I was playing catch with my son when I heard the thumps and bangs through the ceiling that was my landlord and his roommate fighting. The clamor travelled from one end of the house to the other and all I could think was: this is my fault.
My wife met me in the hallway. What was that? Now screams became audible over the sound of struggle, the tumble of bodies knocking furniture across the floor. My son followed me out of the bedroom, a red plastic ball in one hand and a purple plastic ball in the other. Daddy, c’mere. More screaming, no words decipherable, my wife’s wide eyes. I went back into the bedroom, to the far side of the bed, my side. Where I left my sneakers on the floor. I sat down on the end of the bed and put them on, tied the laces. What are you doing? My wife put her hands on her hips.
I’m going up there.
I made it through the hall and into the kitchen, I was opening the back door when she caught up, slid her body between me and the screen door.
You’re not going up there.
Yes I am.
To do what?
To tell them to cut the shit.
My wife opened the screen door and peaked her head out. She was wearing a tank top and pajama pants. She was not wearing a bra or sneakers. Outside it was wet and windy. Her hair was blown against her face. The windows upstairs were open. We heard the gravelly voice of the landlord’s roommate. I’m walking through and you fuckin sucker me? The landlord responded, but his words came out slurred and garbled. We leaned back inside. More muffled yells through the ceiling. My wife rolled her eyes. He’s shitfaced. I agreed. She leaned out. We heard the roommate again. You’re not sorry now, but what about tomorrow? She shook her head and closed the door. We stand facing each other in the kitchen. He’s sober. Meaning the roommate. My wife agreed. She left to check on our son. This time, a piece of what is said upstairs made down clear enough to understand. It was the landlord. None of you are fast enough to catch me! More rumbles across the floor. My wife came into the kitchen from the hall holding our son. I told her what I heard. She figured it out. The roommate won’t let him leave cause he’s drunk. The screen door upstairs slammed. I step outside. Leaning against the railing of the wooden stairs that leads to the deck and side door of the second floor apartment, was my landlord. He looked down and saw me. While I searched for the right thing to say, a phrase or sentence that would convey both how angry at am at the noise and a threat that whatever was happening up there would not be allowed to spill over down here, where my wife and son are, the landlord started to cry. All the false bravado I was mustering dissipated and was replaced by equal parts empathy and disgust. Inside, my wife was holding my son, waiting for details. I told her Go, get him ready for bed, but it wasn’t a masculine order of protection, it is code: the situation isn’t dangerous, just sad. She understood. She disappeared around the corner, down the hall. I checked on the landlord. He was sobbing, his forehead pressed against the railing. I shut the door.
We put our son to bed together. The change into pajamas, the brushing of teeth, the laying down in the crib and saying goodnight to everyone he knows. This is my fault because the last apartment was supposed to be just that, the last apartment. The plan was when we moved from there it would be into our own house. Even with the recession, decisions I made kept us from achieving this goal more than any external factors. When we moved, it was into the first place that let us keep our dog and cat. The first time we toured the place, the landlord was drunk, but he seemed harmless. It is a nice neighborhood. The ocean is a block away. There is a park across the street. But I had taken too long to find a job after school, and we had not saved any money, so we were not moving into a house of our own. The landlord and his roommate live above us. This is my fault. We kissed our son goodnight and left his room.
My wife sat down on the couch. I went outside, curious if anything had changed. The landlord was not crying with his forehead resting on the railing. He stood with back to his door, out of my line of vision, and spoke with two cops across from him. One of them was speaking to someone on a cell phone. Your brother’s roommate called us and said your brother was making suicidal comments. Another cop came up the stairs. He saw me. I lifted my hands. The cop didn’t get it.
What the fuck is going on?
I just got here, man.
Inside, my wife was watching TV. I told her about the cops. We decided the roommate called the police to keep the landlord from leaving, driving drunk. I think there’s a chick up there. My wife sighed. Probably. She watched her show. Lights are flashing through the windows in our son’s play room. Those windows look out on the other side of the house. With my fingers I created a space in the drawn shades so I could see what I believed then to be a fire engine, based on the noise of the idling engine. I was wrong. It was an ambulance, and my landlord was lying on a stretcher inside it, propped up with an elbow, talking with an EMT. I let the shades fall shut. I explain the scene to my wife. We laughed nervous, what-the-fuck laughs The commotion died.
Later, I brought our dog into the small backyard to pee. It isn’t very cold. I’m wearing a t-shirt. It was still raining. I began to worry. There are leaks in the ceiling over my son’s crib and my side of the bed the landlord promised to fix a week ago. I hear the roommate talking on the phone through an open window. Then he tries all this I’m sorry shit, tries hugging up on me and I’m like get the fuck away from me.
We could have been in a house. It might have been too small or too expensive, something, but it would be ours. All according to plan.
My dog peed. She looked up at me, her tail wagging. In the kitchen, I removed the leash from around her neck and I gave her a treat. I wondered about tenants’ rights, how to get out of a lease. I walked down the hall. It was time for bed.