Apartment walls are thin.
Reality may be thinner.
Ray Belga lives in the ugliest apartment building in town—but at least it’s quiet. Until a mystery neighbor’s fridge starts acting up.
At least…Ray thinks it’s a fridge. But he'll soon learn you can’t trust everything you hear through apartment walls…
I liked Darryl the first time I saw him. And I didn’t even mind The Girlfriend when she came along. Not at first.
It was the fridge that ruined us. I think we really could’ve been good friends—if I hadn’t, why would I have tried buddying up with him when he moved into my apartment house six years after I met ‘im? I wouldn’t have.
I still think we could’ve been good friends. But then The Girlfriend came along. Or was it the fridge that ruined us?
I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first thing you gotta know is that the building I’m in is a monster. A squat, puke-green lopsided thing, like a kid started building with Legos, then took off.READ MORE
I don’t mind living in the thing—appearances aren’t important to me. What’s important, though, is that I got what the landlord called “the leper apartment” and what I called “peace and quiet at last”—a room built overhanging nothing, and with only one other apartment above it. Being on the corner, it’s a little extra bigger than the rest of the other yokels’ places, and being the product of an overambitious builder, it’s a lot further out. My closest next-door neighbors are spaced where my fourth-door-down neighbors were in the place I moved out of.
But the price for this peace and quiet is a rent I’m always struggling to meet. Lucky for me my sister learned to mend, and I can hide the patches well enough.
* * *
Unlike the outside of this puke building, the lobby ain’t half bad. A little dark, the pattern on the green carpet’s busy, and seems like the front desk is left unmanned more often than not, but that don’t bother me none. I don’t get a lot of mail. The worst thing I can say about it is that it was a little drafty last winter—but again, no big deal—to me, anyway.
So I’m in the lobby leaving for work when I see him. He finally looks like he would fill out a suit right, but it’s hard to tell, since right now he’s in sweats and clutching a box to him. Can’t remember his name, though, what was it? Something with a D—Darren, David? No, not David—
I rush over to hold the door for him.
He blinks behind his glasses. The gears are turning…he must remember me.
“It’s me, Ray. From the flooring convention a few years back? We had a few beers, watched the Padres game?”
Finally his eyes light up. He grins, shifts his box to one arm, shakes my hand. “Ray, right?”
“You got it.”
“Yeah, I remember that game. It was a good run for them.”
“Absolutely. What are you doing here?” I ask.
“Movin’ in. Just got sent here by my company.”
“Ah, congrats, man, congrats! Guess I’ll be seeing ya around.”
“Sounds like it. Drinks later?” he said. “We can catch up over a ballgame.”
The invisible barbell between my shoulders lightens. Just a little.
He sets down his box, gets out his fancy phone, and takes my number. I jot his down in a little notepad I carry in my breast pocket.
“Well,” he hefts the box back into both hands. “Gotta unpack.”
Then I leave for work.
* * *
Guess I haven’t told you about my invisible barbell. You can’t see it—I can’t see it—but it’s fifty pounds, easy. It didn’t always sit there between my shoulder blades, either, making my feet sore, my knees crack, and even my eyes heavy.
I saw a dozen doctors for it, none of ’em had any ideas. Yeah, I tried the vitamin B, the sleep hygiene (what a stupid name, what, am I gonna get plaque in between my dreams? Is snoring gonna cause BO?), meditation crap, you name it. About the only thing I haven’t tried yet is Chinese acupuncture, and that’s only ‘cuz by the time I got down to that option, the money ran out, which is why I don’t go to conventions no more—not because I ran out of money, but because this barbell thing makes me run out of energy. I used to make sales calls from five to ten AM, do meetings ‘til eight, then still be able to throw a few back with the guys after.
But when the barbell hit me, my calls tanked and so did my commissions. And my clout.
Now it’s all I can do to stay awake managing kids at the Pretzel Palace. By the end of these shifts, my feet ache, my brain’s numb, and all I want to do is sleep.
My resume (and my lie that I was retired) had enough in it to make ‘em feel like hiring me was a big privilege, a boon, so I got to name my hours instead of ping-ponging all over the schedule like the other poor schmucks.
I have my work pants on but haven’t changed into my shirt yet. I always do that at the last possible second, in the food court restroom. You could set a clock by me. Nine twenty-seven POOF I enter the food court in all my puffy-sleeved glory. If I ever meet the guy who came up with these uniforms, I’d like to bend all his joints the wrong way ‘round.
I flip up the divider on the right side of the Pretzel Palace counter. Or is it the wrong side? Hard to tell these days—I’m so sick of pretzels I don’t think I’ll ever buy one, though I still snitch a sample or two when we’re prepping a basket for the mallgoers. But maybe I do that just to fit in with the kids.
Speaking of the kids, they greet me with the same lifts of the head, the same, “Hey, Ray”s as always. I understand their apathy—and I don’t spoil their “so much better than this” vibe—hell, I join in on it—just as long as a customer ain’t there. Then they gotta learn which side their bread’s buttered on—and more importantly, who holds the knife. I don’t truck with dissin’ of the customers, even when they ain’t there.
I come in before the lunch rush—mostly feeding the cheapsters who don’t wanna put real money down on the off-brand burger joint or the Taco Time that are the anchors of this particular food court—and the mommies treatin’ their kids (some of ‘em grown) to a little something so they can keep on shoppin’, keep on plunkin’ down the green that makes the glorious machine of capitalism going without spoilin’ their dinners later. Can’t complain, though. The rush makes the time fly—and the busier my brain stays, the easier it is to ignore the barbell—least ‘til I get to the mall parking garage.
But seeing Darryl today has lifted my load. After I check the ice cream bins for fullness, I stare out at the food court with my palms spread on the smooth white counter, looking over the shoppers passing by us on their way to the JC Penney’s.
Moving in. Could be nice. He didn’t know me as the superstar seller I used to be—I’d headed up conferences once or twice in my time, but not the one we’d met at, and that’d been his first. Could be nice to watch a game with him from time to time. Besides the kids, there weren’t many I talked to, not anymore, not since I left the biz. Didn’t feel like overhearin’ the stories passed along about me, didn’t wanna see the stares I’d get—you see him? He used to be out of the stop sellers—shame he got sick or lazy or whatever—so I cut ‘em all off cold turkey.
I look up. It’s a customer—a lady. Not “hello”. Not even “’allo”, like the Brits. This woman’s greeting rhymed with “halo”.
But that isn’t the only thing making me stare. I can’t decide if her face is strange, or that so-off-she’s-beautiful pretty, like those hifalutin’ models you see. Her eyes are so deep blue they almost look fake, and set really wide apart beneath an ear-length bob of permed blonde hair. She wears an all-white jumpsuit with a gold square buckle. It’s extra pale under the shop’s fluorescent lights.
“’Alo? I would like a pretzel.”COLLAPSE