Hurry Up, Vern by Don Swaim
hey're all almost out of the building by nine in the morning, ten at the latest. Except for Mrs. Slater, who never leaves her apartment. Her groceries, prescriptions, and liquor are ordered in. When I have to go to her place to fix something she's always eyeing me like I'm going to steal her collection of glass ballerinas. She's a widow. "Hurry up, Vern," she goes, as if you can hurry up fixing a toilet. It takes time to fix a toilet.
I live in the basement. Two rooms with a stall shower. It's a perk since I'm the super. The building went up in the twenties, mostly one bedrooms, so a lot of single people live here. Solid construction, but overrun with mice, and the wiring is out of date. Mostly the landlord leaves me alone and pays me enough, more or less. He lives somewhere out of town.
By eight or so I'm leaning on my mop, sipping coffee, and through the smoke of my cigarette, watching them leave. The two skinny girls in 2-A always go together. Nan and Doreen they call themselves. They claim they're in the theater. I think they're lesbos, but I'm not sure. I'd like to prove it. There's just a double bed in their apartment. My guess is they're sleeping together like spoons in a drawer. They dress like hookers, although hookers don't usually get started so early. I know. Mr. Berman in 3-B is always running late. He's just a loading-dock clerk but pretends he's a big shot. He never says nothing as he brushes past me like I don't exist. He's got an aquarium swarming with tropical fish he dotes over. Miss Carlyle in 2-C always has this fake smile and says, Good morning, Vern. She's a lousy tipper at Christmas, but I always answer back, Good morning, Miss Carlyle. Mr. Miller in 3-A, I happen to know, has been unemployed for four months and is facing eviction because he can't pay his rent. He always makes it look like he's off to some job in the morning, but he mostly spends his day sitting at a table in the library down the block doing crosswords. Mr. Ober in 1-A sells books by catalogue out of his apartment, so he's home a lot, but he goes out early too, although to where I've never figured out, except maybe he's got a boyfriend. He's not only a lefty but a pansy. Got books stacked to the ceiling in his apartment so he has to walk sideways just to get to the toilet. Mrs. McGinnis with boobs down to here in 2-B still calls herself missus even though she's divorced from some sucker who sacrificed a handful, two handfuls, when he lost those tits. When she leaves in the morning for her hair-dresser's job she's always juggling those things.
By ten I throw out the cold coffee in my cup and fill it with Old Crow. I've got stashes up and down the building, which means I don't have to keep running to my apartment. I pull a cigarette from my second pack of the day. They don't let you smoke in the corridors. Signs are on every floor, but who give a crap, except for Mrs. Slater, who can smell a fart a block away.
I got keys to all the apartments, so I can let myself in to do whatever needs to be done. The first place I go is 3-B, Mr. Berman's. It's a shit hole. Clothes on the floor, roaches feasting. But his aquarium is pristine, gurgling with filters. Spent a fortune on those fish, tiny, fragile, rainbow colors. I have my tools with me and a bottle of Clorox. I pour the entire bottle into the tank. I don't wait to see what happens.
Mr. Morgan's apartment is next to Mr. Berman's. I go in. Unlike Mr. Berman's, Mr. Morgan's is spotless. I sit at his desk and open the drawers and flip through the unpaid bills and warnings, including the landlord's eviction notice. One envelope is marked "personal," so I open it. Inside is a letter. It reads, "Ed, you're a cocksucker, and you deserve what you get. I'll never forgive you for what you did to us." It's signed by someone named Terri. At the bottom I write with the pencil stub I always carry, "Amen," even though I don't know exactly what Mr. Morgan did.
I keep a pint hidden behind fire extinguisher in the corridor. I pour a little hootch into my cup and hide the pint again.
At 2-B I unlock Mrs. McGinnis's door and go to her bedroom where I open drawers to find her bras. I remove one and hook it around my chest. On top of her dresser is a letter written in a childish scrawl. "Mama, when are you coming home? We need you, Mama. Please, Mama, come back." I fold the letter and put it into my pocket. The bra breaks when I take it off, so I throw it on the floor. I go to Miss Carlyle's in 2-C. It's a frilly place, girlish. She keeps a lot of papers and stuff on her kitchen table. Medical bills and hospital reports. As I go through them, cigarette between my lips, I discover, unlike Mrs. McGinnis, Miss Carlyle's got no tits. She's had a mastectomy and is undergoing chemo. I should have known that. I open the cabinet doors. A bottle of cognac is on one the shelves. I drink from the bottle. My cigarette I stub out on a salad plate.
In the lobby I wield my mop for a few minutes to make it look like I'm putting in my time for the landlord before I go to 1-A, Mr. Ober's apartment. It smells like dust and old paper. A cat looks at me without curiosity. When I kick over a stack of books four other columns of books fall like dominoes. At the top of the pile is a book printed in some foreign language. Inside is a card that reads, "Marx, Karl, Das Kapital, St. Petersburg, 1872. First Edition in Russian of the bible of Marxism. Price $17,500." I always knew Mr. Ober was some kind of rich commie bitch. I open my fly and piss on the book. His cat will take the blame.
After lunch at the cheap Greek's on the corner, I open the door to 2-A, where the lesbos live. It's like a greenhouse. They've got a million plants in pots sucking up the air. I peek into the refrigerator. Nothing but yogurt and lettuce. In the bedroom I find it. The proof. When you slide the switch the thing vibrates. I put it in myself and it works. They must use it on each other. I open the drawers in a bureau to check their underwear. I see nylons. I take off my shoes and socks, lower my trousers again, and slip the hose up my legs. The hose fits, even though the bristly hairs poke through the perforations. I slide on a pair of panties, which bulge at the seams. I wonder if the panties are Nan's or Doreen's. Same difference. I can't tell them apart. In the bathroom I open the medicine cabinet. It's filled with bottles of pills like a drug store. I'm too dizzy to read the labels, but if the bitches have pills, they probably have weed. I search but don't find anything. While I work, I snap on a table radio to hear the traffic reports. As usual, cars are backed up on the bypass. My car was towed a year ago. I swallow some of the girls' pills, I'm not sure which ones. I feel good by the time I leave.
In the hallway, Mrs. Slater, the widow, pokes her head out the door of her apartment.
"Are you occupied, Vern?" she goes.
Who the hell talks like that?
"I'm always occupied, Mrs. Slater."
"You smell funny," she goes.
"It's the work I do."
"My toilet's clogged up again," she goes. "What are you going to do about it?"
I feel like bashing the old bitch's head in, but the landlord pays me nearly every week and I need the money so I can afford to get back with my wife and son.
"Hurry up, Vern," she goes.