Big Max wears a baseball cap. Occasionally she smokes a cigar. She has big yellow teeth and big yellow toenails and she laughs like a horse, “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” Big Max is the manager of the apartment complex and she rules absolutely. “Don’t call me the landlady,” says Big Max, “I’m the land-lord!”
It is your typical California apartment complex, two-story Spanish-style, twenty-eight apartments, built around a courtyard with a pool. Seven of the apartments are townhouses, the rest are one- and two-bedroom, choice of furnished or unfurnished.
“I got six tenants I never see,” says Big Max. “Four, I know about. One-oh-three, topless go-go dancer, works nights, sleeps days. Likewise one-oh-nine, night shift nurse, and two-thirteen, truck driver with funny hours. One-oh-eight, middle-aged with the permanent permanent, stays inside all day, door open, windows open, but inside because she doesn’t like the sun. So why the hell is she living in southern California? Goddamnit, where’s my flip flops?
“Now two-fifteen is weird. That woman just does not want to be seen. Moved in, perfectly normal looking, about fifty-five, a bit timid, but normal. Then she disappears. Never complains, never needs anything fixed, leaves the rent check in my mailbox once a month so I know she’s still there. But I haven’t seen that woman for two years.” Big Max locates the flip flops and flip flops to the refrigerator for a cold beer.
“But it’s two-ten I don’t trust. Tall, good-looking young fellow, black hair, fancy little goatee, purrs like a cat. Been here about three months. Pays his rent, that’s all right. Says on his rental application he’s a minister. Minister, my ass. Two-oh-six says she got a close look at him, claims he wears mascara. Some kind of cult, that’s my guess.” Big Max glowers. “He better not try any of that voodoo stuff around here or he’ll find out PDQ who’s the head honcho.”
Big Max has a son, Walter. Walter is twenty-two, studies botany, has a weak chin (Big Max has a jaw like a rock), and can’t grow a beard. Walter lives in his bedroom. Open the door, meet the jungle. Plants on the tables, windowsills, closet shelves, floor, plants dripping from the ceiling. Walter sits on his bed, eats potato chips, talks to his plants.
Big Max has a cat, Big Sam. Big Sam has one eye and one-and-a-half ears. None of the other tenants is allowed to keep a pet.
Two-oh-six is Miss Hobbs, spinster. Civil servant for forty-five years, now retired. Nosey. Miss Hobbs thinks of herself as Big Max’s lieutenant, spies on the other tenants, reports to Big Max. Big Max takes a dim view of Miss Hobbs. Caught her with a pair of binoculars, confiscated them, threatened to call the police and have her arrested as a Peeping Tom. That kept Miss Hobbs subdued all of one week. Now she’s back in action, creeping around the balcony at night, eavesdropping.
“Two-oh-one had a man in her apartment last night,” Miss Hobbs reports.
“The gay divorcee,” says Max.
“Well, really!” says Miss Hobbs. “That is hardly any way for a woman with a young son to behave. And I heard crying in two-oh-three late last night. Something’s not right there if you ask me.”
“Baby, six months old,” says Max.
Miss Hobbs looks superior. She has saved the best for last. “One-oh-three and two-ten, the topless hussy and that Beelzebub, were talking together in the laundry room, very cozy. So cozy that when they went out together and up to his room, she forgot one of her brassieres.” Miss Hobbs half-closes her eyes in disgust and says, with complete distaste, “Black lace, thirty-eight D. Naturally, when I realized she’d left it, I went directly to two-ten to return it.”
“Naturally,” grunts Max.
“And what do you think they were doing?”
“Stuff it, Hobbs.”
The rules of the apartment complex are: Rent due on the first of each month, interest to be charged on rent not paid by the fifth. No pets. One guaranteed parking space per apartment, spare spaces behind the building as available. No skateboarding in the courtyard. Laundry room closes at 9 p.m. No major alterations to apartment without manager’s consent. There are many more little dos and don’ts, but Big Max has them reduced to one simple motto: PAY THE RENT, KEEP THE PEACE.
Two-oh-three is the one sane couple in the whole complex. Big Max’s criteria for sane: married, city government employee (wears tie), Ford station wagon, wash the apartment windows, don’t get letters that don’t fit in the mailbox, no tattoos or beads. Two-oh-three has the six-month-old baby. Pretty young wife had a traffic accident just before they moved in. Poor girl broke her arm and nose, looked terrible for a while.
Big Max will tolerate a lot of deviation in personal behavior, as long as the tenants keep it in their own apartment. This being southern California, if Big Max kicks people out for being kinky, the complex will be empty.
“Welcome to granola-land,” Big Max tells a new tenant from out of state. “Fruits, nuts, and the rest are flakes. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.”
Things Big Max evicts for: damage to apartment, repeated disturbing of peace due to loud music, fights, etc., failure to pay rent. One man evicted for building an airplane in the living room, one couple for smuggling in a cat (Big Sam tracked her down, sat outside the door yowling, and the game was up). Then there was the nudist, one hundred eighty-five pounds of middle-aged female, oiled from tit to toe and stretched out by the pool for an all-over tan.
“Count of ten to get your clothes on,” says Big Max.
“This,” says the nudist, getting to her feet and flinging her arms wide, “is what God gave me!”
“Then I wouldn’t be singing hosanna if I were you. Ten!” Big Max executes a half-nelson, locks the nudist in the laundry room and calls the cops.
The only problem in the complex right now is two-oh-seven, Garcia the Dork. El Dorquo used to live in one-oh-one (two bedroom), moved to two-oh-seven (townhouse) because he got a promotion at work. With him go Mrs. Dork and the little Dork. But Garcia can’t get it through his head he’s moved. Parks his car in one-oh-one’s space, tries to open one-oh-one’s mailbox, walks into one-oh-one’s apartment when he comes home from work.
“Two-oh-seven, Garcia,” says Big Max, “two-oh-seven. Got it?”
“Two-oh-seven, two-oh-seven, yeah, yeah. Got it,” says Garcia. “Two-oh-seven, two-oh-seven…”
The new couple in one-oh-one, meanwhile, are handling Garcia in their own way. When he takes their parking space, they use his. When he tries to get in their mailbox, they put up a notice reminding him of the new number. But when he walks in their apartment unannounced, they leap up with a cry and chase him around the pool waving a kitchen knife while Garcia, eyes bulging in fright, runs like a madman and tries vainly to remember where he lives. When it seems to one-oh-one that Garcia has had enough, they stop and say, “Two-oh-seven, two-oh-seven, Garcia.”
“Two-oh-seven, two-oh-seven, yeah, yeah. Got it.”
Garcia is an accountant for a well-known bank. “And you wonder why the hell so many banks are failing!” snorts Max.
One-oh-one wouldn’t hurt Garcia with the knife. “Exercise nuts,” says Max. “Jog in the morning, jog at night. Twenty laps a day in the pool. Apartment full of weights, barbells, dumbbells, punching bag.” Chasing Garcia around the pool has become part of one-oh-one’s daily routine.
“Two-oh-three was crying again last night,” reports Miss Hobbs.
“Six-month-old baby,” says Max. “Kid’s got a right to cry. Tough world and it won’t get any better. I got a dork in two-oh-seven, a twenty-two-year-old son who wants to be reincarnated as a geranium, and persistent crabgrass in the courtyard. Goddamnit, who the hell put the barbecue in the pool?”
There have been scandals in the complex. There used to be an actor in two-sixteen. Two-oh-nine was the Rizzos. Signore Rizzo was the head pizza maker in the Italian restaurant. Signora Rizzo was a ripe little number bursting out the top of her dress.
“Two-sixteen goes to two-oh-nine every night.” Miss Hobbs shudders.
“Don’t you wish,” says Max.
“However,” continues Miss Hobbs with smug satisfaction, “they are becoming careless, and when the cuckolded gentleman learns—”
“Cuckolded,” says Miss Hobbs primly, offended at having to repeat an unsavory word. “Mark you, there will be trouble. Italians can be violent!”
One week later Big Max is watching the late movie when there are shots in the courtyard. Signore Rizzo has deliberately returned home early and has caught his wife and two-sixteen in the act. He is chasing the actor around the courtyard with a pistol while the Signora, in a see-through nightgown, leans over the balcony hurling curses in Italian.
“I have caught him! I have caught him!” Rizzo yells wildly. “I have caught him with my wife in her fragrant delectables!”
The actor got a bullet in the ass. The Signora got a divorce. Rizzo got one to five.
The second scandal involved Big Max herself. Earl, the used car salesman in one-oh-five, came out and took the chair opposite Big Max at the poolside table where she was drinking beer. Earl’s foot touched Big Max’s foot. She gave him a dirty look. Earl’s foot ran up Big Max’s leg. She gave him a black eye.
“Two-oh-three has a nasty lump on her forehead this morning,” announces Miss Hobbs.
“Slipped and fell in the shower,” says Max. “Go spy on someone else, Hobbs.”
“Well, then,” replies Miss Hobbs readily, “they’re getting younger and younger in one-oh-four.”
One-oh-four is the tennis guru, tall, skinny, blond, bronzed, bearded, “and no goddamn ass,” says Max. The guru preaches that tennis is a game of love and peace and inner harmony and that the mind and body must play as one. So inspired is the guru that, reluctant to cut off the lesson at the end of the hour, he invites the rapt pupil back to his apartment that the flow of wisdom may continue. Miss Hobbs, who has had one-oh-four under close surveillance ever since he moved in, claims that all of the guru’s pupils are fresh, pretty, high school girls.
Big Max is also suspicious of the tennis guru because he drives a brand new Mercedes 280 SL. “You like to tell me where he got that car?” She gestures around the complex. “This is Volkswagen city, not Mercedes mansion.”
Most of the tenants steer clear of Big Max. They do not socialize with one another except for casual conversation around the pool. Sometimes this depresses Big Max. When Big Max gets depressed she sits up late drinking beer and talking to Big Sam.
“Trouble with the world, we all live in our little cubicles, no communication, no contact, like living in an ice cube tray.” Big Max takes a swig of beer. “Whaddaya say to that, One Eye?”
“Yow,” cries Big Sam.
“Trouble with the world, that’s the way it’s got to be. Apartment complex, people living on top of people, how else you going to have any privacy? Sometimes I feel like the warden in a goddamn insane asylum, the tenants I get.”
“Yow,” agrees Big Sam.
“Lousy world, One Eye,” says Max. “Some people get the cream and some get the crap.”
To cheer herself up, Big Max writes notices: Anyone caught leaving litter in the courtyard will be evicted immediately. Anyone caught screwing up the washing machines with too much detergent will be evicted immediately. Anyone caught pissing on the palm trees will be evicted immediately. All Big Max’s notices start with “Anyone caught…” This does not mean that anyone is suspected (which is what the other tenants think and for a week afterward they regard one another dubiously). Big Max is just thinking ahead, covering the possibilities.
Big Max prides herself on being a good landlord. She can fix anything: plumbing, electrical wiring, televisions. Big Max also prides herself on having everything on hand, so that a tenant who comes to the door in need of something, be it screwdriver, light bulb or confectioner’s sugar, will be answered with a prompt, “Got it! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.” The tenant goes away grateful, never suspecting that he or she has just taken part in Big Max’s private game, Beat The Boss. So far Big Max’s score is 100. Her coup occurred not long ago. She was getting out of the shower when the doorbell rang.
“Walter!” yells Max. “Get the goddamn door!”
Walter, in his bedroom, about to pop another potato chip into his mouth, looks startled. He crams in the chip, swallows hurriedly, and goes to answer. Big Max hears the excited voice of one-oh-four, the tennis guru.
“…emergency…says she won’t do it without one…hurry!”
Walter stands there, mouth open dumbly.
“…please…,” one-oh-four pleads. “You must have one…”
Big Max puts on her bathrobe, baseball cap and flip flops, and strides into the living room. She takes one look at the tennis guru, who is biting his lip, wringing his hands, and squirming. Big Max looks at Walter.
“Well, you got one?”
Walter shakes his head, quick little shakes.
Big Max regards him disgustedly. She goes to her desk, rummages in a drawer, turns around with two boxes in her hand.
“What kind you want, lover boy? Regular or featherlite?”
Miss Hobbs comes to pay her rent. “It seems to me there was an unusual amount of crying in two-oh-three last night.”
“Baby,” says Max, “teething.”
“And she has a badly swollen lip this morning.”
“Walked into a door,” says Max, “accident prone.”
“He beats her,” says Miss Hobbs, with sudden conviction.
“Hobbs,” says Max, “listen carefully. I got here a nice, polite young man who wears a tie, drives a Ford station wagon, and works for the city government. I got a nice young wife who washes the windows, takes the baby for walks in a stroller, and just happens, as she told me herself, to be accident prone. I got one crying baby, which is the only kind there is. One sane couple in the whole goddamn complex and you, Hobbs, better leave them alone!”
Big Max has been manager here for eighteen years. Big Max will probably be manager here forever. Tenants come and go, Big Max remains. “This,” says Big Max, “is my turf!”
One night, about 10 p.m., Big Max hears sirens. The wail gets close, it stops right outside, there is a commotion in the courtyard. Max hurries out. Across the court, tenants are gathering on the balcony, and someone is pounding on an apartment door. As Big Max elbows her way to the front of the crowd, the door of the apartment opens and two-oh-three sullenly faces the officers. Behind him, the pretty young wife lies face down on the blood-soaked rug. From the bedroom comes the sound of the baby, crying, crying, crying.
“Murder!” moans Miss Hobbs. “Oh, murder!”
Much later, when the police and the ambulance are gone, when the tenants have disappeared back into their apartments, when all is quiet, Big Max sits on her sofa drinking beer. Two-oh-three’s baby is sleeping peacefully in a carry cot on the floor. The room is dark except for one dim light. Big Sam sits on the coffee table, slowly blinking his one eye.
“Goddamn lousy world!” says Max.
Big Sam cries softly, “Yow.”
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1989)
Ellipsis, Volume Three, 1989