m a bit disturbed by the age range of these folks who are out of work. Some of them look to be around my age but then there are folks that look middle-aged and in their forties, and it’s just sad, and then there are folks who look to be in their fifties and sixties and that just bothers me and what if I’m like fifty and out of work and I have to go to some sad ass place called Quality Temps to try and find a job, but that’s never going to happen because I’m in a band and once we get our record deal I’ll be set up for life.

I go to what I think is the front desk and there is a lady behind the desk who talks on the phone and doesn’t look at me. She says to whoever she’s on the phone with, no you di-in’t, and then she says it again an octave higher and then that lady behind the desk says, nu-uh, a couple of times, smacks her gum three times quick, and then swivels her chair and flips one leg up over the other leg and pushes a clip board in my direction without looking at me. This lady has nails that stick two to three inches off the end of her fingers and are a mixture of three gaudy, unmentionable colors and there’s sparkly stuff and a little fake heart diamond stud in the middle of her thumbnail. Her hair is slapped across the front of her forehead in either direction and pushed towards the ears and then falls not quite to her shoulders and I bet she pays someone good money for this hairstyle. I bet she gets her hair did once a week to look like this. I bet she coughs up a whole gang of cash to have this done to her hair.

There is a sheet of paper on the clipboard that looks as if it’d been photocopied eight hundred times and I strain my eyes to make sense of it. It has all the usual stuff about name, address, phone number, recent employment and what not, all the stuff that is on my resume, so after a while I began filling in the blank spaces with the words, “see resume”. I hand the lot of it back to the lady with the nails who ignored my presence, and she glances at the paper, flips it over and frowns. Then she does the unthinkable and speaks to me. She tells me I need to fill out each section and I try to tell her that the same information in those sections is in my resume but she has already gone back to her phone conversation and swivels her chair away from me. I do what she tells me to do because that’s what you do when you’re unemployed, you do what you’re told to do and you do it with a smile on your face.

I’m trying to get a hold of my brother and I can’t and this is a terribly messed up situation I’m in and I really need to speak to him. I really need him to bail me out but he’s not answering his phone and I can’t figure out why. Where could he possibly be? How could he possibly not answer his phone? If I can’t get in touch with him I’m screwed. I’m in a wrinkled blue dress shirt that I found in the back of my brother’s closet and grey tie and I’m wearing a v-neck undershirt beneath this shirt and I have pleated khaki’s on that are bloused and church socks that make my feet sweat inside these stupid, uncomfortable shoes. I’m in this room by myself and there are no windows. I got a call from that temp agency and they sent me to this address and told me to see some lady named Lucy LaTerra, so I go there and tell that to the receptionist and this lady comes out from the glass doors and she’s all pleasant and chipper and everything and says her name is Lucy LaTerra, and she tells me to follow her, so I do what she asks. Her hair is what they call frosted and the roots are black like she could care less and I could care less because I really, desperately need cash from this job because it pays fifteen bucks an hour and with that bit of change I’ll be able to pay my rent and then I can complain to my landlord about his dogs that keep me up in the middle of the night howling and whatnot.

Anyway, I follow this lady with the black roots like she doesn’t care back through the glass doors and she walks really fast and she’s balancing a coffee that has a big pink lipstick print on the plastic lid and I’m trying to walk with her but then I let her get a few steps in front of me which seems to work out okay because she talks loudly and I can still hear her. I’m extra polite and amiable because I need to work and I’m desperate and that’s the way you act when you’re out of work. This lady tells me she has this job that lasts three days and this is the first day. I act all interested when I could give a fuck. She points out the kitchen area where she tells me there are beverages and snacks and coffee and tells me to help myself to anything I want and then we turn up a hall and make a right up another hall and everything looks the same and there are tons of these little cubicles with carpet on the walls and there are a bunch of empty desks with empty chairs and I’m trying to remember which way we came so I can get back to that kitchen with the snacks and then she opens a door, flicks on the fluorescent lights and tells me this is where I’ll be sitting. There’s hardly anyone else in the entire office and I’m wondering what kind of operation they’re running but I’m not going to ask her because it’s none of my business.

Lucy LaTerra asks me if I’m proficient in wizzy-something or other and I’m like excuse me? And she says they told me you’re familiar with wizzy-wig, and she’s starting up the computer that’s on the desk and she’s arranging the keyboard and whatnot and I’m like yeah, definitely, and she seems pleased with this, so I’m thinking it must be some kind of computer thing. I discover that it is some kind of computer thing and it’s something that I’m not familiar with and now I can’t go back to Lucy LaTerra and tell her I haven’t a clue what wizzy-wig is because I already told her that I am familiar with it and I’ve been sitting at this desk for close to three hours and that’s forty-five bucks and I can’t go up to her now after all this time has expired because she’ll be like what the heck have you been doing all this time? I should’ve told her I didn’t know what wizzy-wig is right off the bat and maybe I would’ve gotten the job anyway and maybe I wouldn’t have got the job but at least I wouldn’t be sweating it out in some office feeling like I feel.

So I sit in the office and look busy when Lucy LaTerra passes by and she’s passed by a number of times and smiled and is very pleasant and she asks me how things are going and I try to look all busy and I tell her everything is fine even though it’s not fine because I’m in some program called Wysiwyg and it makes no sense and there’s a stack of papers and I have no idea what the heck I’m supposed to be doing with all these papers but I shuffle them around and make three different piles and when that lady pokes her head in the door and looks at the different piles she seems pleased so I keep arranging papers every so often and I call my brother each and every five minutes because he is the only person who can make sense of this stupid computer thing but he’s not answering his phone.

Lucy LaTerra tells me I should take a lunch and I’m like, I’m okay, and I make a face to suggest that eating is a silly idea because I am here to work and I go through all this rigmarole because I don’t want to leave my desk because if she comes into the room while I’m gone and looks at my computer screen, I’m fucked. She tells me she’s going downstairs to get lunch and asks me if she can pick anything up for me and I’m starved to hell and back but I have about two dollars and thirty cents in nickels and dimes and first of all that’s embarrassing to give someone all that change to pick you up some chips or whatever and second of all I need that money to get back home on the train. Lucy LaTerra tells me that I should eat and I’d love to tell her she’s right, then she asks me what I want, she says it again, she says that I should eat, you have to eat she says, and I wave her off and tell her I’m fine because I don’t know what will happen if I ask that lady to pick me up a corned beef sandwich on rye with mustard and a pickle, which is what I want more than I’ve wanted anything in my entire life, but she might be like, that’s eight-fifty so I lie and tell her I’m fine and I do my best to look as though I’m fine. I do my best to look as if eating is absurd even though my stomach is growling like a hog in heat.

I wait a couple of minutes and then I venture out to find the kitchen with the snacks. There are a few people in the cubicles now and they seem to be working on their computers or whatever. One man takes a look at me and it is pretty apparent that I’m lost so he asks if he can help me and so I tell him I’m looking for the kitchen. He tells me to take a left and then the second right, so I do what he tells me and I find the kitchen and I don’t see any snacks. There’s a candy machine with a base price of seventy-five cents and that is out of my league. Someone was kind enough to leave some saltine crackers in a drawer that must’ve been left over from their soup or something. I shove those in the pocket of my pleated pants, then I rifle through another drawer and come up empty, just condiments, sugar, powdered creamer for coffee and such. I crank open the refrigerator door and rummage around. I catch a foul whiff of some bad food, and my eyes rake across a Chinese take-out container that has a dark grease stain on the bottom and a wilted bean sprout hanging from an opening in the top. There is a sign on the door that declares, food left past Friday at Four pm will be trash. I find a brown paper bag with the name Roger scrawled across the front on a piece of masking tape, an old banana, a couple of yogurts, and a piece of lemon. There is half a sandwich inside Roger’s bag and I’m thinking I could slide out a piece of the meat and slap in on my crackers. I open the sandwich and the meat smells gamey so I shove it back inside. The slap, slap of heels startles me and I spin around cold busted. It is Lucy LaTerra and she has a bag of food in one hand and a fresh coffee in the other.

She asks me if I want part of her sandwich, and she tells me she’ll never finish it. I have to tell her no because I already told her I’m not hungry. I already went through this whole thing about how I’m not hungry and now I have to stick with it. I tell her I was looking for a soda and she tells me there is a soda machine right there and she points to the machine next to the snack machine. I look at the oversized machine as if seeing it for the first time and then I rummage through my change and start counting out nickels and dimes and I’m hoping she leaves so I don’t actually have to buy a soda because that will leave me with no money to get the train home, but she doesn’t leave, she fusses with her sandwich and tosses out the overabundance of meat which just kills me. She carries on about this and that and now another lady is in the kitchen and she’s carrying on as well, and I’m still rummaging through my change, killing time, praying she leaves so I don’t have to purchase the soda, and then Lucy introduces me to that other lady who says her name is Olivia and she’s a big lady with big sweaty hands and I shake her sweaty hand that’s the size of a catcher’s mitt and now I have to buy the soda and get the hell out of there, so I do.

Anyway, this is the way my life is but it’s okay because I’m the drummer in this kick ass band and one day we are going to be huge and we’ll have a video on MTV and this lady will be like, I remember him, that guy who is playing drums in the video, he was that guy who didn’t eat and lied about knowing Wysiwyg. I type stuff into the computer and save it and then I have no idea where the information is saved but that doesn’t matter anyway because I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing but it makes me look busy and I’m just biding my time until my brother answers his goddamn phone. I try rebooting the computer, I try to find a help menu, I call my brother, I unplug the computer and then plug it back in and then I call my brother, I scroll down and enter information into a box and then I call my brother. Lucy LaTerra comes back into the room and says that I can save my material to this disk that she hands me. I try to smile back at her and then tilt the computer screen away from her like it’s no big deal. She leaves and I call my brother and he answers the phone and he’s like, what? And I’m all panicked and trying to sound calm and I ask him if he knows what Wysiwyg is and he says it’s a computer program and I’m like yes it is a computer program and then I ask him if he is familiar with it and he says why? And I really want to reach through the phone and choke him but I have to remain calm and even-keeled and see if I can get my brother to play ball. I tell him that I’m on a temp job and I need to use Wysiwyg and he tells me it is an application that stands for what you see is what you get, and I want to scream because I don’t care what it is I just need to know how to use it very quickly because it is three o’clock in the afternoon and I have no idea what I’m doing and I’m starved and irritable because all

I’ve had is some stupid crackers and a can of orange soda that I couldn’t afford and now I have no train fare so I either have to jump the subway turnstile and possibly get arrested or walk eight miles home to Brooklyn in the dead of winter. My brother tells me he doesn’t understand how I got the job if I didn’t know the application and then I tell him I didn’t know that I needed to use the program and this lady was misinformed and thought I knew how to use it and I just went with it and what difference does it make anyway and he goes on and says, I don’t get it, and I feel like telling him that there’s nothing to get but I let him go on about how he doesn’t understand and everything because if I get him pissed he won’t help me. I ask him if he could talk me through the program so I can enter this information into the computer and he tells me that I’m a buffoon and I don’t respond because what difference does it make? He tells me that he only has a minute because he is working on a programming assignment that is due in the morning and I’m glad that he doesn’t have much time so he can be quick about helping me out of my situation. He asks me what I see on the screen and I describe what I see and I can hear that he doesn’t really feel like doing this but it is somewhat entertaining to him that I should be at some office in midtown Manhattan and I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. He asks me what I’m supposed to be doing anyway and I’m trying to tell him I have no idea, and he says he doesn’t understand.

Finally he talks me though the basic functions and menus and it’s of no help and I’m starting to think that I should probably figure out some kind of exit strategy because it’s almost four o’clock and the real problem is that I wasted six hours futzing with this program and now it’s almost time to go home and I’m nowhere near where I should be with my assignment and how do I explain this to Lucy LaTerra and still fill out a time card with good conscious and get paid and I’m thinking that isn’t going to happen so I ball up my coat and head like I’m going to the bathroom and slip out the exit and go home.
It’s a hell of a long walk from midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. A hell of a long walk. Bad shoes. Bad. Bad shoes. I can no longer feel my feet. I could cry from the ache. My feet are numb.

When I get home my brother is like, what happened with that job and I tell him nothing happened and he turns and goes back upstairs. My feet are cramped and sweaty and I am going to burn these shoes but I’m too damn tired from walking eight miles on cold, hard concrete. I call after my brother and ask him why there is an orange power cord dangling over the railing from upstairs and going all the way back to my room and he tells me not to touch it and to just leave it alone, don’t touch it he says again. He pokes his head downstairs and I ask him what will happen if I touch it and he just looks at me all serious and deadpan and that’s supposed to show me that he is for real. My brother tells me he has to run some kind of deck and another computer upstairs for this assignment due in the morning and there’s not enough power up in his room so he needs to tap into another circuit which happens to be in my room, and then, as if on cue, the power dies out in the entire apartment. It’s pretty dark outside so I can only see my brother’s silhouette but I’m willing to bet good money his face is crimson. He stomps up into his room and I call after him and ask what happened because I want to hear just how frustrated he is and I want to laugh but it’s not time for that just yet. I hear him up there fussing with plugs and everything and he is making a racket and

I’m thinking he’s pretty frustrated but the kicker will be if he lost everything he was working on and that’d suck because he’s been working on whatever it is he’s been working on all day. I see a flashlight beam poking through the darkness up there and I go to the refrigerator and it’s dark in there too and I’m thinking about food going sour and then I remember there isn’t much food in there anyways just some condiments and a pitcher of water that needs it’s filter changed because there’s black pebbly things all in the filter chamber and on the floor of the pitcher.

My brother stomps back downstairs and he’s all salty and he’s searching for the circuit breaker and he says something about patching into something else or whatever and he’s shining that stupid light in my face and I block the light with my hand and he searches the walls for clues as to where the circuit breaker is. He walks out into the hallway and when he opens the door a shaft of light spills into the apartment and I hear him go up the stairs and he’s continuing up and up and then after a while he stomps back down. He tells me the lady who lives upstairs said she thinks the breaker is down in the basement and my brother goes out to the front of the building and rings on the bell of the basement apartment where the squat landlord and his drunk wife live. Then he goes to their door and knocks and then knocks again harder. No one answers just the demon dogs howling and everything and my brother comes back inside and flicks on that stupid flashlight and now he’s rummaging around a drawer in the kitchen and he asks me if I have a number for that man downstairs and I tell him no. He finds their number after a while and dials the number into the phone and we can both hear the phone ringing downstairs and it just rings and rings and the stupid dogs are down there fussing around and howling.

My brother shines the light on me and tells me to go downstairs and flip on the breaker. I look at him because there’s no way I’m going down there and I contort my face to suggest this and my brother tells me to get down there and there’s no way I’m going down there so I just lay back on the couch and fold my arms behind my head so he knows that it’s absolutely out of the question. I tell him to go down there and I ask him what’s the big deal, just go down there I tell him, and he says, exactly, it’s no big deal, go down there and hit the breaker and he’s trying to be all convincing but it’s not really my problem because I don’t have an assignment due in the morning and I can do without power for the time being. We go back and forth like this for a bit because that’s what we do and it’s pretty clear that I’m not going down there and it’s pretty clear that nothing is going to happen unless he goes down there. I’m praying that he does because there’s really nothing else happening because I can’t watch television and I can’t listen to music and it’d be really entertaining to me if my brother went down into the landlord’s apartment and got bit by one of those mangy dogs or it’d be pretty funny if the landlord came home while he was down there fussing about and was like what the hell are you doing in my place? I encourage him to get down there so I ask him things like, what time is the assignment due? and I ask him where he thinks the landlord is? and stuff like that. I tell him, go down there, what’s the big deal and he tells me to go down there and I’m like, yeah right.

Then he goes over to where the door leading downstairs is and he starts to fussing with the crap in front of the door and I’m like, good, and this gets me up out of my seat and then he tries the door knob and it’s open and he peers downstairs and shines his flashlight down there and I can hear the claws of those mangy dogs moving across the floor down there and they move towards the stairwell and I’m thinking maybe he shouldn’t go down there because those dogs start to growling and whatnot and I’m thinking that maybe my brother should wait until the landpeople come home because he probably will get bit. My brother takes a few steps down there and I’m thinking he’s crazy because those demon dogs are getting all moany and everything and my brother apparently doesn’t give a shit because he heads down there and I can hear him moving shit around and the dogs barking and carrying on and I’m thinking I should go down there with a kitchen knife or something and I call down there and ask my brother what the hell is going on and I’m watching the front of the house because some headlights rake the window and I peer out onto the street to see if it is the landlord’s blue van and it’s not.

After a while my brother comes back up the stairs and his eyes are wide and unsettled and I’m like what happened? And he brushes past me and goes into the living room and drops into the couch. I ask him again what happened because the lights and power didn’t come back on and he’s not saying or doing anything in particular and then my mind starts to wondering what the hell happened down there. He tells me I’ll never believe what he saw and he goes on and says it was the most disgusting, disturbing thing he’s seen in his entire life and I’m like what? What happened? And he tells me the place downstairs is the most disgusting thing he’s ever seen, he goes on to tell me there are piles of dog fur and dust and dirt and it’s like a floor but not finished or anything it’s like maybe cement but maybe it’s dirt and there’s a bed in the corner but like a prison cot and a toilet, but not like a toilet with a door or anything just a bowl sitting in the middle of the room and that’s it. No sink or fixtures or basin, just a blank toilet and I’m imagining that man who looks like a gnome sitting on the toilet taking a dump while his wife is in some cot in the corner drinking vodka and it turns my stomach and then my brother tells me the dogs look sick and mangy and malnourished and the place reeks of dog shit and there’s urine on the floor and dog crap and piles of fur and dirt as if someone just swept it into piles and left it there and I’m thinking about the fucked up paintings in the hallway and it all makes sense and it’s not a pleasant thought at all and I feel nauseated and then my brother says he will never be the same after what he’s just seen and I’m glad that I didn’t go down there.

As it turns out the breaker was right there in our kitchen on the inside wall and my brother feels pretty stupid because he went downstairs and everything and it turned into this whole big thing and he has those images in his head now and probably thinks about the basement now and again when he’s trying to get to sleep and there was no need to go down there at all. My brother works through the night and bangs out his assignment. The following morning someone calls from that place Quality Temps. My brother answers the phone and he tells me it’s someone from Quality Temps calling for me and hands me the telephone, and I’m not really sure what to say so I press the button on the phone that says, end. My brother looks at me for a moment then looks back at his laptop computer and tells me I’m a buffoon.


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