I had just about fallen asleep Saturday night when I heard a breaking window, followed by the thumping of a screen being jimmied out of its frame. Thinking that my own apartment was the object of a burglary in progress, I sprang to my feet, glad for the cover of darkness. But then I heard a shout coming from my next-door neighbor’s house and realized that the window and the problem were his.
My neighbor, Chris, is a 50-year-old postal worker who uses hard drugs and likes to share his living space with slutty-looking women who have no visible means of support. The girls and the drugs together have caused Chris no end of grief. His unit’s been burglarized; he’s been robbed at gunpoint. Just last week, I heard a man whose voice I couldn’t place call Chris a punk-ass motherfucker and throw a small stone through his front window — the same window through which someone was trying to enter his house.
I thought about calling the police. But then I remembered that, since I hadn’t paid my Cricket bill, I’d have to pull up Google Voice. Because my computer, a desktop, sits on my kitchen island, directly in front of my own window, I got scared someone would see me calling through the slats of the Venetian blind. Then — maybe because I’d done 14 dead-hang pullups that afternoon and was feeling tough — I thought I’d simply go outside and beat the shit out of whoever I found there. When I realized how crazy that sounded, I decided to forget the whole thing and go back to bed.
But my nerves had gotten the better of me, and so had my curiosity. After a few minutes’ lying still and listening to the silence, I decided I had to see for myself what was going on. Just as I was stepping out my door, a woman darted out of Chris’ apartment carrying a cardboard box. Spotting me, she stage-whispered, “Can I use your phone?”
Before I could find the words to refuse, she was standing in front of me. Her age was hard to guess, but her bottle-blonde hair, low-cut minidress, and boots looked like they’d survived intact from the days of Desert Storm. She reminded me of a cross between Courtney Love and Kelly Bundy.
“I just want to call for my friend to come get me out of here,” she said. And with that, she stepped past me and through my door, into my apartment, which was still dark. “Wait a second,” I said. “I just heard a window break.”
“That was me.”
“And I heard someone shout — ”
“That was Chris.”
I took this in. “What about that guy from last week, the one who threw the rock?”
“Him? Oh, he’s gone. No idea where he is.” By now, she had placed her box on my coffee table and was gulping something from a tall, plastic mug. “I broke the window. Me. Nobody but me. Little old naked me. Chris threw me out of the house naked. Did you see me?” I said I hadn’t and she stuck out a hand. “I’m Laura, by the way. I think we met once before.” As I shook her hand — she had the grip of a petite gorilla — she continued.
It was a fair question. In fact, I didn’t believe Laura’s story — not entirely. She gave the impression of someone for whom survival depended on a certain amount of bullshit artistry, and I was sure she was practicing that art now, though exactly what she’d omitted or embellished I couldn’t begin to guess.
In any case, Laura seemed to have forgotten about her phone call. Sitting on the edge of my coffee table, legs crossed at the knee, she was spraying product in her hair. My bachelor den was taking on the bouquet of a beauty parlor, and it made me realize that Laura was the first woman to enter the place in over a year.
Maybe she sensed this herself, because she flashed a smile and said, “Honey, you look nervous. Want a drink?” She held out her mug.
“I’ve got a Xanax.”
Giggling, she dropped her voice back down to a stage whisper. “Want to smoke some rock?”
I was able to recognize this as another of Laura’s survival tricks — an acquired instinct for charming, soothing, or intoxicating any stranger on whose kindness she happened at the moment to be dependent. Even so, her overtures landed in a sore spot. At a certain point in my life, I might have liked nothing better than to get completely fucked up with her. Being beckoned toward that abyss made me react less like Sir Gawaine than like the Milwaukee cops who drove that Laotian kid back to Jeffrey Dahmer’s place.
“I’m going to tell Chris you’re here,” I said. “Make sure he’s okay, and that he’s cool with it.” She shrugged and nodded, and I left my front door open as I walked the 30 feet to Chris’.
Chris’ door was open, too. His living room did look like it had been the scene of a struggle. Clothes were strewn about the kitchen table and hanging off the home entertainment center. His floor lamp was lying across the sofa. When I called his name through the doorjamb, Chris stepped out from the bedroom and stared at me through wide and glassy eyes. With his head slumped between sagging shoulders and the reddish light casting shadows from every furrow on his face, he looked like an angry gnome.