Inside the Walls of East Lombard Street
Anthony J. Rapino
The shiny cashier saw me. She looked right at me. The store's fluorescent lights reflected off her skin like tiny searchlights. Her green eyes, the security cameras. Her fingertips on the intercom, the guards. She stood stolid, a one-person swat team ready to repel down the sides of her personal guard tower.
Or maybe not. I don't know.
I angled the left side of my body away and dropped the small, yellow bag of M&Ms into my coat pocket. Her mouth twitched, but it did that sometimes. It was a game she and I played. I stole, she watched. At least I thought she watched. Could be she was lost in a sea of her own spiraling thoughts of utility payments and suicide. Or maybe she liked box. That could be, because sometimes her eyes flickered down to my tits.
Whatever. I was bored and the three frozen dinners I had stuffed into the right coat pocket started thawing. I felt the wet seeping through the inner lining and into my shirt. It smelled like fish sticks, which meant I smelled like fish sticks.
I about-faced like a good little soldier and marched out of there. The shiny cashier didn't say anything. She never did.
Regular coat pockets wouldn't hold three frozen dinners. I had tried. So I sewed huge brown patches of corduroy over the old pockets. It matched okay, unless you looked really close and saw the crooked gap-filled stitching, like an old man's toothless smile. Like my absentee father's smile.
Outside, the night blanketed the sidewalk of East Lombard Street in an inky charm. Charm, because you couldn't see the garbage and piss stains anymore. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the frozen dinners as I passed the cardboard villa, a narrow alley that ended on chain link, more hole than fence. I tossed the dinners into the alleyway, and Bean, one of the regulars, grumbled thanks. At least I think they were thanks. Someone cut Bean's tongue out somewhere along the line, so it was hard to tell.
In one way it was a good deed, but I must confess to getting off on picturing the bums trying to eat frozen dinners without a microwave. This last batch being mostly thawed took away some of the fun, if I'm being honest, which I'm usually not.
I dug out the M&Ms and my engagement ring toppled to the ground. I let it sit there a minute while I tore the bag open with my teeth and poured a few candies into my mouth. The diamond gathered up all the light the night offered, which was mostly streetlight, and shot it out in dozens of illuminant pinpoints. I picked it up and deposited back in my pocket. Anywhere was better than my finger.
I continued on in the general direction of my apartment, always open to detours if a suitable distraction presented itself. Greg would probably be at home pretending to work on his paintings. We both knew that was bullshit. He only got work done when I was around, and when I wasn't, he drank and waited for me. On the worst days he reminded me of those tiny dogs women carry around in their purses. Greg would have been as happy as a nympho in cock factory if I could carry him around in my giant jacket pocket all day. Stupid boy.
I poured a few more candies into my mouth and threw the rest on the ground. I removed the cell phone from my pocket and hit number one on my speed dial. The phone rang a few times until a woman picked up. "You've reached WROT 96.6 AM, The Roadblock Rod Show. Name?"
Speaking around chocolate, "It's Delilah. Put me on."
"Hey, D. It might be a sec. He's ranting about some shit or another."
"Tell him it's me."
The phone clicked onto hold then came back almost immediately. Roadblock Rod said, "Let's welcome Double D Delilah back for her nightly news roundup of the rotten streets of East Lombard. D, how are those magnificent fun bags hanging?"
"How would you know how big my tits are?"
"Delilah my dear, I can tell from the pitch of your voice."
"Well, sorry to disappoint, but transvestites got more cleavage than me."
"And that, my good listeners, is why Delilah is my favorite caller. You amateurs out there should be taking notes if you want to get on with Roadblock Rod. Now then, what's the news?"
I went for more M&Ms, remembering too late I'd ditched them. In the process I got a whiff of the wet spot left behind from the frozen dinners. "For one thing, I smell like fish sticks tonight."
"That's pushing the limits, D., even for me."
"Ha ha. No, I stole some frozen fish stick dinners and they thawed before I could unload them on the Alley Kings this side of Oz."
"Uh huh. Were you trying to lure them home with you?"
"Don't underestimate the intoxicating aroma of fine French cheeses."
"Oof, you are rank. Do make sure to grant us the pleasure of your perverse ponderings tomorrow night."
"Sure thing." I hung up and put the phone away with the odd bloom of warmth in my belly I felt only after calling in to the radio show, or after sex with a guy the first few times. I did not get the bloom of warmth after sex with Greg anymore. Just a mild nausea followed by sexual apathy, like I could go the rest of my life without another screw.
I kept on along the sidewalk until I found myself outside my apartment building. I grunted and mounted the stairs, figuring if anything I'd save money by drinking at home.
I opened the door and Greg vaulted off his stool, accosting me in the doorway. His sloppy hair and unshaven cheeks were perfect accounts of his day's activity. On the kitchen countertop, the boom box hissed out a blanketed version of The Roadblock Rod Show.
Greg's concern-laden brow enraged me. Why should this man-child, still in his pajamas and robe, be worried about me? In his weird relationship-voice, he said, "I missed you, baby. Where were you?"
He backed off and wrinkled his nose.
I pointed at him accusingly, knowing exactly what he was thinking. "That isn't me! I had fish sticks in my pocket."
He smiled crookedly and cocked an eyebrow. God almighty did I know that look. He said, "You coming on to me?"
"In what twisted world is that a come on?" I pushed past him and took the coat off, letting it fall to the floor. I heard him grunt as he bent to pick it up.
"I'll put this in the wash with my stuff later." He draped it over a chair.
I went to the freezer for vodka and jerked a thumb over my back at the boom box. "You listening all night."
He sighed. God, what a little girl. I turned to face him and unscrewed the top of the bottle.
He rock-kicked his way into the kitchen. "I don't like when he calls you Double D Delilah."
"Pfft." I grabbed my tits with one hand and squeezed, getting mostly padded bra. "Come on. Seriously?"
"That's not the point. I just wish you'd stop calling in. It's not like you get paid to do it. It's a waste of time."
Like your paintings danced at the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it back, poured a shot, and layered the vodka right on top of my incendiary words to keep them down. He frowned at my non-answer. That was one good thing about Greg, and maybe why we hadn't called it quits yet: he always knew when to let it go.
He held his hand out. Knowing him he probably wanted me to caress it like the loving girlfriend he imagined me to be. Instead I poured another shot and handed it to him. If he was disappointed, he hid it well and drank the vodka.
He breathed out the warmth. "So there's something stuck inside the wall." He went to his stool and tossed the shot glass to me. I caught it in one hand and placed it on the counter.
"The wall. There's something in it." He took up a paintbrush a swirled it around a jar of thinner.
I said, "That's impossible." Though of course it wasn't.
He swaddled his brush in a rag. "No it's not." He continued wiping the bristles dry and said, "You know the corner near the bathroom that looks like the builder blocked something off? Like maybe there was a linen closet there?"
He tossed the rag and brush on his work table with the paint thinner, pallet, and other painter stuff. "Yeah well, maybe they walled something in."
My mouth worked for a second without any sound. I was trying to tell him anything walled up in there would be dead by now. I was trying to explain without food or water, nothing could survive.
Before any of that could be vocalized, Greg cut in. "A rat could have crawled up through the walls and gotten stuck." He smiled.
That was another reason we worked so well in the beginning. We could read each others minds. Or so it seemed. Our similarities and likes in some areas were so well paired that we both wanted the same things.
That never lasts though. The differences seep out like heated wax that hardens on the surface, obstructing what you once had. It happened every goddamn time.
I poured another shot because by then I needed it. "A rat?"
He shrugged. "Maybe roaches, but it'd have to be a lot of them."
I drank the vodka. "Why?"
He smiled again, this time it looked sinister. "Come have a listen."
I hesitated only a second then followed him down the hallway to where it ended on a door to our bedroom straight ahead, and the door to the bathroom on our right. The bathroom door was inset behind the protruding corner.
Greg put his arm around my back and got close to my ear. "Wait for it," he whispered.
We pushed closer to the wall. The refrigerator clicked on in the kitchen, a soft electric hum. The radio still put out the static covered voice of Rod, saying When all else fails, kiddies, get drunk. Good advice.
Greg's fingers tightened around my midriff and I ground my teeth. Somewhere down the hall one of our neighbors was screaming, but in our little corner of walled-in closet, nothing.
Greg leaned back. He looked disappointed.
I jumped backward and almost let out a yelp.
Greg pointed at the wall and said, "Ha! There!"
The room flickered as if the lights had started to go, but it had nothing to do with the electricity. I backpedaled.
I pointed at the wall. "That was the noise? That was loud! Cockroaches my ass!"
He followed me out of the hallway and back to the living room-kitchen area. "I said it could be a rat."
I shook my head. "It's no rat. Did you hear that?"
"Okay." He laughed, as if coming up with something for the first time. "Maybe it's a black cat." He laughed again and said, "Get it? Like the Poe story?"
I shook my head and felt more nauseous than ever. Those shots were a bad idea. I pushed him out of the way and grabbed my fishy coat, only I'd taken it from the bottom and when I tugged it from the chair the engagement ring fell from the pocket and landed in front of Greg's feet.
With perfect timing-even on the other side of a radio-Rod said, Uh oh, Kiddies. This spells trouble. Rod of course was introducing the song, Trouble, by Pluto.
Greg picked the ring up and brought it close to his face, as if it would transform into something he could understand if he only looked closer. He glanced from the ring to me, and back again. "What the fuck is this?"
I still clenched the coat in my hands, and I thought to run. But this was my apartment long before it was Greg's, and I'd have to come back sooner or later, and he'd be there. So I confronted it. "An engagement ring."
He turned around in a circle, obviously at a loss. "Who proposed to you?"
I let the coat fall from my hands. Down the hall I heard the loud Thwack! again. "No one."
"Then why do you have an engagement ring in your pocket? And don't tell me it was because you planned to propose to me."
I bit the inside of my cheek and thought hard before running my mouth. This had to be handled carefully. "I stole it."
"Yeah." I held my breath.
He looked at the ring again. "Why?"
"You know I have a problem."
"No, I mean, why an engagement ring?" A smile teased at the edges of his mouth.
Oh, dear Jesus. He thought I was dropping a hint. I had to answer carefully: "Because it's worth a lot of money."
There, how could he argue with money? He twirled the ring in his fingers. I wished I could hear his thoughts because I was feeling boxed in. I had to divert his attention to something else, anything else.
Thwack! Greg turned to the hallway. "Christ, are you hearing this?"
Well, anything but that. "No?"
"Damn." He pocketed the ring and marched to the bedroom.
"What are you doing?"
Greg reemerged from the bedroom with a hammer. My breath caught. He glanced at me from the hallway and smiled.
"Wait!" I ran to him my hands spread. "You can't just bust the wall open."
"That noise is driving me crazy."
"What if it's the pipes? What good is destroying the apartment?"
He swung the hammer. The head crashed into the sheetrock. He pulled at it, taking a small chunk of wall with him. He frowned. "Wish we had a sledgehammer."
I grabbed his arm. "Greg. Stop."
He shrugged me off. "I'll put up a new wall. It's not a big deal." He swung again. Fragments fell from the wall. He removed the hammer and put his fingers into the small hole. Gripping the side, he pulled another chunk of sheetrock off. A rank smell wafted out.
Greg put his hand over his nose. "Ugh. I bet there's a goddamn rat's nest in there." He pressed his face closer to the hole. "Dark in there. Hey, D., go get a flashlight?"
"Yeah." He turned. "In the bedroom."
I nodded. I should have never gone home. The deep dark of night called me again, and thoughts of alcohol and shoplifting danced around the soft tissue of my brain. I didn't want to deal with noises in the wall and destruction of property. I just wanted simple, easy intoxication. These stupid boys.
I went to the bedroom to retrieve the hefty, twelve inch Maglite, and why not? He'd already busted the wall open.
The Maglite in hand, I wandered back into the hallway. Greg had torn a long, wide hole into the wall that extended nearly to the floor. He said, "One sec, D.," and pulled off the last chuck of sheetrock near the floor. In an explosion of drywall and dust, he lost his balance and fell back. Something long and thin shot out of the wall and whacked him square in the face. He rubbed his head and picked up the thing that hit him: a broomstick.
Then the rats came. They poured from the newly opened hole as if fleeing a flood. Greg screamed and scrambled back as a few of the rats climbed over him to get to freedom. I stood frozen in amazement. Rats. I couldn't believe it.
Greg said, "D., get the door. Try to shoo them out."
I ran, flashlight in hand, to the front door and swung it open. Most of the rats, maybe a dozen or more in all, saw the escape path and took it. Others had fled to dark corners of other rooms. A couple took cover under the couch, another somewhere in the kitchen. I closed the door.
Greg got to his feet and patted himself all over, turning in circles. "Gross. Fucking gross. They were on me!" He shivered and ran into the living room, eyes on every corner. "Are there still some in here?"
"Damn it. Why didn't you stop me?"
I shrugged, passed the flashlight to my other hand. "Tried." I looked down the hallway at the broomstick, still amazed the rats had been knocking it around back there, making that racket. "Fucking rats."
"Yeah, well." He kept patting himself to make sure sneaky rodents weren't hiding somewhere on his person, but he paused when he touched his pocket. He froze for a moment then dug the ring out and looked at it again.
He explored my expression, apparently not very observant. Then, probably with the worst timing of any human in existence, the dumb bastard got on one knee and held the ring out. Seriously, who proposes with a ring you didn't buy right after unearthing a horde of rats? Who? The stupid boys I chose to date, that's who.
In his best relationship voice, he said, "Delilah. I love you. Will you marry me?"
He really did love me. I'd known that for a long time. And god help me, I loved him too. It was probably why I'd tried so hard to hate him.
I did the only right thing.
I said, "I love you, baby," and swung the Maglite across his temple. He fell on his side and started twitching, so I whacked him a couple more times in the same spot, until he quieted.
I smoothed his blood-matted hair. You see, I knew the secret about love. You had to kill it before it had a chance to hurt you. And it would. Love always leaves you when you need it most. It's like a law of nature or something.
I grabbed his leg and pulled him into the hallway, leaving a small trail of blood behind. With the hammer, I knocked out some more of the sheetrock to make room. Before shoving Greg in, however, I shined the flashlight into the abyss, just to be sure.
As I expected, Jimmy was still there, all curled up in the far corner, mostly bone and cloth now. I waved the flashlight at him and laughed. "Can you believe I actually thought it was you knocking on the wall?" Greg had gotten me all worked up with thoughts of Poe stories. I thought the guilt had built up and meant to undo me. Silly bullshit. The only thing I regretted was losing all that lovely closet space.
I took the ring from Greg's hand and stared at it. I probably should have buried it with Jimmy after he proposed. Saved myself some trouble. I tossed the ring through the hole then grabbed Greg around the waist and wrestled him into the wall too. It was getting to be a real party in there.
I took my coat and left the apartment. I'd eventually need to pick up some sheetrock and plaster, but for the night I thought plastic sheeting and cleaning supplies would do.
Out on the dark street I luxuriated in the night sounds: far-off sirens echoing between building walls, footfalls on the pavement. Beauty in every slimy puddle and sidewalk crack. I took out my cell and hit the speed dial, going through the same old steps to get to Rod.
"Double D. Delilah, calling twice in one night. To what do we owe the pleasure?"
I kicked a rock and strolled along the sidewalk, smiling to myself. "I had a rough night is all."
"Tell us about it."
"Oh, you know. Took care of a little business."
I would have liked to, really I would have. I could have gone on for years and years, but with things the way they were, I thought it was time. "Say, Rod. Do you have any kids?"
There was an uncharacteristic silence. Rod coughed and said, "What's with the personal questions?"
"Is that a yes, Rod? Because I was just thinking, wouldn't it be weird if your kid tracked you down and started calling in to the show, messing with you?"
The phone clicked. Dead connection. I smiled and tried to imagine what Rod would tell his radio audience, explaining away the crazy chick who called his show almost every night.
I entered my favorite store, the fluorescents doing something weird to the colors, making everything tinged yellow, like an infection. The shiny cashier still stood at her post, and without much thought I walked down the checkout lane directly across from her, took a handful of candy bars from the display and put them in my pocket.
Her expression didn't change, and I winked. I knew she was into me. I continued farther into the store, putting this and that in my pockets without trying to conceal my actions, letting long minutes pass.
All thoughts of Greg and Jimmy had fled my mind, like the rats in the wall. It didn't interest me at that moment. Instead, I needed a drink. Something to warm the belly. And some pills too. Or maybe not.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to find two cops staring at me. The taller one said, "Empty your pockets, please." Not a question.
I looked down the aisle at the shiny cashier who stood there, arms folded across her chest. I guess she didn't like box after all.
I punched the tall cop and tried to run, but they had me before I could get so much as a step away.
They yelled and pinned me to the floor. The one I punched kept cursing. It made me smile.
They clicked the cuffs on and lifted me up like a ragdoll. I wondered, as they took me away, if they'd go to my apartment, and if so, would they follow the trail of blood? I wondered if perhaps the smell would creep into the hallway and invite curious neighbors to investigate. I wondered if Rod would come bail me out if I called and told him who I was.
I shook my head. No. Now I was the one being stupid. I'd already figured out everything I needed to know about love. I had my head on straight.
It was everyone else who couldn't see the truth.