First you must understand that the Landlord was not mad. He sauntered through his life with a coy stride, a kind speech, and boyish gestures that allowed people to confide and exploit frequently and simultaneously. It was his generosity that eased the conscience of those who took advantage of him, for his open hands were so woven into his mannerisms that people had become accustomed to accepting this profound altruism. He was loved for his benevolence and the lack of guilt it provided.
This engrossing compassion was, however, locked with an even more grand sense of inferiority. Every expression, every formality, every fluctuation was a measure made by the Landlord to avoid confrontation. Conflict antagonized him, not only emotionally but physically. Arguments seeped into his gut and rioted for days. Altercations would wind themselves in the darkness behind his eyelids, giving him sweats and accelerating his heartbeat. Some nights, he’d clutch his chest as he thought his heart would burst inside him. No, he was not mad; he was just amicable beyond what is human.
The Landlord inherited a successful realty business from his father, who had spent his entire life establishing himself within the industry. The business consisted of many properties on the south side of the city, and the Landlord had begun to buy more residences on the eastern side. The Landlord’s father stressed to his son that it was harmony that makes people happy. He explained to him that if you put everything you have into your work, be sure to put everything you have into what you love. At the age of 34 the Landlord’s marriage had failed due to her infidelity. Since then he had wondered what else, exactly, was he to put his everything into? The lack of passion for a lover was displaced with the generosity he offered towards acquaintances and friends, who in reality did not really know him.
At 47, he lived alone. He was humbled in his loneliness; his solitude granted him a vast understanding of his own breadth in the world. He awoke each morning, early, beginning the day in a struggle with his own enervation. But despite his seclusion, he was a grateful man. He opposed the weakness that morning conveyed with stark optimism. He ate breakfast buoyantly, tasting the acidity of grapefruit being tamed with rich yolk. He thought of life in balance. He saw everything and its antithesis.
On this particular morning the Landlord sipped black coffee as he looked over a list of some of his properties, written in a blue memo book, in a fine cursive. His eyes paced over four addresses; four addresses upon which he had covertly been blaming his excruciating acid indigestion. The heartburn was amplifying, and had begun to send a chorus of hot song up his throat. The burn radiated behind his breastbone as he showered. He scoured the bottoms of his feet while contemplating the symmetry in the day that lay before him. He evened his tie in front of the mirror, smiling.
When he stepped outside, he took notice to the opulence of sunlight. In his car he hummed with the radio during the entire drive to the grocery store. The Landlord placed in his shopping cart: four fruit baskets, a newspaper, a can of albacore tuna, several bottles of bottom shelf vodka, a large frozen burrito, a pack of cigarettes, a small plush purple elephant, and a tube of red lipstick. He offered to bag his own merchandise at the check stand. He tipped his cashier.
At 404 S Academy Street lived a woman named Elise with her two young children. Their father had long since taken flight to North Dakota with another woman, where he had begun a new family. Birthday cards with worn five dollar bills had ceased to arrive at the age where the children had become aware that these birthday cards were something to expect. Elise bit her nails frequently and thought of how irresponsible it was to raise children in the Midwest. The only good thing to happen to people raised in the Midwest was them getting out.
Elise lay on her couch in front of her television where she took advice from talk show hosts whose pores were choked with powder. And she ate pretzels, hard candy, marshmallow crème, and tortilla chips. When her phone rang, she looked into the kitchen where the phone hung on the wall. She counted the rings up to seven, at which they stopped, and she exhaled.
When the doorbell rang, she thought of not answering, of turning down the volume on the television set and waiting until that ringing had stopped, too. But Elise had a much more difficult time ignoring someone on the other side of her front door than she did a voice on the phone. When she sat up she brushed off salt and bits of food that had eluded her mouth. Her back felt cool from the air that rushed under her damp sweater, where it had been caught between her mass and the couch.
The Landlord stood at her doorway, a fruit basket in hand, greeting her with bright eyes, a brightness that had been lacking in the home for quite some time. And he smiled sincerely while commenting on how beautiful the day was, and how good it was to see her, asked how her children were, and how she had been since last they spoke, which happened to be exactly a month ago, when she was only three months behind on rent.
Elise took the fruit basket from the Landlord, mostly so she’d have something in her hands to keep them from fidgeting. She knew he’d be back sometime this week, and she had planned to have a check, filled out and waiting for him on her kitchen table. She had also planned to have her house cleaned by this week, to have her oldest child taken to the doctor to check out the rash on his left side that would not go away, and a call back regarding one of the job applications she had sent out. She had planned on losing ten pounds by now.
The Landlord smiled and asked if there was anything he could do for her. When she shook her head no, his eyes wandered behind her into the three bedroom house, up the wall against which the fish tank stood, to the ceiling where her fan still hung suspended and broken. One of the blades missing, the choke on the wall still covered with duct tape, as to stop the children from turning the fan to ON. The Landlord grinned “I can fix that for you, perhaps sometime in the next few days. Elise, just give me a call, and maybe then we can work out something with the rent.”
Elise exhaled, smiled back, and nodded yes.
The Landlord got back into his car and continued to counterbalance his day. He rolled down his windows and thought of how the breeze felt sweet as it swept across his forehead and forearms, easing the anxiety he felt as he drove forward, toward 1847 Laurel Street. His heartburn caused him to pause and take deep breaths. He closed his eyes and willed it to abate.
Conner and Rosalie had been married for 14 months and 6 days. Rosalie had learned the specifics in the way Conner preferred his shirts ironed and folded, the same way his mother had done for him up until the day he moved out and in with Rosalie. She knew Conner would only eat eggs if they were scrambled, with sharp cheddar, and no pepper. And she had become accustomed to making sure the rolls of toilet paper were set in to where the paper came up over the top rather than from behind and the bottom because Conner had exhausted himself in explaining why it really did make a difference.
The devotion Rosalie felt for her husband was one few could conceptualize. Conner had made her compulsive and methodical. Rosalie was now able to detect details of disorder that otherwise would go unrecognized. This concentrated awareness did, however, seed inside of her a craving for her husband’s approval. The passions she had in her past life were now focused solely on Conner and his precision.
Rosalie was replacing the air fresheners in the various outlets around the house making sure they alternated evenly between apple cinnamon and French vanilla. Conner had once told her how important it was for scents of a home to oscillate between two distinctive fragrances. She heard the doorbell. Through the peep hole she saw the Landlord holding a fruit basket. It then occurred to her that it was already the 5th. Conner had rationalized with her that the date rent was due was more of a suggestion. They had already gotten away with not paying the previous two months of rent. He explained it wasn’t that big of a deal to purchase the bed he desperately needed for his back, which required a special kind of support only offered by a bed whose cost was equivalent to rent. Despite this, she still didn’t have an excuse that she felt would be adequate for the Landlord.
The Landlord alleviated the breath held in Rosalie’s chest when he immediately beamed as she opened the door. He handed her the fruit basket and explained that it was for her and her husband. He told her that this visit was just one to make sure everything was okay, and that he was willing to work something out concerning the rent situation if need be. Rosalie explained that Conner was typically the one who dealt with the finances but as soon as he returned from his trip she would bring it to his immediate attention. Rosalie apologized repeatedly, and the Landlord continued to clarify that he understood, and that he was there to assist her in anything she needed regarding the home. Rosalie insisted she had all of that under control. Both laughed to ease the discomfort of the visit.
In a one-bedroom apartment, 1923 Belmont Avenue # 4, Mrs. Roberta Levering slept in her recliner as her four cats dawdled in and out of her kitchen and living room, scratching up the wooden posts to her furniture and exploring her trash. Mrs. Levering did not hear the doorbell the first few times the Landlord rang, but awoke to her canary rustling in his cage violently. She ignored the doorbell as it rang twice more. On the fifth attempt she quite bluntly yelled for the perpetrator to please leave her alone, as she was not seeing visitors today.
The cats whined at Mrs. Levering and the door. Excited, they collected themselves towards the entry. Roberta yelled at the canary to quiet down. She looked up at the urn on the mantel above her fireplace and muttered “This is all your fault, you know?” Then a few seconds later said “The cats are NOT the problem.”
Through the door, the Landlord attempted to clarify that he, again, was not here to bother her but rather to try and work out something concerning her very late rent. Mrs. Levering again told him to remove himself, as she didn’t have the time to deal with the situation. The Landlord once more tried to explain that the purpose of his visit was not to harass her but to try and reach a solution that would benefit the both of them before he was obligated to take legal actions, which he, at this point, did not see necessary. Mrs. Levering fell back asleep. The Landlord could hear the nails of her cats lacerating the other side of the door as he set the fruit basket down in front of her entrance.
The heartburn returned as the Landlord shifted his car into gear, thinking of Mrs. Levering’s apartment, which had no doubt been damaged extensively by her four cats, and the animal deposit which she still had not paid. She had not paid rent in five months, either, but considering her age, he had reasoned with himself that he perhaps could give her one more month, before involving the authorities.
A few miles east of Mrs. Levering’s apartment, at 954 Pine Oak Drive, was the final address the Landlord had appointed. In a cul-de-sac, the last home stood, seemingly ordinary. This house was always the last residence the Landlord visited each month. It was also the one towards which he felt the most apprehensive. The Landlord knocked on the door and waited with the forth fruit basket. He stood in front of the red door, noticing that the porch light had been shattered. Shards of glass remained next to the Landlord’s shoes. He thought of the baby, and winced.
Bryan and Hannah had been living together for nearly a year. There was an unspoken agreement between the two of them that after the baby came things were going to change; Hannah was going to change. But after Lemon was born, Hannah found that the commitment she and Bryan had not verbally agreed to was one with which she was unable to follow through. The mornings when Bryan found Hannah on the bathroom floor passed out from painkiller and rotgut cocktail, he wished that he had said something. And so the two of them felt resentment and guilt for each other, and Lemon, because of an endless conversation neither wanted to bring up.
Bryan co-dependently cared for Hannah in an unconditional sense that would have sent most people into psychosis. He felt as though his girlfriend was both a burden and an aspect of his life that could provide absolute bliss, if only he could get her to change. In the tumultuous mess that was Bryan and Hannah’s love, Lemon went unacknowledged, excluding the moments where she had become a bartering tool that each parent used against the other.
Hannah was selfish. Often Bryan would come home to find her lying on the floor with glossy slaver hemorrhaging from her mouth. Her eyes wandering in the utter darkness of unconsciousness, her body limp and moist with sweat, her fingers blue, lips dry. Bryan would sit her up and try to extract her from the cerebral vacation. And Lemon would cry from her crib, delivering the score for Hannah’s habitual narcotic holidays.
Inside, Hannah picked up the baby to answer the knocking. But when she peeked to see who it was she spoke to the door, “He’s not here.”
The Landlord sighed and asked, “Can I see her? I brought her something. I just wanted to say hi.”
But Hannah did not reply. So the Landlord set down the fruit basket along with the purple elephant, and walked back to his car.
Elise’s children had received the goldfish on the day their father left. They came in individual plastic bags, tied at the tops. He told them the importance of responsibility and that these fish were a reflection of accountability. It was imperative that the children make an effort to help the fish live long, happy, healthy lives. He would return from North Dakota in two weeks to check on these fish. He winked. And this was the last time they talked to their father without a receiver between them.
In the beginning, Elise had only purchased a gallon bowl and food flakes for the goldfish, knowing full well they would be dead in 10 days. The children had a difficult time keeping their rooms clean, staying focused on homework, and remembering to shut the car doors when they ran into the house. Sustaining the lives of these fish would be nearly impossible. Elise thought of her ex-husband and became sick at the thought that he had set them up for heartbreak.
But the children named the fish, Amigo and Saturn. They saved allowances and holiday money to buy a tank with filters, pumps, and gravel in a color called “midnight,” after creating a suitable home for their finned pets, they began adding companions. More exotic fish were admitted into their community until a much larger tank was purchased. The dedication the children had for the existence of their aquatic society was not diverted by anything. They understood devotion. Elise could never pinpoint the origin of interest the children had taken in the fish, but she knew enough to leave it alone. Amigo and Saturn kept the children occupied.
Elise was running late. Frantically, she searched for her keys. The phone was ringing, and she was all too aware that it was the children calling to ask why she wasn’t there to pick them up already. After tossing around the stacks of over-due bills on the table and digging through the piles of dirty laundry in the hallway, she managed to discover the location of her keys in the couch cushions. She left with the phone ringing throughout the vacant house.
A few minutes after her departure, the front door opened. The Landlord stood with a bucket in his hand. The bucket carried the bottles of cheap vodka and the frozen burrito. He called out into the home as to be sure that it was empty, telling nobody that he was here to fix the fan. With no answer, he shut the door behind him and entered the kitchen.
He tossed the burrito into the microwave and set the timer for two minutes. He then walked to the fish tank and began to remove the bottles of liquor from the bucket. The bucket was then immersed into the tank, removing water. Carefully, he transported the water to the sink where it was dumped, and repeated the process until the water level was low enough. The Landlord began to open the bottles of vodka and poured them into the fish tank. Task completed, the Landlord placed the empty bottles back into the bucket. He retrieved the burrito from the microwave, and, as he was walking out, he saw a rather large goldfish with a red stripe across its middle ascend, its mouth gaping, as it floated into equilibrium.
Rosalie always did the grocery shopping on Fridays. Conner was particular about Saturday morning breakfast, as it was the first meal of the weekend. He explained to her that it should always be something made from fresh ingredients, specifically produce, as the anti-oxidants were essential. She read over the grocery list Conner had constructed for her, making sure she recognized each item, as to avoid another “maqui incident.”
Rosalie walked throughout the house, double-checking that all lights and appliances had been turned off. She collected her purse and keys and made sure that both locks were secure. She tugged on the door twice before departing to her car. As she adjusted the mirrors and fastened her seatbelt, easy listening radio slid from her speakers. Rosalie reached into her purse and withdrew a CD case. She inserted the disc and turned the volume up until the knob stopped at max.
The Landlord watched as Rosalie pulled from the driveway. Over his own radio he could hear her music erupt from her car. The composition was erratic, violent, rapid. As Rosalie passed the Landlord he could see her screaming; her face distorted into an expression that resembled something in need of Novocain. He took the last bite of his burrito and grabbed the can of albacore tuna. The Landlord pulled down his front visor and looking into his mirror began to apply the red lipstick to his pout. He then took a cigarette and tucked it behind his ear.
He unlocked the door and called into the house. With no response, he let himself in. He walked through the living room noting the complimenting fragrances. He felt as though he was wafting through perfume. He removed the cigarette and lit it, blowing the white smoke into Rosalie and Conner’s home. He made his way to the kitchen sink and used a can opener to make a small incision in the tuna can. He then went into the small laundry room where Rosalie had carefully separated the clothes. He began to dig through their whites, until coming across the stark white button downs that Conner wore to work. The landlord began to drizzle the tuna water on Conner’s shirts. He then pressed his stained lips to the collars. He mixed the adulterated shirts in with the regular laundry but placed a rose-smudged collar on top, so Rosalie was bound to spot it when she did the load.
The Landlord stepped back to observe his chicanery. Similar to blood in snow, the red print protruded through the white clothes so obnoxiously that his heartburn felt an ease of relief in his chest. Like marshmallow, the spiteful lip print alleviated the indigestion. He put out the cigarette and left it on the counter. It had a ring of red, making its presence feel sticky, and torrid. As he walked out of their home, he caught himself in a mirror that hung in their hallway. He walked up to his reflection and couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous he looked with the red lipstick smeared across his mouth.
Sid Levering would have never considered letting his wife Roberta own a cat in their house. He despised their mannerisms. As he had put it to her “Felines are just so pretentious.” So when Sid passed away, Roberta had decided to buy the canary to keep her company. But the bird lacked the kind of interaction she had been coveting. She hadn’t even bothered to name it. The canary was more furniture than a companion.
The day Roberta adopted the first cat and brought it to her apartment she could feel the agitation from the urn that Sid’s ashes rested in on the mantle. “This is MY apartment.” She protested. After a while, Roberta began to bring home more cats and the apartment became less hers and more of a hedonistic habitat for her tabbies.
Friday nights, Roberta went to senior bingo. She tottered through the apartment collecting her sweater, her colossal purse, spritzing her dense perfume into her crocheted cardigan. She applied heavy rouge and made sure to tell each of her cats goodbye individually before leaving. As she walked past the mantel she explained to Sid that the cats needed the separate attention, and that, despite what he thought, it was necessary for the cohesion of their home.
A few moments later, the Landlord let himself into her household, calling out for Mrs. Levering knowing he wouldn’t get an answer. The apartment did not feel as derelict as the others after its tenants had left. Roberta’s home had eyes in her absence. The Landlord took his newspaper and let himself into Mrs. Levering’s bathroom, his stomach now responding to the burrito he had eaten earlier.
Her bathroom was small and smelled of milled soap. On the floor was a litter box that was in need of cleaning. The Landlord shut out the cats as they meowed at him, smelling the tuna that was still on his hands. He sat on her toilet, opened the newspaper and began to read about a local charity auction that was to take place later that month.
When he was finished he looked down at his handiwork. Everything from consistency to color to form was better than he had intended. He thought to himself, “This is art.” and left his excrement abstraction to sit in her toilet. He tried to conceptualize Mrs. Levering’s reaction to the abstruse discovery. The heartburn waned substantially.
As he exited the bathroom, he was careful to step around the cats as they meandered through his legs. Then he saw the urn. Remembering the desperate state of the litterbox, he took it upon himself to change it out. He reentered the bathroom and made the switch while the cats sang throughout the apartment.
Bryan and Hannah always paid rent on time. Since Lemon was born the Landlord had even suggested that they not concern themselves with the payments but still Bryan insisted and had the check sent out every month. Bryan already felt like he was taking advantage of the Landlord, as it was, by renting out one of his properties. The thought of charity irritated him, especially from his father, a man whose generosity was his biggest disgrace.
The Landlord sat outside 954 Pine Oak Drive and waited for Bryan and Hannah to leave for her NA meeting. His anxiety made him patient; this was the only home he had felt any sorrow towards and, therefore, he found himself choked between the obligation of balance and the inquisition of his morality. He ran his thumbs over his steering wheel, which he gripped, as he began to prepare himself for what was to come next. He heard Bryan’s car start and he realized he was about to enter into a moment of his life which would follow him until death.
Bryan, Hannah, and Lemon departed the cul-de-sac, leaving their home vulnerable to the Landlord. He automated himself, feeling his movements now as mechanical. He surrendered to the burden of harmony as he exited his car and walked to the red door. He entered his son’s home, looking around at its diabolical simplicity. Second-hand furniture arranged in a minimalistic fashion, cigarette butts littering the coffee table, full bottles were tucked into the couch and were being collected behind their television set. The Landlord eyed the stains in the carpet thinking the floor resembled some grandiose watercolor. He led himself into the bathroom, where he opened the cabinet.
Hannah collected prescription medications like a philatelist would collect stamps. Throughout the years of hardcore addiction she had become very resourceful in obtaining pills. As the Landlord opened the cabinet door he was confronted by an array of orange bottles with white labels, some printed with names that did not belong to Hannah. The Landlord began empting the bottles and switching the capsules. He replaced each bottle with a different prescription than the one the label suggested. He carefully set them back into place and then headed into the kitchen.
The Landlord opened a cupboard occupied by various alcohols. He grabbed bottles from their shelves. He pulled nearly 30 of them and took some time to stare into the numerous liquors. He became eye-level with their slender necks and gazed into a glass forest. The Landlord began twisting lids from each bottle. After every one had been opened he took a deep breath and then reached under the sink.
He removed bleach and carefully began to top off each bottle with just a few capfuls. He knew Hannah would just become sick after one drink, but she’d eventually come back around. He knew that after 200 ml of bleach, she wouldn’t come back at all. His acid indigestion was now entirely alleviated. The Landlord placed the fatal cocktails back into the cupboard.
In the kitchen, alone, he stood, surrounded by the dense silence of his son’s home. The Landlord leaned against the counter, placed his face into his hands, and began to cry. No, he was not mad; he just understood the dissonance of being amicable beyond what is human.