It was my neighbor in unit #1 who first suspected that Barbara, my neighbor in unit #7, was no longer among the living.
“Did you notice how dirty her car is?” he asked one evening as we ran into each other in the laundry room. Barbara was known to clean her shit-brown ’72 Cadillac El Dorado every day, so it was out of the ordinary to see it covered with dust.
“No,” I replied, “but she parked it too close to my car, and now I keep scraping the pole when I pull in.”
Unit #1, whose name I never actually learned, has an Orthodox wife and two young children, who condemn him to a life of constant laundry and intermittent sleep. We exchange brief moments of angst-ridden banter in our comings and goings, but neither of us has ever set foot in the other’s apartment.
“We should call the police,” he suggested. “She might be dead. She might be lying there. Dead.”
“She lives with her father,” I reminded him. “I’m sure he would call the police if he found his daughter, lying there, dead.”
Unit #1 cocked his head to indicate that though the use of logic would be appropriate in most situations, it was, in this particular case, not-applicable. “I don’t really believe her father exists.”
“Me neither,” I admitted.
“Or maybe they’re both dead!”
“No, we would have smelled them decomposing by now.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
I should explain a little more about my former neighbor in unit #7. Barbara, the sort of person you don’t converse with so much as negotiate on your way to the mailbox, was the only tenant in our building whose name I knew, and I knew it because of her obnoxious habit of referring to herself in the third person (e.g. “And I said to myself, Barbara, that girl Fish took home last night isn’t right for him. She isn’t Jewish. She doesn’t have a good head on her shoulders”). Barbara was a rather overweight, unattractive woman in her late 50’s who wore a large pair of RiteAid sunglasses (tag dangling) over a pair of bifocals as she daily wandered the grounds annoying the tenants who occupy the other seven units of our humble, Hollywood residence. But Barbara’s avant-garde fashion statements didn’t end with her Warhol-esque eyewear as she was also prone to sporting an extra large T-shirt, threadbare to the point of being see-through, that, though it went down to her knees, did little to conceal either the style of bloomers she preferred or her contempt for the Brazilian wax. Her favorite topic of conversation, which she inflicted on me whenever I took out my garbage, involved her amorous relationship with Prince William of Great Britain. By this I don’t mean to say that Barbara was merely one of the millions of yentas who read People Magazine and believe the affairs of a royal family living six thousand miles away and the tribulations of certain characters on daytime television are worthy topics of conversation — No! — I mean that Barbara, from unit #7 at 182 N. Stanley, actually believed she was carrying on an affair with the heir to the British Throne, the sordid minutiae of which she would often relate, sparing no details in the interest of decency or tact.
Barbara’s other favorite topic for discourse involved the deteriorating health of her father, with whom she lived, supposedly, but whose existence no one in the building could verify. Many times, passing by unit#7, I could hear Barbara’s end of a conversation, followed by a pause sufficient for being filled by another’s voice, and then a continuation from Barbara, without ever having actually heard that other voice. Either Mr. Barbara was as quiet as a synagogue mouse or there was some Bates Motel situation going on, which, though disturbing, was more than likely harmless and probably accounted for the disability checks that paid the rent.
About a week later, I ran into Unit #1 again.
“I was right,” he said, smiling with vindication. “She is dead!”
“Landlord said she went into the hospital a month ago and died.”
I paused for a moment as the implications of Barbara’s demise unfurled in my brain.
“Then who’s going to move her car?”
I had only a few payments left on my Volkswagen Golf K2 before I was going to be the actual owner, at which point I was hoping to sell it. But I wasn’t going to get much if it kept getting scraped up the way it had been since Barbara last parked her El Dorado. And the strange thing was she had never parked badly before and had always left more than enough room for me to get into my spot.
The following day, I approached my landlord (never learned his name either) as he watered the lawn.
“I heard about Barbara,” I said, looking glumly at the ground. “How terrible.”
“Just awful,” he agreed as he turned down the hose. “And you know she wasn’t an old woman? Only fifty-eight years old.”
My landlord is a widower in his late sixties, about whom people say, “What a nice man.” He wears cardigan sweaters and speaks in soft tones reminiscent of the voice Ronald Reagan used when he spoke of cutting funds from Medicare and education so that he could build bigger bombs to blow up an evil empire that, it turns out, really posed no threat at all.
“Terrible,” I repeated as we bowed our heads in respect for this tragic loss of life. “You know, the last time Barbara parked her car… she parked it in such a way that I’m having trouble getting into my spot.”
“Oh,” said my landlord, showing concern. “Well, I… maybe I can move it for you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’d appreciate that.”
He called the next day with bad news.
“Well, I… got the keys to Barbara’s car, but the darn thing wouldn’t start. We called AAA, and they couldn’t even jump it. I think it’s got a dead battery.”
“Is there any way we can just… tow the thing?” I asked.
“Afraid not,” he replied. “Her father says he wants to sell it, but I don’t know who’s going to want a ’72 Cadillac that won’t start.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You mean her father actually exists?”
“Sure he does. Mr. Berkawitz has been living here since I first bought the building twenty years ago.”
“You think he’d let us push the car out,” I asked, “and then push it back in at a better angle?”
“Well, I… I can ask,” my landlord responded, “but I doubt it, Fish.”
It was becoming clear that the sole accomplishment of Barbara Berkawitz’s life, her legacy so-to-speak, was to have parked her shit-brown ’72 Cadillac El Dorado one final time in such a way that it would require an unreasonable and uncomfortable level of sobriety for me to wedge into my spot without causing dents and scrapes to the black enamel of my Volkswagen Golf K2. An entire life was lived, fifty-eight fucking years, for no other reason than to devalue my already near-worthless car — a car that had sustained nary a dent nor scratch in the previous seven years I drove it; that had its oil changed regularly; that had been washed and waxed monthly; that had been taken care of and paid off with a surfeit of discipline that demonstrated a level of maturity for which I was not normally known. But the fruits of my labor were being steadily abraded away by a dead schizophrenic, who, from the grave, was turning my automobile into something that looked like it was used to ferry gas shipments down the main highway in Fallujah.
I called Intimate Relationship #9.5 and asked her opinion.
“Uch,” she said. “You’re the most disturbed person I ever met in my life.”
IR#9.5 often laments the decay of values in America and the desensitization to death and violence that results from playing video games and watching too much television. Her favorite show is the Gilmore Girls, and she’ll rip your head off if you call her at a time of day when GG or any of its syndicated re-runs is on the air.
“A woman died here, and all you can think about is your car? Is that how you’d feel if I died?”
IR#9.5 tends to personalize everything in such a way that a conversation about my car somehow becomes a conversation about our relationship. I often wonder if she really represents an improvement over IR#9.0 or just a re-packaging of the same old product, marketed differently and sold at twice the price.
“I think you’re getting what you deserve!”
According to IR#9.5, I was the recipient of “bad karma” for the way I treated Barbara while she was alive, dismissing and avoiding her whenever she wanted to chat. IR#9.5, however, had “good karma” because she is kind to the insane, practices yoga twice-a-day, often rescues lost puppies, and is only ill-tempered and judgmental toward her family, her friends, her co-workers, and people with whom she is having sexual intercourse.
“You shouldn’t be so attached to your car anyway. It’s just a material thing!”
When the accumulated dents finally got to the point where I could no longer open the driver’s side door of my “material thing,” I decided to take action of a sort that would have made my father, a true artist of violent self-destruction if ever there was one, proud that he had a son who learned so much and so little from his brief and disgraceful tenure in my life. Before running out on my family and leaving us in a financial lurch from which we never recovered, my father bequeathed to me a device called The Ratchet, otherwise known as “The Brooklyn Problem Solver” — an instrument notorious for causing more problems than it ever solved and for being in many ways responsible for the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. Many of the more memorable chapters of my and my brother’s youth involve our bearing witness to our father’s ingenuity at finding new and never before dreamed of uses for this simple tool. Like the time he “fixed” the television set with a few whacks from The Ratchet, and when I say “fixed,” I mean only that the television was reduced to its component parts and never caused any problems or did much of anything ever again. Then there was the time I told Dad his car was getting towed, and he said in a calm voice, “Get me The Ratchet.” My brother and I ran to the closet, fetched his toolbox, then watched from the window as Abel Fischman chased the tow truck operator down the street like a tomahawk-wielding Cheyenne warrior looking for a fresh scalp. For what purpose Black and Decker may have originally invented The Ratchet, I’ll never know (I think it has something to do with “bolts,” whatever they are), but for my father, there was no problem, big or small, diplomatic or mechanical, that could not be solved with a good measure of rage and this trusty hunk of metal.
And so, Ratchet in hand, I approached Barbara’s shit-brown ’72 Cadillac El Dorado and shattered the back window. I unlatched the door and sat behind the wheel where I began working at the gearshift with an upward swing of The Ratchet that eventually coaxed it into neutral. After getting out of the car and opening the gate behind me, I pushed on the El Dorado’s hood until the vehicle gathered enough momentum to sail backwards across the alley and smash into the wall opposite the deceased’s parking spot.
IR #9.5 picked me up from the police station after I made bail. She used the car ride home as an opportunity to lecture me about how far I had fallen because of my callousness and uncontrolled rage. It was her belief I could no longer refuse to attend a week-long seminar at a place called The Forum, where I would meet some “very powerful” people, who would change my “being” and were absolutely not members of a cult. The following week, IR#9.5 would decide that she and I should “spend some time apart” after I was asked to leave the seminar due to my repeated insistence that we cover the topic of self-immolation at the group discussion. That same week, my Reagan-esque landlord would hand me a notice of eviction, ordering me to quit the premises for reasons pertaining to my willful destruction of property. After I packed The Ratchet along with my other belongings into the luggage I would carry to my next abode, I finally did catch a glimpse of the old man who was Barbara’s father. He was standing at his doorstep smiling as people came to pay their respects to his late daughter. I did not sit shiva in unit #7 that day (I wasn’t invited), and I think it’s safe to assume that the future heir to the British Throne was not in attendance either.