Watch out for that old bastard. One kind word, and he’ll bore the skin off your bones.”
The whisper came from behind as I stood on a glassed-in porch gazing out at a decrepit front yard. It was the end of August, ’73—a week into my sophomore year in music school. When my girlfriend’s gorgon of a roommate had banished me from the apartment we three were to share, I’d skirted disaster by signing the first lease I could afford. Though this was by far the oddest house I’d ever seen, I would live here for the rest of my college days.
The “old bastard” was my new landlord, Mr. Gould, a stooped old man of seventy whose pale, wrinkled skin and halo of white hair offset features otherwise hard and grasping. His eyes constantly darted from one thing to another, and he frequently cocked his head as if he’d heard something. These quirks, plus his hackneyed expressions and rambling, teary sentiments, made him a caricature in my young eyes. But it was this apartment or sleeping in my car; he had me in a corner, and he knew it. Once I’d met his price, though, he was gracious enough to let me move in immediately.
As the old man doddered down the walk toward a late-’50s Cadillac convertible with long, pointed fins, the voice behind me grew louder.
“The hours I’ve wasted listening to that old fart complain: ‘Too much heat! Too much hot water. The taxes. Oy vey, the taxes!’ Christ!”
The imitation was perfect, but with an unnerving, caustic edge. Curiosity won out. I turned to look, expecting a wizened old biddy. At first, I saw only the faint glow of a cigarette behind a veil of sheer curtains. As my eyes adjusted, the form of a tall woman, no more than thirty-five, emerged from the dim light.
Except for the cigarette, she’d be a novice staring out from a cloister, I thought, if only for the briefest of moments.
Mr. Gould beeped his horn and waved. My shadowy companion waited until the car crept forward. Then, as I turned back to her, she clenched her right fist, lodged her left hand above her right elbow, and thrust her forearm into the air. To my amazement, she also managed an astoundingly rude noise without dislodging her dangling cigarette.
So much for religious analogies.
“You! Boy wonder! Stop gawking like you’ve never seen a woman before. Get in here and give me the goods.”
I had no idea what she meant.
“Fill me in, sweetie—as in, who the hell are you? I know you’re taking the upstairs apartment, so don’t play dumb with me. I hear and know all in this dump. Better start off on the right foot by getting that straight.”
What had I gotten myself into?
Her door swung open with a loud, torturous creak.
“Get in. Quick. Mind the cat.”
I entered a narrow room whose sole source of light was the curtained window. My new neighbor was lanky, flat breasted, and slightly stooped. Her chin was pointed, her cheeks sallow, her eyes spaced far apart, and her neck elongated. She wore a white peasant blouse over tight blue jeans. A faded paisley kerchief covered her head. One hand rested on her left hip. The other slowly removed the cigarette from her mouth and pointed toward a tattered peacock chair.
She sauntered to a narrow daybed that filled the far corner of the room, sat down, and restored the cigarette to her thin lips. As she arranged four orange cushions around her, two on each side, I stole a furtive glance around the tiny railroad flat.
An archway next to the bed led to a small kitchen with two plant-filled windows. Spider plants, ivy, and geraniums crowded together, cascading to the floor. What light made it through this indoor jungle illuminated a ’50s gas stove whose chrome vent curved up into the wall. A porcelain sink stood on spindly legs beside it. In the center of the room, two rickety wooden chairs were placed on either side of a Formica table, on top of which was a small slate chalkboard in an oak frame, propped up by what appeared to be a dictionary.
The board displayed a date, time, and a series of hash marks.
A litter box sat by the inside wall of the tiny bathroom next to the back door. Given my unobstructed view of the entire apartment, I decided the cat must be under the bed.
“Sandy Singer,” the woman said, holding out her hand palm down as if we were to dance.
I stood and took it in mine.
“Ah, the boy has manners. We’ll pound ’em out of you in this hellhole.”
My provincial upbringing had left me ill prepared for this strange combination of flower child and fishwife. As I maintained a self-conscious silence, she took a long drag on her cigarette, studied me further, then ground the stub into an ashtray.
“Matt Atwood,” I answered, feeling as though my right hand should be on a Bible.
“Ah, a WASP. Rare thing these days, WASPs. Where from?”
“Assonet, Massachusetts. I’m attending the college of performing arts.”
She pondered this for a moment as if I’d divulged crucial information.
“Sit down, kid.”
“So not from around here, huh? Musician or dancer?”
“Good. All men dancers are fags. Trust me.”
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