The Good Tenant
About the Writer
Barry Maxwell is a 56-year-old native of Austin, Texas, and a creative writing student at UT. His essays, poetry, and fictional pieces have found homes or are forthcoming in the Mud Season Review, Pithead Chapel, UT’s Hothouse Review, The Liberator magazine, Austin Community College’s Rio Review, and Crack the Spine. His work has been featured in the Northern Colorado Writers 2013 Pooled Ink Anthology, and in the 2014 Writing Texas Anthology from the Lamar University Press. Barry, formerly one of Austin's homeless, is also the founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s homeless community. You can contact Barry via www.streetlit.org, or www.barrymaxwell.net.
There are voices outside the window, real ones this time, and close by. I shrink in the dark room, contract until there’s nothing left of me but the sheen of an eye peering through the smoke-yellowed blinds. Brownish street light steals through the slats, striping the floor around me like bars. I hold an opening large enough to see without being seen, but my finger trembles, and the trembling could get me busted. I pull away, crush my cigarette against the empty pack, and go still, as silent and thin as the smoke.
A shadow falls directly on the blind, inches from my face, and another joins it. There is feminine laughter, and late night bird-like banter. No one should be here, not this late, and I back into the corner beside the low sill, collapsing around my center like a dying spider. They might be new tenants coming to move in, or meeting the manager to close an afterhours lease. No one should be here, but there they stand with their bright-lit voices and small talk, complaining about the cold. My jaw quivers, my breath comes shallow and hot. I worry they might smell through the glass the cigarette I’d just snuffed out, or hear my stomach groan.
* * * * *
No one knows I’m here, no one but Steve, my oldest buddy, my thick-and-thin friend for life. Steve takes care of me. He maintains this apartment building, and his charity includes a well-sabotaged window latch for my entry and a regular supply of vodka as my escape. There are no guarantees of safety, but it’s a refuge from the street, and from the rules and raucous chaos of the homeless shelter. Only Steve knows I’m here, and yes, he takes care of me, but I lie even to him—he tells me I can hide out for a night now and then, but he doesn’t know how often I sneak in and pretend myself a home.
The shadows at the window turn this way and that. The women gesture and speak in casual, offhand tones. They chat and laugh and laugh and chat. One of them holds a phone to her ear and rattles her keys like bones.
* * * * *
I’m a good tenant. I don’t make trouble. I keep silent while the neighbors bump and slam and fuck and blast movies in bottom-heavy surround sound. I’m an expert on last week’s news. I slip downstairs Tuesday nights to snag the New York Times from the recycling bin; an unknowing benefactor leaves the fat morning editions stacked a week to the bundle. The crossword puzzles pencil me into existence, and I struggle through them, erasing and erasing until holes wear in the pages. I have a bathtub, and soak like a prince in the empty hours after midnight. I have a deadbolt to lock, and the privacy to shit without an audience, to masturbate, to wonder if I’ve become more pathetic, or if I’m privileged to be alone and out of the bitter holiday weather. I have a carpeted floor, after all. I have a sleeping bag, and the crosswords, and there is silence, sometimes.
Steve picks me up maybe twice a week, occasionally more often. He feeds me—a cup of Wendy’s chili, usually, or a burger—he buys me two-dollar ghetto smokes, and always the liquor. Sometimes he makes me wait, thirsty, while I listen to his troubles. He complains about his wife and mortgage and the price of tires for his F150. He complains about the street price of Vicodin, and buys himself Ketel One to my Kamchatka. I help him on his jobs and these things are my pay. I’m grateful. I don’t complain. Sometimes, though, when the work is slow, I don’t hear from Steve for days. I’ve learned how the yard dog feels, chained to a tree with an empty bowl.
* * * * *
The apparitions at the window grow louder, less patient. They discuss who will cover cab fare. They debate the night’s drug of choice and mourn the recent scarcity of quality random sex. Brakes grind, their cabbie taps his horn, and their chatter swells with delight. I breathe deeply and clear my throat as their heels tap cheerfully away, oblivious.
I peer through the blinds again, and whisper for the shadows to please come back, wait, take me with you, but they’ve gone, and of course it’s only right. I fall on my back across the stripes of grimy light, liquor-sick, vibrating with adrenaline, and I lie with my cheek against the floor, tracing the streetlight spiraling through the dusty carpet’s synthetic fibers. They were so close—I might have sneezed or coughed. I might have moaned like an animal and given myself away. I might have finally risen, and stumbled through the door with my hands in the air like a hostage unexpectedly freed.