The Apartments (Trinity Sunday)

by Gwen Adams, (c.) 2010

“Everyone has an absolute obligation to live—not merely to exist, not merely to pickle himself in piety like a gherkin in vinegar awaiting the Eternal feast. He must live, that is to say, he must recognize himself as part of a whole. He must realize that, as the world’s work and suffering are caused by our common debt to God, there is no one exempt from taking his share of the burden.”
—Caryll Houselander, Essential Writings

On Chestnut Street there was one those apartment buildings built in the 1930s with art deco touches, hardwood floors, and bare sinks jutting out from the wall with all the plumbing pipes exposed. If you walked in the front door between two potted evergreens, you would enter a landing with a choice to go up one flight of stairs to the 1st floor or down a flight to the basement. If you went up and then took one more flight, you’d arrive at the so-called “3rd floor.” The basement was technically the 1st floor.

There were ten apartments in the building, full of people who knew nothing whatsoever about one another but their idiosyncrasies. On the first floor were two couples, the Jones’, married with a new-born baby who cried a lot, and Greg and Grace who had been dating two years or so. They had no children. They did, however, have a cat that was forever getting out. Each couple found the other an endless source of irritation. It was often the main topic of dinner. Not that either couple ever spoke to the other.

Then on the basement level in an efficiency was an old woman, a widow whose apartment smelled so bad that everyone always hurried past on the way to the laundry room. No one ever went to see if she was being taken care of. She lived across from a young man called Mr. Crane who sold insurance. He used to live in an apartment building across the street. His favorite thing to do on a Sunday had been to take out his golf-clubs and practice his stroke on the lawn strip. One time he became aware he was being watched, so he was always self-conscious after that. There was a girl named Mary on the 3rd floor of the apartments who worked at the animal hospital down the street. She used to watch him secretly ever since she had seen him one afternoon swinging away on the narrow green strip of grass, a sight which she found strangely poignant. He began to watch her, too, and listen. She always cleaned her place Saturday night, and he could hear her singing to Frank Sinatra through the open kitchen windows and picture her on her hands and knees with yellow rubber gloves and strong shoulders. They liked to pretend they were not aware of being watched. But they knew. He kept his place clean, and made drinks, played music, and tried to look very handsome. He moved into her building mainly because it was cheaper, but partly to run into her. This did not happen, and of course, they did not speak to each other.

There were also on the top floor and first floor some young professionals and some university students who gave loud parties, and came back late at night needing to be put to bed by some obliging friend. They woke the Jones’ baby up at night and were the kind of people who left their wash in the laundry room washer for three days at a time and backed everybody up. Mr. Jones (who worked construction and had to rise early) could not stand the students above who broke his sleep or the baby’s (which amounted to the same thing). But once Mrs. Jones heard one of the girls come home drunk, crying and screaming about a boy, saying some terrible things. Mrs. Jones had lain there in the dark, wincing; she had been in a relationship like that before she met Jones. So she never said anything when Mr. Jones fumed to the mirror as he shaved. She just went and made coffee. They never called the landlord to complain, nor did they confront the students. They certainly made no overtures, brought no hot dish when any of them moved in. No one wanted trouble in that building.

That was why poor Mrs. Fletcher in the basement allowed her landlord to raise her rates so that she could afford little else with her social security checks. So her glasses were not replaced, and she became unable to keep her place or things or clothes clean. She was continually tormented by the 3rd floor students who thoughtlessly slammed the front door just by her apartment.

That was why Mr. Crane who saw the students do this morning, noon, and night, never said anything to them. He felt too awkward. He did not want any trouble, either.

That was why Grace and Greg never talked about marriage or children. They had been together almost two years, but every conversation on these subjects was ugly and ruined their time together, so it just became one of those things you do not discuss.

And so, for years, fifteen people or so lived in each other’s lives, hearing every tread of the foot, every time the sink ran or the shower, every time someone went in or out. They were fully aware of each other, almost constantly, but each technically lived his own private life, if only because they had arranged never to speak to one another or play a significant role in each other’s lives. Even those living together had managed to erase all source of conflict or tension or anything that might trouble the complacent peace of an otherwise solitary existence. That was until the fire, which changed everything.

It was an electrical fire, starting somewhere on the 1st floor and sweeping through that old 1930s building with its lovely original woodwork and its lovely original wiring. It began about five in the morning when only Mr. Jones had gone to work. He rushed back and found the streets were full of people and fire-trucks and police and ambulances, water running everywhere. The firemen were moving a great number of people out from behind the apartment building where all the cars were parked. It was clear the building would not be saved. Mr. Jones looked wild as he rushed through the crowd looking for his wife and baby. They were there. It had been very difficult for the firemen to ascertain if the building was quite empty, since no one person was responsible for all of the tenants, or even one responsible for another. Grace and Greg were there, too, and Grace was sobbing because the cat could not be found. Mr. Jones saw her, and he was suddenly moved with pity. It was all this girl had; he remembered he had nearly run over a cat on his way back. He told Grace he had seen her cat (he did not mention the part about almost running over it). This seemed to comfort her. But Greg, who was holding her, was quietly crying, too, with his face in her hair. He had seen Mr. Jones when he found his wife and baby in the darkness, the light of the flames casting strange shadows on his stricken face. Greg had suddenly seen himself by those same flames for what he was. He thought to himself, “Life is so short; why won’t I marry this girl?” And he felt ashamed to hold to hold her, this woman who so completely and so foolishly trusted him.

Mary from the 3rd floor had got out of the building. Turning to see if Mr. Crane had escaped, she recalled suddenly that there was an old woman who also lived in the basement. At that time, the firemen had not yet come, so with a moment’s hesitation, Mary rushed back in to Mrs. Fletcher’s efficiency where Mr. Crane was just forcing the door with his shoulder. The room was dark as they went in, and Mrs. Fletcher was crying and looking for something in the desk. Mr. Crane picked the old woman up like a baby, and Mary pulled out the entire top drawer of the desk and hurried after. She had a glimpse of the efficiency, the forms of dirty dishes, clothes, magazines, and dead plants, a thousand trinkets, old souvenirs, all the refuse of an old woman everyone had forgotten. When they were out, Mrs. Fletcher began to babble and grab at the things in the drawer, hoping against hope. When she found what she was looking for—letters from her dead husband and some from her mother—she started to cry again, and Mary sat down with her on the curb and rocked her. The firemen and paramedics were arriving, and Mr. Crane got a blanket to put around them. Then he sat down next to Mary.

To everyone’s consternation, it was found that one of the students was still up on the 3rd floor. Some of the other students realized this and went into hysterics—it could have been one of them. A very noble fireman got her just in time; she was suffocating from the smoke. She had been drunkenly asleep and was still in a dress and high-heels. Grace and Greg, the Jones, Mr. Crane, Mary, and everyone suddenly realized what a very little girl she was, all dressed up and run away from home with no one to take care of her. All were ashamed.

They did not save the building, and the tenants lost just about everything except their cars and each other. As the sun came up and the student was rushed to the hospital, the police got the tenants breakfast and coffee. The tenants ate donuts and drank their coffee sitting quietly in a meeting room with fluorescent lights. They all knew they had been given this moment to go their separate ways . . . or not.

They chose the latter. Mr. Jones’ parents made dinner for the group every night for a week, all these displaced persons, and they introduced themselves to one another, and talked about what they had lost, and what they would do. Five years later saw Greg and Grace were married with three little boys, and the Jones’ were god-parents for the third. Mr. and Mrs. Crane found a relative of Mrs. Fletcher’s and got the legal work done to get Mrs. Fletcher a little more care, and then they got a house with an addition so she could live by herself but still be looked after. The students were working and had pitched in together to get a house where they lived together and did each other’s laundry and washed the dishes in turns. Everyone lived. In the fullest sense of that word.

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