This is a story about the two-decker tenement building that once stood on the corner of Pine and 6th Streets. The landlady, Mrs. Barnard, lived in unit 1A. She was once a looker until she got old and sour. The woman in 1B was ‘the sweet old lady’ who lived there. Everyone called her Miss Gloria. Folks went to her whenever they came up short on groceries for the week, since she was forever cooking big batches of fried chicken, soups or stews as if she still had ten mouths at home to feed. Star lived in 2C with her three boys: Teddy, Ty and T. That is to say, she lived there when she wasn’t cruising the bars in town, which was most of the time. Those kids were on their own most days. All three dads were long gone. They did okay without them. Hero lived in 2A. He once fought in a war. Said he couldn’t walk down city streets anymore without looking in upstairs windows, or on rooftops for snipers, so he mostly sat outside the tenement on rainy days, sat indoors on sunny days, drank cheap beer and smoked cigarettes streaked with hash oil. Patch lived in 2B. He lost his license to practice medicine after one of his patients died. He also lost his trophy wife, sportscar and big expensive house. Everyone went to Patch when they got sick or hurt, since nobody around there had health insurance. A limo driver named Running Man lived in 1C with occasional girlfriends, pretty ones too. He’d go out at the crack of dawn each and every day for a 10K run no matter what the weather was like.
Old Gramps lived in 1D for years until he died of pneumonia. Patch had told him he needed to go to the hospital, but he wouldn’t leave his birds. The caged birds he kept were gold finches, so after Old Gramps died, Hero released the twenty or so wild birds out the windows. Oh and Mrs. Barnard let everyone know that his real name was Henry Whitcomb, not Old Gramps. Another guy moved into 1D, but he left shortly after getting Star pregnant with T. Then a nice couple moved into that unit, Spike and Brenda, who were ‘real’ bikers. They were only there a year when Spike got shot dead trying to stop a junky from robbing Cliff’s corner market. Brenda took a bus to Florida after that to go live with her aunt once she sold the couple’s cherished hog. 1D stayed empty after that.
Apartment 2D was a mystery. Presumably it had been occupied for over six years, since the rent was always paid in full and on time, but no one was ever seen going in or out. Noises were sometimes heard from inside, possibly voices, but no one knew for sure. Mrs. Barnard had said if her place ever caught on fire she would not risk the life of a fireman by asking him to rescue the tenant in 2D. Well the building had caught on fire one morning and it went up quickly. They said everyone got out, but folks stuck around all the same just in case they found someone else in the rubble. They did not. Running Man arrived late on the scene, having gone out well before the fire ever got started.
Who am I? Just someone from the neighborhood. I remember how Officer Devlin spoke with me again about Kevin. My kid was always playing around with matches. No, he didn’t start that fire. I had told the cops a while back that I switched his pyro habit over to lava lamps. He owned six. It did the trick. Kev hung out with Star’s oldest boy, Teddy. They liked making plans together, wanted to start their own gang someday. Besides that, Kev was one of Patch’s regular patients—ear infections, strep, scraped knees and elbows, the usual kid stuff. I didn’t start the fire either. That was done by the occupants of 2D.
Mice had chewed through the walls and wiring with no one there to stop them, so that caused an electrical fire. Mrs. Barnard should have looked in on the ‘mystery unit’ from time to time. Also, the sprinkler system malfunctioned, never having been tested, so that caused the fire to spread quickly. A week later, officials charged both the property owner and the occupant of 2D with not meeting basic safety codes. So then Mrs. Barnard got sued by all her tenants.
After that they traced the funds for 2D’s rent back to a lawyer in Jersey, who managed the payments for a client. Some guy named Evan Grant, who owned a ranch out in Colorado, paid for the apartment and utilities so his mother could have her own place. He could have afforded something nicer in a better neighborhood, but he insisted that was where she told him she wanted to live, which only explained part of the mystery. A week later came another piece of the puzzle. Turns out Silvia Grant had died some five years before the fire in a hit-and-run accident. No one claimed her remains at the time. Police said since she had died before the current residents of the tenement had moved in, they would not have known her. Even Mrs. Barnard swore she didn’t remember her, which didn’t add up, considering she’d been the landlady there for over thirty years.
Meanwhile reports showed Grant was visibly upset by the news of his mother’s death, since he had been getting birthday and Christmas cards from her right along. He didn’t have them anymore, of course, but said he was certain they were mailed from the right place.
The cops took Mrs. Barnard away in handcuffs shortly after that. She confessed to everything. Seems she had been sending Grant those cards for the past five years. Even wrote notes inside, letting him know how she, his mother, was doing. And, to make matters worse, she was also the driver in the hit-in-run accident that killed his mother. Supposedly, she hit Silvia by accident, saying the sun was in her eyes that morning heading east on Lafayette and she never saw her in the crosswalk, but she didn’t turn herself in. Since the police found no address, phone or utility bill associated with a Silvia Grant, and no missing person’s report either, they never connected her with Barnard’s tenement. She was given a burial at the city’s expense.
Mrs. Barnard saw it as an opportunity. She left a radio on in 2D, playing an A.M. talk show station at low volume. Twice a week she would call Silvia’s landline from a payphone then hang up after two rings as if someone had picked it up. She also collected Silvia’s mail, having grabbed her keys from the scene of the accident. When asked why she did it, she said she liked the steady income and kept taking the rent money each month for unit 2D, knowing Grant never visited his mother. She even increased the amount each year. She also said she enjoyed sending Grant cards, and especially liked getting cards at Christmastime and Mother’s Day.
© 2020 by Andrée Gendron