The boys across the hall are brothers. They live in a dirt cheap studio rented by their sister.
Only their sister doesn’t actually live there. And the boys are actually half brothers. Different fathers. Jessie knew his father, but doesn’t really get along. Cary never got a chance to meet his.
The boys do hard wood ﬂoors. But that’s dried up. They are in and out of rehab. Now the boys sell heroin and rock. Loudly by phone. Usually pacing. In the hall.
Cary is the younger. A good looking, naturally California type. When he moves he reveals how many times he’s been broken. His body ﬁts together like it’s been permanently fused at a couple key points. His legs are a ninety year old woman’s. His arms a maﬁa enforcer.
He is jovial and kind during the day. He dotes on a small jack terrier named C.J. Shows it off any chance he can. Like the proud father of a spelling champ. Framing it in his forearms as though a rare violin.
At night Cary is wasted. He wails his pain. It consumes him. It drips feverishly from every pore. He calls everyone he knows. He punches walls. My walls. He calls the ﬁre department to take him to the hospital. When they come he doesn’t want to go to the hospital. Mainly because he can’t afford the ambulance. Or the hospital.
Jessie is the elder brother. He too is always sunned Californian. Jovial with a childlike air about. His smile shines from a dented face. Like a puppy who constantly sticks their nose in closing doors.
Jessie has asthma. He smokes cigarettes on the back ﬁre escape, just outside my bathroom window. He has a cough like a Maori chant. It is a rumbling curse from the depth of him. A song of endings. He has just returned from prison. And is usually drunk by noon.
Jessie is a happy drunk. Sings and says hello neighbor. He is a sullen and moody sober. The kind of guy you can imagine in prison.
In evenings the boys return from bars leaning against one another. Cary is eternally pissed at Jessie for abandoning him. Like his father. And for smashing him in the face. Jessie shouts back. That he’s pissed because Cary is so loud. And won’t give rehab a real chance. And that he didn’t abandon Cary. He was put in prison. Which wasn’t fucking fun. And that smashing Cary was just to shut him off for a bit. That something would have happened if he didn’t.
Something is going to happen to the boys. Things won’t work out. They don’t have anyone. They don’t have a place to go.
Except. To a mother. Who quietly is on the other end of their frantic stoned phone calls. And picks them up from prison. And to go to the hospital. When the rock is a bit too much, and they can’t afford the ambulance.
The building I live in has cramped pale pine halls. There is a metal gate for a front door. With no separation to the street. So the ﬁrst step outside your apartment is outside. In California these things can slide. When it’s eighty degrees three days of the week in January.
There are signs all around with stern warnings about leaving the metal gate door open. The metal gate door is always propped open. Mostly to accommodate the foot trafﬁc consumers. Of heroin and rock.
The boys don’t get too much of this action. The boys are very bad drug dealers. They have no business plan. No real connections. They do loud transactions in the hall. They leave the door to their apartment open. While they’re outside smoking. Until one of them remembers. That the stash is inside, and the door is open.
I know this because the boys smoke on the fire escape. Five feet from my toilet.
The real players in the building live directly above me. At night there is a steady supply of un-empathetic numb footsteps. And furniture being constantly moved. And Los Angeles County Sheriff invasions.
And when it’s quiet, the mufﬂed tones of a young man and a young woman. Beating each other. The explosions and the whispered regret. Because the only thing that separates them from alone. Is each other. And sometimes you put up with anything to keep from facing that.
I’ve seen the young woman in the pine halls. She is in her twenties. I would guess late, but she’s probably early. Her face has turned the corner with the meth. She is skinny. Dark haired and beautiful. Afraid of small dogs. And gives far too wide a berth as you pass by. Whoever she was shed her some time ago.
The young man looks like a surfer. Cast as an extra in a hip hop video. Taking acting lessons for a gangster epic. His walk infused with a latent rage. I see him hanging out by the front metal gate door, making sure it is always open. He seems nice enough.
The Corner Arms. Thirty basement apartments spread over three floors. Filled with always sweating methadone faces. And studio cramped multiple generation families. Souls that show only in the in-betweens of day. And live under the inevitability of notices on doors. Astronauts of a sort.
Cary and Jessie are moving out today. They’ve been moving out today for a month. But their things are strewn about the front sidewalk, so I guess today is the day. Cary gives me his grill. The one he cooks on, a foot from where I take showers. On the back ﬁre escape. He cleans it and everything. Says it’s a damn good machine. Just wants it to be used. Then he tries to sell me the propane. But gives that to me as well, when I decline.
C.J. is alone in the hall when I return later in the day. He pushes past me into my apartment. To immediately pee on my only chair. Cary’s steps punch the hall. I open my door to let C.J. out. Cary scoops him up by the scruff of his neck. With incredible tenderness. Like an alligator delicately positioning a babe. A precise empathy unexpected from powerful things.
Cary is wide eyed and sweat soaked. Unspeakably relieved. To have not forgotten his dog. We stand in the cramped hallway. We mumble honest goodbyes. He says hope you enjoy the silence, I say good luck. To you.
And when he is gone I notice. The grill is gone too.