It took more than a month for Conley to realize the old man was really gone — dead, moved out, packed off to a nursing home, God knows where, but the name Harold Collier was scraped off the mailbox by the duplex front gate, and Harold’s rusting yellow Rambler, the one that still had scuffed whitewall tires left over from sometime in the 1970s, wasn’t parked outside anywhere, and it had been a long time since Conley had heard anyone walking around in the apartment upstairs. He didn’t think he’d seen the old man since Easter, anyway, when Harold had knocked on his door and given him a cheap basket filled with green plastic grass and stale chocolate Easter eggs, which he had accepted and then stuffed into the kitchen trash can once the old man was gone.
That was March. Now it was July, still hot and sticky at ten o’clock at night, with the rank, murky smell of the ocean mingling with the pungent L.A. smog. From down the street came the distant sound of the accordion man, playing a familiar waltz. Chopin? Liszt? Conley wasn’t sure. He had opened a bottle of cold beer, some overmarketed IPA that was sure to be too strong on hops, and was about to light a cigarette and sprawl out in a cheap lawn chair on the bare concrete patio that was the main luxury of his slightly depressing $8,000 a month beachfront apartment and stare out at the Pacific lit up by moonlight, when he realized the upstairs apartment must now be empty. Empty! The old man was gone. He set the bottle down, stuffed the cigarettes back into his shirt pocket, and stood for a moment in his bare feet on the warm dirty sand outside his patio in the soft, damp heat, squinting and looking up at the dark balcony above him. It was the apartment he’d always wanted to live in, ever since he and Gloria had moved in two years before to the tiny two-bedroom beachfront unit with the downstairs view. The wrong view, in his opinion, though the apartment was in his preferred neighborhood, that not quite gentrified stretch of beachfront apartments and condos in Playa del Rey known, perhaps because it once had green plants, as the Jungle. South of the faded glamour of Marina del Rey, north of Manhattan Beach and west of the utterly anonymous L.A. district called Westchester, it provided clean air, easy access to the freeways, a relatively low crime rate and a middle class bohemian atmosphere reminiscent of Laurel Canyon in the ’60s. The neighbor on one side was a painter whose work was breaking into the Chelsea gallery scene in New York, with multiple reviews in the New York Times, and the woman on the other side was a singer songwriter who had just that week when they moved in done a Tiny Desk Concert on NPR.
If only Conley and Gloria’s apartment had the upstairs view.
“We can’t afford what they charge for upstairs!” Gloria had said, already a little testy at that point in their brief marriage. “We can’t even afford this place.” Gloria worked as an investment analyst, though, and the truth was that between the two of them they could afford almost anything in L.A. that couldn’t be described on Zillow as a mansion, though not especially owing to his erratic freelance paychecks from writing code. Gloria pestered him constantly to make more money but relented when he promised to look for more regular work, mentioning the possibility of a full time job with some corporation doing IT. He didn’t do that, though, preferring to stay home and write, and she left six months later and filed for divorce, leaving him the apartment and a stack of unpaid bills. And then, last month, the startup gig he had been counting on fell through, and his email suddenly fell silent on the subject of paid work of any kind.
Conley stood outside in the dark and took hold of a rain gutter downspout that ran down next to the little beachfront patio. He tugged on it, watched the sheet metal flex just slightly and shed flakes of white paint, and then, with sudden grace, pulled himself hand over hand quickly up the downspout until he was able to grab hold of the bottom rail of the wrought iron railing on the second floor balcony. He held on there for a moment, caught his breath (he’d been smoking too much lately, he had to admit) and peered through the sliding glass doors into the old man’s apartment, holding onto the rail like he was doing chin-ups.
He saw nothing but darkness. He waited a few long seconds, then a few seconds more, until his forearms began to burn, and finally he yanked himself hand over hand up the railing posts until he could flop over the top rail and land, not gracefully, on the balcony itself. He lay still for a second, flat on his belly on the dirty terra cotta tile, watching, listening, hearing nothing but his own wheezing breath and pounding heartbeat above the perpetual traffic and the hum of the distant accordion, now playing a jazzed up “Danny Boy.” This is my apartment now, he thought. He smiled and reached into his pocket for a cigarette as he rolled over and sat up to enjoy the view. This was his view. It was better from the second floor. It was the view he wanted.
The next day was Friday. That didn’t make a lot of difference in general to Conley’s life as an unemployed freelancer, but he figured on the weekend he’d have a better chance of picking up a girl at the Sandpiper, the bar down the street, assuming he could stay sober long enough to make it to closing time. Girls never wanted to leave the bar before they had to. And they rarely wanted to leave with him, and he knew why: He was pathetically short, pink of complexion, soft of build, not the leading man type. He bit his nails. He had rheumy blue eyes and a voice that sometimes still cracked, more than twenty years past puberty. At least, living where he did, he didn’t have to show anyone his car, a ten-year-old Honda Civic that rattled like an old lawnmower on the rare occasion that he took it out of the two locking garages that faced the street at the back of the building. A girl could walk arm in arm with him all the way from the Sandpiper just two blocks along the beach to the apartment, walking under L.A.’s green and purple starless sky, with the nearby sound of breaking waves, which was, he thought, a pretty romantic setting to begin a one-night stand.
“Lemme see,” the bartender was saying. She was tattooed, hard, pretty in a biker chick way, and was wiping out an ashtray and staring over his head at the television set on the far wall that had a baseball game on. “Patty melt, fries, whiskey ginger. Am I right?”
Conley nodded and smiled, but she had already turned around and punched his order into a computer terminal. “You know me too well,” he said.
“Every Friday night about this time.”
By the time he’d finished the sandwich and fries and downed his whiskey, and then had another one and ordered a third, the place was filling up. A table right behind him was a group of four men in suits who looked, he thought, like stockbrokers from an ‘80s movie. They were talking too loudly about a 10k race that three of them had run the previous weekend and were making jokes about beer and training and personal bests of various kinds.
The next table over sat two couples, older, quieter, looking a little offended by the boisterous brokers, if that’s what they were. Conley felt sympathetic.
Then he saw three women come in and sit down in a booth against the back wall. Two were typical L.A. beach bar beauties, tall, athletic, too tan, wearing tank tops over their boob jobs and tight jeans over the rest, but the third one was short and plain and dark haired, with thick glasses that made her almost unattractive. He was sitting by now sideways to the bar, so he could look out over the room as though he belonged there. The bartender picked up his empty glass and held it in front of him, a question in her mascaraed eyes. Conley nodded.
“Don’t go and fall off your stool,” she said, and poured him another.
Conley made sure to sip this one. The room had a comfortable buzz going now, and someone had swiped a credit card in the jukebox and was playing old Dylan songs. Conley glanced at the booth where the three women sat and offered a quick smile. The girl with glasses looked away and busied herself in conversation with her friends. Conley turned back to the bar and slumped a bit over his drink. The jukebox was pounding out “Everybody must get stoned,” and some of the people in the bar were singing along. Conley tapped his hand on the bar to the music. His drink suddenly looked almost empty — need to be careful here, he thought — and he downed the rest in a gulp, hoping the dark-eyed bartender would ask again if he wanted more so he wouldn’t have to call her over. He turned back toward the booth, and saw the three women laughing, apparently at some joke, and he laughed, too, as though he were in on it, and smiled at the girl in the glasses and suddenly she was yelling at him for no reason, “Would you stop staring at me, you asshole?” and the bartender snatched up his glass and said “You’re out of here. Don’t come back for a few weeks.” One of the stockbrokers stood up, wanting to be a hero, no doubt, but Conley managed to walk past them and out the front door without once looking again at the table where the three women sat.
A few nights later he climbed up on the upstairs balcony again. He had been working on a story all day long that wouldn’t gel and needed to get out. This time, more certain that the old man was indeed gone, he brought cigarettes and a pint bottle of bourbon. The bottle clanked against the downspout on the way up, making an alarming racket, but once Conley had flipped himself lightly over the top rail and landed, this time on his feet, he stood in plain view of anyone on the beach, drinking the whiskey and smoking as though he actually owned the entire building. He liked that idea: his building. It was a weeknight, and few people were out on the beach at nine o’clock, but a young couple was strolling towards Ballona Creek, which separated his beach, as he liked to imagine it, from Marina del Rey. The girl looked up and gave him a wave. He smiled, even though she probably couldn’t see his face clearly enough in the darkness to appreciate the gesture.
The weather felt cooler, even though it was high summer in Los Angeles. The night air had a taste of fog, he thought, and in the distance he could see the faint green luminescence of waves breaking on the beach behind the lifeguard station. He held the tip of his cigarette out in front of him and sketched shapes against the purple sky. A circle, a triangle, the letter “C,” as in Conley. A 747 roared overhead as it took off from LAX, banking sharply right once it got far enough offshore. The couple had nearly reached the creek, and the beach in front of the apartment looked deserted again. He wanted to sit back and relax, but his balcony — and it really was his balcony now, he thought — had no chair. He thought he would bring one along next time. He dropped his cigarette butt, still lit, into the patio below and reached into his pocket for a new one.
For the next week Conley didn’t visit the upstairs balcony again. First he had a long meeting with his lawyer about the divorce settlement, which was proving to be less generous than he had hoped. Gloria’s attorneys had convinced the judge that she had brought most of the financial assets to the marriage. And then, of course, he had signed that prenup, which pretty much meant all hope of alimony was dead, though he maintained she owed him maintenance because he had supported her when she transitioned between two jobs. “The problem, Conley, is she didn’t need any support,” the lawyer explained. “She could have been off work for a year and she still wouldn’t have needed help.”
That didn’t answer the question of how he was going to make the payments on the apartment. He was now three months behind, and the property management company was beginning to send irritating form letters asking him to call — “Immediately!”one said in red letters — and explain his plan for catching up on his rent.
So for the rest of the week he buried himself in his laptop, searching for jobs, looking at proposed salaries and rejecting them as a waste of effort. He did apply for one, a blind ad seeking an executive vice president to manage software for the accounting department at a brokerage firm. The resume Conley mailed off was brilliant, he thought, but perhaps a little too creative to pass scrutiny if the company was on the ball. Another application he sent by email was rejected within an hour as “not responsive to our qualifications.” Conley buried himself in self-help job-seeker websites that offered helpful tips like Embrace Your Reality and Balance Your Confidence With Beginner’s Mind. None offered ideas for finding a job within the next month that would pay $250,000 a year. He needed to file for unemployment, but he kept putting it off; it would be a long, hot drive to the nearest office. At night he lay on the couch, a thrift-shop reject he’d found for $10 in a parking lot outside Goodwill after Gloria had made off with all the furniture from the apartment, and did the New York Times crossword puzzle while drinking Jim Beam from a cracked coffee mug.
Conley wanted to go back to the Sandpiper for a drink but thought it might be too soon. He didn’t want to drive his car to another bar, as gas cost money, and he was increasingly aware how little money he had. And, in any case, it was cheaper to drink at home with whiskey from the Safeway. It was there, in the produce department one Saturday afternoon, that he met Angie, who had a shopping cart with three frozen dinners and a tub of Greek yogurt. She was trim and dark haired, with long tan arms, and was quizzically examining an overripe avocado.
“Don’t buy the ripe ones here,” he said. “They get too bruised in the store.”
“But what if I want to eat one tonight?” she said.
“Then you’ll have to invite me over for dinner,” he said. “I’ve got a couple perfect ones at home I can bring with the wine.”
They spent three days together at her place in Santa Monica before she figured out he was, in fact, fully unemployed and not in any way an up and coming screen writer on contract to Universal.
“But I do write screen plays,” he said. “I can show you one when you come to my place.”
“Out,” she said. “Or I’m dialing the cops.”
She wasn’t that good in bed anyway, he thought to himself as he began walking the six miles back to his apartment. Or maybe she was. He was losing any scale against which to measure that kind of thing.
When he got home early in the afternoon Conley showered and took a nap. Once he woke up, sometime a few hours after dark had fallen, he grabbed a folding chair and the Jim Beam bottle and headed directly for the upstairs balcony. It took him two trips to get them both over the rail, and on the second trip he nearly dropped the bottle when his hand slid on the downspout, causing him to lurch downward and slice open his left palm. After he got both feet on the balcony, though, he unfolded the chair, sat down, lit a cigarette, opened the whiskey and dabbed at his cut hand with a handkerchief. The night was cool and a little windy, and when he’d finished smoking the first cigarette he realized he was cold without a sweater. He stood up and started to climb back down to find one when he looked again at the sliding glass door. He’d never thought of going into the apartment. To his surprise, it wasn’t locked. Conley slid the door open wide and stood there on the balcony, peering in at the dark living room where Harold had once lived. He lit a match, which showed him a room full of furniture, all old pieces. He reached for a light switch and hesitated. Someone might see. Then he thought, this is L.A. No one will care. He turned the light on, and wondered who was paying the electric bill.
Harold’s living room looked like it had been furnished by an overgrown fraternity brother. A blond maple end table with one broken leg sat at the beach end of a faded crimson plush sofa, on which sat a stack of yellowing L.A. Times newspapers. A dirty Styrofoam cooler lay on its side near a warped card table. A pair of dingy sneakers were discarded on the floor, which had a threadbare rug. Conley tried to remember what Harold had looked like. Short, paunchy, balding, gray haired, fond of Bermuda shorts and wifebeater t-shirts was as far as his mind could go. Maybe a baseball cap, or one of those Brit caps that old men think are stylish. Conley picked up one of the newspapers and checked the date: February. Five months old. Harold really was gone.
In the kitchen, he found dirty dishes in the stainless steel sink and some moldy cheese and crackers on a plate on the counter. The refrigerator was running and held a single bottle of Hamms beer, some dried out looking apples, and a foul smelling quart of milk. He closed the door quickly and opened the window over the sink to let the smell out.
Conley found the traffic cone in the single bedroom. The rest of the room was even emptier than the living room and kitchen, and he wondered who had cleaned up when the old man died, assuming he had died and hadn’t simply moved out. The cone was one of those big orange plastic things, about three feet tall with a square black base; it had some kind of covering, and it took Conley a moment to realize in the darkness what it was: Dozens of matchbooks, almost all of them from L.A. bars, were glued to the sloping surfaces of the cone. He looked closer. They all had names. Prince O’Whales. Mo’s Place. The Starcatcher. A couple were from Nevada. Caesars Palace. The Hotel Mizpah in Tonopah. Denny’s. There was one from a restaurant he’d never heard of in New York. When did the old man collect all these? Did restaurants still give out free matches? Conley ran his hand down the cardboard surface of the cone, as though petting a dog with giant scales. The matchbooks held firm. He pulled at the top of one until be could feel something tear. It looked like the old man had used a hot glue gun to fix all the matchbooks in place, row by careful row.
Conley flipped one matchbook open. All the matches but one — he wondered, then, did the old man smoke? — were still in place, like cardboard bristles with dark red tips. He pulled one more match from the book and struck it on the dark rough strip at the bottom of a gray book from Lucy’s El Adobe. The match flared bright in the room’s darkness, then slumped back into a small orange flame. He shook it out and dropped the match on the floor, and then took the traffic cone into the living room so he could sit down on the couch and look at it for a long time.
He finally made it to the unemployment office the next week, which required a forty-five minute drive to Lakewood, and, after standing in line reading a magazine for twenty minutes, was told he should apply online for faster service.
“But I’m here now,” Conley said.
“Yes,” the clerk said. “But it’s faster to apply online.” She was a short, expressionless woman of about 40, and didn’t make eye contact with him.
“I don’t have my computer with me.”
The clerk shrugged. “Go home. You can apply from home. It’s faster.”
“Are you going to say the same thing to all these other people who are waiting?”
“If they didn’t read the instructions on our website, yes.” She slid closed a wooden gate across her window, turned around and disappeared into a back room.
That night he sat at the kitchen table and answered questions about his now-former job. How long had he worked there? What was his title? What was his exact salary? He didn’t actually know; Monica had made all the money, anyway. Did he leave his job voluntarily? Of course not. He filled in what he knew and made the rest up.
A week later he got a letter from the Employment Development Department, a piece of paper marked DE 1080cz. His claim had been denied because his former employer had reported that he had been terminated for cause. He had the right to file an appeal of the decision within 30 days. He could find details for his appeal online. Conley wadded the paper up and threw it across the room, missing the wastebasket by a foot.
A week after that, about ten o’clock on a Friday night, he climbed up to the upstairs apartment once more just long enough to grab the traffic cone with all its matches and drop it gently onto his patio below. Once he’d climbed down, he set the cone back upright — it had fallen on its side when he dropped it — and went inside to retrieve a pack of cigarettes, his butane lighter and a cough syrup bottle he’d filled with gasoline siphoned from his car.
Conley sat in the lawn chair on his balcony for a few minutes until the beach looked empty of people; then he grabbed his cigarettes and the bottle and picked up the cone by its top and half walked, half ran the fifty yards across the empty beach to the edge of the water. Glancing quickly around he set the cone upright on the sand. Then he poured the gasoline over the top of the cone. Finally he it a cigarette and took one satisfying puff before he opened a matchbook on the bottom row — from the Brown Derby on Wilshire — and then closed it again on the still burning cigarette. He’d once read about using a cigarette and matchbook that way; it was a poor man’s bomb timer. He wondered if it worked.
He took one last look at the cone and turned and ran, trying to look like an innocent late-night jogger, back to the apartment house, where he climbed up onto the upstairs balcony where he’d already dragged the easy chair from the living room. Then he sat down, lit a cigarette, sipped from the bottle of Jim Beam and watched and waited.
Nothing happened. He could just make out the small dot that was the traffic cone in the purple half darkness of the Los Angeles night, but he couldn’t see any sign of the lit cigarette.
It must have gone out, he thought, wondering if it would be safe to walk back out and set another burning cigarette in place. He thought not. Someone might see. He poured himself a drink from the Jim Beam he’d been leaving on the balcony of the apartment — his apartment, now, he figured — and leaned against the balcony rail, looking out for a while before settling back down in the chair. A woman was walking her dog on the beach now, about half way between him and the cone, which he still could see no fire from. He reached into his pocket for another cigarette to go with the bourbon and cupped his hands to light it in the slight breeze when suddenly the cone went off like a Roman candle, a quick tall pillar of rushing fire taller than the woman’s silhouette. She screamed and ran off with her dog; he heard other voices, but couldn’t tell where they came from. The cone looked like a burning column in the distance, illuminating the edge of the ocean as the fire gradually subsided into a slumped glowing pile. On the ocean breeze he could just catch a whiff of burned rubber and gasoline. Conley smiled and took another sip of bourbon. He slept comfortably that night in the easy chair on his new upstairs balcony.
He gets a job. Temporary, in San Diego, but enough money to keep him afloat for a few months.
Three months later, Conley was flat out exhausted when he got home one night from San Diego. He’d worked without a day off for ten weeks, ten in the morning until midnight or later, unraveling an accounting snafu that the CFO had thought was intentional but turned out to be baroque incompetence, and then had tried too hard to keep up with the party scene that seemed grafted onto the little tech firm like a beer in the hand of a frat boy. It all made him wonder if forty was just too old for the life he liked to live. He got back to Playa del Rey well after midnight on a chilly fall night and had to park his car on the street a block from the condo; a vintage black Porsche was parked across the middle of the duplex’s two outdoor spaces, blocking them both. He was too tired to call and wait for a tow truck, but he easily found a space. He grabbed his suitcase from the trunk, locked the car and strolled back to the condo, glad to be home. He glanced inside the Porsche as he walked by and saw a trim leather briefcase on the passenger seat.
When he’d left it was July, but now it was October, and the apartment felt cold. He put down his suitcase, flipped on the light over the dining table and dialed up the heat on the wall thermostat. The furnace groaned into life, and he could smell a season’s worth of dust as it began to pour warm air out through the ceiling vents. He left his suitcase in the kitchen next to the fridge and walked once around his apartment, looking into each room. Everything seemed to be as he’d left it. He unpacked, put his clothes away in the dresser and closet, and finally headed outside through the sliding glass doors, a newly opened beer in hand and an unopened pack of cigarettes in his pocket.
It was after midnight, a Saturday, and the night air was just moist and cool enough that he was glad he had pulled on a sweatshirt. He sat in the dingy patio lawn chair. He was surprised the chair hadn’t been stolen in his absence, though he was irritated to find a pile of old cigarette butts, not his brand, that someone had left next to the chair. He drank a beer and smoked and watched late-night beachgoers walk along the sand. One woman carried a flashlight, though the moon was full and she didn’t need one. Conley drained his beer, set the bottle down on the glass-topped patio table, and hoisted himself up the downspout. He grabbed onto the bottom of the upstairs balcony rail and was about to climb the rest of the way up when he gripped hard with both hands and froze. A light was on inside the apartment. He could hear the sound of a television program. He clung to the iron rail, his eyes barely above the ledge, and edged himself as far into the corner of the balcony as he could get and still see. Heavy thick curtains were drawn most of the way across the sliding glass door, leaving about a six-inch gap through which he could just glimpse a new red sofa and a sleek, modern looking floor lamp, which seemed to offer the only illumination in the room. His arms were beginning to ache, but he couldn’t stop looking. He thought the room had been repainted; the walls were white, and cleaner than the old man had left them. He raised himself up just far enough to see the apartment floor; it was covered in new beige carpeting. Someone had moved in, he thought — into his apartment. His apartment. He clenched his teeth at the intrusion.
He barely heard her footsteps. As he was trying to locate the sound, a woman appeared behind the curtains masking the glass door and stood for a moment next to the floor lamp, holding a glossy magazine under the light and flipping through its pages. She had dark hair that ran down past her shoulders and was wearing a silky blue bathrobe that hung open; Conley could make out white panties and the curve of a firm breast, but her face was turned slightly away. She dropped the magazine on the sofa and picked up a small, squat cocktail glass from the end table and switched off the floor lamp. The room disappeared for a moment into darkness. He felt it, more than saw or heard, as she walked to the glass doors and opened the dark curtains wide. Then she unlocked the latch with a sharp click and slid the door all the way open. She was short, about five-four, five-five, and slightly stocky. After standing in the doorway for a moment, illuminated by the pale light of the metropolitan sky, she stepped out on the balcony, barefoot, the robe cinched up tight now around her waist, and seemed to scan the beach, her bare feet almost reachable from the shadowed corner where his arms were burning in pain. He couldn’t climb down; she would hear any move he could make. He didn’t know how much longer he could hold on. And he couldn’t stop looking at her. The thin silk robe clung to her body like an evening gown. In the diffuse city twilight he could just make out her face — a little dark, thick featured, with dark round eyes. Was she Mexican? Asian? In the semidarkness she could be anything. Her forehead was full and wide, and now he wasn’t sure whether she was a worn out thirty or a youthful fifty. She balanced the tumbler of whiskey — he could smell it now, a smoky grade of scotch — on the top of the narrow metal rail, turning it like a dial with her thumb and one thin finger to be sure it would balance. She wore dark nail polish. She reached into the robe’s pocket and pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette, which she lit with a match from a book. In the sudden flare spreading from her cupped hands, her face was younger, but still wide and dark; she had thick black eyebrows and fine, small hands. A breeze was blowing up the beach, toward Conley, and the smoke from the joint smelled dark, sweet, and inviting. Below, a teenaged boy energetically pedaling a fat-tire bike along the beach looked up at Conley and grinned, but didn’t slow down. The woman scanned the view, starting with the airport glow over the beach to the south and slowly turning to her right, towards him, and taking in the whole expanse up to the creek channel. She was looking directly over his head now as she took another hit from the joint. He stopped breathing; certainly she must see him, he thought, but she seemed oblivious. Her hair looked long and shiny as the lights from the south silhouetted it. Conley’s arms hurt so much he thought he would fall, and he focused on breathing slow and steady. That made his head hurt. She finally turned away from the view and stepped back inside the apartment; when he heard the door latch click shut he let go the rail and slid quickly back down the downspout, his numbed hands instantly losing their grip on the painted metal. He hit the ground so hard he twisted his right ankle and collapsed in a heap on the sand, shivering in the cold.
A week later Conley was at home on a warm weekend afternoon arranging furniture that he’d ordered through an interior designer in Santa Monica. Her name was Carmela Fuentes, and he had met her just before he got the gig at the bank in San Diego. She was tall and dark and offered a nice combination of restrained and flashy, giving him the impression she could, by simple force of her vision, make his home into an aggressive statement of refined wealth and power. When she came to see the apartment, he told her he wasn’t living there yet. “I see the last tenant left behind quite a bit of trash,” she said, not betraying whether she believed his story or not. He signed a contract with her right before leaving for San Diego. It would cost him $25,000 for her to redesign his whole life, from picking out fresh paint and new carpet to a modernist sofa in pale pastel green. He figured it was worth it, an investment in his future. Look rich, act rich, be rich.
The whole week while he was working on the apartment he never once saw or heard the neighbor upstairs. In the evenings he would walk on the beach, looking up when he returned in the hope of seeing a light in the upstairs living room, but it was always dark and empty. The black Porsche had disappeared from the parking area, and there was no sign of its owner. He would settle onto his patio with a beer and cigarette as the sun set over the water and wonder whether he could get away with climbing upstairs and looking in through the glass door once it was dark. Each time he thought of this, though, he imagined getting arrested.
It took him until nine that night to get all the furniture unwrapped, assembled and placed around the rooms, and all the packaging tied up in bundles and dropped in the recycling bins outside. The deliverymen had put the bed together and situated it in the bedroom but left the rest of the furniture in the living room, much of it partially assembled and sheathed in white plastic, so by the time he had every piece in place he was too tired to enjoy what was supposed to be the new look to his new life. He had just sat down on the sofa with a glass of whiskey when someone knocked at the door. No one had ever knocked on his door, he thought, except for the old man who used to live upstairs. He looked through the fisheye in the door and saw a dark haired woman facing away from the door, looking out at the street, and dancing impatiently. It was the woman from upstairs, he realized, and froze. He felt like he’d just been caught by the police breaking into her house.
He had to open the door.
“Hi neighbor,” she said, holding out a slender hand that had nail polish but no rings. He looked quizzically at her, and then remembered he should shake her hand. It was warm and dry, and didn’t linger too long in his grasp. “I’m Debbie. From upstairs.” She looked at him knowingly, he thought, as though she had seen him dangling from her balcony that night. Up close, her face was round and a little soft; she had full lips, with smudged red lipstick, and ore light mascara.
“I’m Conley,” he said.
“I came to borrow a cup of sugar when I heard you rustling around down here.”
“Not sure I have any.”
“A drink would probably do.” She walked past him into the living room and looked around with what seemed like approval. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “This all smells brand new,” she said. “Nice sofa.” She sat down on the green pastel couch. “So what are you offering?”
In the light she looked older again. Maybe even forty-five, and not youthful at all. Conley didn’t mind, but he wanted to know where he stood. She was wearing a blue knit dress with a wide belt, with stockings and heels. He wondered where she had been. She wore her dark hair down on her shoulders.
Conley went to the kitchen and poured two glasses of whiskey. “It’s Jim Beam or nothing,” he said. “Ginger ale in yours?” She shook her head and took a drink from his hand. He thought about sitting next to her on the couch, decided against, and sat in an overstuffed chair facing the patio. The chair felt uncomfortable, and he wondered how much money it had cost him.
“Lived here long?” she said.
“Just moved in.”
“Nice place. Took me forever to find anything on the beach I could buy. I’m from Wichita. Grew up there. Haven’t seen enough ocean in my life yet. You?”
Conley wondered which story she wanted to hear. “Grew up in Seattle,” he said. “Moved here for work. Never managed to leave.”
She got up and was wandering barefoot around the apartment, running her fingers over the edges of chairs and examining pictures on the walls like she was a buyer in a store. She stopped in front of a little painting of a horse in a pasture.
“Is that real?”
“I mean, is it like real art? Not a print or anything?”
“It’s a real painting,” he said. “By a guy named C.S. Price, who worked as a cowboy in Wyoming before he became an artist. I found it at a rummage sale in Oregon.” This was all a lie.
“You an artist?” she said.
Conley shook his head a little sadly. “No, you?”
“Don’t know the first thing about it.”
He offered to refill her glass, but she sat on the edge of the sofa and slipped her shoes back on.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Not an Artist, but I have to be up early in the morning. And thanks for the drink. Next one’s on me.” She smiled and headed out the door, and ten seconds later he could hear her walk into the upstairs apartment in her heels.
Conley found a job. A newly established software company in Culver City had just gotten a big military contract and was looking for a chief financial officer, and the headhunting firm it brought in had, perhaps, skimped on the background check they promised on their website, and Conley, to his amazement, was invited for an interview at CXXX’s headquarters with just enough notice he could spend the last two thousand dollars in his checking account on a new pale gray suit, rush delivery on alterations, along with a dress shirt and tie and new shoes. He loved being dressed up, and even bought a new fountain pen he could be seen using to take any necessary notes. The young investors in the firm were clearly cowed by his slight advantage in age and fashion and offered him the job the next day — $300k a year with plenty of stock options and a parking place in the private ground-floor lot.
When he was ten years old, Conley went on a camping trip with a school friend’s family to Sequoia National Park. It was the end of August, a long hot drive up the San Joaquin Valley from Los Angeles. He and Roger Antonelli, his classmate, sat in the back seat of a blue Chevy Malibu that Roger’s father drove, pointing out the sights off the side of the freeway, while Roger’s mother, a sad, dumpy woman with dark hair tied in a bun, sat in the front seat and knitted. Roger was tall and thin and stronger than Conley, making him popular among the other fourth graders, but Conley helped him out with his math homework and taught him to play chess, and the friendship stuck.
They had gotten up early that morning at Captain Antonelli’s insistence — an early start being something close to a commandment in the Antonelli family, or so it seemed — and pulled in to a truck stop on the edge of Bakersfield for breakfast. Captain Antonelli, a thin, blue-eyed man with a close-cropped ring of white hair around a shiny bald spot on top of his head, was in the Air Force, but that’s all he would say. Conley’s own father said he thought Antonelli worked in the spy program in one of those big complexes in the South Bay. At breakfast the captain ordered breakfast of sausage and eggs and toast and hashbrowns for each of the four of them without asking Conley what he wanted. Mrs. Antonelli kept knitting, her eyes glued to the pink wooly scarf that was taking vague shape in her lap. “Making good time,” the captain said, wiping up egg yolk with a slice of toast. “Ought to make it to our campsite with plenty of time to set up the tent.” His wife never looked up.
That afternoon they set up a frayed green canvas tent that held four folding cots with sleeping bags. Conley had only ever seen pictures of a tent like this when he looked through a Sears catalog. For dinner Captain Antonelli had built a fire in a stone fire ring, and Mrs. Antonelli boiled up a pot of spaghetti she had brought from home. As she cooked, the captain drank from a whiskey bottle that was already half empty. “Those noodles ought to be done now,” he said. “Overcook them and we’ll have to throw them out.” Mrs. Antonelli dumped them into a strainer perched on an old stump. They slurped down their dinner from plastic plates with plastic forks once it was covered with a steaming red sauce of tomato and sausage. The captain toasted slabs of French bread right on the fire and slathered them with melted butter and garlic heated in a small black frying pan. Roger picked at his food and said he wanted a hamburger. “You forgot the goddamned parmesan,” the captain said to his wife. Conley was startled. He’d never heard anyone talk that way to a woman. The captain sat heavily down in his chair, spilling a stream of red sauce onto the front of his shirt. “This dinner is a pile of shit.” Conley, who was used to TV dinners most nights at home, thought he’d never eaten anything as good, and said so. Mrs. Antonelli smiled quietly down into her plate of spaghetti. The captain looked at Conley as though he hadn’t realized he was there, then went quiet, lost in his thoughts as he sat and looked at the fire and drained the last of the whiskey.
After dinner they sat by the fire in their folding canvas chairs. Roger looked bored until he grabbed a comic book he had brought along for the trip. Mrs. Antonelli washed the dishes out in a big bucket of hot soapy water and stacked them in a wire rack to dry.
“Used to be a lot of bears in this camp ground,” the captain suddenly said. “You remember that, Roger? They came right up to the tent one night, trying to steal food.”
Roger looked up from his comic book and shrugged. “Maybe,” he said, and went back to reading.
“You just don’t remember. It’s been a few years since we were here. You might have been all of four.”
Bears? Thought Conley, and tried not to look alarmed.
“Roger thought he was going to be eaten and ran and hid in the car.”
Roger buried his face deeper in the comic book.
“Conley, you ever seen a real live bear?”
Conley shook his head, no.
“You’ll probably see one here. Maybe tonight.”
“Hush that nonsense,” Mrs. Antonelli said, her voice sharp. She stood up. “You’ll scare the boys,” she went on, more quietly. Conley thought was the first time he had heard Roger’s mother speak. “There aren’t any bears here,” she said. “No bears at all.”
That night Conley lay in his sleeping bag, which had pictures of Daniel Boone wearing a coonskin cap printed on its plush felt lining, and listened for bears until he couldn’t stay awake a minute longer.
The next day the captain announced, while Mrs. Antonelli was making scrambled eggs and bacon, that he was taking the boys for a hike. “We’ll go down the trail to the creek,” he said. “Maybe do some swimming there if the water’s not too cold. Mama can stay here and protect our campsite from the bears.” Conley thought she looked relieved at her unexpected assignment. “It’ll be a boys’ day out.”
Mrs. Antonelli shrugged. She packed the three of them a lunch of salami sandwiches with cheese and mustard, some potato salad in plastic bins and an orange for each of them. As they left, she took the captain aside and handed him a small bottle of whiskey. “I found this in the car,” she said, a girlish tone to her voice. “Thought you might enjoy having some at the creek.”
Captain Antonelli looked startled and confused. A smile began to spread across his face. “That’s why I married this gal,” he said to the boys, and wrapped his arm around her. “She’s a firecracker.” Conley couldn’t read the expression on Mrs. Antonelli’s face.
The hike was long and hot. The captain apparently didn’t remember where the fishing hole was, and they got lost for a while in a steep maze of redwood trees and low, clingy vines when he took them on a shortcut. At one point he made the boys sit down and tried to explain how to find directions in the forest without using a compass, but they never did figure out where north was, and Conley wondered what good it would have done as they didn’t have a map anyway and knowing where north was wouldn’t have helped, so they kept wandering on, working their way down a slope that got steeper the closer they got to the creek below them.
Finally Roger spied the edge of the trail they were supposed to be on, several hundred yards straight up a steep rocky slope from where they were sitting. The captain started to argue, but even he could see that they had no choice but to reclimb the slope. He sat down on a rock, reached into his knapsack and pulled out the little bottle of whiskey Mrs. Antonelli had found for him. “One for the road,” he said, and drained it half way down in two large gulps. The captain shook his head, smiled, and put the bottle back into the knapsack. “Up we go,” he said, and started straight up the hillside. He took no more than two or three steps when he stopped, looked around with an expression of alarm, reached with one hand for his chest and fell to the ground, rolling out of control fifty more feet down the slope before he came to a stop against a small tree.
Conley and Roger looked at each other without saying a word. Conley wanted to ask what happened, but he could see Roger didn’t know, either. The captain wasn’t saying anything. They could barely see him, lying still in the vines that surrounded the tree. By the time they made their way down slope, slipping and falling with each awkward step along the way, it was clear from the purple color of his face that the captain was dead.
Conley, smart but Aspergersy, a software guy who writes not very successful fiction, lives downstairs in a beachfront duplex in Playa del Rey. He becomes obsessed with owning the upstairs unit when the old man who lived there disappears and Conley starts hanging out in the apartment as if it were his. Then one day a woman shows up — the new upstairs owner. She’s middle aged, a manager somewhere, and lonely. He and she dance around each other, begin an affair. He thinks if he marries her he can have the apartment, but comes uncomfortably up against the fact that would mean getting rid of her. The police show up at his door one day asking questions about the old man. It starts to look like Conley murdered him. The woman is questioned as well. Did you kill him? she asks. The police suspicions give him the idea of killing her.
Conley takes a temp job in San Diego, where he stays at a hotel. He’s helping code a video game about murder. The game script gives him an idea for killing the neighbor.
New start 2-14-18
It was one of those perfect LA days where the sun gently warms you against the morning chill. Conley sat on his porch, listening to the sounds of the woman walking around upstairs, trying to finish the crossword puzzle in the New York Times in under ten minutes. He’d never managed to work one that fast. His best effort yet was thirteen minutes and a few seconds. He liked to think of that as thirteen minutes flat, even though it made him uncomfortable to cheat. This time it wasn’t going to be ten minutes or even thirteen. He was stuck on a simple across clue: “banana republic.” Five letters, starting with “M.” Mozambique. Morocco. Madagascar. Was there a country called Monterrey? He dropped the puzzle on the ground, where it caught a slight breeze and blew up against the sliding glass door, and fished in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and matches. He wondered what the woman was doing right now, He could hear her footsteps inside her apartment even though he was sitting outside. Maybe, he thought, she was getting ready to go to work. Conley lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and leaned his head back so he could see the ceiling of his porch. That was the bottom of her balcony, he thought, the balcony where he liked to sit and watch people on the beach before she moved in.
He had to find a way to get that apartment.
Every day, usually in the afternoon but sometimes late into the evening, Conley sat down for three hours at the tiny desk in his spare bedroom writing The Great Gatsby, a work he had admired since high school. Gatsby would be his 76th novel. The other 75, which filled a procession of black composition books, which he bought by the case at Office Max, were arranged in long lines on shelves. Instead of working at a computer, he wrote his work out slowly by hand in block letters on the pages, setting it down in five pages a day, which took him about three hours to finish. When he reached the end of the fifth page he stopped writing, even in mid sentence. Conley had even worked out a formula, based his years of experience with this practice, that could give him an estimate of how long a book would take him to complete at this rate. The formula was
Days = Words / 650
650 being the number of words he could fit comfortably on five wide-rule composition book pages. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby contained 49,445 words, and Conley always tried to match the length of his own version of a story closely to that of the original. So using the formula he estimated that Gatsby would take him 76 work days, or a little more than 15 weeks. He liked to take weekends off. The work was satisfying and tiring, but Conley usually turned out three or four new novels a year that way, each one filing two or three 100-page composition books with his blocky printed letters. That meant he had a small library of works now; Gatsby would be, when finished, the 36th book he’d completed.
His first effort was a slender Japanese novel by Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, which Conley read and then immediately transcribed when a sophomore in high school. He didn’t know yet what had moved him to begin copying the text from the worn paperback that held a translation by Edward Seidensticker. Conley at first thought of it as a way of training himself as a writer. Much as beginning artists were assigned by their teachers to copy master works in museums, he thought the meditative process of transcribing Kawabata and Seidensticker’s words into a composition book would give his own work something like style, an attribute he was afraid his actual writing lacked.
He had begun one evening twenty-five years before, sitting up in the single studio bed in his bedroom at his parents’ house, a freshly sharpened pencil and a clean spiral-bound school notebook at his side. Conley, at that point, had no notion of copying down the entire novel, though he had chosen it, in part, because of its brevity. Snow Country has a mere 34,220 words. He began writing, in cursive, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop. A girl who had been sitting on the other side of the car came over and opened the window in front of Shimamura….” Within ten minutes, though, the back of Conley’s hand ached from gripping his pencil, and holding the floppy notebook flat against the roundness of his knees caused him to hunch his shoulders uncomfortably. Worse, by the time he had entered just three pages of text into the notebook his penmanship had degraded to near illegibility. He put the project aside, thinking he might find some other way to inculcate style into his work than copying.
Over the next week, though, Conley found himself thinking about the Kawabata book incessantly; the snow, the exotic locale, the low-class geisha with whom the businessman falls in love. Conley liked the notion of imitation. He considered reading the book aloud into a tape recorder, but he didn’t have money to buy one. Finally he walked to the stationery shop three blocks from his parents’ house and bought three black composition books, having selected them for their stiff cardboard covers, and a Japanese rollerball pen. That night he started over, this time sitting up primly at a desk that he had never once used for his school work. This time he tried printing block letters instead of his shaky cursive. The pen glided as lightly over the paper as a mountain goat on a trail, and he completed five pages of text before he was aware of the passage of time. It took him not quite three months before he wrote, “XXXXXX.”
Conley didn’t stop there. Within days he was busily transcribing — he didn’t call the work “writing” just yet, even to himself — the text of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond,” he began, “and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland.”
Now the nicely decorated spare room in Conley’s apartment was lined with rows of composition books, tied with string into small bundles. He had never shown the room to Debbie; he worried she wouldn’t understand.
It took a month for him to work up the nerve to ask her out. He hadn’t seen her, except once or twice, because of his long hours working at the bank, though that project was, mercifully, winding down. Finally he slipped a note under the door of her apartment one morning after he had heard the Porsche fire up and drive away down Trolley Lane.
“Let’s have dinner at the Italian place tomorrow night,” was all it read. “My treat.” When he got back from work that night he found the note folded up and tucked under his door. “Come get me at 7,” she had scrawled, and then signed it with a lipstick kiss. He smelled the paper as if she might have left some feminine smell, perfume, perhaps, or pheromones. He could smell nothing but the cheap paper.
The Italian place was Lucky’s, just a block over from the duplex. Owned by an elderly couple, whose son managed the business, it had glossy black and white signed photos of various athletes and movie stars from the 1950s and ‘60s hanging framed on the walls. His favorite was of Bob Hope with XXXX; the two celebrities, seated together at one of the red checkered tablecloth tables, were toasting the photographer with their glasses of champagne, though Conley thought that Hope was giving Mansfield a conspiratorial wink, dismissing the entire process. ADD CELEBS.
He knocked on her door at 7:02 p.m. Conley hadn’t had time to change clothes when he got home from the bank, though he took off his necktie and hung it in the closet before giving himself a quick shave. Conley thought that women hated five o’clock shadow.
She didn’t answer right away, and Conley was debating knocking again, when she opened the door and handed him a cocktail glass with a skewered olive. “I hope you drink martinis,” she said, and swept her other hand toward the living room. “Come in!”
Conley stepped tentatively into her apartment. He hadn’t been inside the upstairs room since the night he had set fire to the old man’s traffic cone on the beach.
“Have a seat,” she said, and disappeared into the back. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Conley sat tentatively down on the couch – a new couch since the old man’s days. In fact, as he looked around he realized the entire apartment looked completely different since he’d been there the last time. The floor had a new carpet, and the walls were freshly painted in a warm white, not quite khaki colored. The room was devoid of knickknacks, with the exception of a small framed photo on the end table; it looked like a vacation snapshot of Debbie in some Mexican tourist trap. Cancun, he thought. And then his eyes focused on the view, of the sun setting over the ocean beyond the long flat strip of the beach below. The view he’d never quite had from his own apartment. The view that had to be his.
“Shall we go?” The woman’s voice jolted him from his reverie.
Conley stood up, feeling suddenly disoriented. His hand went to his forehead as if to soothe a headache.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked.
“I’m fine, fine,” he stammered. “Shall we go?”
Dinner was an awkward affair. She couldn’t find a vegetarian dish on the menu that suited her, so she ordered just a salad, which she picked at while Conley ate greasy lasagna and she interrogated him about his life.
“I’m in banking,” she said, taking a careful sip from a glass of white wine that had taken her ten minutes of discussion with the waiter to order. “Senior vice president, that’s what they call me, instead of giving me a raise.”
Conley chewed a bite of garlic bread and hmmmmed interest.
“And you. Let me guess,” she said. “Real estate?”
Conley flinched. She must have seen his car. He swallowed the last morsel of bread and washed it down with a gulp of Merlot.
“Software,” he finally said. “I do freelance work, mostly in security.”
She looked at him harder, then seemed to have dismissed whatever it was she was about to say. “That sounds fascinating.” Even Conley could tell she was lying. “And I write novels,” he said, to which she said nothing.
After dinner Conley suggested they take a walk on the beach below the apartment house. To his surprise she said yes, with apparent enthusiasm, and even more to his surprise she put one hand on his shoulder at the edge of the sand as she slipped off her shoes for walking in the sand.
They headed out onto the wide beach, careful to watch for broken glass and beer cans in the sand. The sun was long gone, but a full moon had started to rise over the city behind them, lighting them up like a distant diffuse spotlight from behind. The sand was warm on Conley’s bare feet. The beach was empty of people. Conley thought he might suggest a quick swim when they got to the water, but changed his mind. She wasn’t as easy as some of the women he met at the bar.
As they reached the water, he could see the charred and melted traffic cone. No one had moved it. Someone had traced circles in the sand around it and had written “alien spaceship crash” with an arrow pointing at the sticky, tarry mess.
“What is that?” she said.
“They never clean this beach.”
In the end they strolled together on the warm, soothing sand just above the water’s edge, occasionally having to run together up onto the beach to escape a bigger than usual wave. She even started laughing when he slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water, then came over and put her hand on his back again. “Well, you’re not a ballet dancer,” she said. “Perhaps a comedian.”
He slipped one arm around her waist, and noticed happily that she didn’t pull away. “That lifeguard stand,” he said, and pointed south to a distinct silhouette in the distance. “That’s our turnaround point.”
When they got back to the apartment building she kissed him warmly outside the door of his apartment but didn’t offer to come in when he suggested a night cap. “Work tomorrow,” she said.
He stood on the concrete sidewalk by his kitchen door and watched her walk up the stairs, her white cotton slacks pulled tight around her bottom. At the top, she turned and looked at him with a smile.
“Next time,” she said, “let’s make it a swim.”
Next time didn’t come for two months. Conley never saw her, despite the fact she lived just one floor up, upstairs, in the apartment he was supposed to be enjoying. Upstairs. Their work schedules never seemed to coincide, and he didn’t think it was a good idea to call her. For two weeks she wasn’t even there; she left a note under his door before she left explaining she was headed for Tokyo on business.
That night he climbed up the gutter to the upstairs balcony. Even though the calendar said June, it was cool out and slightly foggy as he sat on the balcony floor – she had put the outdoor chairs inside while she was gone – and watched the waves breaking in green explosions of phosphorescence across the beach. It was Friday, and the beach was full of people, mostly teenagers from a nearby high school – probably Westchester, Conley thought – celebrating with a grad night beach party, the kind of party to which parents and chaperons aren’t invited. Conley reached into his pocket for a cigarette and realized he had left them downstairs in his living room. He sat with his eyes closed for a good five minutes, trying to decide whether it was worth climbing the downspout once more for a smoke, before he decided on adding a couple beers to reward his effort. By the time he had gone down, stuffed the beers and cigarettes into a day pack and climbed to the balcony once more, his watch said it was nearly midnight. He opened the fresh pack, lit a cigarette and took a sip of the Guinness. He wondered briefly whether it was worth climbing back down to get a lawn chair, and decided against. By the time he had finished both bottles of beer, he had smoked five of the cigarettes, the whole time thinking of Debbie and what it would take to get her to marry him. Then the condo would be his.
Back in his own living room Conley wondered if he would see the upstairs neighbor, as he always thought of her, again at all. She seemed like something of an apparition in his life. Women either tumbled into bed for a drunken screw or they smiled, kissed his cheek and disappeared. He thought the neighbor – Debbie was her name, wasn’t it? – might be different. She wasn’t one of the party girls he knew from west L.A. And yet she wasn’t all serious and strait laced.
He wanted to get into her apartment. The next night he climbed upon the balcony again, this time carrying a screw driver and a putty knife with a thin plastic blade. He though he might be able to undo the lock, though he didn’t know anything about locks and didn’t know how to pick one. But when he got upstairs and shined his flashlight on the door handle, he could see the handle wasn’t actually locked. Instead what was keeping the door from opening was a metal bar lying in the inside track for the sliding door. He could open the door about two inches – far enough to get a whiff of the apartment’s warm, musty smell – but far from enough to allow him to get in, or even to reach in with one hand and pull the bar out of the track. He lit a cigarette and looked a long time at the offending bar. If he had a piece of stiff wire – a wire coat hanger might do – he could reach in and hook the bar out of place.
In the end he worked at it for almost two hours, including climbing back down from the balcony and back up again with a black coat hanger from his closet. He untwisted the top of the hanger and straightened the wire out – it gave him a piece about five feet long – and then sat down on the concrete balcony and peered in by the dimming light of his flashlight. He slid the door as far open as it would go, and then laid the straightened wire down on the balcony next to the sliding door. He cursed silently. The wire wasn’t long enough to reach the metal bar, much less hook underneath and dislodge it. He closed the door again, to make it look securely locked, and then climbed back down the balcony, leaving the wire lying on the bare concrete balcony floor. He would have to try again another night.
It took him until Thursday, the night before she was to return, to jiggle the burglar bar out of place and open the door to the upstairs apartment. The aluminum bar fell out of the sliding door track with a satisfying thunk, and Conley, his back sore from bending down to work the coat hanger wire contraption, stood up and looked out onto the dark beach behind him before siding the glass door open with one hand.
The smell of the room filled him with a mixture of new upholstery and a sweet perfume he couldn’t quite identify, something on the spectrum between Chanel and Heaven Scent. As his eyes adjusted to the dark room, he saw that she had left it in disarray. A light wool sweater lay in a pile on one overstuffed chair, and a stack of magazines on the other. An ashtray on the coffee table had three cigarette butts in it, and a half empty wine glass sat next to it. Debbie had spent her evening before heading to WHERXX lying on the sofa, smoking, drinking wine, and watching television. He thought of turning the television on to see if he could tell what she had watched, but decided it would cast too much light into the darkened room.
The kitchen was similarly messy, with dinner and breakfast dishes, the top plate showing a line of green mold, stacked in the sink next to the dishwasher, which was full of clean unsorted dishes.
Conley looked in the bathroom, checking the medicine cabinet, but didn’t find any interesting medications. Then he pushed his way into Debbie’s bedroom, shining his phone light in a continuous sweep from left to right. The queen sized bed was unmade; what looked like running clothes lay in a pile on the gray carpet; and on a side table next to a digital alarm clock with numbers showing in intense turquoise light was a stack of books: Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
He picked up the Murakami, and it fell open to a page near the beginning of the book marked by a laminated bookmark with pictures of Crater Lake, Oregon. One passage began:
Sucking on a lemon drop, I leaned against the chain-link fence and looked at the garden. There was no sign of the cat.
He liked the idea of the cat, but wondered why she was reading Murakami. And then he thought he should add the book to his list of novels to write.
A week later she still hadn’t returned. Conley didn’t go back into the apartment, though he’d left the sliding door unlocked, because he feared she might walk in at any moment. Instead he sat out on the beach one night, nearly as far down as the melted traffic cone, and looked at the distant apartment, dark and cold looking above his brightly lit living room below. That upstairs space was going to become his apartment, he thought to himself. He just had to figure out how.
“So, did you miss me?” Debbie didn’t bother to say “hello” when she called late the next night. Conley wondered what she meant. Did she know he’d been snooping?
“I thought you were coming back a week ago,” he said, feeling as if he sounded too grumpy.
“The negotiations went on much longer than we expected,” she said, sounding as if she were still in the office, dealing with an irritated client. “Want company?”
“You mean now?”
“When else would I mean? I’ll be down in a second.”
He unlatched the front door and handed her a glass of wine the minute she walked in. Debbie was wearing gray sweats, and her face had the streaked look of having just had makeup removed. She took the glass from his hand, swallowed half the wine down, and took a deep breath.
Conley wondered why she hadn’t invited him upstairs. As if she had heard him thinking, she finished the wine, handed him her empty glass, and smiled. “If I stay in that room upstairs all I’ll think about is all the chores that need to be done now that I’m home. Top me off, will you?” When he poured her more wine, she stroked the back of his hand and smiled.
In the morning she got up, took a shower and was in Conley’s kitchen, making coffee and frying bacon, before he even woke up enough to get out of bed. She handed him a cup of coffee when he sat down at the table, still rubbing his eyes and yawning. “You didn’t tell me about your trip,” she said.
They married WHEN. That was when he discovered she owned the building, had owned it since she moved in, which took place after the old man’s death. Conley had been paying his rent to a management company and so had never realized the old man had been his landlord – and that now, she was. “We can rent out your unit and live upstairs,” she said, when they were discussing the idea of marriage.
Conley mulled the idea, twisting a rubber band around his index finger. They were sitting on the upstairs balcony – her upstairs balcony, Conley thought – eating ham and cheese sandwiches she had picked up at a deli near her office.
What would he do with his furniture? It all looked shabby now, compared to the pieces she had bought for the upstairs. They spent all their time up there anyway. But sharing the space wasn’t right. He wanted to have it all to himself. And, besides, he didn’t really like her very much. She was all right, he thought. Attractive enough, and good in bed. But in the evenings he couldn’t stand listening to the shows she constantly streamed, trying to get him involved in watching them and talking about their plots.
On Wednesday nights Debbie always drove to Van Nuys to have drinks with her girlfriends. At least that’s what she told him she was doing; he wasn’t sure. Not that he cared. He was happy to have the upstairs to himself one evening a week. She would come home slightly tipsy those nights around midnight and then want to have sex, sometimes waking him from a dead sleep.
One night he remembered the traffic cone. He wished he had another one, but he thought a small plastic storage bin filled with leftover fireworks from the Fourth of July would do. He put together two small tin cans, one with a matchbook fuse in it and the other with a half cup of gasoline, which he siphoned from the fuel tank of his Toyota. He walked out onto the beach once it was late enough he wouldn’t be seen, and scooped out a hole in the sand that could hold the box. Then, after taking a quick look around to make sure he was alone, he lit a new cigarette – one from a pack of unfiltered Camels he had bought, as no one would believe he ever smoked them – and tucked it into a matchbook in the bottom of the big can. Conley quickly closed the top of the bin, pushed it into the hole, and then checked his watch as he began to stroll north along the beach. It was 11:13 p.m. He made it all the way to the bridge and was headed back, wondering – as he had with the traffic cone – whether it had been a dud.
As he reached the apartment house, he heard a shriek and turned back to the beach in time to see the fireball before it flamed out. People were running and screaming, some of them laughing. Conley thought it gave him 15 minutes. That was plenty of time.
One Wednesday a month or two later she kissed him lightly on the cheek as he sat on the upstairs balcony, watching the sunset over the water and smoking a cigarette. “See you late,” she said. “Don’t wait up.” He heard the door close as she left, and then the sounds of the Porsche starting up in the garage, and finally the sound of the automatic door opening and closing. She would be driving across Manchester to the 405 – he remembered the days when people called it the San Diego Freeway – and then it was a straight shot to the Valley.
Fifteen minutes later he sat in his pajamas in the living room and looked out on the quiet beach. There was no sign of anything unusual in the night sky. Conley watched and waited until a full half hour has passed, just to be certain. Then he went back inside, looked at her magazines sitting on the coffee table, then picked them up and put them in the kitchen trash.
Her clothes could be collected later, he thought, probably for Goodwill, after the police knocked at his door with the bad news. Meanwhile, he poured himself a glass of Jim Beam, lit a cigarette and sat don in the flimsy lawn chair on the upstairs balcony. His apartment now. His balcony. His view.