Columbia Towers

In which Citizen Jim attempts to save Chicken Sheets from a romantic mishap through the most crackpot, meticulous and ridiculous means possible.

I was sitting at work on a Thursday staring at my cubicle pin-up of Kate Winslet and waiting for the fresh hell of a new phone call. I was ready to leave the moment I got there. My head was pounding and my heart was racing–which was odd because the photo of Kate Winslet I was staring at didn’t even feature her bare breasts.

It had been an awful couple of months for me. I’d left Miss Crabtree and Marmaduke behind when I was contacted by an attorney who informed me that I’d inherited a small apartment from a mysterious–and deceased, of course–relative. If I lived in the apartment for one year completely by myself I would also inherit money, the amount unspecified but hinted at as substantial.

The apartment was located inside a labyrinthine building called Columbia Towers. The monstrous edifice contained seemingly endless staircases, as well as the smell of dead air fresheners throughout the snaking hallways. If there were other tenants, they were both silent and invisible.

The caretaker of Columbia Towers, Viktor, was a dead-ringer for Miles Davis and rarely spoke. When he did speak his Scottish accent was straight out of Trainspotting, so thick that I could only make out every third or fourth word he said. Fortunately, Viktor seemed able to anticipate my every need as a tenant, sometimes before I even knew what I needed myself.

As soon as I left work and started driving home, my headache went away and my heart stopped racing. Once I was in my new apartment I’d pick up the red phone and place my dinner order with Freda, our cook. Within half an hour I would receive my food, delivered by a tuxedo-clad chimpanzee named Lance, beside a scalding bubble bath.

I was feeling very much in the mood for a medium-rare steak with a lobster tail, plus a nice mess of collard greens and some baked macaroni and cheese.

I tossed my keys to the parking attendant outside the building and made my way through the door held open by Viktor. This was strange, I thought, then realized that he’d been waiting for me when he grabbed my wrist and drew an index finger to his lips.

“What is it?” I asked.

It is a pronoun,” said a voice in the shadows at the top of the stairs I faced.

I almost fainted: what was Citizen Jim doing here? And would this wreck my future?

I’d been given explicit instructions by the lawyer who contacted me about my inheritance, and one condition was that I could never tell a soul where I was moving or why.

And, so, I packed my belongings in a bindle tied to a stick and told Miss Crabtree I was leaving and didn’t know when I would be back. She was playing a game on her iPhone and might have looked up by the time I was out the door, but I’ll never know.

I’m not even sure she’s aware that I left, since she hasn’t contacted me.

“How did you find me?” I asked Citizen Jim.

“Ha! I’ve known where you were all along!” he shouted. “That’ll be it for now, Viktor.”

Viktor rolled his eyes and shook his head. He’d dealt with Citizen Jim before–I was sure of it by the way he groaned and cursed (I think) under his breath as he took his leave of us. Meanwhile, I trudged up the steps very slowly, as Citizen Jim had long ago established his love for shoving a foot toward my chest from the top of any flight of stairs I’d ever climbed in his presence.

“Hurry up! I don’t have all night,” he said.

“How did you know where I was?” I asked him again. I stopped and cowered as I got closer to the landing.

“I’m not gonna knock you down the stairs,” Citizen Jim said. “I worked too hard to get you in this place to send you to the hospital.”

I ran down the hall to avoid any physical contact with him. He might not push me down the stairs but there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t slap or trip or kick me. As soon as I reached my door I stopped and turned suddenly. “Did you just say what I think you just said?” I asked.

“Who knows?” He started walking down the hall in my direction. “You only hear what you want to hear, anyway. That’s how you got yourself into this mess.”

“I could have sworn I heard you say, ‘I worked too hard to get you in this place’,” I said, turning the key in my door lock.

Citizen Jim shoved me into my apartment then closed the door behind us in a hurry. “Now, Stimpy, don’t you be mad at me!”

“For what?” I asked. He actually wasn’t being half as violent or verbally abusive as usual. In fact, I was glad to have his–or anyone else’s–company. It had been very lonely for me at Columbia Towers. (Lance, the tuxedo-clad chimpanzee who always brought me dinner, was not much of a talker, either.)

“I just had to get you out of that other place,” he went on, pacing the wood floor of my living room with his hands behind his back. “I mean, for one thing, you got fat. And you stopped writing.”

I scowled at him. “I got fat because I was eating like a pig and sitting on my ass all day,” I said. “And I stopped writing because I’m a lazy underachiever.”

“You got that last part right,” he said. “But anyway, that girl you loved was fixing to kick you to the curb. So I had no choice but to intervene.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your girlfriend! Miss Crabtree! She was drawing up your walking papers, filling out your pink slip. I couldn’t let you go through that,” Citizen Jim told me. “Not again.”

“Oh, pshaw!” I said, shoving my hand toward him.

I thought, but did not say, that maybe this was why I hadn’t heard from Miss Crabtree since my departure. But that seemed beyond preposterous.

Or did it?

Citizen Jim shrugged. “You don’t have to believe me,” he said. “And you probably don’t. But you were about to be done so dirty that fifty showers in one year wouldn’t even get you clean.”

I sat down on the only sturdy piece of furniture I now owned–a footstool emblazoned with a Union Jack: a treasured gift from Miss Crabtree–and stared into space.

“You’re staring into space–that’s a good sign,” he said. “Means you’re not gonna throw that yellow book you hate at me and call me a fucking re-tard and tell me to leave or you’ll call the cops.”

“But. So–” I could barely form words. “And–yeah. But.”

I looked around as if I’d landed on a strange planet far from Earth without remembering stepping onto a spacecraft of any kind.

Citizen Jim sighed and plopped down beside me, patting my knee. “I know, I know. I couldn’t believe it, either, but all the signs were there for anyone to see. Anyone but you, apparently.”

“So that lawyer–”

“I think she even rented out your parking spot in the driveway before you–what? Lawyer?” he said, interrupting himself. “Oh! That! The lawyer? Not real.”

I squinted at a spot on the wall as soon as I remembered the attorney’s name: Spalding A. Byrd. Citizen Jim has owned for several decades a bird. Named Spalding.

“And the will?”

“A fake,” Jim said. “Downloaded that off the web.”

I stood up. “And my mysterious dead relative?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.

“It was the only thing I could think of that would make any sense,” he said.

I covered my watery eyes with my hands and sat back down on the footstool. I wished I had an extra pair of hands to cover my ears as Jim went on.

“Poor you! I guess you should also know there’s no money to inherit,” he said. “I was going to try and fake that by taking up a collection from the multitudes you used to check out at Delchamps grocery store, but it turns out all those people are now dead. My God but you’re old!”

I slowly shook my head, face still hidden. “I can’t fucking believe this,” I said, “All those lies! And–”

“Now, Stimpy, it’s true she was going to do you wrong, but I don’t think Miss Crabtree is a liar, except maybe by omission,” he said. “And I just couldn’t let you stay there and get the ever-living shit pounded out of your heart. You don’t deserve that from any woman–not from her and not from any of the other women who pounded the ever-living shit out of your heart after you did nothing but love and adore them.”

“Citizen Jim, I think you’d better go,” I said.

“I’m not leaving until you promise me you aren’t gonna throw a hissy fit on my way out the door,” he said, standing up. “That yellow book you hate leaves an awful bruise!”

I was trying to calm myself: in through my nose, out through my mouth. Five times. Ten times. Twenty times.

Citizen Jim started backing away. “She was gonna pulverize you! You’d only be good for making cheap dog food once she got through with you,” he said. “I’ve seen you heartbroken too many times before! You aren’t fit to be among civilized people after some girl’s thrown you out like last month’s garbage!”

I started scanning my bookshelves: Calvin Trillin…David Sedaris…John Waters–aha! There it was, sandwiched between The Fran Lebowitz Reader and Cruel Shoes. I pulled it free and turned around as Citizen Jim felt behind him for the doorknob.

“You know you can’t stay mad at me forever,” he said, opening the door and backing further out of my apartment, paying no attention to the fact that I was not holding that yellow book I hate.

I flared my nostrils: “I know,” I said.

Now standing in the hallway, his face barely visible through a half-inch crack in the door, he said, “You’ll thank me one day for this, you lovesick little fool!”

I knew he was right about that, too. And I knew that he knew I knew this.

But he kept on talking from the other side of the door, anyway. “You’re lucky you have me to help you face the awful, arm-tingling, gut-wrenching, floor-pacing, leg-jiggling truth,” he now yelled. “If you’d stayed with that woman for two more seconds, you’d only wish you had such a nice place to land once she’d kicked your ass from a good angle after a ten-yard running start.”

I knew the book in my hands so well that my thumbnail felt the deckled edge and slid under the exact page I wanted to read.

“I’d come back in and hug away all your pain and rage, but I know you’ll only throw that yellow book you hate right at me,” he said. “Haha! Too bad for you–I ain’t falling for it, Sister Kristy!”

My eyes slid down the page until they landed upon the verse I sought from Little Gidding: “Who then devised the torment: Love.”

My God, I thought, T.S. Eliot really did know everything!