the basement was more or less what he had expected. a bare cement floor and brick walls enclosed a hot water heater, a gigantic furnace. an old workbench that hadn’t been used in years, piles of boxes that god only knew what was in them, and a toilet next to a huge cast-iron sink in one corner. he turned on the taps and water came. it was brown but at least he had water. the toilet actually flushed, too.

he piled all the boxes up next to the furnace to make a sort of wall so he could pretend it wasn’t there, swept out the open space that removing the boxes had made, and moved what was left of his stuff down from the third floor. to his surprise he discovered that with the boxes out of the way, even discounting all the room the furnace took up, he had more floor-space than his last apartment. the basement felt roomy by comparison. there was some good in every evil, he thought.

his bed long since sold, he scrounged around in the department store warehouse until he found several large squares of packing-foam, six inches thick. over the course of a week, he hauled them home on the bus one at a time and made himself what turned out to be one of the most comfortable beds he had ever slept in. it was, he reflected every night as he lay there drifting off, like sleeping on a cloud.

he turned the workbench into his kitchen: cooler underneath, a few dishes and pans lined up on top to the far right, toaster-oven and hotplates and a basket of silverware to the far left. the honorable center space between them was occupied by his precious deserts in endless rotation: today a blueberry pie, tomorrow a box of Congo bars, the day after a chocolate roll-cake with marshmallow filling. on the tool shelf above the bench, he put his canned goods, his cereal, and his sugar and instant coffee. it wasn’t exactly home but it could have been a lot worse.

in an odd way, he was actually happy in the basement for the first six months. he couldn’t have said why, exactly, but it had something to do with simplicity and surrender. he had what he needed – in truth, he had what he wanted. it was warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer, there were windows looking onto the alley if he needed extra air, and no on bothered him or bothered about him. he came and went as he pleased, and no one seemed to notice. the color and frenzied desperation of his former life receded, the distant memory of an ancient dream. it seemed to him after awhile that his life had always been like this, and he was content.

then one day he found a note on his door from justine. it said that the people on the first floor were complaining about the odor when he used the toilet. she asked him to use the public toilet in the lobby of the building next door instead.

he would have thought it was a joke but he knew very well that justine ermintrude had no sense of humor whatever. it wasn’t a joke. she meant it.

he couldn’t believe she actually expected him to do it. still, he decided for the sake of peace on a compromise: the couple in the apartment above him were young and active, often gone for long stretches of time; when they were gone, he used his own toilet but when they were home, he went next door. he thought it was an admirably practical compromise. though he thought the request itself both unreasonable and unfair, he was grateful for justine’s support these last trying months and this was a way to show his gratitude.

he thought it would be left there but he was wrong. a few weeks after the first note, he found a second. it was an angry scrawl written in red ink.

“i asked you once to use the toilet next door. i explained to you that paying tenants were complaining. you ignored my request, so now i’m telling you. you will use the public toilet next door ALL THE TIME or you can find someplace else to live. i don’t mean just when the first floor tenants aren’t home, i mean ALL THE TIME. i don’t care if you have to go out in a rainstorm or a blizzard or when it’s 20 below, ALL THE TIME. i’ve put up with a lot from you as it is, and i’m letting you stay in my basement for basically NO MONEY because i feel sorry for you, but if you can’t do this one thing for me, i’ll have you evicted. i don’t think my request is either unreasonable or unfair, and i expect you to abide by it.”

he was stunned, both by the contents of the note and its tone. there was no question in his mind but that she was serious, however outrageous it sounded. if he didn’t do what she wanted, she’d throw him out on the street.

he had no option. he barely made enough to pay her the $100 a week for the room; there was no chance at all that he would ever be able to put enough aside for the first/last/security landlords demanded in advance. he spent a good deal of his spare time looking for other jobs, but there wasn’t much around for someone who was still, almost a year later, blacklisted all over town. his age sabotaged the rest. nobody wanted an old man.

he was trapped, alright. live in a dumpster or keep the basement and run next door every time he had to go. it wasn’t a hard choice to make, but there were prices to pay he hadn’t counted on.

in the winter he had to throw on boots, a sweater, and a heavy coat to slog through snow and ice to the building next door, and it was deadly to his immune system. that winter he was sick all the time again and almost lost his job.

then he started to try to put his trips off as long as he could, sometimes holding it in for three or four or even five hours, but that decision played havoc with his body and it started to fight back with pain. he began to have attacks of diarrhea and blistering cramps that felt as if a small army had his organs in a large vise and were squeezing them raw. one day he looked into the toilet before he flushed it and saw thin tendrils of blood floating on the surface like ribbons of tomato juice. he abandoned the ’hold it’ strategy right then and there.

that’s where things stood the night i saw him in the uptown bar. i asked him didn’t he have family could take him in?

he shook his head. “they all got it hard enough,” he said, “the ones i’m speaking to. the ones got money to burn wouldn’t have me no matter how bad off i was.” he drained the last of his latest drink and stood unsteadily. “funny,” he said, “what a little money does to people. i used to stick my nose in the air and hurry past all the winos with their hands out. i wasn’t ever going to be like that. i was better than them. i was succesth–successful. yeah. and you know why i thought that? you know why?” his face was an inch from mine, his breath whiskey-heavy. “because i had a little money in my pocket, that’s all. silly, isn’t it? to think you’re better than other people because they got nickels and you got dimes? but that’s just what i thought, snake. i was wrong, though. boy, was i ever wrong. there’s a bigger difference than that. a lot bigger.”

he staggered away and out the door to the dark street, leaving me to wonder what he meant.

snake marchand 

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