Lives of Quiet Desperation

January 16, 2015

After I quit the job at the newspaper, I needed to save money, so I moved into a cheap apartment building on University Hill. It was an old sorority house that had long since been abandoned by the perky, young coeds who had once resided in its floral-printed halls and was now haunted by the type of middle-age men who commonly stalk said coeds in horror movies.

My room was approximately fifteen feet by twenty, with just enough space for a single bed, a couch, a coffee table, and one of those tiny refrigerators that holds precisely one six pack of beer, four ketchup packets, half a candy bar, and two potatoes. The bathroom and kitchen were across the hall. Both were cleaned once a week by a quiet Mexican family who did not live in the building.

I found out about the apartment from my friend, a full-time journalist and part-time junkie who used to live in the very room I was now occupying. He was forced to relocate when he ran into trouble with his drug dealers, a father/son duo who lived next door. He stiffed the landlord and the dealers during his departure, but neither of them held it against me.

The landlord was a twenty-three-year-old kid who had received the apartment building as a graduation present from his father and was milking us for rent money until real estate prices in the neighborhood rose to a level that warranted selling the property, at which point he planned on moving to Belize and retiring at the age of thirty. He was a nice enough guy, but you couldn’t help but resent his boyish good looks and the baseball cap that was always cocked slightly askew on a messy brown nest of curls.

The rest of the residents were primarily harmless headcases and transients who had just gotten out of jail or rehab or grad school and had nowhere else to go. They were men, mostly. Sad men. Angry men. Broken men. Men who were either on medication or needed to be on medication. Alcoholics. Drug addicts. Control freaks. Weirdos. Losers. They reminded me of that line Thoreau wrote in Walden. “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” I say “they” but I lived there too, so I was one of the quiet and desperate I guess. There are worse things to be.

Occasionally some scruffy-looking hippie would show up with a guitar case and a copy of On the Road and try to turn the building into a commune. He’d post notes in the kitchen about hosting a drum circle in his room with free kombucha for all comers, and then he’d sit in there by himself playing folk songs until one in the morning before finally screaming “Fuck you all!” into the hall and slamming his door. Fortunately, the building seemed to repel these types of New Agey do-gooders and they were usually gone in a month.

On one occasion, a paranoid-schizophrenic with insomnia moved into the room next to mine. The building had no air conditioning, so during the summer it was almost unbearable. I’d sit in my underwear with the window open and a fan on, and I’d still have to take a cold shower every couple of hours to keep from passing out. But this guy was oblivious to the heat. He wore a ski mask, sunglasses, fleece hoodie, long pants, snow boots, and mittens, and then he would rap duct tape around the sleeves and pant legs so there was no skin exposed. In the middle of the night, he would slam the doors of the bathroom stalls for no apparent reason and then rant for thirty minutes about topics ranging from the CIA to the rising cost of milk to the reasons why black people couldn’t be trusted. He was there for less than three weeks before the landlord kicked him out. In a weird sort of way, I missed him after he was gone. When it’s too hot to sleep and you’re lying on your bed sweating and staring at the ceiling and you can’t get enough air in your lungs and all the molecules in your body suddenly start to freak out and you think “Maybe this is what madness feels like,” it’s comforting to have someone around to demonstrate the difference between insanity and a panic attack by screaming that Kentucky Fried Chicken is responsible for faking the moon landing.

The drug dealers and I got to be fairly good friends.  I mean, we didn’t go see Broadway musicals together or anything like that, but they would give me a head-nod in the hall, which was more than they did for anyone else in the building.  The son turned out to be some kind of computer wiz and he hooked me up with free cable and internet access in exchange for my Netflix password.  Every couple of months he would come over to my room and do something on my computer that gave it more memory or made it run faster or some such thing.  I never knew what was going on.  He would just knock on the door, enter my room without an invitation, sit down at my computer, and start typing away at breakneck speeds, all the while talking faster than seemed humanly possible.  He didn’t socialize much, but once he got started you couldn’t shut him up.  He was an unfortunate-looking guy: 25ish, pasty skin that was always moist to the touch, about eighty pounds overweight, almost bald on top with long, black hair on the sides and back, one of those patchy wispy beards grown by those who can’t really grow facial hair but refuse to give up the dream.  During these computer-repair visits, I learned more than I ever wanted to know about their lives.  Apparently, his father had been hit by a BMW earlier in the year, which was a huge stroke of luck.  It messed up his hip real good, but they ended up suing the guy and getting a $250,000 settlement.  However, the lawyers were still figuring out the legal mumbo-jumbo, so they couldn’t collect just yet.  In the meantime, they were holed up here, trying to stay off the street because they owed various drug suppliers money, which they would be able to pay after the settlement came in.  It was all sort of convoluted and I had trouble getting the details straight because he was talking so fast and banging away on my computer, but the gist of it was that I couldn’t tell anyone they were here.  Since he’d never told me his real name, I didn’t think that would be a problem.

One day, Son Drug Dealer knocked on my door, and when I opened it, he rushed into the room and slammed the door behind him.  “Don’t open that door for anyone,” he said.  I said, “Um…okay.”  He had shaved his head to the scalp and his beard was gone, and he was carrying a green backpack.  He said, “Can I trust you?”  I said, “Probably not.”  He ignored me.  “I need to leave something with you for a few hours.”  Before I could answer he launched into this story…

He and his father were making a drug delivery in Denver.  They’d been laying low for months, waiting for the lawsuit money to come in, but now they were behind on rent and they needed some cash.  So they agreed to run some heroin across town for this guy.  They picked up the heroin and then drove down the street minding their own business when a cop behind suddenly turned on his lights.  Father Drug Dealer started to freak out because he was on parole, and going on drug deliveries while you’re on parole is, well, bad.  The son was driving the car and he pulled into a church parking lot.  He didn’t know what to do.  He couldn’t let the cops catch them with this bag of drugs because his father would go back to prison and then they’d probably never collect that damn lawsuit money.  So the son waited until the cop got out of his car and started to walk toward them…and then he gunned the engine.  It just so happened that they were right next to an extremely busy street.  But they caught a lucky break in traffic.  They just missed two oncoming cars, jumped a traffic island, and took a screeching right turn.  In the meantime, Father Drug Dealer threw the heroin out the window.  They tore off down the street, took some rights, some lefts, and ended up in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  They ditched the car there, got on the bus, and came back to the apartment.  The car wasn’t registered in their name, so the cops couldn’t trace it back to them.  The only problem was that there was now $800 worth of heroin lying on Colfax and Son Drug Dealer had shaved is head and face to disguise himself and now he was going to take the bus back to Denver to see if he could find the drugs and he needed me to do him a big favor.  He looked me intensely in the eyes.  My heart began to hammer as he slowly started to unzip the backpack. I looked around the room for weapons. He reached inside the bag.

“Can you watch my cat?”

He pulled out a black-and-white kitten that could easily fit into a teacup.

“I just got him a few weeks ago.  His name is Grub.  My dad is staying with a friend until this all blows over, and I’m not sure how long this will take.  I don’t want to leave him alone.”

I managed to nod my head and croak, “Sure.”

So for the next seven hours, I sat on my couch reading a Philip K. Dick novel while Grub napped quietly beside me.  Son Drug Dealer returned after successfully finding the bag of heroin and making the delivery. He put Grub back in the bag, shook my hand, and returned to his room.

Two months later Father Drug Dealer had a heart attack and died.  A month after that the lawsuit check arrived in the mail.  I never saw Son Drug Dealer or Grub again.

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