“Damaged Goods” – Fiction by Ron Kolm

Clutter in Basement - Tomwsulcer, 2011
Clutter in Basement – Tomwsulcer, 2011

A city apartment dweller is beset by clutter and kooky neighbors in “Damaged Goods,” Ron Kolm‘s comically claustrophobic short story from our Winter 2016 issue.

{ X }

“SONOFABITCH! GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY CAB!” drifts through the open third floor window, waking me up. Damn, it’s probably my downstairs neighbor, Mitzi, returning home after another night out. She consumes amazing amounts of alcohol to blot out the pain she’s in. She suffers from osteoporosis; her muscles and ligaments atrophying as well. The only way she’s able to ambulate at all is by using numerous braces and splints: small ones on her arms, large ones on her legs, a corset-thing for her spine. Plus she’s got a complete set of dentures, which she pops in and out (to get the occasional laugh) and one glass eye. To complete the picture, she must weigh close to 300 pounds. Her brace-like contraptions are essentially tiny dams holding a tremendous lake in place. She’s usually still sober enough at closing time to make it into a cab where she immediately unstraps and unhooks them, probably heaving a huge sigh of relief as she does so. The moment they’re all undone her shapeless body flows like unchecked lava into every crevice of the back seat and she passes out. I totally sympathize with the frantic cabbie, whose angry voice I can still hear, and wonder how he explained this situation to his dispatcher.

“Pockita-pockita, Brooklyn Bridge, squatch-squatch, wrap-it-up!”

Great. Eduardo, who lives in the first floor front apartment, must be awake too. Eduardo is a small dark man from Panama. He has salt and pepper hair–mostly salt. Smoke and fire are his elements. He disconnected the old gas stove in his kitchen, removed the jets and burners, and filled the resulting cavity with charcoal which smolders day and night, creating a dense black cloud. We called the fire department more than once after he moved in, but they said there’s nothing they can do, so we’ve learned to live with it.

If his element is smoke, his expertise is cunnilingus. He has set, he assures me, an official record of two hours and forty minutes while doing it. His entire stock of broken English expressions revolves around that particular part of the female anatomy and his special relationship with it. “Windshield wiper,” he’ll say, elbowing me, or “Brooklyn Bridge.” Sometimes it’s “going to the basement” but most of the time he calls it “swimming.”

I know I’m not going to get any sleep unless I help the cabbie get Mitzi out of his car and into her apartment. I pull on my pants and slippers and head for the street. As I pass by his door, Eduardo throws it open, smoke billowing around him like a stage effect, shouting “I’m gonna break my nose! Wrap-it-up!” and leers in my general direction. His glasses are fogged–spirals of smoke rise from his sweater. He places his forefingers and thumbs together, so that they seem to form a crude vagina, and sticks his enormous meaty tongue through the result, wagging it up and down.

“Chewcha!” he cackles.

“Eduardo, you are a sexist pig,” I say, trying to wave him back into his apartment.

“Chung-doom-bloom,” he sniggers, retreating.

Somehow the cabbie, who’s a big guy, and I manage to drag Mitzi out of the car and into the building where we deposit her in front of her apartment door. The driver goes back out and brings in an armload of splints and her purse, which he drops next to her inert form. He then gratefully exits, having collected his fare in advance. Now there’s only the little problem of rousing Mitzi and making sure she gets safely inside her flat. Not a moot point as Eduardo materializes in the hallway in a puff of smoke like a sooty genie. He proceeds to dance around Mitzi’s supine body, pointing out the, by now all too obvious, fact that her legs are spread wide open and she seems to be lacking any undergarments, which drives him into an absolute frenzy.

“Toonyfish! Chewcha! I’m gonna go to de basement and break my record! Two-to-one!”

“Damn it!” I hiss, grabbing him by the shirt and shaking him to break the spell. “Please get back in your apartment, Eduardo—this isn’t helping things!”

I push him away from Mitzi and clumsily try to rearrange the voluminous folds of her skirt in such a way as to cover her exposed parts.

“Mitzi, please wake up. Mitzi, I need your help. Mitzi, where are your keys? Mitzi, this is a nightmare!”

But I’m not having any luck with this approach so, ignoring my qualms, I open her battered purse, dumping the contents on the floor: a grimy lipstick tube, a cracked compact, a couple of sticks of gum and numerous prescription vials–but no keys–must’ve left them at the bar.

I push Eduardo into his apartment and tell him I’ll call the cops if he so much as peeks in the hall.  I sprint outside the building to the basement grates in the front sidewalk. They’re never locked, so I pull one side open and descend into blackness. I have a plan, though I have to admit I’m kind of apprehensive about pulling it off, but I don’t seem to have any choice; Mitzi’s way too heavy to hoist up the two flights to my apartment and I don’t have the vaguest idea where I’d put her if I was able to. I sleep on a small sofa bed–no other furniture. My studio apartment is filled with books; some of them on shelves but most of them in boxes, or in piles on top of the boxes. I can’t help it; I work in a bookstore. I’m a hoarder, a collector. I simply have to get Mitzi into her own place, and that’s why I’m heading into the unknown, figuring that the basement has to extend the entire length of the building and that I should be able to climb out the other end into some sort of backyard, where I’ll try to break into one of Mitzi’s bedroom windows and then unlock her door. If everything works out.

The basement has an incredibly low overhead. I scuttle along in the darkness, practically bent in half, brushing aside wires and old clotheslines. I feel a string in front of me and pull it. A dim 40-watt bulb snaps on, illuminating a large, squat boiler, a slop sink, and a jumble of ancient tools lying on the crumbling cement floor. Everything is covered with dust and cobwebs. There’s an old baby crib in the way, which I push aside. Just past it, I stumble upon a worn flight of steps leading up to another set of grates. I shove one side open and emerge into an overgrown junk heap: mounds of rotting lumber, a broken washing machine, torn plastic garbage bags filled with decaying food, everything surrounded by tall weeds.

I roll the washing machine over to the back wall of the building and by standing on it I’m just able to reach one of Mitzi’s rear windows. I have the eerie feeling that one of the neighbors in an adjacent building is watching me and is even now calling the police. I’ll end up in jail and Mitzi will continue to lie in the hallway, unconscious, and Eduardo will eventually realize that he can have his way with her.

I break a bottom pane, reach inside and unlock the window. I’m able to raise it just enough to squeeze through. Tumbling down into darkness I crash into some sort of knick-knack table, scattering small breakable things everywhere. I finally locate a wall switch, turn it on and look around. Mitzi’s apartment is all large pieces of furniture covered with shiny plastic slipcovers.

I unlock the door and, using all my strength, I pull her humongous insensate body in. I try to prop her on an overstuffed sofa, but she keeps sliding down onto the floor. I wedge her in place by jamming a coffee table against her left side and the TV cabinet against the other.

I put a pot of water on to boil and rummage through her crowded cabinets looking for instant coffee. I’m almost beginning to relax. It’s only 4:30 in the morning. Maybe I’ll even get back to sleep before the night is over. In fact, Mitzi seems to be snapping out of her stupor. As I return from the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee she opens her one good eye and stares up at me.

“Where am I? Arnie, is that you? Where’s Eduardo? He’s usually here by now!”

And that does it for me. I say good-night, leaving her apartment door open and knock on Eduardo’s. When he opens it, I head for the stairway.

{ X }

Ron Kolm Photo by Arthur KayeRON KOLM is a contributing editor of Sensitive Skin magazine. He’s the author of The Plastic Factory, Divine Comedy and Suburban Ambush. Duke & Jill, a collection of short stories, has just been published by Unknown Press. He’s had work in Have A NYC 3, Live Mag! and the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Ron’s papers were purchased by the NYU library, where they’ve been cataloged in the Fales Collection as part of the Downtown Writers Group.

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