I wake up the next day, and darkness is already descending. The money is still strewn across the table, so I bundle it up and put it away. Another day. Time to get going soon. I look out the window, and there his, the landlord, in his car, yet again. Rent’s almost due, but I pay where I stay and I always pay ahead because, well, part of charisma is being reliable.
He’s startled when I knock on the window, cash in hand. He’s always in there, watching something on his phone. He leans over and rolls down the window. Always with that look, that mixture of shock and awe, which I don’t really find flattering but at least it’s a reliable emotion that I can fuck with if necessary.
“Hey, hey, sorry, you surprised me, how’s it going?” he asks. I understand his tawdry attempts at small talk, but if you’ve learned anything about me by now, you should know I don’t do that.
“Here’s rent,” I say, shoving it into his hand. I smile because that’s all I can do for him right now.
“Oh, okay,” he blathers out, always trying to think of something to say. “Hey, uh, you know that unit that’s been empty?”
“Yeah,” I reply. That unit has been “empty” for six months.
“I was thinking about throwing a Halloween party there!”
“Okay,” I reply. Sounds a bit hot to me, but not my problem.
“You should invite you and your friends,” he says. I know what he means. My “friends,” or the people he knows come and go in my unit all day.
“Oh, thanks, honey, I will,” I coo. I can see him perk up when I call him honey.
“Okay, cool, well, I’ll see you on Halloween!”
Like I said, a weirdo. What kind of landlord throws a party and invites his tenants? This guy doesn’t really strike me as someone who has many friends. I can’t even imagine him in any sort of social setting, let alone a party. But that’s fine. I’ll invite my friends. I’ll invite my girls. Could be work. Or, who knows, could be fun.
I turn to go back to my apartment when – him. Walking out of his basement unit like it’s his lion’s den and going god knows where. You’re probably wondering, who is he? This man in the basement unit with his slicked back hair and his million dollar smile and pristine outfit. That serious look on his face, which is all angels and nothing soft. Well, I know him well enough to tell you this: he is up to no good.
He nods at me as we approach to cross paths.
“How are you,” he asks. Not a question I like, and not a question I’m keen to answer, but it’s him, so I have to.
“Business as usual. You?”
Despite who he is, I will admit: there is some intrigue. Even after all this time, sometimes I find myself unable to help myself. Don’t I get to have my dose of awe and fear, too? I have to ask.
“And how is business?” He smiles at me. He’s different from me like that. We rub elbows, and I guess he’s a good person to know. But he’s not a good person to be around.
“You know. Yours?”
“Booming,” I reply. Oh, god, such a quick moment of uncool. But I guess I like it, a moment to be uncharacteristic. A moment to be less myself and more someone else. It’s the magic of charisma, isn’t it?
We part ways and he doesn’t say a word. He goes up to the landlord, who puts on a big smile and tries to act cool.
“Hey, how are you?” the landlord says in a chipper tone.
“You still watching that shit on your phone?” he asks, pointing to the landlord’s phone.
“Ah, oh, uh, you know, not really…”
“Don’t lie to me.”
“Um…yes,” the landlord replies sheepishly, hanging his head in shame.
“Give it to me,” he says, reaching into the window and across the passenger’s seat to grab the landlord’s phone. The landlord jerks back in fear as he takes the phone.
He leans into the car, leering almost, as he opens up the phone. And there, on the screen, it’s me, isn’t it? Me in my apartment, even though I don’t know it. Me, sitting on my couch drinking beer and counting money. And as he scrolls through the pages in the landlord’s phone, it’s everywhere else, too. It’s my kitchen, my bathroom, my bedroom. It’s the empty unit, too, with it’s tattered couches and almost kitchen. It’s the entire complex, except, of course, for his basement unit. He knew. He’s probably known for a long time because, well, that’s what he does, right? He knows things.
“Look, I told you, we’re cool, you don’t owe me anything, no rent, no nothing, just, please don’t – ” the landlord stammers.
He tosses the phone back at the landlord. “I left the one in my bathroom up for you.” The landlord sits there, flushed and floored as he walks away.
“I’ve got shit to do,” he says, leaving the landlord sitting there.
He walks down the street, hands in pocket, sunglasses on, trying to blend in with the crowd. I told you he was up to no good. He hops in his car, which is nondescript and parked pretty far away. He turns the radio on, it’s something equally nondescript and uninteresting. Drives halfway across town to a gritty neighborhood filled with Chinese restaurants and pay day advance shops and nail salons and cellphone stores and intermittent Mexican bakeries. He parks on some back alley, finds his way to a restaurant. A Vietnamese cafe of sorts, with hints of other comings and goings in the back. He sits down, orders a coffee. He pulls out today’s crossword puzzle and sits there, barely drinking his coffee but with an eye on everything around him. It’s busy – there are people coming and going, but the tables aren’t crowded.
The waitress walks buy with a pot of coffee in hand.
“You want somore?” she asks in a thick Vietnamese accent.
He nods for her to top him off, even though he’s barely had any to drink in the half hour he’s been there.
“Where’s the bathroom?”
“Back there,” she says, gesturing to the back, past the cashier’s stand and beyond the kitchen. He smiles at her and gets up gracefully. Despite the fact that he’s starkly different from everyone in here, he moves with an ease that helps him blend in among everyone else. No one seems to notice as he moves past them, past the cashier’s stand where the waitress stares out languidly at her patrons, past the kitchen where they’re screaming in a different language as steam wafts out. Past the two rooms marked “bathroom” in both English and Vietnamese and further down, past the office with its door flung open and the grown men playing video games while someone else pores over the accounting books, to the unmarked door. He waits for a moment, and a man with a bland, sunken face bustles out, shooting out a shocked look. He slides in as the man hurries down the hallway, and inside we see a scene of smoke and casino as men shout and huddle around a small table. As he walks in, a man at the door with the demeanor an armed guard stomps in front of him. He shouts in some other language.
“Bathroom?” he says with a look of confusion as he gets pushed out of the room and back down the hall, past the office where no one has registered the commotion down the hall, and back to the bathroom. He goes back to his table, past the kitchen and waitress who may or may not have heard what had happened but regardless doesn’t care. He tosses out a ten dollar bill without asking for the check and leaves.
Outside, it’s dreary as usual. He jams his hands in his pockets and wanders back to his car. Although, as he turns yet another nondescript corner, it isn’t there either. Turns again, and all of a sudden, he’s all twisted up. He’s back down an alley, and then another, all of which are eerie and filled with trash and not many people at all. It’s almost like another world, with everything written in the inscrutable scrawl of another language, the apartments above rising and looming like monsters beneath a crack of gray sky.
Until finally, he turns down an alley, and there he is: right back in front of the cafe. The waitress sees him as he stands there, looking up at the cafe sign with a face full of amused frustration.
“Mister, mister, do you want your change?” she calls through the window as she sees him standing there. He shakes his head no, and walks back down the street, and two blocks down, there’s his car.