The Last We Saw of Bentley

Life has not always been tea parties with white Jacquard napkins from Belgium. (I’m referring to my previous post.) For instance, I used to live two doors down from a drug addict. This was no ordinary addict, for he had been (one assumed he was no longer) a classics professor at a local university. Even though we neighbors observed a litany of strange behavior, such as washing his dishes on the front porch and starting his car with a long screwdriver jabbed into the spot where the ignition key had once gone, he could still draw upon his impressive vocabulary and deliver phrases with the impact of a master thespian.

There were ten small apartments in two courtyards built in advance of the Panama-California Exposition of 1915, which had been acquired by a young man with an entrepreneurial spirit, but sorely lacking in business acumen. In need of an apartment, I stopped by when I saw a “For Rent” sign in the front yard. The landlord was there and happy to show me a unit, which he promised was identical to the one coming available at the end of the month, but which he couldn’t show me that day. I would be sharing the place with my best friend who came back to see it with me, and after we agreed, I wrote Devon the landlord a check for $900 as a deposit. In return, all I got was silence.

To be fair, Devon returned two phone calls that month, one of which was to say that we were going to be “the final threads woven into a beautiful tapestry of the Elm Court community.” I tend to become enthralled by descriptive sentences delivered so beautifully, but in this case my enthrallment skewed my perception skills. The second call of the month was a lie, saying that the apartment would be available on the first, as promised, and to make our plans accordingly. I forwarded the mail, arranged for the utilities and updated information with my employer. My roommate was to handle the move itself, and I left for work thinking I would have a new home that evening. Instead, I received a call in late afternoon to meet him at a hotel because the current occupant had not yet moved out.

I should add that this was during December, and each week we were given some excuse as to why the occupant had not moved, so we were technically homeless until the shyster Devon arranged for our temporary housing down the street. We finally moved into Elm Court on Valentine’s weekend, but not into the promised unit. While all but two of the ten units had been renovated in 1990s fashion, our unit, somewhat discounted in price, had had seemingly little done to it since 1915. The newest appliance was a 1950s General Electric refrigerator, which had been placed in what was once a kitchen entrance from the hallway. Energy efficiency hadn’t been a consideration when that thing was built. Cranked to its highest setting, ice-cream was still a cold sweet soup, and we had about two days to drink milk regardless of the expiration date.

Elm Court in the nineties. The front door straight on belonged to our problem neighbor until he was moved out under the cover of darkness.

Elm Court in the nineties. The front door straight on belonged to our problem neighbor until he was moved out under the cover of darkness.

Our courtyard of five units underwent a quick turnover that spring. The only unit to have its same occupant was the one we’d been promised. That’s where Bentley the drug fiend lived. Evidently, he was supposed to have been evicted and his apartment returned to immaculate condition in time for that December 1st move-in appointment. Devon had mishandled something—probably the entire eviction process—Bentley had refused to leave, and we had no choice but to accept the run-down consolation prize since Devon held us to our lease. Knowing what I know now, I would have fought to get our deposit back and run as far away from that con-man as I could get, but we didn’t know our rights, we were in a hurry to get moved in somewhere, and we were too tired to start searching again. Besides, we met a fabulous neighbor who remains a dear friend to this day. No! Not Bentley the dramatic drug fiend.

In April, most of our bath towels and washcloths were stolen. The apartment complex boasted a community laundry room, which I’ve come to realize was nothing to boast about. The good part was that they were not coin operated, which meant that you could separate your laundry without going broke. Whenever we washed clothes, most of us were good about setting timers and staying aware so that other people didn’t have to wait, but there was a sign posted over the machines that said a tenant had the right to remove laundry from the machines if they had finished their cycle and the owners had not yet come to claim them. The sign, however, did not say that the laundry could be removed to another tenant’s apartment!

I was using one dryer and another tenant was using the other. When I returned to get my towels, both dryers were empty and the doors were left swinging. I suspected where my good towels had gone since you’d have to be a thief or on drugs to not realize you’d taken someone else’s washing. I had to pass by Bentley’s apartment, which was between our place and the laundry room. I’d had no luck convincing him in December that perhaps he had received my Christmas packages by mistake since I’d forwarded our mail to his address. There were always noises coming from his unit, and I knew to have a confrontation about towels would likely bring about a good shanking so I went inside and fumed.

Since there were other notes posted over the machines from time to time, I thought the best course of action was to post a message saying that my towels had been taken and to please return them. The note went ignored for a month, but one evening I noticed a response in green ink:

“To whom it may concern, One should note that quite often laundry is indiscernible by color and texture, and perhaps a domestic, unaware of nuances and textile variations inadvertently mistook one load for another. Before assigning culpability or intent, one should make an honest attempt to learn the reasons why his laundry has gone missing. I genuinely hope you never accept the opportunity to serve on a jury.”

As I stated earlier, I can become enthralled by marvelous sentences—and for a drug addict these were marvelous sentences. However, this paragraph only riled me up. I got out my pen and wrote: “For all the time you have taken to write this, you could have gathered up all the laundry you now realize isn’t yours and delivered it back to its rightful owner!”

Within the hour, a rather haggard person who looked much older than his years, stood on my porch holding a well-worn grocery bag. “Sorry about that,” he said. “We just realized we picked up the wrong load.”

“Thank you,” I replied. “And be sure to tell Bentley that I’ve been waiting for over a month.”

I never spoke to Bentley again and certainly not after seeing him chase Devon down the street with that long screwdriver he used for starting his car. While Bentley was away overnight, Devon had rented a truck, hired some men and had moved Bentley out of the apartment without warning. We were told that Bentley was moving, which was apparently news to Bentley who must’ve wondered if he was tripping when he stepped out of his car and saw a crew of people overhauling an empty apartment.

Our morning coffee was interrupted by shouting in the distance. The volume increased and Devon sprinted by the window. Coming up behind him, we could hear someone with very good diction bellowing with all the strength of a diaphragm trained for stagecraft, “You had no right! You had no right to touch my things! My priceless things! My objet d’art!” As he disappeared out of sight, that was the last we ever saw of Bentley.

© 2017 by Patrick Brown

To learn more about my books, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1

The Toast of Christmas Past

I received a toaster for Christmas the year I was five. Like all small children, I’d been asked for several weeks what I wanted Santa to bring me. I was the youngest in my immediate family, and I seemed to have sprung from the womb thinking that I was as old as everyone around me, which led me to believe that I would be getting my own place any day. Instinctively, I seemed to know that I would need appliances of my own, and I had already realized that an investment of that magnitude couldn’t be achieved with my dollar-per-month allowance, which I earned by folding washcloths.

Therefore, I strategized that I would ask for an appliance or some other thing for the kitchen at each birthday or Christmas. This strategy paid off a few years later when I got my waffle iron, and later when I received pieces of anodized aluminum cookware.

I couldn't wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

I couldn’t wait until Christmas even if I had only asked for a toaster and a clock. Notice the color wheel in the left corner of the photo. I thought the silver tree was beautiful.

The toaster, however, was my first appliance. When thinking back on the adult reactions at the time, my wish must’ve reinforced the perception that I was a weird little kid. “A toaster?” laughed Grandma Brown. “I’ve never heard that one. He must want toast!” She looked at my mother as if she was somehow to blame.

Instinctively, I knew not to elaborate on the real reasons I wanted the toaster. I also knew that I needed to counterbalance my adult request with something a kid would want. My cousin Brant is a year older, and he was always doing such wonderful things like crossing the street by himself or tying his shoes without help. I admired his abilities and realized that with each new thing he had learned to do that I could do them, too. My mother never told me to wait a year to cross the street alone as long as I looked both ways, and learning to tie my shoes meant that she wouldn’t have to do it any longer. Brant also had this wonderful toy in his arsenal that I just loved.

He had a Mattel See ’n Say Farmer Says, and whenever I was at his house, I couldn’t stop positioning the pointer and pulling the string. Yes, I might’ve been crossing streets, tying shoes and undertaking a mission to stock a kitchen, but I was five. I had to have a Farmer Says of my own. The problem is that I didn’t know what the thing was called. I couldn’t read, and I had too much pride to ask after playing with it all that time.

“What else do you want Santa to bring you?” Grandma asked. The only thing I could come up with was “A clock.” For days I’d tried describing The Farmer Says to my parents. “Brant has one. It’s this big,” I demonstrated with my hands. “It’s round, you pull a string and the center spins.” I’d forgotten to mention that the spinner lands on an animal, and then the device makes the corresponding sounds. No one ever seemed to understand that I was describing The Farmer Says. It was one of my first experiences at not making myself clearly understood.

As it happened, Mattel actually made a clock that was like The Farmer Says only it was blue and told you what happened at each hour of the day when you pulled the string. I suspect my parents knew this and probably thought learning to tell time was more appropriate than learning what farm animals sounded like. After all, I’d had a lot of exposure to farm animals already. Learning to tell time was more important, especially since I was planning to move out.

Mother must’ve realized this because she’d been encouraging me to say that I wanted a clock for Christmas when asked. However, following up the toaster question with “I also want a clock,” caused Grandma to get a perplexed look on her face. She probably blamed my mother’s side of the family for my peculiarities.

“A clock? You want a clock? I’ve got a clock.” She got up and left the room, and I felt very strange like I was going to have a talk in the car on the way home. She came back a few minutes later with a baby blue alarm clock from the 1930s that hadn’t been used in years. Without giftwrap or any ceremony, she handed the dusty thing to me as if it were a glass of milk. “There’s a clock for you.” I’m sure the look on my face was similar to hers when I’d first mentioned the word.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

The toaster had already been taken to the kitchen, but it was more important than the Tonka trucks and the Mickey Mouse watch, pictured here.

I unwrapped the toaster on Christmas Eve. This miracle appliance was the highpoint of that Christmas. When I unwrapped the package to reveal the pasteboard box with the image of the toaster, I’m sure I squealed with delight. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes until we plugged in this chrome marvel with black plastic trim. I seem to recall hovering over it right there on the living room floor. We filled both slots, and the aroma was marvelous as the coils lit up and started browning those slices of Wonder Bread.

My desire to move out had nothing to do with my home life. I was not deprived. I had horses to ride, toys to play with and a smart sister who taught me lots of things. I believe something in my family’s DNA pushes each of us to get our own places. We all want to run things our way, and reigning over your own domain seems to be a sure way of taking control. I just happened to want this at the age of five, and now that I had a toaster, I was on my way!

Moving day finally came. After three years in the dorm, I finally got my first apartment. The toaster, however, didn’t make the trip. Its handle had cracked and fallen off, and its ability to brown had become unreliable. You might get warm bread or a slice of charcoal. You never knew what was going to slide up as the toast no longer popped.

Six years later, my best friend Randy and I quit our jobs, loaded everything onto a U-Haul that we were willing to keep, and headed for San Diego. We’d spent months imagining the lives we would have. We’d be close to the beach in a city that knows nothing of cold winters. No more suits and ties, but the feeling that we were constantly on vacation. We’d find jobs, affordable housing and just have fun! We’d worked out the transition very carefully. Some friends who had moved there the year before had a house, and they’d asked us to stay with them. In fact, they were the ones who convinced us that a move to San Diego during the 1992 recession was perfectly logical.

These people explained that they were converting their two-car garage into a guesthouse. They said they were getting bids from contractors and the place would be ready in time for our arrival in two months. We wouldn’t have to pay rent if we were there less than three months, at which point we should have jobs and be on our feet.

In the weeks before we moved, they called with weekly updates on the construction. 20 years ago, we didn’t have the technology to send photos electronically. We simply believed what we were told. When we drove up with our truck full of everything we owned, we were told that the place wasn’t ready. When we got up the next morning to inspect the progress in daylight, we discovered that the reason the guesthouse was not ready was because they’d not gotten a single bid from a contractor.

A few weeks after we stayed in their guestroom without a door for any sort of privacy, we found a 1915 cottage owned by a charming Midwesterner who called us “The final threads in a tapestry of loving and supportive neighbors.” I gave this airhead our total savings to cover the deposit and first month’s rent, and he disappeared for the next three weeks without returning a phone call.

Because our hosts had grown increasingly crazy as Christmas approached, we simply couldn’t stay at their house a moment longer. We finally heard from the landlord who apologized for having “been away for a few days.” He assured us that all was well, and I left for work that Christmas Eve morning with all of my clothes stuffed into my car. Moving over Christmas was not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, but at least we’d have a permanent space away from our crazy hosts.

As I was leaving work that evening, excited to be in my own place at last, Randy phoned to say that our landlord didn’t have our place ready. Another delay! It turned out that we’d leased an occupied unit filled with a tenant who was not budging. Our landlord’s dishonesty is an entirely different story, but suffice it to say, we couldn’t return to our hosts. We’d have to go to a hotel until the situation could be sorted out.

With the move to California, the housing setbacks and the mounting costs, buying Christmas gifts was out of the question. When I got to our hotel room, I collapsed into a chair, and Randy presented me with a wrapped box.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Open it,” he said. I couldn’t imagine what it could be.

“We agreed not to exchange gifts. Neither of us has any money, and I feel bad that I didn’t get you anything.” He assured me that there was nothing to be concerned about, but he had seen this when he was out and thought it would make Christmas special.

It was a Black & Decker toaster, white with gray accents, and a browning selector that put my old Oster to shame. The dam burst. I would like to say that my tears were due solely to this touching moment that the person on the planet who had shared the last few weeks of stress and frustration was assuring me that everything was going to be okay. I was feeling some of that, but mostly I was scared out of my mind. We were technically homeless. Our families didn’t know where we were, and the only thing between having a roof over our heads and living in our cars was my credit card limit along with the cash from our meager paychecks.

We decided for one night not to worry about money or shelter and concentrate on the other basic need: food. We always seemed to eat well even during the darkest times.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at:

http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge%C2%A0

Thanksgiving Can be a Drain

When I was 28, my best friend and I packed up everything we didn’t sell and left Dallas for San Diego. Among the well-wishers were the skeptics that we’d fail in this endeavor. There was a recession going on, and California always suffers in a big way. Even though the California economy is usually among the first to rebound, this information wouldn’t have mattered even if we’d been aware of it. We arrived in early October where the only signs of fall were the angle of the sun’s light and the shorter days. At some point, I’ll write about our first San Diego Thanksgiving, which was spent with two insane people and their pig, but for now, let’s jump ahead three years later when life was much more stable.

After almost being swindled out of our money, Randy and I had ended up living in a tiny cottage that had been built for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915. It was cozy. So cozy that the old GE fridge hit the kitchen counter across from it when you tried to open the door all the way. So cozy that I was never able to close my bedroom closet because my short dresser was still too long and overlapped the door-frame.

The tiny cottage kitchen. That old O'Keefe & Merritt stove was the only redeeming quality.

The tiny cottage kitchen. That old O’Keefe & Merritt stove was the only redeeming quality.

The landlord never brought that fixture for the hallway light, and we used rope because he could never locate the proper doorknob for the bathroom. We didn’t complain much because we knew the cottage was temporary; so temporary that we stayed there for over two-and-a-half years.

We almost missed an opportunity to move into a great house in an historic neighborhood because when a friend had recommended the house to us, Randy and I had driven by separately, and we’d been given the wrong address. Once we figured out where to go and saw the house with the owner, we leased it on the spot. She was a dream of a landlady: “I don’t care what you do. Paint it, put in a new garden, pull out the old one. I trust your judgment. You have a dog? How wonderful! No extra deposit because I love dogs. I’ll always rent to a dog owner, but never a family with children!”

Moving day 1995, three weeks before Thanksgiving.

Moving day 1995, three weeks before Thanksgiving.

After living in less than 700 square feet, this two-bedroom house with a study and a sizeable dining room on a corner lot seemed like we’d moved into an English manor. We were surrounded by great houses, and the neighbors were all very friendly. Some were nosier than I liked, but we hadn’t been there a day when the president of the neighborhood association dropped by with information and a pledge card for membership. We found out that there was a Labor Day block party, an annual Christmas caroling party, and the neighbors on our street got together on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to celebrate before leaving town. The idea of all the entertaining possibilities after having been cooped up in that tiny cottage was nothing short of inspirational.

We never had more than four people at the table in the cottage because you couldn’t get more than that in the room, and since the narrow kitchen had no dishwasher and no place to put anything, I never went to much trouble.

However, the new kitchen had a large refrigerator, a double oven, Corian countertops and custom cabinets with pullout shelves. There was an island and a wall of cabinets with two four-tier lazy Susans, wine racks and more shelving than we needed (at that time). There was a large sink and a washer and dryer. There was also room to stand a dozen people without feeling crowded. We moved in three weeks before Thanksgiving, so we invited the friends that helped us move and planned the menu.

In the years since living in that house when I’ve not had the luxury of a double oven, I complain that it’s impossible to prepare a successful holiday meal when you have to rely on one oven to do everything. Not that I was able to roast a turkey in one oven that first year and cook everything else in the other. That’s because we got overly ambitious and Randy suggested a ham as well as a turkey. Why not?

Since we were going all out, I starched a linen tablecloth and enough napkins for everyone. I realized that we had all of this stemware, so why not get out the wine and champagne glasses? We needed something for water, too, and since we were having soup, we needed sherry glasses. Randy pointed out that we needed white wine glasses for turkey and red for the ham, so that would bring the count to five glasses per person. Don’t forget coffee for later! No mugs; let’s get out the cups and saucers my sister had given me. We’d also use the matching dinner plates, soup bowls and dessert plates. What about silverware? I had that box of nice stuff, which we hadn’t been able to use for over three years.

Setting the table for Thanksgiving; a work in progress.

Setting the table for Thanksgiving; a work in progress.

We planned and came up with ideas until the week of Thanksgiving. I even strolled past the odd neighbor’s house three doors down. She had a maple tree, and I wanted those leaves. I polished silver, and washed glasses that had been in storage since Dallas. Were we going to too much trouble? Not when you considered that we’d all have a Thanksgiving to remember. Besides, with that dishwasher and that new hot-water heater, we’d have it all cleaned up in no time and put back onto those spacious pantry shelves.

Thanksgiving Day arrived, and I got up about 9:00. We’d already decided that there would be no rush to serve dinner before 6:00 p.m. After coffee and a substantial breakfast, we got to work. The turkey was wrapped in cheesecloth, and the ham was artfully scored. Those went into the ovens for a few hours of basting while Randy worked on the dressing. The house smelled great when the first guests arrived about 3:00. We served warmed brie en croute with sliced apples. Another serving plate to clean, but what did that matter?

People were thirsty, and that meant a few more glasses. We’d put out plates for snacking, and that was so much nicer than paper napkins. Dishes were starting to pile up, so I headed for the kitchen with the idea that I’d run a load of dishes before dinner. There were a few food scraps in the sink, so I rinsed them down the drain and turned on the disposal.

There was a funny sound, so I shut it off. The water was still running, and the water wasn’t going down. In fact, it was rising. We’d not used the kitchen very much, but the disposal had worked fine when we had used it once or twice. Without doing anything to it, Randy suggested I try the disposal again. The funny noise was still there, but this time I heard it behind me as well. Something was going on inside the washing machine. We weren’t using it, but I opened it to check. I can still recall the horror of finding food particles floating in a shallow layer of water. The sink had backed up. This couldn’t be good.

I decided to run some water into the clothes washer and then spin it out. As the washer drained and the drum began to increase its speed, I sighed with relief. At least whatever had happened had taken care of itself, and the water was draining. Then I saw the flow coming from underneath the washer like The Blob.

“Get a towel!” I called. Randy looked over from basting the turkey and threw a dishtowel at me. “I’m going to need more than that!” I asked one of our guests to go to the linen closet in the hall and bring some towels. She returned empty handed. “Where are the towels?”

“I can’t use those,” she said. “They’re too nice.”

“That’s all we have. Bring whatever you can find. The water is moving way too fast!”

I hated it, but we used our best towels along with the everyday towels to soak up the water. The sink was completely out of commission and the look on my face was utter defeat. Randy pulled me aside and said sternly, “Don’t you shut down. We have all this food, and everyone is here. We’ll figure it out, but for now, we move ahead as planned.”

This was actually very good advice. Without him, I might’ve told everyone to eat on one plate and use one fork (dessert included) and you get one glass—the one you’re already holding. However, I knew that we’d planned a great evening, a great menu, and in that newly painted red dining room, it was going to be the best Thanksgiving dinner we’d ever served. And it was.

I’d checked the sink as we went into the dining room. The water was receding, which was a good sign. We sat down at 6:35, and we got up from the table just before 9:00. We’d paced the meal, beginning with soup, the main dinner, a light salad and a choice of desserts. We felt like we’d dined in the Gilded Age.

With the exception of the flatware, we didn’t bother clearing the table. There was really no point. The kitchen was piled up with roasting pans, cookware, used plates and glasses from this feast, along with the soiled napkins and the piles of soggy towels from earlier. I’d managed to find a bucket in the garage, and I’d filled it outside. We were able to get a few items in there to soak, but there was nothing else to be done until Friday when the Roto-Rooter man was scheduled to arrive sometime between 7:00 a.m. and noon.

Our friend Paul had brought a movie from Blockbuster, and we all collapsed in the living room, drowsy and stuffed. I fell asleep almost immediately, and I can’t even recall what movie was playing. I finally went to bed with the ominous feeling of being greeted in the morning by the mess that was continuing to dry by the minute.

The plumber explained the next afternoon that lines had been clogged with old grease from the previous tenants. In the weeks since moving in, we’d not prepared any large meals. Therefore, we’d not had any problems until we started really using the kitchen. I made a mental note that one should never attempt to entertain soon after moving into an old house without testing the plumbing first.

Within five years, I would forget that very important lesson when I moved into another old house and had 60 people for a fund-raising dinner within the first two weeks, but that’s another story.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge