Note: Although I highly recommend each of the books in this ongoing series, these posts are not meant to be highbrow, clinical dissertations on the works in question, with scholarly commentary on thematic greatness or the brilliant use of a split infinitive in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 2. Rather, the books, and the posts, serve as jumping-off points for the memories I associate with the devotional devouring of a specific piece of literature. After all, our fondness for a book is often flavored by other things that happened in our lives. These are those other stories…
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – Anne Tyler
In an interesting plot development that you really can’t make up, I discovered Anne Tyler whilst waiting for Anne Rice’s “Witching Hour” to become available. I was perusing the stacks at the Tulsa City-County Library, a bit miffed that Anne Rice was solidly checked out, once again, when I noticed a book shoved unceremoniously into a gap on one of the shelves, the obvious result of some idiot who couldn’t be bothered to put something back where they found it.
This book happened to be “Dinner”, and after perusing the glowing reviews on the jacket, I decided that I was hungry. I lugged my consolation prize to the checkout counter, and a relationship was born. Platonic, of course, Anne Tyler doesn’t know me from a pothole on Maple Avenue, but I was nevertheless enraptured. Anne Tyler can take the quietest, simplest moments and transform them into aching beauty. As I sit here now, I have 16 of Anne Tyler’s books lined up on the top shelf of my writing desk, wedged in between pictures of my beautiful nieces and some dusty candles from Pier 1. I really love that shelf.
I eventually christened that time period in 1990 as “The Summer of Annes”. (When you have a really great experience, you should give it a name, yes?) I was at the library nearly every weekend, loading up my car with coveted Annes, then driving home in the debilitating Oklahoma heat to a quaint little four-plex where I was renting an apartment. The building was constructed in 1917, during the heady days when Tulsa was swimming in a river of oil-boom money, with the giddiness of The Twenties on the horizon.
Times change, of course, and the river dried up, or was at least diverted, and this particular neighborhood, once prized, lost its allure, especially when an all-important super-highway sliced through the area, leaving a little isolated pocket of structures to huddle quietly over the years. Decades later, I spied a tiny ad in the newspaper classifieds, worded just so, and I felt a stirring. I hopped in the car and, after some questionable navigation on my part (I had never been to this part of town, despite it being one of the oldest sections), I parked in front of a fascinating building that was dripping with a distant glory. Before I even went in to chat with the landlord, I knew this was somewhere that I belonged, at that moment and that time.
So I signed a lease on a 1917 shotgun-style apartment, in all its ruined finery, with the 12-foot ceilings, and the reclaimed honeycomb tile in the bathroom, and the ornate carved-wood staircase in the front of the building that none of us ever used since we all came in the back entrance because that’s where we parked. We also had the creepy basement where the laundry was located, modern machines shoved among the groaning support pillars and the rusted network of cast-iron pipes that did who knows what. This was complemented by the creepy attic, a murky space where the owners would store random antiques they had found during their life adventures, antiques which we were welcome to use during our stay. (And I certainly took advantage of that, didn’t have to ask me twice, no sir.)
There was a bit of a downside, of course, to living in an antique, a downside that just comes with the territory. We had an insect issue that simply would not go away, although it did ebb and flow as various treatments were tried. Roaches are never fun, with their scurrying and their insistence, especially if you are attempting to entertain guests or potential lovers. The bugs kill the buzz. But let’s face it, the building was almost as old as the state, the scampering little bitches had squatting rights, and Oklahoma was founded on the concept of squatting. (Well, squatting and the persecution of Native Americans, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.)
The heat in the building was provided by natural gas. I don’t know if that was the original design of the building (most likely not, considering the timestamp of construction and the odd, inoperable pipes and chutes and ladders that I was constantly discovering all over the building). But I do know that the access to the main pilot light in my apartment was convoluted. You had to first remove this vented panel thing located at floor level in the dining room (where I didn’t have an actual dining table because I couldn’t afford one, the room was mostly occupied by crates of vinyl records as such things were more important to me at the time). Then you had to get on all fours and wriggle down this small tunnel until you couldn’t move any further because it narrowed, at which point you would have to thrust your arm forward, brandishing one of those elongated fireplace matches in the hopes of reigniting the pilot light that was apparently located in a neighboring county.
I hated that pilot light and I wanted nothing to do with it. Yet it was always going out, usually when we had a negative temperature on the thermometer (yes, it gets cold in Oklahoma in the winter, trust me), and the outing was probably due to the ghosts of pissed-off former flappers who had once lived in the building and didn’t care for my choices in modern music. Or maybe it was the rampant bugs running amok, with one of the slower ones getting barbecued on the open flame and thusly plunging the apartment into a subzero climate. Whatever the case, I was rarely able to get the damn pilot relit when left to my own devices, an inability that was the combined result of squeezing my ass into a claustrophobic tunnel and worrying about blowing the entire block to hell and back because I was shoving a burning stick at billowing natural gas.
So I would call the landlord. Usually late at night, because the damn pilot light never had the decency to go out during business hours.
To his credit, he would always show up promptly, mainly because he lived just on the other side of the super-highway, in a fashionable area of town that had retained its street cred by happenstance and strict zoning regulations. He was always very polite, uttering soothing words that would calm me as he bitch-slapped the natural gas in three seconds. But his eyes told a different story. (Dude, really? I support the gays and all, but you really need to man it up a notch and own the fire-stick thing.) Then he would disappear into the night, leaving me in my once-again toasty apartment while the roaches roasted marshmallows on the resuscitated pilot light.
And then we had the audio soundtrack of life in the 1917 building. The walls were very thick, as housing construction was still regarded as an art back in the day and things were built to last. (Unlike the modern situation, where corporate behemoths build cheap-ass crap where the “walls” are little more than stiffened cheesecloth and the whole structure can come down if a car alarm goes off two streets over.) So there was never any of that mess where you can hear the neighbor next door playing his Pink Floyd albums backwards, searching for hidden meanings, or the folks upstairs accusing each other of infidelity and hurling breakable keepsakes around the room.
There were times when I wouldn’t hear a peep from the other three apartments for days, to the point that I would begin to suspect a possible mass killing had taken place, one where I had managed to be at the library (no surprise) when the carnage had ensued. Of course, my concern over the possible violent passing of my neighbors never reached the level of actual investigation, with me traipsing through the dimly-lit silent building, waving a battery-weak flashlight and tripping over the violated remains of the guy who had lived in Apartment 4.
Side note on the dude in 4, in case you’re all about the details: this was the same guy who would, after his nightly run, because he was one of those annoying healthy people, leave his wet jockstraps to dry on the railing of the rickety stairs in the back of the building. Granted, he hung them near his own back door, his territory and all, but still, the place wasn’t that big and we could all see his handiwork as we clattered through the rear entrance, clutching a bag of groceries or escorting our highly-sensitive grandma who had popped by for a visit. It just wasn’t a right thing to do, and if he was dead, the wanton display of dripping support garments should be considered “probable cause”, and the police should start right there when they eventually showed up with their badges and their tricky questions.
But as far as I know, no one met an untimely end during my residence. (This is not to say that it didn’t happen, as I was in my mid-twenties, and we older folks know that people in their twenties don’t pay attention to squat unless it directly affects them.) What I do know is that, despite the admirably-solid soundproofing of the building, wherein I could knock over the refrigerator and my neighbors could only discern a muffled tap, there were certain odd locations in my apartment where I would hear noises that I really didn’t wish to hear. Noises that I was not personally creating in a pique of artistic expression (these things happen), so logic held that the disruptions were coming from somewhere else in the building.
One of these sound portals was in the bathroom, with its lovely vintage honeycomb tile that failed to impress my guests as much as it did me. Interestingly enough, the toilet plumbing was not the culprit in this aural misbehavior, despite the bad reputation such plumbing has when it comes to being obnoxious. (Toilets and their connective piping are so needy and prone to truculence at inopportune times.) And it wasn’t the clever vintage sink, with its finger-worn faucet handles that should have been threadbare after all these decades, emitting horrendous screeches at the slightest touch.
It was the bathtub.
Well, not my bathtub. I raised my children right. It was the bathtub above me, presumably placed in the same location as mine, although it’s probably a bit presumptuous of me to assume that they had cookie-cutter apartments in 1917. (I was never invited on a tour of the apartments of the other three inhabitants in the building. I don’t recall if it was because they didn’t like me or I didn’t like them. Maybe we were all just bitter, antisocial misfits. Who knows.) Still, wherever the elevated tub might be ensconced, the odds were in my favor that it was just like mine, which meant that it was the size of a whaling ship.
Seriously, other than matrimonial suites at Las Vegas hotels, I had never seen a bathtub as astonishingly big as the one in my apartment. You could fit the entire cast of “Gilligan’s Island” in there, living and dead, and still have room for some coconuts and a tiki torch. It was like swimming in the YMCA pool with no one else around, and I loved it. I was the cleanest person on the planet when I lived in that apartment, scrubbing away and singing sailor songs about life on the open sea.
Of course, the first time I pulled the stopper out of the drain in this magnificent tub, I nearly lost my life. The succubus vortex created by thousands of gallons of water whisking away to sanitation plants was a mighty force, indeed. The only reason I survived was because I somehow managed to clamor halfway over the side of the tub and cling to the base of the toilet (with the lug nuts connecting said toilet to the floor wailing in agony), resulting in my naked, prone body looking like a nice tribute to the Marion Crane shower scene in “Psycho”. From that day forward, I knew to get my ass out of the tub before pulling the plug, or my bathroom would turn into a crime scene where the investigators had to determine if this was a suicide, a murder, or a shocking industrial accident.
Now, take that amount of aquatic mayhem and move it 12 feet over my head. I could be innocently brushing my teeth at the sink, gazing at myself in the charming vintage mirror and wondering if I was still pretty enough to get a date to the prom, when the lady in the upstairs apartment would engage in a bit of plug-pulling, releasing the contents of her own swimming pool into the bowels of the earth. The rumbling thunder of such a tremendous deluge of water-tonnage could cause your sphincter to slam shut with an audible pop, with you firmly convinced that the S.S. Poseidon had just flipped over and Shelley Winters would be swimming your way at any moment. Even the cockroaches fled for their lives when this happened, because they might be able to survive a nuclear holocaust but they weren’t so sure about that mess.
Next up on the soundtrack tour was the strange closet along one wall of the dining room, nestled between the front parlor (I loved saying “parlor” to annoy my friends, but it really was a parlor and not a living room, you modernist snobs) and The Pilot-Light Tunnel Where People Could Die. Well, “closet” was the official name for this space, according to the landlord, but I had my suspicions. For one thing, it was far too large to be a simple closet. Yes, there was a pole where you could hang clothes, running along one distant wall and obviously jammed in as an afterthought during later years when people stopped using wardrobes and manservants. But there was enough acreage in there that you could hold cheerleading tryouts for the Dallas Cowboys and there would be plenty enough room for all the bouncing silicone.
I never knew what to do with this room, so it had a number of incarnations during my time on faded Rockford Avenue: a home office where I could work on another novel that was never picked up, a guest bedroom that was never used because relatives had doubts about survivability in a “bad part of town”, an artist studio that almost immediately failed once I realized there was no natural light in the room or painting talent in my body, a racquetball court for the homeless people I often met in the back alley. I initially convinced myself that I was only experimenting with the function of the room because I was trying to find the right fit for the flow of the apartment. But, truth be told, my usage for the room kept changing because one thing in that room never changed.
A weird knocking sound.
It was a random phenomenon, with no predictable schedule and, more importantly, no identifiable source. I would be sitting there, pecking my way through another pointless chapter in my plot-averse book or laying on the never-used guest bed and wondering why people didn’t love me enough to come visit, when the knocking would start. It was an arrhythmic knocking, so it didn’t appear to have a mechanical basis, with both muted and distinct knocks, like some drunkard was trying to hit something with a hammer and failing half the time, which is and was a fairly common activity in Oklahoma. People get drunk and decide they need to build a new gun rack, it’s a time-honored tradition.
And then the knocking would stop, before I could figure out where it was coming from or hit the right button on the tape recorder so I could share the experience with the landlord. (I actually asked him to stand in the special room, on one of the many nights when he had to leave the tranquility of his fancy home in the trendy part of town and cross the super-highway border into the crime-zone district so he could light the pilot light that I was too anxiety-riddled to light myself. And stand he did, politely, because continual cash flow is important in the rental-property world. Naturally, the knocking did not occur, because it was random, so he just stood there, valiantly forcing a complacent smile but unable to hide the look in his eyes which made it very clear he was happy that I was on a month-to-month lease, cash flow be damned. It just wasn’t a good PR move to have neurotic people babbling about non-existent knocking when potential new tenants were touring the property.)
Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t afraid of the knocking. I do worry about a lot of things in my life, to the point of obsession, but possible spectral visitations is not one of them. There is far more going on in the universe for any of us to comprehend fully, so I would actually be excited about confirmation that there are different levels of existence, of purpose. This is not a religious thing, it’s a spiritual thing, and there is a vast difference between the two, despite what money-grubbing pseudo preachers at mega churches would like you to believe. But overriding all of that philosophy was my hope that someone else would hear the damn knocking in the weird closet room and reassure me that I hadn’t lost my mind in the solitude of an ancient apartment where nobody ever visited me.
Finally, we had the lovely sound effects in my boudoir. This room was in the back of the building, the end of the linear train of boxes that comprised the shotgun apartment. The bedroom had lots of architectural detail that I fondly relished. It also had a mechanical detail that led me to have bad thoughts about society, in the form of a rectangular, thick-metal conduit that burst out of the ceiling and ran downwards along one wall into the floor. It was maybe four inches by eight inches in nature, something like that, and it was covered in decades of paint, so it had clearly been around since at least Prohibition.
What was not clear was the purpose of this contraption. I got the vague sense that it was meant to convey something from the apartment above me to the basement below me. Or perhaps it was the reverse, it’s not like there was a handy brochure hanging off the boxy chute, offering background details and a website where I could click for more information. So the original functionality of this thing remained a mystery to me. But the current functionality became quite obvious rather quickly.
This chute allowed me to magically get to know my fellow apartment-dwellers in a shockingly intimate manner, with the ancient conduit amplifying sounds in a rather extraordinary way. I could hear every single thing that was going on at either end of the chute. Everything. It was a Gladys Kravitz, nosy-neighbor goldmine. Or, if you’re like me and wish to remain socially distant from 97% of society, it was a minefield. I would be bombarded at random moments with real-life blasts of “I really didn’t need to know that”.
For starters, there was the down-low end of the chute, which terminated in the creepy, subterranean laundry room I previously mentioned in this sad tale of poor life choices. Naturally, I was not initially aware of the exact terminus of the chute, because I sometimes have an issue with depth perception and actual concern for logistics that don’t interest me. But the light bulb lit up one shockingly-early Sunday morning when I was ripped from my alcohol-based slumber by what sounded like a forklift being rammed into the foundation of the building.
I pried one crusty eye open and weakly surveyed my surroundings. Did I need to evacuate? Was there enough time to pack a few precious keepsakes before the next round of artillery hit? And, of course, the most important weekend-morning query: Was there someone lying beside me in the bed that I would need to whisk out of the apartment before it became obvious that I couldn’t remember his name due to several rounds of tequila shots and a questionable decision made when the bartender hollered “Last call!”
Luckily, I was the only one sprawled among the twisted sheets on my mattress, so there shouldn’t be any awkward sunrise moments with a nameless conquest. Unless, and this was a considerable possibility, he had managed to stumble out of the bed and was currently hugging the toilet in my honeycomb-tile bathroom or was lost in the mysterious, vast closet where he couldn’t find his way out due to all the bouncing cheerleaders. Having random sex can sure be complicated.
Still, I had the fuzzy impression that I had managed to remain relatively chaste at the bar. (There may have been some industrious tongue-kissing, but no merger acquisitions had been offered.) So I was able to focus on the default matter of what the hell was that noise which had prevented me from sleeping until noon. Right on cue, the noise was repeated, with much more clarity, and I as I lay there, groaning, I was able to interpret said noise with the razor-sharp analytical skills I had acquired during my high-tuition years in college, in the few classes I had bothered to attend when there wasn’t something more intriguing taking place.
Somebody was putting coins in a slot and then shoving that slot forward with an alarming degree of viciousness. Unless the building had been transformed into a casino overnight by a previously-unknown Indian tribe that had uncovered a dusty but important land deed from 1834, there was only one place that this coin-shoving action could be taking place: the laundry room, with its pay-for-play machines. To confirm my deduction, one of the washing machines chose that moment to begin a spin cycle wherein it was apparently whirling about what sounded like the engine block of a Dodge truck.
I briefly relaxed as I realized that that building was not under siege as first thought, and I wouldn’t have to get dressed anytime soon. But as the engine block continued to cavort, another machine was subjected to the prostate-exam action of the coin slot and then subsequently came to life, water gushing and gears grinding. My brief respite from confusion and mental anguish was quickly terminated as another emotion washed over my still groggy body: outraged anger.
Who in the HELL was doing laundry at 6:03AM on a Sunday morning? Obviously this person was a minion of Satan, as any decent, normal person would fully understand that the bars had closed only a mere four hours ago and that they should hold off on the cleansing of their delicates until a more considerate time. This was just completely unacceptable, and I should gather up the citizenry and march down the stairs, where we could wave torches and confront the Bastard in the Basement, then cast his ass into the back parking lot where he could think about his sins and possibly bring us some bagels from the corner deli when he returned to apologize.
Of course, I didn’t do anything about it, the default action of most people. (This is how elections often turn out the way they do, with some idiot racist suddenly having the power to enact laws that piss off the people he hates.) I did eventually get out of the bed where I wasn’t sleeping with anybody, made some industrial-strength coffee, and then headed to the library, a Sunday ritual. As I maneuvered through the back lobby, I noticed that the string of jockstraps on the landing deck of Apartment 4 had vanished, meaning he had to have been the one washing the engine block at the break of dawn. I made a mental note that one day I would write a short story about an incredibly annoying man who pissed me off once in a 1917 apartment building. Decades later, we have a checkmark.
Now, let’s review the upper end of the mysterious metal chute in my bedroom. (Brief pause: The preceding line is not one that I would have ever imagined scribing back in my budding days as a potential novelist, with my innocent eyes all aglow at the possibility of the beautiful prose I would one day produce, lyrical words that would garner national praise and a postage stamp with my beatific image. Sometimes the dreams really do die hard, usually the day after you graduate from college and realize that the only thing that hard work got you was a piece of paper you could frame on your wall and, if you’re lucky, some lifelong friends.)
Anyway, we had a potentially-malevolent chute, with the upper-end breaching the ceiling and presumably terminating somewhere in the apartment above me, probably a bedroom just like mine, but I wasn’t signing any court documents without some kind of confirmation. Interestingly enough, this confirmation arrived on yet another Sunday morn, again in the wee hours, justifying the theorem that it really wasn’t a good idea to be in this building on the weekend, if you had any hope of simply living your life without intrusion or sleep deprivation.
I awoke to the sound of what I assumed was a pack of Clydesdale horses performing an especially-muscular segment of “Riverdance”. A quick glance at the clock on my nightstand let me know that it was 3AM, a time when horses should not be dancing. After a bit of deduction, aided by the sound effects emanating from the chute and the plaster dust that was anointing me from the vibrating ceiling, I came to the conclusion that something of significance was happening on the second floor of this building. The exact nature of this event was a bit hazy, but I was fairly certain that I would not be returning to dreamland until the ceremony was completed and the horses were returned to their stalls.
It took about ten minutes for us to reach the final unseen scene in this production. It only took about three minutes for things to click and comprehension was achieved. This moment of epiphany was courtesy of a deep male voice exclaiming “Oh, God!” I was quite familiar with the inflection behind that voice. This was not the vocalization of someone having a faith-affirming religious experience, like the young farm girl Joan of Arc had when she decided that she didn’t want to milk a cow and would rather conquer France. No, this was the instinctual, grunting affirmation of a man who is doing something that he finds to be immensely pleasurable.
There were people above my head having sex.
And it wasn’t just your average “I can’t sleep, you wanna mess around?” kind of sex. This was a serious, dedicated effort to break some kind of record that I couldn’t even begin to define. They were going at like a crack-head whacking on a piñata. I wasn’t hearing tromping horses, I was hearing the damn bed bouncing off the floor. I was completely flabbergasted. Up to that point, I had been rather proud of my own sensual encounters, feeling that they had been quite energetic and worthy of bonus points for flair and creativity. But I had never made furniture move, other than a banging headboard here and there, and this was miles beyond that. We were in Linda Blair territory, with levitation and crucifixes and priests making urgent calls to the home office in Rome.
Seven minutes later, right after an animalistic duet of frenzied encouragement and goal-achievement, the deed was done. The bed finally came to rest, probably in another room at this point, and then there was silence. (I briefly entertained the idea of writing “Good job with the dismount!” on a condom wrapper and shoving it up the chute for their perusal, but I was still partially paralyzed with fear over what had just taken place.) Ten minutes after that, I heard the sounds of someone scurrying down the back stairs and then a car starting up in the parking lot.
How sad. Home girl in Apartment 3 had just endured a monumental booty call and he didn’t even bother to stick around long enough to fix her a late-night snack. Then again, she may have been the one to send him packing. Some folks are like that. The itch has been scratched, now move along and delete my texts from your phone. And could you feed the cat on your way out?
As I listened to the sound of the departing paramour’s car, and the satiated woman above me presumably applied a healing salve to her lady parts, I started to fade back into sleep, drifting. Then my eyes popped wide open. If the chute allowed me to hear her and her trysting, with a clarity that belonged in science books, then she could hear me and mine. And so could people at the other end of the chute, as they stood there in the laundry room and waited for the rinse cycle so they could add softener. Granted, I hadn’t rearranged furniture during my bouts of slap and tickle in this abode, but there had certainly been rambunctiousness and creatively-naughty dialogue during role-playing, which meant that the lusty banter probably had been heard by one and all, even the homeless people awaiting their turn in the racquetball court. Oh, God.
I glanced over at the horrid chute and its upstairs/downstairs gossip conveyance. I really didn’t care for that thing. The chute glared back at me, unconcerned about my feelings. It had been there way longer than I had, and it had decades of secrets captured in its many layers of paint.
Still, the bedroom was my favorite place in that crazy apartment on Rockford Avenue. It had really big windows that didn’t always cooperate when you tried to open them, but they let in a tremendous amount of light. The walls were covered in a paper that couldn’t have been original, but someone had chosen wisely, who knows when, making a nice bridge between the bright, young days of the house and the heavier, worn days of now. The polished wood floor popped in the same exact places every time you walked around, just as it had probably done for many residents over many years. At times, you could feel those people walking with you.
It was very easy, in that room, to think of the past, and to think of others, strangers, and what they might have done or wanted to do or could be doing. Time could effortlessly slide backwards and sideways. It was the perfect place for reading, a perfect place for my Summer of Annes, sitting in an antique chair I had plucked from a cobwebbed corner in the dusty attic, turning pages, breathing with the words, allowing myself to fall down the rabbit hole and trust that the author would catch me…
To be continued…
(CYA Note: Image of bookstacks “borrowed” from Hello Giggles website. No association or sponsorship intended. I just liked the picture, and that’s where our relationship ends.)