Rent Day - fiction
“Mr. Ashiotis will be here any time now, what am I going to tell him?” I asked, looking straight at Martha. It was two days past the first.
“I had to pay my tuition or I would have been dropped,” Martha replied.
“That’s not what I meant. It was my idea for you to sign up for watercoloring, but why did you have to quit your job right now?”
Martha tensed, her face tightened. “What kind of man are you, Jeff? My boss can try anything and it’s OK as long as I get paid?”
The loud knocking sucked the life out of the argument. The familiar rap, rap, ra-ra- rap, identified our caller. I glanced toward Martha one last time as I headed to the door. The polished oak living room floor was beautiful. I thought about how much I would miss it.
“Hello, Mr. Ashiotis,” I said, not knowing what to say next. Where would I get eleven hundred and fifty dollars?
“Good morning, Mr. Brotsky. “I had business out of town. I apologize for not coming on the first.”
“That’s OK, I… uh….”
“It is two days past rent day.”
“The refrigerator is still leaking water all over the floor. I told you about it over two weeks ago.”
“So you did.”
“The water is going to cause mold. It probably has already. My wife had to quit her job because it made her sick. That’s a health violation, Mr. Ashiotis.”
“Mr. Brotsky, excuse me for asking, but have you been monitoring the freezer temperature? The thermometer in there must always be in the green zone or it can freeze the drain line and cause the leak.”
“You’re blaming me?” It was a typical landlord trick. “We have to put up with a defective fridge because you’re too cheap to buy a good one and you talk about ‘the green zone.’ But you don’t mind overcharging. This place is a Potemkin Village. Everything looks nice, but it is a mold-infested death trap. You’re nothing but a fancy-pants slumlord. You should be ashamed of yourself… getting rich exploiting an artist!”
Ashiotis’ face clouded over. “Getting rich? Do you have any idea what you are talking about? Do you think land-lording is all profit and no loss? Perhaps things would be better if you had to take care of the house yourself.”
I was about to sing a few lines from Pity the Downtrodden Landlord, but before I could he handed me an envelope with my name typed on the front. I took it. Before turning to leave, Ashiotis looked at me and said: “Same thing with you every month. We’ll see now.”
“What’s that?” asked Martha?
After a moment of paralysis, it dawned on me.
“That fuckin’ bastard! He’s breaking the law!”
“He can’t give us an eviction notice on the second day. We get ten days grace period. That scumbag is trying to fuck me. I have the Tenant’s Handbook!”
“How do you know it’s an eviction notice?” asked Martha?
“What else could it be? He was hoping we wouldn’t have the rent. The bastard wants us out, any excuse! He was so quick to hand it to me, he didn’t even wait to see if I might have had the rent. He didn’t come to collect the rent… not really: He came to serve the notice.”
“Why don’t you open it and see what it is?” asked Martha.
“I know what it is: It’s an eviction notice. Two days late and we’re out on our ass! Year after year we pay rent and we end up with nothing. We pay the mortgage, he owns the house. For what we’ve been paying, we should not only own this house, but the house Ashiotis lives in!”
“Why don’t you open the envelope, Jeffrey, and see what it is?”
“See what it is? What are you… stupid?”
“Don’t call me stupid!”
“OK then you open it,” I handed her the envelope.
She hesitated, then took it. Martha got up, walked to our big, south-facing bay window with all the plants and foliage, and held the envelope up to the light.
“Well?” I said.
“Not a clue,” she replied. “This is a high quality envelope made of heavy bond. It even has an embossed return address.”
“That sounds bad,” I said. “You better not open it then.”
Martha had just opened the drawer of the end table and was reaching for a scissors. “Why not?”
“I have to call Axelrod and ask him whether legal service is complete when the envelope is handed to the victim, or if the victim has to open it.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Martha, as she neatly sliced one end of the envelope and reached in.
“There’s nothing here,” she said.
“Give me that!” I grabbed the envelope, held it with the slit down, and tapped it against the table. Something slid out.
“What’s that?” asked Martha.
I saw what it was, but for a moment it did not register. Then I picked it up and examined it. “Martha, this is a check for $1,150, made out to me.”
“Are you sure? Is it signed?”
“That’s Mr. Ashiotis’ signature all right. “
“Let me see it.”
I handed Martha the check. She stared at it a long time. Then, handing it back, she asked: “Why should Ashiotis give us a check? And for $1,150? That’s the amount of the rent. Maybe it’s a refund.”
“A refund?!!” I managed to hold myself back and not to call her stupid again. “Why would he give us a refund? It’s not a refund, it’s something else.”
“I don’t know, but I don’t trust that son of a bitch. I don’t know how, but he’s trying to screw us.”
“How can he screw us by giving us money? Let’s deposit it so we can pay the electric bill.”
“Oh no, I’m not going to deposit this check. That’s just what he wants.”
In the end, we did deposit the check.
The next day, I had my pastels and sketch pad spread out on our heavy oak kitchen table. It was one of those perfect morning when it feels as though the sun will shine forever; your mind is clear; you can do anything.
Our kitchen window is perfectly situated so that you can sit in fascination at the table all day, mindlessly staring out the window whether birds come or not. Right now, there was a woodpecker.
With a masterful stroke — exquisite in its simplicity — I captured the curve of his neck and with two or three quick wisps of the brush, I got his topknot.
Just as I reached to pick up a contrasting shade for the next stroke, I noticed water on the white, tiled floor near the sink. This was a new outrage, much worse than the usual puddle by the fridge: It was a flood!
I opened the cabinet, and everything was wet. Grabbing my cell phone, I automatically pressed the landlord’s speed-dial number, but before his phone could ring, I disconnected.
I thought about the check and wondered whether it was such a good idea, after all, to call about the leak. So for the next three days we lived with the leak, trying to remember to empty the bucket before it would overflow. Finally Martha nagged me into going to the hardware store to try to figure out what I would need to fix it.
The “Plumber’s Helper” brand stop-gap tape seemed to work at first, but within a couple of days we were back to the bucket brigade. Come hell or leaky water I was not going to pay a plumber, so I went back to the hardware store.
This time, instead of perusing the products in the plumbing aisle, I overcame my agoraphobia and approached one of the hardware clerks. The name on his badge was, “Ed.”
He listened as I explained the problem. I did not detect even a hint of derision, which was a relief. It turned out that I had to tell him whether the drain pipe was and inch-and-a-half or an inch-and-a-quarter; whether it was PVC or metal, and whether it was a “J” style, or “S,” and something about a tailpiece.
Martha had the car that day: I returned home by bus, transferring from the “13” at Elm and Main to the “27.” With the help of the diagrams that Ed had drawn and my conversation notes clipped to each one: I was able to get the specs.
Once back at the hardware store, I looked for Ed. He was with a customer. Another clerk with “Rob” on his name-tag offered to help, but there was no way I was going to take a chance, so I waited for Ed. Each time his customer seemed ready to be finishing up, she thought of another question, and off they went down an isle or up the stairs to the second floor while I waited.
Finally it was my turn. Even though Ed said it was time for his lunch break, he agreed to help me. Sensing Ed’s hunger, I felt pressed, but in the end I felt certain that I had everything.
Once home, with confidence and a wrench, I opened up the old drain and got my face splashed with filthy water. After nearly two hours, struggling to connect pieces which almost came together but not quite, and several episodes of thinking I had it, but then seeing water begin to seep out during the test; I finally did stop the leak.
With two round trips to the hardware store — 2 buses each way for a total of 8 bus rides — and another 2 hours under the sink — I had used up a full day. The next morning I looked forward to throwing myself into my work.
Martha had quickly landed a new job, but the downside was that her new boss permitted her to telecommute. “Martha,” I said as we finished our cereal, “I am going to need the whole day undistracted. I am working on the piece.”
“Fine,” said Martha. She picked up our bowls and brought them to the sink. I did not say anything, even though there was still a morsel on mine that I had been saving for last. “I’m not going to bother you.”
“I need to be sure that there won’t be any interruptions.” I said.
“Don’t worry, the master bedroom is entirely yours.”
“Martha, you know I needed it for my studio. It is the only room in the house with good northern light.”
“And the biggest bedroom.”
“You resent that?”
“No I don’t resent it. You’re an artist, you need a large workspace. I’m fine with the computer nook. Anyway, my boss is strict about deadlines, I have to get to work.”
“Martha, I’m truly sorry that we have had to depend almost entirely on your salary. But that’s why I’m working on the piece. Being invited to exhibit at the gallery is my big chance.”
* * *
Again I wished that this would have been one of the days when Martha has to go in to the office. I could not sit still, nor could I concentrate. By the third time that I came downstairs, Martha could not contain herself.
“I thought you wanted to work uninterrupted. How come you keep coming down every few minutes?”
“It’s not every few minutes,“ I said, “It’s at least a half hour since the last time I came down.”
“OK, every half hour?”
“I just needed to check under the sink. I can’t work worrying about whether the leak has come back.”
That night, the boiler stopped. Fortunately it was summer, but we still get our hot water off the boiler. There was no way I could take care of that myself. It was after 11, and although I had called Mr. Ashiotis that late once before, I was not going to do it now.
In the morning, I had to call three places before I could even get a heating technician to come out. I had no idea that they don’t want to come unless you are a regular customer.
“You’re getting air in the line, sir,” the furnace man said “I had to bleed the oil feed line.”
“Blood for oil” I thought when I found out what it would cost. It was not just the line that he was bleeding. In the end, he had to install a de-aerator (whatever that is) at a cost of $235.36 for the part and $172 for labor. It should have been a landlord’s expense, but I just paid it out of the $1,150.
Later that month, the refrigerator started to leak badly. After getting sick of Martha’s nagging, I stopped trying to stay ahead of it with the mop, but finally had it serviced. Since I did not have an account, I had to pay on the spot.
It was so expensive that I wondered out loud at what point it makes sense to stop repairing a fridge, and just buy a new one. But with the price of a new fridge, I would end up in the hole even with what was left of the $1,150.
If the leaks and the furnace were not enough, I had to buy a lawnmower at the second-hand shop, which also meant purchasing one of those pre-formed plastic sheds to keep it in. I did not dare to call Mr. Ashiotis to cut the grass.
As the end of the month approached, Martha and I realized that another rent day was coming. Putting together what little was left of the $1,150, we added the rest from Martha’s income, so that when Ashiotis came on the first we would be ready.
When rent day came, I found myself unable to work even though there were just five days until the exhibit and my painting was barely half done. I sat on the living room couch and waited, staring at the bright, off-white walls, and noticing how perfectly the trim offset the floor. I was thinking about how the rich hickory grain and perfect miters remind me of fine furniture-making, when the bell rang.
As I walked slowly to the door, I pictured how I would hand over the envelope with our rent check ending the encounter as quickly as possible. Usually I hate having to pay the rent, but this time I almost looked forward to it.
I opened the door. Mr. Ashiotis greeted me in that polite, formal manner of his. But before I could give him the rent, he handed me an envelope. As Mr. Ashiotis turned to leave, I felt a pang of disappointment.
Martha had been upstairs. She appeared on the top landing just as I was closing the door. “Did you pay the rent?”
Holding up the two envelopes, I said: “Now I have two rent checks. What are we going to do?”
“Write ‘void’ on ours, and put the landlord’s in the bank. And don’t get it mixed up,” she said.
I knew that Ashiotis had us cornered, but I felt too dispirited to argue. I handed both envelopes to Martha, and said: “You do it.”
* * *
The art show was a disaster. I had planned an abstract representation of a sparkling waterfall pouring over an iconic mountain, but it turned out looking more like a slag heap.
By the time another month went by, I was getting used to making repairs and cutting the lawn. When Ashiotis came, I went to the door feeling stuporous. I held out my hand and accepted his check.
That night the phone rang. It was nearly midnight. “Hello?”
“Sorry to call you so late. This is Malcolm Ashiotis. We have a problem here, the kitchen sink is leaking.”
“I’ll be right over,” I said.
“Who was that,” asked Martha.
“I have to take care of something,” I replied.
Mr. Ashiotis is having a problem, I have to go over there right now.” “What do you mean, he’s having a problem?”
“He’s waiting for me, Martha, there’s a leak. It can’t wait for morning. I don’t think he would have called unless it’s serious. He’s been paying his rent on time each month. I can’t screw him now.”
“Jeff, are you crazy?”
“Martha, I promised. I have to leave.”
I grabbed every tool I could think of, but when I got there it was a faucet leak, and I could not stop it no matter what I did.
“Mr. Ashiotis, I am really sorry about this, but I am going to have to get help in the morning. In the meantime, I’ve turned off the valve. You won’t be able to use the sink for now, but it’s the only thing I could do.”
“It’s OK,” he said, “I know you tried. What time will you come in the morning?”
“I’m not sure, it depends on how quickly I can get a plumber.”
Mr. Ashiotis reached into his pocket, pulled out a keychain, and carefully removed one key and handed it to me. “It’s for the backdoor lock,” he said. I may be out when you get here. I don’t have a duplicate so I’ll use the front door. If I am not here, you can leave the key under the mat when you leave.”
The next day Martha was pissed. I had promised that we would take the day off and hike up the mountain, me with my pastels, she with her watercolors. Patiently I explained that the Ashiotises need me and I could not let them down. But Martha was completely unreasonable.
“No, I do not agree to postpone,” she shouted, “Just forget it. The hell with you… and Ashiotis. I am never going to go up the mountain with you…. Never!” “What do you mean, ‘never?’” I asked.
Martha gave me an icy look. “I’ve made a policy decision,” she said.
“A policy decision?”
“And did the entire board of directors vote for it?” I asked.
Martha cracked up. That was a relief. If I could still get her to laugh, I knew that she would not leave me… not yet anyway. But I hated Ashiotis. He was ruining my marriage.
The next couple of weeks were uneventful. Then a surprise came in the mail: Two envelopes, both addressed to Martha and me; both identical with return addresses from the county tax office.
I brought them into the kitchen just as Martha was tossing the salad. I know better than to deal with something that official-looking at the dinner table, but my curiosity would not let me wait.
“What is it,” asked Martha when she saw the shock on my face.
“Um… tax bills,” I answered.
“Yes, one for this house. One for the house where Mr. Ashiotis and his wife live.”
“Why did they come to us?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.”
Dinner was not so festive that night. The next day I visited the county tax office.
As I stood at the counter, I wondered why there is always a pretty woman with half her bosom showing at these offices. Are they trying to distract you so you won’t make trouble? I could see the lacy top of her bra, and wondered weather red is an appropriate color at the county treasurer’s office.
She bent forward to look at the tax bills which I had presented. I tried to cast my gaze at the clock on the wall so as not to seem too interested in her milky breasts.
After a quick consultation with her computer, she said matter-of-factly: Both of these properties are owned by Jeffrey and Martha Brotsky. The blood drained from my head so fast that I had to grab the counter.
“May I have a print-out of that?”
I sat down in the waiting area and studied the print-outs. They had volume and page numbers for the deeds. Returning to the counter, I pointed to the deed references and asked: “Where can I find these?”
“At the Registry. Turn right when you go out the door, walk down almost to the end of the hall, It’s on the left, opposite the stairs.”
The next day, having hastily made an appointment, Martha and I went with copies of the deeds to speak with Axelrod. After a brief stay in the waiting room, his secretary ushered us in. We sat down on the leather-upholstered chairs opposite Axelrod, who sat at his big desk.
Another man would have been dwarfed by the over-sized office, but Axelrod looked completely in place. Despite the high ceilings and the huge windows framed by velvety drapes, and the incredible view overlooking the city with the lake in the distance: There was not the slightest doubt that Axelrod had a dominating presence.
I rarely consult a lawyer, but when I find it necessary I do not mind paying double what an ordinary lawyer would charge. I trust Axelrod.
After the usual greetings and inquiries into one another’s health, Axelrod examined the documents. Then he leaned forward and said:
“These deeds appear to be in order. They have the County Clerk’s stamp. Malcolm and Sadie Ashiotis transferred both the deeds for the house that you live in as well as the house that they live in to you almost 3 months ago. You own both houses.”
“You mean, I’m his landlord?.“Of course,” replied Axelrod. “Didn’t you sign a P&S?”
“A P&S. . . a Purchase & Sale Contract.”
Martha interrupted: “It must be that paper you signed for Ashiotis last Christmas.”
“Last Christmas?” Then I remembered. It was at the Landlord Association’s Tenants’ Appreciation Party with the eggnog and everyone smiling and eating, when Ashiotis brought a stack of papers over to me on a clipboard.
I thought about that. Then I realized that Axelrod had been trying to ask me a question. I asked him to repeat it.
“Jeff,” said my attorney, “is there a lease for Mr. Ashiotis and his wife?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then Ashiotis is renting month to month. You can give him 30 days notice — it must be a rental period, not any 30 days — then he will be required to vacate.”
I looked at Martha. She seemed dazed, but she said: “Well, we don’t want to throw them out.”
Axelrod always gives you your money’s worth, even answering questions which you did not ask but should have. He went on about warrant of habitability, smoke and CO detectors, pets, fair housing laws, and building codes.
Discretely I kept an eye on my watch and made sure that we got out after 43 minutes, two minutes short of the kick-off of the 4th quarter for a full, billed hour.
A couple of more months went by. Ashiotis almost always brought the rent right on the first. Once he came a day late, and I could not concentrate, wondering whether he was going to pull a fast one. When Martha told me to relax I almost exploded: “Relax! The insurance payment is due. If Ashiotis stiffs us, we’re screwed!”
But he never missed a rent payment, so I put up with his demands: fix the loose porch railing, the ungrounded outlet, the cracked window pane; the incessant leaks and the late night calls. I was becoming accustomed to being a landlord, and I got the feeling that Ashiotis enjoyed being a tenant.
Then came the storm.
No one expected it to be that bad. By the time Eirene got to our state, the weather bureau had downgraded it to a tropical storm.
Despite Eirene having been downgraded, we were prepared: Flashlights & extra batteries, jugs of drinking water, canned food. The forecasts called for the worst of the storm to hit about 11 a.m. There was a lot of rain, but hardly any wind.
To be on the safe side, I drove across town to check on the sump pump at our other house. Ashiotis’ car was not there, so I parked in the driveway. I was relieved to see water gushing out of the pipe, so I knew the pump was fine.
My worries relieved, I decided that it would be a good time to get some phone calls out of the way. I took out my Blackberry and began. The water was coming down — not like rain — but as though it were being dumped. But it did not distract me: I sat in my car finishing a few things up.
I was on my fourth call, when someone rapped on my window. I looked up. It was a cop, dripping in a heavy yellow raincoat. I rolled down the window.
“Sir,” he said. “It’s only a voluntary evacuation, but would you please get the hell out!”
I looked down. He was standing in 6 inches of swirling water. I glanced up and saw that the brook was overflowing it’s bank and had already come up nearly to the porch of the building across the street. A man appeared on that porch and waded in, carrying a television and a suitcase.
As the cop turned to help the man, he looked back at me and said: “It’s tragic, sir. Just tragic. Please leave!”
Later it was sad, at the Red Cross Disaster Center, to see Malcolm and Sadie Ashiotis by their cots; especially Sadie, frail as she is. The rows and columns of identical cots and the big red crosses on all the blankets looked surreal under the cold, florescent lights of the high school gymnasium.
“Mr. Ashiotis,” I said. “Why don’t you and Mrs. Ashiotis come stay with Martha and me?”
“We couldn’t impose on you,” he said.
I saw Sadie give him a hard look. Her gaunt eyes were intense: “Malcolm, no more crazy ideas… please!”
“It won’t be an imposition at all,” I said. “We’d love to have you. You can stay in my studio for awhile. Please come.”
“Are you sure?”
He glanced toward Sadie, and I knew he would agree.
That was three months ago. I had thought they would stay a few days while we sorted things out. But that was before we realized how serious the damage had been.
The night of the storm, with Malcolm and Sadie barely settled in, I drove the three of us to check on the house. I was sure that I would need to replace the furnace, and speculated out loud whether I would qualify for an equity loan.
“You could get help from FEMA,” suggested Sadie.
“Maybe,” said Malcolm, “but it is not your home, it is a commercial property. I picked up a pamphlet at the Red Cross Center. It says that the commercial owner must apply for an SBA Disaster Loan. FEMA won’t help.”
There was a pause in the conversation. We drove on.
It was dark, the streets deserted. I slowed down when I saw the blue flashing light of a police road block. I had to turn around: It was the first of several roadblocks that night. We ended up having to drive to the next town, and take a back road the long way around.
“You know,” said Ashiotis, “if the basement got flooded…”
“Of course it got flooded,” I was irritated, “the water was already above the basement windows when I left.”
“Well then,” said Ashiotis in that annoying measured tone of his, “the electrical panel will need to be replaced, and probably a lot of wiring.” My mental cash register now added a few more thousand onto the thousands I had already pegged for a new furnace.
“And if the oil tank turned over, there could be a serious oil spill.” I wished Ashiotis would shut up! Driving on the winding dirt road dangerously eroded in large stretches, was hard enough. “It would be an environmental hazard, quite expensive.”
“Anything else, Malcolm?!!” I hit the brake. There was a car coming toward us, and barely room to pass.
“Yes,” Malcolm continued. “If the water rose to the first floor, the walls must be gutted and the fiberglass removed to prevent mold. And it will probably be necessary to tear out and replace the floor.”
By now, my inner cash register was exploding.
There were barriers on side roads, but we were on a major dirt road and it went through…well almost. Not quite all the way. We got as close as we could and headed the rest of the way on foot.
We could hear noise and see pulsing lights. It got noisier and brighter the closer we got. The flashlight I brought was unnecessary: We were at the edge of an area lit up by bright searchlights.
Despite the extra light, we could barely proceed. The road was covered with slippery mud, so we cautiously edged along what was left of the sidewalk, careful not to go too close the the edge where the ground had been hollowed out with 12 foot drop-offs.
The street we were on ran parallel to the street where the house is located. I did not know how we would get over there. With the cacophony of generators, industrial pumps, clanging alarms, wild strobes, and ghostly light brighter than the noon sun: It was hard to think.
I looked at Sadie. I could not tell whether her face looked deranged, or it was reflecting the bizarre, artificial light.
“Where’s the house?” she said.
“It’s on the next street,” I responded. “Come… this way!” We had no choice but to slog through the slippery mud. I took Sadie’s hand, something I would not normally do, and started to lead. Malcolm grabbed Sadie’s other arm to give her support.
“If the water got all the way to this street,” said Malcolm in that matter-of-fact drone of his, “then it must have done serious damage to the house. Our street is right at the brook.”
We cut through a parking lot, and continued toward our street.
As I turned toward the gruff shout, I saw it: the jagged asphalt edge and steep drop-off. The back part of the parking lot was gone, torn away by the angry brook.
A man in a firefighter’s uniform approached. “You can’t stay here,” he said. “But we have to get to St. James Street,” said Sadie. “Our house is there.”
There was a brief silence. Then the man said: “I’m sorry, ma’m. There are no more houses on St. James. The brook changed course.”
I looked at Sadie’s face. First I saw incomprehension. Then I saw a tear at the corner of one eye. Then the dam burst. She started to cry — uncontrollably.
Malcolm’s knees buckled, he dropped to the ground.
I felt dizzy, faint. I tried not to show it, but it felt like the blood had left my head. It was hard to keep my balance, and now I held on to Sadie just to keep myself from falling.
You get strange thoughts at times like that, and I wondered if I could create a series of flood paintings and sell them for enough money to make up for my loss.
As I stood there, wobbly, trying to get my bearings, I saw Malcolm — still on his knees — pointing. At first I could not tell what he was pointing at.
Then I noted a sapling, bare of foliage, the only vegetation still standing. I could not understand why Malcolm was drawing our attention to this scrawny tree.
Then I saw it: A snake — motionless, but clearly alive — coiled around the thin branches, marooned by the flood, clinging to life.
Upon our return, I could not stop talking about rebuilding. “We’re not going to be defeated, we’re going to pick ourselves up and keep going. We’ll push the brook back and build a better house than before.” Martha said I was manic.
Regardless of whether it made sense or not, Axelrod killed the idea with something about “riparian rights.” After quoting from Black’s Law Dictionary, followed by his own elaborate explication, Axelrod concluded: “When a river shifts course: things change.”
Of course we could not put Malcolm and Sadie out, homeless. They are comfortable in the master bedroom with the great northern light, while I’m pounding the pavement looking for a job!
I knew I’d get screwed.