WINTER 2016-2017 / VOL. 16 ISSUE 1
The rent at the Kilbourn Arms was low, the apartments, of the type known as efficiencies, were furnished, and although some of the tenants had lived in the building forty years or more in that Middle Western town on the shores of a Great Lake in what had been, once upon a time, a neighborhood of respectability and class, others came and went according to the tide of their economic fortunes. It was the preoccupation of Alta Meach, of the firm Sligo and Meach, developers of commercial and residential property, to maintain these precarious balances and not let the eccentricities of one type or the bad habits of another attain an ascendancy that would render the Kilbourn Arms unrentable.
It was not, of course, the goal of the firm merely to manage a building of thirty-six efficiency apartments. It was their goal rather to convert the Arms into eight or ten luxury condominium units, but while the architects drew the plans and Kate Sligo priced out the conversion and they waited for the leases to expire and the market to ripen, a process that might take a year or two, it was Alta’s job to see that the building paid its bills, kept current on its taxes, and suffered no material decline.
Built at the beginning of the last century, the Arms had been remodeled once, and its lobby had a large glass entry door. But the apartments still had free-standing, lion-footed bath tubs, and ceiling fixtures of molded plaster that held seven incandescent bulbs. Frequently Alta visited the building to inspect some job of maintenance or repair, and took it upon herself to walk through its hallways, saying hello to everyone she met. In this manner she glimpsed small portions of her tenants’ lives, like the old team picture in the room of one ancient pensioner who came to the door in answer to her knock, bleeding profusely at the throat.
Alta had come to inquire about the repair to the man’s bathroom ceiling, but it occurred to her she had blundered into a murder or suicide. Some moments passed before she realized the old fellow was engaged in the morning ritual of shaving.
"But are you all right?" she stammered. She knew he was deaf — she had not known he was also blind.
"What’s that?" he cried.
"I thought — I just wondered," Alta stammered.
"Of course I’m all right, except for people knocking on my door!"
Behind her in the hall appeared a muscular young man in sunglasses, with a radio perched on his shoulder blaring into his ear.
"It’s ones like that that make a man not all right!" the old man cried.
Such encounters made her apprehensive and at the same time resolute in her visits, as if she by her mere presence represented the norm that must hold these disparate elements in check and make their living together possible. But the encounters were wringing in their pathos. Perhaps the old man saw perfectly well and had been trying to cut his throat after all. It was on one such visit that Alta met the tenant Gabriel Dudah.
She’d come to the building at the behest of an elderly woman who had asked her to collect her rent, had passed an hour in her apartment while the elderly one pawed through her purse looking for her checkbook and then through a packet of papers which she kept in an overcoat pocket tied up in a rubber band. When she appeared unable to find what she sought, she handed Alta the packet and told her to look for herself, and Alta realized that it was a stack an inch and a half thick of interest checks, dividend checks, uncashed life-insurance checks, one of which, were she to find the right one, she would sign over to Alta as payment of rent.
The trouble was she couldn’t find one small enough, and when Alta suggested that she pay two months rent in this manner and receive a receipt crediting her account accordingly, the woman looked at Alta, a tiny frail dignified old lady in a faded print dress held together with safety pins, and said:
"Haven’t you change?"
She was speaking of hundreds of dollars, and Alta’s assurance that she carried no such sum on her person brought forth from the woman a look of haughty condescension. Glancing towards the door which was propped open with an empty cereal box and from which direction came the sound of footsteps, Alta suggested that she take the precaution of keeping the door locked. But the old woman chose not to reply and instead took the packet of checks, drew one out at random, and endorsed it with her name. Alta wrote out the receipt, which the woman scrutinized, until her face broke into a droll smile.
"You haven’t had much eduction, I see, young woman," she said at last.
Alta hadn’t considered herself young in the last thirty minutes or more, but about her education she had always been reasonably satisfied. She looked to the receipt which was held out to her as evidence, and found it a fair representation of herself.
"The way you form your t’s," the old woman said. "It’s easy to see your schooling wasn’t the best. In my day I won the prize for handwriting, but they let them all through now-a-days. Mind you take care of your t’s, young woman."
In the hall, flustered, Alta pulled the door closed — and found before her a short middle-aged man in sunglasses and tie laughing at her.
This man promptly introduced himself as Gabriel Dudah, the tenant in Apartment 31. He was African, and he spoke English with a British accent, and several minutes passed, together with several repetitions of his name, before Alta had any notion of what he was talking about. All of this Mr. Dudah appeared to accept with patience and good humor, as if he were talking to a not-very-bright child whose fumbling attempts at rational discourse were a source of paternal delight.
He wanted to ask Alta about a new dead-bolt lock for his door, and if Alta would only come she would see that the present dead-bolt lock was not working. Mr. Dudah spoke slowly and calmly, because he could see that Alta was in trouble, and when they went together down the hall she was not surprised to find that there was no dead-bolt lock on his door at all.
"This is what I say to you," said Mr. Dudah, in his clipped British manner, opening the door and entering his room, which was full of boxes to the level of his eyes. "Lock not to work. You be so good — give me new dead-bolt lock."
Alta asked for the key, tried the passage lock and rattled the door, with Mr. Dudah inside, to show him that the lock held. When she opened the door again she encountered Mr. Dudah’s smiling face.
"It is just as tell you," he said happily. "Lock not to work. No good gitto black come down the hall, lock not to work, good-bye to all my valuable t’ings! Now you will buy me new lock! Now I am so glad!"
He clasped his hands together in a gesture of prayerful thanks and laughed a high-pitched childish laugh, even as the look on his face belied this hilarity. Alta shook her head and informed Mr. Dudah that it was not the building’s policy to provide dead-bolt locks for its apartments, that if she were to do so for one tenant she would have to answer to thirty-five other such requests. As this was final, she excused herself, when Mr. Dudah, stepping aside, made an attempt to usher her into the room.
"You are a busy woman," he said. "Please to come inside. Tea you would like?"
Reluctantly Alta peered into the apartment. There was barely space to turn around amidst the piles of boxes, and she no sooner stepped inside the door than she had no place to go. She found herself above a chair, which Mr. Dudah promptly offered her, and rather than stand without being able to turn around, she sat. Mr. Dudah disappeared behind a stack of boxes into the kitchen, and her insistence that she wanted no tea brought forth from that place peals of laughter and delight.
What he wanted her to understand was that it was a small thing that he requested, to safeguard his precious books, many of which were of great value to his country, he explained when he came back around the corner with the cups, from each of which dangled a delicate string. He had come to this country to complete his studies in psychology, and then he would return to his country to form a clinic, open a hospital, assume a position where he would help those less fortunate than himself.
He was just now studying hospital administration, drug treatment therapy, prison reform, and the structure of medical research at the post-doctoral level, and when his studies were complete he would live here no longer. Meanwhile he gathered things that would assist him when he returned to his country, and here he gestured to the boxes, some of which contained books, others something else he would not bother to show Alta now, he said, but inside these boxes were electric razors, tennis shoes, wrist watches, records and tapes and discs, all things unavailable in his country, which he intended to bestow upon his friends and relatives as tokens of his munificence and affection at the time of his return.
Alta began to feel that he was feeding her a line. She had been prepared to do nothing for him. Then she had been inclined to give him the dead-bolt lock on the sound real-estate management theory that it was wise to buy the good will of a reasonable tenant if it didn’t cost too much money. But this Dudah behaved in such an extravagant manner that Alta decided she did not want his good will. A restless impatience seized her. The tea was too hot, and her sense that she was being trifled with prompted her to stand up and go.
"Perhaps you would like to see my country," he said, a painful look coming over his face as he perceived the imminence of Alta’s departure. "So many think of this savage place, but as you see, it is not so."
And he produced a packet of linked picture postcards, of large white buildings, spreads of civic concrete admirably set about with plantings of green trees, which made the places indistinguishable from any other civic plaza built in the world in the last fifty years.
"This is not some savage place of bush people," he said gravely. "I am a man of much education." He gestured towards the boxes. "In my country I am already the owner of many fine apartment buildings like this one here of which you are only the manager. You must not treat me like some gitto black...."
Alta ignored the insult, ordered the dead-bolt lock, and forgot the fellow’s existence. But a week later when the secretary Denise answered the phone and got a desperate panicky look on her face trying to make out what the person on the other end of the line was saying, Alta knew as in a premonition that the caller was Gabriel Dudah. It occurred to her even that he wished to thank her for a speedy job well done, but Mr. Dudah had something else in mind.
He wanted Alta to come over to his apartment at just that minute. It was a matter of the utmost urgency, something to do with his carpet — in the hysterical tirade she could not understand what, but she imagined the thing on fire, flooded with water, crawling with vermin. She did not see what in a carpet could constitute such an emergency, but as she was accustomed in her work to burst standpipes and exploded furnaces, to say nothing of the inarticulate frenzy of high-strung tenants, she did her best to appear in the next half hour at Mr. Dudah’s door.
The expression of delight on Gabriel Dudah’s face, the burst of happy laughter that amounted to a giggle, indicated how glad he was that Alta should have troubled herself to have come. The room appeared just as it had, the boxes stacked if anything more thickly, and Alta looked around to see where trouble began.
"Carpet very dirty," Mr. Dudah said. "No good carpet most unclean. Does not look good for my apartment."
Alta felt the top of her skull rise. Had he called her under the pretext of an emergency to say that his carpet was unclean?
"Yes, but it is very bad, you know," he said, making to bend down and touch the carpet with his finger, one corner of which was visible where the door swung into the room. "All of my friends comment adversely. They are educated men who come to visit, and how can I entertain them when my carpet is so unclean?"
He appealed to Alta as a civilized man. The condition of his carpet offended his dignity. Alta passed over the pretense by which he had drawn her away from her desk, dismissing it from her mind as a misunderstanding. She did not wish it discuss, either, how may square feet of the carpet were visible to Mr. Dudah’s friends, because, as in a stroke of genius, she saw her way round the whole problem. And so she informed the man that she would have the carpet cleaned just as soon as he removed the boxes. And with this promise she departed down the hall.
Behind her from the doorway to his apartment Gabriel Dudah continued to talk in the direction of her retreat. Alta turned once to say good-bye, waving cheerily to cover her escape, and his reiterative murmur did not cease. She heard the words, "Not clean — replace. You must not treat me like some gitto black."
The building was silent apart from his voice, and when she reached the street, it occurred to her that Gabriel Dudah was lonely, that despite his friends he was homesick in this foreign place, and that, by walking away, she had not displayed the civility of which he spoke.
Still, she could not bring herself to go back. At the office she asked her partner and learned that the architectural plans for the conversion were going well. It seemed that the amount of plumbing in a building of efficiency apartments made the transition to high-priced units more economical. Then, too, the building’s turn-of-the-century facade alone might add thirty of forty thousand to the unit price.
Alta received this information with a sense of relief. From her point of view, the conversion could not come about too quickly.
Still, she shied away from the building, not wishing to be waylaid in its hallways with unreasonable requests. She didn’t know what made the requests so difficult to deny. It wasn’t that she had a hard time making herself understood and was rather that, even when she did, her perfectly judicious arguments had no bite in the face of Gabriel Dudah’s injunction that she not treat him "like some gitto black."
The building had a resident manager whose name was Joe Donkel, and when she asked Joe about Mr. Dudah, he reported that the tenant in Apartment 31 entertained no guests, had intercourse with no one in or out of the building. Donkel was thirty-five years old, and he worked nights at the brewery. He had a wife and son in California, and having suffered divorce after fifteen years of marriage, he took life very seriously.
If there was something more to say on the subject of Apartment 31, Donkel was not inclined to say it, and so Alta told him of the request for carpeting.
"We had one of them working nights in the bottle house," Donkel said, expressing no surprise. "Spoke English after the Brits, better than you and me. Like Latin he was speaking — couldn’t understand a word. He was always worrying after his rights."
"‘One of them?’" Alta said.
"You know — Africans," Donkel said. "His people got on the wrong side after the Brits left, and they were killing each other off likes rats in a barrel. We heard about it on the TV. Had no place in the world to go."
"What happened to him?" Alta said, with alarm.
"Brewery fired him. Wouldn’t listen to reason, held himself too damned good, always on about his rights. What for did he want to work in the bottle house, when his people back home owned oil wells! Wasn’t fit for no brewery job. Couldn’t face facts."
It was axiomatic in Joe Donkel’s view that if you live in this world you see things as they are. Facing facts, he called it, and he had come to this belief about the time his wife sued for divorce on the grounds that she couldn’t any longer stand the sight of his face. Facing facts was a general principle upon which he had rebuilt his life, and he clung to like a drowning man to a floating spar.
Alta reminded him that she’d had it from Dudah’s mouth that such enforced alienation from the land of his birth was not the case with him. Hadn’t Mr. Dudah spoken of his return to his native land and of his studies to that end? Hadn’t he spoken of the gifts that would play such a happy part in his homecoming?
"What was the name of the country your friend came from?" she said.
"Wasn’t no friend of mine," Donkel said, after naming the place.
It was the same place whose capital was on that fall of linked postcards. Was it possibly the site of tribal war? The next time she saw Mr. Dudah she asked.
"Oh, no, no," he said. "In the place where I am born there is much peace and harmony. If one man do bad thing, others cry for justice, yes. Then we go to court, have law decide, just as in civil society. After all, a man has certain rights, no? He is not an animal unfit to live, yes? Otherwise be too savage — you ‘gree for me?"
"Do I grieve for you?" Alta said.
"No, no, no — not to understand English, I fear. Do you ‘gree for me?"
"Oh, yes — too savage," Alta said. "I agree."
Still, there was a mystery in these things. It came to her at odd moments of the night, the vision of Mr. Dudah in the doorway beckoning to her to come and see....
In spite of her desire to urge the conversion process forward and free herself from the Kilbourn Arms, Alta resolved to do more for the building, to paint the halls and wash the windows. In the months of her stewardship things had slipped, not from miserliness on her part so much as from familiarity. She had not seen things as they were, and apart from Mr. Dudah her tenants had never troubled to complain. It amazed her on the whole how undemanding they were, how often they prefaced even the most humble request with apologies and regrets.
Of course there were those who skipped out owing rent, but only because they couldn’t pay. Alta recollected Dudah’s phrase, that she must not treat him "like some gitto black." That phrase had dealt a little lash to Alta’s conscience. Her tenants were a decent lot, and in the course of ending their tenancy she must do her best by them.
On one such occasion of doing her best she encountered again in the hallway of the Kilbourn Arms Gabriel Dudah, who informed her that he had removed the boxes from his carpet in order that it be replaced. Surprised and curious, Alta followed him to his door in order to see.
There was some difficulty this time forcing the door open, but when Alta looked, the stacks of boxes were indeed pushed back against the walls around a cleared space in the middle of the room about three feet square. On the far side stood the couch which could not be opened into a bed for the simple reason that there wasn’t room. Dudah pointed to the carpet.
"Is most unclean," he said, giggling. "My friends comment adversely. It embarrasses me too much, you see."
There was indeed a spot in the square of blue carpeting, what looked like a tea stain. But she refrained from mentioning this and said instead what she had said before, that it was impossible to clean the carpet so long as the room was full of boxes. She described the preoccupation of carpet cleaners with a space in which to work.
"Please," said Mr. Dudah, with a burst of low laughter. "I ‘gree for you too much, but you not to understand my English. Not clean — replace. This carpet very dirty — too, too bad. It gives me much embarrassment. You must not treat me like some gitto black."
What had begun in hilarity ended with a look of painful appeal, from which Alta averted her eyes in order to examine the walls and windows and ceiling. The walls were discolored with age, the windows chipped and unpainted. She found Mr. Dudah looking at her.
"Friends come often?" she said.
"From all over the world they come to me," he said, brightening. "Everywhere they go to help our poor country. Little piece of knowledge here, little piece of science. Nothing is too small but we must find and bring back. Then we will build this civil place where people live. You ‘gree for me?"
"Oh, yes. I agree," Alta said, and she was not sure why, but the words profoundly depressed her.
"You call carpet man, tell him to put down nice bright carpet. Maybe orange carpet I like," he said. "Maybe yellow."
The man seemed not to understand the impossibility of it. Quite apart from Alta’s reluctance to buy new carpeting for an apartment she had every intention of demolishing, there wasn’t a carpet layer in town who could lay carpet in a room full of boxes. He could more easily carpet the ceiling, and as Alta explained these things, she knew by the other’s hilarity that she was not getting through.
"Please, you tell him," Mr. Dudah repeated, and despite his laughter the look in his eyes was painful to witness. "When my friends come to me I am so ‘shamed. Please, you call."
That afternoon Alta called Joe Donkel and demanded to know how he could have rented an apartment in such condition, and Donkel said he never would have done so except for Mr. Dudah’s insistence that everything was just as he wanted it.
"He wanted an apartment at that day and hour," Joe Donkel said. "I told him I had nothing ready and if he would come back in a week.... He asked to see the one I would have at that time, and when I showed him, he filled out the papers, waited while I called the references, and paid on the spot."
It was true, too, that Alta had encouraged him to rent apartments on a month-to-month basis, if only to keep up the building’s stream of income. No mention had been made of the intended conversion, and yet one by one the residents of the Kilbourn Arms had commenced to depart, until in the office, as Alta gazed at the up-coming rent roll, there were very few left.
From her files she pulled out Gabriel Dudah’s application. He had listed as his employer a group called the Organization for East African Development Corporation, but the telephone number when she called had been changed to "unpublished." The first reference was a Mrs. Symuel Hartford-Jones, who ran the thrift shop at a nearby church, a place where parishioners brought unwanted clothing and household appliances that were then sold to other less fortunate parishioners at a nominal price, and Mrs. Hartford-Jones knew Mr. Dudah well.
"He comes in every week," she said, "to buy things for his people. Things they could never get in their country. He’ll be Minister of Education for the new government, you know."
How did Mrs. Hartford-Jones know such a thing? Alta inquired.
"He told me so himself," she said, "and then I read it in the church bulletin in an article on the thrift shop."
How had such information come to be printed in the bulletin? was Alta’s next question.
"Oh, I told them so," Mrs. Hartford-Jones replied, with complacency. "They wanted to know the kind of people who shop here, and he of course is the most wonderful. Such things he does for his people! Such a nice colored man!"
The other reference was the proprietress of a local bookstore, who assured Alta that Gabriel Dudah was a regular customer who stopped in whenever he wasn’t "on tour."
Didn’t Alta know? He played French horn with the Symphony, "the first one from his country to do so." But only for a year, the proprietress added, after which he would return to his native land to become Minister of Culture and director of the national orchestra.
When Alta dialed finally the number Dudah had given as his own, she found that it too had become "unpublished." Then she discovered that the number Dudah had given as his own and the one he had given for the East African Development Corporation were one and the same.
Alta called Joe Donkel, intending to deliver a lecture on certain kinds of references and the danger of renting apartments on short notice. Donkel didn’t answer, and as the telephone rang she lost heart. Outside her window the sky darkened. It began to rain. She watched rain darken the waters of the lake, and the trees along the shore tossed and shivered in the gusts of wind.
It was the first summer storm, a terrific downpour that sluiced off the roof above her head and hammered on the deck below. The downspout coughed and spat and choked like a drowning man, and Alta sat alone in her office with her chin in her hand staring out the window, which had become opaque like ice. Denise appeared in the doorway and switched on the lights.
There was a call on line one, she said, and when Alta picked up the receiver it seemed that she had interrupted a call for someone else, for there was a voice on the line raised in high-pitched, hysterical, incomprehensible diatribe.
"Hello," Alta said, in confusion. "Hello — Mr. Dudah?"
It was indeed Gabriel Dudah on the line, desperate with injury, crazed with grievance, and some time passed during which Alta could get in no more then syllables and half syllables, before she understood that the problem was water. Mr. Dudah’s apartment had sprung a leak. She waited for the clamor of pleading and accusations to cease.
"Have you closed the windows?" she said then, with sinister intent.
There was a moment’s silence, and the voice started again in abject appeal.
"You think I do not close my windows?" said Mr. Dudah, with pained incredulity.
"Oh, Mrs. Meach, I am not a low ignorant savage man. If only you would come and see. You must not treat me like some gitto black."
Alta knew she was wrong, even as she could not bring herself to listen. It was the first reasonable request he had made of her, and her inclination was to deny it, and she could not account for the savageness of this impulse. Never the less, to get Mr. Dudah off the line she shouted into the receiver that she must immediately hang up in order to call the roofer.
She pushed down the buttons, and when she released them, there was Dudah clamoring. The other line rang, and it was a breathless Joe Donkel saying that he had just come from Apartment 31 where the whole window casement poured water. A roof drain emptied into a pipe in the wall beside the window of 31, and a break in the pipe diverted the water into Mr. Dudah’s apartment. When Alta inquired how Donkel had heard of the problem so quickly, Donkel said he happened to be in the apartment when the rain began. Alta had no course but to respond.
She called the roofer, who answered as if he were losing his mind. Every roof in town had sprung a leak that day, and there was no way he could get to Alta’s drain before the weekend, perhaps not before the end of the month. Alta expressed dismay at the forecast, but in her heart she was glad. She had made the call, and things were out of her hands. When Dudah screamed, she would report to him the facts. For all inactivity and delay she had the iron-clad excuse.
Never the less, on her way home that day Alta stopped at the Kilbourn Arms. The rain had ceased apart from a few large pelting drops, and inside the lobby she rang Joe Donkel’s apartment and got no response. Standing in the lobby, looking out at the yellow and black sky, Alta resolved to steal up to the roof and look at the troublesome drain. She emerged from the attic stairwell on to the broad tarred surface, and saw Joe Donkel with his back bent above the south parapet wall pouring the contents of a five-gallon drum of asphalt down the drain.
What was he doing! Alta cried. The drain snuffled and gargled with water — how did he expect the tar to adhere!... On approaching she discovered he was only sitting on the bucket, with his head in his hands, while he peered over the parapet wall down into the street. Then he looked up, and the expression on his face suggested he was close to tears.
"He wouldn’t leave off, Mrs. Meach," Donkel pleaded. "I came up here to get away, like. The can’s empty, anyhow."
They looked in the empty drum, and Donkel promptly seized it and hurled it over the edge of the roof. It clattered on the street below.
"He left — not for good, like," Donkel said apologetically, seeing the hope flare up in Alta’s face. "Just gone out."
Together they descended to the third floor — where Alta found the hallway full of boxes.
"I moved them out here myself," Joe Donkel confessed, "to paint the walls, like you said, Mrs. Meach. Picked up a piece of carpet, too, for not too much money."
Alta hadn’t the strength to protest. It was true they had discussed the unpainted walls, the unclean carpet, but she had authorized none of these measures. The activity of conscience, which she herself had struggled to resist, had been too much for Joe Donkel. Things were slipping out of control. It occurred to her that tomorrow she must call a lawyer and evict Gabriel Dudah, put an ad in the paper for a new resident manager, then call the architect and order him to finalize the plans. The unregenerate urge welled up in her anew. She did not care about the broken drain, would not have it repaired, would pray for rain and use it as a wedge to drive the man out!
Donkel with his pass key opened the door to Apartment 31, looked around, then crept in, and Alta was astonished to find the place newly painted and carpeted.
"He wouldn’t leave off," Donkel said pitifully. "Worried me day and night, and I could get no sleep. Then you were on me, Mrs. Meach, and I said to myself, ‘Joe,’ I said, ‘this thing you must do.’ I been up two days moving boxes, falling asleep at night at the brewery. The bit of rug I got from a friend — you don’t owe me nothing on that, Mrs. Meach. But when I got home this morning and went to bed, when the rain began, with him crying out like that, I thought I would go mad."
Alta looked at him. He was not given to hyperbole. His eyes were black pits, and the skin on his face looked mottled and gray, with a translucent waxy sheen. If something didn’t stop, perhaps Joe Donkel would go mad indeed. Alta felt in need of a little vacation herself.
She told him he had done right, and his relief was apparent. Then in fact Alta did go on vacation, and when she returned, the first thing she discovered, the drain had been repaired, and Gabriel Dudah was what might be called happy.
"In the hall yesterday," Joe Donkel reported, "he said to me, ‘Good morning, Joseph.’ Used to be he started in with his worrying without so much as a howdy-do. Yesterday it was, ‘Joseph, good morning.’"
Alta ceased to visit the third floor of the Kilbourn Arms, on the solid real-estate-management theory that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie. Still, she found herself reading from time to time portions of the New York Times to which she had never before paid much attention. A certain part of Eastern Africa bordering the Sahara was undergoing a brutal civil war, with half the population killing off the other half as rapidly as it could, by whatever means came to hand. Alta got out an old Atlas but acquired only a sketchy notion, as all the places in the last thirty years had changed names. The reports were not extensive, but the death toll was — comparable, one reporter said, to the "slaughter of innocents in Western Europe during the last world war." Refugees fled in every direction at the greatest possible speed. It was unquestionably the place Gabriel Dudah was from.
Alta contemplated the map and realized that in such a tiny spot, unbeknownst to her, lived millions of people. The thought filled her with melancholy. The world was vast, her own concerns disproportionately small. None the less, on Monday morning when she looked up from her desk and found Denise ushering into her office the tenant from Apartment 31, she felt her soul to shrink.
Gabriel Dudah, dressed in a suit and wearing dark glasses, entered her room in the spirit of carefully restrained hilarity. The courtesy of the secretary, Alta’s frown as she put down the telephone and turned her attention to her visitor, seemed to him causes for delight, and yet he waited for the secretary to depart before he turned entirely to Alta, and waited again to be asked to take a seat.
Under one arm he carried a large picture book, under the other a suitcase. It occurred to Alta he was making a departure.
"I see you yesterday at the cinema," he began, "and I think to myself, ‘You and me, Mrs. Meach. Me and you.’ Myself I go to the cinema many times. Yesterday I enjoy it very much when I see you there."
"The cinema?" Alta said. But then she remembered. She had taken her daughter to a showing of the old German version of the Dracula story at a theater near the university that ran old films. It was the sort of thing she never would have gone to herself, and she wasn’t sure she wanted her daughter to go, either. But Gena insisted, and Alta agreed to accompany her.
It was a silent film in which the maker used the old tale to comment on the state of western civilization before the last world war, identifying the Nazi menace with the ancient predatory evil — not at all the romance her thirteen-year-old daughter might have expected.
Alta herself found the facade of the derelict building where the vampire resided, and to which the camera kept returning, personally disturbing and repellant. Its turn-of-the-century facade reminded her of the Kilbourn Arms.
"Oh yes, the movie," she said. "My daughter misunderstood, you see...."
She broke off rather than explain, and noted that Mr. Dudah behind sunglasses watched her. He had called himself a student of psychology, and she wondered if she herself had become clinically interesting.
"So many times I enjoy the cinema," he said then, "and when I see you there I think, ‘Here is a person to whom I can speak.’ Soon I will go home to my country where I will tell my friends all the marvelous people I meet here. But first I must buy automobile to take me there. Five-thousand dollars it costs just to transport from Chicago. But in my country it is all right because such things cost so much more. So it is, you understand, a good deal."
He laughed, delighted with his mastery of the American idiom, and Alta understood that the dark glasses disguised a certain anxiety.
"Because I see you at the cinema," he continued, "I come to show this book from my country." And he lay on her desk a large picture book entitled "The Art of East Africa," which he opened seemingly at random to a colored plate of a grotesque carved mask, then turned over the leaf to a wooden figure of a woman with exaggerated breasts and belly, and finally to what appeared to be a shrunken head, with sewn eyes and nostrils and a mouth from which protruded crooked rat-like teeth.
"You see how old is this thing," he said, referring to the caption which placed the figure around 3000 BC. "How many years ago a culture can produce a thing like dat. When I see you at the cinema, I say to myself, ‘I will show her. She will ‘gree for me.’"
Dudah laughed, delighted with himself. Alta stared at the picture and thought of Dracula in the movie, the ancient sorrowful face with crooked protruding teeth.
"So many marvelous books I take home to my people," he said. "So many things I do not know before!"
He put the book aside and opened the leather suitcase, which contained a yellow trophy, disassembled, such as might be awarded in a championship round of golf or tennis at the local level. When he had placed the plastic pedestal on Alta’s desk and screwed on the metal loving cup, it stood, glimmering and gold, three feet tall. The expression of Mr. Dudah’s face suggested that at the slightest encouragement he would burst out laughing.
"In my country from where I come," he said, "such a thing costs two-thousand-thirty-five dollars. A small thing but much pleasure to my friends."
When did he plan to go? Alta inquired.
"So soon now," he said, finding this, too, a source of delight. "At any moment, you will see."
"You’re giving up your apartment?" she said.
"When I do so I will tell you in the proper way, Mrs. Meach. Thing will be done right, do not fear. Today I come to say how bright are the prospects for my return. Still I do not forget my friends. Especially you who are so kind. First we have a small disagreement. Very small indeed. It does not cause me to think on it, so small it is to my way of thinking. Then I see you at the cinema and think you will know me better when I show you this."
He patted the book, lay back its cover, and the pages opened again to that shrunken head.
"What a country to produce this," he said, "and already since that time five-thousand years have passed. When I see you at the cinema I think to myself, ‘This woman will ‘gree for me.’ To think this movie is made not seventy years gone by! It frightens me too much, you see." He hunched up his shoulders and squeezed closed his eyes in an expression of childish terror, then looked at Alta and giggled. "Still, I find that very educative. Now you know the country from where I come is not alone this savage place."
"Your friends," Alta said, lowering her voice and gesturing to the loving cup, "you expect them to win?"
Mr. Dudah looked at her with a melancholy smile, as if he were once again addressing a not-very-bright child in whose education he had taken a benevolent but not optimistic interest.
"Win or lose, Mrs. Meach. I am an educated man. You must not think me some gitto black...."
That night on the evening news the battle south of the Sahara raged, full of obscene triumph and unspeakable defeat. It was impossible to think of Dudah on the winning side, which was committing the atrocities, and equally awful to imagine his friends and countrymen driven out into the desert, tortured, mutilated, and killed. And Alta saw as in a premonition that he would never leave the Kilbourn Arms and that, far from forcing him to do so through whatever means possible, she must put off the condominium conversion, forego the bonanza profit, and resign herself to tend to his continuing residency without end.
"What are you talking about?" her partner Kate said, the next morning at her office, when Alta expressed herself in no uncertain terms. "I got a better idea — we’ll sell him a unit. Didn’t you say he needs plenty of storage? We’ll sell him a big unit — three bedrooms."
"Can he afford it?" said Alta.
"Didn’t you say he was buying a car and sending it to Africa, and that the shipping alone cost five big ones? There’s his earnest money, and the cost of the car his down payment. That’s the trouble with worrying about bills and burying your head in details, Alta. You lose the big picture. Talk to him this afternoon."
"He wants to go back to Africa," Alta said, mournfully. "He wants to go home."
"Of course he does," said Kate. "It’s what he lives for, but it’s impossible. So we’ll sell him a unit, with plenty of room for his stuff. And the thing that’ll make the deal — he’ll still have a guest room for all his friends."
"He has no friends," Alta said, in despair.
"Of course he has no friends," said Kate, with understanding, because
she could see that her partner was in trouble. "But look at it this way,
Alta — if he buys now he’ll have plenty of room if he ever gets one."
© Irish American Post
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Milwaukee, WI 53217