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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sitting at the Round Table

From the outside you’d never know our apartment was any different than the other brownstones that lined the streets of Baltimore’s Mt. Vernon neighborhood. The bricks were a bit weathered, the front steps cracked and tilted to the side, but otherwise, the place looked like something you were more likely to come across in the nicer neighborhoods of New York or Boston.

What set 822 Monument St. apart from the others wasn’t something you could necessarily put your finger on; it was more of a strange vibe, a sense of twisted reality, a feeling that things weren’t quite right. The first time I walked into the building I felt it. Maybe the darkly lit hallway with the flickering lights or the sweating plaster that seemed to always be peeling off of the walls had something to do with it. Maybe it was the strange creaking noises that came from the empty basement or that musty smell that had one thinking they were inside a two hundred year-old bookstore.

I’m not sure why I decided to live there. I’d like to say it was because it was cheap or because the landlord had been kind enough to overlook my bad credit; but I’d be lying. I suppose part of me was curious and the other part of me was just plain old out of my mind crazy and didn’t give a damn. And now that I look back on it, nearly all of the people that lived in that dingy place were crazed in their own right.

There was Gomez, the big Mexican with the lost look in his eyes who never said anything and would climb up the walls in a panic if you walked past him in the hallway. Rumor was that his parents gave the landlord a check for the entire year of rent every January 1st. Then Old Man Pops on the floor above me – his underwear always half way out of his pants – standing outside of his door pounding on his chest and yelling, “You took my beer!” Gary and Lilly down on the first floor, friendly as hell when you saw them on the street and then arguing and beating each other up every night.

But at the epicenter of that madness and that unexplainable year of my life was Arthur.

I had apartment #6 on the third floor and Arthur lived in #5, directly below mine. With the freckles, the enormous brown bug-eyes, and ring-horn Afro, the man looked like a carnival clown that had fallen on bad times. He also happened to be a heavy drinker and nightly crack-smoker. What set him apart from the stereotypical street-walking crack head was the fact that somehow, despite hardly any sleep, every day of the week he would wake up at six and put in ten hours working at the laundry mat a few blocks away.

About a month after I moved in Arthur and I were sitting out on the front steps. We were just hanging, drinking beer, catching the last glimpses of summer and spouting off to one another our own versions of gutter philosophy. As the afternoon wore on I noticed Arthur getting pretty drunk. He made a few trips upstairs and it was obvious by the look in his eyes when he came back, that he wasn’t going up there to use the bathroom.

I’m not sure exactly what spurred the change in conversation that day, but suddenly, with a straight face, Arthur explained to me how he’d lived through five different lives. He was four shy of a cat. A lot of the details weren’t clear, even to him, but he was absolutely certain of it. He was sort of this immortal spirit that hopped throughout time from body to body. Arthur new it was hard to fathom for the average person like myself, but he swore on his mother’s grave; this wasn’t no bullshit.

In a nutshell, Arthur experienced what he referred to as Life-Forces. He had the magical ability to see things beyond our control. Basically, the man was blessed with some strange form of telepathy, something that went far beyond the realm of simple, everyday coincidence. Randomly, he received messages from up above. Whether those voices were from God, Saints, Angels, he didn’t know.

I remember staring Arthur directly in the eyes, trying to see if he was messing with the new guy, and then saying, “Man, you’re fucking crazy, you know that?”

Arthur put his hand on my shoulder and laughed aloud, the elder statesman, dismissing my foolish response. “No way, Larry. You see, crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. Like that guy that walks up and down Charles and always knocks three times on the trees and speaks all that gibberish. Now that guy’s crazy. And he don’t even know it. But see, guys like you and me, well, we already know we’re crazy, so we ain’t crazy.”

In the following months I had a handful of wild nights with Arthur, but the closest glimpse I actually got into the interior of that man’s twisted mind was when he gave me a book of journals that he had been compiling for the past five years. In those wee hours of the night, when the drunks were staggering home from the neighborhood bars, when the drag queens were hustling over on Calvert for a score, Arthur was busy finding his muse.

Arthur had mentioned the journals to me a few times before. He told me he was creating a modern day masterpiece, a work of art that was well ahead of its time. Inside of those journals lied eternal truths, prophecies, the answers to all of man’s deepest and most profound questions. One day he would get it published. He was going to make millions off of it.

I’ll admit I was actually kind of looking forward to delving into the literary mind of Arthur. If you were able to catch him in a relatively sober state, which wasn’t all to often, you’d realize he was a fairly intelligent guy. He swore by the works of the old classic writers, guys like Montaigne, Socrates, and his favorite, Machiavelli.

I made it as far as thirty pages into his masterpiece and to this day I still have no idea of what those words he had written amounted to. As far as the style of writing, the closest explanation I can come up with is unintelligible biblical verse. There was the constant use of thus and thou and begot this and begot that. The problem was that none of it made any sense. Large asterisks and all caps denoted what I assumed Arthur considered the more important quotes. Taking up half of page 12 was:


On page 17:


In some of the left-hand margins Arthur had written an entirely different language. It resembled a cross between mathematical symbols and Egyptian hieroglyphics. It was written so meticulously that at one point I almost wondered if these were the words of those voices he told me he received from above. Maybe there really was some truth to that whole Angels and five different lives business. Hell, maybe those religious people had Jesus all wrong. That good-looking tan guy with the long hair and compassion and healing powers and amazing carpentry skills was just a scam for all the suckers to buy into. Maybe the real Jesus was sitting down at his cluttered desk in the middle of Baltimore, burning the midnight oil and putting down the mighty word.

Five hours into the journal I had to stop. I couldn’t read any more. All I came out of the experience with was a vicious headache.

A few days later I gave the journal back to Arthur. He asked me excitedly, “So what do you think man? Pretty deep shit, huh?”

“Uh, yeah, little hard to follow, but it’s good,” I said. At the time I didn’t really have it in my heart to tell him that it was the most insane thing I’d ever tried to comprehend.

Well, the weeks passed by and then one day I looked out my window and all of the trees were dead and naked, the streets covered in a blanket of white. The ferns that covered the walls of the church across the street had disappeared and the sun was a distant memory. Winter had hit. It was a brutal one too; the most snow the city had gotten in over a hundred years. Driving around town I noticed a strange look in people’s eyes. Everyone seemed on edge. For the most part, I tried to stay away from them. During the day I went to my job driving a van delivering mail and at night I kept to myself. My life wasn’t very exciting.

Arthur was still up to his crazy antics. He hadn’t gone completely overboard, but he was getting there. A couple of times a week he’d come up to my apartment at ridiculous hours of the night. I awake from a deep sleep around three in the morning to the sound of his secret knock.

I’d open the door, my eyes barely open, my hair shooting out ten different ways.

“Shit, Larry, didn’t wake you, did I?” he’d say, his eyes lit up like a Chinese New Year.

“Uh, no, what’s up?” I’d mumble.

“Hey man, got me a lady-friend down three, if you know what I mean. Got to ask you a favor. I need some milk. Cooking oil. Oh yeah, and ten bucks!”

I wouldn’t even try to put together what those things amounted to at this ungodly hour. I’d stumble over to the fridge, shaking my head in disbelief, dig through my wallet, and hand him the goods.

“Damn, thanks Larry! You know I’m good for it. I’ll get you on Friday. Say, I can bring her up here after I’m done. You know, she’ll suck your dick for five bucks!”

“No thanks. Think I’ll take a rain check on that one.”

I’m not really sure why I put up with Arthur’s wild ways. It would’ve been easy for me to not open the door. Pretend to be asleep. I could’ve just stuck to my own boring, solitary life and been all right. But when it comes down to it, that way of going about things has never really worked out for me. For some reason, I happen to always find myself in the most unordinary circumstances. Really, I don’t go looking for that life; it just has a strange way of falling into my lap.

In my younger days I had dabbled here and there with the drugs, some coke, acid, that sort of thing. Maybe I tormented my neighbors a few times too. That said I also new that at some point the drugs begin to wear on you. It’s just the natural order of things. Arthur was close to fifty and the ill affects of that lifestyle, compounded with sleep-deprivation, was beginning to show. His sense of reality was quickly evolving into an extreme sense of violent paranoia.

One Sunday morning I woke up to a skirmish going on outside of my apartment. I had no intention of opening my door, but I had a feeling Arthur was involved. Suddenly, a sad yelp echoed against the walls, then a gasping for breath. I could just picture it: someone’s little beady, red head doused in sweat, their eyes popping out of their skull. Then came the sound of Arthur’s deep, roaring voice. He sounded like a lion in a dark tunnel.

“Luke 6:31: And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise!”

Poor Arthur. He’d really lost it. As much as I didn’t want to be involved, I couldn’t let him murder someone. I didn’t want to have something like that on my conscience. I was just about to open my door when I heard Arthur throw the person down the stairs.

“Now get the fuck out of here! I said get the fuck out! And next time I see ya’ I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”

Coughing, heavy breathing, and then scurrying steps followed down the two flights of stairs. Then I heard the front door open and slam shut. Arthur went into his apartment and turned his radio on full blast so that everyone in the building could be blessed with the awe-inspiring power of the Gospel. As I lay in bed the rest of the morning for some reason all I could picture was some old Baptist granny, nodding her heading saying over and over, “The Laud show works in mysterious ways.”

It’s strange how things have a way of working out. You know, it’s like there’s nothing really going on in your life. You exist, physically, mentally, spiritually so to speak, but there’s no point to it all. You wake up, go to work, come home, flip on the television, listen to the neighbors bring down the walls and you’re thinking, is this all there is? You keep going over and over it in your head until you drive yourself straight up the doorsteps of the nearest ward or you give up. Sometimes you take long walks around the city. You sit in parks watching the sun go down and try to clear your head. You see the mother’s pushing their children around in strollers and then you sit off to the side in the restaurants and see the couples, young, old, they look so happy and maybe they aren’t all that way, but you’re just sitting there, chewing on your tongue, going plum out of your mind.

I guess sometimes you got to hit rock bottom to luck out.

I met Sophie at a coffee shop downtown. I had twenty minutes to kill between deliveries and I hadn’t slept at all the previous night and was in bad need of some kind of pick me up. Normally, I never go into those places. Something about those pseudo-intellectuals with their laptops and their CafĂ© Lautas, or whatever they call them, trying to look like they’re doing something important, but probably playing Solitaire or mulling over how to spend the next five years in college. Not my crowd is all. I just wanted some coffee.

Once I saw her I knew. I don’t know how to put it; there’s just this warm-blooded good feeling you get. It’d been a while since I last had it.

Sophie looked completely out of place amongst the heard. She was wearing a bright, shiny blue blouse with small nipples pointing out of it. She was skinny as hell, all bones, and her hair was black and choppy and almost looked like someone just put a mop rag on her head. A large scar cut deep into her skin, starting on her forehead and ending down the middle of her nose. Her green eyes were big and crazy and seemed to instantly give off this sense of unique beauty, a friendly warmth. I can’t say exactly what it was, but right away I was nuts about her.

That first day we just made the typical small chat. I could tell I was kind of nervous and fumbling over the words, but I was trying to see if she was giving off anything. I took my double espresso, downed it right there in front of her like it was a shot of whiskey and headed towards the door. Almost outside I heard her yell, “Hey, I’ll see ya’ tomorrow?” I turned around and saw her standing behind the counter looking like some kind of angel gypsy. I gave her a smile full of wrinkled scars and waved.

It was all so exciting and new in the beginning. Sophie was a wild wandering spirit. She was an artist, a poet, a spiritual healer. She’d traveled all over the world. Thailand. India. China. Scotland. She’d ridden on elephants outside of Bangkok and fed monkeys from hotel balconies. She’d hiked the Himalayas by herself and had slept with Shamans in villages I couldn’t pronounce the name of. Somehow her travels had taken her to Baltimore where she was just hanging around until the next adventure came along.

I didn’t know what Sophie really saw in me. I was a pretty plain, boring guy who didn’t have much going on. I’d moved around a bit and had lived in big cities like Chicago and L.A., but I didn’t know anything about all those crazy places she’d been to.

I spent a lot of the next couple of months at her place. Her apartment was vibrant, full of color and life. There were blue Picasso prints and framed Chinese poems by guys with short names like Li Po and Tu Fu, and it was all foreign to me, but I felt comfortable there. Sometimes she’d bug me about how she’d never been to my place, but I’d always try to change the conversation. Things were getting strange back at the apartment anyway. There’d been rumors of a gun going off one night and in the past week the cops had been over a couple of times.

I was coming back from Sophie’s when I ran into Arthur. It was freezing and Arthur was looking batty as hell. He was wearing a Russian fur hat with flaps around the side and a cigar that looked like it’d been dead for over an hour was dangling from his lips. I hadn’t seen him for a while and now I was realizing why.

“Larry, what the hell you doing out here? It ain’t safe around here at night. There’s crazy fuckers running all around this neighborhood! Things ain’t like they used to be. These are hard times! Thousands people are out of work! They’re not in the right mind.”

I looked past Arthur and stared into the lights of the cab cars running up and down Monument. Despite the chill, the Queens that always came out after ten were still wearing their glittery bootie shorts and doing their best to make a buck. A couple of Bohemian looking kids sat on a stoop a few buildings down.

“Hell, you’re a nice fella’ Larry. I know. Remember last summer when we sat on the steps talking about The Prince? And all those times I knocked on you’re door and you gave me shit. You never asked me for nothing. That means something. But things are changing around here. You know that guy Eddie? He’s all fucked up! Been doing stupid shit! Do you know he broke into Dianne’s?”

Dianne was in her early thirties. I think she was studying to be a lawyer, but she was always nervous, scared when she walked by anyone else in the place. I never quite figured out how she ended up in our building. Eddie on the other hand was sketchy as hell. He was the neighborhood dealer. Sometimes I’d run into him at one of the local bars. Occasionally he’d say hi to me, but he was always jittery and running all over the place. I usually kept my distance.

“You remember what I told you when you first moved in the building? How this was our home and how we need to make sure it stays safe? Now look at it. That fucker Eddie’s been living in the basement, cutting all his coke down there with some other dudes. Do you know he was sawing up through the ceiling into Dianne’s bedroom? I told him the next time I see him around I’m going to kill him! I will! And now we got that damn ho who keeps sneaking in the building. Hanging with Gomez in #3. Everything’s going to shit!”

It was about twenty degrees and my fingers were going numb. At least now I knew who Arthur had been choking that one Sunday. I wondered if the landlord knew anything about what was going on. I thought about mentioning it, but Arthur was charged up. Ready to serve and protect. He was a man of justice; noble, despite the fact that everyone he was talking about were at one time people he’d been friends with. I guess that was the life; in one minute, out the next.

Arthur would’ve gone on for another couple hours, but I calmly told him I’d watch my back and walked towards the apartment.

I lay in bed for a couple hours, but I was feeling pretty restless so I went back over to Sophie’s. She could tell I was a bit out of sorts. As much as she’d seen, and as many places as she’d been, I didn’t really get the feeling she knew anything about the kind of life I surrounded myself with.

That night Sophie turned off all the lights and lit a bunch of candles. She put on some weird music with sitars and chanting and gave me a Reiki session. I sat down Indian style and she told me to hold my palms face up and she placed hers a few inches above mine. I was skeptical about the whole business, but it was real important to her so I went along with it. After a minute Sophie stopped. She backed away with a frightened look in her eyes.

“What,” I said.

“I don’t know. That was really weird. I’m getting a real bad energy from you. I’ve never felt something like that.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

“Larry, let’s just stop. Forget we ever did that.”

We hardly talked the rest of the night. It was obvious whatever Sophie had seen wasn’t good. I pried her on it for a while, but she wouldn’t tell me anything. God, I had crazy spirits floating all around me. Palm-reading angels and psychic junky demons and I was just wondering where I fit into it all.

The next day at work I was in a daze. I drove around the city in a cloudy fog, my thoughts roaming, unable to form any concrete images. I liked Sophie, but maybe things would be easier if I just kept to myself. Less complicated. Bad luck had a way of following me around and hurting the people close to me. The girl I had lived with in Chicago was now in a mental hospital. The one before her was paralyzed in a boating accident. Call it intuition, but I just had a feeling.

I didn’t talk to Sophie for a week. She left a bunch of messages on my answering machine, but I didn’t call her back. I’d go to work, come home, and drink to the point of near retardation. I felt like I had to tune everything out.

If I could do it all over again I would’ve kissed Sophie the second I saw her standing on the front steps. I would’ve taken her in my arms and told her I was sorry for being a fool. We would’ve kept walking up the stairs straight into my apartment. Wrestled under the sheets for hours and then laid in bed listening to the night. Maybe we’d blast the stereo and parade around the room like naked fools. Sometimes I wonder.

I was sitting on the couch going dizzy staring at the walls when the buzzer went off. I went down to the front door and Sophie was standing there. We just looked at each other, all silent for a while, and then she said, “So, you going to ask me in?”

“Yeah, yeah, “ I said, still out of it.

On the way to the stairs I noticed Sophie curiously surveying the dilapidated interior and I made some kind of joke. “Well, welcome to my own private dump.” We both laughed and I felt a little better. We were almost to my apartment when Arthur opened his door and came up to us.

“Hey Larry. Oooh, lookie here. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Who’s this cute thing?”

“Sophie, this here’s Arthur,” I said.

“Hi,” said Sophie. She stuck her little hand out and Arthur shook it with a little too much force, though I knew it wasn’t done purposefully.

“Well, damn Larry. That’s why I never hear you around. Say, I got a new friend staying with me. I want you to meet her.”

“Huh, who is it?” I asked, not really feeling up for Arthur’s antics.

“Just come on in.”

We walked into his apartment. Lamps, torn-apart stereos, empty cereal boxes, and dirty clothes were scattered all over the floor. Long sheets of aluminum foil were hanging from the ceiling and computer monitors were positioned in each corner. There was an army banner hung on the wall. The place kind of had an Apocalypse Now thing going on.

“Ruth! Ruth! Come on out!” Arthur yelled.

A pit-bull slowly walked out from the bedroom. She was black and white with cherry-veined eyes. Sophie and I took a step back.

“Don’t be scared guys. She’s totally harmless.”

Yeah, harmless if she wasn’t getting that second-hand action. I figured that stuff Arthur smoked was bound to make a mouse violent.

“I’m just babysitting for the next couple of weeks. Say y’all want a beer?”

I couldn’t tell what was going through Sophie’s mind at that minute, but before I could say anything she said, “Sure, thanks.”

“Well, all I got is Old E. Think I’ll have some too. Hah hah, don’t mind if I do.”

Sophie grabbed my hand and smiled. I guess this was all new for her.
Next to the ashtray on the cardboard box that worked as a coffee table I saw the glass pipe. Beside it, a zip-lock bag filled with little white rocks. Arthur came back from the kitchen with three cups of beer and sat across from us on the couch.

“You don’t mind, do you?” Arthur said to Sophie.

Sophie shook her head. Arthur filled the pipe and brought it up to his lips. He lit it with a Zippo, closed his eyes, and took in the smoke. He held it for a while and then blew it out. The room had the smell of burning plastic.

Twenty minutes later that bag was getting pretty empty and Arthur was talking nonsense. He was walking all around the room, waving his arms every which way, going on his crazy rant about keeping the neighborhood safe shit. I don’t think Sophie knew what to say. Ruth started circling Arthur. She kept her own distance from us, but I knew how animals were always the first to sense when something strange was about to happen. That dog was making me nervous.

I’m sitting there thinking, I’m going to grab a hold of Sophie and we’re going to get the hell out of here. We’re going to get out before anything happens.

A couple of seconds later there was a knock at the door. I glanced back and Sketchy Eddie stood in front of Arthur. He was looking like the Grim Reaper. He had big black bags under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept in a month. Arthur let him in. I took a good look at both of them and they were all jittery: a couple of Chihuahuas. I didn’t get it. A couple of weeks ago Arthur was telling me how he was going to kill this guy. He’d nearly choked him to death on the stairs. Now they were hanging out? It didn’t add up.

I whispered into Sophie’s ear, “Finish your beer now.”

Eddie nervously said hey to the two of us and followed Arthur into the kitchen. I didn’t hear what started it, but two of them were arguing. “Look man, all I’m saying is to chill man. Chill! I’ll get you the shit by tomorrow.”

Eddie was walking out of the kitchen when I saw Arthur come up behind him with the gun.

In the movies it always takes forever. There’s this build-up and then the back and forth dialogue and the guy with the gun says something witty and then the other guy says something equally witty like “Go ahead and shoot me,” and then the guy with the gun has a real serious, squinting look and then the gun finally goes off. It was nothing like that.

It all happened so fast, and yet, at the same time everything felt like it was in slow motion. I wanted to get up and stop it, but there was this uncontrollable force keeping me pinned down. It was like some crazy nightmare, where you want to scream but no matter how hard you try no sound will come out of your mouth.

Arthur grabbed a hold of Eddie’s shoulder, spun him around, and bashed him across the face with the butt of the gun. Sophie screamed, but in a matter of seconds, she was silenced by two gunshots to Eddie’s head. His body was slumped halfway behind a table. I couldn’t see his face, but I saw the blood splattered all over the walls. I watched his leg twitch a little and then go still. Ruth leaped from where we were and sunk her teeth into Eddie’s puny arm. Arthur stood over him screaming out:

“So rejoice, O sons of Zion, and be glad in the LORD your God! For He has given you the early rain for your vindication! And He has poured down for you the rain, The early and latter rain as before!”

I didn’t really have time to think. I grabbed a hold of Sophie and made for the door. Before we reached the stairs I quickly glanced back and Arthur was still standing in the same spot, eyes popping out of his head, his gun in one hand, the other raised in the air.

It must have been three blocks before we stopped running. Sophie’s face was pale-white. She wasn’t crying or nothing. Just blank-eyed and out of breath and as I stood there looking at her with nothing to say I knew that all the Reiki, aligning of the stars, moon signs and auras in the world wouldn’t have prepared her for something like that. We held each other on that corner for I don’t know how long. I could hear the sirens in the distance.

I didn’t go back to the apartment for a couple of days. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the place. The day after it all happened there was a blurb in the paper. It was on one of the back pages of the Metro section. They mentioned the murder and how the police had shown up with the suspect sitting on his couch with his dog in his lap. Arthur didn’t put up any kind of fight.

The cops came around asking questions, but no one else in the apartment would come forth about hearing anything. I didn’t even know if anyone had seen Sophie and I leave. I called the landlord and told them I was moving out.

I tried staying with Sophie, but things were never the same after that. She never
wanted to talk about what happened up in Arthur’s apartment. Neither of us did. I told her I understood if she went to the cops. She didn’t. We didn’t talk for a few weeks and then one day I went to her work. They told me she’d moved away.

For months after, that night went over and over in my head. The whole year in that apartment. Utter insanity. No one would ever believe me if I tried to tell that story so I didn’t. For a while all that went through my mind was what if this, what if that. These days though I try to think about other things. I picked up more hours at work and even joined the gym. Sometimes I take weekend trips out to the Chesapeake Bay or down to D.C.

I still live in Baltimore, but I stay clear of my old apartment. Every now and then though the company has me do a delivery or pick-up at one of those lawyer’s offices off of Monument and I have to pass by the building. I look up at what used to be my bedroom window and then I look up at Arthur’s wondering what the hell he’s thinking about in that jail cell. I see Sketchy Eddie lying there like a piece of meat and that pit with that stupid name all lock-jawed and Arthur waving his arms around and speaking a language I don’t even think God understands; and it’s strange, because part of me goes running out the door, but there’s this other part of me that’s just standing there, curiously watching the whole thing take place. I don’t really know what to make of it, but what it comes down to is that I guess I really want to see how it all plays out.