The last time I drove past the apartments on North 5th, their efficient practicality had been scrubbed up a bit. A nice little fence marked the front entrance. The sidewalk that led into the U-shaped courtyard had healthy plants on both sides. The casement windows had been replaced. Someone had finally taken pride in the boxy old place, built in 1948 to provide post-war housing.
But twenty years ago, it was a mold-sodden, termite-chewed, decaying eyesore. The rent was cheap, of course. Most of the units were vacant—uninhabitable?—and those that were taken sheltered a few tolerant souls, some who chose to live there, others who were headquartered.
I was in the latter group, the employee of a small grassroots organization. Our office was on the first floor of a building that had four apartments. Cracked concrete steps led up to a heavy wooden exterior door that never closed tight. Inside the vestibule, a staircase led to the second floor. A grim Dickensian pallor covered hints of the clean beauty that had once been there. All of the apartments had the same layout, and likely the same look. Inside, plaster walls flaked and cracked, sealed in places with caulk and layers of latex paint. No human or animal should have been allowed to lay skin or fur on the matted carpeting. Away from the public space of the living room, dining room, and kitchen were the bathroom and two small bedrooms.
Nancy, the executive director, lived in the apartment rent free. Her bedroom was on the left, and the other bedroom—the office—was on the right. It was the sunniest room with a big window that faced the tree-lined parking lot for the state capitol. The other window looked out on the neglected sidewalk which led into the complex.
What the place lacked in maintenance and OSHA compliance, it made up for in charm and quirky neighbors.
Wally—neither his real name, which I can’t remember, nor the nickname he told us to call him—lived across the hall on the first floor.
He looked like he belonged in the old apartments, a reincarnation of someone who’d set his hat on a hook by the front door and listened to radio programs at night. In his late twenties or early thirties, Wally had big shoulders and a large head. Generous, meaty features, especially his upturned nose, vied for space under his wide brow. His cheek begged for a ragged scar. He looked like a man who could have played an extra in a gangster film—or guarded Governor Huey P. Long as The Kingfish walked the marble halls of his Art Deco architectural monument, the state capitol building.
Wally was the second openly gay man I’d had the chance to get to know. (In the early 1990s, Louisiana’s closets were just starting to creak wide.) He had a boyfriend—I’ll get to him soon enough—but he had no roommate, unless one counts his dog. Raquel was a buff cocker spaniel, well-groomed and well-fed. Like many of her breed, she was sweet and affectionate but none too bright. I liked her and didn’t mind taking her for walks when Wally was out of town. But she was crated during the day, which might have contributed to her barking problem. Raquel’s yaps and Wally’s bark back—“SHUTUPRAQUEL! SHUTUP! SHUTUP! SHUTUP!”—became a leitmotif in the building’s collective soundtrack.
At other times when Wally was home during the day, he’d turn up his music loud enough that I could hear it when I stood in the living room of our office. The thick plaster walls couldn’t contain that noise, either.
He did, however, show the courtesy of knocking if he wanted to visit us. Occasionally, his calls were to say hello and chat. Other mornings involved the daily newspaper in hand, turned to the obituaries. He wasn’t old enough to require a close monitoring of who had died, and it didn’t occur to me until years later that he might have searched to see the names of friends and acquaintances lost to AIDS, an epidemic in our city then.
What he shared with us from the obit section made him laugh—the nicknames listed for the deceased.
“Hey, good morning. Oh my God, there are some good ones today,” he said. “Look—Phyne. P.H.Y.N.E. What is that? And Son Kitty.”
Nancy and I shared his sense of humor.
“Did you see this one? Frozine.”
Sometimes, we laughed so hard, we held onto the furniture and walls and wiped our eyes.
Wally also unwittingly introduced me to drag in the flesh. My sensibilities were not to be shocked, too terribly. I’d already seen all of John Waters’ movies. Divine had initiated me.
The queen-to-be was Wally’s boyfriend Dan. A pleasant fellow with a soupçon of snap and swish, Dan had always appeared in ordinary clothing. He didn’t seem fastidious about what he wore, nothing designer, nothing to attract attention.
Then it all came out. The Spanish Town Mardi Gras parade was known for its irreverent, bawdy themes, float decorations, and revelers. For a conservative city, this parade pushed boundaries. I had never attended the parade before but chose to because I had access to a private bathroom. The office was one block from the route.
On that day, Wally hosted a party for his friends. Perhaps everyone was in drag, but what I remember was Dan in full make-up wearing a tight black dress. He looked stunning.
“It isn’t fair that his ass looks that good in a dress,” Nancy said.
She was right. His ass was enviable, perfect in a way that most women could only attain through regular practice of Buns of Steel, sausage-casing underwear, or genetics. I watched Dan and Wally saunter off, drinks in hand, into the crowd. Dan’s ass disappeared like the morning star.
Upstairs, above Wally, lived Lazarus. That’s not his real name either, but his given name was equally Biblical and edgy.
What he was doing alone in that apartment was a mystery. He was, it was rumored, not even eighteen yet. As far as we knew, he still attended high school. Correction. He might have gone to class if he ever got out of bed. Lazarus grooved in the Nirvana slacker subculture as if it were his calling.
Encounters with him were rare, at least during the day. When I did run into him while the sun was up, he was a handsome boy. Word had it that his mother was a European immigrant who owed a business in town. If this was true, I’d seen her and could attest that she was postcard perfect for her country of origin. His father’s heritage was speculative—Jamaican? African? Haitian? Who knows. Lazarus said little but smiled wide with white even teeth. His skin resembled chocolate velvet, and his eyes, almond-shaped as ones from a Coptic manuscript, were light in contrast. He was average height, male model thin, well-proportioned. He was a beautiful sight to behold.
Lazarus may have had a nontraditional job. Consider his spotty school attendance, living away from parents, avoidance of daylight, and ever-present perfume of weed. That last one might be a clincher. Or not. Perhaps he merely partook, regularly, which would explain the haze around him and his door.
In the apartment across from Lazarus was the creepy old man. He, too, had a given name, one he signed on checks and tax returns if he actually trusted banks or grudgingly tolerated the government.
The old man might have been one of the building’s original residents. He himself had a fungus-like tinge to his flesh, not that I ever looked close enough, long enough, to detect evidence of spore growth. When he walked past the office’s windows, he resembled the spooky, desiccated man in Poltergeist 2. I waited for terrible things to happen.
The rare instances I heard his voice, it was low and gruff. He must have had a difficult life, or a bad disposition, because he scowled all the time. I tried to be pleasant when I couldn’t avoid him—give a neighborly hello—but he’d only nod and haul his gristle-and-bone body upstairs. He might have disliked me by association alone. Nancy had had run-ins with him which involved fervent Bible quoting and threats of divine vengeance. He knew what we did down in that apartment. He was decidedly on the opposite side of the abortion debate.
At some point, the old man got a roommate. Nancy managed to learn that the roommate was his 20-something-year-old nephew.
The nephew was a stocky fellow with a short, rough haircut and glazed, feral eyes. He spoke with a rural Southern twang, accented with twitches. A Walker Evans photo might have depicted him as enduring or determined or human. But the nephew looked as if any moment he could become completely unhinged.
One day, I arrived at work and Nancy said that The Nephew had knocked, aggressively, at the door and asked her if she’d seen his machete.
Yes. He had left it outside near the front entry door behind some bushes. It was gone. Had she taken it or seen someone take it? No, of course, she hadn’t. He stormed up to his apartment and slammed the door.
To our knowledge, The Nephew was not employed in any job that required a machete as a tool. He did not, out of the kindness of his heart, go outside the apartment building and chop back overgrown vines and bushes. We couldn’t be certain whether he found this machete and played with it for fun or if he had a stash of weapons—replica samurai swords, ninja stars, guns—displayed in his bedroom.
From that day on, we referred to the nephew as Machete Man. By association, the creepy old man became Machete Man’s Uncle.
Several months into my tenure at the nonprofit, Nancy got a kitten. She named him William after a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He was a tiny orange tabby with a good personality and sharp claws. He brought a little more brightness into the day with his playfulness and content cat naps on paperwork stacks.
William wasn’t allowed to go out of the apartment, but he was fast and escaped a few times, to be quickly found in the vestibule.
One afternoon, we realized we hadn’t seen or heard William in a while. We called his name and looked in every corner, under every surface, and in cabinets. Nancy went outside the apartment, then outside the building. Nothing.
We both feared the worst.
“Go upstairs and see if they’ve seen him,” she said.
“I’m not going. They’re your neighbors,” I said.
“Knock on Wally’s door. Maybe he’s home and found him.”
I knocked. Raquel barked. I heard no movement or Wally’s command to shut up.
We peered up the stairs, then at each other.
“Okay, I’m going. You listen.” She paused. What she meant to say came telepathically. Call the police if you hear me scream.
The wooden stairs creaked as she ascended. She disappeared as she passed the landing. Knock, knock, knock. Then again, on the same door. No answer. Silence, then more knocks. Voices, quiet, then rushed footsteps down the stairs.
Nancy cradled a bundle in her arms. Her eyes were round and unreadable.
Inside the office, door shut and locked, she held out the sleepy William.
“Lazarus is up there with Machete Man smoking pot. I could totally smell it. And look—they got William stoned!”
I grabbed the kitten and patted his head. “They did what?!” I sniffed William’s fur. No amount of patchouli could cover that up.
Nancy slipped into the kitchen and came back with a plate of food and some water. We sat on the ground. I put William down, and he staggered to the meal. He drank until it seemed impossible he could hold anymore. Then he pushed his face into the food, gulping down whole bits of kibble.
“He’s got the munchies,” Nancy said.
We laughed and couldn’t stop. Machete Man had not taken the kitten to do something horrible to him. Target practice. Experimentation. Dinner.
With his belly visibly full, William crawled into my lap, curled up, and went to sleep. Nancy and I didn’t work the rest of the day. Watching the kitten come down from his high seemed like enough to do.
Human and animal names have been changed.
Thanks to John Sykes for the building’s date, noted in his work-in-progress, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Spanish Town.