by greg Tebbano
A’s are obvious—first from the door, closest to the earth. B’s are afterthoughts. They take a little getting to, a flight of stairs or an elevator, and they’re not always clearly marked.
When you lived in the B, people were always reaching you by accident. People climbing your fire escape, knocking on the back door—pizza guys, cable guys, guys looking for Rob.
“Sorry, man,” you had to say. You said it every time. “This is the B.”
The year you lived in the B, the apartments were just off campus, sister blue siding and floor plans, twins opposite the steep driveway which led down to the parking lot. The complex was symmetrical and 7B had a reflection, 9B, where the Christians lived. Four Protestants and one Mennonite and they were all very nice girls, happy and smiling when you popped by to borrow a corkscrew or get the notes from anatomy.
Even before meeting the Christians, you knew them. How they ate meals together. How the tall one went running in the morning, fixed a bandana and stretched her calves on the coffee table. How she sometimes looked out the window for the weather, accidentally saw you and waved. How you felt guilty and forgiven all at once.
The B’s had these great windows, big rectangular panes no one had the heart to curtain. Your two houses entered a silent agreement: the Open Blind Policy. You were allowed to watch the sun lowering behind the tree line, see the Christians joining hands for supper and feel yourself getting hungry. They were allowed to watch your petty arguments in the kitchen, see you eating separately and resist the urge to covet anything that belonged to you.
When you were baking or boiling water and the humidity was just right, the big windows would fog and you could write the Christians messages, backwards and carefully as you learned to do on elementary school busses: Jesus Saves. Or Someone is watching, which you cut jagged, so condensation drooled from the edges of letters. So the words were bleeding.
If the lights were on at your place, off at theirs, you saw yourselves walking around their apartment, talking on the Christians’ long distance plan and watching Christian TV. Here was the movie of your life, now playing on the big screen across the drive. You saw the horrible actors they cast as you wrestling each other in the living room or trying to dance like Patrick Swayze and Baby. Trying to show Daddy they were really in love.
TV reception never came in at the B, but you didn’t need it because you had channel 9A, below the Christians. On a Saturday night you could sit in your darkened B and watch the drama of the A girls going out. Coming out to the mirror to fuss, disappearing for a hair dryer, returning to fuss anew. They were all blond hair and black pants, hiding straps and looking for a place to stick their IDs. Eventually the boys would arrive, looking slick and talking shit. They’d leave the front entrance open, forget where the girls lived and try the A because it was closer. Only you saw both sides of it: the knock and the reaction—the women’s scattered confidence, the lazy cool of the men. Only you saw the thinness of the door. How it wasn’t separating anything.
Afterwards, 9A would darken to match your living room, one body there on the couch gaining shape in the dull lightning of Saturday Night Live. It was the one A girl who never went out, just sat watching TV all night, flipping, flipping. You felt sorry for her. There was never anything on.
The boys lived in 7A and they were assholes. Luckily, you were above them.
They threw basketballs at your floor and you dropped furniture on their ceiling. You trampled in place. They turned up Eazy-E and you turned up the Rolling Stones. They had loud, loveless sex for your benefit. But you let them. Your shit went through their pipes and there was nothing they could do about it.
Every weekend you braced for the fallout of their drunkenness. The night they tried to sled down your fire escape on dinner trays.
“I’m not calling an ambulance,” you said.
The time after Halloween when they massacred the Christians’ jack o’ lantern family—burst out of their flat with kitchen knives, howling. The night was warm, all the windows open, and you heard the crisp slashing and hollow sound of pumpkin parts falling to the pavement. The next morning, brain seeds and jack o’ lantern blood everywhere and you knew you lived above killers.
The year you lived in the B your landlord was a bald Italian man who took a minute to understand what you were saying. He told you the blue buildings were built in 1974 and were some fine pieces of work. They were safe and insulated and don’t hang anything over the sprinklers unless you want to pay for the water damage.
Your landlord believed in time as a remedy. When you had squirrels in your attic he said, “Give ‘em time. They’ll die.” When there was a rat in the laundry room he said it was a bird. Harmless. It would find its way out. It had gotten in hadn’t it?
And when someone left the B with a clothes basket and quarters you said, “Watch out for ratbird.”
Waiting for the final six minutes of the dry cycle you sometimes heard slurs from the landlord’s poker games, convened in secret under the laundry room. Through slits in the vent you saw cigars and chips at the round table, the boiler room glow of a utility bulb. They were officers of a submarine down there, lounging in their skivvies, taking a break from the rules of engagement with the rules of five-card draw. Above them was the turbine shaking of dryers, water rushing through pipes and the poker room just sailing on, all under the places where you lived.
When winter came up from the lake the steep drive became an Audi commercial and you didn’t have an Audi. You had an old Japanese car your parents didn’t want any more, that peeled out and left hot, wet snow inches from an accident you couldn’t afford. You learned not to park in the five spaces at the bottom of the hill. You learned not to wait for the bald Italian landlord to plow and walked to class. If you were the A boys you never learned and woke everyone up turning snow into ice under the wheels of your heavy American car. If you were the Christians you went out and pushed when one of your roommates had to get to her GREs and the drive was bright Sunday morning ice. You chipped with shovels and broom handles, working in teams an axle-width apart. You cheered when she made it out. You cheered even if you weren’t a Christian.
The year you lived in the B you sat on the fire escape in spring and looked into the valley, at the green arriving in bursts down the hill. You sat on Friday evening with a bottle of wine and no cups and laughed at how your fire escape was made of wood, and maybe in 1974 they didn’t know wood was combustible yet. You watched familiar cars returning to the parking lot with different combinations of people and made up stories about them. How the A boys would surely grow up to be bald Italian landlords, trading Buds for Bolívars and pumpkin cutlery for a marked red deck of playing cards. You pointed at which girls were having the loud, loveless sex with the A boys and you pitied them, the night coming on and the bottle slowly finishing. A door shutting itself on sprung hinges.
You knew you couldn’t live in the B forever. Just until the first of July because you promised it with your signature. And that was back on a cold day last September when you picked out the B from all the little houses on the hill. Houses that had fallen into the landlord’s little empire, one by one, at the mercy of offers that couldn’t be refused and weren’t.
Here families of blood had been replaced by families of bond—families like your own. Lessees, who agreed, jointly and individually, to have and to hold the said premises, to honor and cherish it, with all privileges and appurtenances, until death or 8:00am, July the first. You agreed to arrive each season like bees, to buzz in the space of rooms, to pollinate checks. To send back your brethren, who would do the same—pay for the building and use only the space inside it.
At the end of the term the prospective renters arrive, a group of four or five girls, young and excited by the prospects of the B’s space. They arrive as you had a year before, interrupting a quiet night at the B and imagining it to be a future quiet night of your own.
You scan these girls’ faces carefully, looking for the face that will be yours next year, the one you’ll see on a cold autumn night when you decide to take a walk by the old place. The blinds will be raised and there she’ll be, framed in that big window. Maybe she’s waiting for a ride. Maybe just looking for the weather.
You’ll remember how it was, standing by the window in your bright B. How light fogged up the glass with reflection and you could hardly see past yourself, just the B filling the night, shrouding the drive and building nine with its pale image.
Greg Tebbano is a writer who also creates electronic music under the moniker Kite Person. His short stories have appeared in Nimrod International Journal, FOLIO, Printer’s Devil Review and been considered finalists for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction and the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, If She Doesn’t Exist, Why Do I Miss Her? Contact him at kiteperson [at] gmail [dot] com.
Art by Michelle Johnsen
Michelle Johnsen (art editor) is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine, EcoWatch.com, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by AP, weather.com, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at] gmail.com.